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Musical Literacy

12 March 2014, 08:35

In 1868, when Edvard Grieg composed his famous Piano Concerto in A Minor, he asked Franz Liszt, already the leading pianist in Europe, to have a look at it. Franz Liszt sat at the piano and played the entire concerto right through, then made certain suggestions to improve the concerto.

Fortunately, Grieg did not follow these suggestions, and left us one of the most perfect pieces of music ever composed.

Now, I want you to stop and think a moment: have you listened to Grieg’s Concerto? It’s an extremely complex piece of music, and Franz Liszt played it right through, first time. We have no idea how good these musicians really were!

Paganini was said to be possessed by the devil, his work was so impossibly difficult to play. We know, however, that violinists like Isaac Stern and Joshua Bell have played and recorded these pieces, but here’s my point.

All the early composers were musical virtuosi and usually masters at more than one instrument.

In 1974, when John McLaughlin took up classical guitar, almost everyone said it was going to ruin his sound and make him a lesser guitarist. More gifted technically, but less musical. The reverse proved to be true, as anyone can attest who’s heard Friday Night in San Francisco.  

When I was a lot younger and a far better guitarist than now, I used to practice scales endlessly, and one of my friends accused me of being a slave to technique. I also sight-read, which was rare amongst guitarists.

My answer to him was: if I go out to my car to fix my windscreen wiper, I take my whole toolbox, in case I need more than one tool. As you’ve gathered from my previous writings, I value melody above all things in music, so why would I strive to be technically brilliant at the expense of melody?

This guy was a drummer, by the way, who endlessly practiced his rudiments and worked on mastering the technical side of his drumming. Which is nothing unusual. It was just odd that he would comment in that manner.

There’s a strong sentiment, especially amongst rock musicians, that reading music robs you of spontaneity.

Victor Wooten, one of the greatest bassists in the world was giving a clinic and, when asked if he read music, answered, ‘Of course! I’m a professional musician. How would you feel if the architect who was designing your house did it by feel? Why should we be any different?’

Paul McCartney, brilliant as he was, was one of the progenitors of that sentiment, ‘If it’s not good enough to remember, it’s not good enough. Period.’ He is quoted as saying. I often wonder how many more classics he would have come up with if he’d learned to read and write music.

Trevor Rabin, no mean guitarist, was travelling in a car with a friend when he suddenly pulled out a cigarette box and started scribbling furiously. It was the beginning of the album Wolf, which would only come out years later. The things is, no-one can convince me that reading and writing  music interferes with the creative process. If that were true, there would be no Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov. There would be no classical music.

Jon Lord wrote out all the pieces for all the Deep Purple songs, and no-one can deny their rock feel or claim their music to be soulless.

There have been many great musicians who never learned to read a note of music, but don’t come with this patronising nonsense that it made them better musicians.

On the aforementioned Friday Night in San Francisco, all three of John McLaughlin, Paco de Lucia and Al Di Meola sight-read. Not the music they were playing, because that was improvisational, but they learned what they did by rigorously adhering to the rules of music and breaking them intelligently.

Before I learned to read music, I was going out with a girl who was a BMus student at UCT and we went into Darters Music, myself to buy strings and her to accompany me, as girlfriends were wont to do.

I saw the book Fragile, by Yes, and showed her Mood for a Day, which I desperately wanted to play. She read it, then said, ‘That’s beautiful!’ She read it and heard it!

I did learn to play Mood for a Day, and it remains one of my favourite pieces, but my abiding memory is of her reading that piece and exclaiming on its beauty.

This is the point of this little rant. I was recently playing with a brilliant pianist, and I cannot play piano. We came to a piece that had no chords written out. It was pure sheet music, and she was flummoxed!

I had to write out the chords for her and she is a far better musician than I am, but absolutely stubborn when it comes to reading, as if it might pollute her playing. She’s absolutely comfortable with odd phrasings and chord structures, broken chords and the lot, but could not play a relatively simple piece without my help.

The point is, there’s no right or wrong way to play music, as long as you play it well, but there is something wrong when people refuse to acknowledge the validity of something that’s worked for centuries and will continue to work long after they’re gone.

But I suppose when people are proud of the fact they’ve never read a book, it would be difficult to convince them of the rightness of learning to read something that might improve their playing.

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