We want to master our instrument. We want ultimate control. This requires ultimate control over our mind and muscles. Practicing is an act of training our mind and muscles to properly execute. And the only way to do that is through repetition.
Practicing while sick can be worse than taking the day off. Through repetition, you’d be training your body to hit wrong notes, retain a bad posture and be unfocused. It would take another day of practice to undo your mistakes!
Be attentive. Whenever you feel your body compensating for soreness or sickness, you’re probably better off doing something else. It’s up to you to be diligent and observe how your body is responding. Don’t be afraid to do something else productive that doesn’t involve infusing habits into your muscles.
In the best ensembles, everyone’s doing both simultaneously.
I have had many moments of weakness. I clicked the links, watched the videos and read the news. I told myself that I want to know about the business and what’s happening with the music scene. Energy is spent on taking sides in debates with no practical value. I catch myself thinking about non-issues. I get wrapped up in what others think about what others think. I read too much banter. Useless banter.
Maybe it’s useful for some people, but not for me.
If my goal is to create music, I’ll want to immerse myself in all things that contribute to that purpose. Otherwise, as far as this goal is concerned, those things are useless. The secret is in knowing goals and tracing the best path to achieving them.
Side Note: There’s an irony here. You’re here, visiting my website and reading this post. Are you reading this out of habit or because it’s useful to you? Does my blog and this post contribute to you achieving your goals? If not, then stop reading. You’ve got better things to do!
I’m getting better at filtering. I’m getting better at recognizing things that inspire, motivate and improve me. I’m also getting better at recognizing things that are irrelevant or have become irrelevant. The list is continuously changing. I hope I can achieve the day when everything I take in is useful and contributes to my goals. Or else, I’m wasting time. That is my ideal.
Know your goals. Stay the course.
I wonder who started using the word ‘voice’ to express an artist’s individuality. It runs deep. Everyone’s looking for their ‘voice’ and getting frustrated when they don’t find it!
The obvious answer: “Everybody has a voice! Your voice is right under your nose!” This is true. If you look hard enough, you’ll find individuality in everyone.
(Side Note: Is having a ‘voice’ dependant on other people’s ability to recognize it?)
But this answer is useless. It isn’t good enough to call off the search. When we use the word ‘voice’ then, we must be referring to something else. Words like ‘clarity’ and ‘confidence’ come to mind. Maybe those individuals are still searching because they’re not comfortable with the voice they already have! Maybe the question should be: “How does one find confidence in his or her voice?”
I picture two musicians in two practice rooms. One is searching for his/her voice while the other is searching for confidence. It sounds like two entirely different game plans. I like the second one better. It accepts that you already have a voice but that it needs some attention. It needs a direction and a concept. The rest is practice.
Now we’re on to something!
“How does one find his or her voice?”
I replied: “Speak with confidence!”
“I really don't think a kid younger than 16 is at all ready for jazz.
I'll elaborate a bit: I think you can teach a younger person how to swing. I think a good jazz player, however, should have an understanding of how most of the developments in the music come from a degree of rejection of what went before. There's also the concept of musical movements being couched in greater social changes of the time they come from. You also have to know enough standard practice period music to get how jazz turns those conventions on their head (i.e. rhythm). I suppose there are some pre-teens who might be able to handle all that, but I've never met any.”
I disagree so strongly that I consider this a non-issue. The fundamentals for a jazz education can start at age three. Kids can improvise and play tunes at age ten. Pre-teens can communicate musically in jazz ensembles. Mid-teens can write tunes and start their own jazz ensembles.
I know this because I lived it. And kids are still living it at the Humber College Community Music School.
But there’s still something lingering:
Jazz education is maximum 40 years old in Canada (if not in North America and the world). Programs have been springing up (some with considerable resistance) in colleges and universities all across the country. Naturally, jazz is gradually seeping down into high schools where graduates of these colleges and universities are teaching and making a living.
Side Note: Remember this post? It fits nicely, especially these few sentences:
“Arts institutions serve much broader a purpose than creating performers…Not all graduates have the skills, perseverance (or desire) to be performers. But that experience remains with them forever. They have a unique perspective. They have a cultured perspective.”
I’m very fortunate that I’m part of the first generation of music students who had access to a jazz education from when I was 3 years old (at HCCMS). To my knowledge, it was the first of its kind in the world and is still at the forefront of jazz education today. I’m excited to think that more programs like HCCMS will be appearing over the next 20 years!
Unfortunately, this movement is challenged at the post-secondary level by classical-music education. That’s beginning to change. The jazz community also challenges it. That’s changing too, but there are still plenty of issues out there creating resistance (The Carolina Shout incident, Teachout’s article, Old vs. New, Ali’s comments etc.). They’re all related in that they expose the community’s disunity. I hope that ironing out these issues is only a matter of fully realizing the education movement. After all, how many of them would exist if jazz education was 80 years old?
I’ll be bold: I think this 40-year-old process is part of a greater movement that can change the face of music education. It can change the world! It’s only a matter of blood, sweat, tears and patience!
My job: Pave the way; Promote unity.
I spotted another elephant today. She’s hiding; I’ll show you.
I mentioned in the previous post that these music teachers recognize the imbalance and want to change, but don’t know how. What I should have said is that they want to change and think they know how. They hired me didn’t they?
“Mr. Donnelly, please teach us how to teach jazz!”
I had one hour to teach “how to teach jazz” to music teachers who know nothing about the jazz tradition. There’s the elephant! No, not the ‘one-hour.’ I’m referring to the last part.
Let me be clearer: These teachers are not qualified to teach jazz just as I’m not qualified to teach Russian. No number of workshops will change this. No number of workshops can substitute for blood, sweat and tears.
Here’s the problem: Anything other than blood, sweat and tears is a shortcut. I don’t believe in shortcuts; they’re beside the point. Otherwise we’re resorting to teaching RCM-approved Oscar Peterson solos, jazzy versions of Pachabel’s Canon in D and other shortcuts/variations. So what can you teach them to teach that’s not a shortcut?
Deeper: If our goal is to build another room, to what degree, if any, can the new room include non-specialists?
The topic: How to Teach Jazz Piano.
The class: Remember this post? Generally, the class consisted of piano teachers from the ‘read-execute’ tradition who are encountering more and more students interested in learning “jazz.”
The elephant: I’m not interested in RCM-approved transcriptions of Oscar Peterson solos. I’m not interested in jazzy versions of Pachabel’s Canon in D. I’m interested in a fundamental shift in methodology. They need to embrace a ‘listen-execute’ tradition. And I want them to embrace the jazz ‘listen-execute’ tradition!
Every music teacher I spoke to recognized the imbalance. They all want to change, but don’t know how. The elephant is getting bigger.
Our goal: Build another room!
UPDATE: I spotted another elephant.
For musicians, technique often refers to ‘fast playing,’ but can also refer to precision, control, range and balance. Virtuosos are master technicians. They possess all of these qualities. In an effort to improve our technique, we’re taught, for example, to master scales (in every key!)
But isn’t there a flaw in this approach? If you have no intention of performing music that requires the skills acquired from practicing scales, then why practice scales!?
There are two issues here: The musical and the physical.
We often hear the question: Who has better technique, Oscar Peterson or Thelonious Monk? It’s a silly question. Some will argue: “With his incredible facility, Oscar has ability to express more than Monk!” To which I respond: “Yes, Oscar can express more Oscar than Monk. But Monk can express more Monk than Oscar! Are you listening to the music or notes/minute!?”
What if Monk acquired technical skills beyond what was required of his own music? One day, he ‘mastered’ the C major scale and could play it up and down faster than anybody. Knowing that he would never use a scale like that, one could say that it wouldn’t benefit his music. It might one day benefit someone else’s music, but most likely, it was a waste of Monk’s time.
How does one know what technical exercises they should practice?
What do you want to perform? Pick your repertoire. Repertoire comes first. Music comes first. That should be your goal. Then devise a strategy to acquire the skills needed to execute the music (if you don’t have them already!). Technique is a means to this end, not an end in itself.
Side note: If you are a master technician (i.e. technique is your main objective), could you say that you are a composer’s means to this end?
In regards to the second issue (the physical), I fear that students are too often injuring themselves and becoming discouraged because of ‘technical expectations.’ Their physical limitations make it impossible for them to achieve the proficiency of say, Oscar Peterson. What they need to realize is that everybody has a point of physical exertion on their instrument that can’t be crossed without injury. I would encourage all musicians to explore the limits of their physicality but never try to achieve someone else’s.
Remember: Music comes first.
Find a sweet spot. It could be a melody, a groove, a climax, a note, or a chord. Anything that gives you that feeling.
Analyze it, experiment with it and have fun with it! Learn it in every key and at every tempo. For pianists, learn it in your right hand and your left hand. Write tunes based on them. Develop it melodically and develop it rhythmically. Own it!
Find the next sweet spot and repeat. Repeat until you’ve had enough! When you reach that point, you’ll know to move on. You’ll either be inspired to pick another artist or enter a period of output. Compose new music, arrange existing music and share your studies with students and colleagues.
Be prepared to sound a lot like Bill Evans!
Bill Evans? Great! Here’s what you should do:
Take your favourite Bill Evans record and listen to it a thousand times. Listen to it so much that you can sing it from start to finish.
Then get some manuscript and transcribe every note he plays. Every note. Right hand and left hand.
Take the manuscript to the piano and memorize it. Memorize how if feels under your fingers. Memorize how it sounds and memorize how it looks as notated music. Memorize it in every form. Test your memory by re-writing it on more manuscript away from the piano and without the recording.
Learn to play it exactly how Bill plays it. Try to capture every subtlety. Perform it from start to finish with and without the recording.
Can you taste it yet? Good! Stay tuned for Part 2!
I was once told: if you want to be a player, you’ve got to know tunes!
They were referring to jazz standards. Tunes you call at a jam session. Tunes by George & Ira Gershwin, Rogers & Hart, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Monk, Bill Evans and a host of others. Tunes that exist as part of the jazz legacy.
It’s a powerful statement, and has elements of truth, but it’s easy to dance around the language: “Does that mean, if you know lots of tunes, you’re a good player? If you know more tunes than anybody, are you the best player? How many tunes do you have to know to become a player? 100? 500? 5000? What if you learn non-jazz tunes? Does that make you less of a player? What if you’re only interested in performing original music?”
Here’s one way to look at it: If you want to perform music for a living, you have to be able to play something. You have to have repertoire.
If you want to perform music in ensembles for a living, you have to be able to play something everybody can play.
If you want to perform music in ensembles for a living, with no rehearsals, no discussions and no music, you have to have a common body of (memorized) repertoire that can be called upon at any time.
If you want to perform music in ensembles that only plays Charlie Parker tunes for a living, with no rehearsals, no discussions and no music, you’d better know every Charlie Parker tune.
(Side Note: In this case, you’d better know how to sound like Charlie Parker too!)
Let’s look at it from another perspective:
If you want to create an ensemble to perform music with no rehearsals, no discussions and no music, you have to hire the musicians that have the most extensive repertoire. You have to hire the musicians who know tunes. Otherwise, your band has nothing to play, and you don’t get any gigs! The more tunes you know, the more likely you are to be hired for this type of ensemble.
So how many tunes should you know? Maybe first you should ask: How do I want to make a living?
How can we minimize the time spent maintaining a high technical standard? Improvising musicians have an inherent solution. Their notes can be variable to maintain their standards. Can’t play fast today? Then play slow!
But musicians who are dedicated to reading music have a problem. They may know a piece perfectly today, but if they pick up that piece years or months later untouched, they’ll have to relearn it (not completely, just parts of it). Is this avoidable? I don’t think so. But I think it can be managed, especially if the initial learning of the piece is undertaken with lots of patience and discipline.
I’m still exploring. Any thoughts? If you decide to recycle a piece a year later, how long does it take to get it back in shape? How do you minimize that time?
Piano students seem to think otherwise. They don’t realize that solid right-hand and left-hand relationships are a result of building, shaping and maintaining an extensive vocabulary over a span of many years. We can’t focus and actively improvise with both hands at the same time. One hand always has to be on autopilot, even though it may be for only a few seconds. Therefore, your hands must have an intrinsic vocabulary to pull from while they’re on autopilot. They have to rely on muscle memory. Otherwise, your hands will only play what they know: nothing.
What do you do with your left-hand? Well, what’s your concept? You have to give your left-hand something to play first! Let’s say: a quarter-note bass line over the blues.
Side Note: How do you form a concept? By asking, transcribing and listening to the specialists!
Pick a twelve-bar, quarter-note pattern and stick to it. This is not a creative exercise. If you’re wavering from the pattern, you’re wasting time.
Practice it a million times. It’s all about repetition. Train your left-hand not to think. Learn it forwards, backwards, upwards and downwards. Learn it from the start, the end and the middle. Learn it in every way. Memorize the notes. Memorize how they look, how they sound, how they feel and how they taste. Learn to play it in your sleep. Know it better than anybody else. Own it. Add your right-hand. Experiment with different melodies, rhythms, tempos and improvisations. Try to throw off your left-hand. When you’re comfortable, move on to the next pattern and repeat.
This process achieves two things. First it develops your muscle memory and vocabulary. Secondly, it rids your playing of bad habits. But only if you’re disciplined enough to stick to your patterns and immediately fix any mistakes and inconsistencies. Again, this is not a creative exercise. You’re infusing vocabulary into your muscles. Creativity would be an act of blending vocabulary. That doesn’t help your left-hand autopilot. The whole point is to think creatively with your right-hand!
Of course, for future study, try putting your right-hand on autopilot!
- You sound exactly how you want to sound and
- You’re not injuring yourself
Your listeners will think you have perfect technique if:
- You satisfy their tastes
Very rarely do they teach this process: Listen-Execute
Or this one: Execute-Notate
When learning new rep, I usually use this one: Listen-Notate-Read-Execute
When teaching students, I encourage balance between all of these.
When I finished my formal music studies, I needed to formulate a business plan. So I researched a number of successful musicians, copied what they did and eventually found my own path.
If you want to study biology, (or any field for that matter) you would first study the science while reenacting experiments and observations. Aren’t all textbooks and curriculums just opportunities for assimilation and imitation? Eventually you develop interests with a particular focus and create your own experiments.
How do we learn how to speak? Same process.
(Side note: There’s an element of lineage here. It’s an evolving lineage. For future thoughts: Is there an aesthetic explanation (not just biological explanations) for why we evolve? Why do we innovate?)
It seems to me that everything we do first develops from copying something or somebody else. When we’re children, we act as sponges, soaking up and imitating every bit of experience around us. All of that experience adds up, mixes and merges to create individuality.
Lets say all of this is true. Then my logic tells me that either these three words are redundantly describing a process that is already encapsulated in the general learning process, and/or everybody in some form or another is inherently creative and artistic.
The second option is much more interesting!
What are the implications of this for improvising pianists? Students often say that they have difficulty figuring out what to do with their left hand while improvising in the right. Now that we know we can’t focus and actively improvise with both hands at the same time, the only solution is to put one hand on autopilot. The left hand will have to rely on muscle memory while we focus on new ideas for the right hand, or vise versa. It’s physically impossible to do otherwise!
More on autopilot and muscle memory soon!
In case you missed it:
The original post
Peter Hum’s response
Ted Gioia’s response
Jacob Teichroew's response
A quick recap: Ten diligent pianists (me included) are sitting in a room. We don’t know the song Carolina Shout. Whose fault is it?
A quick defense: As I said in my previous post, I consider myself a diligent student of music. Trust me, I’ve checked out lots of music including music from the early 1900’s. No, I didn’t see the Ken Burns documentary; I was probably busy in the other room practicing Scott Joplin!
(Side note: right now I’m working on some Teddy Wilson, Nikolai Kapustin and Doug Riley. Do you know who they are and their contribution to culture? That’s okay if you don’t. Hopefully one of these days we can have a listening session!)
Don’t forget the title of my original post. It’s a compromise! We’re all in this together. We’re all students of music and we’re all part of the culture! I can’t stress this enough.
Understand that if ten young pianists don’t know Carolina Shout, there is something more meaningful happening. Whether you believe it or not, it means that the culture of Carolina Shout is fading. 50 years ago, it was five young pianists. 100 years from now, it will be twenty. You can’t assume they all lack in diligence.
Do you feel passionately about Carolina Shout? Do you feel passionately about early jazz? Do you feel passionately about music in general? That’s great! What are you going to do about it? First, don’t assume that everybody has seen the Ken Burns documentary, or reads Do the Math, or had a father playing so-and-so’s rendition of Carolina Shout when they were young. Not everybody shares your experience. A few thoughts:
How can we share our passions? How can we preserve Carolina Shout?
Do you perform? When was the last time you recorded and performed Carolina Shout?
Do you write? When was the last time you wrote about Carolina Shout?
Do you lecture? When was the last time you spoke about Carolina Shout?
Important: When was the last time you tried to promote this music to kindergarten students?
Lastly, I’d like to close with a quote that my good friend Cathy Mitro sent me. She is extremely diligent and is at the forefront of jazz education in Canada and North America. ‘Food for thought’ as she put it:
“Culture cannot be inherited. The culture of previous ages will vanish unless each new generation wins it for itself again and again. Only that for which we have worked, or even suffered, truly belongs to us. Music will only enter our souls, live within us, if we plow our souls with our own efforts, with our own music making.” Zoltán Kodály
UPDATE - I wrote a response to Dalton Ridenhour (Link)
Why do we learn how to play fast? It’s because we’re preparing for repertoire that requires fast playing.
What if we can’t play fast, and never will play fast? Then we re-think the repertoire. Develop the skills to learn, play and compose slower music.
Kudos to the artist who passively and actively creates new music intelligibly crafted out of a need to battle technical and physical limitations. They are using their skills most efficiently and effectively. They are also freeing themselves from expectations that they must play and sound a certain way.
Sometimes I like listening to improvised music and pretend it’s written music.
Of course, my initial response to this statement was defensive. Who cares?!
Second: Guilt. Yeah, I should know this piece. I’d better check out Johnson if I want to be a true jazz pianist.
Third: Confusion. I do respect the jazz tradition. I’ve checked out lots of music from the 1920’s! I like music from the 1920’s! Why is knowing Carolina Shout so important?
Last: Acceptance. I don’t need to know Carolina Shout to make meaningful music. Maybe we’ll cross paths in the future, but for now, I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing.
But one question remains: Why don’t I know Carolina Shout?
Here’s what I do know:
Most importantly, I know that I’m seriously dedicated to my craft and that if something warrants checking out, I check it out! I would describe myself as a diligent student of music.
But out of 22 years (I’m 25 now) of being in pre-school, elementary school, high school, music school, music camp and university, not one of my teachers ever mentioned James P. Johnson. I’ve been to many live concerts and I own a lot of music. I’ve never heard a performance of Carolina Shout. I’m not a jazz scholar (clearly), but I’ve read my fair share of biographies, blogs, essays, history books and theory books. I’ve never read about James P. Johnson. I’ve never seen or heard his name on television, the radio, magazines, newspapers, the Internet or any other form of mainstream media. And since hearing his name for the first time on this occasion, I haven’t heard of him since.
The real question: Why isn’t anybody talking about James P. Johnson?
I have no doubt that Johnson is an important figure in music history and that he contributed significantly to jazz culture. But if nobody talks about him, nobody’s going know him! If people talked about Johnson like they talk about Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Oscar Peterson or J.S. Bach, then people would check him out!
The most telling part of this story is that I was one of ten pianists being chewed out that day. They never heard of him either! I’ll admit that some pianists are less diligent than others, but regardless, you have to admit that this isn’t only a case of pianists neglecting the jazz tradition. If ten diligent jazz pianists have never heard of a cultural icon, then something more revealing must be happening. I would argue that this is also a reflection of society neglecting the value of cultural preservation.
The deep question: Who’s responsible for preserving culture?
You are! We are!
If something moves us so deeply that we feel the duty to preserve it’s impact for later years and future generations, then we are responsible for making that contribution. The bottom line is that unless we do something about it, our generation is going to forget and worse, the next generations won’t know it ever existed! Write about it, speak about it, record it and perform it. And do it often!
It’s silly to assume that the younger generation will preserve culture. Not because their negligent, but because they can’t preserve what they’ve never heard of. The younger generation also won’t preserve what doesn’t move them. Carolina Shout was written almost 100 years ago. In cultural years, that’s a long time ago. And in many cases when it comes to art, the older it is, the harder it is for them to relate. Which is why you need the older generation to pass on their passion and enthusiasm. When I was young, my habits were at the mercy of the previous generation. Unfortunately, they missed an opportunity when it comes to the preservation of Carolina Shout.
(Side Note: This isn’t about Carolina Shout anymore. There’s a much bigger picture here. One that involves learning from our ancestors and not being part of a regressing culture.)
While we’re on the subject, a colleague of mine once gave me a funny look because I wasn’t familiar with Randy Weston’s playing. My best friend doesn’t know any songs by The Beatles and yesterday I heard someone laugh because their friend didn’t know who Susan Boyle was. For the diligent, this raises the last issue: You can’t know everything.
The lesson: Don’t chew people out for not knowing something. The reason they don’t know is because you never told them!
A compromise: I’ll give you permission to chew me out, but only if you chew out the entire jazz community too. We’re all in this together!
UPDATE: I’ve written a response (link)