Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tip Eight: Play Music You Hate

Tip Eight: Play the Music You Hate

This is the eighth 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.

When put into the context of Tip Seven (Play the Music You Love), Tip Eight might seem contradictory. But it makes sense. Here's why.

Let me give you a personal example. I started learning the piano (for the second time) when I was about 23. Unlike when I started the first time at age six, I knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish. A large part of what I wanted to learn was blues and boogie woogie.

Later I took a liking to some other styles, so I guess I was somewhat open minded.

But there was one thing I wasn't so open minded about. And that was the key. And you get three guess as to which key I favored. Of course, the key of C.

Now my teacher was OK with that. My teacher wasn't exactly a music teacher and had no training in pedagogy. I just showed up every week, told him what I wanted to learn, and he showed me. If he had any ideas as to what he thought I SHOULD be learning, he kept them to himself.

So I pretty much stayed in the key of C with my blues and my boogie and my country and my swing and my improvising. And I got pretty good at it after a year or so.

As long as I played in the key of C.

Eventually I got good enough to play in a band. And guess what? Did the guitar player play everything in the key of C? No way. All of a sudden I had to learn to play in a vast assortment of keys. Strange, exotic keys. Guitar keys, like E major and A major. And I was required to modulate (change keys in the middle of a song) sometimes.

In a way it was like starting all over.

But of course mastering all keys is something every musician has to do. I hated it at first, but avoiding it was no longer an option. So I made the adjustment (somewhat at the expense of my audience).

I had the same sort of experience with some specific songs. Being someone with more than his share of opinions, there were some songs I truly detested (don't ask me to name names here please). But a lot of these same songs were big favorites of my audience. Again, as a working musician in a band, I no longer had the option not to play them.

Here's the fun part. I discovered a lot of the songs I didn't care for were musically similar. I never really noticed that until I was forced to play them. And then I had the "aha" moments.

"Aha Moment No. 1" was that the songs I didn't like often shared the same attributes.

"Aha Moment No. 2" was that by avoiding these songs, I was not exposing myself to certain specific musical experiences (such as certain particular chord changes).

"Aha Moment No. 3" was that by playing these songs I had heretofore avoided, I was learning and growing musically.

I still might not care for these songs to this day. But now I know what's in them, and I play better overall from the experience.

So the lesson? Hard keys can be your friend (although I still avoid F sharp like the plague). Crappy songs (subjective opinion) can take you on musical voyages you would never find on your own. And music can have a lot of surprises that you can learn to like.

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