Dr. Gabor Maté on Setting Musical Intentions
Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Find more here. Enjoy!
“The road to hell is not paved with good intentions. It is paved with lack of intention.”
Dr. Gabor Maté
No one sets out to run a car dry of oil, destroying the engine. By the time this happens, the driver has seen the blinking warning light time after time. They have even had the thought that they really should add oil or visit the service station.
But in each moment, the decision is made to defer action, to put it off for later.
And sometimes this is merited. Many things can wait a short while. The problem in this scenario is that there was never a specific intention to care for the car. No time was chosen—just a vague sense of later. Not now.
For good things to happen, we must overcome inertia and get to the actual doing.
In clear, obvious cases, like the car needing oil, there is no mystery involved. No Einstein brain power is required. Even if we don’t personally know how to do it, we all know exactly what and who to ask.
In guitar practice, it’s not always so transparent. Take for example the difference between playing notes and playing music.
Playing notes is a straightforward proposition. The notes may be difficult to play, but the task is clear. There are notes and rhythms on the page, and we want to play them.
Making these same notes into real music is a different challenge. To make music of these notes, we need to make sense of them.
We need to make decisions and choose directions. In this, it helps to understand the myriad elements of music.
It helps to know what is the melody and which notes support the melody.
It helps to understand how some chords lead the ear to others.
It helps to recognize cadence points, and where and how to slow down or speed up.
There are many such considerations, often conflicting with each other.
But beyond knowing how music works in these ways, we need to decide how we will play each note. Even if we understand everything, we still need to communicate our conception of the music to the listener.
And this means making decisions and then carrying out those decisions.
Get louder here and softer there. Bring out this note, not that note. Keep the rhythm steady here, but slow down there. These are all conscious decisions.
If we don’t yet have this musical background knowledge, we can still make decisions. We can first do our best to find what sounds good. Then we can make decisions and make them happen. We may make poor choices, but at least we will have chosen.
In beautiful music, every note has a role to play. And in the best playing, that role is clear to those hearing it. Everything makes sense because the player has figured out what needs to be said and is saying it.
Each note has an intention. Nothing is rote. It is a monumental task to play notes cleanly. But it is still not music until we take a point of view and demonstrate it.
This way of playing takes practice. Luckily, practice is what we do.
Each piece contains opportunities for beautiful moments. It’s our job as players, beginner to advanced, to bring our intentions to bear on the notes we play.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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