Our quest for Musicianship

Whilst Ben & I keep exploring different elements of Musicianship in more depth in this blog (and I will pitch in later on!), I wanted to give you a bit more rounded take on the purpose of this project.

1. Defining Musicianship

What we are looking for in the Loving & Living Music project is a definition or a description of musicianship that includes all aspects of musicianship across all genres and instruments. Having this definition will enable discussion of musicianship to take place on a wider scale than is possible today.

Talking to people we know or have met and looking around the web reveals all kinds of opinions on what musicianship is, including things such as musical phrasing, creating a beautiful tone, being able to play by ear, or being able to imagine music without hearing it first. In addition, most people approach the subject from their own background, leading to differences in the way that, say, a classical musician and a jazz musician think about musicianship.

There are also differences between instruments; for example, a pop drummer’s idea of musicianship may be skewed towards rhythmic accuracy and dynamics, while a classical flautist may be more interested in tone and expression. And of course even all this is just our own interpretation!

The questions we are asking in order to find Musicianship:

  1. What is musicianship?
  2. Why is musicianship important?
  3. What’s the impact of having it & not having it?
  4. What would be a good way of teaching musicianship?
  5. What are you own strengths & weaknesses in terms of musicianship?

2. Musicianship in Education

We see a gap in the way that music is commonly taught. With the Loving & Living Music project we are looking to provoke awareness and discussion among the music education sector about how Musicianship is and could be taught.

For many students, particular beginners, the measurement of success in musical performance is often skewed towards simply getting the notes right. This is, perhaps, natural for the beginner student, who may feel overwhelmed by the new information and practice required to get to grips with their instrument. It is also natural to focus on the aspects of performance, such as playing the right notes, that are easily measured, rather than measure our success with more subjective indicators. However, such measurement is vital to a rounded musician, as it requires the player to have an opinion about the sound they want to make, as well as listening carefully to make sure that their goals are being reached.

Encouraging students to listen and form opinions in this way not only raises their ability to make a good sound, but transforms the act of music-making from one of the mechanical playing of pre-determined notes into one of active engagement with the music on an aesthetic and emotional level.

Why do we care?

In our respective professions (musician, coach) we see the difference that communication skills have on people’s professional and personal conduct and fulfilment, on stage & off stage. Even though we come into the concept of musicianship from different angles, the effects of having or not having it play an important part in the work that we both do.

In a nutshell, this is our way of being a contribution to the things we love and care about the most: music and people.

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Cheers, Big Ears

Carrying on from last week’s post, I want to talk about listening. For me, listening is a fundamental element of musicianship and, judging by what’s written elsewhere on the internet, it is for many others too.

I was recently reading an interview with Primus bassist and vocalist Les Claypool where he talks about his bandmates having ‘big ears’. It’s a phrase I love; I imagine a huge pair of ears hungry for sound, sucking in the different strands of music from the air around them. For me, this is the first and most fundamental step towards musicianship, simply being aware of what is happening around you. A simple example is something that I’ve heard said in different ways over the years: “If you can’t hear the tune, play quieter”. Simple advice, maybe, but something that makes a huge difference to a performance.

Listening, though, is just part of the story – we also need to be able to understand what we’re hearing. This includes understanding what’s happening with melody, harmony, rhythm and dynamics and goes beyond that into texture, form, mood and emotion. It means being able to decode the different elements of what we’re hearing into a something that we can use to inform our own playing. It can be working out a chord sequence by ear, or noticing when a another musician is trying to affect the mood of the music.

As the ABRSM definition says, thinking in sound includes imagination. This is where the magic happens, imagining the sound we want to hear and producing it with our voices or instruments.

When our imaginings come in response to what we understand from attentive listening we have a profound impact on the music that we’re making. When we notice our fellow performer trying to change the mood we have an opportunity to contribute, to add our own imagination to theirs and create together.

This cycle of listening, understanding and imagination; this constant interplay between the individual performers, is for me what raises music-making from a craft into an art.

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What is Musicianship?

We set up this project, Loving & Living Music, to explore and promote musicianship. It’s a topic I’ve always been passionate about.

However, in our initial conversations I realised how fuzzy my idea of musicianship actually was – is it a set of skills, personal qualities, an attitude, or some mix of these and other things?

So what is it?

Like any confused person in the internet age I turned to Google. The first result was a vague dictionary definition, simply stating that musicianship is ‘artistry in music’. More useful was the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music syllabus for their Practical Musicianship exam, which has this to say:

Musicianship is a broad concept that covers a complex range of musical abilities…it is loosely defined as the ability to ‘think in sound’. This occurs when a musician is able to produce music which they perceive internally and in the imagination, whether through playing by ear, singing, reading from notation, or through improvisation.

This definition has elements of what I understand as musicianship but, as the ABRSM note, it’s only part of the story. So what else goes into musicianship? Is it the same for all musicians or does it change from one genre to another? I’ll be posting soon about what I think it is; watch this blog for that and, please, use this space to voice your own opinions and ideas.

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Watch this space!

A very exciting Musicianship project is getting under way. There will be workshops for both professional musicians and teens just starting out, discussions to stir the industry and the education system, and a collection of interviews in the form of a book.

All this within 2012. Watch this space!