Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Tuning Slide: 2.29

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

I spent some time at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City yesterday. As you walk into one section you see a series of displays about the construction of jazz. They talked about the different instrument groups and what roles they play, but they made clear that there are three important elements to the “language of jazz:”
• Melody
• Harmony
• Rhythm.
A strong reminder on how all music is tied together. It doesn’t matter what style of music you play, it will have it’s own language built on the foundational language of musical concepts and theory. It will build that language with the words, sentences, paragraphs and volume after volume of music on those three basic elements. Music can be said to be built by the interplay of melody, harmony and rhythm. Without getting too deep into music theory, periods, styles and all that (which is too western) let’s link those three concepts.

Music is:
the succession of single tones in musical compositions, as distinguished from harmony and rhythm. the principal part in a harmonic composition; the air. a rhythmical succession of single tones producing a distinct musical phrase or idea. -Link
Here's more that puts all these together:
Melody is what results from playing notes of different pitches - sometimes pitches can be repeated too - one after the other in an 'organised' way. Melodies are very distinguishable and are often singable. However, just the succession of pitches doesn't make a melody. Each note played has a duration. The relation between durations refers to rhythm.

But, before rhythm, lets talk about pulse. Like every living organism, music has a pulse - beats (like that of the heart). And although we not always hear it, it is always there. Do you remember when children learn to clap their hands to follow songs? There is a constant, implicit, beat that happens periodically. In some cases, it is in fact played by instruments. For example, in Australian aboriginal music it is often played by clap sticks.

But rhythm is not just a constant periodic beat. The beat or pulse is like its skeleton. Rhythm is how you inhabit the pulse. Rhythm is what results of combining notes of different durations, sometimes coinciding with the beat and sometimes not. For example, if you can notice in Reggae or Ska music, the guitar or keyboards most of the times play, at times, exactly opposite to the beat.

And, last but not least: harmony. Usually, melodies are not just played alone by a solo instrument or a group of instruments playing the same thing. Very frequently there are 'lead' instruments which play melodies (such as the voice, wind instruments, etc.) and, at the same time, others that accompany them doing something else. This relationship between different notes played at the same time is what we call harmony.

Sometimes this can be done by one instrument such as guitar or piano, but other times by several instruments (like brass ensembles). There are many types of relations between two or more notes played at the same time, but they can be classified into two main divisions: consonance and dissonance. -Link
Again- it is in the interaction of these that what we call music is made. How do we learn to do that? Beyond the obvious issue of scales and listening to your music and those you are playing with, I have a hunch that rhythm is where we need to most practice. The “rhythm” section of any band needs to be solid or the group can’t hold together. I have probably seen many a director work hard with the percussion section in order not to lose the beat, the pulse, the groove no matter what the style of music. Soloists who lose the feel of the music can potentially go off on their own leaving the band either far behind or a couple measures ahead. It is as important to learn how to feel the music as much as it is to play it.

On the website, Learn Jazz Standards, they have a post about four ways to remain mediocre- number 3 is:
Ignore working on rhythm and time.
I find that a lot of mediocre jazz players spend the majority of their time working on their solos and navigating the vast array of harmonic structures jazz has to offer. Everyone wants to be a great soloist, and you will need to work on these things if you want to become one.

But it doesn’t matter if you play the hippest lines or have the best technique if you don’t groove. If your time feel is off, and you neglect all rhythmic studies you will be missing a key ingredient for jazz [or any musical] excellence.

When it comes down to it, if your music doesn’t make people dance on some level, your music will feel off. It has to groove. Your single note lines need to groove, and your accompaniment needs to groove. If you rush or drag too much, it won’t groove.

So if you want to stay mediocre, ignore these things. But if you want to become an excellent jazz musician, start shifting some of your practice time from soloing to rhythm and time. -Link
People may not be dancing in the aisles at a concert band performance, but it must make them move internally. It must make them connect with some pulse. Rhythm is essential.

That’s where the metronome can also come into play. I have previously indicated that I am not very good at working with a metronome. I hate being that regimented. I’d rather just go off and do it at whatever pace I want to, thank you very much! Which is why I am still just barely beyond mediocre in some things. My fear has always been that the metronome will make me too tied in a mechanical way to the beat. In the meantime I haven’t learned the discipline of the beat or learned how the song’s groove moves. Until I learn that discipline I am not ready to move beyond it and bring it alive. Until I can play it smoothly while remaining disciplined, I haven’t learned it.

Music is a living thing. Musicians make those broad kind of statements all the time. But the pulse of music, the heartbeat is in the rhythm. When building athletic or physical endurance we start with a baseline. We often call that our “resting heart rate.” That is exactly where we start with the music. The metronome is the guide to where to start. As time moves on we begin in our physical training to pay attention to optimal heart rates for activities and to know when the rate has gotten out of the groove. Every athlete know the signs of that- whether they name it as part of the rhythm or not. They know the groove that works for them. Once they get it, they can learn when and how to push it.

So I am finally talking myself into using that metronome more often.

Won’t I be surprised when it actually works?

As I said a couple weeks ago, I am going to end year 2 of the Tuning Slide next week. Last year I kept the posts going and ran out of time to get it published before Shell Lake in August. This year the posts will continue after next week, but on a different scope. I will be repeating the jazz series from last summer and adding some new thoughts I have learned from John Raymond. While a lot of it will be jazz related until the end of June, I will try to also in the new posts relate them to music in general. Not to mention how this all makes us better at whatever we do.

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