Monday, February 25, 2008

Jazz Jams

I just came across Bill Anschell's web site. He had this great description of bassists:

Bassists are not terribly smart. The best bassists come to terms with their limitations by playing simple lines and rarely soloing. During the better musical moments, a bassist will pull his strings hard and grunt like an animal. Bass players are built big, with paws for hands, and they are always bent over awkwardly. If you talk to the bassist during a break, you will not be able to tell whether or not he’s listening.
He has some funny takes on jazz jams and "jazz math."

Friday, February 22, 2008

A proud father daughter moment

Yesterday I experienced a true bonding moment with my daughter: she asked to borrow some of my Murray's pomade. I've been using Murray's (exclusively) for 15 years. Its beautiful to watch your little girl blossom into a greaser.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Being new to playing in an orchestra, I'm a little flummoxed as to what the role of the conductor is and how I should be "using" the conductor. While I'm playing in the orchestra, I'm so fixed on the music in front of me (and what the rest of the section is doing) that the conductor could be doing about anything. In the end, I need to figure this out.

On this point (somewhat), here is a great post about conducting technique. I love the video at the end. If you have the chance, turn off the sound of the video and put on whatever music you'd like. It seems to work well with almost anything else. Its like the harmony between Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and the Wizard of Oz. Crazy man.

Practicing tips

I only recently discovered Bass Musician Magazine. It's an online magazine to which Contrabass Conversations’ Jason Heath contributes. Overall, I think it's pretty good, although you can't really trust or expect great things from everything you read online. While many of the technical articles are largely targeted towards beginners, there are some interesting articles on avoiding injuries by Randy Kertz and some good articles giving tips for practicing. What I particularly liked was on the idea of "doubling" by Adam Nitti. His general theme is on increasing your speed. The typical way this is done is by setting your metronome and slowly increasing the tempo to build up speed (he calls this the "metronomic ladder"). Nitti's suggestion is to play a piece (say a scale or arpeggio) at a given speed three times and then, without changing the metronome, doubling the speed for the fourth repetition. For example, play a scale three times as eighth notes in the fourth time at sixteenth notes. Eventually, as you get better at playing the piece at the initial tempo, you can increase the metronome tempo or increase the number of times you play it at the double to speed. In his words

"the reason this approach is so effective is because it shocked your system at the plank twice as fast momentarily under focused concentration and attention to detail because you are only playing a single repetition at double-speed unit not become overwhelmed by the faster tempo, and thereby have a much higher success rate with respect to your conditioning."

I've been trying this technique with my warm-up exercises and that without it very useful.

Another tip I came across is in Margret Elson's "Passionate Practice." The tip (in full detail on page 51 of her book) is to take a piece your trying to learn, get in a relaxed state, and then play only the first bar plus the following downbeat. After having done this get back into a relaxed state and play the second bar plus the following dounbeat. Stop again get into a relaxed state and continue with the subsequent bars or groups of bars (e.g., play four bars plus the following downbeat). I found this technique very useful on the more difficult pieces I'm trying to learn. The technique made me focus on just getting a small part of music down. Oftentimes, I get overwhelmed when I try to play a piece. This technique has allowed me away to break the piece into smaller chunks which I can get my head around and then assemble into the full piece. That said, I don't follow this technique religiously. I only really use it on parts work by myself getting tripped up.

Just as a note, I like Elson's book. I've read reviews of it that haven't been very good, although a lot of their criticisms are well-founded. She talks about putting yourself in a relaxed/alert state using a "calming light" exercise. She also talks about positioning your hands in "puppy dog position" and using a "magic carpet" to raise your hands to your instrument. If you can get beyond this terminology (which I feel compromises or trivializes what she's trying to say), I think the book has a lot of nice lessons and tips on how to prepare yourself for learning and performing.

In defense of chaotic practice

Whenever I sit down to practice I try to give myself at least five minutes of just making noise on my instrument. I'm not really just making noise, but I'm giving myself a little bit of time in which I can experiment and try new things. I usually do this after my warm-ups and largely just let my fingers, hands, arms move freely. Sometimes a little melody will emerge and I'll play variations of it. The point of this is really twofold. First it kind of fun after having engaged in a series of warm-ups that, in and of themselves, are not very exciting. Secondly, sometimes I discover a little fragment or short melody that I wouldn't have found otherwise. When this happens I play some variations over the melody and then take a moment write it down. This fragment usually sits in my notebook unattended to for some time. I then given another look and sometimes it gets transformed into the core of an actual piece of music.

The idea of giving myself this freedom to make noise comes from William Westney's The Perfect Wrong Note. When I first read this book, I enjoyed it as a good read. I've actually gone back and read it a few times now and have become more appreciative of its central ideas. Many books on practicing (and indeed many teachers) encourage you to have a plan for your practice. While this may be useful in preparing for a performance or audition, it oftentimes doesn't let you explore your creative ideas. What I like about Westney’s book is that it encourages you to let yourself play in an undirectied and unstructured manner. The idea here is to try to find that "perfect wrong note" or "divine mistake" which brings your ideas together and gives your music or performance that spark which makes it unique.

Beyond finding a perfect wrong note in music, there are plenty of cases of technological innovation which have been the result of "finding the perfect wrong" way of doing something. For example, sticky notes were discovered by 3M after a failed attempt to make an adhesive. (Similarly, the dust masks made by 3M were the result of their failed attempt to make disposable bras.) In terms of technology, I've been told that the manner in which glasses poured to obtain a flat surface was discovered by a son of the original Pilkington of Pilkington Glass. Apparently he knocked over several mold of molten glass. When the glass cooled, it was perfectly flat. His accident (although resulting in minor injuries and damage to equipment) led to a technological improvement.

Exceptional trivia

I've recently supervised my first graduate student in completing her Ph.D. Like most people who finish a doctoral degree, she went out on the academic market to find a job. In fact, in my opinion, she did quite well and got offers from some very good schools. In the end, she turned them all down.

I struggled with making sense of this. We always tell our graduate students to think hard about starting a Ph.D.: they have to be sure this is something they like and want to pursue because it requires an awful lot of work. And when we say "this is something they like it want to pursue" the "this" in that phrase is academia.

Before the job market got into full swing, my student mentioned that she wasn't sure if she wanted an academic job. I told her not to turn down the jobs she hadn’t been offered yet and encouraged her to go through the interviewing process. In the end, she wanted more to her life and what academia could give. This is not to say that academics have empty lives. I think of my life is quite full; I'm an academic, a father, a husband, a musician, and a lot of other things. In fact I think it's my job as an academic which permits me the freedom to pursue my other avocations.

That said, most academics are really, as a friend of mine once said, "purveyors of exceptional trivia." I don't see any of my colleagues making discoveries in their research the truly benefit the world. See, I'm in the "soft" sciences where a lot of what goes on as research is oftentimes clever model building in order to support an opinion. The research that does have an impact on people's daily lives is that research which, unfortunately, is looked down upon but most of us in the profession. These are the short policy briefs that point out in a straightforward way that, say, disability benefits have not kept up with inflation. These pieces are somewhat looked down upon because they don't involve a clever model or use sophisticated mathematics. Rather they use the simple tools of the trade to make a point.

These pieces make their point in such a clear way that they are actually read by policymakers who didn't realize that, say, disability benefits haven't kept up with inflation and therefore raise disability benefits. The end result of this research is that the well-being of people receiving disability benefits is improved. I have a hard time believing that the more "academic" research on the buffalo hunt, Canadian military history, or what were the reasons behind extending the franchise in the 19th century will have as important benefits. (And yes, I've researched one of those topics.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Why don't people dance at jazz shows?

Lately, my son and I have been taking in a local jazz jam on Saturday afternoons. I've gone a few times to this jam and played. When I’m there with my son, he and I hang out together, orders some fries, and dance. He loves music and part of the way he shows that is by dancing. When he really likes the music, it's often hard to get a stop dancing.

Many of the musicians at this jam are friends who know my son. My son is eight years old and has autism. I don't try to hide anything about his condition, nor have ever felt embarrassed about his behavior. Most of the musicians love it when my son is there and are excited to see him dancing. He dances and stops and watches them play. Some of them play right to him, as if playing their solo just for him. Many of them say it's the best kind of feedback that you get from an audience member. Some people at the jam (who I don't know) have come up to me and said how happy my son looks and how much they enjoy seeing my son and I out taking in some music. It's often easy when you have a child with special needs to come up with reasons to stay out of the public eye and keep your child close. Our trips to the jazz jam are part father-and-son excursion and part therapy for my son where he interacts socially.

The interesting thing is how many people seem to enjoy seeing my son and I dancing, but don't get up and dance themselves. In Miles Davis's autobiography (which I read a long time ago) he mentions that people used to dance all the time at bebop shows. He asks why people don't dance at contemporary jazz shows. I guess part of it has to do with critical mass (a father and son dancing isn't enough to get the ball rolling and make dancing seem appropriate in the moment). But I also think part of it has to do with nature in which jazz is viewed, as almost a bookish art form to be studied and maybe admired, but not involved with in a casual matter. (The same thing could probably be said of classical music. When was last time he saw somebody dance at the symphony?)

With that, here are two video clips of some of my favorite dancing.

Practice guilt

“If I don’t practice for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it. And if I don’t practice for three days, the public knows it.” - Louis Armstrong

I keep a "practice journal" where I write down when and what I’m working on in my daily practicing. It helps me identify where a need to focus, what parts of what pieces are tripping me up, and what specifics I need to get help on from a teacher.

Today I opened my journal. If the binding had creaked it would have given a better effect: the last time I practiced was 10 days ago. Until then, I've been doing well, practicing daily. What happened? Well, I got sick, then I got hit with a bunch of deadlines from work, ….then…. Basically, life got in the way.

In my life, there are a lot of things (e.g. work, family, etc.) that have to take precedence over my music. Now the battle becomes starting to practice again. I feel guilty, like I let myself down (and others who rely or expect my playing to be at a certain level). The trick now is to let go of my "good old Catholic guilt" (i.e., the ability to feel guilty about anything) and start practicing again.

Missing one or two practices is not a big deal, unless missing those practices (in and of themselves) becomes an obstacle to future practicing. That's where I am. The more I miss, the easier it is to adopt an attitude of "why bother". In the end, you can't penalize yourself musically for the rest of your life occasionally having additional demands.

So, back to the bass.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Inner Game

I just finished reading Barry Green's The Inner Game of Music. I had read a lot of mixed reviews about this book, some saying that the ideas were revolutionary, others say they were trivial. In any event, I saw it in the library, checked it out, and read it.

Overall, it's and easy and quick read. I don't think the ideas in the book are revolutionary. It's basically a recasting of The Inner Game of Tennis for musicians. It certainly will not give you everything you need to "
to overcome self-consciousness and stage-fright, and helped (you) recapture a youthful, almost effortless, capacity to learn." But that said, if you have the time is worth reading it. There are some good ideas, many of which we know but need to be reminded of occasionally. For example the idea of setting up a goal journal is, I think, useful for helping you track your progress and accomplish the things you want. I've blogged before about how important I think goals are, particularly documenting and tracking your progress towards accomplishing your goals. I also found his writing on ways in which you can "let go" of yourself to get more out of your performance in the music and his ideas on focusing your attention on the music (rather than the "noise" and "conversations" that go on in your brain).

That said, the ideas are commonsense. He goes over and over again the importance of focusing on what you're doing, on trusting yourself, and on having a will to succeed. These are all things we teach kids in building up their self-esteem. In that sense, the book does a good job of reminding us of the importance of these things. However I found a lot of the anecdotes/case studies misleading. There are more than a few paragraphs that begin with something like "Christine, a cellist from Cincinnati, was having a hard time playing a series of ├ętudes." Green then goes on to describe how some simple direction like "try to play the wrong notes" or "ignore your left-hand shifts" or "play with your cello upside-down" made Christine play her ├ętudes brilliantly. I actually laughed during a part of the book in which Green describes having some anxiety and calling a secretary who knew the "inner game" psychobabble. She was able to talk him down and he was able perform the piece with the mastery he knew he had. It makes me think about the case histories I read as an undergraduate regarding cults. I think the "logic" in the book will apply to Amway sales as well.

Green's new book is entitled
led The Mastery of Music, Ten Pathways to True Artistry. Only 10 steps to learn the Bottesini concerto? Sweet.

A Marriage of Convenience?

It seems to me that ever since there have been shows, there have been bookers. While bands and bookers should be able to get along, I'm constantly amazed by the lack of respect and carelessness with which bookers treat bands. (I'm sure this goes both ways, but having never been a booker I have no experience.)

I recently played a show at a local club. We played the club several months ago and were very poorly paid. The booker/promoter/club representative told us the he would make up for this the next time we played and that we would be treated and paid better. So we agreed to play one more time and, lo and behold, we were treated worse and paid less. Our guitar player discretely waited until the end of the night and then tore strip off of the guy who booked us, promising that we would never play there again.

It's amazing to me how often bookers feel that they are doing a band of favor by hiring them, regardless of what they pay. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten the line "Well, you do this because you love it" while I'm being handed less than half of what I was promised in payment. Or how many times I've driven several hours for a show, pay less than promised with the rationalization that I received "a lot of exposure." (People die of exposure.) You would never go to anyone else and slight them on their payment, much less tell them that the enjoyment they got from providing the service was worth the amount you withheld. Next time you're at a restaurant, tell the server you're not going to tip because you think he/she got a lot of enjoyment out of serving you. See what happens.

In economics there is a theory of compensating wage differentials which argues, in essence, that the utility and individual derives from an activity includes pecuniary and nonpecuniary components of the activity. Equilibrium (i.e., no people switching across activities) implies that all activities yield the same utility (otherwise people would move to those activities yielding higher levels of utility). I think bookers just assume this as a “golden rule for bands” and hence feel okay paying musicians little. On top of this, or as a result of it, bookers also seem to feel that they can be dishonest with the band, in our case telling us that will be better treated yet treating us worse.

For at least the club in question last Friday night, their behavior has been self-defeating: News of our misadventure with the club has been communicated to most of the local bands and, at least in our circle of bands, shows are being refused and/or canceled. However, the only real losers in this will be fans of ours who won't be able to see us a particular club. I feel particularly bad since I've been asked to come down to a jam host of the club on Wednesdays, sit in, and potentially talk to a couple people interested in taking lessons with me.

Wait a minute, maybe on the loser in this.