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Outside home base

The emotional rollercoaster of experienced musicians in new musical spaces

Let's see if you resonate with this:

You have some musical knowledge. Maybe you've taken lessons off and on, or even studied music in school or on your own. You have a "Home style" that is the main type of music that you play.

For me, it's classical. I can play classical piano and I sing in classical ensembles.

You may, through the years, have branched out a little into a "Secondary" style. You may not play at a super high level, but you know generally what to do and enjoy playing it. It "shakes things up a bit" from your main Home style. For me, it's early 20th century vocal ensemble jazz (think Andrews sisters and Sinatra arrangements). I won't win any awards, but I can confidently perform in that style.

But outside those two, the wider world of music might feel... honestly, unrelatable. Even if you studied music seriously at one point, and may even have a degree, have you ever had a moment when you felt incapable and like an absolute outsider?

For me, it was jamming with no sheet music. Here I was, able to bring Chopin and Beethoven to life in a concert hall...but put me in a room with my brother and his friends playing rock or bluegrass, and I hit a wall. They would just... get it. Even if they'd never played a song before, they'd intuit the chord changes. It felt like magic... and I felt awful.

Me looking fancy with a piano to emphasize that I do, in fact, know how to play piano.

When this picture was taken, if you asked me to jam, I'd probably have an emotional meltdown.

And when you look around at the huge world of music, you may feel like it's impossible to learn or even connect with any meaningful fraction of it. How the heck do jazz performers do that improvisatory stuff? (or for some, how can Western classical musicians make any sense of sheet music?) What in the world is going on with meters in folk music? Maybe you don't like a particular style but you only have vague notions why (for me it's country).

You can tell there's more to these communities than you're getting. You can tell people connect strongly with these genres, and some musicians play at a high level, but you don't really understand what that means. I can tell you why Beethoven's music is the meaning of life... but I have no idea what makes a good jazz drummer (or even what makes a jazz drummer different from other kinds of drummers).

You wonder: Why do people like it? Or, why do I like it? Or, I feel like I could like it but I don't know how.

What is the deal with Bollywood music? Why is rap so popular? Does Arabic music really have extra tones, and if so how in the world does the music theory work? What about taiko drumming... it seems cool, but what's going on musically? Is there really regional variation in Native American music... and what tonality is happening there?

I think a lot of us recognize that other genres have levels of mastery. We may even try to learn a little about it, but the impetus can fizzle pretty quickly if you don't have someone giving you direction. You know from your own lessons that there are good teachers and not so good teachers, so YouTube searches are frustrating as hell. And you're not going to seek out an in-person teacher for each and every one of these genres just to sate your curiosity; who has the time or money for that? It's way too much of a commitment: I'll just stick with [Home and Secondary styles].

So here we are: curious about all sorts of music, but without the energy or time to put into really learning it... and really, you truly love your Home and Secondary styles, they bring you peace, they're fun and you can see the pathway forward. These make sense to you. Eventually you convince yourself that you'll just stick with them, and accept there are musical languages you'll never understand.

Up until recently, I struggled with this. I wanted to learn about different kinds of music but it all seemed intimidating. If I wasn't playing or singing classical music or choral jazz/pop, I felt so incompetent! There didn't seem to be a middle ground between finding my way with YouTube videos and the frustrations above, or going to the actual community environment where everyone else was an expert. I needed to be armed with a little knowledge before walking into the room, but I didn't know where to go for what I needed.

I know I'm not the only one out there who feels this way. Maybe you see other musicians doing cool musical things like it's nothing, but when you try it comes out boring and clunky and horrible. And if you go into the community (jazz or Blues jam, Irish session, pub sing...) you feel really awkward because everyone else has decades of experience. You know you're competent... just not in this. And really, you're not looking to be an expert, just feel like a freakin' musician like you do in your own spaces. You might just want to feel competent in the room or support your friends.

For me, I wanted to understand Jazz and Blues jams. I knew the ensemble style and I knew Blues dance, but I felt really uncomfortable going to jams. I had made some friends who were in the scene, so I went out when they were playing to listen, hang, and take it all in.

But then people would learn I was a signer and ask me to get up and sing. I was up front that I wasn't experienced in the genre. Outwardly, folks were kind and encouraging. I was curious and excited to try something new, so I eventually did.

I tried to be respectful and do no more than 2 songs (folks said 2-3 was standard, so I tried to be conservative). But after a few times of me coming, someone told me about a jam on a different night and said "it's more your speed." Eh? There's speeds? What makes that night more appropriate for me, and what was I doing in this jam that was "off?" I thought the songs went ok, so what was up? What was I missing? It was a really vulnerable moment. And the thing was, I just wanted to make music with my friends. I wasn't trying to "make it" in Blues and Jazz, I just wanted the same comfort here that I feel in classical spaces.

Finally I decided to scratch my own itch and create a program that paves the way for musicians of all backgrounds to access other styles of music. I wanted a place to build on the common elements of music you already know, recognize the journey you've already taken, and introduce you to the basics of something new.

And if I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it in STYLE. I'm gonna do it the way my incredible college education led me to love my Home style of Western classical music: by giving context. By bringing to life the spirit of the times, the zeitgeist, whether that be juke joints in the 1920s or the Irish innovators building the first bagpipe. Let's make 'em come alive like the living, breathing, laughing communities they are, whether the folks lived 1000 years ago or dropped an album last week.

I obviously can't lead these classes. My role in this is to curate. I have a huge musical network, so it's fun for me to pull together experts in different parts of the scene so we can get a birds-eye view of the whole thing. In my Irish Immersion class, for example, you'll learn about the tune types and how to play the traditional styles from the band. You'll learn about caeli, or house dance events, from a caeli caller. You'll take a tour of the geography of Ireland through whiskey tastings. There are historical essays that teach you about key events and people, and context on what else was going on the world at the time.

You don't have to dance, or drink, but you'll know the scene and what the words mean and generally what to expect.

You're not going to become an expert. You're going to learn a little, about a lot. You'll be able to confidently walk into these communities and know what the heck is going on. You'll know the etiquette and a few of the standard tunes. You'll know the structure so you can tell when a song is ending. You'll know whether it's appropriate to clap, or shout, or perform (or not!)...and even whether it's appropriate to order a PBR or ask a stranger to dance.

Most importantly, for me, is you'll know whether you want to do further study, or if you've scratched the itch and you're happy with the knowledge you have.

Composer and clarinetist Christopher Steig gives a pre-concert presentation at a Zeitgeist Academy event.

The concert featured a clarinet concerto; Chris showed us several types of clarinets and some things to listen for.

When I was building the Irish Immersion class with my friend Iain I asked him, "what are the Wagon Wheels of this style?" Because I don't need to know obscure tunes to feel fancy, I need to know what everyone knows. The Fur Elises, the Autumn Leaves, the Mustang Sallys. These are the songs that represent the ultimate fan connection to the music; studying them will teach me the most about the style.

Maybe there's always been a little spark inside you that says: "what if I understood that a little?"

The Zeitgeist Academy is for people who love music, to help eliminate the barriers to learning about musical styles and subcultures outside your “home base.”

If this sounds like you, please give it a try. I'm making this for me, for you, for all of us who think music is cool. Start out with a class and see where you end up!

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