What they don’t teach you at music school
It’s funny how one can devote their whole life to the study of those little black dots we call notes. Did you know that in western music, there are only 12 of them? You’d think that after a year or two, one would be able to deal with these 12 notes and go on their merry way and make great music. Music is a language, and ultimately it is a vehicle to communicate ideas. It’s sort of the same thing as learning the English language in the public school system. You’d think that by grade 12, you wouldn’t need to be taking English classes right? I mean, you know how to read, you know how to write…..what more is there to learn except maybe adding a few words to your vocabulary?
I think we all know that it’s not really about the mechanics of the language…it’s about the application of the language. A person needs to develop the skills necessary to communicate with other people be it written or verbal. For a writer, there are many ways they can go about doing this. Maybe someone is a poet, and they express their ideas in a more abstract way by using metaphors and employing the use of imagery. Maybe someone is a journalist and their job is to tell people the facts about what’s going on in the world and be as clear and concise as possible. Maybe someone makes their living as a public speaker, and they have to be able to communicate clearly and effectively in such a way that their message reaches other people. The study of the mechanics of any language I think is finite….but the applications of the language are infinite.
Studying music is much the same way. You learn theory and the mechanics of what makes music tick and once you have a decent foundation, you can start to apply it and make the music you want to make. You might spend a long time playing, studying and listening to the music of other people to progress. As a teacher myself, I tell my students how essential this is for becoming better musicians. A student should have a sense of what’s been done before. which in turn will influence the manner in which the student communicates their ideas….and here we get to the big question which every artist will have to confront….what do I want to communicate?
For any artist to answer this question, it requires some serious choices to be made….and no teacher can ever make them for you. For me, I’ve had to look at the person that I am and the person that I am not. When I’m writing my own music, I want it to reflect who I am. When I was much younger, I was enthralled with the music of rock bands like Van Halen, Whitesnake, Bon Jovi…etc. While I still love that music and it brings back a lot of memories when I hear it, I would have a hard time walking out on stage and portraying that image. I’m certainly not the same person I was 15 years ago, and my tastes have changed in all areas of my life. I spent a long period of time when I was younger lifting riffs and solos from these records, and it benefited my playing immensely in terms of progressing technically and having a better sense of rhythm and musicality. I can still shift gears and play that kind of stuff, but when I’m writing for one of my own records… I want it to be as honest as possible.
Writing music for yourself is one thing, but writing music to make a living is also another whole dilemma. Not only must you contend with making music to please yourself, you must also make a choice as to how far you are willing to go to please other people as well. There are many artists out there right now who make millions of dollars every year and many of them have never undergone any musical training for an extended period of time. For musicians who have not achieved this level of success… it can be frustrating and discouraging. No matter how harmonically or rhythmically sophisticated or how technically gifted a player or writer is, when someone else hears their music, they are still entitled to like it or dislike it. I can say that having studied music for so long, it is a really hard thing to deal with criticism from other people….and everyone’s a critic…lol. While I might be conscious of the reason why I wrote a song the way I did and I believe that every note I chose has a unique purpose….that doesn’t necessarily mean anything to the listener. On the other hand, with my knowledge of music, I can listen to someone else who’s technique is stunning, their ideas are brilliant, their execution flawless…but still the music lover in me is not inspired by it because I felt there was a lack of emotion behind it. Putting this into perspective when I receive criticism from someone helps me to accept it and move on.
Music can be a profession just like a doctor, lawyer, physicist…etc. You don’t, however, need a license to be a musician the same way you do as being a lawyer or a practising doctor. I think the musical universe as we know it would be a much different place if this were the case. What I have noticed is that many musicians who have not received the attention and success they feel they are entitled to grow bitter and usually talk about other musicians who are successful with a bit of animosity. I think ultimately this is destructive behaviour…and I confess that I’m guilty of it myself at times. If I hear a song on the radio and I hear that the vocals are out of tune, the lyrics are superficial, the melody is weak…etc….I am tempted to say I can’t believe that song is number one on the radio or video charts. Again, I have to take a step back and realize that everyone is entitled to their opinion and everyone hears and perceives music differently.
Some artists fall into the pit of trying to write music that appeals to everyone. I think it’s safe to say that this is futile. There’s always going to be someone out there who doesn’t like it for whatever reason. The danger here as a composer or player is that you’re always guessing…and operating from that frame of mind to me is just awful. For me, I know what I like…I can never know if someone else is going to like what I play, but I go ahead and play it anyway. Some people might say this is self indulgent. Some of the best players I’ve ever heard and some of the best teachers I have ever had are the exact same way…they create to please themselves first….this is not a negative thing, it’s just the way it is. What these people fail to see is that art is not like a science…there’s no right or wrong…it is about expression, honesty, and it’s a very personal thing. For me, I have to write music that at the very least pleases myself. I want to in turn present this to other people and hope that they dig it too. Having this mind set as an artist is very liberating because the sky is the limit when creating. Paradoxically, this can be frustrating because as the composer you still have to decide what the heck you’re going to create!….lol.