Rock On Young Musicians Workshop is pleased to announce the dates of their two 2010 sessions, July 19th through July 23rd and the 26th through the 30th at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, MA. We are also proud to welcome new faculty to our already wonderful staff, including singer/songwriter/guitarist Tony Lee Thomas, who was kind enough to answer some questions we had for him regarding musical instruction for youth and his songwriting influences.
ROCK ON: I see your bio states that you started training your voice at age four. What got you starting so young and what made you keep at it? I’m sure a lot of kids are made to take music lessons by their parents, but not all stick with it and ride it out to the professional level. What in your early studies compelled you to continue learning, practicing and performing?
TONY LEE THOMAS: I think there were a few factors at play which allowed me to begin voice studies at such a young age. My own interest was obvious because I was singing as much as talking. Any music that I was exposed to captivated me, and anything that captivates the wandering attention of a hyper-active 4 year old should, in my opinion, be taken note of by any able parent. Which leads me to the next factor, which is that I was fortunate enough to have a mother who was very passionate about cultivating the interests and potential that she observed in her children. She worked very hard to afford us opportunities like musical instruction, which was a singular challenge given the limitations of a welfare income. She scraped and saved and volunteered countless hours to gain access for my sister and I to be taught at the Berkshire Music School. That’s what got me started. What kept me interested enough to continue studying and progressing was, again, a combination of multiple factors including my teachers (Alice Spatz, Elizabeth Petty) who were creative enough to keep the content colorful and interesting; and home support from the parenting that established an environment that was condusive to musical study (i.e. providing musical equipment and limiting tv). One thing all of these factors shared in common however, was an unbiased exposure to all different genres of and approaches to musical composition and performance. I never had a parent who jammed classic rock down my throat with a radio tuned exclusively to PYX 106. I was encouraged to listen and internalize ALL music from classical choral compositions to jazz to bluegrass folk ensembles to Wierd Al [Yankovic]. If I ever wanted to learn a specific piece, my teachers would find ways to teach it to me. There was never any point when I wasn’t learning something I wanted to learn mixed in with the dry content of musical theory. I remember when I was somewhere around 11 or 12 years old, then studying voice, acoustic guitar and upright double bass, and getting tired of the constant practice. I came to a bass lesson with Alice and she gave me a vinal copy of Rob Wasserman’s record Solo. She told me that if I wanted to be able to play like that, it would take practice, and years of it. She also said that every time I came to a lesson having learned the weeks material, that she would have another record to give me. I believe that while I could try to point out the semantics of what kept me interested through occurances and details, I would miss the greatest lesson in there which is that music is meant to be shared. All those years and with everyone I’ve ever learned from, I was sharing in their passion and joy. It is unmistakeable and it is contagious.
RO: What is it about “the music of popular artists from the 60’s including the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor” that attracted you to their songwriting style? What exactly have you drawn from these artists to help hone your own personal style?
TLT: They really are some of my favorites. The Beatles come easy. Who doesn’t at least like some of their stuff? JT and Joni, on the other hand were acquired tastes. I wrote them into that bio because they were the first to come to mind, but the more I think about them, the more I find they summon the foundational elements of what I LOVE in songwriting. I remember when I was 10 or so learning “Yesterday” by the Beatles and the guitar work posed quite a challenge. You see, back then I had discovered the very bad habit of waiting until a half an hour before my lesson to learn all the material, then going into it and pretending that it was the culmination of hours of arduous practice; which of course Alice could see right through, but tolerated to keep me interested; and because we were making progress (stifled, but progress nonetheless). The week I sat down to learn “Yesterday” I found that the complexity of its chord structure and progressions was not going to be learned in 10 minutes, to say nothing of the finger picking pattern which was also new. I sat through a very embarrassing lesson that week and was forced to admit my lack of practice. It was the beauty of the song and its challenging complexity that beckoned me to master it. The following week saw me practicing it daily and still stumbling over its bar chords and key modulations. In the weeks that followed I could play it, but not at all close to any performance quality rendition. We put it aside as my frustrations overcame my interest. It would be years before I found that song book again and realized I had at some point gained the skill to play it properly. I don’t know if it was the unmet challenge or simply the merits of that song’s compositional value, but either way, there is a magic in being overcome by that which we can’t comprehend. I think it is that fascination, that magic which casts its spell on my mind and my heart calling me to allow for that feeling of being “lost at sea” to lead me through the uncharted waters of artists like Joni Mitchell who is, to this day, an unparalleled writer. Her masterful way of leading the listener down these winding paths of complexity and depth, free of traditional patterns and structures seems to effectively allow me to experience the flora and fauna of her ideas and emotions. Show me a better love song than “Case of You” and I’ll show you a teary eye.
RO: What was it like to have your sound first be compared to the likes of the Allman Brothers, Steely Dan and Ben Harper? Have you ever personally thought that your music garners such comaprrisons? Was there a period of time where this sort of thing was foreign to you but you’re now used to it or will it always be strange/exciting to be compared to the greats?
TLT: I have to laugh a little to myself when my music is compared to anyone else’s only because it reminds me how much we each see the world through our own eyes. Of course, it is very flattering to be compared to the likes of these artists, who I am certainly influenced by, but people can only speak with the vocabularies they have available. If you are a devout Allman Bros. fan, and you happen to hear a few notes that remind you of one of your favorite songs, then you would be paying anyone who you compare to your favorite band and great compliment. After finishing a show one night in Southwick, a certain bar patron approached me to compliment us on our show. After singing our praises for a good ten minutes he let slip that we were the best thing he’d heard since his favorite band who was none other than Milli Vanilli! I thanked him and we went on our way with a good laugh. In that respect, I suppose it is very reassuring to know that there are people out there who hear the same influences I do in my music when compared to Steely Dan or Ben Harper. But influences and comparisons are two different things.
RO: I see you studied with Alice Spatz. What sorts of techniques did she use to teach that helped you feel confident enough to keep performing? Can you name some things that she taught you that you will try and get across to the students of Rock On? How does it feel to be teaching kids decades after being a young student of music yourself? What do you think you can bring to a songwriting class or guitar class that someone else might not be able to?
TLT: I studied with Alice for almost eight years of my adolescence. She is a brilliant teacher. Now that I’m in my thirties I am able to recognize the many ways her foundational knowledge has shaped the musician I am today and how the tools she gave me allowed me to learn further from everyone that has enriched my experience musically or otherwise. While I feel certain that there will be students of Rock On in a range of ability levels, I have no doubt that her teaching is a part of mine that will offer tools for me to pass on to a range of young artists. From hand position to theory, there are many practicing drills and approaches that will benefit technique development. And the effectiveness of these exercises will vary from student to student given not just their abilities and aptitudes, but also their learning styles. Specifically, I can offer guidance in Music Theory, Technique, Composition (words and music), Performance, Group Rehearsal Strategy, Dynamics, and Stage Presence. Instrumentally, I teach Voice, Guitar (Acoustic and Electric), Bass (Upright and Bass Guitar), and Amplification Technique/Basic Sound Engineering. I am a teacher of not only music, but also English and snowsports. I love to teach. In 14 years of teaching I have found that there is no standardized approach because people are not standardized. We are a diverse mix of visual learners and aural learners. Some of us need to read about it, and some of us need to do it! I think it is important to be creatively flexible in identifying which tools will benefit which artist relative to their needs. While Alice was certainly a big player in my personal development, she is among many people I have played with, and it is the playing that yields the most substantial results. While I have no doubt that I’ll be imparting Alice’s gems that I can’t do without like, “you don’t really know it until you can do it three times with out mistakes.” I think the most important thing to remember is that as musicians it is about communication through the universal language of music – we are in the business of sharing joy. Even the saddest ballad is a joyful experience when we discover that we are not alone in feeling its sadness. If I can open some minds and hearts to that sharing, it is there we find the fuel for a fire that will last our entire lives.