Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Tuning Slide: Observe and Imitate

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Try to find the best teachers,
listen to the finest playing, and
try to emulate that.
Be true to the music.
-- Wynton Marsalis

I have been reading Words Without Music, an interesting memoir/autobiography by modern American composer Philip Glass. It is a good insight into the creative process of one remarkable composer and how he developed into the person he has become. Reading it with an openness to seeing creativity develop is worth the time. At one point he is describing his working with sculptor Richard Serra. Glass spent several years working with Serra as a "day-job" to support his composing. He expressed to Serra one day that he would like to learn how to draw to which Serra replied that he could do that by teaching glass how to "see" and then he would be able to draw.

That was an eye-opening insight for Glass. He reports the following thought that flowed from it:
Drawing is about seeing, dancing is about moving, writing (narrative and especially poetry) is about speaking, and music is about hearing. I next realized that music training was absolutely about learning to hear - going completely past everyday listening. p. 223 [emphasis added]
This reminded me of an article about Clark Terry on the Jazz Advice website. Terry's three steps to improvising are:
Imitation, Assimilation, Innovation.
That simple. (Yeah. Right!) They define imitation this way:
Listening. Learning lines by ear. Transcribing solos. Absorbing a player’s feel, articulation, and time.
The same as Glass's insight- learning to hear. Paying attention.

We've all heard someone say (or have said it ourselves) that they just don't "get" or "understand" that music.The first time you hear music from a completely different culture based on scales and rhythm that is "foreign" to us, we scratch our heads in wonder. What that means on some level is that we are not listening or able to listen to the music as it is meant to be heard. Our own brains don't expect it to sound that way.

Learning to hear. Paying attention.

But we can keep working at it.  We can keep listening. We can train ourselves to listen differently. Too often we expect things to be just like they have been before. Or in a way that we are used to. Glass himself faced a great deal of criticism and even hatred for the type of "odd" music he was writing. When he started in the 50s and 60s "modern music" was considered the music of the 1900s- 1920s or so. People came on stage and attempted to stop his concerts! They weren't able to hear- and therefore made a judgement about its quality and even its definition as music.

I would go beyond listening to learn to improvise. I think it is essential to being a musician of any type of music. Hearing what it sounds like; hearing what it feels like. Then picking up our instrument and trying to imitate it. The more we listen, the more we are open to hearing, the greater our musical skill will become and the deeper our understanding of music will go.

What this boils down to is going beyond the music theory and an intellectual understanding. The website Brain Pickings has a post from the 1982 book by author and composer Elliot Schwartz Music: Ways of Listening. The book outlines seven essential skills of learning to listen in this age where, he believes, we have been “dulled by our built-in twentieth-century habit of tuning out.”

The first skill is:
  • Develop your sensitivity to music. Try to respond esthetically to all sounds, from the hum of the refrigerator motor or the paddling of oars on a lake, to the tones of a cello or muted trumpet. When we really hear sounds, we may find them all quite expressive, magical and even ‘beautiful.’ On a more complex level, try to relate sounds to each other in patterns: the successive notes in a melody, or the interrelationships between an ice cream truck jingle and nearby children’s games.
It's all about hearing. The other six skills Schwartz explains help us guide our learning and our hearing, going deeper and broader.
  • Time is a crucial component of the musical experience. Develop a sense of time as it passes: duration, motion, and the placement of events within a time frame.
  • Develop a musical memory. While listening to a piece, try to recall familiar patterns, relating new events to past ones and placing them all within a durational frame.
  • If we want to read, write or talk about music, we must acquire a working vocabulary.
  • Try to develop musical concentration, especially when listening to lengthy pieces.
  • Try to listen objectively and dispassionately. Concentrate upon ‘what’s there,’ and not what you hope or wish would be there.
  • Bring experience and knowledge to the listening situation. That includes not only your concentration and growing vocabulary, but information about the music itself: its composer, history and social context. Such knowledge makes the experience of listening that much more enjoyable.
This isn't just about music, of course. The relation to writing, or cooking, or being good at your job can be easily made. From the Brain Pickings post:
Perhaps most interestingly, you can substitute “reading” for “listening” and “writing” for “music,” and the list would be just as valuable and insightful, and just as needed an antidote to the dulling of our modern modes of information consumption.
Go for it. Listen!
Then, really hear.
Then imitate.

1 comment:

Dim Lamp said...

I appreciate this post, although I'm not an expert on music, I have grown in my appreciation for contemporary composers like Philip Glass. When I first heard his music, I didn't like it at all, now I have come to appreciate it, although sometimes I find his use of repetition rather monotonous.