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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Resistance is Futile!

          Fall is almost officially upon us and the new semester has been steadily picking up speed over the past 3 weeks. While some students still cling tenaciously to their summer temperament others have already given in to the inevitable and have resigned themselves to their assignment deadlines and preparations for December juries.  It's usually in these first few weeks back at school while both teachers and students reacquaint themselves with academic routine that I am sometimes faced with what I call “learning resistance”. 
            During the first few weeks things have been going well. I’m usually getting to know my new piano students so in our lessons I get them to play as much as possible for me. I want to try to accurately assess their needs so I ask to hear everything from scales and arpeggios to playing tunes and transcriptions.  For this I usually try to accompany the student both so that they can feel comfortable without a rhythm section and so that I can try to interact with their sense of time and musicality. Inevitably after I get an idea of what I can offer as their teacher (really I see it as being a sort of guide on their own personal journeys) I reach a point where I tell the student that we need to revisit some fundamentals.  For some its technique and we need to go back and solidify fingerings for scales and arpeggios and perhaps work on knowing and playing all the relevant jazz scales.  For others it’s going back to basics with left hand voicings (I’ll blog later about basic left-hand voicings).  Its often the case that the student needs to take apart some of their learned habits in order to achieve a deeper relationship with the piano and greater clarity in their playing.  It's here that I first encounter the resistance.
            I’m not saying that it isn’t hard to unlearn our habits. And certainly as jazz musicians and improvisers we develop such a personal connection to the musical material that we play. After all we’ve worked so hard to get to where we are and here is this teacher telling us to use these simple voicings! “He doesn’t even use them when he plays, who does he think he is?”  I still experience to this day the frustration of realizing that I need to take a step backwards in order to really get to the heart of the material I am trying to organize into music. Maybe its playing a block-chord passage that I can't still can't pull off or maybe I hear myself on a recording project and I’m just not swinging the way I thought I was.  Not only is music an intense process of refinement and distillation but its also a process which is almost impossible to be really objective about.  Its very easy to start making little convenient lies to ourselves about our own abilities and accomplishments on our instruments. And certainly if we spend most of our time alone in the practice room at school it becomes easier and easier to look outwards for reasons why we didn’t play so well at the rehearsal or on the gig.  We can get into playing the blame game with the musicians we play with (“if only that drummer wasn’t rushing I would have been able to solo well”) or we can develop a negative vibe when we are around musicians whose level we consider beneath us (“I don’t need to jam with those first years”).
            Most of my students are cool with what I’m trying to get over to them. Or at least they maintain enough courtesy to give it the old college try. But about 1 in 10 see this as something that must be absolutely resisted by all costs. “I’ve already learned this” is usually the first thing I hear.  It generally comes down to what the student considers to be “hip” or not.  The farther along they are from the first things they learned  (like basic voicings and scales/technique) the more they consider these fundamentals to be “unhip”.  I once heard a student say that he didn’t like to practice major and minor scales because they weren’t modern sounding.  And certainly to the young piano student who has been mostly listening to Brad Mehldau it doesn’t seem like it would benefit their playing to limit themselves to using only 2 basic left-hand voicings.  Then the next question is “why should I do this?” I tell them its because they can’t get through 8 bars of “All the Things” without either scuffling over the changes or playing some weird sounding voice-leading in their left-hand.  Basically we need to limit ourselves to more fundamental sounds because we still don’t know them well enough to start adding anything on.  What the students don’t realize is that what they are playing just isn’t having the “hip” effect that they think it does because they still lack an understanding of the fundamentals: Time (rhythm), melody, and harmony. 
            It’s hard for me not to start feeling “unhip” myself. I become a parent who is trying to get a kid to clean up his room. Its like I’ve betrayed a trust that this student has placed in me to show him/her what I played on my last gig that impressed them so much.  The young student has made a snap judgment about what goes into the music that they think sounds really great; a judgment that is based on a very limited experience.  After several years of studying with some of the masters in the genre I’m more convinced than ever that the jazz process is two steps forward and one step back.  When I studied with Kenny Werner he told me that he realized in his late 20’s that his time-feel  was weak and that he needed to improve his rhythmic concept (this is after he had released a fantastic solo piano record and held the piano chair in some pretty high profile bands like the Mel Lewis orchestra). 
A friend of mine once attended a clinic at the New School in NYC.  The clinician was non other than Brad Mehldau and during the question period he remarked that no one ever asked him who his favorite rhythm section was. As it turns out it is the Miles Davis rhythm section of the 50’s (Wynton Kelly – piano, Paul Chambers – Bass, Jimmy Cobb – drums).  If you really do your homework on Mehldau this doesn’t seem to be such a stretch. Listen to him on the recordings he made when he was quite young. Listen to him on such straight-ahead outings as the fantastic debut by Anthony Wilson.  Try to listen without passing snap judgments on style and “hip-ness”, although Brad always sounds fresh even when playing very “inside” the harmony.  Listen to the groups and musicians that influenced the groups and musicians that influence you. If you don’t know who they are how can you really understand their music? Listen…you must listen…resistance is futile!


  1. no! resisters unite!! ;)

  2. I think this also applies to other expressive arts. It's easy to confuse "raw" expression with genuine creativity. I know people who write free verse poetry because they think that rhyme and meter have been "overcome" by creative artists who destroyed their repressive bonds. However their poetry comes across as dead and intellectual and they think that that's a new "style" instead of merely bad poetry. The same is true for abstract painting. Some abstract paintings hold me spell-bound for hours, but some cannot hold my attention for more than a few seconds.
    The difference is mastery of form, not lack of it. Without the dynamic dance of form and content, content is flacid and self-absorbed and needs to be propped up by intellect and/or cliches that communicate at the superficial level of consensus or commonly shared experience. When there is personal push and pull against the form, the artist can engage in genuine creativity which is always a unique relationship between a particular human being and . . .truth?, beauty?, the cosmos?,God?, perhaps just the angels?