Rock Music, Informal Learning, and What It Means to Be a Musician

By Giddings, Steve | The Canadian Music Educator, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

Rock Music, Informal Learning, and What It Means to Be a Musician


Giddings, Steve, The Canadian Music Educator


As formally trained classical musicians, how do we coach a rock band in an informal and authentic way? Rock and popular musicians learn differently than classical musicians. Therefore, to successfully teach a rock ensemble we need to, essentially, forget everything we learned about how music is traditionally learned. You see, classical musicians-and even jazz musicians to some degree-rely heavily on notation and theory. It has gotten to the point where, in many cases, trained musicians cannot make music without notation or a chord chart in front of them. Of course in the rock and popular music world, this is not the case. Rock and popular music is passed on and played in a much more informal way-the way it has been learned and played since the dawn of music-through listening, copying, and 'jamming.'

WHERE I'M COMING FROM

Where I come from, on the sandy beaches of Prince Edward Island, rock ensembles in school has become incredibly popular. The Rock-a-palooza: PEI Schools of Rock Showcase concert/festival that I've organized since 2010 began with four bands. Now, it easily garners 13 to 16 bands each year ranging from as young as Grade 3 right through to college aged learners! Most of these groups are from elementary schools so for a province with only 36 elementary schools, that is pretty impressive. I know, too, that in Ontario many schools are embracing the Musical Futures program which is based on teaching music informally in the way popular musicians learn. Clearly, there is a need for this type of ensemble in the school system and it is also clear that we have much to learn from rock and popular musicians that we simply aren't learning in our teacher training programs. Our learners deserve it.

HOW ROCK AND POPULAR MUSICIANS LEARN

Many times, learners in the rock idiom know more than you think they do because they learn their instrument in a way that is authentic to the genre-by listening and copying. We just have to let go of being the teacher and focus more on being a facilitator of music and let the learners do the rest. In the elementary setting of course, they will need some more guidance but not to the extent that you might think. Let me explain: This year, I have an after-school group who are learning "Purple Haze" by Jimmi Hendrix. I didn't pick it, one of the guitar players did. He had all of the opening and most of the solo already learned when he suggested it to me. I can't play it, and I probably wouldn't learn it as fast as he did. He doesn't even simplify it, he plays every flourish, every nuance and is quite musical about it because he copied exactly what he was hearing-quite amazing really. With minimal instruction, the drummer was able to learn his part and remember it. Then, the other guitarist and keyboard player, not really having an audible part in the song, had to create a part that fit. We did much of the arranging together but the explicit teaching was very minimal and no notation was used aside from lyric sheets for the singers.

Rock music is more about 'feel' and what sounds good than it is about reading music. I know what you're thinking: But when do they learn the notation? They get to that after they already know what they're doing. I don't mean:

Day one: learn how to play some notes

Day two: learn the notation

This is how sound-before-symbol is typically practiced. What I mean is more like:

Year one and two: learn the instrument and how it works through listening and copying Year three: begin to understand what you are playing.

It's simple: no one learns how to read a language before they can speak it (or at least no one should). The new language could be a new instrument or just music in general. Rock music, outside of school, is learned in this way. Due to this, every rock musician I know is a performer, composer, improviser, embellisher, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist all-in-one. It is very rare that these are separate skills like it is in the classical realm and it has not been "academecized" like classical has. …

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