How Are Musicians like Archaeologists?

One of my favorite things to do in accompaniment with music is listening to musicians talk about music. There’s an old quote that I find funny that says “talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” While I think this definitely hits home, and that our language falls a bit short of expressing the ideas music can, it’s still amazing listening to the artists themselves trying to dissect and elaborate on the art form so dear to them. Sometimes the philosophy of music, if you will, can inspire and motivate me even greater than listening to the music itself. This is especially true as a teacher, since I am consistently confronted with the tall order of using words to express what music can do to my students.

In this blog, I want to just briefly touch on an explanation of music from one of my favorite musicians of all time. His name is Kurt Rosenwinkel, and he is probably my favorite guitarist (which was a title I could never quite decide on for years). If you haven’t heard him, and you like jazz guitar, then you’d be remiss to not listen to him. The reason why I like him so much, isn’t only because he is a legitimate master and virtuoso of the guitar technically, but he also has a great musical mind and expressive emotion. He has very creative ideas when improvising, (which again, he can do any of instantly with his instrumental prowess) but also something about his playing moves me pretty seriously. The spirit that he puts into his music, to me, is unchallenged by any other guitarist. Because of this, I went scouring the internet for videos of him talking about music, which are actually a little rare. He seems like a pretty keep-to-himself kind of guy. I did find one, however, that I related to on a very personal level, and one that I talk to my students about often. Admittedly, I haven’t been able to find the video since, as again, you have to do some digging, but I’ll paraphrase the best I can here.

The interviewer had asked him about how he saw practicing, and Rosenwinkel equated it to being an archaeologist. He said often times, practicing seems dull and boring. You’re just digging and digging, and brushing away more and more dirt like an archaeologist on an excavation.

He continued to say, that this toiling process stops most people, but the best archaeologists continue to dig. They don’t stop. Even if one site ends up having nothing of value whatsoever, they just pack up, move to another one, and start brushing away more dirt. What they’re looking for is worth all of these hours and effort.

Eventually, they’ll find something. All of that digging was made worth it by one little shard of pottery. To some, this may not be a big deal, but to someone who had been digging so long for it, it’s the most beautiful thing you can find. Rosenwinkel is relating this to practicing and practicing to no avail, but eventually making it worth it by discovering this one lick, improvised or composed, that is EXACTLY what they were looking for. This hit me hard. All of this effort makes these tiny musical ideas so noble. He had even more to add. He said the even bigger issue is having the wherewithal and education to know that this little piece of music or pottery belongs to something else. Maybe an archaeologist digs up another piece of pottery 200 miles away from where he found the original, but his knowledge tells him that these pieces go together, making them even more significant than their original parts. Rosenwinkel says this is just like being a composer or improviser. One idea you had months ago may be great, but having the ability to realize that it goes with something new you just uncovered, takes a real artistic touch, and is what can take a musical idea to new heights. Again, I’m using my words here and not his, since I can’t find the original, but this idea is something that I’ve been holding on to for quite awhile, and I definitely thought it was worth sharing. Of course, it all comes back to his music. You can hear his noble search in every note he plays. The same is true for all of the greats. Anything you’d like to add? Comment below or email me at!

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