June 2003

Relative Pitch Shifter

Perfect pitch. It's so mysterious. They say you're born with it. An old guitarist friend of mine has it. In high school we'd sit in my basement with our Les Paul knockoffs and work on songs together. I noticed his innate skill when, with his back turned to me, I strummed a complex chord and he named it, exactly, including whatever suspension it was I had fingered. I played another chord and he named it too. We played this guessing game for the better part of an hour. After a while I realized that this God-given ability to recognize notes without the aid of a reference pitch was also the reason he was such a quick study on any song he had to learn by ear. To be fair, he had also logged countless hours of practice on guitar-having perfect pitch doesn't mean you don't have to work toward instrumental proficiency. But an ear that knows which note is which does make playing, especially improvising, easier, no matter how sharp your chops.

The name David Lucas Burge may not be familiar to you, but his product might be, especially if you read music rags regularly. You often see his two-page advertisements that tell the story of the boy who wasn't born with perfect pitch but taught himself the skill. For years Burge's ad for the Perfect Pitch Ear Training SuperCourse was an object of my fascination. I'd ogle it with the attention of a puny 14-year-old reading Charles Atlas' spiel in an issue of Fantastic Four. Being a skeptic, I never purchased the Perfect Pitch course. After all, Charles Atlas beefs little guys up by sending them inflatable muscles to stick under their shirtsleeves, so there's no way Perfect Pitch could really work, right? Still, when a box from David Lucas Burge arrived in my office unsolicited, I smiled wide.

The famous Perfect Pitch course wasn't in the box, however, and I was originally dismayed to find Burge's Relative Pitch Ear Training SuperCourse inside instead. But that didn't last long. After listening to the first disc of the audio-CD course, I began to see that relative pitch, which is the ability to recognize notes relative to a reference pitch, is a steppingstone toward perfect pitch. As Burge explains early on in the course: "Ear training is really like plowing the field. If you have a field and you want to grow certain crops in it, it doesn't make any difference if you're going to grow tomatoes or corn or soybeans. Same thing. It doesn't matter if you are going to grow rock music, jazz music, classical music, you have to plow that field. Gaining knowledge about music is like removing the rocks from the field. Gaining relative pitch is like plowing the field, and gaining perfect pitch is like fertilizing the field."

If that sounds corny to you, please don't apply for membership in my newly instituted Cult of David Lucas Burge-the man makes a sort of religion out of ear training. He has us look at ourselves, preaching, "Relative pitch, like perfect pitch, is an aspect of our own musical awareness. It's not something outside of ourselves." Theorizing and drawing analogies in this way throughout the course, Burge makes plowing that field oddly entertaining, addictive even.

Disc one of the Relative Pitch SuperCourse opens with a calm male voice speaking over New Age-y layers of synth and piano, suggesting a lesson in Dianetics or Transcendental Meditation. But the voice belongs to an anonymous announcer, not Burge. Why does the instructor on a prerecorded course in anything need to be introduced at the beginning of every lesson? The answer is that a teacher needs respect in order to succeed, and with his very own Don Pardo, Burge creates an aura of importance around himself. It's a kind of showmanship that firmly places Burge in the master's role from the start, but he somehow also manages to skirt schoolmarm strictness and remains the kind of professor you want to please. He assures that you'll succeed. Simply play by his rules, take his tests seriously and don't cheat. He even urges you to get a good night's sleep after a lesson before continuing with the next. As someone who's attempted to learn languages through tapes and gotten bored, I was surprised to find Burge making me care about intense ear training. I was surprised that I cared just because he cares. He's a true leader.

And the course is intensive. Burge gets deep into theory, each lesson builds on the next and there are quizzes and out-of-class assignments to complete. If you move from one disc to the next without fully comprehending, say, a lesson in perfect fifths, you're screwed.

The Relative Pitch SuperCourse is 41 CDs long, with a list price of $389. Thankfully Burge's voice is clear and neutral. It doesn't sooth, it doesn't aggravate. After spending that much time with Burge I reckon you'd emerge with a damn-fine ear for music and be more than ready to tackle his Perfect Pitch course, which I'm less skeptical of now. It's the kind of musical education even a nonmusician can benefit from because, as Burge says, this formal training "unlocks" the ears and opens a whole new way to hear the intricacies in music.

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