Permission to Express Myself Granted

Green Eggs & Ham is my favorite Dr. Seuss book (because The Lorax ends on such a downer). Each time I try to read it a little differently, the same as I would approach music. That doesn’t mean I change the words, though. Maybe I’ll repeat a phrase or two, which is ok because a lot of phrases get repeated in that book, and that’s the writer’s intention. Occasionally I’m tempted to add a word or two, but I don’t  because the vocabulary is intentionally limited. That leaves me with tone, pitch, rhythm, space and foley to improvise each time I read it. Sounds like music doesn’t, it? Those five elements actually a lot of offer a lot of room to express yourself.

But…how did I learn to use those elements to express myself? I didn’t. You don’t. You just do it. But…how do you know what to do, then?  I don’t know how to answer that, except to say that those questions are wrong questions for the answer I do have to give. I wasn’t taught to express myself. I was given permission to express myself, and at an early age. When I was in the 1st grade, I brought home a massive reading textbook every night for homework. One night, my Mom sat with me as I read aloud from the page. Suddenly she stopped me and said, “Stop reading like a machine. Read like you’re talking naturally. Make it interesting and exciting.”

That was all I needed to hear to start reading expressively, taking my pitch up and down, adding dramatic pauses, altering the tone of my voice. I had always been a noisy and talkative kid so you could say it came naturally to me, but LOTS of little kids are talkative. Humans, even the shy ones, are expressive creatures from the time we’re born. That’s what all the crying is about. However, we’re usually given incentives NOT to use the first means of expression we have available to us. 

The same goes for music. All kids will start making a noise which is pleasing to them the first time they touch a musical instrument. Then someone tells them to stop making noise, and start reading what’s on the page. Only after we can do that do we start receiving instructions on how to express ourselves. How terribly backward, inefficient, tyrannical and sterile that is. When I was 11-years old, I got my first electric guitar. That week, my teacher told me to take a solo over a 12-bar blues in A.

At that moment, I was confused. I didn’t think I could do it without extensive study of technique, harmony, rhythm, etc. But my teacher was saying I could. Less than a minute later, I was improvising for the first time using the technique (string bends), melodic (A-minor pentatonic!) and and rhythmic devices (syncopation) I had inside me, and even more which I didn’t realize I had. What changed in that minute? My teacher had told me, “Use the pentatonic scale (a 5-note scale) to play a guitar solo.”

“You mean I can use it and just play my own thing?”, I confirmed. For weeks leading up to that moment, I had been practiced that scale up and down the neck until I fell a sleep, never having any idea what powerful tool I had in my hands.  Another six years passed, and I was playing in my school jazz band, a combo of NYU students, a party cover band, and alternative/grunge band with classmates. At one especially productive rehearsal in my friend’s basement, the alternative/grunge band wrote two brand new songs consecutively. The singer said to me, “Wow! You’re just pulling them out of your ass today.”

That comment sounded cool at that moment, but something about the image of what he said caused some cognitive dissonance in me. First of all, the title he gave the new song was, “Ejaculation.” Second, the guitar riff and chords changes didn’t come from my any part of my digestive tract. It was already there in musical energy flowing through us and around us. I just gave it permission to use my guitar/amp as a channel to be heard. Anyone can do this. Other people occasionally tell me I am a creative person without using my anal cavity as a waypoint. I tell them that all people can be creative…if they can get permission. 



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