Staying Sane in the Music Business (Part 4)
Updated: Dec 22, 2018
In Part 1 of this blog series, I told the story of how a "moment of clarity" deflected me from a philosophy career into a career as a guitar player. I said,
I tell you all this because it is my training in philosophy, logic and analytical thinking that has helped me to stay sane as a musician...Life is funny that way - things that I thought were dead ends and wasted time turn out to be an integral part of what I do today, contributing in ways completely unforeseen back when I thought I was giving them up.
In Part 2 I talked about some moral dilemmas that are very common in the music business, and how my ethics have been defined and supported in part by my training in philosophy, which has enabled me to think analytically, define the issues, accept the reality, enact the best response and compartmentalize &/or deal with the emotional fallout.
At the end of that blog I raised a possible argument against my reasoning;
...some might view my reasoning up to this point to be merely rationalizing an untenable situation in order to live with it. Fair enough. The next blog will be devoted to another line of thought that might help;
Music can transcend what it is being used for!
In Part 3 I talked about how people have received inspiration, help and encouragement from my guitar playing and have been touched in significant ways in all kinds of situations and environments that were - to put it mildly - considerably less than stellar.
Music can transcend environment.
I shared how philosophy has provided me an explanation or a construct for how this can happen, specifically the philosophy of Mircea Eliade in his book, Patterns in Comparative Religion, which posits that modern, western man has dichotomized what he calls "Sacred Time" and "Profane Time."
I concluded that through music, Sacred Time can break into Profane Time, transcend the dichotomy and infuse meaning and significance into a mundane environment - or even a depraved environment.
The tables are turned - Sacred Time is using Mustang Sally as a conduit instead of Mustang Sally being used to sell cars.
This 4th and final blog in this series will talk about how my training in philosophy has contributed to my guitar teaching.
One of the things the love and learning of philosophy instills is appreciation for a logical, tightly-woven argument or position.
A well-put-together method or system is a thing of beauty.
Music Theory is such a system. The problem is the application of that system to the guitar.
Music theory as taught in music schools is generally keyboard-centric. Even though I was a guitar performance major at a music conservatory, I had to take piano classes. The music theory was worked out on the piano, not the guitar.
The high school from which I graduated in 1974 had a superior jazz band director. The jazz band took state every year. I never played in the jazz band because I hated high school and didn't want to spend any more time than absolutely necessary to get through it. Besides that, I had already been in many bands and was gigging by 1974 - and had been for several years. However, my senior year I took an elective class from that band director - Music Theory.
Here's the short story: The teacher was brutal. Today it would be called verbal abuse. Half the class dropped the first week. But by the end of the year, those of us who toughed it out were composing original pieces of music in the 4-part Bach chorale style - abstractly, out of our heads.
Our entire grade depended on the final project; we were to choose a poem and set it to music in the Bach style. We brought in our projects, the teacher sat down at the piano, sight-read the piece, critiqued it in front of the class and issued a grade. I got an A.
None of this had any connection to the guitar. It seemed incompatible. For instance, one of the rules of the Bach chorale style is, "No parallel 5ths."
Dude! You can't play Rock music without parallel 5ths! It's one of the main sounds! The Kinks, Black Sabbath, Hendrix, Santana, Mountain, Cream - all the mid to late sixties rock music I had cut my teeth on used parallel 5ths - we called them "Power Chords."
Anyway, that high school theory class got me through college-level theory classes with no problem. My 3rd year of college, the year of decision, the story of which opened this blog series, I had a music theory class first hour on Mon-Wed-Fri. When I learned that there was a quiz every Friday and that my grade was determined by the quizzes, I ditched class Mondays and Wednesdays (because I hate getting up early) and just showed up on Fridays to take the quiz. I got an A. Same thing at the music conservatory - aced through the theory classes while not showing up for most of them. All because of that brutal jazz band director back in high school.
I gave a few guitar lessons here and there when I was in my teens and early twenties - I wasn't looking for students, people would just want to pick my brain. I didn't start teaching seriously until 1982. I was 26 or 27. That's when I got my first teaching job at a local music store.
Up through my early twenties, because I was self-taught, my "method" was rather random and idiosyncratic. Because of my interest in philosophy, I was concerned about method and systematic organization of data so I did codify what I knew to some degree; a lot of it was visually-based ways of associating sounds with patterns on the neck. Any theory that I knew, like the 4-part Bach chorale style, I couldn't apply to the guitar at all...yet.
In late August and September of 1978 I took 5 lessons from Danny Embrey. I aspired to play like him at the time but that was an exercise in futility. I still can't play like him. The story of my relationship with Danny is here.
Anyway, Danny showed me the inversions of all 5 types of 7th chords, Scale Tone 7ths, Common-Tone II V I's and, at my last lesson before he moved to La La Land, he started on 9th chords.
He said, "C major 9 is like an E minor 7 over C."
The lightbulb went on over my head.
"So that means that all the E minor 7 inversions are also C major 9 inversions?" I asked.
"That's right," He said.
That was the last lesson I took from him. The next time I saw him he was appearing on the Tonight Show playing with Sergio Mendes. I went straight home, took out my guitar, a pencil and paper, and started reasoning through the details of the implications:
Cmaj9 = E-7/C - so to get C9 we have to flat the 7th of C (B), which makes the E-7 an E-7(b5). So C9 = E-7(b5)/C - to get C-9 we have to flat the 3rd of C (E), which makes the E-7(b5) an Ebmaj7. Therefore:
Cmaj9 = E-7/C
C9 = E-7(b5)/C
C-9 = Ebmaj7/C
Danny had already taught me 7th inversions. So with that one statement, "C major 9 is like an E minor 7 over C", he gave me the key to all the 9th chord inversions.
To most of you the above probably looks like some kind of calculus problem. That's ok. It's really pretty basic stuff, but the point is, the analytical thinking and the thought process as well as the drive to codify a method is due in part to my philosophy training. The flash of deductive insight based on a single proposition is a common thing in philosophy.
By the time I started studying with John Elliott a few months later (thanks to Danny's referral), I had worked out all the 9th inversions on the guitar neck in every key based on what I had deduced from Danny's statement.
John was pretty tough; he reminded me of my high school theory teacher - they were the same generation. I'd heard some horror stories; I never felt like he was abusive but he was subject to some dark moods and could be hurtful (sometimes being put in your place is necessary for further growth). However, it was clear to me from the very beginning that John Elliott's system for applying music theory to the guitar was superior to anything else I had seen. Turns out it appears to be superior to anything out there. I've compared notes with guys that went to Berkley School of Music in Boston, Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood, Miami University and North Texas State - all high-caliber music schools - and John's stuff is superior to all of it. As a matter of fact, some of John's students have gone to places like Berkley and Miami University to further their education and within one semester were on staff teaching at those places. I've heard that Pat Metheny, one of John's students, did that in both those places - before he was 20 years old!
If anyone has gone through John's method the things to gain by going to any of those schools are networking opportunities and possibly some technique training. John was not a guitar player and didn't deal with technique issues; it was all conceptual - but he required you to play everything in every key, in every position and he knew, intellectually, what was possible on the instrument and what was not. So there was no sand-bagging; you automatically got your act together on the guitar. He was adamant - if you couldn't play the lesson-of-the-week to his satisfaction he wouldn't move on until you could.
It was maybe a year into my lessons with John that all the 4-part Bach chorale stuff fell into place. Suddenly years of abstract and piano-based theory applied to the guitar! John didn't know, he was just presenting the next lesson, but for me it was a glorious revelation!
I'm convinced that my background in philosophy was one of the things that enabled me, from the very first lesson, to sense the elegance of the system and appreciate the airtight logical consistency of the method. The sudden flash of deductive insight from a single proposition - like what happens in philosophy - was a cyclical occurrence over the course of my studies with John.
One of the things that happens when you study philosophy is that you learn how to think. The same thing happened throughout my lessons with John; I learned how to think about music and playing the guitar. Whenever I would make a mistake John would say, "Listening, not thinking!"
I studied with John for seven years and then one day he said to me, "Well, this is about all I can give you theory-wise. I've got some stuff beyond this for the piano but haven't begun to arrange it for guitar." I'm not saying I got everything John had to give - not by a long shot. He taught big band and orchestral arranging among other things. I've had former students of his send me copies of their piano lessons, arranging lessons and so on. I just got the guitar stuff.
Speaking of arranging, many of the devices and techniques I've seen in his arranging lessons that others have sent me crop up in the guitar arrangements John wrote out for me; he treated the guitar like a mini-big band.
It took a few months for me to cut the cord but I quit my lessons with John in February of 1986. We stayed in touch; in 2001 I was gratified and affirmed when he praised my playing on my CD of jazz standards, Channeling Harold. He also approved my method book. Over the years he referred guitar students to me now and then;
"John Elliott gave me your number. He said I have some technique issues and he doesn't deal with that."
Now I'm not talking up this method for it's own sake. But a methodical approach to learning anything - in this case, how to play music on the guitar - will get you further quicker. It optimizes efficiency of learning. I'm a proponent of the method because it has made me a better guitar player - much better than I would be otherwise. It's a means to an end, not the end itself.
So what I have done with Vertical Truth: Chordal Mechanisms for the Guitar is take John's approach, and presented it in a guitar-centric manner. It is guitar lessons, but it follows the logical progression of John's method. So it's really music theory disguised as guitar lessons. You can get the theory without the piano classes.
In 2001, we sat down at his kitchen table and he went through every page of my book. John told me, "I'm glad somebody has finally codified this material for the guitar." John didn't give guitar lessons. He called what he taught, "The Theory of Harmony."
I once asked him why he wasn't teaching at the UMKC Conservatory of Music instead of giving private lessons and he said, "I want to teach only what I enjoy teaching and I want to teach it the way I want to teach it."
John died at age 87 in 2013. I'm forever grateful that I had the opportunity to study with him.
I have much more material than what I got from John. But everything of my own is informed by his method, and uses his approach as a template. Most of my own material is guitaristic stuff that John wouldn't know about because he didn't play guitar.
My background in philosophy has helped me immensely in organizing my teaching content in a logical sequence, which optimizes the student's learning process.
Another way that my background in philosophy has contributed to my music career is with my writing - like this blog for instance.
For most of my career I've not been interested in marketing or promoting myself. I left that to promoters, booking agents and band leaders. However, once I was exposed to a method (there's that pesky philosophy again) for selling product online and subsequently redesigned MasterGuitarSchool.com to do just that with guitar lessons (I tell that story in The Fun Has Not Yet Gone Away...), I faced the fact that self-promotion, as distasteful as it might be to me, was absolutely crucial for any kind of success. I'm on my own - no managers, agents or promoters handling the marketing and promotion for me.
A professional philosopher is also a professional writer. Going through philosophy classes means mountains of reading and writing - critiques, commentaries, dissertations, position papers with scholarly latin references - ad infinitum. If you don't enjoy writing you can't hack it. I still have file cabinet drawers full of 40-plus-year-old papers from school. Organizing thoughts, writing them down in a logically compelling sequence - these are absolutely necessary skills to the profession.
I enjoy writing and I write about whatever I want. The first priority is that I enjoy what I do. Aristotle said it 25 centuries ago;
"Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence."
Paraphrase: Life is too short to spend time doing shit you hate.
Caveat: Because life sometimes gets in the way of fun, you should learn to find the joy in whatever it is you're doing; sometimes you have to do things you don't like, and sometimes you have to experience things you don't like. Control is an illusion, but joy can be found without it.
Then, after I write about whatever I want, if it's guitar-related I figure out how to use it to promote myself and Master Guitar School. I integrate my whole life up to this point and it all contributes to what I'm doing now. Creating and playing music, teaching, creating lesson content and writing this blog aren't all that different; it's all creative personal expression. And I enjoy that - who doesn't?
That's the primary thing; I've arranged my life so that, as much as possible, I enjoy what I do.
So thank you, Aristotle.
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