How having varied musical experiences can enrich us as musicians

I hope you‘re having a great weekend! (And to quote the old saying – “It’s ain’t over till it’s over!)

This morning, I woke up, taught a Skype lesson to a student who lives in Australia (not near the wild fires), responded to a few emails, and then drove into Manhattan to play organ at a church. I gave up my steady church organ/choir director position over a decade ago in order to keep my schedule flexible on weekends, and now I enjoy playing at various churches when I get the occasional call to sub for someone.

In this case, my friend Anna called me because she had another commitment today and couldn’t make the service. (What goes around comes around – I originally met Anna when I asked her to sub for me at the reform synagogue where I play and lead the choir. Now, she asks me to fill in for her as well.)

This morning’s church service was at a church in midtown where they sing a lot of Gregorian Chant. My role was to lightly accompany the vocalists while they chanted, play the hymns for the congregation, and improvise a prelude, a postlude, and short pieces throughout the service.

Here’s the interesting thing: Because I was hired to do this professionally, I was put in a musical situation a little bit unusual for me, and I came out of the experience a better musician.

Not many of us sit down at our piano or keyboard in our living room and play Gregorian Chant. Yes, we could. But we don’t. It’s because we have another type of music we’re working on, or because “that’s not piano music.” Or perhaps it’s because “That’s not rock” or “It’s not jazz.” Whatever the reason, we don’t play it very often.

But this morning, I played it for two hours.

And it was wonderful!

It took me a few minutes to get into the flow of the phrasing, since it’s all rubato. But there’s an aspect of the phrasing that’s a lot like watching ocean waves come onto the shore. After a while, it begins to seem natural.

All-in-all, the music was relaxing, beautiful, emotionally moving, and lyrical. I met a wonderful choir director and some nice and talented choristers who were singing because they love this music. When I improvised on the organ, I let the wave-like structure of the chants influence my own phrases, and brought in some of the harmonic language of the French composer Duruflé, who himself was influenced by Gregorian Chant.

A few minutes ago I sat down at my piano and played some jazz and blues, and the chant-like phrasing came out as I played this music as well. Miles Davis had it in his phrasing too, and also Elton John. They may have been influenced by chant directly or through other music that came from the same source. You hear it in spirituals and gospel too, and also in folk music. The same principles of musical phrasing underly many different musical genres, and lyrical., wave-like phrasing forms the basis of many types of music. Sometimes, a style like Gregorian Chant directly influences a seemingly-opposite type of music, such as the 1960s rock band The Mamas And The Papas, who based their vocal arrangements on Gregorian Chant. (You’ll hear it the next time you listen to “California Dreaming.”)

The main point here is that my professional musical life gives me varied musical experiences that I wouldn’t necessarily seek out on my own. If you’re a professional musician, you know this first-hand. But if you’re an avocational player who’s learning music for your own enjoyment, you may not automatically have these experiences. Instead, you need to seek them out.

If you’re a pop musician, listen to John Luther Adams’ classical piece “Become Ocean.” (Taylor Swift did, and she donated $50,000 to the Seattle Symphony after hearing their recording of the beautiful piece.). Does listening to obscure-yet-beautiful minimalist orchestral music make Taylor Swift a better musician than she’s otherwise be? You bet it does!

If you’re a rock musician, follow Keith Richards’ lead and check out Corelli’s Trumpet Concerti, or the music of Hoagy Charmichael. (Believe it or not, Richards sang “The Nearness Of You” on tour with The Rolling Stones.)

If you’re a jazz musician, try abandoning all your advanced harmonies for an afternoon and play some raw blues a la Mississippi Fred McDowell. Yes, your jazz playing will be more connected to the “source” if you do this. The teenage Bill Evans, after all, wan an expert Boogie Woogie player. The rhythmic drive he absorbed from that music influenced everything he played during his whole career, no matter how soft and delicate it could sometimes be.

Take yourself “out of your usual box” and play some different music. I was strongly reminded of the importance of doing this while playing that beautiful Gregorian Chant earlier today, and I hope you’ll do something similar this week. Play some Bach, or Blues, or Bebop, or Bossa Novas. (Or Hip Hop.) Let it refresh and invigorate you, and let it keep your usual music inspired and alive.

Have fun, enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!


PS – I’m putting the finishing touches on a new ebook; “Get Ready To Jam, Vol. 2.” It features 2-handed chord voicings for 20 famous jazz standards, and I hope to have it available at the beginning of February. I’ll let you know when you can get a copy, and it will be “pay what you want.”

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