Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Music Education in the 21st Century

Q: I've been a fan of your book Infinite Guitar since I bought it last year and I am doing some research on the needs of today's budding guitarist. I was wondering if you could tell me what are some of the common questions/problems you get from your students about theory and technique? Have you detected any changes through the years in what aspiring guitarists consider their priorities? I would greatly appreciate hearing what you think and want to thank you again for your brilliant writing and teaching.

A: Wow, what a question. Let me reflect on this for a minute. You have to recall, I teach both in America and Japan and there is a big difference between the two as well. When I started teaching at MI in the late eighties, music was going through what I often call the sports mode, this went for all genres. Everything was super-charged; Yngwie Malmsteen was at his zenith and Paul Gilbert was getting his start. Frank Gambale had just gotten the Chick Corea gig and was sweeping all over the place and you could walk through the school and hear “Giant Steps” being played all over the place even faster than the original and sometimes in odd time signatures. Even Blues was hot and SRV was the focus. So basically, if you wanted to compete, you really had to go to a school and get your chops together. It wasn't really a good time for music because when musicians focus on technique they generally stop focusing on music, so there was a lot of great players playing solos over lame tunes. Japan was still going through its fascination with western music so they were shredding along with the rest of us. I could see the writing on the wall though: I thought to myself that this is going to come to a grinding halt because it just couldn't go any further and everyone was pretty much doing the same thing.

You also have to remember, this was before the internet was around so as I will describe, players were different then than they are now. One reason is because, when I was coming up in the 70s and got into the guitar, we didn't have video games, or the internet, so pretty much it was either sports or music after school. The way I had fun and most other musicians my age, was to put together bands with our classmates and jam out after school everyday. I was easy for us because we mostly jammed the blues. Not because we were crazy about the blues so to speak, but because a lot of the music we were familiar with was based on it back then and it was easy to get a handle on. I mean, if you could play a Blues, you could also play “Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin or “Crossroads.” A 12 bar blues could be moved around to different keys and played many different styles. For the most part, my generation of musicians got a lot of ensemble experience under or belts.

So anyways, when I started teaching at MI, even though music was going through this super technical stage, guitarists were good ensemble players, although they couldn't write worth a crap. The ensemble classes were a breeze and the students were good at remembering the assigned songs and could play good solos, had decent time and could communicate musically. And since they had plenty of ensemble experience, they knew how to dial up a guitar amp. If there is anything negative to say about that (the 80s) generation of players, they weren't very good at coming up with parts (and had bad hairdos). The slightly older generation (the 70s generation like me), was much better at coming up with parts simply because the players we listened to like Page and Hendrix were good at parts. The 80s guys focused on technique and sort of snickered at the blues based 70s guys. They preferred to focus on bpm’s which was (and still is) something strange to me.

Now let's compare that generation of musicians to today's. The interent age brought about a whole new way to have fun with the guitar. Basically you could pick up licks and songs on Youtube. Generally speaking, that generation of players had way less experience playing with other musicians than the generation of students before them. And this has really changed the way that we have to design curriculum. As students have such little ensemble experience, I personally have had to rethink the way I design the ensemble classes. Twenty years ago, I could assign the songs, write up the charts, hand out the audio and the students could learn the song and play it in class using good tone and good communication skills with a nice balanced sound (tone and volume). The focus could really be on increasing the student’s repertoire, picking songs you knew would be of good use in the future, while focusing in on their weak points. I would also try to come up with songs that required technical challenges that would force the students to stretch a little further each week. These days, I have had to simplify the music and work on really basic skills like, using an amp, communicating endings and beginnings, switching channels, following form, etc. I actually have eliminated standards to some extent and have been writing simple, short songs in order to allow the students to learn these basic skills. The focus has really been on increasing the amount of time students can play in an ensemble situation. Also considering that blues is non-existent, students are less likely to simply book an ensemble room and jam out. Which brings me to another point: the lack of Blues.