Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Beatles

Did you catch the news this week? Apple iTunes seems to have worked out its differences with the Beatles and is now offering The Beatles record catalog for downloads. It's been a long time in coming, but this is an amazing example of how people have a way of ironing out their differences when there is several million dollars at stake.

All cynicism aside, it's quite a newsworthy event. And if you are any kind of fan of The Beatles at all, you'll want to see some of the video Apple is making available as a part of their promotion.

Of particular note is a film of The Beatles' first US concert, presented in its entirety. The concert was given two days after the boys' historic appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February of 1964, and took place in Washington, D.C.

Even though the concert was a sell out, it was in front of an audience of only 7,000. That's paltry by today's standards. And some of the technology involved in staging the show was laughably low tech, as you will see when you view the footage. Go see it by logging into the web site or the iTunes store. See it now, as it probably won't be up forever.

If you are fortunate enough to be under 55 years old, you probably don't remember the hysteria that accompanied The Beatles' first US tour. I do remember it, and it was unbelievable. There was nothing to compare it to, before or since. No one else in show business ever created such a buzz. Not Elvis. Not Sinatra. Not any of the pop stars to come along since, blond or otherwise.

I was just a teenager then, and I remember that not a day went by without a front page story on The Beatles in the San Francisco Chronicle. It was all anyone could talk about.

It was reported that during that hour of the Ed Sullivan Show, not a single crime was committed in all of New York City.

And this was all before anyone knew The Beatles were good. Or at least we had no idea how good they were to become. But they kept on proving themselves, reinventing themselves, and then burning out, almost as rapidly as they came on the scene.

If you are over 75, you probably didn't care for them when they hit the scene. I know my parents didn't nor did any "old people." (Def.: anyone over 30). That hair. They don't even sing in tune. Too loud.

They (the old folks) were proven wrong ultimately. We young uns, 11 to about 18, had it right. How did we know? How did we create Beatlemania, and how did we get the media to blow it completely out of proportion?

I don't know. But I don't think we'll ever see anything like it again. But now at least we get to relive those heady days of Beatlemania.

Enjoy the downloads. I know you will. Even if you're under 55. Even if you're over 75.

P.S. Feel free to comment and/or leave your own remembrances below. I'd love to read them.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Tip Seven: Play What You Love

Tip Seven: Play What You Love

This is the seventh installment in our series of articles on hidden or obscure strategies for improving musicianship. These strategies are not intended to be a substitute for (I dislike this word) "practicing." To the contrary. Spending time playing your instrument is mightily important.

But think of these 22 ideas as strategies you can use in addition to your time in the woodshed. How does one find a label for these strategies? Subconscious? Metaphysical? Whatever word you want to use, go ahead. It's just that these ideas are not often presented to you as part of a musical instrument learning regimen.

Understand that these ideas are in no particular order, either of chronology or importance. In fact this one may be among the most important of the 22. So here it is.

Actually, I'd like to start this by posing a question. Why do piano lessons fail?

I'm talking mostly about the teaching of children here. Those of us who are 50 and older were much more likely to have had childhood piano lessons than are members of the successive generation (whose parents had to think up alternative forms of child abuse).

So if you were one of those who took lessons as a child, let me ask you this. Why did you stop? What is the reason you are not performing in the major concert halls of the world today?

Here's a wild guess. It wasn't fun for you. Think about practicing. Was it something you wanted to do, or was it something you had to do? Did you look forward to giving piano recitals? I didn't. Nor did I know of anyone in my group who did.

Yeah, it wasn't fun for me. I hated to practice. And I finally wore my parents down and was able to quit. You know what happened then? Interestingly, after the obligations of piano were dismantled, I found myself spending hours at the piano just fooling around with it, playing what I wanted to play, unencumbered by the pressures of weekly judgement and the fear of recitals.

Radical concept: Playing music is supposed to be fun.

Adult learners can spend hours and hours, learning, improving, perfecting, striving do it because at some point, there is an emotional payoff. Certainly accomplishing goals musically is incentive. But I doubt most adults would put the time that it takes to accomplish those goals if doing so did not bring them *pleasure at the moment*.

We all play because it's fun to play. Even when things are challenging and frustrating, we work through those frustrations, because we enjoy the process.

So why is that? Why did I spend hours every day as a teenager teaching myself guitar, when just a few years earlier I had to whine and whine in order to get out of taking piano lessons?

Here's my theory. Music is fun to play when you are playing music that you like. And of course the more you like it, the more you want to do it; and the more you do it, the better you get. It's basic economics, the incentive principle. Being able to choose the music you play makes it fun to do.

Now think about childhood piano lessons, if you had them. Did you get to choose the songs you had to learn each week? Probably not. Your teacher assigned them to you. In fact you didn't even get to choose the genre of music you had to play, did you? Chances are it was mostly, if not entirely, classical music.

Classical music is great. I love it. Sometimes. But I don't recall any of my own kids ever voluntarily playing classical music on the radio or CD player when they were growing up. It wasn't their thing. Thus, I suppose, being limited to a steady diet of it wouldn't have been much of an incentive to learn an instrument.

Perhaps if they had teachers who could teach them to play the stuff they were into, it would have been a different story. Who knows?

But how is this relevant to us?

My piano students are all adults. They come to my seminars, not because their mothers make them do it. Nor will they "practice" because their mothers set an agenda.

My students come to the seminars because they think they have a shot at learning the piano, whether it's their first attempt or their umpteenth. Since I myself got a late start, I know that their success will be shaped by how much time they spend sitting on the piano bench. And that won't be determined by their mothers. That will be determined by their own enthusiasm.

My promise to my workshop students is that they will learn how to play "any song, in any style of music (except classical)." Seems like a tall order that completely flies in the face of conventional wisdom. But it's really not so hard.

I strive to provide students with the information it takes to understand the concepts of playing music. The reality is that the internal structure of all songs is the same. You basically have a melody and chords. A piano player plays melody with the right hand, and plays the chords with the left. Easy concept.

However, information alone is not enough to insure success at learning the piano. The concepts may be easy, but then you have to condition your hands to make the right moves.

One needs to work things out at the piano, to be sure. But you don't need a coach all the time. You mostly need the time to go over things repeatedly, and work things out. By giving you the power to choose your own songs, your own repertoire, your own direction, I think that's the best thing I can do to help insure you will spend time at your piano.

Then you've got to deal with things like key signatures, time signatures, note time values, accidentals--all mostly music notation issues. So we address that, and usually come up with some great shortcuts. Once you understand that music can be broken down into this idea that its all melody (one note at a time) and chords (one or two chords per measure) you are essentially empowered with the wherewithal to play any song you want. Of course you will be playing it at your level of accomplishment, but you get to choose the playlist.

So that leads us to this tip: Play songs you like. Play songs you love. You get to choose, so play songs that will inspire you to play more. The more you play, the better you get. Who wants to argue that one? Once you learn the basics, you are free to choose the songs you play. And nobody knows what those songs should be better than you.

So that's Tip Seven: Play music that you love.

Coming soon, Tip Eight: Play songs that you hate.