Al’s Music Tidbits Introductory Edition
by Al Shank
With Elena Corey having “ridden off into the sunset”, so to speak, Mark Varner posted a message on the CBA Message Board asking for volunteers to replace her column. I know something about music theory, have done some writing (I still distribute “Al's Baseball Tidbits” via e-mail from time to time) and have been playing and listening to Bluegrass music since 1963, so I fired off an e-mail offering my services, such as they are. We planned on talking on the phone about content, etc., but never managed it. Finally, Mark just asked me to submit “1000 words on whatever you want”, so here they are.
I have a good friend, David Elson, whom some of you may know, who used to walk home from school humming a tune and whistling harmony to it at the same time. I think he was about eight. He once told me that the idea of chords was always obvious to him. Some people are blessed with that kind of music perception, but most of us are not, myself certainly included. I listened to quite a bit of music as a kid, but didn't try to sing or play an instrument until I was 18, way too late for optimal learning. Without a lot of natural talent or any musical training, I found the mandolin pretty challenging. Singing was somewhat easier -- almost anybody who can perceive melody can sing, after a fashion -- but singing harmony was beyond me. I wanted to be able to sing harmony, but I also wanted to understand what I was singing and why. I asked my mandolin instructor about harmony, and he told me “it's mostly just other notes in the chord”.
I stumbled along, learning a little about scales and chords, listening to a lot of Bluegrass, learning to sing a few songs and practicing the mandolin, until I got to where I could play along with people. I got in a band with some other inexperienced musicians and my friend David, who played fiddle and sang tenor. He arranged all the harmonies and sort of “nurse-maided” us all along, but we weren't very good. I cringe when I listen to some of the tapes we made back then. The first time I played on stage, at the open-mic night at The Ash Grove, the West LA folk club where I had first heard Bill Monroe, I was absolutely terrified, and played like it. After a couple of years, we morphed into a rock band; I took up the electric bass and no longer sang lead. I had to sing harmony parts, and our music was much more complex, harmonically, than Bluegrass, so I was having a hard time hearing my parts, especially starting off on the right note. I was in graduate school at UCLA at the time, studying Slavic Linguistics and teaching first- and second-year Russian as a Teaching Assistant, and I went into the student store and bought a book called “Harmony”, by Walter Piston. I started staying up very late at night, studying this book, memorizing intervals and trying to do the exercises, although it's hard to do harmony exercises when you don't play piano. After a few weeks, though, I had a pretty good conceptual basis for understanding the harmonies we were singing, and it made it a lot easier to remember, hear and sing my parts. Think of the difference between memorizing a sentence and memorizing a bunch of nonsense syllables. I also took a course in the music of J. S. Bach in the UCLA music department, and did a harmonic analysis of a fugue from the “Well-Tempered Clavier” as a term paper. I wrote a few songs and a couple of four-part contrapuntal pieces for bass, guitar and two mandolins.
I devoted so much time to music that I flunked out of graduate school, but I had decided to make my living playing music, anyway. The rock band made tape after demo tape of original material, graduating from a rented garage to a studio, but rarely played live and never played anyone else's music. My bass playing was like my mandolin playing - wooden, rhythmically uninteresting. That band broke up, and I joined another rock band that played nothing but covers and played out a lot. I listened to the original versions of the songs we played and copied a lot of the bass parts. After I had learned a lot of “bass words”, I got a feeling for the “language” of the bass and for syncopation. I learned to play a bass line that kept the rhythm moving forward. By the time I gave it up, I was a pretty fair bass player. : I realized this band was going nowhere, and that I was not going to be a professional musician, so I sold my 1915 F-2 mandolin to pay off my bass and sold my bass to my brother. End of story… until 1974.
In 1974 I started going to the Red Vest Pizza Parlor in El Cerrito, CA, to see the various Bluegrass bands that played there several nights a week. Inspired by “Done Gone”, “The Good Ole Persons” and others, I decided to take up the mandolin again and get back into Bluegrass. After getting through the “bloody-fingers” period, I found that my playing was considerably better than before, especially rhythmically, that I could work out breaks to songs much more easily and sing - even arrange - harmony parts. I finally felt fairly comfortable with the “language” of music, just as I had become comfortable with the Russian language, and by using the same two-pronged approach: 1) learn the rules and 2) memorize until you can create.
For those of us who didn't walk home from grammar school humming a tune and whistling harmony to it, learning at least the rudiments of music theory -- scales, intervals, chords, tonality, modality -- can “turn nonsense syllables into words and sentences”, so to speak. It can help you perceive what you hear.
Here's hoping that these monthly “Music Tidbits” will be helpful. Any questions or suggestions for subject matter may be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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