Saturday, January 7, 2012

Viewer Mail: Motivation



I recently got a letter from a former student. Here's an edited version of what he asked:

If you don't mind, could I ask you a few questions (and I'm sure many more will continue to arise) that have come up while working on some concepts?

When we would talk about transcribing solos,  and you said that just those little parts of solos were enough, did you mean, for example: taking a line from that solo and playing through the keys, both hands and then maybe modifying it to personalize it? Would it be advisable to spend a lot of time really learning one song inside out while working on repertoire, or to spread the learning of concepts over many different tunes?

Also, when you said you were practicing 8 hours a day in your younger days, how did you make that work? Were you alone, where nobody could find you?! or just waking up really early? 

This is a version of how I responded:

You are exactly right, take any part, big or small (smaller to start) of a transcribed solo and move through the keys, through tunes, any place you think it might work. And modifying it will also be good. In a sense, it's more the rhythms and the shapes that are important, more than the notes. If you know which notes to use from scale and chord awareness, then you add rhythms and linear shapes to that, and you are there!

The info can work on any tune, and certainly, you need to always be adding to your repertoire of tunes, but I think it would be good for you to spend one session on one tune. Monk said to take a tune and play it for 2 hours, or 8 hours, or a whole day, and then you really worked through ALL the possibilities. Try it! And then , obviously, you condense that into a 4 chorus solo. At this stage, it's hard to see overnight progress, but it's a sort of everything-at-once approach. If you start out with abstract concepts, like chords, scales, voicings, licks, rhythms, shapes, whatever, and then make it all work inside of a tune, or 2 tunes, or 3 tunes, then you are on the right track.

And it's true: between 1991 and 1994, I practiced around 4 to 8 hours a day, every day. I wasn't in school, and my only other responsibilities were eating Chinese food every day and playing gigs on piano. I wasn't traveling much either. My best friend is a bass player, and we were roommates for part of that time;  all we did was listen to CDs, go to Tower Records (which was right across 

Our apartment was actually behind this Tower Records in Rockville, MD
the street), buy CDs, transcribe, play tunes,  and watch the cockroaches take over the apartment.

I think it's hard in a smaller city or town to get pushed in the right way. I was a mediocre trumpet player due to my lack of good embouchure, and my teachers probably were too lenient with me because they had sympathy for my frustration. But when you are on a bebop gig, especially with older, crusty players, there is very little patience for young cats. So that's where I got my ass kicked:playing with older cats on the local scene. I wanted to learn all the tunes and all the styles so I could be THE BEST, at least in Baltimore and D.C. And then when I went to New York, I wanted to be THE BEST in New York, and maybe the World. Well, that's all subjective at a certain point, but I can say that at least I've rubbed elbows with THE BEST on occasion. 

Speaking of getting up early, I remember complaining to my trumpet teacher, Wayne Cameron, in college about how I had a hard time practicing in the morning because my lips were puffy and it took a while to warm up properly. " Well, get up at 5 AM, then..." he snapped. "How bad do you want this?" I said, " I want it bad!" He said, "Well, remember, there's always somebody out there who wants it badder than YOU...somebody who WILL get up at 5am so that he can practice."

So this is motivation. What's motivating you? How bad do YOU want it? And there is no right answer. I'm 42 and part of me STILL wants to be THE BEST . Part of me just wants to take a nap and sit in the hot tub.
I think you have a lot of potential and I would love to see you do this at the higher levels. But it will be hard to get pushed in a smaller town, unless you can push yourself. I always had a lot of motivation within;sometimes I think,  even if I lived in Regina, I probably would have still practiced a lot.


  1. This is great - there are a whole lot of students who could benefit from this perspective . . . and "students," (e.g. working adults) who could use the reminder and encouraging kick in the pants! Dag, I gotta go practice . . .

  2. Good stuff. A couple of things come to mind when talking about taking licks or material from solos. Take the parts that you absolutely love, as this will help develop your own approach. Don't take bits just because you think you "should", although obviously you do have to have certain common shapes/licks to develop an authentic jazz language if that's what you're after. The other thing that I don't see talked about that much is that many melodic shapes can be practiced on all degrees of the scale, not just starting from the same degree every time. In other words, don't only practice things round the cycle or whatever, see if you can keep the intervallic structure, and move it all the way up or down the scale - it gives you a whole lot more possibilities.

  3. Really? "The Best"? What does that mean in terms of artistic pursuit? What about finding your own voice? "The Best" sounds like an athlete's goal.

  4. Anonymous (if that is your real name), I don't think that thinking in terms of superlative achievement is antithetical to artistic pursuit. As expressive an art form as music (or jazz/BAM/improvised music/whatever, specifically), it's also comprised of many demanding component parts surrounding technique, vocabulary and so on. Being driven to be "the best" on that level allows you to then focus on expressiveness and finding your own voice while feeling secure that that a) on the basic level of "doing your job" (playing the gig, doing justice to the existing repertoire, etc.) you're adequately prepared, and b) whatever artistic choices you make are coming from a place of choice and not covering up limitations. Taking that approach to practicing doesn't mean you'll approach art or interpersonal interactions like a linebacker :)

  5. Ask Ted Warren what it's like to push himself as a young jazz drummer living in Regina...

  6. Re "The best", surely George is referring to being the best you can be, i.e. realizing your own potential, and that's where it's at as far as I'm concerned. Obviously there's a lot of subjectivity in "who's the best", but having said that, I think it's generally acknowledged that there are certain standard setters in any field (jazz piano - Jarrett, Hancock etc.). I don't see any problem with using them as a benchmark to aspire to. The issue of having one's own voice is taken for granted in artistic pursuits as the examples I've used demonstrate. I see no conflict at all here.

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  9. Really? "The Best"? What does that beggarly in agreement of aesthetic pursuit? What about award your own voice? "The Best" sounds like an athlete's goal.

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