Learning a Musical Instrument as an Adult

My wife has recently become seriously interested in learning to play music after not really having any musical education prior. While she’s dabbled a bit in the past, she needed to find an instrument and genre of music she was particularly excited about to get to the point of where she decided to take the plunge. For her, it’s Celtic harp.

She enjoys being able to ask me for help. Even though I don’t have a background in either Celtic music or harp, I’m still able to answer basic questions and even more complex ones involving music theory or ear training. I’ve been on the lookout lately for things that she might find useful and came across 7 tips for adults taking up a musical instrument. Honestly, the advice that’s in there is good for anyone, regardless of how old you are or even whether you’re just starting out with music or have been playing for decades.

  1. Dedicate a small amount of time every day to practice.
  2. Find some new music to play.
  3. Get your instrument serviced.
  4. Give yourself something to work for.
  5. Remember why you’re doing it.
  6. Persevere.
  7. Don’t be afraid.

Frankly, the above suggestions (and you should read through the short article for extra thoughts on each piece of advice) are solid for learning anything new. OK, maybe “get your instrument serviced” won’t apply to something like creative writing, for example, but the gist of the article does an excellent job of getting started on creative projects.

Instrumental Technique – Too Much of a Good Thing?

Here is an interesting essay by Steven Thompson, writing for NPR. He was asked by a listener about bands and musicians that feature a virtuoso performer, noting that some musicians are known for exceptional technique, but uninteresting music. Thompson replies:

Advanced technique is often the foundation upon which players build unpredictable, exciting and/or moving creative expression. So I would almost never view incredible technical ability — in and of itself — as an obstacle to my enjoyment of a piece of music.

I think what you’re getting at is a sense that some musicians employ their technical gifts in the service of showing off; that they’re not focused on expressing themselves artistically so much as indulging in sterile, soulless peacocking. But that’s a fine line that shifts drastically from person to person, and plenty of musicians — from Rush to Dream Theater to Yngwie Malmsteen — have made zillions of people happy playing music that, for some, crosses over into self-indulgence. For fans of those artists, it isn’t necessary to form “a sound defense,” though you’re likely to hear “technical ability” paired with arguments about awe, appreciation of masters at work, and a desire to be challenged by something that isn’t simple.

Although the examples Thompson discusses are rock musicians, there are similar things that have been said of jazz and classical musicians as well. For example, many jazz fans dislike Maynard Ferguson’s music because they find his high note trumpet playing to be overwhelming. Talk with some orchestral fans and you will hear them compare one orchestra as being “technically superior, but musically lacking.”

It’s an interesting discussion. At what point does instrumental technique become musically unsatisfying? I think everyone would probably agree that up to a certain point, instrumental technique is necessary for a quality musical performance, however there is a certain point where it may become more like juggling (look at how well I can play my instrument) rather than an expressive performance. Perhaps there is a sort of a “bell curve” of instrumental facility where at some point showing off technique ceases to be musical. Or, more likely, the amazement we get from hearing a virtuoso musician perform diminishes quickly so that the player’s chops become less interesting to us, leaving us feeling unsatisfied if there isn’t expressive musicianship also.

Frankly, I think it’s not so much the instrumental technique that is the issue, but rather the lack of musicality in certain virtuoso players. When a musician’s technique is in service of the expression I personally forget about the virtuosic technique and find myself more focused on the spirit and mood of the music. When the playing is done more to show off (higher, faster, louder), then it just comes across as immature, to me. Thompson concludes similarly.

Though your methods may vary, I usually look at the degree to which impeccable musicianship is balanced by other ingredients: emotional weight, hooks, humor, beauty, boldness, inventiveness, novelty, willingness to explore. Ability to play well is a core ingredient, but it’s rarely a satisfying dish unto itself.

Using Modal Interchange to Compose Chord Progressions

I recently came across this excellent introduction to using parallel modes to select different chord possibilities in an original chord progression. The production and explanation of the techniques is very well done.

Although it might seem that this technique is primarily geared towards the jazz composer, “classical” composers who want to explore tonal harmonies but move outside common practice harmonic language will find some interesting sounds to explore with this technique. Pop or rock songwriters might find an unexpected chord borrowed from parallel modes a great way to explore a harmonic “hook” in their tune. Improvisers will want to study the basic advice on how to select melody notes over a chord progression like this.

This can also become a standalone composition exercise. Just like performers will practice etudes and other exercises that aren’t intended to be performed for an audience, composers can get a lot of value from doing short composition projects that force you to be creative within the constraints of a box. Try taking a very basic diatonic chord progression of 4-8 measures and reharmonizing it musing modal interchange, then write a melody or improvise over it. Exploring different sounds like this increases your compositional pallet, even if the specific short composition never gets expanded into something you want performed.

Learning Jazz Language

I came across a very interesting article by Bill Plake on his website called “The Problem With Studying the “Jazz Language.”

The other morning I was giving a first lesson to a jazz guitarist ( a university student) and was struck by something I notice quite often: Young jazz students spending a seemingly disproportionate amount of practice time learning and memorizing jazz lines and improvised solos.

When I asked this musician what he practices, he said that most of his practice time is spent learning new tunes, heads (like Donna Lee, Milestones, etc) and transcribing and playing improvised jazz solos by the “masters”.

Plake’s observations were that this student, and many others, spend so much time trying to absorb the jazz language that they end up playing in an unoriginal style, the student’s improvisations sound stilted and disconnected from an emotional standpoint.

If you examine the work of the great innovators in jazz they all had one thing in common: They redefined, edified and expanded the so called jazz language. Sure they might have spent quite a bit of time copying other players and learning tunes and heads and so forth.

But they also did one other very important thing. They spent the vast majority of their time improvising (truly improvising) to find what they had to say as artists. In fact, many had to actually ignore the jazz language of their time. They needed to free themselves from it in order to find a more personal expression.

From a pedagogical perspective, I have some quibbles from it. First, not everyone’s goals are going to be a major innovator. For many jazz musicians it’s more important to them to be able to play convincingly in a style or directly imitate players they admire. This might be particularly important to musicians who want to specialize in a particular style period of jazz. For example, I play a lot of early jazz styles these days and with one group in particular we often perform music as an almost exact recreation of certain recordings, even to the point of playing the same solos note for note. I’ll come back to this point and my thoughts on avoiding sounding stilted when you do this, but Plake’s advice is worth more detailed consideration.

It’s important to keep in mind that, if you’re an improviser, your also a composer. You compose spontaneously, but you compose nevertheless. So follow the path of great composers. Study the tradition. Absorb and understand what has been created before you. But get down to the business of finding out who you are.

In my experience both as teacher and performer,  I’d say you’re best off giving this top priority, even when you’re at the stage of development where you’re mimicking and studying others. Don’t wait for some magic moment of creative maturity. You’re ready right now. Cultivate those moments every single day, no matter what level of proficiency you’re at. Make the music yours.

My preference here is to follow Hal Crook’s advice on practicing improvisation. In a nutshell, you select one or two topics at most and focus your practice only on those topics during that session. However, at the end of that session you must forget everything that you just worked on and improvise, letting the spirit and mood of the music move you.

I emphasized the later part of that sentence myself. When you practice this, and you should do this every time you practice your improvisation, you need to take some time practicing as you want to perform. Ideally in a performance you want to be focusing on expression and musicality, not technique or licks. If you don’t spend time practicing like you perform, you’re not going to effectively be able to pull that off in a performance.

That’s not to say that this should be, in my opinion, the major focus of all your practice. I would argue that since you don’t want to multitask when you practice (or perform) you should always evaluate what you are trying to improve and not worry about playing with expression or musicality if you’re trying to strengthen a different aspect of your playing. Every individual is going to have different strengths and weaknesses, different priorities, and require different amounts of time splitting practice time between technique, facility with scales and chord changes, stylistic vocabulary, etc., but everyone needs to spend some time stretching out and “going for it” while improvising.

Poke around on Bill Plake’s web site. There are many other articles he’s put up there that are worth reading and I’m sure I’ll post more links and my thoughts here later.

Why You Shouldn’t Memorize Music (or at least revisit the score when you do)

For both jazz and classical soloists it’s extremely common to perform with your music memorized. There are usually a few reasons given for memorizing, including that it frees you up from the distraction of the page, it allows you to focus more completely on the sound, and it simply looks better without a music stand in front of you. Here’s an interesting take on memorization from a classical guitarist, called An Argument Against Memorization.

To watch a soloist, or an ensemble, perform without the score, without any physical partitions, and with a steadfast memory of the work, is incredibly compelling.

No doubt about it.

However, the goal of memorization is one that too many of us rush into without consideration of the harm it might be doing.

The author, Simon Powis, offers some good points on ways where memorization actually inhibits our ability to perform music. For one, he notes that what frequently happens is the musician is memorizing music through a kinesthetic process (“muscle memory”) and that it becomes difficult, if not impossible for the musician to pick up in places other than at the beginning of that phrase, or even the entire piece.

But worse than that, memorizing a piece of music leads to practicing that music only without sheet music, and this can be inhibiting.

If we have hammered in our kinesthetic memory via thousands of mechanical repetitions (which does work eventually) we are making it very, very, VERY, difficult to change and evolve over time.

So, no matter how far we evolve as a musician, our stubborn muscle memory will maintain a fingering, articulation, and execution that is inferior and less than our current capabilities.

What a shame, and what a loss!

Powis points out that this can cause the musician to resort to the easiest fingering, rather than exploring other options. Something that works for you now might not sound the best down the road. Certain instruments have different sounds with different fingers or positions and only playing a piece from memory might lock you into something that won’t sound as good.

Less of a concern to jazz musicians, where the music is improvisational and meant to be changed every time, is loosing focus on what the composer originally intended.

A score is incredibly complex. When a student comes to me and says “I have it memorized now” what does this actually mean?

Following this statement I will often ask what the harmonic progression is in the second phrase? Or, what the dynamic markings are in the coda? The answer is always a blank look.

This is because the score contains more information than just where to put the fingers. It is a veritable treasure trove of information that reveals itself over time.

You need time to explore the score, and if you respect the music you will give it that due time.

And the final point that Powis makes is that our memories are fallible, and we can memorize a piece wrong. Or it can drift away from what is correct over time.

Those of us who play jazz or other improvisational styles of music might be less concerned with Powis’s points than classical soloists, but I think there is some food for thought even for jazz musicians. While I usually feel freed up as an improviser once I’ve got a tune committed to memory, I do think there is some value to revisiting the sheet music and looking at the composition again visually. I have a tendency to look ahead when reading music, whereas when playing a tune by memory or by ear I am more in the moment. There’s something to be said for starting your improvised phrase already thinking about where you’re going.

I don’t think that Powis is really arguing to never memorize your music, but when doing so we should be thinking about the drawbacks. Being aware of the potential problems helps us avoid them, while still holding on to the benefits from playing without written music.

Composition Exercises

It’s common for instrumentalists to practice exercises and etudes to practice technique or expressive playing. These materials usually are never intended to be performed, but are instead done for the benefit they offer the musician. Composers can similarly practice composition exercises that aren’t intended to be heard by anyone, but help the composer get comfortable using a particular approach or get the creative juices flowing. Here’s a resource with 4 exercises.

Exercise 1: Compose Three Short One Minute Compositions

In this exercise you have two weeks to complete three short compositions. I like the idea of challenging yourself to complete something specific on a deadline. Some arranging commissions I have gotten are like this exercise, the client needs an arrangement of a specific tune by a specific date.

Exercise 1b: Compose One Composition Two Minutes Long

The details of this exercise include avoiding your compositional comfort zone. Again, it’s not an uncommon situation for a professional composer or arranger to be commissioned to write something that he or she might not take on as a personal project. It’s useful to be able to put your personal preferences aside and explore something completely different from your own style.

Exercise 2: Vocal Rhythms

Exercise 2b: Vocal Rhythms in a Foreign Language

I’ve used this idea many times. Select a text from somewhere and say it out loud rhythmically. Write out the rhythms you come up with and they can become the basis for an extended composition. As an aside, this works great with young music students to get them composing music together as a class. Ask them a question about what they did over the weekend and you might get an answer like, “Birthday parties, two in a row!”

Use these rhythms to create percussion music or add pitches to create a melody.

Check out the details of these exercises and then get composing.

What Can a Japanese Pasta Chef Teach You About Jazz?

I continue to be very busy lately between teaching and gigging, so apologies for letting things be so “dark” around here. Tonight (Saturday, September 26, 2015) I’ll be performing at the Kinston Ballroom in Knoxville, TN for the Knoxville Lindy Exchange with the Gamble/Wilson Swing Orchestra. I really enjoy playing with big bands and this one will be especially fun because I usually end up having to be the music director and deal with all the business stuff when I do big band gigs. This time I get to be a sideman and just enjoy playing.

In the mean time, a bassist who grew up in New Jersey and New York went on tour to Japan and learned how to play jazz from a Japanese pasta chef.

The chef’s name was Toshiaki Yanase, and cooking pasta wasn’t even his main gig; he also ran a small fruit stand! His life story, and his dishes ended up being symbolic to much of what I experienced in the country, and drew some interesting parallels to improving in music. I was on tour with a wonderful Japanese pianist named Yuki Futami. And while traveling throughout the country, inspiring encounters like these were all too common-some directly related to music, and others like in the case with Toshi, perhaps a bit more metaphorical. I’d like to share some of the lessons I learned during my stay.

Why Is Sheet Music Necessary For Music Education?

Robbie Gennet, a “songwriter, musician, educator and journalist,” tried to make the case that learning to read music notation is irrelevant for music education. His case is that none of the following musicians learned to read music:

All four Beatles. Elvis Presley. Jimi Hendrix. Jimmy Page. Eric Clapton. B.B. King. Stevie Ray Vaughan. The Bee Gees. Eddie Van Halen. Robert Johnson. Slash. Angus Young of AC/DC. Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. Adam Jones of Tool. James Hetfield of Metallica. Danny Elfman. Stevie Wonder. Dave Brubeck. Andrea Bocelli. Wes Montgomery. Jimmy Smith. Charles Mingus. Erroll Garner. Irving Berlin. Chet Baker. Pete Townsend. Tori Amos. Jerry Garcia. Bob Dylan. Kurt Cobain. Taylor Swift. Bob Marley.

Many of the commenters on the article have already deconstructed Gennet’s argument and offered many strong reasons why learning to be musically literate is not only useful, but necessary in most musical professions. His rationalization is similar to saying one could become a great actor without learning to read a script. It’s certainly possible, but very limiting to learn your lines and communicate with your colleagues without being literate. Similarly, you will limit your musical abilities and possibilities if you eschew learning to read music. Gennet wrote:

As a musician, your ability in most live situations to quickly transpose a piece or adapt to sudden deviations is way more valuable than being locked to an inflexible script, as is your ability to stretch out and at times improvise.

He creates a false dichotomy here. Your ability to read notation has no bearing whatsoever on your abilities to adapt and improvise. While Gennet lists some exceptional jazz musicians in his list of musically illiterate musicians, by and large jazz musicians both work hard to be able to sight read and perform from sheet music as well as to improvise and deviate from the notation. They are two sides of the same coin, not two mutually exclusive skills. Many orchestral musicians, trumpet players for example, also work very hard to be able to transpose sheet music by sight as well. Learning to read notation is integral to this skill.

Furthermore, I call shenanigans on the list of musicians Gennet claims did not read music. As some of the commenters on his article have pointed out, many of those musicians had other folks in the background that were highly musically literate helping them out. The Beatles, for example, had George Martin notate parts for their recordings. Others, such as Charles Mingus, Danny Elfman, and Dave Brubeck may have not learned to sight read well, but certainly were musically literate.

I don’t know Gennet’s music or his musical literacy, however my suspicion is that his article will get used more as justification for musical illiteracy, rather than evidence that ear training, transposition, and improvisation are useful tools for creativity. Shame on Gennet, as a proclaimed educator, to rationalize illiteracy of any kind.

Weekend Picks

Here are some random music-related links for you to check out this weekend.

A lengthy and interesting master class by jazz pianist Kenny Werner on improvisation, from 2005. Early on, he says:

You have to learn to play what is within your control.

Check out the context and more here.

Geared mainly for orchestral string players, there are some good nuggets of advice for any musician who rehearses and performs in 39 Orchestral Etiquette Tips Every Musician Ought To Know.

Here’s a nice resource for music theory students about a variety of topics, including Backcycling, Chord Basics, Scales, and Transposing.

Lastly, if you’re like me and both a Weird Al Yankovich and a Frank Zappa fan you’ll enjoy Yankovic’s tribute to Zappa, Genius In France. Unlike a lot of Yankovic’s popular music, this isn’t a direct parody of a Zappa tune, but rather written in the style of Zappa.

Weekend Picks

Lots of projects keeping me busy lately. Until I can get some more original content posted, here are my weekend picks.

How many times does the chorus repeat in your favorite song? How many times have you listened to that chorus? Repetition in music isn’t just a feature of Western pop songs, either; it’s a global phenomenon. Why? Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis walks us through the basic principles of the ‘exposure effect,’ detailing how repetition invites us into music as active participants, rather than passive listeners.

Not your cup of tea? How about looking through a Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments?

Do you have aspirations to freelance as a musician? Danny Barnes has some great advice on How To Play In Someone Else’s Band.

Lastly, web comic The Oatmeal describes in a both amusing and enlightening way The State of the Music Industry.