Teaching the Bigger Picture- Bach & Hendrix.

Eric Branner

Jan 18, 2017

“The final aim and reason of all music is nothing other than the glorification of God and the refreshment of the spirit.” JS Bach

“Excuse me while I kiss the sky.” Jimi Hendrix

Can you hear the similarities in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Jimi Hendrix? Sure, Bach probably wouldn’t love Hendrix’s use of parallel fifths,(power chords) and Hendrix never composed a fugue. However, if you listen closely to their music, and learn a little about how they lived their lives, you will understand they both achieved the highest levels of spiritual inspiration, connection, and expression within their music.

I use this lesson all the time in my studio. We compare these two titans that lived 200 years apart, and listen for the similarities and differences in their work, including the tone, composition, style, instrumentation, and social circumstances of their times. The goals are to appreciate different types of music, hear music at a deeper level, develop a timeline of music/world history, and gain an understanding of commonalities great artists share.

Teaching is much more than conveying necessary steps and monitoring progression of motor and mental skills. Teaching is an opportunity to help others build confidence, understand the world we live in, advocate for themselves and others, and tell the truth. These ideals are not written in method books, they are lived out by passionate teachers and observed by their students…

The Fountain of Culture

When I first moved to Seattle in 1998, I was fortunate enough to study with the great Steven Novacek at the University of Washington. I fancied myself a pretty good guitarist, and was really looking forward to taking my playing to the next level. At our first lesson, he listened to me play. Then, he started asking me questions about my background… where I was from, how many symphony orchestras I’d seen (not many), how many countries I’d travelled to…(does Canada count?) I did get some culture points for growing up in a log cabin on the Shenandoah River!

His lesson to me… if I wanted to be a great artist, I should bathe in the fountain of culture. Read every great book, travel to the birthplaces of my favorite composers, see every show I could sneak into. Practising scales and analyzing scores was giving me a knowledge of music, but it wasn’t making me an artist.

I got a job at the Seattle Symphony, and saw nearly every performance. I got another job at the Seattle Opera, and caught every opera. I took every gig I could get.. dive bars, weddings, coffee shops. I spent any extra money I had buying used philosophy books and taking guitar lessons. I walked everywhere, admiring the incredible architecture on the quiet streets of Capitol Hill. I grew more as a musician that year than in any other I’d lived.. and I spent the least amount of time practising technique.

Nowadays, I try to think about this bigger picture of teaching when I am in my studio… a teenage student pretends they forgot their method book, slowly places it on the stand, and looks at the notes like they’re reading Portuguese for the first time. Obviously the student is not practising, and is not buying what I’m selling. I can have the talk about practice and how no one is going to waste my time because I have a waiting list, and when I was a kid I practised.. blah..blah.

Or, I can say.. “Did you hear that Joshua Bell is coming to Seattle this week?” Or, “Oh man, check out this video of Mississippi John Hurt… that’s the vibe I aspire to..what year do you think he recorded this? How is his technique different than the classical style? How is the melody syncopated over the baseline?”

The job of an independent teacher is to listen to, observe, and guide a student along a path that will, of course, teach discipline and hard work… and also shine a light on the magic, wonder, and potential that is swirling around our world and within ourselves.

If this is your goal at every lesson you teach… you’ll keep your students engaged, enjoy teaching, and continue to grow in your own practice. Next time, we’ll start filling in that timeline between Bach and Hendrix!

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