July News

My friend Tim Smith is turning a year older this month! Come help us celebrate on the eve of his birthday at 2nd Wind this weekend. I’m thrilled to be playing with him several times this month.

I’ll be having a pluckin’ great time with Todd Proctor at C Grace, and backing up Carolyn Mitchell at her Irregardless outing.

If any of you are interested in musical theater, I’ll be playing in the micro-orchestra of Light in the Piazza at NCMA this month as well – details online.

Stay cool!

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Jazz Organ Project 26/250

So I finally practiced 1000 repetitions of a bebop exercise over the chord changes of a song. After sticking with it for 10 days, I finally got the job done.

How did it go? It was great! It was a complicated exercise over the chord changes of Stella in the unusual key of A (very sharpy) and my goal was to play it at 240 BPM. Rough going at first, but by the last two days, roughly the last 250 reps, I was cruising at 240 and pushing it up to about 270.

Its funny how 240BPM seemed impossibly fast at first. Anything is possible if I just park my butt on the organ bench for long enough.

When I first started out, one of my goals was to be able to play a jazz solo smoothly at 240BPM. I feel like I hit a milestone.

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Jazz Organ Project 25/250

This is post number 25 out of 250. That means I’m ten percent finished with this series of weekly blog posts.

When I first started blogging this six months ago, I wasn’t exactly sure what these five years would represent in my life. Now I realize that these five years are an incubation period for me as a musician.

When I first got serious about the organ in 2010, I was an accomplished bass player, but a complete beginner at the Jazz organ. In retrospect, I’d wanted to play the organ ever since I was a kid, and I had been haunting Jazz organ websites on the Internet for years, learning what I could and being extremely intimidated. On New Year’s Eve 2009, I had a fantastic gig which paid me a ton of money, so I decided to buy a used Korg BX-3 (not a great instrument, in my opinion)

Six years later, I was at a strange place where I was kinda good at the bass, and kinda okay at playing the organ. This is a frustrating place to be as someone who has been a professional musician for 25 years.

What I realized now is that I needed to hit the gas pedal and make a concerted effort to become a great organist. I wanted it to be a time period of 5 years with a definite beginning and ending, and with results I could measure and evaluate after five years.

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Jazz Organ Project 24/250

There’s an episode of Futurama where Frye gets a $300 coffee gift card. After drinking one cup of coffee after another, he gets more and more jittery. Then, on his 100th cup of coffee, he attains enlightenment. He is calm and in control, and the world slows down around him as he saves his friends from a burning building.

In practicing my exercises 1000 times, I am trying to gain a similar enlightenment – thinking in larger phrases, hands moving smoothly from one measure to the next without jerky movements. Thinking only in the moment. Steady tempo with no rushing.

For me, the only way to get this is through massive number of repetitions. Although 100 cups of coffee would probably help.

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Jazz Organ Project 23/250

Recently I went into the studio and helped a singer record some songs. It was a fun recording session for me because I got to hire a bunch of musicians that I love to work with.

Recording music in the studio is it’s own special thing, completely different than performing music live at a club. It’s a sterile environment where you have the opportunity to hear everything that you play in great detail – both the good and the bad.

One thing that I learned from my years of recording bass in the studio, and now the Hammond organ, is to let go of all judgments and expectations. You might think that what you played sounds a certain way, but usually what you hear on playback is totally different than what you thought. Never judge your own playing as good or bad in the moment.

Similarly, when listening to a take that you recorded, concentrate on the good things that happened during that take. It’s not productive to pick out the things that went wrong – let your subconscious take note of those things and they won’t happen again.

Have a sense of humor. Laugh a little bit and enjoy the experience.

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Jazz Organ Project 22/250

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.

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Jazz Organ Project 21/250

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.

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Jazz Organ Project 20/250

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.

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June News

I hope to see you at one of our fun gigs this month. Have a great summer!

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Jazz Organ Project 19/250

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.

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