I was talking with a student of mine, who just so happens to be 89 years old, about the blues. She loves playing the blues (which is very fun to teach an 89 year old, by the way) and got excited when she realized she could add a few notes to the original simple blues shuffle I had shown her to “spice it up.” She then said something that I thought was so cool. She said “it’s just like how I make cakes. I’m always trying to throw in new ingredients or try something new. Sometimes it turns out great, sometimes it’s bad, but it’s always fun.”
This really struck a chord with me. It made me think of how a lot of different types of people approach different types of music. This seems especially true for the difference between the classical music tradition, and the jazz and blues tradition. Often times, (I especially noticed this while attending college for music, unfortunately) these two camps look down on each other. This is ridiculous. Both traditions require an extreme amount of dedication; they just so happen to be different types of dedication.
In this blog, I wanted to talk about the validity of both of these disciplines, using the analogy of baking a cake that my student mentioned.
Firstly, let’s talk about the classical tradition. As a musician who mainly focused on jazz, I have an incredible amount of respect for the discipline these guys and gals put into their craft, and every jazz or blues musician should. If you need any evidence of this, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie both loved it, and would call going to orchestra performances “going to church.” Parker even used to carry around Stravinsky scores in his bag with him to get new inspirations from. If it’s good enough for them, then it’s good enough for you.
So how would people of this discipline make a cake? The answer is simple: perfectly. They would follow the recipe exactly how the person who wrote it intended. They would bake multiple cakes perfecting every little minute detail until it was exactly how it should be. This is how they practice their music. A composer writes out a score and has an exact idea of how he or she wants it to be, and musicians honor that. It’s incredible what these musicians do. Practicing the same measure repeatedly until every little nuance is just right. This makes it possible for the music of the great minds of history to live on just how they intended it to. I can listen to Brahms the same way now as someone did back when one of his pieces was first premiered. Their ideas live on through the discipline of these musicians following an exact recipe, and the thought of the power of that often leaves me speechless.
I don’t get why so many other musicians dog on this craft. To be frank, I think it’s because they could never do what these true classical musicians do. The patience and attention to detail is phenomenal and should be respected. If they were to bake a cake, it would be exactly what your idea of a cake is. Just because they may not be doing something original, they are creating art much like how sculptors or still life painters might.
Now what about the jazz and blues cats? Their discipline is a lot different, and unfortunately is sometimes looked down upon, or even not considered a discipline. Just because you’re improvising, or making things up as you go, on stage, does not mean you didn’t spend countless hours practicing before that moment. People who look down on this discipline also probably don’t understand the bravery you have to have to get on stage and try to express something new in your own individualistic way.
How would these guys bake a cake? Well they’d have fun with it. They’d experiment with the recipe. This is risky, however. Taking this chance might end up making the cake pretty gross. The fact that there’s a possibility of making it even better, though, make this effort worth it. Hey, sometimes even if the cake looks a little funky, it doesn’t mean it’s not delicious. What people tend to forget, musicians and listeners alike, is that even if you’re experimenting with throwing in some new ingredients, or taking a chance with the cooking directions, you still need to have a rough idea of how to make a cake. Good jazz and blues musicians know the basics of making a cake just as deeply as a classical musician, but just in a different way. They may not being able to make it as perfectly, but they know the fundamentals, and through hours of experimentation know what they can do with those ideas to make it into something new. This is exactly what a jazz or blues artist does. They take the basic structure of a song, and through trying new ingredients and cooking directions, can make it into something all their own.
Obviously, finding a blend of both of these disciplines can help you with your own musical journey. If you’re a listener, keep these ideas in mind to really appreciate what it is that you’re hearing. Realizing what musicians have gone through to bring the sound you’re hearing to your ears can sometimes make it all the more inspirational and mesmerizing. I know that’s certainly the case for me.
Anything you’d like to add? Leave a comment below? Any questions? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Guitar Instructor, Co-Owner
Falls Music School