Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What is classic music?

You know those pants/haircut/shoes/glasses you rocked in junior high? You thought you were the bomb-dot-com, and now you try to burn every single picture from that part of your life. Well, music can be the same. Not everything that you think is amazing now will still be cool in five plus years.

Here's one example.

Growing up, I went through all of the normal emotional storms, including breaking up with girlfriends and getting grounded by my parents. Music - more often than not - got me through. As a result, it has always amazed me how fast I can go back to certain events or time periods in my life just by hearing a few notes or words from a certain song.

One such song was a blues tune that shall not be named (for reasons which I will explain). It was my Senior year of high school, and I had been dumped by the girl of my dreams (yeah....about that). This is really pathetic, but I laid down on the floor next to the speakers, put the aforementioned track on repeat, and wallowed in self pity for the next couple of hours.

Fast forward to college, and I was exploring some music with a new girl of my dreams, and came across a dusty old CD that I hadn't listened to since high school.

"Sweet!" I said. "This song is so awesome! You've gotta check it out." Without reconsidering, I put the disc in the player, skipped to the appropriate track and waited for the magic.

The song was awful.

It became immediately apparent that my memory of the song was much better than the song itself. It was actually kind of embarrassing, and I had to quickly kill the music, as it were, and make some stupid excuse about how maybe it wasn't that great or I had been thinking of another song. I looked really dumb, to say the least.

This got me thinking, "So, what makes a song great? Not just great now, but great over time. Why is music from certain artists - like Mozart or the Beatles - still relevant, while other, more recent artists are already outdated and old?"

Understand, I'm not talking about immediate popularity, or even album sales. (Does it make anybody else sick that Katy Perry is outselling the Beatles, for crying out loud?) I'm talking about music that doesn't outlive its popularity, its ability to connect with an audience - its soul, for lack of a better term.

As a high school music teacher, one of the assignments I gave was for students to bring in one of their favorite tunes, explain it to the class, and justify its existence. One question they had to answer was, "Will this song still be relevant in five to ten years? Why or why not?" It was fun to hear certain kids flat out admit that their tune was cool for now, but probably wouldn't be in the near future. 

I'd encourage you to try this out. No, this is not school, but give it a go:

Take your favorite song (for me, this changes weekly, if not daily). Print out the lyrics. Read them to yourself slowly, taking care to decode the overt meaning and look for any subtle meanings and symbolism. Even better, read them out loud to some one who isn't familiar with the song, and ask them to summarize the meaning of the song in one sentence, two at most.

For the sake of music and art, I challenge myself - and you! - to be a more discriminating listener and consumer of music.

Happy interpreting/listening/discerning!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Can you 'flip the switch?'

About two years ago, I decided I wanted to become a better basketball player. Specifically, I wanted to be a much more accurate shooter. Since I'm a stat geek and can't stand to do anything halfway, I created a little diagram of the court, complete with all of the places I'd practice shooting from, and how many of each shot I needed to make.

I try to complete this routine at least twice per week, and more if I have the time. (Just like practicing music, I don't worry so much about how much time I take, but about accomplishing each goal or shot on my list.) I'm sort of OCD about two things: One, I have to complete the entire routine, and, two, I have to make my last shot each day. It's superstitious, I know, but I can't leave on a missed shot.

So, one day in the gym I was down to the last shot. It was an NBA-distance three-point shot (four feet longer than a high school three), and I was struggling. I had attempted the shot probably twenty-five or thirty times, and I seemed to be getting worse with each try. Also, it was getting late, and I needed to get going to make it to work on time.

I had the inevitable conversation in my head. "Maybe today's the day you just don't get it done. It's time to go, and you're too tired to make this shot. At this point, you're just wasting your time."

That day, I almost walked off the court in frustration. But then that other voice (you know the one) started talking back. "Nope. You're not leaving until you get this done. You've made tough shots before, and you can make this one. You made this commitment to yourself, and you're not letting you out of it. Get out there and keep shooting."

I've had similar moments in my life, but at that instant I felt myself flip the switch. No longer tired and frustrated, I was focused, determined and confident. I wasn't looking for an excuse or setting myself up to fail and quit. Failing and quitting were no longer options.

On my very next attempt, I nailed the shot. Straight through the net like I was Deron Williams or Kyle Korver. It felt great, and I immediately grabbed my things and ran for work. Mission accomplished, as it were.

You hear athletes talk about it all the time, but I think musicians do it, too. And we should be doing it. It may be in performance, on the stage at an important moment. But in my view, it's much more critical to do it in practice. To flip the switch over and over and over when we're practicing hard things. When you get frustrated and want to quit, you simply tell yourself, "No. It's not an option. I'm getting this done."

Obviously, there are some limitations. I'm not asking you to play something way beyond your level just because you tell yourself you can. But if you break up your objectives into logical, sequential steps, then you should be able to accomplish today's step even if it pushes you beyond your comfort zone a little bit. And then tomorrow, do it again. Before long, you have developed the ability to look a challenge in the face and say, "I won't quit. I can do this."

Just like anything else, "flipping the switch" requires practice. Try something today that challenges you, just something small, and accomplish it. And tomorrow, do it again. Or, like Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Do something every day that scares you."

Happy switch flipping!

Why musicians should watch the big game (Seriously!)

Photo by  Ameer Basheer  on  Unsplash Here we are, about to watch another televised wrestling match over who puts a football on one en...