Have you ever seen a piano virtuoso and wondered if they …

Have you ever seen a piano virtuoso and wondered if they are even human?

Some pianists may seem out of this world, but really, they just do some things a bit differently.

Check out this list of 10 things piano players do differently and see how many you do.

What Is Ear Training? (and why does it normally fail?)

New musicality video:

For this episode of Musicality Now, we turned the tables on our usual format. Adam Liette, Musical U Operations Manager is taking over for our normal host, Christopher Sutton – and Christopher is our guest! http://musicalitypodcast.com/207

Adam sat down with Christopher and asked him two important questions:

1. One that many musicians think they know the answer to: “What is ear training?”

2. And one that is a sticking point for most music learners: “Why isn’t ear training working?”

If you’re watching or listening to this show, you know the benefits of a great musical ear. But how do you get there? If you, like many others, find ear training hard or frustrating, you won’t want to miss this conversation.

Watch the episode: http://musicalitypodcast.com/207

Links and Resources

Ear Training for Beginners : Eartrainingcourse.com

About the Ear Training Trap : https://www.musical-u.com/learn/about-the-ear-training-trap/

About Perfect Pitch :

What Is Musicality? (Revisited) : https://www.musical-u.com/learn/what-is-musicality-revisited/

Tim Topham’s Creative Piano Teaching Podcast – Forrest Kinney On The 4 Arts Of Music : https://timtopham.com/cptp104-forrest-kinney-on-the-4-creative-arts/

If you enjoy the show please rate and review it! http://musicalitypodcast.com/review

Join Musical U with the Special offer for podcast listeners http://musicalitypodcast.com/join

Let us know what you think! Email: hello@musicalitypodcast.com


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What Is Ear Training? (and why does it normally fail?)

What Is Ear Training? (and why does it normally fail?)

For this episode of Musicality Now, we turned the tables on our usual format. Adam Liette, Musical U Operations Manager is taking over for our normal host, Christopher Sutton – and Christopher is our guest!

Adam sat down with Christopher and asked him two important questions:

  1. One that many musicians think they know the answer to: “What is ear training?
  2. And one that is a sticking point for most music learners: “Why isn’t ear training working?

If you’re watching or listening to this show, you know the benefits of a great musical ear. But how do you get there? If you, like many others, find ear training hard or frustrating, you won’t want to miss this conversation.

Watch the episode:

Enjoying the show? Please consider rating and reviewing it!

Links and Resources

Enjoying The Musicality Podcast? Please support the show by rating and reviewing it!

Rate and Review!


Adam: Well, welcome to being a guest on your own show, Christopher, and thanks for giving me the opportunity to host today. I’m really looking forward to our conversation about ear training. And if you’ve been following the show for a while it may seem off that we’ve never had an episode simply titled, “What is Ear Training,” especially since that’s at the core of what we do at Musical U. So I’d like to start off by just simply asking what’s going on at Musical U that prompted this episode, Christopher?

Christopher: Yeah. This is going to be fun. I’m normally the interviewer and people might not guess but I think it’s a lot more pressure being the interviewer than the interviewee. I get to just show up now and chat about something that I love, ear training, for a while. So all the pressure is on you, Adam. Don’t freak out.

Christopher: So, yeah, it is a bit bizarre. That’s kind of why we’re doing this episode. We were talking about it in the team recently because we were about to release this course, Ear Training for Beginners. And we were talking about how it’s a bit weird that it’s taken us so long to offer ear training for beginners given the roots of the company, and I’m sure we’ll be talking more about that. But in the course of that conversation, Andrew from the team, Andrew Bishko our product manager, he’s been working with me on this new course, was commenting that we have tons of material on ear training. We’ve been publishing on this topic for a decade, developing all of these resources and training systems and so on.

Christopher: But actually very little of it was tackling the question he wanted to tackle in the first lesson of this new course, which is what is ear training? And we had covered it. Like I wrote an article. One of the first articles on easyeartraining.com was about what is ear training. And we’ve tackled it in a few places since for sure. But it really hit home with me that so much of our material is on the nitty-gritty of ear training. We kind of take for granted at this stage that people know what it is, and doubly so over the last few years.

Christopher: And it just made me feel a bit stupid in a way that it’s taken us this long to address on the show, because obviously the podcast, the video series, has a different audience in a way than our website has for the last nine or 10 years. I suddenly felt really guilty that we’ve never really answered that for people. So if you’ve been a long-time listener of the show you will have heard us talk about ear training kind of all the time, but almost never saying the words “ear training.”

Christopher: It’s a bit tricky with podcast episodes. Adam, I know you’re a podcast listener too, so you’ll relate as everyone in our audience can. But we never know as the host of the show how much we can take for granted in terms of how much someone has watched or listened to past episodes. And I think I kind of hit the ground running a little bit assuming that all of our podcast audience would be our existing audience who already knew us as Easy Ear Training up until recently. They’d know about ear training and we could kind of just dive into this core musicality stuff. In retrospect, I didn’t factor in the fact that a lot of people are diving into this show Musicality Now at any given episode and they might have no idea what ear training is.

Christopher: There’s also another really big reason we wanted to talk about this on the show, which is there’s kind of a big elephant in the room when it comes to ear training. It’s that it’s really hard and boring and frustrating for a lot of people. And I’m sure we’re going to be talking more about that, but obviously with this new course we’re already tackling that question of how can we make this the best it can be.

Christopher: I just realized there are some really fundamental things everyone should know about ear training you’ve tried it before or not. And so I wanted to jump on and thank you for giving me the chance to chit-chat about it, and just make sure everyone in our Musicality Now audience at least knows 100% how to approach this the right way.

Adam: Yeah. There is certainly that elephant in the room about ear training. It’s hard. It’s difficult. It’s boring. And I know no matter where you’ve been on your musical journey if you’ve ever tried it you probably have these preconceptions that you’re walking into this with. Now I’ve been with the company for a while and I’ve heard your story. I know how we came to this place, but I’d really love to share that with the audience. So if we could go back to your origin story. What prompted you to begin this journey into ear training?

Christopher: Yeah. I think one thing to say upfront is if you know this show our interviews often do start with the guest’s backstory. And this is not just kind of fireside chat with Christopher, let’s hear about the company. When we were planning this episode, Adam, you and I were talking about how in a way it’s hard for us to really explain what is ear training and how to approach it without telling a bit of that backstory, and where we came from, and how we know what we know. So I’ll share a bit of backstory for sure, and I hope it will become very clear that I’m doing so to help people understand ear training better rather than just out of curiosity about where we came from.

Christopher: So I got into ear training around 2007, 2008. I won’t tell the whole backstory here for sure, but just to set the scene. Around that time there were really only two options for ear training as far as people were concerned. One was the kind of traditional establishment and what they were providing for ear training, which to me in the UK and for a lot of people around the world, meant “I’m learning an instrument. I’m going to do some kind of graded exam system for that instrument. I encounter this thing called aural skills, or listening tests, in that context. And I’m gonna typically going to have one opportunity with my teacher a week before the exam to run through some drills and try and understand what the examiner is going to be asking me.”

Christopher: I can’t stress strongly enough how frustrating that was for me back in the day. And for me it was “aural skills”, like that’s what it was called in the exam grades I did. And I literally never heard of ear training. So from the age of whatever I would have been, like seven or eight, through to 20s, mid-20s even, taking instrument exams, learning music, I heard about aural skills all the time. But nobody used that phrase “ear training.”

Christopher: That may not seem important but it really is – because without that phrase I saw it as an assessment of my skills, what could I do. And because there was never really much training provided or talked about, I just saw it as an indictment of my ability. Like I could either pass that exam or I couldn’t, and hopefully I’ll be a bit better next year somehow. By osmosis I will have absorbed a bit.

Christopher: Of course hopefully anyone watching this show, listening to this show, understands aural skills are what ear training gives you. It should be presented as “here is a whole lot of area of music that you can study and learn in order to be able to pass the exam”. No disrespect to instrument teachers. There is a lot to cram into instrument lessons and for whatever reason that was never a big priority for them. So I went through a lot of years encountering aural skills, trying, failing, struggling, and going into my early 20s, mid-20s even, feeling like I just wasn’t very good at having a musical ear. Like I didn’t have it naturally. I was never going to be good at that stuff, and that was that.

Christopher: And then there was a big turning point around 2007, 2008 I guess, when I was working for a company that, long story short, I was doing a particular kind of ear training to help assess audio quality at that company. And I got this book that was like all these drills and exercises for recognizing frequency bands and has this gone up 3dB or down by 3dB. All of this really dirty stuff, like can you listen to a cymbal a thousand times and tell which one was different?

Christopher: Anyway that was really dry and boring, and it was actually super cool because what I found was that the more I did those exercises, the more I could just put on a piece of music and hear in rich, vivid detail what was going on. That was kind of my first glimpse of ear training. I think I shared some of this story recently when we were launching The Musician’s Ear and talking about active listening, which is kind of a sister subject to ear training in a lot of ways.

Christopher: But anyway it opened my eyes to this thing called ear training. I was seeing it in this audio context, audio quality and audio effects and that kind of thing, and audio frequencies. I stumbled upon that fact that actually that phrase is used in music, too. And for the first time, literally the first time after 15 years plus, 20 years?, not quite 20 years 15 years at least, I was clued into the fact that there was this whole body of knowledge around how do you learn aural skills. How do you learn to recognize notes by ear? Chords by ear? How do you learn to have better rhythm? All of this stuff that I had just assumed was beyond me. And there was this whole body of work called ear training that I could get involved with.

Christopher: So that was the other place where people were getting exposed to it. There were the folks who just saw it in the aural skills context because they were learning an instrument. And there were these intrepid explorers, one of which I became, seeking out could I do this for myself? Could I learn these skills? And back then in 2009 there wasn’t a great deal available for you, but it was possible. And that’s kind of the path I headed down.

Adam: Wow. Yeah. We’re dating ourselves. Like 2009 we didn’t have all these devices and all these interactive features that we have now so it’s definitely been a changing landscape. I know me personally it was aural skills and it was completely separate from instrument learning. Making that connection, it didn’t happen till much later for me either because it was just this other subject you had to take. So let’s pause the story and just really talk about what exactly ear training is. What did you discover through your exploration, reading books I’m sure, listening to different CDs, and all these different exercises you were going through?

Christopher: Yeah. I mentioned a few things there, like recognizing notes by ear, or intervals, or chords. What people think ear training is for the most part is doing drills and exercises so that you can identify particular things in music by ear. And that’s kind of true. That’s mostly true, but it’s also quite a limiting way to think about it. I’m sure we’ll be talking more about this. For example, back in 2009 you could get a book on ear training that would come with an accompanying CD. I wouldn’t name names, but you could get an expensive CD course for relative pitch that would purport to teach you all kinds of amazing things. And what it looked like was here’s an example, can you name it or not? And the more you practiced that the more you were able to go, oh that was a perfect fifth. Or, oh, that was a major chord. Or, ah, that’s a 1-4-5.

Christopher: You were able to figure stuff out by ear, which was super exciting to me because after dabbling with this for a bit I found I could start to play by ear and improvise. I wasn’t blowing the world away but it was literally the first time I felt like I could hear something and know what was going on. That was super cool. So that is kind of what people see ear training is and what they think it means.

Christopher: We in, I think 2009, when we launched easyeartraining.com, I believe we defined it as “anything someone does to improve their ear for music”. And even back then I could see it needed to be that broad because I had seen it from the audio perspective as well as the musical perspective. I had also started to experiment with our own ways, or my own ways, of developing these skills, which didn’t necessarily look like “listen to an example, can you name it, yes or no? Hopefully you’ll get better tomorrow”. So I could see that there were these ear training exercises which were definitely part of the picture, but ear training should be something bigger and grander and more impactful than that. So that was how we defined it.

Christopher: I think our new definition in this new course is a bit more thoughtful. It’s something like “developing your ear for better awareness and understanding and sensitivity to musical elements”, and maybe even “musical elements you hear in real life”. I think that captured it well. We’re not just talking about can you hear this and name it? We’re also talking about things like, can you tell if that note’s slightly out of tune? Or can you even tell that there are five instruments present, not just four? That’s where the active listening comes into the picture a little bit, it’s kind of a form of ear training or a subset perhaps.

Christopher: What’s important to understand is that ear training, whatever baggage you might have come to that term with, and for me there was all of this heavy baggage around instrument exams and passing tests. And then there was this new baggage around it’s doing drills and exercises. Whatever it means to you right now, all it literally is is the process is getting a good ear for music. And that’s going to look different for every musician. It’s going to be important to different people for different reasons. The end goal is going to look exciting in all different ways depending on what it is you want to do in music.

Christopher: But the process that gets you there is what we call ear training. This may seem like a really long answer to “what is ear training”. But it’s worth unpacking because a big part of the reason we’re doing this new course is, as I said, there’s a bit of an elephant in the room, which is… we did a survey recently and the statistics really kind of made me want to cry. Not least because, all humility aside, I’ve been literally trying to improve this area for 10 years now and it’s clearly not done. There is a long way to go. But our survey showed that literally 4% of the people who replied to me, out of the 500 people who replied from all different walks of life, 4% said they had a good experience with ear training in some way, shape, or form. Like they were happy with it, or they’d learned something, or it went well, or they enjoyed it. 96% of people who responded either hadn’t heard of it, had heard of it but not tried it, or had tried it and had a really bad experience.

Christopher: I don’t know what you think, Adam. It might just be worth unpacking each of those kind of different reasons for each of those. I’m pretty sure everyone watching this or listening to this finds themselves in one of those three camps. There’s 4% of you, four out of 100 of you, love ear training and you’re really winning with it. I’d like to think that has a high overlap with the members of Musical U who watch this. But regardless 96 of you out of every 100 I know are in one of those three camps.

Adam: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s really worth taking the time to talk about the different camps people find themselves in with ear training, and just unpacking that and trying to find solutions for it.

Christopher: Yeah. Well I think one other thing that was surprising in that survey that we did was the balance with those three categories. So it’s like: never heard of it, heard of it and never tried it, or tried it and had a bad experience. And then those lucky four in the 100 who got it. I was really surprised actually to find those three categories are quite equal, at least in our audience. We had a lot of respondents and the numbers came out roughly equal.

Christopher: That was another big part of why I wanted to make sure we did this episode, was for us, a company that was once called Easy Ear Training, for a third of our audience to say they’ve never heard of ear training, that hit me hard. That made me realize how far we’d moved away from this. We’ll talk more about that shortly. But those are the three camps. I’m sure if you’re watching or listening, you can relate to one or more of those.

Christopher: The first category, “never heard of it,” it kind of comes back to what I said before about my early experiences. I think everyone understands it’s possible to have a good ear for music, and obviously on this show we talk a lot about the talent myth and this idea that you’ve got to be born gifted or just naturally be able to do it. We won’t go down that tangent, but just to say I think a lot of people are in that camp of “if I don’t have a good ear, that’s just it. I’ll work on my fingering, and I’ll work on my sight reading and my theory, and I’ll get better as a musician. But the ear stuff, I just don’t have it.” So I think, unfortunately for kind of historical reasons, a lot of the music education people encounter these days is super instrument focused.

Christopher: I’ve talked to a lot of people on this show at this point from all around the world, all different kind of backgrounds in music education. It’s almost unanimous that, yeah, there is this issue that we focus so much on the instrument technique and on replicating the repertoire of the past that in a sense we’re training people to be very accurate note players but not really musicians. And in particular not really develop their musical ear. So that’s why I think there’s such a big category of people who have literally never heard of this idea of ear training and the fact that they could develop their ear for music.

Christopher: Then there’s this whole camp who’ve heard of it, come across it in some way, shape, or form, but haven’t tried it. Again, it’s kind of surprising that category is so big given that you can search the App Store, you can search Google, you can to go your library. You’ll find books, CDs, courses, MP3s, apps, you name it. There’s all kinds of ear training solutions at this stage but people haven’t tried it. And a lot of them are free. To be clear, we’ve tons on free material on our website including this show that covers some of the how if not the nitty-gritty of it. There’s tons of free stuff.

Christopher: So when we asked people is there a particular reason you haven’t tried ear training, I think the most interesting thing I can share is that pretty much all the reasons boiled down to, “I don’t have what it takes.” So some people said, “Ear training is something advanced,” like that’s something professional musicians do, or jazz musicians do. Or it’s something you get to later in learning music and I’ve just been learning for a year or two so I’m not ready for that. Some people said, “I’m not really strong on theory.” So clearly in their minds they were kind of lumping ear training and theory together, and they weren’t really interested in studying music theory so they hadn’t broached the ear training. Some people said, “It must be expensive,” like I guess they heard such good things about it they were like, “That must be really pricey.”

Christopher: A lot of people also, Adam you would know in our audience we’re predominantly adult music learners that we speak to and serve. And a lot of them were saying something along the lines of, “I didn’t do it when I was young.” So you can infer what they’re thinking is, “I can’t do it now. It’s too late for me.” And this was another kind of heart-breaking point from the survey, was just all of these people who’d come across the idea and probably got quite excited about it for a moment, but something they’d inherited culturally, some kind of baggage or misconception about ear training had them feeling like that’s not for me. So that’s the second category.

Christopher: I hope I presented that clearly enough that if you’re in that category you can relate to it. I think we won’t unpack every one of those points I just said are holding people back. But I’ll just summarize I think… they are all wrong. If you’re thinking you’re too old, or you’re thinking it needs to be expensive, or you’re thinking it’s advanced, or you’re thinking it’s too hard, or you’re thinking it’s just music theory, none of that is true. Again, I come back to that thing of ear training is not a fixed series of drills and exercises handed down from on high. It is a process of getting a good ear for music and whatever that looks like for you it is possible at whatever stage you’re at. So that’s the second camp.

Christopher: The third camp is “I tried it and had a bad experience”. And that’s really where I feel there’s this elephant in the room. There’s this topic that people aren’t really confronting I think very well, and I will take partial blame for that. As I said, I’ve been working in this area for about a decade and clearly the problem is not solved as it were. So a lot of people, the majority of people, the vast majority of people, who tried ear training have a really bad experience with it. And in our survey this came out with people saying it was difficult. It was frustrating. It was boring. Some people just swore a lot. I won’t repeat what they said. But some people had a real kind of visceral hatred of ear training.

Christopher: I literally went through answer by answer and tried to categorize, like did they have a good experience? Did they get results? Or was it a pretty bad time? Unfortunately the vast majority had a pretty bad time. That’s the other big reason I wanted to make sure we did this episode, and sooner rather than later. I feel like we’ve dropped the ball a bit in the sense that if a third of our audience are feeling that way about ear training something needs to be done because it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s quite a simple reason why it goes that way for people. I don’t know if we want to dig into that now or …

Adam: Yeah. I think it’s a great time. In doing some research we talked about all that’s out there, all that’s available, and what causes some of these perceptions. One of the things I keep coming up on is ear training equals perfect pitch, for example. That’s what you see a lot of the times. It’s not really that clear of a line between ear training and perfect pitch. I think that’s helping to cause that perception, well, I don’t have perfect pitch. I can’t develop perfect pitch, so why bother?

Adam: But here’s this whole other thing. There’s all this stuff you can still learn without even worrying about perfect pitch. If you’re thinking that out there listening, I don’t have perfect pitch. That’s okay. You actually might not even want perfect pitch. It can be just as much of a curse as a blessing.

Christopher: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a great case in point. I think, I hope, cross fingers. I think that’s one where we have done a podcast episode about that, and if we have we’ll link it in the show notes. I’m pretty sure we did. That’s a perfect case in point, where I’m not even certain we did because I take it so much for granted that we’ve told people this. Do you know what I mean? Like we talked about that a lot in the first few years of the company. I feel like the engineer in me is like, right, that problem’s solved let’s move on. And, of course, if you’re tuning in today for the first time you might not have even heard that idea, that perfect pitch is not the be-all and end-all. Actually there’s this whole thing called relative pitch. It can deliver all the same results, like naming chords and notes by ear, and playing by ear, and improvising. And I might have just blown someone’s mind right now by saying that. That is crazy to me, and that’s really why we need to … Anyway we’ll talk more about it, but why we kind of need to return to our roots a little bit.

Christopher: So that third category then, let’s talk about why it goes so badly for people. It is, as you say, it’s partly the misconceptions that people come in with. And a lot of that, I could rant and rail against society and our inherited ideas about music education. But the reality is everyone comes from a different background. We aren’t necessarily going to understand perfectly what ear training is, nor should we expect to. But the trouble is we’ve kind of gone more and more down this path and I say in society, in any Western society, UK, Australia, America. The Western world of music making over the last few hundred years has gone further and further down this path and it was a great interview actually, I’ll track down the details but I’m pretty sure Forrest Kinney on Tim Topham’s podcast did a really good job of explaining this historically and how we came to be at the stage we are.

Christopher: Long story short. If you look back right to Beethoven, Mozart, classical era there was this whole turning point that took music from being this creative, expressive art form where anyone could come up with their own ideas, to being something where we revered these great musicians and composers, and we saw music as something to be performed from sheet music. And your goal was to replicate the works of the masters as perfectly as possible. I’m sure anyone watching or listening to this who studied music for any length of time in almost any context today will have been handed that expectation. Like we’re going to learn to play the music that’s been written before and maybe there’ll be a little bit of improvising in there if you’re lucky and you’re doing jazz of blues, and you’ll be given a little thing to play around with.

Christopher: But generally speaking music is presented as perform what’s been written before art form. And you know the other person who talks really eloquently about this is Bradley Sowash. He talks about the insanity of an art form being handed to people in this way, as just your only goal, imagine doing it with visual art. Your only goal is to reproduce the great masterworks of the past. It would boggle our minds.

Christopher: Anyway that’s what’s happened with music. And the upshot for ear training is we’ve kind of forgotten that everyone can and should have a good musical ear. As I’ve described with my own experience, it’s become this kind of you might have it, you might not. If you do, great. If you don’t, no worries, you’ll still learn to play it like a perfect robot. I don’t want to go down into a pit of despair here, but that’s the world we find ourselves in. Because there’s so much to be hopeful for. I’ve just named a couple of the amazing music educators out there these days who are changing that and giving people the resources to turn it back into an expressive, creative art form.

Christopher: But just to put a point on that – we’ve gone down and down this path and it’s meant ear training has become a fraction of what it once was. It is this process of getting a good ear for music, something that everyone is capable of. And instead what people encounter it as is, do these exercises, take this test. You might do it. You might not. What a lot of it boils down to, and Adam, you used this word earlier which was spot on. It’s isolation. It’s the idea that even if you do ear training you’re doing it separate from your musical life. That’s really what we’ll be talking a lot about when presenting this course Ear Training for Beginners. Because this is the root cause of pretty much all those frustration messages we got in the survey. I spent a good several years talking one on one with people by email about ear training and I can guarantee the reason they’re frustrated, or bored, or they didn’t enjoy it, or they didn’t see the point, it’s because they were doing it in an isolated way.

Christopher: They were probably doing it because they felt they should, or they just wanted to give it a try. And what they got were these exercises and drills, and what they wanted to be doing was playing their instrument, and playing by ear and improvising. And this complete disconnect between those two things, it’s something we call the ear training trap. We did a short podcast episode on this in the past, specifically talking about the disconnection from your instrument. That’s kind of half of the answer, half of the puzzle.

Christopher: What it looks like is, I’ve got an ear training app and I’m going through the exercises. I’m getting pretty good at the exercises. Oh, I’ve completed the app. And now I pick up my instrument. I can’t play by ear. I can’t improvise. I don’t know to write music myself, and somehow all of that time and effort I’ve spent on ear training kind of got me nothing. I shouldn’t be too rude about apps. We have apps. We got started with apps, but that’s the reality people find themselves in whether it’s apps, or books, or CDs, or courses. It’s this isolation of ear training that’s really at the heart of the problem.

Adam: Yeah, you mentioned we started with apps. We still have apps at Musical U that get downloaded every single day. So along the way you had a pivot where you took all the stuff that was in the apps, which is where you started, to Easy Ear Training and then ended up creating courses, and memberships, and all of this great material. All of this stuff to pull people through their journey, to show them how not only can they learn these skills, but then they can apply into their musical life, on to their instrument. I’d like to unpack that a little bit, that part of the journey.

Christopher: Yeah. Well, this is maybe, apart from my own personal backstory, this is maybe why it’s relevant and useful to share that kind of Easy Ear Training / Musical U story. Because that big pivot you referred to came out of exactly what I just described, this ear training trap. If we pick up in like 2015, I had spent 2009-2015 building Easy Ear Training. I had kind of dabbled in ear training enough to know it was incredibly useful and had this enormous potential. But everything I found out there for it was really boring and it just didn’t seem like it should be.

Christopher: You know music is fun, and it’s exciting, and it’s creative. And then I would do these ear training exercises, and they’d give me some results but the process was so unmusical. I was just like, “There has to be a better way.” I’m geeky so I started making iPhone apps because the iPhone was just coming out. Anyway, I won’t tell the whole story. I’ve told it elsewhere, but this app thing kind of snowballed. I had this clear vision of what ear training could be and what it could deliver for musicians. I just kind of plowed back every penny we made into building this company and publishing free stuff on our website. I can’t tell you how much it blew my mind that we could become the leading website for ear training online with easyeartraining.com.

Christopher: I did it because it baffled me that there wasn’t that website. Like here was that thing that could transform the musical life of any musician on the planet. How is there not a website for that? There was web stuff. You could Google and find a page on a website or a chapter in a music theory book. But I was like, how is there not a home of ear training online? So anyway I just kind of heavily reinvested, built the company. I won’t go into the tumultuous journey of trying to be an entrepreneur when that’s not necessarily your natural inclination. But we kind of made some progress and I think it’s fair to say we became the market leader in ear training, at least for adult musicians, like people who were coming to music over the age of 16 wanting to learn music or coming back to music.

Christopher: We really specialized in that. We had apps. We had ear training albums which were quite innovative at the time. We had eBooks with audio in them. That was also just trying to push the boundary of where technology could help make this fun and easy. I kind of found myself in 2015 in this position where we were kind of the market leader. We had these products that were super popular among the people who bought them and used them. We had this free material that people loved. We were doing some good, but every time I’d have a conversation with someone I was encountering this ear training trap. I was encountering this thing where they loved the product and they were doing well with the training. But it just didn’t seem to be hitting in their musical life. They didn’t seem to be really getting the payoff.

Christopher: I could see from my own experience that’s because it was being done in isolation. There’s only so much you can do about that in a product, or in an app, or a course, or a book. Those are great for providing that kind of practice phase where you’re doing exercises and drills. But it was really hard to imagine how can we solve this problem in that form. So I kind of made a couple of moves in 2015 that were a bit risky in retrospect, while I knew at the time I just kind of went for it.

Christopher: One was to, as you say, move away from here is a product that will teach you this thing, ear training, to can we provide an all inclusive solution? Can we give people an environment and the resources so they can actually get that payoff, that impact from all the ear training effort? That came down to a couple of things. One was making it really flexible. So letting people mix and match different skills, different areas, depending on their interests, move flexibly through the training depending on their progress. And the other huge part was doing it in a community context, somewhere where they could see other people training and discuss it. They could get expert help, like our team could be there. Instead of just me answering a question by email and then never how that goes, actually be able to help support people day-in, day-out moving through this. I think a moment ago you put it as “pulling” people though it. Sometimes it feels like that. I like to think we’re supporting people through it.

Christopher: But, as you say, it’s about actually getting them through that journey. I say that was risky because it was a huge product to change for us. We had the successful suite of individual products of various kinds, and it was kind of taking all of that and saying, it’s all or nothing. And, by the way, it’s a subscription, which I’m sure a lot of people watching and listening can relate to. Not everyone loves signing up for Netflix month after month however much they love Netflix and all it does for them. That subscription thing is often a sticking point. But that was the only realistic way we could provide this kind of solution.

Christopher: And the other big risky move which is really what brings us here today even more than that, is I could see that part of the problem was all of the baggage around ear training. So I used to tell people when I would discuss marketing over that period, like 2009-2015 and I guess a little bit after that too. We were still called Easy Ear Training. I’d discuss marketing with experts, or with other entrepreneurs, and talk to them about how we were getting on. I would say to them, you know we’ve kind of got this problem where most musicians have never heard of ear training and those who have had a really bad experience with it. I wrestled with that for several years, and we did the best we could. We kind of tried to present how it was different, and better, and people should try it.

Christopher: And the upshot was in 2015, I was just, if we’re going to do a whole new thing, maybe let’s step away from that term and let’s talk about what people actually care about. It’ll come as no surprise to people who are watching or listening to this, but the word we moved to was “musicality”, which to me it captures much better. I won’t go long on this because in episode 200 recently we had our members share what the word means to them and they did a much better job of it than I could. But, in short, it captures that end payoff. If captures the kind of musician you want to be, who’s just kind of easily, naturally expressing themselves in music, playing whatever they hear on the radio, of being able to pick up their instrument and play what they hear in their heads. Being able to improvise, or go to the local jam session or orchestra or band, or start a band, and just feel comfortable doing whatever you want to in music. Because it is inside you in some sense.

Christopher: That was obviously from a business, marketing perspective, a huge change to step away from ear training, stop referring to the company, the brand as Easy Ear Training. Change our domain and all of the web stuff from easyeartraining.com to musical-u.com, and really grow into this brand of Musical U and this idea of musicality. I really wasn’t sure it would work. To some extent the jury is still out, but over the last few years, I’m sure you feel the same way, Adam, having kind of seen a bit of both worlds when you first joined the team. Musicality just feels like so much more a natural fit for what we are all about at our company. And ear training is totally at the heart of it. It’s still the crux of all the training we do, like 80% of the modules at Musical U are ear training in some sense. But what people come for is the musicality and the ear training is just kind of the means to that end.

Adam: Yeah. I have to confess when I first joined the team, I was, “Musicality? What is that?” It definitely spurred a journey of my own to rediscover that in my life. We’re adults and sometimes you have to take time away from music and then come back to it. It’s this great circular journey that I know I’ve been on. And I’ve talked to so many of our members that are on a similar path where coming back to it is just so invigorating. And when you do it through this integrated approach, through this process, it makes it so much more exciting, so much more fun. Because you’re using it every single day. You mentioned something in there about when the company became Musical U and it was really self-guided. People could mix and match what skills they wanted to learn when. It was really this guided exploration is what I would call it.

Adam: But while we’re talking about this particular course, Ear Training for Beginners, we’re talking about a very guided, step-by-step methodology which we haven’t really done at Musical U much until very recently. I’d just like to explore that pivot back to a more core structure.

Christopher: Yeah. So I guess the question that might be on people’s minds is “that all sounds nice. Great. Good job. What’s the problem?” You know, we made this shift to musicality. We’ve got this environment where people could be supported through. Ear training is put in a musical context. We do what we call Integrated Ear Training, meaning it’s actually a part of all the music you listen to and play and understand the theory of. It works really well.

Christopher: But, as you say, what we’re launching this week is Ear Training for Beginners. I guess it comes back to me feeling a bit stupid in our recent conversations when we were talking about having moved away from the phrase ear training, and those survey results that made me realize it might have been a smart business, marketing move at the time but in a sense we really dropped the ball. I feel like we’ve been letting down a segment of the music learning population who know they want ear training. The people who’ve heard of it but not yet tried it, or the people who’ve heard of it, tried it, and not yet succeeded with it. Maybe, hopefully, they find their way to musicality training and realize that ear training’s at the heart of that.

Christopher: But frankly we’ve been doing such a bad job of explaining that. In retrospect we just moved too firmly away from ear training is one way to look at it. You know I was so clear that this was the way to talk about it, and this was the way to serve people, I forgot that we might need to explain what ear training is, and how it’s the means to the end, and why it so important, and how to do it right. So I kind of feel like we dropped the ball in the sense of probably in 2015 we should have moved away from ear training and rebranded and so on. But we probably should have kept talking about ear training a lot more than we did, and it probably shouldn’t have taken us 200 episodes to talk about “what is ear training” here on the show.

Christopher: So that’s kind of the reason we decided to do something different. Part of that obviously is this episode, is just trying to get that message back into what we put out there for free and to make sure that at least anyone who follows this show, or follows Musical U, understands how we see ear training, and the biggest problem with it and what to do about it. We can talk a little bit more about that in a moment to make sure everyone goes away with that clear in their minds.

Christopher: But the other things is, for all the benefits of that all-inclusive solution and the membership at Musical U, there are particular circumstances where a course is valuable, is the short way to put it. You can literally go back to past episodes of this show and you’ll hear me railing against courses and talking about how there can be no one size fits all course for musicality. We totally stand by that. That is true. And if you look at the kind of journey our members have from zero in some cases through to a whole fully fledged set of skills, there can be no one-size-fits-all linear course for that transition.

Christopher: That being said, over the last year we’ve been exploring are there ways to get the benefits of courses without pretending all of its stuff can be sensibly fit into a single straight line course? There are, as anyone who’s taken a course can attest, there are benefits to a course. You understand what you’re getting into. It often has a fixed time scale. There’s a clear start point and end point, and you understand “I will do this step and then I will do that step”. There’s a lot that’s appealing about that when it’s a good fit for the material. So we tried this for the first time last year with Foundations of a Musical Mind, which if you’re a long-time listener or viewer you’ll have seen that launch and how we explained at the time that it’s just not part of Musical U membership. So in that case we had an outside instructor. It was this particular Kodaly methodology. We were building a new foundation from scratch and taking nothing for granted.

Christopher: We followed that up more recently with The Musician’s Ear. I alluded to that earlier. It’s all about active listening. In that case we were teaching one specific skill, something that’s normally missed out on. People don’t realize they’re missing it. It’s deeply tied to musicality but it’s not quite what we specialize in in the Musical U membership. It didn’t quite fit into here’s a new training module or two. So we wanted to put that together and have it in a 10-week program that could kind of immerse people in that skill and start from the very beginning because most people have never been introduced to that.

Christopher: Most recently we just had a course called the Circle Mastery Experience, and that was recent enough that I won’t rehash it all here. But suffice to say: isolated topic from music theory, approaching it in a musicality way instead. And, again, zero start point and very clear end point. You can probably figure out the common factor there is these are all cases where we were starting from scratch and trying to teach one particular thing with a very clear outcome. And in that case I think courses, and we’ve been finding, courses are a beautiful complement to what we offer in that all-inclusive membership. I don’t what to make this out as this is all about Musical U and our product line, because you may care about that, you may not. But I hope everyone will understand the more generalizable point there, that there are cases in your musical life where you need an all-encompassing, flexible solution. Just like in personal lessons where the teacher will provide you, where they can guide you through the wilderness as it were.

Christopher: And there are other cases where it does make sense to take that fixed course from A to B. It’s quite important to figure out which of those any given skill is, because it makes a huge difference to your success. So rambling, rambling. But all of that just to say there are cases where courses are a really good thing, and in particular if you’re trying to start from scratch and get to a certain point. You can kind of assume everyone’s got the same background and they’re aiming for the same thing, which is the biggest issues with trying to teach the whole of musicality in that way. So that’s what brought us to, why don’t we have an ear training for beginners course?

Christopher: It’s one of those ideas where once you hear of it, you’re like, “Oh, yeah, whoops.” You know it comes out of the thing where we moved too firmly away from ear training, and even though we were still literally doing ear training day in, day out with Musical U members, I wasn’t thinking any longer in that term of thinking can I help people with ear training? So our company wasn’t really thinking about making ear training products. We were just thinking about helping people gain the skills of musicality.

Christopher: And so, like this podcast episode, it’s very overdue in a sense, because the 10 years we’ve been focused on this, we’ve been trying to help the adult music learner get a better ear for music. For a long time we did that and called it ear training. For the last four years I guess, we’ve done that still but not called it ear training. It was just suddenly clear it was time to come full circle and put something out there that was very clear-cut. This is about ear training for beginners.

Adam: I think one of the common factors you brought up when talking about learning all these skills, whether it’s Foundations of the Musical Mind, Active Listening, Circle of Fifths, any of these topics that we went over. It’s about the immersion and fully learning about it, and then exploring it, playing it.

Adam: I know we have this process here at Musical U that really allows people to just immerse themselves into a topic. Explore, and play, and enjoy it. I’d love to hear more about that process.

Christopher: Yeah. Well, I want to do what we always try and do when we’re talking about a product or a product launch here on the show, which is make sure what we’re sharing is useful to you whether or not you buy the product. And so obviously we hope if you’ve never tried ear training or you want to get started, you’ll consider this new course, Ear Training for Beginners.

Christopher: But I did say before I want to share the solution, as it were, to that isolated ear training to make sure that whatever happens you go away and you have more success with ear training. So as you say, Adam, we have this particular approach and it’s an approach we call Integrated Ear Training, by contrast with that “isolated” ear training which is by default what everyone is doing. This has really been developed, primarily since that pivot to Musical U. You know there were pieces of it in place before for sure. Like from that first definition of ear training I was trying to make sure it was a bit more holistic than the standard.

Christopher: But it was really once we were in the context of Musical U, we were working alongside members every day, seeing how they got on, seeing what the sticking points were, seeing how we could support them and guide them, that it really began to take shape. And since day one at Musical U we’ve had a particular framework that we call the Learn, Practice, Apply framework for Integrated Ear Training. What it means is any module inside Musical U is in one of those three categories, and everything the wide world considers ear training is just our “Practice” modules.

Christopher: When I say it like that you can probably suddenly get a sense of what might be missing, all of those other solutions including, in all truth including our own, the original apps and the original eBooks and training albums to some extent. All of those really just hit one of three phases of ear training. You need to learn stuff which will help you understand the concept, help give you a kind of mental framework or structure to know how all of the exercises and drills fit in. Then you practice and you get those core skills, and that’s great. There’s a ton of stuff out there to do that phase for sure.

Christopher: And then you need to apply it. You don’t do ear training for five years and then hopefully one day you can magically improvise. In our world view and what we’ve seen work incredibly well with members is you want to get to that apply phase as soon as possible. And, Adam, you made reference there to the fact that we’ve kind of been bringing this into our courses in varying ways. So the clearest cut example is with the Circle Mastery Experience: what all of the world is doing is just the “learn” bit, frankly. They’re teaching people the concepts of the circle of fifths, how to understand it, what it means, what the words are, what the terminology is. But does anyone actually really practice with the circle of fifths? Does anyone really apply it in more than just can I remember the key signature? No.

Christopher: We’ve talked about that enough on the show, and we have a great episode about the circle of fifths with Andrew and Anastasia that I won’t rehash here. But just to say I think this is one of those mental frameworks where once it’s explained to you, I feel like you just become very conscious of when one of those three things is missing. In particular with ear training I hope anyone coming away from this episode is going to be asking themselves, if I want to learn intervals, or I want to learn to recognize chord progressions by ear, or I want to tighten up my rhythm, yes I’m going to need exercises and drills. But have I made sure I actually understand how those drills are going to connect to the theory behind this, the concepts, the structures, the frameworks of music? And as soon as I start doing those exercises, am I applying this? Whether that’s to improvise or play by ear, or write your own music, or just analyzing the music you’re already playing, are you actually going to take those drills and exercises and make use of them in your real musical life?

Christopher: It’s probably a different episode but we have this concept at Musical U called the trifecta where the three parts of becoming a musician are your ear skills, your instrument technique, and understanding music theory. And a big part of what I just talked about is the fact that people do each of those three things to varying degrees, but they’re often not drawing the lines in between all of them. So in our worldview there’s this diagram with arrows going between each of those three things.

Christopher: And the Integrated Ear Training is really about saying “make sure you have those arrows”. And make sure that when you’re doing the drills you understand how it relates to theory. I’m not saying you need to study theory in great depth. Often it’s just kind of some basic concepts that let you fit that ear training exercise into your brain in a useful way and make sure you’re applying it. Because all the drills in the world won’t help you do the things you actually care about doing in your musical life.

Christopher: So we have this Learn, Practice, Apply framework. That’s what we’ve been bringing into our courses as much as possible. It’s what’s we’ve put throughout this new Ear Training for Beginners course. So, yes, we have like literally seven or eight years where we were developing exercises and exercises, seeing what worked, perfecting them, figuring out the tips, figuring out the sticking points, getting those drills really, really good. And that’s the practice bit. But we also bring this learn bit, and this apply bit. We’ve found that is really what makes this a completely different ear training experience for people.

Adam: It reminds me of another podcast I listen to frequently where the host will say, “If you read 100 books about swimming, does that mean you know how to swim?” No. Eventually you have to jump in the water. Right? And that’s where all these things tend to come together. Personally for me thinking about this, just from my own musical journey this would have been huge if I had done this more when I was learning ear training, when I was going through the conservatory. I did it in isolated little bits where I would sing the intervals on the trumpet before I would play them. I’m a trumpet player.

Adam: But it was never holistic. And I think personally for me it’s a bit hard not to be disappointed because I feel like I missed out on all these things I could have been doing. But you know I think it’s a great time to take stock of where you are now and even if you don’t come along for the course or come along with Musical U, any of the courses or membership, just to understand that there are all these great things that you can still do. And you can go in this other direction and just continue learning. And I think that’s phenomenal.

Christopher: Yeah. Well you know I was saying to you the other day, this whole course release is a bit bittersweet for me because I’m super proud and excited of what we put together and the chance to have an impact with it. But I’m also kind of kicking myself that it’s taken us this long. The same goes for this episode, where I know there will be people in the audience who’ve had light bulbs going off, being like, “Oh, that’s why I had so much frustration.” Or, “That’s why I completed the app but I still couldn’t really do anything.” I think once that clicks in your head it just opens up this whole new possibility. It’s probably been clear in this conversation, this is a topic where if you get me talking I have to keep catching myself and being like, “Let’s not rant and rave about that. Let’s not be too rude about this, that, and the other. Let’s not be too annoyed about the state of things.”

Christopher: But I try and frame it all positively, and this is a case in point, where putting this course out there, it’s a chance for us to really move the needle on how people experience ear training. I want to mention there’s a couple of things we’re doing to try and make that happen. One is, you know I mentioned before one sticking point for people can be “ear training must be really expensive”. Like if it’s that amazing, it must be pricey. We made the decision to price this course at a point where it’s affordable for any hobbyist musician, and I’m really excited about that, not least because it still includes the kind of unparalleled personal support and guidance we always provide at Musical U. So this isn’t like a Udemy course where you could email the course instructor and hopefully get an answer back one day. This is just like our membership where we’re going to be in there with the students day in day out, helping with questions, sticking points. Helping keep them moving forwards. So I’m really excited to be able to price it at a point where we can still do that and anyone can get access.

Christopher: And the other thing I’m really excited about, but I’m not really allowed to talk about yet, is our teachers program. All I can say for now is just if you are a teacher, and the stuff I’ve been talking about today and this idea of making ear training integrated to the extent that it’s actually fun and enjoyable and effective, and connected with theory and instrument stuff, if that’s exciting to you we would love to work with you to get that into your students’ hands. I don’t know what we’re doing for this, you can get in touch with us. We’re kind of behind the scenes getting some stuff together. But if you are interested in that just shoot an email to hello at musicalitynow.com and we’ll get you taken care of.

Christopher: So I’m really excited that we can do those two things to hopefully get a bigger impact with this course than it could otherwise have. Hopefully in a year, three years, whenever it is, I hopefully won’t be so prone to ranting and raving.

Adam: That’s one of the things that I’m most excited about, getting this …

Christopher: Christopher not ranting and raving any more.

Adam: Christopher not ranting and raving. I’m not going to hold my breath on that one. No, The teacher’s program. I think that’s going to be phenomenal. I’m looking forward to that as well because having taught private lessons myself, you know, teachers are so stressed for time. It can be so difficult. I don’t want to go on a big diatribe about it but it’s a very difficult thing to balance out lessons and practice exams and all these things that teachers do have to do.

Christopher: Yeah. I’ll just say that we did a teacher survey recently and this was another point at which I kind of wanted to cry a bit, was just hearing how ear training is approached. No disrespect or judgment of the teachers. As you say, there’s a ton for them to cram in and they’re got all kinds of pressures and responsibilities. But from my perspective knowing what’s possible in ear training and what we can potentially do to help with that, I was just looking at those responses and being, “Oh, this could be so much better.” So, yeah, likewise, I’m super excited about the teacher program. If anybody wants to get involved, hello at musicalitynow.com.

Adam: Fantastic. We look forward to hearing from you. So where can people find out more about Ear Training for Beginners?

Christopher: Yeah. We should mention that for sure. Eartrainingcourse.com is the domain. If you just go to eartrainingcourse.com it’ll take you straight to the details of this course and you’ll find all the information you need.

Adam: And I have to tell a joke about Christopher because when we were getting ready to launch he said, “We’ve actually owned this domain for a long time and we never used it. So clearly I’ve been thinking about this and somehow we got distracted.”

Christopher: We could have framed the whole conversation around that point, like the domain purchase, domain expiry, and domain repurchase of eartrainingcourse.com. But we are finally going to have something worthy of that name, and I hope everyone will go take a look.

Adam: Any parting words today, Christopher?

Christopher: I think just to cycle back… I never like to end on “Come buy our product.” I think I just want to make sure everyone is coming away from this with the most important learning point, which is: ear training is for everyone. It is the means to the end of having a good ear for music, which powers everything from playing by ear, to writing your own music, to jamming and collaborating easily. It is universally accessible, whatever age you are, whatever background you’re coming from, whatever theory knowledge you have or don’t have, whatever instrument, style of music, ear training is for you.

Christopher: And if you do it in the right way it is not a hard slog. It is not endless dry, abstract drills. It is something that feels as musical as anything you do in your musical life. And if you take away this one idea, that the biggest problem is isolated ear training, and the biggest thing you can do for yourself is to connect with theory, connect it with your instrument, make sure you’re always learning what you need to, and applying what you learn not just practicing. Not just that middle phase. I think if people just take away that we’ve done good work today.

Adam: Fantastic. Well, I always look forward to speaking with you again, Christopher. Maybe I’ll host another episode in the near future and we’ll talk about another subject.

Christopher: Absolutely. I would love that. Cheers, Adam.

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The post What Is Ear Training? (and why does it normally fail?) appeared first on Musical U.

Your Connection To Music, with Dave Isaacs (The Perpetual Beginner)

New musicality video:

Today we are welcoming back Dave Isaacs, “The Nashville Guitar Guru”! Dave is the author of the brand new book, The Perpetual Beginner, A Musician’s Path to Lifelong Learning. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read that will be relevant and impactful to anybody who enjoys Musicality Now. musicalitypodcast.com/206

We interviewed Dave on episode 60 of the show, where we talked about his own musical journey from aspiring classical guitarist to learning improv, switching to playing popular styles like country rock and becoming a teacher. He shared his major lessons learned as a musician and music teacher, which he shares at Nashville Guitar Guru.

We are excited to have Dave Isaacs back on the show to share some of the powerful ideas and stories from “The Perpetual Beginner”.

In this conversation we talk about:

– Why so many music learners find themselves stuck in the “beginner” phase, even after months, years or even decades of learning.

– The painful experience that opened Dave’s eyes to the downside of respecting tradition and having reverence for doing things in the most technically correct way.

– Why some teachers discourage students from returning to earlier, easier material – but the two important reasons you should be doing this regularly.

Plus: we’re so keen to get this book into as many music learners’ hands as possible, we’re giving away five copies, shipped to your door, absolutely free! Listen for the details in the episode.

If you’ve ever found your enthusiasm and motivation waning, or you’ve felt stuck and frustrated at how long it’s taking to reach a higher level, or you’ve felt torn between doing things “the right way” and doing things “your way” – you’re going to love how this episode helps you.

Watch the episode: musicalitypodcast.com/206

Links and Resources

Nashville Guitar Guru : https://www.nashvilleguitarguru.com/

Dave Isaacs – The Perpetual Beginner : https://www.nashvilleguitarguru.com/

Follow Your Ear, with Dave Isaacs : https://www.musical-u.com/learn/follow-your-ear-with-dave-isaacs/

If you enjoy the show please rate and review it! http://musicalitypodcast.com/review

Join Musical U with the Special offer for podcast listeners http://musicalitypodcast.com/join

Let us know what you think! Email: hello@musicalitypodcast.com


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Your Connection To Music, with Dave Isaacs (The Perpetual Beginner)

Your Connection To Music, with Dave Isaacs (The Perpetual Beginner)

Today we are welcoming back Dave Isaacs, “The Nashville Guitar Guru”! We interviewed Dave on episode 60 of the show, where we talked about his own musical journey from aspiring classical guitarist to learning improv, switching to playing popular styles like country rock and becoming a teacher. He shared his major lessons learned as a musician and music teacher, which he shares at Nashville Guitar Guru.

Dave is the author of the brand new book, The Perpetual Beginner, A Musician’s Path to Lifelong Learning. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read that will be relevant and impactful to anybody who enjoys Musicality Now.

We are excited to have Dave Isaacs back on the show to share some of the powerful ideas and stories from “The Perpetual Beginner”.

In this conversation we talk about:

  • Why so many music learners find themselves stuck in the “beginner” phase, even after months, years or even decades of learning.
  •  The painful experience that opened Dave’s eyes to the downside of respecting tradition and having reverence for doing things in the most technically correct way.
  • Why some teachers discourage students from returning to earlier, easier material – but the two important reasons you should be doing this regularly.

Plus: we’re so keen to get this book into as many music learners’ hands as possible, we’re giving away five copies, shipped to your door, absolutely free! Listen for the details in the episode.

If you’ve ever found your enthusiasm and motivation waning, or you’ve felt stuck and frustrated at how long it’s taking to reach a higher level, or you’ve felt torn between doing things “the right way” and doing things “your way” – you’re going to love how this episode helps you.

Watch the episode:

Enjoying the show? Please consider rating and reviewing it!

Links and Resources

Enjoying The Musicality Podcast? Please support the show by rating and reviewing it!

Rate and Review!


Dave: Hi I’m Dave Isaacs, They call me the Nashville guitar guru and the author of the new book Perpetual Beginner. This is Musicality Now.

Christopher: Welcome back to the show Dave thanks for joining us today.

Dave: Thank you so much for having me, it’s great to be back.

Christopher: I am really excited about your new book The Perpetual Beginner and in our first conversation on the show we talked a bit about your own back story and your transition from classical guitar into revisiting it in country rock and learning some improv along the way and the kind of twists and turns your own path went through that led you to be the teacher you are today.

And we talked in there a little bit about your blog where you’ve been publishing, which is also called The Perpetual Beginner, and I’d love if we could begin just by talking about that phrase and what it means to you. Why is this book called The Perpetual Beginner?

Dave: Well the idea started when I started to realize that the majority of people that I was working with, or at least a really large percentage of the people I was working with had played the guitar for many, many, many years and were expressing lots of frustration that they still felt like beginners, or they would say, “Well, I started playing guitar five years ago.” Or, “I picked up the guitar in high school and that was twenty years ago or even thirty, but I still feel like a beginner.” And there was an ongoing discussion in an online line group that I moderate about what transitioning into an intermediate player actually meant.

Dave: And I realized that so many people fall into that category and if I really look at it, it seems to be that a really large percentage of people around the world that play the guitar probably fall into that category. and so, I started thinking about how we identify the things that a player needs to absorb and ultimately master to feel like they can actually play.

Dave: And it struck me that ultimately what that is about is not a particular level of skill, but about a level of confidence that when you get up to do what you’re going to do, that it’s going to happen, more or less the way you wanted it to.

Dave: Because you’re never going to achieve perfection as a player, I don’t care what anybody says, but you want to a least feel like you can walk on a stage and deliver a performance. And that to me is the benchmark for when you’ve moved up to this next level.

Dave: So then, extending that idea a little further, and a lot of people immediately, on hearing the phrase, will also, if they’ve heard the phrase, “Beginner’s Mind,” will connect to that, which is this idea of maintaining a beginner’s enthusiasm and openness and, this comes from, I’m not going to say the first name right, so I’m not going to try, but the writer’s name is Suzuki, a Japanese writer, maybe philosopher, but the book is called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. And the way that he describes it is an attitude of openness and enthusiasm for any task or any area that you approach. And it struck me that that mindset is a great way to get past that perpetual beginner feeling, and at the same time, the phrase itself is something to cultivate because there’s a lot of power in remembering what you felt like when you first started to play and you knew nothing but it was all exciting, and you didn’t care that you didn’t know how to do anything.

Dave: It was not an obstacle. I mean, obviously you had to learn how to do things, but it wasn’t a psychic obstacle that you had to defeat to be able to do better, the way that it becomes for almost everybody at some point.

Christopher: I really want to dig into this a little more because I think that situation you described of, often an adult, but a long-time music learner who still considers themselves in some sense a beginner, it’s so prevalent, as you say, maybe most guitar players, most instrument players I think, and certainly a lot of our audience at Musical U would have felt that frustration of, “I thought I’d be better by now.

Dave: Right.

Christopher: And I wonder… I think a lot of them jump to the conclusion that they’re lacking, you know, there’s something missing and that’s why I’m not better by now. And maybe I’m not talented or gifted enough. Is that what’s missing compared to those who succeed and go on to that intermediate or pro stage quicker, or is there something else that keeps people in that beginner phase?

Dave: Well, I think there are lots of people who are talented that don’t choose to develop it, so that’s a separate point. I think talent is great for… I think when you are given a gift of musical aptitude, it’s easier to move through the process. I think you learn faster, certain things come more naturally and someone that feels that they don’t have that gift, looks at a person like that and says, “Well, I can’t do that, so how am I ever going to get to that point?”

Dave: And I write about… I wrote a whole chapter about this in the book called The Talent Trap, which is on the one side thinking that you don’t have talent and therefore you are not going to be able to get to where you want to go and on the other side, someone that does have aptitude hitting a wall because it’s been easy up to that point, and not knowing how to proceed from there, because I think everybody has a ceiling.

Dave: Now whether someone like a Paul McCartney ever reaches his ceiling, he may never have. We could talk about any given musician and say, “Well, you know, they peaked at such and such.” But, there’s the handful of people that just seem to have this endless fountain of creativity but for most people you’ve got to go back to the drawing board and cultivate it.

Dave: So what’s missing, I think is number one, maintaining that positive mindset, being excited by what you’re doing, no matter whether it’s challenging or not. So at the end of a practice session, even if you’re feeling discouraged knowing that it’s going to go away, that you don’t ever feel like a bad day practicing is going to make you quit.

Dave: That’s that the first thing. And then the other is to have a clear game plan, is to be able to recognize that any kind of a challenge in playing an instrument is, or at least a physical challenge, if there’s something that you can’t accomplish on the instrument, there is a technical reason, you can break any technical problem down into its component elements and solve them one at a time. You can do the same thing with musical problems. You isolate where is the problem. This is the thing that my teachers taught me how to do and it’s the most powerful tool that I have.

Dave: And it’s given me the confidence to know that if I can’t do something today, I can at least figure out how it was done and figure out how we might get to being able to accomplish that, whether I choose to put that time in, or not.

And I think that’s huge, because that keeps the door open all the time.

Christopher: I think the way you talk about this is so fascinating and you know, the actual meaning of beginner can be, “I’m stuck in the beginner phase.” Or, I’m taking the taking the beginner’s mind to it. The fact that that’s common to both groups, those who consider themselves gifted and those who don’t and is maybe for those who get an easy start, the reason they plateau and struggle is that they never had to cultivate that beginner’s mind, they never had to absorb that idea of how they approach their music learning because maybe it came more easily than to others. As you say, it’s a trap whichever camp you’re in. And one thing you touch on a few times in the book, is the idea that what you just referred to there, the technique and technicalities of playing can become an extreme focus for people and is maybe part of what stops them gaining the right relationship with music or a fully fledged relationship with music throughout their life.

Christopher: Could you talk a little bit about that. What are they missing out on if their focused purely on, “Can I play this chord, or can I master this fingering?”

Dave: Well, I think that it’s that the… when your emphasis is on the mechanics to the exclusion of the music, I mean I just said that you need to be able to look at the mechanics and break things down and there are people who have done an amazing job of really looking at, “This is how the body works, this is how the instrument works, and you are looking to interface this mechanism with this one.” Or whatever it is, and that there is a logic to that. So there’s a lot of validity to that and that approach.

Dave: But that’s only one side of the equation and I think there’s a lot of people, this is going to sound really mean, but I think there are a lot of people, and it’s not a put down to guitar players, I think it’s an inherent challenge to guitarists, because a guitar to me, is a geometric and therefore highly visual instrument and so many people learning the guitar through shapes and diagrams and I realized, and I would say fairly recently, that that is the way that I made sense of the guitar neck from the beginning and then I looked at my experience with math in school and I was terrible at algebra and the equations and things like that seemed so abstract. But geometry and trigonometry made perfect sense. So applying that idea to a guitar neck, whoa, of course, sure.

Dave: And then whether, it probably spins off into fractals and all kinds of crazy stuff that I don’t even really know how to talk about, but given that, if you’re focused on those shapes and formations, your ears might just shut off or it might not even occur to you that, “Oh, there’s a sound there,” and it’s the only explanation I can possibly have for the way I hear some people playing, is one of the challenges that I hear from people all the time, is, “Well, I learned all my scales and I’ve got my alternate picking up to 168 beats per minute and I did all this, but I still can’t play a solo.” Well, that’s basically like saying, I have learned grammar and I have memorized the dictionary but I still can’t talk.

Dave: So, if you’re not aware that there’s no meaning behind what you’re doing, it’s like learning a language transliterated and not having any idea what the words mean.

Dave: And I think that’s one of the problems I find, I’m going to put the blame squarely on guitar teachers who are not thoughtful teachers and there are many, many, many who are, but I can’t tell you how many times someone comes to me and says, “Well, you’re my third teacher, you’re my fifth. And all so and so did was say ‘well what do you want to learn today’ or ‘I’m going to show you how to play this song’”

Dave: And it was always “Well, just do this.” It was always, “Here’s the how, here’s where to put your fingers,” but there was never a “what”.

Dave: It’s if you put your fingers here, this will happen, well, what did I just do, what chord is that? I don’t know. “Well, you’re not supposed to have to know, what about the gifted people?” I’m going to go off on a little bit… not a rant here, okay but Nashville, and I say this with great love, is like the world capital of savant musicianship. There are more people here who are amazing at what they do that have very little training or real knowledge about it. And some of them are deeply superstitious about learning about what they do.

Dave: And I mean most of the pro players that I know would not fall into this category, most of the pros I know are professionals because they learned a craft. No matter what kind of gift they might have had. I don’t know anyone who’s working at a high level professionally who would say, “Well, you know, this is just my god-given talent. And if I mess with learning about it, it’s going to somehow interfere.”
Dave: Honestly I hear that probably more from songwriters and artists because I think if you… and this was another insight… I’m going to bounce around quite a bit here, but this was something else that occurred to me in writing the book is that when you study music formally, you are being trained to be a working musician, rather than being trained to be a creative artist, at least in my experience and that’s a separate topic road we can go down later. But it does say something about this split and whether you want to say it’s left-brain, right-brain or Apollo or Dionysus, or whatever, it mirrors the whole ways that people fall on one side or another of favoring order or favoring freedom and the ability to explore. So I may have lost the original question.

Dave: Oh, I know what it was. There are a lot people who are teaching guitar that only show people how and don’t teach them anything about the what and my own experience is that when I was physically capable of exploring on the instrument, I absolutely fell in love with that and it’s something that I never want to lose the ability to do, but learning about what I was doing, made me a better musician and helped me learn music because I think of when I was studying classical guitar, especially early on and playing music that was way above what I was able to comprehend. And so I know that I had just memorized a series of moves. That there really was no directing the performance in the sense of, “I am singing to you and I am in control of what’s happening here.”

Dave: It was strictly mechanical and I might have even learned to crescendo here or change the tone there, or all those things that were written into my score, but all of those things are things that you can do technically and then you learn to parrot a performance. And obviously I’m speaking very generally and I don’t know that anyone falls into any one of these categories quite so neatly, but I think there are a lot of people out there that teach in that way, they’re teaching geometry, they’re teaching calisthenics and movement and they’re not teaching so much music. And that’s where people fall into the trap but I don’t know that that comes necessarily from a technical predisposition. I don’t know if that comes from having the gift for it, because I think the greatest gift honestly, is the ear and the ability to comprehend music because that’s what leads you down the road in the first place.

Dave: When it comes to learning the mechanics I mean, some people are certainly more coordinated than others, I mean, I think about trying to learn how to coordinate how to coordinate a layup or a jump shot when I was a kid, which I really had great difficulty with but I didn’t care enough to work at doing that, whereas with the guitar, I cared and that opens up all kinds of other questions we can get into but the book gets into that as well, as far as, why did I care about this and not that. And there again are your predispositions that lead you in one direction or another.

Christopher: Yeah. And I love that you talk so early in the book about the connection to music. In a sense, the whole book is about having a rich and sustained positive relationship with music throughout that learning process, throughout your life. And I think what we just discussed is one of three things you identify as kind of, sometimes keeping people from that connection or being a barrier to the true connection to music, which is playing notes instead of music as you put it.

Christopher: The other two are living on the edge and going it alone. And I’d love if we could just touch briefly on those so that people can identify, “Oh, am I doing that, a bit of that in my musical life?”

Dave: Okay. Well, the living on the edge idea started with a student of mine who would express frustration one day that everything he was trying to do was difficult. And it’s not the first time that I’d had this thought, but it really coalesced at that point and then my response to him was, “Well then you need to pick up the guitar and play something that we did six months ago, or that you learned before we started working together. It isn’t so difficult

Dave: And if you haven’t done that, go back and revisit those things, and I will guarantee you will find that they’re not as difficult as they used to be.

Dave: And you realize then, and I’ve certainly said this to students before, that when you study it is your teacher’s obligation to continue to push you forward, so that you’re always getting things that are at the edge of your ability.

Dave: If you’re not balancing that with things that are just satisfying to do, then you’re never getting the real satisfaction out of the performance, and you never get to an important stage of practicing, which is what I call flow practice, which really means the performance itself and being able to get from beginning to end without stopping or stumbling.

Dave: And to be able to sustain the mental part of the performance that you can… there’s no way to not sound cosmic, but to me it is, to be able to inhabit the music. To be able to really get inside it. If you’re singing a song and really communicating of what you’re saying and feeling the rhythm and the way that all those things fit together. And if you’re playing instrumentally for it to sing.

Dave: And if you’re not, even if the thing that you can do that with is absurdly simple in your mind, it still doesn’t matter. And this is where we touch back on beginners mind, because when you first learned, or you were just starting out, the first time you did something that ten years later you might say is absurdly simple, you felt accomplishment.

Dave: So it’s a little bit of an over-simplification to say, “Well, if you’re struggling with your guitar lessons, go back and play Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and you’ll feel better, but the idea is sound that you’ve got to do something that just feels good, because that was why you started in the first place, or hopefully it was. So, that’s that side of it.

Christopher: I think it’s so valuable that you point that out and when I read that part of the book, I was wishing I had read it six months earlier. I had a perfect case myself where I’ve been learning drums, and my teacher is very technical, very exercise focused, which is superb and keeps me at that forefront, as you say, of what I’m capable of, but I’d literally gone two months without playing any of the kind of music on drums that had got me into it in the first place, and I was starting to lose my will to practice. And I was like, “Why am I losing my will to practice?” “Oh right, because I haven’t actually played any of the stuff that I picked up the drums sticks to play.”

Dave: Right.

Christopher: And I think it’s such a valuable thing to point out to people that that’s not a waste of time, or a just feel good experience, it’s a core part of motivation and accomplishment and how you continue to develop. Right?

Dave: It is, and I think one of the challenges for the teacher is that, if you’re trying to say, shape somebody’s technique in a particular direction, you don’t want them to do things that are counter-productive.

Dave: And so, one of the ways that people do that is by restricting what they do. For example, when I started my Master’s program at Manhattan School, there were a bunch of students who had come in and I would say many of them, that were restricted back to first playing open strings and then only playing scales and naming the notes, for a month. And not playing any music. And when you enter a program like that, a rigorous conservatory level education, especially at a graduate, or post-graduate level, you know that you are submitting to a program.

Dave: It’s like joining the service, you are going to boot camp, they’re going to kick your behind, and you can’t have anything to say about it, you know what you’ve signed up for, and you know what’s on the other side of it. But, the balance that I find difficult, and I really wrestle with this, I wrestle with this a lot, that I want to push my students to get better, but I do not want to push them off or push them away. And that any accomplishment, any progress forward, anything they do that they get a sense of accomplishment is a win and is going to keep them in the game.

Dave: So, I think there’s a distinction to be made. I think there are teachers that insist on these absolutes, and they will say, “Well, I’m building foundation technique, and we can’t mess with this and if you go play you were playing before, you’re going to interfere with the work we’re doing.” I’m not sure I agree with that because I think ultimately, if you want to talk about technique, at least with the guitar, and I think you could probably say this about any instrument, but there are some great idiosyncratic players out there, and I think that you don’t necessarily want to encourage someone to just blunder their way through learning an instrument. That’s maybe too judgmental a way to put it, but there are people who play in ways that no teacher would ever teach, but you cannot deny the power, and their skill in what they do.

Dave: And on the other side of it, getting back to the idea of a mechanism, and a mechanism… all mechanisms, all mechanical constructs have a logic, there’s a way they work and if you look at how they work, you can find it. Some people do that more naturally than others right? First time you try to take a sink apart. “Wait? Where does this go, Oh, that goes here.”

Dave: But the mechanically sound approach should just inherently be better and feel better and so my contention is that when you start to explore that taking into account the variables, say with guitar, we have to account for the proportion of people’s hands. Not everyone’s fingers are the same length. Their proportion of hand to arm and just the whole construction of the body. Everyone is a little bit different, so you’ve got to modify that ideal often, but I have never had somebody say when I start to steer them into playing a different way, that it didn’t feel better. Now, then they go to play and muscle memory kicks in, and they go back to what they were doing before.

Dave: So, I think of it the way that people teach meditation. You bring your attention back, you make the correction, it goes away, you make the correction again. I’m actively trying to work on my posture. I’m doing the same thing. You notice, you make the correction. And then ultimately the noticing is the thing that’s going to change your technique. Because if it really is better, and you start to absorb that, why wouldn’t that be the thing you would favor? Right? It isn’t he path of least resistance… well, it is the path of least resistance on the one hand because the mechanical aspect, but the resistance on the other hand is muscle memory and your habits. And if you are willing to submit to the kind of program that really allows you to completely create new muscle memory in a concentrated period of time, great.

Dave: But most people don’t have that luxury, so you have to look at it as an ongoing process and allowing the technique to develop by paying attention to what really works. And this brings in another one of the traps that people fall into, Which is to say, “I don’t know anything, therefore my opinion about what’s working or not working doesn’t mean anything because I don’t know the right way to do it.”

Dave: So it goes back to this idea of you find what’s natural because the body has a logic, and a way that it works and playing anything, making any kind of technical move has a logic and a sequence of movements and what my trainer friend would call a firing pattern of the muscles. This goes first, this goes second, this goes third.

Dave: If it’s so logical and sensible and natural, why wouldn’t that be the best way to go and so, we cultivate that over the long term. But to say, “You won’t be able to develop this if you play music that just feels good, I think is really just going to thin the herd.”

Dave: Which, unfortunately is what some people at a high level think they’re there to do when they’re teaching.

Dave: And maybe in a high level conservatory program they are there to thin the herd – but that’s not what my job is. And there are plenty of people out there… there’s a great big world out there to cut down people’s motivation and self-esteem, so that’s not my job.

Dave: My job is to try to cultivate good technique, and a good approach to the instrument in a way that doesn’t push them away from it.

Dave: And I guess, when you really come down to it, it’s a problem that I’ve identified that ties into one of the bigger problems that we have with music, which is, it’s a spectator sport for so many people. And it goes back to the talent question. It goes back to the aptitude question, “Well, only the best should do it.” When meanwhile, I go back to my trying to shoot a layup when I was ten and the fact that I wasn’t any good, didn’t mean that I couldn’t… maybe I wasn’t helping the team much, but you could still enjoy the game. No-one says, “Oh you shouldn’t play pick-up basketball if you’re not good, until you’re taking it seriously.”

Dave: And I’m not talking about giving out participation trophies, it’s nothing like that, but I am saying that if there’s a benefit, if there’s a positive in your life to take up any activity athletics, or music or whatever, then cultivate it. And ultimately isn’t that the human experience part that we want most of all? And then if you decide to take it seriously, there’s always the opportunity to knuckle down and do the work.

Dave: I don’t understand why some people don’t see that as an inescapable reality. They just live in a different universe than I do, maybe.

Christopher: I think everything you described is part of this baggage we inherit from the classical conservatory system and so many hobbyist musicians, adults in particular, I think, are taking on assumptions about what it means to learn music, that really have no application to them. And it’s certainly been eye-opening over the last three or four years at Musical U, being able to work day in day out alongside these students using our material to really recognize, I’ll put it bluntly: motivation is the biggest problem. Like however much they love music, if we’re not recognizing the fact that the best thing we can do for them is help them stay motivated, we’re failing them, however good our educational content may be, motivation is a huge part of it and I love that you’re so pragmatic and practical about this, that you’re not a purist saying it must be done this way or don’t bother because you’re not a real pro, or you don’t have talent. You’re finding that middle ground sweet spot of mixing the two worlds I think.

Dave: I don’t get along well with purists in general. I wrote about that too.

Christopher: Well, let’s talk a little bit about your chapter, The Purist and the Maverick, because I hadn’t thought about this in quite that way before, but I’m sure it’s something that our listeners will be able to relate to.

Dave: So, well, this was story that I really wanted to tell although at first I wasn’t sure whether there was a lesson in it or not. It was interesting, because when I started the book, the whole driving concept was to start to with stories, so talk about experiences that I had that were formative.

Dave: I learned this lesson, working with this person in this moment, and it might have been one interaction, or it might have been a series of interactions over a long period of time. But the story was important and so, when I started to tell this particular story, I wasn’t sure what the lesson was until I really started getting into it.

Dave: So the year after I finished graduate school, so I just completed a Master’s degree in classical guitar at Manhattan School of Music in New York, and I applied and was accepted to perform in a masterclass at the Yale School of Music, Yale University for a very well known player that I won’t name. And I was excited about doing it, I knew who he was I respected him, and I went and played for him, and he kind of took me apart. Now that’s fine, you can do that in a masterclass, that’s what you’re there for, but he did it in this, kind of a jokey, winking to the audience way that made me feel like he made me the butt of a joke, which he did. I played, so you’re in Spain, you’ll appreciate this, I played the Sonata by Joachim Tourina, it was written for Andre Segovia, which is a gorgeous piece of music and very challenging, powerful, Spanish nationalist flamenco influenced. Beautiful stuff.

Dave: I didn’t know that this guy had studied under Pepe Romero, who is to Spanish guitar, I mean the Romero family are the source for a lot of this stuff, and so, this player knew this style intimately, and he didn’t like my rasgueado.

Dave: So I wasn’t doing it right, or I wasn’t doing it the way a proper flamenco player would do it, and so I played the piece, and he says, “You know,” he looks at the audience, “You can’t rasgueado like Gringo.” And he got a big laugh. And I was like “eugh”. And I swear to you, I don’t remember anything else he told me about the piece, I just walked out of there like, “You just took a cheap shot in front of 200 people, I don’t respect you for that.” Which was actually, when I told the story, I sent the book to one of my former professors at Manhattan School, and when he read that story, he said, “You know, as teachers we really have to keep in mind the impact of the things we say.”

Dave: So, I’m thinking about this experience, and I had played that piece in my graduation recital at Manhattan School. So I’d worked on it with my teacher who as an eminent, world-touring classical guitarist. He didn’t have a problem with what I did. I’d played it in a masterclass for Sharon Isbin, that founded the guitar program at Julliard. She didn’t have a problem with it. The person who had a problem was the one who had been taught by someone very, very close to the source and the traditional folkloric element of it and I think that there’s a fair point on both sides that if you’re going to play something with a flamenco influence, you should understand how to play a rasgueado.

Dave: Now, I had found a work around because my hand wasn’t doing what I needed it to do to play a proper flamenco rasgueado, I don’t play flamenco, or at least I enjoy it… I love it in fact, and I’m a little bit jealous that you are in Spain, but the work around that I found was still musical and out of three world-class experts, only one of them had a problem.

Dave: So, of course, in a masterclass, and I know this from judging students in all kinds of situations, and I mean judging when it’s a formal situation, where you have to have comments. Sometimes you just need something to say. And it’s not always constructive. You hope it is, you try. But you’re there to give your opinion, so you’ve got to have something to say about it and that was what he latched on to. But ultimately it is a purists view because he’s saying, “That’s not the way they would do it in Grenada.” “Okay, fine.” But I also remember playing a duet version of Summertime with somebody once, who at the end of it said, “Well, you know that’s not the way Gershwin wrote it.”

Dave: “So? And your problem is?” So that mindset to me lacks context and then I start thinking about this idea and extending it further, and you realize, and I’ll relate this to another genre that I also mention in talking about this.

Dave: A friend of mine who I will give a shout out to, because he’s a great writer about music, but his name is Christopher Watkins and as artist he goes by the name Preacher Boy and if you like traditional blues and Tom Waits, he kind of fuses these two in a very, very cool way.

Dave: But he’s also a poet, an essayist and he’d written this long piece about the blues and purists and said, “All you people who are trying to say, ‘well, that’s not the way Muddy did it.’ Do you not realize that Muddy Waters was an innovator? He was a maverick, he created something that wasn’t… that didn’t exist before. And what he sounded like in 1960, did not sound anything… was a different style, and a different sound than what he sounded like in 1945 when he was being recorded on the front porch at Stovall’s plantation.”

Dave: This was not someone that followed the way he was supposed to do things. This was someone that did it his way and became the model. And you could say the same thing about any number of people. You could say it about Bill Munroe, in bluegrass, you could say it about… I mean, in any genre, those people exist, and those people found a way to do something that made them individuals and made other people want to be like them.

Dave: Those people inspired other people to play. And then what happens? Now we have founded a school. Now we have an orthodoxy and now we have followers who line up and say, “It must be done that way.” And there is a lot of beauty in authentic anything. Authentic dixieland, you know, authentic delta blues, authentic flamenco, all of that. I mean I grew up on folk music and that led me into traditional music in different parts of the world and world music and all of that. It’s beautiful, and it’s amazing, and it’s something to preserve and celebrate, but why does that preclude, in some people’s minds, the option of taking this and making something new with it because that is the only way music is ever innovated. That is what music has done throughout the history of music. Somebody heard something, and they absorbed it and through the filter of their minds and their creativities, something new came out. And if that wasn’t happening, we wouldn’t be doing this anymore. So, it’s a short-sighted isn’t even a strong enough word.

Christopher: “Deluded”, we could say.

Dave: Yeah, I tend to be fairly measured in my language, it’s just my personality for the most part, but that doesn’t mean that underneath that are not very, very strong beliefs and yeah, that is exactly what I would call it. It’s missing something that should be as obvious as anything in the world, but yet, that thought did not occur to me until I really started going down that road and saying, “You know, every player that really inspired me the most, I mean I’ve learned a lot from the schooled players, I wouldn’t have a career if I hadn’t learned from the schooled players, that I wouldn’t have fallen in love if it weren’t for Jimmy Page, who became a great session musician even though he said the first time he walked into a studio and saw a score, he said, it just looked like a bunch of crows sitting on telephone wires. Little black dots.” Or any of these self taught musicians, Doc Watson, I grew up listening to, it’s amazing the mavericks, the innovators are the ones that make everybody else sit up and take notice.

Christopher: I had the pleasure recently of interviewing the Quebe Sisters who call their style of music “progressive western swing” and they made the point really eloquently that there’s this amazing tradition of western swing and they respect that and they honor it and in some cases they kind of replicate it or portray it in their music, but they also realize that western swing came out of innovation and so the truest way they can honor that form, that genre is by innovating themselves and I thought that was such a superb point that we… as much as we admire what’s gone before, we can’t let it prevent us moving on. And I loved the way you put it in that chapter of the book, you said, “We have to learn from the past, but create our own future,” which I think is a really lovely way to put it.

Dave: Well, and it’s the only way that you… when you create a museum culture, I think you automatically and instantly narrow your audience. You narrow the number of people you’re going to reach. And on top of that, you create this set of aficionados that’s putting out into the world that this is the only way it can be done. And it’s absolutely maddening.

Dave: I get quite a bit in the book into my love hate, mixed relationship with jazz and jazz musicians. Which I have tremendous respect, and a great deal of love for lot of jazz music and jazz musicians and honestly, I wish it was a language that I spoke more fluently than I do, and it’s one of the things that, since I started learning very early on when I became aware of it, that within a musical world, this is a pinnacle of achievement to be able to play like this, and it’s also something that you have to devote yourself, you don’t become Wes Montgomery or Jim Hawe, by playing rock’n roll gigs on the weekends. You immerse yourself in that world. Just like you don’t become a great classical player without devoting yourself wholly to that world. But, if you sit down and read record reviews in Down Beat magazine, say there is, I mean the word venom comes to mind in the way some people are just savaged for not following the rules. I think I read something somebody said, “Well, he sounds like he never heard Thelonious Monk.” Or whatever it was. And I love Thelonious Monk, Thelonious Monk didn’t care if you never heard Thelonious Monk.

Dave: This was not… I mean, what happened there? How do you take a music that is all about improvisation and freedom. If you think about it, we got from Muskrat Stomp to A Love Supreme in 40 some years.

Dave: I mean, that’s amazing. And yet people can say, “Well,” and okay now, “Did Coltrane understand Muskrat Stomp?” He did. He had that foundation, he was a scholar. He was a student of music. He knew what he was doing. Picasso knew what he was doing. Picasso was a great figurative painter. And I just had this conversation the other day with a painter, an artist who said, “It’s funny how people don’t recognize how much technique goes into simple things that don’t look technical.” So I get all of that, but it’s not like there isn’t room in the world for someone who takes something sophisticated and does something primitive with it.

Dave: I mean, it’s funny. Now, you could say that some people just don’t belong in certain places. One of my favorite song writers who come out of, I suppose, the Nashville school of Americana music, what they call Americana music, is Gillian Welch, who I’ve just loved for as long as I’ve heard her. I just think she’s amazing. And she studied at the Berklee College of Music, and she said, “I was definitely… I was a primitive.” Or, I think maybe it was Dave Rawlings, her partner who called her a primitive, but saying, this was a very strange thing for someone who is learning about this deep, deep roots music, to go and study at what was essentially a jazz school for many, many years.

Dave: She went on to have a pretty fantastic career. She probably never learned how to play Donna Lee, but there’s room in the world for all of these people. That’s the part I guess, that I find personally frustrating.

Dave: And whether or not that has to do, without getting too deeply personal about it, and without getting into specifics, I’ve got a lot of cultural mix in my background and in my blood, and so I can belong in one place or another because of where I grew up and how I grew up and there are certainly communities I’m very, very comfortable in and I feel a part of. But at the same time, in terms of an identity, when a musician says, “This is where I live.” It’s like saying, “This was my town. These are my people, this is where I came from.” And I think there’s something powerful and comes in having that kind of sense of identity. This is me. But at the same time, what about that guy that isn’t you. And he’s got a little bit of that over here. You’re not going to let him in the door?

Dave: So, those ideas… the way I feel about those ideas may be related, but I think when you look at it from the perspective of music, you know I taught a class when I was teaching college, it was a world music survey, these were not music students, it was an elective class, so it wasn’t meant to be deeply technical, and I had a fair amount of freedom with how I present the curriculum, so I took it as… I taught it as a course on the way that musical styles influenced each other and using as a primary illustration American popular music, and the different threads that you can follow back to their roots.

Dave: So we started off working our way around the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. And so we’re touching on blues music and the American south, and we’re touching on New Orleans and Caribbean music coming in through New Orleans and creating really everything ultimately.

Dave: We talked about African slaves being brought over and bringing their music with them and hearing Spanish hymns in Cuba. Now suddenly there’s… how all of these things happen. Cultures come together and even when they are… even when there’s a horrific cultural relationship, because certainly if you want to talk about the slave days, I mean we all know the story. But, there was still the musical influence. So even among people that might have been on the one hand feared and hated, and on the other hand dehumanized, the music still found a way to meld. And what does that say? It’s part of the human experience that we take in everything around us, and it forms each individual.

Dave: So why shouldn’t music be like that? Or at least, why shouldn’t that idea be cultivated? And some people are just not… some people are more individual than others and that’s okay. There’s room for all of that. So whenever somebody is teaching music in a way that closes that world off, especially this part. So end of philosophical rants but… I don’t even know if that ended up where we started but… oh no, because it was The Purist and the Maverick okay. So good.

Christopher: I think what comes through clearly is this theme of beginners mind in the sense that maybe what’s missing from those people who are extremely purist is that openness to new possibilities. The willingness to consider doing things a different way and to actually trust in their own enjoyment a little bit along the way, rather than just blindly being told what to do.

Dave: Well, and the other thing is that that doesn’t mean you have to abandon standards. It doesn’t mean that you can’t try to hold yourself to a standard, but I think that needs to be a choice. I think that there is a level of submitting, as I said, to a school of thought and allowing yourself to be molded by that. But it is still a pipeline, and you can come out the other side of.

Christopher: And there was another place in the book where jazz came up as an example and it was in your chapter on Simplicity and Authority. And I think it touches a bit on what you just described and that ability to know what really matters so I wonder if you’d mind sharing that story about the jazz musicians versus the folk musicians?

Dave: Okay. So this what… I have such trepidation about putting some of this stuff out there. I’m just waiting for the comments from jazz musicians to show up on my social media feed saying, “What are you talking about?”

Dave: So I attended a workshop when I was in college that was supposed to be with the great Be-bop guitarist Pat Martineau, who is a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant player, another maverick. Someone that found his own way and really respected as a teacher. And he was teaching people that were not just jazz musicians, so I was really interesting in where he was coming from. And he ended up having health issues and did not teach the workshop. And Mick Goodrich, who runs the guitar program, I think still does at the Berklee College of Music, came in and taught and he was amazing. He was fantastic, so this is not in any way an indictment of the topic and honestly it was way over my head. I didn’t have the foundation musically in the language to really get the most out of it.

Dave: And ultimately I think I also just wasn’t in love enough with that direction to want to go into it. But I was definitely interested, and I liked playing the tunes. I liked learning about it, it made me feel like I was also growing as a musician, which is true and important. But the thing that struck me is that, the people who were attending, were all trying to squeeze through the same door. They were all approaching very similar things in very similar ways and when they would get together to play together, they didn’t do it very well. They always needed the book first of all.

Dave: They hadn’t absorbed the tunes which is, I think, one of the essential things if you really want to learn to play jazz, you have to memorize a bunch of standards in a bunch of keys to really begin to speak the language. And so, if you’re always… and, it took me a long time to realize this. That having a classical background, that one of the problems I had was I was relying way too much on the music. I didn’t fully comprehend just how much was open to interpretation. So in any case though, you would get these guys, and it was mostly guys at the time, playing together and very rarely did something really connect. These were students, but these were students who were probably not at least, in their teachers at home, may be not getting the full picture about the listening part.

Dave: And the thing that really was striking is in an ensemble class, and there were probably 20 of us, all with guitars and the instructor said, “Let’s see how long we could sit here without anybody playing a note?” And we didn’t last very long, which is absurd when you think about it. Like how hard is it just sit on your hands, don’t be the first one to crack. Right?

Dave: But it was very, very difficult. Everybody played too much. Nobody was listening as well as they could have. So the next week, I go to a folk music retreat where suddenly there are 20 people sitting in a circle playing songs that 19 of them have never heard before. Playing seven different instruments and singing in five part harmony. And I’m jamming with people who are playing three chord bluegrass and folk songs, but playing these accompaniments with an authority and a conviction that I couldn’t match even though I was a Master’s student in classical guitar and thought of myself as a very skilled musician. And I wasn’t keeping up. It was effort and I’d grown up on folk music.

Dave: And it really hit me in the face, that over here, these people studying this very complex music were still not learning to be great musicians yet because they had their… they were too deep in the weeds of the nuts and bolts. And I hope that some of those people got a lot out of that class, there was a lot to get from it, and I hope that Mick Goodrich opened some eyes during the course of that week.

Dave: But it was very striking to sit down then in contrast with musicians playing very simple music but with a degree, a level of authority that I couldn’t match. And the only way to get there was to live in their world for a while. That’s how they got there. That’s how those people were individuals. And so, all of this, it never occurred to me fully… I would say jokingly for years, as I was starting to write about music that I was looking for my unified field theory. And this book really started to bring a lot of these things together in that way that I think is fascinating. That it’s beginner’s mind. Listening and learning to solve problems. Those are the… and then staying connected to keep yourself motivated. That’s it. Everything else is just details.

Dave: But how do you learn to play music? You figure out what inspires you, you start to play with it. You make sure that you always can play in both senses of the word and then you do submit to a course of study that might be just self-directed, but understanding that you are learning how to solve problems and that all of these problems to have solutions and know that it’s going to get difficult and when it does, you go back to, either your inspirations the things that connects you to that feeling, or to connect to other people. So you’ve got to show up to rehearsal, and you’ve got to have that part down, so you’re going to practice for another hour until you have it. And I think if everybody started with that, that more people would reach a point of satisfaction. Would reach that point of conviction and a level of competence and skill, which is where we started in talking about how do you get from feeling like a beginner, to feeling like, “Okay, now I can play.” And that’s what it is. It’s I can do this authoritatively. There’s your unified field theory I think.

Christopher: Fantastic. Well, I’d be an idiot to try and ask any follow up questions after that even though I a handful left on my list. This book, The Perpetual Beginner, I can’t recommend highly enough. There’s chapters in there of being aware of your body, on critical listening, on how to let go and just play. None of which we’ve even touched on today and Dave also wraps up with a really powerful story about how all of this is still playing in his own life. So, clearly can’t recommend the book highly enough. If you head to Amazon to get your copy, you’ll find my review there, and I also want to give away five copies of this book. It is one of the handful of books that I know is relevant to every single person watching or listening to this podcast. So were going to give away five copies and to be in with a chance of winning, all you need to do is share this episode on your social media platform of choice, whether that’s Facebook, Instagram, if you’re still on Twitter, Twitter, if you’re in a forum where you share with other musicians, do it there.

Christopher: Take a screenshot where you shared it and send that to hello@musicalitynow.com. So screenshot your share, send it to hello@musicalitynow.com and a week from now, which I believe is the 23rd October, we’ll be drawing five lucky winners at random to get a copy of this book, The Perpetual Beginner. If you can’t wait until then, or you’re not lucky enough to win a copy, head to Amazon, head to Dave’s website and grab your copy, because it’s… as this conversation I’m sure demonstrates, it’s packed with stuff, and we didn’t even get through everything.  Dave any parting pieces of wisdom for our audience today?

Dave: Well, I think we’ve touched on… like I said the core of it. But I think the biggest thing I can say is find what you love, find what inspires you, recognize that there is a feeling behind that and that what you’re really looking to do in learning to play the instrument is to touch that feeling. The thing that listening to that music made you feel, made you want to be able to reproduce that feeling for yourself. And that you can find a way to do that in one way or another and as long as you maintain a level of kindness to yourself on the one hand and self discipline on the other, to recognize that there’s work to be done, but that every accomplishment is still an accomplishment worth celebrating, and that you can learn to make great music in very primitive ways if you so choose. That everybody can find some kind of musical place for themselves. And if anyone tries to tell you differently, run the other direction and find somebody that agrees.

Christopher: Tremendous. Well, thank you so much Dave, both for writing this book and also for joining us again on the show today.

Dave: Thanks so much, and by the way, I just want to close with this. And this is just as a shout out to any of our jazz musician listeners that might have felt that I was being unfair, of course at the bottom it says, “Playing for tips.” So keep that part in mind too.

Christopher: Well, any offended jazz musicians or jazz aficionados can direct hate mail to me rather than Dave.

Dave: Just write to Down Beat magazine and complain about how they’re too nasty in their columns… in their reviews. With all respect. I say it with love. I really, really do.

Christopher: Thanks again.

Dave: Thank you so much.

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