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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?


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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Sunday, November 3, 2019

In The Cracks

Over the years I've written a lot of music that straddles classical and jazz music, and that uses elements from both traditions. I've written  orchestral, chamber and solo pieces, some of which have improvisation and some not. This is music that is truly 'in the cracks',  mostly using instrumentation and ensemble formats from the classical tradition, but using rhythmic and harmonic devices that come from other areas, particularly jazz.

Recently I created an album on Bandcamp called 'In The Cracks', comprised of a collection of these pieces, and downloadable for free. In this post I've written short descriptions of each piece on the album, with a link to the tracks themselves. There are some great musicians on here, both classical (National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Ioana Petcu-Colan, Conor Linehan etc.), and from the world of jazz, (Dave Liebman, John Abercrombie, John Ruocco etc.), and I hope you find something to enjoy. If anyone is interested in the compositions themselves, and would like the scores of any of these pieces, just drop me a line 

Synapsis (Concertino for Orchestra)

This is a sort of mini concerto for orchestra. Written in 2008, it features, at various stages, every section of the orchestra and really gives them something to play. It's a technically difficult piece, and the RTE NSO play it really well. The title came from a word a friend mentioned in an email, and I liked the fact that it sounded like a cross between synapse and synopsis. I imagined the idea of the orchestra being a large brain, and its synapses firing ideas from one side of the orchestra to the other. It has a lot of jazz influences, particularly in the rhythmic language, but also in the fact that the opening, fast 16th note phrase, (and much of the subsequent material), was taken from something Brad Mehldau played in a solo on a Michael Brecker album. Thanks Brad!

Music for String Quartet

A piece for probably the most classic of classical ensembles, the string quartet. When you're writing music for string quartet you've got one of the most outrageously accomplished musical traditions looking over your shoulder. But intimidating though it can be, it's also so satisfying to write for - so perfectly balanced and capable of so many different kind of expression. This continuous piece is in three sections - a spiky rhythmic motif, a lyrical slow section that moves between dark and light atmospheres, and a groove finale that descends into some chromatic madness.

Dave Liebman

Macrocosmos III

This is genuinely in the cracks, since it uses a symphony orchestra, a big band, and an improvising soloist - the great Dave Liebman. This is the 3rd movement of a large-scale piece for the Manhattan School of Music Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra (their combined symphony and jazz orchestras), and is in effect a concerto for soprano sax and orchestra. This is the largest group I've ever written for (more than 130 musicians), and it was both a pleasure to have such forces at my disposal, and a challenge to use them effectively.

Michael Buckley

Pipe Dreams

3rd section of a concerto for jazz flute and chamber orchestra, written for the great flautist and saxophonist Michael Buckley and the Irish Chamber Orchestra- it features both written and improvised passages for the flute. I added a drum set to the string orchestra for this piece, and also use bass guitar in this movement.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

Another daunting task for me - to write a piano concerto! In the classical tradition, as far as orchestra with soloist is concerned, there's probably no greater body of work than the piano concerto, and the greatest of the great - Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok, Ravel, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff etc. - have written extraordinary and famous works in this idiom. So to take this on was a particularly challenging assignment for me. Although very familiar with many great piano concerti, I tried to use that tradition while at the same time bringing in elements from my own world, and influences from great pianists in that world, such as McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. Conor Linehan is the wonderful soloist here with the RTE NSO, recorded live in Dublin

Sonata for Solo Violin

Writing for a solo string instrument is a completely different challenge to writing for a full orchestra. You have to balance and contrast the generally linear nature of the instrument, with chorded passages to fill out the texture. This is the finale of what is actually a very big work in five movements that takes almost thirty minutes to play. This movement features some serious fireworks for the violin and the great technical challenges are brilliantly surmounted by the violinist who commissioned this work, Ioana Petcu-Colan

Ensemble Avalon

A Little Blues

This piece is, as the name suggests, a 12-bar blues. It's completely written, but there are some very jazz elements in it, particularly in the violin and piano writing. Performed here by the great young Irish chamber group the Ensemble Avalon, I later went on to write some music for the pianist in this group, the very talented Michael McHale, and had already worked extensively with the violinist Iona Petcu-Colan (see the solo violin sonata above).

Groove Merchants

A funk piece for Wind Quintet? Why not! Commissioned and recorded by the outstanding UK wind quintet the Aurora Ensemble

Sonata for Solo Viola

Another piece for solo strings, this time the very underrated viola. This a four-movement piece which features a lot of rhythmic music and although the soloist for whom this was written - the notable and very accomplished Canadian violist Tanya Kalmanovitch - is a very fine improviser, and the music has many improvisatory flourishes, all of the the material is fully notated. This is the fourth movement, a groove piece.

John Ruocco

Music for Clarinet and String Trio

One of my earliest 'in the cracks' pieces, this time for string trio (the Hibernia String Trio), and clarinet, (on this performance the extraordinary virtuoso clarinettist John Ruocco who is equally at home in jazz or classical). This is the slow movement built on a kind of eastern modal melody that's later reharmonised. The clarinet is required to play both written passages and improvisation. John's improvisation on this is amazing

ARC - for 12 Saxophones

This is definitely the most unusual ensemble I've ever written for! This was commissioned by the European Saxophone Ensemble and they performed it all over Europe and recorded it. The challenge with this piece was not to make the ensemble sound like a giant accordion. The piece featured both written and improvised passages, and the instruments ranged from bass saxophone to sopranino, and rehearsals took place in a lovely small village in France - such a memorable experience for me for all kinds of reasons. I used the sound of the all the saxophonists fingering their instruments for the opening - a unique sonority.

John Abercrombie

Stillness/Movement (from Renaissance Man)

Music for string quartet and electric guitar - the first movement of 'Renaissance Man', a suite I wrote for jazz guitar trio and string quartet. This was written in memory of my father who had passed away thirty years earlier, and this movement was written based around a memory I had from my boyhood, walking in the forest at dawn with him, and the birds beginning to sing, quietly at first and then building to a cacophony of beautiful sound. In having this suite played I was privileged to have the guitar legend John Abercrombie play the guitar part - in this section he improvises in between the written passages for the strings