Chops, Hip, and Groove

THURSDAY, MARCH 11, 2010

"Wagner is better than it sounds" - Mark Twain


"Good music is music that sounds good." - Duke Ellington


"It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that certain je ne sais quoi." - Peter Schikile


As every year passes, it doesn't get any easier not to resort to this tired old question: What is this garbage that kids are listening to these days?

From generation to generation, that question has been thrown around with abandon. Kids will always listen to music to which their parents and teachers do not relate, and vice versa.

As music teachers, years of intense immersion in excellent music likely makes it harder for us to cope with that gap, but our role with these kids make it all the more important that we do! I think parents are supposed to have these sort of cultural conflicts with their kids. It might be part of their thawing out the dependence between them. With music teachers, it's different. We have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to facilitate their musical tastes.

Not only that, but we have a golden opportunity. While this assertion is certainly up for debate, I contend that I am the only teacher in my school that teaches a subject that everybody is born loving. While (for example) math and science teachers are trying to get their students to fall in love with what they do, all I have to do is to not let them fall out of love with music. With that comes the responsibility to not mess that up! It is important that I do not belittle their tastes. If I were to do that, would they pay any attention to mine? How could I expect that of them? On a personal level, I hope I am never that arrogant. On a professional level, I hope I never squander that potential connection.

The first step: summon all of your strength to give their music the benefit of the doubt. It makes it far easier to ask the same of them with that to which you are trying to introduce them.

My personal philosophy (maybe more of a goal, to which I sometimes fall short) is that there are two kinds of music: That which I like, and that which I do not yet understand. This theoretically prevents me from dismissing any music right away as being 'bad'. I try to hold my students to the same standard, but I can't if I fall short.

One vehicle toward this end I have used is that in our Survey of Music classes, I begin each class with the students taking turns bringing in a piece of music for the class. One that they consider compelling, for whatever reason. It may be a recent discovery, or an old favorite. It might relate to something we've talked about. It could be impressive, funny (intentionally or accidentally), meaningful, old, new...it just needs to be within the realm of being respectful to the fact that we are in school, and I reserve the right to help them with that decision. My own personal appreciation for many different styles of music has grown significantly in the four years I've done this. My iPod is full of stuff to which I would never have paid any attention, were it not that students brought this sort of music in. I suspect that some of my music sneaks on to thiers. I also contribute to the show-and-tell, at least once per week. The kids, with almost no exceptions, have been open and supportive of each other in terms of listening to what each other has to offer, and then also what I feed them as well.

I have a less passive listening activity called "Chops/Hip/Groove". These three words represent three aesthetic components to music (in sort of a jazz vernacular), and I explain to them that when I decided what it is about a piece of music that speaks to me, I run it through this list to help determine that.

"Chops" refers to technical ability. If a piece has a high chops factor, it is because it contains technically impressive or virtuoso performance.

"Hip" refers to the qualities of the music that make it distinctive, unique, or innovative. "Groove" is one I have a harder time defining, and I admit it might be a catch-all. I think

"Groove" to what extend the emotional commitment to the music is apparent. Something with a lot of soul, emotion, or momentum.

When we listen critically to the music, I ask them to identify on which of these areas a performance reached them. Often it's more than one, sometimes all three.

I always bring The Beatles in on this discussion. I love The Beatles, but I do not find that they carried themselves into their well deserved legendary status on the wings of their "chops". Their songs are groundbreaking. Their sound is distinctive and arguably timeless. It is not difficult for one moment to feel this music. They have not, however, taught too many people anything about how to sing or play their instruments. They were capable, but not virtuoso. They didn't need to be. The "Groove" and "Hip" factors pulled them through.

The students identify music important to them, and then analyze it against these three factors. It's often very eye-opening for them. At least one kid per semester realizes that maybe Dream Theatre is very good at a style of music to which they probably don't offer a great deal of innovation, while on the other hand, a band like Cake is a group of marginally talented musicians whose whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

As soon as this conversation runs its course, we can listen to the The Berlin Philharmonic, John Coltrane, Virgil Fox, Django Reinhardt, Billie Holiday, Luciano Pavarotti, and run it through the same tests. As they become familiar with these artists they might not otherwise seek out, I start to see what it is they appreciate with hardcore, punk, or death metal.

It is my hope that the barriers (cultural, geographical, generational, etc) that needlessly prevent good music from making into our lives begin to break down. I conclude this discussion with two pieces of advice.

1) When someone suggests music to you, give it a shot.

2) Never ever let anyone tell you what not to like. If it speaks to you, then it's good, no matter what anyone, including your music teacher, says.

You need not subtract music from your tastes to make room for more.