What Band Students Can Learn from Guitar Players
What would you say if I told you that there was a class in school that many
students take for 7-9 years, get straight A's and graduate high school with practically no
real-world skills in that subject area?
Now, what if I told you that in the same school system, this same subject was
being learned by others as a hobby, either on their own or through private lessons? And
further, what if I told you that a significant percentage of these hobbyists went on to
excel in this same subject area with far more success than the students with 6 years or
more of credit classes?
Well, the subject is not a foreign language and it's not Home Ec. It's music.
Despite well-equipped music programs with professional instructors, most school band
students are failing to take full advantage of what's being offered them. In the
meantime, other students who lack formal training are forming bands of their own and
learning a lot. Perhaps it's time that school musicians took a look at the hard work and
common sense that makes these unschooled musicians so successful.
- Music As A Hobby: Most guitar players have taken up music as a hobby. It
is something that interests them, and that they like to tinker with in their spare
time. They buy CDs of groups that use their instrument, and they try to imitate
things that they hear and enjoy. They get together and form garage bands in their
spare time. Most school band and orchestra students learn their instruments in a
classroom setting and consider their music part of their school workload. Most have never
purchased a CD which features their instrument, and very few practice as much as one or
two hours a week. They depend on their music director for all their music and instrumental
instruction and seldom try to learn music of their own. Almost none play by ear, and this
remains true even among some professionals who come from this background. This is
- Finding a place to play: One motivation for guitar players is that
they dream of playing in a band. Many will never get to. Pop bands are small and
they rely on the competence of each member. This forces guitar players to face the reality
that in order to be in a band, some band must want them to join. The other option
is to form one's own band, but that requires enough competence to attract other players to
join this new group. In contrast, school band and orchestra students join groups
which are available as school classes and which provide free instrumental instruction.
Most will not have to audition for anything until high school, and even then there is the
guaranteed option of playing in a lower level group should the audition fail. In this
respect, school band and orchestra musicians are profoundly spoiled in comparison to
musicians of any other persuasion. This comes back to bite them later on, and most will
not continue playing after these conditions cease to exist for them. It doesn't have
to be this way! [in all fairness, I have to note that guitarists who
learn via school guitar classes also tend to do quite poorly compared to those
that I have described above. This is due to the same factors that I have
described for school band/orchestra students]
- The Need to Please the Listener: When guitar players and their
groups want to perform, they seldom have the school PTA as a doting captive audience. They
perform either as soloists or in very small bands where each member is easily heard. The
venue might be a public park or a schoolyard, where people might stop and listen if
attracted by what they hear. The same people might ignore--or even jeer--peformers who
don't please their ears. Even an excellent performance can meet with disapproval if the
musical styles and song choices don't reflect the desires of the audience. Few school band
concerts receive any reaction other than forceful applause. But most imporantly, few
school band or orchestra members are ever heard as individuals. Many players hide out in
their sections, depending on the leadership of others, and some never fully learn the
parts that their director has been carefully rehearsing them on for weeks.
- Viewing the Music as a Whole: Guitar players are forced to deal with a
musical piece as a whole, for the obvious reason that soloists and four-piece bands do not
have sheet music and conductors. Each individual musician is responsible for knowing where
they are in the the song, and whether or not they are to play in a particular spot. Each
person is alone on his or her part, and must make all entrances on time, without looking
around to see what others are doing. School band and orchestra musicians are
notoriously weak at this, because they are not faced with this kind of absolute necessity.
By the nature of their situation, they tend to focus exclusively on their own individual
part and often have difficulty seeing how it fits in to the whole. This kind of tunnel
vision also distracts the player from the task of timekeeping. It is the single greatest
handicap that amateur musicians face as they try to continue playing after high
school--and one of the easiest to remedy.
- Developing and Using the Ear - Playing by ear is recognized as an
essential skill by all musicians except those who play in large bands and
orchestras. It is the difference between dependence and independence. The difference, in
fact, between paralysis and liberation. Musicians who don't play by ear do not have the
means to produce music without having it written out for them from beginning to end.
Musicians who do play by ear have the freedom to play whatever piece they choose, in any
key that they choose, in any format that they choose. Further, musicians who can play by
ear and who can also read music, can easily learn to write music. One of the most
heartbreaking sights that I regularly encounter is that of a highly skilled,
"classically trained" musician who is waiting tables or working low grade
clerical jobs because there aren't enough full-time performing groups to keep him/her
employed. It takes only a wider perspective and some common-sense skills to bring broader
opportunities. More musicians have realized this over the last 10 years, and tomorrow's
musicians will have to compete with with people who can work both sides of the fence.
- Common-Sense Playing Skills - Apart from the ability to play by ear, I
feel that the most important common-sense skill is the ability to play your instrument in
a wide variety of different keys. This is an area where guitar players do not always have
superior skills, but the nature of their instrument allows them to do the job with little
difficulty. They are forced to do this, because most guitar players are playing in
situations where there is a singer, and that singer has to have the song played so that the
notes fall within a certain range. School band and orchestra music generally leans
towards keys which are easier for the instruments involved. After all, these are student groups and easy keys will make
any performance much smoother. But this goes out the window when vocalists enter the
picture. Theatre pit orchestras, show choir bands, and church orchestras routinely have
music in keys that seem outlandish to the school musician. It is much harder for us to
learn skills in all keys, but it is essential to our survival as musicians. Band
instruments love to play in keys like B-flat, E-flat and F. Rock and country bands like
keys like E, A and B which are quite difficult for band instruments. Symphony orchestras
and show groups use any key that they find necessary. It is the musician's job to be
- Common Knowledge - Common knowledge involves a number of things, but here
it mostly applies to songs and styles. Guitar players and their other play-by-ear cohorts
have a fairly easy time interfacing with each other, but this is because they are familiar
with the musical styles associated with the instrument and the performance practices that
go along with it. In a small rock or country band, the glue which holds the musicians
together is their shared knowledge of the song. When a performer in one of these groups
must be replaced--particularly in a temporary situation--the prime criteria for selecting
the replacement player is his/her knowledge of the repertoire and style associated with
the band. Auditions are rarely held. More often than not, a group will call upon a known
and proven player who possesses not only the necessary skill to play, but the necessary knowledge
to do his/her part in a performance with little or no rehearsal. For band and orchestra
players, common knowledge is unnecessary for a good reader of music. But to function in
other venues, all musicians must have common knowledge. Most of this is learned outside of
formal musical study.
So, what are school bands and orchestras good for?
School bands and orchestras provide performing opportunities that the average country or
rock guitar player can hardly conceive. Music so sophisticated and esoteric that it takes
a college educated professional (your band director) just to run the group. The synergy of
40-100 musicians in one group, playing and breathing together. Ranges of dynamics and tone
color no synthesizer and no bank of guitar stomp-boxes could even hope to touch. Examples
of the most exquisitely crafted harmony and counterpoint, that become part of the
student's experience. The teamwork. NOTHING matches the power of 100 souls in sync.
Why can't school bands and orchestras teach these other skills?
It's difficult to teach these individualized skills in the context of a performing group.
School bands and orchestras are not meant to be the sole source of a person's musical
education. Instead, they make available performing opportunities that would be impossible
elsewhere. School bands and orchestras provide students with a venue for daily rehearsal,
expensive low-pitch instruments that most individuals couldn't afford to own, a library of
well-crafted, artistic music, and a professional music educator to guide young players
through the process.
The whole point of this essay is that these other common-sense skills are those
that people learn from other musicians, or teach themselves. They are individual skills,
that would be hard for a band director to teach and test in classes that might contain 100
students each. It is up to the individual student to build physical skills, explore other
creative outlets, and to contribute his/her best musicianship to the school band.
How does a band/orchestra student go about acquiring these other skills?
Home practice is first and foremost, but the larger issue is in how the student views
his/her music. The healthiest view, in my opinion, is that music is a pastime...a hobby.
People do it for fun. But like most sports, there is some skill and knowledge
necessary to make the fun possible. Students need time alone with their instruments, and
they need the basic skills necessary to explore successfully. They need to hear their
instrument played by top artists, and they need to hear it playing things that they can
learn to imitate. They need the experiences that cause formal instruction to come to life.
That's why this website features Jam School, a place full of
starting points from which students can launch their own exploration of music. Young
musicians need musical pursuits of their own, and top priority must be placed on
nurturing their curiosity. Students need the following conditions:
- A solid foundation of basic skills
- Exposure to the world in which the instrument exists and operates
- Free time to work with the instrument in relative privacy
Students who have these conditions and who make good use of them can learn
rapidly with the help of an experienced musician. Private lessons can be extremely
valuable in providing the first two elements. Having time to work the instrument is a
matter of the student's personal priorities.
Back to Jam School Home Email Me