Moral of the Story

Looking over this little site, I notice some patterns. There’s some fine music represented here, mostly done by people I got to sing and play with. There’s also a lot of unpolished music, slipshod recordings, “pitchy” singing and tuning problems. Meanwhile, as I edited the tapes, I had to cut out a ton of laughter, wisecracking, and other good humored fun. Is some larger theme at play?

My elementary school tested kids for “musical ability” and informed my parents they could not detect any within me. “If he wants to be in a choir, it probably won’t hurt,” they said. “But music lessons would be a waste of money.”  And they were right. I still can’t tune a guitar by ear as well as most guitarists.

As a young man, a fine musician tried to convince me that people are either born having  potential for musical greatness or they aren’t. “Kenn,” she said. “You will never be a great singer.” And she was right.  

Lately I’ve decided that, to improve, a person must focus on what’s wrong with whatever they’re doing. Find the faults and try to fix them. But to have fun, one must reverse that. Forget what’s wrong and focus on what’s right. Notice the faults when you rehearse but just have fun when you perform. Enjoy writing the first draft and only notice the problems when you edit. 

But that’s not exactly right, not with things like music or art. In my life, the experience of practicing, both alone and with others, was more important than the final product. The fun of writing a song, learning a guitar trick, or improvising a harmony wasn’t trivial, like the pleasure at hearing a concert or watching a movie. The  joy surrounding the process itself wasn’t peripheral, it was the whole point. Merely walking through an open gate isn’t an event worth mentioning. But climbing over the gate is a challenge, a game, and a memory, especially if you’re racing a very competitive Dalmatian. It’s the fun part.

Late in life I figured out a couple of things about music. First, your brain is limited. While your left hand is learning to hold down chords, your right hand can’t do much more than strum. It takes a while to do both, but that’s not the end of the dilemma. Concentrate too hard on the guitar and you’re likely to miss some vocal notes, or you’ll sing them weakly. Then, when you focus on singing, you’re likely to flub a string. When you manage to focus on both guitar and vocal quality at the same time you’re likely to forget the words. Your audience probably won’t notice how good the little lick was because they can only hear the flat note you sang. Even the least musical listener will notice the stunned terror in your eyes when you stand with mouth agape waiting for lyrics to fill it. You can train your brain with practice, to a degree, but nobody pays Yo Yo Ma to sing.

I’ve recently realized that, to sing a note on pitch, you need to picture that note before you open your mouth. Music is always happening just a few fractions of a second in the future. I wish someone would have mentioned this to me fifty years ago.

I wonder if musical lessons like that apply to other aspects of life?

Sure, I didn’t rehearse as much as excellent musicians do, and it shows. On the other hand, I’ve had an awful lot of fun. I don’t want to be Dorothy whining, “Geez, I went all the way to Oz and all I got were these cheesy slippers.” No, Dorothy. You got friends, and an adventure, and a lot of fun along the way. Your grayscale life was transformed into Technicolor.

Few of us spend much time basking in the spotlight, and that’s OK. Our days are filled with ordinary actions, but the time isn’t wasted. Life is not a rehearsal. I’m going to try to notice what’s right, not what’s wrong. I don’t want to miss it when the gray paving stones beneath my feet transform into a yellow brick road.

I hope you notice it, too.

Kenn Amdahl

December, 2020