Getting over the Blank Canvas

Sometimes playing music can start with as much of a blank canvas as painting. Even if there is a sheet of paper with notes or chords on it in front of you, players or groups still get this familiar sense: “Where do I start?”

For instance, a guitar player, bassist, drummer and a singer get together to play. If there is no set songs to play, it’s worse, but even if there are songs that have been chosen, they still must decide how to start.

Or, when a beginning guitar player picks up his or her guitar to play, they play around on chords, but how do you put them together? How should they strum?

A large part of this blog is to help get over this hurdle. I hope to offer tips that help get over this “blank canvas” feeling.

I enjoy the visual arts as well and have felt this many times. It comes with the territory…and you don’t realize how tall that mountain is until you get right up next to it. In other words, until you pick up your pencil, brush, guitar pick, drum sticks or get together as a band and begin to play, you don’t realize that the squatty thing in the distance was Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Every artist must learn to overcome this feeling. And you can too.

So here’s the first tip: Imitate

One of the best principles I’ve found for learning anything is to try to copy what someone else has done.

This is called “mimesis” in classical education circles. It’s why God wanted Moses to write the song in Deuteronomy 31-32. It’s why Jesus asked those men to follow Him. It’s why Paul and the other apostles told the churches to imitate God and Christ in love (cf. Eph 5:1-2). It’s why the apostles not only told the churches to imitate them (2 Thess 3:7-9), but to also consider the outcome of the way of life of their leaders and imitate them (Heb 13:7).

Back to music. This is fairly easy to do these days with guitar. Find a song. Find the chords. Play along.

(Simply type in the name of the song in google with “lyrics and chords” next to it and you should find something.)

I have led worship music for much of my life and these types of songs are wonderful to use.

Number two: Consistent and Simple is Best

Secondly, remember that it is more important to be consistent with something simple than to try to do too much. If you’re by yourself, it’s better to work yourself up to the more complex thing. If you’re with a band, the same applies – it’s better to work up to the more complex thing than try something too complicated…even if one person can do it so easily.

It’s a trap.

Just work on being consistent with something simple – on your skill level – first.

For instance, as a band, try this. Strip the chords to their bare bones by only playing the chords shown at major places (like the down beats – or maybe even just the 1 count).

As a beginner guitarist, try this: play a D chord until you have mastered it, and don’t move on until you can close your eyes and put your hand in the right place. Or if you’ve mastered the D chord, try using the D to practice switching to a chord you don’t know as well, and go back and forth. Master that.

Work on being consistent with something simple.

I know there are many things going on that can cause a musician to freeze up, quit in frustration, or simply get bored. Remember you are training yourself (even as a band), to hear well and play well. It’s ear training as well as muscle memory training.

Stay the course!

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