By-Ear or Formal Theory? Why You Need Both!
You will usually find two types of early, developing musicians today: the formally-trained, and the trained by ear. When compared in the early stages of musicianship, it would appear that the self taught (or trained by ear) musicians are "better." Whether one is "better" than another is absolutely up for debate, however, I would argue that there are many disadvantages to settling into one exclusive camp of "musician-type." In most cases, the ear-trained musicians will progress further more quickly in the early stages of learning as opposed to formal training. You may come to the conclusion that informal training is superior to formal training, but I caution you not to conclude this quickly. The formally trained musicians are absorbing a ton of very important, foundational musical information at an early stage, and it will be invaluable in the musician's future. The obvious disadvantage, of course, is that the appearance of progress will take a longer amount of time, and results will not be as obvious as that of a self-trained musician.
Which route pays off?
Unfortunately, the disadvantages do not end in the early stages of musicianship. I would like to clarify that both categories mentioned earlier are equally deserving of the title "musician," however, you will soon realize that not all musicians are equal in skill and opportunity. Wynton Marsalis is a world-renown jazz musician who has performed and recorded some of yesterday and today's best jazz music. However, he has also performed and recorded MANY classical pieces of music that are incredibly difficult, and has shown true mastery of the style. He currently leads the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and is equally comfortable in front of an orchestra, or a jazz combo. John Williams, composer of the score for films such as "Star Wars," "Jaws," "E.T.," "Harry Potter," "Jurassic Park," and countless more, was very involved in the local jazz music scene when he was growing up. He played as a jazz pianist in many different groups, while studying at Julliard in New York City. He is now recognized as one of the most brilliant classical composers of all time, however, you can clearly hear the influence of his less-formal background of improvisation and contemporary music. There are many more examples of people like this, but the point is that the best musicians in each category usually have a background of both formal, and informal music!
Onto the developing musicians in your life...once the musicians' skill sets start moving forward, the doors of opportunity start to appear. Every situation is different, but in a general scenario you will usually see an informally-trained musician in a garage or basement, most likely playing with a cover band and writing some "singer-songwriter" rock songs, etc. The formally-trained musician is usually practicing classical repertoire, preparing for a recital or concert with an orchestra or small ensemble. As time goes on, the formal musician may be preparing for School of Music auditions, pursuing a career in the education or performance field, while the informal musician is getting heavily involved in the local music scene, possibly trying to make it big with his experienced, yet completely self-taught rock band. The risks with both of these routes is overwhelming! What if the formal musician graduates with a Degree in Musical Performance, but is thrown into an industry with minimal job opportunity for the classical skill-set? What if a new kid on the block surpasses the skills of the informal musician, and he loses a lot of his gigging opportunity to someone else? Talk to the best of the best local musicians, and you will most likely find a healthy mixture of musical KNOWLEDGE and musical ORIGINALITY. You will likely find people who can play jazz and classical, as well as rock and pop. They are comfortable on stage with a classical orchestra, a traditional big-band, or maybe even an "AC-DC" cover band. These are the musicians who will get the most jobs and musical opportunities, and if you are ONLY formal or informal, you will lack the skills needed to survive in the overall music scene.
Now that you know...
Have you identified yourself as a strictly formal, or strictly informal musician? Do not despair! Almost every musician starts off with one of those two foundations, and some even stay in their camp for years before treading into a mixture of the two!
For the formal musician: treading into the strange world of open-creativity and limitless musical exploration can be intimidating and confusing. If you are completely used to doing things strictly "by the book," you may not know where to start! Try finding a musical mentor to supplement your formal training. Usually musicians with a formal background will progress incredibly fast when treading into the world of improvisation and self-expression. You will have the advantage of great technique, a wealth of knowledge, and hopefully a large amount of classical pieces under your belt (three things that informal musicians may not have).
Informal musician: your gnarly blues licks, and face-melting rock riffs may sound fantastic and please most crowds, but the idea of reading a sheet of music may terrify you. Contrary to popular belief among the self-taught, formal training and study will NOT make your playing sound "formulaic" or "stiff." In fact, it could open up your playing and creativity in a way you never thought possible. You will develop your own musical voice to a maturity that was not previously possible. For both camps, you will be amazed at the doors that open to you if you dedicate yourself to the study and practice of your "less comfortable" realm of musical expression. If you familiarize yourself with worlds of "contemporary" and "traditional" you will eliminate a ton of bad habits, you will open yourself up to to a world of knowledge, and you will develop an incredible and unique musical voice. If you devote yourself to these things for a lifetime, you may just end up being the next Wynton Marsalis or John Williams!
To close, I will tell you that music is supposed to be fun! When music stops being fun, it starts to lack purpose. Moving into uncharted territory should be exciting and fresh, and you should enter the journey with a good amount of optimism and enthusiasm! So what are you waiting for? Go practice!
This post written by The Music Academy's own David Harris.