Play it slow

There’s a quote that’s popular at the moment: If you always sound good in the practice room, you’re probably not doing it right. I kind of agree, but the converse is true for sure: If you always sound bad in the practice room, you’re probably not doing it right.

The first quote is getting at something important: if I practice what I already know, I may sound great, but I won’t learn anything new. If I practice stuff I don’t know, maybe I’ll make mistakes (that’s OK) but to me it’s important to sound good even while I’m making mistakes. Mistakes sound good if played well.

For me the purpose of practice is to create good habits, and to refine existing habits. The aim is to be able to play something that is beautiful, fluently, with good time, sound, expression, and feeling, and to do these things without thought. If I practice something that is too difficult, I find myself struggling to play it, and that struggle gets built into the habit that I create, along with poor sound, time, and expression. I am practising struggle rather than fluency. And that’s what comes out on the gig.

When that happens, I break it down and slow it down. There are few things that are worth playing that remain difficult to play when slowed down enough. If I still can’t play it at quarter speed, then maybe I should put it to one side for few months and meanwhile try something simpler. When I can do it slowly but well, I gradually speed it up. This process can take a long time, months, years, or maybe is never complete.

For people learning jazz it’s easy to get the impression that it has to be difficult. It’s hard, but that’s not the same thing. Hard because it takes such a huge amount of work to get all that stuff together. But each step on the way should be within your grasp. There’s always a temptation take on stuff that is too difficult. Jazz is complicated music, in every department. As a learner you need to find ways of simplifying it, to find something that’s relevant that you can play well. You can play quarter-notes or half-notes instead of eighth-notes. You can play V-I or V or I instead of ii-V-I. You can leave a lot of space. You can just play the tune and decorate it. But make it sound good.

There’s always a temptation to play fast. There’s no particular musical merit in this, and it can turn into the musical equivalent of being a boy-racer. Like Jim Mullen says of John McGlaughlin it’s like he’s terrified of playing a long note. If you’re 18 years old and speed matters to you, that’s fine. And if after years of study you develop enough technique to play fast where it’s musically appropriate, then that’s fine too. But as a learner you can play perfectly good music without playing fast, even if you aren’t world class. Just don’t let emulation of world-class players destroy the beauty in your own music.


Playing a note is like hitting a tennis ball

In tennis, good players made a good sound when they hit the ball. If you’ve played tennis you’ll be familiar with that sound – when you hit the ball correctly, it springs powerfully off the racquet, and the racquet sings. When you hit it wrong, it’s weak, and the racquet whimpers. Tennis coaches teach their students to listen to the sound. As well as the quality of the connection, you can hear if you are early or late in your contact with the ball.

At the sweet spot every component of the racquet can contribute the most to the stroke. You hear the sound of a perfect connection. The aim of practice is to learn how to hit the sweet spot every tine.

Similar things apply to making a note on an instrument.

Having a concept If you’ve never watched tennis you are unlikely to have an idea of just how hard the top players can hit the ball. Similarly, if you’ve never listened to master musicians play, you are unlikely to have an idea of the possibilities of your instrument. That’s not to say that you should limit yourself to things you’ve heard other people do, but it’s a good place to start.

Listen to live performances in small spaces. Recordings (of tennis or music) lose a proportion of what’s going on. [For me this applies particularly to saxophone, trumpet, and guitar which for some reason are also the instruments that are hardest to synthesise.]

Starting the note In tennis you start your stroke way before you hit the ball. In music you start playing a note way before the note emerges. If you ask a group of people to clap a rhythm, you’ll see that the people making a good sound open their hands in advance of the clap, and their movements are smooth, relaxed. People who don’t know the rhythm may lunge at it, trying to grab the beat out of the air. They are not thinking far enough ahead, and their note sounds tense, thin, and poorly placed.

If you find yourself grabbing at notes, consider slowing the thing down. Practice with relaxation, practice preparing for the note. Then speed the thing up gradually. If you practice tension, you’ll play tension. If you practice relaxation, you’ll play relaxation. [Zoot Sims was asked by a fan how he could play so well when he was loaded. He said, “I practice when I’m loaded.”]

Making the correct contact [I don’t play brass or wind, but there must be an equivalent of this.] A piano player has to drop her fingers onto the keys with the correct velocity, the correct tension in the fingers, the correct angle of attack. Get this wrong and the energy is wasted. Get it right and the note sings.

A guitar player will impact the string at a perfect angle and speed to get that full sound. When practising, vary the parameters of the stroke and observe the effect of the changes that you make. If the note is full, powerful, fat, if it sings, if it matches your concept, then you’ve got it right. Repeat whatever you did. If it’s thin, weak, whiny, then change something and try it again. If you have a concept it will come.

Explore your instrument. Look for round sounds, look for bright sounds, look for harsh sounds, look for soothing sounds.

[Guitarists: if you play with a pick, try fingers, or a thumb. If you play with fingers, try a pick. And importantly, practice your sound clean. Effects will mask the things you are looking for.]

For another viewpoint on this see There is nothing natural about playing guitar!

Listen to music that you don’t understand

Play any popular number on a gig and you’ll get applause as soon as the audience recognises it. Some artists thrive on this, notably James Taylor, who has sung the same old stuff for 45 years and still smiles and makes it fresh.

People respond to memories evoked by the music rather than the music in the moment. This is clear if you ever play in a covers band. Better play Jeff Beck’s solo on Hi Ho Silver Lining note perfect or the audience will drift away. What’s required is reproduction, not improvisation. Changing the music makes it wrong and it is no longer as effective. The content of the music is not relevant; the music is only a key to a remembered mood.

There’s nothing wrong with using music for the comfort or nostalgia that it offers, but as a musician you aren’t going to learn much. Sure you can listen to Kind Of Blue for the umpteenth time and marvel at the musicianship, at how modern it sounds, at the beauty of the music. But you don’t really need a recording for that. It’s there in your head. Try it, lie in bed and hear All Blues or Freddie Freeloader in your mind. Of course there’s always more to learn from that album but there’s a whole world of other stuff out there to learn from.

At a jazz summer school a woman told me how much she hated the playing of one of the tutors. I told him about this and he said that it was good to have evoked such a strong response in someone. That’s deep. If you hear new music that has no discomfort, or challenge, or  unfamiliarity or excitement, then it’s not really new, it’s easy listening. Areas of music that you don’t understand require work, concentration, familiarisation. If you don’t listen you’ll never find out if there’s something there for you.

People new to learning jazz struggle with this. Everywhere they look there is stuff that is new, unfamiliar, challenging. Where to start? What I did at this point in my development was to ask each of the players that I admired the most (particularly the tutors on jazz courses that I attended) to recommend two or three favourite albums. And then I would work hard at listening to what they recommended. At the beginning, I had to suspend the concept of enjoyment, and simply tried to attend to what was going on. Over time I began to understand the music. At the start, most of it sounded like my friend Jim’s idea of jazz: three people starting together, playing three different tunes, and then miraculously ending together. Over time it started to make sense.

But there’s another side to this. At a drunken party, someone said to me that all jazz is self-indulgent. I said that’s like saying that everything said in Italian is self-indulgent. Well actually I didn’t. I was too drunk at the time, and thought of that next morning, as you do. I wished I had said it. The conversation stuck in my mind, and coming back to it I can see both sides of the discussion. The audience may want to hear stuff that is familiar. You are doing no-one any favours by speaking in a language that the audience doesn’t understand. If music isn’t about evoking a response in other people, then it’s about evoking a response in yourself. Which is definitely self-indulgent.

And then there’s that row when Pat Metheny ranted about Kenny G recording himself over Louis Armstrong’s It’s A wonderful World:

There ARE some things that are sacred – and amongst any musician that has ever attempted to address jazz at even the most basic of levels, Louis Armstrong and his music is hallowed ground. To ignore this trespass is to agree that NOTHING any musician has attempted to do with their life in music has any intrinsic value – and I refuse to do that.

Here Pat is making music into a religion. Louis was a popular musician and It’s a Wonderful World is a pop song. How is it any more sacred than any other music that’s been sampled and recycled in the last 30 years?

OK, so let’s allow that Louis Armstrong is sacred to Pat. Saying that people may not do anything with his sacred music sounds dangerously close to the current Orthodox Anglican argument about gay marriage – you may not marry whoever you want because it offends my religious rules.

I’d prefer to say that I don’t appreciate Kenny G’s music and leave it at that. It ought not to offend me if other people like it, and if it does, I’ll try to keep that to myself. But it reminds me also that popular acclaim is the last thing that I want for my music.

Play it by ear

Studying jazz is hard. We all know that. Sometimes we make it harder for ourselves than it needs to be. I see a lot of horn players struggling with chord symbols and trying to generate some kind of line that matches them. I suspect that in some cases the learning style is not matched to the person. It might be useful here to look at the difference between your typical guitarist and your typical horn player learning jazz. Remember that these are generalisations and your mileage may vary.

Most student horn players that I meet read music well. And if you ask a horn player to play a particular scale, they probably can, or at least feel that they need to learn it. Most student guitar players that I meet are self-taught, and close to musically illiterate when they first arrive at jazz. And if they do have lessons, unless they learn classical guitar, most teachers won’t teach notation, but will focus on chords and technique. Many guitar players will panic if you ask them to play a scale or to read music and many will not know what notes are in a chord that they are playing. On the other hand, chord symbols are something familiar and it’s quite easy to learn to read them off a jazz chart. This gives guitar players (and pianists) a natural route from chord-symbol to chord to arpeggio, which makes it obvious how to improvise on chords. By the time they get to jazz they have an instinctive knowledge of harmony. For example, if you know how to play the chords to a reasonable number of pop tunes, you will have a good idea of the harmony that you’ll find in jazz standards, even if you don’t know the names of the chords.

Many horn players get lessons from the start, and I suspect that most teachers start with written music. Students learn associations between what they see (the dots) and the finger positions and mouth articulations that they need to make the appropriate sound. So you meet horn players who can sight-read semi-quavers at 200bpm but who are lost when chords come along. Horns don’t play chords (in the way that guitars or pianos do), so chords are not familiar.

What do people do when they see chords? A guitar player will play the chords, listen to how they sound, and pick out a line from the notes in the chords. It’s natural.

For many horn players the first instinct is that if you read melody from dots, you read chords from chord symbols. So the standard approach is – read the chords, try to remember which notes are associated with each chord symbol (also information gleaned from reading), and play them. Without any other input, the result will be something that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike music. Even if the notes are correct (i.e. from a scale that matches the chord) I often feel that players don’t know what the notes mean. It sounds like someone trying to speak English with a guide book. You know, “My hovercraft is full of eels.” Perfectly good English, but signifying nothing.

Of course, there are people who find that the chord scale / arpeggio approach works well. If you don’t, here are some other things to try, that are intended to train your ears rather than your eyes. They may work for you or they may not. Recognise that this could take many years to get through. Many years of discovery and excitement.

Listen to the notes. Ask a nice guitarist or pianist to play the chords for you one at a time, and blow long single notes over the chords to see how they sound. (If you don’t have anyone to do this for you, use an app like Band-in-a-box or iRealB.) Maybe your instrument has 24 notes. Try all of them on each chord. Get the pianist or guitarist to vary their voicings and try them all again. Think about how each note makes you feel. Is it soothing or does it make you wince? Is it colourful or bland? Does it burn? Every note over a given chord has its own mood. Become intimately familiar with those moods.

Construct. Make up lines that put the colour tones in the important places, and see what they sound like. If they’re good, learn them. If they’re not good, tweak them until they are.

Transcribe. Write down your favourite solo from your favourite player. Maybe just do the juicy bits, you don’t need to do 10 choruses in one go. Also, don’t try to transcribe the really complex passages with flurries of 16th notes unless you find that easy. Find something simple. If you don’t have an idea where to start, try Chet Baker’s solo on It Could Happen To You from the album Chet Baker Sings.

Look at the use of colour in the playing (as well as phrasing, dynamics, swing and everything else). Learn to play what you have transcribed, slowly if necessary.

Don’t feel pressured to play lines of eighth-notes. Play what you learn at a speed that you can play well. Bird took Lester Young lines and played them in double time. You can take Bird lines and play them in half-time. Why not? Speed can come later. Better to play something slow that sounds nice than something fast that doesn’t.

This process informs your playing and also trains your ear. And if your reading skills aren’t great at the start, it will help there as well.

Play long notes. Make sure every note counts. Even in throw away phrases, each note should count. Any note that you play that isn’t as good as it could be is just obscuring the ones that are. The way to this is to play long notes. And less notes. Once you can play slow phrases that count, you can start to speed things up. Always keep an ear on the quality of the sound that you are making.

Learn arpeggios. With the extensions (9th, 11th, 13th) in all keys. Play them slowly, and not exclusively up and down, but in other orders. Make music with them. Play very slowly over the chords of tunes. Experiment with what happens when you alter the extensions.

Learn scales. Don’t learn them as a line of notes up and down the scale, make little musical phrases with scale notes. Play them slowly. Savour each note. Play them rhythmically, as music. Learn them all over your instrument. Get to know the mood of each mode of each scale, and the personality of each note in each mode. This is a big project but intensely rewarding.

Learn harmony. Even if it comes later. Harmony is a theoretical summary of what the other steps will teach you. The main advantage of knowing harmony is filling in the gaps in your knowledge, finding stuff that you haven’t thought of. If you can’t get your brain around harmony, don’t worry, save it for later, or for never. But don’t attempt to play harmony that you don’t understand. It’s always better just to listen and then play.

Play it like Coltrane

I once heard Tony Woods practising down a stairwell. He played a major scale in long notes, and it was so beautiful that it almost made me cry.

I’ve written about this before but it’s worth repeating. Paul Clarvis said Silence is golden, so if you’re going to break it, you better make a good sound. Sound is more important than time or rhythm, or meaning.

In the middle of a solo is not the moment to be worrying about the chords. This anxiety takes your attention away from the fact that you’re playing music for other people to hear. Sound and conviction suffers and what comes out is tentative, more a question than a statement.

If your fingers don’t know what to do, just play a note. Any note. Play it beautifully, play it with conviction, play it like Coltrane. Listen to it. Reflect on it. Ask yourself how it makes you feel. Ask yourself how it makes the audience feel. If you don’t like it, you can either play it again, just to be sure, or a different note. If you do like it, play it again. Or leave a bit of space and listen to what the rhythm section have to say about it.

People who are learning sometimes feel that they ought to play lines of notes (like their role models do) but they lack the chops. In public it’s better to play what you have mastered, even if that’s just single notes. Save the eighth-notes for when you have years of practice under your belt.