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<   No. 3264   2013-01-27   >

Comic #3264

1 {photo of a group of street buskers}
1 Caption: Making Music

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Dawn light on the old keyboard
An old keyboard instrument.
I never managed to learn a musical instrument when I was young. My parents weren't the sort to push me and my brother into lessons for stuff, and I never expressed an interest in pursuing any such thing outside of school. I got music lessons in school of course, and there learnt to read music to the point where I can understand most any sheet music, even if I never developed the skills to play it.

In primary school I got my first instrument, a thing which we called a melodion. (I just learnt now researching it that that is a trade name of Suzuki, and the generic name is a melodica.) It's an unholy blend of a little piano-like keyboard with a mouthpiece you blow into and harmonica-like reeds producing the notes, as dictated by the keys. It came with two mouthpiece attachments: one a short rigid tube that served if you held the instrument up like a sort of plank-shaped clarinet, and another with a longer, flexible tube that allowed you to place the instrument on a table and play it like a miniature piano. We always played it that way in music lessons. So in some sense, you could say I've had rudimentary keyboard lessons.

The problem was, when I was in year five, we moved house, and hence schools. The new school also gave music lessons. But its instrument of choice was the recorder. Beyond the facts that you blow into it and it's capable of making horrendous noises, this shares no common features whatsoever with the melodion. I had to adapt from a piano-style keyboard to wind instrument fingering, using an unfamiliar instrument that all of my classmates had already mastered (or so it seemed to me - they were playing moderately complex tunes while I was still learning how to make a G). The end result of this was that my keyboard skills were aborted before they got anywhere, and my recorder skills were stunted by an Everest-like learning curve that everyone around me had climbed ahead of me.

Record Shop
An old record shop.
After a frustrating year of that I went into high school, and gladly declined any offer to continue learning any musical instrument. I continued having music lessons, as were compulsory up to year eight of school, but these consisted primarily of music appreciation and history, not instrument lessons. I remember distinctly in one class handling a violin for about a minute, but beyond that I don't think I touched an instrument.

As a teenager, like most, I got interested in listening to the pop music of the time. (The 80s, still the best decade for popular music! Excuse me while I polish these rose-coloured glasses.) While listening in the privacy of my bedroom there was a bit of air guitar, but for the most part it was the routine of singing into a fake microphone. I knew I couldn't play an instrument, but surely anyone could sing. I knew if given the chance to front a rock band on stage, I'd be awesome.

It was the appreciation of one band that led to the most enduring friendship of my life. INXS released The Swing in 1984, and I was instantly drawn into its pop-rock/funk rhythms mixed with the sounds of Kirk Pengilly's saxophone and Michael Hutchence's vocals. So when my school initiated a pen-pal exchange programme with its namesake Fairfield High School in central California, I picked a name off the list we were given based on the fact that this girl listed INXS as her favourite band. This was years and two albums before their breakout album Kick in the USA, I should point out - a time when few people in the US would even have heard of them. I don't know how Allison managed to do so, but I wrote a letter (no Internet in those days), got a response, and we maintained a correspondence that has transformed through letters, mutual visits, e-mail, Facebook, into catching up almost daily with what our respective families are doing. My wife and I visited Allison, her husband, and their kids a few years ago, and we expect to host them on a trip to Australia some time in the future.

It's a Beautiful Day
Yep, this is where I go for classical concerts.
From high school I moved to university. Here my musical appreciation was broadened by meeting people who were into other things. Classical orchestral and chamber music. Stage musicals. Opera. Indonesian gamelan. Being a student in Sydney is great. You can get last minute rush tickets for concerts at the Sydney Opera House. Sometimes you end up in standing room near the back, but you get to see a great symphony orchestra doing their thing. Some classical music is familiar to most from use in movies and ads, but a lot of it is surprising and new. It is rich and can be an astonishing revelation, or quirky and challenging. And it's powerful, more powerful than you can imagine if you've only ever heard orchestral music in a recording rather than played live. Together with various groups of friends, I would attend several of these concerts a year and realised there was so much more to music than I imagined.

Still though, I couldn't play an instrument. I could slowly pick out a tune on a piano given some sheet music, but had not the skill to play at the required speed. And my singing, developed over years of singing along to songs with a hairbrush microphone[1], suffered a mortal blow in these years. I was driving with a girl I was wooing. She was a piano player with extensive musical training. I started singing along to the car radio. She commented that I was "almost exactly a third off-key". I don't think I'll ever forget that phrase. Many male egos have been shattered by various comments from girls over the years - add mine to the list. (This is not the girl I ended up marrying.)

Around this time, nearly everyone I was friends with could play an instrument or sing (and sing well). I got a part in a production of the stage show Little Shop of Horrors with some of them. They got singing parts. I played Audrey II, the giant singing plant. As the puppeteer, not the singer. All I had to do was mime the plant puppet's mouth to the singing. It was fun, but I wanted to be able to make music. I was too embarrassed to sing, so I determined to learn piano. But I had no money for lessons. I bought a cheap electric keyboard and some sheet music and tried to teach myself. It's not easy, and I gave up fairly quickly.

Wedding Posse
And we're wearing sunglasses.
Fast forward a few years, and I have a wife, a job, a mortgage, new friends. I'd missed the cart the first time, in the teenage years when groups of friends say, "Hey, let's form a band!" and start practising in their parents' garages. But that cart comes around a second time. We're at the age now where some guys go out and buy a motorcycle, or a sports car, or a boat. It's not actually the speed that counts - it's just doing something that you regret never having done when you were younger. And so a few times my friends suggested jokingly, "Hey, let's form a band!"

And you know what? I said, "what the heck," and enrolled in drum lessons. Most of the guys are already a bit musical to various degrees, so I was starting from behind. But we came up with the idea that each of us would choose a new instrument. The piano player would learn guitar. The guy who does classical guitar would learn bass. I actually called dibs on drums, since for some reason I found myself with a desire to learn how to play them. I'm not really sure why. Maybe the fact that Animal is one of my favourite Muppets played a part.

Anyway, my first lesson was in April last year. I found a teacher I like through a local music school. I was completely clueless to start with. One of my questions in our first lesson was, "How do I actually hold the sticks?" But I discovered that, even if I can't sing on key worth a damn, even if I have trouble following a tune, I seem to have a fairly good sense of rhythm and timing. I'm not really sure if it's 100% genuine or embellished with masterly encouragement, but my drum teacher occasionally seems really impressed with the speed of my progress in learning new techniques and rhythms, and getting them right. I know I have a long way to go before I approach the skills necessary to be a reliable rock band drummer, but I'm pleased with my progress and inspired to continue paying for lessons for the foreseeable future. My goal is to become competent and to be part of this band with my friends, who can string together a few songs into a respectable set.

Chairs in the Abbey
I own a music stand. But not a cathedral.
And suddenly I have a (low-end) electronic drum kit at home. I have books of sheet music. I have a music stand, for crying out loud. I never thought I'd own a music stand.

And yeah, I know the jokes about drummers and musicians[2]. I still think they're funny. I will say that drumming is not an easy skill to learn. Nine months of weekly lessons, and I know I still have a long way to go. For me, I can say I've found it easier than anything else musical I've tried to do. I'm in awe of people who can play a piano or a guitar, and I can't imagine how much hard work that would be. I'm just happy to have found something that I enjoy and seem to be able to pick up.

While deep in my lessons last year I found a book titled Guitar Zero, by Gary Marcus, who is a cognitive scientist who researches how people learn stuff. He'd never been musical either, and decided at the age of 40 or so to learn to play guitar. The book is his account of his first fumbling steps with the instrument, interspersed with fascinating details of what we have learnt about how humans learn stuff and how they relate to music.

One interesting fact I learnt is that the smallest-scale details of music, the progression of individual notes, are important for pleasing melodies, but that slightly larger chunks are not. Researchers did a study in which they took six-second segments of classical works by Mozart and Bach and some others, and rearranged them at random. When they played these new "compositions" to people who did not know the original works, they could not tell which works were deliberately composed and which were randomly rearranged. They showed no statistically significant preference for the melodies as they were originally composed. A similar result followed when the chunks were larger - rearranging the order of movements within concertos or symphonies. Again, unfamiliar listeners showed no preference for the original ordering over the randomised versions.

Abbey Road Psychadelia
Me at the Experience Music Project, Seattle.
On the other hand, even inexperienced listeners could tell when music "broke the rules" of composition, for example deviating from the notes of the dominant scale the work is written in. Trained musicians could often say exactly what was "wrong" with such a tune, picking the particular note and if it was too sharp or flat. Untrained listeners couldn't articulate it as easily, but could certainly pick that "something was wrong" just as easily. Anyway, the book is full of other fascinating stuff about how we approach music, both as listeners and as learners and players.

So, I've learnt more about music in the last nine months than I probably had in my entire life before then. And a few weeks ago my friends and I finally got the band back together[3]. We played our first song, Brass in Pocket by The Pretenders, after some warming up and practice. I played drums, we had a guitar, a bass, a piano, and a vocalist. It took us some time to get into it, and work together, and get the beats and notes mostly right. And we played it quite slowly. We were not good, by any standard, but we got the song out in a few complete run throughs. And it was a heck of a lot of fun.

A year ago, I had no clue how to play anything. And suddenly, now, I'm a musician. And it feels awesome.

[1] Not literally a hairbrush. I think I actually used a ruler. But "hairbrush" is the canonical fake microphone that teenagers sing into.

[2] During one lesson, I was grooving away on a new drum rhythm, which was moderately complex. I played it through for a few bars of repetition, concentrating to get it right. Once I had it, I started relaxing, continuing to play more automatically. Then I suddenly started thinking, "Hang on, did I skip a beat there?" and it all fell apart. My teacher said, "What happened? You were going along great there." I said I was cruising along in the groove, but then started thinking, "Am I getting all the beats in the right place?"

He responded, "You're playing the drums! You're not supposed to think!" And we both cracked up laughing.

[3] The reference is too good to pass up. The fact that we never had a band together before is an unimportant detail.

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Last Modified: Tuesday, 24 December 2013; 14:24:25 PST.
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