Sunday, May 18, 2008

Music Primer by Anthony McCarthy

If I had it to do all over again, maybe I should have written more about music, the subject of my professional training. One thing I’d been thinking about but never got around to was saying how much I missed Jan DeGaetani, the singer whose voice and interpretative genius I miss most since her too-early death.

Well, here’s what I can tell you fast.

Never forget that music is sound, it isn’t symbols on a page or words about music. It is the sound, heard and experienced.

Thorough ear training, sight-singing and the ability to accurately write down melodies, harmonies, rhythms that are heard in the ear or head is the most neglected and most useful of academic musical subjects. Usually the piddling courses at universities (way too late to start this training) carry a fractional credit and are given at the same time as full-credit “theory” classes. Without the ear training the “theory” classes would be better substituted by courses in producing clear hand-written scores, that’s about all it ends up being in the end. Universities never change their stupid practices, composers and teachers as fine as Roger Sessions and Paul Hindemith have been railing against this idiocy for longer than they lived. My fellow musicians and students of music, you’re on your own with this subject, even your instrumental or voice teacher isn’t going to teach it to you.

Time is short, you have to make choose your learning materials for their practicality and get the most out of those as you learn. Take Bartok’s Mikrokosmos Volume 1. Learn to sing the first six single line melodies, in time - with that rest in the first one - on using fixed do. Then, one by one, learn the entire volume before going on to Volume II. Always used fixed do in its extended form, the one that assigns a single phoneme to each of the natural pitches and each of the sharp and flat ones. “C” is “do”, “F” is “fa”, “Bb” is “te” “Db” is “ra”etc. Since there isn’t one published that I’ve ever found, you’ll need to decide for yourself what syllables to assign to double sharps and flats. Don’t waste your time with moveable do, it is harder to learn and far less useful. In four decades of practicing music I have never once had an instance when my use of fixed do was a practical problem, not a single time. Use what is most practical for you as an individual musician, what is learned most easily which works is the one to go with.

Learn all of the melodies in the first volume of the Mikrokosmos this way, memorize them, play them on your instrument and on a keyboard. Studying the Mikrokosmos is a great way to begin learning to play a keyboard. If you pursue a major in music you’re going to have to use it anyway.

Transpose the melodies you learn on your instrument and on the keyboard gradually to all the keys. Go as gradually as you need to, don’t spend much more than a quarter of an hour a day on this. Use appropriate fingerings for your hands. Transposing these melodies carefully is an easy way to learn the very practical and neglected skill of transposition, these pieces are perfect for that. Learn the sight-singing intervals for the transpositions as you practice this, either singing them away from the instrument or “thinking” them as you play the piece. This is the most basic and essential foundation to harmony and counterpoint, it is vastly more important and useful than anything you’ll learn from pouring through “Piston” unprepared. Never sing along with your playing, sing-along piano players are a blight on the art of music.

Learn all of the scales, modes and chords of western common practice on the fixed-do syllables. You will learn a lot more doing this than in producing those useless note-drawing exercises of university “theory” classes. You might be better off learning them from a jazz harmony book than from any “classical” source I’ve discovered. Learn them all starting with triads and their inversions, learning the 7th chords, then the various others, through 9th and at least to 13th chords. Then sing them as arppegios singly, and in succession with other chords. Again, use a jazz harmony book or just a fake book if you can’t find others. Chords, modes, scales, jazz musicians deal with those more directly than most classical musicians who reproduce what the composer has put on the page. Don’t strain your voice, you can always “sing” them in your head, checking the pitch on an instrument.

Learn to play rhythms, rock solid, no excuses, starting slowly, increasing the metronome speed gradually. You can learn a lot of technique by just playing things in time. You will often find that tension is actually enhanced by the exigencies of in tempo playing that get diluted in the lazy “rubato” self-indulgences explained by inferior musicians as “expressing themselves”. If you’re a classical player you’re supposed to be expressing the composer, not yourself. The composer knew how to write tempo indications in the music where they want them, what makes you think you know better than them? Of course, this isn’t subject to a hard and fast rule but you should always be able to play something in strict time, then the choice is available to you to make instead of using “expression” as an excuse for sloppy, diluted playing.

I could go on, the subject is endless. I’d suggest reading Ralph Kirkpatrick’s book about the Well Tempered Clavier but only after you’ve gone through at least the first two volumes of the Mikrokosmos the way I advocate above first. You don’t know how much I am aching to go into learning species counterpoint just now.