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  • Baldwin Beats Class

    Teaching beat making and digital music production is always as much of a learning experience for me as it is an opportunity to share my techniques and skills with my students. This semester at the James Baldwin School, I have been working with a great group of kids with a very eclectic set of sensibilities. Some already have experience using Fruity Loops, FL Studio, Ableton or other production software on their laptops and tablets at home to make beats or tracks. Some are completely new to the process music making. Still others have experience playing traditional analog instruments, and are interested in expanding their musical palettes. The key guiding principle for me as I work to guide each student toward their own personal music making goals is to instill in them an ethic of making music from intention. By this I don’t mean that that they need to decide in advance what their music means, or what experience the end listener will eventually have; although that is another, very interesting conversation. I simply mean that I encourage them to develop the skill of hearing the music in their heads, and having a vision of the ultimate result before setting ideas down. This is especially challenging at the present moment, because many production tools, and especially software based production methods enable us to bypass that step by using pre-existing loops and samples, and automatically time syncing them. Some even put them in tune with one another. While this allows for a neophyte to quickly garner immediate gratification, which can be confidence building; it allows also for a complete disconnect between what we set out to accomplish and where we arrive.

    These days it is increasingly easier to arrive at a final result that sounds like “professional” work. Many of the pitfalls that music makers of past decades needed to learn to avoid through experience are automatically eliminated by more and more sophisticated software solutions. This might sound very helpful, and like it removes obstacles to create an easier path to creativity. While this is not entirely untrue, the trade off is that someone working in this way without basic musical knowledge is limited to using sounds and phrases that are created by others, and often don’t develop the skill of generating the sounds they conceive of themselves. They end up approximating, at best, what they originally intend, and are often sidetracked completely. They become dependent upon loop libraries and specific software in order to create music. The final product is often a compromise, and not what they might have created if they had the tools and skills to translate their own ideas directly into music. While even this methodology can be mastered and manipulated by the most diligent practitioners, most new users are wooed by the easy payoff and neglect to learn the most basic musical skills. An analogy would be learning to fly an airplane before learning to walk. While long distance flight is a useful skill, it would be difficult to get around once you landed anywhere.

    In response to this dynamic, while I don’t discourage my students from applying any effective method to arrive at their ultimate goal, I do caution them about getting “lost in the box”, a phenomenon that happens when using technology without a clear goal. The danger is that there are so many choices of sounds and phrases, that it’s easy to lose sight of the original vision for a song or a track, and to get caught up, and ultimately overwhelmed and never arrive at a finished version of the work. If they do finish work, it often bears no resemblance to what music they were originally motivated to make. I instead work to instill in them a reverence for basic musicality, teaching them the mechanics of rhythm, harmony and melody both before we engage with the technology, and continually reiterating throughout the production process how the elements are present. It’s a modern application of the old adage “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Regardless of the instrument, technology, interface, or work style; fundamental musical skills provide the strongest foundation for creating music of any genre.

    As a guitar player and teacher, I often suggest to students that they sing every note they are playing on the instrument in order to “keep themselves honest.” This approach requires a guitarist, or any melodic player to first know the note they mean to play, otherwise the note they sing and the note they play will not match. The level of focus and skill this technique demands of the user seems to be alien to many of my production students. The interface of digital instruments is often not applied as directly as that of an analog instrument, but it certainly can be.

    Embracing this type of ethic cultivates a respect for, and helps develop a fundamental understanding of any topic. With that understanding, students begin on their own to desire to glean the basic skills of their craft. For my students, it also helps to peak their interest in music, and technologies that came before them, helping them see themselves as torch-bearers of a great legacy. I had the wonderful opportunity to meet the great musician and inventor Les Paul a few years back, and to hear him play. He was in his ’90’s at the time, and while many people are familiar with the guitars that bear his name, his lesser known accomplishments have shaped the way we all hear and create music today. As the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar, reverb, and multi-track recording, he created recordings that at the time sounded as though they were from another dimension. While on stage, he mentioned that, since he was the inventor of modern recording technology, many people ask him what advice he would pass on to emerging artists and young people getting into music making and production now. His response was priceless, and illustrates most clearly my modus operandi as I pass my own knowledge and experience to my students. He said, simply, “Figure out what you want to play before you turn the machine on.”

    I took this to heart, and ask my students to first listen for music inside of themselves, and to see whatever tools they use as a means to get that music out of their minds and into the ears of the world.

     

     

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  • I am sometimes asked to describe my music teaching methodology. Having done this frequently, I have distilled my basic philosophy to a few key themes, which accentuate the contrast between how I approach music education with Art for Progress, and how music is traditionally taught in public schools. There are clear differences in goals, in repertoire, and in what information is considered important to convey.

    First, the goals are different at their essence. Traditional music instruction involves learning the mechanics of an instrument and the written language of music notation in order to reproduce pieces of music that have earned their place in the vocabulary of music educators, often, though not always, centuries or decades ago. There is little explanation of the relationships between the elements of music, or consideration of building skills toward creating original music. Traditionally trained players are often discouraged from improvising, and develop an aversion to it and even a fear of hitting wrong notes if they dare explore uncharted territory.

    On the other hand, many untrained musicians, often referred to as self-taught, are undeterred by the pitfalls of exploration because they know it to be the path toward discovery. These include many folk, blues, rock, reggae, indie, pop and hip-hop musicians. Rather than learning music note for note from transcriptions, they develop a modular understanding of chords, scales, and riffs, which enables them to reproduce the primary elements of pieces they learn by simply hearing them. These musicians sometimes do not even read music notation, and yet are able to compose and share the music they make up with others. They use a spoken vocabulary unique to musicians that describes the mechanics of music differently from notation. This vocabulary often conveys information about parameters that are not described by or even addressed by traditional written music. These parameters include feel, groove, the nuances of articulations like bends, slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs, and subtle dynamics that are too specific and singular to notate.

    These days, new musicians have an unprecedented number of resources at their disposal, and a nearly equal number of attitudes and philosophies about the best way to learn. In my opinion, any student should avail him or herself of any and all methods and technologies, but it can be hard to prioritize, or even to know what is effective when one is inexperienced.

    I think it is equally important to learn the mechanics of your instrument or instruments, music notation, basic theory, the spoken vocabulary of musicians, a varied repertoire, and to listen attentively to examples of great music of all kinds. That may seem like a lot, but good musicians can benefit from all of these ways of looking at music. When you approach all of these subjects organically, you can see them as one integrated path. It becomes less important what is explored in what order, and more important that there is a fully engaged experience happening. Once a student can be encouraged to persevere through the fact that any aspect of learning that is of any value is going to be challenging and frustrating; he or she usually starts to develop enthusiasm on his or her own.

    In order to be a capable musician, or just to get the most out of being a learning musician, it is also worthwhile to study the inner workings of the musical language. Unfortunately, this is all but ignored except at the highest levels of the established music education system. Only jazz students, who have already technically mastered their instruments, are encouraged to understand the relationships inherent in western diatonic music, or the 12-tone system. Clearly, new musicians do not need to understand all of the implications and nuances of modern jazz theory, but a working knowledge of the primary factors at hand can help any musician.

    There are conventions and recurring themes, especially in modern popular music that can be grasped using a methodical approach, and observing exemplary pieces. A working understanding of these conventions, which include: tension and release, movement around the cycle of 4ths/5ths, scales, the common uses of intervals, frequently encountered chord progressions, and song form, can demystify the elements of a song in short order. They can therefore pave the path for a new musician to play a familiar song in a short time. This almost always results in a huge confidence boost, in addition to the satisfaction and sheer joy of being able to reproduce the piece.

    When I was growing up, I was asked to choose an instrument in elementary school. I chose alto saxophone, and had band class in school, as well as individual lessons from the music teacher, Mr. Lulewicsz. I was not particularly diligent, and stopped playing after a couple of years. Despite taking piano lessons for a few years after, I had pretty much given up on being a musician before high school started. I find this to be the case with many of my students. I think for me, it was that I was never encouraged to learn music that interested me, or to play with others informally and experiment.

    Those are the key elements of my personal style of teaching music. I explain to my classes that my goal for them is to be able to play any song they want learn, within reason. I then begin to break down for them the elements that make up all pieces of music, including rhythm, melody and harmony. We spend about a month taking a brief look at the ways in which those systems work, all the while including familiar examples in order to illustrate the relevance of each topic explored. We also look at how the information translates to the layouts of the piano and of the guitar, and I illustrate how certain musical concepts are organized on those instruments. By the time students get onto instruments and start learning songs, usually in small groups or individually, everyone has at least some familiarity with the language, and can build upon that first exposure as they put things together.

    Working with small groups, or taking the time to focus with one student at a time for a good portion of a class period enables me to tailor my approach to the learning style that works best for each student. While I can’t spent time with everyone individually every day, if I get the ball rolling with one student or group one day, I can work with another student or small group the following day while the initial group works on perfecting the task they learned the day before. As the class gradually builds the skills to learn the first songs they tackle, the basic concepts begin to sink in, and set the stage for playing with others. In fact, some days I’ll just abandon repertoire altogether and give everyone in the class a simple role on an instrument and focus only on playing rhythmically together.

    In a very short time, with simple tools, music students turn into beginning musicians, who turn into capable players and singers before they realize they are actually learning in school.

    Pretty sneaky, huh?

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  • The greatest reward a teacher can receive from his students is that they exceed his expectations and do work that is inspired, inspiring, and truly reverses the student/teacher dynamic by teaching the teacher something new. I am exceptionally fortunate to have had that experience many times over as a teaching artist for Art for Progress. Two examples that stand out in my mind are: the band Statik Vision and Humanities Prep junior and chanteuse April T.

    The members of Statik Vision have been studying with me for almost four years, beginning while I was at Bronxdale High in the Bronx. When I left Bronxdale and came to Humanities Prep in Chelsea, it was important to me and to AFP to continue to provide opportunities for learning to former AFP program participants who wanted to further develop their musical education. Jason McFarlane and Ramond Moreta were students in the same building as Bronxdale (Christopher Columbus HS Campus) who gravitated to the Bronxdale after school program when principal John Chase asked that the program be made open to the entire campus. Upon setting up shop at Humanities Prep the following year, I invited them and a number of other former AFP students to make the trek to Manhattan to attend sessions after-after school. They began to come regularly, and to bring friends who were both talented and eager to learn, and formed a band, T-10. I helped coach the band’s rehearsals, while also allotting time to give lessons in guitar and bass technique, jazz theory and improv, and vocal exercises and techniques.

    As time has passed, that band morphed into Statik Vision, with new members Alex Romero, and another old Bronx student of mine, Gabriel Ogbenayya assuming guitar duties, while T-10 guitarist Raymond took over the drum throne. The band is also working in another of my former students, Celeste P. on vocals for future shows. What has struck me as most significant as I work with this group of very talented, very driven young people, is how humble and eager they are to absorb more. While they are developing strong opinions on music and life, they do not seem to close themselves off to opposing viewpoints, and are willing to let their opinions evolve without losing their sense of identity. Each person is different, of course, but the music they make together reflects a group dynamic that places the sound they are creating together above the needs or ego of any one member, and the results are staggering. Each member is of a different ethnicity, which we openly discuss, and is a source of inspiration, but the music more clearly reflects the individuality of the members, and defies expectations in the best way possible. The most accurate description I can give of their sound is indie rock with heavy metal attitude, but they are constantly surprising me. I can’t express enough how proud I am of this group of young people and how honored I am to be referred to as their mentor when they introduce me to new friends. I must mention also that I recently helped them get a gig at the Shrine World Music Venue in Harlem, and after a raging set of blistering rock music, was invited to close the show with them singing “September” by Earth, Wind and Fire. Good times indeed.

    Meanwhile back at Humanities Prep, upon preparing for our mid-year talent showcase, I became aware that one student is showing promise I have not seen in a singer in years. April T is a junior, performed two numbers in the show, including a very challenging jazz standard. When April came to me at the beginning of the last school year and asked if I could teach her to sing, I asked her to sing for me a little. She asked me to come into the hallway, away from everyone in the classroom, and told me she could only sing in Spanish. I said that was ok, and she proceeded to sing, very timidly, but mostly in tune, a song I didn’t know in Spanish. Afterwards I gave her some words of encouragement and asked her to work with me on some vocal exercises. All I can say is, as soon as she started working on her voice in earnest, and we established what her comfortable range was, she ran with the ball like a bat out of hell. She began by singing Lana Del Rey songs. I was not yet familiar with Lana Del Rey, and I have to admit that I love the songs, but I like April’s versions better than Lana’s. Upon realizing that I had a significant talent on my hands, I suggested she begin to work on jazz standards, which are generally challenging for new singers. What I learned is: when I ask April to learn a song to sing; she comes back to me with such a deep and nuanced understanding of what she’s heard, that I need to be completely inside the song in order to be prepared to help and guide her. April listens the way I wish all musicians did. She employs an acute sense of detail to her exploration of a song that does not stop with pitches and articulations, but reaches to the soul of the intention behind the lyrics and melody. It is as though she embodies the song as if it were her own. I even asked her to learn a country song, just to see what would happen, and damned if it didn’t sound like she’d lived in Texas wearing cowboy boots her whole life.

    I can’t express enough how lucky I feel to be able to work amongst, and to be looked up to and to guide students who are so talented, eager, and humble. Keep your ears out people!

    I also want to mention that the rest students at Humanities Prep who worked so hard over winter break preparing for their talent showcase, which was presented on Friday Feb 27. There was an eclectic variety of offerings for this show, as always, ranging from original hip-hop, to pop hits, to indie classics and even jazz standards. Some examples include Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”, Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird”, and Etta James’ jazz/blues classic “At Last.” Some pieces were performed solo or with guitar accompaniment from yours truly or one of the many other capable musicians at the school, however, especially exciting were the ensemble pieces which gave the students an opportunity to perform in a group setting together, and feel what it’s like to “be in the band”.

    Until next time…

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