I have always taught at least a handful of private students whether it is accordion, piano, beginning guitar, or music theory. But before I officially started this blog, I also taught English in a traditional classroom setting. So, teaching has been a big part of my career for a while now. And I take what I have learned about teaching English and look to apply it to teaching music. And I take what I learn about teaching music and bring it to the classroom. I think of it as cross-pollination. I always learn new tunes so, then I am both coach AND player. When you begin teaching yourself a song there is a fair amount of gear-shifting that takes place. After a few weeks of consistent application of the following skills, you will come to know yourself and your musicianship in a way that will allow you smoother gear-shifting and more time-saving. As a teacher, the excitement you get from seeing that lightbulb light up in a student’s mind is something money cannot buy. When you can do that for yourself, you have really levelled up!
Teaching English includes not only reading and writing, but also thinking, speaking, and LISTENING.
Listening has always been my focus. When you listen, you learn. One of my favorite quotes originated around 55 AD from Epictetus, the Greek sage and philosopher: “You were born with two ears and one mouth for a reason…so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Listening is great gift. Listening enlightens. Listening entertains.
And there is a big difference between hearing and listening, isn’t there? When someone says to us, “I hear you,” it is usually not a very encouraging response. Hearing is not listening. If I hear my neighbor’s kid down the street playing his guitar in the garage, I am aware of it. It fills a void for a minute while I’m taking out the trash. But if he starts playing something I recognize or that sounds catchy, and I think to myself, sounds like the key of e minor, now I am listening.
Now I am engaged.
Everything in me that makes music is attuned to the moment and how I might use it when I play.
I begin my professional day with listening. Listening to music is what got me started playing in the first place. First, I listen to something inspiring. It could be gospel, jazz, or a favorite song from back in the day like “Gonna Fly Now.” Today, it was “Life in the Bubble” by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. Whatever it is that moves you that day, start your listening there. Music that inspires you will get your entire day off to a terrific start and keep you focused.
Next, I listen to a recorded version of the major piece I plan to work on that day. Today, it is “A Leaf,” by Paul McCartney. It is one of his classical works for orchestra and I am adapting it to the accordion. When I listen to “A Leaf” I follow along with the score. I must tell you right here there are some styles of music, such as jazz or rock, that I learn by ear. Those styles of music, I feel, are intended to be played by ear so learning them by ear to the extent possible is best.
Chord charts here and there are okay but even there, you might run into difficulties unless you are adept at transposing. Quite often the sheet music you buy at the music store is not in the same key as the recording. When I was younger, I would start learning a song off the radio or a record and then go buy the sheet music to figure out, say the bridge or the middle eight. I would get the sheet music home and find something completely different in front of me. Yikes!
Finally, listen while you play. Sounds simple, right? It’s not easy and this is why a teacher / music coach can benefit you tremendously in accelerating your music skills.
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As this year draws to a close, it is a good time to reflect on what we have learned. I came up with three important items. Let me know what you think.
- My Roland FR-4x has absolutely opened up my playing to levels I have never known before. For one thing, Settings are an incredible resource for musical ideas. The differing sounds from Master, to Musette, from Electric Piano to Distorted Guitar ring so warm and pure and true, I was startled when I began playing them. And that’s not all. The bellowsing feel that you get when you play through the different settings diverges accordionly. Playing on Musette, the Roland feels smaller and more intimate in nature. Switching over to Distorted Guitar on Stadium Filter? For me, a dream come true. Call me crazy but I get a sense of how Jimi Hendrix must have felt when he began developing his new sounds. The freedom to wail on and on is a powerful experience and lately I cannot get enough of it.
- The Roland FR-4x gives me another gift as well–the Record Button! When it comes to recording, I go back to the horse-and buggy days. I remember once or twice in my entire youth getting the opportunity to record something on a reel-to-reel tape recorder at the home of a friend. Too much pressure. Not optimum, especially for someone in the beginning stages of learning. That red light goes on and sometimes you even forget the title of the song you want to record. With the Roland FR-4x I am getting past the “white coat” effect of recording. I make sure I am plugged in to an outlet, have a totally blank flash drive in the USB port, press “Record” and away we go. What an immense pleasure and multitudinous benefit to record myself DAILY! Have I created a ton of outtakes? You bet. Have I created another ton of cringe-worthy material? No doubt about it. Will I continue to record myself daily? I don’t see why not! I still find so much good stuff, so many golden nuggets that I make note of, memorialize, and repeat in my playing whether it is a new fill, improvised phrase, or chord voicing that there is no turning back now.
- The third big thing I’ve learned this year is the power that lies in daily journaling. This effort sprang out of a small e-book I received from the legendary Jim Rohn. What a difference it makes to write important things down every day and then reflect on them later in the week (or whenever)! I always find several ideas I want to pursue and develop. Once I had a few pages going I began indexing my main ideas at the back of my notebook. (I was remembering something my college professor told us about non-fiction books when he said, “If you are looking through a book, one of the first things you should look for is an index. You would be surprised how many books don’t have them. Anyway, if there is no index it is not worth your time. Again, what a difference! For example, in working up my version of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” I find references to it in my journal on 14 separate occasions. Then, I combine those 14 discoveries (settings changes, bass lines. fills, etc.) on one page and really begin drilling down on that one tune. Without the journaling tactic I doubt I could have accomplished this in so short a time. And I always keep the journal close by. Our mind’s potential is great and you never know when some idea will come to us. It has already happened more times than I can count. I really only got into this mode of journaling this past September when some small insight leaped out at me off the page when I reflected on a previous entry. Journaling is giving the gift of a tremendous resource to yourself. And you are the resource. When you cultivate, you grow in a positive direction. There is no other way you can keep all this great stuff in your mind in a workable fashion. Insight by insight, or sometimes-seemingly boring fact by boring fact, we can grow our knowledge.
So, all in all, I find these three items I’ve learned this year have been a revelation. Now, for 2022 I plan on deepening these three and adding to them. You never know where the next dream is coming from. Let me know what you think.
Make yourself your own boss. Learn to find your own time. Be sure you know what you are attempting. Give yourself a detailed assignment and WRITE IT DOWN. Write it down in a notebook, not inside the cover of your music book or on the back of an envelope where it will get lost. Then, be sure you understand the nature of your undertaking. And when you tell yourself, “I know what to do now,” mean it.
Face it. If you play the accordion, you are not only a musician–you are also an athlete. If you were not one when you started playing, you became one with playing. I don’t know about you but I play best when I stand. The accordion I play weighs about 24 lbs. One of the most beneficial things you can do is S-T-R-E-T-C-H! Do it now, please. Any body part will do. Doesn’t that feel better?
The great thing is you can do it anywhere at just about any time. Think of yourself as a lion or lioness. You know how they stretch? Massively, and with complete abandon.
My “go-to” stretch is a super one and I call it Touch the Sky. I mean, we are still first and foremost musicians so I have dedicated this one’s name to the legendary guitarist, Jimi Hendrix.
Okay. Please stand and place your feet about one foot apart. Now, reach up with both hands and try to touch the sky. (If you are indoors, aim for the ceiling but know the sky is still up there on the other side of it.
Hold it for 12 to 15 seconds. Relax. Wait at least 30 seconds before you do another one. Make an effort to try to do at least 10 of these a day. (If you are stuck at a desk, it still works sitting down.)
I do this first thing in the morning and last thing before I hop in bed at night. Let me know how it goes.