So, tell us a little about yourself.
Well, I began playing piano at a young age and began taking formal lessons when I was in the third grade. One of the best things about my early lessons was that they included music theory. I think this is less common these days and many students (at least the ones I taught when I used to teach piano lessons) aren’t interested in this aspect of music. But, for any serious music composing I think it is necessary to know something about the structure of music.
But, even with an initial interest I began tiring of music lessons and so my piano teacher handed me over to her father who was also a teacher and an accomplished player in his own right. He recognized that part of my lack of interest was due, in part, to now being able to pursue music I was interested in. At the time that involved some rather eclectic tastes.
In my early teens most of my musical interests were related to the pop music being played on the radio at the time. Fortunately, this was an era (in the late 70s and early 80s) with some very good popular music. I remember listening Paul Simon and Alan Parsons Project among others. I also began developing an interest in Pink Floyd. But, my favorite was definitely The Police.
That all sounds pretty conventional.
The eclectic interests actually began with my interest in The Police and my participation in my high school jazz band. I went to a performing arts high school with a very good jazz band. Meeting those guys really opened my up to some new music. I was introduced to Weather Report, Pat Metheny Group, Miles Davis, and Chick Corea. That was on the jazz side. At the same time, I discovered that Andy Summers, the guitarist from The Police, had recorded two album with a guitarist named Robert Fripp. Someone I had never heard of. But, I figured if Andy Summers was on the record it was worth a listen. From there the floodgates really opened!
I loved those recordings with Summers and Fripp: I Advance Masked and Bewitched. So, I decided to find out more about Fripp and discovered he founded a group called King Crimson. Naturally, I checked this out and developed the habit I have continued of making musical connections. If someone played on an album I liked I checked their stuff out as well. I discovered that Fripp had recorded several albums with Brian Eno (another name I was unfamiliar with at the time) so I added Eno to my listening. I discovered Philip Glass through a friend in jazz band and began listening to his music and loved it. From there I learned about Ravi Shankar and Indian music. I also discovered Steve Reich through Philip Glass as he was also considered one of the major “minimalist” composers. And through Reich I discovered Balinese music. My interest in world music also got a kick from Paul Simon’s Graceland album and Stewart Copeland’s album The Rhythmatist. Stwart Copeland was the drummer from The Police.
Looking back on all of this it seems odd that I wasn’t already familiar with these musicians but everyone has to start their learning somewhere. And for me it began with The Police, jazz band, and a very understanding piano teacher.
Tell me more about your piano teacher.
He gave me space to grow, make mistakes, pursue music I found interesting and all the while kept my feet on the ground with some solid music education and a practice regimen. He introduced me to some new music as well including some very eclectic electronic music. He also encouraged me to begin improvising which was not a strength for me. But, I needed to work on it being in jazz band. The trouble was I knew nothing about improvising, jazz, or complex chords.
Like a lot of players I learned a lot by listening and working on my own. I realized what I didn’t know and worked to correct it.
First, chords. I knew major and minor and some seventh chords but not much more. I knew how to build chords but couldn’t just play them at will or follow complex changes in a jazz chart. So, I began studying and practicing to make more and more chords a part of my vocabulary.
Second, scales. Improvising is based on scales and my knowledge of these, like my knowledge of chords, was very basic. I don’t mean this as a criticism of my piano teachers because they gave me those basics and I knew them well. But, I needed to build on them to succeed in playing jazz and improvising. I needed to know more than major and minor scales.
I think a lot of players stop at that very basic level. They can play a few chords, a fee scales and for a lot of music that is enough. For a lot of pop and rock music that is definitely enough. But, if you really want to grow as a musician and a composer you have to be willing to go farther with your learning. You have to be curious and you have to listen. Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of either of these traits nowadays.
What do you mean? There are more opportunities for listening now than when you were young.
That’s true. There are more opportunities but I don’t think they are being taken advantage of by most people. When I was young we went to a used record store and for a couple of dollars bought a few albums from groups we’d never heard of just to see what they were about. I made a lot of good musical discoveries that way including Jean-Michel Jarre, Andreas Vollenweider, and Mahavishnu Orchestra. I even bout an album of Kabuki music just to check it out! Now, you can listen to things like this for free but the listening and exploring doesn’t seem to occur. People seem to listen to what they already know or have already heard. Record companies seem to be working on better and better ways to make the next hit song sound very much like the current hit song. In a world where more variety is easier to access popular music seems to be going in the direction of more uniformity.