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Educating Yourself - Part III
By Leon & Sheryl Olguin - 01/21/2002 - 06:09 PM EST

In the last column, we listed some places to start in educating yourself, dealing strictly with the art of music. Now I'll add some more "musical" subjects to consider, and then touch upon some subjects that may not be entirely music related, but beneficial nonetheless.

Theatrical music: in the last issue we mentioned the songwriters of "Tin Pan Alley." We should also mention that many of these same writers wrote for the Broadway stage. Most musicians have heard of Lerner and Lowe, or Rogers and Hammerstein. By studying the history of Broadway, you'll learn about changing tastes in entertainment, the kind of talent and abilities that were needed to be successful on the stage, and the way the various hit shows were written and then re-written once they were tested on stage.

Movie music: many of the great Broadway musicals were turned into lavish, Technicolor spectacles featuring many of the prominent movie stars of the day (seemingly regardless of whether they could actually sing and/or dance). One of the earliest "talkies" was a version of the stage comedy "The Coconuts," featuring former Vaudeville and then-current Broadway stars, the Marx Brothers (Harpo, Groucho, Chico, and Zeppo). Because of the primitive sound technology of 1929, the movie is basically just a very stiff and static filmed version of the stage play. As such, it is a fascinating record of what a Broadway comedy show circa 1929 was like, and what audiences preferred in their entertainment. What they seemed to want was a rather uneasy combination of crazy comedy and romance. Irving Berlin (of “God Bless America” and “White Christmas fame) wrote the songs for "The Coconuts". Interestingly, it was the only Broadway score he wrote from which no hit songs emerged.

After your study of the Broadway and Hollywood musicals, you can branch out into a study of movie music in general. From 1930 onward, movie music developed into an art form in and of itself, complete with its "star" practitioners. If you've watched a number of movies from the 1930's on, most likely you have heard the work of Max Steiner (especially if you are fan of "Gone With the Wind," which contains his most famous score). If you've seen any number of blockbuster films from the 70's onward, you've been affected by the work of John Williams (take note, all you "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" fans). If you've been studying classical music and came upon the work of English composer Gustav Holst (most notably his orchestral suite "The Planets,"), then you'll discover where John Williams may have found some ideas for the "Star Wars" theme!

One area of fascination for me personally is cartoon scores. Like just about everyone, I'm familiar with and greatly enjoy the antics of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, et. al. After seeing the cartoons a few times, I found myself paying more attention to the music, and realizing how important it was to the comedy (I always loved the pizzicato violins that were used when one character was sneaking up on another). I had to find out more about the musician who put together those incomparable scores, Carl Stalling. By studying this music and how it was created, you will learn more about the power of music to set moods, and the atmosphere created by certain instruments and musical styles. You'll also have fun trying to identify the many standards humorously quoted by Stalling in his scores. Plus, it gives you a great excuse to watch cartoons and legitimately claim that you are doing research that will benefit your music.

Musical instruments: Every instrument, guitar, piano, flute, sax, drums, etc. has a history all it's own, which intertwines with music history in general. Many times instruments were invented or tinkered with to fill a specific need. Sometimes a "new" instrument was slow to be accepted. Franz Liszt was once criticized for using a triangle in an orchestral score!

The style of playing the instruments also evolved over the years. Many pianists of the "romantic" era in the late 1800's performed in a grand, sensational, and dramatic manner (Liszt being the father of this school of performance), whereas many pianists today are more clinical and correct in their approach. Of course, this is a sweeping generalization, and there are always exceptions. Nonetheless, the study of the evolution of performing styles will teach you a great deal about dealing with an audience, and the way public taste changes.

Art / Photography: Many famous musicians such as Tony Bennett and Joni Mitchell are artists in more than the musical sense. They and many other musicians are also active in the visual arts, such as painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography. Of course, any musician putting together a CD is concerned about the "cover art." What will they put on the cover? What message, thought, or atmosphere will the picture convey? Now I'm not saying that you should learn how to paint so that you can do your own CD cover, but hey, you never know! At the very least you will gain a greater appreciation of those who do work in these media. If you appreciate the art of creating music, it's only a short step to appreciating the art of a great painter, sculptor, or photographer.

Moviemaking / Hollywood: Movies are a relatively recent art form. Whereas music and art have been around since the beginning of history, movies have only existed since the late 1800's. In this short time, movie making has evolved from an interesting experiment into a multi-billion dollar worldwide industry. What has always fascinated me about modern movie making is the struggle between artistic integrity and the desire to make a profit. It should be obvious to even a casual observer that many movies are made with an eye on the bottom line. Concepts are approved and financing is arranged based on the marketability of the concept. This is why we are presented by the movie industry with so many sequels of hit movies, re-workings of hit TV shows, movies based on plays and novels, and similar themes (usually boy-meets-girl) cropping up in movie after movie.

Every once in a while, a totally original cinematic work will pop up, seemingly out of nowhere, take the public by storm, and catch the movie industry off guard. They take notes, and soon we see endless variations on the new formula. There are obvious parallels and connections between the movie industry and the music industry.

Well, we’ve just scratched the surface when it comes to things you can learn to help you be a better musician. We encourage you to go where your interests take you; don’t be afraid to learn something new, don’t be afraid to change your preconceived ideas about things. A life filled with learning can be an exciting journey.


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