19 April 2011

The Sterile Blues

“If you ever come across a book about music which does not contain a single musical example, throw it away.  It’s worthless!” 

That rather sweeping statement was uttered at the very start of my undergraduate history of music course at university.  The utterer, for want of a better word, was the incomparable Ian Macrae Bruce, a man whose eccentricities, unashamed bigotry and trenchant opinions made for lectures which were not just entertaining but remarkably educative too.  If only to prove him wrong (which few were ever able to manage) we went out of our way to read around the subject in preparation for and subsequent to his lectures.  His remarkable lecture on Handel – billed as four hours after which an essential essay had to be submitted – lasted a matter of seconds.  He entered the lecture theatre, minus the stack of records and books that were usually under an arm, stood at the rostrum and announced; “Ladies and gentlemen.  I am supposed to be lecturing about Handel.  But Handel could not compose, so I shall not.  Good bye.”  That single lecture taught me the value of research and of finding out information from other sources rather than relying wholly on the words of a single teacher.  It was the most important and valuable lecture in the whole history of my education and, if I didn’t thank him then, I can’t now (he’s dead) other than to pass on his acts of extreme wisdom.

I was minded to relate that story the other day when, travelling the length and breadth of Malaysia giving seminars about musical theory, I encountered a batch of teachers who were badly puzzled by the Blues.  In the excellent Trinity Theory syllabus, students have to write a 12-bar blues.  It seems awfully simple to me, especially since in the examination the chordal progression is given, the scale is given, the length given, and all the candidate has to do is the musical equivalent of joining up the dots.  But it caused these Malaysian teachers no end of worries.  After lengthy discussions I eventually found out the problem.  “You see”, said one teacher, after I had gone over the matter for the umpteenth time, “Our teachers never told us about it”.

Of course they didn’t.  Why should they?  Ian Bruce never told me about Handel, but I can reel off facts, figures, anecdotes and worklists for hours, because I went out and found out the information for myself.  I despair that students rely so heavily on teachers that they never develop the ability to think for themselves.

But infinitely worse than that was the plain fact that these teachers had no idea what the Blues was.  True, if you confine yourself to the basic Blues as given out in the Trinity theory syllabus (especially a peculiar example in the text books which is more akin to Clementi than anything else) you’ll not learn much, and seasoned jazzers will look on in disbelief when they see what passes for the Blues in Trinity theory.  But theory, just like any musical syllabus, is at best a starting point, and to do it well (especially in an exam) you need to know a lot more than what you are told or what you read in the exam workbooks.  I asked these teachers what Blues they had heard and, of course, the answer was “we’ve never heard the Blues”. 

How can you attempt to write or even analyse music if you’ve never heard it?  What’s the point of harmonizing a chorale in the style of Bach if you have no idea what the style of Bach sounds like?  Yes, you can do it all on paper and achieve some sort of result, but what is the point of that?  Musical theory is an integral but not exclusive element of the totality of music.

In reality, nobody can be successful in the study and execution of music theory without listening to music.  It’s not merely an academic exercise, it has real relevance and an indivisible relationship with how music sounds.  Books abound about theory, giving you acres of sample exam questions and working exercises, but unless you can hear theory in action, it is as sterile and ultimately pointless as a book on music which doesn’t have any music in it.

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