Stafford: Letting go to become fluent in music

Tom Stafford

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Tom Stafford

I try not to obsess about our 4-year-old grandson.

I check out the occasional Facebook post with picture and sometimes scan the photos attached to his pre-K class teacher’s email thinking about what roles he and his classmates might play in a present-day production of the Little Rascals.

Similarly, I don’t worry about the progress of his language skills, because I track his language skills by noting how often I have to reach for the Oxford Klingon Dictionary to look up his words.

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Although I still keep the dictionary handy, I have noticed how much more fluent his speech has become. The flow of is smoother and slightly more sophisticated in a way that reminds me the words fluent and fluid both have their roots in another thing that flows: water.

Fifty-eight years my grandson’s senior, I’ve recently found myself gaining a new fluency as well — not in language, but in music.

It’s a fluency involving hands, feet and drumsticks.

To try to explain it, I’ll start with a basic observation about the difference between notes and music. Music, is, of course, what we hear, it involves sound. Notes, at least in the sense of written music, are part of a notation system, or a way of writing on a page a description or schematic of the sounds a song writer wants instruments or voices to make.

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At the risk of muddying the water, I’ll also say something about the other kind of notes: notes as individual sounds. Those individual sounds are to music what the letters of the alphabet are to reading and writing — more important for the part they play in larger groupings of notes into phrases than as stand-alone sounds.

With me so far?

Well, most of the music I play involves at least some improvisation. And that’s taught me that while playing the correct notes is important, the tone of the notes — how they’re played — is as important in holding a song together. If the right tone is missing, hitting every note still won’t conjure up the music.

And that leads us to the groove of a song.

The “groove” often involves settling into the right tempo. Indeed, one of the bass players I now play with insists that tempo is the crucial element in getting a song right. I wouldn’t argue the point. Instead, I would add that the tones I hear from other instruments in the band tell me the style in which I should play — and that that style influences the tempo.

So for me, style and tempo are the two elements of an epoxy.

The final part begins with identifying what I have let go of to reach a new fluency.

Mostly, I’d say I let go of individual notes. It’s not that I don’t play notes, I do. But while in the past, my formula was to start by thinking of the notes, then learn to play them in the right style to create the tone, I now sometimes reverse the order.

I now listen to the tone produced by the other musicians, try to put the control freak part of my brain on automatic pilot and wait for my hands and feet to play notes and rhythms that fit the tone. When that happens successfully, a sense of how I should play — the style in which I should play — tells me what I should play.

Of course, letting go always feels odd.

It brings on the same kind of awkwardness you feel when you wobble in and out of balance while learning to ride a two-wheeler. But in the end, it also brings a sense of freedom – a freedom that that comes when you’re riding down the street, you let go of the handlebars, and your bike keeps going down the street like a groove in a song.

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