Saturday, July 23, 2011

Discipline and Joy

When I switched from electric guitar and bass and acoustic steel string guitar to classical guitar around age 19 it was as profound a change as a Buddhist suddenly deciding to become Jewish or an Amish becoming a hip-hop artist. I described it in terms of a change in instruments--a small one, really from steel string guitar to nylon string--but it was really a profound aesthetic and philosophical one. I decided, over a period of a few months, to learn to be a classical guitarist and to stop being a guitarist who played popular music. I say 'popular' music--what I mean is "all that music that is not classical". I stopped buying popular records--I didn't even buy Abbey Road when it came out. Instead I started buying records of Dvorak, Debussy, Bach, Beethoven, Faure, Tchaikovsky and more Bach. I taught myself to read music by learning how to write it. I took classical guitar lessons. Before then I didn't really study music. Oh, I had a couple of lessons right when I started on bass guitar, but they didn't amount to much. How I learned to play was by listening and by forming a band. We learned together. Sort of. But as soon as I discovered classical music I realized this was a whole new ball game. No violinist learned how to play the Tchaikovsky concerto without studying. Big time. So after I had gone to two or three teachers and found out that they themselves hadn't actually studied the instrument seriously, I finally went to Spain early in 1974. At that time in Canada, believe it or not, there was hardly a single guitar teacher in Canada that was truly qualified.

I spend nearly a year in Spain, in the medium-sized town of Alicante, where there lived a fellow named Jose Tomas that you have probably never heard of. The greatest classical guitarist in the world at that time was Andres Segovia and there was a small circle of--could we call them disciples?--around him. Alirio Diaz from Venezuela, Oscar Ghiglia from Italy, John Williams from the UK, Michael Lorimer from the US and Jose Tomas from Spain. These guitarists were the second generation, at least counting from Segovia. The least well-known of them was probably Jose Tomas. But he was selected to be Segovia's assistant at the big annual master class in Santiago de Compostella. Jose Tomas lived in Alicante, surrounded by his own group of students from the US, Japan and Europe. It was this group I joined. I spent about six hours a day practicing guitar, doing technique, learning new repertoire. The rest of the time I went to lunch with some fellow students and read Russian novels. That's it. When I went to Spain I was a hack classical guitarist. When I got back, about a year later, I was a real classical guitarist. A few months after getting back I decided to continue my formal music education and auditioned to enter the performance program at McGill University in Montreal--then, and now, the finest music school in Canada. I played the best audition they had ever seen (which included the Theme and Variations by Lennox Berkeley).

What is the point of telling you all this? Just fond reminiscences? No! As my mother often reminded me, I don't have a lick of common sense. But there are some things I just know intuitively. One of them is the importance--and joy--of discipline. What I did in that year in Spain, during which I really learned how to play, was discipline. Every morning I would get up, have churros y chocolate across the street, then come back to my room and practice. I would start with simple exercises: slurs, arpeggios, scales, playing them in different ways at different speeds, until they were absolutely automatic. Then I would take up the new piece I was working on. Section by section I would memorize it. Then I would play over some older repertoire. This would take three hours. Then I would go for lunch. In the late afternoon, I would do it all again. And I did this day after day, week after week, month after month. A set of strings would be worn out in less than two weeks.

A very fine flute-player (who became principle flute in an orchestra) I used to perform with once said that everyone who really learned how to play did the core work in about a year of absolute total effort. Everything else is just refinement and trimming the edges. Don't know if that is true for everyone. But my point here is that mastery demands discipline. It can come in different ways. The way I did it is certainly not unusual. For the Beatles, it was probably the couple of years they spent playing clubs in Hamburg.

What drives people to this level of discipline? It might come naturally to some, but to others it is something they adopt because they have to. I think for me it was the vision that I talked about in this post. I don't remember the moment of epiphany--and that probably means it wasn't a moment. It was probably a phase of gradually clearing vision, like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. It might have taken months. All I know is that at the time the Beatles White Album came out, in November 1968, that was all I was interested in, musically. But by the time Abbey Road came out, in October 1969 (in Canada), I was barely interested in it at all and didn't even buy a copy. Sometime between fall of 68 and fall of 69 I became a classical musician. It took me several more years to learn how to play like one, but the allegiance was clear and unquestioned. I didn't even think about any of this. It was just as obvious as falling into the ocean meant you got wet.

The vision was one of joy. The ineffable joy of music. And the road to that joy was through discipline. You could write a book: The Joy of Scales. But it wouldn't be a best-seller.

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