Mick Goodrick’s Rules

Studying music has many, many benefits and can enrich your life in all sorts of absolutely amazing ways. One thing it does not do, however, is help you feel good about yourself in any simple sense of the word. Whatever you do, there’s always something you haven’t mastered and, as a result, you feel inadequate. Stuff you’ve learned before by taking great pains, perhaps even intricate virtuoso shit, feels lightweight and too easy. So easy, in fact, that if you were your own audience it would be an insult to your intelligence and talent to play that drivel.

This felt inadequacy can be used for good, as a motivating force, but its dark side can at times become too much, a source of stress and anxiety. Times like these require a good teacher. If there’s none of those around, you need a good book. The workbook I use for my own amateurish efforts is Mick Goodrick’s The Advancing Guitarist (1987). When I first started reading it, I noticed it had clever little jokes that at times seemed a bit off-putting, but it was easy to get used to the humor when it was submerged in so much theoretical information and, for want of a better word, wisdom. Check out this passage from a section titled “On Being Self-Critical”:

Students tend to think that eventually, after they learn whatever it is that they think they need to know (or they can do whatever it is they think they need to be able to do), they won’t feel insecure anymore. This thinking amounts to wishing that you didn’t dislike your playing so much. It’s fantasizing that things will gradually change for the better.

Well, as good as it sounds on paper, it seldom (if ever) happens. In fact, it tends to get worse. If you start off being critical, you tend to remain that way, and more likely, along with everything else, your criticalness will improve. If you try to deny your criticalness, that messes you up, because it amounts to lying. If you become critical of your criticalness, it’s the same thing removed one step. . . . Being self-critical actually has a lot to be said for it. People who are self-critical tend to improve in music because they always seem to see so many things to work on. They tend not to get involved in overly developed egos. They tend to be much less critical of everyone else. Often, they are compassionate. (98)

At first glance, this has very little to do with music. It’s just saying that your criticalness will improve as your playing progresses. But the book is not for brief glances. It’s for practice in the sense of rehearsing and active meditation. There’s very little “just” in it, except for the odd joke or two. Its advice is based on a pluralism that always has music in mind. There are many approaches to any given aural device, of which Goodrick gives a few, but it always comes down to the same two questions: What does it sound like and why does it sound like that?

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