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Probably over the past two weeks on various forums I participate on, I’ve seen concepts and words thrown around as to what music education is and is not. This discussion is not between academics and we so-called “commercial” types, but rather between those who do everything by ear and those who do everything with both eyes and ears.

Whether the discussion is with those looking to be successful in film scoring or who are church musicians, the “arguments” remain the same with those in the non-reading playing-by-ear group not only the most vocal, but also the most defensive.

While I don’t expect what I’m about to write to end the ages old discussion, I do hope to add some clarity to discussion so that those on both sides understand the choices and decisions they need to make for themselves.

To start, we must understand the Greek vs. Hebrew terms for to know.

In Experiencing God, Dr. Richard Blackaby explains that for the Greeks, to know something meant you understood a concept in your mind. It was an academic process. For Hebrews, knowing something entailed experiencing it.

Between the two lines of thinking, we should understand that in Hebraic thinking, we learn to do. In fact, all professionals, from composers to plumbers, learn to do. And if you read Jim Collins’ Great By Choice then you’ll recognize that this learning trait is a core component of being a 10X Group or company.

Let me emphasize this again – we learn to do. We do not learn to pass a test, get a grade, or acquire a piece of paper or two that enables us to put a string of letters following our last name.

We learn to do.

To put this into a perspective – J.S. Bach was turned down for a university teaching position because he lacked a set of letters after his last name.

Put simply, true music education is about learning to do. There is no piece of paper aside from the music put on the stands that affirms whether you can do or not, be you player, arranger, composer, or orchestrator.

When we talk about what we need to learn in music education, we are talking about the western music tradition, not what you need to know to play a pigeon drum in Bora Bora.

Within the western music tradition you, and only you, must decide how far you want to go to express one thing, and one thing only – the music within you. Here are four questions based on the work of Nadia Boulanger that she would strive to have each student answer.

1. Do you know musically what you want to say?

2. Do you know musically what you love?

3. Do you know musically what you’re looking for?

4. How important is it to you?

Question 4 is The Determinator because it’s here that you’ll decide how hard you’re really willing to push yourself to achieve the answers you’ve set for yourself in Questions 1 – 3.

It’s question 4 that separates the professional from the amateur because it’s here you’re going to decide the price you’re willing to pay and at what personal cost.

It’s with question 4 you’re going to decide to either develop your talent or spend a lifetime coasting on it. That is the central issue behind the Robert Redford movie, The Natural.

From a sports perspective, is “good enough” the local Putt Putt Golf Course, or do you have your eyes trained on the Atlanta Open?

There is an unsubstantiated premise that the true creative fire is held by those who are self-taught and who learn from no one else other than themselves.

The reason this is unsubstantiated is because it’s not true!

For the past forty years, I’ve studied how the great composers learned. For hundreds of years, the learning pattern has remained consistent along with their learning styles and what they needed to know to achieve a level of financial success that enabled them to support themselves and their immediate family.

One thing that has consistently held true is that professionals adopt and adapt music technology as an aid to further their music education and as a tool to supplement their musical imagination, but not to replace it.

Composers learn from five sources:

1. from the music (e.g., from each other where the printed music page becomes a mentor in print);

2. from selected private teachers;

3. from selected books;

4. from musicians;

5. from the experience of writing.

From this they learn the ultimate success skill – learning the how, why and what of teaching yourself. This is why rigorously answering question 4 above is so important as it determines whether you will become an original or be happy and complacent in being the Elvis Impersonator of your desired area.

Now the question, “What should one know and how much at that?”

Speaking strictly about music, and not about gear and software, you should know enough harmony to play or write a moderately complex pop song. This means knowing harmony through what we call secondary dominants and includes knowing 7th chords and their inversions.

You should know enough music notation to play in time with eighth and 16th note rhythms at a moderate tempo.

This covers most pop music requirements and with some self-discipline can be learned in about 6-9 months.

The By-Ear-Only group will argue against reading notation because their creativity is so awesome they’re above it.

Nuts to that.

Music notation along with Italian tempo markings is an internationally recognized language. Unless an individual has a physical disability, this is learnable in a matter of weeks and opens vast doors to those who desire more than being a musical Elvis impersonator.

Most of my experience has been in Los Angeles and the film community. Every composer lacking these fundamental skills who wants their music performed live in a studio session, must hire someone who reads music and has a vast harmonic vocabulary to make their music work. Without exception.

Those who don’t wish to learn harmony beyond what they can figure out by just listening, in the end, only short circuit their own capabilities and what they’re fully capable of producing that within is just crying out to be birthed.

For $25, you can get a book called Schoenberg’s Harmony (which is illustrated mostly in whole notes) and in a year either by yourself or with a private teacher you can have a working harmonic vocabulary beyond what you get in college.

And it’s a vocabulary that let’s you go to all kinds of places for such a little amount of time and investment.

If your desire is to be a songwriter, then another $25 gets you Sheila Davis’ The Craft of Lyric Writing which you can use as a basis of songs to study for both lyrics and song form.

For more ambitious work such as musical composition, there are several inexpensive sources. Each will take a year or more to get through and absorb, but the titles to get that will take you places are the four-volume Serious Composer series by Percy Goetschius available in PDF. John Williams told a film scoring class at UCLA that he had gone through these books. Do you need more of an endorsement then that?

Instrumentation is different. You can get the Spectrotone Chart and start getting MP3s with works for individual instruments that you can put on your iPod and play whenever. Instrumentation is the prelude to orchestration and it’s a heavily aural experience.

And for ease – just go to YouTube and type in, say, Flute Concertos or Flute Solos and see what comes up. Find composers across different centuries and styles and you’re on your way. Free – excluding your time.

As far as monetary expense, I think including the Goetschius books about $150 separate from the cost of the iDevice used to access YouTube, and the money for a private teacher if you can find a good one locally or online.

You will notice that everything I’ve covered here can be done on your own with the possible of exception of learning notation which can be achieved via piano lessons and giving up some video game Internet time to achieve your goals. I emphasize this because with nearly every professional, after a certain time, all music education comes from self study and possible study sessions with selected teachers who will only help fertilize an already fertilized mind.

And if you’ll invest some reading time (say Wikipedia), you can read lots of composer biographies to see how they learned, who they studied with, and what they studied. I think this is more important than you can realize initially. The opening line of the third paragraph of Mozart’s bio says that he wrote over 600 hundred works with only quill and ink and not a sequencer in sight. And he accomplished this before he was 35. So this should give you an idea of just how much you can create without the need of music technology to aid in you creating process.

Notice how all of this goes back to Nadia Boulanger’s 4th question – how important is it to you?

Understand this – once you get to a certain place, you’ll understand why the great success secret in music is learning how to teach yourself. But to do so effectively, you must know the how and why of it.

Much of this is time management because focused listening takes time. And it will take you to composers and time periods many of your friends will think is weird.

But how important is it to you?

It is a question we cannot escape if the music inside us which is crying out to be birthed is to come to fruition and to be written, performed and ultimately heard by others.

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