Thoughts on Finding Your Voice on Your Instrument

The other day I was watching a fellow guitarist at Harmony Church (yes Issa you). It was great! I thought to myself: even if every note would have been the wrong one I would still have enjoyed his playing. It is the conviction with which he plays every single note that makes it beautiful.

Two thoughts came up:

  • What is so great about playing Christian music is that it implies as per definition the most amazing audience you can ever have, your own creator and loving Father, who is dying to hear what you have to say, how you love Him with all your heart, spirit and mind, what you are asking of Him;
  • Therefore we should focus more on MEANING every note you play. You don’t need the ‘wow, you are so technical’ compliments, in the end a monkey can do that, I know I was one of them. You want your message to come across, to tell a story, to share.

Every now then I go out and see some music or I end up watching videos on Youtube or listen to music on soundclick. With jazz still an important preference I enjoy the discovering of new unknown players. Without a doubt on many occasions I have heard  players that play all the right notes, they display an in depth knowledge of harmony and technique yet something seems to be missing. How can it be: the play all the right notes but I am disappointed? I think I know know why.

From what I am hearing these people must have spent countless hours in their studios, their rooms or wherever, practicing, exercising, working on stuff, perfecting their skills, analyzing chord changes, work on harmonic and melodic ideas and everything else that comes with being a jazz guitarist. They seem to be having a good time with the band and by themselves but nothing seems too be coming across: they speak the musical language but not to anyone in particular it seems. It comes across as thinking out loud not directed at anyone but themselves.

They do not seem to be communicating. What they say musically may well be very clever, perhaps impressive even, but whatever it was, it never reached the audience. In fact, the audience seemed to be the last thing on their mind.

It may be me but is playing an instrument not the same as sharing stories, emotions or a particular point, perspective or message with others? Your instrument merely replaces your voice. Just as a writer has his pen and a painter his brush as part of their toolkit they use to share their sentiments and insights with us, so it is with the guitarist and other instrumentalists. And admittedly as instrumentalists we have to try much harder as we do not have words to use. At the same time we have an opportunity to express things in a way that goes beyond words.

Play with Conviction

While I do not suggest that we skip technique and theory, I do believe that we also need to work on developing our own instrumental voice, that we learn how to communicate with our audience, we need to work hard on having our instrumental voice carry further in order for our music not to become one big display of what you now or can do, of vanity. What I mean here is playing with conviction, instead of quietly and timidly looking for the right notes, meandering away almost as if sorry you are making a sound or doing it  out (very) loud but for the wrong reason: not to communicate but to showcase.
This does not translate to an audience or at least not to me.

As a musician it is very easy to fall for the trap of making things a public display of your capabilities, hey you put the time in for sure and you still are. Just imagine this: if you had to choose between a novel or autobiography or an encyclopedia so as to be touched by it, which one do you think will have the greatest potential?

So it is with our music, and that is what religious music teaches you. You want to be the best you can be on your instrument, because of the love you want to convey for your Father, and for the love of your fellows and neighbors who hopefully may share in your emotions and even better, it may serve in opening the lines of communication with heaven for yourself and the audience. And if you are ‘praying by playing’, you’d want God to understand what you are trying to tell or ask Him.

So, what I am really talking about here is playing every note with total conviction, truly meaning every note you play. Make it goal to have the person in the audience who knows nothing about music, feel you, understand you.

It Is Not About Me

So, it is no longer about you, but all about the other.

Whatever the style of music, I believe the difference is all about musicians that play for themselves and musicians that try to get a point or a message across or that are opening up their hearts minds and spirits to share their lives with you.

That is what I feel when  you see a giant like Joe Pass

This is what I feel when I hear Santana

And it is not any different to hearing the singers in the next video rip away on ‘Great is your Mercy’

Be in the Moment

So now I made communication and meaning, making my guitar actually speak part of the ongoing efforts I put into improving as a musician. It is all about finding ways to let my guitar really speak. It is an ongoing effort and on many an occasion I disappoint myself, but I guess that comes with development and growth.

Most of all such an approach requires you to be in the moment completely, and when I fail myself it usually is because my heart, spirit and mind are not there in the moment, that is when the fingers do the work but I am no longer communicating the way I want it to be.

What they said musically might have been very clever, even impressive, but whatever it was remained on the stage. No one in the audience was invited to experience that musical conversation. The audience was the last thing that mattered it seemed.