Educating Yourself - Part II
By Leon & Sheryl Olguin - 10/24/2001 - 06:56 PM EDT
In our last column, we wrote about educating yourself, and the benefits gained when you continually seek to gain greater knowledge and new skills. In this column and the next we will lay out a suggested course of study that will help you become a better musician, and a better-rounded person. Don’t let that word “study” scare you off! We think you’ll find yourself captivated by at least some of the subjects we suggest. Remember, the truly successful in any field are always learning new things!
You can find good books on these subjects, and CDs to listen to, at your local library, or in any good bookstore.
I tell every musician who wants to keep learning to begin by studying classical music. Classical music is the overall term used to refer to “serious” music (Not that your music isn’t serious, but how many times have you performed in a tux or an evening gown?). Learn about the different periods of classical music, the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and the Modern period. Who were the great composers in each of these eras? What kinds of lives did they lead? How was their work received during their lifetime? How does what they did connect with what you do?
Of course, the best way to develop an appreciation for classical music is to listen to it. You can start with the works of some of the more famous composers. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Chopin, Liszt, etc. As you expose your ears to more classical music, you may find yourself developing a fondness for the work of certain composers, or for a certain musical form (symphonies, choral music, art songs, opera, piano music, chamber music, etc.). Personally, I am partial to the late piano sonatas of Beethoven. One of my favorite things to do is listen to one of the sonatas and follow along with the music. Beethoven was deaf by the time he wrote many of these pieces, and some of them can only be described as “otherworldly,” “futuristic,” “heavenly, sublime and profound,” or just “downright weird.”
After sampling classical music, you can move on to the work of popular songwriters from the ”Tin Pan Alley” era, that is, roughly the first half of the 20th century. Gershwin, Mercer, Cahn, Berlin, Cole, the list goes on and on. These writers produced what we know today as “standards,” songs that are continually performed and recorded, and recognized all over the world. You’ll find out: How did these famous songwriters work? What made their songs as popular as they were? What can a modern day songwriter learn from them?
As you find out about these popular musical titans, you’ll be naturally led to learn about the entertainers who performed their songs and made them famous. What do today’s performing songwriters have in common with folks such as Al Jolson, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett? What can you learn from the “Big Band” leaders: Miller, Dorsey, Ellington, Basie, and Goodman? A lot more than you might think. From these consummate musicians you can gain a great deal of knowledge about the art of performing, dealing with an audience, crafting an unforgettable public image, putting together an effective and memorable performance, and what mistakes to avoid.
A study of the songs and songwriters of Tin Pan Alley will almost inevitably lead you into a study of Jazz. Many of the great singers of yesterday infused their interpretations of the standards with a jazz flavor (Ella Fitzgerald being a prime example, along with Mel Torme). Many great jazz players such as Louie Armstrong and Oscar Peterson based many of their performances on “standards.” Nat “King” Cole (father of Natalie Cole and “Unforgettable” fame) started out as an accomplished and incomparably smooth and polished jazz pianist, and wound up as one the world’s greatest pop singers. The history of jazz, a truly American art form, is as deep and fascinating as the history of classical music.
Once you’ve sampled the world of Jazz, you can move back to the popular song and pick up its evolution in the 1960’s. Before the 1960’s there were three main groups of professionals in the pop music business: the writers, the producers, and the performers. The writers wrote the songs, and that was all they did. The performers for the most part, performed what they were told to perform. The producers put the whole thing together, and helped sell it to the public. This is a drastic simplification of the process, but basically that was how it worked. There were, or course, exceptions such as Buddy Holly and Paul Anka, but even the performers who wrote songs for themselves often turned to the professional writers for help.
In the early 1960’s a major change came in the form of Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Here were groundbreaking performers who wrote what they sang themselves! (Of course, the Beatles performed and recorded many “cover” tunes in their early days, as did Dylan, before they proved themselves as songwriters). Dylan especially made the pop song express more, and with greater lyrical richness. Practically every performing songwriter of the 60’s followed his lead. Most performing songwriters today have something in their CD collection by Dylan and/or the Beatles.
At this point you can continue to study the evolution (and many would say the decline) of the popular song from the 70’s on. What made the songs of the 70’s so different from those of the 60’s? Musicians and music critics debate this topic even today.
Now you can delve into folk music, which has existed side-by-side with classical music since the beginning, and is a vital force in our culture today. Folk music is simply the songs and music created and performed by the “common folk,” not the trained professional musician. Of course, many “folk singers” become “popular” singers so there is some overlap between the categories. What do you know about Irish folk music? English? German? Russian?
Up to now we’ve only been dealing with “Western” music. That is, music based on the standard scales and harmonic progressions we are familiar with through the works of “European” composers. This style of music was developed from the time of the Gregorian chant until the early classical period of the late 1700’s. These are the musical sounds with which we are the most familiar. But what about the musical sounds from the rest of the world?
What about developing an appreciation of Eastern music? What do you know about Arab, or Japanese music? The history of Eastern music is as rich and varied as that of Western, yet is something few “westerners” know anything about. What are the melodies like? What instruments do they use? Who are the prominent figures in Eastern music? What about the folk music of these different cultures? How have they been affected by the “west?”
I hope that all these things I have thrown at you will not overwhelm you. You don’t have to learn it all at once, nor do you have to proceed in the order listed. In fact, you can still be a fantastic performing songwriter without a thorough knowledge of many of these things. However, the more you learn, the more you have to draw on in your creative activities. If you have a great wealth of knowledge at your command, your songs may acquire greater depth and awareness. Your music may take on some exotic influences that will mark you as an innovator. You may produce work both accessible and profound.
I firmly believe that all creative people must be filling their minds with great things, so that they may bring forth great things from that same mind.
So far we have dealt strictly with the art of music. In the next column, I will touch upon some subjects dealing with music and many that may not be entirely about music, but are beneficial nonetheless.
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