So you think being a rock star is all about the freedom to break every rule in music, and just let your creative side do its thing? Sure, that might be part of it. But in order to do this, you need to actually learn the rules before you can break them – and yes, that means scales and other “boring” exercises. Read on for advice from New York teacher Brett D…
A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I was just like you; a budding musician daydreaming of rock stardom. Instead of sitting at the piano, or grabbing my guitar and practicing; I would daydream of ripping out soaring solos that would send Jimmy Page back to California. When any teacher would say to me, “Brett, practice your scales, learn your etudes,” I would respectfully respond, “We must have a misunderstanding, I WANNA ROCK!”
So how come every time I tried to sing with passion and grit like Freddy Mercury, slam those keys with the ferocity of the Piano Man himself, or shred faster than a cheese grater like Slash, it just wasn’t working? I went to my teacher and I said, “Excuse me, sir, I don’t understand. I’ve grown my hair down to my mid-back, I’ve ripped my jeans, and I scrunch my face real tight when I play. Why aren’t I rocking?” As he scanned my head for new species of insects, he said, “My boy, you have to learn the rules first before you can break them.”
So let’s go back to seventh grade band class. Things were going great, until my band teacher said to me, “Brett, you are playing an 8 bar solo on Jingle Bell Rock at the Christmas concert tonight.” My developing Adam’s apple fell to my stomach. I wept, I cried, I begged God to send Freddy Mercury to take my place. But alas, my prayers went unanswered. My band teacher detected my insurmountable panic, and quickly came to my rescue, as he often did. He showed me a simple seven-note progressions. He said, “Brett, play these notes up and down and then pick and choose a few, you will get through unscathed.”
Seven notes huh? Well, that’s not so bad. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but let’s just say those jingle bells had never rocked so hard in the history of Fredericksburg Middle School jazz band concerts.
So often we artists are so ready to blow down the walls of the Bastille with our revolutionary ideas, while we look at structure as creativity’s nemesis. Oh how I pity those poor fools. They will end up like middle school Brett could have; working a desk job with a head full of lice. You see, structure opens us up to a world of creativity that we could never reach on our own. All the great innovators of rock ‘n roll learned the rules first, and then broke them in such creative ways that it earned them a seat in the Olympus of Rock.
Put Billy Joel and Mozart in the same room with a piano and a book of etudes, and I’d put my money on the Piano Man. Freddy Mercury didn’t name his magnum opus “Bohemian Rhapsody” for nothing; it is a rock ‘n roll homage to Liszt! These guys knew the rules of the game better than anyone else, and it allowed them to become the rock stars we admire today. I’m not saying we need to look at music as sets of boring, mathematical exercises. Music is romantic, it’s poetic, and it’s art. However, it is also a game, and with every game comes rules. Learn them first, and only then can you break them.
Brett D. teaches guitar, piano, singing, Broadway singing, music performance, music theory, songwriting, and acting lessons in New York, NY. Brett joined the TakeLessons team in September 2012, after receiving his Bachelor’s in Theater/Voice from New York University. Find out more about Brett, or search for a teacher near you!
Photo by blikeng.