Reading James Herriot’s wonderful stories about his life as a vet, I came across an interesting phrase, hybrid vigor. In short, hybrid vigor means “the improved…quality in a hybrid offspring (Wikipedia)“. For example, a mixed breed dog is usually healthier than purebred dogs. But how does all this relate to music?
A classic bit from a classic work of art:
It took a few years, but it seems that Benton and Ray* did finally find the hand of Franklin. Benton did promise to let us know, and I would’ve liked to hear from him, but I guess this recent newspaper article will have to do:
* The second Ray of course, Ray Kowalski.
I’m back from my summer holiday and I see that its high time I started blogging again! I’ll begin with a short story.
Last year, I thought about ways to improve my pedagogical composition skills. Those thoughts led to many good things (like my master’s degree!) but I also decided to take some composition lessons, seeking to improve my skills in musical composition, specifically educational composition.
I prepared for the composition lessons by selecting what I thought were the best of all my compositions. I had perhaps gotten too used to the positive response that I’ve had from my students, but when I showed the pieces to my teacher, his response was baffling to me, at first. The pieces he liked best were the ones that had met with least success with my pupils, and the ones that all the pupils always liked to play were – according to my teacher – if not altogether lackluster, then at least in need of some serious reworking.
Needless to say, I went home in a thoughtful mood.
I had already realized earlier that it would be a special challenge to find a teacher who could see and understand the needs and tastes of the people I’m, writing for: young guitar players. I’m not sure that such a composition teacher exists, but in any case I had failed to find one. On the other hand, I feel that I have a pretty good grasp of what kind of music most guitarists like to play.
This experience taught me something that I already knew, but needed reminding of. I have to trust that I know what I’m doing!
How about you – have you had experiences like this, with teachers or elsewhere?
Photographer Ming Thein’s blog is one of my absolute favourites. He is a phenomenal photographer, but also a very good writer. His latest post, ‘Art, celebrity and fame’, deals with being an artist, trying to remain true to your vision, but also having to serve other interests, like commercial clients.
That’s something that every musician can relate to, I think! Professionals have to try to play music that will find an audience, while hobbyists often play music that’s socially acceptable, music that their friends and family will enjoy. Kids going to music lessons are more or less at the mercy of their teachers; indeed it would be difficult for them to choose their music for themselves, since they don’t yet know the repertoire or what’s technically feasible for them.
What’s that all got to do with this site? Well, I’m also trying to find an audience for my music, but at the same time I want to compose in a way that will satisfy my own sensibilities. Ming Thein is pretty pessimistic in the aforementioned article: he seems to almost think that remaining uncompromised in your art means never achieving any kind of recognition, except perhaps posthumously.
I disagree, perhaps because my medium is music. I think that compromising your artistic integrity, trying to please (an imaginary) audience, is the surest way to lose that audience. No listener or player will long remain interested in music that doesn’t really reflect the composer’s inner world, or soul, if you will. If, on the other hand, the composer writes music for himself, those sounds will also move others.
I think that’s equally valid of every kind of music, be it simple or complex, symphony, hip hop – or educational guitar music. What’s your view? Please leave a comment if you agree – and especially if you disagree!
In African-American culture there’s a practice and tradition called signifying. I think my compositions often come close to that tradition. What? Sounds a bit far-fetched? Maybe so, but hear me out.
Signifying is usually a kind of wordplay, but it can be music too. Like Gena Dagel Caponi writes:
“Signifyin(g) is also a way of demonstrating respect for, or poking fun at a musical style or practice through parody, pastische, humor, tone- or word-play… Signifyin(g) shows, among other things, either reverence or irreverence toward musical statements and values.”
My guitar music is of course first and foremost pedagogical and educational, but its musical content is quite well described by the quote above. Some pieces show it more than others; River for example is clearly derivative of several musical tropes and recollections of past musical experiences, my way of showing respect for them. Homage to D. Scarlatti pokes a little fun at Scarlatti’s characteristic sudden changes of affect, while A Pretty Good Morning in The Highlands takes a folksy, Mark Knopflerish sound and gives it a classical spin as the composition closes.
Ever since romanticism in the 19th century, originality has been overrated in the art world. Trying to be different just to be different – that ain’t where it’s at. Take any old thing, tell it again, with honesty – and you’ve got something! That’s the way I see it anyway 🙂