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How Do "Troubadour" Music Skills Differ From "Regular" Music Training?

I might rewrite this and add in a great deal more detail and examples, but for now I'll keep this short and focused, and give you some examples from a recent experiences here in my non-professional life that illustrates what I want to talk about here.

My son sang in the 4th grade choir recital at our public school, and the music teacher, who had had the same job for 40 years, accompanied the children on the piano as they sang "I've Been Working on the Railroad." As I watched in amazement, she actually had someone turn the pages of the sheet music as she read the arrangement, showing that in 40 years of teaching and years of training before that she had not learned how to internalize a simple children's song, and presumably also could not play it in a different key than the one it was written in that might have been better for the group's vocal range, which in my opinion was pitched too high for the children's voices. I learned that song 50 years ago and can still play it without rehearsing in any key without consulting any written music and so can most of my musician friends. That's not a Mozart or genius activity- it's basic stuff. Any reasonably-skilled folksinger/troubadour could have likewise reviewed the chord changes and words quickly or played them from memory, and played it with much more life and mutual participation than this music teacher did, certainly in any of the 5 common guitar keys of A, C, D, E and G, and possibly added a capo to pitch the song in any of the 7 other keys so it would be exactly at the pitch where it would fit the best for that group. My troubadour colleagues and I could easily have put it in different keys for different age groups of kid singers without purchasing additional sheet music or locating helpful page turners. But since my fellow modern troubadours and I don't "read music," we can't get a degree in music and therefore are not deemed to be qualified to teach children to sing in public schools. We are instead made to feel like we are musically ignorant, and actually on paper we are unqualified to do what the job description calls for.

A "qualified" school music teacher or the church organist can be expected to read a basic arrangement of a song they haven't memorized, but it is not a matter or right or wrong– there is a completely different skillset for different kinds of musicians. I have written more than I should have about why sight-reading in general isn't that valuable, especially on the guitar, and especially when someone is singing and playing at he same time. A journeyman bluegrass banjo player could get on stage with another bluegrass band they never met and play a song or many of them that they had never heard before and would likely sound fine, as long as the band had not chosen too complex or irregular a piece of music. The band leader would announce the key, and the banjo player would probably add a capo or otherwise prepare themselves. There would be no sheet music. No charts. No parts written anywhere. The "illiterate" banjo player could be expected to listen and adopt the feel and tempo of the song, hear the chord changes, and construct both a chordal accompaniment and a solo they could play by the middle of the song after the second chorus. What they played would be similar but different to what another player might do in the same situation, but a musician who knew the idiom would know how to phrase and punctuate what they played, mesh with the other players, play some fills between lines on the song, all orchestrated by catching verbal signals or perhaps a nod from the bandleader about when to step in, solo or back off. Is this kind of musician more or less trained than the school music teacher? Of course not. They are just different skillsets, and within the framework of each musical idiom, each would be able to use their skills they way they learned to, and each would flunk tests in the other's world. Jazz gets the reputation of involving improvisation, but musicians of many other styles that aren't sight-read from the printed page are also expected to be able to create parts for themselves as they go along, hung on some kind of structural framework. Members of polka bands improvise also.

When I learn a song I didn't create myself, I generally start with what we troubadours call "chord changes," which refers to the chordal and root movement of the song. When I apply that structure while singing the melody, I then have a working framework of the song. I tried to show the other elementary school music teacher in our town how she and her young kids could play "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" on the guitar, what is what we troubadours call a 1-chord song. I knew she had the melody and words in her head and didn't need to read them. She was a 20-year veteran, trained on piano, choir and french horn, who answered that she didn't realize songs had chords, or that that was an easy song. For her, there were just notes on the page to be read, and hearing or analyzing the basic underlying structure of even the simplest song was not part of her skillset, or of her long training or 20 years of experience as a music teacher. And for her, an easy song was not something in 6/8 time with triplets, and the things that caused me to label "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" as an easy song were not at all the same criteria she would apply to measure simplicity. Also of interest is that she had no ability or inclination to transpose (shift the song to another musical pitch) anything in case the kids were straining to reach the highest or lowest notes, other than by turning a knob on her digital piano. One of the first things we troubadours do when we approach a song is to figure out the best key to sing it in, and then we develop a guitar accompaniment to match. For her, transposing to another key would mean buying new sheet music or laboriously preparing new music herself where every note was shifted up or down, and the key signature changed. She probably feels sorry for me that I can't read music, and I kind of feel sorry for her that she can't sound out the chords to nursery rhymes. It's not a good thing that musical knowledge has become so polarized and compartmentalized.

I was trying to help a friend learn guitar, and he told me that when he was young (in the 1960's) and went to a guitar teacher hoping to learn Johnny Cash songs, he was put into a Segovia-style classical guitar regimen, since that was what that teacher did. No negotiating happened. I hope I'm not the only one who thinks it's odd that someone who advertised and charged money for guitar lessons couldn't or wouldn't teach basic troubadour skills and three-chord Johnny Cash songs.

It's clear to me that there are any number of different musical skillsets, like there are in most trades. I'm a guitar guy, so I hear and learn chords pretty well, and I retain lyrics well in my head and can perform hundreds of songs from memory and improvise many hundreds more. My wife is a fiddle player, and she doesn't hear chords as well as I do, but she has a much better ear for nuances of melody and how to play fills between lines of a song. Throughout history, different musicians, like athletes, chefs, painters, scholars or craftspeople, have appeared with different strengths, aptitudes and weaknesses. To my mind, the "people's music" has done a much better job than the "schooled music" of letting each person find and focus on their strengths instead of holding everyone to a common set of standards and flunking most of them. Some people are good at harmony singing. Others aren't. Some people are good at singing a harmony above the melody in pitch, and others are better at singing under the melody. Good bass players have a bass-player's ear, and can usually quickly find and inhabit a place inside a piece of music that is the bridge between the rhythm and the chordal movement of the song. A good drummer can both follow and push a song they never heard before by feeling the cues from the song leader and listening attentively. None of this should be surprising, but it is surprising to me that there is so much confusion and disinformation about what it means to have musical knowledge, and about the fact that there are different classes of knowledge, and we needn't invoke mysticism or witchcraft when explaining how a blues band works, or how a new bass player could sit in and play a gig without ever having met the band before. When I look around at the other parents at the 4th grade concert, I wonder what they think their child is learning musically, and especially what they notice about the emotional or spiritual involvement the children have or don't have in the music they are performing. I also wonder what they understand about what their child might be learning or not learning when they take expensive piano lessons. How many people have been declared to be unmusical as a result of being measured against type of musical learning or a skillset that clashes with their natural abilities or their needs, or that is plain outmoded?

Our church has a Christmas concert every year, and a local soprano sings O Holy Night every year as a big showpiece of the concert that brings down the house. I've seen her do it a number of times now, and I can't help but notice that she holds her folder of sheet music in her hand and consults it frequently as she dramatically sings, which makes me wonder why. It is asong that plenty of people memorize, especially when they sing it regularly, and I am certain that she would sing it much better and would look much better without the big black folder pulling her eyes away from the audience every few seconds. I assume it is just what Charlie Brown's cartoon friend Linus used to call his "security blanket" and that she feels naked or exposed without it. As a lifetime troubadour, I cannot imagine doing what she does at performance time.

As I tried to get involved in my son's music education at public school, I explained to him that his mother and father didn't really play the same kind music they were teaching in school, and that we were "troubadours." The school principal told us soon after that he didn't understand, because troubadours were French noblemen from 1000 years ago, and I gave up trying to explain it to him, since he obviously looked that word up in the dictionary and found the archaic meaning and couldn't connect to the next dots. He is a smart and an educated man, but nobody ever taught him about this. So I'll dedicate this partly to him, and imagine him reading this and perhaps understanding.

This is another posting where I'm trying to raise issues and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... You deserve a reward or a door prize for making it to the end. Please check back to look for new posts as I get them done. I plan to cover a wide range of issues and topics. 

Chordally yours,