In this roundtable-discussion episode, the members of the Musical U team discuss the idea that everyone is already musical inside – all it takes is equipping yourself with the tools and mindset to unlock this musicality.
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Christopher: Hello, and welcome to the Musicality Podcast. My name is Christopher Sutton. I’m the founder and director of Musical U. It’s my pleasure to be joined today by our Musical U team. We don’t have our Resident Pros with us but we have the full line up we normally have on our Monday morning team calls. Monday morning, depending on which country you’re in. For me, it’s generally afternoon.
It is myself, Stewart, Adam, Andrew and Anastasia and we are going to be picking up on one of the common themes that came across in our Episode 100 Celebration Roundup, where we had 26 fascinating music educators sharing their one top tip for unlocking your inner musicality. The theme we’re gonna be picking up on today is the idea is that we are all musical inside already.
I’m excited on this one because, as I jokingly said to my team before we kicked off recording, this is our mission statement, more or less, at Musical U. This is our brand, this is our message, this is what we’re all about, is trying to help musicians feel and be equipped like they are truly musical in a natural, creative, confident way.
So, of course, I was delighted when this came up with lots of our contributing guests. We had Andy Wasserman talking about the musical gold inside you and how when you enjoy music you hear, it’s because it’s resonating with the music you have inside. We had Bill Hilton, David Reed and Forest Kinney talking about how you can be creative from day one and you have that inside you, even if you don’t yet have phenomenal instrument technique, you do have the ability to create and express.
We had David Andrew Wiebe talking about, specifically, you already have musicality inside and you just need to tap into it. David Wellerman talked about how sometimes we need to put down our instrument to realize what we have inside and what we can express musically. And Jimmy Rotherham expressed the kind of could I philosophy, which is that we are all musical, we can all use our voice, we can all express musical idea and for him, that comes through in his work in inclusivity in school music and helping kids to all feel like they are musical, that they can sing, that they can take part in musical activities.
This is kind of near and dear to our hearts at Musical U and I’m excited to have the chance because, you know, I think we all take it for granted at this stage, having been working in musicality training for one to ten years, depending on the team member. It’s rare that we sit down and actually really talk about it except in a very specific way when we are developing new material.
Broadly speaking, why don’t we kick off with Stewart. What does it mean to you Stewart, this idea that we are all musical inside already?
Stewart: Well, I think all of us listen to music in some way. I would like the think if you can listen to the radio, tap your foot, whistle along, hum along, you can do something musical. I don’t think many people think like that. It’s a shame, really. I got to know a little bit more about this and how deep it goes. I’ve written about it but I also taught guitar and it always bummed me out when I see people come in who were told, for one reason or another, you can’t play guitar. I’d be like, “Well, why?” Luckily, thankfully, whoever was with my parents said, “Let’s try one more teacher.”
One came in, it was a woman who was about 5′, real short but she had tiny hands. The guitar, her first instructor was like, “Your hands are too small to play guitar, so you shouldn’t play guitar.” She was about kind of ready to give up, so she came in. I talked to her and I said, “Well, let’s move your hand around a little bit.” Next thing you know, we were doing lessons for a few years. Her big goal was to play music with her kids so they could sing and she could play and she was able to do that. Thankfully, she moved on. It’s kind of like not believing the lies that others will say.
That happens especially when we’re young and that stuff sticks with you, I think, through time. I had stuff, when I was young, that was said to me. I know other people who had the same thing. Just negative little comments from teachers or other students like, “Oh you can’t sing,” or “Oh, you can’t do that.” No, no, no, you can.
To me, as a community conductor on Musical U, I get to see a lot of people come through that, I don’t know what you want to say, like the opening of their mind, like I can do it and they get excited. That’s one of the best days. That’s like a huge, great moment of my day when I see someone go, “Man, I’m getting this, this is really good.” See, you can do it. Don’t believe the other stuff. It’s great to be part of something that does that.
Christopher: Nice, yeah. I think we all enjoy seeing that with members and we’ve had, for sure, some dramatic cases where people have come in and you almost wonder why they joined because they seem so determined to fail and so determined that they don’t have what it takes. When that turns around and they start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and they start seeing themselves do this things in music that they thought were beyond them, I think we all get a massive kick out of that.
Stewart: Yeah, sometimes it just takes a little extra time. I had, you know the students, and I’m sure Andrew probably has some examples of this also, I had one student also, she was mentally handicapped. She could work. Her mom brought her and once again, they had a teacher and he was just like, “Oh, she can’t do it.” She came in and I worked with her. She ended up having a blast. She was doing it and the mom came in, this was like a few years after and she said, “Thank you. You took the time with her and worked with her and she’s doing music and she loves doing this.”
Another guy, it was kind of funny, it reminded me of Mr. Holland’s Opus, I think, that movie. It was a scene where this one guy has a really hard time with tempo. Mr. Holland, he puts a helmet on his head and starts tapping on his head with a drumstick so the guy feels [01:01:17]. I had a guitar player and he came in and we tried everything, he just could not get that steady beat. I’m like, “I know this guy has it.”
I took a drum … I didn’t start whacking him over the head … but I did tap on his knee with a drumstick. Eventually, it started really catching on and he got it. It’s like finding those neat ways to help people in.
Christopher: Yeah. That’s a nice example where clapping in time is something that people really, I think clapping in time and singing in tune are the big two where everyone feels like everyone should be able to do this. But if you haven’t learned or you haven’t happened to kind of absorb it passively, it can be tricky. It’s been fun and interesting for us at Musical U figuring out how do we actually teach those skills in a step by step way while helping people pass the emotional and psychological baggage that may have been holding them back.
Stewart, you thankfully solved this for me. I forgot to ask everyone to introduce themselves. I think what came across in your answer is you’re a guitar teacher and community conductor at Musical U. Before we go ahead, I should just ask Adam, Andrew and Anastasia to please give a quick intro for anyone listening who hasn’t heard you on the podcast before.
Adam, why don’t you go first.
Adam: Hi everyone, I’m Adam Liette. I’m communications manager at Musical U. In addition to being a trumpet player and a guitar player, I’m a veteran of the United States Army Band.
Andrew: Hi, I’m Andrew Bishko. I’m the product manager on the Musical U site and content manager on the Musical U blog. I play many instruments. Currently, my big project is playing mariachi music with my wife in a wonderful mariachi band.
Anastasia: Hey, my name is Anastasia Voitinskaia. I’m the assistant content editor here at Musical U. I’ve been a pianist since the age of three, a guitar player since the age of 10 and more recently, I picked up the bass and the synthesizer. I also occasionally sing. I currently play bass and sing in a band and I have my own experimental electronic project that is going to be my focus for the next little while in my musical life.
Christopher: Very nice.
Why don’t you continue for us Anastasia and share a bit about your thought on what it means that we are all musical inside already.
Anastasia: For sure.
I think the most basic thing to remember that people forget and that I forget sometimes when I’m in the throws of, “Oh, I’m not satisfied with what I’m making,” is if you can enjoy music, you are, in fact, musical. It means that you have an ear for music. It means that you have a taste in music and you know what sounds good to you, at least.
Unless you are completely tone deaf, which is so, so rare, or you’re just not paying attention. Also, you can hear music, you can appreciate it, you can [inaudible 01:04:29] out the dynamics, the phrasing, the articulation: for example, the guitar effects that someone is using, the different tones of the synthesizer. For example, you could try active listening to some of your favorite music and, chances are, you’re very capable of perceiving what about it you like. What makes it musical? Is it the melody? Is it the chord progression? Is it the way that it slows down and speeds up, for example?
All of this to say, also I think a core component of simply being human is also being musical because we are human and we do have feelings and they have to be expressed somehow. What better avenue to express them then through music, right?
Christopher: Nice. I think there’s an important point there, which I try not to over [inaudible 01:05:34] because it is simplification. A lot of the kind of ear training stuff that we talk about and train people on at Musical U is fundamentally about equipping you with words and mental frameworks for things your ears are already doing. Yes, there are some skills where you need to go deep and really get into the nitty gritty. It’s remarkable who often we have musicians join the members website, who’ve been playing music for 10 years and they feel like they have a terrible musical ear. In just few weeks, they can totally transform because, actually, they just lacked a few of these kind of mental structures or ways of thinking about what they were hearing or words to put on things that, once you put those things in place, they realize, “Oh, actually, I was understanding my ear, what was going on. I just didn’t have a way to grasp it.”
I think you’re exactly right, Anastasia, that we can see in anyone who’s enjoying music, that they have some kind of musicality inside them, so it must just be a matter of bringing that out.
Anastasia: I find for me, at least, from a very young age, and I saw this in other people that are just starting out on their instruments. When we play naturally, we tend to play pretty musically. We don’t sit there and plunk out note by note by note unless someone tells us to do so.
For example, when I was taking piano lessons, once I had learned everything, once I had gotten the notes under my fingers, once I had gotten the technique down, once I was comfortable with the material, essentially, I wasn’t playing robotically. I was playing pretty naturally. There were some lulls. Again, not really changes in pitch or rhythm, obviously, I was still playing the same notes. But something was changing. I was kind of injecting myself into the music, so, of course it would change. I’m gonna play a piece differently than how you would play a piece or how Andrew would play a piece.
Technique is obviously so, so important but I find sometimes it almost gets in the way because you’re thinking too much about the technique and you’re saying, “Oh, I’m not musical, I can’t get this.” When, in fact, if you just had the technique already under your fingers, and you were comfortable with what you were playing, you would in fact be playing musically. You wouldn’t be playing robotically. You would be thinking about other things, such as how the piece makes you feel, how you can express yourself through it. What is the emotion behind it to begin with?
Bottom line, I think our default is playing musically, not playing robotically. We are all capable of it.
Christopher: Yeah, fantastic. That’s really well put. In a way, it’s a parallel barrier. We talked just them about how one of the barriers is you don’t have the words or the mental frameworks to understand by ear. You are exactly right that the same thing happens in performance where is technique is a barrier and the person sitting there feeling unmusical, they might just not have got good enough with the technique to reach that nice, green field of exploring it musically.
Christopher: For me, that’s one of the big things was learning how much of an impact it had if I memorized things. I was a big sheet music reader and, as long as I was looking at the notes on the page, I always would be playing a bit robotically and kind of intellectually. When I bothered to sit down and memorize, it gave me a completely different opportunity to explore that music and express something with it. I think it’s that question of technique and of how much you’re needing to pay attention to getting the notes right. Once you move beyond that, you have the ability to let that musicality out.
Anastasia: For sure. As your confidence increases, so does your musicality, really, obviously, because you’re more comfortable.
Christopher: Yeah, it’s a two way street isn’t it? The more you’ve got these skills under your belt, the more confident you are. The more confident you are in them, the easier it is to express something.
How about you Adam, how do you think about the subject about everyone being musical?
Adam: You know, for the past 100 and some episodes of the musicality podcast, there’s these moments that just stick out in my head. I keep a file of these great quotes. One thing that Andy Wasserman said, he said, “I believe that every, single person is already am musical master, they just don’t know it.” I just love that quote and I think that speaks so much to what we do.
I really found, that both as a performer and as a teacher, we get shoved in this perception that this is music. What is music? It’s just a very … perhaps it’s a result of modern music education or just the mindset of “Well, now I’m making music.” Whatever that means. I often wonder, if we come in at music with that perception, does it shut us off from these new, exciting learning experiences? As we explore this really wide world of music that’s becoming more and more transparent and open to us with modern technology.
I’d just like to expand upon a very unique set of circumstances I had while I was serving overseas in Afghanistan. I was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division Band. In 2008, we got deployed to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. We had two jobs. The first job was just to play music. We played for soldiers, we played for dignitaries. I got to play for President Obama and the governor of Texas, you know, really high ranking people in our government, which is cool.
We also had a job to train the Afghan National Army. That’s actually, at the time, was the biggest job of ISAP was training the Afghans so that they could guard there own country. The Afghan National Army has a band, much like western armies do. A big part of our job was to train their band. We did this both at their equivalent of West Point, which is the American Military Academy in Kabul, Afghanistan. In addition, we would host them in our camp at Bagram Airfield.
I’m a bit ashamed to say, at the time, I really dreaded having to teach the Afghani’s. They had no concept of western tonality. They were playing on these instruments, western instruments, trumpets, french horns, trombones and the like, that they had just been given by NATO in the past eighteen months. For the first time in their life, they’re holding a clarinet and trying to make a sound.
They didn’t even know how to play their own instruments, let alone any concept of John Phillip Sousa, Henry Fillmore, Holst, Carl King, all these very standard, military march composers. We were even getting down to the root basics of reading western notation. It was very, very painful to try to teach them, even with translators.
Then one night, what we typically did is, on Friday nights, we would all get a bon fire going and we would all sit out there drinking tea and smoking cigars and the Afghani’s came out of their tent, they heard us all talking. They just bring out this collection of just these ragtag, beat up old instruments. It was their native instruments, it wasn’t our western instruments. They started playing, out there in the middle of nowhere. I was completely blown away.
All week long, we had struggled with these musicians, struggling with the mechanics and tonality and just basic musicianship of what we were trying to teach them. They were moving effortlessly throughout their songs, playing entirely by ear. This went on for over three hours, we sat outside there, jaws dropped listening to them play and eventually joining in. They weren’t just jamming, they weren’t improvising, they were playing songs. These were folks songs that had been passed down for generations. Those that weren’t playing would sing, sing in Pashtu. Complete command of notes, rhythms and the lyrics of their native songs.
They, indeed, had musical inside of them, but we were approaching it from the wrong aspect. I think that has so much to do with what code I taught, using the folk songs from your native tongue to begin to teach music, I think that really speaks to that, this very real experience with adult musicians
As I look back on that, what surprised me the most in all of this has to do with context in history. These musicians had lived through the oppression of the Taliban, two decades where music was strictly forbidden and was punishable by either corporal punishment or death. Yet, though all this oppression, music lived on. Even in the very youngest musicians, who were born into this oppression, music found a way to reach through the generations into them. That continues to inspire me to this day because it inside all of us and it’s multi-generational. I think part of our job as musicians is to continue to pass this wonderful gift of music to the next generation and to everyone, indeed, that we meet.
Christopher: Wow, that’s an amazing story. I love it too as an example or a symbol of tapping in to your musicality. Even Stewart touched on an aspiring guitarist who had been told her hands were too small and I think we fully all encounter people who tried an instrument, struggled and decided music wasn’t for them and the less common people who tried an instrument, struggled, tried another instrument, struggled, tried another instrument, found they loved it. The choice of instrument or genre or cultural, musical heritage, it’s so powerful for our success in music. I love how some of our guests talked about tapping in to your inner musicality and we have to talk about unlocking it. It’s not about creating something that isn’t there. It really is about being willing to explore in music, until you find the thing that resonates with you. Until you find the instrument or the style of music or the opportunity to actually find out what you’re capable of.
I hope that comes across in pretty much every episode of this podcast. Any time you’re struggling or feeling unmusical, you’re probably just not quite pointed in the right direction. I love your story, Adam, because it’s such a clear cut example of how people in one context can seem totally unmusical but put them in another context and they’ll blow your socks off. It’s amazing.
How about you Andrew? I so enjoyed interviewing you for the podcast in the past because of your kind of philosophy of music making. I think that’s probably what brought you to Musical U in the first place and why you fit in so well in the team here. So, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and what it means that we all have music inside.
Andrew: Well, music is natural, as nature is musical. When we think about the rhythm of the seasons, the rhythm of the wind and the rain and the rhythm of our own heartbeat. The melodies of the voices that move in and out of our lives, everything is musical. We are immersed in this. We are part of this. I think a big thing that’s happened since the advent of recording and the available prerecorded music is that people get used to seeing the end product. They don’t experience the process. They don’t hear other people learning music. I know there is this one video about African talking drum player where he’s talking about how he learns music. They said, “How did you learn to play the talking drum?” He said, “Oh, you know it’s from when we were kids, when we were three years old. You pick up a drum and we talk like this.” It was learned naturally, like speaking.
I remember when I was studying Klezmer music and listening to anecdotes about what it was like in the villages in Eastern Europe and they said that people only stopped singing in order to talk to each other. They were always singing, they always had a little tune going. Everything was musical.
A friend of mine in Italy, who went to Naples, first moved to Naples in the 50s, he said you would walk through the street and everybody was singing. Singing songs, flowing out of the windows and the rooftops and all the vendors were singing, where music is a part of everybody’s life. The learning process of being a child and allowing yourself to express musically is a natural part of your growing.
I look at my own children and I see my children are musicians, they’re sheep herders, they’re dishwashers, they’re mathematicians, they’re scientists. There’s not that segmentation. But in our society, we have this thing of specialists. What are you going to be? We ask a child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” How could you segment that? Limit that, limit your possibilities. That disconnects us and so we think, “Oh, well that person’s going to be a scientist, that person’s going to be a musician, that person’s going to be this, that person’s going to be that.”
We give up our innate musical, or we’re talked out of it. The truth about music is that it’s always about the music. I have a masters degree in music but I can listen to somebody who knows three chords and sings a song that they wrote with envy of their musicality and their expression. It doesn’t matter how much education you have, it doesn’t matter how many notes you can play, it doesn’t matter how much training you have or what you can do. It’s about the music, it’s about the sound that’s happening in the moment. Not to put all that other stuff down because it’s wonderful. It’s part of our nature and it’s been, with our culture of specialization, we’re separated from that.
Another thing is that people think they have to wait until … I have to have this skill before I can do that. I have to have this skill before I can do that. I’ve talked to members, doing discussions on Musical U site, on working towards improvisation, I’m doing this, this, and this and then I’ll start improvisation. It’s totally backwards. Improvisation, creating music, songwriting, can be part of your expression from day one. In fact, you’ll learn faster through that. That’s what it’s all about. Everything else is procrastination. It’s like, you want to make music, make music now. Skills are something that you’re adding to it. Skills are also developed in that way.
You play a scale, why do people hate playing scales so much? Because you go up and down and up and down and it doesn’t happen in music. Maybe a couple of Mozart pieces they will play a scale. Otherwise, you don’t even play scales in music. Play with the scale, don’t play the scale, play with the scale. Play up and down and inside out and play with the notes and play here. If you have a little technical part, you work it out, make a little melody, make it creative. Improvise with it, allowing us to express our inner musicality every step of the way where music is not the goal but music is the process. It’s something that we’re doing all the time. Then we’re adding skills to that and adding to our toolbox.
Christopher: Lovely. That is something I’d just like to underline. If I could go back to myself as a 12 year old and share that, it would have had a dramatic impact. That idea that whether or not you aspire to be a songwriter, or whether or not you aspire to be an improviser, those are things which completely transform your relationship with music and your enjoyment of the learning process.
If I could just go back and kind of open my eyes to the fact that improvising could be my way of learning the pieces, my way of learning dynamics and phrasing and technique, whether or not I had any interest in being an improviser, that would have been a massive gift.
For anyone listening who’s never tried to improvise and kind of tunes out when hearing about improvisation, I hope you’ll think a bit about this idea that it is simply a word we put on the idea that you can express your own inner musicality and that technique doesn’t need to be a barrier. Learning the words and the mental frameworks and the ear training skills doesn’t need to be a barrier. We all have some way of expressing ourselves in music from day one, the first time we pick up an instrument.
I have so enjoyed talking to you guys, I knew I would and I was curious to hear what would come out because as I touched on at the beginning, this is something that we are all immersed in day in day out and something we are often trying to communicate but something we rarely actually discuss in the team.
I’ve really enjoyed this, I hope our listeners have enjoyed the conversation as much as I have.
Well I want to say a big thank you to Stewart, Adam, Andrew and Anastasia for joining me on this episode. Thanks to everyone for listening and we’ll see you on the next one!