Those of us who built our musical skills through formal education may look at “garage band” musicians with some bewilderment. Maybe even with a little disdain (disguised jealousy in my case!). How is that these guitarists, electric bassists, and drummers are able to learn their instruments, all without the assistance of music teachers? We have to be somewhat impressed that they can figure out so much, seemingly on their own. But if they’ve done it without instruction from a musical expert, doesn’t that call into question the quality of their skills?
Ten years ago music educator and research Lucy Green published her book How Popular Musicians Learn. She shed light on the learning processes of “vernacular musicians,” as I like to call them, who acquire their musicianship outside of a school/lesson setting. Lucy followed up that landmark volume with another book and research studies further exploring the topic. Lately, many within the music education profession, myself included, have been paying greater attention to vernacular musicians. One thing we have found is that these people do not devote any less time and energy to their musical pursuits than those in more formal settings. Research refutes the notion that popular music skills are arrived at by osmosis (through just goofing around with music), whereas good “classical” musicianship comes through discipline. More likely, the real difference is whether the time and effort invested is perceived as pleasant or unpleasant. Most vernacular musicians describe their music activities as voluntary, enjoyable, and what they love to do. They seem to be tapping into more intrinsic motivation than many formally trained students, whose music experiences can be dominated by solitary technique-intensive practice of music assigned to them by teachers.
The interesting thing is that everyone starts off as a vernacular musician. Enculturation refers to learning that occurs through immersion in one’s culture and social environment. It’s how all young children begin learning music, as they’re exposed to music making around them and naturally engage themselves in playful exploration of musical sound. But upon reaching schooling age, some people become invested in formal music instruction, and their music making activities take on that value system. Much of their time is spent in teacher-led lessons and rehearsals, and in isolated practice sessions. Young vernacular musicians, however, continue on a more exploratory path. Below are some of the most important characteristics of vernacular music learning:
- Informal group learning with peers – A more experienced peer may lead informal sessions, sharing previously unfamiliar chords, progressions, or licks. In less directed peer situations, learning is accomplished as musicians engage in group efforts to reproduce popular songs, create new compositions or arrangements, and otherwise jam for pure enjoyment. (Check out this clip from the movie School of Rock, specifically at the 1:40 mark where Jack Black and a student disagree on whether to call their class activities “goofin’ off” or “creating musical fusion.” )
- Chosen musical material – Practicing is done within a real music context, meaning it emphasizes songs, tunes, or licks that they want to learn, as opposed to scales, long-tones, and exercises that they’ve been assigned. Interestingly though, many vernacular musicians eventually choose to practice scales, arpeggios, and the like as they “discover” the benefits, often through suggestions published in musician magazines.
- Listening-copying process – They often “just listen” to soak up a groove, or try to play along with recordings for fun. But they also thrive on the challenge of listening carefully and working up imitative performances of difficult passages.
Obviously the ear is a critical component of vernacular musicianship. It is the means by which they build up a huge repertoire of songs, quickly memorize heard music, embellish basic music material, and improvise. In contrast to formally trained music students who rely greatly on notation in their practicing, vernacular musicians naturally develop formidable aural skills as they practice.
This line of thinking should in no way discredit the value of a great music teacher of the effectiveness of individual practice. The research literature is replete with evidence that formal education works, and that deliberate practice is an leads to improved skills. But surely there is something music education can learn from the activities of vernacular musicians. I suspect that far fewer “garage musicians” pack away their guitars into permanent storage after their teen years, like so many high school band members do upon graduation. “Indeed,” Lucy Green writes, “those societies and communities with the most highly developed formal music education systems often appear to contain the least active music-making populations.”