Rockers of the Future!
Whether you’re a new visitor, or a seasoned reader, you’re in for a real treat this post.
So one story I haven't told so much is of my childhood as a guitar learner.
Studying year 7 at St Kevins’ College, I formed my first band and played my first performance in 2005. I went through the ups and downs of trying to form bands throughout the six years, and joined jazz ensembles in school. I am forever grateful for the music culture that so graciously accepted me for those formative years, and I hope to replicate that same love of learning and belonging in Leaders of Rock.
One part of the journey that was life changing, was the rigorous journey from VCE Music Performance Unit 1 to Unit 4 in 2009-10. I ran out of my first practice recital crying – not just because of some issues outside of school – but because my teacher’s feedback was not encouraging enough for any people in the room.
And so I know that sinking feeling when people are trying to help you – but it really isn’t helping.
If you are sitting any senior music exams, and in particular VCE Music Solo Performance in Contemporary Popular Guitar, I hope that a brief explanation of the success criteria used in many of my assessment tasks can help you along the way. The best encouragement is in results, so understanding what elements of music instructors are looking for can dramatically shift you into a growth mindset, rather than ‘learned helplessness’:
Sound Production / Tone Colour
One of my weaker points was in distinguishing sound production / tone colour. I always played in the bridge pickup for the guitar – which gave a warm, but often muddy tone. Tone explains how the sound of the music feels – if it sounds thick, it may feel warm, if it sounds thin/bright, it may feel stark and naked.
Tip: use different guitars for the exams to accurately portray that genre of music – I recommend acoustic guitars – nylon or steel string for fingerstyle works.
Phrasing / Articulation / Dynamics
My music teacher was a saxophonist by trade, and this was my weakest point. Imagine your guitar is your mouthpiece, and every note is linked in series with another to form a musical passage. It is up to us as musicians, especially guitarists, to guide the listener in musical phrases, so they can listen in bite-size chunks.
Timing / Accuracy
Down to every last quaver and every triplet, it’s really important to keep everything on time. Make sure to keep a metronome-like pulse to your music, especially when you have no accompaniment.
Tip: Practice your up-strokes. Attempt every downbeat with an upstroke, and don’t be afraid to use economy picking, where you do two upstrokes or two downstrokes in the same pick swing.
Variety of techniques (single / rhythmic / chordal / fingerstyle)
Versatility will win the examiners over. Expand your comfort zone and play a variety of pieces. Mark Knopfler is a great guitarist to learn from, if you want to learn how to fingerpick with more vigour. Also keep in mind what tone you can produce with your fingertips:
- Should you pick at all? (To produce a warmer tone, I often switch to fingers)
- Do you pick hard?
- What pick do you use? (different thicknesses produce different tones)
From start to finish, have you mastered your technique to its core?
This element ties in with the previous point – different styles of music will call for different techniques, and different systems to organise music (mnemonic).
Evaluate your system for memorising:
e.g what does an A minor 7th look like in the 5th position?
To me, looks like a bar / vertical line.
It looks like something completely different in the 10th position
Which to me, looks like more a triangle.
So consider when improvising - can using the same chord in a different position help you get to where you want to go?
- Scales and modes
Different positions rock! Experiment with shifting the scale 5 frets down, but on a different string. Also test your music theory – if there is a ii-V-I progression, anticipate the I and emphasise the 3rd and 5th notes.
Don’t just play note by note with the sheet music. Make sure to evoke the same emotion through minor techniques, whether it is a roaring bend to exactly 1 fret apart, or a semiquaver passage across strings.
- listening to other artists of the same genre. Example: if playing Jimi Hendrix, listening to Buddy Holly or Stevie Ray Vaughan is a good place to start to emulate tone and musicality
- thinking of long fast passages as a journey – contrary to what they teach you in classroom music, the aim is not to subdivide perfectly into musical notes; the aim is to arrive at a destination, and the notes are just steps towards that direction
Style / Interpretation
Bring your personality to each music – and rock it!
However, bringing the right gear demonstrates how you perceive your repertoire – playing a Jackson Kelly on a Tommy Emmanuel song is probably not a good idea. Use your ears and consider all parts of the guitar – your left hand, right hand, body of the guitar, the cables, the pedals and the amp.
You can really demonstrate your interpretation through improvisation pieces. Practice to a backing track before your recitals, and don’t be afraid to use different techniques based on what you hear during the week.
I hope this advice was useful to all those considering or studying VCE Music at the moment.
It’s a stressful time – but just know that choosing VCE Music was probably the best choice you have made in your schooling career.
To have a subject where you can explore the rules of expression, and break them, can be a highly rewarding, liberating experience amidst a highly structured study environment.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at Justin@leadersofrock.com