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Music Essays

Music Lessons

by (author) Bob Wiseman

ECW Press
Initial publish date
Jul 2020
Essays, Artists, Architects, Photographers, Philosophy & Social Aspects
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    Publish Date
    Jul 2020
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    Jul 2020
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Bob Wiseman believes most things in life are universal or, as Lauryn Hill says, everything is everything. Bearing in mind that advice, Wiseman writes about finding the link between music and daily life, like what is common between Mary Margaret O’Hara, hiding around the corner with the lights turned off in order to record herself and his 5-year-old insisting he stop hurrying to her dance lesson and marvel at the fluff ball she is blowing toward the ceiling. Each entry is unique and compellingly written, but the themes throughout — on improvisational music, life lessons, and conflict — are ubiquitous.


About the author

Contributor Notes

Bob Wiseman likes having fun. He was on CNN lying about wanting to change his name to Prince; he played accordion on “If I Had a Million Dollars” by the Barenaked Ladies; he produced Kid in the Hall Bruce McCulloch’s “Shame-Based Man”; he was the composer for The Drawer Boy, winner of the 2018 Best Feature Film at the Canadian Film Awards; and Odetta took his hands in hers and kissed them after hearing him play prepared piano at the Bitter End on Earth Day 2000. He was also a founding member of Blue Rodeo but quit in the early ’90s when he no longer found it fun.

Excerpt: Music Lessons (by (author) Bob Wiseman)


Little girl asked if I could show her Mary Had a Little Lamb.

No problem.


Really, select a note any note.

She pressed F. We started ma/ry/had (F, D# C#), she worked it a few times.

She said I like to make things up.

That’s a sign of a composer. Let’s make something up.



We played a little improvisation then changed her mind returned to Mary Had a Little Lamb. Kept attacking the notes vertically with her fingers and wrist in the same line like a knife stabbing. Asked her to try balancing a miniature plate on her hand which made her hands horizontal with the keys more pianistic but this was also a little exhausting. Took a break and made small talk, she has a lot to say. Wishes she could speak French but her school won’t allow it until she’s in grade 6. She said her parents both speak other languages and when she was younger in daycare she could count to 30 in Chinese.

Could I hear you count in Chinese?

I don’t remember anymore. You know what else? My parents were going to take me to China one time but they changed their mind at the airport so we didn’t go.



Did you know the black notes on the piano are a scale that is used in a lot of Chinese music?


Really. Let’s make something up on the black notes, play anything just black notes and I’ll back you up.



Proceeded to make something slow, melodic and pentatonic. Her mother noticed from the kitchen and walked into the room listening and beaming that her daughter was doing this.

I said to the mother I heard you guys almost went to China. She looked at her daughter and then me,

We’ve never been to China. I don’t know why she makes things up like that.

Should I or shouldn’t I tell her? Kid’s a composer just practising making it up.


Editorial Reviews


“Stimulating, thought provoking, and sometimes just provoking, Wiseman’s ruminations on all things musical (and beyond) are a trip worth taking.” — Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW

“His book is Music Lessons, a wildly entertaining compilation of hundreds of random blog entries. The content covers off-beat recollections, piano-lesson conversations and out-of-the-blue observations.” — Globe and Mail

“Wiseman’s bite-size anecdotes, koans, allegories and highly stylish fragments, torn either from his memoirs or the pages of user manuals for unknown appliances, are super-smart, hilarious, highly addictive and persistent in their insistence on lingering in the reader’s mind long after first encounter! Bravo, Bob!” — Guy Maddin, filmmaker

“Wiseman’s Music Lessons belongs beside Sei Shonagan’s Pillow Book, John Cage’s ‘one-minute stories,’ and Eduardo Galeano’s collections of stories. Equal parts wisdom and whimsy, these are ‘lessons’ for musicians, parents, artists and anyone who wants to learn better to pay attention.” — Chris Cavanagh, Storyteller, The Catalyst Centre Popular Education Co-op

“Reading Music Lessons is like listening to the finest of mix-tapes, curated by that disarmingly philosophical friend who knows way more about music than you do. A must-read for musicians, students of music, parents of students of music and anyone who’s ever thought an MRI machine sounds like industrial ambient rock.” — Carolyn Taylor of Baroness Von Sketch


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