Interview with Mika Tyyska on Music Theory and Composition

Composition and Music Theory Interview with Mika Tyyska (Mr. Fastfinger)

by Tommaso Zillio

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Tommaso Zillio: Hi, this is Tommaso Zillio for and I'm on the phone today with Mr. Fastfinger, also known as Mika Tyyska. Hi Mika.

Mika Tyyska (Mr. Fastfinger): Hi, hi Tomasso, how are you doing there?

TZ: Pretty good, you Mika are good?

MT: Good, it's early morning but I feel good.

TZ: Very good, very good. Okay Mika, I have a few questions here for you. The first one is this: What role music theory played with you when you were first learning to play guitar and how has this changed later in your career?

MT: Well my history with theory is kind of funny because since I was a third grader at school we had theory lessons every week. They tried to teach me and all the students this theory, at least to read and write a little bit notation. I wasn't interested a single bit, I wasn't interested at all. We were just trying to play with the recorder flute by looking at the notation on display. I wasn't interested and I was just trying to learn everything by ear or watching how the next guy to me was playing. So, I wasn't really learning anything or mastering any of that. Then later when I started playing guitar and really got interested in that, suddenly I was getting interested also in theory side because it could help me learn and get better. Later on, maybe when I was a sixth or seventh grader I was actually just working and learning the theories and how to read and write music on my own. So it's kind of a funny way, somebody tried to teach me everything first and then I had to learn it myself. But I really got into that stuff and reading and writing standard notation. Because then after guitar I also got into composing music and I even had a band which I wrote music in standard notation and took all the music to the band rehearsals every week. It was a strange teenage time but I think for the sake of learning about music and all that is actually important I most learned when I went to art school. I went to the visual class and also some storytelling studies that I had because all this stuff that is teach there I could easily mirror to music. It was all about composition, written contrasts, colors, shapes, forms, patterns. Everything in visual arts I could easily see in music and it really inspired me to think more about all these things and how I can apply this to music. So those classes actually helped me as a composer and musician very much.

TZ: Great. When you improvise or write a solo, do you actively think of the scale or pages on the fretboard?

MT: Generally when I'm playing or I'm in a creating mode and things really flow, I don't think much of anything. It's just feeling and playing with the music and with the guitar. It's a feeling thing. It's like listening to the music and checking with the feeling how I want to play against or with the music; the reaction basically. But in case things get out of my safety zone or if I want to challenge myself more I might stop and analyze the music and start figuring out what things I could use or apply there, what scales mode and maybe how I can spice up the solo so I wouldn't do the most obvious thing there. Basically, I always wish and try to surprise the audience a little bit. Bring something fresh to the ears of the listener. Make something surprising there so many times it's very good to stop and think about what I could do there more than just the basic stuff that I always do. I don't really think about scales and arpeggios unless I really need to figure out the chords a little bit more than usually. Depends how complicated the music is, really.

TZ: This leads to my next question, which is, how important is ear training for you and if there is any exercise or tip that was particularly important or useful to you regarding ear training.

MT: I think ear is everything to me. That's the way I started playing and that's the way I really like to play because I think it's the greatest tool for creativity. To really be able to sing through the guitar, to play everything that I hear in my head with my guitar, that's ultimately what ear playing should be all about. Just connecting the sounds in your head and your fretboard. Because my singing voice is very bad and I don't want to do that but the guitar can be my tool of expression so ear is everything. But there are a couple of things, they are the basics, like singing intervals and little melodies and playing everything behind or at the same time on the fretboard. And singing aloud at first and maybe later you can skip the aloud and just play the sounds in your head.

That's basically 90% of the playing I do anyway so it's kind of ear training that happens all the time. I think it's the way to make your playing and improvisation and melody playing especially sound more musical and more unique and more like you. I do a lot of imaginary guitar which means mental practicing, visualizing the fretboard inside my head and playing the music that I hear in my head also. So I might, when I'm trying to get some sleep, maybe I hear some music of my own or somebody else's music, but I'm trying to figure out the fingerings, how my fingers go on the fretboard so it's kind of like preparing to play it for real. Then, one thing of course, transcribing and learning music directly from recordings has been very helpful for me. It's very good rehearsing and practicing. When I was a kid there weren't that many tablatures, there was no internet. So I was able to find a lot of tablature books but not all that I wanted were available or I didn't have money to buy that. So I got a lot stuff out of records and cassettes. And also tried to trandcribe them and that was good. Even today, I might do a session or a gig and the music that I have to learn for the gig or show is not available in tablatures or notation. You have to learn it from the recording, so it's still really essential to be able to work and be a professional musician.

Nobody's going to teach you how to play that stuff, you have to learn it from the albums or recordings. And as an ear training thing also, it's kind of off-topic here, but I think when you're working on theories or trying to learn scales or modes, I think you really aren't mastering the modes or scales until you can really hear them in your ear and you can sing them and only then you can get them out when they're supposed to come out. Especially in the improvisation situation. You might play a wrong note that suddenly brings you an idea of some scale or mode and you can really take that wrong note into something very interesting and refreshing. If you don't know the scale or mode inside out by your heart and ear it's impossible to do those kinds of things. It's very important to know it by ear and if you are only relying on fingerings on the fretboard it's just the beginning.

TZ: I totally agree with that. How do you use music theory in your compositions in a way that liberates your creativity as opposed to restricting it.

MT: That's a good question, I think sometimes people believe if I know too much theory it kind of takes away my creativity but I think when I'm really composing, I try not to think too much. Usually it's not a problem for me to go by intuition and I try to be in a playful state of mind to keep my mind open for trying new things and surprising myself hopefully. I think composing and improvisation is about feeling and emotion and expression. To me also, I kind of like have this storytelling idea of making music so I want to give something, hopefully bring out some visualizations for the listeners head, always try to get something in there. So I'd rather think about stories or images than theories when I'm composing. But theory itself can be really helpful when I get into trouble, when I can't solve some musical mystery. Just can't come back from B part to A part of the song. Maybe theory can help me to find a solution there. Or knowing some concepts, weird, hard concepts or scales and modes and all these different tools can help me to build things that...I don't know, I try to sometimes when I'm feeling like I'm still learning. I try to study and read about different concepts and theories and a couple of times when I'm composing I might try to apply these new things to my music; to sort of keep evolving and progressing as a composer also. I don't see theory as a limitation at any point as long as you don't try to compose with just theory.

When you're composing the worst thing is, it's called the fear of white paper. But if you have the whole world you can compose anything, it can become very difficult. But if you have a setting, if you set some limitations or restrictions it can actually bring something new out of you like you set to only use four notes, or a certain note order or maybe these strange chords that don't really fit. But if you set to work with those it might actually help you to find new discoveries and maybe if you're in trouble and you don't know what to do it might break your writer's block. Set some restrictions. So restrictions can actually be a good thing sometimes as well. It's like when you're composing for a film and you have to support the story, the drama. And the director of the film has some hopes for the music. It becomes a little bit easier because you have a clear mission to do. It's kind of the same if you have these other musical limitation as well. It can be helpful.

TZ: That's great. What was the theory or composition concept that you had the most trouble understanding and applying when you were learning. What approaches did you apply in order to finally master it?

MT: Well I'm pretty much a self-learner. I learned everything in the wrong order, more or less. There are things like how jazz music works, when I haven't been going to conservatories or studying with some master it has been a little bit puzzling. At some point I really try to learn and get deeper to try to understand how the concepts and theories that go are behind there. I learned a lot except maybe to sound like a jazz player. But I think perhaps maybe the most important thing I had trouble mastering was the simplest thing, how to play melody chords and sound like myself and sound good to my ear. As a self-learned I had the scale approach kind of history. You play the scales instead of playing melodies. It took a long time to understand that. In my head I can sing melodies better than I can play on the fretboard. I was kind of playing ear training what I hear in my head approach. But I did study to be able to play melody color chords. I studied all these chord notes approaches and I wasn't really finding a good solution there because I felt like I couldn't make it sound good that way. Basically I had to take a trial and error kind of approach and did a lot of dangerous live gig situations where I tried to play different ways. I also play in a band where we improvise the whole gigs as a band so our songs are done on the spot and those have been very good for rehearsing improvisation and melody playing and everything. But I realized that if I have motivation, it's not about playing a single note that works with the chord, it's about putting together full sentences. Any single note basically can sound good if there's a motivation and an reason for it. I realized that if I start building longer musical sentences it starts working and that was like my way out. I really started getting more results and playing more. It sounded like I would like to make it sound. I don't know what to add there. I'm not sure if I'm happy ever with what I do but everything is progressing so that's a good thing.

TZ: Good. When, composing your song, do you notate to the song on paper or otherwise put down some notes on your ideas and if so, what kind of notation do you use? Notation, tablature notation or something you invented.

MT: While I'm composing the songs, when I'm really focusing to compose, I usually compose in front of an audio sequencer, because I feel at that point that writing down is too slow. Many times the compositions sort of are little clips of improvised thoughts and I've found that if I start writing down things at that point it's so slow that it kind of frustrates me. But of course there are moments that things pop into my head when I'm not in front of Cue bass [sounds like] or not really composing. Then I write down things on paper or maybe on guitar pro. But I usually write tablature with rhythm because it's faster to me and also I have the longest history. Also because many times the ideas that I have, the fingerings are the essential for the parts. It's more than just the melody that I usually write down. Then to be honest, I'm really slow with notation, reading and writing; because it's really rare that I need to use it professionally. When I need to use that it's very terrible. It's a scary moment.

TZ: Well yeah, it's pretty rare as a professional guitar player they ask you to read standard notations. It's normal to be less affluent in it unless you are a jazz player, of course.

MT: Yeah, it depends on what kind of gigs and what kind of music you play. If you're a jazz player it's a different thing but if you're a rock player it's totally different. I do more rock gigs and there actually the thing is more that I have to learn the songs from recordings and I usually write down when I have to master a song for a gig. If it's a new song I write things on a paper and I just draw these very ugly and messy papers filled with little clips of tablature to make it easier for myself to later easily review what I have learned from recordings so I don't always have to start from the beginning to remind myself how the part did go. Visual memory is very important for myself to master the new material. It's tablature with rhythm basically, that I write, sometimes just the chords. It depends on the music, of course.

TZ: How do you think about form in your musical acquisition? Do you structure your song using verse/chorus ideas or something different?

MT: Well I try to play with forms and structures as much as possible. Like I said before I like to always include some surprise elements to refresh and give something nice to the audience. Generally I think the verse/chorus basic pop song structure is good for starters for most of the songs. As listeners we are raised to expect that and usually, kind of like movies, if you break away the drama structure it might be very strange for the audience. But within music I think it's nice to a little bit break things. Of course there are songs where you don't want to go with that structure. Maybe it's more in the storytelling approach where maybe it's a dynamic structure that starts from the very quiet and gets very loud in the end and it's one part. It's really about the story or the feeling and the music itself. And then there are songs, for some reason I remember a song by Roy Orbison. He had a song called, "In Dreams." At some point in my life, believe it or not, but I had this Roy Orbison period that I really liked to listen to his music and there was this song that I had really hard believing when I was listening but once I started figuring out how the song goes. It was kind of a pop song, "In Dreams" this very mellow song, but there are no parts in the song that come twice.

It's like each part that comes it's always a new part. It's maybe a three-minute song. Things aren't repeated but it sounds like a standard pop song. It's very strange in that sense. It's very inspiring to sometimes hear songs that really work but use very strange structure and I do like to play with the structure for sure but it really depends on the song. But also, for the structure I have the storytelling approach but also apply the structure for a whole album. In the case of "Mr. Fastfinger in Motion" album, I really tried to approach the whole album like a little movie for your ears and I really was paying even too much attention of the drama of the whole album. How the songs go in next to each other and how they form the certain type of drama dynamic and everything was really tried to make sure it becomes like a little bit of a movie. It was very interesting to work on an album like that. Now I feel like the next album I just want to put good songs there and worry less about building something like that. But it's nice to sometimes really focus on the story side. For myself at least.

TZ: I see. I see.

MT: Build like movies.

TZ: I am assuming that like most musicians you have your good periods and bad periods in your practice such as when you see a plateau, do not seem to improve no matter what you do. What helps you to get through these periods?

MT: Well that's a very interesting question. Honestly some things take years to really master. Some techniques and some ideas. For myself, from the theory side maybe modes, to really master the major scale modes, I think I started with the modes around '93 or '94 or something when somebody started talking about Lydian modes and Mixolydian and everything. I started working on those and used some of those modes in compositions but I don't think that I mastered the modes really until I started working with Mr. Fastfinger in 2006 or something. I'm not quite sure that I mastered the modes even then.

I think it took a couple of years after that when I really started understanding the seven modes. It's easy to understand how they work but to really master them and get them in your head and ears it takes work and in my case, of course, I wasn't studying and getting deep with them for ten or fifteen years. It was just a thing but I wasn't really focusing. If I had worked on those on a daily basis I'm sure it could have happened maybe in five years. But I think some things just take years to master and it's just a matter of putting yourself there and trying to just use them and trying to approach the problem from different angles. Maybe you're just practicing it wrong. It's a good idea to ask and check out different teachers, how they explain things. Like mastering sweeping technique. It's also a skill or technique that took me years. I'm not sure if I'm there quite yet. I made some discoveries at some point after practicing for 15 years that suddenly made a huge difference because I just didn't realize if I practice like this...sometimes you're just missing some tips that you just can't make it because of that.

Also, sometimes it's just you get stuck as a guitar player because you think you're not sure what to do next. That's the point where you need to take inspiration from other musicians and find new music to get some influences and inspiration out. As a composer or a musician, I try to every now and then, find new music to listen and expose myself to hopefully get some fresh ideas out and to put some new elements to my music. For myself it's very important that each time I release an album or something, it should be a little bit different and evolved from the previous one. So, I try to use time and practice and study theories and different styles to make sure that I'm progressing in different ways.

TZ: Is there any advice you want to give to our readers who are just starting in discovering music theory?

MT: I think the simplest thing is if you want to master any theory, start applying it to your practicing routines, improvisation and composition and everything that you're doing. Just start using it and be brave with that and figure out where to put it. Try to find places where it's being used, like modes or scales. Find music that uses that and listen to it and analyze and check out how it's being used and how it sounds. Like with all studying, don't try to master everything all at once. I think that's important, too. It's a good idea to try to go rather one by one than trying to eat too much of everything at once. With three chords you can start and play a nice song already. Learn the three chords first and then figure out the fourth. And write a new song with those four chords. Also, when you learn things one by one it's motivational for you because you're progressing little by little all the time and it's good for you.

TZ: I see; one last question for you. Are your skills, knowledge and experience of today in perfect alignment with the vision you created for yourself when you started out? Are you doing exactly what you imagined?

MT: I'm not sure what I was envisioning when I was starting. I guess I wanted to be a great guitar player. Maybe I fulfilled that at some point but it's the classic thing, when you get on top of the mountain you see another mountain to climb. My vision is always getting ahead. When I start reaching that one mountain or idea where I wanted to be I'm already further away with the visions. So it keeps me walking towards perfection or something. It's kind of like an endless path for myself. I'm quite happy but I could always be better. So no, I'm not there yet. I see, well it's good to have goals for the future

It is good. I think it would be very boring if I was perfectly there, where I wanted to be, because then I would need to start doing something else. I would need to stop playing guitar and figure out something totally different. Actually the way I work, it's kind of funny because I have the Mr. Fastfinger character. He's kind of my vision. Because he's an imaginary character, I try to give him all these skills and things that I want to master. He's always walking ahead and I'm just trying to reach him. He's kind of my ultimate, I want to be able to play like him. So when I'm working with Mr. Fastfinger music I always need to be on my toes because I try to create music that challenges myself. It's a way that helps me to evolve and get better with guitar music and in general

TZ: Okay. Well this wraps up all my questions I have for today. Thank you very much, Mika for sharing your insight. That was actually very helpful. I'm pretty sure all our readers will love your answers and if they are good they will start applying what you say. So thank you again and all the best for your future musical project.

MT: Thank you for the time and for this opportunity. It was good for me and it as good to think about things. Always good.

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