Sunday, August 31, 2008

Dorian in a Blues

Q: Any tips on using the dorian mode over a 12 bar blues?

A: The dorian mode looks a lot like the major pentatonic and minor pentatonic scale superimposed over one another. In this respect, it seems like a logical choice to use over the blues progression but there are problems with this approach. I think it is a little too bulky for this application myself and leaves out the most important note, the major 3rd over the "I" chord. I think better use for the dorian mode would be over the "IV" chord. Let me explain: let's say we are playing an A Blues, I might use:

1) A minor pentatonic scale over the A7 chord (this might just as well be the major pentatonic or combintation of the two as well).

2) The A dorian mode over the D7 chord. The A minor pentatonic scale sits inside the A dorian scale nicely and allows a lot of interplay.

The A dorian mode over the D7 chord is really just a D mixolydian mode, but relating it to the Blues key center of A makes it seem a lot simpler to me. Especially as I am way more familiar with the dorian mode than the mixolydian mode. Matter of fact you can think dorian up a 5th for any dominant chord: A7=E dorian, D7=A dorian and E7=B dorian. It is really a matter of perspective though. I am not really a big fan of using modes too much over blues, it seems to complicate something that was meant to be simple. I do however use the dorian (based on the "I" chord key) over the "IV" chord quite a lot, it creates a few moments of interest and creates a jazzy sound. Now, a jazz blues is a different thing all together, using modes is fine. I would also be using the lydian dominant and altered modes in this situation.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Talent pt. 2

This is more of a continuation of my previous post. It always strikes me as funny how I post or talk about something and within a day or two something related comes up in the classroom or in conversation. Anyway, there was an open house at the college here in Japan and one of the students was a high school junior. After the lesson I asked her if she planned on perusing a career in music. She told me she wanted to, but didn't think she had any talent. She then asked me:

Q: Do you think most people have talent?

A: Yes, I think they do. Of course everybody has different degrees of musical talent, just like everybody has different degrees of the natural ability to, let's say, throw darts or swim the backstroke. Regardless, just about anyone can, at least sort of do both these things and would get better at them with a little practice. Why? Because these skills are part of our genetic makeup, without them, it would have been difficult to survive as a race. We have needed these skills since the dawn of man, throwing things at enemies and perspective food and swimming away from saber tooth tigers. That is why you can teach an infant to swim (like on the Nirvana CD jacket). Even to a one year old, it is somewhat natural. We have been genetically engineered over the millenniums to do these things with some level of proficiency. So what does this have to do with music? I'll get to it, give me a minute.

Think about it (as I had this high school student do), Is there any place in the world that doesn't have some kind of music? Is music not somehow connected with most occasions, in all cultures? It sure is. How long have we been messing around with music? Let's see:

2008 - Music is everywhere.

How about 2000 years ago - Hmm.. Buddhism is getting its start as well as Christianity. It is pretty easy to imagine people making music.
Matter of fact, Sumerian notated music was found dating back to 800 BC.

2000 years earlier than that, 2000 BC - The great Pyramids are standing. Yes, there was music. Archaeologists found stone carvings of a guitar looking instrument. There are signs of tonal music everywhere. Ancient documents show that music was alive and well in Persia and India around this time. There is evidence of harps and flutes dating as far back as 4,000 BC. And there is no doubt, people were beating on drums way before there was any kind of tonal music.

10,000 BC - Agriculture was taking place. Do you think people were making music? Considering they had figured out how to reap and sow crops, it is a good bet that they were making some kind of music. Likely singing and dancing at least to make it rain during droughts.

50,000 BC - Yup, music. How do I know? Because a
Neanderthal flute was found in what is now known as Yugoslavia and it is between 50,000 and 80,000 years old. And get this: it plays (at least a partial) major scale!?! Go figure, Neanderthals, had the same tools and abilities to play Bach or the Beatles.

Homo-Sapians showed up over 300,000 years ago and there are remnants of wooden tools and weapons. How likely do you think that they were also making drums?

Anyway, the point I'm getting at is that humans have always made music. And I bet we were doing it before speaking and definitely doing it long before there was any written languages. And it has been being done all over the globe. Why? Why was it necessary for us to make music?

It is safe to conclude that making music was a skill deemed necessary by evolution. Music was not just a fun thing, it was vital for our survival as a race. If it wasn't an evolutionary requirement, it would have disappeared at one time or another and certainly would not be practiced virtually everywhere around the globe, throughout the millenniums. Thus, the ability is part of our very being, a trait we have passed on to our children. It is in our genes. But why, why would musical ability be such an important trait? There are many different theories (some explained in Daniel Levitin's great book "This is your Brain on Music").

One theory is that men have used musical ability to get a spouse. The way birds sing. Having musical ability would mean that time has been dedicated to musical pursuits. And having this time to spare would also mean that the man displaying these musical skills would also have the financial abilities to not be working all the time thus guaranteeing a safe a prosperous lifestyle for wife and children. Ancient man had been using music to get girls just like I was trying to do when I started guitar lessons at twelve years old.

Being able to dance would prove one agile, thus proving the dancer a good hunter as well. Ancient girls were saying to themselves; "Check out them dance moves, bet he can bring back some meat for dinner!"

Music would prove important to pass on ones peoples history. If you didn't have a written language, you could teach your kids history lessons and folklore in music. Just like my daughter learned the alphabet song.

Music could motivate people to get things done. The whole village out beating drums and chanting before a big hunt or tribal war.

Music could bring one closer to God or the Spirits. Most religions use music this way, from Gospel music to Buddhist rituals. How about the Rain Dance?

The bottom line is that we've been making music for as long as we've been around. Therefore it has been part of our evolution and thus are brains have been designed to be able to do it. We all have the ability to make music. Unfortunately, society has conditioned us to forget these musical skills somewhat. When we sing loud as children in a place deemed inappropriate for such behaviour, or parents and teachers chastise us. When we jump and dance, we are told to calm down. We slowly lose the ability to express ourselves through music and dance. We are all born with perfect pitch, it is a necessary skill to learn language. But we unlearn this skill as well unless we actively participate in music by four.

But the good news is that musical skill is all part of us as human beings. We just need to locate it. It is buried deeper in some of us than others, but it is an ability we all have. How could it not be there, we have been making music as a race for millenniums. So my answer to the question, do all people have talent? Yes, we were designed to make music.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What it Takes

Q: You've been playing a long time and can really play. And you have taught, I don't know how many students. I want my kids to play music because I wasn't able to stick with it (they are eight and ten). What is important to be a good player? Is it all up to talent? How can I teach them guitar so that they will become great players (and how can I get better for that matter)?

A: Man, this is a hard question. Sometimes it is much easier to answer a "what scale over this chord" type question, but I'll give it my best.

Talent - Is it talent? Sometimes that has a lot to do with it, but not always. It seems different things, all combined. Talent is probably part of it. But most people who play have some kind of talent, I think that is what draws us to playing an instrument. I mean, if you think about it, most of us start because we heard someone play and it reached deeper inside us than most other people. Surely that is a sign that we must hav
e some kind of talent. But I have taught some students with more talent than I have and unfortunately a lot of them don't amount to greatness. Talent almost seems like a kind of familiarity with music and the instrument, like they have done it before in a different life or something. It often strikes me as odd why some people can pick up a guitar for the first time and hold it like they have done it a thousand times before. I think my daughter has talent. Look at her photo up there, that's her at one years old and she holds it like a pro (pinky on the fretboard, no thumb stickin' out, nice right hand position, guitar angle, etc.). Now let's say that she has real talent, some sort of inborn insight to the guitar and music, does that mean that she will be a great guitarist or musician? Not at all (although, like you, I hope and pray she becomes a musician like her old man). Why not? Because she might not like it or it may not interest her. If talent is only part of the picture, what is the rest?

Love - I'll say love, but I could just as well say obsession or fascination. You have to love it and spend a lot of time playing. But not just playing, thinking about it. I know that half of what musicians become, is because of the time they spend with the guitar in their hands, in their mind. It is almost the same as r
eally practicing, imagining the guitar in your hands, playing this and that. The older I become, the more I realize it. I have been playing long enough that there is very little difference between practicing and visualizing and I have come to the conclusion, that this time visualizing, is a major part of the equation. That is why love is the key. If you didn't love the guitar, how could you think about it all the time? I think that more than talent, I've always had an infatuation with the guitar, and that has been the key to my creativity, my musicality. I have always had such a love for the instrument, that I play, in my head almost all the time. Even now, I can't get enough of it, when I sit on the airplane, flying over the Pacific, I'm playing the Blues. When I'm driving my car down the 110 freeway, I'm practicing some ii-Vs. When I was a teenager, I would go on a date to the movies with my girlfriend, would hold her hand and imagine myself playing this scale or that chord (don't tell her). This fantasy time is the key. Let's just say that the talent we have, has to be nurtured by love and passion. In the book, "This is your Brain on Music," Daniel J. Levitin comes to the conclusion that to be good it takes about ten-thousand hours on your instrument (that equals about 3 hours a day for 10 years). But I will add that a lot of these hours can and have to be knocked off in your head. I'm not that sure that your brain knows the difference.

Joy - This is why, it is really important to teach your kids to feel joy when it comes to playing music. You can start your kids at three, but if you yell at them to practice, and make them feel it an obligation to do so, it is unlikely that they will learn to be creative, vibrant musicians. The reason is simple, if they don't love it, they will not fantasize about it when they don't have the instrument in their hands, and they certainly will not crave it to be in their hands. It must first be fun. I let my daughter play with the guitar (as opposed to play the guitar), so she will see it as something fun. I play f
or her and I play fun songs that she will enjoy. This way she will see the guitar as something that we can enjoy together. I want her to equate the guitar with good times. I set up all her stuffed animals as an audience and have her play a concert for them. I let her see me play in front of an audience so she can see that people love music, and love me when I play it well.

I play at her pre-school and she sings the loudest. Her friends say I'm cool!