I was, of course, at the National Guitar Workshop last week, at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. I and about 200 of my new closest friends endured hot and humid weather, college cafeteria food, and college dormitory accommodations to get together and spend some time with our hobby, our true love, what we have to do to stay sane, whatever you want to call it. For me, it was a stop along the musical path that I had forsaken eight years ago, when playing the guitar became a chore to be avoided and I put it away, swearing that I'd never play again. Whatever possessed me to pick it up again is a mystery, but it has a lot to do with the arrival of my catalog for the workshop a few months ago. I had attended it twice before, in 1993 and 1994, and had gotten a lot out of it, and perhaps I was looking for an excuse to go again.
I have to admit, I was terrified to do it. The two or three months between my sending my registration and payment to the folks in Connecticut and the beginning of the workshop were filled with plenty of anxiety. My arms cramped up and my fingers stung when I played, I had forgotten nearly all of the chord voicings that had been second nature to me years before, I struggled to remember the names and locations of all of the notes on the fretboard. I could only remember one of the fingerings of the major scale, I couldn't find all of the inversions that I once knew, and I knew no tunes at all. About all I could do was comp a la Freddie Green, the guitarist with the Count Basie Orchestra for many years, meaning that I knew a bunch of open-voiced three-note chords that I could more or less locate on the neck and strum in some sort of time. But, I was determined. I bought myself an electric guitar (an Epiphone "Dot" model, a real jazz guitar) and convinced myself that I could do it, and would do it, and there would be nothing further said in the matter.
Turns out, I was fine. Things came back to me as I played them. Our teacher for the week, Stan Smith, started at the very beginning with us. He showed us a fingering for a chord (I think it was a Bb7) and had us sound out each of the notes, telling us to hear the notes not just as notes but as specific components of the chord, e.g. "Play your sixth string. That's B flat, but it's more than that. It's the root of the chord. Now play it and hear it as the root of the chord." It was the first time that anyone actually took the time to explain that to me. I've played the guitar since I was eleven years old, and no one had ever taken the time to point that out. I've played Bb7 at least ten thousand times in my life, but I was actually hearing it for the first time.
The week was full of revelations like that one: Never play without a musical intent. Even if you're practicing scales, play them musically, not as some kind of elaborate finger exercise. Understand how the notes of a scale work together. Learn where the active notes are and where they resolve. They're not just notes, they have a specific function in the scale, or within the tonality or the mode or whatever you want to call it. For years I'd been treating music like some kind of an elaborate mathematical formula, as if it could be revealed through some sort of algebraic manipulation. The biggest lessons that I got were in things that I should have known to begin with.
After the first day, Stan talked to each one of us and gave us specific things to work on. He went around to the other guys and gave them specific things to work on. When he came to me, he said, "I want you to work on generating your energy from somewhere else besides your arms and hands." I realized that my approach to playing the guitar all these years has been to wrestle with it like an alligator. I've been trying to force the music through my hands rather than letting it flow from inside. Once I quit doing that, the cramps, pins and needles, and dull aches went away. Amazing.
We played "Seven Come Eleven" after listening to Charlie Christian playing it with Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa. We didn't read it off of a piece of paper, we heard it and let it flow out of our heads and hands. We played Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island" in the student concert at the end of the workshop. (I got to carry the melody line. I tried to make it sound like Freddie Hubbard, who played on the original record. I got pretty close.) We jammed on blues progressions. We played bossa nova (which I love), and for the first time in my life I actually gained some insight into what the music is all about, and how it was really supposed to sound. And we listened. We listened to the great jazz guitarists (Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, Freddie Greene). We listened to one another, and we listened to ourselves.
Oh, and we had plenty of time to hang around with one another. I went in thinking that I'd be the oldest guy there. There were at least a dozen guys in their late forties there, two of them in jazz with me. We had a guy with us who's a luthier and a practicing musician for many years in the Chicago area. (Two guys were there with their sons. That says something to me.) My roommate was a Lutheran minister who was there to play blues guitar. There were a lot of kids, but I think the adults outnumbered them.
We also got a chance to hear some great music by the members of the faculty. John Knowles's fingerstyle guitar playing was so beautiful, it brought me to tears. (Stan said that when he grows up, he wants to play like John.) We also had a concert by Johnny Hiland, a guitar phenom who plays very well, very fast, and very loudly. (Maybe that was just the sound system.)
I won't mention the cramped quarters, lousy food, no Internet access, or the fact that our dorm was the other side of the campus from the classroom buildings, which were in turn on the other side of the campus from the mess hall. In all, it was a great week. I'm going back next year.
Oh, and I worked on the story I've been posting here every day. I need to transcribe what I wrote while I was out of town and post it. I'll do that tomorrow. You'll just have to wait.