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.

06/21/14

Fifty Years Ago


In mid-August, 1964, a modest-budget, British black-and-white comedy movie hit the theatres. And instantly exploded to being the most popular film of the year. It was the Richard Lester flick, A Hard Day’s Night, starring the young Beatles in their debut on the silver screen. It was a paradigm changer in so many ways.
Hard Day's Night

It was a madcap, faux-autobiographical/mockumentary story – a style of filmmaking not previously seen on the big screen – punctuated by the Beatles’ music, including several new songs not yet released on vinyl. They would soon be, though and the soundtrack album would rise to number four on the charts.

The whole thing cost about $500,000 to make, but netted $12 million. Professor Witney Seibold writes:

The film is most certainly a classic, not only capturing the energy and obsession and youthful humor of the band members themselves, but also displaying a new kind of New Wave filmmaking that was part musical, part comedy, and part documentary. A Hard Day’s Night is a great film… perhaps the best rock film ever made.

But of course the biggest result was to introduce the world to Beatlemania, then still a nascent movement about to become a cultural tsunami. If anyone before the film was unsure what it meant, what all the excitement was about, who these guys were, they didn’t have any uncertainty after watching it. The film not only showed the world what Beatlemania was,, it swept up everyone in its wake and drew us unprotesting into the madcap movement.

People in the audience laughed and wept and screamed along with the audience in the film. Teens in the USA, in Canada and elsewhere were united in a virtual onscreen world with the British teens shown in the movie. It internationalized us.

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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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05/18/14

Song arrangements for CPLUG


CPLUG songbookI have arranged several songs for our local ukulele group (CPLUG – the Collingwood Public Library Ukulele Group) over the recent months, and put them online for our members and for any other ukulele aficionados. The most recent was prepared for our May 21 get-together. Links are below.

Some of these are my own arrangements based mostly on my reading of the original song sheets or the music itself, others are based on those of other modern groups or players (albeit generally changed or updated by me).

I search online for variations of songs – other arrangements – so I can make sure the one I put together is both playable by the group, and sounds right (to my tin ear).

The songs offer a mix of old and modern material – modern I suppose being relative, because none of the songs I’ve arranged are post-2000 (yet). Mea culpa, but they are those of my own preference and my taste in pop music tends to thin out post-1990. If anyone in the group wants modern recent songs, he or she is going to have to work with me to help make it work.

Not that there aren’t good musicians and songwriters today, just that the majority of stuff I hear on the radio is derivative pap that fits into formula-istic, computerized play lists. What passes for R&B today is especially dreary. Nothing like the great, powerful music that R&B was in the 60s and 70s. And to me the “new country” is equally sleep-inducing: repetitive and vapid. Trucks, booze, girls in tight jeans… rinse and repeat…

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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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05/11/14

Confused Science


Confused In his book, The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin posutlates the ability to make or participate in music may have conferred an evolutionary advantage to early humans. It’s a reasonable hypothesis based on both archeological and anthropological evidence. And some paleontological finds, too.

We know from remains of bone flutes and other instruments, that humans made music at least 40,000 years ago. What that music was like, what role it played in primitive culture and society, what ceremonial or bonding purposes it had, will always be speculation (although we do know they likely used the pentatonic scale). We can only infer music’s roles from its uses in historic – i.e. since the invention of writing – civilizations, but we can never be sure what happened – and why – before the historical record.

When humans started singing, drumming, or making instruments to accompany themselves is simply something we will never know. Anything to suggest when is mere speculation. And even suggesting why is, too. We’re using post hoc analysis to infer purpose and reason.

We do know that group singing and dancing involves the release of certain neurochemicals like oxytocin, that can have powerful social-bonding effects on individuals, but we don’t know whether the particular chemistry is recent, ancient or even had the same effect on earlier cultures. However, given the relatively common and similar effects observed today, it’s another reasonable speculation that they occurred earlier within our evolution and helped humans bond, cooperate and accomplish group tasks.

And we do know that non-literate or non-technological societies – what few remain, such as those rare Amazonian tribes – use music and singing in social and cultural activities and rituals. Music and singing are as powerful in their cultures, in their daily lives, as sex and magic.*

(The co-development of music and civilization is fascinating, but apparently fragile. Music was mostly a communal activity, much more participatory, before the post-WWI development of communication technology. Today, thanks to the internet, digitalization and newer technologies, music is less a shared, bonding activity than it is a passive experience. Musicians – the people who create the experience – still create and shape public opinion and taste, but like alchemists and shamans, they are on the fringe of society.

There is a glimmer of hope that music may be returning to its communal, social roots with the recent growth in popularity of the ukulele and the resurgence of communal ukulele groups…)

Levitin – as brilliant as he is about neuroscience and music – seems confused about evolution and natural selection. And a few other sciences, as I’ll explain below.

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