Dave is the author of the brand new book, The Perpetual Beginner, A Musician’s Path to Lifelong Learning. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read that will be relevant and impactful to anybody who enjoys Musicality Now.
We are excited to have Dave Isaacs back on the show to share some of the powerful ideas and stories from “The Perpetual Beginner”.
In this conversation we talk about:
- Why so many music learners find themselves stuck in the “beginner” phase, even after months, years or even decades of learning.
- The painful experience that opened Dave’s eyes to the downside of respecting tradition and having reverence for doing things in the most technically correct way.
- Why some teachers discourage students from returning to earlier, easier material – but the two important reasons you should be doing this regularly.
Plus: we’re so keen to get this book into as many music learners’ hands as possible, we’re giving away five copies, shipped to your door, absolutely free! Listen for the details in the episode.
If you’ve ever found your enthusiasm and motivation waning, or you’ve felt stuck and frustrated at how long it’s taking to reach a higher level, or you’ve felt torn between doing things “the right way” and doing things “your way” – you’re going to love how this episode helps you.
Watch the episode:
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Dave: Hi I’m Dave Isaacs, They call me the Nashville guitar guru and the author of the new book Perpetual Beginner. This is Musicality Now.
Christopher: Welcome back to the show Dave thanks for joining us today.
Dave: Thank you so much for having me, it’s great to be back.
Christopher: I am really excited about your new book The Perpetual Beginner and in our first conversation on the show we talked a bit about your own back story and your transition from classical guitar into revisiting it in country rock and learning some improv along the way and the kind of twists and turns your own path went through that led you to be the teacher you are today.
And we talked in there a little bit about your blog where you’ve been publishing, which is also called The Perpetual Beginner, and I’d love if we could begin just by talking about that phrase and what it means to you. Why is this book called The Perpetual Beginner?
Dave: Well the idea started when I started to realize that the majority of people that I was working with, or at least a really large percentage of the people I was working with had played the guitar for many, many, many years and were expressing lots of frustration that they still felt like beginners, or they would say, “Well, I started playing guitar five years ago.” Or, “I picked up the guitar in high school and that was twenty years ago or even thirty, but I still feel like a beginner.” And there was an ongoing discussion in an online line group that I moderate about what transitioning into an intermediate player actually meant.
Dave: And I realized that so many people fall into that category and if I really look at it, it seems to be that a really large percentage of people around the world that play the guitar probably fall into that category. and so, I started thinking about how we identify the things that a player needs to absorb and ultimately master to feel like they can actually play.
Dave: And it struck me that ultimately what that is about is not a particular level of skill, but about a level of confidence that when you get up to do what you’re going to do, that it’s going to happen, more or less the way you wanted it to.
Dave: Because you’re never going to achieve perfection as a player, I don’t care what anybody says, but you want to a least feel like you can walk on a stage and deliver a performance. And that to me is the benchmark for when you’ve moved up to this next level.
Dave: So then, extending that idea a little further, and a lot of people immediately, on hearing the phrase, will also, if they’ve heard the phrase, “Beginner’s Mind,” will connect to that, which is this idea of maintaining a beginner’s enthusiasm and openness and, this comes from, I’m not going to say the first name right, so I’m not going to try, but the writer’s name is Suzuki, a Japanese writer, maybe philosopher, but the book is called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. And the way that he describes it is an attitude of openness and enthusiasm for any task or any area that you approach. And it struck me that that mindset is a great way to get past that perpetual beginner feeling, and at the same time, the phrase itself is something to cultivate because there’s a lot of power in remembering what you felt like when you first started to play and you knew nothing but it was all exciting, and you didn’t care that you didn’t know how to do anything.
Dave: It was not an obstacle. I mean, obviously you had to learn how to do things, but it wasn’t a psychic obstacle that you had to defeat to be able to do better, the way that it becomes for almost everybody at some point.
Christopher: I really want to dig into this a little more because I think that situation you described of, often an adult, but a long-time music learner who still considers themselves in some sense a beginner, it’s so prevalent, as you say, maybe most guitar players, most instrument players I think, and certainly a lot of our audience at Musical U would have felt that frustration of, “I thought I’d be better by now.
Christopher: And I wonder… I think a lot of them jump to the conclusion that they’re lacking, you know, there’s something missing and that’s why I’m not better by now. And maybe I’m not talented or gifted enough. Is that what’s missing compared to those who succeed and go on to that intermediate or pro stage quicker, or is there something else that keeps people in that beginner phase?
Dave: Well, I think there are lots of people who are talented that don’t choose to develop it, so that’s a separate point. I think talent is great for… I think when you are given a gift of musical aptitude, it’s easier to move through the process. I think you learn faster, certain things come more naturally and someone that feels that they don’t have that gift, looks at a person like that and says, “Well, I can’t do that, so how am I ever going to get to that point?”
Dave: And I write about… I wrote a whole chapter about this in the book called The Talent Trap, which is on the one side thinking that you don’t have talent and therefore you are not going to be able to get to where you want to go and on the other side, someone that does have aptitude hitting a wall because it’s been easy up to that point, and not knowing how to proceed from there, because I think everybody has a ceiling.
Dave: Now whether someone like a Paul McCartney ever reaches his ceiling, he may never have. We could talk about any given musician and say, “Well, you know, they peaked at such and such.” But, there’s the handful of people that just seem to have this endless fountain of creativity but for most people you’ve got to go back to the drawing board and cultivate it.
Dave: So what’s missing, I think is number one, maintaining that positive mindset, being excited by what you’re doing, no matter whether it’s challenging or not. So at the end of a practice session, even if you’re feeling discouraged knowing that it’s going to go away, that you don’t ever feel like a bad day practicing is going to make you quit.
Dave: That’s that the first thing. And then the other is to have a clear game plan, is to be able to recognize that any kind of a challenge in playing an instrument is, or at least a physical challenge, if there’s something that you can’t accomplish on the instrument, there is a technical reason, you can break any technical problem down into its component elements and solve them one at a time. You can do the same thing with musical problems. You isolate where is the problem. This is the thing that my teachers taught me how to do and it’s the most powerful tool that I have.
Dave: And it’s given me the confidence to know that if I can’t do something today, I can at least figure out how it was done and figure out how we might get to being able to accomplish that, whether I choose to put that time in, or not.
And I think that’s huge, because that keeps the door open all the time.
Christopher: I think the way you talk about this is so fascinating and you know, the actual meaning of beginner can be, “I’m stuck in the beginner phase.” Or, I’m taking the taking the beginner’s mind to it. The fact that that’s common to both groups, those who consider themselves gifted and those who don’t and is maybe for those who get an easy start, the reason they plateau and struggle is that they never had to cultivate that beginner’s mind, they never had to absorb that idea of how they approach their music learning because maybe it came more easily than to others. As you say, it’s a trap whichever camp you’re in. And one thing you touch on a few times in the book, is the idea that what you just referred to there, the technique and technicalities of playing can become an extreme focus for people and is maybe part of what stops them gaining the right relationship with music or a fully fledged relationship with music throughout their life.
Christopher: Could you talk a little bit about that. What are they missing out on if their focused purely on, “Can I play this chord, or can I master this fingering?”
Dave: Well, I think that it’s that the… when your emphasis is on the mechanics to the exclusion of the music, I mean I just said that you need to be able to look at the mechanics and break things down and there are people who have done an amazing job of really looking at, “This is how the body works, this is how the instrument works, and you are looking to interface this mechanism with this one.” Or whatever it is, and that there is a logic to that. So there’s a lot of validity to that and that approach.
Dave: But that’s only one side of the equation and I think there’s a lot of people, this is going to sound really mean, but I think there are a lot of people, and it’s not a put down to guitar players, I think it’s an inherent challenge to guitarists, because a guitar to me, is a geometric and therefore highly visual instrument and so many people learning the guitar through shapes and diagrams and I realized, and I would say fairly recently, that that is the way that I made sense of the guitar neck from the beginning and then I looked at my experience with math in school and I was terrible at algebra and the equations and things like that seemed so abstract. But geometry and trigonometry made perfect sense. So applying that idea to a guitar neck, whoa, of course, sure.
Dave: And then whether, it probably spins off into fractals and all kinds of crazy stuff that I don’t even really know how to talk about, but given that, if you’re focused on those shapes and formations, your ears might just shut off or it might not even occur to you that, “Oh, there’s a sound there,” and it’s the only explanation I can possibly have for the way I hear some people playing, is one of the challenges that I hear from people all the time, is, “Well, I learned all my scales and I’ve got my alternate picking up to 168 beats per minute and I did all this, but I still can’t play a solo.” Well, that’s basically like saying, I have learned grammar and I have memorized the dictionary but I still can’t talk.
Dave: So, if you’re not aware that there’s no meaning behind what you’re doing, it’s like learning a language transliterated and not having any idea what the words mean.
Dave: And I think that’s one of the problems I find, I’m going to put the blame squarely on guitar teachers who are not thoughtful teachers and there are many, many, many who are, but I can’t tell you how many times someone comes to me and says, “Well, you’re my third teacher, you’re my fifth. And all so and so did was say ‘well what do you want to learn today’ or ‘I’m going to show you how to play this song'”
Dave: And it was always “Well, just do this.” It was always, “Here’s the how, here’s where to put your fingers,” but there was never a “what”.
Dave: It’s if you put your fingers here, this will happen, well, what did I just do, what chord is that? I don’t know. “Well, you’re not supposed to have to know, what about the gifted people?” I’m going to go off on a little bit… not a rant here, okay but Nashville, and I say this with great love, is like the world capital of savant musicianship. There are more people here who are amazing at what they do that have very little training or real knowledge about it. And some of them are deeply superstitious about learning about what they do.
Dave: And I mean most of the pro players that I know would not fall into this category, most of the pros I know are professionals because they learned a craft. No matter what kind of gift they might have had. I don’t know anyone who’s working at a high level professionally who would say, “Well, you know, this is just my god-given talent. And if I mess with learning about it, it’s going to somehow interfere.”
Dave: Honestly I hear that probably more from songwriters and artists because I think if you… and this was another insight… I’m going to bounce around quite a bit here, but this was something else that occurred to me in writing the book is that when you study music formally, you are being trained to be a working musician, rather than being trained to be a creative artist, at least in my experience and that’s a separate topic road we can go down later. But it does say something about this split and whether you want to say it’s left-brain, right-brain or Apollo or Dionysus, or whatever, it mirrors the whole ways that people fall on one side or another of favoring order or favoring freedom and the ability to explore. So I may have lost the original question.
Dave: Oh, I know what it was. There are a lot people who are teaching guitar that only show people how and don’t teach them anything about the what and my own experience is that when I was physically capable of exploring on the instrument, I absolutely fell in love with that and it’s something that I never want to lose the ability to do, but learning about what I was doing, made me a better musician and helped me learn music because I think of when I was studying classical guitar, especially early on and playing music that was way above what I was able to comprehend. And so I know that I had just memorized a series of moves. That there really was no directing the performance in the sense of, “I am singing to you and I am in control of what’s happening here.”
Dave: It was strictly mechanical and I might have even learned to crescendo here or change the tone there, or all those things that were written into my score, but all of those things are things that you can do technically and then you learn to parrot a performance. And obviously I’m speaking very generally and I don’t know that anyone falls into any one of these categories quite so neatly, but I think there are a lot of people out there that teach in that way, they’re teaching geometry, they’re teaching calisthenics and movement and they’re not teaching so much music. And that’s where people fall into the trap but I don’t know that that comes necessarily from a technical predisposition. I don’t know if that comes from having the gift for it, because I think the greatest gift honestly, is the ear and the ability to comprehend music because that’s what leads you down the road in the first place.
Dave: When it comes to learning the mechanics I mean, some people are certainly more coordinated than others, I mean, I think about trying to learn how to coordinate how to coordinate a layup or a jump shot when I was a kid, which I really had great difficulty with but I didn’t care enough to work at doing that, whereas with the guitar, I cared and that opens up all kinds of other questions we can get into but the book gets into that as well, as far as, why did I care about this and not that. And there again are your predispositions that lead you in one direction or another.
Christopher: Yeah. And I love that you talk so early in the book about the connection to music. In a sense, the whole book is about having a rich and sustained positive relationship with music throughout that learning process, throughout your life. And I think what we just discussed is one of three things you identify as kind of, sometimes keeping people from that connection or being a barrier to the true connection to music, which is playing notes instead of music as you put it.
Christopher: The other two are living on the edge and going it alone. And I’d love if we could just touch briefly on those so that people can identify, “Oh, am I doing that, a bit of that in my musical life?”
Dave: Okay. Well, the living on the edge idea started with a student of mine who would express frustration one day that everything he was trying to do was difficult. And it’s not the first time that I’d had this thought, but it really coalesced at that point and then my response to him was, “Well then you need to pick up the guitar and play something that we did six months ago, or that you learned before we started working together. It isn’t so difficult
Dave: And if you haven’t done that, go back and revisit those things, and I will guarantee you will find that they’re not as difficult as they used to be.
Dave: And you realize then, and I’ve certainly said this to students before, that when you study it is your teacher’s obligation to continue to push you forward, so that you’re always getting things that are at the edge of your ability.
Dave: If you’re not balancing that with things that are just satisfying to do, then you’re never getting the real satisfaction out of the performance, and you never get to an important stage of practicing, which is what I call flow practice, which really means the performance itself and being able to get from beginning to end without stopping or stumbling.
Dave: And to be able to sustain the mental part of the performance that you can… there’s no way to not sound cosmic, but to me it is, to be able to inhabit the music. To be able to really get inside it. If you’re singing a song and really communicating of what you’re saying and feeling the rhythm and the way that all those things fit together. And if you’re playing instrumentally for it to sing.
Dave: And if you’re not, even if the thing that you can do that with is absurdly simple in your mind, it still doesn’t matter. And this is where we touch back on beginners mind, because when you first learned, or you were just starting out, the first time you did something that ten years later you might say is absurdly simple, you felt accomplishment.
Dave: So it’s a little bit of an over-simplification to say, “Well, if you’re struggling with your guitar lessons, go back and play Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and you’ll feel better, but the idea is sound that you’ve got to do something that just feels good, because that was why you started in the first place, or hopefully it was. So, that’s that side of it.
Christopher: I think it’s so valuable that you point that out and when I read that part of the book, I was wishing I had read it six months earlier. I had a perfect case myself where I’ve been learning drums, and my teacher is very technical, very exercise focused, which is superb and keeps me at that forefront, as you say, of what I’m capable of, but I’d literally gone two months without playing any of the kind of music on drums that had got me into it in the first place, and I was starting to lose my will to practice. And I was like, “Why am I losing my will to practice?” “Oh right, because I haven’t actually played any of the stuff that I picked up the drums sticks to play.”
Christopher: And I think it’s such a valuable thing to point out to people that that’s not a waste of time, or a just feel good experience, it’s a core part of motivation and accomplishment and how you continue to develop. Right?
Dave: It is, and I think one of the challenges for the teacher is that, if you’re trying to say, shape somebody’s technique in a particular direction, you don’t want them to do things that are counter-productive.
Dave: And so, one of the ways that people do that is by restricting what they do. For example, when I started my Master’s program at Manhattan School, there were a bunch of students who had come in and I would say many of them, that were restricted back to first playing open strings and then only playing scales and naming the notes, for a month. And not playing any music. And when you enter a program like that, a rigorous conservatory level education, especially at a graduate, or post-graduate level, you know that you are submitting to a program.
Dave: It’s like joining the service, you are going to boot camp, they’re going to kick your behind, and you can’t have anything to say about it, you know what you’ve signed up for, and you know what’s on the other side of it. But, the balance that I find difficult, and I really wrestle with this, I wrestle with this a lot, that I want to push my students to get better, but I do not want to push them off or push them away. And that any accomplishment, any progress forward, anything they do that they get a sense of accomplishment is a win and is going to keep them in the game.
Dave: So, I think there’s a distinction to be made. I think there are teachers that insist on these absolutes, and they will say, “Well, I’m building foundation technique, and we can’t mess with this and if you go play you were playing before, you’re going to interfere with the work we’re doing.” I’m not sure I agree with that because I think ultimately, if you want to talk about technique, at least with the guitar, and I think you could probably say this about any instrument, but there are some great idiosyncratic players out there, and I think that you don’t necessarily want to encourage someone to just blunder their way through learning an instrument. That’s maybe too judgmental a way to put it, but there are people who play in ways that no teacher would ever teach, but you cannot deny the power, and their skill in what they do.
Dave: And on the other side of it, getting back to the idea of a mechanism, and a mechanism… all mechanisms, all mechanical constructs have a logic, there’s a way they work and if you look at how they work, you can find it. Some people do that more naturally than others right? First time you try to take a sink apart. “Wait? Where does this go, Oh, that goes here.”
Dave: But the mechanically sound approach should just inherently be better and feel better and so my contention is that when you start to explore that taking into account the variables, say with guitar, we have to account for the proportion of people’s hands. Not everyone’s fingers are the same length. Their proportion of hand to arm and just the whole construction of the body. Everyone is a little bit different, so you’ve got to modify that ideal often, but I have never had somebody say when I start to steer them into playing a different way, that it didn’t feel better. Now, then they go to play and muscle memory kicks in, and they go back to what they were doing before.
Dave: So, I think of it the way that people teach meditation. You bring your attention back, you make the correction, it goes away, you make the correction again. I’m actively trying to work on my posture. I’m doing the same thing. You notice, you make the correction. And then ultimately the noticing is the thing that’s going to change your technique. Because if it really is better, and you start to absorb that, why wouldn’t that be the thing you would favor? Right? It isn’t he path of least resistance… well, it is the path of least resistance on the one hand because the mechanical aspect, but the resistance on the other hand is muscle memory and your habits. And if you are willing to submit to the kind of program that really allows you to completely create new muscle memory in a concentrated period of time, great.
Dave: But most people don’t have that luxury, so you have to look at it as an ongoing process and allowing the technique to develop by paying attention to what really works. And this brings in another one of the traps that people fall into, Which is to say, “I don’t know anything, therefore my opinion about what’s working or not working doesn’t mean anything because I don’t know the right way to do it.”
Dave: So it goes back to this idea of you find what’s natural because the body has a logic, and a way that it works and playing anything, making any kind of technical move has a logic and a sequence of movements and what my trainer friend would call a firing pattern of the muscles. This goes first, this goes second, this goes third.
Dave: If it’s so logical and sensible and natural, why wouldn’t that be the best way to go and so, we cultivate that over the long term. But to say, “You won’t be able to develop this if you play music that just feels good, I think is really just going to thin the herd.”
Dave: Which, unfortunately is what some people at a high level think they’re there to do when they’re teaching.
Dave: And maybe in a high level conservatory program they are there to thin the herd – but that’s not what my job is. And there are plenty of people out there… there’s a great big world out there to cut down people’s motivation and self-esteem, so that’s not my job.
Dave: My job is to try to cultivate good technique, and a good approach to the instrument in a way that doesn’t push them away from it.
Dave: And I guess, when you really come down to it, it’s a problem that I’ve identified that ties into one of the bigger problems that we have with music, which is, it’s a spectator sport for so many people. And it goes back to the talent question. It goes back to the aptitude question, “Well, only the best should do it.” When meanwhile, I go back to my trying to shoot a layup when I was ten and the fact that I wasn’t any good, didn’t mean that I couldn’t… maybe I wasn’t helping the team much, but you could still enjoy the game. No-one says, “Oh you shouldn’t play pick-up basketball if you’re not good, until you’re taking it seriously.”
Dave: And I’m not talking about giving out participation trophies, it’s nothing like that, but I am saying that if there’s a benefit, if there’s a positive in your life to take up any activity athletics, or music or whatever, then cultivate it. And ultimately isn’t that the human experience part that we want most of all? And then if you decide to take it seriously, there’s always the opportunity to knuckle down and do the work.
Dave: I don’t understand why some people don’t see that as an inescapable reality. They just live in a different universe than I do, maybe.
Christopher: I think everything you described is part of this baggage we inherit from the classical conservatory system and so many hobbyist musicians, adults in particular, I think, are taking on assumptions about what it means to learn music, that really have no application to them. And it’s certainly been eye-opening over the last three or four years at Musical U, being able to work day in day out alongside these students using our material to really recognize, I’ll put it bluntly: motivation is the biggest problem. Like however much they love music, if we’re not recognizing the fact that the best thing we can do for them is help them stay motivated, we’re failing them, however good our educational content may be, motivation is a huge part of it and I love that you’re so pragmatic and practical about this, that you’re not a purist saying it must be done this way or don’t bother because you’re not a real pro, or you don’t have talent. You’re finding that middle ground sweet spot of mixing the two worlds I think.
Dave: I don’t get along well with purists in general. I wrote about that too.
Christopher: Well, let’s talk a little bit about your chapter, The Purist and the Maverick, because I hadn’t thought about this in quite that way before, but I’m sure it’s something that our listeners will be able to relate to.
Dave: So, well, this was story that I really wanted to tell although at first I wasn’t sure whether there was a lesson in it or not. It was interesting, because when I started the book, the whole driving concept was to start to with stories, so talk about experiences that I had that were formative.
Dave: I learned this lesson, working with this person in this moment, and it might have been one interaction, or it might have been a series of interactions over a long period of time. But the story was important and so, when I started to tell this particular story, I wasn’t sure what the lesson was until I really started getting into it.
Dave: So the year after I finished graduate school, so I just completed a Master’s degree in classical guitar at Manhattan School of Music in New York, and I applied and was accepted to perform in a masterclass at the Yale School of Music, Yale University for a very well known player that I won’t name. And I was excited about doing it, I knew who he was I respected him, and I went and played for him, and he kind of took me apart. Now that’s fine, you can do that in a masterclass, that’s what you’re there for, but he did it in this, kind of a jokey, winking to the audience way that made me feel like he made me the butt of a joke, which he did. I played, so you’re in Spain, you’ll appreciate this, I played the Sonata by Joachim Tourina, it was written for Andre Segovia, which is a gorgeous piece of music and very challenging, powerful, Spanish nationalist flamenco influenced. Beautiful stuff.
Dave: I didn’t know that this guy had studied under Pepe Romero, who is to Spanish guitar, I mean the Romero family are the source for a lot of this stuff, and so, this player knew this style intimately, and he didn’t like my rasgueado.
Dave: So I wasn’t doing it right, or I wasn’t doing it the way a proper flamenco player would do it, and so I played the piece, and he says, “You know,” he looks at the audience, “You can’t rasgueado like Gringo.” And he got a big laugh. And I was like “eugh”. And I swear to you, I don’t remember anything else he told me about the piece, I just walked out of there like, “You just took a cheap shot in front of 200 people, I don’t respect you for that.” Which was actually, when I told the story, I sent the book to one of my former professors at Manhattan School, and when he read that story, he said, “You know, as teachers we really have to keep in mind the impact of the things we say.”
Dave: So, I’m thinking about this experience, and I had played that piece in my graduation recital at Manhattan School. So I’d worked on it with my teacher who as an eminent, world-touring classical guitarist. He didn’t have a problem with what I did. I’d played it in a masterclass for Sharon Isbin, that founded the guitar program at Julliard. She didn’t have a problem with it. The person who had a problem was the one who had been taught by someone very, very close to the source and the traditional folkloric element of it and I think that there’s a fair point on both sides that if you’re going to play something with a flamenco influence, you should understand how to play a rasgueado.
Dave: Now, I had found a work around because my hand wasn’t doing what I needed it to do to play a proper flamenco rasgueado, I don’t play flamenco, or at least I enjoy it… I love it in fact, and I’m a little bit jealous that you are in Spain, but the work around that I found was still musical and out of three world-class experts, only one of them had a problem.
Dave: So, of course, in a masterclass, and I know this from judging students in all kinds of situations, and I mean judging when it’s a formal situation, where you have to have comments. Sometimes you just need something to say. And it’s not always constructive. You hope it is, you try. But you’re there to give your opinion, so you’ve got to have something to say about it and that was what he latched on to. But ultimately it is a purists view because he’s saying, “That’s not the way they would do it in Grenada.” “Okay, fine.” But I also remember playing a duet version of Summertime with somebody once, who at the end of it said, “Well, you know that’s not the way Gershwin wrote it.”
Dave: “So? And your problem is?” So that mindset to me lacks context and then I start thinking about this idea and extending it further, and you realize, and I’ll relate this to another genre that I also mention in talking about this.
Dave: A friend of mine who I will give a shout out to, because he’s a great writer about music, but his name is Christopher Watkins and as artist he goes by the name Preacher Boy and if you like traditional blues and Tom Waits, he kind of fuses these two in a very, very cool way.
Dave: But he’s also a poet, an essayist and he’d written this long piece about the blues and purists and said, “All you people who are trying to say, ‘well, that’s not the way Muddy did it.’ Do you not realize that Muddy Waters was an innovator? He was a maverick, he created something that wasn’t… that didn’t exist before. And what he sounded like in 1960, did not sound anything… was a different style, and a different sound than what he sounded like in 1945 when he was being recorded on the front porch at Stovall’s plantation.”
Dave: This was not someone that followed the way he was supposed to do things. This was someone that did it his way and became the model. And you could say the same thing about any number of people. You could say it about Bill Munroe, in bluegrass, you could say it about… I mean, in any genre, those people exist, and those people found a way to do something that made them individuals and made other people want to be like them.
Dave: Those people inspired other people to play. And then what happens? Now we have founded a school. Now we have an orthodoxy and now we have followers who line up and say, “It must be done that way.” And there is a lot of beauty in authentic anything. Authentic dixieland, you know, authentic delta blues, authentic flamenco, all of that. I mean I grew up on folk music and that led me into traditional music in different parts of the world and world music and all of that. It’s beautiful, and it’s amazing, and it’s something to preserve and celebrate, but why does that preclude, in some people’s minds, the option of taking this and making something new with it because that is the only way music is ever innovated. That is what music has done throughout the history of music. Somebody heard something, and they absorbed it and through the filter of their minds and their creativities, something new came out. And if that wasn’t happening, we wouldn’t be doing this anymore. So, it’s a short-sighted isn’t even a strong enough word.
Christopher: “Deluded”, we could say.
Dave: Yeah, I tend to be fairly measured in my language, it’s just my personality for the most part, but that doesn’t mean that underneath that are not very, very strong beliefs and yeah, that is exactly what I would call it. It’s missing something that should be as obvious as anything in the world, but yet, that thought did not occur to me until I really started going down that road and saying, “You know, every player that really inspired me the most, I mean I’ve learned a lot from the schooled players, I wouldn’t have a career if I hadn’t learned from the schooled players, that I wouldn’t have fallen in love if it weren’t for Jimmy Page, who became a great session musician even though he said the first time he walked into a studio and saw a score, he said, it just looked like a bunch of crows sitting on telephone wires. Little black dots.” Or any of these self taught musicians, Doc Watson, I grew up listening to, it’s amazing the mavericks, the innovators are the ones that make everybody else sit up and take notice.
Christopher: I had the pleasure recently of interviewing the Quebe Sisters who call their style of music “progressive western swing” and they made the point really eloquently that there’s this amazing tradition of western swing and they respect that and they honor it and in some cases they kind of replicate it or portray it in their music, but they also realize that western swing came out of innovation and so the truest way they can honor that form, that genre is by innovating themselves and I thought that was such a superb point that we… as much as we admire what’s gone before, we can’t let it prevent us moving on. And I loved the way you put it in that chapter of the book, you said, “We have to learn from the past, but create our own future,” which I think is a really lovely way to put it.
Dave: Well, and it’s the only way that you… when you create a museum culture, I think you automatically and instantly narrow your audience. You narrow the number of people you’re going to reach. And on top of that, you create this set of aficionados that’s putting out into the world that this is the only way it can be done. And it’s absolutely maddening.
Dave: I get quite a bit in the book into my love hate, mixed relationship with jazz and jazz musicians. Which I have tremendous respect, and a great deal of love for lot of jazz music and jazz musicians and honestly, I wish it was a language that I spoke more fluently than I do, and it’s one of the things that, since I started learning very early on when I became aware of it, that within a musical world, this is a pinnacle of achievement to be able to play like this, and it’s also something that you have to devote yourself, you don’t become Wes Montgomery or Jim Hawe, by playing rock’n roll gigs on the weekends. You immerse yourself in that world. Just like you don’t become a great classical player without devoting yourself wholly to that world. But, if you sit down and read record reviews in Down Beat magazine, say there is, I mean the word venom comes to mind in the way some people are just savaged for not following the rules. I think I read something somebody said, “Well, he sounds like he never heard Thelonious Monk.” Or whatever it was. And I love Thelonious Monk, Thelonious Monk didn’t care if you never heard Thelonious Monk.
Dave: This was not… I mean, what happened there? How do you take a music that is all about improvisation and freedom. If you think about it, we got from Muskrat Stomp to A Love Supreme in 40 some years.
Dave: I mean, that’s amazing. And yet people can say, “Well,” and okay now, “Did Coltrane understand Muskrat Stomp?” He did. He had that foundation, he was a scholar. He was a student of music. He knew what he was doing. Picasso knew what he was doing. Picasso was a great figurative painter. And I just had this conversation the other day with a painter, an artist who said, “It’s funny how people don’t recognize how much technique goes into simple things that don’t look technical.” So I get all of that, but it’s not like there isn’t room in the world for someone who takes something sophisticated and does something primitive with it.
Dave: I mean, it’s funny. Now, you could say that some people just don’t belong in certain places. One of my favorite song writers who come out of, I suppose, the Nashville school of Americana music, what they call Americana music, is Gillian Welch, who I’ve just loved for as long as I’ve heard her. I just think she’s amazing. And she studied at the Berklee College of Music, and she said, “I was definitely… I was a primitive.” Or, I think maybe it was Dave Rawlings, her partner who called her a primitive, but saying, this was a very strange thing for someone who is learning about this deep, deep roots music, to go and study at what was essentially a jazz school for many, many years.
Dave: She went on to have a pretty fantastic career. She probably never learned how to play Donna Lee, but there’s room in the world for all of these people. That’s the part I guess, that I find personally frustrating.
Dave: And whether or not that has to do, without getting too deeply personal about it, and without getting into specifics, I’ve got a lot of cultural mix in my background and in my blood, and so I can belong in one place or another because of where I grew up and how I grew up and there are certainly communities I’m very, very comfortable in and I feel a part of. But at the same time, in terms of an identity, when a musician says, “This is where I live.” It’s like saying, “This was my town. These are my people, this is where I came from.” And I think there’s something powerful and comes in having that kind of sense of identity. This is me. But at the same time, what about that guy that isn’t you. And he’s got a little bit of that over here. You’re not going to let him in the door?
Dave: So, those ideas… the way I feel about those ideas may be related, but I think when you look at it from the perspective of music, you know I taught a class when I was teaching college, it was a world music survey, these were not music students, it was an elective class, so it wasn’t meant to be deeply technical, and I had a fair amount of freedom with how I present the curriculum, so I took it as… I taught it as a course on the way that musical styles influenced each other and using as a primary illustration American popular music, and the different threads that you can follow back to their roots.
Dave: So we started off working our way around the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. And so we’re touching on blues music and the American south, and we’re touching on New Orleans and Caribbean music coming in through New Orleans and creating really everything ultimately.
Dave: We talked about African slaves being brought over and bringing their music with them and hearing Spanish hymns in Cuba. Now suddenly there’s… how all of these things happen. Cultures come together and even when they are… even when there’s a horrific cultural relationship, because certainly if you want to talk about the slave days, I mean we all know the story. But, there was still the musical influence. So even among people that might have been on the one hand feared and hated, and on the other hand dehumanized, the music still found a way to meld. And what does that say? It’s part of the human experience that we take in everything around us, and it forms each individual.
Dave: So why shouldn’t music be like that? Or at least, why shouldn’t that idea be cultivated? And some people are just not… some people are more individual than others and that’s okay. There’s room for all of that. So whenever somebody is teaching music in a way that closes that world off, especially this part. So end of philosophical rants but… I don’t even know if that ended up where we started but… oh no, because it was The Purist and the Maverick okay. So good.
Christopher: I think what comes through clearly is this theme of beginners mind in the sense that maybe what’s missing from those people who are extremely purist is that openness to new possibilities. The willingness to consider doing things a different way and to actually trust in their own enjoyment a little bit along the way, rather than just blindly being told what to do.
Dave: Well, and the other thing is that that doesn’t mean you have to abandon standards. It doesn’t mean that you can’t try to hold yourself to a standard, but I think that needs to be a choice. I think that there is a level of submitting, as I said, to a school of thought and allowing yourself to be molded by that. But it is still a pipeline, and you can come out the other side of.
Christopher: And there was another place in the book where jazz came up as an example and it was in your chapter on Simplicity and Authority. And I think it touches a bit on what you just described and that ability to know what really matters so I wonder if you’d mind sharing that story about the jazz musicians versus the folk musicians?
Dave: Okay. So this what… I have such trepidation about putting some of this stuff out there. I’m just waiting for the comments from jazz musicians to show up on my social media feed saying, “What are you talking about?”
Dave: So I attended a workshop when I was in college that was supposed to be with the great Be-bop guitarist Pat Martineau, who is a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant player, another maverick. Someone that found his own way and really respected as a teacher. And he was teaching people that were not just jazz musicians, so I was really interesting in where he was coming from. And he ended up having health issues and did not teach the workshop. And Mick Goodrich, who runs the guitar program, I think still does at the Berklee College of Music, came in and taught and he was amazing. He was fantastic, so this is not in any way an indictment of the topic and honestly it was way over my head. I didn’t have the foundation musically in the language to really get the most out of it.
Dave: And ultimately I think I also just wasn’t in love enough with that direction to want to go into it. But I was definitely interested, and I liked playing the tunes. I liked learning about it, it made me feel like I was also growing as a musician, which is true and important. But the thing that struck me is that, the people who were attending, were all trying to squeeze through the same door. They were all approaching very similar things in very similar ways and when they would get together to play together, they didn’t do it very well. They always needed the book first of all.
Dave: They hadn’t absorbed the tunes which is, I think, one of the essential things if you really want to learn to play jazz, you have to memorize a bunch of standards in a bunch of keys to really begin to speak the language. And so, if you’re always… and, it took me a long time to realize this. That having a classical background, that one of the problems I had was I was relying way too much on the music. I didn’t fully comprehend just how much was open to interpretation. So in any case though, you would get these guys, and it was mostly guys at the time, playing together and very rarely did something really connect. These were students, but these were students who were probably not at least, in their teachers at home, may be not getting the full picture about the listening part.
Dave: And the thing that really was striking is in an ensemble class, and there were probably 20 of us, all with guitars and the instructor said, “Let’s see how long we could sit here without anybody playing a note?” And we didn’t last very long, which is absurd when you think about it. Like how hard is it just sit on your hands, don’t be the first one to crack. Right?
Dave: But it was very, very difficult. Everybody played too much. Nobody was listening as well as they could have. So the next week, I go to a folk music retreat where suddenly there are 20 people sitting in a circle playing songs that 19 of them have never heard before. Playing seven different instruments and singing in five part harmony. And I’m jamming with people who are playing three chord bluegrass and folk songs, but playing these accompaniments with an authority and a conviction that I couldn’t match even though I was a Master’s student in classical guitar and thought of myself as a very skilled musician. And I wasn’t keeping up. It was effort and I’d grown up on folk music.
Dave: And it really hit me in the face, that over here, these people studying this very complex music were still not learning to be great musicians yet because they had their… they were too deep in the weeds of the nuts and bolts. And I hope that some of those people got a lot out of that class, there was a lot to get from it, and I hope that Mick Goodrich opened some eyes during the course of that week.
Dave: But it was very striking to sit down then in contrast with musicians playing very simple music but with a degree, a level of authority that I couldn’t match. And the only way to get there was to live in their world for a while. That’s how they got there. That’s how those people were individuals. And so, all of this, it never occurred to me fully… I would say jokingly for years, as I was starting to write about music that I was looking for my unified field theory. And this book really started to bring a lot of these things together in that way that I think is fascinating. That it’s beginner’s mind. Listening and learning to solve problems. Those are the… and then staying connected to keep yourself motivated. That’s it. Everything else is just details.
Dave: But how do you learn to play music? You figure out what inspires you, you start to play with it. You make sure that you always can play in both senses of the word and then you do submit to a course of study that might be just self-directed, but understanding that you are learning how to solve problems and that all of these problems to have solutions and know that it’s going to get difficult and when it does, you go back to, either your inspirations the things that connects you to that feeling, or to connect to other people. So you’ve got to show up to rehearsal, and you’ve got to have that part down, so you’re going to practice for another hour until you have it. And I think if everybody started with that, that more people would reach a point of satisfaction. Would reach that point of conviction and a level of competence and skill, which is where we started in talking about how do you get from feeling like a beginner, to feeling like, “Okay, now I can play.” And that’s what it is. It’s I can do this authoritatively. There’s your unified field theory I think.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, I’d be an idiot to try and ask any follow up questions after that even though I a handful left on my list. This book, The Perpetual Beginner, I can’t recommend highly enough. There’s chapters in there of being aware of your body, on critical listening, on how to let go and just play. None of which we’ve even touched on today and Dave also wraps up with a really powerful story about how all of this is still playing in his own life. So, clearly can’t recommend the book highly enough. If you head to Amazon to get your copy, you’ll find my review there, and I also want to give away five copies of this book. It is one of the handful of books that I know is relevant to every single person watching or listening to this podcast. So were going to give away five copies and to be in with a chance of winning, all you need to do is share this episode on your social media platform of choice, whether that’s Facebook, Instagram, if you’re still on Twitter, Twitter, if you’re in a forum where you share with other musicians, do it there.
Christopher: Take a screenshot where you shared it and send that to [email protected] So screenshot your share, send it to [email protected] and a week from now, which I believe is the 23rd October, we’ll be drawing five lucky winners at random to get a copy of this book, The Perpetual Beginner. If you can’t wait until then, or you’re not lucky enough to win a copy, head to Amazon, head to Dave’s website and grab your copy, because it’s… as this conversation I’m sure demonstrates, it’s packed with stuff, and we didn’t even get through everything. Dave any parting pieces of wisdom for our audience today?
Dave: Well, I think we’ve touched on… like I said the core of it. But I think the biggest thing I can say is find what you love, find what inspires you, recognize that there is a feeling behind that and that what you’re really looking to do in learning to play the instrument is to touch that feeling. The thing that listening to that music made you feel, made you want to be able to reproduce that feeling for yourself. And that you can find a way to do that in one way or another and as long as you maintain a level of kindness to yourself on the one hand and self discipline on the other, to recognize that there’s work to be done, but that every accomplishment is still an accomplishment worth celebrating, and that you can learn to make great music in very primitive ways if you so choose. That everybody can find some kind of musical place for themselves. And if anyone tries to tell you differently, run the other direction and find somebody that agrees.
Christopher: Tremendous. Well, thank you so much Dave, both for writing this book and also for joining us again on the show today.
Dave: Thanks so much, and by the way, I just want to close with this. And this is just as a shout out to any of our jazz musician listeners that might have felt that I was being unfair, of course at the bottom it says, “Playing for tips.” So keep that part in mind too.
Christopher: Well, any offended jazz musicians or jazz aficionados can direct hate mail to me rather than Dave.
Dave: Just write to Down Beat magazine and complain about how they’re too nasty in their columns… in their reviews. With all respect. I say it with love. I really, really do.
Christopher: Thanks again.
Dave: Thank you so much.
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