Monday, May 2, 2016

Music Literacy

In the spring of my third grade year I asked my parents for a drum set. My father made it very clear that if I got a drum set that I had to learn how to play drums the right way so my parents signed me up for private drum lessons at a local music store. After meeting my first teacher he walked me to the back of the store, which is where the drum room was located. During his stride he grabbed a book from one of the shelves and after sitting me at the drum set he placed the book on a nearby music stand. It was called How to Play Rock and Roll Drums. 

Then he opened the book to the second page, which featured some quarter notes and rests played on the bass drum and the snare drum. He explained how they are counted: 1-2-3-4 and then counted me off before he had me play the exercises in the book. 

I played each figure perfectly and before I knew it the thirty minute session ended and it was time for me to go home. I was most grateful to say the least because I did really well when it came to reading music for the first time. I had been playing drums at school in a small drum corp but everything we learned was by ear so this was the first experience of learning a new language. Right away I had a good feeling about this.

Music literacy is a much argued point by many musicians for various reasons. First, there seems to be a badge of honor for being self-taught because that means you figured out how to play your instrument on your own and did so with a lot of ear training. Second, there is an argument about how being self-taught also helps your feel. Feel....the immeasurable piece of evidence that is used in musical arguments that (conveniently) can't be measured (more on that in a future blog) while these same musicians ignore the fact that some of the best performers ever are in fact musically literate.

I Am Not Self-Taught...So What? 

I studied drum set privately for 13 years so that would be the equivalent of going to school from Kindergarten through high school. I have never worked with a musician for an extensive amount of time that frowned upon the idea with many of them even going so far to express their admiration for the fact that I pursued private instruction. There are even those who asked what the focus of my studies were with the following being my answers.

My first teacher's name was Swede Meredith, an old school Jazz drummer who was determined to get me to follow in his footsteps. He started me on traditional grip and focused on teaching me how to read music and on how to play drums in a relaxed way. Aside from that he also worked with me to prepare for the annual A.F.N.A. Musical Festivals that were held once a year where we performed rated drum solos for a panel of judges. We worked together for about five years before I moved on to my second teacher.

The work I did with Swede prepared me for my second teacher whose name was Greg Alban. Greg to this day has been my greatest mentor because he had a much broader vocabulary since he wasn't set in some old school ways that are still typical of many traditional Jazz drummers. By the time I started studying with Greg I was a good reader and had decent technique so he took what I could do even further by challenging me in with modern techniques and playing styles that were current at that time period. 

However, one of the things that both Swede and Greg both emphasized to me was the importance of listening to other players. Meanwhile, our lessons focused on reading and technique while they tracked my progress on how I moved around the drum set. So you can see that when it came to listening to other drummers and learning from them on my own time I actually come from the same background as the self-taught players so that is why I have always challenged the idea that studying with a teacher somehow harms your feel as a player.  Further, how much more did I learn because I had the chance to sit in the presence of a master drummer on a weekly basis who not only tracked my progress but also played for me. (Side note: I am blessed to have never had a physical injury in my hands, arms or legs and I am most grateful to my teachers whose guidance taught me how to play with great efficiency. How is that a bad thing? I did have some back problems but the solution to that is addressed in my blog titled:

My third teacher was Jeanette Wrate and since she knew Greg and was familiar with his work she focused on getting me into World Drumming ideas along with polyrhythms. A lot of what we did was on a practice pad as we worked on various types of rhythms as well as complex meters but just like Swede and Greg, she directed me to even more drummers that I should listen to because they were doing the things she was teaching me.

At that time I was also encouraged to start transcribing music. At first I really didn't think much of the idea because I could learn any song by memory and play everything that I heard without a problem. Yet, once I took the time to sit there and write the whole drumming performance out it gave me an understanding of this particular drummer's performance that I never knew existed. Now can you also become familiar with a drummer's style by listening to them? Of course, but how can anyone claim to learn nothing from transcribing someone's musical performance unless they have actually done that and found nothing new in what they wrote out? Sorry, but you can't comment on what you don't know.

Music Education

In college I started out as a Music Major before changing my major at the end of my junior year. Therefore, I have an Associates of Arts degree from El Camino Community College in Torrance, CA and earning this degree is something I am most grateful for because I learned so much during my musical studies at ECC. Prior to entering college I had just started messing around with the guitar but the truth is, I had no idea what I was doing other than just playing some power chords here and there and learning a few basic Rock songs. That was because I had what I call a drummer's ear, meaning that I did struggle to a certain degree with figuring out chords and melodies because my ear was more in tune with the rhythmic parts of the song and not the melodies and harmonies that I heard over the groove.

I was very nervous when I sat in my Music Fundamentals class because I more or less knew nothing about melody and harmony. I was a strong reader when it came to rhythmic figures so that part of the class was a piece of cake. But, I was just as much of a beginner as everyone else when it came to learning scales and chords.

Honestly, it didn't take too long for me to catch on as I guess I was more of a musician than I realized. That and because it was something I really enjoyed because now I could sit at a piano and have some idea what I was doing. In other words, it wasn't just about taking a class and getting a grade. I was learning the skills that allowed me to get the musical ideas out of my head. Soon after I started taking this knowledge to my guitar and I could really see a difference in the music I was writing.

Music Theory classes came after this and again, the musical doors began to open even more. Sure, there are those who figure all of this out on their own and that's okay. I have no shame in saying that I needed a little bit of help and if someone has a problem with that then that's just too bad because I really don't care. Considering the fact that my music career includes songs I have written that have been featured on various television shows to songs that fans of my original bands enjoyed speak of the quality of my work. I don't care how someone gets to that point so long as they get to where they want to be as a musician.

To be fair we should all admit the fact that there are weaknesses in both points of view. I know plenty of musicians who can't do a thing unless they have a sheet of music in front of them. I also know illiterate musicians who can only play songs from memory who are unable to work in an improvised environment. Still, to each their own but if someone chooses not to learn how to play music by ear and/or can't take gigs that require some sight reading, is what it is. We all have to live with our choices.

Benefits of Musical Literacy 

I have a busy schedule because of my day job, my writing background and most importantly, because of my family obligations. As a working drummer there are times when I have a lot of songs to learn with a limited amount of time. Some of these songs are known to have some tricky changes so it is smart for me to make a chart just in case I forget a song's arrangement. No shame and no apologies folks and if anyone thinks this limits my ability to groove come on down to the gig and play along with me or ask the people on the dance floor if they are having a good time. Of course it is my preference to play every song from memory but my schedule doesn't always give me enough time to study the songs enough to memorize them.

Or, there are those moments in the recording studio when I might get a demo of the song the night before and don't have a lot of time to review the song. That's when I sit down and write out a chart to take to the studio the following day and place it on the music stand before I track my part. Mind you this is an environment where I am not only being paid for my services but also tracking my parts while the person hiring me is paying for studio time. If this helps me do the job imagine the impression I left on the artist who hired me. That helps me get hired back by the artist for a later studio gig while also giving the producer and/or engineer a reason to ask for my business card in order to refer me to other artists who might be looking for a reliable drummer.

This discussion also reminds me of an article I read about drummer Phil Collins. Years ago he decided to do a solo tour where he performed Big Band versions of his classic songs. Since Big Bands are known for figures that involve lots of hits and figures played by the whole band Phil talked about how he had a hard time remembering all of the figures so he had to create notes to remind him what to play. Since he didn't read music he said it was really hard to create something that would remind him of what he had to play. Later he then admitted that it would have been better if he had taken the time in his youth to learn how to read music. I totally understood where he was coming from because I have experience playing in Big Bands and some of the charts were rather extensive so it was hard to remember the whole song. Of course I also remember times when we'd be onstage and the band leader would call out a chart and we would sight read the tune at the gig. I was simply given the tempo when the band leader counted off the band and away we went. Thank God I was able to read all of the figures because the band would sound terrible if everyone played all of the figures with me just grooving under it.

Also, there are times when I make a chart and then don't end up needing it at the gig. I find at times that I remember the figures better because I wrote them down. It's almost like those days when we had to study for a test in school. Students at times remember the material better because they took notes in class and then made note cards to help them study for the test . Then there have been studies done that show how writing things down help us remember things:

Does anyone think the same idea would not apply to writing music?

Aside from having to learn music I can also say that music literacy helps me when I am composing music. Sometimes I am not near an instrument when an idea comes to me but thankfully I have a piece of music paper nearby. Some people like to hum their ideas into their mobile device and that's fine but in my case I get ideas for a new tribal drumming composition and once I write out one rhythm I'll end up coming up with 3-4 more ideas. Then I will go on with my day and by the time I get home I might forget some of the ideas I had but am fortunate enough to have my ideas on paper. Then I'll go into my home studio and program my ideas into my drum machine and there it is.

I also remember stories that my Music Theory teacher Dr. Wallace Bower told us about musicians who preferred to stay at home rather than go to a live Symphony as they preferred to simply read the score in the privacy of their own home. By doing this they were able to hear the music in their head and they found that to be a most enjoyable experience. Again, to each their own but I do know this experience because I have done the same thing both with my own music that I composed after all of my ideas were written down as well as music written by others.

Speaking of Music Theory classes, I am most grateful for the things I learned in these classes because they have done wonders for my songwriting. One recent composition that I am pleased with was something I wrote that I plan to put on my next CD titled "Suruuq." It incorporates various Middle Eastern rhythms that my study of world drumming has afforded me while also working with a main melody that comes from a mode that I learned from my music studies along with something else that I have wanted to work with for a long time, counterpoint! I finally got the chance to do this with this composition and it was a lot of fun. I wrote out the melody that I wanted to put a counterpoint to and then followed the various methods I learned in class. Within minutes I had the part written and once I tried it out I loved it:

One listen and you can hear that I did more than just play the melody at a different interval as there was in fact a scheme to my choice of notes as well as how they moved. I could have never done this if I had never gone to music school.

Concluding Thoughts

At the end of the day it comes down to comfort but over the years I have grown so tired of the labeling that goes on from both sides of the discussion. The raw and the schooled can work together if musicians can just learn to respect each other's abilities and do what is best for the group. Such a thought reminds me of Journey band mates Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain. The former was a talented teen that was good enough to play on the road with Santana at age 15 with the other attending the Chicago Conservatory of Music before embarking on a successful professional career. Yet, they have worked together for several decades now and have written some of the most amazing music in Rock and Roll history, together!

I too have worked with some amazing musicians as well who also come from both sides of the discussion and have some great memories of working with these talented musicians. I think vividly of guitarist Alex Gonzalez who I worked with in Sanaiya who was as self-taught as it got yet could play his guitar like no other. Then there was Andre Marins who attended a music conservatory in Brazil who I worked with in an improvisational duo called Invocation of Improvisation. Both of these men are like brothers to me with these personal relationships coming out of our mutual respect for each other that came from working together in a musical setting. That only happened because we made the effort to work together rather than impose

It's not about one way being better than another. It's about either way being best for the person taking that path. Respecting someone's abilities regardless of where they come from is about giving someone their due because you recognize the effort they put into their craft. No one is perfect and it's nice to recognize our shortcomings rather than spin the topic in one's favor based in order to avoid discussing our own shortcomings.

I know my weaknesses as a musician and I continue to work on them. I am not afraid to admit such because I am an imperfect human being that knows that our imperfections do not take away our dignity, regardless of the way we are seen by others.

Carlos Solorzano

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