Deep Space

Oct 22, 2020

When I was learning to improvise, there was one thing in particular I heard over and over again: leave space. It's the musical equivalent of "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything." Of course, it pretty much fell on deaf ears, because I was learning to play at an age when my brain was still cooling, and would be until long after graduation. Cranial magma is hardly a fertile environment for ideas like good taste and restraint.

Like other social skills, including listening more than talking and doing the dishes without being asked, my ability to leave musical space seems to have developed in proportion to my years logged on the planet. And as the value of space has gradually sunk in, there's been a ripple effect – once discovered, the aesthetic of leaving space has dozens of uses around the home studio. Even playing solo fingerstyle guitar, where you'd think there'd be the freedom to play as much as you like, I'm constantly reminding myself to lay back, play less, leave room for the melody to breathe, for the licks to respond to each other. The simplest things sound great if played with a good groove and sense of development, but it's like paying attention to your breath while meditating. I find I have to continually bring my focus back to playing good time and leaving space, to hearing what I'm playing.

All of which is a pretty discursive explanation for why no letter last week. It comes down to this: like in the apocryphal story about Thelonious Monk laying out during a Miles Davis solo, the lack of a letter last week wasn't a mistake: I heard me leaving space. The first half of my week had been taken up with wrestling some new course ideas into shape, and the discovery that after a few months of design and development, I had something that didn't feel like a whole lot of fun. Not fun to create, and therefore, not likely to be much fun to learn from, either. And even though I know, intellectually, that the mark of a professional is to turn on the motor and mak shau, regardless of the local emotional weather, there just didn't seem to be anything fun to write about last week, either.

So, I left some space, a big seven-day gap in the email calendar. And I'm feeling pretty good about that creative choice. But now I'm back, because tragedy plus time equals, if not comedy, at least perspective (or, in the case of Spinal Tap, "too much f*cking perspective"). By the end of last week, I had solved the creative mystery of the course I was working on, and was shooting it by Sunday, which put a spring in my step. My introductory course on Travis Picking the Blues in E is now well on its way to completion and, dare I say it, widespread release. Ultimately, whether it's swapping carrot sticks for Ding Dongs, learning to leave the house on time or struggling to get into a practice groove, the goofing up isn't nearly as important as what happens afterwards. It's getting back on the proverbial palomino that counts; you can leave a trail of Ding Dong crumbs from here to eternity, so long as you continue to ride.