I started my walk on the musical road to perdition not as a guitarist, but as a singer. I received a fairly traditional, classical education. I learned to read notes, solfege (learning relative intervals: think of the famed scene of the Sound of Music where the children learn to sing via Do-Re-Mi: that’s solfege!), all the modes. When I switched to the rock and metal side of music I experienced major troubles: I couldn’t get rid of my belcanto-techniques. Belcanto is a singing technique, used in classical music. It can be used for opera, church music, Rennaissance era music… practically anything except rock, metal and blues! Fast forward: a decade later I see myself confronted in a Belcanto surrounding yet again when I was invited for a reunion of my old choir (which was lots of fun, if I may say so!). During the reunion I got to talk with the musical directors of the choir and get a crash course update on the current trends in music pedagogy. In this article I want to discuss how classical music may have influenced the pedagogy within so called ‘light music’ paradigms as well as the other way around.
Pedagogy is the study of education, and the education to be a classical musician often involves learning to how to read notes. This is the basis for all classical music. Doing it by ear is absolutely a no-go area. The interpretation of the music lies wholly in the written notes and connotations of the composer. You just have to play what’s written. That may sound easy, but appearances can be deceiving. As a classically trained musician you have to distill the intentions of the composer – the story if you will – out of the notes as well as the context of the notes. A phrase that was being thrown around on a daily basis was: Even the rests and silences can be music! To get a grasp on how strong that sense of musicality can be, take a look (or rather, listen!) at this piece by John Cage, called ”4:33”.
Blues, jazz, rock, metal, funk, soul etcetera etcetera are often being described as ‘light music’. Frankly speaking, I’m not sure why it’s called light. Some ‘light’ music can be as harmonically right as even the most complex classical music! To prove my point: look at Dave Eichenberger’s articles. He is an expert when it comes to clarifying difficult chord progressions, changes and substitutions. Sometimes a simple substitution can make a huge difference and ditto impact, and Dave manages to get that point across just fine.
But, perhaps it’s called light because there isn’t as much emphasize on theory as there is in classical music. Often, light music is being transcribed and played fully by ear. Some of the finest guitarists I know can’t even read music or have any idea of scales, chords, progressions etc etc.
My surprise during the aforementioned reunion was threefold. It showed how the lines between the pedagogy of classical and light music seem to fade. Let’s take it down one by one.
First and foremost I was surprised at the way singers are being trained and educated. An in Germany developed method called the Lichtenberger Methode is a radically new way of teaching how to sing. It may seem a strange idea that one must be taught to sing. After all, you can already speak and know how to make sounds; the vocal chords are part of your body, so it may seem like a strange notion that you have to learn how to sing. But vocal coaches (including coaches who use the Lichtenberger Methode!) perceive the voice as an instrument in its own right: an instrument that needs shaping to get the best results without straining the vocal chords, which may harm them.
The Lichtenberger Method is different in its approach than conventional methods. it doesn’t force the singer in a pre-propositioned paradigm. In stead its focus is to have a complete and utmost state of relaxation. For a classically trained singer (or instrumentalist, for that matter!) that’s a whole new field to be explored. All training programs for instruments (as well as the voice, the guitar, the piano, etc etc!) require some form of tension. Wether it’s breath support in wind instruments or the tension in the wrist and lower arms when playing the piano, there’s always tension. This tension is not really the natural state of your body. For example, Glen Gould refused to play the way he was ‘supposed’ to play, hence is ridiculously low stool. Perhaps his unique (dis)position is part of why his sound is instantly recognizable. In the ‘light’ music, playing in such a way that you’re comfortable is common practice for ages. The keys of a piano always have the same width, an oboe has always the same length… But guitars have different neck shapes, and even with two similar necks, one guitarist may wear his guitar high, another may wear his guitar around his knees! There is no ‘rule’ on how to play, as long as you’re comfortable. I’m very happy to see that personal comfort and relaxation are slowly creeping in the curriculum of pedagogy of classical music.
Another trend I noticed is the way our memory worked. We haven’t sung those songs for over a decade, but we required very little visual aid to remember the lyrics or notes. I suppose that’s got something to do with the methods of learning the song when we were young(er). In stead of hammering the lyrics and lines hours on end, we had something like speed learning. Five minutes of one song, then five minutes of another, then five minutes of a third one. Five minute break and back at number one again. According to this article, written by Dr. Noa Kageyama with assistance of Dr. Christine Carter, the way we trained is exactly the way you should work to maximize the potential of your memory. Not just to learn it, but to memorize it as well (which are, of course, two completely different things!).
When I started playing guitar I used this method to learn (and later teach) guitar, as well. In my case it wasn’t because I wanted to learn as fast as possible but because of physical restraints. Playing guitar was at first so strenuous for my hands that I had to switch techniques. Later on, as the strength was being build up in my hand I could practice one technique for a longer period of time, but still… I noticed that the speed method worked best. If you read the article, you may notice that the method I described isn’t standard within the training schemes of classical music, at all. Practicing hours on end on the same piece or even the same technique is much more common, with all the negative aspects associated with it. I’m happy to see that as we get more insights regarding our memory, the exercise paradigms gradually change. There is more customization and tailoring to fit the individuals needs. Thankfully it’s not just a customization of pedagogy, but also a change in the outfit of a recording or practice room. Listen to George Lynch in this clip. Here he’s in his recording area in the Californian desert. If this unique space won’t inspire you to create epic music, I don’t know what will!
I’m also surprised to see that I’m not the only one who’s made the switch from classical music to ‘light’ music and vice versa. Just read up on Amos Heller’s interview. Here, he mentions how he is moving forward and backward between styles. Very fun read! Thanks Jon Moody for your contribution!