Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Tuning Slide- Assimilate and Practice, Practice, Practice

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

We are what we repeatedly do. 
Excellence, then, is not an act, 
but a habit. 

Last week I mentioned Clark Terry’s three important bits of learning to improvise: Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate.These are also important in growing as a musician in any genre, even if we never have to improvise.

I discussed listening as basic to imitating. In our listening we pick up on things that are going on in the music we are listening to. We pay attention to what is going on within the music and even within our own emotions and responses to the music. Imitation, in Clark Terry’s thought, is learning by ear and then absorbing the feel, articulation and time of whatever you are listening to.

Well, in that absorption something else begins to happen- the second of Clark Terry’s bits: Assimilate.

I looked up the general definition of assimilate before digging into what he meant by it. Here is a little from the Free Dictionary online:
Assimilate means:
1. to learn (information, a procedure, etc) and understand it thoroughly
2. to become absorbed, incorporated, or learned and understood
3. to bring or come into harmony; adjust or become adjusted to
4. to become or cause to become similar
To learn and understand thoroughly, in the case of musical listening is not just saying, “Oh, I get the theory behind what is being played!” It goes beyond understanding what is happening. It is hearing the theory applied. It moves from getting the theory to hearing, feeling, catching hold of what the theory sounds, feels, and perhaps even looks like.

Assimilation then moves to allowing what we learn and understand thoroughly to become absorbed and incorporated in what we are doing. Remember, we are imitating Clark Terry, Miles, Coltrane, or Herb Alpert. Imitation is beyond aping or mimicking- it is absorbing the style so it becomes yours. As a result we ourselves can move into harmony, become adjusted to whatever it is we are listening to and imitating. That is an important step that cannot be overlooked, or short changed.

On the Jazz Advice website where they talked about these three things of Clark Terry’s they described some of this step this way:
Assimilation means ingraining these stylistic nuances, harmonic devices, and lines that you’ve transcribed into your musical conception… truly connecting them to your ear and body. This is where the hours of dedication and work come in.
  • Get into the practice room and repeat these lines over and over again, hundreds of times, until they are an unconscious part of your musical conception. 
  • Take these phrases through all keys, all ranges, and all inversions. 
  • Begin slowly and incrementally increase the speed until you can easily play them. 
  • Don’t feel satisfied until you can play these lines in your sleep. 
 This is not an easy step to complete.
Yeah- I know.

So what now?

You are what you practice most. 
---Richard Carlson

Well, the basic answer is go and do it. That phrase above, connecting them to your ear and body, is really the goal.  But can I really do that? Do I have the motivation to do what needs to be done to become a better trumpet player? What about those days when that trumpet looks like it weighs a ton and the mouthpiece seems to have all kinds of nails sticking out before I even pick up the horn?

At this stage of the learning, we are working at being similar in our style to whatever we are listening to. So we just have to keep at it. Maybe we are working on a difficult passage in a classical wind band piece. The notes run by too fast. Keep playing it. Build it up in your head. Listen to a recording of it. (Much gratitude to You Tube on this one!) I have been doing that with that first characteristic study from Arban's book. I found a recording by Paul Mayes of it at full speed and listen time after time to it. What are the nuances? I watch his fingering and see if he uses any alternates. I even watch how he moves the trumpet on his lips. It is the whole process of imitating- hearing, feeling, seeing.

Don't overlook singing the music as well. Part of the assimilation is to get it into your head. Sing it. Then sing it again. Get the feel. I can usually sing something closer to the full tempo sooner than I can play it. But they work together.

These tricks work. They help me pay attention to the music and how I feel as I'm playing. But more than that, they also introduce me to a way of playing that I may not have known before. When I try to improvise, for example, I tend to be more melodic, Miles Davis in "Birth of the Cool" or even Al Hirt in "Java." I have not been able to think fast to do some of the bebop licks. But I have been listening to them and even singing some of them.

What I continue to be amazed at is that this is all taking place for me now- 55 years after I first learned the trumpet. It is possible- and exciting- for an old dog to learn new tricks. Some of it is common sense. Some of it is just the old line- practice, practice, practice. What do I want to become as a musician? Well practice that.

And usually all it takes is to pick up the horn and start those long tones and my mind and body begin to come together. It's about the music.

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