Greetings! I’m very busy this month with N.C. Arts in Action, as our small team attempts to serve ten schools in Wake, Durham, and Orange Counties. I’m also playing bass with Ravenscroft’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. They have a great drama department, so get a ticket if you’re a Broadway fan.
The only jazz trio gig that I have booked this month is at Irregardless Cafe. See details to the right.
Yesterday, I shared a cool music video with a friend. His reaction was “That guy has no business being on stage. He is way too overweight. It’s a shame because he’s amazing on his instrument, and he has a deep understanding of the music, but he has no business being on stage.”
Lest you jump to the conclusion that my friend is a total jerk, I need to tell you that he is a very nice guy and has a gift of telling the truth exactly as he sees it. It’s an incredibly bold way to live.
This got me thinking. I don’t people by the way they look. When a band is onstage, I only listen to the music.
Only, this is not true.
If I were given the choice of spending $40 to see a band that looks like crap, or an equally good band that looks totally hot, I’d likely go see the hot looking band. Because I’m a human being and I like looking at beauty more than I like looking at ugliness. Why would I deny that?
A light bulb went off over my head. I need to take a look at my own stage appearance.
In the TMI category, I’ve gained 16 pounds over the past five months. I went from 190 pounds to 206. I had worked hard to achieve my ideal weight of 190, and then everything went downhill as I tackled a tough semester of two new jobs. I didn’t eat well, and I didn’t exercise. I feel very different, much less energy and confidence. Not such a good thing for performing on stage.
I don’t have any medical condition that causes me to gain weight. I simply was not careful about what I ate, and I was not diligent about exercising. I’m starting a 27-day cleanse (which will be finished by the time you read this), and maybe I’ll scrape together fifty bucks to buy a nice shirt.
Finger independence is so important on the organ. If you’ve ever tackled a Bach fugue, or transcribed a Jimmy Smith jazz organ solo, you’ll immediately see why.
Before tackling this Goldberg variation, your chops better be in amazing shape:
You have to have strong, agile, independent fingers. I first learned this when I started to tackle jazz improvisation. I think a good keyboardist needs to practice all types of scales and arpeggios. But another ingredient is being able to make your fingers move in odd, independent ways; at least odd from the perspective of switching to keyboard after playing bass for many years.
Get ready to get your butt kicked old-school. As a beginning keyboard player, this book was really tough. Exercises 1-10 contain the bulk of this books message, which is essentially “Get ready for your hands to be very sore.”
I recommend you spend the ten bucks and buy this book.
When I switched instruments from bass to organ in 2010, I wanted to start playing gigs as soon as I could. My attitude was that I knew that I ‘sucked’ at it, but the best way to learn to play was to get out there and do it. I figured my band could do music that people would enjoy, and it nobody would really care that I wasn’t that experienced. I knew enough about music in general to fake my way through.
Now that I’m seven years into playing the keyboard, I’m finding that it’s not useful to think of myself as a beginner. There’s a difference between saying that I ‘suck’ (don’t know anything about my instrument), and having the attitude that I have a lifetime of learning ahead of me.
I’m not a beginner any more. I’ve got 26 years under my belt of being a professional musician under various guises, and I know a lot. I have enough practicing and training on the organ to tackle difficult things. It’s no longer okay to say I’m not good enough to do a certain thing- that’s simply a cop-out which limits me. It isn’t fair to me or people around me who might depend on me to be a good musician.
Instead, I look at things which used to seem impossible and I know that all I have to do is break them down into smaller components, and master each component. I’m learning to disengage that part of my brain which thinks I’m not good enough, and then trips me up in the middle of doing something that I’m perfectly able to do.
I sat down a few days ago to work on a classical organ piece that I had started about two years ago. It’s the fugue from the Organ Sonata No 6 in D minor Op 65 by Felix Mendelssohn. Quite intimidating to me.
In approaching this movement again after several months, I found that I’m able to approach it in a methodical new way.
I remembered a few pieces of advice from my lessons with Susan Moeser. Break off a chunk of eight measures. Sometimes it’s helpful to start at the end of the piece and work forward. Practice each part individually- RH, LH and then pedals. Then practice each combination of two (RH + LH, RH + Pedals, LH + Pedals). I made it a goal to play each of these combinations through ten times, spot practicing individual measures ten times if I messed up.
Then finally, combine all three parts and play the eight-bar passage fifty times, again stopping to spot practice troublesome areas.
That should take two hours or so.
Repeating this process, go through the entire piece practicing in 8-bar chunks. Then go through with 16-bar chunks, then 32.
Then when you can play each chunk really well, practice the entire piece 500 times. I guess after about 6 months or so of practicing an hour a day, maybe I can make a video of the entire movement and share it with y’all.
Here’s what I have to offer after Day 2. I present to you The Last Eight Measures of the fugue from Organ Sonata No 6, replete with finger noise:
It’s surprisingly hard to dig up information on the diminished scale. Remarkably, The Alfred Complete Book of Scales, Chords and Arpeggios makes no mention of them. I don’t know why the scale is neglected. Maybe it’s not traditionally used very much in classical music. But the diminished scale is very important to Bebop jazz, so I really wanted to learn it in all keys.
For a couple of years, I used fingerings that I came up with which seemed like the best ones to me at the time. (Since there are three distinct scales, I’ll describe them as C, Db, and D). For C and D, I used tetrachords, with thumbs together on F and B. For Db, I used 2312123 for the RH and 32132121 for the LH (Notice how the thumbs aren’t paired). OK, so these fingerings get the job done, but they’re not elegant. I didn’t fully understand what I was doing, but in my impatience to get down to work I picked one thing and went with it.
As I progressed, I got more curious and dug a bit deeper into the internet. I found that there were two main ways of fingering diminished scales:
1. Thumb over tetrachords – an advanced and elegant technique that I’ll tackle in the future.
2. the ‘123 123 12’ technique where thumbs always play white keys, and they are paired (left and right thumbs play at the same time when playing the scale in unison an octave apart).
Here’s the scale with this fingering indicated, notice how thumbs go together:
But here’s the cool part, which makes me REALLY LOVE this fingering!! If you look carefully at the C diminished fingering, the thumbs spell out an F major triad. Likewise, for the Db dim fingering, the thumbs spell out a C major triad. For the D dim fingering, the thumbs spell out a G major triad.
This simple trick made diminished scales seem so much more logical. I don’t have the diminished scales internalized this new way yet, but now they are a lot easier, and it’s beginning to show in my improv. For instance, if I see an E-flat-diminished chord in a song, I just go “Oh, that’s the one where my thumbs outline F major.” And then the fingering falls into place really quickly.
I came up with this myself to the best of my knowledge, so I hope it’s useful to you.
I’m focused on becoming a very good jazz organist. As I watch videos of myself practicing and performing, I can tell that I’m improving gradually. The purpose of the Jazz Organ Project category of this blog is that it will be finished after 250 blog posts, or approximately five years (give or take).
At post 32, I can feel the clock ticking. Where will I be at the end of this? Suppose by then I’m a very good musician, with a great regional reputation for being a great dude. What will I actually do musically at that point? Will it be possible to live out my musical career living in the Triangle area of NC?
Until recently, my goal has been to move back to New York City whenever my daughter is old enough to live on her own. I miss NYC and all of my friends there, and I feel like I left my heart there. But what will NYC be like 15 years from now? Would we be able to justify the financial burden of living there? I realized that I was romanticizing my life in NYC and using it as a carrot for working hard on music.
What would it look like to be a successful jazz organist living in NC? I don’t know yet, but there are organists I need to talk to. Jim Alfredson and Tony Monaco are both successful and don’t live in NYC.
Other very successful and dedicated jazz musicians call North Carolina home, and I need to find out what their life looks like looks like, and perhaps aim towards that- musicians like Keith Ganz and Kate McGarry, Al Strong, etc.
When I’m practicing or performing, I have no idea how I sound. I’m thinking about my playing and listening to what everyone else is doing. From inside the music, a bad musical idea can seem good. Or a tiny mistake can feel like a colossal screw-up.
Listeners to the music are not on board the same high-speed train I am as a performer, so they focus on different things. A mistake I made might slip by unnoticed. An improvised idea that I loved might sound corny.
Each day at the end of my jazz practice session, I make a short 1-2 minute video of myself improvising, with no metronome or accompaniment. For me, playing solo organ is brutally difficult- I feel completely bare. Every tiny thing feels huge.
I record myself to see what I actually sound like. I want to know if I’m actually holding things together or not. I find that I’m often surprised that the tempo sounds different than it felt while I was recording. Mistakes are almost always easily forgiven when I listen back, as long as the overall sound of the improvisation isn’t disrupted.
In the following video, I had been practicing the chord changes to ‘All or Nothing at All’, using a four-measure sequence: one measure of rest/comping, one measure arpeggios, one measure deflection, and a measure of a scalar-based idea. So this is not a true improvisation, but more of an exercise.
As you can see, I break out of the four-measure sequence and start making it up. While recording this, I felt like it was pretty awful. Listening back, I see that there are things I need to work on, but I can be kind to myself and acknowledge that it was a pretty good effort; I have a long way to go, but at least I am communicating what I was trying to. I can tell that I need to quiet my mind and have the solo line feel less anxious. It would also sound good to leave more space.
Years ago, I went to Norway with the fabulous singer Vanessa Trouble and her band. I was on stage with my double bass in a park. It was a civic ceremony with several people – I didn’t really understand what was going on. Before I knew it, the mayor of Oslo turned to me and indicated that it was time to play (Norway’s) national anthem.
I was the only musician on stage at the time, and I had never heard the song before. I grabbed the sheet music and led a huge crowd of people through the song, using only my double bass.
Thankfully, I had been practicing sight reading daily for several years, and I was able to stay cool and read the music on the spot.
Rewind to a few years earlier. I had just moved to New York, trying my hardest to make it as a professional bass player. I had a great ear, and I made my way through my career playing songs by ear.
I was invited to participate in a nice recording session. I was thrilled, because we really needed the $300 I would receive as a fee. We had a rehearsal, and the bass parts were all written out very specifically. The arrangements were tight, with swift key changes and angular lines- I didn’t stand a chance.
That night after the rehearsal, I got a call from the band leader with the bad news that I was fired from the recording session. Right then and there, I told myself “Never again.” I began practicing sight reading daily, and things turned around significantly for me. By 5 years later, I was doing studio work for TV and movies pretty much on a daily basis.
I feel like I’ve done pretty much every type of gig there is, and I’ve always been very thankful to be able to read music. It’s true that jazz and pop musicians can get by without reading music, but all of the top studio musicians I’ve met are excellent readers.
To work on sight reading, just pick music that you are curious about. I love Baroque music because of the challenging 4-part writing that often requires challenging fingering. The music is nice for the organ, since it is usually written for instruments without a sustain pedal.
One great inexpensive book for practicing sight reading on keyboard is Music for Millions Vol. 37 (or Vol. 17 if you need something easier)
For sight reading bass, I recommend any of Anthony Vitti’s amazing textbooks. There are some awesome funk bass lines in there.
Here’s a song I worked on recently.
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