The advent of social media has allowed me to witness the re-emergence of the phenomena of “lick” haters. “Licks” are short worked out melodies that musicians use in their improvised solos. The complaint against licks, I think, boils down to musicians sounding uninspired and clinical because their improvisations sound like exercises and don’t illicit a sense of freedom and spontaneity that true art requires. The conventional wisdom is that learning licks leads to this kind of performance. But I couldn’t disagree more.
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Let’s just get this out there: I love practicing. Sometimes to a fault. By now I think that most people have caught on that practicing isn’t just something for young musicians, but a it is part of our journey throughout life.
I noticed last week that I had a Saturday night off. Checking my date book, it was the first time since September that I had a Saturday off. I’ve been busy playing improvisational music with wonderful musicians for several months. That’s great and I wouldn’t ever complain about that situation. But having a few weeks off here is so welcomed because I find myself back to my favorite way to practice, which is just for my long term improvement and not shedding – or worse – “cramming” for an upcoming gig. I’ve played and studied so much music in the past couple of months and I’m drawing from that to infuse my improvisations with new discoveries and melodies that have come into my awareness. The end of March brings in another stretch of several months of gigs and I’m working hard now to raise my overall level and add to my musical arsenal so my long time bandmates and fans have new material to hear.
For the last three years I have been lucky enough to bring the Jazz House Kids Ambassadors combo to the prestigious Charles Mingus competition. Through this process, my love of Charles Mingus’ music has grown exponentially as I study it more deeply to teach it to the members of the group. The event itself allows our students to gain more insight into the music by getting instruction and feedback from the members of the Mingus Big Band. There are panel discussions for us directors in which we gain further insight into the compositions and the genius of Mingus.
On the day of the competition, this past Sunday, we performed “Reincarnation of a Lovebird”, “Portrait”, and “Peggy’s Blue Skylight”. And low and behold they won their category. To make the day complete, our Jazz House Kids Big Band under the direction of Abraham Burton won as well!
Daily habits. It’s a well worn notion that our daily activities determine what we accomplish and who we become. Count me among those that believe talent is over-rated and hard work is underappreciated. And even though I know this, it still is surprising and seems somewhat miraculous that an activity practiced twenty minutes a day over the course of a month or two can change my daily experience drastically. I find this true in everything from how I get along with my kids, to how I deal with stress, to the way my body looks and feels, but most importantly in my chosen career. As a musician, 20 minutes a day on a particular skill can change the way we are perceived in our field and 2 hours a day can change the whole arc of our career. This week I am preparing for my fall season of practicing and teaching by reinvesting in the study of arguably the greatest improvising musician in history, Charlie Parker.
I was recently flipping through some old practice charts – I’ve always liked documenting my daily practice. I remember a time in the not too distant past when I was practicing playing through several “Bird” solos daily as part of my warm-up. So I was interested when I came across the practice chart in which I recorded this daily activity. I was a little alarmed when I saw the date of these entries – 2011. 2011?!!! I had the notion that this period in my development was much more recent. Then I remembered the impetus for this practice. It came about twelve years ago from a friend who is one of the great improvising voices on the scene today, who, while giving me a much appreciated compliment, suggested I learn some improvised solos of master jazz musicians. It was a comment that I had trouble processing. The compliment was juxtaposed with an apparent assumption that I hadn’t already learned many such solos, but I had. The realization that a musician whom I greatly respected did not hear in my playing that I had done transcription work for years was a wake up call to say the least. But rather than get offended, I asked myself how many solos I could play from memory at that moment. The answer was approximately zero. It honestly had been years since I had done extensive transcription work on my own. And that work was devoid of what I now know is an essential element in the transcription process: to imprint the solo permanently into our working repertoire. Heretofore I had always considered transcription important because it was a way to gather language in small chunks – a phrase or a lick here or there, to consciously adopt the vibrato, articulation, swing feel, and other sonic elements of the artist being transcribed, and to develop technique in general. But being responsible for knowing all these masterpiece solos by heart? That seemed a little out of my reach.
I know there are musicians with perfect pitch and/or tremendous musical recall who learn solos permanently on their first attempt. That just isn’t me. I had to learn to apply my daily habits and high level of discipline to replicate the mastery that some musicians have gained over the material with (apparently) much less work. And the answer is repetition. Play something from memory every day for a month or several months on end until it because as familiar to you as your favorite song. This process takes all the advantages of transcription and multiplies it by 1000. After a year of more disciplined transcription, the reception I received as a musician changed drastically. I have had the great fortune in the past few years of being hired by some of my heros. They hear musical detail that was lost to me until I started taking transcription to this next level. Improvising musicians who seek to make their own mark within the umbrella of jazz music must learn their repertoire so thoroughly that it oozes out of them spontaneously as their own. Having Charlie Parker’s language so completely under you fingers is like an author having all the great writing of Shakespeare, or Dostoevsky completely accessible throughout their writing process.
The goal for this next two weeks is to refresh about ten important Bird solos to the point where I can play through them up to tempo. This will entail a lot of work. But once accomplished, the practice of playing through these ten solos will probably take less than twenty minutes. Then the goal will be to play them everyday first thing in the morning like a cup of coffee. I plan to continue this daily through the end of the year. I hope my students are ready to be all about Charlie Parker this fall.