Thursday, May 31, 2012

My Practice Routine (First Year)

This is a bit hard to remember now. It's been 7.5 years since I started. But I recall how daunting it was to know NOTHING. How do you even start?

I remember my first frustration was the lack of hand independence. So I figured that the way to solve this was hours upon hours of scale practice HT. HS first to get the pattern, then putting it together. In retrospect, I may have overdone this. I easily did 3-4 hours of scales a day the first few months.

But the secondary benefit of scales was understanding theory. I understood a little bit of the diatonic cycle of fifths (degrees of the scale) and worked out on paper all the relationships between each scale and chords. This was my first intro into theory. I started seeing mathematical connections between scales and it really helped me see some of the logic that exists in music.

Since the ii-V-I was the most fundamental concept in playing jazz, I figured I would just stick to one tune as a Pedagogic device and learn how to improvise on that. So just like I did in the Jazz Thread on Pianoworld, I played Autumn Leaves constantly since it's a major ii-V-I and a relative minor ii-V-i in one tune.

With such limited knowledge, I just learned (memorized) a rootless voicing on the LH and did the melody on the RH. Part of this was the challenge of hand independence.

I didn't have good instruction the first year since my first teacher was just a student himself so my direction was haphazard.

I remember playing a fixed pattern of Walking Bass on the LH. I just did this over and over without thought and then would insert a few notes on the RH to see if I didn't lose the beat. After a year, I could semi do this. But maybe it was too early for it.

I memorized the rootless voicings and then practiced ii-V-I's in all keys. This was tedious and at the beginning, I had no real understanding of the notes my hands were on. I just memorized. I would later have to undo this by actually understanding what was in the voicing and not just doing it blindly.

Most of all, even from day 1, I just improvised. I pretty much played diatonically since that's all I know and tried to do it more by ear. I'm sure it sounded awful but as I later learned, the first thing that has to happen is to "Let Go". Apparently improvising is tied to a part of the brain the releases inhibitions and you have to let go. Many people start playing jazz by going to method books and practicing etudes. I wonder though how much they they spent just letting go. I think withholding this step will prevent development. I realize now that it doesn't matter what you play. Play from the heart and that'll train the brain.

Now if I'm to do this again, I'd probably give a limitation of playing only 1-2-3-5 of the chord. That probably give more structure and follow vocabulary.

If I had to go back, I need to have mastered voicings more clearly and to get an early start on identifying each of the 12 tones in relation to the root of the chord.

I should have practiced visualizing:
Comes pretty easy now but it took years and it would have been important that first year.

Visualizing the layout of the keyboard quickly is essential in two handed voicings. This is probably why teachers always start out with shell voicings on the LH (1-7). this really gives a good base for a good hand shape. Again this was not something I did the first year. Wasted time.

Practicing rhythms slowly was not something I did. The most important thing to a musician is to have good time/rhythm and one has to build this pulse in the body. I didn't practice with a metronome early on. I tried to play things as fast as I can rather than slow it down. It's harder to play slowly. There was some years in the middle that I had to focus on this. Big issue that's under-discussed.

Swing - I didn't really learn this properly until I got to my third and long term teacher. I wished I understood this from the beginning. My tip to new students, FORGET ABOUT LONG-SHORT-LONG-SHORT eighths or "Triplet Feel".  Just play it Straight and accent the upbeats. The swing feel will develop from that. I can't believe the amount of research I did on this, including slowing down recordings to understand what was going on. At a Bill Cunliffe Master Class recently, this was one of the first things he said too. It is NOT COOL to play with triplet feel with real jazz players.

Jazz Vocabulary - this eludes me to this day because it's supposed to be something that early jazzers are supposed to learn but my teacher did not teach me this at all. He taught me the correct notes, the phrasing, the feel, but left the actual choice of notes to me. At first, people commented that my playing was stilted because it was unrecognizable from traditional jazz. I'm listening to traditional jazz now and mixing it more in but in a way, I'm glad I didn't get too influenced because my "voice" is unique though rough on the edges. So the way to get jazz vocabulary is to transcribe. In retrospect, transcribing Freddie the Freeloader and So What would have been a good thing.

Reading  Music - I played some classical pieces the first year like Fur Elise and Chopin's Raindrop Prelude but I was a poor sight reader. I had to memorize. I could have spent more time reading but I just hated it. But in jazz, this isn't so much of a problem when learned later. I read a little better now. I still avoid it though. What was important was learning Classical music. I think playing a few Classical pieces well is essential. I learned quite a bit from Chopin's Raindrop Prelude and also Em Prelude.

In my 3rd year, I went to a Classical Teacher to learn technique. Again in retrospect, I should have done this in the first year. I got tendonitis from lack of understanding of technique. Reading about technique from books only makes sense in retrospect. When you don't know what the right way is, you can misinterpret. My classical teacher spent months on finger-drops. Hands collapse on the keys. Relaxation. Then you eventually realize that the hand structure itself will provide the force. But then it was later in my playing that I realized even this instruction wasn't sufficient. Fingers have to be involved too at times. One answer is never that simple.

So what was UNimportant to practice back then (which appears to be true in retrospect)? First, I didn't do much Hanon the first year. Scales yes. Hanon no. In retrospect, good deal. I realized later on that without proper technique, I would have to unlearn everything I did with Hanon.  I did Hanon later (maybe 3-4 years in) but only for a few months at a time.

Learning a zillion tunes. I did not do this. This was good. At first it was Autumn Leaves. My longer term teacher focused on All the Things You Are. At first, I thought I was not getting a good grounding in tunes because we only hit the most difficult tunes and some I worked on for a year. In retrospect, not a big deal. When you learn to improvise, learning a new tune is the least of your concerns. Chord progressions are so repetitive. Looking back, even playing Autumn Leaves in many keys would have worked too. I know hundreds of tunes now. I learned them all in one year. Maybe I don't have them completely memorized yet but I don't doubt it will happen normally. Good thing I didn't waste my time on this.

My Practice Routine (Today)

I keep getting asked this question a lot so I figure I'll just answer here and then not have to retype it.

Obviously, there's a different practice strategy when I was just starting out vs. today so the specifics are never fixed. First there's the time element. I've maintained the discipline of practicing 2 hours a day and this even increases on weekends. This does not include time listening to Jazz (or Classical) nor does it include talking about music with anyone on the internet.

The hard part about practicing is to build a list of what to practice. This really takes some thinking and planning but without it, the whole idea of practice becomes a waste. So what I do is maintain a list of weaknesses that I'm aware of and then I hit those at each practice session.

This is a recent list:

1. Two handed scales at 160bpm Quarters played in perfect unison - I may hit 2-4 scales a day, targetting the worst ones. This week I did D, F#, Db, E, F. My weakness here was the LH. My RH is very fast but my unisons are slightly out of sync. Maybe 15 minutes.
2. Playing two handed Quartal voicings moving up diatonically in steps (stack of 4ths with a 3rd on top). I've been doing this on every key. Everyone knows this in Dm and Ebm because of So What, but fries my brain in Dbm, or Bbm.
3. Uptempo practice - I put up Mr. PC as a backing track and then I push the tempo higher and higher. Usually I start on 200bpm and then work my way up to 250bpm.
4. I've got gigs every week so I have to learn new tunes constantly. Or review tunes I haven't played in awhile, particularly the head. So this week, I was working on Wave, I've Got You Under My Skin, and Softly as in the Morning Sunrise.
5. Next I always work on some aspect of improvising. So I play the tunes on my set list for the week and then see if I can make a coherent solo out of it. I'm typically addressing a specific problem, like space, repetition of ideas, connectivity of ideas, and phrasing issues. I try to make a regular assessment of the content of my solos so that I'm not just banging away without thought.
6. I'll do a little Walking Bass since this is something I've neglected for years. On a new tune, I'll just do 1-3-5-3 as a starting point and then slowly vary it. One tune only per practice session. This one I've skipped frequently. So I'm not consistently practicing it.
7. Playing Unison Melodies. This is sort of related to #1. Because the two hands have to be perfectly timed. So any lack of technique or discomfort in fingering can be heard. But something has changed recently. I can play a lot of unisons now. This week I was practicing Solar in unison.

Now this specific practice regimen is to help me with my gigs. At different times I may be focused on completely different issues. For awhile there, I thought I was playing unevenly and I identified the problem to weaknesses in Finger 4. So I record myself constantly and problems I didn't hear a year ago, I may hear now. I fixed this with Hanon for a couple of months.

So what's the pattern to what I'm doing here? Well first, like I said, I have to make a list of weaknesses. And part of this is developing the critical ear to listen for weaknesses. I realized that if you can't hear the problem then you can't solve it. One must never be cocky thinking that one is now "good". I know I'm not good. To a beginner I may sound good but I know better.

Second part of the pattern here is I always work on multiple issues at once. Usually a set of problems will stay with me for a couple of months and I will hit on the set and see tiny amounts of progress every day.

Third, there's always a mix of technical, vs. musical challenge.

BTW sometimes I think I know how to do certain things but when put to a test by a teacher, I forget (like 2 handed voicings -- sometimes too slow). So certain things have to rotated back. One of the reasons I put scales back on the list was that I looked at the requirements to do a Jazz Camp at Port Townsend (audition required), and part of the requirements was to do scales at 160bpm. At first that scared me but then it was just 160bpm in quarters (I practice in sixteenths). The issue though was unison scales. My LH sucked and at 160bpm my LH was not even. My RH can do 160bpm in sixteenths so they are far apart.

Anyway, specifics aside, the whole point was a constant search for problem areas and to keep searching for them, with the goal being to get up to the next level.

Someone asked me what I practiced during my first year so I'll discuss that separately.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What I got from Brad Mehldau

I was watching Brad Mehldau last night, the first time as a trio. I've seen him in his orchestral performance on Highway Rider and I was disappointed in that because so little of it was piano. This time, it was focused on piano and drum solos and bass solos only occurred on  a couple of tunes.

Each time I watch these World Class performers, I look for something to learn. First of all, even with Chick's performance last week, I noticed that I was playing longer phrases than these two greats. Even when Chick played his fast lines, he still kept each phrase short and varied them a lot rhythmically. So once again, I tell myself "KEEP YOUR PHRASES SHORT".

Now there are players that have long phrases (Keith Jarrett for one), but he knows what he's doing. I don't so I better stick to the program.

I made a statement before my last gig that I would leave more space. Well it was one of the worst days for space yet. Playing jazz requires such deep concentration while playing and at my last gig a few days ago, it was very hard to hear the bass and the drums from the audience noise. So I was distracted.

Comparing Brad and Chick for a moment,  Brad was more definitive about connecting each phrase. In a majority of his phrases, it would always link to the one before. Seldom would a single idea stand out without a connection to something else.

This to me is something I've strived to do in practice. I even do a frequent practice strategy of creating  a phrase from a prior one. Brad Mehldau specifically stated this as his approach (the building of ideas as a prior one unfolds) in the program notes.

So I don't know why this always fails for me a gig. After listening to the sax soloist in my band, by the time its my turn to play, I'm trying to sound similar and I realize now that I'm playing too busily. I know this after the fact since I listen to the recordings of all my gigs. This last gig I did was one of the worst. I was filling in with a bunch of crap, to be honest.

In addition to Brad's melodic structures (of connecting phrases), he is also very recognizable with his syncopated rhythm and his is very specific. Some of it I hear in Fred Hersch (his teacher), and some clearly developed further to something recognizable as his. I clearly copy these little things he does, at least in practice.

Some of the things that I do I pick up subtley from influences from Brad, Herbie and Bill Evans. Those are probably the top three. I haven't seen Herbie yet in a Trio playing straight ahead though I've seen many of his concerts on DVD.

There's something different about seeing these guys live. Maybe because I know I'm paying a dollar a minute to watch them so it makes me really try to pick out something useful from each performance.

Even when I go back to listening to the records, I seem to get a better sense of what's happening from having watched their fingers.

Suprisingly, a lot of Brad and Chick's fast lines are two handed. Just seems awfully fast but would seem like moderate work for each hand. Looks like I've been working too hard.

Now that I've got a chance to really watch him play, I realize that Brad has a lot of jazz vocabulary that guides what he plays. I would have thought that because he's such a unique voice that nothing pulls from the past. I was wrong. I can hear the bebop structures that he can pull out at will (though he rarely is that predictable).

Clearly his source for his improvisation is way big. It's rare to find him with something cliche.  The good news is that Brad is only 42. There will be many years still to watch him grow even further.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Chick Corea!

I've been trying to see Chick Corea for years and it just hasn't worked out. He likes to play at Catalina Bar and Grill which is just inconvenient to drive to. Anyway, it was like a piano lesson to watch him play. It's just not the same listening to records. Watching his fingers, I get a better sense of what he's doing. Just unbelievable chops and musicality. Concert was too short.

Jam Stuff

Spring can really hang you up the most
This was a neat tune. It had the most complex effing leadsheet and we couldn't understand the form. Anyway, one of the guys acted as the conductor and we did it a second time. Still wobbly much improved. It's really a challenge to be thrown these tunes. First it was presented to me in the key of A and I said NO WAY. Half step up or down! So we played it in Bb (whew!).

Giant Steps
There was a dare to do Giant Steps and we stepped up to the plate and did it. Though it is easy enough to play this at home, for whatever reason, I just stiffened up in the middle of it. I guess because I'm trying to hear myself over the guitar comping. The tempo was reasonable.

Some other stuff.

Black Coffee
Blue Bossa

Body and Soul