Buy 'Hands' - my new recording with Dave Binney, Tom Rainey, and Chris Guilfoyle!

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Woody Shaw - A Jazz Master



Woody Shaw was not just one of the greatest trumpeters in jazz, he was also a giant of the music. Just over thirty years since his passing, I've created a podcast that takes a look again at this master, and I discuss his playing and compositional style. I also play some excerpts from a clinic, and a live recording of Woody that has never previously been heard by the public. 


Saturday, March 28, 2020

Bill Evans and the Juxtaposition of 3/4 and 4/4




(N.B. In choosing the Youtube versions of the pieces under discussion, I was careful to only use them if they were already available for free on Spotify, or were just video performances. You should of course buy them in higher quality formats and hear them properly instead of the crappy Mp3 stuff found online)

Bill Evans is recognised and lauded for his use of harmonic colour and sense of lyricism, and it’s probably fair to say that these are the musical qualities he is most often associated with when his playing is discussed and analysed. What is less often discussed is Evans’ interest in unusual, (at least in jazz), structural devices in both his compositions and arrangements of standard tunes. He used harmony in very individual ways such as in his composition ‘Twelve Tone Tune’, where he uses Schoenberg’s serialism technique to create a jazz piece, (a twelve tone tune which is twelve bars long), and in ‘Comrade Conrad’, where the harmonic scheme works its way through all twelve keys during the course of each solo.

He also used rhythm as a structural device, and as early as 1956, on the album New Jazz Conceptions he recorded his composition 'Five' which used quintuplets as the building blocks of a rhythm changes tune.




Using quintuplets was a very unusual device in jazz at that time, (I don’t know of any other examples of it from this period), and they create a feeling of dragged quarter note triplets, which is intriguing to the listener, and shows that, even at this early stage of his career, Evans was aware of the possibilities of rhythm in creating unusual spatial effects in the music.

One rhythmic device that Evans would return to again and again throughout his career, was the juxtaposition of time signatures of 3/4 and 4/4. This interest in the juxtaposition of the two meters can be seen as early as 1961 on 'Waltz For Debby', in which the melody takes the form of a stately waltz, but the meter changes to 4/4 when the improvising begins and remains there, with even the out-head being played in 4/4.


In 1962, Evans made the first of many recordings of Earl Zindars’ composition ‘How My Heart Sings’, an AABA tune in which the A sections are in 3/4, and the bridge is in 4/4. The solos in this piece reflect the rhythmic structure and they change meter in line with the form of the melody. In 1971 he made the first recording of his own beautiful composition ‘Comrade Conrad’, another AABA tune, which reverses the meter changes of ‘How My Heart Sings’ in that the A sections are in 4/4 and the bridge is in 3/4. The version recorded a few years later on 'We Will Meet Again' with Tom Harrell, Lary Schneider, Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera is classic.


However, it is in his arrangement of the standard ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ that Evans most fully explores how the effect of adding or removing a beat, as the meters change, affects the harmonic rhythm and the melodic line.

Someday My Prince Will Come is one of the most famous 20th Century waltz tunes, made popular in jazz by Miles Davis on the release of the album of the same name in 1961. However Evans’ released a version of the tune a year earlier on ‘Portrait in Jazz’, and in this version, and in many subsequent live versions, Evans treats it as a straight waltz, played quite conventionally. It is in the release of ‘Bill Evans At The Montreux Jazz Festival’ (Verve, V6-8762), from 1968, that we hear a very different treatment of the tune.

In this recording with the trio of Evans, Eddie Gomez on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums, Evans plays the melody in the standard 3/4, but then changes the meter to 4/4 for the first chorus of his improvisation, reverting back to 3/4 in the next chorus, and alternating between the two meters thereafter, including during the bass solo and the drum breaks with DeJohnette. When they return to the ABAC melody after the solos, they play the A and B sections in 4/4, and the second A and C section in 3/4.


It may seem like a truism to state that the big difference between 3/4  and 4/4 is one beat, but this beat, (added on in 4/4 if moving from 3/4, and removed if moving to 3/4 from 4/4), has a very powerful impact on the structure and ultimately the feeling of a piece. This can be clearly heard, and felt, in this arrangement by Evans. After hearing a chorus of the tune played in the traditional 3/4,  the subsequent 4/4 meter feels very spacious. That extra beat gives the music more time to breathe and the harmonic rhythm changes from chorus to chorus. Evans’ response to that extra space can be clearly heard in the second chorus of his solo in the 4/4 meter (at 1.39),  where, having played a sprightly 3/4 improvisation in the previous chorus, he unleashes a rapid cascade of notes for the whole 4/4 chorus, playing across the time, and leaving it to the bass and drums to state the pulse.

Interestingly, in a TV recording from Sweden in 1970, with his trio of Gomez and Marty Morrel on drums, he plays the tune using the same arrangement and again, in the second chorus of 4/4 (at 1.29), he plays the same kind of unmetered flurry of notes for the whole chorus. While it’s clear from this that Evans responded differently to the alternately expanding and contracting meter, it’s interesting to speculate whether these rapid passages in the second 4/4 chorus represent Evans spontaneously responding to the wider spaces of the 4/4 meter, or whether it became something that Evans always did at that spot in the tune. There are no other recordings I can find of this arrangement, and in his next, and last, trio with Marc Johnson and Joe Labarbera he reverted to playing the tune as a straight waltz again.


Evans’ use of alternating meters while keeping the same harmonic scheme has great potential for further examination as a tool for improvisation. It is little explored, and it appears that Evans himself, while playing several pieces that alternated meters, only used that particular technique for two or three years of his career.

 An interesting footnote to the Montreux performance: an Irish group also played at the Montreux Festival in 1968, and the drummer from that group, John Wadham, was at the rehearsal of Evans’ trio which took place on the day of the concert recording. I knew John well, and he told me that although this was DeJohnette’s first concert with the trio, Evans produced no written music and the entire rehearsal was conducted solely using verbal instructions regarding arrangements, beginnings and endings. It's fascinating to realise that Evans, a man given to using many preconceived structures in his compositions, nonetheless preferred to demonstrate the music verbally in rehearsal. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

My Mother, Music and Mortality


(My mother with her beloved Bobby)

Professional musicians are generally pragmatic. We get on with things, we do what we do because, well....that's what we do. In the creative music world you often have to deal with two conflicting requirements - being creative and 'doing the gig'. Sometimes the circumstances of the gig, (poor sound, long travel, less than ideal playing conditions etc.), makes being creative a challenge. But the mantra of 'the show must go on', is still strongly embedded in the psyche of musicians and we generally get on with it, and, in the creative music world, try and keep the creativity alive in all circumstances.

Recently I came face to face with a challenge which was related to the one I've described above, but which was at the same time very different, more fundamental, and one that brought the whole question of the meaning of music, and its place in our lives into sharp relief.

A series of circumstances arose in which myself, and my son Chris, had to make a decision whether to play a concert or not, knowing that my mother, (and of course, his grandmother), was slipping away from this world, and may well have left it by the time we finished.

My Mother

My mother May Guilfoyle (née Mullarkey), passed away in April of this year. She was a great age, in her early 90s, and up to the very last years of her life had been in generally good health. She had managed to live in her own home up to her late 80s, and had then moved to a retirement home, close to her own home, where she was relatively happy.

Her life had been very challenging in many ways, especially in the first half of it. At age twelve, at the beginning of the WWII, her mother had died, leaving her in loco parentis to her three younger brothers, forcing her to grow up very quickly and take on responsibilities that no twelve year old should have to. She met my father in the mid-1950s and settled down and raised a large family, (eight children!), as was quite common in that Irish catholic era.

My father became ill in his mid-forties, couldn't work for a couple of years, and passed away, leaving my mother with eight children, ranging from university to primary school age, to look after. This she did with the toughness, pragmatism, and stoicism which was such a feature of her personality, and doubtless forged through her childhood experience of adversity. Having found herself bereft of her mother at a young age, and then bereft of her husband in middle-age, my mother just got on with it and did what needed to be done. She was an extraordinary woman in so many ways.


(My mother in her garden, which was her pride and joy)

After this second hammer blow, things slowly got better for her for various reasons  - she had more income coming in, her children gradually starting leaving home and getting jobs etc. So she found herself, for the first time in her life, being able to do what she wanted to do rather than what she had to do. The things she loved were gardening, travelling, and going to classical music concerts, (and latterly, the love of a rescue dog called Bobby), and the second half of her life featured these pursuits, as well as being closely involved in the family lives of her children.

The Concert


(The Hugh Lane Gallery)

The concert came up at relatively short notice, in the lovely Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. They've run a great series of free 'Sundays at Noon' concerts there for over twenty five years, and I've played them often. Usually I will write a new piece to be performed there to mark the occasion. In this instance I was asked in March would I like to perform there in April, as a previously scheduled performer had cancelled. I love to play there so I agreed, and decided, despite the short notice, to write a new piece. The room lends itself to small chamber-like music, so I decided to use a trio of myself on bass, my son Chris on guitar and the improvising contemporary pianist Izumi Kimura. I planned on having the new piece performed, and have the rest of the concert feature improvisations by all three of us. I managed to find some time free at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre and went there in early March for five days and started on the piece.

The Piece - Modus Operandi/Modus Vivendi

As I drove to the Centre, I admit I had no idea of what I was going to write, other than that I would write it for electric guitar and piano. But on the car radio I heard someone use the phrase 'Modus Operandi', and it's always been a phrase I've liked - something about the sound of it. And I began to think about whether there were other Latin phrases along the same lines and the only one I could think of was 'Modus Vivendi'. And it struck me that these two phrases, which can roughly be translated as ways of working, and ways of living, could provide fertile ground for a piece.

So often our lives are divided into doing the work we have to do, and, when we can, doing the things we want to do. I set out to try and represent that dichotomy in the piece with a very busy, active, minimalistic theme which represented the Modus Operandi aspects of life, and richer more traditionally melodic Brazilian-influenced passages which represented the happier Modus Vivendi moments. I juggled these over the course of what became a twenty minute piece, and was relatively happy with how it turned out.

The piece went into rehearsal, and I looked forward to the concert, however the circumstances under which the concert would take place were to change very suddenly and we were confronted with a choice which asked many questions regarding music and its ultimate meaning in our lives.

End of Life....



In the week preceding the Sunday concert, my mother had become unwell, and on the Thursday of that week we were told that the doctor had said she was at the 'end of life' stage. It was quite shocking how quickly this had arrived, but it became clear that the doctor was right, and by Friday it was evident that it would be a very short time before she left us. The doctor had said it was impossible to predict how long this last phase would take, it could be hours or days.

Any family who has gone through this will probably be familiar with combination of shock and grief, and yet the thinking about the practicalities of the funeral etc. are also present. With my mother hovering on the edge of life, a decision had to be made regarding the concert which was to take place on Sunday.

Mortality, Music and Its Meaning For Us

The obvious thing to do with the concert was to get someone else to do it. I certainly know enough musicians in Dublin, some of whom could have stepped into the breach at short notice, to cover the concert. 'The show must go on' mentality was never a consideration in the thought processes that ultimately led to our decision. The show could have gone on without us.

Chris and I discussed what we should do, and by Saturday had decided that we would play the concert, come what may. This wasn't an easy decision to make and involved thinking about many different aspects of the situation, and ultimately of life and death, and what being a creative musician actually means and why we are involved with it.


(Chris performing at the concert)

Principally our discussions centred around the reasons why we should play the concert or why we should not. My mother at this point was sleeping constantly and there being eight of us, plus extended family, several of us were always with her. So we knew she would never be alone, and we lived close by and could get to her bedside in minutes. The reasons why we felt we should play the concert revolved around the nature of creative music itself and why we are involved with it. But there was another aspect to it - the piece itself.

In writing the piece I had not necessarily associated the Modus Operandi/Modus Vivendi idea with my mother's life, but on thinking about it in these new circumstances, I realised that it could have been expressly written with her life in mind. The first half of her life, the first 45 years or so, contained huge amounts of Modus Operandi as she met the challenges of looking after her brothers, and then her children in very adverse circumstances. The second half, the second 45 years or so, was much better for her and she was able to do so much of the stuff she loved to do, for herself - the Modus Vivendi era if you like.

The realisation that the piece could have been designed to represent her life so well, combined with the fact that, for us, playing creative music is not only a profession, but is how we represent a lot of the things we intrinsically believe in, decided us on playing the concert. By playing this music for my mother, we felt we would get closer to honouring her in that moment than by any other means at our disposal.


(Chris and Izumi playing the piece)

We decided that if she passed before the concert we would dedicate the music to her memory, and if she was still with us when we played, we knew we would be playing for her. I decided that I would tell the audience the background to the concert, but only after we had finished playing. I wanted to publicly acknowledge her life and what playing the music had meant to us, but I wanted the audience to experience the music without me planting any specific interpretation regarding its context.

We began the concert with three solo improvisations, and then Modus Operandi/Modus Vivendi. The performance of the piece was really outstanding. It's a technically difficult piece for the players, and it would have been a very fine performance even under far less weighted circumstances. When it was finished, I stood up and told the audience the background to the performance and we got a very touching and warm response from them, several of whom spoke to me afterwards about how moved they'd been once made aware of the background.


(Giving the audience the background to the performance)

During the concert we did not know whether my mother was still with us, and when we finished we found she was still there. We drove to the retirement home and she had passed on a couple of minutes before we got there, surrounded by all my siblings and extended family.

Six months on from these events, I'm happy that we did the right thing by my mother and by ourselves. By being able to share this momentous occasion with the audience via music and then verbally, I feel we honoured my mother's life through the medium with which we have chosen to express ourselves. This a very powerful feeling. Playing creative music in today's society is not easy, a lot of the time you're really up against it in terms of recognition of what you do and the difficulty of making a living from it. But it's at times like these that the true power of music, and of what we do becomes evident

Modus Operandi/Modus Vivendi - The Performance

After all that background and description, here then is the piece itself - a good recording of the actual performance on the day in question. Although it wasn't originally written for my mother, I know I'll always think of her every time I hear it. I hope you enjoy it, and it has some meaning for you, in whatever way that manifests itself.






Saturday, December 7, 2019

Evidence - Lulu's Back In Town



Recorded at Billy Byrne's in Kilkenny, Evidence is a trio dedicated to playing both the music of Thelonious Monk, and standards that he liked to play. This is one of the latter, "Lulu's Back in Town'.

Monk had some in-between tempos that are difficult to get right - they're what might be called 'bright medium', and are easy to rush. I think we locked into a nice Monk Tempo on this one!

Thursday, November 28, 2019

On Being A Jazz Student - The Big Picture




Over the course of my forty years of being a musician, I've worked with probably thousands of students. I've worked with my own students, both in the university where I teach, and with private students. I've also been a guest teacher in over seventy schools, and worked with thousands of students in that context also. And of course I would also consider myself to be an eternal student of music in my everyday life, and I feel that I learn new things all the time, both from others and from my own explorations. Wanting to learn something such as jazz, that demands a high level of craft from its practitioners, while at the same time being a challenging milieu in which to make a living, makes for a demanding life, and one that requires a certain maturity and clarity of perspective if one is to stay the course. 

What follows is some 'big picture' stuff, which I hope will be helpful to students of jazz and other high craft musicians. This is not a 'how to practice', or 'how to make a living' manual, but a piece in which I've laid out some thoughts which I find useful for myself, and hopefully, in these thoughts, you might find something useful to you too, as you study this great music, and develop yourself as a creative musician and as a person.

1) The Big Picture -  Music!

What the following point has to do with being a jazz student may seem initially obscure, but please be patient. Through this preamble I'll get to what I believe to be a very important point for all serious musicians. 

Music in itself, scientifically, is pretty simple. A sound wave is a transfer of energy as it travels away from a vibrating source. Sound waves are formed when a vibrating object causes the surrounding medium to vibrate (that medium, when we're talking about music, is usually air). A sound wave travels through the air, enters the ear and is changed into nerve signals, which are interpreted by the brain. So music is basically vibration of the air. 




I think it's safe to say that everyone reading this post loves music, (as indeed do most people regardless of whether they play music or not), and are probably involved in it either professionally, or as students. But though you may love music, and indeed may have dedicated your life to it, or are planning on dedicating your life to it, there's a very important point to understand about music, and it's this:

Music has no feelings!

That may seem a very strange statement to make about something so loved, and so universal, but it's true - music has no feelings, it just is. I first heard that statement from the great saxophonist Dave Liebman several years ago at a masterclass, and the whole room just gaped at him when he said it. But he's right - as we've discussed, music is simply vibration of the air. The feelings come into it when we interpret the meaning of those vibrations; and how we interpret them is dependent on a whole bunch of factors and variables that are partly about our past experience with music, and partly about who we are as people. The interpretation of the music, and creation of feelings, (both negative and positive) regarding the music, are all about us, not the music itself.

To explain that a little further - the proof that the music itself has no feelings can be demonstrated by the fact that two people can simultaneously listen to the same piece of music, and have very different reactions to it. One listener might think it's one of the most moving pieces they've ever heard, while the other may believe it to be the most boring piece they've ever heard. Yet the music that created those very contrasting feelings in the two listeners was exactly the same for both of them. So the air vibrated in exactly the same way, but when the vibrations entered the ears of the two listeners, those vibrations were interpreted in very different ways. The two listeners responded in different ways to the vibrating air, but the music remained the same.



Why is this important to understand? It's because it's important to understand that there are certain kinds of vibrations of the air, (i.e music), that affect you deeply. Vibrations that have value for you, that make you feel certain things. Consequently, in music, you will seek out these kinds of vibrations, as will anyone who has a relationship with music. But most people are passive receivers of these vibrations, and will simply seek out recordings and concerts that appeal to them. We as musicians, on the other hand, are active participants in the creation of such vibrations. So this makes our goal clear as students of music - we want to, via our voice or instrument,  be able to vibrate the air in such a way that it engenders these powerful feelings in ourselves, and from there, outwards to others.

It's really as simple as that - that's the big picture. Once you have grasped the point that you need a skill set that allows you to vibrate the air in a way that moves you, then everything else - study, listening, practice, performing - falls into place, and a lot of aspects of the study of music, that perhaps seemed like a chore, start to make sense. We need to have the ability, (or technique if you prefer), to create the kind of vibrations of the air that have meaning for you. This brings us nicely to something, the details of which are endlessly discussed, but can also be thought about in a relatively simple way - practice.




2) Practice Is For You - Not Your Teacher!

If you're a student in a jazz school you have to do a lot of practice. Similarly if you're studying privately with a teacher you will doubtless have to do a lot of practice for them too. It's very easy to get a sense in your own head that you are practicing in order to keep the teacher happy, and to be ready for the next lesson. But while it's true that a good teacher will care about your progress and should motivate you to make that progress, ultimately the person who is most deeply affected by how well or poorly you practice, is you!

The teacher's life is not directly affected by whether or not you master the required skills to be a professional musician, but your life is. If you are in a school, then in a year or two, you will be finished the programme, and some other student will now be with your teacher, and your study with that teacher will become a distant memory, for him or her, as time passes. But the kind of skills your teacher introduced to you, and showed you, will have a direct impact on your life, for the rest of your life.

So these skills and techniques that your teacher gives you are for you. And the practice you do to master these skills are also for you. As mentioned above, you are practicing in order to have the skills necessary to create music that has meaning for you. You should constantly be trying to get closer to the music, closer to how you want to express yourself via music, and everything you do in the practice room should be geared towards that. If you keep that in your mind, it helps to make sense of the repetitive tasks we often have to undertake during our practice. Follow the music - if you do that, then everything else makes sense.


(Vladimir Horowitz)

3) Practice Positively - It's About Taking Care Of Business

While it's very important to know what to practice and how to practice, it's equally important that you practice with the right attitude. Practice has, in and of itself, no artistic value, it is a means to an end, a way of acquiring the technique and knowledge to create and play music that is meaningful to you. Like music (see above), practice has no feelings, it just is... And I think it's very important that you bring little or no emotion to the act of practicing, and it's certainly very important not to allow negative thinking to impede your practice and get in the way.

You must be businesslike about your practice - in other words treat your practice as being the business of getting better at what you do. One of the pitfalls that's easy to fall into is ascribing negative feelings to your practice. Thoughts such as, 'I'll never get this...', or 'this is so boring...', are the enemy of progress, because first and foremost you're thinking about yourself instead of the job at hand. The ego is the enemy of practice progress, and the more you let your ego and your feelings into the practice room, the less useful techniques you will actually take away from that room.

Be totally honest with yourself about the things you need to do in order to acquire the techniques necessary to play the music you want to play, at the technical level that that is required for that music. Do not berate yourself because you can't yet do them, or for taking what you feel is a long time to improve - that kind of thinking will simply hold you back since you're wasting time thinking about yourself instead of practicing!

I'm not going to get into what to practice, or how to practice, because that's such a huge subject, and I want to focus on the overall mentality required to practice effectively, regardless of content or style. But there is much good practice advice out there for you if you want it, and I particularly like Wynton Marsalis' suggestions. And, of course, ask your teachers!


(Wynton Marsalis)


4) Avoid Negativity (1) - Especially Your Own

Over the course of the typical three or four years that it takes to get through a jazz degree, it's very easy to become negative about yourself and feel that you're always somehow short of the mark when it comes to ability. At least some of this can be laid at the door of the hothouse atmosphere of jazz programmes. In order to be able to accommodate the many, these programmes are designed to be a model in which all students are required to digest pretty much the same material in a stipulated number of weeks. While the intense nature of a jazz programme can bring useful qualities of its own, it can also lead to a feeling among students of always being a day late and a dollar short.

The nature of a programme in which you have weekly lessons in many subjects can lead to a feeling of always being behind the curve. You go to class and are given something you can't do, so you go away and practice it, and then bring it back to the teacher and show them that you can now do it, and then the teacher responds by giving you something else you can't do! This can lead you to feel that you're always playing catch-up and are somehow a lesser musician than others.

This is where overview is important. Constantly working your way through new material and mastering it is vital, and by the end of your time in school you will be a vastly better musician than when you entered. It's crucial to keep this in mind - the big picture again. Rather than focussing on weekly difficulties, try and look back to where you were at the beginning of the year, or the previous year, or the beginning of the programme. If you do that, then rather than being discouraged by constant technical challenges, you will see the positive effect of the work you are doing, and be conscious of your progress.

5) Avoid Negativity (2) - Don't Beat Yourself Up!




When you make a mistake, play a wrong note in the chord, drop a beat, lose the form, or make an error in the melody, do you:

A) Make a mental note to fix that for the next time, and move on with the music?

or

B) Make a pained face, perhaps give a little groan, lose your concentration as you dwell on the mistake, have it on your mind for a while, and feel foolish in front of the other musicians or your teachers?

Unfortunately, B) is much more common than A), but it's worthwhile thinking about that reaction. If you think about the negative feelings that you ascribe to yourself on foot of making a mistake, they're often accusatory feelings, feelings of being not worthy to be playing music with the others in the band. There's often a certain amount of internal recrimination going on, along the lines of:

'WHY did I make that stupid mistake!? Again! Now everyone's looking at me, and they all know how useless I am....' 

There are many variations on that theme in these situations, but they all have similar forms. Now let's reverse the situation, and imagine that somebody else made a mistake in the music. Would you then speak to them in the way you speak to yourself? Would you say the same things to them? Would you say the following:

'WHY did you make that stupid mistake!? Again! Now everyone's looking at you, and they all know how useless you are....' 

I doubt, (and hope!), that you would not speak to anyone else like that for making a mistake. Speaking like that to someone would definitely mean you are behaving like a jerk. Yet you possibly speak to yourself like that, and if so, ask yourself why you only behave like a jerk towards yourself? The feelings of not wanting to be 'shown up' in front of others is very human - we are social animals and rarely want to be singled out or have attention drawn to ourselves. But you have to fight this impulse of beating yourself up for making mistakes. First of all it's not going to help you to fix the mistake - the moment is gone, the mistake was made. Move on. Secondly, beating yourself up is a waste of your time, and everyone else's! Instead of getting on with playing the music, in the moment, with your colleagues, you're sitting there obsessing about yourself. This serves no musical purpose at all, in fact it does the opposite.

'Do unto others as you would have done unto you', is a well known saying, well in this case we should reverse it; 'Do unto yourself as you would have done unto others'. In other words don't treat yourself any worse for making a mistake than you would others who do the same thing. Mentally acknowledge the mistake, don't waste time with recriminations, move on, and you can come back to it in the practice room later and deal with the issues that led to the mistake in the first place.



6) Avoid Negativity (3) - Acknowledge What It Is You Do Well

Often students tend to focus on the stuff they don't do well, but rarely acknowledge that they do certain things very well. If you're a student in a jazz school then you probably had to do an audition to get in, so I think it's safe to assume that you're a musically talented person. As a musically talented person there will definitely be things you do well in music. You must find and acknowledge these things.

Becoming a better musician, and being better able to create the music that speaks to you, is a two-part process. One part is definitely concerned with working on your weaknesses and improving everything you do in the craft element of being a musician. But the other part is concerned with deepening and improving what you already do well. And it's this second part that often gets forgotten by students as they focus on remedying weaknesses. Never feel that it's a two-step process, that you have to eliminate all weakness first before you can approach music as an art. They should go side by side - yes, work hard on your technique and knowledge, and yes improve weaknesses. But also identify your strong points!

A good thing to do is record yourself and then listen to it as objectively and dispassionately as you can. Listen for the issues - technical, rhythmic, harmonic, sound - whatever. Make a note of these issues and make a plan for improving them. But also listen for the things that sound good - could be a groove you get into, a sound you make, a good feeling on certain tunes or types of tunes. Make a note of this too, identify the good things, identify what it was you were doing when you sounded good, and figure out a way to make that even better, maybe by playing more of those kinds of tunes, or writing pieces that will feature that kind of playing from you etc.

7) Avoid Negativity (4) - Avoid The Hecklers!


(Thelonious Monk)

'Avoid the Hecklers' is just one of the nuggets of wisdom from Thelonious Monk, transcribed by Steve Lacy while in Monk's band. And nearly sixty years after Monk said it, it's still great advice. I have no doubt that every musician reading this will have had a lot of negative reinforcement, from people who are not musicians, in the form of comments and dire warnings about how it's impossible to make a living as a musician. What you need to understand about this is that these comments directed towards you only take into account one aspect of life - the economic one.

While I am not downplaying for a moment the challenges of making a living as a musician, (for some very good advice on this, read Danny Barnes' article here), it's important to understand that there's so much more to being a musician than the bare economics of it - there's a richness to it which is given to so few others. If you become a serious full time musician you will have experiences which few people you went to school with will ever have. You will meet extraordinary, talented, funny, weird and fascinating people, not only in music but from other branches of the arts as well. You will travel extensively, see and play in beautiful and/or fascinating places, have access to the real word of those places in a way that tourists never do. You will experience life with an intensity given to few other professions. And it's never boring! The musical life is varied and ever-changing. Every day is different.

These opportunities that we get are never mentioned to young musicians when they're first deciding they'd like to have a life in music. All they hear about is how difficult the economic aspects of being a musician are. Which is true, but one does not take on music as a career, one takes it on as a life, and then the career comes with it. If your only concern in life is your career, you should should probably go and work for Facebook or Google. 

One final thing to remember when you're hearing yet again, how crazy you are to be a musician - you also get to hear something like this: 'Oh, I wish I could play drums/guitar/piano/sing like you'. On the one hand you're being told not to be a musician, but on the other hand they tell you they envy you. The same people who tell you not to become a full time musician, wish they were you.....

Think about that the next time you have to listen to the usual negativity around what it is you want to do.

Avoid the Hecklers!

8) Take Ownership of Your Own Learning



When you are in a jazz school it's very easy to acquire a subconscious feeling that knowledge is 'top down' - something that the teachers have, that they give to you, and that you do what they ask of you with. But while it's true to say that the teachers have lots of great information to give you, you should also ensure that you not only personalise the information you're given, you should also seek out other information for yourself - information that may be related to that given to you by the teacher, or information that you find completely independently of the teacher.

Personalising the information you get means looking at any information you receive, not only in the way the teacher suggests, but seeing if you can do something personal with it. If it's a new scale, or new groove for example, see if there's a way you can do something creative with that, improvise with it or write a tune based on it. Listen to different versions of tunes that you are working on, not just the ones suggested by the teacher. Try and find contextual information around any piece of information - how is it used by great players of the past? What is its history? Who are the greatest exponents of using this information in a creative way?

Don't just be a passive receiver of information from your teacher, see what you can do with it in order to make it part of your creative work and development. Too often students do no more than what they're required to do for the programme. But ultimately, if you're to have a long term creative and artistic life, you've got to go beyond that and find ways to continually enrich your musical life.

When you're in school it may sometime feel like the programme will never end, that you've been there forever. But it will end, and in the grand scheme of things, your time in school is incredibly short in comparison to the time you'll spend in your career after you leave school. So you have to devise ways of working that are beyond strategies of simply being ready for the next lesson. When you leave school, it's you who will have to care about whether you practice, and how you practice and what you practice. So it's never to soon to develop creative work practices and ways of making your music speak to you and be personal to you. Treat the work you're given to do in school in a creative way, and make at least some of it yours.

9) The Simplicity Of Schools




Any jazz school, (or indeed any music school), can be thought of in very basic terms. They are repositories of information and they are communities of musicians.

The bulk of the information in a jazz school resides with the teachers. There are reasons they are there as teachers, and it's mostly because they have been doing what you aspire to do, for a long time. You are there because you can get the benefit of their knowledge and experience. Your job as a student is to get as much information as you can from your teachers while you are in school. And the teacher's job is to give you as much information as they can. It's a very simple idea and if you think of it like that, it can help you to be really focussed on your time in school and help you to not get distracted by things that ultimately are not that important.

Don't judge the information you get, (yet...), just take it, keep it, work with it, and later on you will have more time to sift through it and see what's of most benefit to you.

So during your time in school you should go after every piece of information you can get from your teachers, and don't just confine it to what's on the course. Believe me, they know a lot more than that! Teachers are always willing to share information with enthusiastic students. So just ask.

Schools are also communities of musicians. The teachers are there, and your peers and colleagues from class are there. These days schools are one of the few places where you will find a great concentration of musicians. At any given time there can be dozens, or even hundreds of creative musicians under the one roof and this gives off a very beneficial energy to everyone, both teachers and students. Your fellow students will also have information which is valuable - 'have you heard this recording? 'You should go to this gig'. 'You should check out this performer', etc. etc.

Use your time well in the community while you are in school - go to gigs together, set up playing sessions, listen to music together, talk about music together, follow up on tips people give you on music that's worth checking out. Be active in the school and in school life - many of your fellow students will be people you will play with for the rest of your life and will be great contacts for you in the professional world. So don't squander your time in school - get stuck in!

10) The Simplicity Of Exams




Nobody enjoys exams. Students don't enjoy taking them, and teachers don't enjoy giving them. Nerves abound, sometimes a sense of dread takes hold of the student as the exams approach. But I think it's really helpful to understand what exams are really about in a jazz school. Each year or semester, we give you, the student, a certain amount of information. At the end of that period we need to check that you're OK with the material so that we can move on to some other information that follows from that. That's all exams are - the school checking that you're cool with everything so far. They are not judgements of your moral character, or whether you're a good citizen, member of society and even the human race!

We simply need to check how you're doing with the material so far, and exams are the way that is done. That's it really. So try not to put too much emotional weight on exams. Like so much else I've spoken about in this post, they're just really about you taking care of business. And if you are professional and businesslike with your practice and music during the year, you will have absolutely no issues with exams.

11) Finally - While You're In School, Be A Student

Those are words of advice given to some of my students several years back by the outstanding guitarist Lionel Loueke. Your time in school, (no matter how you might feel right now), is incredibly short, yet it will have a very big impact on the rest of your life. So it's really important to make the most of it. Attend all the classes, be on time, get involved in extra-curricular stuff, get as much information as you can from both teachers and other students, be businesslike and positive about your practice, support your fellow students, personalise and take ownership of your learning, don't waste time on thinking about yourself in terms of what others think of you - focus on the music. Work towards being able to make the air vibrate in a way that is pleasing and meaningful to you.

In short, while you're in school, be a student. Good luck!

PS There are two great resources for students I'd like to mention and which are really worth checking out.

The wonderful pianist and composer Liam Noble has a great series of 'advice for jazz students' posts on his blog. Fascinating, thoughtful, and full of great information.

The original of the species when it comes to big picture stuff for jazz musicians is of course the great Kenny Werner and his classic book 'Effortless Mastery'. His dissection of how we are often our own worst enemies when it comes to stopping ourselves from developing via bad mental and emotional habits, and ways to combat that, is indeed masterful. Essential reading.
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