After taking it easy for the month of April, we are back at it in May. I’ll be bringing the trio into two new venues: Milltown in Carrboro, and g2b in Durham. We’ll be playing outdoors on the patio at Milltown for Saturday brunch. At g2b we will be accompanying the great singer Noah Powell.
The Standard continues to be a great place to play. Awesome food and drinks, and a staggeringly-high sanitation rating!
I’m looking forward to playing with Claire Holley, an L.A. singer/songwriter who is passing through North Carolina on tour, and the powerhouse Hobex All-Stars band.
Rounding out the month, I’ll be playing with guitarist Kevin Van Sant at the Beyu Caffe, at the Blue Note Grill Jam Session, and several very fun shows with saxophonist Jim Ferris. See you there!
In a blog post from last week, I wrote about how I was horrified that I couldn’t play well at my keyboard lesson.
Determined not to let it happen again, I embarked on one of the most intense weeks of practicing that I have ever had. I set the metronome at a fast tempo, and if I made a mistake playing my lesson material, I wrote down the mistake in a music notebook, then spot practiced the area over and over until I could play it perfectly.
Each day, I saw a pretty good improvement from the previous day. As I compared notes, I saw that some problems disappeared after a while, while others persisted. For instance, I tripped up over playing broken arpeggios over Cmajor7 to E7#9. Four days in a row, I spot practiced those changes, and then finally on the fifth day I was okay with it. Writing down each mistake was a good way for me to see that persistent practice pays off, but perhaps not immediately.
I also found that I was holding a bit of tension in my left leg when I tried to play fast. When I let go of the tension, I play better.
Today at my lesson I felt much better about the way I played. It became obvious to Steve that I was working hard to get the material under my fingers, and we were able to cover a lot of new things, and spend a little while just jamming!
Steve Anderson has taught me a few new ideas about practicing which are helping me out a lot.
1. Finding the ‘breaking point’ – find the tempo at which you fall apart while playing an etude. Then make an effort to push that tempo a little faster each day. (Much different than the slow way I used to always practice…)
2. Spot practicing – When playing an exercise at a tempo near your breaking point, notice all of the places where you trip up, and then spot practice each place until you can play it perfectly. It was surprising how often I would ignore my little trip-ups and never stop to correct them. I have been vigilant about documenting all of the little places that need work on a daily basis, so I can monitor my progress and watch out for places that continue to be a long term problem.
3. Penalty – When spot practicing, if the performance tempo is just to fast to work out the problem, penalize yourself be decreasing the tempo by a metronome click.
4. Once you completely figure out about five songs so that you ‘own’ them, you have done the majority of work necessary to learn most other songs.
5. (I love this one.) Give yourself about 6 months to be able to play on a gig what you practice at home. Allow yourself 2 years before you can feel perfectly comfortable with it. I love this rule, because it gives me a little hope that if I keep practicing, I can be pretty good in a couple of years. Judging by how fast the years seem to roll by these days, two years seems like nothing.
Last month, I was fortunate to be able to participate in a workshop concert with actor Taylor Mac, with musical director/arranger Mark Hartman. Taylor is developing a 24-hour show that will encompass the entire history of popular music, and this concert in Chapel Hill was a workshop for music selections from the 1780′s.
Taylor’s objective was to have his show reflect his life: to create a chaotic show where anything could happen at any moment, and it would be perfectly alright to make mistakes. As a jazz musician, the idea really appealed to me. Some of the classical musicians in the group were a little less comfortable – one person even got cold feet and decided to bow out of the gig.
But I was puzzled when Mark Hartman immediately began to work out the form of each song in painstaking detail. I wondered why we would need to have these thorough arrangements, when our objective was to have chaos and freedom.
When we performed Taylor’s show a few days later, it was more chaotic than any of us could have imagined! When Taylor went completely off the hook and really started performing, we band members were glad we had some sort of structure to the songs we could refer back to. Without Mark’s arrangements, we would have been completely lost.
I learned so much from working with Mark Hartman. And I think the same principle can be applied to Jazz: in order to improvise with freedom and imagination, you have to buckle down and practice the rudiments of your art form.
A musician’s biggest fear is that they will be on stage, in front of an audience, and not be able to play. Sometimes the cause is stage fright. Sometimes there is a problem with equipment or sound. Perhaps you have a fever of 102, or maybe you prepared the wrong music.
Last night, I had a duo gig with saxophonist Jim Ferris. For the first set out of three, I felt great and was thrilled with how I sounded. Then, as if on cue, the bottom fell out and my hands wouldn’t respond and my mind went blank. I have no idea why that happened!
Today, I took a keyboard lesson with Steve Anderson at UNC. I had spent the week diligently preparing the material he had laid out. We played scales for a while, and I felt pretty good. Then when we switched over to practicing jazz tunes, I froze up and got very nervous. I found myself struggling with things that had been easy for me to play a few hours earlier.
It feels terrible when you can’t play all of a sudden. It can feel like there is a spotlight on you and everybody thinks you are a dummy. In reality, it’s not as bad as it seems. In music, unlike other professions, you can just walk away unharmed. I try to acknowledge that I did the best that I could, and keep practicing.
Sometimes, shows where someone messed up the music really badly can be the funniest and most memorable! Three or four years from now, I will look back and wonder how in the world I messed up something so simple.
And after all, those embarrassing moments are great motivation to sit down and practice harder.
I’m playing bass for PlayMakers production of Cabaret this month, so the organ trio shows are a bit slower than usual. Look out for the Brad Maiani trio to fill in on Thursdays at the Station, and I hope to see you all at The Standard on Sunday nights, and at our monthly Oxford brunch gig.
I was reading an interesting internet article posted by pianist ‘Chinese Cowboy’:
“Never practice for speed because you can’t. Speed is a matter of finger control and comfort with notes. When you have excellent control of your fingers then you will have speed.”
I have always told bass students to practice music at the slowest metronome setting. Yet when I sit down and play the organ, I am invariably thinking “I don’t have much time, I better increase the tempo of these scales!”– ignoring my own advice, and at my own peril.
About two years ago Mark Wells first advised me to forget about playing fast and play technique exercises slowly, with curved fingers, and with zero tension. Finally, last week I started to do that in earnest, and it has completely changed how my hands move.