Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Tuning Slide- Sing, Play, and Dance

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Everything in the universe has a rhythm,
everything dances.
― Maya Angelou

Last week I wrote about Joshua MacCluer and a post he wrote titled "10 Principles for Learning Music for Beginning and Amateur Musicians." Just to put this week into context, here are the first five:
1) Start with the “Why?”
2) The goal is to learn to speak music, not to learn how to play an instrument.
3) At the beginning, there are no mistakes or rules.
4) All hail the groove! Find and feel the groove before you play.
5) Don’t worry about the notes! Make it feel right!
Where does he take this list? Let's follow him...
(Note: that the italicized text is from MacCluer's post. The others are mine.)

6) Listening is at least as important as playing.
  • We must develop the ability to listen to others and play at the same time. We must also learn what to listen to at what time. ...For example, one technique is listen to a song several times, each time listening to a different instrument or element of the music. First listen to the bass line. Then the groove. Then the feeling. Then the drums, the woodwinds, the keyboard, the violins, then the dynamics. The choices are unlimited. The most important step at the beginning is developing the ability to move our ears away from our own playing to other players or elements of the music.
I will have more to say about this one in a later post. Music is meant to be heard, just like language. It is communication. What have others had to "say" in their music? Listen to it. What does Arban's 1st Characteristic Study sound like when it is played well? You will find it on You Tube. Sometimes if you are having trouble finding a groove- find a performance and listen for it. Then find it in your playing.

7) Don’t practice, jam!
  • Jamming is the way to learn any language.... [T]he way to learn any language is to listen, imitate, and jam.... we don’t recite speeches, we have improvised conversations. Every conversation we have with other people is an improvisation! Jamming in music is playing improvised music with other people, trying things out and learning to play with others in a way that works.... Learn to listen, reach and find new things, feel the groove together and talk about the same thing musically, in an improvised and relaxed setting.
One of the interesting things I experienced last summer at the big band and trumpet camps was practicing with another musician. One of us would play the exercise, then the other would. It accomplished a couple of things, First it helped each of us hear the piece or exercise from the other side of the horn. We pick up nuances and phrases that way. Second, it keeps us from rushing through our practice. We pay better attention. It is only a small step from that to "jamming" together.

8) Play with other music as much as possible, even when practicing. Always keep a musical context when playing.
  • If there is no one to jam with you today, it’s best to find some music to play along with. Even if you are playing your scales, having a groove to play with is very helpful. Playing with recordings or drum tracks or loops is much better than playing alone.  It is also super fun and very educational to play along with recordings by great musicians of your favorite songs. Make it feel right when you play along with pros on the recording, and it will feel right when you play with people in real life.
This goes back to the listening- and moves it further. Sure, you may do this when trying to transcribe a song, but what about just to play along with Miles Davis or the Canadian Brass? I have learned many wind band and quintet pieces that way over the years. I can feel their groove and find my place in it. And, as MacCluer says above- it really is "super fun."

9) Sing!
  • The ideas we want to express [in our music] live inside of us, waiting to be expressed in the real world. However, the connection between our inner world and the outer world must be developed. The best way to do this is through singing. It removes our technical limitations and allows us to find our inner voice and ideas much more easily. Singing should be a daily practice for all musicians.... Once we know what we are hearing or trying to play, it is much easier to produce that in real life.
I don't do it as often as I should, but singing a piece should probably be a standard of playing new or difficult pieces. Someone said at camp last summer that if you have already sung the piece, you are no longer sight-reading. Amazingly- it works. Sometimes I will sing the exercise before playing it a second time. Again, that slows me down (resting as much as playing!) and helps me get the groove a little more firmly established in my head.

10) Learn to move with the music.
  • Along with finding our voice another primary goal of music is to feel and live in the groove. The groove does not live in our heads but in our bodies. Therefore, dancing and playing drums is also very helpful. If we dance and feel the music in our bodies or maybe with a small percussion instrument, we will truly be in the flow of the musical experience and the music will flow easily and happily through us....Dancing gets the music in our whole body, and makes for much closer connection with the musical energy. So dance! It’s fun and feels great. If you’re embarrassed, do it in private, and dance your way through the music you want to play. The rhythm and groove you get from that will make the instrumental playing much easier.
Dance. Move. Let the music express itself in your body language. At a recent concert one of my friends commented on the musicians on stage. They had no energy. As you watched them you almost expected them to fall asleep mid-note. Now, there are professionals and top-notch musicians who may not move much in their performance. (Bob Dylan comes to mind, but then his musical and verbal language is so rich, he lives the movement!) So moving when practicing (or singing or listening) does make sense.


That groove thing keeps coming back, doesn't it? Well, after writing last week's post on these 10 principles, I was doing my daily practice. After I got warmed up, etc. I pulled out one of the Concone Lyrical Studies, #7 to be exact. I have had this problem that these "lyrical" studies have not felt all that lyrical. They are a collection of notes, one after the other, on the page. In language terms, they are words strung together in a foreign language that I haven't been able to understand. I have also found it more difficult to give slow, lyrical pieces the emotion they deserve.

Well, earlier last week I had found a You Tube recording of #7 and listened to it. It was okay, but it didn't move me. So I did what MacCluer has talked about. I sang it, then started to play it listening and feeling for the "groove." Surprise, surprise. There really is a groove in Concone #7! The next thing I knew I was playing in that groove.

I liked it enough to play it again. I found myself moving with the music as I played it. I can't say I was dancing, but the music sure was.

This is why, at age 67, I am still a student and still learning. There is always something new in the next piece, in the middle of the old Arban's or Concone, or waiting in an unexpected phrase on the next page, around the corner of tomorrow, or even as I take a moment to pay attention to the groove of my own life and the music I make. I call this blog series reflections on life and music. If it works in the practice room, it will work in all our relationships.
  • Sing.
  • Play.
  • Dance.
And one of my favorite all time quotes:

Those who dance were thought to be insane 
by those who could not hear the music.

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