The Musical U team discusses the messages contained in music, inspiring your listener to feel something, and finding something you want to express through your instrument.
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Christopher: Hello, and welcome to the Musicality Podcast. My name’s Christopher Sutton, I am the founder and director of Musical U and this is one in a series of episodes we’re doing, following up on our Episode 100 celebration, where we asked 26 of our past podcasts guests a particular question: what’s one thing you’ve learned that could help people tap in to their inner musicality.
The answers we got back were fantastic and inspiring and everyone on the team here really enjoyed hearing the variety of ideas and suggestions that came out in those episodes.
We decided we’d love to do some follow up episodes on the common themes because, although each guest’s answer was different and unique, there were definitely a few things that kept coming up.
Today, I’m very happy to be joined by, pretty much, the full Musical U team, in fact. We’re missing Sara Campbell and our other Resident Pros unfortunately, but we do have Stewart Hilton, Adam Liette, Andrew Bishko and Anastasia Voitinskaia and I’ll ask each of them to say a quick hello so you know who you’ll be listening to.
Stewart, why don’t you kick us off.
Stewart: Hello, I’m Stewart Hilton, the community conductor at Musical U. You’ve probably seen me in emails and on the members website quite a bit. My name pops up all over the place. [inaudible 00:13:26] Outside Musical U, I play guitar in a few different groups, play golf, just have a good time with my wife, and dogs.
Adam: Hi, my name is Adam Liette. I’m the communications manager here at Musical U. I am a trumpet player and a guitar player.
Andrew: I’m Andrew Bishko. I am the project manager and content manager of the Musical U. I play several instruments. My current, most active project is playing accordion in a mariachi band with my wife.
Anastasia: Hi, my name is Anastasia Voitinskaia. My last name is very difficult to pronounce so don’t even try. I am the assistant content editor at Musical U. In my personal life, I play the piano, guitar, bass, synthesizer and, occasionally, sing.
Christopher: Rarely at the same time, I presume.
Anastasia: Always at the same time.
Christopher: That’s who we’ve got joining us today. We’re just gonna talk through this topic and what jumps out at each of us in thinking about the message in the music and inspiring your listener to feel something.
Depending on how you look at it, this is either a niche topic or something that really is fundamental and universal in music.
I’m excited to hear everyone’s different perspective on it.
This is something that Judy Rodman mentioned in her answer, talking about how all art, including musical expression, is about creating messages.
Andy Wasserman talked about the internal treasure hunt for musical gold and looking for your own, individual, unique sound.
We had Bill Hilton, David Wellerman and Forest Kinney all talking about exploring, improvisation and creating and finding your own message or finding something you want to express through your instrument.
Fiona Jane Weston, a cabaret expert, talks specifically about interpreting a song, and how to take a piece that you’re working on and really ask yourself, line by line, what is the message, what is the emotion, what am I trying to convey to my audience.
Stewart, why don’t you start us off. How have you thought about this topic of finding the message in the music and inspiring your listener to feel something?
Stewart: Well, I have kind of a good history on this, or a good bit of history. In the 90s I joined a Christian metal group because of the fact of wanting to have a message in the music. That’s kind of always stayed with me since that time. I guess I started seeing it in the 80s and how lyrics and other things would influence an audience in their life and decisions and all that. It kind of brought me full circle in to what I did through the 80s and even further. There was always something in the lyrics that always stood out to me, to make sure that you’re doing something that puts people on a good path versus a bad path or so and so.
I’ve always felt it’s had a great power. I’ve seen it even watching other places, reading history. You read about elections, there’s always music being played before a candidate gets up because they’re trying to create an emotion and get people riled up. It’s happened through even Hitler, the dictator, I forget what composer it was, but the music kind of was, I guess, kind of crazy like, maybe like a metal band, I don’t know. They said it would rile the crowd up and that’s when he would hit the stage, as soon as they were at this peak, he would come out and deliver that emotional diatribe that he wanted to say.
It’s meant a lot. I even got us to go and play music, the one group I played in, we played at a homeless shelter. I have to say, out of all the places that I have ever played, playing there probably meant the most to me than anywhere else I’ve ever played doing music. You see people at their life’s worst moment, they’re kind of at the bottom, they’re trying to build up again, they’ve lost everything. You see these guys coming in with their head down and everything like that and you would play five or six songs and you could see as we’re getting into it, they start smiling, they kind of take a break from what’s going on in life. It was really good, I enjoyed going out and talking to them a little bit. They were so thankful of just getting that break from that current situation.
It means quite a bit to me. Also, I was just thinking, we interviewed Dave Cousins. I was remembering how he talked about some of the music that they’ve done had affect on people. He discussed some woman who was going through … she was in the hospital, had 11 electroshock therapy sessions, I’m not sure exactly what for. This woman searched him out because she had been playing their music to get her through all of the sessions. That’s pretty cool. Then they went on to also talk about weddings, and you hear that a lot. It’s always neat to think you are a song that’s being played at weddings all the time. It’s kind of cool the effect and how that can influence people.
Christopher: For sure and I think there’s two sides to this topic in a way. There’s the explicit message of music and I really enjoyed interviewing Fiona J Weston because she was very much about that caberet design and lyrical interpretation and so on. I think when you have a song with lyrics, it can be fairly clear cut, this song is about falling in love, this song is about [inaudible 00:24:46], not saying that all songs are. I think it’s really interesting with this topic to think about it from both sides.
There’s the clear message in a song with lyrics and what does it mean to take music without lyrics, maybe music you’re improvising and try to find some way to communicate a message to your audience.
Anastasia, you’re someone who writes your own music as well as performing on instruments and singing, what’s your perspective on this, find a message in the music?
Anastasia: Well, when you’re writing your own music, typically what I write, at least … and I know a lot of previous podcasts guests have echoed this is, what I write is deeply dependent on how I’m feeling. It’s quite easy to communicate whatever emotion you’re feeling behind the song into the music itself.
Also, I wanted to add something in terms of playing other people’s music too and finding the message within that. I think Christopher it was you that brought up an interesting point about a piece that you were playing that was about a painting and you’re playing it and playing it but it had never occurred to you to just go and look at the painting. I found that really brilliant and that really echoed with me because I think that, even for music that’s not yours, you can either construct your own narrative or imagine, perhaps, what the piece was about. Or you can do a little bit of your own research and find out what exactly was in the songwriter or the composer’s head when they wrote the piece and you can go from there. It gives you a lot of good ideas.
My piano teacher used to do that with me. For example, I was playing a piece called Puck one time and she said, “Okay, it’s based off of this Shakespeare character. He’s kind of playful and mischievous so play like that.” I was like, “Okay, brilliant, that’s great, that’s so helpful.” Now I know the feeling that the song should have. I think you can do that for pretty much anything that you play, whether you write it yourself or not.
Christopher: Yeah, and it can be a good creative exercise. If you had chosen to try and play that piece as if it was all about hockey puck, you might have come up with a slightly different rendition.
Christopher: We talk about it in our improv stuff where the idea you have in your head can express itself through various technique. What do you think on that Andrew, as a prolific improvisor?
Andrew: Well, what I wanted to point out is that there’s meaning in a vibration and Puck is a vibration. I had some friends, they named their child Puck. It was a big mistake, big mistake.
Anastasia: Oh no. Oh no.
Andrew: He’s lived up to his name and not a very good way.
Christopher: Well, a useful reminder there that we do need to be careful as Stewart’s pointing out that we do need to be mindful of the message we might be communicating intentionally or inadvertently. Aside from that Andrew, what are your thoughts on this topic as a teacher, as a performer, you must have had to think a lot about this question of finding the message in the music.
Andrew: Well, music is dynamic. It happens in the moment. When you make music, when you play a note, you can’t take it back. You can’t go retract it, you can’t erase it. It’s there and it’s done and you’re moving on. Every moment, there’s an opportunity to put meaning in to your music. One of the wonderful privileges and opportunities I’ve had is to be a teacher. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about things that I do where I can understand and explain them.
I had an experience, I was teaching, I was coaching a middle school band. They had this thing where they had three repeated notes, ba ba ba. I said, “Now, are those the same notes?” I explained to them that each one of those notes, they might have been the same pitch, but each one was different, it was a new moment in time. It was a new interaction, it was driving forward, you were moving forward into something. Ba. Ba! Ba!! It wasn’t just ba ba ba.
Every opportunity [inaudible 00:29:27] something into your music, to be present. I’m going to demonstrate. I have my native American flute. I’m going to play three notes. Okay, three notes. I can play them just bland or I can put some meaning into them. I didn’t change the rhythm. I didn’t change the pitches but by using dynamics, articulation, [inaudible 00:30:03] what have you, I don’t know if you could hear it, but for me, it was a huge difference. We have these opportunities to put meaning into our music every time.
You know, we talk about music, we’re on this, we have 100 plus episodes of the Musicality podcast. We have thousands of articles talking about music. We talk and talk and talk about music but we’re still making music. You can’t replace music with talking. There’s something in music, there’s something there that says things that we can’t say any other way. For me, the important thing is to be there, to be present.
A lot of times, we want the music to flow out of us, like it’s going to be this big, bubbling fountain and sometimes that happens. But many times, just as when we’re speaking, we’re aware of what just happened, what was just said. We’re aware of where the conversation is going to. When we make music, having this awareness: where was I, where am I, and where am I going, this interplay while you’re thinking about the music, it’s so pleasurable to be there. It feels so good, it’s so much fun and you’re audience is going to connect with that because you’re connecting with that.
Christopher: That was a beautiful demonstration and I always love the way you talk about improvisation and creativity in musical expression. We work together on our improv modules and learning improv road map and I had been reaching for this way of explaining improvisation that was about this, about finding a message, about finding a way to express yourself. I had struggled a bit because I’m a scientist, an engineer by background. To me, on the face of it, this idea was always a little bit, woo woo, it sounded a bit pretentious. It’s a bit like I feel about modern art where, okay I can understand people enjoy it, but until you can do a double blind test where everyone agrees the same thing about a piece of art, I’m not convinced it’s actually communicated what people say it does.
As I was touching on before, when there are lyrics or something, it’s clear cut and there can be an obvious message. When it’s instrumental music, I’ve always found it hard to go beyond the specifics. What I loved about your work on that improv road map was you combined the specifics, which in our case we talk about constraints and dimensions, things like rhythm and articulation and phrasing and dynamics, with this really deep idea about expressing something and about being in the moment and about finding something you are trying to use all of those specifics for. That to me was really nice to bring those two worlds together. That has stayed with me as a really useful step forwards in my own thinking about what it means to communicate a message in music.
Andrew: Thank you very much. It doesn’t just apply to improvisation. I have a lot of classical training and when we’re doing classical music, we played the same piece over and over and over and over and over again. If we’re doing it right, each time it’s different. Each time, we are discovering something new, another nuance, another articulation, another this, another that. You carry that forward into all your music making, it just makes it so much more meaningful.
Adam, we haven’t heard from you yet. You have, I think it’s fair to say, quite a different musical career than the rest of us on the team. You’ve had a very specific position in the U.S. military. Can you tell us a bit about that and what it’s meant to you to try to communicate a message with your music.
Adam: Absolutely. When I first graduated university, I joined the Unites States army, the band specifically. I arrived in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the 82nd Airborne, and I was assigned as the Division Bugler. At this time, this was 2007, the war was at its peak. We had a lot of casualties from the 82nd. The entire division, all 20,000 were deployed at the time between Iraq and Afghanistan. It was my job to play Taps at military funerals. I did this all across the country, over about 18 months, I played right around 600 funerals for both active duty and retirees. That experience and what I had to put in those performances, it stayed with me for a very long time.
At its core, Taps, it’s a very easy piece of music. It’s only 21 notes over four different pitches, a Concert B flat, major scale, second inversion. Each note that you play has so much meaning. I believe it’s one of the most heartfelt pieces of music in the entire literature. It’s very different from, when we typically think of music motivating people and bringing joy to people, this simply powerful piece of music is sending someone’s loved one off. It’s the final goodbye from a grateful nation to this service member that died in the line of duty.
Some things that really I had done as a performer really embraced was the performance environment. It wasn’t a hall. There was no acoustics. We were playing in open cemeteries. I always positioned myself behind the family. They could never see me and that was the purpose. We should never be seen, just be the sound in the background. You really had to play with the acoustics of this very open field and get a feel for it, for what your sound was gonna do. The tone had to be just incredibly warm. You couldn’t have that typically bright tone of the trumpet, you had to just think of the warmest sound you could possibly do. There’s nothing biological that changes that. It’s entirely in your presence, in the moment, and how you’re pushing yourself through the instrument and expressing the sorrow of that moment, all the way down to just the way you’re releasing the note.
A lot of instruments, the note stop has a definitive starting point and ending point. When you’re playing Taps, you almost have to let each individual note kind of have its own fall off. Very difficult to master but it was truly one of the most, as I look back on my career, one of the most things I am most proud of is playing for so many funerals. I actually played a couple great, awesome public events, and we can link to one of them in the show notes, I played in front of, I think there were 5 million televised. It was a NASCAR race. That did make its way on to YouTube. I can share that one. I wouldn’t share any of these very, very private moments with anyone.
That has always stuck with me, just that moment in those cemeteries.
Christopher: Wow. Thanks for sharing that experience. It’s moving to even hear about. I think it’s such a powerful encapsulation of what we’ve been talking about. There is something ineffable about music. You can talk about the message and the meaning of lyrics and the very obvious theme of a song but you can also talk about the message and are you communicating an emotion that might be quite complex and quite sophisticated and quite dramatic even to your audience. That’s not something that’s easy to put into words. On this podcast, we talk about musical expression and some of the things you can do to feel free and creative and confident in music. There’s still a bit of a gap there between knowing those skills and being able to stand up with your instrument and convey what you want to convey.
I think it’s a really interesting case also because it’s not improvisational. You have a lot of freedom of expression in how you perform that piece. There is so much that you can put into it that is not about, oh, what will I play next. I think that’s a really useful example of listeners to think about. Whether it’s a single note or a few notes like Andrew was talking about, or it’s something purely improvisational, like some of our guests, Bill Hilton and David Wellman were talking about or Forest Kinney. Or it’s something that you know their composer had an intended meaning with, like Stewart talking about Christian music and Anastasia with her own music. I think we can’t afford to forget that there is a message or there should be. That desire to get away from robotic playing and playing mindlessly, that’s really the heart of what this podcast is all about.
I hope some of the discussion here has been interesting and provoked some new ideas for everyone listening. I think it’s something we can apply each and every day in our musical life and the exact way it comes across in your practice and your playing is gonna be different for every person. It’s something we should all, I think, have taped to our practice stand. What am I trying to get across here, not least in a performance situation, where your audience, it’s not just you and the cat.
Any final thoughts before we wrap things up on this topic?
Anastasia: I have one to share, actually. Something that Andrew said that reminded me of something that I’ve kind of always kept in the back of my mind. Especially when performing and also when writing, which is the simple fact that music will often mimic speech, whether it’s lyrical or instrumental.
Again, these things like phrasing and inflection and dynamics, these can be expressed on pretty much any instrument. If you just think about things like breathing patterns and the start of a new sentence or a new idea, I think it can bring a lot to your music. Or at the very, very, very least, prevent you from playing kind of rigidly and robotically. That’s what’s always helped me both in song writing and in playing other people’s music. Just thinking in terms of maybe words and the note being the most basic unit and what is a phrase, what is a bar? So, that’s helped me a lot for sure.
Christopher: Nice. Yeah, that’s a really great point. I think we talked a little bit about some of that in a previous episode on playing like singing, I think we called it. Why don’t we wrap up then with a few suggestions for people. That’s one really great thing people can do to experiment with expressing something through their playing.
We touched on another earlier, which is having a particular theme or character or emotion in your mind. Anastasia, you had the example of Puck, where it’s a very particularly Shakespearean character and personality and you can adopt that persona, as it were. Or like you referencing that example with Mussorgsky’s exhibition where there’s a vivid image of a castle. An image in your head can totally transform your playing.
I think you do need to equip yourself with some, what we call dimensions at Musical U, some idea of what you can do to explore. With the singing voice, it kind of comes instinctively to us to a large extent, to convey emotion. If you’re sitting down at the piano keyboard or putting a trumpet to your lips, it’s bit trickier. I don’t know, Stewart, Adam, Andrew, you all play different instruments, maybe you could share a bit about how you’ve explored ways you can express the message.
Adam, you there?
Adam: I remember when I was first learning jazz and I had this Charlie Parker [inaudible 00:42:56] book and I was trying to play Charlie Parker on the trumpet, which is just a horrible idea, it’s terribly difficult. I couldn’t quite get it right and then I had this wonderful professor, he’s like “You just gotta sing it, man! You’ve just gotta sing it. That’s how Charlie Parker did it, that’s how it named it Bebop.”
I’m like, “What?”
He’s like, “Yeah, baabebaabedop bebop bebop bebop.”
I was like, “Oh.” Literally the name Bebop came from their vocalization of their melodies. I still am not a jazz guy but I could conceptualize music a little better after that. This is an interesting point. Even Charlie Parker, one of the greats, his entire style was developed through vocalization, his melodies.
Christopher: Nice. That’s so interesting isn’t it, how that kind of bridges the gap between the two things we’ve been talking about. That’s the very explicit, singing words, and there’s this more ineffable instrumental thing. You can still use your voice to kind of connect those dots and use your instinct for how to express things on your instrument, that’s great.
How about you Stewart, on guitar, how do you think about this, if you want to convey a certain emotion?
Stewart: I hadn’t thought about it like that but I mean it’s very much right. I go through a lot of, with one band I’m in, we sometimes will take an old song, because we aren’t writing originals yet, even though we would love to start getting back into that. Using different things like, maybe I’ll strum your normal first area chords but then maybe that’s not right, maybe you want to finger pick it. Or maybe you want to do an inversion up the neck. There’s also things like, a couple times I’ve actually pulled out a slide because it just seemed like, “Oh, a slide would work much better here to create an emotion.”
Then of course, there is the lovely word, distortion, to add to things and different effects, the delay, reverb. There’s a lot of different little things but it still has to have that underlining thing. I got to see an interview with Les Paul in person once. He made a good statement. He said he’d been with, I forget who it was, but he guy had … oh, I think it was Al [inaudible 00:45:10], he’s a phenomenal player, but I’ll play him this one thing and Les Paul said he had so many effects on it, then he told Al, “Take all the effects off your guitar right now.” Al did. He goes, “Now play the same thing.” Al looked at him and goes, “That isn’t really that great.” Les Paul’s thing was start off with a great idea, then add the effects to it. Then it’ll just bring it out even more. It’s kind of a neat way of kind of looking at that, building on to those emotions.
Christopher: For sure. I was a bit concerned when you started going down that effects street because of the road often leads guitarists down, that I think you’ve hit on the key thing, which is if you start with a message or start with something that’s fundamentally musically meaningful, those can really help you shape it the way you want to shape it. That is, I think, how they should be used.
Christopher: How about yourself Andrew?
Andrew: One thing, I began as a melody player and so when I’d gone to pull a [inaudible 00:46:26] instruments or accompaniment roles on the accordion or keyboard, there’s so much you can do to interact, rather than just being robot playing a groove. Where you are listening to the melody, you’re adding dynamics. You don’t have to change the notes or the rhythm of what you’re playing, although sometimes that happens. We have a recording of an older mariachi band and they’re not really that great in terms of high artistry and all that stuff but their rhythm section breathes with the melody. Having that idea that they come in and they come out and they breathe with the melody and it’s so beautiful to listen to.
I’ve added that to my rhythm in my accompaniment playing. Have always the sense that you’re always playing a melody. You’re always moving with that stream, whether you’re playing rhythm, where you’re hitting a drum, or whatever. I think that adds so much to the musicality [inaudible 00:47:37] it also adds so much to your interactivity and ability to play together and listen to other people.
Christopher: Nice. I think you’ve touched on a topic there that we will have to save for another day, which is how do you approach all of this when you’re collaborating, when it’s not just you sitting with your instrument. I think that’s a whole different kettle of fish.
I think there’s plenty there for people to take away and start playing in their own musical lives. I’ll just wrap things up with a simple kind of call to action. If nothing else, just be asking yourself this day by day. I think that’s what came across in the Episode 100 roundup, the guests you mentioned this and touched on this that it should just be a core part of how you think about music. What is the message I’m trying to convey, what am I trying to have my listener experience.
On that note, I will wrap things up. Thank you very much Stewart, Adam, Andrew and Anastasia for joining me on this one. Thanks to everyone for listening and we will see you on the next one!
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