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Addicted to Sheet Music

Are you addicted to sheet music? Do you feel nervous sitting at the piano without a book on it?  Don’t know what to play when asked to improvise? Do you spend endless hours practicing to memorize music? Believe it or not, the symptoms surely point towards poor command of the theory of music and ear training.

Over years of learning, teaching, playing and interacting with professional musicians, I have come to realize that there are a few aspects of music that need to be addressed right from the early stages of music teaching to make the student become a confident and accomplished musician.  Apart from the things all teachers instinctively address such as technique, sight-reading, repertoire, etc., I strongly believe that theory of music, ear training and improvisation go a long way to simplify our lives as musicians and teachers.

Theory of Music: Many of the students feel tortured when we make them work on the music theory workbooks. They sometimes complain that they feel bored, that they don’t even know why they are doing it. Teachers would usually say that one day they will appreciate it! Theory of music actually does make our learning much easier and meaningful. If students are asked to compose melodies right from Grade-1 level, they will naturally become curious about the architecture of music. They would ask questions like, “why does a melody usually start and end on the same note?”, or “why can’t they end their piece of music with a semi-quaver?” The study of theory actually enables understanding of the building blocks of music. Theory is derived from the music of the great composers; hence it gives us the basic rules that work. It firstly saves us from “re-inventing the wheel” and secondly, it gives us the ability to read the language of music in sentences rather than in alphabets. Imagine how easy it would be to memorize if a student realizes that a certain piece is in ternary form, that the section of music uses sequence that is falling by a tone each time, a certain section is just a repeat of the opening in a new key, that the music is following a VI-III-II-V-I progression, etc. The theory of music can, at a basic level, bridge the gap between reading seven notes and reading a scale. At diploma levels, students are suddenly faced with writing program notes. They are usually desperate students. Hence they don’t complain about the time they have to invest analyzing the piece of music, and often they would rather practice! If they were pursuing practical application of music theory all the way up the grades, they would instinctively be able to analyze any music they play.

Ear training: This is actually the missing link or, I would say, the bridge between theory and practical. There is a famous saying that “A good pianist is one who can see with his ears and hear with his eyes”. How easy it would be to read and play the piano when your eyes tell you what sounds to expect and your fingers trust your ears more than your eyes. This is what helps develop excellent sight-reading and general musicianship.

Ear training is essentially the ability to listen to sheet music without playing and transcribe sounds without using an instrument. The teacher should aim not only at imitation of sound, which only proves that a student can hear the right sounds, but ability to label the sound, which ensures that a student can notate the sound he/she hears.

I had very diplomatically avoided answering the question of “why is theory boring?” That is because I intended to answer it here. The workbooks on theory of music are full of musical excerpts. At early grades they are intended for explaining rudimentary elements of staff notation. But what if students could hear the given music? Wouldn’t they enjoy writing four bar rhythms or complete a given melody if they were able to transcribe what they hear in their head? Ear training can make that difference. The students should not work with symbols while studying theory but work with sounds. If the students are able to hear and label the given rhythms, melodies and harmonies in the workbooks, they will most definitely not only enjoy learning music theory but would be able to make practical application of the theory of music.

Improvisation: Can you name a composer who never improvised? There is none, of course. Improvisation is the first form of composition. Recently I attended a workshop conducted by Ravi Coltrane, son of legendary Saxophone player John Coltrane. In his answer to a question from the audience on how he composes his tunes, he said “I just improvise and record myself for half an hour. Then I listen to it and transcribe the interesting parts of it; and I have a tune ready to go”. Consciously or sub-consciously, every composer essentially makes use of improvisation.

The act of spontaneously making music using musical vocabulary is improvisation. When we talk, we improvise using language. How many times do we rehearse a sentence in our head before we speak? We make up sentences spontaneously, and that is improvisation.

Improvisational skills can be initiated right from the early stage. Since, the students at early stages have limited or no musical vocabulary and performance skills, it is advisable to start with imitation of easy musical phrases. Sooner than you expect, you’d be having musical conversation (using questions and answers) with the students. Improvisation is another activity that firstly helps develop a good ear and secondly helps practical application of theory of music that is otherwise learnt in isolation.

Transcribe an improvisation for a student. Give it a title and see the beaming smile on the face of the student! Apart from all the benefits of improvisation mentioned above, this is the greatest. I still remember the day I figured out changes of a song from a tape in my school days. Also, I still have the first jazz composition I wrote. To have a creation of their own is a feeling of achievement that can inspire students to pursue music for life.

To conclude, learning music is a process and it is the responsibility of us teachers to initiate and integrate into our lessons, all-important aspects of musicianship right from the early stages. More than knowledge, music is a passion that we share with our students.

Ritesh Khokhar

January 2013

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Career in Music

Many students, aspiring musicians (along with their parents with worried faces!) approach me seeking guidance on prospects of pursuing music as a profession. This is one very serious question and little information about the music industry is available to someone who is just starting out. At this stage they don’t even know what they need to know! Here are my reflections on the topic:

Music is not yet considered a mainstream career option, in fact Music does not even enjoy the status of an ‘industry’ in India. However, people, like myself, choose to do music without planning and worring about the future. Such people are only sure of one thing that they want to do music, period! A very passionate statement and I appreciate the enthusiasm but we need to realize few ground realities before plunging into the world of music, which often is without a possibility of going back and doing something else.

Music starts in anybody’s life with identifying a talent at an instrument or singing. If they are fortunate, they get good gurus and nurture their talent to a good level. At this point in life they are faced with a question, do they want to go professional or pursue a regular profession like most of the ‘normal’ people around them? All they have done so far is learnt an instrument and the first impression of music profession typically is to become a performer, make a band, record albums, etc. I don’t have a data of how many albums flop in India everyday, but I am sure it will be a huge number. Maybe only 1 in a 1000 succeeds. However, There are other areas in music that allow equal and often more creative freedom and satisfaction as a musician. These include music arranging, direction, music education, music production, studio synthesis, music therapy, etc. to get into any of these fields is a process. Your skill as a performing musician does not qualify you to be a professional teacher, arranger or producer. They require different learning path and experience.

Students firstly should make a base in music performance and in the mean while explore what areas of work exists in music. After reaching early advanced level in performance, which is typically 4-5 years of learning, they should explore and choose the a field of their interest. They now need to interact and possibly get an internship at one of the work places, i.e. if they are interested in teaching, work as an assistant with teachers, if they are interested in music production, spend time working at a studios and practice sessions of bands, etc. Some of these fields do have professional courses but internship is still a must to understand the practicalities. If such focus is not there, they stand a good chance of becoming jack of all and master of none. Music industry has little space for half-baked professionals!


Having said all this, how is a life of a musician anyway? Oh boy, do I dare ask myself this question? Ok, here is goes… it is difficult! Not being a thorough professional at what you do makes it worse. The industry, an unrecognized term I am using to refer to music circuit in India, is at it’s best… disorganized. There are no defined rates for work of a musician; you can get a song recorded for 5 thousand or 10 lakh. There are very few job opportunities that pay well compared to the corporate world. When was the last time I saw a non-bollywood musician driving a Merc? Never!

Musicians choose music because they can’t do anything else, i.e. their love for music is so strong that it doesn’t allow them to do anything else but music. Hal Crook, author of ‘Ready, Aim Improvise’ (book on jazz improvisation) wrote ‘Take up jazz only if you cannot do anything else, if you can sell parking tickets, do that, don’t take up jazz’. This pretty much applies to music. Don’t get me wrong, music is a fantastic option but for those who have the discipline, hard work and perseverance to take it all the way. It is not for those who think they can slit open their jeans from 10 places, grow their hair like a mongrel, carry an ‘I don’t give a damn’ attitude and think they’ve landed! Music industry has changed since the days of Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana. I don’t see how the industry can discover another Bob Dylan or Rolling stones today; they would hardly stand a chance to get noticed. Today is a fast world where the levels of professionalism are very high; the skills as a musician are no longer adequate to succeed in this competitive world. One needs to know how to network, package, sell and make their space in the market. Music business has become one indispensable skill for all musicians, even if they are not running their own show.

This article may not have answered your concern directly but definitely will help you make a more aware choice if you are standing at that crossroads of choosing a career and music seems to be an obvious choice. I would end by saying, ‘If you are a dreamer, dream on… because dreams do come true’.

Ritesh Khokhar

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