A few years back a representative of a well known London orchestra approached my school and asked whether some of his musicians might work with our children in order to help the professionals to loosen up, feel the music, and enjoy playing their instruments.
Depending on how we’re taught we can either play from the heart – i.e. improvise and jam – or we can’t. Typically, expert musicians who play in orchestras can’t. They practice and they play only when they must. They play mainly what they’re told to play, and they play only what they read on sheets of music. They very rarely compose music themselves. They are often incapable of playing just for fun – for their own pleasure or for self-expression. Over time the work of a musician can become a bore and a chore. It’s the same with professional writers who only write when writing for a paying audience or an employer, and not for enjoyment or self-expression. As with any career, young people should beware of becoming a musician or a writer just because they can, or because they feel they have little alternative.
Meanwhile, back at the Zen Guitar Dojo:
(All quotations from the book of the same name, by Philip Toshio Sudo)
Those who train here I regard not as students, but unsui. In Japanese, unsui means travelling monk or truth seeker.
Beyond tuning the instrument itself, it’s also important for you to be in tune with the instrument. Every guitar has its own feel and idiosyncrasies, the same way a car does. Different guitars will lead you to different songs.
Much more difficult on the path to Zen Guitar is finding an internal tuning – one that brings body, mind and spirit into harmony.
When you feel the moment of transcendence, where your spirit is uplifted – that’s what we’re going for.
Tuning is an absolute requirement for functioning as a collective.
When people are not in tune with one another, they add to the disharmony of the world.
How many marriages, teams, legislatures, boards and committees fail to function because the participants can’t find a working harmony?
Sometimes, the only way to attune to others is through compassion, courage, and selflessness. Such is the difficult path of Zen Guitar.
If you sweat hard and build your strength from one note up, you’ll begin to see progress. After one note, play two notes together; then three. Learn a chord, then a second and a third. If you can play three chords with maximum spirit, you have all the elements you need to make real music. The guitar has shown us again and again: Three chords can rock the world. Most of all, play with joy. Therein you’ll find the Way.
As I said before, Zen Guitar is not a conventional method. My concern is not so much the “how” of guitar playing as the “why”. The Way of Zen Guitar is to express the spirit through music, regardless of experience, equipment, or even technique. That’s not to downplay the need for good technique. But in this school, one acquires technique solely for the purpose of freeing the spirit. Technique is not an end in itself. Your spiritual approach to playing is more important in this dojo than what you actually play or the technique with which you play it.
If you really want to learn Zen Guitar, you can. As the samurai say, “The only opponent is within.” There are no tricks or secrets. It is a matter of will – putting one foot in front of the other every step of the path. In Zen Guitar, honesty, integrity, spiritual strength and depth of conviction are more important than skill. These are the elements that make vital music, and they have nothing to do with natural talent. Where there’s a will, there’s the Way.
What’s important is to learn from whomever or whatever you can, at your own rate, in your own way. How or when you learn doesn’t matter, so long as the learning occurs.
As with the guitar, so with all instruments. As with music, so with all learning. 3Di’s attitude to learning of any sort is that its ultimate aim is to free the spirit and enable self-expression.
Knowledge, information, technique and skills are necessary, but by no means the be-all and end-all. Without some higher purpose we become like the musicians in an orchestra who are bored, unfulfilled, frustrated, inhibited and going through our days earning a living for mere survival rather than taking part in anything more meaningful and enjoyable.
I’d never had a proper music lesson in my life, but I had a collection of African musical instruments I’d taken into school during my second year of teaching as part of a project we were doing with a focus on Africa. I’d bought them on my travels in Africa – drums, shakers, a couple of stringed instruments, a wooden xylophone, and an mbira. I’d asked the children to draw the instruments – it hadn’t occured to me they might actually play them. However . . . during a wet playtime the children had asked the classroom assistant who was looking after them if they could play the instruments to pass the time till I got back from the staffroom. Arriving back with my half-finished cup of tea I found the children sitting together with the instruments, playing to a steady beat, a rhythm, a collaborative, percussive, infectious sound. It continued for several minutes. Who had taught them to play in that way? Nobody had taught them. It was all done intuitively, instinctively, empathetically . . . with spirit, feeling and passion . . . by individuals who had often shown plenty of social and emotional difficulties. But not in that moment of coming together, listening to one another, responding to one another, enjoying being in tune with and in time with one another and playing in their impromptu band.
A decade or so later . . . another group of upper juniors, on a school journey in France, after dinner as the sun was setting, sitting in a circle in the sand dunes. Each of us had a drum or a musical instrument of some kind. Someone was asked to begin a beat; others were asked to join in with a rhythm. None had done this kind of thing before, but they did it anyway – the volume rising and falling, the rhythms speeding up and slowing down, different instruments stopping and starting, including trumpets, a trombone and a tuba. The party leader joined in with some chords on a guitar. A moment of transcendence. They did this until it was almost dark, then took their instruments back to their rooms, put them away, and went to bed.
A group of Year 6 children decided they would contribute to their ‘leavers concert’ for their parents by forming a percussion band and playing a couple of pieces they created themselves. The parents had no idea their children could play in this way with so much confidence, skill and obvious enjoyment. It was the final piece of work they did together before going their separate ways and going off to various secondary schools.
The following quotes, by Robert Fripp, are from the foreword of a book called “How Popular Musicians Learn“, by Professor Lucy Green of the London Institute of Education.
How might we re-invigorate the musical involvement of our population? Could the creation of a teaching culture that recognises and rewards aural imitation, improvisation and experimentation, as well as commitment and passion, encourage more people to make music?
Fundamentally, we are called by the music that calls to us. Music works where it will, where it can, where it is welcomed. The musician, with discipline, creates a bridge for music to enter our world. Some of the bridges are funky, some constructed from the vernacular, some are superb statements of form which persist through time, some are commentaries directed to the narrow moment.
Within any culture, music speaks through many voices, in many dialects. In mass culture our singers shout what we want to hear. In popular culture, our musicians sing to us in our own voice. May this voice be true.
“Robert Fripp, founder member of King Crimson, began playing guitar at the age of eleven. When he started, he was tone deaf and had no rhythmical sense, weaknesses which led him later to comment “Music so wishes to be heard that it sometimes calls on unlikely characters to give it voice.” – Wikipedia
Lucy Green writes (in Chapter 1 – What is it to be musically educated?):
Communal participation in music-making is perhaps least renowned in many European and other Western parts of the world. Anthropologists of music have observed societies and communities in which virtually the entire population is, from early childhood, habitually involved in music-making. This is succinctly illustrated by Messenger’s account of the Anang Ibibo people of Nigeria:
“We were constantly amazed by the musical abilities displayed by these people, especially by the children who, before the age of five, can sing hundreds of songs, both individually and in choral groups and, in addition, are able to play several percussion instruments and have learned dozens of intricate dance movements calling for incredible muscular control. We searched in vain for the ‘non-musical’ person.”
We hope you enjoy some of these YouTube videos below.
Please leave a comment (below) on any of this blog – especially if you have thoughts as a parent or a teacher on music in schools, and how it’s taught.