Another QuarterNote Heard From

Bill Sutton

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Lessoning the Burden

"Never took a lesson in my life ..." ( Jack Lawrence, recorded by Gene Krupa 1940)

There sometimes seems to be a bit of inverted snobbery in announcing with pride that one's accomplishments in music are entirely self-taught. Those who hear these words often greet them with awe, as if the speaker was possessed with an inborn skill never before seen on this earth.

I'd be willing to bet that there are very few people in history to whom these words apply in anything but the most strict and formal fashion.

I say this because it is my belief that every minute a musician has spent in the presence of others is a training class just as much as it is a music-making experience.

This is certainly true in filk, where much of the repertoire and the styles of playing are handed down, as it were, from person to person in filk circles all around the world. Even learning from recordings (be they formal studio sessions or personal tapes of that really fantastic filk at the last convention) has this flavor to it. Very little filk is learned cold from written music or lyrics - directly or indirectly, we tend to learn our songs and stories from another participant.

An argument could be made that this is in fact what maintains filk's claim to a true form of folk music. After all, by working with the people who make the music instead of only the cold lines and dots on a page, we make human contact every time our music spreads.

But. (Isn't there always a but in one of these articles?)(No comments from the Peanut Gallery, please ...)

In recent columns I've spent a lot of time discussing the merits of listening to the performers and musicians around us. I've emphasized this rather informal method of learning our craft/hobby/way of life/obsession/whatever you call it.

I want to take this opportunity to point out that more formal training methods have their place, and it's a big one.

I've actually met very few filkers who haven't had some form of training in some form of music. This could be as simple as learning to read notes on a staff in a fifth-grade music class all the way to a degree in some aspect of music or performance. Most often, this has taken place in some sort of group setting. Sometimes it was on an instrument or a style that seems to have little bearing on participation in filk (there are very few filk trombones out there, for example.)

It should be pretty clear that whatever we learn from these classes can come back to haunt us in the strangest ways. Reading music can stay with us and pop out when it's time to learn the latest parody. Choral singing methods come in handy both formally (with something like the N'Early Music Consort, for instance) or informally (when jumping up to join in on the informal singing of the Halleluiah Chorus, perhaps). An understanding of opera brings an appreciation of the telling of stories in song.

That pretty much sums up the place that past training holds for many of us. What I'd really like to focus on this time, though, is the idea of going back to a formal training situation - back to school, if you will - purely to enhance enjoyment of an avocation.

I'm sure there are a lot of people who feel like they don't really need any kind of formal training to improve what they are doing right now. I'd be the last person to disagree with this. I am thoroughly and completely convinced that practice is the single key to improving a skill you already possess.

What about a new skill, though? What about bad habits you may have picked up that you may not be aware of? What about kicking that improvement into high gear so that it doesn't take years to get to where you want to be?

Learning from a well-written book kind of falls into the middle here. A great number of self-starters will buy a book on learning the crumhorn and reach some level of competence through a dilligent application of the lessons (aha!) on the page.

I consider myself one of these people, but I came to the conclusion a long time ago that at some point you have to be shown by someone who already knows what not to do in order to (at least) avoid giving yourself carpal tunnel. At best, a good teacher can watch your work and point out just a few things that will almost immediately launch you toward a new level of skill.

Just as there are reasons to take formal lessons, there are reasons not to take them.

Lessons are not a way to avoid practicing. To get the most benefit from taking lessons, whether instrumental or vocal, you should devote the same amount of time each day to practice as the length of the lesson. Of course, you should be practicing for at least half an hour a day anyway.

If your reason for taking lessons is to force yourself to practice, think again. You might be better off finding a practice buddy. The only reason for taking lessons should be to learn the things a teacher can teach you - practice should be separately motivated.

You shouldn't take lessons simply because someone tells you that you need them. If you agree and are interested, fine, but if you're happy with your current skill levels then that's OK.

If you are in a time-crazy job or time of life, this may not be a good time to try to commit to taking lessons. If you would find yourself missing lessons often, it might be a good idea to consider an alternative. This is where the book/video combination might work out better for you - here, the "teacher" is able to fit in with your schedule.

How can you find a teacher? My recommendation is to find a local music store that specializes in the style of music that fits with what you want to learn - if it's celtic or bluegrass music, look for a place that sells traditional instruments. If it's classical music, look for a place that sells orchestral instruments or choral sheet music. The main thing here is to try to find a teacher who will be using exercises and examples that will keep you interested and will lead you to the style you want. While pure vocal techniques taught in classical voice training may be applied successfully in almost any genre, if you're going to be singing gospel style you want a teacher who will understand and accomodate your desires.

Once you have a list of teachers, talk to them. Let them know what you're looking for and find out if they can provide it. I've talked a lot about the importance of your own motivation, here it is just as important to assess the attitude of the potential teacher. If you learn well from someone who sticks to just the facts and exercises, be sure to look for that. If you need someone who will give you lots of encouragement and hand-holding, make sure that is what you get. Remember, you are not getting into this as a favor to the teacher - it's for yourself.

This leads me to mention that you should be careful trying to take lessons from a friend or spouse. Lession sessions can turn into social occasions and, unless one of you is very disciplined, the lesson can go out the window. If you have a very close relationship with someone, it is often difficult to hear criticism from them - and critiques are a vital part of the teacher-student relationship.

By the same token, a friend's recommendation for a teacher may be a good place to start, but it isn't a guarantee that the teacher will be right for you. Interview a teacher recommended by a friend as thoroughly as you would interview anyone else - don't assume that you will learn well from a teacher simply because your spouse did.

As mentioned above, make sure that your schedule and the teacher's can fit together without too much scrambling on your part. If schedules don't seem to mesh, find out if there is some way you can meet on an infrequent basis for sessions meant only to correct bad habits or point you in new directions while most of your weekly study would come from books or video tapes.

Don't forget that the lessons should be fun for you. If you find yourself dreading the next lesson, then you may want to re-evaluate either your teacher or your purpose in taking lessons.

Finally, don't feel like you have to take lessons continually for the rest of your life. Your needs, as well as your skills, will grow steeply for a while and then plateau. Take the time to enjoy and explore that plateau when it comes - that way you'll be able to make a well-informed decision as to what direction you want to take in your next round.

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Bill Sutton has been active in performing his own and others' music in public for fun and profit ... well, fun anyway ... for over 25 years. His column appears regularly as part of The Dandelion Report.

Copyright ©2001 Bill Sutton. All rights reserved.