If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know I like to relate things large and small that have influenced me musically and as a guitar teacher. Some years there are a lot of things, some years very few. My hope is that anyone reading my ramblings will find some little thing to take away that may open their eyes and ears a bit or make them a better guitar player. Taking it a bit further, I think it’s often a good and healthy exercise to question our beliefs and our standards. That can definitely relate to music, both the making of it and listening and absorbing what’s being heard.
For quite a while now I’ve been trying to step back and make value judgements about my own long-held musical ideas and beliefs. In many cases I feel the need to boil down what I’m hearing and try to figure out just where the writer was coming from. If I’m successful at that I feel I can decide about whether a particular artist or even a genre is worth investing my time in as a guitar teacher.
The ease of access online to almost limitless types of music and those playing it is a double-edged sword. As a guitar teacher I certainly appreciate being able to hear and analyze just about any song recorded in the last 50 or so years. I’m constantly searching for new artists whose music is worth exploring and if one of my students requests a song or music by an artist I’m not familiar with I can quickly and easily find that person or song. Hopefully, that artist or song has something in it that will be of value to not just that one student but many. If that’s the case then it’s certainly worth the time and effort to learn and chart out that song – and maybe others by that artist who is new to me.
Where it gets sticky is how I try to balance the student’s interests and tastes with my beliefs about the value of spending time learning songs that I sometimes feel are a waste of a student’s valuable learning time. In the last year (here I go with the “in the last year” thing!) I’ve come to the conclusion that there is depressingly large amount of disposable, derivative and calculated pop music being foisted on younger listeners. I’m pretty sure that my dad and other good musicians of his time said pretty much the same thing about the Beatles and the Stones and Motown that were a huge part of my youth, musically speaking. But at the risk of sounding like the old guy that I am, things are different now.
Look, it’s all about making money; I know that. Always has been. To my ear and mind the primary difference now compared to a generation or so ago is that the vast majority of what I hear from people like Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran is written, arranged and recorded to sound as much like what those artists have done BEFORE as possible. No chances are taken, no boundaries are pushed. After their first couple of albums the Beatles were all about taking chances and pushing boundaries. You could say the same about many of the pop artists of that time. That is the difference between then and now. Not all the artists of my youth were new and different with every new release. Some were imitative and derivative and in some cases, just downright bad. But the I still maintain that the possibility of originality was much, much more in the forefront than it is today.
Does any of that matter if you’re a young person who just wants to bang out a Taylor Swift song? Probably not, and if Taylor did try something radical and different – OK, maybe even just a little different – she probably wouldn’t sell very many downloads. The way things are, her music and Ed Sheeran’s and many other pop songwriters we could name is rather like the last meal you had at a fast food joint when you were really, really hungry. Satisfying, maybe even damn good at the time but ultimately forgettable. It served the purpose and need at the time, and that’s about all. But you knew what to expect when you went into that fast food place and they didn’t disappoint you, so it’s likely you’ll go in there again at some point. Today’s music industry knows and understands this; counts on, actually.
So how does all this relate to me personally? Well, I’ve come to a decision, one that’s likely to cost me a few students.
One of the things I do at the first lesson a student takes with me is give them a form to fill out, which I call my Student Profile. I ask them to answer a few basic questions about their previous musical experience, contact information, etc., and also who they like and listen to. In the past year or so most of my younger students (especially girls) will put down the previously mentioned artists.
I go to great lengths to try and present music to my students that they are going to know and enjoy playing. I also ask them to keep an open mind. I’ve always felt that I can demonstrate various techniques and musical concepts using just about any kind of music. Focusing entirely on acoustic guitar method eliminates some genres such as hard rock, which is fine by me. Been there, done that, don’t need to do it again.
The fact is, I really don’t like Taylor Swift. Or Ed Sheeran, very much. Or most of the “Bro Country” guys. Or pretty much any singer who depends upon AutoTune to sing in tune. So – beginning immediately I’m not going to teach that music anymore. I may be shooting myself in the foot, teaching-wise but I also feel a strong obligation to stay true to what I feel is worthwhile from a learning perspective. If I can’t muster enthusiasm for a genre or the music of a specific artist, I can’t convey enthusiasm when I teach that music and a big, big part of my job is being a cheerleader. I think I’m a pretty damn good one most of the time and I don’t want to lose that skill!
There are other guitar teachers in the area who I’m sure are very much ready, willing and able to teach Taylor and Ed songs. Bless their hearts, as my grandmother used to say. Who knows? Maybe the next Taylor or Ed will emerge from ol’ Cape Cod thanks to the efforts some local guitar teacher. But it won’t be me.
Peace & good music (with emphasis on “good”),