Studying and Practicing Music
-- Randy McCluskey
with its enormous resources, crosses avenues between artistic, technical,
mathematical, and the inspirational aspects of the learning process.
With this industry comes numerous institutions, books, tapes, and
private teachers aimed at the consumer devoted to learning music.
Yet with so many methods of teaching combined with our personal objectives,
its hard to know what course we should set for ourselves. There
are some facts we know, as in anything in life worth learning, studying
music takes ambition, perseverance, patience, and the fundamentals
of the profession. Having said this, we still need some form of direction,
and while some books and tapes provide a few guidelines, theres
always a basic desire to bounce many different questions off a seasoned
pro. So a logical solution is finding a good private teacher.
a private instructor focused solely on oneself can be extremely appealing.
Not only is the instructors knowledge and experience at the
students disposal, but he/she can divulge their personal problems
regarding playing and learning. Furthermore, since people comprehend
information in different ways, a private teacher can find the best
way that works for them. With these ideals in mind, the focus of this
article is for those whove decided to seek private instruction
or plan to in the future. But finding the a good instructor who teaches
the right information can be confusing and intimidating
a good teacher who really knows their stuff and is a good match to
your plans as a player is worth the search. But before we look at
the sources in finding the right teacher and what makes them qualified,
well first put a few things into perspective. Weve all
heard the phrase, "Set your goals." Yeah, well this casual
command somehow fails us many times in different areas of our lives.
A better approach is to just simply figure out our priorities and
discipline ourselves to be consistent in the process of what were
trying to achieve. Its not semantics, its functional!
this practice to playing and studying music is a pure design for success.
Whether youre seeking private instruction as a career musician
or a hobbyist, define what you wish to accomplish as you talk with
various instructors. Be direct and sincere about your reasons for
studying, the skill level youre at, and where youd like
to see yourself as a musician. If youre a player serious about
becoming a true professional, let the instructor know so they may
be compelled to work you a little harder. Having a drill sergeant
push you and toughen you up for the hard road ahead in this competitive
field is in your best interest. And for the hobbyist or the patient
seeking a musical therapist, likewise let the instructor know so they
can keep the lessons a little more laid back, like a flower arrangement
class. In regard to homework, let the teacher know how much time you
can commit to practice due to the responsibilities of job, family,
etc., so you can realistically keep up.
keep your musical path open to new doors. Obviously youre planning
to study to expand your vocabulary, so embrace the foundational tools
of music to develop your harmonic and melodic speech. Anyhow, whether
playing is for the love of it, for purpose, for therapy, or all of
it, equip yourself with good sources of information to make solid
I See Some I.D. Please?
instructors can obviously be obtained through newspaper ads and music
stores which offer lessons, or bulletin boards with musicians advertising
their services, but be cautious and objective involving these resources.
Heres a few things to keep in mind. First, a qualified teacher
is preferably someone formally educated or at least possesses the
knowledge and skills of the fundamentals of music. (More on this later)
Second, dont be deceived by a well trained seal act. Beware
of the hotshot with flash that may give the illusion of being a knowledgeable
player. Theyre like amateurs who know just enough karate to
get themselves killed. Such a person may pull off a quick lick or
slap and tap, a catchy line, but that can be their limit. As Jaco
would say, "Just wigglin their fingers, ya know, just jivin".
Most of the time, such imitators arent even capable of walking
and soloing over a simple jazz blues progression. Oooh! Too harsh?
Too bad! Good musicians understand life in the real world of competition
and know that the consequence of not learning critical skills and
fundamentals is having to become a disgruntled paperboy again.
If I could
stay on my soap box for just a another minute. Its tragic when
a student gets financially and musically ripped off by a bad so-called
instructor. Ive had numerous students come to me, after theyve
studied with some incompetent chameleon, frustrated and confused as
to why their progress is so stifled and inadequate. Its not
their fault. These poor trusting souls were conned and or dazzled
by some magician. In most scenarios all they ever learned were some
riffs, licks, or simple bass lines over three chord tunes. They never
learned how scales are constructed, the chords derived from them,
and how to apply their usage over musical passages. They were never
taught how to train their ear by identifying intervals, chords, and
melodies. Rhythm studies, transcriptions, and reading were also neglected.
theyre not able to figure, whatever the musical material, out
on their own. Furthermore, because they dont understand what
they are hearing or looking at on paper, let alone what to play over
the music, theyre not able to hang with capable players. It
is a miserable feeling. They simply were never given the right tools
they need. You want to learn from the genuine article. However, sometimes
there are a few music stores that employ excellent teachers and also,
some musicians who advertise are absolutely great players and teachers
too. Like I said, a referral is always nice, but if you dont
have one, you can do a little auditioning of your own.
up with a prospective teacher in person or on the phone, there are
certain questions to have answered. You basically want to find out
the instructors philosophy on teaching and how they make the
material functional and fun. They should pretty well sum up what theyre
about. I always appreciate people asking me detailed questions about
my approach and the methods I use in teaching. Im fairly able
to determine the persons level of commitment to his/her education
and they are able to find out whats expected of them and what
theyll be learning. First, find out what the instructors
curriculum entails. For instance, what subjects do they include such
as theory, ear training, rhythm studies, etc.
musical idioms do they apply such as Jazz, Classical, Latin, etc.
Any good teacher will be hip to these applications and maintain a
practical and organized learning process. Second, find out how the
lessons are tailored. After an instructor has assessed a students
level of skill, he/she should then customize their studies, a practice
schedule, and homework in all the fundamentals at the students
are the fundamentals? They are: Theory, Ear-Training, Transcription
Work, Reading, Sight Singing, Rhythm Studies, and Required Listening.
These are the most profitable and time-tested standards to learning
music. These are the subjects that are mandatory at every music college
and music institution. Why shouldnt you receive the right information
also? The general attitude from a teacher should convey that the students
education is taken seriously, by making sure they receive the vital
knowledge and skills for their progress. Also, the instructor should
keep the lessons fun and interesting to avoid studies falling into
a rut for the students sanity as well as the instructors.
And lastly, the teacher needs to be a good communicator, as in informational
and motivational. One of my teachers loves to use stories and philosophy
regarding learning and succeeding, and I work with parables and visual
graphs regarding theory and improvisation. All this is important because
whatever format helps the student to hang hooks on what theyre
trying to understand should be utilized.
to the emotional level, hey, all of us need motivation, acceptance,
security, and purpose. Think about this. Everyone tries to fill their
lives in these areas with something, be it good or bad. (I see my
freshman psych class is rearing its ugly head) Anyhow, everybody needs
an inspirational fight-to-victory speech from the head coach. To summarize,
a good mentor will inspire, encourage, and push you while employing
essential, practical methods that are effective. His or her insight
into the heart and mind of a struggling artist is to your benefit,
aside from a musical standpoint, but from lifes lessons of a
veteran of survival.
musicians have the facility to communicate to us through their unique
musical identity. We associate with the impressions and emotions the
artist expresses, and marvel at the influence they have on us. Likewise,
were all junkies for the ability to reach our listeners through
our own musical personality. As a painter needs a vast pallet of colors
to take us places and a writer needs a well developed vocabulary to
provoke our emotions, so also the musician moves the listener through
sound with their own colors and vocabulary. With this in mind, the
intent of studying proficiently, is to foster the musicians own colors
a bit of philosophy regarding learning thoroughly, suppose you were
thirsty and wanted a glassful of water. In wanting to quench your
thirst, you impatiently turn on the faucet full blast. As the water
is overflowing and being wasted, you turn off the water and are left
with half a glass. If on the other hand, you patiently filled the
glass slowly you would retain all the water, wasting nothing. The
same scenario applies to us as musicians studying our craft. You have
the thirst for knowledge. If youre impatient and blast through
your studies, youll end up with half the information intended
while wasting the other. Going very slowly ensures that nothing is
wasted. So let your head absorb the data gradually and let your hands
moderately work through their awkwardness towards good technique.
this; Youre going to end up playing the way you practice. If
you practice half-assed, youll play half-assed! This is a critical
point. Anything in life we pursue in learning, we need to go slowly,
and dig deeply, to absorb fully. In working through your studies,
keep this in mind: Give yourself permission to develop a gradual and
unimpaired attitude toward learning. Dont compromise! By taking
your time working methodically, the greater your retention will be.
This is practicing intelligently. Learning can be fun and easy, by
taking small bits you can handle before moving on.
parallel would be the 16th century Japanese sword makers. Their product
was second to none. Concerning themselves with time was of no importance
as they took hundreds of meticulous man hours shaping, molding, and
layering, then repeating the process over and over. Whatever duration
of time was needed was taken, period!, before moving on to the next
operation. Exercising great patience and character they, "ritualized
the experience." This position towards excellence is a lesson
for us all. So now that the right tempo is set to study, lets
suppose the day is set for the first lesson.
The Learning Position
heard the phrase, "Dont judge a book by its cover".
Words to live by! The first time I walked into my teachers house,
I was a bit disturbed. As I looked around, I instantly noticed nothing
on the walls except one little letter duct taped to one wall and one
chair on wheels. Seated in the chair was a punching bag with arms
attached to it by ropes, wearing leather gloves. Another sculpture
in this gallery was a step stool with a lamp duct taped to its top
step. Records and books grew like gardens from the floor, and two
electric pianos were huddled together in the next room. I didnt
bother to check the kitchen. At that point I was grievously convinced
Id taken a wrong turn somewhere, but figured if nothing else,
I could use a good story.
come on in and get set up
Ill be right with you,"
barked Yoda, (I call him) as he was finishing up with a student just
before me. I began to get my bass ready and got out my list of questions
for a quick recipe for monster chop discipleship cookies. As I awaited
my turn, I examined my surroundings closer to give some kind of qualifying
support to the choice Id made. Then my ears smacked me upside
the head. Yoda was making a point with the student he was still teaching
about "ears". On his piano, he was playing some jazz standard
they were working on with his left hand, while at the same time, playing
in unison to a classical piece from the radio, with his right hand.
The little smirk on my face quickly passed away as serious beads of
sweat on my forehead were harvested to my shirt sleeve.
sobering display came the call "NEXT!" By now, Im
preparing for a good ass-kickin. "Mr. Jerome (Yoda)
in a trembling weasel voice, "Im a broken man, do with
me as need be," I reported. General Jerome gave me the at ease
sign, got me plugged in, and the boot camp began with different sorts
of evaluating tests. Their were no secrets unexposed in my playing.
This was a musical cavity search all the way. But it was necessary.
Hey, a doctor cant prescribe the right prescription without
the exam. Towards the end of the lesson, Jerome had me improv over
a chart. So with my trusty 6 string uzi I sprayed the room with a
bounty of note bullets while embracing a feeling of conquest. Jerome
then looked at me as if I stumbled into some bad lighting and said
shaking his head, "Didnt cook." "What?, Whaddya
mean, didnt cook?", I cried. "Yeah!"
Jerome roared back, "Just what I said you impertinent, (pompous),
incredulous, (doubtful) turd! (poop)"
guess thatll do it for today,"
I thought to myself, "Ill just grab ma things here and
be on my way ya crusty (petulant), ill-mannered (brusque) butt crumpet!
(poop)" By reading my face, it was obvious I was a bit offended
so then he filleted me even more. I then reasoned hey, this is the
music business, hurt feelings and a bruised ego were not going to
benefit me at all. So I listened intently to his critiques my eyes
were opened very wide. Through time I learned many more valuable lessons
through my tolerance of his teaching manner.
You Sir, May I Please Have Another?
are very passionate about what they do, being very direct and giving
no concern to a students pride. My teacher said and did whatever
he felt was needed to get through to me. So dont be hurt if
a highly charged instructor gets in your face. Its done out
of devotion. If they didnt care so much about your musical well-being,
they would let everything slide. Every time I get on my students,
its absolutely done out of love. If theyre being bone-heads
about their studies, Im gonna let em know it. Im
completely on their side and only want whats best for them.
Anyhow, whatever the demeanor the teacher has, give them and their
direction a chance. It takes a while for the lessons to take root.
Be patient! Every time I went to my lesson was like going to a parts
store, piecing together my project. Everything fit together in stages.
In time, Jeromes system filled in all the gaps of my playing
as my patience and perseverance paid off.
The Interstate All The Way!!!
there a faster way, why do I have to learn all this stuff? Ahww! Its
like nails on a chalk board when I hear this. There is a serious consequence
whenever quality is replaced by cheap imitation regarding anything
of value. Weve all read it; "Instant Chops!" or "Learn
to play in 7 days!" Yeah, right. Show me anyone who can instantly,
or in 7 days, read, write, and fluently speak another language. Any
idiot with half a brain knows this is out of the question. Music is
a language also and it cant be acquired with indifference to
progression. And within this progression, there is a systematic path
by design to be trusted and used. I feel another illustration coming
on about taking the right route.
you want to get from point A to point B which are 20 miles apart in
a major city. One way in getting there could be taking the side streets,
providing theyre not interrupted by dead ends. After a long
long time you might arrive. If however you take the interstate, you
have a direct and unimpaired route. Guaranteed! In your quest for
musical knowledge you can stumble along randomly grabbing bits and
pieces of information over a long long period of time, or you can
take an efficient short cut designed for certain arrival. The interstate
is the fundamentals! This is actually the fastest way!
Or Pork Chops
food, drive-thru, poor diet lifestyle has unfortunately spilled over
into the music community. There is a mentality that learning a couple
of chops will quickly get you by. Previously I said that music is
a language and needs to be learned from the ground up. Case in point.
A language starts with an alphabet. The alphabet is the foundation
and words are thus constructed from the alphabet. Words are then pieced
together to make up sentences and sentences are gathered to form paragraphs
for dialogue and information. The operation of the language of music
is very much the same. In music, paragraphs are solos and sentences
are melodic phrases. The words are a select group of notes, such as
chords, and the alphabet are the scales. Theres an allure to
learn catchy lines or licks, which is fine, but they should be understood
in their context. To make a point, you cant learn a few words
and phrases of Spanish and expect that to be sufficient for every
situation of communication in Spain. Likewise, learning a few licks
is not going to be applicable to every melodic cadence. You must have
a command of the language to function in every capacity. So dont
settle for a few chops.
often asked this question; "If I study this stuff (the fundamentals)
what will it do for me?" I give them this parallel to ponder.
Take a child at age 4. He can make it throughout his day with his
limited vocabulary, but only in very small circles. He can comprehend,
as well as communicate and express himself, relating only so much
to what he sees and hears. To really make it in the world successfully,
he needs to learn so much more and grow in experience. If he doesnt,
his future is grim, as he can only hang with other 4 year-olds. As
for the musician these same truths apply. You cant get away
from the function, advancement and preeminence of higher learning.
doctors not learning the essential sciences of medicine to heal, or
structural engineers ignoring environmental properties and physics,
or athletes unconcerned with technique and physical conditioning.
Why would serious musicians, striving in their profession, ignore
music theory and training their ear? Its ridiculous! Even a
hobbyist kick-boxer will learn the fundamentals of kick-boxing at
least to survive! So getting back to their question, "What will
this stuff do for me", I ask them; If you could transcribe or
play whatever you hear, understand the structure of a great composition,
know how to apply theory for improvisation and analysis, comprehend
the mechanics of rhythms, and play in any format youre thrown
into, would that do it for you? A smiling "yep" always follows.
amigos, I just have a few more tidbits before Im done. Whatever
your taste or style is in music, keep your mind open to new ground.
I have many students who play within the parameters of rock, in some
capacity, as their profession. But I teach them mostly from a jazz
and fusion platform because its educational content is so well rounded
and thorough. Playing these styles demands a more in depth study of
music theory and ear training, while also promotes the players
knowledge of their instrument. This all carries over to whatever style
they play. My students are thrilled with the results they experience
and tell me how they better comprehend what theyre hearing,
how their bass lines and solos are more creative and melodic, plus
how their command of their instrument has more than doubled.
to using tablature when you work on reading, I strongly discourage
it. In the real world of musicianship its just not practical
or functional. Many gigs, studio sessions, pit bands, various pieces
of music, transcribed solos, and educational information are not going
to accommodate musical illiteracy. Tablature also gives no understanding
of the melodic or rhythmic values to a piece. Music, like the English
language, has a written one as well. And just a little thought here,
imagine all the inspiring literature, informational articles, and
entertaining stories you would miss out on if you could not read English.
lessons, keep a journal to log assignments, a folder to organize your
handout papers, music paper, and a blank cassette tape for dubbing
or recording musical segments from the instructor. Very importantly,
have all homework done. This may seem obvious, but some students,
time and time again, fail to do this and its so unnecessary
and stifling to their growth. Students must realize that getting to
the next level as a musician is a process in which the lessons are
built from the previous ones and the pieces begin to take form.
frequent reasons students quit their lessons are that they simple
did not commit to practicing and doing homework. But the student who
keeps an interest in playing a variety of music and makes the commitment
to practice and completing homework, has a ton of fun playing and
learning because they see real results. A funny thing about practice,
even if you dont want to get better, its impossible! And
lastly, be on time and respectfully show up for your lessons. Too
many late arrivals or no-shows, and youll be replaced by someone
who values learning.
suppose that about covers it for now. I applaud everyone who searches
for a good teacher and commits to educating themselves. I wish you
all the good fortune of finding an exceptional mentor. If what I have
to contribute is helpful, Im thankful. By doing this I acknowledge
the mentors and teachers Ive been so blessed to have studied
with. I once asked Jerome if there was some way I could repay him
for all his help and encouragement. His reply was that it doesnt
work that way because all his mentors are gone, so hes not able
to repay them. He continued that I, must in turn pass on my advice
and help, be it to my students or to my colleagues. What a benevolent
credence this is, and I believe its the homage of every musician.