Playing From The Heart

Let us pretend for a moment you don’t know how to talk or read or write.  How would you communicate?  In your heart you just keep feeling that you want to say what is in your heart, but you have no words to express yourself.  Then you become aware that there is a way to express what you are feeling to the people around you, through language.  But language is structured and there are rules -- an alphabet to learn, consonants, vowels, verbs, adjectives -- and that is just the tip of the iceberg.  Out of necessity you learn how to ask for food or shelter or to say when you're in discomfort.  You have learned the basics and can communicate remedially.  You can survive.  But still, although you have a basic vocabulary and can talk, you can't truly express what is in your heart because you still don't have the tools, the expanded understanding and use of nuance and rhyme and inflection, to communicate with people and let them know the depths of your heart.  But you resist learning more because you feel there shouldn't be all kinds of rules in order to emote purely from the heart.


In order to learn the language, one must learn the rules.  It takes a lot of work growing up, learning how to communicate with the world around us.  And then later we find an instrument.  An instrument that, compared to all other instruments, is pretty darn easy to play and, without too much effort, sounds amazing and emotive.  So we pick it up and start learning to play.  It is freeing.  It is wonderful.  It sets our souls soaring.  But then often for many of us we soon hit a wall and we discover that we have only learned to ask for food.  And we learn there is a much broader vocabulary and guidelines to playing this instrument than we possibly thought.


Or perhaps we have been highly trained to play another instrument all our lives and want to break away from structure, so we divorce ourselves as much as possible from our earlier training because we just want to play from the heart.  But no matter how much we try and ignore our previous training, it still comes with us to this new instrument, and to try and ignore all of that training and separate it from “playing from the heart” is akin to a jet pilot switching to only flying gliders because it is “flying from the heart” and then ignoring all he/she learned about thermals and altitude and any other useful technical info that may keep them from crashing.


I truly do understand.  I get people's desire to be able to pick up an instrument and just play -- no rules, no thinking involved -- to try and express their emotions, especially in a world where it seems we are always shutting down our emotions.  It is escape, it is bliss, it is healing, and a whole list of other wonderful things.  But the Native American flute is still an instrument that requires a certain amount of skill to play.  To play it very well requires more skill.  I so often hear the words “I just want to play from the heart", and the sentiment expressed is a disassociation with developing skill and learning structure because of the belief that having structure and rhythm and an ever-increasing musicial skillset do not equate to playing from the heart.  Is our glider still flying?


Some have even expressed the opinion that playing notes off a page or playing with structure and rhythm cannot be construed as playing from the heart.  Or they ignore years of their own training because they think it somehow interferes with them playing from the heart.  Have you ever heard an aria played from notes off a page that made you have an emotional response?  That is both playing with structure and skill and also playing from the heart.  To me, playing from the heart is all about intent.  What is your intent and state of mind when you play something?  That is all that matters.  It matters less what you play than what your intent is.  It's the feeling you put behind the notes.  After the intent are the notes themselves, the paragraphs, the phrasing, the pentameter . . . and this is where having a larger vocabulary and an understanding of couplets might perhaps make you a better poet, and thus provide a better chance of the reader/listener understanding what it is you are trying to convey.  The less notes you know, or embellishments, or breath control, etc., the more remedial your vocabulary is and the harder it is to communicate what your heart is trying so hard to express.


What if you learned your language so well that you started writing poetry or short stories?  You learned rules about grammar, but now knowing all the rules, you know that there are times when rules are meant to be broken, because it makes sense, because there is a purpose behind it.  Would you be writing from your heart then?  Finally having the tools to put all your words down on paper for yourself or perhaps anyone to read, imagine how much more powerful and meaningful your words would become, how you would have the ability to elicit an emotional response from someone else because your words touched them.  Because you had the ability to communicate beyond the most basic level, people read your words and had feelings, thoughts and/or questions of their own.  Perhaps a new perspective, then, may even affect their lives.


But you were only able to do that because you learned the rules, you learned the language, you learned how to hear a melody in your head and translate it to your flute (ear training ).  You are more capable of expressing your emotions because you know how to word a paragraph, a musical phrase, with nuance and punctuation and expression. You can play from the heart because you understand the language, perhaps multiple languages, genres.  Everything you have learned about communication, and all your efforts in learning better ways to communicate, are what enable you to truly express what is in your heart.


I truly believe in playing from the heart.  It's a good philosophy, a healing act, and a generally beautiful way to play this wonderful instrument we refer to as the NAF.  I do so often myself; honestly every time I play.  It doesn't matter whether I'm playing solo improv based on how I'm feeling at the moment, or playing improv with another flutist or percussionist or musician(s) of any kind, or my own songs that I've written to backing tracks that I've composed myself.  Every note I play comes from my heart, and is how I share my love of music with others, it's how I express my passion for the flute.  And the more I learn, the more I can express.  I believe it is every artist's desire to play, write, sculpt, paint, compose, etc. from their heart.  That is why art, music, poetry and so on are so powerful, because they allow us to express our inner feelings in varying, individual and emotive ways.


So when someone says that a person who is trying to learn structure or rhythm, or a person who is ear training and trying to improve their musicality, or that recording a CD or writing down music or playing someone else's song, isn't playing purely enough, isn't free, doesn't qualify as playing from the heart, or that they themselves don't want to learn structure or rhythm or ear training or alternative scales, etc. because they'd "rather play from the heart" -- that discounts those of us who are constantly seeking to improve our musicality and expand our fluting language by learning those things.  It sounds judgmental and it's hurtful.  If one does not want to learn or do those things, that's fine, but that position ought to stand on its own rather than under the guise of "I only want to play from my heart."  Because not wanting to learn or do those things, is only just that, it's not wanting to learn or do those things.  It doesn't mean that person is playing from the heart any more than anyone else.  My utmost hope is that every one of us who picks up the flute or any other instrument, is playing from our hearts; that the intent behind making music is always the expression of oneself.  I believe it is, no matter whether someone is trying to learn something new or not, or whatever method they are using to learn and grow.  Just be careful that using the phrase "playing from the heart" isn't a way of putting down someone else's expression of music, or being used as a reason to resist learning and growing your own musicality.


Play on!