Listening for the Future of Musicianship

Continuing our series of guest posts, Christopher Sutton writes about his views on the future of musicianship. Christopher is the founder of Easy Ear Training, a company looking for new ways to help musicians develop their aural skills with a range of popular iOS ear training apps and downloadable training packs. He is passionate about the power of ear training for musicianship and excited about the new potential today’s technology brings. He attended our Future of Musicianship event in May; a full audio recording of the event is available for download.

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Technology has supported music creation for the last 50 years. But in the last 5 years this has quickly changed from supporting and enhancing traditional music-making, to transforming it completely.

Where once we had reverb effects and auto-tune to enhance our vocals, we now have completely synthetic virtual singers. Where once we had programmable drum machines, we now have automatic accompaniment generators.

Traditionally a young musician had to learn his 24 major and minor triads to be able to play a I-IV-V in any key. Now at the touch of a button he can create and manipulate chord progressions as easily as tapping out a text message.

In this transformed world of music creation and self-education, is there still a need for traditional music theory? Will young musicians still practise traditional orchestral and rock instruments for hours a day in 2020? What about 2050?

These aren’t questions I have an answer to, but I think they’re essential to consider when we talk about “the future of musicianship”.

If you were raised in the traditional Western music education system, it probably seems radical to imagine it undergoing significant change any time soon. But we’re starting to see the emergence of a new generation of musicians, who don’t care about Hanon exercises for piano fingering, learning endless scales, or polishing up centuries-old repertoire for performance in front of an examiner. Who maybe don’t even care about slinging a guitar on their back and playing down the pub or casually strumming in the park with friends. To the kids growing up now with Rock Band on their Playstation and music apps on their iPad, the idea of working day after day to figure out how to play a real instrument must seem somewhat crazy.

It’s easy to scoff at a game like Guitar Hero or Rock Band, and say “that’s not really making music”. Perhaps not, at its simplest level, but watch an expert play and you can’t doubt the manual dexterity it develops. Watch someone play Rock Band with a real Fender Strat, or the keyboard controller and it’s not so easy to see where the line divides game playing and music making.

In the world of mobile apps it’s even trickier to draw a line. While there are still the ‘support’ apps which let experts do complex musical tasks, there are also introductory multi-trackers like Garageband which make it incredibly simple to get started in music making with zero prior knowledge – just a set of ears. There are song generators and game-like instruments which for the first time put music composition into the hands of non-musicians.

Until now, the act of music creation has required musical training. A student developed their musicianship and their skill with an instrument, and in the process became able to create music.

That’s changed.

Music creation (and not just toy-like, simplistic, robotic music creation; we’re talking sophisticated, expressive and interesting composition) is now in the hands of every man, woman, and (literally) child.

The only thing that’s required: your ears. If you can hear the difference between good musical sounds and terrible noise, you can start making music right now.

It’s an exciting time to be a musician or a music educator. There’s more enthusiasm for music-making and experimenting with music than ever before, and it’s spreading from the traditional world of musicians to the broader population, which can only be a good thing. Things are changing incredibly quickly.

I don’t know what musicianship will look like in the future. One can argue that if it’s changed little in a few hundred years, it will probably stay much the same for the next century. But I think that’s naive. Yes, there will continue to be important core skills which set good music-makers apart from bad. But I think the arrival of technology which removes the need for endless instrumental practice before one can create music is a total game-changer.

It strips ‘musicianship’ down to what is really core to music creation:

  • Expressiveness.
  • Playing live with other people.
  • Innovation and originality in improvisation and composition.

Ultimately, what it all boils down to is listening. Whatever technology may do for the 21st century composer, every decision in sound creation or manipulation has to come back to a judgement from a human pair of ears. As long as music is being made for humans to listen to, strong aural skills are going to be at the heart of being a good musician.

I don’t know what the future of musicianship is. I’m confident it’s not going to look much like it does today.

One thing I do know for sure: Listening is, and will remain, the fundamental basis of musicianship.

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What do you think?

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Thoughts on the Future of Musicianship Part 4 – Podcast by Steve Lawson and Andrew Dubber

The marvellously opinionated double act of Steve Lawson and Andrew Dubber carry on our series of guest posts by speakers from our Future of Musicianship event on May 1, 2012 in London. The Kiwi accent belongs to Dubber, the British one to Steve.

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Steve Lawson & Andrew Dubber with Heli Rajasalo of Loving & Living Music

You can learn more about the mega-multitude of music related stuff that those two get up to by checking out Steve here, and Andrew over hereA full recording of the Future of Musicianship event is available for listening and download.

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Thoughts on the Future of Musicianship part 3 – Guest post by Peter Lutkoski

Peter Lutkoski continues our series of guest posts by speakers from our Future of Musicianship event on May 1, 2012 in London. A full recording of the event is available for listening and download. Peter is President of the Association for Music in International Schools, as well as Middle School Assistant Principal & Head of Performing Arts at the American School in London, in addition to being a skilled multi-instrumentalist.

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“The act of creating and playing music, alone or with others, is part of what makes us fully human.”

Preparing for tomorrow

Not long ago I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion forum on the topic of the evolving role of music in our society and its implications for music education. Six other panelists and I, all from vastly varied professional and musical backgrounds enjoyed the luxury of a few hours of enlightening reflection and debate, and I left with new insights and deeper questions. When addressing a topic as colossal as the “future of musicianship” it’s impossible to predict along what pathways a conversation might unfold, and in two hours we managed to hit on media, economy, education, technology and Jimi Hendrix, among other areas. The themes addressed are significantly relevant, particularly in considering how students today can best be educated for the unknown world of tomorrow.

Peter Lutkoski with Heli Rajasalo and Ben Hillyard, co-founders of Loving & Living Music.

The panelists and attendees, musicians and educators, are likely in our chosen life paths because we have had transformative experiences through music. Mostly we would have had direct experience with the long-term commitment to developing a musical craft, and the unique reward and fulfillment this provides. The tension and expectation we feel, often even physically, through the vehicle of harmony and rhythm, and the expression of ideas that cannot be put into words fully occupies us, in ways that are hard to imagine in any other discipline. Our greatest challenge in advocating for and protecting musical traditions is that music is experienced to be understood, and language can never quite define it.

Music for everyone

An agreed, if unstated premise in our dialogue at the panel was that music is for everyone, and a quality musical education is of benefit to all students, no matter what they end up doing in their lives. Music should be part of school programs not just to prepare future performers, but because the act of creating and playing music, alone or with others, is part of what makes us fully human. After making this philosophical commitment, in terms of educational policies and approaches, it is our responsibility as music educators to continuously uncover the myriad ways in which we can connect our students with musical craft and tradition so that they may think of themselves as musicians. The more the future generation of leaders and policy makers have first-hand experience as musicians, the easier our future advocacy for our craft will be.

“There is more than one right way to inspire musical passion in students.”

Even among the seven panelists at the Future of Musicianship event there was a great mix of opinions about what kind of music should be taught, and the best methodologies to teach it. Great teachers will always have a firm commitment to their native approach, and ultimately there will always be space for variety. There is more than one right way to inspire musical passion in students. Some core essentials of the art form, such as creativity, technique and expression, are solid building blocks of pedagogy, and will most likely be the starting and ending points no matter what style of music is being taught. As the wider field of education in all disciplines evolves and responds to the changing requirements of our world, those building blocks at the heart of musical study may begin to appear more and more essential. The big problems to be solved by adults in tomorrow’s world will require creativity, divergent thinking, collaboration and communication. Engagement with musical tasks is the perfect laboratory to explore and practise these skills. We should consider that to be well-educated means to be artistic and creative, as well as literate and numerate.

Tradition & change

“As musicians and educators we have assumed the charge of passing on an esteemed tradition”

Advocating for our craft and furthering our professional field is an ongoing, complex and hugely multi-faceted conversation. The challenges are concrete, with funding, teacher education, curriculum and school inspection processes all coming with their own hurdles and complexities. In the long term, however, there is room to be hopeful for the future of music education and the future of musicianship. Students will have increased access to music and training through developments in technology, and they will be provided with potential audiences for their creative expression that would have been unthought-of even very recently. As we start to learn more about best pedagogical practice and the science of learning, through a deepening of our understanding of the working of the mind, the true value of music study becomes more apparent. And with the passing of time, the musical cannon becomes richer, the influences more varied, and our base of experience more substantial. As musicians and educators we have assumed the charge of passing on an esteemed tradition, and with this, to participate in the ongoing dialogue about how to best develop musicianship.

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What do you think?

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Thoughts on the Future of Musicianship part 2 – Guest post by Paul Kirkham

Paul Kirkham continues our series of guest posts by speakers from our Future of Musicianship event on May 1, 2012 in London. A full recording of the event is available for listening and download. Paul is Managing Director at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, an independent school/college specialising in teaching students of guitar, bass, drums, vocals, songwriting and music business at Diploma and Degree level, with over 700 full-time students.

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Where to begin

“The future of musicianship is, in my view, exactly the same as the past of musicianship, but delivered in a different context and under different ground rules.”

I was invited to the ‘Future of Musicianship’ debate at the start of May, and really enjoyed the event. Heli had made sure she invited a panel of knowledgeable (not to mention extremely opinionated!) individuals, including me, so one thing soon became clear – we would have needed several days of discussion to cover the ambitious agenda that had been set! But what was interesting was the different angle of approach of each of us, generally leading to similar conclusions but getting there from a distinct direction of travel.

There is no way in a short blog post I could comment on every aspect of what was discussed, or what needs to be discussed, so I’ll keep myself to one aspect of the debate. That is, that the future of musicianship is, in my view, exactly the same as the past of musicianship – but delivered in a different context and under different ground rules.

Messages in bottles

Let me elaborate a little. Music, and perhaps especially popular and folk music, has always been about one thing – capturing a feeling, an emotion, a desire, an ambition, a story or a wish, and expressing it succinctly through the medium of sound and lyrics. I think pop songs (the good ones anyway) do this brilliantly, because they are bite-sized reminders, photographs if you like, that transport us to an important place in our soul. Who doesn’t remember an important time of their lives – a love affair, or breaking up, a first dance, the death of a loved one, a travel experience or such like, and connect this to a tune? The phrase “the soundtrack to our lives” may be cliché, but it is correct. And it has always been, and will always be, the role of musicians to create, interpret, perform and communicate these little messages in bottles, and release them on the ocean of life.

However, we can become obsessed with the mechanism of creation and communication of music, which I think detracts from the essence of what is happening. The only rule should be – does it work? So whether a musician expresses a song or a piece of music through a classical instrument, an electric guitar, a rhythm standing alone, a synthesiser or a computer, who cares? All that has changed are the tools, not the end result.

So, the first part of my abbreviated thesis is, nothing has changed nor will change – music will always try to capture these emotions, and musicians will always be required to create, interpret and communicate this. Harmony, melody and rhythm are eternal, and will always be central to music making, and therefore the foundation of musicianship.

Paul Kirkham (centre) with Heli Rajasalo & Ben Hillyard of Loving & Living Music

A changing world

But the second part of this thesis is important too; the context of musicianship has changed, and will probably continue to change – and, indeed, always has been changing. It is easy to forget that the recorded music industry, as most of us perceive it, has been around for less than a century, since we discovered how to capture sound on a material disc. This allowed music to become packaged and sold, and consumed, in a different way to simply attending a concert. Listening to a radio or TV broadcast has only become possible in the last 60-70 years. Digitisation of sound is an extremely recent concept, and the internet didn’t exist until the 1990’s, never mind smart phones and iPods. All of these developments facilitated change in the distribution and commercialisation of music, allowing companies to move in and control its manufacture and distribution, creating new markets and making music more widely available in the process. And like most aspects of the development of our culture and economy, this progress has generally been a good thing, with more people than ever before now able to enjoy more music, at their convenience.

“The creators and performers of the music of tomorrow need to be much more creative, entrepreneurial and business-aware.”

The problem, however, up to the advent of Napster and the concept of file sharing in the late 1990’s, was that as the companies that controlled the manufacture and distribution of music became more powerful, more wealthy and more comfortable, the benefits to both the consumers and the makers of music began to diminish. As many of us will remember, up until quite recently, the only way to get hold of the latest album from your favourite artist was to go to a record store, buy a CD or vinyl recording for around £15, and have to put up with what was usually half the tracks being rubbish in order to get the tracks you wanted. This was not in the interests of the consumer. And I would hazard a guess that (with few notable exceptions, whose fanbases and business savvy meant they had negotiated good deals with their record companies) it was not generally in the best interests of the artists and musicians either.

To cut a long story short, and without getting into the IP debate (if you’re interested , my view is that file sharing is inherently not good if allowed to proceed unchecked, and the creators and performers of music should be able to rely on a market mechanism that protects their work and their income streams), where we find ourselves now is in a much more democratised music society, where music can be created, distributed, sold and otherwise enjoyed through a myriad of different ways. And this is perhaps where the future of musicianship is different to the past of musicianship; the creators and performers of the music of tomorrow need to be much more creative, entrepreneurial and business-aware, in order to benefit from these new opportunities.

The musician of the future

There are, of course, an awful lot of debating points in the above text, and it is a rather simplistic summary of a complex situation. However, it leads me to my ultimate conclusion – that is, that education and training, not just in the skills required to be a musician, but in the knowledge and ability to capitalise on one’s passion and talent, is more important than ever. The musician should be free to create and express music and in this sense answerable only to his or her muse; however, there is no shame in wanting to earn a decent living, and the musician of the future must be able to convert that love of and commitment to music into a sustainable career, not subject to an overbearing corporate machine, not beholden to a locked-in contract that is unfairly balanced, not dependent on the whims of a marketing department or a financial controller.

“There is no shame in wanting to earn a decent living.”

The musician of the future must be empowered to follow their own creative path, all the while being able to earn a decent and stable living from the fruits of their talent and hard work. And for this to happen, the musician of the future will have been able, through education and training, to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to achieve both their artistic and financial goals.

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What do you think?

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Thoughts on the Future of Musicianship part 1 – Guest post by Tony Whyton

Tony Whyton kicks off with an introduction to a series of reflections from the passionate and insightful discussion that went on in our Future of Musicianship event on May 1, 2012 in London. Full recording of the event is available for listening and download. We’re looking forward to your comments!

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Pete Lutkoski, Steve Lawson & Andrew Dubber
listening to Tony Whyton‘s opening words
at the Future of Musicianship event on May 1 2012.
Photo: Alan Tucker

Introduction to the May 1st The Future of Musicianship event

I was given the honour of chairing the first Loving & Living Music event on The Future of Musicianship this week and thought I would post up a slightly modified version of my introduction as a way into keeping the conversation going…

What is musicianship?

The Future of Musicianship provides us all with an opportunity to take stock – to think about what musicianship means today.  As musicians and educators working in a variety of different contexts, The Future of Musicianship provides us with a chance to reflect on both what we’re doing in education and to consider issues surrounding the types of musicians we’re producing.

Musicianship, like concepts of creativity, originality, authenticity and so on, is difficult to define when we break it down, especially when we consider the demands and expectations of different musical styles and traditions or the politics of genre and, when we consider the shifting expectations and needs of different music industries, the concept of musicianship – or what makes a good musician – is perhaps something that can be understood as being in a constant state of flux.Quite often, musicianship is a term that is bound up with different mythologies that surround music – it is not only about musicians and the acquisition of musical skills but also integrally linked to societal attitudes and perceptions.  Musicianship is quite often perceived as something natural and pre-given, a concept that ties into other myths that encourage music to be treated differently from other professions and societal roles.  This idea of the natural or innate music maker might work well when we think about romanticised depictions of artists, but for educators who invest time and energy in cultivating musicianship skills, these mythologies can be unhelpful or counterproductive, to say the least.

Role of the musician

I want to set the scene with a story that might have some resonance with everyone involved in music.  Pretty much every time that I’ve been to a dinner party, family occasion or public event where people have discovered that I am a musician, there is a genuine sense of intrigue about the work I do.  Most often, revealing the fact that I am a musician is greeted with a sense of pleasure – sometimes suspicion and bemusement (especially when I tell them I’m into jazz!) – and mostly there is a sense of interest and fascination about musical skill and ability that, on the surface, would appear to demonstrate the public value of musicianship in a very clear and compelling way.  However, as every musician might also testify, we might be familiar with the desire for us to entertain people in a spontaneous way at these same type of events – how often have you encountered the phrase,  “oh, you’re a musician, why don’t you play for us?” Now, just for one moment, let’s change the scenario and imagine that I am now an accountant at a dinner party – when I reveal my profession, I might well be greeted with bemusement, but I wouldn’t necessarily be asked to put down my cutlery in order to  complete tax returns for free on behalf of guests sitting around the table…

On the one hand, asking musicians to ‘play for us’ – to display their musicianship skills in a public gathering – demonstrates the societal value of music and the desire for pleasure among social groups.  Music has a social relevance and conveys respect among different people, its rituals give meaning to the world and make us feel part of a communal whole.  Furthermore, as musicians who like to play, we might all have found ourselves in the position of performing in this spontaneous manner and enjoying ourselves on these occasions.  And yet, I would argue that these scenarios also show us how musicianship is perceived as mysterious, innate and also intangible – again, hear the words, “if only I could play like that, I would be playing all day for anybody who wanted to hear” – more importantly, it becomes difficult to pin down the value of musicianship in both aesthetic and monetary terms.

What next?

This general introduction offers one way in to discussing the value of musicianship but there are obviously several more angles I think we should cover in this debate.  As a musical field, we are in a state of flux in terms of the changing role of musicians – both through increased mobility, communication through the internet, the decline of recording industry as we know it, limited opportunities for funded performance and a reduction in public subsidy, and a lack of wider recognition for the arts.  The withdrawal of subsidy for arts and humanities subjects in Higher Education has raised concerns about the future role of music education, and there is a growing uncertainty about the status of the DCMS, and support for the arts more generally, post the Olympic Games in July.  Equally, the creation of new music education hubs perhaps offers us an opportunity to explore new ways of collaborating and developing musicians and listeners of the future.

What do you think?

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Tony is looking forward to having a conversation with you here on the blog. If you have so much to say it would warrant a separate post, please feel free to send it to us at – more bloggers the merrier. You can also connect to Tony on Twitter as @TonyWhytonPlease comment generously!

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The May 1st Future of Musicianship event was a success!

Getting started on May 1, 2012. Photo by Alan Tucker.

Our first event was a great success with a discussion filled with passion, depth, wisdom and fun! A huge thank you to everyone who attended, most of all our speakers but also our engaged and very friendly audience – you all contributed to making the Future of Musicianship conversation so engaging we didn’t want to end it!! We feel very humbled by the feedback so far and are looking forward to what might follow from all the new connections we made.

A special thank you to our collaborators and sponsors at the Education Foundation, The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, ISM, the American School in London, Rock Your World, photographer Alan Tucker and all the friends and colleagues who helped out!

And fret not if you couldn’t attend – we are working to get the whole event available to you as an audio file for you to listen. More photos also on their way, AND reflections on what was said and what perhaps was not said in the form of guest posts on this blog from some of our amazing speakers!

To not miss a thing, please subscribe to this blog (link at the bottom of this page!) and follow us on Twitter, we are @ProMusicianship.

Speakers Steve Lawson, Andrew Dubber and Tony Whyton with host Heli Rajasalo. Photo by Alan Tucker.

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What’s your point of view on the future of musicianship?

On Tuesday May 1st 2012 a bunch of very smart and passionate people come together to discuss the Future of Musicianship in our very first event. If you are in central London and can free yourself 5-8pm this Tuesday, we’d love for you to come along.

It’s open to public and it’s completely free – simply register here:

You can simply come along to listen or if you want to join in the discussion at any point, we welcome that as well! After the discussion there is time for networking with a couple of drinks included.

It’s a great crowd and we are really excited. We’ve seen some of the preparation emails by the speakers fly around and there is definitely going to be a lot of passion and opinions in the room!

Confirmed speakers:

Andrew DubberAndrew Dubber – @dubber

Reader in Music Industries Innovation at Birmingham City University, Advisor to Bandcamp, Co-Founder of New Music Strategies

Paul Kirkham

Paul Kirkham

Managing Director of The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance

Steve LawsonSteve Lawson  – @solobasssteve

Professional musician, masterclass-giver, social technology consultant, co-founder of New Music Strategies and Amplified

Pete LutkoskiPeter Lutkoski

President of the Association for Music in International Schools & Assistant Principal at the American School in London

Bill Martin

Bill Martin@bcmartin

Music Education Manager at Yamaha Music Europe & Manager of the Yamaha Class Band project

Simon Purcell

Simon Purcell

Head of Jazz Department at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance

Tony Whyton Tony Whyton – @TonyWhyton

Professor of Jazz & Musical Cultures at Salford University

What happens after May 1st?

We are lucky to have photographer Alan Tucker coming along to make sure we get some photos, and Ben will be taking care of the audio recording, so we can make the highlights available for all of you afterwards, to enjoy and to share. We will also be presenting guest blog posts from some of our speakers – make sure you come back to comment and take part in the conversation!

Masters at Work

There’s nothing like hearing and watching masters of your craft at work. On Wednesday night we went to see Chick Corea and Gary Burton at the Barbican and got a perfect example of some of the things we’ve been talking about on this blog.

This is a partnership in it’s 40th year. Obviously at complete ease with each other, throughout the evening they were generously leaving space for each other, weaving their parts together, each picking up on the phrases, dynamics and moods of the other’s playing and complementing it perfectly. What struck me was how they seemed to use their knowledge of each other’s playing, not as an excuse to take it easy, but to listen deeper into what each other was doing.

Also in evidence was the duo’s wide influences, playing jazz standards as well as versions of The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, pieces by Scriabin and Bartók, and an brilliantly witty original piece inspired by Mozart.

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Where do we get the knowledge we need? – Guest post by Eric Rupert

As the first in a series of guest bloggers to the Loving & Living Music project, we give you Eric Rupert.  As I’ve talked so far about the listening aspect of musicianship, I invited Eric to write from a different angle, one that he’s passionate & highly knowledgeable about – the importance of stylistic & historical knowledge of music.

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 Eric RupertAs musicians we are called on to use our experience, ears and instruments to create substance to the music we perform. To play with great feel and musicianship we need to go back to the beginning of our craft, mainly our predecessors. Before finding our own voice we need to know who’s been here before and how they made their mark on the music and on us. Like in any history lesson we need to explore the explorers. This means listening and learning about the musicians, not just on our own instrument, but the whole group to understand how they achieved the sound and textures which created the sounds of the times.

All genres have a groove, whether it is rock, country, classical or jazz. To understand the music we have to find out about the creators. So we ask ourselves who played piano on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, what drummer played on Aretha Franklin’s Respect, who’s bass sound is on Steely Dan’s Deacon Blues, what inspired Dave Mason’s trumpet solo on the Beatles Penny Lane? All these things we should know before we try to find our own voice. It’s like collecting an encyclopedia of players, grooves, colours and textures to be used at the drop of a hat or on the gig. These are the building blocks of the “Tools of the Trade”.

Every week we should listen to something we wouldn’t normally and research the musicians; this doesn’t mean we have to like it, it just helps us learn more about our art. Find music to listen to by a player instead of an artist, you may find a person you already respect has done some varied musical work. A great example is pianist/keyboardist Don Grolnick who has performed and recorded with Steps Ahead, Brecker Bros, Bette Midler and James Taylor, quite a dichotomy of genres and artists.

This will bring us to ask why drummers should know different between Purdie or Porcaro shuffle; bassist and piano/keyboardists need to know the difference between a New York style groove (e.g. Will Lee on bass, Richard Tee on keys) an LA laid back style (e.g. Nathan East on bass, Dave Grusin on piano) or Blues style (Roscoe Beck on bass, Johnnie Johnson on piano), players that left their thumbprint on each. Guitarists should know who played different styles (e.g. Brent Mason in country, Chuck Loeb in jazz, Dan Huff in rock) to emulate them as a sideman. The players of the time and genre are the keys to a deeper understanding of the music. Classical musicians need to know more about the time periods, like painters do, of the pieces they play and the feeling around the era or the country of origin.

This takes us back to the question at the top: Where do we get the knowledge we need? We each take a glimpse back and learn from the forefathers of our idiom.

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Eric Rupert has spent 20+ years teaching and playing bass while recording and touring worldwide with artists from Dizzy Gillespie, Dolly Parton to Slash and West End/Broadway shows. He endorses Ibanez Basses, BBE Pedals, Breedlove Acoustic Basses, Stentor Upright Basses, Laney Amplifiers, RotoSound Strings and Ritter Cases.

Get out of your head!

In my last post I talked about the importance of listening in playing music. In this post I’d like to expand more on the process of listening. At this point you may be thinking “What process? Surely listening just happens?”.

Well, maybe not. We can’t close our ears to sound, but whether we actually listen to it or not is another question. In her coaching work, Heli uses a concept called Active Listening which distinguishes different types of listening. One type is listening to your own inner monologue. If you’ve ever had the experience of being in conversation with someone and realising that you have no idea what they just said, then you’re familiar with this voice. Instead of listening to the person you were talking to, you slipped into listening to your own thoughts. This can happen for different reasons – we may be bored of what’s being said, or we may be so interested in it that we start thinking up responses before the other person even finished speaking. Whatever the reason, we miss out on what the other person said and our response to it will be incomplete as a result.

This can happen when playing music too. It can be surprisingly easy to ‘drift off’ during performance, especially when we have the music committed to memory and can play it on autopilot. Experienced musicians can often do this and give a perfectly passable performance, a bit like the way we can sometimes get through a conversation simply by smiling and nodding in the right places. It’s not really good music-making though, just like smiling and nodding isn’t good conversation.

Alternatively, we may get so engrossed in playing our own part that we stop listening to the other musicians we are playing with and listen only to ourselves. Even though this involves external action, producing sound with our instrument or voice, it’s still internal in the sense that our listening and responding forms a closed loop that doesn’t involve anyone else.

My point is not that our inner voice is always bad and something to be suppressed. Sometimes it says useful things, like “Hey, we just skipped eight bars!” or “This doctor seems OK, but maybe I should get a second opinion”. The thing to notice is that in both these examples, the inner voice is reacting to something outside of ourselves and suggests actions which we can take in the outside world. Keeping these reactions internal is of no benefit to ourselves or others; we must communicate or act on them to produce any results.

In ‘The Inner Game of Music’, Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey talk about ‘noticing’ various aspects of playing. Simply noticing what is currently true about tone, intonation, rhythm, tension in your body, or any aspect of playing and performance, can provide valuable information about how to improve it. The same is true of listening. Noticing what you are listening to, noticing where your attention lies at any moment, can help you to direct your listening to where it will be most effective. When I apply this really effectively, I’m astounded by how many things there are to listen to, at every level from the ting of a hi-hat to the swells and falls of the whole group. It presents me with a huge array of choice about how to listen to, experience and respond to the music. And, out of all these things, the least interesting choice is always what’s going on inside my own head.