Even the most talented pop stars feel the need to take music lessons

June 12, 1992|By John Milward | John Milward,New York Times News Service

On a recent Monday, Howard Morgen, who makes his living teaching guitar, traveled to Manhattan to give private lessons to Carly Simon, Paul Simon and James Taylor. Mr. Morgen, who usually requires students to come to his home in Great Neck, N.Y., makes house calls for pop stars.

So just what are three musicians who have written dozens of hit songs and sold millions of albums doing taking music lessons? Unlike classical musicians, pop performers rarely spring from the conservatory. Instead, they hone their styles in bars and clubs and depend more on intuition and inspiration than on organized instruction.

"These are enormously talented people," Mr. Morgen says of his famous students, "who did much of what they did by ear. Now they want to expand their understanding. So if I can give them a fresh perspective, it just makes things easier and faster for them."

Gary Burton, a jazz vibraphonist who is dean of curriculum at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, estimates that 10 percent of professional musicians continue formal studies during their careers. "I think it's honorable to study and to keep on studying," says Ms. Simon. "I want to be a great guitarist when I'm very old."

Some pop musicians find the best time to squeeze in lessons is between projects. For two years before the release of "Graceland" in 1986, Mr. Simon studied with Mr. Morgen, whose specialty is teaching music theory from the perspective of the guitar's fingerboard. ("I remember he played me the tapes," says Mr. Morgen of the South African music that inspired "Graceland," "and I just didn't hear it. That's why he's Paul Simon, and I'm me.")

Although Mr. Simon's study of sophisticated chords and voicings didn't find its way onto the album, he resumed his lessons with Mr. Morgen on completion of a world tour in support of "Graceland."

When a working musician decides to take lessons, it's usually with a more defined agenda than the average hobbyist's. Sting, a singer and bass player, takes occasional cello lessons; he hopes to eventually play Bach's "Six Suites for Solo Cello." Ms. Simon wants to trade her basic guitar chords for a more advanced vocabulary. The jazz drummer Tony Williams studies with classical composers to broaden his knowledge of music theory and structure. The banjoist Bela Fleck studies jazz improvisation to expand his range.

Ms. Simon says she stumbled onto the idea of taking lessons while looking for a teacher for her teen-age son, Ben. (His father is the singer James Taylor, from whom Ms. Simon is divorced).

Perusing the catalog of the Guitar Study Center at the New School of Social Research, she was intrigued by a series of courses on fingerboard harmony taught by Mr. Morgen. She decided to try a few lessons to help Ben get comfortable with the idea, but her interest has been piqued and now she sees Mr. Morgen once a week when her schedule permits.

She says she studied piano for a year when she was 7 and took a couple of guitar lessons in 1968. Like most untutored guitarists, she learned chords from the diagrams that often supplement sheet music. She wrote songs like "You're So Vain" and "Anticipation" by ear and did not necessarily know whether the chords she strung together belonged in the same key.

"Most of my songs are written around my own accompaniment," says Ms. Simon, "and my own accompaniments have been relatively scant. I have a style on both the piano and the guitar, and a style is worth an awful lot of technique. But I think that part of my style is leaving out notes, and now I want to learn the notes that I can put in to develop a fuller sound.

"I don't mean to sell myself short -- I have a creative sensibility, and I've gone a long way on that. But I'm not satisfied with my lack of knowledge anymore, and I'm ready to apply myself in a different way, to learn the nuts and bolts of what I've been doing on instinct."

Ms. Simon's interest in lessons coincides with her recent venture into a wider variety of musical projects, including the score for the film "This Is My Life" and a one-act opera for children that she is writing for the Metropolitan Opera Guild and the Kennedy Center.

Mr. Morgen is teaching her to play sophisticated chords in various voicings and how to string them together to enrich the melody. And what about her son?

"Ben and I help each other, but he picks up everything much faster than me and is already playing in the style of his father," Ms. Simon says. "I think it's in the genes."

When the father heard such glowing reports about his son, Mr. Taylor decided that his own idiosyncratic style of guitar playing could benefit from a few lessons, and he signed on with his son's teacher.

In 1963, at the age of 17, the drummer Tony Williams gained instant recognition when he joined Miles Davis' quintet. Mr. Williams recalls that he had taken lessons for about a year when he was 12 or 13, and early on in his tenure with Davis, he had studied rhythm and harmony at the Manhattan School of Music.

But it wasn't until he left Mr. Davis to form a pioneering jazz-rock band, he says, that he found time for periodic bursts of study. He turned his attention to composition after moving to the San Francisco Bay area in the late '70s. "I wasn't dissatisfied with the work I was doing as much as with my tools," Mr. Williams says. "The point when you start realizing what you don't know is when you start deciding what you want to find out."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.