One of my favorite things to read is memoirs and biographies of musicians. I just finished reading Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys by Viv Albertine, best known as the guitar player for The Slits.
In both their music and their image, The Slits challenged so many preconceptions of what women were supposed to act like and what punk music (some call it post-punk; don’t worry about it) should sound like. After being a part of this history-making ensemble, Viv stepped away from music for 25 years, only to rediscover her own voice in a solo career as a songwriter.
Like many people who changed the world, her creative vocation was somewhat stumbled upon and came to her through seemingly insignificant accidents. Many people have expressed regret to me at not haven taken up (or stayed with) a musical instrument from their childhood. Behind their regret is a sense that it’s too late, that because they didn’t start as a five-year-old, that they can not play music. The truth is that it’s never too late. The passion of performing music is something you can start at any age.
Viv was strictly a fan of music until her early 20s. Seeing the Sex Pistols perform was the moment an unquenchable fire was lit under her. At the concert, all she could think was:
“I can do this too. Not, this is easy and I can do it too, but this is GREAT and I can do it too. And I’m going to do it.”
As Viv tells it, she never took “typical” guitar lessons – never studied a chord, a scale, or a blues lick. Instead she just practices every day as best as she can:
“When I’m alone wit the guitar, I experiment and try to recreate the sounds of animals and other noises. This is how I build my guitar style from scratch…I twang away every day, trying to find my way around the guitar, to understand what pickups do, what settings to put my amp on, trying desperately to hear”
Nothing was spoon-fed for her, nothing “taught” in the traditional sense. She just had to figure it out on her own, and experimenting until she figured out what worked. Not that it was easy. Often it felt like:
“I have no natural musical talent, I’m making a terrible noise. But I’m not going to stop. I don’t know why. Maybe because there’s nothing else in the world I want to do.”
But over time, she does develop confidence in her own style – until she figures it out for herself. The end result was something revolutionary and unique – a sound filled with unexpected sounds and rhythmic changes she could truly call her own and didn’t sound like anyone else:
Exciting research in educational psychology (such as John Holt’s How Children Learn) and neurobiology have proven that there is a great deal of wisdom in Viv’s approach to learning music.
Being fed “right” answers to a problem does not support learning that really sticks.
Building new skills demands the brain create new neural pathways between different sections, that must be built up through practice – and that is not something that happens without struggle.
My role as a teacher is not to tell you what to do – but rather create the space where you can learn to teach yourself. I can not promise that there will be no moments of struggle and frustration – but in the end, you will come out able to create music that is truly your own. The wisdom of the Punk movement was that it fought against a spirit of perfectionism, giving people the courage to try making music for themselves. To realize that trying and failing was better than not trying at all – because it’s only by trying again and again that you will eventually create music you can be proud of. It’s what I would wish for every person with the courage to start their own musical journey.