Am I really too old to start playing music?

The idea that people should start to play an instrument at a tender age if they want to stand a chance in music, is a by-product of the musical rat race. Only a competitive environment will actually care about how young you were when you started, or how many hours you’ve spent practicing scales. It all boils down to myth. The myth needs to talk about someone who was deprived of all childhood pleasures in the past, and that he/she has spent thousands of hours of patient practicing, so that you are now lucky enough to listen to this great musician. This is a convenient process through which we all inflate our egos. However, music should be all about having a normal life and leaving our little vanities aside. The notions of the ‘lost train to success’ and ‘hard work’ have shaped our conceptions about playing, learning and teaching music. They are the great obstacles between us and the enjoyment of music.

Lost the train?

43x67cm, oil on hardboardWhen my father took me by the hand to the conservatory to study classical violin a man at the information desk told him that I was too old to start violin lessons. I was almost 12 years old. Fortunately, my father ignored his stupidity, so here I am, against his suggestions. This attitude has led countless people to forget about their pursuits in music. Music schools like this of course do not care about creating musicians. They care about creating professionals who will take care of their school reputation in the future. So when he told my father that I was too old to start, he basically meant that I was too old to become a professional. His words suggest 2 more things: 1) anyone who wants to play music has to begin earlier than that 2) my father has been irresponsible to let me play with my toys, while he should have been discussing with me what I want to do with my life when I was 5. Within this mental framework very little freedom, courage and creativity can survive.

Of course we all know that there are dozens of great musicians who started much later than that. We also know that not everyone wants to become a professional. What we don’t know and fully understand though, is the nature of the process of learning, internalizing knowledge and developing musical skills. This feeling of awe is very often clear in the eyes of classical musicians when they come across the instrumental skills of a folk musician for example, who has never received any tuition or practiced a single scale. What we are dealing with is a process that is highly complex, non-linear, and certainly not to be explained comprehensively in quantitative terms. Being aware of this complexity is the only way to be simple and effective in our pursuits.

 No pain no gain?

Elgar, oil on hardboard, 1996, 75x58cm, private collectionThe hard work myth suggests that people have to go through some kind of boring, tiring and unmusical training before they can actually start enjoying music. Usually people imagine going through such ordeal at a younger age when they supposedly have more patience and time to loose. So the idea of long training adds to the overall discouragement. The quantification of practicing is part and parcel of this approach. We very often hear that someone practices 4 or 8 hours a day. However, having spent 8 hours a day with our instruments in our hands says nothing really about the quality of our practice. On the contrary, we might be training to play carelessly and irresponsibly for 8 hours and then take pride in our military discipline. Spending time with our instruments is not beneficial by definition. By the same token, leaving our instruments alone for a period of time can be useful or even necessary.

 A few years ago I did an experiment. I organized free improvisation sessions in which I invited friends of mine who did not play any musical instrument. We had three keyboards. I played on one and two of my friends on the other two. I had no experience playing piano myself so I just used my ears and taste to come up with ideas. I tried to play something meaningful like a pattern or a chord and then I challenged the other two to find a way of interacting with me. I can honestly testify that we were amazed at our hidden ability to create tension and release, harmonies, and even finish our improvisations right on time. At the end of one session one of them wondered: Was it me playing like that?

If humans can actually enjoy their experimentation with sounds without having any prior experience in playing, can you imagine the potential results of focused, adult, close examination of things? I strongly believe that if you start playing an instrument at the age of 30 let’s say, the combination of strong adult motive, genuine interest and basic adult intellectual analysis will very soon produce a mature and advanced musician. I like to think of progress as something that grows quietly and naturally during the process of enjoying. So let’s stop chasing progress and let it follow us while we have fun. Above all, my experience with my friends definitely proves that the feeling of hard training is not a prerequisite for the enjoyment of music. Are 30, 40 or even 60-year old people actually incapable of having fun? Who is willing to take responsibility for a no here?

 So why people think otherwise?

What has happened with time is that the fallacies and assumptions developed in the world of ‘geniuses’, authorities and antagonism have leaked into the world of pure curiosity, enjoyment and play. The classical world of performance and educational philosophy are highly responsible for these fallacies and misconceptions. In my opinion they represent the most hierarchical, stressful and antagonistic musical environment. They are the natural habitat of the ‘lost train’ and ‘hard work’ concepts. In his book Musicking Christopher Small pointedly says that it is an environment where one wrong note can actually cost you a career. We don’t need such values in our lives. We need more people playing music!

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Self-learning and music: It’s all up to you

Self -learningSelf-learning in music is a highly ignored and underestimated concept.

Formal music learning is a privilege. This is firstly because a lot of people are not capable of funding their music tuition. Secondly, people very often tend to be interested in musical styles and traditions that were developed and popularized outside their cultural boundaries. Thus, the presence of knowledgeable and specialized teachers is often highly improbable. These two facts impose great difficulties on the prospective music learner. As a consequence, a lot of people resort to self-tuition or other forms of informal learning.

All learning processes in music are really mixtures of individual effort, as well as help and influence from other people. In that sense, providing a definition of ‘formal instrument tuition’ is risky. For the Western world and the principles that govern its educational fabric, self-tuition is defined by the absence of musical institutions, systematic lessons and exams. Formal tuition however is largely culturally defined, and is strongly related to the dominant values and principles among different societies. For some cultures like the Balinese and many African musical traditions there is no philosophical or practical separation between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ modes of learning. The learning process may take place within a particular social context in which everyone is responsible for his own musical development always in strong interaction with the social environment.

There is no analogy between academic interest and research, and the number of people that become interested and involved in music through self-tuition. The biggest part of the academic world is concerned with institutional education matters while vast numbers of people perform, learn and create music outside the world of institutions. Peter Cope in his article ‘Informal learning of musical instruments: The importance of social context’ in Music Education Research, (2002) puts it rather ironically: ‘(…) one could be forgiven for missing this aspect if one relied entirely on the research literature’.

Self-taught musicians exist in the practice of all musical styles. Although the way people get involved in music depends on cultural and musical contexts, every music tradition has benefited from the presence and creativity of self-taught musicians. The desire to be involved in music knows no musical boundaries.

Many philosophers and important philosophers of education like Dewey, Neill, Godwin and Freire have stressed the importance of self-education and the importance of recognizing that ‘Man is a creature that loves to act from himself’ and people internalize knowledge through excitement and pleasure. These writers have often been suspicious of the role of teachers and instructors, without however always underestimating it. They have unfolded the dangers of extensive moral, psychological, practical and systematic guidance. These views do not neglect the significance of the social factor, but also recognize that human nature is too complex to be guided by the narrowness of educational and guidance methods invented by others.

Even more so today, with all this kind of information readily available on the internet, with people sharing their ideas, knowledge and experience on websites and youtube, and with vast amounts of information being uploaded and downloaded all the time, we can definitely say that the future historian will be very strict with people who are privileged to have access to all that information. There are no excuses anymore. All we have to do is grab that knowledge marching in front of us.

An interview with Prof. Frank Millward on improvisation

I met Frank Millward in 2003 in London. Frank is a Multimedia Artist, Composer and jazz performer. He is a Professor in the School of Fine Art at Kingston University, London. Over the years he has taught Music Composition, Jazz Theory, Improvisation, Jazz History and Jazz Arranging, Composing for Film and Television. Frank’s ideas immediately caught my attention so I managed to organise a short session with him in order to ask him a few questions on how he understands improvising and learning. He talks about the mentality of improvisation and he comments on the chord-scale relationships and the fact that they are so embedded in jazz teaching.

Stergios: How would you define musical improvisation?
Frank: As self-expression through sound.

Stergios: What is the greater benefit from your involvement in musical practice?
Frank: There are many. The greatest one should be in some way humanitarian, social and (although a cliché) love of life or an appreciation of the concept of joy but also a concept of all things that I would equate with being in that kind of realm. Joy and sadness.
Stergios: What particular styles are you mostly involved with?
Frank: The main thing I like is rhythm. African, Latin jazz rhythms. I have been into R&B for some time, and I also like New Orleans piano style.

Stergios: What about your criteria for appraising music? Are they only musical?
Frank: I always appraise how it makes me feel. Only. Nothing else. How it makes me feel and how I connect with it. Spiritually.

Stergios: Do you sometimes think about the music’s background for example?
Frank: I do, but I try not to. Cause otherwise I just get into that. I never disappear intellectually into a piece. Not on the first hearing. I only allow myself to have this kind of thoughts when I repeatedly listen to something. I think the other thing that I am aware of is what it looks like as well. I think I’m very aware of what it looks like. What I mean by that is quite often if I am watching a film what the sound looks like, if I am watching a performance, if I’m in the theatre. Images are a big issue with me. It has certainly been a big issue with what I write. I am always concerned with what it looks like.

Stergios: Have you ever appraised someone’s personality only by watching him playing music?
Frank: Yes, all the time.

Stergios: Can you give me an example?
Frank: I never liked Bill Evans, as a person. I used to go and watch him play every second Monday in 1978. He never looked up, he had his head about 6 inches away from the piano and he was obviously stoned off his face. I thought…’who is this guy?’ And I had never talked to him. But I used to close my eyes and listen. I hate watching Keith Jarrett too. Cause I find him to be sometimes completely pretentious. But I love what he plays.

Stergios: How did you develop your skills in musical improvisation?
Frank: When I was little I used to sit at the piano and just playing the piano imagining a scenario. And I’d be making up usually a show. I would make up a scene, a fantasy about something…I used to do that for hours. I did formal piano lessons but then I dropped them and I played the trumpet. I played the guitar and bass. I stopped formal music education. I was in bands. Then when I was 22 I left what I was doing in order to do music. When I did that all the people I have been working with said ‘don’t go and learn at the conservatoire. You’ll loose your feel’. They said that I would become intellectually involved with whatever you are doing and you have no explanation for now and I will become analytical and loose the feel I have for it. I didn’t want to learn rubbish. I wanted to play music when I would become old. I was imagined that by the time I would be fifty I would become a good piano player. I could have done more practice but if I had done more practice I’d stop myself from doing all other things in music.

Stergios: Do you think that one should listen to many different musical styles in order to develop his skills in improvising?
Frank: There are two ways of doing it: Listen to many or just one. And once you’ve listened to one, learn one really well, then brunch out into others. I am not sure about this because I think of the things about pedagogical approaches to musical improvisation has messed up a lot of people about how to improvise because what ends up happening is that people sound all the same, because the have the same pedagogical approach. They transcribe a solo…so in a way other ways of teaching it are much more important. Visualisation for example and the whole idea of free expression. Making sounds that are meaningful to the person who is making the sound.

Stergios: How can the practice of other arts have an effect on our musical creativity?
Frank: Well, this is my whole current fascination. I have been in education for ten years but what I was doing before for 15 years, I was a live artist. I was composing, performing and presenting in a variety of ways. So I really think that the role of the modern composer is to be involved in the audio-visual-digital-media experience.

Stergios: Why do you think self-taught musicians can achieve high levels of musical proficiency without any formal instruction?
Frank: Because they develop their ears. They listen. They learn the intimacy of the listening experience. They really understand what that is. You can teach that though. A lot of people learn it.

Stergios: How would you teach improvisation?
Frank: I think to teach improvisation is to actually people trying to discover the child in themselves and the fascination with sound. The whole way of teaching jazz improvisation is not applicable any more. It is too dangerous to teach with a new pedagogy that involves for example image, transformations or the manipulation of other ideas that have to do with feelings, or briefings that don’t have to do with chord-scale relationships. Chord-scale relationships are so embedded in the pedagogical academy of teaching jazz that is hard to get away from. We should be experimenting more but we are not because politically that is not possible. All education should be concerned with intellectual well-being, and being able to evaluate critically anything, and the next thing is to evaluate critically in a way, for and against any particular issue which is being discussed. Education should put in place within students a facility of enabling students to develop arguments, analytical theory and the ability to analyze in an informed way.

Stergios: I remember you once said that society confines our child-like self. Is this what you mean?
Frank: It stops us from being like that. It does not allow us to be child-like. If we create environments where you are allowed to be then true self-expression of the improvised kind will be allowed to happen. For example we allow it with stand-up comedians, improvising actors and dancers. We allow it in other kind of improvised artistic expression. In certain kinds of music we do allow it. But it is still embedded in a language that is ‘expected’. When a child discovers what it’s like to hit that note and then again, and then discovers another one… To be able to do that as an adult to rediscover how to express the difference between these two things is really the key to teaching improvisation. It is about listening, memory, philosophy, ‘leting go’ being a child, but being in control of being a child. Naïve is fantastic, beautiful, because it is completely free of anything other than perhaps the dangers of being hurt.

Stergios: Thanks Frank!

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