If you took beers, bimbos and bungs out of the equation, Malaysian students who found themselves in London during the early part of the ’80s quickly developed a passion for either one of two things: Cameras or hi-fi equipment. Some were even into both. Of course, there were a few who actually knew what they were doing. The others, on the other hand, were simply determined to acquire the most expensive equipment available – even if it meant slaving at McDonalds or any one of many Malaysian restaurants that were sprouting in and around the West End at the time.
The crowd I hung out with – always fearful of the label ‘mainstream’ – took our interest into other directions. We dedicated ourselves to becoming guitar-freaks; often, to the detriment of our assigned field of academic study.
Entry level to our group was simple: You had to be able to at least play a 12-bar blues shuffle. Do that with any level of credibility and you became a ‘foot soldier’ – a minion whose sole function was to provide rhythmic accompaniment during jam-sessions while the more accomplished players launched into extended solo improvisations in the style of their personal guitar heroes – or tried to anyway.
I was no ‘foot soldier’. But I was no virtuoso either. I occupied that dreaded middle ground where you were neither here nor there: I was, at best, mediocre. After a while, I got tired of being too good to be a ‘foot soldier’ but not good enough to pull off heart-wrenching solos that drove the ladies in the audience into fits of ecstasy. It was time to act.
Off I went to buy an impressive collection of instructional books and tapes – with money I barely had – in hopes of breaking the impasse. From that moment on, I stopped going to any jam sessions. Instead, I went into a self-imposed exile and immersed myself in honing my skills as a guitar player. I studied music theory till I was blue in the face and practised fret-board technique till my fingers bled like running taps. And when I thought I was about to pass out from the exertion, I’d push myself into doing it for a few more hours. This went on for a good six months.
At the end of this masochistic binge, I was able to competently read music, launch into an extended flurry of 1/32 notes as effortlessly as dropping my pants, discuss music composition and arrangement as if I had gone to music- instead of law-school, and burst into solos in the style of almost any bona fide guitar hero even while half asleep. I was ready to go to a jam session.
And when my turn came to do my solo, I let fly with everything I had. My display of fret-board pyrotechnics that day dropped many jaws and – to borrow a phrase from Lily the Liverbird – left more than a few knickers creamed. I was in guitar heaven.
But after a few more sessions, things began falling apart. I had discovered – much to my horror – that music is much more than just cheap pyrotechnics and million-notes-per-second technical competence. OK, these things will get you by – for a while. But no amount of technical ability will ever make up for a lack of ‘heart’. If your music isn’t able to touch someone’s heart, no amount of virtuosity will hide it for what it truly is: Crap!
All I had managed to do was to graduate from being a mediocre player into becoming a technical one. Though the blazing speed and technical stuff allowed me to sound pretty much like a guitar hero, I was at best, a second rate Al DiMeola or Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton. Technical playing is nothing more than a cheap trick performed by a fool to fool other fools. By being a stickler for technical prowess, I was playing like a robot; a pretty good robot – but a robot nonetheless. I had missed the woods from the trees.
This was when I decided I had to ‘unlearn’ all the things I had learned. Music has to touch the listener’s heart; not his ears, not his eyes. It has to touch his heart. Today, I’d trade technical correctness for playing that has a soul – without even having to think about it. So what if I make mistakes? It’ll just make the music more ‘human’. The important thing is to touch the audience – in places where they have not been touched before. Anything else is just for show.
This brings me the story of a budding, but extremely talented writer who is going through a tough time because some idiot has accused her of being grammatically sloppy. She has begun to question her validity as a writer on the grounds that she is grammatically less than flawless. Unfortunately, this is an easy trap to fall into. Worse, it is one that is a lot harder to climb out of.
So, here’s a helping hand (if you want it): So, what if you are grammatically less than flawless?
Editors will look into the nitty-gritty stuff (like grammar) for you. Far more important than your grammar will be your ability to evoke emotions in your readers that they never thought they had, to touch them where they’ve never been touched before. This is what writing (and guitar-playing, too) is all about. And you have this ability in abundance: Maybe you just don’t know this yet. But you will. Trust me; grammar is the least of your worries.
Personally, I would much prefer reading something that touches me profoundly – even if it is grammatically sloppy – rather than a technically correct piece that is hollow and superficial.
Wouldn’t you, too?