I came across this short article just now:
Some good general tips for musicians wanting to learn a different style, but I cannot emphasize this particular point the most:
Listen – If you want to learn new style in music, it is important that you listen to professional singers that have mastery in the kind of style you want to try. Blend yourself in the melodies, vocal embellishments, rhythms, phrasing and articulation that they are using.
Simply pronouncing lyrics correctly or playing pitches correctly is a (not the) base line from which to sing or play a musical style fluently. Not that the musician has to be fluent in the style–that can take years, decades, or a whole lifetime of mastery. But performing a tune, or a whole concert of tunes with fluency is more than just playing the right notes, or singing the right pronunciation.
It’s the space in between the notes and words (rests, pauses, time) as well as what you play in between pitches and syllables (ornaments, glissandi, effects) that has as much, if not more, to do with the style or–as I’ve sometimes put it–the pronunciation of the music. Also, as Thelonius Monk said, “What you don’t play can be more important that what you do.”
In other words simply playing what a musician thinks should be played because that’s a part of their idiomatic style, or simply because that’s what the musician thought she or he hears–well, there’s a whole tradition of oreintalism in classical music to demonstrate how even highly trained musicians can completely mis-appropriate (either willfully or not) something they think is actually a part of anotehr musical style.
On the other hand, I think this also has a corollary. This may be something that more traditionally minded musicians in various traditions might disagree with, and something that Padmashri Kadri Gopalnath had to struggle with for decades until he was finally acknowleged a master of Carnatic music on the Western Saxophone, but I believe that playing in a style can be done on any instrument. Since the voice tends to be the model of most of the world’s musics anyway, and everyone has the same basic instrument, why must the voice be the only instrument capable of being a part of every musical style and tradition rather than any other instrument?
But going back to the pronunciation of the music idea. i think I’m liking this metaphor more and more since it might be more useful as a pedagogical conceptual tool. We generally have no problems understanding what it means to mis-pronounce a language and some of teh consequences of doing so. Namely, mis-pronunciation in language can often lead to misundertanding of linguistic meaning, so to parallel, mis-pronunciation of music can often lead to misunderstanding of musical meaning.
This can be a double whammy if you’re both playing an instrument while singing (or triple whammy depending on how you look at it) since even if you get the pronunciation of the lyrics right, if you’re pronouncing the vocal and instrumental music incorrectly how much justice are you really doing to a piece of music?
The metaphor is also apt as I’ve heard of a comment regarding my Arabic group (before my time with it) stating that they play Arabic music with an “American accent.” Which is both faint praise (I can imagine far worse things that could ahve been said) as well as lite critique (not necessarily criticism).
Absent a teacher, though, the best way to remedy musical mis-pronunciation and minimize musical accents is to listen, listen, listen to music in the style you’re learning. No different than to listen to the language you are learning. And making sure that the musicians performing the music you’re listening to actually have training in that style of music helps otherwise you just start to pick up those musician’s idiosyncratic style, mispronunciations and accents and all.