Music Lessons

My teacher of basic music theory and guitar harmony in high school was a talented, nasty, brutally superior classmate named Speed. (A member of his family was Abraham Lincoln’s close friend, Joshua Fry Speed, for you history bugs).  Speed, who started on harmonica (which he played incessantly in gym class, to the horror of the drill sergeant) and quickly taught himself guitar, was a prolific composer, one of the greatest musicians I’ve known, and a demanding prick.

When he played his complicated tunes, he’d grunt with genuine disgust every time he hit a wrong note or chord.  He was angry at himself for not being able to flawlessly play things nobody else at the time could play either.  After all, he’d already been playing for a few weeks!  A complicated and tormented fellow, and great musician and writer — also very funny, but also– quite brutal.

Unsurprisingly, the talented Mr. Speed was a merciless teacher. He showed me all the fancy chords he used, the 7-9 chord, the 7 raised nine, the flat nine, the eleventh, the thirteenth, the sus2 — or added nine, the seven flat fives, major and minor, the augmented chords (and I left out the beautiful sixth chords). He taught me why each one was named the way it was, demonstrated the many harmonic uses for each of these “jazz chords” (these chords are extensions of the essential major, minor, dominant seven and diminished chords that all guitarists learn).

It was a great bootcamp for someone with natural curiosity about music, though I was more drawn to Crosby, Stills and Nash tunes, much simpler, which were fun to play on guitar. Speed held me to a much higher standard, a standard I always disappointed him by failing to attain. I did learn a lot of chords, and how to play them smoothly in various positions, something that came in very handy, but eventually the brutality of the “lessons” just got to me and I finally had to tell Speed to fuck off.

What I’ve learned since, so elemental, took me many years to realize. What I love about music is the dialogue between the different parts, the way each voice adds an essential element, and the active listening and nuanced response required for good ensemble playing. Music is really a beautiful conversation, when it’s grooving. How did Speed miss teaching me this basic concept? Too mad, I guess.

You start from silence, then a nod, or a count, or somebody hitting something in time. Listen to any great arrangement, there’s a lot going on, but most of the parts are quite simple. One voice may be hitting one note over and over, a pedal tone this is sometimes called. But it is hitting that note in a crucial rhythmic spot, driving the music forward. That beat provides an anchor for a harmony instrument to spread some colors over, which in turn opens still more possibilities, rhythmic and melodic both. The way things interact musically, an endless mystery that does not perplex at all– it delights.

There are “infinite” harmonies to any melody, Speed once told me. Maybe so, but it is the beautiful ones that compel us to sing and nod and dance along. And, again, all music starts in silence — and the beats of silence in the music are very precious too.

The prerequisite to making good music is relaxation, grace is required to hit the notes calmly and strongly. The crucial element of generosity in your fellow musicians, and towards yourself, cannot be overstated. Relaxed, engaged listening is essential for creative, musical collaboration. It’s hard to be relaxed playing with a guy like Speed, perfectionistic, always demanding more than you can do, sometimes more than even he can do.

He had bands, with excellent, top-shelf jazz musicians, they played his stuff well, but still — there was often a joy missing, it felt to some in the audience.  It felt to me.  These great top musicians loved the challenge of his music, though sometimes it was just too damned challenging for the listener.  I remember in one club, dramatically, the dance floor emptied long before his first set was over.  The club owner suspected he had a genius on the bandstand, but he was openly perplexed about letting them come back on.

The best of Speed’s songs, there’s a darkly brilliant one called “I Can’t See You” that always comes to mind, although supremely difficult to play (on the only version I know Speed plays all the instruments) are full of soul, grace, space, cleverly interacting off-beats, and there is beautiful singing and clever wordplay among all that.   I remember this track (done on a 4 track tape recorder) before the vocals, it was gorgeous as an instrumental too, but that version had to be sacrificed due to the technology of the day, which required “bouncing” of tracks for any overdub beyond number three.   Anyway, you can hear all those things, the compelling dialogue between the different parts, in this song, as in any realized piece of arranged music.

I often think of this story, in relation to Speed, who always disparaged my guitar playing and musical naiveté.   More than a decade ago (2011, I see now, scrolling through gmail to find the track) I sent a basic track (two guitars and piano, against a drum patch) to a genius I knew in high school, Frank Burrows, the only guy alive, when we were in high school, who could play Speed’s compositions (he’d been playing guitar a year or so by then).

To my delight, Frank orchestrated the track, literally, he arranged an orchestra of instruments over my track.  He came up with many colorful, sometimes madcap, parts that made the simple ideas in my track blossom.  It was brilliant, as was his hauntingly evocative C part (at 3:40, below), which ends the tune.  It was as thrilling for me as sending a tune idea to Frank Zappa, or Jimi, or Django, and getting back a fully realized musical version, virtuosically played by an entire skilled band.    I emailed the finished track to Speed. Speed liked it, and confessed he couldn’t tell my playing on it from Frank’s.   Fucking A, I thought to meself, I finally graduated!


Aside from the ego gratification of playing music well, and having people admire your efforts, there is a much more fundamental benefit of playing music, it seems to me.  The beauty of the thing itself.   My playing, and Frank’s, are exactly the same in their intent and effect, whether Speed applauded them or disparaged them.   The notion of appreciation must lie in the heart of the player, as it does for anything we truly love.   

This is also a good life lesson — kindness, always, toward the self. That is the true and only root of kindness and generosity toward others.

Think of it like this — every note you faithfully play, or sing tunefully, once it fits into the larger scheme of music, becomes a living moment of grace.   There is no comparison, no consideration other than serving the music properly, making the thing you are playing sound better.   There is no greater reward for doing anything than a beautiful result.   With music, you have it at once, as you play it well.   No need for the dough to rise, the cake to bake, the critics to nod — it’s there, in the air, light and precious as the air, just as beautiful and almost as essential to life.


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