A little while back I had a brief exchange with a fellow cruiser that left me wanting to expand on the topic a bit further than the chance conversation made possible. It’s something that has come up for me over the years quite a few times, and I think that there are probably some readers out there who would benefit from my opinion, as conceited as that sounds 🙂 I would encourage you to share this with any acquaintances of yours who are taking music lessons or have children doing so.
The subject at hand isn’t sailing related, but rather revolves around music and musicians. Quite a departure for this blog, I know, but in case there is someone out there who is considering music lessons for themselves or their children I implore you to read on.
Like many parents, mine thought that it was important for their children to have exposure to music at a young age. As such, I was given the choice at age five of instruments to learn and I chose the piano. I remember my first piano lessons quite well, in that the first teacher my parents sent me to was a harsh older woman who brooked no nonsense where music tutelage was concerned. I was to practice a minimum of 30 minutes per day, and if I came to my next lesson ill prepared to demonstrate the lessons she had assigned then I was destined to be the recipient of her dread stare as I spluttered about baseball practice and homework. She had a long stick that she carried, and there were permanent dents in the wooden top of her piano from where she would repeatedly slam it down with all the force in her frail old limbs as she chided her students to do better.
Regardless, I took to the piano quite well and by the time I was seven or so I was beginning to show some promise as a future pianist who could do something other than cause the listener to cringe. Despite that first teacher, I had developed a certain fondness for playing music. I think it comes from my general personality being analytic and favoring precision over sloppiness. Learning to read sheet music, practicing single stanzas again and again until I had them just so… It molded quite well to the contours of my mind and there were many nights that my Mother had to admonish me that it was time to close the piano, brush my teeth, and go to bed.
I was finally sent to a much more capable and friendly teacher at the age of eight, and the speed of my learning increased rather dramatically. By age nine I was performing in music competitions and participating in invitational recitals for local young musicians.
Ultimately, by age eleven I was showing enough promise that my parents decided to send me for lessons at the local college where one of the music instructors named Joel Brown was providing private lessons. Joel was a consummate pianist, and could pick up virtually any piece of sheet music and just play it. No practice needed, no need to hear the song first… He could sight read sheet music as though they were songs he had known for years. Not just easy sheet music either. ANY piece of music. It was a talent that I envied and strove towards for the remainder of my Junior and High School years.
I never quite attained that level of expertise, but I did excel enough that I won several piano competitions and was known around our small town as a future concert pianist. While I couldn’t just pick up any old piece of music and play it, I was able to play most pieces haltingly at first sight and the time it took me to refine them into pleasant sounding renditions became fairly short.
My formal piano lessons ended at the age of nineteen when I left for college, though I did continue to take lessons from a few various instructors for a couple more years as time permitted.
When it was all said and done, I had approximately seventeen years of formal piano training. I had won numerous competitions, played as a soloist with a symphony orchestra, and any time company came to our house I was the go to entertainment following dinner. My repertoire was deep enough that I could play for well over an hour just from memory alone, providing quiet classical background music to accompany the conversation being had over the rims of the wine glasses still being tipped at the dinner table. This suited me just fine, as I’ve never been terribly talkative and when I find myself in a group of people I tend to be that person who just listens and nods appreciatively at the bits that I find to be less dull than the rest.
I have enough muscle memory that to this day, some 20 odd years later, I can sit down at a piano and within a few minutes be picking out a passable rendition of Claire de Lune or Moonlight Sonata. This despite the fact that for nearly 20 years I have almost never touched a piano.
Which brings me to the crux of the conversation that I participated in with the fellow cruiser. She had noticed that my daughter Abyni had a Ukulele strapped over her shoulder and inquired as to whether she could read music or whether she played by ear (she does both, by the way, but mostly starts with just the tabs for chords).
The lady said that she admired people who could read music and that she wished her son in law, who she said could play very well and played with several bands, was able to read music. Her opinion appeared to be that if one could not read music, then they weren’t a true musician. I could see the air quotes in her eyes every time she used the word “musician” as related to her son in law.
This brings me to the point that I’d like to make and one that I hope aspiring musicians take to heart.
Do not, under any circumstances, learn to play only by reading sheet music. It is vitally important that a student learns the underlying theory behind the works that they are practicing, as well as developing the ability to play an improvisation when given a chord structure within which to work.
You see, despite the fact that I was regarded as an accomplished pianist at a young age I was wholly unable to produce any kind of music whatsoever without having it written out for me on some sheet music. It wasn’t ever a hindrance as a child because any piece that I wanted to play was readily available and my teacher was keeping me buried in sheet music to the point that I had to expand the bookcase in my room just to house it all. I never counted, but I’m sure by the time I left for college I had a library of several thousand works that I could choose from.
I distinctly remember the first time I realized what I was missing. I was in the Student Union at Iowa State University and had just listened to a wonderful jazz set performed by a group of graduate students. I went up after their set and congratulated them on their performance. A conversation ensued during which I mentioned that I played piano. The saxophone player insisted that I sit down at the keyboard and play something for them, and if memory serves me correctly I whipped out a stirring rendition of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag. Somewhere about halfway through the piece the saxophonist pulled out his instrument and started to play along with me, and was soon followed by the rest of the band. The remainder of the piece was something quite unlike the Maple Leaf Rag, what with the various improvisations being done in counterpoint to my original tune. At various times each individual band member would take off and generate a cool little riff all his own. I was blown away. It sounded amazing.
Finally after each of the band members had taken an opportunity to do their own little solo inside the overall piece, I realized that they were looking at me expectantly. I was still playing the original tune from memory and was coming close to the end of the piece. They continued to play along to the conclusion but by the time it was finished I was a bit uncomfortable with the looks they were exchanging among one another.
Then came the sentence that I remember so well. One that changed in an instant the way that I viewed myself as a musician.
The saxophonist looked at the bass guitar player, who just shrugged as if to say, “I don’t know man. I don’t get it.” Then the saxophonist turned to me and said, “Man that was really cool. You started us off great, but why didn’t you play with us?”
I thought… What? I played the whole song! I was playing the entire time!
I must have looked a bit taken aback because he followed that with, “You know, man – why didn’t you take off and play something when we cued you?”
It finally dawned on me. They wanted me to improvise with them. Which sounded great!
Except for the fact that I was completely and totally unable to participate in that way. I had no sheet music telling me what keys to strike and in what order. All of my vaunted experience and tutoring had led me inexorably to the point where I couldn’t share the experience with other musicians.
It was disappointing, to say the least. Over the years I have had the chance on multiple occasions to play with a group of one kind or another but in all cases I’ve had to decline the opportunity. Those musicians who you actually hear playing their instruments past High School are almost all of the type who learned to play inside of a chord progression rather than replicating someone else’s written guidelines.
Abyni, Jaedin and I are all currently working on learning instruments, and are doing it so that we can play by ear. Abyni in particular has really taken to the ukulele and guitar. I’m struggling to learn to improvise on the melodica and our small bongo. So wish us luck!
I encourage anyone who wants to pursue music as a hobby – or wants to introduce their children to the world of music – to do so with as much passion as you can. It’s a truly worthy pastime, and helps to expand your mind and improve your emotional well being. Just please, please, please… if you do so, make sure that you or your child is learning the skills that will make it a lifelong endeavor. Learn to improvise and play within a chord structure. Reading sheet music is a fantastic skill to have, but by itself it will leave you wanting if you don’t also learn to play by ear. You’ll thank me for it.