I have a bias
Sunday, April 8, 2012 at 1:00PM
Trey Gunn in coaching, composition, improvisation

I have a newly noticed bias.

I realized, during a coaching session yesterday, that I was working with a personal bias. I do my best to enter into my client’s perspectives and aims in order to help facilitate them. This means setting my own musical visions to the side for the moment. When people ask for my personal opinions, I do usually offer them up. Though I do so with lot’s explanations about my own musical biases and how we need to read through them in order to get to something useful. For example, how I like to use rhythm is different from how you use rhythm. So if we are going to ask for Trey’s opinion about something rhythmic, then we need to temper it with Trey’s aims for how he uses rhythm.

But I came across a new personal bias yesterday. One that hadn’t even occurred to me. Or it had occurred to me, but I have been making the assumption that all musicians share it. This really isn't the case and doesn’t have to be.

My bias is this:

I believe that in each of our own aural imaginations is an infinite pool of musical wonder to explore. As explorers, our work is two-fold. One part is to develop a very clear and flexible “aural landscape” where we can let our imaginations roam freely to discover and play. The other is to train our bodies to articulate this inner landscape and bring it into the audible world, blending it with other players. From these two flow all the useful practices we would apply to our musical work.

How is this a bias?

The bias is that I don’t believe training the mind, in the study of how musical structures work, gets you to this inner world and helps you to bring it out. The study of musical theory usually puts down a blueprint that often obscures your own imagination. It tells you “this is how things are done.” Actually, it really only tells you “this how some things have already been done.” But new musicians (and often us older pros) usually hear this as “this is how music works.” And therefore, to learn the theory means you can play the music.

This bias definitely rubs up against any approach to “genre playing.” If you are going to learn a given style of music and play it well, then there are rules about what is appropriate and what isn’t. And so we have jazz schools, 18-century fugue writing classes and Irish ornamentation workshops. All of these rules are based on the analysis of past music. Meaning, very smart musicians have looked at great music and come up with the parameters that definite it. But this isn’t how any of this music came to be heard, composed and played.

The way to great music, according to my bias, is to train the inner ear to hear where your imagination is leading you. Training yourself in the skill-sets of musical scales, modes, chord structures, harmonic movement and rhythmic rudiments often serves the purpose of cutting you off from your own aural imagination. These types of skills sets are best used to develop flexibility in your playing and for further developing the ideas that your inner ear throws out to you.

Others disagree. One premise that is often tossed about is: Learn all the rules, then break them. That can work, I guess. I can say this is the approach that I took as a young player. But, man, it takes a lot of time! You, also, end up with more constraints than launching pads for exploration. And which rules do you do learn first? Jazz? Rock? Indian? Vietnamese? Irish? West African? Schenkerian? Bluegrass?

Screw all that, my bias tells me nowadays. Go into your inner ear and just listen. See what is there and then play it. Then and only then, look at what you’ve got and try to make some sense of it. That is where theoretical work comes in. Then you can ask yourself “what kinds of things make up this melody, rhythm or chords?” At that point then you might look towards other musical structures to see how they are formed and which things might help you develop your own inner voice’s way of speaking.

One very simple practice can prove this to you.

Sit quietly with your instrument for a minute. Listen in to your inner ear and hear a single pitch. Find that pitch on your instrument and play it. Then quietly listen again, internally, for a second pitch. Play that pitch on your instrument. Then a third and so forth until you have a string of pitches. Let’s say 8 or 12 of them.

Now look at what you’ve got there. More often than not, this little melody that you have just imagined goes into some very strange territory. It may have wandered through several key centers. It may have no key center. Yet you have just imagined it and articulated it.  I can guarantee you, without knowing anything about you or having heard it myself, this melody has a certain kind of satisfying logic to it. It, also, has the keys to your own unique musical voice embedded in it. If you had been given a dorian mode (a specific minor scale sequence) and were told to made something with it, you would never in a billion years come up with this melody that your inner ear just poured out to you. In fact, you probably wouldn’t really use your inner ear at all. Except as a form of editing assistant.

So my bias again. This inner ear has a wealth of music in it just waiting to be unlocked. All theoretical information should be applied only in order to serve this. Not the other way around.

Of course, this is only the beginning. Many more questions flow from this.

Article originally appeared on Trey Gunn (http://www.treygunn.com/).
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