Tag Archives: learning

Dance like no one’s watching…

I just had an epiphany this morning.

I remembered that I used to dance to the radio. All the time. Whenever I had a spare moment, I would put on music that I liked and dance to it.

It started when I was really young. My Mom remembers me as a toddler leaning my ear against the big stereo in the basement, absorbing the music. When I got older, I would go down there as often as I could to listen to the radio and dance. And I would dance in front of the mirror, testing moves and pretending I was on stage.

My Mom got me a leotard when she knew I was serious about it, but she never got me dance lessons like I wanted. Instead, I got piano lessons, which was not even a close second, but I dealt with it.

Dancing was a ritual I practiced nearly every day. I knew exactly what radio stations I liked, and I got to know a lot of great songs in the 80’s – it was the golden age of pop with Michael Jackson and Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. I even choreographed dances to the Pointer Sisters and Starship, and Mom has since shown me my childhood drawings to prove it!

The trend continued as I grew up, into high school and college. Instead of finding a basement, I just took up whatever little space I could in my bedroom or dorm to just let myself move and gyrate to all the CD’s that I grew to love. My tastes had expanded into grunge and hip-hop, and as I developed my taste for classical music, I would even put that on and pretend I was a conductor!

I just realized, whoa…I’ve lost this ritual. In grad school I may have done some dancing by myself, but after that, it just totally petered out. And nowadays, I spend free moments on the Internet instead, sitting on my ass, getting jealous of other people’s Facebook lives and reading twisted news stories about politicians and pundits, feeling awful about the world.

What a horrible trade.

When I danced, I was exercising my whole person – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually – all of it. And I think my development as a musician owes more to my dancing than to most formal instruction I got as a child. When I danced, I was truly free. I could forget about the world and enjoy myself. And when I danced with others, I was uninhibited. I brought that same freedom to the dance floor.

I realized most suddenly today that I have to bring this ritual back to my life. I have to move again. I have to dance again. Bouncing to the car stereo is but a pale substitute, too – I gotta have arms and legs and torso involved. And brain. And heart. And I can’t do all that while driving.

Because I realize, that’s how I learn music – by touching it. As a pianist, I’m very tactile, I like to play it like a drum, even if my notes aren’t accurate. As a singer, I move and depend on sensation to guide my technique. As a conductor, well, it goes without saying.

I’ve become familiar with that modern proverb, “dance like no one’s watching…” But I’d like to take it a step further and say, dance when no one’s watching. Decide to do it whenever you need it, whenever it works for you – dance while you’re cleaning house, if that’s what does it. (I find that Korn’s first album is especially good for cleaning dirty bathrooms.) Don’t just dance socially, with other people. Dance with yourself – you are your own best dance partner.

And if you realize you’ve lost this ritual, get it back. Use some of your Internet time blasting music and moving around. While standing up – no butts in chairs, even if your chair rolls around.

Stupid me – I could have done this all winter when the weather was horrible. Can’t go for a morning run? The floor’s too cold for yoga? DANCE.

Ack! – I hate it when I realize what I’ve lost sometimes. But then I love it, when I know I can start doing it again…

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Something To Ponder …

Just read this: Something To Ponder ….

If a lifetime is your chance to express who you are in the most adventurous and creative way you can imagine … what are you doing that supports that idea?

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The crazy thing that Jimmy Page said

Today is Jimmy Page’s 70th birthday, so I gotta wish him the very best and give him my respect, because he’s one of my favorite musicians in the universe.

I recently finished reading a new biography of Led Zeppelin, When Giants Walked the Earth by Mick Wall. And it has renewed my deep love for the band, which started way back in grad school. At that time, the ecstasy/pain of Robert Plant’s vocal in “Hey Hey, What Can I Do” set off alarm bells in my head and got me thinking I MUST come out of the closet as a singer-songwriter before it’s too late. It spurred me into action like no alarm bell ever did before.

Now, one big thing that stood out to me in that book was a comment by Jimmy Page about learning music: “Teaching myself was the first and most important part of my education…I hope they keep it out of schools.” (p.60, my emphasis)

This threw me for a loop, of course, because I often beat the drum for keeping music in the schools, and it’s always weird when you discover that one of your idols disagrees with you, even in an innocuous statement.

But how innocuous is it? Is this just something that any rock-n-roll rebel would say, or was there a deeper meaning behind it? Wall’s biography says emphatically that Page was not acting as a rebel in those days, if ever he did. Not in the sense of being reckless, or resentful towards authority. He never acted mindlessly. Page knew exactly what he wanted his music to be, and he hand-picked the very musicians, songs, and stylings that would give him what he wanted. He didn’t set out to go against the grain of what was already popular or standard; he simply had a unique vision in his head that he brought to reality with the help of his band-mates and his manager, Peter Grant.

That vision became Led Zeppelin, and it made him one of the most renowned rock musicians this world has ever seen. He is regarded as the 3rd greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone, although I would rank him 2nd instead of Eric Clapton, with #1 remaining for the OTHER Jimmy of legend – Hendrix.

And how did he get to that exalted position? Not through school.

He played around on his own as a boy, listening to records of the greats of his own time and earlier. He goofed around as a teenager with his buddy Jeff Beck and eventually found his way into doing session work. According to Mick Wall, one of his sessions got a little nerve-wracking when someone dropped a piece of sheet music in front of him. Jimmy joked that it looked like “crows on telegraph wires” (p. 157). But that didn’t stop him from developing deft fingers and a keen ear – both essential for becoming a rock god.

And the thing is, because he didn’t learn music in school, he was free to listen, explore, experiment and discover it at his own pace. He tapped into history by studying blues and early rock-n-roll, striking gold when he heard Elvis. He saw the relationship between music and spirituality and explored it as far as it would take him, even into the occult. He followed his curiosity eastward to the ragas of India and speculated on how to translate that sound to guitar. He wondered what would happen if he played an electric guitar with a violin bow, if he alternated acoustic and electric guitar in a single song, if it were possible to create a reverse echo in the studio….

Who recalls this level of creative experimentation in their own conventional schooling?

If Jimmy Page had been put in a class at the age of 5 to learn about those “crows on telegraph wires” and what they meant, would he have become the same musician? Would he have become a musician at all?

Rock-n-roll was born out of questions: “What would it sound like if I put this chord progression together with this rhythm? What if I did this crazy thing with my guitar?” We can go further and say that ANY revolution in any genre of music was born out of questions – not answers, not pre-packaged explanations of how things were always done, or what was already proven to work. Our current form of mass education takes care of that just fine.

Page understood that the blues – the genre that gave emotional weight to rock-n-roll – was the genre of the unschooled, the vagabond, the oppressed…and the rebel. And the modern school system is not designed or intended to cultivate rebellion of any kind. Such an idea is anathema. Teaching implies authority to which the student submits, and enterprising free-thinkers will have none of that. We think that rebellion is in our animal nature, and thus it has to be tamed if we are to live civilly as humans. But that is a fallacy. Rebellion is NOT the way of our nature. If anything, it’s the way of evolution. The human brain evolved because it became obsessed with questions – “How else can we do this? What is possible with this? What if…?”

That’s not the brain activity of someone trying to conform to what’s already there. That is the mind seeking new territory.

This is, I think, what Jimmy Page was hinting at when he hoped people would keep music out of the schools. The way schools are now, anyway. As much I will bang the drum for music in the schools, I will bang just as hard, if not harder, to have creativity in the schools. That’s the thing we’re really fighting for when we advocate for arts education. Because if the most important thing you learn as a music student is how to play a Chopin Etude note-perfect, or that Mozart was a better composer than everyone else, you might as well stop taking those classes and lessons and start teaching yourself.

It sounds crazy, but that’s the kind of thing we have to do if music is going to be treated the way we treat math and science in the schools – as a bunch of answers waiting to be bubbled in. The great musicians, the visionaries like Jimmy Page and the rest of them, know better. For them, music without questions, without creativity, without the rebellious pursuit of freedom, is just packaged sounds. Way down inside, we all know we want the real thing.

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The only music teacher a kid will ever have

I’m on the verge of teaching beginning piano. Some folks have asked me if I do that, and I’m ready to say yes. Here’s what happened.

I had a conversation with an upright bass player who supplemented his playing career by teaching piano to young beginners. Now, I have heard accomplished pianists say that they would never dare to teach piano even though they’d been playing for decades, because there was too high a risk for teaching it wrong and with poor technique. But this bassist was unperturbed. He said something about his experience that struck me: “You might be the only music teacher that kid ever has.”

Wow.

I had never thought about teaching music that way before. But it was true. When I was very young, my mother had me get piano lessons because she wanted me to have a firm grounding in music, even if nothing came of it. In elementary school, we had no regular music classes. Once in a blue moon we would have one, but by the time we got to it, I had already learned about scales and chords and stuff because I had been taking piano for some time.

Kids would be lucky if they even got half the instruction that I got in school. There’s no need for me to rant here about how school administrators and politicians throw music and art out of the K-12 curriculum with every budget cut. But as much as musicians and artists grieve over the loss of music in the schools, only some will take on the private teacher’s mantle to make up for what the kids lose. Others run the opposite direction, saying that teaching is only for those with just the right credentials and experience, someone whose heart is really in it to serve students in a responsible way. They say, just because you play good doesn’t mean you can teach it just as well.

That’s a perfectly sound argument, one that I have made many times. Then I heard this story…

When Gandhi was doing his activist thing in India, a woman came to him asking for help. Her young son was addicted to sugar and she wanted to hire Gandhi to teach him how to get off his addiction and eat healthier. He told the woman he’d be happy to do it, but she had to come back in a week before they got started. The woman was puzzled, but she obliged. She waited a week, then came back to him. Now would he help her son? Sure! They got right down to it, and Gandhi told her son exactly what do to.

Now, the woman became indignant and said, why didn’t you tell me all this last week? Gandhi said, because a week ago, I was addicted to sugar, and so I had to figure it out for myself before I shared it with you.

What did my bassist friend have to know to teach beginning piano? How to play beginning piano, and how to communicate with a beginning pianist. That’s it. He doesn’t have to be Horowitz. No parent looking around for simple piano instruction for their son or daughter is going to be looking for a Julliard professor. (If they are, then I’d like to know how they think their child is the newest incarnation of Mozart.) Nor is any adult student looking to enrich their lives with basic piano skills going to hire a Julliard professor just to get them started.

Such a teacher might not have the patience for them anyway.

“But you can’t just hang up your shingle and call yourself a teacher!” everyone says. Well, that’s why Gandhi waited a week, and taught himself how to get off sugar before extending the knowledge to someone else. Was it irresponsible of him to do it that way? Should he have become a licensed nutritionist before he decided to help just one child?

He was probably the only teacher that child was ever going to get.

Once you learn a skill, and learn how to communicate that skill, you can teach that skill. Teachers often scream “you can’t do that” for several reasons:

  1. They are jealously competitive with each other.
  2. They feel righteous and indignant about all the credentials they’ve received and don’t want to see a person with fewer do better than them, because that’s not how they expected it to happen when they were still in school.
  3. They worship their own method, or their own teacher, to the exclusion of everything else, and they think they have nothing new to learn themselves.
  4. They may still cling to the “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” argument, so a person who teaches must be someone who can’t “do” music at all.

How do I know this? Because I’ve been busted on all of these points myself.

We put teachers on a pedestal on the one hand, but tear them down on the other, because of our own insecure egos running the show. On the surface, we say that teaching is too important to be left to the incompetent, and we think we’re honoring teachers by saying this, but we’re not. Underneath, our ego is saying, “therefore only someone like me should be doing it,” or, “therefore that idiot over there shouldn’t be doing it.” Or, “Look at me; at least I have some sense to stay out of the way, unlike that guy.”

There’s some version of “I’m too smart to teach” going on, and that’s ego. That’s ugly. The way you honor the teaching profession is to teach, not to run away from teaching.

What if you were the only music teacher that a kid will ever have?

I never questioned the competency or credentials of the woman who first taught me piano out of her home when I was a fussy child. She had the patience of an oak tree, even when my parents didn’t. She gave me something that no one else did, without which I wouldn’t have lasted in high school choir and gone on to become the musician I am now. Her gift lasted me a lifetime, and that’s all I need to know. If I had to do it all over again, I’d go knock on her door like before, only this time I’d show the kind of patience for myself that she had for me.

But instead of going back in time, I think I’ll go forward and offer beginning piano lessons at SoundSorceress Studio. I’ll pay it forward on my teacher’s behalf, because I might be the only music teacher some kid ever has.

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Six Benefits I Got From Learning Cover Songs

Depending on who you talk to, cover songs are the bane or the blessing of the gigging musician. For a long time I thought they were baneful, because the practice suggests faking it, selling out, or covering up for poor musicianship. But then the torch song project I got involved in last year changed my thinking, because I had no choice but to explore a whole world of music that put me beyond just being the quirky singer-songwriter. And ultimately, it expanded my reach in the music scene and built up a whole new skill set for me. Here are a few things I learned along the way:

1. Cover songs help you test yourself. And not just for skill but for interpretation, artistry and presence. What’s the highest difficulty level I can master while delivering a performance that really communicates something?

2. You get to learn other styles. That way, I don’t have to be boxed in by any particular one, and I expand my skills.

3. You get to learn YOUR style. Cover songs are not meant to be carbon-copied, so I don’t have to kill myself trying to duplicate every nuance of the artist’s original. At worst, I’ll sound like a hack or a fake. Sometimes I’ll more truly discover what my personal style is by learning a song that goes against the grain of it. How would I communicate this idea?

4. You get to generate more listenership. Especially if it’s an open mic or another forum where I get to meet a new audience, I have a much easier time connecting with listeners by way of a song they already know than by throwing out my quirkiest original composition. If I perform well, they will remember me well and probably also dig on my original work if it’s included in the same package.

5. You get to work more with others. One of the easiest ways to get other musicians to play with you is to offer up a cover song you can play together. This happens a lot at open mics, where a handful of musicians will play with each other for long sequences because the whole thing has turned into a festival of songs not unlike a campfire under the stars. And it’s just as magical. Musicians learn about each other best by playing together, and doing so on a commonly known song is the fastest way to experience their magic, and for them to experience yours.

6. Gigs….duh! Many bars, clubs, and restaurants have customers who just don’t prefer new music, and that’s okay; they will still pay to have musicians come and do their favorite songs. Right now I’m working in a cover duo called Windfall Prophets and we’ve had all kinds of fun playing over 50 years worth of popular favorites in more sedate restaurant settings. It helps me keep my chops up, and keeps me connected to listeners.

Ultimately, what I get from learning cover songs is flexibility, the ability to bend without breaking. It’s given me the ability to be more myself, not less, and that sustains me through everything I do in music: playing, singing, communicating, promoting, teaching, networking and the rest of it.

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I can’t believe I love teaching!

As of this writing, I’ve had only one student take one voice lesson with me, and I’m already hooked. I want to do more. I want so much for my student to enjoy her voice and discover its full capability that I’m beside myself. I can’t believe it. Years ago I would have never pictured it like this.

Here’s what I love about teaching: Each student gets to create something inspiring, and I get to help. My student told me she wants to create a recital on the theme of “the many faces of love.” How cool is that!? I was blown away by this.

In years past, I’ve been one of those people who thought that teaching was reserved for professional failures–the has-been’s, never-been’s and woulda-coulda-shoulda-been’s. And I admit, that’s a rotten thing to say or think. As a teacher now, I think that if I were approached by my 12-years-ago self saying such a thing, I would be offended. And you know what, it was actually 12 years ago that Richard Kennell, the now retired Dean of the College of Musical Arts at BGSU said to a classroom full of us aspiring young musicians:

“If you don’t teach, the art dies with you.”

I could slap myself for not getting what he said. Especially now, since I have a voice studio where I want nothing more than to just share with people how wonderful it is to sing, and to explore what the voice can do.

I’m all about sharing. That’s what singers do. That’s what all musicians do, but singers have a very specific role to play in the sharing of experiences through music, because they combine Sound with Word in a process that is nothing short of Magic. We have a huge responsibility and opportunity to share on multiple planes and levels of reality, so that people can be transformed in their listening.

And I get to help now, as a teacher.

It’s not that I’ve never taught before–I’ve actually done a fair share of classroom teaching in the past, and choir rehearsals are not all that different–it’s just that my experience of it is so different now; I’m not the same person I was then. Hallelujah.

Because now, it’s all about sharing. Who doesn’t love sharing? Who doesn’t appreciate someone who shares authentically? And now I get to help singers do just that. Not just in choir, but in the private studio now. It’s a special thing.

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