Three Myths About A Classical Background in Music

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When I was growing up, I heard the same story over and over:

“You need to learn classical piano first, and then you can learn to rock out or improvise.”

“You need to learn classical ballet first, and then you can conquer any type of dance.”

Imagine my surprise when, after years of classical education, I finally attempted to write a song, and I was paralyzed by the sheer magnitude of possibilities. Imagine my dismay when I decided hip hop was for me, and I couldn’t seem to loosen up and move my hips. There are innumerable reasons to pursue a classical background, but this article is about addressing a few myths about classical pedagogy.

Myth: Playing classical piano or classical guitar makes it easy to play any other type of style.

Reality: Playing classical piano or classical guitar makes it easy to play classical piano or classical guitar. When you learn a style of music, your musical ear is shaped by the patterns and rules of that style. Say you spend all of your time learning classical pieces note for note, dynamic for dynamic. Does this mean you’ll be able to easily pick up jazz improvisation? Not only did your rigid background not prepare you to improvise, it didn’t prepare your ear for all the weird scales and dissonances in jazz either. In order to learn jazz, you’ll have to play and listen to a lot of—you guessed it—jazz. Will classical music give you the dexterity you need to play jazz? Sure. But saying classical music prepares you for any style is overselling it.

Myth: Singing classical voice makes you a better contemporary singer

Reality: Singing classical voice develops certain skills that can make you a better pop singer, but it also fosters certain habits that can hinder you. To be clear, classical voice emphasizes breath control, support, and dexterity in your voice. In other genres, that means you’ll have an impressive range, and more luck with vocal runs. However, classical singers often pull their head voices too low when they sing pop, can’t turn off their vibratos, and sometimes lack a certain carelessness and relaxation required of pop singing. The resulting pop song sounds… well… classical—it lacks the chestiness of a contemporary singer, and it sounds stiff. Habits die hard, and the transition from classical voice to contemporary voice isn’t as perfect as you’d expect.

Myth: Children who start their educations playing classical music become better overall musicians in the future.

Reality: if your child manages to learn classical music and theory, he or she is in good shape. It is the basis of all other western music after all. However, forcing your kids into only playing classical music early can be demoralizing to them. Children flourish when they love what they are learning. So what’s better— a petulant daughter who is forced into practicing, or one who wants to spend extra time at the piano, learning, experimenting, and creating? Foster love first, then attack the nuts and bolts. If your child shows that much enthusiasm for classical music, all the better.

Now all that’s out of the way, please please please don’t take that to mean we don’t love or we won’t teach classical music. To me, there’s nothing more beautiful. But I need to dispel preconceived notions, because they are neither accurate nor healthy. You should play classical music because it’s rich and complex, not because it is a leg up to what you want to play—that’s a disservice to you and an insult to classical music. Play what you want to play… hopefully that’ll include a little Mozart. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be any sweat off your Bach. Heh.

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