Neural Pathways and Loose Associations: How to Discover New Music

By: Konner Scott

When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I noticed I was starting to develop a deepening passion for music. My parents were trying desperately to indoctrinate me with Queen’s catalog, but it just wasn’t taking. In particular, they were pushing the song “You Take My Breath Away”on me- an eerie, haunting, slow piano ballad with goosebump-inducing vocals from Freddie Mercury. I hated it. Every time my mom put it on, I would leave the room. At that time, I enjoyed classical music, and I occasionally could stomach certain film music (Disney in particular), but that was about it.

Not long after that, I heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the radio. It absolutely blew me away. I became obsessed. My parents had a copy of Queen’s “A Night at the Opera” album, which I quickly pilfered so I could listen to the song on repeat on the boombox in my room. And I’m talking on REPEAT. I had it playing for hours at a time. For some reason, my familiarity with theatrical classical music and Disney scores made that particular song, in my mind, a musical masterpiece. 

That opened the floodgates. Naturally, I decided to explore other songs on that album, and found that I enjoyed many of them. I began to raid my parents’ CD collection, and discovered many other albums that spoke to me- the Beatles’ greatest hits collection, in particular, was just familiar enough after my Queen obsession that I quickly fell in love. I latched onto “In My Life” the same way I had latched onto “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and I would fall asleep listening to it on repeat.

Once again, the course of my musical trajectory was shaped dramatically when the band Kansas came into my life. My best friend’s dad bought me “The Best of Kansas” as a birthday gift, and “Carry on Wayward Son” pulled me in like nothing ever had before. To this day, I still consider it my favorite song. My two best friends also fell in love with that CD, and we still share a bond over our deep appreciation for Kansas’s music.

From that point until I was nearly in high school, I almost only listened to classic rock music. I couldn’t stomach anything else. It just didn’t resonate with me the same way the hits of Kansas, Queen, Styx, Foreigner, and Def Leppard did. Some of the classic rock I listened to pushed me in the direction of hard rock, which I developed a love for my freshman year of high school. Suddenly, I couldn’t get enough of Breaking Benjamin, Three Days Grace, Rise Against, and Shinedown. Until I left for college, classic and hard rock remained about 95% of the music populating my playlists.

In retrospect, I wish I had pushed myself to branch out more in junior high and high school. I had a certain unwarranted pride in how closed-minded I was; rock music, to me, reigned supreme and anyone who disputed that was clearly wrong. I wonder how my musical journey would have been shaped by an earlier exposure to different styles and eras.

These days, I listen to just about everything. In college and in my adult life, I’ve made an effort to listen to, play, and understand, as much new music as I can. It didn’t happen all at once, though! Just like in my early years, I can only latch on to new music if it’s close enough to music I already love that the similarities captivate me and draw me in. As I got older, the novelties and differences in new artists and styles soon became familiar, and I continued to expand my palate upward and outward.

I’ve found it impossible to make too large a jump in my listening repertoire- if something is just a shade too unfamiliar, it doesn’t resonate and I lose interest quickly. The fascinating thing is how, through a slow expansion of my musical tastes, I’ve learned to love what I used to despise. So many songs and artists that friends and family had shown me years ago I had quickly discarded, yet I’ve rediscovered many of those songs and artists over time on my own terms, and they now make up a core part of my music library. It’s not until a song perfectly treads the line between familiarity and novelty that I can digest its beauty and bring it into my “musical zone”. Over the years, I’ve been able to engage this process enough to have an appreciation for nearly everything that’s become prevalent in our culture (with some exceptions, of course, but I won’t get into that).

Additionally, from my current vantage point, I see “You Take My Breath Away” as one of the most beautiful songs ever written.

The Power of Confidence and Connection

By: Konner Scott

Recently, I started a new role as an acoustic guitarist at a church. The worship setlist consists primarily of gospel music and Christian contemporary, two lanes with which I am not super familiar. In particular, gospel music requires a unique knowledge of theory and stylistic nuance that I’ve never been exposed to in much detail.

My very first day on the job was Easter Sunday. I scrambled to learn the set list, and then got up on stage and hoped for the best. The band kicked off right away with a song that wasn’t even on the list I had received (I found out later that worship groups will often “riff”, or go by feel, in these situations). Not only that, but from the first bar, it was clear that these guys were on another level. I was surrounded by brilliant musicians, and suddenly I felt inadequate.

In a panic, I desperately grabbed the correct key, then played simple chord shapes that I thought would line up nicely with nearly any chord in the key. Even so, I felt like I was just trying to stay afloat for the first few minutes, which rattled my confidence greatly.

Later in the set, we turned over to a couple more simple songs that I had actually rehearsed. I took a deep breath and focused on the keyboardist. The version of the songs I had learn mostly lined up with what the keys player was doing (an advantage to playing piano as well- I could eyeball his chords and know what to do on guitar), and where they didn’t, I was able to follow much more easily than earlier in the set.

Towards the end, the band went into “riff mode” once again, but this time, I was more prepared. As the energy increased, I just pulled out some acoustic blues/soul licks and chord shapes I had in my library, and made an effort to connect with the energy of the other musicians. The finish – on my end – was lukewarm, but I got off stage feeling like a musical failure, and wondering when I would receive the call that I had been fired.

After our worship set, I had an opportunity to meet and chat with the other musicians. They benevolently praised my playing, and my first instinct was that they were lying- or at best, embellishing the truth. After enough people had positive things to say, though, I started to believe that maybe I HADN’T floundered as much as I had originally thought, and that my years of experience with other types of music (and experience being adaptable; see previous blog posts) had come to my aid.

The next week, I got on stage with a renewed confidence and vigor. I made two plans: one, to follow the keyboard player like my life depended on it, and two, to connect with the rest of the band and tailor my playing to theirs. This time, I got off stage much more confident, having had a lot of fun, and the band seemed genuinely excited about what I had brought to the table.

The first day with the group, I felt disconnected, and even though to the outside observer I may not have failed, I genuinely felt like I had not connected and blended with the rest of the band while I played. The next week, with a bit more confidence and a game plan, I was able to get outside of my own head and focus on the bigger picture. The reduction in my insecurity allowed me to appreciate the fact that I was on stage with incredible musicians, and I believed that I had something to contribute.

I’ve done a couple more services with this group since them, and every week I get a little more comfortable. It’s just become a blast. I can’t wait for the next one!

Why Youth Music Education is Important

By: Konner Scott

It’s a sad reality that when schools hard underfunded and need to make cutbacks, arts programs- music in particular- are often first on the chopping block. In a vacuum, this might make sense. One could make the case that math and science classes, for example, have a broader real-world application than arts classes. Keeping skyscrapers standing and bridges from crumbling takes precedence over a Saturday night concert. However, music education doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that view has too narrow a scope on a practical level.

The benefits of music education extend far beyond the music itself. In the words of Kenneth Guilmartin, the cofounder of the ‘Music Together’ program: “Music learning supports all learning… it’s a very integrating, stimulating activity”. Research demonstrates these benefits clearly: exposure to music education in early childhood can help supplement verbal and written language skills, as well as innate understanding of mathematical concepts. Music education is correlated with higher IQ, an increased ability to focus for long periods of time, and improved spatial intelligence. Children who receive music education and exposure in their early years are also more likely to be socially competent and less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression as they age into their teen years.

Then, there’s also the case to be made that a strong connection with music can be a unifying activity that provides a productive and positive social outlet. I’ll go anecdotal with this one: in my early teen years, my two best friends and I started a band. Our go-to activity when we got together on weekends was writing and arranging songs, studying other bands, and practicing our set list. The tools we had been granted in music programs- piano lessons, concert band, jazz band, etc- allowed us to explore our musicality together, and forge tighter social bonds with each other as a result. I’ll leave it to the imagination what activities we may have been engaging in instead had that outlet not been available to us.

As a music teacher, there’s clear bias here, but the more I learn about the benefits of music education, the more gratitude I have for my profession. The stats- as well as the spark in my students’ eyes when they’re engaged in their curriculum- back up and support my choice to pursue this career path. If you’re still on the fence about whether to enroll your child in music lessons, feel free to do a little research on your own and the results will speak for themselves!

Environment, Mindset, and Creativity

By: Konner Scott

Writing a song, when you’ve never done so before (or when you’ve only done so a couple of times), can seem both daunting and exciting. It might feel like you’re on the edge of your comfort zone, pushing your creativity to its limits. Even if the final product isn’t objectively anything good or professional, there’s a resounding satisfaction in knowing that “I created that!”.

The good news, in my experience, is that feeling of pride and excitement in your own creation never truly wanes. The bad news, however, is that if you write enough songs, the process becomes habitual and almost instinctive. There are benefits to this, sure- it’s nice to sit down, disappear into the process, and know you’ll come out the other side with something complete- but the downside is that the novelty wears off and it’s much easier for the creative process to become mundane. A songwriter’s biggest fear is that their work will reflect the mundanity of their process and their surroundings.

I personally tend to view songwriting as a musical encapsulation of my own personal experience. In every song I write exists elements of my worries, fears, hopes, surroundings, and general mental state at the time I wrote it. As such, I’ve found it immensely beneficial to shake the process up as much as possible in order to expand the breadth of my output.

Of course, you can do things like put constraints on your process. For example, one thing I enjoy doing is challenging myself to write a song using only major chords, or only having three specific notes in the melody, or any number of barriers that I then must use my creativity to circumvent. However, something I have not explored nearly as much is changing my environment and mindset when I write.

Over Labor Day weekend, I booked an overnight cabin in the north Georgia mountains with the intention of doing a solo songwriting retreat. I packed up my guitar and keyboard, and drove about two hours into the wilderness. From the hours of 7pm until about 12am, I wandered the cabin and let inspiration strike.

I promised myself I wouldn’t force a single note, and that anything I wrote on the trip would come organically. I allowed myself to take breaks, to sit and think, and even- at one point- to go stand on the porch in the rain with a little 40-key portable keyboard and just plunk out melodies while watching the rain come down. By midnight, I had somehow completed and recorded five new songs- an average of about one per hour.

On my drive back home the next morning, it occurred to me that I had five new songs that had immortalized the adventure and experience of driving out into the mountains by myself. Every time I listen to those songs for the rest of my life, they will reflect that experience back to me. Whether or not the songs are good enough for public consumption is a different conversation, but I walked away from the trip with five pieces of my soul that would have been impossible to create without the change in setting and mindset that the trip induced.

Stuck in a creative rut? Go somewhere else. Maybe even just try a different room. Maybe face the other way in your desk chair. You might be amazed at how much minute changes in your setting can shake up your process!

Pentatonic Soloing for Beginner Pianists

By: Konner Scott

There’s an exercise I absolutely love to show my beginning piano students. It makes the creative side of piano accessible to anyone, no matter their age or skill level. I use this with students as old as 60 and students as young as three; students who are attending their first lesson ever and students who have been playing for a decade. No matter who you are or what stage you’re at in your journey, if you’re interested in creativity and innovation on the piano, this is a useful exercise.

On paper, it’s simple: make something up on the black keys.

Seriously, just play the black keys. Play groups of them at a time. Play single note melodies. Drag your hands up or down the keys all at once. Make fists and smash them against the black keys.

The five black keys make up what we call a “pentatonic scale” in the key of G flat. In musical jargon, this sounds fairly complex, but all you need to know for this exercise to be helpful is that the pentatonic scale is a series of five notes that nearly always sounds great. You can pair them together in any number of ways without the notes becoming dissonant, harsh, or overwhelming.

The way to make this truly fun is to play along with a backing track. During lessons, I will accompany my students personally, but at home, I encourage them to search YouTube for the following phrases: “F sharp jam track”, “G flat jam track”, “D sharp minor jam track”, and “E flat minor jam track”. All four essentially mean the same thing, and you’ll be able to find hundreds of tracks that fit the descriptors.

Once you’ve selected one, play it loud and jam along on the black keys on your piano! You’ll be surprised by how easy it is to create beautiful solos that match the track!

Effective March 21, 2022 – Updated Mask Guidelines

Highland Music Studio’s COVID-19 mask policy is changing in accordance with updated CDC guidelines. Masks are now optional for teachers and students. Students or parents of students can request that their teacher wear a mask verbally at their lesson or through a written email to [email protected]

As we have learned, the situation and guidelines are always changing, so this can change again in the future.

Music Practice as Meditation

By: Konner Scott

Whatever your thoughts on spirituality and spiritual practices, the science behind meditation is undeniable. It’s been clinically proven to reduce stress and anxiety, boost emotional health, enhance self-awareness, improve attention span… and the list of benefits goes on and on.

I have had a meditation practice in the past, and I’ve seen firsthand the positive impact it can have on my life. Currently, though, I’m too busy most days to step aside for 10-15 minutes and clear my head. I had to make a choice between consistent piano practice and consistent meditation, and piano practice won over.

What I’ve realized, though, is that I can combine the two without losing anything from either! As I returned to piano a couple years ago and began to practice more regularly, I began to see the parallels between meditation and certain elements of my practice routine. In particular, when I was working through difficult passages, breaking them down slowly, and playing them on repeat for minutes at a time, I found myself in that meditative trance- completely immersed in what I was doing without distraction, but also without consciously thinking about what I was doing. It was the sort of “detached focus” that seems to be the goal of meditation.

Many years ago, I read a book called “The Inner Game of Tennis”, recommended to me by my best friend’s bass instructor. He told me that, although the book was technically about tennis, the concepts could be pared down and reapplied to musicianship. I took his word for it, and gave it a chance. That book changed my life, and also helped inform my current philosophy of music as a meditative practice.

The basic idea is that “passive observation” is the gateway to progress with a physical skill. The author explained at length how his tennis students that made the most progress were the ones who passively noted whether or not they were doing something correctly, instead of reacting with judgment against themselves. In that “zen” state, they found their body naturally made the necessary changes to improve their form, and they were able to develop their skill set much more quickly.

For me, thinking about music practice this way has been a double blessing: it’s granted me the same psychological and physiological benefits as meditation, and also been an asset to improving my musical skill more quickly. The best way to practice is to get lost in it!

Visualization and Practice

By: Konner Scott

When I was much younger, I was a competitive swimmer (if you’ve followed my blog posts to any degree, you’re very aware of this). Before important swim meets, our team would often gather after practice. Our coach would turn off the lights in the pool area, and have us lie down on the deck. We’d all close our eyes and visualize – to the finest detail – every aspect of the races we were about to compete in. How we would approach the starting block, how the cold water would feel upon entry, the exact number of strokes we would take every single length, the exact time we wanted to go down to the hundredth of a second- no stone was left unturned.

Although the power of this was lost on me at first, in time, I realized that this was an incredibly powerful psychological tool. I was often one of the more nervous competitors at big swim meets. I couldn’t eat, my stomach would be in shambles, and my head would spin for hours before my first race.

Once I figured out how to visualize effectively, I began to trust my instinct. I had already put in the work during countless hours of swim practice, and I’d seen exactly how my races should unfold in my mind’s eye. It became easier to turn off my brain and just execute. Most of my best races over the course of my swimming career came under these conditions.

It never occurred to me until I started teaching music that the same philosophy could apply to learning an instrument. Once the idea struck me, I decided to test it out. As I was learning a new piece, when I lay in bed at the end of the night, I would close my eyes and try to clearly picture every single note of a phrase, section, or passage I was working on.

I began to notice that, when I would practice the following day, I didn’t need as much time to warm-up or remember what I had done the day before. The material was more fresh in my mind (and in my hands), and I could more quickly jump into learning the next important thing.

Seeing how much this has enhanced my ability to learn pieces quickly has been a game changer. I find myself able to manage much more complex material, because I’m acutely aware of every single detail, and I can picture them all clearly even when I’m away from the piano or guitar.

Over the past year, I’ve been able to learn, with some level of proficiency, 5-6 semi-complex classical piano songs. This is something I could never have dreamed of in my younger piano playing days. I attribute much of this to my ability to clearly see every single note in my head, whether or not I have the instrument in front of me. Like anything else, this requires practice, but the practice pays off!

Musical Immersion

By: Konner Scott

For about six months, I’ve been taking jazz piano lessons. A couple weeks ago, my teacher got on my case.

“You can play the notes, and you can play the chords, and you can play the rhythms… but that doesn’t mean you can PLAY jazz. You don’t listen to jazz, so you can’t play it!”

He was right. Despite my fascination with the genre and desire to learn it, it’s never been a huge part of my listening repertoire.

As a classical pianist, I listen to classical music all the time. I have it on in the background when I’m working. I’m actually listening to Debussy right now as I write this. I study my favorite performances of pieces I’m learning, and try to infuse my own playing with elements of those performances. But with jazz, I just play what I’m asked to play, note for note, and show up to my lessons ready to robotically regurgitate the pieces I’ve learned.

For every other style of music I’ve ever learned, it’s been crucial not just to listen to similar music, but to IMMERSE myself in it. I was in a hard rock band in high school; I had playlists upon playlists of similar music on my iPod. My friends and I would go see our favorite hard rock bands on tour. I went to Warped Tour probably four times over the course of my childhood. I studied the chord progressions, the songwriting choices, the instrumental techniques- I was obsessed with learning everything there was to know about hard rock music.

So, why should it be any different with jazz? The more I think about it, the more my teacher’s words resonate. I’ve started listening to jazz while I work and while I’m driving around. I’ve started noting the names of jazz pianists I like, and those whose performances don’t resonate as much with me. I’ve started looking up jazz clubs in the area and making note of when they feature performances that I’ll be able to attend. I have a book on the history of jazz sitting on my bedside table.

I figure that if I really want to learn how to play jazz, I first need to embody jazz- I need to BE jazz. Only then can the learning really begin.

Finding Songs in Conversation

By: Konner Scott

As a songwriter, it’s easy to get stuck in a creative rut. Often, I’ll feel like I’ve tapped out my well of creativity and I no longer have any original songs inside me. What I fail to remember in these situations is that creativity is a river, not a well; always flowing, changing, and evolving. I’ve developed many strategies for shaking up my creative process over the course of my life, but what I’d like to explore today is how to draw direct creative inspiration from the world around you.

One of the best songs I’ve ever written is a guitar tune called “Burial”. It’s a slow, sad, fingerpicked ballad that lyrically expresses what music means to me. I examine my life in a broader scope, and explore the musical legacy I’d like to leave behind. 

The chorus culminates with the line “when the [reaper] takes me from this place/bury me in my guitar case”, which – as proud of that line as I am – I cannot take credit for! A couple years ago, at an open mic, I was speaking with an elderly gentleman I’ve seen around the circuit for years. We got to discussing guitars, and he was describing to me a beautiful vintage Gibson Les Paul he had hanging on his wall at home. With a twinkle in his eye, he said “that’s the guitar I want to be buried with”. That line stuck with me, so I borrowed it, tweaked it, and repurposed it- and what emerged is one of my favorite songs from my personal archives.

Inspiration can be drawn from conversation, sure, but more broadly, it can be drawn directly from the world around you. Maybe there’s a line on a billboard that sticks with you on your morning commute. Maybe you overhear a heated exchange between two unhappy spouses in a nearby apartment. Maybe you’re walking through the park, and a powerful message hits you while you’re lost in your own thoughts. Pay attention to what sticks with you and what you remember- often, those things are fertile ground for powerful lyricism!