Tao Music

By Sylvain Paquette

What does the Tao mean to me? It's so easy to come up with a set of common ideas, so I wanted to find a very personal way to express it.

And I came up with this: To me, the Tao is like a band playing music. The band has always been there, always been keeping the rhythm at a regular pulse. They're accomplished musicians, so they don't make any mistakes. And they always welcome anyone who wants to join them in a jam session.

So on some days, I jump onstage – they're already playing, as they always do. I pick up a guitar and play. The challenge is to improvise on their music, because I never really know what they're going to play. They don’t really know in advance themselves. They just do it.

So the main task is to harmonize with them. Since I have a pretty good ear (my intuitive sense), I know quite early when I'm playing out of tune. I cannot play faster than they do, even if I wanted to: I've got to follow. Otherwise, this is not music. It is chaos.

Sometimes, without telling anyone in advance, they increase the beat. So I follow. Sometimes they decide to play in a minor mode. I have to switch also. Then they come back to major, brilliant and lively melodies, and I try to attune to them. At first, my ears are my most useful tool. And after a while, I start to have some idea where they're going. I'm never totally sure, though, but sometimes I do feel it, and I'm not always wrong. All I have to do is follow, and react properly to the tempo and key changes. I have to be accurate, and sensitive to the various moods.

I don't have to always be playing, though. Sometimes I put the volume down, to let some other players in the band take the lead. Sometimes I only listen to them, to immerse myself with a new theme they're just starting to get into. I play when I feel it is proper. I stop when the sound of the guitar is not necessary. I just follow the feeling of the moment. Nothing else really matters, after all.

Unfortunately, there are still many moments where the music requires a knowledge of modes I haven't fully mastered yet. Sometimes I try to play on it, just to realize I'm out of tune. It's my little ego trying to impose his own selfish ideas upon the natural order of things – which never truly works, as it turns out. I still play, and eventually come to the realization that if I don't stop, I’ll just keep on messing up the wonderful piece the band is composing.

So I come back to my musical theory books to learn how to play in such situations. In these books, I find all the principles necessary to harmonize with this special band, at any time. These principles tell me, among other things, not to try to be flashy onstage, not to try to take center stage, not to make things complicated, to let the other members of the group lead, and just to merge into the ensemble. If I respect these few basic principles, the books claim, then I will be able to harmonize with the band.

But it takes practice. Other parts of the books are somewhat more technical: the scales I haven't fully mastered are well described.... Unusual tempos, such as 9/8 instead of the all-too-common 4/4. They say such scales and tempos don't come up often in music, but still, it happens sometimes. So I have to know them in order to react efficiently and skillfully when the band decide to kick them in.

However, as long as I don't take the guitar and practice on my own, I will not improve my playing; I’ll only be reproducing the same mistakes. So I repeat over and over the same scales, trying to figure out appropriate places to make them fit when I'll be part of the band again; I close my eyes, and try to concentrate on my fingers. I know that some day these scales will be part of myself, so my concentration will be focused on the feeling I want to give to the music. And if I ever become an accomplished musician (not thinking anymore in terms of scales and modes, for instance, just letting the music flow out of me, with no conscious effort), at this point in time my concentration will be focused on the purest void, for I will have understood that to follow the unpredictable band I have to empty myself from any expectations, and to fill myself with an attitude of unconditional reception.

Then after some good sessions of practice, I'm back onstage with the band. Oh, I'm not still an incredible player. My lines are simple, but sometimes they do have some beauty in them. I realize that some day I'll have to be looking for some teacher to help me overcoming some major difficulties – the main one being playing more with my head than my heart.

For the time being, I just enjoy the jam session.

The only reward I get is the satisfaction of rendering a wonderful part of the endless, anonymous tune. Sometimes such a successful part only lasts a few minutes. And what a bliss...

The only motivation I've got is to find again this sweetest feeling of all. This feeling of being part of something greater than I. To have performed at the best of my capabilities, and to have been aware of it.

That's the only thing that matters.

All other things are superfluous, for this quest of harmony creates the desire of always becoming a better musician.

It makes me happy, gives sense to my existence and fills well my days. For I know the band will always be playing, whether I decide to join them or not; they will always welcome me, like a caring mother.