A live performance of “Lake Avondale” for classical guitar and piano featuring Jay Kacherski and Lina Morita at The University of Mississippi for Women.
As a private guitar instructor with over 20 years experience, I have noticed a disconcerting decline in the number of students who sign up for private lessons, and I was curious to learn whether or not other instructors have experienced the same thing. So, I posted the following question to a number of professional groups on LinkedIn including Classical Guitar and Guitar Instructors. Is It Still Possible to Make a Living as a Private Guitar Instructor?
Out of 45 comments so far, all respondents acknowledged the decline. Most sighted the availability of free instructional videos on YouTube as a major reason for the decline. Walter Peretiatko wrote, “Yes, YouTube has killed a lot of my guitar students…”
In addition, Eric Symons wrote,
“This is a tough subject for me to publicly discuss, as I see a trend that disturbing in the US and other so called “First World” countries. While living in a world that has kids living with inorganic mediums such as video games and computers, and less of them having exposure to music in the schools than any other generation in our history, we must accept a decline in the classical guitar…”
Others pointed to a less vigorous economy. Zane Zirkle wrote, “In a Hope and Change economy, music lessons are a luxury to the average Joe… “ .
Jack Alves wrote, “I too have noticed a slight decline in the over -all teaching biz. From music that’s not all that motivating, to “School of Rock” programs, to students who are willing to forfeit the basics…”
From these responses, it appears there are a variety of factors leading to a decline in the number of students seeking private guitar lessons. The availability of free online content and resources makes it easy for students to learn to play for free in the convenience of their own homes. The sluggish economy and dwindling disposable economy is a factor too. In addition, guitar is no longer the driving force in popular music. Most music is created “in the box” with programs like Ableton eliminating the need to spend years mastering an instrument. Also, there are so many different instant gratification apps, video games, social media sites and digital sources vying for the public’s entertainment time and money. Can an instrument, which requires tremendous personal sacrifice to master, really compete?
What does this mean for the future of private guitar lessons? It’s clear that the days of making a living solely as a private instructor are gone for now. Guitarists and musicians in general, must develop multiple income streams and embrace technology as an integral part of their skill set. For the 21st century musician, it will no longer be viable to simply play or teach an instrument. Lessons will always be a piece of the puzzle, but today’s musicians must know how to write for commercials, film, video games, record voice over, distribute and promote themselves online and through social media. If you have the right skill set, technology becomes a tremendous tool to sell your music and skills to a wider public than ever before.
Most schools and universities are developing music and technology degrees to meet the needs of today’s musicians. For example, Gwinnett County Public Schools now offer courses in music technology which focus on recording, composition, film score and video game composition. Private schools such as The Atlanta Institute of Music and Media also offer degrees in music and technology, job placement and industry contacts, so the future is not bleak, just different than the 80s or 90s.
I agree with Derek Stottlemyer, who wrote, “As a web architect I see a lot of options, and online offers the opportunity to earn passive or residual income in addition to paid lessons – but instructors have to break the mold and be willing to try new things.” Indeed!
The 2014 Society of Composers National Conference took place March 20-22 at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. It featured three days of concerts and paper sessions in Sursa Performance Hall by select composers from across the US. The conference wordpress blog and facebook page contain specific details regarding the concert schedule and events. The overall quality of the concerts and paper sessions was excellent!
Notably, the majority of concerts featured electronic resources and multimedia. To be sure, there were a number of pieces with traditional acoustic instruments and some old school electroacoustic music with outstanding spatialization enhanced by Sursa’s eight-speaker configuration which enveloped the audience. That being said, many, if not a major of pieces on the program featured both acoustic instruments and either prerecorded electronic accompany or manipulation of live sound in real time. Some pieces also contained video projection in which case, a video screen was lowered above the stage.
It is exciting to note that 21st century composers are embracing technology and multimedia. With all of the new resources available to composers, it seems that composers of new music are blurring the lines between electronic and acoustic music. This most assuredly will be an area of research for some musicologist in the not too distance future.
In addition, many of the paper sessions discussed topics related to emerging technologies and live performance. For example, Zachary Boyt discussed MIDI bows, while Orlando Legname presented electronic sensors for conducting which interact with MAX/MSP in real time.
It was a great conference. I’m definitely planning to attend the 2015 conference. I would recommend it to all composers of new music who wish to stay abreast of the latest developments in new music.
By the way, I was a presenter at the first paper session on Friday, March 21. My paper was entitled Metamorphoses Nocturnes a Stepping Stone in the Compositional Development of Gyorgy Ligeti.
Special thanks to Michael Pounds, Keith Kothman and Jim Rhinehart for organizing such a great conference. If I have left anyone out, my apologizes. Please send me your name and a link to your blog and/or website, and I can include it in this blog. Thanks again! See you in 2015.
Is there a new minimalism underway in popular music? It seems two of the most recent number one songs, “Blurred Lines” and “Royals,” consist of little more than a catchy percussion driven beat with bass and harmony vocals. It is a very effective combination, if the lyrics are strong, because minimal accompaniment focuses the listener’s attention on the words making them more important to the success of the song.
There are a number of artists who have built careers using minimal accompaniment including Bob Dylan, in his early folk period, and Neal Young. Can you name other artists who use minimalism?
Photo courtesy of billboard.com.
Fragmentation is an interesting tool which composers can use to generate a plethora of melodic material with very little effort. In my opinion, there are two primary types of fragmentation, subtractive and motivic.
Subtractive fragmentation is easy to do and, if used properly, creates syncopation. All you have to do is substitute rests for notes. Example No. 1 is an original melody which I have used in a number of previous blog posts. Example No. 2 is the same melody with rests replacing some of the notes. Play both examples and listen to the difference. Example No. 2 is clearly the same melodic idea, but it has more rhythmic punch because the rests create accented upbeats in measures 2 and 4. The quarter rest in measure 3 creates additional rhythmic interest.
Example No. 1
Example No. 2
Motivic fragmentation is more common than subtractive. In fact, it is an integral part of classical period repertoire and is common in compositions by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. In general, the primary thematic structures used in classical period music where the sentence and period. It is beyond the scope of this blog post to discuss thematic structures in classical period music, but, in general, a basic idea is introduced (usually two measures), repeated creating a four measure theme, then a fragment of the basic idea is extracted and sequenced three times to create a classic eight-measure sentence structure. In example No. 3, the eighth notes in measure 2 are extracted and sequenced three times to create an ascending melodic line which cadences in measures 7-8. This creates a sense that the melody is accelerating toward a cadential point.
Example No. 3
Comment if you can think of any other types of fragmentation. In the meantime, apply these techniques to your own compositions and listen to the results. Happy composing!
Sequencing is another time-honored tool that most composers use on a regular basis. Sequencing is the immediate repetition of a motive at a higher or lower pitch level. The motive can be almost any length the composer desires as long as it is not a complete repetition of the entire phrase. Often the motive is quite short, just a few beats or a single measure.
I particularly like to use ascending sequences. They create a sense of growing intensity and anticipation, as if something important is about to happen. They work well as transitions to new sections or as a build up to an important climactic moment.
There are a number of different types of sequences. Two of the most used sequences are exact and tonal. Example No 1 is an original melody which I used in my first blog post to demonstrate inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion. Example No. 2 is the same melody subjected to exact sequencing. All of the intervals in each sequence are exactly the same as the original melody. Accidentals have to be added to maintain the intervallic relationship among the notes. This is sometimes referred to as a modulating sequence because, with the addition of so many accidentals in measure 4, the phrase has essentially modulated to the key of C# major.
Example No. 1
Example No. 2
Example No. 3 is the same melody subjected to tonally adjusted sequencing. None of the sequences have accidentals; therefore, the phrase remains in the key of F# minor.
Examples No. 3
Three and out is the general rule for sequencing. In other words, whatever you decide to sequence should only be sequenced three times; anything longer feels predictable and tedious.
In addition, it is advisable to vary the sequences. Change some of the notes or invert one of the sequences to keep the listener off balance. Most people are sophisticated enough to understand that a sequence is in progress and can predict what it will sound like as it unfolds. If one of the sequences, usually the third, is a little different, it will keep the audience off balance and engaged. If they can predict exactly what you are going to do next, you have lost them. Keep them engaged with unpredictable twists and turns. Example No. 4 demonstrates this concept. The last sequence is inverted; all of the intervals are upside down.
I encourage you to play through these examples, then apply sequencing to one of your own melodies and see what happens. Enjoy!
Example No. 4
According to Billboard Magazine, Blurred Lines “has sold 5.8 million downloads in its 26 weeks of release, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It continues its radio dominance with a 10th week atop R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay.” What makes this song popular with everyone from 80-year-old grandmothers to 18-year-old hipsters is how these controversial words are set musically. There are plenty of songs that explore controversial themes, but this particular song has obviously captured a large audience. There must be something about the music that makes it popular.
The instrumentation is very sparse consisting of only bass and percussion, see Example No. 1. The percussion section is just a cowbell, clap, and high hat. There is also a mark tree (chime tree) at the beginning which adds a little color.
The bass part establishes a repetitive rhythmic pattern on scale degrees one and five in the key of G major. There is a descending turnaround in measure 8 that walks down the G major scale from note D to G. This firmly establishes the song in the key of G major, see Example No. 1. The entire chord progression is simply four measures on a G major chord and four measures on a D major chord with a turnaround in measure 8.
Example No. 1
The most interesting aspect of the accompaniment is its driving rhythmic pattern which is highly syncopated and full of rhythmic interest. For instance, the cowbell starts on the upbeat of count one with an interesting sixteenth-note pattern that ends on the upbeat of count four. This rhythmic motive starts and ends on an upbeat giving the song an irresistible rhythm. The clap occurs on counts two and four creating a straight up, rock and roll back beat which never fails to give any song a bouncing, upbeat rhythmic intensity. The high hat is used sparingly on the upbeat of count four in every other measure. This creates a nice rhythmic lift in measures 2, 4, 6, and 8.
Basically, the instrumental accompany is as simple as it gets, only two chords, no guitar, no keyboard, just bass. The accompaniment provides a bare bones harmonic structure and a driving rhythmic pattern that propels the song forward allowing the vocals to stand out.
This song relies almost exclusively on its vocal setting. One of the ear marks of a good setting is how closely the rhythm follows the natural rhythm of the words when spoken. For instance, “You’re a good girl, I know you want it,” sounds identical to the way one would naturally say it. Say it a few times then sing the song as comparison. Sounds the same right?
Also, the melodic contour and harmony accentuates important words and phrases throughout. For instance, harmony is only used on “You’re a good girl,” and “I hate these blurred lines.” In the chorus, these words are harmonized in thirds on both the five and one chords respectively. In both cases, the lower voice starts a half step below the third (Bb) and the seventh (F natural) in the G major scale. Then it slides up to the B natural and F#. The initial lowered third and lower seventh create extra harmonic tension making these words really stand out in the song. Most people who hear this song for the first time will remember those particular lines. Who can forget “you’re a good girl, I know you want it.” That is the core of this song.
What’s the lesson for aspiring musicians and song writers in this song? Less is more. The sparse instrumental accompaniment provides a driving rhythmic pattern which allows the words to stand out from the accompaniment. There are no fancy guitar solos or instrumental breaks to distract the listener, and harmony is used sparingly only on the most important words. So if you want a hit song, create a catchy hook and keep it simple baby. See you on the charts!