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Steve Ison
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Steve Ison

2/11/2009 5:29:11 PM ---- Updated 2/11/2009 5:39:48 PM

Get an education (maybe)
Its weird,i was thinking i'm working hard on my music-writing a song once every 2 weeks and my girlfriend who's only been playing guitar for 18 months has been going out to gigs regularly and is so intense on becoming a better songwriter and performer..She watches the way people perform and has been picking up on the vibe they have..

Why some people even if they've got good songs are lousy performers 'cos (like me) they close down in front of an audience,fearing being judged-and taking themselves too seriously or are too egotistical and show-offy-either way not being generous-spirited enough to include the audience and engage with them when they're playing-and really CONNECTING fully with the song they're putting over......

I've been reading 2 Dylan books recently and that guy was like a sponge in his early days-carefully watching other great performers and picking out the inspirational things that made them great-and different from the crowd- and using that knowledge to make his own performance better..My girlfriend reminds me of him in that respect..That hunger for learning..

Also music theory and how to expand your knowlege of chords..I've known my mate and brilllliant songwriter Harper Stephens for 18 years.He knows the way all the chords work from diminisheds to flat 9 +s etc and the theory behind them,but i've never really tapped his brain on that..She meets him once and instantly starts picking his mind about all those things-and is now learning all the music theory..Its really inspired me to want to do the same..

Learning a totally new way of using chords and how they're interelated..I know it'll open up a whole new world of expression and creative possibilities
I've never wanted to just get stuck fast in the world of G-C-Am-D like (even multi-platinum artists) do..I've never understood that..There's so,so much more..Different scales,styles rythms.. Why restrict ourselves to so little?

Even with lyric writing,there's so much brilliant poetry to read to inspire and feed and open up the imagination and get different approaches (not that i've done that yet lol)...

Everything i've done up to this point i've done totally on instinct-but i'm thinking if i'm serious about moving forward artistically (i am) there so much more i can do to improve myself on all fronts..

I actually think i've been pretty lazy as a musician and just been coasting along-but i really don't think i'm the only one...All this kinda stuff i'm talking about seems (amazingly) not considered important generally or even thought about...
Getting good on your instrument and learning recording techniques are considered so important and valuable generally -i'm not denying they're valuable-but the actual songwriting surely is FAR MORE IMPORTANT-yet the skills and tools and inner attitude involved in getting better at that is rarely even mentioned.....Its very strange..

Anyway,i plan to get an education (maybe)

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never never band

2/11/2009 6:11:21 PM

I dont know how much theory you have so far but 'THE COMPLETE IDIOTS GUIDE TO MUSIC THEORY" is a GREAT book.
(Michael Miller...ALPHA publishing. www.idiotsguides.com)
I've been looking for a starter book for my music classes and this is the one I like best.
I've been doing the entire book in the evenings and doing the exorcises and it seems like you could do it on your own in about a month.
A lot of it will be stuff you know, but really getting it right gets rid of a lot of cognitive dissonance I think.
Lots of great introductory tips on harmony and arranging...if you get this book and really do it stepping up to sophisticated chord theory and arranging will go a lot faster....
again I dont know how much theory you have, but for me just revisiting all the concepts and practicing scoring a simple sight reading has been good for me..
It's cool to figure out just exactly what it is that you know and you Dont know...

I have a whole other process I use to teach guitar as it's a LOT different than piano jut in how it works, but getting my kids (and me) to get some core theory is making everyone play better and understand what it is that they've been doing all along...

especially for someone like you who already has a sound and a style and wont be ruined by it...as some musicians are.

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Bryon Tosoff

2/11/2009 6:31:22 PM

That is good that you have picked up on the Steve...but I still think you are a natural at song writing and production and have a real feel with painting a picture with your words and music....As for the Theory and the various aspects of the meat and potatoes of what makes it all work I can say you are doing yourself a big favour by moving forward with that....Now the thing is, with my teaching women are naturally more curious then men.....boys vs girls and I get the whys more from girls/women then I do from the males......women question. men just accept. most times...although there are exception to the rule...they go deeper with their curious nature...but that is what I have found in my years of teaching......again. my own opinion... but glad your girl friend has been inspiring you through her own desire to learn and motivating you to dig into the fundamentals of theory harmony....it is a pretty cool thing to know...how it all works----thanks for the post.love reading your well thought out postings ....still need to get to that one other song of yours !!!!

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Dick Aven

2/11/2009 7:31:37 PM

Hey Steve,

I have to say that Bryon really nailed it when he said that you are a natural and already know how to write a song and paint a picture with sound... When I got out of college ( I was a classical oboist and jazz improvisation/sax major but a bit of a rebel) I was struck by how most of my fellow music students couldn't sing a basic melody in a way that actually sounded good. What I am getting at is that the simple three or four chord song sung and played well is a high art. I love limiting myself. Many of my favorite songs are three chords. IF a person can sing, write and play like you can a slow and steady study of theory can give you new fun playgrounds to play on but if a person can't phrase well it will only come off as BS. Much of contemporary jazz is missing simplicity and basic musical relevance to anyone outside the study of it. But great jazz is obvious and transcendent of technique.
There is always something new to learn and the best way to learn it is to apply it by using it for writing a new song. I hope your girlfriend counts you as a great teacher.

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the perfect banana

2/11/2009 7:41:27 PM

There's another side to that education equation. Some musicians get wrapped up in theory and scales to the extent that they become robotic. I remember auditioning lead guitar players for bands and often ruling out those who played too mechanically, with a fluidity that left them little access to originality.

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Bob Elliott

2/11/2009 8:18:34 PM

I have so much to say on that, Steve, that I'll have to wait for when I have more time.

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Sly Witt

2/11/2009 8:27:10 PM ---- Updated 2/12/2009 6:32:54 AM

I know exactly what you're talking about.

I agree with Byron that you're a natural. A lot of people use theory to try and do what you do by instinct. I hope I have a little of that myself.

A good friend of mine who is (was) the best musician and composer I've ever known got so far off into theory that the stuff he writes now is so cerebral and obscure that very few folks can listen to it....I just don't get it. Where did his beautiful melodies go? It's like some jazz that's technically brilliant, but it leaves me cold.

There's a guy I work with at my day job who's a guitarist. He likes to chart out my tunes and tell me what I'm doing. I can only follow him so far in his explanations before my eyes start glazing over. My brain just isn't wired that way. He can't write a song to save his life. It's funny, because it's the way we approach our jobs, as well. He's a programmer and I'm the tech 'guru' and systems administrator. He's very methodical about everything. I'm more likely to push a button to see what happens. I'd go crazy if I had to do his job and he doesn't have the temperament for mine.

BUT, I've kind of come half way to the other side in the last couple of years. I now know that I was limiting myself, and in the last year have made an effort to do the things you're talking about.... reading and practicing theory, taking online classes, etc. Heck, there's a whole load of theory lessons on youtube. I just bought a gospel piano class! The chord changes there are amazing! I'm even learning how to play other peoples tunes! I know that sounds weird, but I never did more than one or two covers in my bands since I was in high school.

The biggest thing I've done in the last year is to try and learn to play the guitar better. I was always a mostly keyboard guy who could knock out the basic chords on the guitar. I couldn't play a lead guitar lick to save my life and didn't know any of the chord variations. I've purchased some guitar courses and things that used to baffle me are getting to be second nature. I've forced myself to write a few songs using the guitar only and now I can't wait to add guitar parts to my tunes. I'm having a blast with it.

So.. I think it's good to grow. I think the formula for me is still to find what sounds right and then maybe use the theory to flesh it out....but still, the best things I've ever done have always been by accident, you know? I don't so much write my songs as 'channel' them.

We should all be as lazy as you...gosh, I see your brilliant work all over the place and I'm learning how much you do for other indie folks. Hell, I'd take a class from you in a heartbeat but I suspect that's the kind of stuff you've got to be born with, Steve.

Interesting topic. I'm so glad I stumbled into IAC.

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never never band

2/11/2009 10:41:15 PM

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never never band

2/11/2009 11:44:01 PM ---- Updated 2/12/2009 12:02:53 AM

I agree (with banana?? and other who have suggested it from time to time)) that getting too bogged down in theory can screw a musician up, mainly because many musicians don't get to experience enough freedom alongside their discipline, but someone like you Steve who already has a style and developed sense of melody and harmony isn't going to get messed up like that....
I get Suzuki students in my class and getting them to learn to improvise is so hard, it's very difficult for them and often gets them almost panicked...

But for someone who has developed musically in a looser environment, someone who has always improvised it's a different thing, for this sort of musician a little music education can be like lightening!
Especially if it causes you to play your instruments more freely and confidently.
one of my favorite music instructors is Mick Goodrick who describes this freedom and confidence on ones instrument (he's talking guitar) as ..

I love that!!!
It's so apt, as you transcend the natural mechanics of playing scales and such and begin to think in intervals, and to open up your intervals into swirls and leaps and whatever ou want, this great sensation comes where musical ideas flow right from your imagination into reality without the constraints limited ability on your axe. For a songwriter this is quite a rush, those ideas that you hear and used to have to clink and clank around for now flow out easily because you can see and feel how they will work on your instrument. It's more of a goal for me still, but I get some time on the ice now and then and it's quite an amazing thing!!

I don't think Practice and continuing hunger for information is ever a hindrance, but the goal has to be to open up more, to become looser and more confident in expression. That's one of the problems I have with Classical training, especially with very young kids is that this essential elastic side of music is not only ignored in the teaching, it Discouraged!!
So we have this strange division, a sort line drawn in the sand that should not be there. I encourage my kids to improvise over Bach! LOUD!!! It's the most natural sort of thing.
The great composers are all masters of improvisation, their whole lives are spinning melody to match the sensations of life...but they took the time to develop the other side of the brain as well so they could get the music OUT OF THEM more effortlessly and to experience the joy of musical competence, excellence!

For me, I played by ear until I was nearly in my 30s! I worked things out my own weird way and could discern pitch and interval naturally from a young age. I faked reading when I did chorus a theater because I could get away with it. But then I got a little bit of theory and something great happened, I could communicate with other musicians!! I felt confident to explain my ideas
and I started to have language for things that had until then been completely internal and misty....This is important because it helps you to store information! You know that maddening scenario where you get a great melodic idea and then the next day it's gone...? Well having some language capacity around music, some language for the intervals and some clear vision of how it all works helps store information!! Also you'll begin to see/feel intervals more easily on your instruments.
when you get a great melodic idea, can you walk right to your instrument and play it without fumbling around?
Its very cool to get this map in your head!!


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The Man With No Band

2/12/2009 12:20:43 AM

I Love this thread ... Steve, like has been pointed out ... you are a natural ... or really above a natural, but I know you don't feel that way...

I grew up studying music and theory ... I could read music at an early age (7 or 8 I think) ... and in the next few years I learned all the brass instruments, harmonica, some piano, the flute etc. etc. ... Scales were my life for a time ... Used to know all the time signatures, all the different Keys, both treble and bass cleff ... and all the tempo and fortissimo, allegro signs etc. etc. ...
and years ago I used to score my own stuff ...

but it wasn't until I was around 14 when I attended a Jazz festival that music really "took me over" ... I was a good student, up until then ... Once I got a grasp of "improv" it was all over for me and scales and theory, something just clicked (much to the chagrin of my band teacher) ... :)

I only wish I still had the dexterity left in my hands to move about the guitar ... I can tell you which chords I want to play and I even know where most of them are, but my fingers wont go there anymore ... so I've been taking up more piano lately ... but it sure is a struggle, wish I'd have stuck with it through the years ...

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Chris Hance

2/12/2009 1:10:14 AM

Very interesting viewpoints and experiences here. One thing is sure, there are so many "theories" and devices, the theory is the information, and the practise is almost always improvable, and there is almost such an infinite amount of stuff one can absorb and interperet that one never stops learning,

I wonder what sort of an education you are considering Steve? evening classes, private tutor, self educating,

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Hop On Pop

2/12/2009 7:38:30 AM

I've never really known what I'm doing.
I wouldn't mind learning, but I don't really have the time (nor the patience).

Good luck to you on this endeavour, Steve. Your music is pretty amazing, as it stands now. I'm anxious to hear what your education brings.

(But please don't go all prog on us!!!)

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2/12/2009 1:13:07 PM

good words here !

going back to Steves initial thoughts (and banana is on target!)

All the knowledge is lost in a live performance---if the artist fails to "connect" with the audience

the main problem I see over and over --is just TOOMUCHVOLUME (to cover percieved weaknesses in technique perhaps?) this is more common with bands than solo artists

also what Dick said ---a well polished performance of 3--4 chord tunes can get soooo complex in the jam that you get surprised by your own playing sometimes!!

Lastly dynamics---light and shade
nervous musos tend to play ALL the way through a tune ----it takes relaxed skill to just ease back and leave space imo!

every performer I watch --good or bad--- teaches me something!!

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2/12/2009 1:16:53 PM

I got my first ELECTRIC Guitar when I was 13 years old...

...it's been downhill ever since!!!

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Vincenzo Pandolfi

2/12/2009 5:31:29 PM


You are already a wonderful artists and songwriter. Performing live is a different thing, I have not performed in years, well apart from accompanying the choir on Sun Princess (It took me a week to say yes!!) and doing the talent show, but I can say from past experience from all the years with a very busy band, performing live improves with practice, the more you do it, the more confident you become, the interaction with your audience can work magic for you. Of course observing other performers is very educational, but then so is observing anything in life, we all learn from each other.

As far as expanding your musical knowledge one can never know enough, but remember that one of the most difficult songs to write is a simple one. I only have limited knowledge and yet I still over complicate things!!

Good luck with your mental expansion Steve, but don't underestimate yourself as an artist.


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Bob Elliott

2/12/2009 6:13:34 PM ---- Updated 2/12/2009 6:15:10 PM

I favor learning. It can't mess up someone who is a player by ear song writer. Sure can expand the world.

But my feeling was (when I started wanting understandings) that theory couldn't get across to me as well as trying to play songs where it was applied. Or I mean, just the more complex tunes? Things from the forties, 30's. Sure can learn what some of the odd chords are for by learning some of those. Or I was really into "Where Is Love?" from 'Oliver,' and "Alfie", older stuff like "Solitude" by Ellington, "Willow Weep for Me." ...ummm "Wichita Lineman"..."My Old Flame"..."On a Clear Day"...

Or just "My Funny Valentine" alone could teach a person worlds about the writing game as could "Girl from Ipanema."

Beatles Tunes are typically well chorded and usually more complex than they sound.

I mean if you try to play the actual chords (not necessarily voiced their way, but the real chords).

Then I saw a lot of what the passing chords were about.

Where you go from there is like nothing you even think about, because who knows. But as a musician-writer, you're kind of permanently changed.

Once learned to play by reading the music about 2 to 4 bars a day (at most) "Moonlight Sonata," "The Entertainer," "Solace" and Bach's Prelude in C on the piano. Had them all down pat, and not simplified versions. Did it from about 34 to 36, and I can't play any of those now or any of those above mentioned other than The Beatles. I will probably get back to some or all of those, but that was kind of what I did when I felt that hunger you're talking about.

Apart from the Beatles I can't play any of that right now, but I learned from playing them. I mean,

That and the more I'd just push myself to play live. I mean, I'd turned into a stay inside the home musician writing recording, not really able to string a few songs together to perform for people. I think that was a mistake for me. All my home stuff opens up a lot better now that I'm going live fairly often.

And then lately I've been into actually studying scales like the guitar Guimoire.... not something I'd done before, but I got to think why shouldn't I be able to play all fluently over the guitar? Some things the two jimis (jimmy) would have wrote could never be written without it.

And then there's Dylan.

And then there's TS Elliott

Pablo Nedura
Pablo Picasso...

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Bob Elliott

2/12/2009 6:16:39 PM

Before I just trail off:

A lot of people don't like to know covers, don't play 'em. That's cool and all, but you be in good company if you did. Beatles played a zillion

and Dylan

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Bob Elliott

2/12/2009 6:19:31 PM

So I have nothing against theory (I take stabs at that, too), but a minor 9 or diminished whatever can't make sense for guys like you and me unless we get to put 'em in our hands and sing to them.

One thing is these chords cradle the melody. They pillow under it.

(Really hard for me to read music, though....would sure like to. Always been pretty bad at getting that whenever I take a run at it)

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Richard Scotti

2/12/2009 6:44:37 PM ---- Updated 2/12/2009 6:55:26 PM

One of the most important things any one ever told me about music is:
You're only as good a songwriter as you are a musician. The better you are on your instrument the better songwriter you will be. If your are technical skills are lacking, you don't have the options to be unique and creative. Limited musicanship=limited songwriting.

When I first started writing songs I had written some good ones but I reached an impasse because of my lack of knowledge of guitar chords. After taking guitar lessons I was able to vary my songs and make them more interesting. But my songwriting world really opened up when I learned to play keyboards. Now I've reached a point where I really want to know more about the kind of songs that Brian Wilson writes. His piano chords and segues and progressions are this brilliant hybrid of rock/jazz/pop and so much more. The melodies and the harmonies he uses are so amazing, I feel I must learn his keyboard style and those heavenly chords where the bass root moves in unexpected ways that just takes the chord to another dimension. His song: "Imagination is one of my favorites and "God Only Knows".

It is true that too much training can be detrimental, but a lack of skill can really keep you down too. A little knowledge is usually a good thing. Intuition can only take you so far. Then you need preparation to meet opportunity.

And yes, Steve, it was Dylan's hunger for literature and philosophy that expanded his mind in terms of lyrics. He lived in someone's apartment in the village where thay owned tons of great books. And while they were at work he read every book and it exploded his consciousness. Dylan doesn't write genius words off the top of his head. He got educated,

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Bob Elliott

2/12/2009 6:49:42 PM

"You're only as good a songwriter as you are a musician. The better you are on your instrument the better songwriter you will be. If your are technical skills are lacking, you don't have the options to be unique and creative. Limited musicanship=limited songwriting. "

But then there's Lou Reed...

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The Man With No Band

2/12/2009 7:02:17 PM ---- Updated 2/12/2009 7:32:41 PM

"One of the most important things any one ever told me about music is:
You're only as good a songwriter as you are a musician. The better you are on your instrument the better songwriter you will be. If your are technical skills are lacking, you don't have the options to be unique and creative. Limited musicanship=limited songwriting. "

That's only an opinion ....

Roger Miller was one of the most prolific writers of our time ... and had hit after hit after hit ... he just intuitively knew how to put GREAT songs together ... and he was an alright guitarist but never really good ...

Another example is Johnny Cash ...

Elvis wrote some pretty fine tunes too ... and he was never much of a musician....

And Hank Williams Sr. was a four Chord dude ... but his songs still rate right up there with the best

oh and how could I forget Kris Kristofferson ... his compositions are very very good ... and again he was never much of a polished musician ...

I would agree that being proficient on one's instrument is a plus ... but surely not a necessity

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2/12/2009 7:53:49 PM

I too couldn't disagree with that one statement you made more, Richard. I've literally familiarized myself with thousands of indie artists thru IAC and the very best songwriters I know have little technical knowledge, a fair amount can barely play an instrument at all.

I'd take it a step further and say that the biggest contributor to the lack of quality songs around is that so many musicians and producers spend all their time fixating on technique and technical aspects that they leave the songwriting completely out of the equation.

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never never band

2/12/2009 8:23:59 PM

I think there's more than one thing going on here , there is songwriting, and there is creating music.
I agree that a lot of the mighty songwriters were just bangin it out on a guitar...
really we're talking poetry as much as anything, that and a natural sense of music.

And then there's making music, in a big wonderful way....
One of my music classes is covering Baba Oreilly, and that song ,That whole record actually is just so amazing to me, it sums up what I mean in a way, here you have this strange lyrical stuff, a bit elusive and artsy, good, obviously good but really it's these Monster arrangements and brilliant sonic landscapes that bring it up to the level of EPIC!!

There's more than 1 kind of song, and many ways to approach this stuff.
I like big sonic landscapes, that was what Mark and I went for with the last 6 pieces we did. And it's what I hunger for, but it's so demanding, it consumes you so utterly to try that sort of thing..

For the past few years I like quirky, jazzy tunes with lots of guitar, that's what I do at home to stay inteested and keep my chops up, It's great because I can finish a tune in a day, if I ever get a day........

But making a record!!!, that is different...
It's about coming up with a concept, be simple or gigantic, and following it to it's conclusion, and the more skill you have the further you can go. I really hope to give that sort of thing at least one more go.
So creating songs can mean a lot of different things.....

and then there's Jazz......



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2/12/2009 9:54:28 PM

I find it intriguing from a psychological vantage point that 5 people came on this blog to tell Steve I. how wonderful he is. That's not to say his music isn't pretty fair but it's not the shining orb on the horizon. :D

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Night Krawler Blues

2/12/2009 10:09:48 PM

so what, we know his music is good bluto..it was more to say hey , you are doing a good thing seeking to improve your skill set and understanding of the fundamentals of theory, not to laud his music, although that was done to some degree...

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Bob Elliott

2/12/2009 10:36:09 PM

Where's Popeye when you need him?

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never never band

2/12/2009 11:35:09 PM

Whats your issue here Bluto? (from a psychological vantage)


Steve can write, he's an obvious talent, no one is saying ANYONE here is a "shining orb on the horizon"

do you need some attention?

what amazes me is that people on this thread are saying a Lot more than that, there's thoughtful discussion going on about education and songwriting and here you're hung up because steve got a few compliments.....?

that seems strange...from a psychological vantage.

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2/12/2009 11:55:26 PM

I find it intriguing from a psychological vantage point that you are so concerned about my comment. :D

To me it just seemed like there was some sort of obligatory stroking going on before each person added to the discussion, it seemed out of place. Nothing against the blogger himself, I'm just fascinated by the strange customs here.

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Conversation Suicide

2/12/2009 11:59:28 PM

HOokay..... NOw back to the subject at hand.

MANY Punk & Experimental/Art Noize, goth/emo, screamo and industrial bands & other types of underground or hardcore/ black metal bands have started from people who could barely play their instruments -- but follow the careers of these folk..... Whether it be actual Higher Education in Music or the Recording Arts & Sciences, or SELF-Study, these fuckers ALL learned tons, and usually went on to do MUCH more complex music!

Everybody has raised some good points up in here.

I say HERE HERE to more education, from self-study & LIFE, OR from a music-related degree, Or a little of BOTH !!!!! -pHLeGm

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Richard Scotti

2/13/2009 6:20:14 AM ---- Updated 2/13/2009 6:28:56 AM

Father Time wrote:
I too couldn't disagree with that one statement you made more, Richard. I've literally familiarized myself with thousands of indie artists thru IAC and the very best songwriters I know have little technical knowledge, a fair amount can barely play an instrument at all.

I'd take it a step further and say that the biggest contributor to the lack of quality songs around is that so many musicians and producers spend all their time fixating on technique and technical aspects that they leave the songwriting completely out of the equation.

My response: That's highly subjective.
Musicians who can barely play an instrument are unlikely to be great songwriters.
They may think they are great and you might think they are great but that's where the subjectivity kicks in. Also, we're talking about writing, not producing and in my opinion the biggest contributor to the lack of quality in songs is that so many songwriters are in denial about their talents or lack thereof. Thinking you're great and being great...well, never the twain shall meet. I've heard many songwriters who think they are god's gift to music who a) can't sing in tune b) can't play a guitar well c) can't even tune a guitar d) play the same chords in every song and all of this is about denial.

Denial is the biggest contributor to the lack of quality songs in my opinion because many egos far exceed one's talent. There are exceptions to every rule. Dylan was never a great guitarist but he is obviously a great songwriter. But how Dylans are there out there? But even Dylan has gotten better at music theory and many of his new songs have a jazzy quality because he's using chords he's never used before. Even Dylan can learn new things. Once you think you know it all, you realize you can always learn more. That's how artists improve, by honing their craft. Dylan's lyrics always compsensated for his lack of musical skill, but how many writers have you met who are not good musicians but can write lyrics like Dylan? They may think they are the next Dylan or whatever but again the intrusion of reality bursts their denial bubble time and time again.

The best songwriters are hungry to learn new ways of playing and new concepts about theory. The ones who brag the most about being the "next big thing" are the ones in the most denial who spend more time overcompsenating for their lack of talent with hyping their work than tuning their guitar or learning to sing on pitch. The amount of bragging one does is inversely proportional to the amount of talent he or she has. Great artists don't need to say they're great. Their talent does the talking.

As I mentioned, there are ALWAYS exceptions to EVERY rule but they are few in number, many less than you imply. To be great you need more than ego and intuitive creativity. You need to work harder than the next person because this is a competitive field if you want to move ahead. To negate the virtue of real talent and skill and continued learning is somewhat naive. When you fly on a plane do you want a skilled pilot or one that flies by the seat of his pants? Skill trumps ego every time.

And yes, Lou Reed is not a good msucian but he's a great songwriter because he writes great lyrics and has other skills that make his songs unique but again he's an EXCEPTION to the rule. According to you FT, there are 1000's of Dylans and Lou Reeds out there. In my opinion that is simply not true.

I will concede that there are many virtuoso musicians who can't write a great song but it's not their musical prowess that hinders their inability to do so, as you seem to suggest; it's the fact that they may lack the artistic creativity or the intuitive natural ability to create something from nothing. The Beatles never knew how to write a note of music but obviously they had other gifts, so I'm not rejecting your whole argument. I'm just saying that your generalizations have gone too far in one direction. Nothing is that black or white. I'm just trying to bring out the shades of gray. There is merit in what you are saying and I respect what you are trying to say. But there's a common ground between our two opinions and I always look for the common ground. "Thousands of indie artists" you've known sure sounds like a lot. Maybe it's "hundreds?"

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Kevin White

2/13/2009 6:26:23 AM

I learning how to play music in Mandarin.

Or am I learning how to play the Mandolin?

Damn this senility ...

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Hop On Pop

2/13/2009 6:29:47 AM

Richard and Scott,
To your point: it comes down to one thing:

Overall, I don't think that it will ever hurt anyone to learn theory. And, really, all it can do IS to help. The problem is when someone who learns all this theory starts leaning on it too heavily, instead of actually LISTENING to what she or he is writing.

One still has to be their own worst critic in order to release quality music.

And, I also think that there is more than one way to skin a drummer, as learning "theory" does not necessarily have to come down to memorizing the Circle of Fifths and all of the scales and modes. It just has to do with paying attention to what you're doing and WANTING to make new connections and to FIND new ways to actually create something new.

I do not consider myself "God's Gift", but I do consider myself a curious musician and songwriter who is always looking for a new way.

I do think that, no matter whether you approach theory academically or organically, a musician has to be open and has to pay attention to what they are doing. That is the only way that there will be something truly new created (if that is possible anymore).

After all, the 12-tone system and all the scales and modes were invented by paying attention and listening. (As were, I'm sure, all the microtones.)

Listen, and pay attention. And, if you want to know the NAMES of what's what (which does help for communication, of course) then look it up and ask around.

Even if you are studying theory, you need to ask questions. After all, isn't that the basis for any truly great education -- asking questions and interacting?

thus ends my ramble.

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Sly Witt

2/13/2009 6:34:52 AM

Bluto said, "I find it intriguing from a psychological vantage point that 5 people came on this blog to tell Steve I. how wonderful he is. That's not to say his music isn't pretty fair but it's not the shining orb on the horizon. :D"

I'm going to break my rule about responding to seemingly troll-like behavior.

Maybe some folks DO consider Steve and some others here as 'shining orbs'. Isn't that a bit of why we're here?

That aside, perhaps if you started a thread about how you weren't sure if you had developed enough skills to be critical and obfuscatory, folks might jump in and say "acting like a jerk comes naturally to you" even though some consider you only a "pretty fair" jerk.

I believe that we ALL and our creative endeavors, even yours, ARE shining orbs.

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2/13/2009 7:15:22 AM ---- Updated 2/13/2009 7:16:05 AM

Richard, I didn't say artists can't improve their craft. The more songs they write, the better they get, usually. The problem is that so many musicians get fixated with learning to play Eruption or playing producer that they stop appreciating the value of songwriting, then the most important part of the whole thing is lost. Having to listen to so much indie music as I have, I hear so many well produced non-songs, well produced shitty songs, and songs with not one ounce of originality with great musicianship. As far as I'm concerned there are endless great players and great singers and great technicians but the truly gifted songwriters are not so common, they stick out like a sore thumb. Many of them don't have classical training or any skill at all in technology.

And yes, this is based on thousands. Maybe you don't know my role at IAC. I co-founded the site and brought many of the artists here.

Your argument about ego is offbase also. Most of the greatest rock acts have overwhelming egos. Lennon compared himself to Jesus. Townshend trashed the Stones and his peers often in the Who's glory days. Cobain did the same with the other bands from Seattle. Jimmy Page has never wavered from thinking Zep is the greatest of all time. Elvis was the King and pointed that out often. Chuck Berry was the cockiest of all of them and he's maybe the true father of rock and roll.

Most of the good songwriters know they are good and if you get to know them you'll catch them in the frame of mind when they aren't playing humble. I always find it laughable this thing that if you're good, you aren't allowed to say so, this so called unwritten rule. I will always check out an artist more quickly if they show a lot of confidence in their work. Playing humble when you feel that way is phony if you ask me. I have known a lot of good musicians who ascribe to this attitude from the home recording communities and I believe the reason some resent the cocky artists is because they wish they had the balls to say the same so they're jealous of those who are outspoken because of all the words they don't allow themselves to say.

Also, learning a few jazz chords is not what I'm talking about. Having taken music theory courses myself, I found that much of it has little use in rock and pop music, or folk, country or soul either. Not saying that it's all a total waste because it's not, but I believe the time would be much better spent in most cases just writing more and more songs, not settling for shit songs to record. If you don't have a song that stands on its own pretty well, you don't need to make a new mp3. Wait until you write a song worthy of taking to the next step. Songwriting is a skill that doesn't have nearly as much to do with some kind of formal music education as it has to do with actually getting out in the fields and picking cotton. If you do enough of that you become skilled, you may even get to the point that you know what chords go behind the song you're singing in your head before you pick up your guitar.

Not sure where you got that I said there are thousands of Dylans out there. All I said was that the best songwriters I've become familiar with in Indieland aren't PHDs in music, they simply loved music and worked at their songwriting. Many of them can't read music and have no clue what that one tricky chord in their song is called.

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Bryon Tosoff

2/13/2009 7:21:57 AM

Just want to clarify what Todd brought up about TALENT

Todd yes indeed it is TALENT that stands out as the most important aspect for sure , which we have been given in various measurable degrees , some more then others yes.........but people sometimes confuse some ones talent or gifts with a SKILL, so depending on how much we develop that TALENT it will become a SKILL.....so when someone says, look how talented that person is, yeah but how much effort did they put into what they did to achieve that level of skill and ability with the natural innate talent they were given

The other components or elements for an individuals talents are the influences others have had in a persons development as a musician , songwriter performer.
Teachers, friends. other musicians that push a musician to that next level
But ultimately it is that ambition, desire and drive that gets a person to grow their talent and become proficient and an expert at what they do.......

Just a thought....

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2/13/2009 7:53:03 AM ---- Updated 2/14/2009 8:17:18 AM

Nice thread folks!

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Bryon Tosoff

2/13/2009 7:57:42 AM

Yeah, Auset is back

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Sly Witt

2/13/2009 8:11:04 AM

I think we're talking about the difference of being an artist and/or a craftsman. The artist gets inspired, the craftsman creates. A good artist needs to develop his craft.

I think it's important, at least for me, to keep practicing the craft even when I'm not feeling particularly artistic. It's the times when I'm forcing myself to craft, that artistic inspiration has a chance to express itself.

The best craftsman isn't necessarily the best artist and the best artist isn't necessarily the best craftsman.

It's a wonderful thing when both sides of the equation peak at the same time.

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Richard Scotti

2/13/2009 9:52:18 AM

Yes, Scott/Father Time , I'm well aware of your background and I think we both made some good points. You may have misunderstood a couple of things I said and I may have misunderstood a couple of things you said but think it was a good discussion about an important topic.

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Steve Ison

2/13/2009 10:49:42 AM ---- Updated 2/13/2009 11:15:40 AM

Woh..Thanks everyone for such creative contributions-and making this such an interesting,enlightening thread..So many stories too..Really cool,much appreciated :)

DT Chris..Only self educating-i'm far too impatient to take classes or anything lol

NeverNever Frater..Thanks for the book recommendation..I looked it up on Amazon and it looks really interesting-thanks :)

Bob..I'm totally with that about learning other songs you love and getting fed by them..I've learnt so much from that...Even for me with really simple chord changes that move me its fascinating..Like a big thing for me a few years ago was hearing the effect a G-E major (C-A etc) chord relationship change had..I'd hear it so much in early Stones,Velvets,Bowie,T.Rex-and its like i started playing around with that vibe myself and developing my own freedom of expression relating to those chords to a point they started sounding natural and good in my own songs..

F.T..I don't think Richard was blaming ego in the way you think-other than it can make artists delusional about their abilities...What do you think made the makers of those shitty well produced songs you mention think they were so ace? EGO!

The pop/rock world-ruled as it is-by glamour and the endless quest for fame and adulation-naturally creates an endless stream of overblown mediocrity posing as brilliance..Its THE major theatre of delusion..

The fact that someone like Oasis can continue to be big,well respected players with their (s)lumbering, slow-witted pop/rock (for instance) is testament to the fact songwriting standards are a pretty lowly valued commodity in the modern scheme of things..Noel Gallaghers got ego enough for a 1000-the endless praise and boquets he gets for sub-standard fare has made him lazy,self-satisfied and retarded his development as a songwriter tho-no question.......

As well as instilling in modern bands hungry for fame a low songwriting benchmark...An attitude of 'thats all i need to succeed'....The modern marketplace dosn't demand anything more from its artists unfortunately tho-It wants personalities,voices and well produced whatever first and foremost.....It really is a vicious circle..

The EGO usually says "I'VE done this-therefore its great"....

The fantastic artists you mention had big ego's for sure-but had a well developed sense of objectivity tempering them, so they could see clearly what was great-and what wasn't in their work and refine it till it shone...
An ideal-Their own personal vision of quality that inspired them and made them work hard artistically to create it first and foremost..
So what made them 'great' wasn't ego at all,but their individual spirit..

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The Man With No Band

2/13/2009 11:00:12 AM ---- Updated 2/13/2009 11:01:01 AM

Writing a good or great song has nothing to do with playing an instrument ....
Writing a good or great song has nothing to do with music theory ...

Some folks here think that there are two different kinds of music, (musical master pieces, and lyric driven songs) ... balderdash !

Music comes from the head ... where it's heard ... and imagined ... if you can hum, you can write a GREAT song ... maybe you can't score it, or play it, but that has NOTHING to do with writing it ... those who write great songs don't get the ideas from music theory ... they don't get their ideas from playing an instrument ... they "hear" the songs already spit shined and polished in their heads ...

If you can find someone to play it and record it then it can be heard by others ... or if you learn to do these things by yourself then you can bring them forth to the world yourself ... but that has NOTHING to do with writing a GREAT song ...

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Steve Ison

2/13/2009 11:04:40 AM

"I think it's important, at least for me, to keep practicing the craft even when I'm not feeling particularly artistic. It's the times when I'm forcing myself to craft, that artistic inspiration has a chance to express itself"

Soooo true for me too Sly..I always put in the time-and suprise myself sometimes finding an inspirational point when i didn't think i would at all when i first picked up the guitar in a mediocre mood..

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Hop On Pop

2/13/2009 12:13:27 PM

I think there is something to the fact that, once you learn theory inside and out, you internalize it and... it just becomes a part of your creativity without any conscious thought.

You CAN think about the form -- and that is where the whole craftsman portion comes in -- it's another tool. But, the artistry comes from inside the artist. And, if the artist knows theory as fully as he/she can, it just becomes a part of them. And it can make that art flower even more fully than it did before.

If that artist has... talent. (Which also comes from within.) The talent and the knowledge can stew around inside the artist like ingredients in a stew and each can mingle with the flavor of the other, to make for a richer brew.

How's that for metaphor?

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The Man With No Band

2/13/2009 12:20:09 PM

Pretty good Todd ...

The best example I can think of is Beethoven ... he wrote his best tunes "AFTER" he was deaf ... it's inside ...

I once had a conversation with a gal and when I told her about the music I "hear" inside ... she told me I was crazy ... up until that point in time I truly believed Everyone heard music playing in their heads ... so I was really taken aback by her comments ...

but I hear those symphonies ... and although I did study music theory ... it was already there ... I thought it was the same for everyone ... and I can't imagine a life without hearing those sounds constantly in my head ...

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Chris Hance

2/13/2009 12:21:11 PM

"DT Chris..Only self educating-i'm far too impatient to take classes or anything lol"

Well, hmm, I think theres nothing that patitent tutors will worry about the speed of learning, a good tutor will identify strenghths and weaknesses, and hopefully prepare an appropriate syllabus that he or she will discuss with you as to your own aspirations,

Personally, I've had a bit of both,
self learning in exile, I tried playing pages of Herbie Hancock tran_scriptions , amongst other stuff, I played gigs in a cw band round the highland league soccer clubs... I found a book "Introducing The Dots" by Eggs "Dave Stewart" pretty good with loads of explanations of intense stuff broken down into a more simple to understand way, and including some humour... much required when learning tricky licks, and also plenty examples of his own compositions
and then a "2yr fulltime college cert" as a mature student, led me to some basic piano teaching jobs,
College was hard at my age... but interacting with so many musicians from so many backgrounds in a learning enviroment rubs off on you and does enable you to glean much more, but in a different way than self learning,

I also had a piano teacher as a 7yo, but the bloggers dont need to read about that.........

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Conversation Suicide

2/13/2009 12:29:10 PM

Again I'll say it :

Whether you're a GOOD songwriter/crafter, or a GREAT one -- HERE HERE to more Music education; from self-study & LIFE, OR from a music-related degree, Or a little of BOTH !!!!! -pHLeGm

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Richard Scotti

2/13/2009 12:32:34 PM ---- Updated 2/13/2009 12:48:05 PM

Steve - thank you for pointing out to Father Time what I meant about ego.
I appreciate the perceptive clarification.

Most great artists have big egos. But there are many artists who have big egos and small talent.
Therein lies the rub.

Father Time: I don't know where you got the idea that I said you need Phd's to make good music.
I never said that. I also never said one needs a "formal education" in music in order to be a good songwriter but it does take dedication and practice. There's no subsitute for skill.

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Hugh Hamilton

2/13/2009 1:23:56 PM

Hi, Steve - I hope digging into some "theory" will be fun and rewarding for you. It strikes me as one of a zillion ways to find inspiration and move forward. Do it up. After you've been at it for 10 or 15 years you can start talking to Mr. Aven about some of the finer points (lol).

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2/13/2009 2:14:29 PM

mmmm Lou Reed!!

no one has mentioned ---Drugs!!

Lsd and weed----in the late 60s and 70s---- much inspiration came!!!!

Alcohol though?? ----no good for creativity---just good for falling over!!!

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2/13/2009 2:37:26 PM ---- Updated 2/13/2009 2:43:41 PM

Steve, you must not have read the full exchange. I was discussing the fact that most of the best songwriters I know are not possessed of a formal music education and Richard answered that by saying more or less that the folks I was talking about may think they're good but not necessarily so. He said

"The amount of bragging one does is inversely proportional to the amount of talent he or she has. Great artists don't need to say they're great. Their talent does the talking."

This is what he was talking about that I disagree with. Not whether or not a band like Oasis puts out songs not fitting their ability. It's absurd to say if an artist toots their own horn, they must be bad.

Richard, I was stating my opinion there, not yours, about PHDs. You accused me of saying there are thousands of Dylans out there and I was clarifying it because I said nothing at all of the kind. heh

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Dick Aven

2/13/2009 3:44:13 PM ---- Updated 2/13/2009 3:47:40 PM

There is always more to learn. Tapping the resources of new knowledge is a great inspiration for writing. And so is limiting oneself to a minimalistic approach. ..Whatever gets you moving. Maybe just picking up a new instrument...

I had a sax teacher when I was 13 (Joel Phillips) who thought I'd be better off learning theory than taking sax lessons from him. He now teaches theory at West Minster Choir College.
After one lesson on chords from him I went home and started reading the melody line and chords (gtr chords above the melody line) in my mom's popular-song piano books. In one day I went from noodling on the piano to playing (cheating if you will) one pop song after another. What I learned there took me to reading chords while improvising on sax over jazz, pop and blues tunes. And soloing by ear on live gigs over whatever was being played was greatly enhanced by learning to pick out the bass note and then the chord function.

Jazz harmony theory used for improv is one of the best (imo) ways to learn to apply chord and scale relationships in a practical way. Another is playing guitar or piano and singing at the same time. It can teach intuitively what to do and (especially gtr) teaches rhythm coordination.

Rhythm and form study is very often under-valued as a resource for growth.

At the end of the day you want to like what you hear yourself doing and not sound like you are a wanker (subjective).

At one point I was over playing sax but I eventually came back around to it by focusing on blues for a few years. What I learned refreshed my playing so much that I often say that blues was my "saxual healing". FINALLY I'm playing and singing, blues, jazz, country, folk, rock, whatever, everywherever....

Lately, I've started learning to play and sing covers (and originals) on ukulele. It is really quenching the thirst I have for making simple music accessible and fun again.

That's it! Keep it FUN while learning anything and everything you can.....
Education is an ongoing effort.

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Richard Scotti

2/13/2009 4:38:21 PM

Father Time wrote:
I've literally familiarized myself with thousands of indie artists thru IAC and the very best songwriters I know have little technical knowledge, a fair amount can barely play an instrument at all.

My response:
You said THE VERY BEST SONGWRITERS you know have little technical knowledge. Dylan has very little technical knowledge but is one of the very best songwriters, therefore you I assumed that you have seen the likes of Dylan thousands of times. I'm just trying to interpret what you are attemping to articulate.
And it wasn't an "accusation". It was an observation. You're over reacting to comments that are not meant in a negative way. We can agree to disagree without using words like "heh" . If I said something that offended you, it wasn't intentional
and I apologize.

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2/13/2009 5:04:34 PM

No prob, Richard. I'm not reacting strongly, just trying to clarify. As you see by what you quoted, I wasn't talking about mainstream artists but the indies I know from here and elsewhere. It seemed as if you made a segue between the people I think are the best songwriters I know and this issue of ego and braggadocio and this didn't register for me because some of these artists are very self deprecating anyway. Even if they weren't, I don't mind seeing them express a strong belief in their music.

The word heh isn't really as negative as you think. It's more of an exclamation at oneself for making a strong comment.

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Steve April

2/13/2009 5:37:54 PM

Well, that's a good dialogue lol...

I might note that Dylan, for example, comes up with memorable melodies, most of us could prob'ly hum 30 dylan songs, and that's a rare achievement by dylan, whether he is technically an expert or not. or put another way, his music (melody, lyrics) reach people's sensibilities, so they wanna remember (and are able to hum) his songs.

there's a kind of magic there....a kind of mythic simplicity often a hallmark of virtuosos in the field e.g. e=mc2.

my two cents.....

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Bob Elliott

2/13/2009 6:03:01 PM

Bartender...can you get us another round here???

Now look, one thing this conversation has had way too much of is underestimation of Dylan's musical abilities. You could only say the dude didn't know much about the instrument if you never actually played one of his own acoustic guitar arrangements of one of his songs back in the first several albums.

This guy obviously practiced til his fingers were pained many many many hours....

Just because you can play his tunes using simple unembellished chords doesn't mean he did. He's got picking styles, he's got built in riffs, he's got it all pretty deep.

And I know I'm the one who mentioned Lou Reed, but even he shouldn't be underestimated. He was working as a pro songwriter in one of those hit making machines. He clearly understands a thing or two about how songs get put together, and he clearly is a student of those things if you follow his work a bit.

And he and Dylan were much better than most people at the poetry, and feelings...

Which brothers and sisters is the thing that makes it all so undefinable and unending and beautiful..there are so many dimensions, human dimensions right into the depths of time, of soul, of evolution....

Math emotion shapes ....just think of it...it's all through us...

Whoa. Maybe hold off on that drink bartender....


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Kevin White

2/13/2009 6:12:48 PM

And so what have we learned so far?

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Richard Scotti

2/13/2009 6:42:18 PM

No problem, Father Time. Peace!

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Dick Aven

2/13/2009 6:53:33 PM

This is a discussion on the value of music theory, not a class, Mr. White. But if anyone is interested in learning some aural skills you can purchase Joel Phillips' book. He's always been an amazingly clear teacher. But he won't teach anything about writing lyrics or getting a gnarly electric guitar sound or getting rid of STDs....


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2/14/2009 9:39:31 AM

Could someone recommend a good book on getting rid of STDs? Thanx!

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Steve Ison

2/14/2009 9:58:44 AM

What are STDs?

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The Man With No Band

2/14/2009 10:02:48 AM ---- Updated 2/14/2009 10:14:33 AM

See my The STUPID thread Lyin Dan ... :)

Story number Six ... Sex Drugs and Rock and Roll .. :)

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Bryon Tosoff

2/14/2009 10:32:03 AM

Dick has hit it right on.....and his offering here basically has said it all.

Great Post Mr Aven....thank you .and may I add that I have learned a great deal as I have taught music over the last 25 years.
I have had to re-invent myself numerous times in order to keep this part of my vocation interesting and widened my ability to make more money by offering specialized classes in jazz that I have developed

And over the years I have become a better teacher of theory , piano and the various styles of music I perform as well........anyways I think Education of any kind is vital to a persons growth and self empowerment and it also raises and elevates a human beings level of awareness and abilities...that is all I can say about that

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Steve April

2/14/2009 10:37:54 AM

I listen to bach...A fountain of creativity, for humble moi, the gift that keeps on giving...

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Bryon Tosoff

2/14/2009 10:48:39 AM

Say Steve A .yeah Bach, He was a genius alright, so was Beethoven , but the fact is all of those composers as youngsters and young men did not have the onslaught of competition of video games, tv sports, (maybe women were their source of problems and perhaps inspiration ...hahaha). and the whole slew of what is bombarding us these days, some is good of course, like I have students who come in with video game songs that they have printed out . so I guess they can be inspired

Quiet time is a thing of the past...., just peace and quiet.....too much noise around us....I am going in my room and closing the door and meditate........drift off.....zzzzz

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Steve April

2/14/2009 12:03:29 PM

Yeah, might wanna check out Poor Billy "Sct. Christopher," 1so creative & lou reedish via Denmark, touching on so many themes like "what is bombarding us," a very creative vibe and musicality. after 20 listens or so, i'm grooving on the closing "rap," and hey i lived near sutter st. in s.f. for many years....he's got me covered...lol... http://iacmusic.com/artist.aspx?id=44811

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Bryon Tosoff

2/14/2009 5:59:36 PM

yeah Steve ,thanks for the suggestion. added Poor Billy "Sct. Christopher per your idea there...great songs btw
like them a lot and added one you recommended to What the Folk

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denise cascione

2/14/2009 6:32:57 PM

believe in yourself and your music...just do what you love....

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Sly Witt

2/15/2009 10:45:14 AM


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