“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek. ” Joseph Campbell
In the basement of my childhood home there was a big, dusty, menacing piece of furniture that nobody ever went near. My first memory of it was being warned to stay away from the “monster” because it would crush my fingers if I tried to play with it. I soon discovered the mouth of the monster was really just the hinged dust cover that protected the piano keys, and my protectors were just looking out for my fragile fingers.
But for some reason nobody else touched the piano either (there must have been a bloody dust cover accident in our family history) but I remember being drawn to it. I think at first I felt sorry for it. Someone must have played it at some time, some place, because it was beat up pretty good and had ivory broken off a few of the keys. It must have had some stories to tell. I know it could make glorious music because my sister’s friend would come over once in a while and make it thunder like they did on TV.
Every once in a while I would sneak over, open the lid on the wooden bench, pull out some ancient sheet music, lift the deadly dust cover from the keys and just start pretending I could play. I would just bang away rhythmically trying to make something that sounded like music, not trying to play any specific song at all. The sheet music was just there for show. I was just randomly pressing keys listening to the way they sounded one after another or together. I clearly remember trying to imitate the sound of a thunderstorm on several occasions.
I had to stand up and play in order to reach the pedals. I had no idea what they were actually for but I remember falling in love with the pedal on the far right. It made everything sound big and echoey and kept the notes ringing for a long time. The other pedals seemed completely useless. To this day my foot goes right to that pedal and stays there. I would sit there and improvise for hours sometimes. I don’t know if what I was playing was any good, but I was having big fun and I don’t remember anyone complaining or telling me to stop (unlike when I got my first electric guitar…). Maybe they were complaining and I just ignored them.
I still don’t consider myself a “real” piano player, I play just for fun. I play the way I always have, just improvising away with no specific song in mind other than what I feel like doing at the moment. Because of what I have learned about music theory from my guitar studies I know enough about building chords, rhythms and melodies that I get lucky sometimes and play something interesting. In fact the reason for this post is that just last night I played something I couldn’t believe was coming from my fingers. It was an improvisation of course, and will never be heard by anyone again including myself, but it doesn’t matter. To me, that’s what a piano has always been about – pure uninhibited musical adventure and experimentation. I’m not sure I want to know how to play it right.
When it comes to teaching yourself music, it really doesn’t matter if you haven’t got a clue what you are doing. In fact it can often be for the best. Solo guitarist Tommy Emmanuel often tells the story about how not knowing the “right way” can sometimes pay off big. When he was first learning guitar by copying notes from records he learned how to play the bass line and the guitar part at the same time. He didn’t know at the time that there were actually two kinds of guitars on those records! Today he is a master at finger-style guitar and simultaneously incorporates moving bass lines, rhythm parts and melodies into his playing. Because he was never afraid of doing it wrong he was able to develop a unique and exciting style all his own.
The point of telling these stories is that music doesn’t have to be something you fear to explore or something you necessarily have to study as you would a school subject. When you approach it from a basic primal level there are absolutely no rules to follow. This is a tricky thing to teach any music student. It’s probably more accurate to say that it can’t be taught. It can be demonstrated. You can inspire someone to try. You can lay out some general principles. But when it comes to improvising you just have to enter the dark cave of uncertainty and start lighting it up with notes. Let them hang in the air and listen to them bang into each other. Don’t judge them to be good or bad at first (that comes later).
You don’t know which ones you will like or dislike until you try them all, in all possible combinations. To restrict the notes you play would be taking someone else’s word for it, and what kind of artist would you be if you just followed all the rules set down by music teachers. The composers we consider the greatest are always the ones that broke the rules. (Granted, the best reason for learning them is so you can more deliberately break them).
Playing or practicing without fear of doing it wrong isn’t just good advice for beginners. It is something musicians need to continually remind themselves of. Joseph Campbell’s quote: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek” is an even better way for advanced musicians to re-examine their methods and discover new ways to untangle the knots of musical stagnation or complacency.
Joseph Campbell and other mythologists teach us how myths are the time honored stories and legends that we pass on from generation to generation. These stories help us understand the crazy complexity and contradictions in the world around us. There are are ancient and modern tales of our battles with monsters, evil empires, psychological tortures and moral dilemmas. In his quote Campbell addresses a certain kind of fear that keeps us from pursuing what we are truly passionate about in life. This type of fear hides our desires in dark caves that promise failure, ridicule and criticism. If you explore writing, art or music with any depth you risk getting lost in a maze of imagination, or even worse: having your heart and soul exposed for all the world to plainly see and laugh at. So how do we go about pursuing new creative challenges when our doubt’s and fears are holding us back?
Campbell might say that our myths and legends demonstrate how confronting our fears directly is the best way to overcome them. Psychiatrists treat fear of heights by exposing patients to gradually increasing levels of height. A fear of snakes may require a patient to practice being in a room next to a caged snake, then entering the room, then looking at the snake, then, eventually, touching the snake. It is all done very gradually until any irrational fear is completely gone. The healthy, rational fear hopefully still remains.
We all have experienced that great sensation when fear turns to pure adrenaline. Some people deliberately seek this sensation out by jumping out of airplanes or off steep cliffs – on purpose. Exploring music or the arts creates a different kind of fear but it is no less intense. We have all heard stories of great performers who had to overcome crippling episodes of stage fright. I never had it as bad as some, but every time I perform in public (and sometimes even when deciding to practice) I experience a level of this sensation. I eventually came to expect it and then to even look forward to it. It tells me that something is about to happen. It’s a little bit like the feeling of just starting down a steep ski slope. It is this sensation that either provides the energy and motivation needed to hit the slope, or sends you shuffling back to the lodge for a cup of coffee.
If you are tackling a new technique or instrument, stuck in a musical rut, or find that music is becoming less exciting or fulfilling than it once was, it is likely that fear is standing in your way of taking the next step. You will know it’s fear when you find yourself avoiding the very thing you love. Take this as a sign that you are about to make a breakthrough. Take the smallest step you can toward moving forward. If you a songwriter with writers block, buy a new notebook and just start brainstorming titles. If you are a rhythm guitarist who wants to learn lead guitar, practice just one scale. If you have been avoiding practicing, take your guitar out of its case and put it on the stand where you can see it.
We all have a certain fear that prevents us from progressing; but we can use this to our advantage because it leads us straight to the mouth of the cave. We just need to light a torch, take a deep breath and storm right in.