Seeing, hearing, playing music

A lot of my music students seem obsessed with seeing. They want to SEE if they are in tune, by checking an electronic tuner, rather than listening. They want to SEE the CD cover or lyrics to the new song we are working on, rather than listening to the recording as it plays. Perhaps worst of all, they want to see their own hands. They stare almost continuously at their left hands, trying to SEE if they are playing the same notes they think they SEE in their occasional glances at the teacher. Sometimes this results in almost humorous exchanges when someone asks “Am I playing this right?” His hands look like they are doing the same thing as the teacher’s, so he must be playing it right, right? Even though the sounds is he is making sound nothing like what the teacher is making.

Music is sound. Playing music involves the ears, and it involves the muscles (of the hands and arms for a stringed instrument, the diaphragm and vocal apparatus for singing). It does not involve the eyes. Oh, sure, the eyes might help you find where you set your harmonica, help you read the notes you wrote about last week’s lesson, etc. But do they help you play? No. Not at all. Blind people have no disadvantage as musicians. (They might have an advantage, but they certainly have no disadvantage.) Actually if your eyes help you during a lesson they are to see what the teacher is doing. So quit gluing them to your own left hand!

Vision is our primary sense for getting through the world. We freak out, quite reasonably, if the headlights go out while we’re driving at night; or if the lights go out in the house, or even if we can’t find our glasses, when we get up for a glass of water in the night. We like a nice bright unblinking light coming from our computer screen, and overhead when we sit down to read. So when we play music, especially when learning new material that you are not yet comfortable with, it might seem reassuring to have a light on and the eyes open wide, for safety.

But let’s think about another category of activities, the ones we close our eyes, dim the lights or turn them off for: Sleeping. Meditating. Making love. Eating a nice meal (some trendy restaurants even feature dining in total darkness). Getting a massage. In all these cases we want to turn off or at least turn down our vision, and get in touch with another sense or with our inner selves.

So let’s put playing music in that category, if you haven’t already. Try practicing in the dark or wearing a blindfold. Really. Listen hard to to every note you make. Practice something simple, and play it for a long time, and listen, trying to improve the sound. Keep that same quality when you play something more difficult, and when the lights are on. Great musicians listen harder and deeper than you. But you can improve by working on that. And relax and enjoy it! Notice that all those dim-lights activities above are relaxing and sensual, not intellectual. Guess what? So is music.

So when I frown about your watching music videos online, or visiting music-related websites, it’s not just that the quality of information online is often bad. Mainly it’s that those activities are vision-centric. Watching a screen pulls you out of the auditory world, which is where music lies. So listen to a recording instead. And when you sit down to tune, leave the electronic tuner alone. (They aren’t so accurate anyway, and it is so hard to overrule them when the damn light is showing you it’s right, even when your ears tell you differently.) Take your time, so what if it takes longer to tune. You will be forging the links between your ears and your instrument, your ears and your fingers, your fingers and the sound, the sound and your head. You might even come to enjoy tuning — it just feels great to hear those slightly-off vibrations, and guide them until they ring true. And once you get to enjoy tuning — boy, will you love playing!


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2 Comments on "Seeing, hearing, playing music"

  1. Pilk
    09/05/2012 at 3:36 am Permalink

    I hear what you’re saying, yet I don’t agree with all of it. (Mostly the internet thing) This doesn’t in any way mean that I think you are wrong, I simply believe that some people learn better in certain environments. Maybe people who work long hours don’t have the time to sit down with a record and figure out what chords and notes are being played. Using an online teacher to help you figure out what is being played can be very helpful and save a lot of time transcribing what you are hearing. I will say that the more you listen to music and play music, the better you will become at figuring out what is being played. I think the tuner is a great tool to help you learn what your “E” string, etc… should sound like. Yes in time you will be able to “hear” what a correctly tuned instrument sounds like, but initially I believe it saves time and teaches what correct tuning sounds like. Having a “real” live person as a teacher is a fantastic way to learn an instrument, but using a youtube teacher can be very useful also. Personal teachers are quite expensive. There are a lot of great youtube teachers out there who devote their time freely or for nominal fees especially where music theory is concerned. In learning how to play music on an instrument there are many, many tools: A tuner can be a good tool, Youtube can be a good tool, private lessons by a live teacher can be a good tool, records can be a good tool, books can be a good tool, jamming with your buddies can be a good tool, metronomes and drum machines can be a good tool, so on and so forth. Take all the tools you can find and implement them as often as you can, but most of all practice, practice, practice. Summing it up I would say there is no “one” way to learn how to play music on an instrument. I don’t disagree that “listening” to music is a great way to learn how to play it, I do disagree that the other tools mentioned have no merit.

    See ya in Vegas

  2. chezztone
    09/05/2012 at 1:08 pm Permalink

    Pilk — Always good to hear from you. If you are having fun watching youtube music instruction and using your electronic tuner, fine, you’re not hurting anyone. But if you are trying to become a great player you are on the wrong path, sorry. Talk to great players, or read interviews with them, and find out how they learned and how they tune. Thanks for reading and responding! Cheers, SC

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