It was beautiful. It was big. I sold it.
Most people today listen to music alone. Regardless of whether you are in a crowd using ear buds, in your car or at home, your listening experience is likely to be a solitary one.
Much has been written about the many changes that have come about from this style of listening, including the effect that ear buds have on our hearing, the changes in the way that music is marketed and the quality of sound that is produced as a result of that marketing. As a musician and a music teacher, I have an additional concern: as social listening declines, is a natural path to music appreciation being sacrificed?
Music appreciation is usually taught in the classroom the same way that other topics or concepts are: bring attention to it, describe it and, if possible, make it experiential. The teaching becomes even more effective when the transfer of information is accompanied by a positive emotional experience.
Listening with others in a social situation can offer the same advantages that a classroom approach to music appreciation offers, but for most people, it’s a lot more personal and relevant – and therefore a lot more fun! When several people listen to the same band, one is likely to comment on the sax solo while another will focus on a bass riff and a third might respond to the lyrics. As each person receives the opinions and reactions from another, attention is brought to an area of the music that might otherwise have remained unnoticed.
Listening is not the only aspect of music appreciation that is addressed in the classroom, nor is it the only one that is learned in social listening experience. A formal curriculum for music appreciation will usually include a historical view of the music and a biographical look at the artist. Who doesn’t share these types of details with friends when they are listening to music together? Fan clubs are built on less!
If you find that listening is largely a solo experience for you, try setting aside some time with one or two friends to listen to a wide variety of music. Background music during a party or a meal doesn’t count. I’m talking about real listening. Take turns playing DJ or work a “youtube party” into your casual hang-out time with friends, family members or roommates. It’s a cheap, easy and satisfying way to connect with people – and you might just find that you are also connecting more deeply to the music you love!
Most guitarists begin playing by learning a few chords. We all remember the thrill of playing our first song after discovering how to form our fingers into distinct shapes and then placing them on the appropriate frets. From that point on, the song list may grow and the chords may become more varied or complex, but the thrill of turning chord shapes into music never dies.
Opening the door to chords and song playing on an instrument as complex as the guitar unfortunately carries no guarantee of an intimate relationship with harmony. However long the list of memorized chord shapes becomes, the notes within the chords may remain a mystery and attempting to determine which chords are in a song can feel like nothing more than an exercise in frustration. What is it about harmony that is so alluring and yet so elusive?
Aspects of the Principal Elements of Music
Of the three principal elements of music (melody, harmony and rhythm), melody boldly claims the leading role. Melody is the part of the music that you hum or whistle. It is the part that sticks in your head (whether you want it to or not!) and the part that most often embodies the selling points of a song. When you want to bring a song to mind for a friend, you sing the tune, or melody. If a song has lyrics, they will ride on the melody, attaching in such a way that the emotions of each become inseparable from the other. No one fails to notice a melody.
The next element in terms of strength is rhythm. Rhythm is visceral and primal. It requires little effort to perceive, as it seeks and steals our attention. Rhythm provides a foundation and support for the whole of a song. Without rhythm, melody becomes vague and difficult, if not impossible, to catch, hold or comprehend. Rhythm is what gets you on your feet at a concert, motivates you toward energetic action in your household chores or prompts you to drum unselfconsciously on the steering wheel of your car at the stoplight. Rhythm is what grooves, swings or rocks!
Harmony, however, is more subtle and complex than the other two principal elements and may therefore be overlooked or underrated by the untrained ear. Harmony is more than a decoration or dressing for the song – it is a fundamental aspect of the structure. But while fulfilling the weighty role of a structural component, harmony is likely be received by the listener as an emotional or sensual quality – one which evokes feelings such as fullness, sweetness, lightness, darkness or any range of moods. Harmony in music is like that taste in a dish that although difficult to identify, is responsible for binding and refining the more obvious flavors, thereby sparking both a need to unravel the mystery of the recipe and a desire to indulge more deeply in its richness.
Where and How Do You Find It?
When you listen to guitar accompaniment or the vocal tracks on a song you are listening to harmony – but how do you hone your ability to extract the individual notes for analysis, study or replication? The key is to open into the right brain, hone your concentration on a single harmonic line and sing what you hear! Singing a note allows you to find and confirm it. In order to achieve efficiency, consistency and accuracy in the search for a note or musical line, singing must precede playing on the instrument.
I realize that not every guitar player embraces the idea of singing. If you resist singing, keep in mind that in order to learn to hear harmony you don’t need good vocal tone, an extensive range or impressive breath control. In fact, it is not necessary for your singing to be heard by any ears but your own. It is necessary, however, to learn to match pitches with your voice (a skill that you will need for lead playing, as well) and to allow your voice to search out and identify chord tones. Some very concrete pathways toward hearing and singing pitches exist and they are yours to use at any time in your musical life.
An Informal Education: Mom, the School Chorus and a Stack of Vinyl
I grew up in a house filled with good records. In addition, I was fortunate to have both a mother with a musically developed ear and a generous elementary school music teacher. Those two talented women taught me to sing harmony at an early age, which, combined with my own patience and tenacity, led to my ability to pick out chords on the guitar, create solo guitar arrangements, invent leads and more.
Although you may not share the benefit of having learned harmony through childhood experiences, there are many ways to receive a natural – and often free – aural education. My mother was unique in her combined abilities to hear and impart musical pitches in a casual, unstructured way, but any person who can sing harmony can assist you in hearing specific pitches. Just ask someone you know who sings harmony to stop at any given point of a song and feed you one or more of the notes in the harmonic line. Better yet, ask that singer to teach you a complete harmony part to a simple, familiar song. After you learn one part and can sing it accurately (and along with the melody), practice it until you are able to do so comfortably without assistance. By the time you’ve gone through this process with a few songs, you will begin to feel confident and adventuresome!
If you don’t know someone who can give you individual attention (or even if you do and just want to put more fun into your life), join a choir! The Condit Elementary School Chorus did wonders for me! Expanding beyond that humble group, I began performing at the age of nine in an a capella vocal trio that my sister, our friend and I formed. (Read about The Starlettes here, where you can also hear us nonchalantly wrap our 10 year-old voices around some pretty sophisticated three-part harmonies!) The time invested in singing harmony over a two year period proved to be more valuable to me than I might have imagined!
Singing in a choir may not seem like an exciting or even relevant venture for a guitar player, but trust me – it is. It’s also a free musical education in more ways than one. The instruction that my ear received in elementary school allowed me to teach myself how to play guitar by sitting for hours at the record player and concentrating, chord by chord, on the songs I wanted to play. Not only did I learn to play guitar, with time and study I was able to acquire other marketable skills, such as composition, transcription and arrangement – all from putting my ear to the speakers and singing what I heard.
The Value of Structured Study
Regardless of your past experience, musical aspirations or current level, you will deepen your knowledge and accelerate your progress through the study of music. As a young adult, I committed to a curriculum that I created toward my own goals. As a result, I experienced a dramatic increase in my ability to quickly and accurately play on my guitar the sounds that I heard on recordings or in my head. You can enjoy the same success by turning your focus to an efficient and relevant study of ear training and music theory. Do the practice (which is actually a lot of fun!) and marvel at your expanded guitar skills!
Each of us has a unique nature and each of us comes to learning guitar and expressing musically from a place that is tied to that nature. As both a teacher and someone committed to my own evolution, I am constantly investigating the many different ways we humans learn, process and actualize, as well as what we find to be stimulating, what motivates us and what makes us feel comfortable and safe. In teaching, I benefit from analyzing and responding to the way people learn best (aural, visual, kinesthetic, etc.) and whether they operate primarily from the left brain or the right, as well as whether they are more active or passive in approach, what constitutes their optimum concentration span, their natural tempo for communication and much more. In working with a variety of traits, I have come to feel that the element in our nature that may drive or affect our relationship to creativity and performance the most is our place on the spectrum of introversion or extroversion.
We live in a culture that places a high value on extroversion. Our culture also values creativity, however, which seems somewhat ironic, as the majority of people who are assessed as creative are also classified as introverts. The irony lies in the fact that representing oneself as a musician or other artist is likely to be uncomfortable for the introvert and performing may feel like torture. Even entering into the study of music can be daunting, due to the generally accepted cultural values of wealth and fame, as represented by an emphasis on stardom and self-promotion.
Many of my new guitar students reveal a lot about their nature in our first conversation by announcing “I just want to do this for my own enjoyment.” Others reveal their dreams of fame and their dedication to the path that will lead them to those dreams. Those students who recognize their own traits are able not only to nourish their own inner being, but also to inform others of those traits, in order to receive respect and assistance with their goals.
There is no set definition of introversion or extroversion – or, perhaps more accurately, there are many definitions. None of us is 100% introvert or extrovert, but most of us fall somewhere on the spectrum of either introversion or extroversion. When determining introversion or extroversion, it is often necessary to look below the surface. For example, it is quite possible to be shy and be an extrovert or to be an anxious introvert as opposed to one who is calm. Because I am gregarious and talkative (traits usually attributed to extroverts), I am often mistaken as an extrovert, but when given the choice between attending a party or spending quiet time with a book, I will go for the book every time. I need and enjoy people, but I always choose one-on-one conversation over group interactions. I am uncomfortable in the spotlight and I require a lot of time alone – preferably in nature – in order to charge my creative battery and maintain my physical health and emotional well-being. Those are traits that place me solidly on the introvert spectrum. It is worthwhile to take time to discover your own traits in order to provide for yourself the optimum environment for comfort, productivity and creativity.
If you are interested in these ideas, you will want to read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a Noisy World, by Susan Cain. It is a provocative and informative book and one that I consider important. Check out this TED talk by the author to learn about the subject and get a feel for the book. For a shorter synopsis that is accompanied by Molly Crabapple’s wonderful illustrations, take a few minutes to enjoy this entertaining video.
Enjoy being who you are – The world needs all of us!
“Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought.” – Einstein
Accessing and acting upon unique thoughts and perceptions is among the deepest and most satisfying aspects of being human. You may consider yourself to be more or less creative than your peers, but regardless of where you view yourself to be on the spectrum, there have probably been times when you wished for some stroke of magic that would ignite the creative fire. During those times, it is all too evident that creativity cannot be programmed or forced; it can only be allowed. Cultivating certain habits, however, will invite or stimulate the flow of creativity and once those habits become a part of our lives, we discover that creative energy flows as naturally and consistently as does the breath.
Tune in to the right side of your brain
Creative ideas and expressions emerge from the intuitive mind, or the right brain. You can stimulate and strengthen your right brain by engaging in artistic endeavors, but it is also essential to know how to turn down the dominant activity of the left brain. Begin this process by learning to turn off mental chatter. (This is a skill that is practiced in meditation, so if you don’t already practice meditation, you may want to begin.) Empty the mind regularly. Give yourself permission to daydream. If you set an intention before going into the silence, you may be amazed to discover how powerful your intentions are!
Perhaps the most effective way to open a channel to the right brain is to practice observing your thoughts and responses in a detached manner. Releasing judgment of your thoughts and feelings allows them to expand. As you learn to observe your thoughts, dismiss those that are narrow, limiting, cumbersome or distracting.
Creative ideas spring from varied perceptions and sources
Because the seeds of our own creative ideas and works surround us, it makes sense to develop our ability to notice them. Begin to increase your attention to details in your environment. Wake up your senses! (Remember to listen, as well as look, feel, touch and taste.)
Surround yourself with creative people and creative works – it’s not only fun, it’s guaranteed to stimulate your own creativity. Go to art galleries and concerts. Read. Choose stimulating and fresh entertainment over that which is mind-dulling, predictable or manipulative.
Learn to see events and circumstances in ways that extend beyond your normal perceptions. See humor or oddity, find beauty, experience compassion. Tap into wisdom that lies beyond your daily awareness by learning to find connections and to understand symbols and metaphors. Study and enjoy the rich messages in fairy tales, myths and stories. Look for signs or insights in seemingly trivial events. Find a larger meaning or a deeper message in the details of your life and become aware of all that is presented to you, personally.
Ego-driven goals conflict with and distract from the accessing of intuitive information
It’s easy to become distracted by the ego. If we succumb to that distraction, however, we will suffer from insecurity and be tormented by thoughts and questions that sabotage our creative goals: “How will my work be received? Do I look, sound or act intelligent or talented? Will my song (painting, book) sell?” When you recognize that you have fallen into the ego’s trap, make it a point to suspend all judgment and turn off expectations. Remember that what you create doesn’t have to be cool, provocative, serious art or even a finished piece. Instead, cultivate creativity as a lifestyle – something that can be accessed when writing an email, choosing your clothes for the day or setting a table for a meal. You are, by nature, creative. Relax and enjoy it!
Commit to innocence and authenticity in your creations, without regard for consequences, either positive or negative. Give yourself permission to be expressive in all that you do.
Pressures, schedules and deadlines rein in and corral creative potential and expression
Set aside time to write, draw or play music. A lot of “free” time, without structure or discipline, can deteriorate into slouch time; by the same token, a tight creative time frame is like a tight shoe – it’s unpleasant and it doesn’t take you very far. Carve out broad periods of time and then disallow distractions during that time, such as emails or telephone conversations. Daydreaming, however, is allowed and encouraged!
Soften your eyes to open your mind
Learn how to soften your visual perception, so that your field becomes broad and limitless. Relax and expand your focus – or close your eyes completely. Allow your internal eye to drift into the distance while following thought streams. When you broaden your perception, you may notice that you access specific types of information from different parts of your visual field and that you can successfully connect the thoughts and images that flow into that field.
You are a unique individual with unique requirements for optimum patterns of work, rest, social time and exposure to external stimulation. Many people, for example, generate ideas best by working in a team, while others feel overstimulated or squelched in the company of others. Discover the environment that best nurtures your creative self.
Not only is the amount of solitary time a crucial element in a creative lifestyle, but the quality of that time must be considered. Fatigue or physical discomfort can sabotage a creative session, as can emotional upsets or distractions. Strive for mental and physical clarity during times that you want to express creatively.
Achieving the optimum balance often requires not only self-discipline, but also a willingness to educate the people in your life as to your plan. Once you’ve found that balance, honor it!
For news of upcoming creativity workshops (as well as other workshops), visit the calendar page.
The spring retreat took place this weekend. I loved having every one of these wonderful women join me for two days of good playing, good food and good stories.
Big thanks and much love to all who came. I miss you already!
Listening is the most important activity that we engage in as musicians. Our motivation to play music is fueled by listening. When we play an instrument, we must carefully and constantly listen to the sounds we are creating in order to choose fingerings, dynamics, tempo and more. If we are playing in a group, the success of the collaboration is dependent upon each musician listening deeply to every aspect of the musical whole. When we compose or improvise, we must first listen to the notes and rhythms in our heads before we bring them to our instruments.
In studying music we must listen carefully to all instruction, whether that instruction is formal, as in a lesson or a class, or is one of many subtle hints that we encounter in our daily lives. As we practice tuning into those enlightening hints, we also practice listening to our own intuition, thereby reinforcing the very foundation of creativity.
One of the most exciting things that I do as a teacher is to help my students expand their listening skills. Through study, anyone can hone their ability to discern pitches and sort out rhythms. In order to achieve true artistry, however, it is necessary to go beyond the classroom and to reach deeply into personal experience. Consciously engaging in certain practices will facilitate the process of listening as a means to enhance personal expression and creativity.
Turn off the Noise
Today’s world is filled with both incessant noise and large amounts of information that is transmitted at a rapid rate. As an adaptive species, we tend to unconsciously protect our nervous systems from this barrage by tuning out the noise and by receiving only the information that comes
through quickly. In receiving only the sounds that are most demanding, we lose much of the beauty, wisdom and knowledge that reside in a subtle realm beneath the noise. The solution is to scale back the noise and consciously invite our senses to wake up! Simply choosing to stay home for a quiet dinner instead of going out or to turn off the television in favor of spending an evening on the back porch can open new mental and emotional pathways.
Spend Time in Nature
Although nature is far from silent, her sounds are more conducive to clarity and creativity than those of the mechanical world. Make time during the work week for lunch in a park or a walk after work and carve out periods during the weekends to visit the ocean, a river, stream or lake. (Leave your ear buds and cell phone at home!)
Go into the silence at least once a day. Just try it. You’ll be amazed at what spontaneously emerges.
Listen With Full Attention
Give your attention to the sounds in your everyday environment. By consciously tuning in, you will begin to notice sounds that spark your imagination and to have new thoughts, ideas or encounters that specifically relate to your goals. You will also hone your ability to choose a supportive environment and to create a space in which you thrive.
Listening, like all other skills, begins with intention. Merely by intending to increase your listening skills you will find yourself increasingly drawn to opportunities to do so.
If you are interested in expanding your music listening skills, you can find help in the following publications: Learning to Play Lead Guitar, Chapter
3 (Aural Comprehension); Comprehensive Guitar Instruction (DVD), Chapter 4 ; A Guitar Player’s Guide to Ear Training (Book and 2-disc set)
I choose to live in the country and adhere to a natural lifestyle. I wake up every day with the first light and I spend approximately two hours in quiet before getting to work. Only after I have completed my morning program of exercise and meditation and have finished feeding all of my animals do I become available to other humans.
I have managed for many years to be very productive and to successfully interface with the outside world, not in spite of, but because of my habit of listening to Nature and following her rhythms. My body likes it. My emotions thrive on it. And my creativity demands it.
And so, tomorrow I will change the clock and attempt to find a balance between the rhythm of my body and the false rhythm of the business world. I don’t plan to tell my horses or cats or the many wild and beautiful animals and plants who grace my presence, though, and so I will so be feeding and watering at a different “time.”
Happy Spring to all!
Before I started teaching via webcam, I assumed, as many do, that remote lessons would be a cumbersome substitute for “the real thing.” I finally took the leap to teaching by Skype when a student bought me a webcam and insisted that I save her the driving time to my house, which is an hour from hers. What I quickly discovered is that webcam lessons are no less valuable than in-person lessons – they are just different in some ways.
Because I rely heavily on my intuition when teaching, my first concern was that I would feel less connected to the student. From the moment a student enters my studio, I am assessing his or her mood, energy level and feelings regarding the previous week’s practice. As the lesson progresses, I am reading the student for blocks, confusion, frustration, resistance, fatigue, excitement and interest. I proceed according to the cues I receive and I keep the door to my own creativity open, so that I may determine the optimum tempo and direction of my teaching.
Within minutes of the first webcam meeting with my generous student, I realized that I was not limited in any way by the camera or the distance between us. Intuition works long distance! There were some technical glitches to get through, but those glitches proved to be no more than a minor and temporary inconvenience. I began to take on more long-distance students and with time, I discovered some unexpected and interesting dynamics that are unique to webcam interactions.
Remote lessons have some obvious advantages: the student can tune and be warmed up before the lesson begins; the lesson can take place regardless of whether the student has a cold or is dealing with a logistical issue such as car trouble or a sick child; the student can work in a comfortable and familiar environment; the student can practice what he or she learned immediately after the lesson; lessons are more likely to begin and end on time. What I didn’t anticipate were some of the subtle qualities that actually increased the intensity of human and musical connection.
When two people are interacting in the same space, there is a constant, subconscious balancing of physical and psychic boundaries. When those same two people are relating on webcam, there is an absence of the energetic juggling and balancing that takes place in person, which leaves more room for clear focus on the topic. In addition, by neither party having to be concerned with invasion of the other party’s physical space, it is possible to orchestrate close up views of hand positions or proper posture that might be awkward in person.
Because students are viewing their own image during a webcam lesson, they have a tendency to focus on the task at hand more consistently than they do in person, where they may allow themselves to mentally drift or to be distracted by the environment. Also, the level of mutual conversational respect rises acutely, as it is impossible to talk over one another on Skype. The student who is accustomed to interrupting or talking over others is quickly cured of the habit when he realizes that due to the delay, it doesn’t work.
I have a desktop computer with a different internet provider that I keep beside the laptop that I use for my webcam lessons. This setup allows me to use the desktop to choose and view a video of a song that a student is interested in learning without compromising the connection or interrupting the flow of communication. I often type out lesson notes to email on the spot or after the lesson and I can scan in drawings, songs or charts to send, as well. In addition, it is possible for either or both parties to record some or all of a lesson.
The only limitation I have found in webcam lessons is the inability to play along with the student, but this issue can be solved by using simple homemade recordings or backing tracks. I do not recommend webcam lessons for complete beginners, as it important for the beginning guitarist to have a teacher who can physically assist with proper technique and posture, as well as other basics of playing. So, if you can “play a little” (or a lot!), and want to join the fun, hook up your camera and schedule a lesson!