Friday, June 5, 2015

Mean To Me

I've been pondering music in general lately and my conclusions are in two realms. The first realm concerns music itself and the process of learning about music. What is the goal ? What is realistic? What is the fantasy? In elementary education there is a technique knows as KWL.* It's been a while but it's the basic process. 1) What do you already Know? 2) What do you Want to know? 3) What did you Learn? K-W-L. It's important to recognize that those are three questions. Those are not three statements. A teacher who makes statements is probably a pundit. Traditional music education is basically the study of the codified language and symbology related to music along with some history and mechanics. It doesn't create musicians; it creates musical technicians. I had ideals of studying 'art' but I think the approach is more anatomical than that, like dissecting a heart to learn about love. 

The actual process of learning music is learning traditional approaches and terminology to music. We learn chord formulas...but those chord formulas were actually manufactured by the study of common practice J.S. Bach compositions from 1640. Bach didn't provide harmonic analysis of his music because the closest thing to theory Bach had was a shorthand notation called 'figured bass' and he operated on a different dimension of music than that. Felix Mendelssohn and others analyzed Bach compositions and arrived at certain conclusions that we now call music theory. If you study Western Music then you are studying the inception and development of Bach's music. The goal of music education is not to create the next, the goal is to create the next cruise ship musician or high school Band director. Earning a living as a musician, who makes music, is almost impossible. Every job has 25 applicants who are equally qualified and there are limited number of  jobs. The chances are good that a musician will end up treating music as a hobby. Even top musicians basically work 365 days a year, travel every day, one gig after another and if they decide to take an extended break they will be nearly forgotten about except by their fan club. A performer's value usually transcends his or her own musical talent and it's not a relevant topic. This applies to Madonna as well as anyone. It's incredible that Madonna had a longer career than Patti Page but that's what happened. The biggest puzzle I have concerning Bob Dylan is that he was so one dimensional that he didn't stop recording albums except due to near-fatal accidents for 50 years. You can criticize Miles Davis tracks all you want but at least he stopped playing horn for nearly ten years to smoke crack and pimp some hookers. He had other interests and I like that. I'm very suspicious of one dimensional people like Bob Dylan. How little imagination do you have to possess in order to do nothing but record music for 40 years? I don't get it.

I've been pondering this question because when people see I play guitar and piano they naturally ask questions that have been nagging them about music in general and I've wondered what it is I'm trying to do when answering them. I really wonder if there's any good answer if the question involves experience. What's the fundamental issue? They are asking a question, but what's the bigger question, the question behind the question? And the answer is anatomy.

The second realm I've been pondering is guitar pedagogy. This is the damnation of learning anything as an adult: one also learns to study process. I've taken professional lessons and read everything possible and there is no flawless method. You're better off locking yourself in a closet with a guitar and no food and not leaving until you are happy with your progress. This is not like playing Chess against a computer, which you can conceivably never win. The Guitar never tries to outsmart you. There are rules and the rules never change. The patterns never change. So it should take about 40 hours to theoretically understand the guitar, but I've met people who don't understand it after 40 years. And I've met people who understand it but can't explain it. And I've met people who can explain it but recommend you simply apply yourself to figuring it out. The one common train between the great guitarists is the amount of time they spent with a recording and a guitar trying to decipher a lick or solo. Simply, the ear and the guitar. Why? Because all the great lessons are embedded in the great solos. You can't play the solo without learning the lessons. But that does no good for analytical/deconstructionist folks like me. 

When a child learns something they either accept the process or rationalize avoiding the process. But an adult knows that process is everything and they have hopefully learned to translate information into suitable terms that match their own specific intelligence. Guitar pedagogy is definitely one of the more fraught and fragmented processes. Fretted Stringed instruments are like 300 years old but I can assert that no effective method exists, no 'official' method, no 'proven' method. Many methods exist that include effective elements, but none of them are flawless for all people. They all take one or another approach that can easily be considered a baffling mess to some students and to some others it is clear enough and some others it's like the hand of Segovia guiding one to the light. The author of Fretboard Logic method wrote something like, "All methods are equally good. It's merely a matter of the student committing." I'm not sure about that because there are some methods that lead to complete dead ends. I've seen some very good instruction that is completely absent from all other method books. And I've seen some fundamentally horrible demonstrations included in all method books. Basic questions are unanswered, questions that I know the answer to but am perplexed that a method book would ignore. Maybe it's like Alcoholic's Anonymous: the method will work if you work with the method. The generic guitar method always deteriorates on about week 2 of the method into a mess involving an editorial decision to use a single key...and on fretted instruments the key is irrelevant because everything is relative to how one perceives the nut. The authors usually state that the goal is to 'transcend sheet music' but none have figured out how to start out in that transcendent space. Oh, it's frustrating and this isn't the first time I've pondered a categorical unified theory of guitar. What frustrates me further is that I've concluded: 1) it's possible to create an effective unified theory of guitar pedagogy and 2) no one will want to use it.

But the one detail I'd like to develop is the progressive approach of stages, such as one would encounter in Ballet.

Stage 1) In which the student learns manual techniques as an end in themselves.
Stage 2) Student applies manual techniques to traditional music.
Stage 3) Student improvises changes beyond the realm of stage 1. Attempts self expression.

An example of this would look like this:

Stage 1a: The guitarist learns 12 different voicings of the D minor7 chord. These 12 formations, when moved up one fret, are the Eb minor7 chord.

Stage1b: The Guitarist learns the  D Dorian scale in three positions: 5th position, 7th position. 12th position. This scale pattern, moved up one fret, is the Eb Dorian scale.

Stage 2a: The guitarist plays the Coltrane song Impressions, which has  16 measures of D minor7, followed by 8 measures of Eb minor7, followed by 8 measures of D minor7. That's the whole song, 2 chords. The guitarist plays rhythm for those 32 measures using the 12 different voicings x the 2 chords. So 24 "different" chords, though they will look identical and played 1 fret apart.

Stage 2b: The Guitarist plays the melody of Impressions in 3 different positions. This melody is built from the D Dorian scale and the Eb Dorian scale.

Stage 3: Guitarist improvises the D Dorian scale when the D minor7 chord is being played. Improvises the Eb Dorian scale when the Eb minor7 chords is being played.

I think that most guitar students would drop this method at Stage 1a because it's tedious, boring, involves no real music at first and ultimately will lead to playing 60 year old basic jazz songs written by a heroin junkie for a saxophone. I accept that this method will not attract nor keep any students. And yet, I see nothing else wrong with the progressive strategy.

The weird part is that all the professional guitar methods follow some kind of similar strategy of progressively guiding a student from chords and scales to performance. But when some one comes to me and says, 
"Oggy, I want to learn guitar." 
and I say, "It's an irresponsible activity. In maybe two weeks you can learn enough to play every Hank Williams song and be content at every campfire." 
And they respond, "But how do these junkie rock musicians who can't keep their pants up learn to play the guitar and I've been trying for 5 years and have no idea what I'm doing?"
And I repeat, "Their tolerance of irresponsibility was much higher than yours. They probably identified patterns on the fretboard without any explanation and most of them could not explain what they play and don't want to explain what they play. There is only one overlapping pattern on the guitar and it always overlaps and always repeats. It never changes and some players immediately recognize this single pattern and realize the position they are playing in makes no difference since they are always working on that single overlapping pattern. Everything about the guitar is applying a chosen matrix (scales/chords) over a set pattern. Neither the matrix nor the pattern changes but you have to know where you are located on the fretboard. For some reasons there are players who immediately accept these facts like their are piano players who can immediately transpose a song to any key and don't understand why others can't since all the notes shift up or down a certain amount."

This goes on and on but it irks me that something mechanical/manual is so befuddling to many including me. And my solution is a method that would not work for anyone I've ever met, but that I stand by as technically flawless, logical, perfect. The object is to be able to start somewhere and progress toward a goal, but I've seen atrocious methods and some rock guitarists pawning 'non-methods' that simply demonstrate a series of common licks or fretboard hacks that sound good without any explanation of what is happening or even how to transpose it to another key. I think I've examined every method book available and I can't recommend any of them without first knowing someone's objectives and learning style. In general, there is no good method available.

The best lesson I've seen involves another activity that would cause pretty much every student to run the other direction: playing half steps up and down the neck in something he calls "An unbroken chain of half steps". The only rule is you can play any half step with any finger. And you move up and down and horizontally across the strings but never by more than a half step. I like this method because it can't be done without some focus and any mistake will be easy to discuss and analyze. Maybe you can't do this perfectly, but to understand the lesson is pretty fundamental to the guitar so there's no point in moving on if this lesson is a puzzle. And a complimentary lesson is to learn every note name on the guitar. This sounds self-explanatory but it befuddled me for the longest time. Amazingly, you don't need to know any of the note names to play pretty good. I've played guitar recitals in exotic tunings without knowing the note names. But if I were in control of the method then this is a fundamental one and isn't too hard. Start with the BC-D notes. One string under those are always the EF-G notes. That only leaves the A note which is always a whole step below the B and a whole step above the G. As basic a lesson as that seems, I've never seen it in a published method book. They seem to think publishing a chart of all the notes on the fretboard will help you deconstruct it and memorize it. Not true, for me.
Horizontal Chords

Vertical chords

Middle voicing/horizontal

I don't know if the goal is to think 'pianistically' because it's way easier to think in groups/shapes. But I suspect advanced jazz players do not think in groups, but rather think as a pianist with each note being played by a finger and they adjust their fingers for different notes, rather than adjusting their fingers for different shapes. It's a subtle difference but important. The hard part is not seeing the strings and frets since your head is behind the fretboard.

That's all for now.

The song I recorded is a great co-dependent tune written by the same people who wrote Nat King Cole's tune "I Don't Know Why"
music by Fred E. Ahlert and lyrics by Roy Turk. Out of respect to them both I combined the two songs into a co-dependent medley. If I had to start with any Jazz standard that isn't monotonous like "All of Me", I think it would be either "Memories of You" by Eubie Blake or "Mean to Me" by Ahlert and Turk. 
Why the fuck do I watch these things? Why? IS there anything worse than being a Borderline Personality Disorder who is addicted to codependency?

The compositional elements are flawless and the lyrics are right in the Cole Porter witty wheelhouse, but not so demanding. I tried to play a bunch of Cole Porter the other day and I have to admit defeat. They are too complicated lyrically, melodically, harmonically and philosophically. My fingers were pleading for mercy after 'Love for Sale'. I can not play them adequately because they all have a critical Broadway tempo and non-traditional quirks. Cole Porter is advanced piano technique in my opinion. However, "Mean to Me" is perfect. Like I said, Lester Young and Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich recorded this as a trio. Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra both took a stab at it and I personally prefer Dean Martin or King Cole or Bobby Cole to Sinatra, but I won't judge fans of Old Blue Eyes; he's also awesome. A crash course in jazz could include those three recordings and a long afternoon. All the secrets of Jazz are in a comparison of those three recordings.

* Holy shit, I remembered that from a 1999 pedagogy class.


Anonymous said...

Much better. A little boring but easier to swallow. Keep pimping bitch. Smoke some green. It is Friday after all. Kcco

Oggy Bleacher said...

Lyrics by Roy Turk

You're mean to me
Why must you be mean to me?
Gee, honey, it seems to me
You love to see me cryin'
I don't know why

I stay home, each night
When you say you phone
You don't, and I'm left alone.
Sing the blues and sighin'

You treat me coldly, each day in the year
You always scold me,
Whenever somebody is near, dear

It must be great fun to be mean to me
You shouldn't, for can't you see
What you mean to me

Creative Commons License
Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.