Another Good Question

From the mail room:

It’s been a long time since we’ve talked. If you don’t remember, I sent in the question about collegiate practicing and music in general. Anyway, just a little update. After reading through what everybody said about the matter and talking to some of my local musician mentors, I really took a hard look at what was going on and decided it would be best for me to cut ties with some of the things that were creating my musical issues. As of now, I’ve been following (for the most part) the practice strategy at the end of Bill Dobbins’ “Jazz Keyboard Harmony” book, which if you haven’t checked out is quite interesting. I’ve seen so much improvement in every aspect of not only my playing, but my concept of music, composition, and overall passion which seemed to be deteriorating before this change.

On the subject of the Dobbins book, there’s a sentence in a part of the practice strategy of “Repertoire” that states ” Musical material only becomes useful after it has been committed to memory. How can we expect to be able to improvise strong melodic lines, if we have never taken the time to learn some strong melodies?” These two sentences hit me really hard and got me to thinking about all of the times I’ve gone to jam sessions or even concerts where guys are reading music. Then it hit me that this could be one of the biggest fundamental problems in the unpopularity of jazz, because people who have not taken the time to really get to know the music can take a real book out with their buddies and play very amateur versions of “Autumn Leaves” for 20 minutes. But on the other hand, as a composer, if I have a long through-composed piece, how can I get my group to the depth of the piece if it could be unfeasible to memorize? Then, I watched Pat Metheny Group’s “The Way Up – Live”, and the only guy using sheet music was Steve Rodby, and I’m not sure how much he was even using it.

As a composer, how do you deal with this issue? If the guys in the DDQ are reading, do you notice a big difference in their solos and communication as compared to when they have your material internalized? When you were playing with SFJazz Collective, how did they deal with those issues, because I see on the DVD you guys were reading sheet music. And on the topic of sheet music, do you feel that the current music education system is completely backwards by teaching kids to read music first before (if they ever) try to develop their ears?

A non-music major came up to me the other day and asked me if he should take classical or jazz lessons and I gave him this advice. By taking classical lessons, you’re going to learn how to read and interpret sheet music while playing your instrument with little regard for developing your ears. It would be like only being able to speak English while reading a speech, not being able to improvise a conversation like we are doing right now. If you take jazz lessons, you’ll mostly work on developing your ears, or vocabulary on your instrument and learn how to speak the musical language.

I would love to hear your thoughts on all of these issues, but I know since this email is 20 pages long it’s unrealistic hahaha. If you get some time to mull this over, or already have, it would be very beneficial to hear how a composer like yourself deals with these kinds of things on an everyday basis.

I’d agree with Dobbins about memorization being important. Not so sure about the “unpopularity of jazz.” But it’s a good point that players ought to make a stab at memorizing, especially when they are improvising with the materials. Standards, the meat and potatoes language of jazz, certainly need to be learned from memory to be played credibly.

Pat Metheny always surrounds himself with fantastic musicians. He and they clearly put in the work to make those through-composed pieces come alive. Steve Rodby probably just glances down from time to time as a reminder of where the piece is going next. But I also think that it is a developed skill to make deep music while reading. An important thing to be able to do. Think about how many actions are involved in playing music–there are probably an infinite number of things going on. So I’d say that looking at sheet music would be one more variable within that incredibly intricate, sophisticated and complex set of human actions.

Where I would diverge is in the comparison to classical (read “completely notated”) music. Memorization is just as important there. And being a great interpreter is not “like only being able to speak English while reading a speech.” Far, far from it. Great performers in any genre are personally committed to what they are doing, internalizing each movement. All musicians are involved in “developing your ears, or vocabulary on your instrument and learn[ing] how to speak the musical language.”

I guess what I’m saying is that, yes, memorization is a crucial skill. So is the ability to look at sheet music and quickly grasp what needs to be done and how to make real music out of it. Speaking for my own practice — after a lot of years of writing long involved pieces for my groups with lots of material, I find myself condensing my ideas and getting better at developing ideas that leave a lot of open space for the players. Part of that movement has to do with this very issue — not wanting bands to have to read a lot on stage. Even though great players are capable of playing well from sheet music, I find the music that I want to hear can be expressed in a much simpler way on paper, getting rid of extraneous notes and cutting to the core of the idea. I thank the players in my bands for inspiring that switch to a large extent. I still write long form pieces for some situations. A composer has to consider the performers and the intention of the performance in deciding how to present a piece to a group.

If composition is, in a basic sense, communicating a musical idea to others so that they can execute it, then the composer’s role in this discussion is a large one. Certain things can be easily memorized for performance. Others cannot. The composer must choose. The performer must also choose: What is the most effective way to perform this piece? That is a very individual choice that is up to each player to decide.

Glad to hear that you are happy with your progress, that’s the most important thing. Thanks for writing. I’m sure there are plenty of other points of view on this topic. I’d be glad to hear them.