|Weekly Reflections on Life and Music|
A strange art – music – the most poetic and precise of all the arts, vague as a dream and precise as algebra.
— Guy de Maupassant
— Guy de Maupassant
I have a good friend trumpet player who has one of the most precise styles I have heard. His precision at hitting the notes with a clean attack, solid tone, and good sound is excellent. His playing has challenged me in recent months to work on my precision as part of developing my own sound. I am not a precise player. I use the reason, uh excuse(?) that it’s close enough for jazz. I say I like to play and the sound is what counts and, well, you can guess about the rest. Precision is lost.
Fortunately my friend, in his precision, is not just playing mechanically. That is the real issue with some players who insist on being precise. It is too perfect and sounds too automatic. That can happen in studio recordings. There was one brass group quite a number of years ago that had a superb sound on their recordings. It played well, sounded right on with each note, and never slipped in any way shape or form. I actually found their recordings boring. There was no life.
I was then given the opportunity to see them in person. It was like I was watching a completely different group. Some of it was the difference in acoustics, of course. An auditorium has a much different ambience than a recording in a studio being played in my living room. But it was also that, in person, the musicians were able to put themselves into the music. They were just as precise and just as accomplished in person as they were on their recordings; now they were also there in their personalities and interactions with each other and the audience.
A number of years after I saw them they switched either record labels or producers (or both, I am not sure any more.) Their newer recordings had a different sound. They were now alive, their precision still there, but it wasn’t dull, automatic, mechanical.
There are all kind of ways that we can end up playing mechanically, even when playing well. (Not including that awful software that does “auto-tuning.”) Precision isn’t the same as perfect. Precision is, in my definition for this post’s sake, being able to consistently hit the notes on the right spot with clarity and tone. Yes, precision is a mechanical action. It is also a learned action- muscle memory; a learned action- aural memory; a learned action- developing Self 2 intuition.
I have never had that kind of precision. Many players do not have that kind of “preciseness.” Listen to Miles Davis on “So What”; Chet Baker on “Summertime”; Dizzy or Freddie in their best “bop” style. They are not precise. They will slip and slide into, around, and through notes. Sometimes it’s on purpose, other times it’s not and they have to adjust. I would guess that they can play with that precision, but have learned to adapt it to their style. But I would also guess that they had to learn that precision if they were going to change it.
There go all my excuses out the window! The more I write this blog, over 4 1/2 years now, the more I find myself challenging my own formerly best thinking- or, more precisely, my own former excuses. So, while listening to a recording of our quintet and my friend’s precision, I decided that I better work on my precision. As I do so I remember that I want to keep the sound solid and musical. I also want to have my personality and life in it. I do not want to be mechanical, but fluid. That’s a lot to do, but I have a few things on my side by this time.
- First, I have an idea of what precision sounds like. I can hear it.
- Second, I have skills (and a routine) that can be built upon to further the process.
- Third, I have the time this winter to work on it.
Since the sound is always number one I started with long tones. I always start my playing day with long tones, expanding up and down the scale from G at the bottom of the staff. But now I am paying closer attention to the fullness of the sound and having it maintain the center of the tone. I have done this for a long time, but I am paying attention from a different angle now.
On the days when this precision work is my focus I move on after only five minutes of single note long tones. I then go to my Getchell First Book. At a very slow speed (45 bpm) I play #1, rest, and then #2. The goal is to move from one note to the next with, yes, precision- hitting solid and clean, healthy tones. Resting I go back and play them again up a step from the key of C Major to D Major. Same speed, same focus. Finally I go back and take the same two exercises down a step from C Major to Bb Major. Finally, depending on endurance, I rest and then go back and play the first exercise slightly faster and up an octave, still listening for the precision. I end by playing both pieces at speed.
This takes between 20 and 25 minutes. The process moves from single notes and tones to settle into the sound, then moving notes at a slow speed to catch the changes, scale and chord movements, and the way the sound has to settle in. Then I hear the notes in different scales and how the relationships stay the same in the midst of the differences. Finally I want to hear the upper register tones and then end with the etudes as written at speed.
I have been doing this particular set three times per week. On other days I substitute some of the Arban’s early exercises slurred and tongued in place of the Getchell. Same theory, same precision direction.
I have been amazed at what has been happening.
- First, the sound is smoother and has a precision until I start to tire the embouchure which means I didn’t rest enough between exercises.
- Second, I notice that Self 2 is doing his job keeping me on target and turning the intellectual ideas I have described above into intuition.
- Third, because of that I am more relaxed in my style while still maintaining the precision I am looking to build.