Evolution of a Song

[singlepic id=221 w=320 h=240 float=center] One of my deeply ingrained childhood beliefs was the notion that, "In order to be able to do something, you need to go to school and learn how to do it first." In the thinking of my childhood, I was led to believe that there was a very linear, singular path toward any particular destination. That there was a prescribed sequence of things that needed to happen in a certain way if things were going to work out. I'm beginning to unlearn that lesson, among others. Part of why I am sharing all these old beliefs, as I take myself through my process of chipping at and melting them away, is to reveal that our beliefs, once we begin to observe them, are not as solid and rigid as we make them out to be.

We evolve.

So I share with you my own wide-eyed, childlike awe and wonder at learning - in my mid-30s - about whole other worlds that I never knew existed. After playing music nearly every day of my life since the age of three, I played for the first time into a microphone while wearing headphones in 2008. It was my first experience with multi-track recording. I learned a whole other way of "composing" that occurred with a mixing board and the software interface of a computer, when previously my mental picture included images of Mozart, wearing a powdered wig and stockings, sitting at a clavier and writing on parchment paper with a quill pen. The truth is I had never personally known any kind of real live musician other than the violin soloists and symphony orchestra players and conductors I was exposed to growing up.

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I had met the then child prodigy Midori when she taught me in a master class. I had played for legends like Josef Gingold and Ruggiero Ricci. These were the idols and icons of my childhood.

So I never imagined that I would one day learn a new way of playing, without ever going to school for it. I have had plenty of teachers "miraculously" show up in my life. But they came to me by my being open to doing new things, searching actively for ways to reach out, and being willing to receive what was offered.

My first supporter and encourager to do non-classical music was Erik. After producing my students' CD, he asked if I would come and record some pop music with him.

I said, "I don't play pop music."

He said, "Music is music."

That opened a little window in my mind. So I showed up and tried, not knowing what he meant by "music". I've learned over the course of our weekly sessions - which are part recording, part brainstorming, part therapy (for both of us!) - that music is music. I have played on tracks ranging from Peruvian to American country to blues to pop to homemade percussion grooves.

Erik is an amazing drummer and has a very experienced ear for acoustic detail and timing. He was the only witness to my very first attempt at improvisation ("Johnny's Blues" track) and he gave me such support that I actually came back to do it again! And again and again. I even chickened out and stopped recording for over a year, out of fear for where it might lead me. Then one day I decided to come back, when I knew that I needed to find my own music again.

I've learned that songs evolve just as we do.

Playing from the printed page, the evolution occurs in interpretation: phrasing, dynamics, choices of tempo, articulation and length of notes. The way I was trained involved learning how to produce a particular sound that matched our best guess at the composer's original intentions. Frankly, most of the work involved learning the technical skill necessary to execute what was written. In the classical repertoire, only a very few students would reach the level to be able to express something heartfelt beyond perfect execution of the notes. The narrow gate into classical music artistry was determined by an ability to develop both virtuosic technique and some level of expressive interpretation.

Creating on a recorded track from improvisation, the evolution occurs in a totally different way: choosing melodies, rhythmic patterns, when to play and when to rest, how to arrange the song. Technique is not a barrier but rather a tool. With some songs, I find myself playing performances straight through, not thinking that it will be edited in the future. I try to create a complete performance each time. In other instances, I play with different ideas and fragments, knowing that most of it won't be used. Each take is like a scratch pad of notes to make sense of later.

I never knew that music could be created this way! And I never thought I could be participating in it. I had only ever heard final products on CDs or on the radio, marveling at how they managed to sound so good. I wish more artists would reveal their creative process on their way to producing great work. It might help us all realize that there is an evolution to everything. We live in a time when it's rare to see how things are made or to appreciate how things become the way they are when we acquire or consume them.

So to shed some light on the evolution of a song I'm working on with Erik (which I first posted after our first night of recording), I am going to share the three raw versions of the song that we are playing with on our way to creating a final mix. Please leave a comment to let me know what your favorite parts are!

[audio:http://www.themusicwithinus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/01-Lisa-Chan-Chan-Take-Two-from-6.6..mp3|titles=01 Take Two from 6.6 Sultry]

[audio:http://www.themusicwithinus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/03-Lisa-Chan-Chan-Cropped-Take-One-f.mp3|titles=03 Cropped Take One from 6.6 Sultry]

[audio:http://www.themusicwithinus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/04-Lisa-Chan-Chan-Takes-Overlaid-fro.mp3|titles=04 Overlay Takes from 5.23 and 6.6 Sultry]

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You may have been lucky enough to have a teacher or parent or other mentor who made you feel that every - yes, even the ones your mind may label "ugly" or "forgettable" - step you take is a beautiful one in your own journey through life. If that's the case, I hope you hear their voices of encouragement in your head on a daily basis.

If not, I want to offer this story as a way of saying that you don't need to go back to school to learn what you need to learn right now. The lessons are all around you already. The teachers are not necessarily sitting in classrooms at the large institutions requiring entrance exams and letters of recommendation. They may be in the most unexpected places, waiting to show you who you never knew you could be. They may not even consider themselves teachers. But they could be yours.

There is beauty in every step of your life's journey, no matter how difficult or improbable a particular step seems. Surround yourself with people who will remind you of this as often as possible. You just might find yourself following unexpected paths toward indescribable feelings of joy and wonder.

Bottom photo credit: Rusty Sterling

All other photos - my personal collection

Take Two from last night...

I've been talking about my improvised violin recording project, and have been looking forward to sharing something! Today's that day.

Here's a little something we recorded last night. Hope you like it as much as we do!

[audio:http://www.themusicwithinus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/01-Lisa-Chan-Chan-Take-Two-5.23.10-1.mp3|titles=Sultry Silhouette Take Two 5.23.10]