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Exploring the World of Music

Transmission: Learning Music

How we learn musical traditions and how we maintain, modify, notate, teach, and perform them for a new, younger audience are exemplified here in Indian classical music, African village drumming, and modern jazz and gospel.

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Exploring the World of Music Program #4 “Transmission: Learning Music” Transcript



In order for any musical tradition to thrive over time music must be learned shared and passed on. This process of musical communication from person to person and generation to generation is known as transmission.



Musical transmission means learning and teaching music. Music continues because people teach it to each other.  Kids learn music  when they grow  up. All of us have learned songs simply because they were there in the atmosphere. We may have learned them from family members which is extremely common. We may have learned them from teachers which happens in organized school systems. We may have learned them from records, radios, recordings which is of course probably the most common way we hear things these days. But we are constantly hearing and learning music from the minute we’re born.



Some societies organize it very formerly for example in Indian classical music you spend years apprentice  to a guru.  You move into the guru’s house and you have lessons everyday for several hours and you do things a thousand times. In some other cultures it’s less formerly  organized.  In Africa you might learn music as a kid. You grow up in a village and  you hear the music of a particular ceremony going on.  You like the music  and so you get together with your friends and you get some pots and pans, or whatever you can find and you start banging  out the rhythms on those drums. Eventually you  get to be pretty good, either  that or you get run out of town, right? Usually you learn and you start to pick up some skills and then if somebody sees that you have some promise, they might take you aside and say hey instead of doing  that the way your doing it, do it a little  bit like this. You use your eyes and you use your ears. You watch and you listen and you imitate.



Okay, let’s look at some of these scales.




To learn music is to do something akin to learning a language



That’s it, now try it.



And very often as kids learn music they’re taught  the grammar,  the rules, the syntax of the musical language. They learn this by rote. Eventually the idea is that they can then bring something of there own style, something of their own spirit to the music and transform it–make it something personal. Take the example of jazz musicians who study solos of previous jazz greats who learn to reproduce those solos note by note. Then they’re able to take their own solos to begin to do something brilliant and creative and imaginative.



I usually say that I’m self  taught  because I never had a real private instructor as a saxophonist. But my teachers I consider to be the great musicians from the past and the great musicians from the present. I’ve learned from listening to the records. I consider Sonny Rollins one of my greatest teachers even though I’ve never met the man. So the way I’ve learned is by listening and by playing with great musicians both great older musicians, my elders, masters. But  also with  my peers.  I  think  I’ve learned just as much playing with other young musicians who are in the same boat that I’m in. You  know, trying the learn  the music,  trying  to learn the history,  and at the same time trying to establish  our own individual voices. Ultimately every time you make music with somebody some of their experience and their knowledge, some of their soul is transmitted to you and vice verse. Some of yours is transmitted to them.



I always have this really nice memory of when I first started  to think “Boy  I sure like to play. That would be the shit. That would be fun.” And I remember sitting on my bed with my drumsticks and my black t-shirt on and putting on headphones because my parents were in the next room and listening to AC/DC records or Led Zeppelin records and just smacking the bed as hard as I could with these drumsticks and dust is flying all over the place. And just like going through record after record and like a whole evening would pass and I would take the headphones off and not even realize any time had passed.




Who was it, Keith Richards said that everything you ever listened to comes out in what you play, which is very true.



For young musicians the process of learning rock and roll is often very closely related to their album collection. The CDs they have at home, their favorite musicians, their favorite artists–they try to mimic what their hearing. A guitar student has so many different teachers if you will to choose from given that so much is really learned through sound recordings. That’s not to say that teaching tradition isn’t happening here where you can’t go and find a fine guitar teacher or piano teacher and learn that way. It’s just that the proliferation of sound recordings has really provided in and of itself a whole school for learning just through listening and mimicking.



In many church choirs music is also learned orally. Choir members learn their parts by listening, imitating, and memorizing the music.



In teaching a Gospel choir what I have to do is to listen to a tape, see if it’s relevant for the spirit of our service, and be able to take the individual  voice parts off that tape and teach  it to our choir.  In a  rehearsal  I generally teach the melody first so everybody’s aware. I go through the Soprano part and I teach them their part. And then I go to the altos and teach them their part. You take one voice part, leave it alone, you take the next voice part, teach them their respective part, couple them together and then put the third part together with it. That’s called layering. That’s an effective tool for teaching by rote. After rehearsal they  take the words home with them very often they’ll tape the rehearsal and then they learn their parts at home that way when they come back to the next rehearsal they’re more prepared. They don’t have the music sitting in front of them because that destroys the power of the text that Gospel music can bring. So memorization is a very very essential element in communicating effectively the power of Gospel music. They have to become one with the music and show it through their facial expressions through their body movements.  It has to become them. They have to be convinced that this is what God has done for them.



Another important way music can be transmitted is through notation. Notation systems graphically represent musical elements or specific performance information in order to preserve music.




Notation is how the composer communicates to the performer. It’s kind of the medium, the composer writes down what he wants in as much detail as he can and the performer takes that. So notation guides us and we can get inside what the composer was thinking. It’s almost as if were joined with  the composer.



Methods of notation can change over time. Since the seventeenth century composers in the Western classical tradition have become increasingly concerned with prescribing as much detail of the performance as possible. In earlier periods composers often provided little more than melodies and rhythms leaving details such as ornamentation, dynamics, and instrumentation to the performers.



One of our challenges in doing old music is that all the music that comes down to us survives in manuscripts or in the sixteenth century in printed sources. These manuscripts tell us very little about how the music was actually performed. A piece might have four parts with no words, maybe meant for instruments, but it won’t say. The composers either didn’t care what instruments it was played on or it was so obvious to the people at the time that it would be appropriate for  recorders  say  or for  viols  or for  a lute ensemble. My father has a dance band. They have music for tenor sax and alto sax, piano, and bass. There’s  also  a drummer in  the  band  of course because you don’t have a dance band without a drummer but the drummer doesn’t  use music.  So if some musicologists  came a hundred years from now without any clue as to what the dance band was about and reconstructed it, he would not put a drummer in it. And that would be ludicrous to us because you don’t have a dance band especially the sound of the thirties dance band without a drummer. And so when we find manuscripts maybe there’s crucial parts that are missing from it that those musicians improvised or we don’t even know if professional  musicians in the fifteenth century read music. It’s possible that the manuscripts that survived were not meant  for musicians.  They  were  meant  for their patrons, say a nice copy to give to the king so that he could have in his library.



Another form of notation known as tablature shows instrumentalists where to place their fingers rather symbolically representing sound. Because notation for the Chinese chin does not specify all aspects of performance, players must develop their own rhythmic interpretations.



The chin music is a very ancient Chinese music. There are more than three thousand pieces of chin music existing in China in a simplified Chinese character  notation.  This tablature shows  you which string your hand put out and what kind of techniques. But unfortunately there’s no rhythm at all which means you cannot  read  off  music directly from the notation.  In most cases different chin player has  their own different  interpretation for the same piece.  But if  the interpretation is very  good and everybody  likes it then you become popular and people accept it.



While notation and sound recording can preserve music it is the teacher who instructs a student in how to perform. This relationship varies from culture to culture. In Japan it involves the student listening to, imitating and playing along with the teacher.



In older days people actually lived with their teachers and helped with the domestic chores. While doing that they get the essence of their master’s techniques and aesthetics. When we learn shamisen these days we use the notation score although it is a pretty recent practice. It is very similar to a guitar or lute tablature so the position you put you put fingers and in what manner you play some special techniques are prescribed in that notation.

But I have to learn it by watching because there’s no way to see how certain timbre effects will be created. When I come to the lesson usually my teacher plays with me.



In learning how to play we don’t actually talk about the structure of the music. You just play side by side with your teacher. This is a little different then Western music where the teacher will sit to the side and watch you play. You’re always playing at the same time so that you can watch and also find a connection to this art.



In North India there’s also a highly formalized method of transmitting musical knowledge from teacher to disciple. Students learn directly by imitating what there teacher sings or plays. Traditionally music students used to live in the house of their teachers or gurus, where they performed chores and received daily instruction. This master disciple tradition continues today in a modified form.



In India it’s called the Guru-sishya parampara. The teacher student tradition where the student treats his teacher likes he’s next to God. My musical hero was Alla Rakha who I had listened on many recordings. I had no money but I would go and meet him and sleep on the floor of his hotel and take care of errands and help out with driving, the cooking, shopping, cleaning, anything. And when he felt like it he would teach me. These lessons were not formal. He never wrote anything down for me. In fact I never sat in front  him with drums.  He only would recite compositions  to me and I was expected to remember them and  a later time  right  them down.


In our instrumental music you have to gather the ability or acquire the ability of singing whatever you are playing.



The teacher can say to you here’s a theme (sings) and then you (sings)



Sings) You have to reproduce. (Plays) This ability comes only from singing whatever you are playing



So it requires a lot of memory and you have be on your toes at all times because you don’t know when your going to get a lesson. It could be in a restaurant. It could  be late a night while he’s in bed.  It could  be in the car, in rush hour traffic in New  York City on the  way to the airport.  But  when it occurred to him to teach that’s when  it was time for  you to learn.  Time for me to learn. So I did that for about almost twenty years.



There’s so many facets to be considered in classical music that one really needs to be guided. Music is sound and to describe a sound in words is so much more difficult than a demonstration. (SYNC:)  Sometimes  when we’re playing we have to make really obvious, okay? So when you crescendo to the top of this ,you know, when you do this (plays)… It’s beautiful, but this one.(plays)… (VoiceOver) Once you hear it becomes completely apparent and that’s one really important things. When a student first comes to learn piano, there are a lot things that need to be covered: notation, that is how to read the music, how to read the rhythm,  how  to read the notes, the dynamics, basic interpretations… (SYNC:) But where’s the one that you need to do a little bit more… (VoiceOver) I’m also very concerned  that they begin  at a very very early age, the musical concepts. So I have really tried to talk about  phrasing as early as five  years old so that it’s not something that they kind of have to learn later, that it becomes the language.  Because music is a language  and if you don’t learn to speak in sentences, if you caught up in little words and little notes, then you don’t have music. (SYNC:) Feel the energy and the spirit of it, okay? Good.



First of all when you learn the piece we have make sure we have the right fingering and the dynamics and we have to definitely make sure we have the rhythm otherwise it could come anyway you want it to. Crescendo means you get louder and decrescendo means you get softer. If you have dynamics it changes in mood and when people are about say oh this is so nice all a sudden it jumps up or something.



Some teachers really insist that you play exactly like them and that’s their style of  teaching.  My teacher, Leon Fleischer, seemed to impart more ideals and principles that could guide us into further understanding the music. Through all of that, whether consciously or unconsciously, you end up sounding like you teacher.


Jennifer Kim has been taking piano lessons with me since she was five years old and she’s playing very advanced repertoire now. She is understanding it at a really deep level at this point and I’m kind of guiding her almost as a coach. I give her a little more space.



I think that when I was around five or so, my main goal was trying to get a sticker on my page. To say “yeah, by October 22nd I got this piece right.”



The ear is going to hear this (plays) right?



I think very recently I looked at music on a totally different level where I dissect the piece first in my mind. And then I try to work it out in my hands.




I do find a point where there’s a very profound change and it usually happens around the age of 13 or 14. They all of the sudden understand what music means to them. They’re moved by it and it is part of them and it’s become part of there life and they will always have because it their’s and they own it.