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How could Eddie Van Halen be a prize-winning pianist without being able to read music?

https://slate.com/culture/2020/10/eddie-van-halen-dead-eruption-jump-guitar-solos.html

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Eddie famously never learned to read music but became a prizewinning classical pianist by the age of 10.

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Well, the obvious answer would be talent.

But, everything is somewhat exaggerated for these type of articles. Winning a local piano competition with an undisclosed amount of competitors after 5 years of hardcore piano lessons for a musically gifted child isn't really that surprising.

Do we even really know what the truth actually is behind Eddie's claim that he can't read music. Does it mean he literally can't understand what's written on the sheet at all after 4-5 years of classical piano training? Or does it simply mean he didn't bother getting good at sight reading?

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Maybe in the world of rock'n roll, especially heavy "hair" metal, knowing how to read music is considered to be "nerdy"?

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Shocked to read he passed just a few days ago. Guy was only 65. I did a little searching, since I vaguely remembered he studied classical piano as a kid. I found this article

“... The Van Halen brothers learned to play the piano as children starting at the age of six. They commuted from Pasadena to San Pedro to study with an elderly man, Stasys (Stanley) Kalvaitis who taught them classical piano. Although they hated the commute, they continued as their mother would discipline them if they refused to go. Van Halen revealed in an interview that he never could read the music. Instead, he learned from watching and listening.

During recitals of Bach or Mozart, he would simply wing it. From 1964 through 1967, Edward won first place in the annual piano competition held at Long Beach City College. Afterward, the judges would comment that he had an interesting interpretation of the classical piece. Van Halen’s view was, “What? I thought I was playing it correctly!”
Eddie Van Halen


If he was competing against other kids at a city college, not a named piano competition I’m not sure how stringent they were? But like someone said above, he could probably hear something and play it be ear.

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You learn to get by even as starting as beginner.
A bit like now in Faber Piano Adventures
"line, space, line" kind of approach.
This is so many steps this way and that way - and is intervals.
This all you need as very first step, then about timing quarter note etc.

But there are loads of expressions in score to know about, that hints how to play things.
Maybe this what they mean, by not reading score.
And to write score for full orchestra and all different kind of approaches for different instruments, that needs education for sure. Violin and brass instrument are very different in how they are written.

Benny Andersson, one 'B' of ABBA claim to not read music. But is a heck of pianist and composer too. But they hire conductors to do orchestral arrangements etc.

Maybe they just want to inspire folks not having musical education "this you can do without any education". To wear off all that respect and to let anybody have a go.

I had a young woman buying a piano from me, and she was really beginner.
- I told her "and here you increase the reverb".

- reverb, what is that?

That is how ignorant she was.

In 10 minutes, introduced here to major and minor chords, inverse chord and just some beefy stuff octave in left hand and she was amazed how this sounded. And very inspired to get going.

Some people just have so little belief in themselves and much to much of respect for authorities. This is not good in any way on so many levels. It's better to wear that off in most cases, not all.
- I can do this

Regards


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Eddie Van Halen studied piano with Stasys Kalvaitis, who I would think would have taught classical piano based on reading music.

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Real easy great ears. Ears are the most important thing no matter what genre or whether you read or not.

If given a choice of being a world class sightreader or have great ears I'll take having great ears without having to think twice about it.

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Who can tell whether he really couldn't was able to read music?

Personally it is hard for me to believe that he couldn't read music, although, who can tell? I might be wrong also...
I believe he could read on both piano and guitar.

But anyway, the guy was genius, what apply to him don't apply to the average musician...

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Originally Posted by MrShed
Real easy great ears. Ears are the most important thing no matter what genre or whether you read or not.

If given a choice of being a world class sightreader or have great ears I'll take having great ears without having to think twice about it.

Me to. But if possible, I would love to be both world class sight-reader and to have great ears.

Last edited by hag01; 10/10/20 09:45 AM.
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I dunno much about Eddie van Halen. Wasn't really a fan. But I'd say beware of writers - literary folks who are skilled with words - but know little about music.

About 5-10 years ago, a biography on Frank Sinatra came out. I heard the author interviewed 2 or 3 times on the radio (NPR). The author repeated an assertion that Sinatra was a musical genius, on a level with Mozart, the likes of which only come around every 200-300 years. I felt embarrassed for this author's ignorance. He said that Sinatra also could NOT read music. So....Sinatra was a greater musician than Beethoven, Oscar Peterson, Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Charlie Parker, Leonard Bernstein. Billy Strayhorn, and on and on and on ? NO.

Based on this statement, the author was either engaging in hyperbole to show his admiration. Or he didn't know what he was talking about musically.

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Hi Dave

That's very interesting. Like you I know very little about Eddie Van Halen. Talented no doubt, but a genius is certainly questionable. I think a separate thread on the definition of genius is probably merited.

I rate Sinatra very highly, as an interpreter of songs and as a singer. In that area I'd say he's amongst the best ever post 1950.

It's true as far as I know that he couldn't read music. However, I remember seeing Harry Connick Jr interviewed many years ago. He asked Quincy Jones, who conducted and arranged for Sinatra on many occasions, "how much does Frank actually know about the music?". Quincy Jones reply to Harry Connick was that he knew everything.

My interpretation of that is that although Sinatra wouldn't be able to explain technically what a musician was doing wrong he could do it by singing whatever was required to them.

But better as a musician than Mozart or Beethoven, or the other people you listed? In terms of playing and writing music, the answer is clearly NO as you stated.

But there is an element of Apples and Pears here.....

Cheers


Simon

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To be clear, I like Sinatra. I often have a favorite period for specific artists/musicians. I call it their "sweet spot" - a subjective assessment. For me Sinatra's sweet spot was maybe 1957-1962ish. Nelson Riddle and I think Billy May did arranging for Sinatra on recordings in that period. My favorite period for Frank's music.

And yes Simon. As I recall, the Sinatra biographer said Frank couldn't read music.

But as a vocal artist, there were others I'd say were as accomplished as Sinatra. An obvious one was Ella Fitzgerald. I'm partial to Sarah Vaughan. Was Sinatra a better, more interesting singer than Judy Garland ? Mel Torme ? Extremely subjective.

My point is that writers skilled at crafting words should be taken with a grain of salt when they write about music. Unless they actually know something about music - and they usually expose their knowledge or lack of knowledge in their writing. I've long held this view and this thread prompted me to speak up about this.

Sarah Vaughan "Over The Rainbow"
https://youtu.be/hs58v0rKQgY

JSarah Vaughan Lullaby of Birdland
https://youtu.be/x8cFdZyWOOs

Mel Torme "Blue Room"
https://youtu.be/muKYoRvWGTk

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Hi Dave

I agree with you, it's all highly subjective.
The period you mention is one of mine as well.
Though my favourite album is "Live at the Sands" from 1966 with the Count Basie Orchestra. That was one where Quincy Jones was at the helm. I was brought up listening to Basie, as my Dad was a 'fan' (terrible term!), so the combination of Sinatra and Basie is heaven for me. And "Frank Sinatra sings for Only the lonely" from that golden period is terrific. Anyway I could list many more....

For me there is a quality to his voice that places him above everyone else (male anyway) in that popular/Jazz genre. Again that's a highly subjective thing....

Completely agree about writers. The hype that writers, and people posting on social media use these days, without any idea of what they are talking about has become ludicrous.

Still it's entertaining :-)

Cheers


Simon

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NFN a doc on Netflix on Sinatra. He started singing with big bands, but did take voice lessons a few years after his initial popularity. What did he learn in voice lessons? The only thing it touched on in the doc. was breathing. We know that's not all there is.


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Originally Posted by indigo_dave
I dunno much about Eddie van Halen. Wasn't really a fan. But I'd say beware of writers - literary folks who are skilled with words - but know little about music.

About 5-10 years ago, a biography on Frank Sinatra came out. I heard the author interviewed 2 or 3 times on the radio (NPR). The author repeated an assertion that Sinatra was a musical genius, on a level with Mozart, the likes of which only come around every 200-300 years. I felt embarrassed for this author's ignorance. He said that Sinatra also could NOT read music. So....Sinatra was a greater musician than Beethoven, Oscar Peterson, Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Charlie Parker, Leonard Bernstein. Billy Strayhorn, and on and on and on ? NO.

Based on this statement, the author was either engaging in hyperbole to show his admiration. Or he didn't know what he was talking about musically.

Most likely, it was both.

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Sinatra was an good singer and a fantastic performer. He was not, to the best of my knowledge, a composer, other than a couple of minor co-writing credits. To call him a "genius" is absurd. None of that takes away from my enjoyment of his singing.


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Originally Posted by Sweelinck
Originally Posted by indigo_dave
I dunno much about Eddie van Halen. Wasn't really a fan. But I'd say beware of writers - literary folks who are skilled with words - but know little about music.

About 5-10 years ago, a biography on Frank Sinatra came out. I heard the author interviewed 2 or 3 times on the radio (NPR). The author repeated an assertion that Sinatra was a musical genius, on a level with Mozart, the likes of which only come around every 200-300 years. I felt embarrassed for this author's ignorance. He said that Sinatra also could NOT read music. So....Sinatra was a greater musician than Beethoven, Oscar Peterson, Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Charlie Parker, Leonard Bernstein. Billy Strayhorn, and on and on and on ? NO.

Based on this statement, the author was either engaging in hyperbole to show his admiration. Or he didn't know what he was talking about musically.

Most likely, it was both.


He wanted to sell some books


"Music, rich, full of feeling, not soulless, is like a crystal on which the sun falls and brings forth from it a whole rainbow" - F. Chopin
"I never dreamt with my own two hands I could touch the sky" - Sappho

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On things that might give calling somebody a genius is that they don't only perform well, they also bring something completely new.

As of instrumentalist virtuosos like Van Halen and Hendrix they both did that. I have no problem calling them musical geniuses in their field.

I saw a show with Van Halen where he explained how he saw Jimmy Page do trills with one hand on strings and one hand in the air - big deal he felt. Why didn't he do that up the fretboard while tapping with right hand on the right spots - and something new appeared. That many guitarists copied from him. And doing this combined with whammy/tremolo bar ripping even new dimensions into his performance.

- so this is something you can do on guitar
that is genius to me.

Same with Jimi Hendrix, he brought things that nobody knew a guitar could be used for. And I'm not thinking of spectacular things like burning it or something, I mean what he brought out. Just a trio but he sounded like a full orchestra. Like Machine Gun you can virtually see the battlefield and what is going on and bombs falling and machine guns blastering all over.

Sinatra was a genius in his field too. Both his quality of voice, and timing and everything.

You don't have to be a composer, conductor and performer to be a genius. You don't need to know all about how to write score either, just perform and have somebody transcribe that.

For guitar there are what is called tabs - that superseed what score can express. The actuall notes on which string and in which order. You can transcribe a performance on guitar much easier than with score. You mark bends, vibratos, and hammer ons and pull offs - which is very much part of how it sounds - since strings overlap in pitches and the particular string is used to get that sound. And very quick to learn how to read this - since very much hands on. So have to go to guitar and violin and this kind of instruments to get this kind of expression.

You cannot do many of these things on piano - so does that mean no piano player is a genius?
- of course not.

And Albert Einstein was a genius in his field.

Those are examples where I feel "genius" fit right in. smile


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I feel I neglected piano a little so came to think of some more things that I think is genius.

I saw pianist play a line with left hand and picking strings with right hand under topboard of grand piano.

I saw pianist that walk around the piano and used both hands and a bottle to perform on a grand piano right on strings. Used like you use a slide on guitar or steel guitar. Very beautiful.

Those that did that for others to copy - were geniuses too.


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