YouTube and the path of Zen Guitar

I am a mediocre guitarist at best. My technique is downright terrible. The nicest complement I ever received was from a friend who was very technically skilled, who told me that when I played, he could tell just how much I loved it.

So it’s with some concern that I watch the Tina S. videos. ¬†Tina is a teenaged guitarist making waves with her cover of Van Halen’s “Eruption” on YouTube this week. It’s quite impressive:¬†

The thing that struck me was not her clear virtuosity or technical skill. It was the seeming lack of emotion — in her playing, in her body language, and most notably on her face.

Here’s Tina nailing the solo from “Beat It”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xopBlfsLSs

And here’s Tina from five years ago, playing “Norweigan Wood,” one of the few songs I can actually play, but she’s doing it at about age nine, whereas I didn’t learn it until college:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ILbTttLyvY

These clips all have two things in common: Technical mastery, and the painful, haunted look of a forced recital. I get the feeling that she is doing this because she has to do this, not because she wants to do this or feels anything by doing it. I see frowns; I see these furtive, sideways glances at someone off camera. Maybe she is receiving encouragement from them during the moments she is nervous; maybe she is seeking approval from a harsh tutor. (I do note that her YouTube page asks people who want to contact her to visit her teacher’s YouTube page instead.) But what I never see is a smile. (Well, that’s not true; in “Norweigan Wood,” she smiles when it’s over.)

The late Philip Toshio Sudo’s Zen Guitar really crystallized a lot of my feelings about the instrument, so that strongly colors my viewing of these videos. I see guitar as a way to express emotion, to connect with something larger than yourself — something spiritual. Even if you’re sloppy, if you are pure and honest in what you do, and you strive to make the best sound you personally can make, you are on the path. So when I see Tina play, I see frowns and looks to the side and a seeming lack of emotion — she’s got the technical stuff down, she’s solved the puzzle aspect of guitar technique — but she looks (and honestly, it sounds) like she’s playing math homework.

Her connection to the same pieces of music that affect me so deeply seems so different from mine that I start to wonder if she has a connection at all. Is she playing because she loves to play? Is this a joyful noise for her, or an assignment?

Maybe these videos don’t show how she reacts when the camera is not running — she could be very nervous or self-conscious. Maybe she’s just concentrating so hard on difficult material that this is her natural expression, like Michael Jordan with the tongue. Maybe Tina’s fulfillment comes from the technical mastery itself — maybe I am simply seeing a zen state that I have never seen before. But I am having trouble connecting with her connection, and as a musician, a little alarm goes off when I watch her videos.

I could be wrong. And I’m not hating. I’m just worried. I hope she loves it.

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