09/8/14

Classical music matters even more today


JS Bach cartoonThe official launch of the new Classical FM 102.9 radio station in Collingwood this past weekend reminded me of my own past history with classical music, but also why it matters so much to have classical music in our lives. And why we need to keep that cultural lifeline to our musical past alive and active.

Classical music binds us to our past, to our civilization and our culture. Music reflects the styles and tastes of the era in which it was composed, as do art and literature. And while some people may think it stuffy, much of it was actually the pop music of its day.

I was brought up in the 1950s and early 60s listening to light classical fare at home, but without any specific interest or focus on musical style. My parents liked the music, but I can’t recall any particular era or style they liked more than any other. They listened to a smorgasbord of what we’d call “easy listening” music and it was hard for a young boy to distinguish between a piece by Mantovani, Mitch Miller or a classical quartet.

(I, of course, was plugged into my crystal radio at night listening to rock and roll music, and later on my two-transistor portable radio… my parents’ music seemed old-fashioned compared to Dion, Elvis and the Beatles.)

We didn’t discuss classical music at home: it just was there, part of the aural landscape. We had a few of those “popular hits of classical music” albums on vinyl for the 33 rpm stereo player, and a collection of pieces on 78 rpm on old record player (I think it had been my grandparents’). The latter was in the basement where I would sit and play the music for hours, running through the 78s while I read books and comic books.

We had a lot of operetta, too, in the 78s, mostly Gilbert & Sullivan. I learned some of it by osmosis. I can still sing the words of some of the songs I heard then, too. My father used to sing many of the songs in the car when we drove to the cottage or to visit my grandparents. When I was a a lad, I served a term…. still makes me smile.

But I never really appreciated classical music per se until many years later. In the late 1960s, my then-girlfriend and her friends at university were all cultural snobs; at least they seemed that way to a hippie-ish youth playing guitar pop-blues-rock-folk music. But they taught me to like – and soon love – a wide range of classical composers and pieces.

I learned from them; I learned to like the music because that’s what my girlfriend liked. It’s amazing and amusing what love does for a young man.

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08/10/14

Dave Clark Five


We’re sitting on the front deck listening to British Sixties Radio, an internet radio station we like and listen to a lot, and they just played the Dave Clark Five doing Glad All Over.

That song came out on the UK charts in January, 1964, reaching North America a bit later.

Fifty years ago this year. I was a young teenager then, not long moved to a new apartment, going to high school, and listening to the music of the British Invasion on the transistor radio I carried everywhere with me. In another year or so, I would be moved by the music to buy my own guitar and learn to play.

Between 1964 and 1967, the Dave Clark Five had 17 top 40 hits on the Billboard charts and 12 on their UK charts. I know them all.

What always surprises me is that, when I hear a song like that, something from so long ago, I still know every word of every lyric. And most of the time I can place myself in the place and time(s) when I heard it. Memory is a strange force. I can’t always remember what I had for breakfast (if I even have it), but I can almost always recall the words of a song from 50 years ago.

The Dave Clark Five, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, Marianne Faithfull, Pentangle, Donovan, Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, the Moody Blues… Such talent, such passion, such creativity. Big influences on me, culturally. Still are. Embedded in my memory.

I have a lot of their music and similar music from the 60s and 70s on vinyl and in most cases on CD, with a few oddities like the JSD band, solely on MP3. They are my personal time machine back to a younger, less complicated time. The innocence and naïveté of youth.

Will there ever come a time when this music doesn’t move me? I hope not. These songs bind Susan and I in an emotional way and I would not want that to ever dissipate.

05/27/14

WWHWWWH


WWHWWWHWWHWWWH is one of two formulae I need to keep in mind when working through my scales on the ukulele and guitar. The other is 2122122.

I see the musicians among you already recognize what these mean. I still need to have these written on a sticky note so I will remember when I practice.

WWHWWWH means: Whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – whole step – half step. It’s how you calculate notes in any major scale, (or diatonic scale as it is also known, and just to confuse things, it is also the Ionian mode… but the seven notes are also called the  heptatonic scale…) counting from the root or tonic note.

This is stuff I’m learning about scales as I study music theory. It’s sometimes a bit like wading through intellectual molasses. Confusing, but I persevere. And I hope I get it correct, because I’m designing the chord-construction wheel I wrote about in a previous post.

Steps are also known as tones (T) and half-steps as semitones (S). Sometimes the formula shown in the headline is written as: TTSTTTS.

You may know these as the notes in Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do, something you probably learned in elementary school. That’s all the notes in one scale in a single octave, going from the root or tonic (Do) all the way to the next time that note appears (the second Do, an octave higher – technically defined as at twice the frequency of the lower note of the same name.)*

An octave contains eight notes – the entire Do-Re-Mi… Do series noted above.

For players of stringed instruments like guitar and ukulele, this WWHWWWH formula means: starting from the root, play the next note 2 frets higher, then 2 frets more, 1 fret, 2 frets, 2 frets, 2 frets, then 1 fret.

Pianists know a half-step as a single key. For these instruments there are 12 half steps (frets or piano keys) in an octave. These 12 notes or pitches are also called a chromatic scale, but only eight of those notes are in a major scale.

In the key of C, this formula translates to seven notes: C-D-E-F-G-A-B numbered one through seven. The next note – the eighth – would be, of course, C one octave higher. Counting the frets on the third (C) ukulele string, a major scale in C would be frets 0-2-4-5-7-9-11-12.

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05/13/14

Practice makes perfect


Ukulele practiceWhenever I’m asked for advice from new ukulele players on how to get better, or what secret they need to know to play better, I tell them it’s simple:

Practice.

Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice.

That’s really all these is to it, whether you believe in the 10,000 or 20,000-hour path to accomplishment hypothesis. You gotta practice.

Only when you have practiced enough will your fingers be loose enough, your callouses build sufficiently, and your wrist be flexible enough to play without strain. When you’ve practiced enough you will be able to make chord shapes without having to look them up. You’ll know where to find Bb and D# on the fretboard without stopping to count frets.

Practice. Easy to say, but what with all the distractions – the dog, the TV, the phone calls, the internet, Facebook, the phone again, the neighbour’s kids, the sunny day, the grumbling tummy, the empty coffee cup begging for a refill, the unfinished blog post you’re writing… it’s hard. I find it easiest to go somewhere alone and quiet, and just sit down with some music and work away at it. Close the door and keep the world out for a little while.

I also find it useful to walk around the house with a ukulele, just noodling, fingering the strings, trying chords, maybe even playing a song or two while upright and walking. Sometimes you come up with something interesting when you start out with unstructured time.

I also find just walking around while playing something without really focusing on practice is meditative. It helps me think; clears my mind and makes issues clear. And it helps my motor skills.*

But practice isn’t just noodling around for an hour or so every day. It takes focus, concentration and effort: you have to pay attention to what you’re doing. However, it also needs to be varied and fun. It shouldn’t be a chore you begrudge putting time into. Set tasks, change songs or try to explore different rhythms and strumming patterns. Pick a song you don’t know and learn it: make it a challenge to yourself.

As Dr. Christine Harper tells us:

Constant repetition is boring and our boredom is telling us that our brains are not engaged. But instead of listening to this instinctive voice of reason, we blame ourselves for our lack of attention and yell at ourselves to “focus!”… In a random practice schedule, the performer must keep restarting different tasks. Because beginnings are always the hardest part, it will not feel as comfortable as practicing the same thing over and over again. But this challenge lies at the heart of why random practice schedules are more effective. When we come back to a task after an intervening task, our brain must reconstruct the action plan for what we are about to do. And it is at this moment of reconstruction that our brains are the most active. More mental activity leads to greater long-term learning.

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05/8/14

How many chords?


Chord builder wheelHow many chords does a musician need to know? How many does an amateur musician who plays mostly popular, folk and blues music, need to know?

My first answer has always been, “all of them” because you never know when you need them. But that’s not realistic. After all, there are thousands of chords you can play on a guitar or piano and you simply can’t memorize every one. Well, at least I can’t.

I know a lot of the basic forms: majors, sevenths, minors and so on – but I sometimes have to take a moment and think out something like a B#m7 or a Gsus4. I rely partly on the memory of the basic shapes, and partly on my understanding of how the fretboard works (so I can move a known shape up or down the neck as necessary).

But what about on ukulele, with its four strings – as opposed to the guitar’s six strings (and the piano limited only by the number of keys two human hands can press simultaneously – ten). Surely that must be easier? Well, not much, it turns out. What happens when a chord has five notes and you only have four strings?

Sure, if you stick to a few basic songs and a handful of major keys, you can probably get by with memorizing a couple of dozen  shapes and be able to play a lot of contemporary music. But I am also playing some old songs from the 20s and 30s; songs that have jazz chords. Ninths, sixths. Suspended. Chords you don’t find a lot in modern pop music.

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05/4/14

Reading music and music theory


reading musicI write about reading a lot, because I read a lot of books. There are other kinds of reading – other languages, too – that I don’t write much about. Reading music is one of them. It’s a different language; a symbolic language with its own grammar, punctuation and rules. As far as reading music goes, I’m semi-illiterate.

I’ve been playing music – guitar mostly – since the Beatles had Ticket To Ride on the hit parade, back in the days of AM radio and 45 RPM singles. But I’m self-taught: no classes or schooling, just a lot of practice and playing. And as a result, my knowledge of musical theory is weak. I know more about the technical structures of a Shakespearean play than I do of a sonata or a pop song. I can read HTML and CSS code with consummate ease, but struggle with a musical score.

What I do know has been cobbled together over the years from playing, listening, asking and some reading. Mostly absorbed by osmosis rather than dedicated effort.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand music reasonably well, but more on a visceral level than an academic one. And I understand some musical theory – well, bits and bats of it – partly because you get to know about it – even if you don’t always have the technical vocabulary – by playing and jamming. Like playing 12-bar blues. You soon learn the rhythms, the patterns, the chord changes – even if you can’t confidently talk about I-IV-V patterns.

I play a lot of chords and can finger them on several stringed instruments – but while I can hear one and tell if it’s a major, minor or seventh, maybe a diminished or augmented, I can’t really tell you the theory behind why that is. My passion for making music far outruns either my talent to do so or my technical understanding of it.

So, what with organizing and running a local ukulele group, and focusing more on music than ever before, I think it’s time to buckle down and learn more about music in a scholarly way. I need to be able to speak about it confidently in front of the group.

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04/26/14

Just Six Songs?


The World in Six SongsAuthor, musician and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says all music can be classified into a mere six types of song. That’s part of the premise in his 2009 book, The World in Six Songs. I recently started reading it and it has opened some interesting areas of thought for me.*

A mere six fundamental themes in song, Levitin writes: friendship, joy, comfort, religion, knowledge and love. And he provides a chapter for each in what is a literary combination of sciences, music, social commentary, cultural anthropology and personal reminiscence. And he offers a lot of conjecture that, while not necessarily provable, is always entertaining and thought-provoking.

That reductionism seems like a challenge to the reader. My first thought was, are these six discrete or can songs overlap and share categories? What about music without lyrics? Soundtracks? Where do they fit? What about non-western music? What about satire and comedy songs? Storytelling songs? Songs of mourning and lament? What about Gilbert and Sullivan?

What about Bob Dylan? I listen to and play a lot of Dylan’s music and there are some songs that I have never been able to classify or explain, even after decades of familiarity with them. Where do you put a song like Stuck Inside of Memphis with the Mobile Blues Again? or All The Tired Horses? The Gates of Eden?

Or Bach’s Goldberg Variations? The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1? Leo Kottke doing Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring on slide guitar? John Fahey’s The Yellow Princess?  Puccini’s Un bel di vedremo from Madame Butterfly? How can a song in a different language you don’t understand move a listener to weep openly? It’s not simply the lyrics. Music reaches inside us in ways we really don’t understand.

And, of course, I immediately came up with my own mental list of songs and tried to fit them into Levitin’s boxes, often without finding a comfortable fit. But that’s part of the fun. Willie the Pimp? the Velvet Underground’s The Gift? The WCPAEB';s Watch Yourself? Too many to list that don’t fit (as I read it) into comfortable categories.

What about Honshirabe? It’s the classic Zen piece for solo shakuhachi; a stunningly beautiful, haunting piece that speaks volumes to the listener about Japanese culture without lyrics. It is powerful enough to stop me in my tracks and force me to sy stand still and listen, and can easily move me to tears. Where does that fit in the six songs?

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