I just saw an amazing video from Felicia Day's blog over at Geek and Sundry. I'm a huge fan of her work, but only recently realized that she is also an excellent violinist. Here is here duet with Tom Lenk:
Note, On Some iDevices the wrong video has been loading, so, if this is a different video, follow this link to the intended video:
I found this video both fun and impressive. Please go to Geek and Sundry and like all of their videos and their page. They are changing the face of entertainment.
Here's a cool site I found floating on the internets. This is a great resource to point any jazz player towards to see all of the greats in one place.
TMEA has been Amazing! We've gotten so much accomplished.
The Clinic I presented was well received, and we will release the video in a couple of week.
Tonight we interview Joshua Wells of Oddquartet.com and will release it on Tuesday.
Finally, a big surprise. After my clinic I met Marta and Yigal from Joytunes Music.
Yigal is an Oboist for the Jerusalem Symphony and was an amazing guest. I can't wait to for everyone to hear it.
In the mean time, check out Piano Dust Buster, an app that allows you to use your piano as a game controller, without plugging anything in. It's amazingly fun and awesome. Also, check out his recorder applications, just as awesome and totally free when used on a Mac or PC.
Have you ever heard a performance that, in the first five minutes, you started to wonder what sin you must have committed that the universe would put you in this audience?
I have. Also, I'm pretty sure it was for that one time I stole a church hymnal.
A great performance will stay with you forever. A terrible performance will seem to last forever.
If you'd prefer to avoid giving lousy performances as a musician, try some of the following advice:
1. Choose your music wisely
This is the first step to crafting an excellent performance. You have to be able to assess your ability level and the challenge presented by a piece of music.
If the music is too difficult, you will not sound good, if it is too easy, you won't be challenged.
I use the 80% rule. You should be able to sight read at least 80% of any piece you intend to perform. The other 20% should be at least appear attainable in the half the time you have before your performance. Be careful, because this decision will make or break you.
2. Good practice, seriously good practice
How much are you practicing? No, really how much? I recommend practice plans and logging practice time for more reasons than I can explain in one post. Mostly, it promotes planning and honesty with yourself.
If you're not practicing at very, very least a few hours a week, you aren't progressing very much. If you practice 3 hours a day, you're on the super star route. Most people fall somewhere in between, and that's okay.
Make a plan and stick to it. Try to have your music ready a couple of weeks before your performance so that you have time to create "ease" in your playing.
3. Do your part
If you are in a performance with other musicians, make sure your part is ready to go before your first group practice.
There is nothing worse than trying to practice when an ensemble member can't play their part. It's a waste of time, and pretty rude. When you practice with a group you should be working on ensemble sound, not individual parts.
This is the same for solos with piano accompaniment. These are usually more like duets than solos w/accompaniment. If you aren't prepared to practice with the pianist, you're putting them through grief.
4. Emotionally connect with your performance
Music requires a connection to the piece you are performing. Listen to recordings of your pieces and try to connect emotionally. Apply this to your playing and make music - vibrato, dynamics, tone color, precise articulation, and phrase shaping are the biggest difference between a mediocre performance and a great performance.
5. Sell it, dude!
When you step on that stage, you take over. Be a presence, smile, and engage that audience. If there is room for some theatrics, employ them. Just ask yourself, "Would I care if I were in the audience?"
If you apply the right music with good practice and great musicality, people with love what you do.
It's not easy to be amazing. It takes hard work and dedication, just like you would expect. It is worth it though.
In college, music students are taught to listen to music carefully and critically. We study the greatest composers in history such as Bach, Beethoven, Berlioz, Mahler, Bruckner, and Stravinsky and analyze their works note by note in hopes of tapping into a sliver of their thinking and creative process. Jazz students will study the greatest improvisors of all time like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, and Chick Corea transcribing their solos note for note in the same hopes of tapping into their creative process. As wonderful as it is to dive into these great musicians and devote our college carrers to them, it creates a big problem for many of us. We can no longer listen to music without immedeately becoming analytical about what we are hearing. Then, as we hear a song on the radio, our years of training immedeately key us in on how simplistic and lame modern music has become. That's right. You're a music snob.
It's almost impossible not to be! How are we supposed to recognize the greatness of the Rite of Spring and at the same time be happy that a young spunky pop stars song (that probably wasn't even written by said star) is the most popular song in the world right now? There's no comparison in quality between the two. We have been trained to have critical ears and to listen for the greatest nuances that have ever existed in music. But now we are plagued with a stompy ploddy quarter note melody by Tailored Smift to the words "I wear these clothes. She wears those clothes. I do this one thing. She does another thing...." Simply poetic. Is this what we have to look forward to in music?
Here is what we forget. Sub-par music has always existed. The great writers have always been a very small part of the population. It's just now that in the last hundred years communication has sped up literally a million times over and things are changing and moving much more rapidly. The biggest thing of all though that we tend to forget is that music is somthing that is meant to be enjoyed by everyone. One of the great purposes of music is for us to be able to communicate the abstract and evoke emotion from the listener. Another purpose is also to entertain and create a small escape from reality. These days there are two big divisions of music, music as an art form and music as an entertainment industry.
We should be happy first of all that our students are listening to musc at all and enjoying it. That's the gateway we can use to get them into school music programs. Our next goal then is to communicate that even though they can enjoy the simplicities of current pop culture, there is a whole different world of music to discover that is deep and rich. We are the messengers of the world and we have a responsibility to share the gospel of music as a high art form to those who may have never appreceated it before. How do we do that? Beats me. We are still using most of the same teaching techniques and styles as we were nearly 100 years ago. We have fallen behind the times in that regard. It's time for us to get caught up and embrace what is happening while coupling it with the greats of the past.
But another important step in this process is learning not to be so snobby ourselves. We should appreciate pop culture for what it is and how it enriches the lives of everyone we know in some way. That doesnt mean we have to love it all, but at the very least we need to understand its purpose in the world. So every once in a while put away that Alfred's publishing cd and jam out to the radio carefree. Not all music is meant to be dissected, some is just meant to be simply enjoyed. Even if you don't like pop music, you have to recognize that it's popular for some reason. If we as music teachers ignore what is popular in our field for the sake of high art, then our already dwindling profession will be driving the nails into our own coffins.
This is just an open thought, so please COMMENT! Tell me what you think, especially if you disagree.
I was talking to some students this week about practicing. They were wondering what it was.
Unfortunately, practicing is underrated. Anything worth doing requires a great deal of practice, but I see people all the time that just don't get it. They think people are just "talented" or that skill is basically equivalent to magic. Those people are wrong.
Being a skilled musician is about dedication and regular, regulated practice. I have put together some of my favorite practice tips:
1. Actually practice. Like, get out your instrument and play it. Schedule time, force yourself, and do it at least semi-regularly. Don't pretend, don't make excuses, practice or resign yourself to being lousy.
2. Log your time. It seems stupid, but if you'll log when, how long, and what you practice you can better evaluate if you're being effective.
3. Only play as fast as you can play accurately. You know what I mean- you have a nifty solo you're working on, and you want to play it quickly, so you totally butcher the whole thing. Well, that's a waste of practice time. Practicing something fast and wrong ten times is going to hurt more than help. Just play it slow and correctly, then add speed. It's better. Really.
4. Don't forget fundamentals. Scales, arpeggios, and technical etudes have been around for centuries because of one thing- they work. Fundamentals are well, fundamental and should be a significant part of your practice routine if you want to be more awesome.
5. Incorporate play. Make sure you play some music you're excited about and make sure you spend some time just "playing" your instrument. Improvise, play along with the radio, or learn obscure techniques for instrument or special sound effects. Get your funk on, or something like that.
6. Listen to music. I think this is self-explanatory, but it's amazing how many people don't listen to someone who plays their instrument. It will inspire you and change the way you play forever, in a good way. Unless you listen so someone who sucks, so don't do that.
7. Goals! Don't just practice the same things, challenge yourself with new materials and things that will stretch your skills.
8. Practice buddies. Get a practice buddy and play some duets. Challenge each other to practice more and use each other's ears to craft better sound. There is a danger that one of you might quit and ruin the momentum so make sure you are a strong practicer by yourself as well.
9. Find a good method book. A good book will have an excellent progression of skills. It will grow you gradually and fill in any gaps you may have in your learning while also establishing a future path. Things like the Arban Book for Brass, the Deville Book for Saxophone, or the Klose Book for Clarinet. (Those last two are public domain and free, Click the link)
10. Get nerdy. Dive in and learn all the weird things about your instrument. History, famous players, and instructions techniques. These things will enhance your practice and inspire you.
Most importantly, don't give up, and good luck.
How do you teach a young musician to improvise with their instrument when they never have before? Director's approaches vary from very specific guidelines and materials to saying “It's in Bb kid. Go for it.” I have seen that there is not a very well defined curriculum that is also widely used specifically for jazz improv. I have also noticed that the majority of band directors have little training and/or experience with improvisation in their own playing. This observation isn't meant to be a criticism of directors for we all know that a band director is already doing the job of 10 or 15 people every single day. Directors work very hard and work an incredibly specialized and underappreciated job that demands more than most people have to endure. That being said, skilled improvisation is something that takes thousands of hours to become proficient in and most directors haven't gotten that deep into it. All the more reason that outside sources can be a directors best approach when it comes to teaching jazz. But, that's a different topic.
What I want to talk about is where band directors tend to lack in their teaching of improvisation and how maybe they can improve on their method a bit. So let's get to it. Ask yourself "what is the first thing that I think about when i stand up to take a solo?" 99% of you will answer notes, scales or chord progression. This many times becomes the sole focus for many people who are both teaching and learning improv. Notes, notes, notes. The problem with this is that we tend to forget that there's a bunch more to do than just play notes. Classical and jazz both use the same 12 notes and they are entirely different. So while notes can be important, I am not going to talk much about them here and I'm even going to suggest that notes take a back seat to many other things when improvising.
I think this is the absolute most important thing for any musician to do. Students and performers alike have to know what they want to sound like before the horn touches their face if they are ever going to play at a high level. Most kids get sat down in a jazz band never having listened to much jazz before. Yeah, they heard "Sing, Sing, Sing" on the Chips Ahoy commercial but they never really have listened intently. So when the director explains swing rhythm to the class, they are at best guessing at a playing style that they may have heard their band director demonstrate for 10 seconds. It's like shooting at a target with a blindfold on. Now if the director can carve out a little time in rehersals maybe once a week to listen to great jazz, the students at least have a chance of developing a feel for the style and feel of the music. If they go home and listen to more, the results will be coming out of the bell of their horn soon enough. The horn is simply a tool that reflects the mind that is holding it just like a paint brush or a pen... keyboard.
Also, when listening a player picks up ideas from soloists on the album. Great improvisors are not just "making it up on the spot" so to speak. They are expressing the culmination of an entire lifes worth of musical experience. Our playing is a sum of our influences mixed with our own personal taste. Great players are always absorbing what others are doing, taking those outside ideas and practicing them in all 12 keys and personalizing them. Simply put, I do not think someone can learn to improvise in jazz well without spending some considerable and constant time listening to great players.
After doing some listening and establishing a good sense of swing, a bad soloist can immediately become an ok soloist by swinging hard and phrasing well. Someone can stand up and play all the right notes all day and still be terrible and boring to listen to. That same person though can stand up and swing their tail off playing maybe half the right notes and people will still want to listen. Also, someone can stand up and play 2 notes and swing like mad and people will love it (*cough* *cough* Louis Armstrong) A good sense of style and phrasing is rarely taught, becuase it's almost impossible to teach. It still should be stressed heavily to students that style and groove will take a solo alot further than notes will. It should also be stressed that listening is the prime way to learn those things. Some things just aren't effectively taught through words in a book or from a podium.
This tends to get ignored too. Good phrasing can be the difference between sounding like an amateur or a pro. Young improvisors tend to do two things. First they will play lots of half notes and whole notes because they are still trying to figure out what to play next. They sound like a person who doesn't know what to order at McDonalds and just stands there saying "uuuuuummmmmmmmm...... uuummmmmmm". The other thing typically done when a player gets a little better is that they will throw at you every note they have ever learned without breathing. The entire solo is a run on sentence. Students tend not to think in musical phrases when they solo because they are in panic mode. Slow down and put some SPACE in there. Silence can be scary at first, but the realization will come that silence can make the played notes more powerful and meaningful. The best way to demonstrate this is by talking about people conversing. Sentences have natural phrases and stopping points and so should your music. This brings me to the next one...
Rhythm kind of fits inside of what I have already been talking about, but it should be discussed in the classroom by itself. With good style and phrasing comes good rhythm too. Students should be encouraged to experiment with different rhythms all of the time. It's easy to get caught up in playing the same couple of rhythms over and over, so always be trying to think of new rhythmic ideas even if it means using less notes. Rhythm is one of the most powerful driving forces behind jazz and should not be forgotten.
Some other things that should be talked about that don't require small speeches from me are:
-Tempo/keeping time (you don't have to be a drummer to keep time)
-Using the entire range of the instrument
-Confidence and accepting the possibility of failure.
I should touch on that last one. When we start doing something new, we aren't going to be very good at it. That is the nature of the beast. Everyone was terrible at first when they started improvising, even people like Charlie Parker or Chick Corea. We all start from the same place and grow from there, so students should expect to musically fall on their faces... often. The fear of failure or sounding bad scares away so many people from improvisation but it's the thing that thye fear that they should embrace. Fail, get back up and do it again. That's how we learn these things. There is no magic in learning to play music, it takes time and practice. That's the trick. When players say "I'm no good at technique X like Steve is." I always ask "how much to you practice that thing?" Of course you are no good, you never do it! I leave you with a quote from story teller Ira Glass on this very same thing.
It's a video, worth showing to your students.
As a fan of the Big Band Era, I'm sad to hear Patty Andrews has passed away. I'm also sad to admit I didn't know she was still alive up to now. I forget how long ago the 1940's weren't.
Patty was a member of the Andrews Sisters, the singing trio that produced the sound that defined an era in vocal jazz. The other two members were LaVerne Sophia and Maxine Angelyn.
My first memory of hearing the Andrews Sisters had to be with a Bing Crosby Christmas record that I found in my grandfather's music library. Here is one of those recordings:
As a nostalgia nerd, I also watched all of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby movies when I was growing up. They performed on the "Road to Rio" in the clip below, with Trumpeter Harry James No Less! This was great!
Also, I'm not saying the Andrew's Sister won us World War II, but I'm sure this helped: