Play It as It (Approximately) Lays

88. If I tell someone, “Stand roughly here”–may not this explanation work perfectly? And cannot every other one fail too…

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

I’m simultaneously in awe of and underwhelmed by classical musicians. On the one hand you can drop a score in front of them and they can play it sight unseen. Then come back the next day and they’ll play you exactly the same thing, note for note. No flubs, no I’m-bored flourishes, just the music as it’s written every single time. Both as self-discipline and sheer chops, this is impressive.

But now take away the musical score and say to a classical musician “just vamp”. Many will give you a deer-in-the-headlights look. You try and reassure them by adding, “Nothing fancy–just some generic bluesy I-IV-V thing”, but that only makes it worse. It’s not just unfamiliarity with the genre either–it’s the notion that “some bluesy thing” actually counts as a description of a kind of music. It is as if you thought it was sufficient to say, “Make the appropriate sounds.” To a self-taught pop/improviser musician like myself, however, it’s exactly the right level of specificity. It would be ridiculous to tell your accompanist every last note to play. You might as well tell them what color shirt to wear too.

Keeping track of every last tree makes sense if that’s your job, but more often the appropriate thing to do is to find the right tree-to-forest ratio.

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