Saturday, February 13, 2010

So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star?

"It encourages kids not to learn, that's the trouble. It makes less and less people dedicated to really get down and learn an instrument".
Bill Wyman, former bass player for the Rolling Stones

"It irritates me having watched my kids do it. If they spend as much time practising the guitar as learning how to press the buttons, they'd be damn good by now".
Nick Mason, Pink Floyd
both quoted in The Guardian, 8 September 2009

Two masters of their instruments air their views on the “Guitar Hero” phenomenon. From reports from my students, it appears the more real guitar or drums you can play, the more you have to “unlearn” to play the game. I have to admit, I’m sure like many of you, I played the beta version of “Guitar Hero”. That was the version where you actually learned to play the instruments then formed a band and played for tribal gatherings then known as sock-hops or dances.

Back in the dark ages in junior high I was in a band formed in the wake of the British Invasion that rehearsed in my basement. As I had been taking organ and tuba lessons for three years already, it was down to me to learn the songs in order to teach them to the rest of the band. I expanded my studies to include electric bass guitar and then transferred them to the upright bass to begin playing in the orchestra. So there I was from an early age listening to records, playing along, writing a variety of charts for my colleagues and co-conspirators. As at least three of us in the band, up to six in one incarnation, were also in the choir we were pretty good at vocal stylings and could cover not only songs by Chuck Berry and the Beatles, but also songs by such luminaries as the Beach Boys, the Cryan’ Shames and The Association.

So I suppose my innocent teen age pursuits shaped and fed my already fairly large interest in music. In our house music was something that happened the same way that you ate dinner in the evening. My father played trumpet and organ and my mother and her twin sister sang in a duet act, both performed at least semi-professionally in the Chicago area. As a result of my extra rock band training, neither ear training nor melodic dictation ever proved to be difficult in any of my courses. Similarly, class piano improvisation requirements where not as trying as they were to many. That early “Rock Band” game began as “do what they did” and turned eventually into “take the structures they used and develop a unique variation that is yours”.

I continued to play and sing in a variety of ensembles in High School. My band director needed a keyboard player for a lounge/club gig and asked if I could play a Hammond B3. As it turned out, I could and I then embarked on a career in the lounges and clubs of the south side playing standards, learning yet another style and set of performance theories and rules. This pattern continued through university and beyond.

With the growth of the Internet and the many tablature and lyrics sites that now exist, the technology has lifted some of the repetition out of transcribing songs and arrangements from contemporary popular music. Our students can now see their heroes performing on YouTube and concert videos. There are digital recorders built in to many hand held devices. Digital playback devices exist that allow songs to be slowed down without changing the pitch so students can play along with soloists. Students who have the music fire lit in them can find many avenues to stoke the flames. According to Alex Rigopulos, co-founder of the firm which created the Rock Band series, “We’re constantly hearing from fans who were inspired by Rock Band to start studying a real instrument.”

Mozart created his musical dice game to pass the time making music. Xenakis recorded burning charcoal to create a piece for the Brussels World’s Fair. The artists of musique concrète sliced reel-to-reel tapes into “samples” and distorted them and stitched them together or overdubbed them to create music. Today our students drag loops and beats to create songs, record and manipulate original sounds and source sounds in samplers. Algorithmic composition and “chance music” are now accepted compositional techniques. Our students make music in many ways, appreciate music in many ways and share their musical talents in a variety of ways.

Perhaps that is all the “Guitar Hero” is - another way that students socialise through, participate in, and express themselves with music. I am sure that we as teachers would hope that once the “Guitar Hero” game is conquered, all of our students would quickly resume the life-long game that they have undertaken; making music an essential part of their lives as intelligent consumers, enlightened critics and expressive performers and creators.