Posts Tagged ‘music’

Setting Musical Priorities compared to learning to drive a car.

September 16, 2020

I’ve seen and read about many a performance where the player is focused on what I will refer to as minutiae – details that, though important to a degree, are not a priority. Examples of this might be: exact arrangement of original recording, type of strings used, instrument type, factoids about the original artist, techniques used…

All this is good information to think about – but it’s not the most important. Let’s consider learning to drive a car:

Many of us learned to drive a car in an open space, like a parking lot or rural road where there was little chance of us impacting others when we made a mistake. We learned to change gears, start and stop smoothly, and how to check our mirrors to see what is around us while we drove.

Once on the road, our priorities were to make sure that our tires were in good shape, that our alignment was proper, and that our brakes worked. This was to ensure that we could stop safely, the car would steer properly, and that our tires would grip the road as intended. The make, model, and color of the car; who designed it; who was famous for driving a similar model, and other auto related details were not as important as making sure the driving experience was safe and that the driver was able to take on passengers. We weren’t trying to keep up with other drivers.

And so with music, there are priorities that should be addressed first, before focus is put on the details.

Are you able to play the required chords for the song?
Can you transition from chord to chord smoothly?
Can you maintain a steady pace with the most basic rhythmic pattern?

I compare playing music to driving this way: your chords are like the tires on a car. There are many types of tires; tires made for different purposes, like: city driving, off-road, and racing. Depending on the type of driving you are doing, you might select a certain type of tire.

Simple songs require the most basic knowledge of only a few chords: C,F,G,Am… these will get you through many simple songs. Learning a few more chords: Bm7b5, Ebmaj7, and perhaps C#dim will let you go “off-road” and play some jazz. Learning even more types of chords and a bit of theory will allow you race with the best. But you have to learn to drive slowly and safely before you head to the racetrack.

Switching cords smoothly and with steady rhythm might be your “alignment” without which your chords and song will wobble and wear unevenly. If you’ve ever ridden in a car without good alignment, you know how uncomfortable that can be, not to mention dangerous.

And finally – how do you start and stop your playing? Is it rough and jerky, like using power brakes for the first time, or can you ease in and out of a song with grace?

Like learning to drive in an empty parking lot, we practice our songs in a safe manner, often by ourselves and not in “performance” mode. That’s when we can learn to steer our song this way and that, stop and start, and experiment with the controls.

But when we take on a listener and hit the musical streets – that’s when we pay attention and make sure our focus is on a smooth and safe musical ride. I know as a passenger in a car with a new driver, that I would prefer a slow and safe ride vs. a fast, jerky, stop-and-go ride that leaves me gripping the dashboard and turning prematurely grey.

Of course – playing a song at an open mic or with friends isn’t going to harm anyone or dent anyone’s fenders. And one might even compare the casual musical gathering to the empty parking lot – a place where it’s safe to experiment and feel safe doing so.

So please continue to play, experiment, and have the most fun doing so. There are no exams to pass; no minimum height requirements to reach, and no one else on the road to compete with.

But do consider your priorities when learning: keep it slow and steady; make sure you’re tuned up and ready to roll; check your rhythmic mirrors, and have a nice musical ride.

Don’t you think you ought to learn how to take off and land the plane first?

August 15, 2018

Perhaps you’ve admired those stunt pilots who turn and spin in the sky, leaving behind a trail of colorful smoke. Now suppose you decide you want to pursue that skill and take some stunt-flying lessons.

It would be a pretty good idea to learn now to take off, fly level, and land the plane first, right?

So who do so many beginning ukulele players (and players of other instruments, as well) want to start learning fancy “strums*” and fingerpicking patterns when they haven’t yet learned some of the very basics of rhythm and melody?

Like venturing into the woods without a basic knowledge of the terrain – memorizing a step-by-step set of moves is okay as long as you don’t get lost.¬† But take one step off the beaten path and you can suddenly find yourself lost, both in the woods, and in the music.

Think of how much more satisfying your playing experience would be if you knew a little of what you were doing. This doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice all other musical exercises until you know all about theory and rhythm. There are plenty of things to learn, and as long as you are learning something – you are doing good.

Fortunately, if you get lost and don’t know that to do while playing the uke, you won’t find yourself plummeting¬† toward the earth in a death spiral.

But take the time and effort to learn the basics. It’s worth it.

 

* Strums… let’s say “strumming patterns” instead.

 

Take a Hard Class

July 3, 2018

Wouldn’t it be fun and informative to be a fly on the wall at a top level meeting where they are discussing a topic that is of interest to you?

Perhaps you have an interest in marketing and would like to know how the big decisions are made about logo placement and audience targeting – wouldn’t it be an eye opener to sit in on a meeting on a top floor executive meeting? Or imagine another “inner working” you’d like to be privy to… like music.

I teach a lot of music in both private and group settings and something I have observed is, that in many cases, students just want to review what they already know, or they are there just to have fun.

I often start a workshop by asking the attendees why they chose my particular workshop – in this case, a workshop on leading and following during play-alongs. One lady responded, “I just wanted to play some songs.” When I informed her that though we might be playing some songs in the class, we were really there to learn how to be a song leader and how to follow others who were leading. She got up, packed her uke, and left.

That was both a good thing and a not so good thing. One one hand, it’s good to be clear on what you want – on both our parts. She just wanted to have some fun, and I made it clear that I was going to teach some useful information. We both were better off. (By the way, we did have fun while learning.)

But it got me thinking about how much one could learn by challenging oneself. It’s true that reviewing information is helpful – taking an easy class to confirm your existing knowledge, but there are so many opportunities to do that without paying money to attend a festival or workshop series. Think of how much that woman would have learned about playing together – which was actually what she said she wanted to do!

And that brings me to my first paragraph’s statement: wouldn’t it be fun to be in a group where they are discussing top level information?

Why not take a class that is hard once in a while? Challenge yourself! Sit there politely and let the “know-it-alls” talk, but rather than look frustrated and let things “go over your head”, you simply listen and absorb the information discussed. Sure, you won’t know everything they are talking about but take notes and imagine yourself in that league. Make it a goal to someday soon, know what they are talking about. Put it in orbit!¬†

I remember as a young man, sitting in on rehearsals with a bunch of older musicians who were in a salsa band. I was so eager to learn and so honored to be allowed to sit there and listen to them discuss rhythms and how to improvise. Once in a while, they would let me play a simple part, but mostly I would just sit there and observe. I didn’t interrupt nor try to divert the conversation to something I could understand – I just listened. Wow, what a difference it made in my musical learning.

So I ask you: what do you think about what I’ve said?