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How I Learned Music

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I was fortunate enough to grow up in an environment where music was going on. My mother, a chuch organist, was always practicing on the piano and playing records on the stereo. She recently told me that when I was two years old, she would play "For Unto Us a Child is Born" (Handel's Messiah) on the stereo and I would sit up in the playpen and sing "For!" as each section of the choir made its separate entrance. I can also remember the first music made by the 18-month-old son of a friend, who would sing "Se-ga!" whenever his big brother would crank up his Sega Genesis video games. Have you ever heard that stuff about Mozart making you smarter? I don't know that I, or my little friend Joshie, were any kind of geniuses. What I do know is that when we were exposed to music that had discernible, imitatable melodies, and an obvious logic to it, we responded to what we heard.

My parents' record collection was nothing advanced or hip by the standards of today's working or wannabe musician. While there were a few 45's of Elvis, Patty Page, and Frankie Layne, these were almost never played. LP's consisted of the soundtracks to Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, some very standard Christmas records and patriotic songs, Tennessee Ernie Ford singing old spirituals, some orchestral treatments of church hymns, and Reader's Digest box sets with titles like Popular Music That Will Live Forever, Broadway Favorites, and Mood Music. Between this, and our mandatory participation in church children's choirs, my sister and I grew up being programmed with music that was written to be sung by the average person--much of which could be imitated by young players on recorders, song flutes and even band instruments. This experience was so valuable during my early years on clarinet, that I have all my students get Belwin's Tunes for Technic [sic] books so that they can build their own repertoire of common-knowledge songs.

With the start of elementary school, there came education that was valuable in the long run, but that I did not care for or take good advantage of. I really didn't get much of a rise out of singing whatever patriotic song there was after pledging alliegience to the flag--but it had other benefits that have caused me later in life to believe that it should still be done. My mom tried to teach me piano, but I didn't really work at it and finally stopped at grade 2 music. Not a stellar beginning by any means. I absolutely detested the 'general music' from grade school and once even tried to skip out on a mandatory performance for the PTA. I wasn't really doing anything to further myself, mind you, but I had sampled a world of adult music and was not the least interested in the kid's stuff.

Same story at church, where participation in childrens choirs was mandatory for the children of the organist/music director. I did just about everything that I could think of to get my mom to toss me out of there. But...somewhere in there I found out that she was a very good teacher who knew her stuff and could get it across. We were learning about how music is written and how to make it work for us. Not much translated instantly into practical skill, but a lot sank in for the long haul.

Simple--kids who took band could get out of the 'general music' classes for the most part. My cousin was going to give me his old trumpet, and I'd be ready to go. It was not to be. I tried both the trumpet and the trombone, but was told by the band director that I didn't have the lip for either. His decision was that I should play clarinet. I was devistated. My dad tried to console me by saying that he thought the clarinet was neat because it had so many different 'buttons to push.' It really didn't help, but we took the horn home from Jacobs Music and I started trying to get a sound. Band was pretty tedious at first. Whole note - whole rest - whole note - whole get the picture. I was ready to play tunes!

Once I stopped squeaking all the time, I quickly found that I could finger the clarinet just like the "Tonette" (a poor imitation of the recorder that we used in 4th grade) and started playing hymns by ear that I knew from church. This quickly progressed on to Christmas songs, and other things that I had a clear picture of in my head. The low "F" scale, which was what I had actually found, is a great place to just let your fingers wander and see what they find. The "C" scale works very well in the same way on sax and flute.

Once I found a way to play the notes to familiar songs on the instrument, things started falling into place. Fingering is the hardest part of playing by ear. Once I could do that, I could simply imitate rhythms as I heard them. Rhythms are the hardest part of reading music, and I now had a way to function as a player without having to face down the written page. This isn't to say that I could play just anything I wanted. In order to play a song by ear, you have to know it well enough to be able to sing it. Melodies that jump around a lot, change keys, or depart from the framework of straight major and minor scales require a lot more work. This is one reason that I avoid such songs in the beginning play-by-ear section of this web page. On wind instruments it's best to train your ear in the easy keys and then apply it to the hard ones.

A good example of this was the first song I tried to learn from a record. My sister had records of the Partridge Family (a TV sitcom about a family rock-and-roll band based on the real-life Cowsills) and a song called "I Think I Love You" was a radio hit. I figured that I was ready to learn some mainstream stuff, but "I Think I Love You" is in a minor key, with modulating (key-changing) harmony, and the melody doesn't really fit in the fingering patterns of a beginning player. I also recall the overall key as being one that I didn't know.

I knew I was licked on that particular song, but after some listening I found another song that worked better with the fingerings I knew. Today, I know that "Doesn't Somebody Want to Be Wanted" goes back and forth between the keys of B-flat and G minor, which translate to the C and A minor scales (no sharps/no flats) on the clarinet. I didn't understand keys--I just played notes. This was my first warning that something was going on in keys other than the ones that I was working with in school.

The second warning came when, as a sixth-grader, I tried to sit in with an informal country group (containing some very fine musicians) that my mother occasionally played with. It looked so easy--they just pulled out their instruments and played. I put together my trusty clarinet, and tried to play along. Again, I found that they were working with a lot of notes that I didn't normally use together. I also found myself not knowing quite what to play. After all, the clarinet is a melody-type instrument, but these folks were already singing the melody to the song--which I also didn't know. While these folks were encouraging and understanding, I simply didn't know what made their music tick.

Even though I was fairly experienced at playing simple songs by ear, I didn't understand what scales were about--let alone the keys that they went with. Country (and also Rock) musicians love keys like E and A, which translate to F# (6 sharps) and B (5 sharps) on a clarinet, trumpet or tenor sax. These are easy keys from stringed instruments because it allows the players to use open (unfingered) strings as part of their technique. Unfortunately for me, these same keys on the clarinet were among the hardest. Even though such keys are technically difficult, I would've been much better equipped to tackle them if I knew my major scales.

Another lesson learned was the fact that these country players didn't just make music out of thin air. When they sat down to play, they either played songs that everyone knew, or they taught a new song to anyone who didn't already know it. How could I possibly play by ear on a song I didn't even know? As I later found out, instruments like the fiddle and the mandolin often play countermelodies to the song, and this would've been a good role for the clarinet. Even so, I had to know what to play, or know the song well enough to make something up. This is why I harp on the need to learn common-knowledge songs. When two or more of these musicians play together, their shared knowledge of the song they're playing is the glue that holds them together.

One of the most important lessons that I learned from this group, informally known as the Pickers and Grinners, was the fact that the only real difference between professional and amateur musicians is the money. Jim Jenkins and his wife Lorraine were first-rate country singers and players who had performed on radio along with Jim's brother Paul, a fine fiddler. Rev. C. O. Jenkins (no relation) provided fine lead vocals and rhythm guitar, along with his huge grin. Guitarist Bobby Payne was a Chet Atkins devotee who could play some mighty intricate items on his Gretch hollow-body. Despite his mastery of this style, he also studied and excelled at classical guitar later in life. These folks were on par with musicians that I see working full-time today, but they made no money and got no academic credit for their fine playing. Amateur musicians are by definition people who play music because they love it. They practice because they're interested in it, and they excel. Those of us from school band/orchestra backgrounds can learn much from them.

As I entered into middle school, I found band much more fun and satisfying. After I was playing a year or so, my Mom had gotten me a book for clarinet and piano that we could play from together. The book also had a second clarinet part. When my mom wasn't available to play, I would tape the melody part and then play along with myself on the duet part. This didn't completely work at first. If I didn't play the rhythm correctly into the tape, I wouldn't be able to match things up when I played along on the harmony part. Playing duets in this manner was my first experience in having to deal with my own playing and get things right in order for my project to work. This is one reason why I have my own students do this today.

My experience with our country music friends had showed me that you didn't need written music to play together, and my progressive understanding of written music had alerted me to the fact that my mother was playing a lot of stuff in church that hadn't been printed in the hymnal. She was adding in interesting bass lines, altering a few chord changes, and even raising the hymns to a different key on the last verse. During communion, baptism, and the passing of the offering plate, she was providing a seamless music score that somehow managed to time out exactly with the events taking place. When a song would end too soon, she'd manage to turn that ending around and add the extra 10 or 15 seconds of time that she needed. Needless to say, I was fascinated.

My mom never pushed the piano on me, but she was availble to answer questions about what she was doing. I became more and more fascinated with 1940's boogie numbers that she'd belt out on the keyboard, and with her ability to just take a melody and make up the left-hand (harmony) part right on the spot. She showed me how I could easily put "1" and "5" chords to just about anything I wanted in the key of C. She also showed me how to play the bass line to a little blues number called "The Navajo Trail." I never did become much of a keyboard player, but this little tidbit of knowledge got me playing the instrument more than I ever had as a formal student.

Not too long after this, my folks got me a guitar and I started learning the chords. Once again, I was never a serious student of the instrument itself, but quickly taught myself the basic chords and began learning to apply them to songs. I kept a notebook of the lyrics and chords to various songs that I was interested in. Some, I got from books. Others I had to figure out myself. The guitar became my vehicle for learning harmony and song structure--something that would've been hard to do on my own with just a clarinet. Chords could be treated as single fingerings and I could move easily between them--much easier than on piano. The guitar really spurred my interest in country and pop music, and it led to a lot of fruitful exploration. The first song I ever worked on writing out a score to was Kool and the Gang's "Hollywood Swinging." It's still one of my favorites.

Also while in middle school, I managed to talk my band director into teaching me to play the string bass. This ended up being a pretty good move. Most schools have one available, so I didn't have to own one. It provided a number of good playing experiences in high school, including the pit orchestra for school musicals, a school-related folk/rock/country group, and a trip to Nashville with the choir.

Near the end of my freshman year in high school, I got the urge to hear my instrument played by a famous player. I had just seen Benny Goodman play with the Boston Pops, so I checked out one of his albums from the public library. This guy was great. We had players in middle school and high school that could make the instrument cry, but Benny could make it laugh, too. I must've spent a full week learning his solo on "Don't Be That Way." It took a bit less time to learn "Stompin' at the Savoy" and even less as I learned more pieces. Just when I thought I'd thoroughly checked Benny out, my folks gave me an album of him in 1973, playing in a more modern style and giving me much to check out. My Dad had stereo speakers hooked up in the basement and I would go down there and spend hours trying to jam along with that record. This also led me to check out New Orleans style jazz with players like Pete Fountain, Harry Shields and Hal Cooper. They still fascinate me today.

Benny may not have been on par with Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker, but he was certainly one of jazz's great players. He played simple licks that sounded great and were easy to understand. I learned a lot of things from listening and imitating him that worked, but that I wouldn't truly understand for years. I wish that every instrument had a player like Benny who was sounded great, but who was also accessible to the uninitiated listener.

Learning those solos had other benefits, too. After spending two years in high school sitting in the last chair of the clarinet section, I was promoted directly to first chair my junior year. It was then that I took up serious study of the instrument--primarily to avoid losing my new position. I worked on the classical repertoire and listened to more records.

After high school, I decided to study music in college. I went in as a clarinet major and threw myself into the classical repertoire even further. I tried out for the Stage Band on electric bass, but didn't get that first position. When the second Jazz Band was formed, I was asked to play bass and did so for a semester. I also played it in the pit band for a local musical. Just for kicks, I played clarinet in the basketball pep band, which involved a number of my friends who were in the stage band. The Stage Band formed the core of this group, so when I didn't have a clarinet part I transposed off of the bari sax part. The bari player was good-humored about this, and got a kick out of seeing me transposing from his key. Max Hahn, now a band director in Chesterfield County, turned to me one day and said, "The way you fake, you ought to play sax!" I thought about that, and soon found a tenor sax in the trading post.

That pretty much ended my days of bass playing. After some study, I joined the second Jazz Band, and started trying to learn jazz that was a bit more modern than Benny Goodman. This was pretty easy in a college atmosphere full of people who were working on the same thing. There was plenty of jazz to be heard in small bars, and on friends' stereos. Some of my best memories of college were sessions at someones apartment where we listen to and discussed music together. If you haven't tried it, try it soon!

About this time, I was lucky enough to get hired as clarinetist for a small combo playing at the Tides Inn for New Year's Eve 1978. The Ginny Carr Trio gave me a cassette tape and songlist to help me prepare. After a couple of rehearsals, we had a nice New Years gig. When the Irvington, VA resort hotel reopened in the spring of 1979, there was additional budget for an extra band member. Bandleader Ginny Carr, a VCU classmate of mine, offered me the job and I jumped on it. Although hired officially as a clarinetist, I took along my old Buescher tenor and alto saxes and flute. I would start learning my craft on the job.

It was a fairly light work week at the Tides Inn. Dances in the Chesapeake Club were Monday, Wednesday and Friday 8-10pm, and Saturday 9-12pm. There was also a New Orleans night at their Golden Eagle golf course 6-10pm on Tuesday nights during the summer. I lived at the Inn during that summer, having gone from nowhere summer jobs like McDonalds to making $120 a week playing music. Yeehaw! On top of this, I worked four days a week as a waiter at the Golden Eagle, which often generated more money than the music jobs. There was little to do on the Northern Neck, and I had no car--just 3-speed bicycle. Since my meals and lodging came with the job, my account at the Chesapeake National Bank began to bulge. While I was there, I managed to get another tenor sax (a Selmer Mark VI that was a year older than I was!)

The wackiest instrument purchase that I ever made was that of a soprano sax. Why get one when you already play clarinet? Well, in those days, synthesizers were all the rage but they were new and very expensive. A synth with far fewer capabilities than today's $100 consumer keyboards could cost $5000-10,000! The soprano sax had a funky sound in the high register like some of the crude synthesizer sounds of the day. The clarinet in its low register could imitate another family of sounds. So, before the days where synthesizers had digitally sampled sounds from real instruments, I was using real instruments to try and mimick cheezy synthesizer sounds.

Typical nights on the job would seem nightmarish to many of my colleagues. The average age at the Tides Inn was 70, and each season at least one guest left the hotel in a hearse. A typical opener might be Tie A Yellow Ribbon, I Will Wait for You, or Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head on clarinet. Other nights, I might start with Laura, A Foggy Day, or Old Devil Moon on tenor sax. Our pianist/leader was quite a fine singer, and what I most enjoyed was noodling in the background behind her vocals. This was not a 'hip' audience by conventional measurements. Even then, much of the repertoire seemed warped. I often wished that I was in a more modern group, like friends who were playing in jazz and disco bands. Even so, it was musically very satisfying to play behind this singer, and I even took a kind of devilish pleasure in seeing just how far out the song requests would go. Songs like More, (the theme from Mondo Caine) would crop up when the "More man" showed up in the room. He was one of the first people to own one of those credit card sized calculators and his Casio played tunes on its little keyboard. One night, we gave him the microphone and let him do his thing. Tea For Two as a cha-cha, the combined output of Henry Mancini and Michel LeGrande, and every other easy listening chestnut that you can name crept into our sets. We did only the most laughable rock and roll, like Mockingbird, Leroy Brown and Proud Mary. Every once in a while, I got to play electric bass on a rock tune, or sing a third vocal part on a Manhattan Transfer tune.

I stayed with the group through its 1979 season at the Tides Inn, and in 1980 we added a trumpet player and changed the name to Uptown. The group experimented a lot, and broke up around early 1981. I played a couple of shows in pit ochestras, and rejoined a new Uptown later that year. It was a four-singer Manhattan Transfer type group and I stayed with them until joining a four-horn band called Jack Diamond and Friends in 1982. (Note - Ginni Carr and Bob McBride went on to form the highly successful Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet. Look for their CDs at Borders Books & Music)

Despite some of the great bands I've enjoyed playing with, I often wish that I could turn back the clock and return to the Ginni Carr Quartet. There's a tremendous freedom and an exciting challenge to being there all alone with just your ear to guide you. Today I also realize what a privilege it was to have a paying gig on jazz clarinet. The clarinet has so much range and so many possibilities, that almost anything you try (in an okay key) ends up being fun and satisfying. Although I longed to play bebop and funk at the time, I really do miss those old songs. So much character to the melodies...such original chord changes...and so many ridiculous tunes that appeal so much to my warped sense of humor. Most of all, I miss the role of providing counterpoint to a singer. For you the students, I miss those opportunities for a paying apprenticeship (or an apprenticeship period) that was so much more common in the past.

I still study. I listen to records, transcribe solos and arrangements, and look for new things to play on my instruments. Learning is something that you never stop.


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