Sunday, March 29, 2009

It is very frustrating to try to play music.

UPDATE (4/4/09): I figured out how to make noise with it. I was holding it against my teeth wrong.

Damn... I've got a Jew's harp here and can't make any sounds that can be heard outside of my head. And it doesn't sound like it's supposed to, just some humming. It's one thing to not be able to play an instrument well, it's another to not be able to even make a sound with it. Argh!

A while ago at my parents' house I complained about something that I've felt frustrated by pretty much my whole life. What that is is that I have music in my head but find it extremely difficult to be able to play that music on any kind of musical instrument. I have tried many different instruments.

I grew up in a musical family and have tried to learn how to play the guitar on many different occasions, yet have never gone beyond the most rudimentary level of skill. Like, I can strum a little and play a few chords, but changing between chords takes a lot of effort, the tone sounds wrong half the time because my fingers aren't holding the strings down hard enough, or they're damping the other strings, or I play the wrong strings, etc., and I'm pretty much useless at anything more intricate than just strumming.

My parents said that my problem in trying to learn to play instruments is that I never practiced anything for long enough to really get good at it. They're right. But my mom also said something insightful beyond that, that the reason why I never stuck with anything long enough was that my physical ability to play was always outstripped by my understanding of how, logically, playing the instrument should work. This is also true. I know how to play the guitar, I just can't do it. (I said the same thing about bicycles when I was a kid before my body learned how to ride one.)

It points to what I like the call The Lie of Rock 'n' Roll. That lie is that anybody can play rock 'n' roll; all it takes is a guitar and three chords. But that's not true. Even playing something simple like the Ramones takes some skill and practice. If you're like me and you have a song in your head and some chord diagrams in a book, you can pick up a guitar and play, but it won't sound like the song in your head; it will sound like crap.

I think The Lie of Rock 'n' Roll is something of a corollary to The Lie of Creativity in Art. That lie is that what really matters are ideas and creativity. In actuality, you need those to become good, but before you do that you need talent and skill. I've got ideas up the wazoo, but I can't draw. I can doodle, but I can't put a pencil to paper and make something that looks like what's in my head. Don't ask me to draw your portrait unless you want to look very ugly.*

You may be puzzled by the fact that I am a member of a band and have written a number of songs, a few of which are actually good. To explain, let me say three things.
  1. Our standards of musicianship in Stale Urine are very low. We have a saying, "practice makes pathetic."
  2. I do not play any instruments that play notes, just percussion. Percussion is simple. You hit something and it makes a noise. I can experiment with different objects, and they will make different noises, and that's pretty satisfying. But even there, I never use foot pedals, because I can't coordinate my body that way.
  3. I am the least musically inclined member of the band and would be nowhere without my bandmates. When I get credit for "writing" a song, what they generally means is that I write the lyrics, sometimes with help from the other guys, and then I sing them in some sort of tune that makes sense to me. Then the other guys, who can actually play instruments, change what I sing into something resembling an actual tune. Jon Lange and I work particularly well together this way, but Jon lives in Seattle, so I don't see him much. Take this for what you will, but I have heard that this is how Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones used to work together.
With this Jew's harp, I'm not even sure I know how to work it. Oh sure, there are online tutorials that make it sound real easy. I dunno, maybe every sentence in the tutorial needs the caveat, "and you have to do it just right," or maybe there's just one thing I'm doing wrong, or maybe I've got a bum jew's harp, or what. Anyway, if any of you out there in Southern California know what you're doing with one of these and can show me, I'd appreciate it.

*I think I am actually pretty decent at photography. I've never studied it in depth, but I think I do a pretty good job of composing pictures and finding good things to take photos of.


At Sunday, March 29, 2009 at 9:25:00 AM PDT, Blogger J.R. said...

I'm not Jon Lange, but I did have a jew's harp as a kid and I could be very annoying (a skill that transends the harp) with it. One particular incident was in English class while we were taking it in turns reading Greek tragedy we came across the line "And I shot the albatross" and I was ready with the proper sound effect... Thinking back I wonder why I didn't get *more* detentions.

If you're ever up this way or I'm down that way I bet I could get you making sound with it. The only theoretical thing I think of is think of your whole mouth as the inside of a guitar. Make as much volume in there as possible. (I'm guessing you have the theory, but maybe that will help.)

The real point to my comment is that I completely know what you mean about theory and practice, I have never been musical even after piano lessons. It was mostly just frustrating.

Surprisingly, Rockband changed my musical life. It got me over the hump of sounding like complete crap on the drums. So much so that when my birthday came around I spent a chunk of change on a Roland pro level midi drum kit and now I'm taking lessons. Before I never felt I was even good enough for lessons. I start Wednesday.

At Sunday, March 29, 2009 at 11:05:00 AM PDT, Blogger Adam Villani said...

Oh, cool. I'll bring it up next time I'm in Seattle. It's a pretty portable instrument!


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