Wednesday, January 13, 2010

New Year's Resolutions for Musicians

It's that time of the year again. As you can tell from the posts on all of your favorite development blogs, the topic this month is New Year's resolutions. Some people love it, some will have nothing to do with it all, but most people will at least try something. I, for one, like it because it gives me a chance to start fresh. It also gives me an excuse to look at the past year and take stock of what I've done and what I'd like to accomplish.

Make the List

For most musicians out there, I'm sure that there is at least one music related resolution one your list. It may be getting better at your instrument, writing more songs, or getting some well deserved income from your music. Even if you don't have any music related goals on your list, it is a good time to take a break from your practice sessions and take stock of where you are. It gives you a chance to take a good look at what you've accomplished in the past year and what you'd like to get done this year.

No Time

I hear some players say that their instrument or their music is just a part time thing. They may not have the time (or even inclination) to do much more than 'fool around' on their instrument when the mood strikes. I know tons of musicians who have lost interest in playing or 'hit a ceiling' and can't see their playing getting much better. It's sad because there really is no such thing as a 'ceiling' in music. Music is, or at least can be, a never ending journey. It's all up to you. The fact that they have lost interest may be related to the fact that they're just been going through the motions for the longest time; there has been no growth, effort or motivation to do much more.

The Big Picture

Sitting down to figure out where you are with your music has a two-fold effect. First of all, not only does it gives you a clear picture of where you want to go, it also may enlighten you as to where you are now in your development. This may seem incredibly obvious but you'd be surprised how many musicians I know have never done this. I never did it until I went to university. It's almost like it's a bad thing or uncool for musicians to be practical and studious about their development. Secondly, it's a great motivator. Just thinking about all of the songs that you want to learn, the skills you want to master, or the things you want to do with your music may spark a whole new chapter in your development.

Storming Your Brain

Schedule yourself a brainstorming session. You don't have to make it very long, it's all about just writing down what comes to mind. You'll be editing and sorting the lists and ideas later. Sit down and ask yourself some questions. What tunes do you know? Do you have a list or is it all in your head? More importantly, how many songs do you know all the way through, by heart? How many chords do you know? Have you been playing the same chords in exactly the same way for years? How are your improvisation skills coming along? (Please don't tell me that you can't improvise, everybody can!). Is your technique getting better? When was the last time you wrote a song? You may realize that you haven't really improved much or gotten much done in a long time. This may not be a bad thing if it motivates you to get something done. Just sitting down and brainstorming may bring up tons of new ideas to apply to your practice sessions.

Here are some ideas for your brainstorming session. Get some paper and a pencil. I prefer a pencil for these sections for quick (short) edits. Section off one piece of paper and put down the following areas. Theory, songwriting, technique, and songs. The theory section will include all of the things you know about music theory including: scales, chords, arranging, ear training, etc. Put down all of the areas you'd like to get better at. The songwriting area could include: recording, improvising etc. The song list would be all of the songs you know and then a list of all of the songs you want to learn. In your technique section list all of the different styles and techniques you'd like to master. Make another section for overall notes. Now just start writing ideas down. Make a list of what you know and what you'd like to learn. The order doesn't matter. If you are working on your song list and then have an idea of some technique you'd like to learn, write it down right away. Later you're going to keep these pages and put them into your practice binder/workbook. We've talked about the workbook before where you place all of your notes and ideas for your music and practice sessions.

Once, Twice...

I do this every time I get a new student. You figure out what the student knows, what their taste in music is, and what they would like to learn/accomplish. You should too. It shouldn't be just a once a year thing. It should be like planning other parts of your life career. There are a couple of major planning/review sessions a year. But then there should also be a small review at the end of the week or at least once a month.

Worth the Cost

You may be sitting there thinking that this may be too much. Your music is part time and/or just for fun and you don't have time for all of this. In actuality the amount of effort is minimal. It will take extra effort but not much. In the end you want to enjoy your music and ultimately you want to improve. Sitting down to figure out where you are only takes about as long as a regular practice session.

The enjoyment of music not only comes from playing and jamming but from creativity and growth. This tiny bit of extra effort has a huge payoff. I'm always amazed (and so are the students) at the results after just a short time of concentrated practice. Keep in mind this isn't much more beyond their typical commitment. It's just a matter of concentrated effort. It's a matter of thinking about what you're doing when you sit down to practice. It's a matter of getting organized with your practice sessions. This includes going through a number of exercises every session. It includes monitoring your sessions and making sure that you're doing the exercises and reviewing your results. It's a matter of making an effort to memorize and learn new songs. It's trying new chord progressions, scales and ideas. A small amount of consistent, concentrated effort can have tremendous results. Part time student or not, this can only make your time with your instrument that much more enjoyable and satisfying.

Monday, January 11, 2010

VISUAL MUSIC at Mad Hatters' Review

CALL FOR VISUAL MUSIC WORKS - an event to be curated by Jean Detheux (incredible filmmaker visual music artist - see

Visual Music (event curated by Jean Detheux) may be described as the art of combining music and moving image into "something" that neither medium can offer on its own. Music can inform images as much as images can inform music. Visual Music manifests its author’s (or authors’) discovery and creation of a novel composition that marries its components in a manner that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. In exploring this Art form, one often encounters two "bad" extremes: one consists of music and images that merely mirror each other in a very literal, redundant way. The other "bad" extreme offers music and images so far apart that they have nothing to do with each other. The components do not inform each other. The paradox of Visual Music is that even if it is very often presented as "New Media," it has been around for a very long time, even predating the invention of cinema by a significant margin. Maura McDonnell has written an excellent article on that subject (pdf document available under the "New Visual Music Essay" title): If you feel that your work accomplishes the mission of “Visual Music,” submit up to two.

More information and for links to submission guidelines:

Friday, January 1, 2010

Composing Music: Different Approaches

When I tell people I’m a musician, a lot of people usually ask me the same questions. The first thing they ask is the name of my band. It seems that to most people, that is pretty much all there is to being a musician. When I tell people I’m a composer a whole new set of questions arise. Most of them are completely in the dark about composing music. Composing music to most people, even some musicians, seems to be part genius and part magic. The truth is that composing is like any other skill a musician has. It’s a skill (or a muscle as I call it), that must be developed. The best thing for you to do if you want to become a better composer or writer is to simply start writing.

Just Do It

Yes, my first piece of advice is to simply start. This isn’t like jumping out of a plane; there is very little risk of bodily harm here. When I teach students I notice there are two general replies when I ask them to write a song (or improvise). Most students don’t know what to do or where to start. Even when they are given specific guidelines, there is still a lot of resistance. If I give them a simple exercise to strum some chords, or play a scale, there is no problem. As soon as I ask them to play the scale again but change it anyway they like, they usually give me an odd look and ask for more instruction. There seems to be part of our mindset thinking that we must know a set of rules before creating anything. I tell students that as soon as they pick up the guitar, they can make music. I encourage all of my students no matter what their age or ability to write and improvise. The only difference is the level of material being studied. For as long as I took guitar lessons, not once did the teacher ask me to take what they had given me and change it and make it my own. I wasn’t asked to make up my own compositions until I attended college! Why aren’t we asked to compose music from the very beginning? Why are we not given a bit of theory and then asked to compose upon that? There is no good reason not to do this.

The Approach

So you want to compose music but you don’t know where to start. There are many approaches. If you’re a serious writer I recommend trying them all at one point or another. I’m going to outline a couple of approaches here. Later we’ll get into specific songwriting and composition exercises. I do all of these exercises (approaches and methods) on a regular basis. Yes, these are exercises just like there are warm-ups, scales and chords to learn.

First off, let’s just run off a bunch of different ways composers going about creating music:

a) First and foremost, there’s the bang it out on piano, guitar (whatever your instrument) approach. This is the number one approach for many reasons. It’s usually a good idea (but not imperative) to write on a guitar or piano where you can play the melody and harmony at the same time. The parts you come up with will then be applied to the various instruments in your arrangement.

b) There’s the beat/groove approach were the song or melody is written to a groove or drum loop. This approach is effective because the groove is a prime consideration right off. It can also be advantageous because the melody isn’t reliant on a preconceived chord progression (more on this later). The lyrics and song are then written over top the groove.

c) There’s the lyric approach where the lyric is written alone without any melody, harmonies or groove. While not as popular as it used to be, it’s a good idea to work on lyrics aside from the song as a way to hone your lyric writing skills.

d) There is the loop approach where the music is entirely written based on pre-recorded loops and it’s just a matter of arranging and manipulating those loops. This has taken over in the past decade with all of the different hardware and software products available. This is different from b) because this is writing an entire song just by manipulating sounds and not writing a song (with lyrics and/or an instrument) over top.

e) Lastly there is the hum method. This is simply the matter of humming a melody or idea usually into a recorder to be applied to instruments and an arrangement later. As silly as this sounds, there have been a couple of notable composers and writers in the past that were well known for this method.

f) And of course, there is the application of all or any of the above in any combination.

The Method

Beyond these approaches, there are different methods to writing:

a) There is the search and destroy method. This involves just sitting at your instrument and banging out ideas without really knowing what you’re doing. It’s a matter of literally searching in the dark and waiting until you hit upon something that strikes you. The basis to this is that the musician usually has a basic knowledge of the style and their instrument. It’s a matter of searching to find something that strikes them and sounds like the thing that they’re looking for.

*This may not be the most efficient but it’s a great way to break the rules...mostly because you may not know what the rules are!

b) There is the preconceived form, style approach. This is the methodology used by musicians whereby the form, style and/or progression are set beforehand. The artist writes based upon that form, progression or rhythm. Examples of this would be:
  • following the form (e.g. a 12 bar blues, the AABA form in jazz, the rondo, the sonata-allegro form etc.). This would be used in writing jazz tunes, blues, classical pieces and certain styles of folk music.
  • following harmonic rules (as in the changes and turnaround in the blues, the changes in flamenco palos
  • following preset rhythms and/or patterns. This would include a number of dances (waltzes, tangos, mazurkas etc.), the compas in flamenco music and Indian ragas

c) There is the musical/theoretical/ education approach. This is the approach whereby the musician studies the rules and theories behind the music and seeks to master that style. The musician would study other musicians’ techniques, the history and theories behind the style. This approach is used in most jazz and classical programs whereby the student is immersed in the study of music theory, history and technique. The point is to master the style while creating a voice of their own. This is basic approach to all education programs but also to a lot of musical traditions including jazz, flamenco, classical music, film scoring, etc.

*Even though most pop and rock musicians don’t realize it, they too follow rules about chord changes, form and rhythm patterns. The only difference being that these usually aren’t a consideration right off. Most pop music is written in the same forms, with rules involving chord changes and rhythm patterns. As soon as you fit your music into a general style, you are automatically following the rules for that genre. For example the diminished chord is used a lot in jazz and classical music but almost never in pop. The snare on the 2 and 4 is pretty much a given for most pop music…More on this later.

d) There is the study of composition. This differs with c) in that it involves deliberately writing for different styles. It is study in composition for its own sake and not a study of a particular style. For example if you were writing a dance tune your approach would be different than if you were writing a folk song. There are certain methodologies, theories and logics involved when writing in the different styles. For example when writing the folk song in the former example, you would probably spend a lot more time on the lyric than on the chord progression or arrangement. You may want to stick to traditional folk chord progressions and arrangements to keep it authentic so the listener would focus on the message and not the instrumental performance. It would be different than writing a head for a jazz tune where the harmonic progression would have a lot more importance. You would want to write something that jazz lovers would find interesting and not something trite or too clich├ęd.

e) Lastly there is the color, manipulation method. This is different from the first in the fact that it’s usually more about manipulating sounds and grooves. Here the writer doesn’t have any idea what they’re looking for and are just ‘throwing things together’ to see what fits. There are two categories like this because there is basic difference in the methodology here. The writer isn’t looking for preconceived methods and progressions and looking for something unknown.

All of The Above

We’re going to look into each of these different approached and methods one at a time and see what each has to offer and the problems inherent in each. If you are serious about writing you should take a look at each of the styles and see how they work for you. Most of the time you’re going to use the one approach to writing. This is good most of the time but the other methods may be useful to either get you out of a rut, stir your creative juices or to simply go somewhere you’ve never gone before.