The True Instrument You Must Learn (according to Dr. Firgus-Fortuna Zelfrumzinger Bones)
10th Year Anniversary Edition:
I’m revisiting some of my best old posts on playing guitar. Enjoy!
When you learn to play an instrument like the classical guitar there’s plenty to worry about.
Your hand position.
Your other hand position.
Coordinating your hands (and your fingers) with each other.
Your sitting position.
Your technical exercises.
Your practice regimen.
Your sound quality.
Your sight reading ability.
Your grasp of music theory.
And of course, your fingernails. Oh joy, the fingernails.
D0n’t forget, your career as God’s next gift to music.
I’m just scratching the surface here. Entire books—entire libraries, really—have been compiled about many of the things on this little list.
Where do you start? Are you ever finished? What ties it all together? We all know there’s more to learning music than all of this stuff. Most of it is mechanical, theoretical, technical.
There’s something else going on here, something deeper, something important. But what?
In my novel-in-progress, The Adventures of Theophrastus Sharp, a music-obsessed boy, Phrastus, meets a mysterious musical magician and teacher. The teacher, Dr. Firgus-Fortuna Zelfrumzinger Bones (aka Dr. Bones), commutes from another universe. In his universe music is an elemental force of nature like gravity, or electricity, and these properties of music start leaking into our universe.
Dr. Bones teaches Phrastus how to play his instrument, the viola, but that’s only the beginning.
He tells Phrastus something even more important: “Your own self is the true instrument you must learn.”
What good is your guitar without you?
Without you, it just sits there looking pretty, and its strings shiver a bit imperceptibly whenever someone’s voice strikes an E, B, G, D, or an A.
The guitar doesn’t get memory slips—you do. The guitar doesn’t get stage fright–you do. The guitar doesn’t bring music out of itself—you bring music out of yourself, through it.
You may think you’re learning to play guitar, but you’re actually learning yourself, through the guitar.
Your guitar needs you. It needs your vision and your heart and hands and mind, in order to come alive. It needs you just like it needed the vision and labor of countless craftsmen throughout history in order to show up in the world in the first place.
Your guitar needs to become an expression of you, an extension of your inner vision, an expansion of your passion.
Phrastus experiences the magic of bringing his inner world forth through the viola for the first time when he’s sitting on a rock by the Hudson River with two friends and a bunch of geese:
With each stroke, he felt a strange feeling in his chest, like a feather tickling inside, and at each tickle, there appeared a bright thread of sound, shimmering in front of him, stretching out over the water like one strand of a rainbow. Where the sound-thread started and where it ended was impossible to tell.
What it was made of was impossible to say.
That it appeared each time he played a note was impossible to deny.
Like a strand of dream that had broken into waking life, it was inside of him, in his heart; and outside as well, unfurling in front of him, alive in the atmosphere, playing with the wind and with the river. He was seeing what should only be heard, hearing what should only be felt. And his two companions saw and heard it as well.
As did the geese.
Don’t just play guitar. Play yourself through your guitar. You’re already doing this whether you realize it or not. You couldn’t stop even if you wanted to stop. Start doing whatever you can to become fully conscious of this fact.
How do you do this? A few hints:
- tune into your own sensations: your hands, your fingertips, your breath, your entire body. Get used to doing this. Make a practice of it.
- tune into way the music makes you feel as you play it: if you are not emotionally impacted by what you play no one else will be.
- tune into your imagination as you play: what does the music evoke? What story does it tell? Who are you while you play the music? If you don’t develop your inner musical vision, all the technique in the world won’t save you from being drop-dead boring.
When you truly, consciously learn to play yourself through the instrument, the things on the list at the beginning of this post start to work out of their own accord.
And you begin to create magic. It’s undeniable, and gets noticed.
Even the geese might notice.
Read my next post for a video demonstration of one effective way to practice these concepts, every time you sit down to play!