by Bridget Stiebris
When you think of rock music, what typically comes to mind? If you’re my grandparents, you’ll probably imagine a sweaty stadium full of angsty punks, thrashing about and punching one another in the face. And if you ever attend a Slipknot concert, that’s probably what you’ll see. Is that really all that contemporary music has to offer the world? Think of the numerous recorded performances of Jimi Hendrix. With impeccable flowing movements and a precision so sharp it’s almost scary, Hendrix twists and bends the strings of his guitar as it wails through the night. And what about Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band? A timeless performer, Springsteen fills the audience with pure energy and nostalgic delight as a saxophone solo captivates the room. To dismiss this as “dumb” or “reckless” simply wouldn’t make sense. After all, Brian May, the guitarist for Queen, holds a degree in Astrophysics and has worked with NASA on numerous occasions. Dexter Holland, vocalist for The Offspring, has a PhD in molecular biology and has penned multiple scientific research papers.
It’s undeniable that these artists, and countless more, have touched the hearts of millions across the world. It’s music like this that inspires, influences, and propels us through the good and the bad of each passing day. So how does the classical world continue to dismiss it as not “serious” enough? We talk of the brilliance of John Cage, a 1950s composer who created the prepared piano (filled with bolts and rubber bands to alter the sounds of the strings) and wrote the famous 4’33” (a shocking 4 minutes and 33 seconds of pure silence). We study the music of Henry Cowell, who composed a piece called “The Banshee,” which consists of a bow roughly scraping different areas of a cello. Yet, these examples are dubbed “avant-garde” and praised for their contribution to new ideas in composition and technique.
I must stress that my goal here is not to put down or ridicule classical music; only to compare its ideals with contemporary music, and question why it can’t be taken as seriously in our modern world as the pieces above. I am constantly trying to figure out the true purpose behind this definition of “smart” music, and music that is unworthy of this title. And so, in an attempt to answer this question, we must consider those who have a degree in formal music education, and chose to pursue contemporary music paths instead. There is so much we can learn from music school graduates, but above all, we can explore how they have come to fit into the contemporary scene with their formal degrees and years of training.
Drummer for touring jam band Umphrey’s McGee
Masters of Music, DePaul University
“There’s a learning curve with whatever artists you’re dealing with…how they want to learn songs. But the discipline you get from the rehearsal techniques, the pedagogy, your classes, and the programs –especially at DePaul — they teach you how to memorize things. They teach you about chart reading, about style features. You study all the artists from past, present, of that genre. Understand when someone is playing a certain way. You learn to speak the language. Big band teaches you a lot about how to set up with the proper fills, how to set up rhythmic figures. DePaul is right in the metropolitan Chicago area, so you’re getting hands-on experience playing gigs, which is where you learn a lot of the real lessons in life.”
Catch Umphrey’s McGee at Union Park in Chicago on September 2.
Adjunct professor at DePaul and lead trumpet in local jazz band Arcana
Masters of Music, DePaul University
“One of the most valuable parts of getting a degree in music is being surrounded with a bunch of other people who want to have a career in music. Every member of Arcana has different degrees: Classical Performance (Will Russel), Music Education (Mark Hiebert), Jazz Performance (Dave Agee), and Jazz/Classical Composition (Me). We also all come from different states. If it wasn’t for DePaul University, I can’t imagine our paths crossing any other way. Additionally, our different backgrounds give us different viewpoints and areas of expertise which makes sure we don’t become an echo chamber of the same kind of ideas. Plus, many of our fans first heard about us through musical connections that started at DePaul.”
Find out more about the incredible jazz outfit Arcana here.
Bassist for local rock group North of Eight, Singer/Songwriter, Recording Artist
Bachelor’s in Music Performance, The American Musical and Dramatic Academy
“The formal aspect of my musical education technically began in high school when I joined choir. I had a phenomenal instructor named Debora Utley, who really made sure that music theory was a huge part of our curriculum. Fast forward to college in NYC, where I tested into Advanced Music Theory and was continually challenged to push the boundaries of my own understand of music and all its mysteries. Initially starting with a focus on musical theatre, our professor, by the name of Peter Susser, exposed us to many genres, from classical and jazz, to pop and everything in between. In no time the training I was experiencing inevitably bled into all forms of music I was performing or writing. It has helped me to communicate my musical ideas with other musicians clearly.
I cannot stress how important formal music education has been in my career. Learning music theory and more importantly being able to put it into practice has opened many doors that might have been previously closed. I believe it has helped me become a better musician and band-mate. I’ve played the clubs for nobody. The band has headlined the Metro and House of Blues here in Chicago. I’ve even I’ve sung and danced on Broadway. I truly feel as though I appreciate music more, even being out in the crowd just listening, having had musical education in my life.”
You can see North of Eight at the 4th Annual Homegrown Arts and Music Festival in Lisle, IL on August 6 and 7.
These artists are clearly not your average symphony orchestra members, yet they all praise their education for enabling them to perform better in the modern world. So if you ask the question, “how does modern music apply to classical?” You have your answer in their words.
Like it or not, all music is connected. The skills you need to sight-read will help you to quickly figure out a riff. The energy you deliver in an audition will prepare you for a sold out night on stage. Contemporary music has too much relevance in our world to be thrown away from the classroom. The concept of music education has such incredible potential to give students a comprehensive guide to the galaxies of art that await them in the world — and I say we let it.