Play Music How You Feel It?

by Barry Hunn

Beginning musician’s struggle with this concept: play the music how you “feel” it. What does that mean? How can that be quantified?

To start, I don’t think everyone feels music the same way.  I’ve heard great players say they see colors or shapes in their mind when they hear certain chords, notes etc.  Some players play so instinctively that they can’t describe what they feel while playing.  Some players say they get a kind of hormonal sensation in their bodies while playing or singing. 

So, as far as describing what it means, I don’t think there is a universal way of describing how we all “feel” when we are playing music. However, many times when we are humming or playing our banjos, we will get “hooked” on a certain chord progression or the chord changes in a certain song and we can’t seem let it go.  It’s almost like it we cling to the chord or melody patterns “searching” for something. Also, as we develop as musicians, we sometimes find ourselves humming or playing a familiar song differently that we learned it or differently than we heard it originally.

These subtle changes in a song, such as holding one note a little longer than the original version, hesitating slightly at one part of a roll pattern, or changing the way we phrase a passage of the words, are the result of our interpretation.  This is also what it means to “play it how you feel it.”

But how do you determine why to do it?

I know Interior decorators who will look at a room and have a “feel” for what colors and furniture would look “right”. I have watched Fashion designers create a “feel” in their clothing styles.

I know musicians who hear a song and immediately want to play it…. they are “inspired” to apply their own “feel” to this new exciting piece of music.

When you play a piece of music, you will have “feelings” or “thoughts” that “I want that note to go a little longer” or “I want to play softer on this chord or passage”.   You might not be able to completely quantify your desire to play a chord a certain way or play a passage a certain way, but you might get this very subtle feeling that it “would sound best” if you did it the way you are thinking. 

Some musicians do this through careful, meticulous, almost mathematical planning.   Others do this spontaneously.  Both approaches can be magnificent when executed well by each kind of musical craftsman.

We’re Not Changing the Song

Interpretation is not re-writing the song.  It is applying your own musical sense, musical style or your own “feel” to the music while staying within the confines of what the song is. 

So, if you’re playing Mumford and Sons “I Can’t Wait” and you change the chords completely, that’s not interpretation.  That’s modifying the song.  But if you play the same chords and the same general melody, but you feel like this phrase or that phrase would “sound really great” if you held the note longer, or shorter or louder or softer etc, you are now “interpreting” the song the way you “feel” it.

Not Matter What, It’s Still You

Here’s the best part of this concept:  Even if you try to play or sing the song exactly the way your heard it, you STILL sound like you! 

Many years ago, a banjo maker met with the late great Earl Scruggs and during his visit, he exchanged banjos with the Earl. His response was profound but simple, “funny, when Earl played my banjo, he still sounded like Earl, and when I played Earl’s world famous banjo, I still sounded like me.”

So, your “feel” is automatically in the music you play. Now, when you hear someone say “play it how you feel it”, it’s good advice and it’s not a mystery. Play the song the way you want to. Play the song allowing yourself to hold that note a little longer or conversely, don’t hold the note as long. Let yourself play the song so that YOU as an artist are thrilled by it. 

There is really no “right” interpretation.  Earl Scruggs played Foggy Mountain Breakdown a little differently each time he played it.  I’ve heard many, many other great banjoists play Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and they were all beautiful but no two of them sounded anything alike.  Mean Mary doesn’t play “Blackberry Blossom” like Alan Munde, but they are both wonderful “interpretations.” 

Let the Music Happen

When you are a beginner, learn your songs as precisely as you can.  Practice them slowly and methodically so your hands move comfortably and with ease and familiarity. After that, play the songs and begin to feel the “movement” of the music inside you.   

Whether you create precise arrangements and stick to them, or you leave your interpretation open to ideas as you play, let YOUR music happen.

I’ve said this before, but I believe it is absolutely true:  The world wants to hear YOU play the banjo, YOUR WAY. Let it ring!


Kristin Scott Benson chooses the Deering Golden Series banjos
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