10 Progress Questions For The Next-Step Musician

stairs blueEvery so often, it’s time to step back and take a look at our musical progress. We can celebrate those goals we’ve met and decide how best to follow through or maybe reset some of the other ones.

Here are 10 Next-Step Musician questions that will help you do just that. The only presumption is that you are interested in growing as a musician.

1. Do you regularly listen to music that crosses styles and genres? As creatures of habit, we don’t often expand our musical tastes unless we are pressed. If your music is getting stale or too predictable, try a new artist. Find a different radio station. Let YouTube pick something new for you.

2. Can you sing or play music from a different genre than how you started? The classically trained artist will benefit from learning some jazz or pop tunes, while the rocker will find some classical training really helps his chops.

3. Have you considered taking up an instrument you don’t currently play? There are so many instruments to choose from: strings, winds, brass, drums and percussion, ethnic, cheap or expensive, historical or modern. If you’re a guitar player, try the banjo or bazooki. For a flute player, take up the piccolo, or maybe a recorder. For a violinist, try a mandolin. For a trombonist, see if you can master a didgeridoo (complete with the circular breathing).

4. Can you sing melodies and harmonies in tune? Record yourself and listen to your intonation. Need to work on it? And as a second step, can you find harmonies to sing that fit the song? Understanding how harmony works will set you apart as a vocalist, you’ll find opportunities to sing come your way more and more!

5. To what extent have you had musical training? Are you interested in more? Finding a quality teacher/mentor for your instrument or your voice is invaluable. A teacher should inspire you and stretch your imagination, helping you to envision yourself as a great musician and aiding you in finding success with practicing.

6. How well can you sight-read music? So the first question is: can you read music at all? If you can’t, that’s step one. Next is working on singing or playing the music accurately and expressively the very first time you encounter it. Take yourself through some new charts. Look them over in detail before you begin. And once you start to play, don’t stop until the song is over. How did you do?

7. Do you enjoy singing and/or playing with a group? And do you perform? When you have to listen and react as others play, you’ll find a new set of reflexes to train. But once you are able to listen and play at the same time, playing in a group will expand your experience and your thinking. You might play in a school or community band, orchestra or choir, in a club band, on a worship team at church, or in any number of small ensembles. The music will take on significantly different properties from when you only play by yourself.

8. Are you writing music? No matter what level you’re on, try it. Use everything you know about music to figure out a new song, then write it down in a way that you can play it again later. The coolest part is when you find a note you don’t like, you get to change it. You’re the composer!

9. Are you methodically teaching others how to sing or play?Are you ready for new students? If you are interested in teaching, first find a teacher to show you how. The teaching method, as a broad category, is called ‘pedagogue’ (ped-uh-goh-gee). If you are simply showing others how to play certain songs, I’ll call you a helpful friend; but a teacher is someone who will help the student become independent, able to figure out any new song on his own because he has been taught principles and fundamentals.

10. How soon would you like to make strides in any of the above areas? Here’s what really separates the average Joe from the Next-Step Musician (sorry, Joe). Give yourself a date on the calendar to take on any of these questions, then follow through on your plan. If you wait, it will never happen. Now is the time!

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about Next-Step Musicianship to steve@casetunes.com.

© 2015 Steve Case

When You’ve Only Got 3 Chords To Use…

green triangleHow many songs can you play with just 3 chords?

Probably quite a few. I was half-listening to the radio in the car when I heard Robert Palmer’s “Bad Case Of Lovin’ You” come on. (Doctor, doctor, give me the news, I’ve got a …bad case of lovin’ you.) Really catchy. Fun song.

It’s also a simply constructed song. 3 chords total in the whole thing. Actually, I may have heard a 4th chord in there during the bridge, but I think it only happened once.

So how can you have a song that is satisfying to listen to but only has three chords? Is that really enough? And how often does that happen?

Well, it happens a lot. Here are some you may have heard:

  • All About That Bass (Meghan Trainor)
  • All Along The Watchtower (Bob Dylan)
  • Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Barry)
  • Louie, Louie (The Kingsmen)
  • One Of Those Nights (Tim McGraw)
  • She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain (traditional)
  • Steamroller (James Taylor)
  • Sweet Home Alabama (Lynard Skynard)
  • This Land Is Your Land (Woody Guthrie)

…just to name a few.

It Takes Three, Do The Math

Here’s what’s going on.

Just like your smartphone needs at least 3 cell towers in order for the GPS to figure out exactly where you are (the process of triangulation), it takes 3 chords to inescapably lead the ear toward 1 of them as the focal point, the key center. You’ve got to have at least 3.

If the song is entirely built on a single chord, your ear finds no tonal contrast and no perspective. All it knows is the single chord, and unless the rhythms, dynamics and textures are really interesting, the song will be Boring. Capital B.

And if the song is built using only two chords, you won’t be able to determine which one is the key center between the two. Through other means maybe, like having one chord last longer than the other, or putting one on the strong beats and the other on weaker beats. But tonally speaking, the chords will have equal weight.

So it takes three. Think about basic geometry (and this is about as far as my mathematical prowess goes): how many points does it take to give us perspective, to cause us to see a form? A single point is only a point, and it has nothing to do with anything. With two points, I can create a line segment. But I still don’t have perspective. Which side of the line segment am I on? I don’t know with only two points.

But with three points, I can draw a triangle. Now I can say I’m on this side or that side of the form. I now have perspective.

Three Facets Of The Songs You Listen To

In music theory terms, the three chords that form the basis of a key are the tonic, sub-dominant and dominant. These are the chords built from the 1st, 4th and 5th of the scale, and it’s true of both major and minor keys.

Without getting into the actual mechanics of why this is true (I will in the future), think of these three chords as each having their own feel, their own point of view.

The I chord (built from the 1st of the scale) is the tonic chord, and it is the focal point of the entire song. It’s all about the I chord. No matter how much you play or don’t play that chord, it’s still the main subject of the conversation. And it’s the only chord you can play that will make the song sound finished at the end.

The IV chord (built from the 4th, go figure) is the sub-dominant chord, and it is away from the key center, wanting to go somewhere but it doesn’t know where. It is a waiting chord. Waiting to resolve. All dressed up with nowhere to go.

The V chord (you guessed it, built from the 5th) is the dominant chord, and it is also away from the key center. But because of the way it’s built, it has an inherent tension that needs to be satisfied. It is an expectant chord, it knows exactly where it wants to go: back to the I chord.

Dressing It Up With Other Options

Even when the chords are not I, IV and V, often substitutions can be made. Using relative minors and secondary minors, chord patterns become much more interesting while still absolutely tied to the tonic/sub-dominant/dominant triangle.

Embellish the chords with additional scale tones (6ths, 7ths, 9ths, etc.) and you get more and more color. And you’re still tied to the triangle.

What’s Next For You?

Start listening for the tonal triangle everywhere you hear music. Listen for three different feels from the chords. Look for the triangle in the songs you play. When you start recognizing it, it will get easier and easier to spot.

And all my rambling will make perfect sense.

How many songs can you play with three chords? Can you hear the triangle?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, theory and next-step musicianship to steve@casetunes.com.

© 2015 Steve Case

Here Comes The New Year … So What?

Me and Mike

Me and Mike

Oh no. Here it is, New Year’s Eve. The end of 2014, and the time when it seems everyone is writing about the past year’s top whatevers and new goals or expectations for the new one.

“So what will they write about on CaseTunes?” you wonder.

What I Could Say To You

Now I could write again about managing your time more effectively this coming year. Make sure you get that practice time in. Don’t waste so much time doing unimportant things. You always find time for the things that are important to you. Yeah, yeah.

I could write about taking your art seriously, seeking out an instructor or a mentor. Not procrastinating, not giving into inertia as you sit on the couch. Disciplining yourself through blood, sweat and tears to do whatever it takes. To take the next step, to develop, to grow. Okay, nothing really new here.

I could write about how great the past year was (and in many ways, it was), listing the high points and benchmarks. But you can do that yourself.

So how can we, at CaseTunes, possibly be of service to you here at year’s end?

By reminding you of the big picture.

Your Unique Work

You are here for a reason. There is work for you to do that only you can do. There is music to be made the rest of us are waiting for.

Do you have a project that’s almost there? Don’t wait for it to be perfect, get it pretty decent, then ship it.

Are you waiting for inspiration? Don’t just wait, go get it. Dig for it. Listen to some different artists or shows, read some new books, go to an open mic night and meet some other musicians to collaborate with.

Are you waiting for someone else to join your project and do the hard stuff, the parts you aren’t competent with yet? Two choices: learn it or hire it. But don’t wait, do it!

Even as I write these reminders to you, you’ve got to know I am preaching to myself. My biggest hurdle in any project is usually my own insecurity, followed by procrastination that quickly morphs into inertia.

But this coming year (starting tomorrow) it is our hope and plan to “ship” several projects that have been in the works, from books to courses. Groundwork has been laid, details have been fleshed out. Now is the time to make things happen! I’ll let you know about each one as it becomes available. Thanks for being in our corner!

In 2015

Fun with our stage on Christmas Eve

Fun with our stage on Christmas Eve

Opportunities are on the horizon to do some amazing things. My wish for you is that you will understand how

important it is for you to make music and share it. Express your heart through your music. Play and sing with passion and excellence, over and over again. When you’re in the zone, in your unique sweet spot, making music work for you, you’ll find great joy and fulfillment. And you will bless others with your gift.

So get to it! We’re all waiting for you!

Please feel free to comment below, or email any questions about music, finishing your project, or next-step musicianship to steve@casetunes.com.

© 2014 Steve Case

The Right Time

Our set design team did an incredible job with the stage for the production, "The Right Time", held at our local high school.

Our set design team did an incredible job with the stage for the production, “The Right Time”, held at our local high school.

In music, timing is everything. Well, almost everything.

Now I know there are many other things to get right in any song: pitch relationships, dynamics, stylistic devices and textures, not to mention lyrics.

And you’ve got lots of room to improvise with each of these musical facets. If you hit a note that doesn’t quite work – hey, it was a passing tone, a neighbor note!

Now the listener might hear the mistake or not. But even if they do, the ear will forgive it pretty quickly as you move on through the song.

Timing is another matter. If you blow the timing – a rhythm that is way out of place, or even worse, if you insert unlooked-for pauses in the music – it’s really obvious. Sounds like you hesitated because you didn’t quite remember what came next. It felt like you were a moment away from the whole train coming off the tracks.

I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say a song’s timing is a really big deal.

Timing in life, however, while most of it is out of our control, is an even bigger deal.

The Right Time

This past weekend, my church presented “The Right Time”, our Christmas musical production for 2014. But what does Christmas have to do with timing? Well, quite a lot, it turns out.

At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. …God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6,8)

God’s timing is perfect. He sent Emmanuel (which means, ‘God with us’) at the perfect time in all of human history to teach us Who He is, to invite us into a personal relationship with Him, and to be the sufficient, atoning sacrifice for all who receive Him. Emmanuel, that is, Jesus Christ, is Himself the relational Bridge for sinful man to cross and find the holy, almighty God waiting for him.

That’s the big picture.

But day to day, we will face over and over again challenges that stretch us. From strained and broken relationships to deteriorating health, from financial worries to choices of morality. It gets overwhelming.

And on top of those challenges, we have our own imperfections that slap us around: our impatience, our ambition, our ego. Often, we don’t understand why we have to wait for, well, anything. Or why circumstances invade our lives that we never wanted and always arrive at the worst times.

And the best thing for us to do in the face of each of these life stresses is to step back, take a breath, and remind ourselves of the big picture.

Stepping Back

Working with a guitar student the other day, I was tangibly reminded of the need for gaining perspective when we’re under pressure. My student and I were jamming to a prerecorded rhythm track, a band playing an uptempo 12-bar swing blues. Sometimes he would play lead, sometimes I would. Back and forth.

But I watched him struggle a little, trying very hard to remember patterns to play while at the same time hearing all this music on the recording. It was hard for him to focus on his own playing while he heard this cacophony happening at the same time from the speakers.

I watched as he would start to play, then stop, let out a long slow breath, then start again. At first, he was discouraged. But then, as we talked through the process, he felt more freedom to let the background track keep going and not play while he figured out what to do next. He would mentally ‘step back’ enough to gain perspective, to remember where he was on the neck and think how to proceed.

And that’s exactly what we have to do when challenges come our way. Step back, remember the big picture: there is indeed a God who loves each of us so much that He sent His only Son, Jesus, to come and be ‘God with us’, our Emmanuel. To show us who we are and offer us life in Him. Mercy and grace like we’d never experienced before.

I truly hope that each of you feel refreshed and inspired this Christmas. Step out and find that God’s got your back. And He is inviting you to go deeper with Him.

As always, you can leave your comment below or email steve@casetunes.com with any questions or comments. I look forward to hearing from you!

© 2014 Steve Case

Keeping Track of New Ideas May Require New Ideas

Is there one bright idea standing out in your box of ideas?

Is there one bright idea standing out in your box of ideas?

If you are even slightly a creative type, you have already come face to face with the challenge of keeping track of new ideas.

The new approach that dawned on you when you were out for a walk, but had left the building by the time you returned.

The plot line or song lyric that made perfect sense while you were trying to get to sleep, then had evaporated in the morning.

The fresh color combination, the on-target illustration, the untried design – all of these were crystal clear in your mind’s eye, but somehow slipped away by the time you needed them.

I know the feeling, you have my sympathy!

New ideas will hit me at almost any time, day or night. I may have been musing on some problem, or writing a new song. Something in my travels will strike me as a great idea for a blog post or an ebook, and I’ll need to write it down before I forget it. Because forget it, I most certainly will.

I’ve tried many systems over the years. All of them are good, but they don’t all work for me. I’ve had to experiment to find what does work for me.

For example, if I am writing a song in my head and get to a point where I need to put it into a tangible form, I’ve got a few choices at my disposal:

  1. I can write it down in music notation, complete with staff, measures, notes and lyrics. This, by the way, is by far the most accurate way to write it down. Music notation is an elegant language developed over more than four centuries by musicians who wanted to do exactly what I’m talking about. Yet, if I don’t have staff paper or computer software, I’ll need to start from scratch, drawing 5 long, parallel lines close to each other to create the staff. Takes practice, and I’ve done it often. It is difficult, however, if the paper I have is not full size. (I know the Gettysburg Address was written on a napkin, but he wasn’t composing music, which I believe is a much more difficult proposition.)
  2. I can record it with the voice recorder on my smartphone. Just needs to be transcribed later.
  3. I can write it using my own symbols and numbers to which I assign specific values and meanings. This has probably been the most helpful to me, come to think of it. I’ll use arabic numerals (1,2,3,4, etc.) for scale tones and roman numerals (I,ii, iii, IV, etc.) to represent chords. I’ll use a long horizontal line with a slash at each end with a number over it to represent a group of measures (looks like a multi-measure rest), along with greater than or less than signs (< >) to indicate relative volumes.

And if it’s not music we’re talking about, just keeping a notepad handy can solve the problem. Grab a stack of smallish notepads from your local drugstore and put one in your car, by your bed, in your coat pocket, in your kitchen, by your computer, by your TV… you get the idea. And make sure you also have a pen or pencil in each location.

So once we’ve got the new idea “committed to paper”, so to speak, what do we do with them? You can stick it in your pocket, as long as you have a deliberate time when you will retrieve it. I charge my smartphone at night, so when I plug it in, I also make sure I go through my pockets for anything else that might be important. Skipping this step will result in finding your song idea at the bottom of the washing machine, an inert lump of shrunken wood pulp.

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, has his “black box”. During the day, whenever a new idea strikes him, he’ll grab any scrap of paper and write it down, then stick it into his “black box”. At regular intervals (weekly, monthly, yearly) he will go through all of the notes he has collected and file them away topically, ready to use for sermon illustrations. I like this idea, it’s really easy on the front end. But the filing it away takes both discipline and a topical framework within which to put the notes.

I’ve found three software tools that have been working really well for me: Shazam, iTunes, and Evernote

When I listen to songs in the car, I will often run across tunes that inspire me and that I don’t want to forget. A couple of taps on my Shazam app, and the program has identified the song, adding it to a growing list of songs I’ve researched. Then, when I’m at my computer (and not driving!), I’ll pull up the list it saved for me, get on iTunes and inexpensively buy the songs. The last step is to put the downloaded songs into an iTunes playlist that reminds me to come back to it. I use “composing inspiration”, or “gems”, or “Christmas” as playlist names, for example.

For pretty much everything else, I use Evernote on my computers and on my phone. I can type in a note, clip it off the web, send emails to it, even voice-record notes and take photos, all saved as “notes” within the program. To each note, I quickly add a tag, like “lyrics”, ToDo Today”, or “home projects”. Any label you find helpful is fine. Later, you can search for all the notes with a particular tag with no further sorting or filing.

Hope these help you stay on top of the ocean of ideas churning through your brain!

What do you do with new ideas? Have you found a system that works for you?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, music theory and next-step musianship to steve@casetunes.com.

© 2014 Steve Case

Inspiration for Christmas

Piano_Guys

I want to share with you some artists who never fail to inspire me. The Piano Guys regularly post their songs on YouTube, have several albums out, and tour widely. Take a few minutes to enjoy their take on We Three Kings, then poke around on their site.

 

The arrangements are unique, as are the settings for their piano/cello duo. Beautifully done, they not only share their significant musical skill, but they have fun! Makes me want to play with them!

I’ll be back with more thoughts on Next-Step Musicianship next week.  In the meantime, if you have any questions about music, theory or next-step musicianship, please leave your comment below, or email me at steve@casetunes.com.

© 2014 Steve Case