Mortimer Adler on Going for the Higher Tastes in Music

Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Find more here. Enjoy!

“If we don’t go for the higher tastes, we will settle for the lower ones.” 

Mortimer Adler

If asked, most of us like to think that we’re “going for the higher tastes,” as Adler put it.

We would like to play beautiful music, with nuance and style. We practice. And we assume that if we continue to practice we will indeed reach this point.

But this is a fallacy. We can practice for a lifetime and still be quite mediocre at playing guitar. It all depends on the quality and content of our practice.

In fact, we may develop very low tastes and would argue they were high. This is because through our practice habits we condition ourselves to hear and appreciate different things.

Some people love fast-food hamburgers and french fries (“American diet”). But let’s not pretend these are fine cuisine. And a hamburger from a top restaurant will be a different experience altogether.

The most common way people develop low tastes is by only practicing pieces, not technique.

When we only practice pieces, we use musical passages to work out our technical problems. This sounds great on paper. It seems like this would imbue our technique with musicality and beauty.

But it has the opposite effect. Both our movements and our musicality suffers.

When we exclude scale practice, for example, and only practice scale passages in pieces, we dull our ears.

We grow used to hearing shoddy execution. We grow accustomed to accepting sloppy string-crossings and wishy-washy rhythms.

And perhaps most limiting, we fail to separate the different elements of playing. Right-hand movement, left-hand form, melody balance, dynamics, tone quality, and others.

Failing to work on these apart, we don’t work on them at all. And we get so used to hearing what we hear that we become convinced that it sounds good. It “becomes” the piece.

We put in the time, but by only playing pieces we cultivate unconscious incompetence. We grow musical cataracts and limit our options and possibilities. We set low standards.

But all of this can be reversed. We can retrain and reorient. Even a small percentage of time focused on building skills can help change the course.

We can learn to hear anew. We can learn to listen anew. And with each intentional practice, we gain a deeper appreciation for the fine details that combine to make great music.

This is far from “boring scale practice.” Instead, we come to find great joy and challenge in connecting notes and making fluid lines. We engage more fully and test our mettle in each moment of practice.

Technique practice trains us to hear the musical possibilities. And we learn to effectively self-critique.

The fine details we wish to bring to our music we first work out in technique practice. This gives us the skill to bring these to bear within the complexity of a piece of music.

In the moments of our practice, we set the tone for years to come. Do we choose the empty calories? Or do we choose the vitality that comes of balanced musical nutrition?

Allen Mathews

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.
Click here for a sample formula.

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