I hope to see you at one of our fun gigs this month. Have a great summer!
I’ve discovered that I have a weakness in the area of practicing music. I will practice something until I get it about 85%, then I’ll lose interest and stop.
I’ll set a specific goal, such as to play a song at a tempo of 240BPM. I’ll work on that for maybe 4 days, until I can play it at 240BPM but very sloppily. Then I’ll immediately lose interest and move on.
Right now I’m trying to figure out what it actually means to set a goal and thoroughly accomplish it and check it off my list. I need to learn how to work through that phase where I lose interest, and accomplish the goal with authority and confidence.
I had been practicing bebop exercises over 8-bar sections of jazz standards. It was going great, and I was working things up to my target tempo.
8-bar practice segments are good for me, because I’m an impatient person by nature, and I want something that I can accomplish within a single practice session.
A couple of weeks ago, I realized that I needed to take the next step. I needed to practice bebop over the entire form of jazz standards, rather than small excerpts. I had been avoiding doing this, because this seemed like an impossible task. Keep in mind, I’m not talking about improvising a solo, but rather playing bebop exercises that I come up with in order to really challenge myself.
Finally I decided: just practice it 1000 times. So far I’ve done this for two songs. The first one, I’m ashamed to say, I only got through about 500 repetitions over 4 or 5 days, and I couldn’t stand to continue practicing it.
The second time, I’m going to go more steadily to avoid burning out. A good daily program for me seems to be to practice it 10 times or so just to get the exercise under my fingers at first, and then push the tempo to my breaking point. Then, slow it back down at the end of the practice session and play it about 10 more times very relaxed. I think that’s important, because after I play something for a while at the breaking point, I feel really frustrated. If I slow it down and play it a few times, the frustration is alleviated and I walk away from the practice session a bit happier.
Hand Position. I need to stop playing the wrong way before my bad habits sink in too far.
The keys of an organ are much easier to play than piano keys. Piano keys can be very heavy because they have to move wooden parts to make a hammer hit a string. Electric organ keys are essentially electrical switches- the only resistance is a spring or a weight in the mechanism added in order to provide a natural feeling resistance.
Consequently organ players can get by with sloppy technique and hand position. It’s difficult for me to force myself into good hand position, because I’m always concentrating on other stuff. Also, because of the visual perspective while playing with my hands in front of me, it’s hard to tell if my fingers are curved the way they ought to be.
I’ve found that my hands and forearms have been sort of painful recently because of the things I’ve been practicing. Tension creeps in, and my hand position goes to crap. When I correct the position, the pain goes away immediately.
This post is simply about a few things I’ve been thinking about recently. Maybe the ideas are loosely linked together under the umbrella of the idea of musical mastery.
I love the Shunryu Suzuki quote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” That’s the reason I love music, and especially jazz, and in particular the jazz organ. Every new thing you learn opens a door revealing a whole bunch of stuff you need to practice. I watched a Dr. Lonnie Smith video yesterday, and slowed it down and finally figured out one of the fast things he does which kind of reminds me of Coltrane. When I finally saw it, I thought “Ok, now that’s several years worth of practicing I need to do for that one thing.” Likewise when I went to the Bobby Floyd workshop, and saw him do one-handed block chords. I constantly feel like I need to go back to square one and start over.
On a related note, I’m very skeptical of people who consider themselves ‘experts’ at jazz, and take it upon themselves to berate and belittle other hard-working musicians. Certainly a jazz master can easily recognize another musician who is working hard to learn their craft, even if they are not as far along on their journey.
Finally, I’ve been thinking a lot about what jazz mastery actually means. To me, it means focusing on music on a higher and higher level. By higher level, I don’t mean ‘Faster, more complicated, more angular’, I mean it as if you are viewing the earth from further and further in the air.
At the lowest level, technical problems dominate. Your thoughts are focused on basic things like what notes are in a certain key, or perhaps your hands are not yet coordinated enough to play the necessary notes.
As you gain technical proficiency, you begin to pick up or create bits of vocabulary and practice them until they become natural.
Then, you focus on phrases.
As you gain technical proficiency, perhaps now you begin to realize that timing and rhythm are more important than notes.
Then all those things fade into the distance and you recognize that the sound of you playing your instrument is the most important thing. Then you notice that the sound of the other two instruments in your trio are more important than anything else.
Then you realize that you are listening to the personalities of three humans on stage.
In the past, I’ve actually been able to reduce the whole thing in my head to just AM radio static, and visually like a bunch of oil pastels smudged together. I believe this is the level equivalent to Miles Davis, where he could create music without paying any regard to details but instead defining an overall direction.
Ok I’m not comparing myself to Miles. My mental exercise only tries to understand what it would take to make music at a high level.
I was practicing my 2-bars-bebop soloing/2-bars comping exercise the other day, when I had another big light bulb moment.
Recently I posted about how I had a hard time switching gears between improvising a bebop line with my right hand and comping with my right hand. Well just a few days ago I made a pretty big discovery: when I comp, I’m feeling a groove, and when I start to solo, the groove goes out the window and I become cerebral.
That’s a very rough way to describe what happens to me physically when I switch between comping and soloing. When I comp, my body feels loose and my ideas flow and I’m really feeling a pulse. Then when I solo, my muscles tighten, I might forget to breathe, etc.
As usual, I feel like a dumbass for taking so long to realize this, but now I know what to do to change the game. Part of what made this light bulb click on is then Ondrej told me that comping needs to just be part of my melodic improvisation, and not separate from it.
Practicing this is deceptively simple: when switching from comping to soloing, don’t tighten up, stop breathing, and throw the groove out the window. And here’s where my Alexander Technique training comes in. I’ve trained my body to tighten up and get stiff when I take a solo, likely because I have an idea in my head that solos are complicated and difficult. Therefore that tightness has become an almost irrepressible reaction.
I’m chipping away at it though.
Over the past six years, I’ve used the Leslie simulation of three different clonewheels. In their order of authenticity: Korg BX3, Hamichord, and Nord C2.
The Nord was my favorite, but still sounded digital and grainy when compared to the same keyboard mic’ed through a Leslie.
I also have a B3 with Leslie 122, so I appreciate how good the real thing sounds.
After reading a bunch of good reviews, I decided to pick up a used Neo Ventilator. I poked around the Internet for a while longer, and decided to buy a Bose F1 812 powered speaker to use as a keyboard amp.
The Bose speaker ended up sounding terrible with the Ventilator. The bass was boomy, and the treble was both muffled and shrill sounding at once. Some keys on the top octave of my Nord made the tweeters rattle. Also, the line input didn’t have nearly enough gain for my keyboard to be loud enough for a gig.
I sent the Bose back, and decided to try a Yamaha DXR-12. At about half the price of the Bose, the Yamaha sounds way better. Amazing, in fact.
After using the Yamaha DXR-12 with the Neo Ventilator with my Nord C2 at a couple of rehearsals, I decided to take it to a gig.
It sounded great. The speaker was clear and powerful, and the Ventilator sounded remarkably close to a Leslie 122.
The Ventilator helped me with a big problem I’ve had with the Nord- the two top octaves of the upper manual with C3 vibrato and percussion always sounded both muffled and shrill at the same time. With the Ventilator, the notes were clear and present.
I also discovered that the Nord half-moon switch works perfectly to control the Ventilator speed, with the added bonus of giving me a ‘brake’ mode where the rotors fully stop.
One other feature of the Ventilator that I really appreciate is that when you switch to brake mode, the virtual rotors always stop pointing towards the virtual mics. That is something which always bugged me about the Nord’s built in simulator- the rotors would often stop in a weird place and the organ would sound awful.
For jazz, I found that the Ventilator sounds great with all of the controls set to 12 o’clock. I appreciate that it sounds perfect right out of the box- at least with the right kind of speaker.
A few weeks ago I had a gig with a drummer and a sax player, where I was responsible for all of the chordal comping, both behind the Sax player and also behind my own soloing.
I discovered that it was a lot more difficult than I thought to be the only chordal instrument in the group (and the only bass player, and one of the main soloists as well). So it felt like I had to go back to the drawing board again.
The big problem for me is that when I switch between soloing and comping, my mind has to switch gears in a pretty big way. I called Ondrej Pivec to ask him about this, and he had a lot of great ideas. One thing he said is that as I walk around all day with music in my head, incorporate chords as part of the melody. Also, think of chords as harmonized melody.
As an exercise, I’ve been working comping into my bebop practice. 2 bars soloing, then two bars comping. Not necessarily starting on the first measure. It sounds really cool.
I had a great weekend playing with Randy Johnston on guitar and John Hanks on drums. Those guys blew the roof off the place!
Also notable was that I was playing a solo organ gig at RDU airport when my friend Allison Leyton-Brown arrived from NYC!
I’m excited to have two great gigs coming up soon with John Hanks on drums and Randy Johnston on guitar! I’ll be playing trio with them this Friday night at Irregardless Cafe, and Saturday afternoon at Apex Peakfest.
In addition to those two Doug Largent Trio gigs, check my calendar to the right for other great opportunities to hear great music.