Five Questions for Gretchen Menn, Author of ‘The Way Music Works’
San Francisco Bay Area–based Gretchen Menn is the author of The Way Music Works, portions of which can be viewed at Acoustic Guitar Plus (formerly Guitarcast).
We recently reached out to Menn, ordinarily a busy performer, to see how she’s been handing her musical life during the coronavirus pandemic, and to hear her thoughts on common misconceptions of music theory.
In normal times, you tour frequently with your Led Zeppelin cover band, Zepparella. What’s your musical life been like without in-person gigs?
As for everyone, a lot got cancelled this year, including a U.S. tour with Zepparella, shows with my trio, some international festivals, workshops, performances. My gig and travel schedule is usually so busy that I have to work hard to carve out time to compose my own music, and I often find myself wishing for more time at home. While I certainly wouldn’t have wished it to happen this way, I was able to shift gears to writing and recording as soon as gigs were cancelled.
You’ve lately been playing nylon-string luthier Kenny Hill’s personal guitar. How did he come to loan it to you—and what have you been playing on it?
I still have a hard time believing I get temporary custody of this instrument! A number of years ago, I was given a Kenny Hill classical guitar (a Ruck model) that I’ve always felt I don’t deserve, but am certainly very happy to have. It’s way more classical guitar than I am a classical guitar player, but it inspires me to do my best to rise to the occasion.
At a Zepparella show in Felton, CA, a couple of years ago, a guy at the merch table started talking to me about classical guitar. He mentioned he was a builder in the area, and with Felton being a very small town, I was immediately at attention. “What’s your name?” I asked. “Kenny Hill.” I practically tackled the poor man, and told him I had one of his guitars and that I worship his instruments. We had a lovely chat, and I gave him a copy of my latest album, Abandon All Hope, where my Kenny Hill Ruck is featured on a number of tracks.
We stayed in touch, and at the last NAMM show, he invited me to check out his personal guitar at his booth, even though the chaos of NAMM is hardly the optimal environment to properly appreciate an instrument. We talked briefly about my latest album project—compositions primarily for solo guitar. Shortly after NAMM, he wrote me an email saying he wanted to lend me his personal guitar to see if it inspired any music for the new album. I was floored, and my husband and I drove to Felton to spend an afternoon with Kenny, his instruments, and get a tour of his workshop. He performed one of his new compositions for us, an absolutely lovely piece with all sorts of cool harmonics, and sent us back with his personal guitar. I should mention he has two personal guitars, so he’s not without his only instrument!
I immediately started writing new material on it—two new compositions and another now in the works.
To make the most of my time with this guitar, I decided to record one of my absolute favorite pieces, a Bach Prelude (from the first Cello Suite) that I studied with my classical guitar instructor and mentor, Phillip de Fremery. His version of it has been my essential performance inspiration.
What musical projects have you been involved with during COVID-19?In addition to my own composing, I’ve done some collaborations and guest solos. Currently I’m gearing up for two very exciting projects.
Guitar Cloud Symposium is an online guitar experience, the brainchild of the legendary Jennifer Batten. Jennifer, Nili Brosh, Vicki Genfan, and I are teaching 24 subjects between the four of us, doing Q&As, and covering a wide variety of topics—from performance psychology and the science of learning to specific techniques, such as harp harmonics and tapping. We are all really excited about sharing some of the aspects of music we are most passionate about teaching. The camp will be via Zoom and will take place August 7–10.
Another Night on Earth is a project that involves duets performed by guitarists across the globe. I’m honored to have the opportunity to work with a team of truly stellar musicians and composers: Jiji Kim (Korea/Arizona), Joe Gore (San Francisco, CA), Daniele Gottardo (Rovigo, Italy), Steven Mackey (Princeton, NJ), James Moore (Princeton, NJ), David Robertson (New York), Gyan Riley (Brooklyn, NY), and Heiko Ossig (Germany). I composed and am performing a new piece I was inspired to write for this project (on Kenny Hill’s guitar!), and am performing a duet with Steven Mackey that he wrote specifically for this. I may do another duet or two with some of the other musicians as well. The event will be taking place online at the end of August.
How has your practice routine changed?
I am generally motivated with practice—its main adversary is my gig and travel schedule. With all this time at home, I have been able to maintain a consistency that just isn’t possible while on the road. For the very long list of things that are difficult, scary, and depressing now, it’s admittedly a fantastic time for practicing and musical growth.
As the author of The Way Music Works, what do you tell guitarists who think that learning music theory will stifle their creativity?
There are so many misconceptions about music theory. Some think it’s a series of rules and obligations to squash or break their creative spirit. Or that it’s academic, high-brow, and only appropriate for classical or jazz musicians. Or that a knowledge of it results in music that is necessarily cerebral, devoid of emotion, viscera, or soul.
Music theory is not prescriptive; it is descriptive. It doesn’t tell us we have to do something or that we can’t do something else—it isn’t creative dogma. It simply gives us the vocabulary and tools to conceptualize music in a way that allows us to communicate most freely with other musicians and benefit from the tremendous amount of educational materials available by allowing for a common vocabulary.
Would anyone sincerely argue that having fluency robs you of your ability to express something meaningful in language? Remember how hard it was as a child to write a paragraph? Pure agony! Does anyone think they did their best work when they were struggling with spelling or sentence construction? Familiarity with a language—music or spoken—allows for freer expression and enhanced creativity as you’re not struggling with the mechanics or aimlessly searching for the sounds in your imagination.
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