The study of music theory seems to scare many young, uneducated and possibly insecure guitar and bass players into saying things like, ”I don’t want that stuff to mess with my style.” This is rationalization and laziness. Knowledge equals vocabulary. And a large vocabulary is only the starting point in becoming a good musician. Ear-training, knowledge of harmony, the ability to analyze and familiarity with musical history are all important aspects of musicianship. If a career in the arts is to have longevity and depth of expression, learning the tools of the trade is paramount.
Music theory can be tedious if it is taught as a set of rules without proper explanation as to how they came about or why they became important. It’s also important to give a young student some form of gratification in order to hold their interest long enough to get hooked on the concept of knowledge as a good thing. It is the teacher’s responsibility to make theory a living breathing thing and to build in the student a sense of curiosity and pride of accomplishment.
One particular area which seems to hold young musician’s interest is the beginning study of Pentatonic Scales. The sound of the scale is very familiar, the notes can be easily learned, and a beginning student will find immediate gratification in the ability to improvise melodies very quickly.
A pentatonic scale is any system of notes in which the octave is divided by five notes. The five black keys on a piano keyboard form a pentatonic scale. Pentatonics are the framework around which many different styles of music have developed. Primative African ritual music, Tibetan chants, Native American songs, the classical music of Japan, China and Southeast Asia, North American slave calls, Blues, Jazz and Rock’n’Roll all have pentatonics in common. Any study of music would be incomplete without gaining a working knowledge of pentatonics.
In my lessons, I use the G Major/E minor pentatonic scale as it appears on the guitar and electric bass fretboard. I present the information in a simple, step-by-step method which, when mastered, can be easily transposed to any key.
Of all the musical arts, singing is the most organic. All of the required equipment is supplied at birth. In my opinion, anyone who can speak, can also sing, or at least has the potential of becoming a singer. Of course one could say that any log is a potential violin. But a log becomes a violin after a master sees the potential violin in that log and carefully and painstakingly removes everything from that log that is not a violin. I maintain that if a person has ears that can hear, vocal chords that can vibrate, lungs that hold air, and a mouth with which to form words, then that proverbial log can be taught to sing.
Because there is no equipment to buy, many “logs” think that they are competent singers long before the extraneous wood and bark have been removed. There is a great deal of confusion in today’s popular music world between “Fame” and “Skill”. True skill only comes with a great deal of time spent working very diligently at one’s craft. A skillful singer must also be a skillful musician. As I say in almost every lesson,” If it’s that easy, then anyone could do it.” Special performers make themselves special. They do something everyday to make themselves better.
I have taught private voice lessons for thirty years and I am certain that I have learned at least as much as I have taught. Experience tells me that every lesson must contain each of the following components.
New Information. This can be a new exercise, previously unknown concepts, new musical ideas, anything, so long as it is new to the student. Complete Explanations of everything attempted in the lesson. I will leave no loose ends, no matter how insignificant. A Challenge. My students should be ready to try something that they have never done before that lesson. A Breakthrough. Every lesson should have an “aha” moment. I want every student to leave with more than they came with.
When I meet with a student for the first time, I ask a lot of questions. I ask about things like experience, education, any previous lessons etc. But what I really want to know, what I need to get a sense of, has little to do with music. What I want to know before going any further than the first lesson, and what every singer must know is “How badly do I want this?”
Desire, and a dedication to hard work are as valuable as raw talent. In terms of our proverbial violin hidden in a log, the most difficult layer of wood to trim off is laziness. Laziness will let you think that you are something you are not and put the blame for your lack of success on anything else but where it belongs.
My voice lessons are fun, informative and challenging for anyone with a real desire to work hard and excel. I will help you to get rid of everything that isn’t a singer.
The study of music theory as it concerns the young musician in what I call the “pop-rock” area of music has been reduced in large part to articles in magazines dedicated to the selling of cosmetically redesigned instruments and equipment by massive chain and mail-order stores to the next generation of hopeful rock stars. Armed with the latest in phrase-sampling, pitch-shifting, tempo-slowing technology, this army of tablature junkies is learning less and less about more and more with every double-picking, speed-drilling issue of their favorite rock rag.
Personally, I read as many music magazines as I can get my hands on. And periodicals serve a great purpose in introducing young musicians to a world of ideas which most probably would remain undiscovered given the dismal state of artistic education in our school systems. The responsibility shifts then, to the student. The young musician who has found an area of interest by mastering a lesson found in a magazine must not stop as if a new continent has been discovered. For every door opened represents a long hallway of unopened doors behind which waits the information so intrinsic to a well rounded musical experience.
Even a cursory musical education should include studies in traditional harmony, simple counterpoint, ear-training and dictation in melody, rhythm and harmony, and basic music history. Literacy results in freedom of expression and opens the doors of meaningful dialog between like-minded people. This can be said of any area of endeavor dependent upon cooperation and interaction. The more inclusive education becomes, the broader the horizons will open to the young musician.
There are two methods whereby musical education can be acquired with efficiency. The traditional method is to seek out a respected mentor or expert in a chosen field who will provide a structured course of study. Additionally, we now have available a huge body of information via the internet where the ocean of knowledge is limited only by the curiosity of the seeker. In combination, these two methods offer the opportunity of achieving a well grounded, traditional education in music with the most up-to-the-minute research materials available. Curiosity is a key element in the study of the arts. The young student must be determined in seeking out a good mentor who will teach in such a way that the student’s hunger leads him on a quest for further knowledge. Young musicians have a tendency to champion certain styles, artists or factions before they have learned enough to formulate opinions. Students should be encouraged to experience as many genre as possible. This will ensure a broad palette of musical ideas as well as a much higher level of pure enjoyment.
The following is a list of what I would consider to be important elements in the basic education of a young musician. A complete list being impossible, these are suggestions which, if investigated with a curious mind, will result in an endless search for further knowledge.
Rhythmic Notation. Learn how to read and write rhythms properly. This is a language you should know inside and out no matter what instrument you choose.
The Musical Alphabet. Learn the names of the notes on the Grand Staff. Don’t be afraid or intimidated. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet of which only 7 are used in musical notation.
Intervals. Learn how notes relate to each other. This is the basis of Melody and the foundation of Harmony. Memorize how each interval looks as well as sounds.
Harmony. Take a beginning Harmony class at a community college. It won’t cost much and after two semesters of structured education, you will amaze yourself at how simple it is and how much more you understand.
Music History. Read about the lives of great composers and the times in which they lived and worked. You may find that what you thought were stodgy old stiff-necked squares were actually living, breathing, fun-loving pranksters much like yourself.
Analysis. When you have the fundamentals of rhythm, melody and harmony under some control, work on analysis. Listen to a favorite song and use your ears and the knowledge between them to write down the notes, rhythms, harmonies and how they interact to form a piece of music.
Listen. Listen to everything you can get your ears around. Don’t get caught up in listening only to what you think you like. Growing as a musician requires that you abandon some of the musical prejudices which may have drawn you to study music in the beginning. Embrace flexibility. Listen without judgement.
Some Final Bits of Advice
Don’t hesitate to make mistakes. That’s how you will learn to do it right.
Your progress is directly related to the hours spent on learning your subject. Ever wonder why some of your pals are such experts at computer games? No matter how much you practice or how hard you study, someone is practicing more and studying harder. Music has nothing to do with peer pressure so don’t try to compare yourself with others.
Each and every musician brings his heart and soul to the musical table. How deeply a musician’s intentions are perceived by his audience is directly related to the level of musical skills mastered by the musician. If an author wants to report a conflagration, the flames of which destroyed half the village as the townspeople, tears streaming in rivulets down soot-stained faces stood transfixed by terror…and all he knows how to spell are the words “hot” and “bad”, his report may be somewhat disappointing in terms of impact and emotion. Great musicians possess large musical vocabularies as the result of curiosity, study and hard work. Not everyone is cut out to be a great musician. But by doing the work, you are guaranteed the opportunity to try.