Thursday, January 8, 2015

Music and Fear: the conclusion

    Yet there is a Muse, there is an exemplary Teacher, there is a Creator who made the reality of sound, and there is an omnipresence of music which provokes some of us to realize we have an appetite for a creative - and even in the totally untrained an analytical - response. "How do they do that?" And "Is it possible I could do it too?" "Am I only a listener, or might I join the team of producers? "Do I have a sound worth making?"
    The fact that we enjoy listening to music, or dancing to it, does not necessarily oblige us to become musicians, anymore then a fondness for potatoes requires us to become farmers. Musicians, like farmers, like customers, and often enough they do not welcome competition, which may be part of the reason, as I have found from long experience, that a large percentage of excellent musicians are inadequate as teachers.
    They can and will impart some particular information, but not the basic step-by-step analytical approach required of all true instruction.
    This is not necessarily a criticism of musicians, but the acknowledgement of the particular vocation of the teacher, basically a condition of mind that is, at least for the duration of the lesson, much more interested in the performance of the student than of the self. The teacher's intellectual passion actually goes deeper than the performer's, is a higher order metaphysically, recognizing the power, the freedom, the sense of self-worth that comes from knowledge. He who is ignorant has no capacity for performance, thus, before the question - if it affects him - no freedom; he is powerless. But if he knows, he has the freedom to perform, or not. And the choice to not perform, in certain contexts, can have more moral authority than the performance could have, more infusion of self-respect than playing or singing would have given.
    I am considering knowledge in the broadest sense that it applies to music, not just to technical information, although without a hold on theory and practise, the musician will not have the key to put the other aspects of this knowledge into operation.
    The performer needs to know himself, his musical accompaniment, -if any - his audience, his reasons for combining himself with co-workers and an audience.
    Ultimately, the musician, even the most uninstructed and beginning of musicians, needs to know where his talent come from that is, he needs to know the Muse, to understand, what the Muse intends of music as well as of himself. Music comes out of the thin air, as it were, it comes from intelligible even tangible, occasion of inspiration, but it also comes from the very regularity and discernible order of the basic fundamentals of creation. It cannot be without this ordinary simplicity; it must take from the obvious, and it must give back to the obvious.
   Ah, says the reader, why all this philosophy? I would just like to plunk some keys, or agitate some strings, or play around with the holes in a woodwind. What does all this verbiage got to do with the mechanics and the numbers of making music? Why the sound of words, of language, indeed of the sound of music?
    The answer is neither more nor less the difference between man and the chimpanzee. My personal history as an animal trainer is none too profound, but I suspect that there actually are a few musical skills that could be taught to an intelligent chimp. Some aspects of music are that mechanical that time, patience and the appropriate rigging of the piano keys might get a few bars of something simple out of the animal that is said to have the brain closest to the human.
    But eventually the progress of the music would require an idea: a variation in tempo, an increased complication in melody, contradiction in movements of left hand against right, and perhaps the most impossible of all for the chimp, expressions of emotion and philosophical intentions that the animals simply cannot share with the race that gave them their names in the first place.
    It could be that I am overestimation the chimpanzee, of course, when I grant it a musical intelligence, that goes beyond simple rhythm. Can it really distinguish between the notes of the scale? Would the chimp have any ability at all, once the teacher and the learning climate were removed - to reproduce anything at all that vaguely resemble the structure of a genuine melody? If the answer is no, then we should not feel sorry for the animal, we should feel even more grateful for ourselves. Animals may be able to run faster, swim deeper, and fly but their otherwise magnificent sense structures do not have what it takes to enable them to engage in anything so intellectually complex as music. Still, I would in no way discourage any qualified researcher from trying to find out just what musical skills a chimpanzee might acquire. At the point where we begin to learn any skill that requires repeated exercises of physical faculties, we are much like the animals, so much like them that any human attempt to get too quickly to the abstract, to the province where the intellect supposedly predominates, is a pedagogical error. Whatever are the senses that require instruction, the instruction itself requires a seemingly endless series of repetitions, with directions given as simply and clearly, as monosyllabic as possible. And the directions have to be given over and over again, for every different movement of the sense skill required has the capacity for going the wrong direction, or the wrong distance, or both.
    Yes, the teacher of beginners, be they children, dogs, or adults, require the maximum in orderly simplicity, and an infinity of patience. They must have a great affection, in fact, not only for all they know, but for all that their pupils do not know, and be fully prepared to delight, exult, and triumph with their charges over every step that moves them from the darkness into light. That is the joy of real teaching, to understand, transmit, and to see absorbed, practiced, and ultimately performed, the power and freedom that comes from the grasp of the fundamentals of an art or science.
    Is there a human skill which does not require some, at least, basic skill with numbers? Yet mathematics is the second degree of abstraction, as the philosophers tell us, and abstraction is a function not of sense, which we share with the animals, but of intellect, which we do not. So even is a chimp could be taught rhythm, or discovered to have some ability to distinguish one note's pitch from another, he would collapse at the first requirements of reading music, the habit of dealing with each scale in terms of its degrees, or numbers.
    The child or beginner, on the other hand, given the virtually universal appetite for making music of one kind or another, is ignited by the realization that simple counting is part of the key to unlocking what would otherwise be an unsolvable puzzle. And, unless the numbers are continually employed in a logical fashion, the puzzle will not unravel right through to the end. Numbers have a way of affecting everything we do, and no part of the study of music is free of some degree of numerical consideration. Perhaps no one is so ignorant of music that he is not aware of the counting factor. But lack of understanding of the measurement factor is generally common, much more than it need to be. Generally, the uninformed subscribe too much to talent, and too little to sound instruction.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Music and Fear, Part Two

    Anyone who has gone to the trouble of learning how to play an instrument properly, that is, throughout all its possibilities, either by ear or by written notes, and who has at least a reasonable grasp of musical theory, appreciates what a complicated business music is. I had done none of this on any instrument accept the voice, and that only by ear, but even in my inexperience I knew something of what would have to be accomplished before I could think of myself as a musician, when I came to the guitar or to the piano, for example.
    What I had no sense of at all was the number of people who played instruments partially, - particularly the guitar and its cousins or the piano, by the chord method, for the purpose of providing accompaniment for singing. My father had played the harmonica for family singing, and I had joined in many a happy and riotous Scout campfire, but never had a guitar, banjo, ukelele or mandolin been brought in so I could lay my eyes on the relatively simple operation of strummed chords.
    It was a Friday afternoon, and it was possible that I came upon my first instruction in the power of chording because I had cut an English class. In my first three months of college I had realized that half-time attendance in all my subjects would pull me through nicely, and I had also found that I thoroughly enjoyed using the North Brock basement as my own private retreat centre, going down there at times when I knew there would be few or even no students about. The surroundings were utterly dingy - only the people brought beauty - but the silence was magnificent. The young monk - and I was more of this, by the grace of God  then I had the education up to that point to know - simply adored the quiet of his cell.
    This particular Friday, however, it was not quiet. As I came down the stairs, along the hall past the Totem office and into the Ubyssey corridor I was aware of the presence of live music once again, but the first I'd heard in the Pub office, except for my own whistling or some musical person's utterance of a line or two in the course of the day's work. What was that instrument, and who was singing?
    It was quite an era for talents that would go on to become accomplished and well know on the national and even international level. I have mentioned Allan Fotheringham, the man who taught us to read McLean's backwards. So it would be illogical to identify the lad with his foot up on the U- desk -  the place the paper is put together -  whaling away on a tenor ukelele, and singing his lungs out.
    Alexander "Sandy" Ross, future writer of several books and magazine editor, unlike myself, had not shown up in the Pub basement at the beginning of the school year, and I never did learn his reasons for dawdling. As he was much more bent on journalism as a career than I was, you would have thought he would have shown right away. But then I was slow to take up a musical instrument, and even slower to finalized my studies of such. Life is mysterious indeed.
    But thanks to Sandy, music was suddenly no long an unsolvable riddle. He had a great affection for the tunes of the 20's and 30's so the song was from that era, but simple enough that his accompaniment was limited to three or four chords. I thoroughly enjoyed the noise he was making and told myself I could surely learn a few chords.
    And so I did, though not from Sandy. I had an infinite trust in the books - what else for a writer - and Sandy told me he had learned from a book. Before long I made my way down to Western Music, on Vancouver's Seymour Street, and for five dollars picked up a plastic ukelele. a felt pick, and an instruction book. Had I not been able to sing, this particular kind of book is of little use, because where there is no voice, the instrument must sing, and for that kind of song one needs to know the scales and intervals, and mastering these, although physically not more difficult than chords, - and much easier in some aspects - it is nonetheless quite a lot more mental work, or at least I seem to have found it so.
    Again, fear gets in. What if I actually had no ear for an instrument, and could not tune the strings? An odd question about himself from a lad who had always sung, and habitually in pitch, but it illustrates how ignorant of the basics that I was. So these first few minutes after supper, when I took my equipment into my own room - and firmly shut the door - were some of the most anxious I'd known since I first realized that I was born for the writing trade. But I'd heard Sandy tuning his uke, to the universally valid 4 note tune "My Dog Has Fleas" and I discovered that I could do the same. I had the basics, I could be confident, and thus I set out to follow instructions.
    I think that the opportunity of learning a skill entirely on my own - with the aid of the book, of course - was as attractive as the fact of learning music itself. I had no idea at that point that I would eventually become a school teacher, but I took mental notes on the psychological security of my study methods. These were simple enough: I played at whatever song took my fancy and I rhythmically plunked at my chords as repetitiously as I felt necessary. I worked as long as I was inspired. I quit when I was bored or tired, and I reported to no-one by myself. The process was so satisfying and absorbing, and I was so eager to master the rudimentary chords, and the songs that went with them, that I gave up the novel until the following autumn. I was half done a book. but I was by no means half-way through all there was to learn about music. And it was also to turn out most absolutely that in spite of my personal confidence and energy for writing volumes only, it was to be a very long time before I would publish any significant body of literature. The music was to give me an art, of sorts, and an audience to exchange it with, thus helping me in no small way to continue to discover, through my self-expression, just who I was and where my thinking fit into the universal truth.
    Possibly it is this long friendship with my "second art" that is the first reason  why I am writing this essay. We all love to talk about our friends, and in fact truly good people are usually comfortable talking about themselves only when they are also talking of their friends. Our friends define us - as of course, in part, so do our enemies - and it is through our friends that we best fulfill our obligation to live in faith, hope and charity. Our friends also challenge us, if they are true and wholesome in their love, and music I have always found challenging for every time I learned something about it, as soon as it had let me have my pleasure and satisfaction, it questioned me about some large or small area of itself of which I was still in ignorance.
    But then music takes its name from the Muse, and the Muse, at least to me, being God's Holy Spirit, is by nature infinite. In this relationship, it follows, those who love music, especially if they are working at learning it, are gradually being drawn up into, or participation of, that infinity. Do we not say that Gabriel blows a horn? The trumpet blast at my first Pub Board party was a sign of, I hope, a thereafter happier judgement day.
    Thus every principle of music, as it is assimilated, understood, and put into effect, is significant of the greater study and execution of life, and not only life here, but in the hereafter as well. This rule is analogously valid for all fields of learning, of course, but nowhere more discernibly, to a discerning mind at least, than in the arts and in no art more vividly then in music. This school of analogy and wisdom is a sign of God's overwhelming generosity, is it not, for who is so fortunate to have no music whatsoever in him, even if it is only in the rhythm of his walking from one place to another?
    Yet as we walk, especially if we do so by ourselves, we also hum or whistle or even break into a line or two of song. And many a soul is content with just this degree of self-created music, yet what of those who feel entitled to more, and from time to time are moved to wish they could find a way to whatever that more may be? 
    At that point, the only steps forward is some kind of instruction. The occasional and private performer finally decided to become somewhat more formalized, more structured in his or her approach and has discovered not heretofore discerned, even if it is only to a certain pedagogical tone that comes entirely from within and suggests at least for the time being, that no other teacher is required.
    In music, perhaps more then in many of the arts, or sciences, the desire to be self-taught is not all that radical. Music is sound, a personal, subjective, give - and - take with reality, hopefully a solid little corner on the beauty of reality and nothing can put a beginning music student on the wrong track, perhaps even a derailment, faster than a teacher's insensitivity to the particular learning needs of the particular student. And the history of music is filled with examples of the self-taught. After all, any instrument - including the human voice - is also a technical reality, and anything technical, given time and practise, is analyzable.
    Yet as we all know, the vast majority of us were taught the basic skills through which I write, and the reader reads, these pages. And for all that we studied our fingers and toes, the natural bases of mathematics, yet we went to school to learn the fundamental skills of arithmetic. Even with tests and other learning packages available, governments or religious in cultural societies went to the extra expense of training and paying teachers to practise the classroom art. A good teacher knows how to put order into the questions, show the students what to practise, provide motivation. And where there is more than one student, he rejoices. Ever since the Fall, as Cain and Abel proved, two souls in a common situation can easily produce rivalry. The necessary balance of confidence and docility, a true measure of self-respect combined with humility, takes time to acquire and not a little coaching, and rare is the student who can give these basics to himself without teachers, even with the help of the best textbooks and teaching aids.
To be continued.