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Teaching Ideas Pt 2 – There's no syllabus for punk and reggae.

July 7th, 2008 | No Comments | Categories: bass ideas · Musing on Music · teaching news · tips for musicians |

In the last post, I mentioned that my main aim when teaching is to instill in my students a love of learning. A huge part of me having a right to teach them anything is me respecting the music they listen to. Nothing is a bigger turn off for a student that a dismissive teacher.

At one college I used to teach at, I got hauled over the coals by the head of the place for not giving my drum students a transcription of the parts we were working on when I was teaching them some reggae. “But they’ll never have to read reggae!” was my response. Doesn’t matter, was the come-back, they expect a transcription, it’s a music school and we’re meant to be getting all academic on their asses.

I didn’t give them a transcription. Why? Because Reggae is folk music. It’s an oral tradition, with musicians learning by listening and playing. None of the great reggae bands played off written parts, especially the drummers, and the nuance in the feel and timing in reggae drums would be impossible to notate. To give drummers a score to learn reggae would be like making them listen to Break My Stride by Matthew Wilder as an example of authentic reggae. It would sell them short, ill-prepare them for playing reggae professionally, and would be lying to them about how the great musicians who play that style learn to play like that.

The only place one is ever going to need to read a reggae drum part would be a theatre pit, and even then it’s more likely to just say ‘reggae feel’ or even more patronisingly ‘island feel’…

See, academics in general don’t deal well with folk traditions, especially not contemporary forms of folk music like reggae, punk, hip-hop… the magic in any of those styles is in the subtlety, not in the stuff that can be conveyed on a score. Handing out written bass-parts to ‘Anxious MoFo’ by the Minutemen or ‘Maxwell Murders’ by Rancid isn’t going to make your punk student a better punk player, but getting them hooked on Mike Watt or Matt Freeman’s playing might… That’s not to say they wouldn’t both make a cool transcription exercise as a way of introducing your lil’ punks to the wonders of writing music, but scores are not generally the way that material is passed around in the punk world, and to suggest that it is is disingenuous.

I’m not into lying to my students – I don’t want to make things easy for myself by selling them short on what’s going on with the music they listen to or want to play. If their aim is to be a rock star, I’ll tell them

  • just how unlikely it is,
  • how unpleasant an experience the road to ‘rock stardom’ is for most people and
  • how much better off they can be playing the music they love, finding an audience for it, and letting the ‘lottery of stardom’ bit happen by itself…

What I do want is to teach them

  • how to practice actual music – not just getting good at exercises
  • how to listen and dissect the mechanics of what’s going on in the music they love,
  • how the musicians they admire get to where they are (one of the beauties of having written for a bass mag is I’ve met and interviewed many of my students favourite players – always handy when I’m asked about a particular tune or technique :) )

If I have students who play punk rock, I want to teach them the very best information I can about the world of punk rock, I want to show them how the great punk bassists get their sound, I want to introduce them to the music of the punk pioneers, the influencers of the genre, the attitude behind it… There’s nothing sacrilegious about transcribing punk basslines, but like reggae it’s largely an oral, experiential tradition – turning up to an audition for a punk band with a music stand and pile of manuscript is going to get you laughed out of the room…

As I said before, Context is everything, and there’s no reason to teach out of context, or lie about the context in order to try and shoe-horn one specific set of musical skills into a style that doesn’t require them…

Are there other artistic disciplines that have been spoilt by being “over-taught”? Does this happen with poetry and visual art, that the ‘academicization’ of it misses the mark for large sections of the discipline? Thoughts please…

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  • steve

    not taught in the academic sense so much but what about technical death metal and it’s associated sub genres, with all the emphasis on speed and technicality at the expense of feel or listenability?

  • Jeff Schmidt

    Good stuff Steve.

    I feel that modern Jazz has suffered tremendously from this very thing.

    All the greats of Jazz’ Zenith era are being analyzed and re-taught. It’s become a largely academic affair when at it’s core – Jazz was -as you say – folk music.

  • steve

    Hi Steve,

    technical death metal is an interesting case, as it definitely requires a degree of harmonic understanding and strict dexterity that rewards the same kind of hammering of scales, arpeggios and metronome-based studies that most orchestral musicians spend their life doing.

    Like all kinds of music, it’s a very small percentage at the top that are actually ‘brilliant’ at it – the tech-metal thing has brought out amazing stuff like Blotted Science and Meshuggah alongside the unlistenable sludge that happens when the players just haven’t got the chops… it’s definitely one style where just having a lot of ‘heart’ doesn’t cut it in the way that it does for a punk or rootsy country and western outfit :)

    cheers!

  • steve

    Jeff,

    It is odd how particularly in the States, Jazz has become a museum piece – played ‘the proper way’ by Wynton and friends, and woe betide anyone who tries to take it somewhere else, which is in EXACT contradiction of what the bop guys of the late 40s/early 50s and the early avante gardeners were doing, in pushing the boundaries, moving forwards, expanding the horizons, soundtracking what was then ‘the modern world’ in a way that befitted it… I wonder if industrial/hardcore music is actually the new be-bop… I would’ve said hip-hop, but that largely lost its way in the early/mid 90s and has yet to find it again…

    Anyway, stop reading blogs and go shred! You’ve got bass-monkeys to impress 😉

  • John Anealio

    The one thing that I try to convey to my students is that when every style of music is boiled down to its essence, one will notice more similarities than differences.

    I try to teach my students through the music that gets them excited. Any song or piece of music is an opportunity to teach an important musical concept. Once these concepts are understood, students can start to identify them in a variety of different styles of music. That chord progression from an emo tune is similar to a classic pop or rock song. The guitar solo from a Metallica song uses the same scale as an old blues tune, etc.

    By learning what they love, and having an open mind, many students will find themselves appreciating styles of music that they never would have given a chance.

    Great post Steve.

    John

  • Linda

    Steve.. I’m with you on this one.

    Teaching is by definition imparting knowledge.. But the thing is… it’s a two way process.

    If you don’t understand and acknowledge that it is, you’re not going to engage minds in any meaningful manner.

    I’m old enough to have been taught by teachers.. academics mostly, who “lectured” their students… (Literally :))

    All teachers want to impart new skills/ideas, and all minds start off being curious about the world – sadly many of those minds get turned off – every single time that happens it’s a personal tragedy for the student and a great loss of potential to everyone else in society.

    Different subjects require different methodology (probably).. When I was teaching my subject was art.. specifically 2D.

    The differing courses I taught… required different approaches, depending on the age/interests/requirements of the students. Because of the nature of the subject everyone needed to be encouraged to work independently. This was extremely demanding on all of us, but mostly we managed.

    Teachers (of all subjects) do a pretty amazing job and often under extremely difficult/constrained circumstances… A society that doesn’t support it’s teachers is in grave danger of falling apart… It’s really THAT important.

    I hope you get loads of feed-back from this post.

  • Lo.

    I’m continually impressed with your methods of getting students excited about music. We have some kind of assumption that serious music is meant to be extremely technical and difficult, must be read from a page and only after years of intense study can we even hope to be worthy of being considered a true musician. This might inspire a few students to work really hard, but most people are going to realise that is not what they want and eventually give up.

    I like watching the students faces at masterclasses when you shatter these myths and allowing them to move forward, unbound… which makes learning music a lot easier and a hell of a lot more fun.

  • David

    Being one of Steve’s student I can say by experience that it is the anti-academics what makes Steve’s lessons so good.

    As a begginer bass player you may want to learn all the techniques and all the fastest links, however when you start thinking music instead of scales and thinking groove/feel, instead of speed, you are thrown back to the back seat and start to see music as a whole and no longer as a maths class.

    One of the things I looked for was context, it is indeed dificult to find a teacher who contextualizes every lessson, and that happens with Steve. More so the easy way he finds to relate music with other live like situations it’s just fantastic.

    Learning should be a pleasure and not a choir, and something that makes you look forward for the next lesson. Often after my lessons I have even more questions than before.

    David

  • Peter

    Different things work for different people. In my jazz band I mostly learn the material by listening to it repeatedly and then drinking red wine. Conversely, our sax/clarinet player (classically trained) writes out his improvisations beforehand and then practices lots.

    Curiously, for my ceilidh band, we practice by drinking beer.

    Why doesnt the Music GSCE cover the correct drinks to go with different styles of music? :-)

    PS Excellent Open Sky gig last night

  • Al

    Completely agree. I am now a successful award winning touring drummer, artist and tutor. I learned Piano when I was seven, and it was all theory. As a result I became bored and frustrated and eventually gave up before I even reached Grade One!

    I now play drums as my first instrument, guitar, bass, keys, and sing a bit…but I taught myself all of these skills, because I was allowed to experiment and push myself without having to follow a set of rules imposed by an intolerant tutor.

    My personal opinion is that trying to turn popular music into an academic subject is an attempt by people without sense or experience to become involved in an industry they simply do not understand.

    You cant catch a whisper.

    Fine, classical music, no problem, but I believe Rock, Jazz, Hip Hop, Reggae, Metal, Punk…..are all styles based on feel, with their roots in strong emotion.

    Very good article. Many Thanks for sharing.