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  • Writer's pictureCraig Birchfield

Between the Flags and Dots

We have a great and rich tradition in western classical music. From my vantage point it seems to be alive and well today on planet Earth and also in our little corner of the world here in the Pacific Northwest. Performances of the Oregon Symphony at the Schnitz (Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall) and also smaller ensembles like the 45th Parallel who play at the Old Church all seem to be well attended. We have cadre of incredibly talented musicians filling the ranks of our symphonies and chamber groups here and around the world. I see many dedicated young people learning the repertoire today and taking their places in outstanding young peoples ensembles like our own Portland Youth Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Youth Symphony (MYSfits). There does seem to be a disconnect in the way we learn the various disciplines of music, though, that I would like to address.

I have noticed that there seems to be two worlds of music and the two seem to be, for the most part, separate and distinct disciplines. Before I start I want to make a disclaimer that I am only generalizing and there is certainly some cross-pollination happening across the great divide. One noteworthy example is when Yo Yo Ma reached out to some of the finest bluegrass musicians in the country to produce some great genre bending music. Again, I am only talking trends here, not absolutes.

The first music sphere that I would like to discuss is the aforementioned classical or some would say serious music. The hallmarks here are flawless traditional technique and absolute excellence in the performance of some of the greatest music ever composed. The standard to aim for is unblinking perfection or very close to it. Sight reading ability of the first order is a given and interpretation of this great music is usually expected to be within fairly conservative boundaries. Knowledge of advanced music theory (sometimes called Jazz Theory) is of secondary concern and true improvisation is rare except in some of the more adventurous ensembles.

The second world is that of popular music. This would include folk, bluegrass, rock, country, ballad, contemporary worship music and jazz plus other forms. These tend to appeal to the larger masses. Innovation, improvisation, and greater freedom in interpretation are the hallmarks here. There are popular music virtuosos just like in classical music but they tend to be of a slightly different stripe. Blues great Stevie Ray Vaughn vs. Itzhak Perlman or jazz trumpeter Miles Davis vs. cellist Pablo Casals. Knowledge of music theory and the ability to improvise for large blocks of time is more common than journeyman level sight reading. (Hence the old joke: how do you slow down a guitarist? Answer: put sheet music in from of him.) It is not uncommon for the devotes of these two different camps to roll their eyes a bit at each another.

In the 1960s there was quite a bit of synthesis and experimentation with different idioms of music. Jazz-rock, country-rock and even some mixing of symphonic/classical music with more popular styles and instrumentation. W. Carlos with Switched on Bach and The Moody Blues with Days of Future Past come to mind. The classical/popular music connection doesn’t seem to have fared as well as the other hybrid experiments (compare the rockish country music of today with that of the 1950s). Forgive me if I ignore “Pops” symphonic music for our discussion. I am talking about leading edge classical meets leading edge popular music. Ever since I listened to 101 Strings Albums as a child it pretty much ruined “pops” for me so please don’t hate on me. I will also acknowledge film music that seems to blend the symphonic and orchestral sensibilities with elements of rock seamlessly.

There are a number of classical ensembles playing new music and new compositions which I think is great but the lion’s share of these are completely composed with little or no room for improvisation. Candidly, many of them are also very angular, edgy and avant Garde and not very accessible to the average casual music listener. Personally, I mentally check out if the music is much more dissonant than, say, Stravinsky. Realistically, I would say that 80 to 90 percent of the classical music that is performed today falls within or very near the boundary of what is called the standard repertoire and there is almost no improvisation there.

On the other side of the fence, popular music has it’s own orthodoxy. Some of the more adventurous progressive rock or “prog” groups do music that would be considered more “composed” and less free-form or chord dependent. Here the bands Yes and Dream Theater and a few others come to mind but, again, 90 percent of popular music is based on some sort of improvisation or “head arrangement” built around a fairly simple and predictable chord progression and perhaps one or two hookish riffs. One comedic band has made a name for itself doing a skit/medley playing snippets of dozens of huge hit songs with the same identical four chord progression. To mangle Judy Collins, “send in the clones, there ought to be clones.”

So, is there any purpose in this rant today? Absolutely. Remember, I am all about kids, beginning musicians and people who are on their musical path but not at their destination yet. My belief is that learners excel when they gain ownership of the music. My personal experience is that I have a good ear and pretty good knowledge of music theory but I am weak at sight reading. I wish that I had invested more time as a young person honing that skill but I am self-taught and I was more interested in playing my own music than becoming a proficient reader. We won’t use the word arrogant here, okay? I think that a balanced and holistic approach to music is best. To tap into the wealth of great historic music requires good reading skills but I think that often ear and theory training are given a back seat in the traditional approach. Remember that the classical masters that we so revere were also geniuses at theory and improvisation and had great ears but once you write down an improvisation it becomes sheet music. We need to foster a two pronged approach in music education: learn and emulate the best while developing our own inner music voice through composition and improvisation. Also, learning the construction techniques that the great musicians have used (music and harmonic theory) will help us understand the how of their accomplishments and not just the what. I believe that this will make better musicians and also assure that great new music continues into the future.

Keep Practicing,


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