Mastering New Songs

It was a status update from a friend on Facebook that rang true: “I’m going to take a two-week sabbatical on the boat, take my dulcimer along, and master a couple of new songs.” That struck me as a dead-on definition of what a sabbatical should be: a time for mastering new songs.

Last Saturday, I walked into the reception for the Indiana Region at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), ending a three-month period of sabbatical. The sabbatical was a blessed and restful time away, a time to reset, reconsider, and yes, master some new songs.

The Merle Travis tune, Saturday Night Shuffle, became a primary focus of my practice. The competition at Mountain View compelled me to add new embellishments to songs I already knew. Time away provided the space to discover thumb-style arrangements of gospel songs like Precious Lord, Take My Hand and In the Sweet By and By. Over the sabbatical period, new songs began to emerge as well.

Mastering a new song on the guitar or any instrument requires burning in some new muscle memory. New chord shapes must be learned. New melodies and phrases must be found. Slowly and patiently, new chords and patterns are played and repeated. Gradually, speed and proficiency are gained. The fingers, through this slow and patient training, develop and execute the necessary new patterns.

However, the major obstacle of mastering new songs arises when old patterns have to be broken. Once engrained, muscle memory drives the fingers to follow established patterns. Attempts to depart from those patterns cause you to stumble through the music. Changing those patterns demands more time and greater effort, even when the change, once mastered, will make a phrase or song easier to play.

Life hands us many opportunities to master new songs, regardless of whether we play an instrument. Living and growing requires that we discover new songs and new melodies. Sometimes, mastering those new songs will also require breaking and modifying old and established patterns.

With patience, persistence and a lot of repetition, current patterns can be changed and new melodies can be discovered. By taking it slowly at first and repeating it to develop speed and proficiency, new attitudes and new patterns can emerge.