« Back to posts

Music at Dawn, The Proper Way for a Sound Life

- by Linn Barnes

"It is dawn, and the world goes forth to murder dreams..."-E.E. Cummings

This proposition is a tough one to deal with given what we are faced with on a daily basis, made worse, in our times, by the immediacy of all things in the digi-drama assaulting us from all sides. Truth is, it's hard to get a breath, much less actually do something that's not going to make things even nuttier than they already are. There seems little respite from the quarrelsome drama from dawn to the end of each either dramatic, fearful, anxiety ridden or, on the other hand, just plain boring day. 'There's so much confusion, is there no relief?', writes Dylan so perfectly, as usual.

Here's how things go down for this old guy, like most of us in our middle 70's, at least somewhat retired. I'm usually up very early, 5:30 or 6:00. I make a tea and go to my studio (musicians say studio, not office. Some years back I referred to my work hovel as my office to another musician and it was kind of like the 'jelly'ad: 'you said what...?' So, I caved and have stuck with 'studio', at least around those who think of themselves as the cognoscenti. Whatever you call it, it's just a room where I can hide and do what I want, that simple. But, 'what I want', is a little more complex. Music has been my life's passion. I was one of the lucky ones whose parents decided that I should learn to play an instrument. There were a few rough starts, like when I was sent to Mrs. Gluon, or something, for piano lessons at age 6 or 7. Well, there was no piano in our house... So, I was assaulted by the obscuratimus gianganicus pain-in-the-assicus once a week and I have nothing to show for it. 'When I think back on all the crap...' to bring Paul Simon into the mix. However, I did have a better source for enthusiasm. My uncle, George Barnes, who wrote for the NYT for a while, was involved in the birthing of Israel with a guy named Eric (I think) Johnson, lots of intense stuff. He was a very cool guy who played violin, piano and guitar. He was my father's older brother. and they were good friends. Holidays were spent together and there was always music. When I think back, there was a little of the Dylan Thomas 'Child's Christmas in Wales', only it was in Potomac, Maryland ... He showed me 'stuff' on the guitar, which, since I didn't have an instrument, I, of course, immediately forgot, but I did not forget what it felt like to hold the thing and make it make a sound, a sound that was made by me, for me, and, if I chose, for no one else to ever hear. I remember how this clicked. It has never changed, even after over 50 years of performance in public spaces all over the place.

Anyway, when I turned 10, the family packed up and moved to Paris, my father, the CIA guy's, new assignment. We stayed for three years, three years without a single note. The closest thing I had to music was the dial tone and French accordion music in the bistros and cafés, which was wonderful but strange for a little American kid.  I went to French schools, first public in a little village outside of Paris, and then in Paris proper. If you are interested in more details about this experience, I recommend, 'Bright Hours, a cold war story', by yours truly, available on Amazon. It was intense, the whole deal. We returned in '56 and almost immediately I had a classical guitar and was taking lessons at Sophocles Papas' Guitar Shop down on M st. It was very cool, and it, quite frankly, made a 'regular life' out of the question. This was the part my parents never really got. I had tested high for medicine on something or other, so confidence was high. I'm not sure how I fooled them, but I did... Academics eluded me for a very long time, until after creeping through my BA, I went to grad school and became a nut for the brainy stuff. That is another story... 

From that moment on, without knowing why or how, I was, au font, as les Français would say, a totally hooked fanatic about whatever it was this guitar thing was all about. I had no idea what was actually happening, just that I liked it a lot. And, by 'liked' I mean it made me feel good, certainly much better that before, without 'it'.

And, now, finally, here's at least some of the point I would like to share with you, mes amis. It was never a matter of being good on the guitar, writ large, at music, or 'better' than the other guy, although I cannot deny that some competition has always been part of the sport, especially when I was very young. However, I became a master of doing 'it', the daily 'practice of the art', and that's what mattered, although it took me many years to get a grip on that. The 'Practice', not un-akin to Gurdjieff's notion of 'the work' is the key to the understanding of what happens at these moments. Music, I have found to be the case, focus' the mind and feeds the soul. And here is the secret, which I've been ranting about for a long time: You are not, repeat not, required to achieve virtuosity for all of these favorable events to transpire. It is, in other words, not the 'stuff' of it, but the 'doing' of it. It's not complicated. Get a guitar, for example, find a teacher you like, and play a bit every day. Your age matters not. Your progress has no meaning. What works, works. This is a kind of joy that is a balm for weary souls and it will be for a least a large swatch of you, should you give it a try. Give it a try.

This is the way I try to teach. It works for most, save the most competitive, who will remain the most unhappy, which makes me a bit sad. 'All' cannot be 'saved', but maybe you can...

More to come...