Sunday, November 10, 2013

In Defense of NOT Championing Notation.

For the majority of my bass students, learning to read musical notation is something we get to... eventually.

If there are no outside forces pushing the student to learn sooner, it can be eight or twelve months before we even talk about it.

I have no problem saying this in a public forum.  This idea is no longer so heretical. After all, some very high profile musicians, bassists and otherwise, admittedly can't read music at all (Paul McCartney, Pino Palladino, Billy Sheehan, Duck Dunn, Rocco Prestia, Stuart Zender, composers Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer, etc). However, I think that if any of these musicians felt the need to learn how, they could become very adept at reading in no time.

I see it as very simple: you learned to talk before you learned to read. If you tried to learn to read before you learned to talk, you'd have no "voice" in your head saying the word you'd be trying to establish an association with. 

You need practice SAYING words before you can readily accept associating those words with symbols, and the same is true with notes on a staff.  Dots and lines moving around on paper mean nothing musical to your brain until you understand pitch.  Realizing how you as a musician control the creation of pitch with your instrument is key to the reading process, and having the judgement to know when you have created a pitch successfully is equally important. You need to be comfortable creating notes and listening to yourself as you play before you'll be able to pay attention to anything else.

Students who learn to read as they learn to play tend to experience the process very slowly and clumsily, whereas those who learn to read once they already know how to play tend to assimilate reading very quickly.

Broken down, the process of sight-reading music goes like this:

1. Eyes observe symbol
2. Brain translates symbol into music information and realizes options for executing this information as a note on the instrument
3. Brain decides how to execute, sends appropriate nerve impulses
4. Hands receive impulses and react
5. Ears hear resulting note and confirm or deny success of the action

Assuming the action was successful, that can all happen in a fraction of a second for a seasoned professional musician.  For a beginner though -- someone whose experience with playing, listening, and reading is all negligible… this can literally take MINUTES. For every single note on a page, a student can experience an inner monologue something like this:

"What's that dot mean?"
"It means F."
"What's an F?"
"It's that note you learned on the third fret."
"How do I make it come out?"
"Press down like you're supposed to."
"Was that right? Did I press it down like I'm supposed to?"
"I think so. There wasn't much buzzing."
"Great. So was it the right note?"
"Well, I'm pretty sure it was on the third fret."
"But did it sound right?"
"I'm not sure. Was I listening?"
"Keep going; maybe the next note will make more sense."
"I had to look down for a second; I'm not sure where the next note is."
"Scan the page!… Scan the page!…  ummm…."

…and on and on.  When a student's hands and ears have not already been coordinated, adding the additional processes of reading and processing musical notation is exponentially harder, and this can be painfully slow and frustrating.

Make no mistake, performing while reading a piece of music means executing three cerebrally intense tasks at once: reading, playing, and listening.  Before you can do all three simultaneously, you should be comfortable enough with two of them that you can put your attention on the third.

Friday, October 18, 2013

It's Worse Than Vegas.

(Which is which, and which costs less?)

The state-of-the-art facilities... the distraction-free environment... it's like a "bubble"; once inside, you can forget about the real world... and you can play for as long as you want! There are pictures of a few players who came here and won big, and it makes you feel like you're going to end up just like them. 

All this... and you can pay with credit.

Welcome to collegiate music school.

In a post I put up about a month ago, I ruffled a few feathers when I decried the idea of aspiring musicians attending college as music majors without any consideration towards how they will make a living upon graduation.

The feedback I received from this can largely be filed in two piles: the first we'll label "How dare you tell young people not to follow their dreams", and the other can be the "How do you expect to make your own living from teaching if you tell students not to study music" pile.  So let me address these concerns. 

First of all, I think that "educating" someone involves training them to the end of doing a JOB. A musician-in-training needs to know more than how to play; they need to know how to be valuable enough to get paid to play.  I'm not going to endorse a plan to spend a fortune on college so that someone can come out the other side able to play…. but with no career prospects.

Next, let me specify that what I'm outlining here is for students who want to make a go of becoming professional musicians.  That's important to point out, because anyone can get a degree in engineering or marketing and play in a band on the side. I'm not talking about those people; those people will become professional engineers and executives. Despite what they tell themselves throughout college, as soon as their student loans come due, music will forever be their hobby, and nothing more. Their career prospects will have nothing to do with their ability to perform music. Even though this explanation has been placed as early as the fourth paragraph in this blog, I am sure I will receive at least one note from someone to the tune of, "What about getting a degree in something that's NOT music…?", and I will direct that person to re-read this paragraph. Again, I am not talking about our future English Teachers and Systems Analysts who play cover songs on weekends at weddings and clubs.  I am talking about our future professional musicians who want to bring brand new music into the world on a full time basis.

Take a quick look at this chart before I continue. It shows college tuition inflation compared to overall inflation since the mid-eighties. It stops at 2011, but you can see the trends clearly.

So, future superstar musicians! Listen up! You want to be taken seriously, right? You want the peace of mind that comes with mentioning the name of a great school when you talk about your qualifications? Your parents too, knowing as little as they probably do about the world of music, probably think that your best shot in life will come from the ability to say you went to a 'good school'. 

Well, there is a good chance that you will spend somewhere in the vicinity of a quarter million dollars on four years of music school if you go to a 'top tier' private college or university, either in the 'legit' (classical) or jazz/pop realms. Here are some current 4-year figures (all but one include tuition, room, board, and required costs and fees), taken from school websites:

USC                                            avg $249,000
Miami                                          avg $245,000
Eastman                                      avg $235,000
Berklee                                        avg $228,000
Manhattan                                    avg $224,000
Denver                                         avg $224,000
Julliard                                         avg $210,000
North Texas (non-TX res)              avg $128,000
Musicians Institute                    avg $85,000    (this figure is very misleading: MI has no dorms, and this figure does not include the cost of living and eating in Hollywood, CA for four years. I'd conservatively estimate the four-year total at close to $148,000.)

Too much? Well, you could downgrade and spend anywhere from $26,000 to $50,000 on those same four years if you get a resident discount at a state school. 

There are quite a few state colleges and universities that have excellent programs for the study of orchestral, classical, and contemporary "legit" music, and so for gifted students with the likelihood of receiving merit-based scholarships, this tier of schooling can provide an attractive alternative to a 'big name' institution. 

But what about students who aren't gearing up for an orchestral career? Is there a school in your state system with a great modern/commercial music program? One that will accept students on electric bass, guitar, drum kit, or as a jazz/pop vocalist or instrumentalist? One that will afford experience with modern music styles and that has the resources to teach students about studio and stage?  

All too often, those questions are answered with a "no".  When it comes to modern music education and the relative difference between state and private schools, you tend to get what you pay for, and tens-of-thousands of dollars for four years of 'sorta/kinda' is not a good investment. This is the option parents endorse when they're really hoping you'll just give up on on music altogether and switch majors by the middle of your sophomore year.

Was that last statement too jaded? Isn't it a sure bet that as long as a student finishes a Bachelors degree, they'll have some kind of job prospect in their field?

NO. The prospects of Fine Arts and Humanities graduates must be discussed separately from other majors because of the economics of entering into these fields professionally after school.  Let's compare some more numbers:

The annual starting salary of a drug rep is about $53,000.  
The annual starting salary of a CPA is also about $53,000.  
The annual starting salary of an assistant manager at Starbucks is about $30,000.  
The annual starting salary of most public school teachers varies by state, but averages around $34,000.  

As bad as things can get, if you can keep your job, these are the minimum amounts you'll earn in these fields.

The starting salary of a just graduated, degree-holding musician, whether they were educated at a public or private school… 

…is whatever they make at their other job. 

There is no salary, because a career in the arts comes from how well the artist hustles.  There is no more important skill to have as a professional art-maker (of any kind), than the ability to hustle.

Nobody teaches you to hustle in college.

That's an awful lot of money to spend to learn everything EXCEPT the most important skill you'll need…  the skill that, ideally, will help to put you in a position where you can pay back all that money you borrowed to pay for the education that didn't set you up to make any money.

Follow that??  Excellent!

So what am I saying here?  Is music school without value?  

Well here's the rub -- music school can be AWESOME.  The right teachers in the right setting with the right resources can create a magic environment for transformation and growth. Even still, the number one reason to go to a music school is to meet the other students.  Those students are the other people crazy enough and passionate enough to roll the dice on devoting their lives to music; those people are the beginnings of your personal network in the music world, possibly for the rest of your life. It's common to hear that success in any field comes from "who you know".  Well, how do you think you're supposed to MEET all those "people you know"…?  

You meet them in class - In rehearsal - In the dining hall - After hours when you're rehearsing the band you formed together - At the gigs you book for the band you formed, where you'll network with other people who want to know you because your band is amazing… because it's comprised of awesome musicians you met at music school.

It makes sense; it truly does.  It just costs far too much money to be sustainable.  Even the CPA will be on the hook for student loans for 10 to 25 years… What's a professional musician supposed to do to pay back a $50,000 education debt?  A $150,000 debt?  A QUARTER MILLION DOLLAR debt?

So now we get to the heart of it.

I endorse the idea of going to a good music school….   for one year...   if you can find the money to pay for it.

That's enough time to meet the people you need to meet, to form the connections you need to make, and to expand your horizons exponentially; to learn how much more there IS to learn…

…and then to stop paying an arm and a leg while you move into a local apartment, get a local job, keep practicing like crazy, keep gigging with all the musicians you met, and continue studying privately with a reputable teacher… for FAR less money than you were paying to "attend college". 

With today's technology, you can study with a teacher who doesn't even live in your city… like me (and that is a shameless plug for Skype Lessons with Seth Horan, folks - no bones about it).  My students can study with me once a week for four years and pay a grand total of $8,000 to $10,000 (super-serious students can take lessons twice-per-week and still come in below the cost of a state-school). Studying privately also affords a student the opportunity to go ahead and do something else with their life at the same time…  like actually making some money.  

What's this? You're upset because my proposed course of action doesn't get you a degree

Let's look at that, because there's a cold, hard reality that needs to be addressed: 

In the field of music performance, a degree isn't worth the paper it's printed on.  All that matters, besides who you know, is your ability.  Knowing the right people can GET you an audition. But can you listen? Can you learn the music? Can you ace that audition? Can you stun the room when you're on stage?  

THAT IS ALL THAT MATTERS.  Because that is all you will get paid for. 

If you have a degree, but cannot do any of these things, you will make zero-point-zero-zero dollars.


In the world today, the only difference between an incredible musician who got their degree and an incredible musician who didn't is that the one with the degree probably had to give up music…  because they are drowning in debt they could never repay on a musician's 'salary', and needed to find other work.

So am I really shooting myself in the foot?  Am I really discouraging people who might otherwise have studied with me if I'd not said any of this?

No.  If anything, I am presenting myself (and others like me) as the answer to this dilemma. If you honestly want to make a life out of making music, you should absolutely study music. Just study PRIVATELY. You'll save a fortune, and you'll have the time and energy to go make that life for yourself as you progress.  Get a job; a non-musical job.  Learn the value of working in this crazy economy, and develop a personal sense of what "enough money" means to you. Then, when you make a go of earning money from music, you'll not only be prepared as a performer -- you'll also know which end is up when dealing with the business end of things.  You will not have spent the previous four years in a bubble; you'll know what 'making a living' feels like for you, and you'll realize when that is (and is not) happening.

Best of all, you will have the freedom to play on your terms. You will not need to base your life decisions (including musical decisions) on the fact that you are a slave to a mountain of debt that far outweighs your annual income.

Make no mistake: I am calling out "Higher Education" as the rigged game it is. Every year there are thousands of students going into thousands more dollars of debt so that they can attempt to compete for dozens of available "respectable" gigs. The thing is, none of these opportunities depend on having paid all that money… and none of these gigs will pay enough money for the person to get ahead of the debt they have incurred.

It's a trap.  Be smarter than the trap.  Enjoy your life instead.

Be well. 


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Don't Be An Ostrich.

I see this happen a lot.  I'll explain an exercise I'd like a student to try… the student will acknowledge, nod, and then this happens:

The student looks off into the distance… or at me… or, well... not quite at me, and not quite off into the distance, but looking very much like they are hypnotized. Then they attempt to play the exercise, they fumble, sputter, stutter, start over, pause, start over again, frown, hit a wrong note, pause again…  you get the idea.  But at no point does the student's gaze ever wander towards their hands or the instrument they are holding.

Invariably, I stop the student and ask them what they're looking at.  

They say, "Oh, nothing really. I'm just trying not to look at the bass."

Invariably, I ask them, "Why?"

This part is prone to variation: Some students say they "heard somewhere" that they weren't supposed to look at the neck, others say they "just thought" they weren't supposed to look at the neck.  But for whatever reason, they are convinced that if they look at the neck, they must be doing something wrong.

This is madness. You don't already know how to play; you're learning, and if you're learning how to do anything, the very first step in the learning process is… OBSERVATION. 

This idea that you would try to coordinate your two hands, each doing different and unfamiliar things, while forcing yourself to look in a different direction for no reason…  just... ARGHHHH. 

This, I would offer, is actually an attempt to coordinate three things, because looking away from your hands while attempting to learn a digital pattern is so counterintuitive that it requires even more effort than just playing the exercise would.

Seasoned veterans, I am not saying that you need to watch your hands when playing that three-note Led Zeppelin riff you've known for over two decades. There IS merit in the ability to play something without looking. It's always beneficial to be able to make eye contact with the other musicians in the room, and it's an even bigger perk to be able to trust technical execution to your muscle memory while performing... and by that I mean PERFORMING as opposed to "just playing"; those moments when you're entertaining your audience with more than the sounds you make.  I think these are definitely things to aspire to. 

So there is merit to being able to visualize the fingerboard with your eyes shut... But in order to recreate that image in your mind's eye, you need to look at it a whole bunch with your ACTUAL eye first.  

Observation is not a crutch.  Deliberate avoidance of observation is.  I did a little research to see if there's a word for that, and the closest thing I found is quite apropos.

"OSTRICHISM":  "the deliberate avoidance or ignorance of conditions as they exist."

So don't be an ostrich; looking away from the fingerboard while learning to play is no better than sticking your head in a hole in the ground.  Observe all you can.  Doing it will not make you dependent on watching your hands… eventually it will give you what so many students find elusive:  the comfort and confidence to play your instrument no matter what you're looking at, and no matter who's looking at you.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Truth IS out there... but it's nowhere near enough.

I'd like to tackle two considerations as one in this post.  The first is a suggestion I've received from many fellow players (but never from potential students) -- that if I want to teach, I should work for one particular company who seeks out notable musicians to sit in front of a camera so they can sell prefabricated video lessons on a website. Second, I'd like to address the growing perception among non-musicians that "YouTube Will Save Us All" when it comes to music education.

Some people have an incorrect idea of what they're paying for when they hire a private music instructor.  I have, more than once, dealt with someone who wanted to haggle over price. Their justification for this is usually something along the lines of "Oh, I can get all the information I need off of YouTube for free.  I just need you to help me with a few things I'm not getting the hang of."

And nine times out of ten, I AGREE with that statement. It's true: almost every bit of information necessary to perform at a professional level on the bass guitar IS available for free on YouTube, or elsewhere on the internet.

But if that was enough; if that was the magic cure-all... every private instructor would have gone out of business a week after YouTube became popular.  

That hasn't happened.

So the people who haggle usually have it correct: they really DO only need help getting the hang of a few things.  Those things are usually…

-proper technique
-accurate ear training 
-the vocabulary necessary to understand musical and instrument-specific terms 
-the ability to communicate and understand music through reading and writing

Truly learning the technique of playing an instrument requires observation from multiple angles (not one, or two if you're lucky, in those tiny web videos), and you can't experience ear training without some kind of interaction. The other two things can be learned by reading, but they take far less time and are learned much more appropriately when given proper context by a teacher who already understands them.

So how do you know which of these things you need work on?  How do you know which of these things you need more work on than others?  How will you know how to practice the things you're working on so you can actually improve?

You can't know this stuff on your own, and you can't learn what you need by watching a one-size-fits-all, edited-for-length-and-content video that won't stop when you have a question, or slow down and show you something from a different angle when you don't understand what you're looking at or listening to. That celebrity on the screen won't repeat and define that word you've never heard before.  What if the information you need is being explained only in terms of note names, scales, and chords… and you don't understand any music theory? 

These are real problems, and this is the stuff you need someone like me for; I'm not simply going to "show you where to press your fingers" -- I'm going to teach you that music is a LANGUAGE, and I'm going to help you develop some fluency.

But I'm not going to charge you "per note learned".  I'm not going to price the information you get from me like a menu, where the major scale is cheaper than learning slap technique. I'm going to make sure everything I teach you applies to you specifically, and the fee you'll pay me is for my TIME - the time I take each week to make sure you're learning and improving; to make sure that you aren't getting stuck or frustrated…

…and to make sure you're moving forward so that you can actually enjoy making music. 

That IS why you wanted to play in the first place...  isn't it?  :)

Friday, September 20, 2013

Everything old is (horrifyingly) new again.

I teach.

I have bass students, vocal students, songwriting students, and students who are interested in combining these disciplines. I have students in Syracuse (where I live) and in Rochester (the city about an hour to the west), and I see those students once a week live-and-in-person. I also have and have had students in New York, California, Utah, Nevada, Rhode Island, Texas, Canada, England, and Finland, and I teach those students via Skype video chat software. I also co-coordinate a “rock camp”-style summer program for teen musicians.

Teaching is something that I used to do only occasionally when I was touring, then as a side-business when I worked for Warwick, but that has now become more and more of my main focus as a musician. It’s something I really enjoy and get a lot of fulfillment out of. Turns out I'm also pretty good at it!

But this post isn’t about how to teach a bass lesson -- it’s about an alarming trend I’m seeing among my teenage students.

I have taken to challenging younger musicians by asking them, very seriously, how they plan to make their dreams into reality in the digital age.

First, I explain to these students the idea of “business”... you know; the idea that one produces their means to live by providing a good or service and exchanging that good or service for something they need... or for money, with which to further exchange for those needed things. Most of them understand this already, smart cookies that they are.

Then, I ask them these questions:

-what’s the good or service you provide as a musician?
-what do you get for it when you exchange it with your customers?
-how will you make a living from it?

It’s always been important for aspiring musicians to understand these concepts, but never more so than now. After all -- this generation is the one that simply DOESN’T BELIEVE MUSIC SHOULD COST MONEY. And yet, a bunch of them still want to pursue music. I’ve been wondering if they just haven’t thought this through, or if they’ve figured something out that I haven’t. I am always waiting for some young mind to drop some profound statement on me that will make me “get it” in a way I’ve never considered.

(For those of you in your thirties and older, spare me the chatter. I KNOW that today's adults still have a sense of ethics that can be appealed to. I know you can convince them to pay for music if you can establish a connection with them. I'm talking about the next generation; the "Millenials"; your precious tween, teen, and twenty-something CHILDREN. They've already formed their values, and the results are in: as far as they are concerned, music will be free.)

This is not a pretty process. Some of the students have their bubbles burst as they do the math. I have watched as aspiring superstars are suddenly awoken from an innocent and beautiful dream, and I see genuine depression take its place.

Others are in denial -- what I mean is, students who tell me they have plans to attend college as music majors - to SPEND thousands of dollars to become better musicians - also have no problem telling me they don’t see how they could make enough money to live on through the goods/services they see themselves providing as musicians. The ensuing conversations are dead-ends: They STILL plan to go to college for music. The connection (or lack thereof) between effort and yield has still not been made.

(NOTE: I do have students who do not aspire to rock stardom. Some are interested in production-based, behind-the-scenes musical pursuits, a few want to move to a big city and freelance or join a union and try to play in pit orchestras... and these are actually pretty down-to-earth career options for today’s aspiring music pro.)

The biggest shock to me is that a few kids think they have a solution. Ready to hear it?

(If you’re a seasoned muso of my generation or the one before, prepare for a ‘facepalm moment’...)

They say they will simply “get enough exposure and build a big enough fan base to get signed”.


(jaw gaping)

Yeah. Not the profound statement I had in mind.

This presumption goes no further than that. There is no curiosity as to HOW these labels will generate the money that will surely perpetuate their careers... they will simply get noticed by the Great And Powerful Oz, and then Oz will provide, perhaps by magic. Forget the fact that these very students do not buy music themselves; they trust that somehow, a record label will transform their talent into dollars. Essentially: even though they are not the next Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, or One Direction, they are going to buck the trends and MAKE IT ANYWAY.

That means it’s official: whatever my musician-brethren and I learned from the wreckage of the “rockstar” scam, we forgot to tell the kids. Because they are buying into the major-label myth, just like we did. Somehow, they think the three remaining major labels are honestly looking for cutting-edge talent, and that if they can just make enough waves for these companies to notice them, their careers are all but assured.

I have clenched and unclenched my eyebrows many, many times over the course of these discussions, trying to piece it together in my mind. These kids; none of them were born before 1995. They never lived in the world before Napster. When, just before the turn of the century, the legendary record industry of yore imploded spectacularly after four decades of non-stop expansion, many of these kids were just getting a firm grasp of English. Most were still in diapers. Some had just been born.

And so my righteous indignation over their naivete has given way to a realization:

It is actually MY job to teach them about this - to reveal the recent history of the music business to them so that they are not doomed to repeat it. Who else is going to do it? Their parents? Not likely. Even if a greater percentage of my generation was actually aware of the impact of file-sharing on our brave new world, I’ve already been stunned beyond belief by a shocking number of parents who know far less than their kids on any number of topics... or who are abusing too many SSRIs to notice what’s going on around them, in their kids’ lives or their own.

As I swim further into middle age, and the increasingly obvious truth that I can only keep music as my life’s focus as a teacher rather than a performer, I’m becoming aware of what my responsibilities are in this new capacity. What it means to be a music teacher today is not the same as what it meant to the people I learned from, and nobody has ‘written the book’ on what’s important to impart to students, or how to make that knowledge stick.

So here I go. Wish me luck -- after all, I'm in a position to wield influence over your children...

...if I can only convince them to listen.