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I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household where many musical genres were appreciated. My Dad had his country and rock'n'roll records; my Mom had her classical records and Michael Jackson tapes. Our family went to orchestral concerts, chamber music events and operettas regularly. When I started to seek out my own music as a teenager, it was rock music on the radio (90's mainstream and alternative rock), rock from earlier decades, a little bit of jazz, and a lot of contemporary classical music.
I felt the same excitement at obtaining a new Phish album or a new disc of Polish avant-garde compositions - fiery performances, instrumental sounds both familiar and strange, unpredictable song/piece structures, and enough compositional interest to keep me coming back for more listens. I was a voracious and omnivorous listener; with each CD, tape, or record that I bought or borrowed, I got to know every song or piece, and whatever I didn't like at first listen, I gave it some more time and usually enjoyed by the third or fourth hearing.
I loved my piano lessons - I was one of those kids whose parents didn't have to coerce them into practicing (except for a few months here and there...) I had a teacher who was extremely passionate about the communicative power of classical music and quite demanding about her students meeting a high standard. She introduced me to all the great composers from Bach to Bartok. Most importantly, our lessons were about more than playing the piano; she taught me how one chord led to another, how a phrase was built, how to uncover and talk about the formal structure of a piece. I applied this same kind of critical thinking to all the music I encountered, wanting to understand the harmonies of a , the structure of a contemporary composition.
My friends and I formed a garage band. Our excitement about playing rock music together was not matched by our organizational sense; we had dozens of rehearsals and a total of three gigs. Only one of us had guitar as our main instrument; perhaps due to our lack of technical proficiency, we traded roles during every rehearsal, so I would end up as lead vocalist for a few songs, drummer for a few, guitarist for a bunch, and occasionally pianist. If we had been guided by a business sense, then I would have only played keyboards. But that experience playing guitar, bass and drums proved to be tremendous in shaping my musical DNA for the rest of my life.
I've never learned to play the violin, viola, or cello, but I do know how to compose for them idiomatically, and part of that comes from my time playing melodies on the guitar. I'm not a talented drummer by any stretch of the imagination, yet I do know how it's operated - left hand on the snare drum, right hand on the cymbals, both hands on the toms, left foot on the hi-hat, right foot on the kick drum - and when I listen to a drummer on record, I immediately have a feel for how they're physically producing all the sounds. As a result, I've written several compositions incorporating drumset, and players are generally surprised to see the level of detail I write (as most composers just sort of say "do your thing here").
The music of our youth probably has a lot to do with what we like or dislike as we grow older. Not that our tastes can't change, but still, when we're young and learning how language works, how basic human interactions work, how learning works, we're also absorbing (consciously or unconsciously) all kinds of norms about how music sounds and works. Since the music I heard as a child was so diverse, and I acquired basic skills on several instruments, and spent my teenage years listening to as much different music as I could, it's not surprising that I'm very open-minded when it comes to the question of musical influence. Quite a lot of the classically-trained musicians of my generation are the same way. The virtuoso rock idea is a way to explore our love of popular music by playing it on the instruments which we play best - something which only works if you have killer arrangements to play, which will be the topic of a future post...