In the chapter “Listening” in Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg writes about how for the longest time she had considered herself tone-deaf. She yearned to sing, knew all the words to many songs. But, she didn’t think she could carry a tune in a bucket. Then, she writes:
Several years ago I took a singing lesson from a Sufi singing master, and he told me there is no such thing as tone-deafness. ‘Singing is ninety percent listening. You have to learn to listen.’ If you listen totally, your body fills with the music, so when you open your mouth the music automatically comes out of you. A few weeks after that, I sang in tune with a friend for the first time in my life and I thought for sure I had become enlightened. My individual voice disappeared and our two voices became one.
I’ve been thinking about Goldberg’s word recently, but not necessarily in relation to writing. My fiddle practice has yielded mixed results. I’ll feel great about figuring out a piece, while at the same time struggle against a few mental blocks. Of course, the same hateful voice that comments on my writing has taken an equally avid interest in my music.
But I also fight against a sense of failure when it takes (what I think is) too long to figure out a song. Now that my ability to read music has improved, I’ll give up more easily on a piece because “I can’t find the sheet music/tab for it.” Not a fun thought to indulge in when the folk tradition of learning didn’t include a written guide.
The other difficulty I have is trusting my ear. Often in class, I’ll watch my teacher’s hands instead of concentrating on the notes. When I miss one, I freeze, before trying a bunch of incorrect sounds.
While I don’t think these mental blocks are major problems, I do see them as bad habits to overcome. My teacher Steve constantly talks about getting away from music as a spectator sport & learning through listening. His statements were reinforced when I recently went to go see Lucy Kaplansky perform at the Birchmere.
Between songs, she told a quick story about how she had been playing in New Jersey & the crowd asked her to do a Springsteen song. She told them she didn’t know how to play any. But as the set went on & the more she thought about it, she figured out “Thunder Road” & played it for them. She knew it because she had heard it so often. Everything she needed to play the song was already inside her.
Anyway, with that story & Goldberg’s words, I’m taking advice about listening to heart. As always, for me, the answer is finding a way to turn off my brain & trusting what my senses tell me. Not an easy thing to do when I live so much in my mind, but a good goal to strive for nonetheless.