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Inside Music:
"Books to Open Your Ears and Mind"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, October 2000


This month, I'd like to share with you several books that I and my students have found helpful in expanding our enjoyment of music and of being a musician. Music teachers may find these books particularly useful and inspiring.

The first two are by composer W. A. Mathieu: The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music (1991, Shambhala), and The Musical Life: Reflections on What It Is and How to Live It (1994, Shambhala). Each of these books is a series of short, loosely connected essays that celebrate sound and the experience of hearing and making music. Mathieu is a charming, passionate, and personal writer who can help you to hear the world with new ears, to appreciate the musical possibilities of the sounds all around you, and to bring this awareness to the music you make.

These books are especially helpful for people who may feel shy or uncertain about making music, and want to develop greater musical confidence and ability. But musicians of any level will enjoy the wealth of ideas and exercises that Mathieu offers. These are books you can flip through almost at random and find something interesting and valuable on any page.

The next book is The Inner Game of Music, by Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey (1986, Doubleday). Gallwey wrote the 1974 classic, The Inner Game of Tennis, which presented groundbreaking approaches to the process of learning new skills.For those not familiar with his ideas, briefly, they have to do with getting out of one's own way and allowing those parts of oneself that actually do a given task to learn and perform that task without unnecessary interference from the conscious mind.

Classical bassist Barry Green has adapted these ideas to the act of making music, and the results are fascinating and extremely helpful. Much of the "inner game" approach has to do with learning to focus your attention in ways that help you rather than hinder you, and there are many effective exercises and examples to guide you in this process. I've particularly appreciated Green's insights into the technical and interpretive problems musicians routinely encounter, and the often unexpected causes behind them. I've found these approaches very useful in my work with students.

Jazz pianist Kenny Werner's Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Musician Within (1996, Jamey Abersold) offers some unique and very powerful approaches for musicians and teachers. Like Mathieu and Green, Werner explores in great depth the importance of awareness and attention, and takes a penetrating look at the ways in which our attitudes, desires, and perceptions get in our way. His approach to overcoming these obstacles, however, is more specific, more demanding, and perhaps more far-reaching than the others.

Essentially, it's a kind of meditation practice centered on the act of making music. It brings you face to face with the mental, emotional, and physical static that complicate even the simplest musical tasks, and gives you a much clearer understanding of just how well you know what you think you know. Humbling, yes, and difficult. But it's also very liberating, because you can finally begin to take care of some of the unfinished business that clutters your mind and your music.

Werner vividly describes the confusion and frustration he experienced as a younger musician, the slow and gradual process he went through to grow personally and musically, and the ways in which his spiritual practice has enriched and ultimately blended with his musical practice. This book may be especially useful to those more experienced musicians who feel that something is missing and want to deepen their musical understanding and awareness.

Other books: Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovitch (1990, Tarcher/Putnam) about improvisation; My Music, My Life by Ravi Shankar (1968, Kinnara School of Indian Music), difficult to find but very informative and inspiring; and The Seventh Dragon by Anita Sullivan (1985, Metamorphous Press), an obscure and fascinating book about the physics and psychics of sound. Enjoy!


© Copyright 2000 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.


Richard Middleton is a musician, songwriter, producer, educator, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Rhythm Guitar Secrets" (Countersine), and his music writing has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Victory Review, and SingOut! magazine.


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