I’ve studied a wide variety of musical instruments, musical styles, and dance styles, and have learned a lot from each of them. (But the operative word is “studied”. Many them, I haven’t really “learned”, much less “mastered”! But on a few, I can muddle through passably. And when it comes to Irish Dance, well, my claim to fame is that at one time, I was able to fool quite a few Irish folks into thinking I knew what I was doing!)
Originally published 2012
Being “well rounded” means doing many different things. Well, if I were any more rounded, I’d be spherical. On the other hand, being “sharp” means being focused. And if I had focused in any one of these areas, I would have mastered it long ago, and probably be able to do it professionally. So perhaps the biggest lesson is that a bit more focus might have been a good thing.
But the advantage of having done so many things is that I’ve learned a lot — and the lessons learned in one area frequently apply in another. So this article is an attempt to capture some of those lessons, and where I’ve learned them.
The Nature of Performance Art
In addition, I’ve learned the great secret of performance art. You see, performance art isn’t a matter of being “good”, or “bad”, or “knowing what you’re doing”. What actually is, is a numbers game.
In this case, the number that counts is how many people can you fool into thinking you know what you’re doing. A top professional can fool almost everyone. A beginner fools almost no one other than, maybe, a kid brother or sister. In between is a large gray area where, as you get better, you can fool more and more people!
But that fact is that unless you spend your entire life in that one area, what happens is that you get really good at the pieces you perform, and you acquire the ability to learn new pieces rapidly — but everyone you perform, you know there are thousands in your field of study you haven’t learned, and thousands of other fields you haven’t even studied.
So know matter how good you seem, to others, you’re still a big fan of anyone who displays expertise in another area, if only because you know how difficult it is to acquire sufficient skill!
All music teaches a sense of rhythm and melody. But perhaps the most important lesson is the ability to express an emotion with music. By varying the speed, the volume, and the manner in which you play, you can make the same notes sound like a haunting ballad, a ballad, or powerful steam engine rocking the night away. Learning to do that is arguably the most important (and possibly the most satisfying) aspect of a musical education.
The Western instruments taught me 4/4 and 3/4 rhythms (3 or 4 beats to the measure, with the “1” being accented, to create a “pulse”, where the “quarter note” (a musical symbol, when you read music) gets one beat. And it taught me about the major and minor scales.
But the non-Western instruments taught me about a whole world of really wonderful rhythms and scales — things that sounded so great, I found myself bored with Western music, after a while! So yeah, I highly recommended studying Green and Arabic music, which I still love. (The music of India is also great, but like golf is something you need to start when you’re young, if you hope to do well. It’s complex!)
It was Irish music that originally taught me how to play be ear (a process that was eventually continued learning Greek music). In fact, I learned that in Ireland, everyone has 2 or 3 years of musical training (I forget which) and during that time, no one uses sheet music. That’s huge, because it is my considered opinion that sheet music has destroyed more potential musicians than anything else on earth.
After those two or three years, anyone who goes on to the serious study of music learns music notation — something that is, after all a great device for recording and transmitting music. But when you’re first learning to play, you’re learning to play. And you’re playing (in both senses of the word). So it’s fun. And because you’re all learning the same tunes, you can play with your friends, even if they’ve been learning how to play different instruments from their teachers.
That method of training creates a shared musical culture, and a knowledge of a shared cultural heritage. So when you go to a concert in Ireland, and someone plays a traditional song, you’ll find everyone in the audience singing along!
- Classical (Guitar)
- Jazz Drumming (American Drum Kit)
- Rock, Folk, Blues (Guitar, Bass Guitar, Ukulele)
- Irish (Mandolin, Tin Whistle, Irish Flute, Fiddle)
- Greek (Mandolin, Fiddle)
- Arabic (Sufi music)
- Carnatic (Classical improvisational, devotional music of India)
Learning How to Learn
Each forway into music taught me the necessity of practice, of repetition. Playing by ear taught me to make a recording, then play it until I had the tune in my head, and could sing it. Then I could eventually pick it out on an instrument.
Playing from musical cheat sheets (lyric sheets with chords indicated on the sheet), taught me not to trust what was written, but to experiment a bit, find things that worked, and make notes of my own. I might find that things worked better if I played a chord in a different location, or if I played a different chord, for example. But when I found something that worked, I really did need to make a note of it, or I’d forget it the next time.
I found that if I played a tune often enough, I’d eventually get to the point where I could play it without looking at the music — and that the earlier I attempted to do that, the better off I’d be. Take a simple song on the ukulele, with say, four chords. You’re singing it, and you play the wrong chord. You’ll know right away! Well, what the heck, there are only three other choices. Try them! One of them will sound good. It might even be the same one you were playing! Doing that teaches you to hear the chord that goes with the melody and the emotion you’re trying to express.
Playing Irish style single-note melodies, I learned to hear variations in my head. Oh, such wonderful variations. Alas, I never quite got to the point that I could play those variations as I heard them. I also never got to the point that I could hear those variations while I was playing the standard tune. But I can see how to get there.
It starts with hearing the variations — most likely when you’re totally relaxed, for example when you’re going to bed. The next step is to make a few notes that help you recall the variations. The final step is to play the tune you were working on, not just “as written”, but with every variation you can think of. The final step for melodic varaitions is to play them variations while someone else is playing the original tune — for example on a recording. (If you’re keeping the same tempo, rhythmic variations may work, but in general rythmic variations will need to be played separately.)
Interestingly, when I was learning tunes by ear, I found that the hardest note to find was a repetition of the same note. Somehow, a note changes it character depending on what comes before it, so the same note the second time in a row sounds different! So if you’re having a hard time finding the next note in a tune, try the last one you played! It might just work.
In school, I never once exceled in a sport. Ever. I was the last picked for every team, and got horrible grades in physical education (Phys Ed, if they’re still teaching it anywhere). In college, I took a dance class (long story, but a good one). Dance required the ability to express oneself through movement. It required balance, a sense of rhythm, and coordination. As it turned out, I had all those things. In spades. So for the first time in my life, I found an athletic activity I was good at.
And make no mistake, dance is an athletic activity! Just do it for a while, and see how out of breath you are! It also got me around girls (yay!) and gave me confidence that there was something I could do well. And as sure as I’m standing here, doing well in that area gave me the desire to improve my athletic capabilities (rather than ignore them, as I had done). So after college, I wound up doing weight training, and eventually took up all manner of sports.
It was much too late, of course. I needed those abilities when I was in school, and meeting girls. But if you have an adolescent who is awkward at sports, you may find that they enjoy dance. (I know I did.) And that exposure could set the stage for a lifetime of musical pursuits and help them overcome shyness by engaging in group performances, in addition to being a spur for what is regarded as more typical athletic training.
- Modern Dance
- Irish Dance (Step, Set, Ceili, Sean-os)
I went most of my life being operationally “tone deaf”. I could listen to music, and enjoy it. So my hearing was fine. But I could not match a pitch to save my life — not with my voice, and not with an instrument — which, of course, made it impossible to play any instrument “by ear”.
My girlfriend at the time was in a choir, and had perfect pitch. (That was something of a curse, actually, because there were many quite good musical performances she could not enjoy.) At one point, we were at a piano, and she spent 45 minutes with me, playing a single note, and telling me whether the note I was singing was higher or lower than that one.
Believe me when I tell you that her instructions meant absolutely nothing to me. When she said “higher” or “lower”, I had no idea at all what she meant. I just tried a different pitch, and tried to decipher some meaning from the instructions as she continued to give me feedback.
Then came the magic moment. But some strange twist of fate, I managed to hit the right note. At that point, for the first time in my life, I heard a “unison” (playing or singing the same note). It was fascinating. For most notes, there was a little buzz in my head. But when I was in unison, the buzz went away. Even more interesting was the sensation that the external note was singing me, as much as I was singing that note. But the description of the event is much less important than actually experiencing it.
From then on, when a song came on the radio with a long, held note. I’d dial in on it. It would take me a while. I’d go up and down, but if the note was held long enough (sometimes it wasn’t), I’d eventually match it. Then I’d hold that note until it was finished. Over time, the process became faster and faster. After several months, I was singing along with slow tunes. After a year, I was singing along with almost anything.
The important point here is that I was 35 years old when all that happened. So yes, Virginia, a musical ear is learned, not born. Those lucky enough to be exposed to training early on in life have it without even thinking about it, but it is still learned.
Later instruction would improve my breath control and the ability to hit high notes. And Irish “lilting”, or mouth music let me “play” very fast Irish ditties that were too fast for my fingers!
- Tone-matching (girl friend)
- “Speech Level” Singing (lessons)
- Jazzed Up Christmas Caroling Chorus (complex, 8-part harmonies)
- Irish “Mouth Music”
These instruments make it clear that music is a matter of patterns. You can take the same sequence of notes in a melody, or the same pattern of notes in a chord (as long as it covers all the strings), and move it up or down a few frets to be playing in a different “key”, even though you are playing the exact same thing! Or you could put a capo on the neck so that open strings are moved up a few frets, as well as fingered strings.
I learned that an instrument tuned in 5ths like a mandolin or fiddle puts a world of notes right under your finger tips (2 octaves and some), which makes melodies dead easy to play, and makes note patterns very regular. While an instrument tuned in 4th’s (with one silly string tuned in 3rd’s!) like a guitar or ukulele is a lot less regular, they make it harder to play melodies — but they make chords much easier, so they’re great to accompany a song.
The bass instruments turn out to have a unique challenge that requires you to dampen the note you just played, before playing the next one, because a sustains so long that when the ear hears two, the sound becomes “muddy” to the human ear — something which is not a problem for other instruments playing in higher registers.
One lesson my mandolin teacher Radim Zenkl taught me was that every musician sings (especially if they’re playing by ear). They may or may not sing well enough to lead the band, but they sing well enough to hold a tune — and that is how a tune is learned. The first step is hearing the music in your head (whether you create it, or it’s something you heard). The second step is the ability to sing it, which means matching the tones you heard someone else play, which makes it identical to hearing it in your head. Then comes the ability to find those notes on your instrument — because you need the ability to repeat the melody many times, in order to figure it out.
Possibly because of my early instruction in classical guitar (where all I did was read sheet music), I found the ukulele the easiest of all instruments I ever learned to play. With several one-finger chords and several more two-finger chords, it was possible to play a fair amount of music without having to work very hard! And possibly because it was the last instrument I learned, I was able to apply every lesson I had ever acquired to the process, which made it that much easier.
- Guitar (acoustic and electric)
- Bass Guitar
- Bouzouki / Bass Mandolin
These instruments, in general, gave me a feel for rhythm and keeping a regular beat. The oriental and asian instruments taught me a variety of fascinating rhythm patters, while playing the temple drum taught me to be totally aware of what was going on, to match that feeling, and expand on it. (It also taught me that a crowd has natural tendency to accelerate the beat, until they can no longer sustain it. So if you want to keep it going, you have to play loud.)
- American Drum Kit
- Marching Bass Drum
- Temple Drum
The wind instruments, like singing, taught me breath control, and how even very simple instruments can make a most lovely melody! The tin whistle deserves particular mention in that regard. At the Gaelic Roots festival, I saw a lady playing so fast that her fingers were, quite literally, a blur. They were too fast to see! At the same time, that simple little thing is capable of the most hauntingly beautiful lilts.
- Irish Tin Whstle
- Irish Flute
- Native American Flute
With these instruments, you can “see” how the notes are arranged. That makes it easier to visualize chord patterns like triads containing the 1st, 5th and 3rd (major or minor) of a scale. I didn’t play any of them long enough to achieve real “separation” of my hands, but it is interesting to contemplate the ability to have both halfs of the brain working simultaneously on different tasks — and yet coordinating their results.
- Irish Button Accordion
- Piano (Acoustic/Electric)
Copyright © 2012-2017, TreeLight PenWorks