Thank God for pop music

Yesterday some friends came to visit, with their five year-old son. Their son likes a bird book we have, with big pictures of birds, each with a number. Punch out the number on a keypad on the side of the book, and you hear the bird’s song.

So the kid was playing with the book, and soon he started making up birds. He’d drape himself with a blue blanket we have, to give himself wings, and he’d announce what bird he was, and make up its song.

Then he announced that he was going to do some “bird remixes,” his exact words. He’s wonderfully musical, makes shrines to Annie Lennox, and comments wisely on the strengths and weaknesses of cover versions of her songs (he really does).  And he can drum, with strong and vivid rhythm that’s astonishing to hear. (I’m serious about that — he’s got better rhythm than many professionals.)

To do his bird remixes, he found a low table that he could put the book on. He found a bird he liked — the golden-crowned sparrow — and started mixing its song with Olivia Newton-John’s “Xanadu.” He was doing three things at once, drumming, singing, and (like an old-time hiphop DJ, dropping a needle over and over in exactly the same place on an LP, to create a repeated riff) touching “263” on the book’s keypad, to keep the bird singing. He was amazing, singing exactly in tune with the bird, expertly fitting his singing to the rhythmically irregular repetitions of the bird song, building to a fine boyish climax, and then letting the song die away. His parents and I sat there, astonished. Apparently this was one of the best musical things he’d ever done.

His father, as it happens, is a figure in the classical music world, but both he and I were very glad that the kid knows pop music. Why? Because if kids who do nothing but classical music are going to show you what the can do, they’ll play some piano or violin or cello (or whatever) piece they’ve learned. I’ve heard that many times. And while sometimes the kids can be quite good, they rarely sound creative. I’m sure someone will rise up here to tell me that many kids compose, and in fact last week I went to the ASCAP Concert Music Awards presentation, where they always have young composers, including, this time, a striking six-year old whose piano piece showed a  real understanding of musical structure. (The father of the kid I’m praising here had been there, too.)

But there are some limitations to classical composing, where young kids are involved. First, they might not be encouraged to do it. Composing isn’t rampant in the classical world, the way songwriting and song production and remixing are in pop. You’re supposed to have a special talent for it. And once you start to write a piece, a spectre starts to loom — you have to finish it. You can’t play it for your parents’ friends until it’s done. (Or mostly done.)

Whereas in pop, you simply can sit down and play. You can make your music up, right here, right now, and make it anything you want. And the idea that you could do this is readily available. You’re a five year-old with a bird book, and you know what a remix is, which means that you can make one for yourself.

I know that this boy is exceptional, that not many five year-olds, in classical music or pop, could make up music as fluently as he did. But I’m convinced that if his musical world was purely classical (as it once was — when he was three, he loved Mozart opera videos), he wouldn’t be half as musically creative asI heard him be.

Footnote: it was time to go, but he couldn’t stop the bird remixes. He did one with an Annie Lennox song, and another with a song by Beyoncé. These weren’t as good as “Xanadu”; maybe he’s too young to judge when inspiration flies away. But the bird he picked for Annie Lennox (or for whose song he picked the Annie Lennox tune; I think that’s how it went) had a rhythm that I couldn’t quickly find a beat for. The kid found one, expertly, letting one part of the bird’s song function as a triplet over two quarter notes in the drum accompaniment. I could tell he was hearing that, feeling the pulse in his body, despite the three against two.

(And no, I’m not attacking classical music, not saying that it’s worthless. But I do think that it’s often — maybe mostly — taught in ways that work against creativity. I remember hearing about the ten year-old son of someone my wife and I met at a party in New Mexico. He was widly talented in music, we were told, but when his piano teacher caught him varying a Mozart piece he’d learned, he was sternly told he shouldn’t do it, that he had to play the piece exactly as the written score decreed. Which is not what Mozart would have said — meaning that in past centuries, kids could be just as creative with the music we now call classical as my friend’s son was with pop.)

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  1. says

    What you address here is a strong argument for including improvisation in the training of classical musicians. I can’t understand why conservatory teachers aren’t promoting this as an essential skill – there’s no better way to develop a good sense of harmonic and formal structure. And, as you say, it’s a way for classical musicians to express themselves in a way different from interpreting other people’s music.

    I find it interesting, too, that the only musicians who still practice this art are we organists – who otherwise have a reputation as stodgy traditionalists!

    A very good point!

    Improvisation is taught to classical music students at DePauw University and at the University of Iowa. Elsewhere, too, I hope. Everyone, please let me know about other schools that teach it.

    Jeffery Argell, who teaches horn and improvisation at Iowa, has written an inspired book, Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians. Enthusiastically recommended!

  2. J.D. Considine says

    Reading your story about the kid whose teacher remonstrated him for messing with Mozart reminds me of two young pianists who abandoned classical music for similar reasons. One was Tori Amos, who gave up on the Peabody Conservatory prep program because she disliked being told how to play Debussy; the other was Billy Joel, who found it easier to memorize what his teacher played (and to fake the bits he couldn’t remember) than to read what was on the page. A less blinkered approach to pedagogy could have turned both of those into real strengths (particularly the use of memory and of understanding a composer’s use of musical vocabulary); instead, learning to play classical music was once again allowed to become simply an exercise in following the rules.

    Still, those stories aren’t nearly as sad as the one about the kid whose parents punished misbehavior by taking away his guitar and making him practice piano. Naturally, as soon as he finished high school, the first thing the kid did was swear off piano altogether. In fact, if he hadn’t gotten curious about synthesizers, Edward Van Halen would probably still be keyboard-phobic — and how sad would that be?

  3. Yvonne says

    I had older siblings. They got the piano, they got the lessons, and I got to fiddle around for hours improvising what I called “fairy music”. At some point I suspect I drove my mother nuts and it was off to piano lessons for me as well! My first teacher had an interesting method that ensured that my sightreading was excellent. (This was good, because it meant I could get away with not practising. Ahem.) But at that point my creative efforts, while not squashed, were directed to a process of getting them down, notating them, which I believe enforced a simplicity of conception to match my emerging notational skills. Whereas I recall that the pre-lessons improvisations were infinitely more varied in texture and probably quite complex. I didn’t really get into composing properly until age 12 at high school, where, fortunately, composing was encouraged. But meanwhile, I suspect whatever true creative flair and flexibility that might have emerged from a childhood of continued improvisation had atrophied.

    So it’s not the repertoire/genre you’re interested in or the instrument you play or even what you listen to as a kid. (My earliest listening memories are of musical theatre, Daddy Cool, the Yellow Brick Road album and a recording called “Russian Rousers”.) It is, though, the instruments and other sound devices you have access to and whether you’re left alone to literally “play” with them and, above all, the biases and emphases of whatever teaching you get in those vital first lessons. But I’d definitely recommend that all musical children acquire some older siblings!

  4. David Cavlovic says

    Egad! What could the kid do with Messiaen if given the chance? Or even Babbit’s Philomel?

  5. Suzanne Derringer says

    Hi, Greg –

    I think this is the root of the elderly-classical-music-audience problem: it’s not allowed to be fun anymore. The small children I know who are taking piano lessons – roughly your young friend’s age – are being taught to strike the correct notes at the correct time. Improvisation is not encouraged!

    This is the curse of recorded sound: it has been possible to splice “perfect” recordings into existence. Before recordings – essentially, at all times before the end of the 19th century – it was impossible to reproduce a musical performance; it vanished into thin air in the moment of creation. This in itself, I think, was quite freeing: one didn’t get caught up in endless playbacks, always seeking an impossible, literal “perfection”. The German term “Ernstmusik” is more descriptive of this state of affairs than our “classical music”: a serious business indeed!

    It wasn’t always like that, of course. When soprano Frieda Hempel (1885-1955) was a child, her parents and teacher regarded it as a mark of her budding musicianship that she would improvise freely. And later, in her own recordings – and those of her generation, and those of the generation just passing from the scene at the dawn of recordings (Lilli Lehmann, for instance) – the approach to making music is much more improvisatory, much less “Notengetreu” – one has the feeling that these old musicians were MAKING music, not merely repeating it!

    My brother’s young son began his career as a composer by mixing things on his computer. He’s now also taking “classical” singing lessons, learning some of the “arie antiche” which are still staples of singing students everywhere.

    The future of music may lie with these young creators who are not inhibited by the rules of the past.

    Amen to that.

    Improvisation was a regular feature of the music we now call classical, in centuries past. All major soloists improvised, at the very least to create introductions to solo pieces they were playing in public, and transitions between one piece and another. But often the improvisations were one of the attractions of the performance. One delight — or shock, depending on your point of view — lurking in the archives is this: Part of Mozart’s Don Giovanni was improvised at its Prague premiere. This was the joking between Don Giovanni and Leporello while the stage band plays opera excerpts, in the final scene. They didn’t decide till the last moment which opera excerpts they’d use, and so nothing was written for Giovanni and Leporello to sing. So they improvised. Luigi Bassi, who sang Giovanni, complained later on that performers now followed the music Mozart later notated in the score — which hadn’t, Bassi insisted, really been what Mozart wanted! (See Thomas Forrest Kelly’s First Nights at the Opera.)

  6. robert berger says

    While I welcome the trend for classical

    musicians to improvise, I don’t buy the notion that classical musicians today are necessarily

    so pedantically literal and unimaginative

    interpreters,or that budding young musicians

    are always taught to be so literal.

    There are many great musicians today

    who are anything but this in their performances.

    A musician can inflect a phrase in countless

    different ways,just as an actor can do with the

    words of a play.You don’t have to change the

    words”To be or not to be.”

  7. says

    This post addresses exactly why interest and enthusiasm for classical music is steadily dwindling; it just isn’t taught in a way that encourages students to take ownership of their playing or to express themselves. My classical training consisted of nothing more than decoding the notes on the page with the piano keys from day one of lessons in second grade, and I always dreaded my weekly half-hour lesson. “Thank God for pop music” is exactly right because I listened to pop voraciously from an early age and really internalized its rhythm and character. I convinced my parents to get me a drumset in middle school and I got excited about practicing music for the first time.

    I got back into classical music because I had the opportunity to play percussion in a local orchestra, and now I’m a percussion and music education student at Eastman (I look forward to reading your commencement speech when the website posts it). As a music education student I’ve been lucky enough to work with Dr. Christopher Azzara and Dr. Richard Grunow, who have developed an extremely innovative method for music education at all age levels (strongly influenced by Edwin Gordon’s “Music Learning Theory”). Their ideas are especially profound for beginners. Their approach is called “Jump Right In” because students learn to sing melodies, bass lines, and tonal patterns (melodic outlines of the harmony with good voice leading) as well as improvise them and play all these things on their instruments before they learn how to read notation. Only once a musical idea is fully internalized is it introduced in notation, so the student learns to identify the notes on the page with music in his or her head instead of needing to press down fingerings or keys to learn how something goes. Students learn how to play melodies fluently in multiple keys and learn how to play a tune accurately the first time by ear when they’ve only learned it by singing it. I’ve observed some elementary and middle school teachers in the Rochester area who teach this method and their students sound absolutely phenomenal. They fight over the chance to improvise (and their ideas are always making the changes and full of character and energy) and they play with amazing conviction and swing. They are not technically mature, of course, but their musical thought processes are in many ways much more complex than the average Eastman student. Whether or not they pursue music as a career, most of these students will be creative music makers their whole lives. This kind of music teaching, if present in all schools in the country (and in all private teacher studios), would completely change the future of classical music.

    Thanks, Chris! Very exciting to read this.

    To me, a lot of it comes down to human values. If we value people — if we value their creativity — then it’s amazing what they can do. I find this in the courses I teach, when I ask classical music students to present a piece they love as if to an audience that doesn’t know classical music. I ask them to be very direct, and very personal, and the things they say are just amazing. So convincing, and everyone so different from everyone else.

    And, as you’re saying, the same thing can happen in music itself.

  8. says

    I was contemplating leaving a comment as regards music improvisation in education, and consider myself encouraged to do so by Chris Hartford’s post.

    In discussions of improvisation in classical music training it’s worth pointing out that improvisation has been a staple of many good methods of children’s music education for over 50 years. It achieved a coronation of sorts when improvising and composing were adopted as two of the 9 categories for national music standards by MENC, even at the K-4 levels. The specific benchmarks within the categories – including improvising answers to melodic “questions”, improvising melodic and harmonic variations on songs like Hot Cross Buns, improvising and composing ostinato accompaniments, and using a variety of instruments to create music for a spoken story – encourage teachers to get students spontaneously creating in every age range. In response to these standards, many teachers with backgrounds in jazz or certain educational methods like Orff made themselves available to help teachers get ideas for how to implement them. Mr. Hartford sounds like an enthusiastic beneficiary of this wide-scale tradition of pedagogical improvisation.

    The Dalcroze method in particular carries on improvisation to the conservatory level, where students are expected to improvise at the piano, using solfege syllables, and both at the same time, often in response to spot cues from the teacher that constrain meter, harmony, or melodic movement. Anyone interested in glimpsing this might check out the book “Chemins de Rhythmique”, available through the Institut Jaques Dalcroze in Geneva, which contains classically-based improvisation exercises difficult enough to curl your hair (by Madeleine Durey and Christiane Montandon in particular), an ongoing tradition there for nearly 100 years.

  9. says

    This is getting a bit more subjective, but I much prefer the DVD. Stupid to invest in something like this when streaming movies (or keeping them on a local hard drive) is the way to go. This thing will go the way of the old jukebox!