LivingArts: LIGHTNING CRASHES vs. CRAZY TRAIN

I teach a weekly guitar class to a group of boys.  They range in age from eight all the way up to sixteen, with a wide range of abilities on the instrument.  

For two hours every week, I try to work my magic, shifting back and forth between motivational speaker and disciplinarian.  It’s an exhausting two hours, but also a rare chance to revisit my own boyhood.  These boys love the guitar and really do want to be able to play like the masters.  When we talk about the songs that they like, they always light up with a mischievous grin.  When we talk about the musical bits I want to teach them, they stare back at me blankly.  

Last week, we were talking about songs that they wanted to learn.  One kid asked if I knew the song “Lightning Crashes."  Anyone born in the 80s and brought up in the 90s will remember Live’s hit record, Throwing Copper, myself grabbing it for $4.00 one snowy Boxing Day morning at the old Sam the Record Man on James St N.   

Lighting Crashes, eh?  He went on to tell me that his Dad is a big Live fan (of course) and then continued to challenge me to a Crazy Train riff race.  Obviously I won the riff race (take THAT, kid) and held back the tears as I showed him the changes for the pre-post-rock hit of the 90s.

As I listened to each kid in that guitar class talking about their favourite songs, it became clear that most of the music that these kids wanted to learn is from their parents’ generation.  It makes sense - as a kid, you listen to your folks' music at home typically until you hit puberty, at which point the awkward newness of adolescence is matched only by the awkward experimentation in musical identity.  

When I think back to my own musical upbringing, I remember my Dad’s tapes.  Oh how we would cruise in our ’87 Plymouth Voyager, head-nodding to the uptown beats of Billy Joel  or the New-Wave meets R&B vibes of the Beverly Hills Cop Soundtrack.  In my middle school years, I did my best to replace my parents' music with the sweet soothing sounds of Tool, Rage Against the Machine and Primus.  

I’d like to think that the music that I discovered on my own played the largest role in shaping the artist that I have become today, but you know what?  My favourite go-to in the car is Billy Joel and Beverly Hills Cop.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise that my formative years (aka 0 through 10 years old) are the foundation on which I have built my tower of musical taste, given that those years affect our make-up in every other part of our lives.  It stands to reason that we would take extra care to expose our kids to as much nutrient-rich culture as we can, as parents and as educators.  

AND YET - we don’t.  Not really, anyway.  There are organizations that tirelessly shout statistics from the rooftops about the long-term positive effects of musical training, exposure and performance.  I watched as my Mum (an elementary music teacher),was cut back from full-time in one school in the late 90s to half-time in two schools.  After she retired, the schools likely introduced a 30-minute allotment of music each week, taught by a teacher with no proper music training. 

From a purely selfish stance, I am really worried about future audiences for the arts.  It takes time and exposure to acquire the musical pallet required to appreciate and love art music (like Classical, experimental electro-acoustic…prog rock).  How can they possibly learn what they need to learn in 30 minutes a week?  Should it be solely the responsibility of the parents to look after their kid’s musical education?  

It’s a complicated issue, for sure, and certainly not something to figure out in a blog post.  I can’t help but feel like we aren’t talking about it enough and my guitar kids are living proof that kids are sponges for music and will soak up everything that surrounds them.  Surround them with glorious, beautiful art music at a young age and they will grow up to love it, even if it takes 20 years to surface.  

[Next month: Steve tackles the Federal budget, world hunger and climate change]