I made my first recording (on a small reel-to-reel) at age 12. A year later, living in a small town, I met my first singer-songwriter. He was The Guy, the first one to save up money to get a quality guitar, have a decent record collection and nice stereo, and to actually compose an original pop song (practically before my eyes), a Beatles-ish number I still hear in my head today.
He was one of the first role models I had for doing this crazy thing called music. Eventually I moved and covered many miles, met all kinds of people, got record deals, performed everywhere from asylums to coffee houses to prisons to stadiums, and morphed into the full-time musician I am today.
Where is The Guy now? Not long ago, I finally had a chance to gig with The Guy. On a personal level, it was great, but on a musical level, it was somewhat frustrating and disheartening.
I discovered that The Guy had a musical vocabulary that had not expanded much since I’d first met him decades ago. By vocabulary, I mean the overall language needed for musicians to grow and work in varied settings, whether solo or with groups, whether composing or recording or performing. This language includes everything from knowing basic music theory to the study of different genres to interfacing with diverse musicians. These experiences expand your musical vocabulary so you are able to “speak” in a wide range of creative situations, so that you “know thy limits” in a constructive way, not a constrictive way, or in the “know thyself” meaning that Socrates intended.
The revealing moment came in conversation. I said, “I love the music I grew up with, but I have to keep moving, keep growing. I have to be challenged.” He responded that, to him, challenge is a bad thing. Yes, I was shocked.
In that setting, it was hard for me to synchronize musically with him, like working with someone on a short leash. Most musicians I know love to talk about music, using universal points of references and allowing for new information. Meanwhile, with The Guy, we could only converse in terms of his definition of beauty and his personal sense of humor or nostalgia in relation to music. The vocabulary was limited to his terms as a musician. Moreover, he was resistant and territorial when it came to acquiring new information in regards to technique or genres or artists.
It was sad.
I’m still glad we did the gig, but I learned something. While it’s tempting to criticize The Guy, I learned that I can work with just about anyone, wherever they’re at musically. I’m grateful for what we can do when we can do it. Not everyone follows the same directions.
Thus armed, I will continue, during my every waking hour, to pursue a constantly infinitely expanding vocabulary of music.
–Johnny J Blair