Thursday, April 23, 2009

Emotions taking me over

Via Bernie Perusse at the Gazette, I've read Karl Paulnack's address to the parents of an incoming class to the Boston Conservatory. The speech resonated with me on many levels. As I've written numerous times in this space, I firmly believe that music is intended to communicate - it is not merely a craft, it is a language, as cliché as that may be. All of the music on Cycles is extremely important on a personal level to me, and the newer tunes I've written for Indigone and for big band also have some sort of back story, be it a tribute to a person in particular or, like "Dancing Serpent in Dawn's Quiet," based on a painting. Other songs that resonate most profoundly for me - Djavan's "Oceano," for example - are obviously coming from a very deep and moving place.

Paulnack recounts one listener's reaction to a performance of Copland's Violin Sonata, written as a tribute to a fallen pilot:

“During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, [...] and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?

Paulnack's address to the parents concludes with a portion of his speech to the incoming students. This is something all of us musicians should keep in mind:

I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. [...] If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.

I remember being on the bus not long after starting my undergrad, and somehow I got to talking to a fellow student, some liberal arts student of an as-then-undetermined major, who was avidly seeking out the doctor-and/or-lawyer type. When I told her I was a musician, she asked something to the effect of "Well, what are you going to do with that?" And I responded along similar lines - I can help people, too.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Hivemind: Pedagogy licks and tricks

Nearly a year ago, Darcy posted this questionaire by Mike McGinnis. This was my response at the time:
In general, this is something I've struggled with as I've started teaching more.
I've worked very hard to shed a reliance on licks and move towards a more
holistic, in-the-moment approach to improv, which doesn't make me special but
will hopefully make me "me." As such I'm wary of giving my students licks and
phrases to study, but the other ways of teaching improvisation sound so
convoluted to a beginner. The process, like a snake shedding its skin, seems to
be necessary: studying the vocabulary of past and present masters, and then
finding one's own voice within that.

I've now had students who are at the level of being able and willing to learn some vocabulary, and I find myself being very against teaching all the textbook patterns and licks that I learned myself. It took me as long, if not longer, to realize that those phrases were a means to an end and not the end itself. I remember hitting a wall early on in my jazz studies, realizing that I wasn't truly improvising but merely creating a real-time pastiche of lick A and phrase B.

I'm beginning to think that a better way is to encourage the student to find their own vocabulary. Any student will (or should) have artists that they gravitate towards and identify with - let that be the genesis of their vocabulary, instead of working out of the various compendiums of licks that exist now. Jan Jarczyk once counselled me to take my favourite phrases of a solo, investigate how and why they work, and take them out of the context of the solo and create new permutations: transpose them to other keys, superimpose them on other harmony, etc. Brad Mehldau told me that he would write his own etudes for himself, so that he could practise various technical challenges without having to copy someone else's language. Some of my first lessons with Jeff Johnston were spent writing my own lines over ii-V-I progressions and attempting to arrive at my own sound that way.

I'm not denying the importance of tradition, or of listening to what's come before. In fact, I believe that it's essential to know the history of the music you're playing, and to be able to recall certain stylistic traits of it immediately. But the challenge is to create a relationship with your musical language, and to have that intent behind what you're playing - if I happen to play a Bird or Coltrane lick, it's not done with a wink and a nod, it's done as my genuine musical decision at that given moment.

How have you fellow musicians and educators effectively learned, or taught, improvisation? Is learning licks now a rite of passage for students or is there a better way to do it?

Stand in line and vote

This post is blatantly for the Montrealers and ex-Montrealers. The Mirror is once again holding its Best of Montreal poll. When I first moved here it was a pretty good guide for places to check out in the city, and as I've spent more time here it becomes a matter of curiosity as to who will place in which categories - will the perennial victors keep their stronghold or will an underdog make headway?

Last year, through the power of Facebook spam, I saw a lot of messages to stuff the ballot box in favour of certain musicians or organizations. (No disrespect and I'm not naming names - it's totally fair in online voting.) It's obvious that not many people are filling in the field of Best Montreal Jazz Musician, and that it doesn't take a lot to skew the vote. While I'm not imploring you to vote for me in that category (though I'd be honoured if you did), I am asking you to vote honestly in that category and others. In this cultural and economic climate, with grant programs disappearing and budgets constantly being cut, we need ink to be spilled on the people actively on the cultural scene of Montreal. As much as I love Oliver Jones and the late Dr. Peterson, there's many more players active at this instant that don't get enough love. There's promoters and hidden venues doing great things off the radar; give your neighbourhood café the shout-out it may desperately need.

The only trick about the Mirror ballot is that you need to fill out 25 of the categories for your votes to be valid. So please click on over and vote! Results will be published May 14.