02021-07-07 | Uncategorized | 5 comments

Grammar gives us the structure of language but doesn’t help us figure out the story we want to tell.
Music theory teaches the rules of the musical language but not what to say.

Keeping that in mind we need to strive for a balance between training the understanding of the rules and structure on one hand and the development of our own message, our emotional story, and our vocabulary.

Do we want to write an essay that has perfect structure or do –
want to
write poetry?

Maybe somewhere in between is the place to be, is where the balance lies.

You may have heard the cliche: the classical musician who performs the notes in front of him perfectly, but cannot improvise; the self-trained musician who can’t read music but who play his instrument beautifully. There are jokes about it, like this one:

How do you get a pianist to stop playing? You take away their sheet music. How do you make a guitarist stop playing? Put sheet music in front of them.

Most musicians are a combination of the two varieties. I can read music, but can’t sight-read. I read haltingly like a second grader reading a story. I remember telling Jon, who can sight-read his way through a whole performance, but also improvises as well as anyone I know, that I wanted to study music theory – this was sometime in the Nineties. There was a pause and then he simply asked why? I think I replied that I felt there were a lot of rules I didn’t know and that learning them might make me a more well rounded musician. Jon said something like, but it’s working for you. I felt he could be right. What if I wrecked the secret sauce of my music?

It’s all about the balance. What is enough structure and what is too much? Perhaps it is the tension between the feeling we want to convey and the structure that we express it with that creates beauty?


  1. MTCallahan

    “Why?” is the classic Gagan answer. Not a thing wrong with it.

  2. JaneParhamKatz

    Oh, yes, Maestro! Being a pianist (though I give a Big Raspberry to that joke), I confess it’s true. I learned to read music at age 6 and can sight read OK. But I don’t know where expression was. I can’t stand this! I think I was good at imitating music I loved, but where was the real me? I understand I was quite expressive as a tot – throwing dolls across restaurants, lying down in Grand Central Terminal until I got my Teddy Bear…. – and then I learned to be nice. Nice is not real! To be nice, you have to carefully hide.

    Once in a while I break out and improvise, and I see I must do it constantly. The great piano teacher in New York – Seymour Bernstein – insists his students compose, too. He himself has published a number of pieces. (I recently saw a documentary about him). I must also do this.

    Thank you, Ottmar, for gently leading me where I want to be.

  3. Steve

    … And the thing about “balance” is that it is more difficult to achieve than one might assume, but even more tricky to maintain.

    • ottmar

      Like balancing on a beam or standing in tree pose. Constant adjustments and occasional faltering. But isn’t exactly that what a life well lived depends on?

      Balancing means growing. Like the tall flower balancing a bloom that is too heavy.

  4. Y.

    I think that you can do anything that you intend to accomplish musically.


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