Saturday, February 26, 2011

Bridging the Great Divide

I was brought up on classical music. My parents loved music and my dad was an amateur opera singer. My piano teachers were all traditional teachers who had me play exclusively from the written page (even though I had a great ear and could play almost anything I heard by ear). By the time I was in high school, however, I was listening to Dylan, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and other great songwriters of the 60s, and all but lost interest in classical music. I took up the guitar and sang and played the pop music I loved on guitar, much to the despair of my parents. But after high school my love of classical music returned and I went to a conservatory and went back to playing mostly classical music.

After graduating, in order to make a living, I began playing for theatre, including doing some improvising. It was tremendous fun. It was then I began to regret that I hadn't devoted more time to learning and becoming adept at playing pop and jazz on the piano; I would have been able to make a better living by playing for events, playing in restaurants, cafes and other such venues. I knew barely a handful of pianists who could play both classical and popular music. Most of us felt we had to choose one or the other.

To a large degree, the classical world looked down its nose at pop music as inferior, and the pop and jazz world thought classical musicians were straight-laced and inflexible. Forty years later, I find this attitude still prevails. And the majority of the piano teachers that are to be found still teach only classical; they don't encourage their students to try other genres, and wouldn't know how to teach those styles if the students were interested.

Although I have played pop and Broadway for over 30 years, I began playing jazz only about ten years ago, and have found this style of playing to be wonderfully fun and satisfying. I love the songs of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and many others. I love the music of Broadway, from Rogers and Hammerstein to Steven Sondheim. I love a great deal of pop music. Equally important, OTHER people love this music, and being able to play it enables me to play for a wide variety of events such as parties and weddings and provide pleasure to a great number of people. It also enables me to teach these styles.

Most of my students have come to me largely because of my ability to teach a variety of styles. Many of them, from kids to adults, came from other teachers who taught only classical. Not only did their previous teachers give them only classical pieces, but it was all from books, nothing by ear, and their methods and approach were rigid and not very fun. I have many students who come to their first lesson and play a Chopin Nocturne for me, but can't play Happy Birthday by ear and harmonize it with three simple chords.

I encourage all my students to play music from both worlds, and most of them want to. The skills one aquires from playing jazz and pop are many:
1. Learning to play from pop and jazz from fake books (where you are reading chord symbols rather than actual notation) means you have to have a thorough understanding of chords. Chords and harmony are essential to really understanding Western music, whether classical or non-classical. I find that people coming from traditional classical teachers know very little about chords, if anything. Others have taken theory courses and can name chords but have no idea how to apply that knowledge to actual playing.
2. Jazz and pop have rhythmic complexities that much classical music does not have, at least in the early years of study, such as syncopation.
3. Playing songs help you learn about good phrasing. When you sing, or play a piece of music which was originally written to be sung, you can hear more easily how it should be phrased, because the phrasing mirrors the words. When you sing, you breathe at places that make sense musically; when you play it on the piano, you should also "breathe" in those places. I often tell students to play a piece of music as they would sing it.
4. Jazz and pop do not have such a rigid line between "wrong" notes and "right" notes. Including improvisation in your playing frees you from the fear and anxiety over wrong notes. It helps you to learn to manage "unintended" notes and continue playing. If you play with other people you must learn this skill.

Learning to play classical music can help the jazz or pop pianist as well. There is a greater variety of technical challenges in classical music, so working on these will improve your overall technique. Of course, some non-classical musicians don't read music, and this is a valuable skill to have, even if you play primarily by ear. Playing classical music and hearing how the great geniuses of that genre used harmony and counterpoint can give you new ideas for material to use in your arrangements of jazz or pop tunes.

It is my goal to continue to help my students and my listeners bridge the great divide between classical and non-classical music. They are both wonderful and enjoyable to hear and to play. Even if we live primarily in one world, we still need to have an appreciation for the other worlds. Let's drop the snobbery and embrace the unifying power of music.

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