We always hear the phrases like a guitarist’s “touch” and that one should “feel the music” associated with great players and other musicians but it’s easy to overlook the significance of these particular words. Just pause for a second and think about what they really imply… They are referring to experiencing your body: actually feeling what you are doing. We can rightly assume that there’s a really good reason why words like these have become household terms for talking about great music and as people learning the guitar and hoping to become ever-better as musicians there’s a very important lesson to be learned from these directions.
Music is something that you feel
I play guitar in a covers duo around Brisbane, the Gold and Sunshine Coasts that includes acoustic guitar, bass, 2 vocals and a stomp box. We often play weddings and without fail I get to see an interesting experiment turn out exactly the same results at every gig we do.
As soon as bass is added to a song people become more interested…
As soon as the stomp box and bass are added to any song people become really interested!
In fact, if they have reached that point in the evening where the lights are sufficiently dim and the alcohol is producing that warm and happy glow, they’ll get up and dance. But only once the stomp box has come into play. We once played a wedding in Byron Bay that had very strict noise restrictions which didn’t allow us to use any bass-producing instruments including the stomp. Can you guess what happened?
No one danced… I strummed every song with as much groove and dynamics as possible and we sounded great but it just wasn’t enough to get that crowd to feel the music. What they wanted for dancing was groove which has a lot to do with feeling the low-frequency elements of music working together.
Now while a wedding crowd expects a certain kind of music (dancing tunes and epic sing-alongs) and has one set of needs, this aspect of feeling can be satisfied by all of the dimensions of the music we listen to. Just think of hearing a really emotive guitar solo or vocal and the way it gets you to feel certain things in your body. By actively tuning in to this dimension of feeling we gain access to where the real juice lies for the relationship between humans and music: it just feels so good.
So what this points to is a universal law about music and as students of the guitar we can learn a LOT from keeping this in mind.
If it feels good to play, it probably feels good to listen to
If I reflect on the times that I’m playing with the greatest expression, creativity and timing, as an experience it’s always the same:
I’m really connected to what I am doing in the moment and playing feels really good.
Very often it’s easy to get caught up in automatic and unconscious playing, or self-consciousness and critical thinking. However, from time to time I’m sure that most guitar-players have felt all of that drop away, even if very briefly, and music has just flowed out of us. It’s that experience which we reaching for as musicians and in my experience it’s something that we can learn to tune into more and more. Not surprisingly, one thing that really helps to pull us more deeply into that place is how well we are feeling the music. What you want to happen is that a natural positive-feedback loop emerges. It goes like this:
- Feel your body while you are hearing and playing
- Experience the positive affect (pleasant body sensation) when the music comes together and sounds good
- Greater incentive to go deeper into that feeling so…
- Desire to play better and better as a result to keep feeling good
By tuning into how music makes your body feel good in some way you’ve created a behavioural relationship between playing better and feeling good.
Next time you see a really great band playing with great timing and expressiveness, watch their faces and bodies. That’s how good it feels to them to be making that music! So one thing that I’ve really learned to trust is that if what I play feels good to me then there’s a good chance that other people are going to connect with it. It’s really nice to simplify that question that’s often in the back of our minds when we play that says “how do I sound to other people?” and be able to trust that whatever I’m playing, if it feels good… it’s good!
Ways to apply this
This is a really general principle that you can remind yourself of on a regular basis. It’s actually just an antidote to the common hindrances to good musicianship.
- Getting lost in thoughts
- Not being sufficiently engaged with what you are doing
- The tendency to play the same old things
- Difficulty staying in time
Let’s look at a few everyday examples.
I’m at home improvising on my own to a backing track and it seems that I keep playing the same old patterns:
What I might do is tune in to a certain emotion or feeling in my body, one that I feel resonates with the song and try to keep some of that feeling present in my experience while I’m improvising. You can actually play from that feeling which sounds weird but give it a try! Try to think of your solo as something that comes out of that feeling and see what it does for your playing. Try an angry feeling, a sad feeling, a joyful, bouncy feeling etc.
I’m playing an acoustic show and there are people that want to dance to my playing, what can I do?:
Try to make yourself dance! Ask, what makes you want to dance? It’s almost always a groove of some sort, an infectious drum beat or a bass line etc. All you have to do is tune into the felt experience of dancing, which I’m sure you can recall, and then play your songs from that place. If you are playing with other musicians or a backing track see if you can feel the timing of their parts in your body. I assure you, the feelings are there- even if you have to hunt for them. They might be subtle but music is almost always creating sensations in your body.
In both of these examples the goal is the same: to bring body sensations into your present-moment experience of playing music. With practice, this will become easier and easier and really helps you to stay anchored to the music, rather than getting carried away by thoughts or distractions. It also helps to bring out the emotionality of what you are playing which is something that listeners really connect with.
What to do if you can’t feel it?
Sometimes we can feel really stuck in our heads due to the demands of work, family and general taking care of business but when it comes to playing music, all of this mental chatter and future-planning can really get in the way. As guitar students it can be a source of frustration to be in this state all the time and find it difficult to concentrate properly while we play. Luckily, tuning into the body is a great antidote to excessive thinking. As you become more consciously aware of bodily sensations it naturally begins to quieten down the parts of your mind responsible for mental talk and future/past-based thinking, i.e. the DFA: default attentional network.
If you are having difficulty feeling musicality in your body while you are playing try these steps:
Start by feeling any mundane sensations, especially gross ones such as the touch of the strings on your fingers, the feeling of your feet on the floor, your clothes, the seat beneath you etc. Just by attending to these mundane sensations and by maintaining them in awareness while you play, you are slowly setting up the conditions which turn down mental chatter and increase your sensitivity. In my opinion:
Increasing your sensitivity is the foundation of improving your musicianship.
Sensitivity is the ability to detect degrees of subtlety in our sensory experience and with guitar-playing, the obvious sense that we want to develop is our listening. However, the other and less obvious sense that, in my experience, plays a really big role in being a great guitar player is the sense of embodiment. I suspect that most of the highest-level guitarists in the world would have a greatly enhanced sensitivity to their body when they play. Just watch this video of the great man Tommy Emmanuel playing Somewhere Over The Rainbow! It looks to me like he feels what he is doing in every cell of his body!
Now it’s up to you
So keep in mind this sometimes-hidden dimension of becoming a better guitar-player. I expect that a lot of my students and people reading this are intermediate players who know exactly what I’m talking about from their own experience! What I have found is the significance of recalling that the body can be used as a vehicle to becoming a better player. I try to remember to tune into it and attempt to become sensitive to how the music makes me feel all the time and also like to bring this awareness into teaching guitar lessons from an early stage.
I’d love to hear some of your experiences with feeling the music, especially if it has helped you in the past become more connected to the music and maybe pull off a magic take of a song or solo? It’s a huge source of joy.