Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Reworking a standard - zing zing zing

From time to time I like looking over the standard jazz repertoire to see if there is a tune that I can arrange or rearrange. A tune that not only appeals to me on an aesthetic level but one I can rearrange to make it more current, interesting and ultimately make it my own. Being a sucker for old movies, I decided a few years back to reinterpret many of the old classics such as ‘Over The Rainbow’ from The Wizard of Oz, ‘As Time Goes By’ from Casablanca, and ‘The Trolley Song’ from Meet Me In St. Louis.

When I compose an original jazz composition, quite often my first thought is what environment do I want to improvise in. Will it be swing, straight, changes, no changes, time, no time, etc, etc. When looking to rework a standard I use the same approach. So with a tune such as The Trolley Song, albeit a little corny or clich├ęd at first glance, I wanted to find if there was a conducive setting within which I was comfortable improvising.

My first realization was that the A sections were basically a double time type ‘rhythm changes’, and as such I could put them over a pedal point using a charleston figure as the bass line. My harmonic approach in the head was to use shifting dyads (2 note chords) thus leaving the harmony somewhat ambiguous and elusive . To make the bridge more interesting I used phrygian and Maj 7 #5 sonorities. For an intro, I actually took the tag, or final refrain of the original version, switching between a three beat figure and fast 4/4. I play this tag again at the end of the head in.

This now propels the improviser back to the charleston figure on a Bb pedal point. Playing over a pedal leaves the improviser with a lot of options. First lets clarify what is meant by pedal point. In this case it means playing on Bb. Not Bb major or minor or dominant. Just Bb. This allows one to play either chromatically or to play over specific chord qualities. I tend to think top down, that is to say what I play in my right hand determines my left hand reaction (kind of like comping for myself). So on this pedal point I am shifting between dominant, sus4, altered, diminished, slash chord, and sometimes just purely chromatic ideas (ie. not thinking of any particular scale or chord type).

Here's my version from a concert at McGill University featuring a couple of extremely talented young musicians, Miles Perkin on bass and Phil Melanson on drums.
Special thanks to Claude Thibault for providing this video and for his amazing website. http://www.sortiesjazznights.com

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Practicing pt 3 - a little hard work never hurt anyone

If I miss a day of practice, I know it. If I miss two days, my manager knows it. If I miss three days, my audience knows it.
Pianist, conductor

If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem wonderful at all.
Renaissance sculptor and painter

When I played with Michael Jordan on the Olympic team, there was a huge gap between his ability and the ability of the other great players on that team But what impressed me was that he was always the first one on the floor and the last one to leave.
Olympic gold medalist and NBA player

Legendary violinist Issac Stern was once confronted by a middle-aged woman after a concert. She gushed “Oh, I’d give my life to play like you!”
“Lady,” said Stern acidly, “that I did!”

Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.

Practicing pt 2 - building concentration powers

In this post I want to address issues concerning concentration and focus. Much of what we as musicians practice, whether it be scales, an etude, a transcription etc. requires rote repetition practice, playing the same thing over and over again. But be careful not to equate rote repetition with mindless practice or what some call going on “automatic pilot“. Rote practice requires your full attention.

Athletes know this and like an athlete, musicians need continued focused practice on the fundamentals of technique and theory. The greatest golfers in the world practice their drive and their putt everyday. In many martial arts there are only a handful of basic moves and concepts which the student practices day in and day out for years on end. Mastering fundamentals is a must!

The mind is like a muscle, it’s not actually a muscle, but like a muscle needs to be exercised everyday. Use it or lose it as they say. Perhaps you can only stay focused on one thing for five minutes. That’s ok. By practicing on a regimented daily basis your ability increases over time. In a short couple of weeks you will find you can concentrate for 10 or perhaps 15 minutes.

One exercise that helps is practicing extremely slow. Take a scale or a Bach two-part invention and play it as slow as you can. Pay close attention to make sure all the notes are producing an even tone and that both hands are hooking up perfectly. Pay attention to the space between the notes. Not only will this type of practice increase your concentration abilities but will also benefit your technique dramatically. Playing slowly and softly increases your tactile awareness and with a heightened tactile sense your whole relationship with the instrument is taken to another level.

There are many activities one can engage in away from the instrument to assist in increasing your concentration powers. Reading, crosswords, meditating, yoga, sudoku, learning a language, learning a martial art, are all good examples. Even practicing away from your instrument can be helpful. Next time you walk to the bus stop, try walking in 5/4 or practice identifying intervals in your head while waiting in line at the supermarket. Have fun with this and let me know if you come up with any other tips or tricks that help you focus.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Practicing pt 1 - confronting your worst enemy

The worst enemy any serious student of music must face and overcome is overwhelm. The sooner one comprehends this debilitating mental state, the better. Too often, it seems as if there is just too much to know and too much to learn. The deluge of material one needs to absorb to become an improvising musician is indeed immense and infinite.
However, you must not allow overwhelm to take over and control your thoughts, especially when you are practicing. If you are in the midst of learning a particular passage, or learning a specific ii-V line and you are thinking about how you suck at playing in 7/4, then you are in a state of overwhelm. This is a mild case, but there are some individuals who get so crazy about everything they need to know, nothing ever gets done. The key is to recognize when you enter this self-defeatist frame of mind, understand that it is your ego working against you and get back to the task at hand.

While overwhelm is your worst enemy, routine is your best friend. Routine is of the utmost importance and the more routine you are in your practicing methods, the quicker you will progress. You should know exactly what you are going to work on before settling into any practice session. In fact you should know this the moment you wake up in the morning, and if your approach is methodical, it will be an extension of what you worked on the day before.

Let’s be real, the more you practice, the better you get. I don’t think this is a shocker to anyone. It is, however, better to practice 2 hours/day, rather than 5 hours one day and ½ an hour the next. The latter signifies that your approach to practicing is not routine or methodical. If you are going to school it is perhaps unrealistic to think that you can put in 8 to 10 hours a day. However 3 to 5 hours seems reasonable. Plan ahead and set up a schedule at the beginning of each week. Let’s say you intend to practice 4 hours/day for 6 days (it’s ok to take a day off here and there - keeps you “hungry”). Break down the 4 hours into categories such as technique, transcription, learning lines, learning tunes, etc. You can further break down these categories into sub-categories. Be very clear and specific as to what you are going to work on. Understand also, that to effectively learn an etude, a transcription or even know a ii-V line well, may take months of consistent practice.
Stay focused and in the moment with whatever specific task you have laid out for yourself, and most important, do not let overwhelm take hold.