A few days ago, a friend and I were having a leisurely late night conversation. This is a habit of ours. We would talk about random things and, as is usually the case, pass a guitar back and forth between ourself, like two good companions sharing a drink while traveling. I would talk whilst my fingers mindlessly travel the guitar neck, plucking into existance harmonies and melodies without any preparation. And he would listen, both to whatever happened to cross my mind and the music I was improvising. When my musical and ranting ammunitions were spent, I would pass the guitar to him and our roles would reverse, much like a baton pass signaled a change of runner.

In the middle of this particular conversation, however, my friend abruptly stopped in the middle of his talk. Looking intently at me (which at that moment was playing the guitar), he said, “Your technique is good enough.. but, uh, your musicality is lacking. It’s as if you don’t mean every note you play.”

That I believe was not some random comment. He does understand things like this better than I do. I am an amateur musician; he holds ABRSM Grade 8 Piano.

I could only reply with a blank stare. Finally: “What do you mean?”

“Yeah, every note you play, it’s like you don’t mean them.”

He seemed to sense my confusion, and after slight hesitation he went on.

“Here, I’ll tell you something. A few months back I attended a violin masterclass, and something interesting happened. Keep in mind though, all the ‘students’ there, they were all teachers or at least nearing that caliber. It’s a masterclass after all. So, one student went up the stage and played a piece or two for us to hear. Obviously it was good, no technical error or anything of that sort. At the end of the his performance though, the “teacher”, that is, the one who was conducting the class, said to him,

‘You play well, but something is missing…’

He seemed to ponder for a while, then:

‘Hey, play me a scale, if you will.’ (The do-re-mi-fa-sol thing, the one you teach to kids when they’re first starting out, the basic of basics)

To which the student comply, though not without confusion on his part.

‘No, no! Slower, much slower! 4 beats a note. I’ll count.’ By this moment the student was plainly baffled; his fingers reluctantly yield to what seemed to be a degradation to his repetoire of high level techniques.

‘Okay stop, now let me play.’ He then took the violin and started playing that same scale.”

“And then?” I asked, feeling that I know where this was heading.

“And then,” my friend continued, “w-h-o-a… When the teacher played that scale, I was quite shocked. There was so much difference when the teacher played it (it was the same do-re-mi on the same violin, mind you). You would think that they should sound the same, but it’s not. It’s like, the notes were more alive, if you catch what I mean. After finishing the scale, the teacher said,

‘You did play the scale when I told you to, but I can see you did not really want to play it. If you, at that moment, were free to choose anything to play, you would not pick that scale, would you?’ The student can only nod in amazement. As did I.” He then laughed before continuing, “I think he must felt the way you are feeling right now.”

I get it. I used to play my guitar like a video game. A tricky passage comes up, and I smirked at the challenge, thinking finger dexterity and enough training time are all I need to nail it. Not much difference from those guitar rhythm game, now that I think of it. And, most often that not, I did eventually ‘conquered’ the passage. I pride myself that my fingers can grip, twist, stretch, and perform other contortions that not many people can. But in the process I lose the music. I get so fixed on perfecting my techniques that I lose sight of the most important thing. I forget that I play guitar to make and enjoy music, not to build a flawless guitar-playing set of hands.

I found another gem on my musical journey.