Why Can't You Play Music?

As I started playing in bands and writing songs, I developed skills at various jams and sessions that had me stumbling onward and upward as a player.
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As a musician, I constantly have people tell me how much they would love to play music but that they were never able to learn how. When I ask why, they usually tell me it was too difficult. They took traditional lessons as a kid or teenager and at some point, they got frustrated and confused and stopped. They not only quit lessons, but gave up their dream of playing music, thinking that they must be too dumb to get it and that they would never be able to express themselves in that way. Whenever I hear someone communicate their unfulfilled desire to play music by telling me that it was beyond their ability to comprehend, it pains me greatly. Music should be available to all comers and the ability to grasp its fundamentals should not be out of reach. So years ago, I set out to figure out why this disconnect was occurring and see how I could help everyone who had the desire to learn. I began at my own roots so I could figure out why the traditional methods had escaped me while playing music came so easily when my fingers hit the keys.

I took piano lessons from age six to around 14, when I quit in frustration. My last teacher Rick Segneff wrote a letter to my mom imploring her to keep me going with music, though I'm happy to report my compulsion to play and explore made it impossible to ever stop. But it wasn't music per se that I didn't get; rather, it was sheet music, the notation that crawled like ants across the page and which I found no real connection to. Every book I learned from growing up used sheet music to teach me basic songs and scales and the further along I went, the more confused and discouraged I got. But something happened when I put the sheet music aside: I played the piano. At first it was simple stuff, but my ability to conjure up music on the piano was innate from the beginning. In fact, my parents only got me lessons because I had already been fooling around on the keys and they figured- like most parents do- he must have an interest, so let's get him into some lessons. And out came the sheet music.

At the end of every lesson, Rick would show me a little blues riff to give me something extra to play with, and play I did. In fact, I barely cracked the books but I took those blues riffs and had a lot of fun with them. Looking back, it would have been wonderful to have had whole lessons of nothing but riffs and licks, blues and boogie woogie and all that fun stuff that was stoking my imagination and feeding the inspired side of my brain that connected directly with the instrument, with no sheet music to get in the way. But I didn't know better at the time and Rick -- one of the coolest cats I had interacted with at that age -- taught me the way you were supposed to teach a beginning student. With the best intentions, we both played our parts as student and teacher but it was the incidental stuff that really caught my attention, not the actual lesson plans.

As I started playing in bands and writing songs, I developed skills at various jams and sessions that had me stumbling onward and upward as a player. Certain bands and musicians that I began listening to unlocked things in my mind that got me speaking music with my hands, creating melodies and chord progressions that had previously been unknown to me, and I began to take my musical career ever more seriously as I figured things out. Besides playing in my own bands, I got some gigs as a sideman for more established acts and did some touring, which was a schooling all its own. And at no time did any one of those bands give me sheet music to learn the tunes. They handed me discs and said "see ya at rehearsal" and it was up to me to figure it out. As much as I enjoyed that process, I also examined how I was hearing the music that made sense to me and started developing an understanding that grew simpler rather than more elaborate and convoluted. I took on a few students and tried to explain to them what I was understanding, which wasn't always easy to do. Gradually, I began writing down my notes and formulating my methodology and at some point, I crafted a manuscript for a music instruction book. But this book was different than any book I had seen out there in a major way: it used no sheet music at all.

You see, I figured out that the reason that most people were getting so confused is that traditional methods teaches two things, not one. They taught a lot of sheet music on top of a little music theory, but the students wrongly assumed that they were being taught just one thing, music. But music and sheet music aren't at all the same thing. To give you an analogy, music is like physics and sheet music is like Latin. For years, traditional thinking was that you had to learn physics in Latin. Physics is a nuts and bolts science based on mechanics and properties, while sheet music is an archaic language invented back when the only way you could "record" music was to write it down. Beginning students spend so much time learning sheet music that the theory beneath it is obscured and mostly lost. No wonder learning music seems so difficult! So I deduced that if I put the "Latin" aside and didn't refer to it at all, I could explain the basic physics of music in a simple and unobstructed way. And if you were one of the students who managed to understand sheet music but couldn't play or improvise when the sheet music was taken away, I could fill in the gaps and give a foundation to understand what was going on and develop your own voice. After all, it does you little good to speak a fluent language without knowing what you're actually saying. And so I shopped my manuscript around, feeling like I had uncovered the key to teaching anyone and everyone how to simply understand and play music. What I didn't count on is the resistance to change amongst traditional music publishers.

Not only was my book rejected at first, one company actually threw it away instead of sending it back. It was seen as an affront to the sheet music paradigm, an insult to the elite masters who trained and practiced and got their degrees at hallowed schools of music. It was as if I was trying to show people how to practice law without going to law school -- how dare I! But what I really wanted was for music to be open to everyone, not just to an elite few. As I looked at the business model, I asked myself a simple question: why lose 3/4 of your potential customers in order to stay within the narrow confines of your paradigm? Not only did I want those 3/4 to be able to learn and play, but I wanted the others to develop an understanding to what they were doing with sheet music. I simply wanted to teach the physics of music in plain English so that everyone could understand. But the business was resistant to change. And so I shelved the book, and moved on.

Fast forward almost a decade and a good friend offered to connect me with Alfred Publishing, thinking they might understand what I was trying to accomplish. So I dug out the manuscript, and brought it in. Couldn't hurt, at this point, I figured. And lo and behold, they got it! They understood that the removal of sheet music was not a detraction, and that ideas I was teaching in my book were not covered in any other method or approach. And so we inked a deal and began the two-year journey to bring the book to publication. The time spent since I had last shopped it around gave me ample opportunity to analyze and further develop the method from where I had last left it. Plus at this time, adding a DVD component was expected, giving me a whole new opportunity to get on camera and run through the book with whomever was learning from it. All in all, the timing worked out and with the help of a fabulous team of people over at Alfred, I am finally able to bring my method to light. And so it is with great honor that I offer The Key of One for anybody young or old who has a desire to play music, and it is my sincerest hope that never again will anyone feel that learning how to play is beyond their reach. Music, like love, is a universal language and no one who wants it should ever have to be without.

Pick up a copy of The Key of One book and DVD at www.thekeyofone.com and unlock the musician within! Also on Facebook at The Key of One.

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