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What Popular Musicians Can Learn From Classical Musicians

posted 7 Mar 2013, 05:55 by Chris Morris
With the Scottish Brass Band Championships coming up this weekend, and my band Vanishing People entering another Battle of the Bands style competition this summer, I thought it would be good to touch on a few points about the ever raging classical music versus popular music debate. Before I start, if you’ve never heard of these terms before “Popular” music is anything from Jazz to Pop to Rock to Dance to Blues etc. “Classical” music covers pretty much anything involving an orchestra, brass band, wind and string ensembles etc.

For me, I imagine fans of popular music are the ones who gave the label of “classical music” and vice-versa. Most of the time, musicians from these types of music don’t understand each other. Perhaps one reason could be that very few instruments appear in both classical and popular music – drums, saxophone, brass, piano and not much else. When I studied at UHI most of my co-students were guitarists, bass guitarists, vocalists and of course, other drummers.

But it’s not even just any drummer who can play in both a popular music setting and a classical music setting. For instance, I am a member of Dundee Instrumental Brass Band, where I play as the percussionist, which actually often involves playing in both a classical style, and also a more modern drum kit style. But it always involves reading music. Many of the students in my year (And dare I say even a few tutors) couldn’t read music. In fact, I have a student who currently studies music at Perth College helping out as second percussionist for the upcoming Scottish Championships, and he is really struggling to follow the music. So much so, that I literally have to guide him through each bar and tell him what and when to play while also concentrating on my part. And this is someone who is currently studying music. One has to wonder what exactly the study of music actually involves.

Now, I suppose by now you could call me a snob and say that by my opinion is that every musician should learn to read music or they are not real musicians. That isn’t the case – some of the best popular musicians in history couldn’t read a note of music. But I do strongly recommend that every musician does learn this valuable skill, because if you can’t read music you are limited to both what you can learn as a musician, and what you can do as a musician. For example, being a “session musician” seems to be all the rage among young instrumentalists these days. But the best session musicians are ones who can be asked to record a part in a studio by sight-reading music they have been given two minutes beforehand.

So apart from learning to read music (Every classical musician must be able to read music) what exactly can popular musicians learn from classical musicians? Before I go any further, I’d like to point out that I consider myself both a classical and a popular musician. But if I had to choose one, I’d say I’m more of a popular musician, so I would like to think that my opinion on this is pretty un-biased.

One major difference between the two styles is how they decide which groups of musicians are good ones, and which aren’t so good. What jumps out at me right away is the UK Music Chart – usually filled with machine produced electric drumbeats, a very common and repetitive chord progression, more machine produced bass, a singer who has songs written for him/her and is made to be the star, more machine produced string sounds and so on and so on. The fact that these songs are in the top ten means that we as a nation think that they are great songs because we are paying money to buy the CDs or download the songs (Or maybe just streaming them for free).

On the other hand – I’ve never heard of a bad orchestra being hired to record Hans Zimmer’s latest film score, or being asked to perform at the Royal Albert Hall. In fact, this goes back to my earlier point; many orchestras are handed the music to film scores on the very day that they are to record them, a recent example being Howard Shore’s score for the first Hobbit film, recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Anyway, so let’s go back to talking about what makes a band a good band according to either popular or classical musicians. I’ve mentioned the upcoming Scottish Championships which this year take place at Perth Concert Hall. The popular music equivalent would probably be a local Battle of the Bands competition. The differences in the ways musicians win these contests are vast.

Firstly – The Scottish Championships. This competition is an annual meeting of Scotland’s competing brass bands, where they are organised into five sections. The fourth section is the bottom group and the Championship section is the top group which showcases Scotland’s top brass bands. The groups work a bit like football divisions – if you come top or second in your section you will move up to the next section. Likewise, if you come bottom then you will be relegated into the section below. So how do you come top or bottom?

The competition is regulated by the Scottish Brass Band Association (SBBA) who send out professional adjudicators for each section. Two adjudicators sit through each band in one section and award points for how well the band is playing the music. They each write a critical evaluation of the performance (Which is given to the band’s conductor) and total up the number of points. The bands are then shown in order from top to bottom.

Sounds fair to me, especially when you compare this to how a Battle of the Bands is judged. My band, Vanishing People played at a Battle of the Bands competition at The Doghouse in Dundee last summer. Similar to the way the Scottish Championships work, there was a panel of judges and they scored the band certain points for things like originality, whether the songs were memorable etc. Another big set of points could be awarded for... Popularity.

For me, this is when these competitions start to lose credibility. Each band were given a number of tickets to sell for the event, and if they sold them all, they stood more of a chance of winning. Which of course is great for the venue (I completely understand this from a business point of view), but also means that the band with the biggest number of mates could win, even if they are pretty rubbish. We didn’t win the competition, and I’ll say no more than that...

It could be argued however, that this kind of nonsense can go on at an event like the Scottish Championships. That is however, if the SBBA regulations didn’t have something up their sleeves. Now, I warn you, this might sound a little silly but hopefully, like me, you understand how this is fair.

To stop the adjudicators knowing whether their mates are on the stage, they sit in the audience surrounded by a sort of box which has drawn curtains attached to it, so they can’t see a thing. The band enters the stage and the announcer simply announces them as “band number one” or “band number two” and so on. The draw for which band goes on when is done on the day, usually moments before the contest to ensure no cheating. And to top it off, each band plays the exact same piece of music, which is sent out by the SBBA a few months prior to the contest. Although it’s probably very boring for the adjudicators to sit through ten or eleven bands playing the exact same piece of music, you have to agree this is very fair.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that each band in a Battle of the Bands play the same music, but if the judges could actually assess each band not just on originality, but on the skills of the musicians, and be impartial, these types of competitions would have much more credibility at least in my eyes. Whenever we play this sort of competition (We have one coming up at Non-Zeroes this summer), I go into it thinking “I really don’t care if we win or not”. To win would suggest that we fit into this machine driven chart nonsense we hear on the radio, or that we simply had a lot of our friends come along and vote for us because it’s their social obligation. When I play at the Scottish Championships, I really want to do well because to win actually means that you played well and that your band really is a great band.

Even the way that individual musicians are assessed differs greatly between popular and classical music. For instance, graded exams. If you want to get say, a Grade 5 qualification on drum kit, there are two ways I always suggest at Dundee Drum Academy. There’s the Rockschool exam which is more for popular musicians, and there’s the Trinity Guildhall exam, which is more for classical players. Let’s start by looking at what you need  to do to pass a Grade 5 Rockschool exam:

·         Each Rockschool graded book comes with five pieces that should be played along to a backing track which is included on a CD with the book. You can choose three pieces to play in the exam which allows you to play to your strengths, although every piece is a different style (The book I have here at Dundee Drum Academy includes Britpop, Texas Blues, Funk, Stadium Rock, Rock and Roll, and a faster Funk).

·         Technical exercises - these begin fairly simply with quaver notes, quaver triplet notes, and semiquavers. Then it gets a little trickier with paradiddles and inverted paradiddles, some easy rolls, some even easier flams, drags and ruffs, then some easier yet triplets.

·         Next the candidate has an option to either perform the sight reading exercise which won’t have any rolls or rudiments that we seen in the technical exercise section, or improvise a groove in the style of funk, rock, blues etc.

·         The end of the Rockschool test is the trickiest part – The examiner plays a four-four bar of notes on the snare drum, and you are asked to explain what you just heard (Ie a crotchet, a set of triplet quaver notes, a set of semiquavers and a pair of semiquavers and a quaver).

·         The candidate will also be asked some “general musicianship” questions about their instrument.

A Grade 5 Trinity Guildhall exam on the other hand, involves:

·         Compulsory sight-reading for some fairly advanced drumbeats

·         Two rudimental studies which involve single, double, five, seven and nine stroke rolls, paradiddle, flam, flam-paradiddle, double paradiddle, paradiddle-diddle, flam-tap, flam-accent, flamacue, drag, drag and stroke, double drag and stroke, drag paradiddle, ruff, and single, double and triple ratamacues. The studies are played across the kit in the style of samba and jazz.

·         One piece chosen out of a difficult group of three to be played along to a backing track

·         One piece chosen out of a difficult group of three to be played solo

·         Supporting tests made up of aural and practical tests

So the only difference really, is that Trinity Guildhall is a bit more difficult, therefore a bit more credible.

That is what popular musicians can learn from classical musicians. Every popular musician today seems to wish that society took them more seriously. When I studied music at UHI, nobody thought it was a serious study. When I first got a job teaching drum kit at a music school, nobody thought it was a serious job. I started Dundee Drum Academy over two years ago now, and nobody thought this was something that would last. It has because I take music very seriously. And I think other people would take it seriously too if it was a bit more credible.

So am I saying that classical music is more credible than popular music? Not at all. I think the biggest difference between the two is that in the grand scale of things, popular music has existed for a very short period of time. Classical music has been around longer than any of our great grandparents can remember. Some of the rules for the Scottish Championships I was talking about earlier have existed for a very, very long time. When popular music came about it was adored by the general public as it is now, but the upper class at the time didn’t take it seriously, and that attitude has somehow clung on to popular music all the way into the 21st century. So much so, that even some popular musicians don’t take themselves seriously at all (while some take themselves far too seriously).

The philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno once described the two different styles as “popular music” and “serious music”. And to be quite honest, it’s hard to argue with him. Today we see classical musicians learning their skills to the highest potential, reading music by sight, involving themselves in serious competitions which require a great deal of critical analysis. Popular musicians on the other hand are entering Battle of the Bands competitions after they’ve learned a couple of drumbeats or guitar chords over the last two weeks (and winning), not bothering to learn to read the music settling instead for bad improvisation or tablature. If we want society to take us more seriously, we need to prove that there is something in popular music to take seriously.

And there is, of course there is. I’ve seen some incredible live musicians in popular groups, some who can read music, some who can’t. And of course there’s the emotional impact of both making and listening to popular music which not only benefits the average person but has been proven to help people with mental illnesses, learning difficulties and more. A lot of popular music has been very intelligently composed, and can be very difficult to play. There is a vast study of popular music which can be explored and explored, but the problem is that over half the population probably don’t think so.

My advice to fellow musicians would be to forget about labelling music – whether it’s classical or popular or all the sub-genres within each. It’s all music. All music can be written, all music can be improvised, and all music can go from being very easy to extremely difficult. What can popular musicians learn from classical musicians? If you want people to take popular music seriously, you have to take it seriously yourself.