Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Mantras and Other Ideas

Naturally, musicians love to play, and I still enjoy playing music live and touring now and then. However, I've been a full time educator for the last five years. In this time, I believe I have made progress as an educator. However, the infinite universe that is music always seems to throw new challenges our way. I was teaching a class at the start of the week and I thought we had somewhat of a epiphany. It's not that the concepts are new, per se, it's that the way I was able to present it and the way we worked on it as a class seemed to gel better than previous efforts to introduce said concepts.

Many jazz educators and students would agree that we can easily get bogged down in the land of chord scales. I'm not trying to contradict previous posts! It's important to know basic jazz chord scale theory. But it's just theory. Theory is not music. Chords and scales are not music. They are a means by which to make music. I find that some of my students, in an effort to, admittedly, listen to my constant whining that "you guys are not MAKING THE CHANGES," will try to make the changes the best they can; unfortunately, if all you are focusing on is connecting the dots, then it's likely you aren't concentrating on making compelling music. I recall in Victor Wooten's marvelous book, "The Music Lesson," there is a discussion of all the parts of music that aren't "notes." And yet getting bogged down in notes is a huge problem in terms of being artistic. The "notes," or in jazz, "making the changes," is like English
Pablo Neruda: Famous for his conjugation of verbs in Spanish, and something else.......
class; you learn vocabulary, grammar, syntax, spelling, and so forth. However, this is not poetry or fiction. It's THE BASICS. If you can't speak Spanish fluently, you cannot write poetry in Spanish on the level of Pablo Neruda!

That being said, since we only have but so much time, and many of my students come in to music school being behind the curve( I blame our educational system for banishing the funding and the priority for music education, not to mention the lack of anything besides crappy pop music on television). So, I believe sometimes it's important, or at least worth a shot, to say, "OK, I know we don't all have our ABCs and 123s perfect, but in any case, let's pretend we do and try to be creative." So in an effort to not forget about why we want to make music( self expression, creativity, artistic impulse, etc..), we throw caution to the wind and just play. But then the question is, what are we working on?

I like to think in terms of having a mantra. In meditation, a mantra is a word or sound which is believed to clear the mind and develop spiritual focus. If improvising jazz can be seen as a meditation of sorts, then having one idea which helps one to focus on improvising can help to make one's improvising more musical. I have suggested this to students before; if your mantra, or single focus during improvisation is something like "RHYTHM," imagine how different your approach to a song like "Moment's Notice" would be! Or if your mantra was "MELODY" on a tune like "Giant Steps"; it would hopefully not just be endless 8th notes and so forth.

Now, I believe that great jazz solos are made up of a variety of techniques, be they melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, compositional, what have you. However, I think much is to be gained in terms of developing these musical reflexes if you were to say, take "Confirmation" and practice it continuously using different mantras. For example, you could take from 1 to 100 choruses using the idea of "SPACE" as a mantra. Next, you could use the idea of "DISSONANCE" as a mantra, for 1 to 100 choruses. Next, you could use the idea of "MOTIVIC DEVELOPMENT" as a mantra. There are as many mantras as there are artistic concepts, so that is an infinite world. Also, this makes playing through the form less boring; meanwhile, you are learning how to play the changes better in the process of repetition.

The eventual goal is that through the idea of focus on any given chorus, eventually you will go from one mantra to the next as you see fit while you improvise. You might think "SPACE" for the first chorus, "BUILD" for the next, "ENERGY" for the final, etc.... At a later date, you might not need to even be so conscious about it. We tried this in my Guitar Heroes class and it yielded some really cool results. When I told guys to make half of their solos space, it really made the musicality higher. It's something really basic to good phrasing, and yet so many of us aren't conscious of this.

As the class continued, we went further into conceptual mode. " Rhythm section, I want you to TIP(play good time and not much else), and soloists, imagine that 'Confirmation' is based on a Tin Pan Alley tune, and you are writing that tune right now!" It was a little more specific than a MANTRA, but it also yielded musical results different from the usual constant stream of eighth notes. Then, we started to get into trying "Confirmation" at different tempos, in different grooves and suggesting different rhythmic feels or even other genres. We tried the tune as a slow Count Basie swing groove; it brought a whole new life to the piece! We tried it as a Stadium Rock tune; "50 percent Def Lepard, 50 Percent Led Zepplin..." I suggested. I told the bassist just to play F pedal. Again, this was interesting. I was amazed at how much time we spent on one piece of music. I got the impression that it was enlightening for the students, although sometimes the overall mellow vibe of Portlanders can leave me wondering. Still, the point of the day was that music is limitless; don't forget that art is equal part creativity as it is skill. Don't be afraid to experiment, even with material which is very familiar. You may surprise yourself!

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