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Style-Hopping: An Excerpt from Musician! A Practical Guide


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[Editor's Note: The following article is an excerpt from Musician! A Practical Guide For Students, Music Lovers, Amateurs, Professionals, Superstars, Wannabees and Has-Beens (CreateSpace, 2010), by saxophonist Dan Wilensky.]

Musician! is a book for all musicians, and anyone who loves music. It includes music history, philosophy, assorted tricks of the trade, proactive advice for the downtrodden, and instructive tales from the trenches.

For the neophyte, Wilensky demystifies the process of becoming a "real" musician. For the typical late-night club musician he provides a list of reasons and ways to advance. For the fortunate elite among you, he shares his insights on how to capture and maintain the elusive creative fire that separates the journeyman from the virtuoso. For the general reader, the author includes humorous stories and anecdotes from the Wild Wild West that is the music business. From nurturing young musicians to helping professionals cultivate their own identity, Wilensky examines familiar territory with a fresh perspective, and illuminates subjects that are rarely discussed. He has an enduring love for all types of music and musicians, and his passion for music and life are evident throughout this book.


In contrast to most modern physicians, the modern musician tends to be less specialized. The proliferation of music on the Internet has reinforced this trend because everyone everywhere hears everything. Studio, Broadway, and clubdate/casual musicians have always had to master multiple styles and many bandleaders demand tremendous versatility from their backup musicians. There are still plenty of clarinet players who live for Polka music, but they're probably thinking about branching out. Obviously you should know your strengths and seek your own musical identity. But your musical palette and your marketability will be greatly enhanced if you're at least familiar with music from many cultures, past and present.

Musicians are notoriously opinionated about what they hear—occasionally because they have discriminating taste, frequently out of ignorance. I know too many "jazz musicians" who hate rock, and coincidentally, can't play it to save their lives. I'm not suggesting that you can be all things to all people; especially when you make your own record, a narrow focus helps. But the well-rounded musician listens to everything. Who is playing is more important than the type of music being played. And each musical form requires slightly different "ear criteria"; you won't appreciate Nine Inch Nails if you're expecting to hear riveting acoustic bass solos. You might not particularly like their music, but you can learn a great deal from it.

Often one must study a musical genre in order to appreciate it, and this takes more time than most people have; think of how few Americans comprehend jazz. You must be more thorough than your audience: read music history; talk to club owners, producers, engineers, DJs, students, and fans about what they listen to; utilize the Internet to hear music from all over the world. You'll be surprised at what you don't know.

I frequently hear friends and colleagues complain about the dearth of great music on the radio and in the record store. What planet are they referring to? I don't even have time to keep up with all the great stuff in my own collection, or on satellite radio and the Web. I believe that there's an unwritten cultural and artistic "90/10" rule—that 90 percent of all art is merely OK, functional or utterly pathetic, that 10 percent is either good or magnificent, and that this ratio has been maintained since the beginning of time. The only fundamental differences between the present and the past are that everything moves faster now and, more important, that there's much more to choose from; sorting through the rabble to get to the crème de la crème can be a challenge. One more thing: a great deal of today's music is so unashamedly derivative that it takes disciplined research to uncover its superior source(s) of inspiration.

But regardless of the musical quality, find the intrinsic value in every recording or performance. Does one musician stand out as being superior? Does it swing even if the melody doesn't ring your bell? If the music stinks, how about the lyrics? Is there anything you can learn from the arrangement? From the production? If nothing else, does it remind you of something else you should hear? Great music sounds inevitable. Listen for this inevitability before you fulminate against a repetitive R&B groove or lambaste the simplicity of a heavy metal chord progression.

Following are seven simple but important reminders:

1. Do not confuse "don't like" with "can't do." If you don't know it, learn it. At minimum, understand it.

2. The song rules.

3. It's never all about you; even if you wrote the song, you are a cog, albeit an important cog, in the wheel. So make sure you're working constructively with the other cogs. Defer to and learn from colleagues, bosses, and employees who know more than you about a particular musical style. Or go to your room (and work alone).

4. Know the role of every instrument in various contexts.

5. If you find yourself playing music you don't understand intellectually or viscerally, or if you're simply not playing well, stop thinking! Consult the vast void of your subconscious; play from the heart; stretch, meditate, go outside—do anything to get off of the cerebral hamster wheel.

6. When you style-hop, be the music: copy the attitude, pace, language, clothes, and dance styles of the best musicians and singers who define the genre; try to play only what is specific to the musical idiom; when you play the blues, do as the blues men do.

7. "Avant-garde" music becomes "cutting-edge" music which becomes "normal" music faster than you can say "Igor Stravinsky." Challenge your ears: draw inspiration from unconventional "new" music. Be all that you can be!

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