Make more mistakes
I attended Heights High in the late 1960s, and I know that at least some of this is my fault, but I didn’t take very many classes there that proved useful to me. Other than Choir, which was a class period and counted as a class, and which, as I often say, saved my life, I did take a business law course that helped me soon after I left school and started signing contracts in the music business; and a music theory class.
The music class was taught by the school’s band and orchestra director, Mr. Mackey, a man who had been born around the turn of the 20th century. He was a large, strict, mostly humorless, no-nonsense guy with a slight accent of some kind. I had taken music theory courses when I was younger and I knew the basics. This class covered the basics and then went beyond, at which point it became pretty interesting.
The class was small, with only about a dozen students. A homework assignment, one night toward the end of April, was to write a short piece—eight bars of block chords.
Mr. Mackey played mine on the piano, as he had done with the others’, and when he finished, he complimented me on the piece. Then, as was part of the assignment, he called me up to the front of the room, to stand beside him at the piano as he played each chord, and discuss the piece. He asked me to explain why I had used each chord, those particular notes.
For the first six measures, all of my answers were correct—“That’s the five of the two, so I could follow it with the two chord next”; and “I went from a six-minor to its parallel major, so I could use that as the five of the chord I wanted to go to next, which is the two minor”; and “I used the full diminished chord because each of the four notes can be interpreted as a five and lead to whatever the one-chord of that five is”; and so on. Mr. Mackey was pleased by all of that. Until we came to the seventh of the eight measures. He played that chord and asked me why I’d chosen it. I answered honestly, saying, “I just liked the way it sounded.”
He flew into a rage. He stood up—face reddening, eyes on fire—and grabbed the sheet of music off of the piano and tore it into confetti, yelling, “No!”
I stood there, shocked. He yelled, “You must be able to explain every note you write!” And he sent me back to my seat.
I was annoyed and thought he had overreacted. I think, maybe, he did overreact. But, at the same time, his scene did make that lesson pretty memorable. And, in fact, I have always remembered it—whether I was writing a rock song, or an orchestration for a record I was producing, or a vocal arrangement for a group I was singing in. I could always, if necessary—and it sometimes is—explain exactly why I wrote it as I had. And I still do.
But it became more than a music lesson; it developed into a life lesson. It occurred to me that whether you’re composing music, or writing a book, or cooking, or engaging in a political debate or, really, anything, you should be prepared to defend every note or word you write, or ingredient you add, or point you try to make. You can’t go wrong if you can do that, because you’ll always be able to justify and explain your actions, and, hopefully, convince listeners, readers, diners or opponents that you made the correct choice. Plus, I discovered, keeping that process in mind and employing it from the beginning can also help you plan and organize your work before and during the time you’re working on it.
It is said that you learn from your mistakes, and I think that’s true. Unfortunately, I didn’t do enough in most other classes to even make mistakes. I might have learned more.
David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.