Pete's Blog

Student Recital

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Here is a guest column I wrote for the Bainbridge Island Review, which should run Wednesday: I've been a musician a long time. My first paid job was with a blues band in Pittsburgh, playing the harmonica, when I was younger than some of my students are now. Still, over all that time and in all those places, my favorite place to play the guitar is at one of my student recitals. We had one this past weekend at the Island Music Guild in Rolling Bay - a dozen teenagers performing on guitars, electric basses, and/or voice with me playing in support about half the time. To begin with, there was the satsfaction of watching them learn the public side of music, with all its quicksilver lack of control. These are Bainbridge kids, after all: smart, hard-working, and very ambitious. But there are no perfect scores in music. Music makes itself out there in the listener's ear after we've played it. Mistakes aren't demerits, they're the beginnings of a personal style. This may be hard to understand for an AP student when he's alone at home struggling with Rev. Gary Davis's fingerpicking patterns. But an audience listens with its feelings, so in front of an audience the pause to reset a left-hand position isn't an unforgiveable clumsiness - it's a profound heightening of emotion. That's when you see the lightbulb go on. This is especially true with the singers. It's safe to say, I think, that no matter how big the rooms are in your house, the Island Music Guild Hall is bigger. So the singers bend their knees, throw back their shoulders, and bounce notes off the back wall. You're not imposing a tone with your head anymore. You can't. You have to sing from your abdominal muscles, which means a) with the extra effort you nail most of the notes you missed in practice and b) you feel the physical reality of the music as it merges with the emotional reality. It's alchemy, and everybody feels it. As if this weren't enough satisfaction, there's another. I'm not the only person in the world who thinks that modern rock is boring. The fact is, none of my students are especially interested in what is being marketed to them as "their" music. The singers want to sing tunes by the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac, the electric players want to play Hendrix, Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, the acoustic players go for Simon & Garfunkel and the folkie side of Led Zeppelin. My students have taste. They want material that will stretch them as players and singers, and they're anything but the passive consumers of corporate bilge we might think from listening to the radio. When they find things on their own and ask my help with them, nine times out of ten they've picked good, solid pieces. And that one time out of ten, when we break down the tune and figure out there's not much there, the student will just lose interest and move on. This means that when I sit down onstage with a student to play, say, the slide part in a two-guitar arrangement of Eric Clapton's "Layla," it is as satisfying a moment for me as any I've had with the tune. After all, I learned this music from my own teachers (like Dave Van Ronk) and influences (like Robert Johnson) and it's moving from them through me to people who want to do it just as much as I did then. So it's not just about being able to play. It's about community. And afterwards the kids mill around eating and drinking (nobody has better food at their student recitals than we do) and they toss the excited music-talk back and forth. They jam and show each other things. The process goes on.

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