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Doing It the Slow Way: Guide to Practicing, by Joe Solomon

Discussion in 'Lessons & Articles' started by TalkBass, Apr 26, 2004.

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  1. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    <font class=option_big><center>Doing It the Slow Way<br>
    The How, When, Where, What and wise guide to Practicing a Musical Instrument<br><br>
    By Joe Solomon<br></center></font><br>
    “ I don’t know, I have all these great solos in my head, but I just
    can’t seem to play them on my instrument.” How familiar these words
    are to those of us who have ever attempted to teach the art of improvising to
    other bassists. And it always amazes me how many young players, once they have
    begun to attain a degree of physical mastery over their instruments, seem to feel
    that this new problem of getting music out of their heads and into their ears
    and fingers is a relatively minor one, that their teacher will provide them with
    some simple formula, some magic key that will solve it in a matter of a few weeks.
    In my own experience, nothing has been further from the truth. In fact, my usual
    response is: “Look, I know how you feel. I’ve been working on that
    very thing myself for the past 25 years.” I can just sense the unspoken
    reaction, “Man, this guy really goes slow!” And just to get all cards
    on the table I must add, “That’s right, my way is the slow way. There’s
    no getting around that.” What I don’t always admit right away is that
    I consider the ability to go slow to be a great virtue. To me, the slow way turns
    out in the end to be the fastest way because it is the only way. <br><br>
  2. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    Now what does the slow way entail? Am I simply talking about procrastinating,
    dragging one’s feet, and not practicing consistently, mindlessly running
    over the same material in the same key day in and day out? Of course not. Doing
    it the slow way means learning to be patient, focused, consistent, and above all,
    systematic in one’s practicing. This is the only type of practicing that
    pays off in the long run, the only truly effective approach to every improvisor’s
    problem of getting all that great music we have inside out into the world. There
    are, of course, hundreds of tempting short cuts; tips from magazine articles,
    “Real Book” based workshops, method books of every description, records
    and tapes, even college courses. All of these have value in specific situations.
    But in the end, any quick fix approach does little more than what I call “filling
    up the library”, adding to the amount of information we have to rummage
    through as we try to put together an improvised line, rather than deepening the
    level of our playing. We are left with the feeling that, although we may have
    collected more material, the music we set out to create, that is truly and uniquely
    our own, is still inside waiting to be played.<br><br>
    To get this music out, we must stop looking for short cuts and start doing it
    the slow way, making deliberate, systematic progress on five fronts:<br>
    1- perfecting our physical approach to the bass<br>
    2- absorbing the language of music<br>
    3- developing our ears<br>
    4- practicing improvisation<br>
    5- looking within<br>
    Before I speak in a little greater detail about each of these, let me interject
    a few somewhat random practical suggestions on how to make practicing most effective.
    First of all, practice with a metronome. Any bass player who does not use a metronome
    from the very beginning is only asking for trouble. Second, acquire a half speed
    listening device. This can be an old record changer or reel-to-reel tape machine
    or it can be the newest, most sophisticated, multi-track porta-studio, but a half
    speed of some kind and a metronome are as important as the instrument itself for
    every improvisor’s practicing routine. Third , set up a practice space.
    I understand that this is not easy for those of us with families and/or studio
    apartments, but it makes a tremendous difference not to have to endure elaborate
    setting up before one begins practicing or, worse, to have to keep interrupting
    oneself to unplug from one setup and plug into another. Fourth, schedule practice
    time. It’s easy to practice nine hours a day every once in awhile, but ultimately
    it is not the amount of time but the consistency of application that allows students
    to make progress. My best students are often those who have very little time to
    practice and who are forced to fit a short practice session into a very demanding
    schedule. <b>Go to bed each night knowing what time is set aside for practicing the
    next day</b>. Waking up with the thought “I gotta do some practicing some time
    today” is the kiss of death. It is consistency, not millions of hours, which
    bears fruit.<br><br>
    Now to the work involved:<br><br>
    <b>1 – perfecting the physical approach to the bass</b><br><br>
    Despite the fact that I have many, many very detailed and specific ideas about
    how it should be played, I still really do not believe that there is a correct
    or an incorrect way of playing the bass. When this whole topic gets reduced to
    the word “technique”, the real reason for working on it everyday gets
    lost. After all, the reason for working to perfect one’s physical approach
    to the instrument is not to look good, but to sound good. And it is very difficult
    to sound good if one is playing, for example, with a tremendous degree of tension
    and physical strain. A player whose approach is tension-free is going to have
    a much easier time developing a fat, open warm sound and a loose, swinging feeling.
    Perhaps there will be more space in future articles to go into more specifics
    and provide some practice exercises, but for now let me just allude to the underlying
    principle that governs my approach: Replace muscle tension with weight, balance,
    pressure. PRESS THE NOTES DOWN, DON’T SQUEEZE THEM. This transformation
    ultimately leads to tremendous musical freedom, but it doesn’t happen overnight.
    Old tense knots must be sought out and untied one by one and replaced by weight
    and pressure. The process can only be done the slow way.<br><br>
    <b>2 – absorbing the language of music</b><br><br>
    As with “technique”, here too the word “theory” is often
    applied. But again, that term seems to lead us away from the real reason for including
    this area in daily practicing. It is, of course, true that a good improvisor must
    have an exhaustive, complete theoretical knowledge of music as deep and comprehensive
    as any composer. But in the end, what you know is not as important as how and
    to what level you have absorbed it. An improvisor’s knowledge of the musical
    language, in a sense, cannot be theoretical. It must be practical. That is, one’s
    theory must be in one’s fingers and ears, not in one’s head. There
    is no time to run up into the library when you are improvising, anymore than there
    is time to go open a dictionary in the middle of a passionate profession of love
    to your girlfriend or boyfriend. In such circumstances, the English language,
    or the musical language best be there at your disposal, running around in your
    bloodstream, ready to express spontaneously and passionately whatever it is you
    wish to express. Absorbing the language of music to this level cannot be done
    any other way but the slow way, from the bottom up, starting at the beginning,
    building each new structure on what is already solidly in place, doing this in
    every key, systematically, slowly, completely, with the metronome.<br><br>
    <b>3 – developing our ears</b><br><br>
    Although those of us who have been through conservatory-type music schools often
    remember ear training, as humiliating as it might have been at the time, as the
    one classroom experience that has been of real practical value to us as players.
    I, at times, have great difficulty convincing new students of the importance of
    including this type of work in their daily routine. In fact, many young bassists
    who have played in top-forty “cover” bands often minimize their achievements
    by saying ‘I only play by ear.” This always amazes me. I must remind
    them that all great musicians play by ear, including Itzak Perlman and Vladimir
    Horowitz. Despite the fact that classical players are playing music that has been
    written out in advance, it will not sound like music if they do not use their
    ears and really “hear” what they are playing. It’s not, hopefully,
    that you stop playing by ear as you become a better musician. It’s that
    you play with a more developed ear, trained to hear on a deeper level, to discriminate
    finer and finer degrees of subtlety, most importantly tuned into, really able
    to “hear” the music that is coming from within in the same way that
    Perlman and Horowitz really “hear” the music written out for them
    by Mozart and Chopin. This process of ear development is a lifetime study for
    all musicians but especially for improvisors. It involves many hours of listening
    and singing, much time studying without the instrument in your hands. Ear development
    exercises are as important as anything one does on the instrument. <br><br>
    <b>4 – practicing improvisation</b><br><br>
    It would seem obvious that the three practice areas I have mentioned so far
    would only make sense to the degree that they could be put to use practically
    in the process of improvising. Yet here again, I often encounter resistance
    from students of all backgrounds. It is not enough just to study the rules of
    the language, how to conjugate the verbs, etc.; you must also speak it every
    day. That is, some practice time every day must be spent improvising, using
    the vocabulary you’ve been so painstakingly absorbing, trying to “hear”
    your music, trying to remain loose, relaxed, tension-free at all tempos, in
    all situations. Does this mean, “Just turn on the metronome and wail?”
    Basically, yes. But a good teacher will provide you with specific projects that
    will challenge you at your present level without overwhelming you with harmonic
    or rhythmic material. It baffles me how many otherwise conscientious hardworking
    students will save their “serious” improvising for occasional sessions,
    special workshops, or gigs. To really get this language into your bloodstream,
    you must use it every day. Include improvising: playing on chord progressions,
    playing solos, playing a walking quarter note line as part of your daily systematic
    practice routine.<br><br>
    <b>5 – looking within</b><br><br>
    At the risk of sounding like a child of the sixties, which I am, I would like
    to speak for a moment about the mystifying process of self-realization, self
    discovery that ultimately governs one’s evolution as a jazz improvisor.
    This is usually the last thought on a new student’s mind. To him or her,
    being able to improvise a solo or walking line on ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE appears
    much more as a puzzle to be solved, a maze that must be negotiated than as an
    opportunity look within oneself. But for those of us who have been working on
    it for a number of years have a somewhat different viewpoint. Improvising, after
    all, means creating music that is spontaneous, of the moment, and uniquely your
    own. Unlike the music of Bach or Beethoven, this music has never been played
    before. It will not get played if you yourself don’t play it. Another
    bassist can come along and play the Bach Suites or the Hindemith Sonata for
    Bass, but no one else can create your improvised line. No one else can play
    it but you! So in the end, this process of getting those great solos out of
    your head and onto the instrument becomes a process of self-discovery, finding
    out what your music really sounds like. That is, your daily practice time has
    to be a period of looking honestly within, stripping away the licks, gimmicks,
    and formulas that we have all collected in our attempt to sound like we can
    play, and listening for the simple melodic voice that really is our own. It’s
    there, if we really listen for it. And discovering it and developing it make
    years of doing it the slow way worthwhile.<br><br>
    <b>A last word</b><br><br>
    <img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/solomon.jpg" width="200" height="260" align="right"><br>
    What I have provided is the broadest outline of a slow, systematic approach
    to practicing for the jazz bassist. Perhaps there will be time and space in
    future articles to go into each of these areas in greater detail and provide
    some specific exercises. But I have still to mention what is probably my most
    important piece of advice to beginning improvisors: FIND A GOOD, EXPERIENCED
    TEACHER. In my opinion, given the present climate, it is time that jazz musicians
    learned what classical musicians have known for centuries: the development of
    a musician is essentially a one on one, master-disciple, teacher-student process.
    With a few extremely rare exceptions it cannot be done alone, even with all
    the workshops, courses, self-help records, books and videos which are currently
    available. It has been my great good fortune to study with several excellent
    teachers, most notably Lennie Tristano, Julius Levine, and Sal Mosca. They have
    been the most important factors in my own development. FIND A TEACHER, someone
    who has been through all this already, someone who is willing to get personally
    involved in your individual progress as an improvisor, someone who will listen
    to you play over a long period of time, who will insist you do it in all keys,
    that you don’t play fast tempos until you can relax at medium tempos,
    someone who can say “Great” if you do something really well and
    “here’s how you can do it better” if you don’t. <br>

    – Joe Solomon has free-lanced in the jazz and classical fields in the New York area since the 1960’s. He has performed with Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Howard McGhee, Hazel Scott, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, The Staten Island Symphony, the St. Bart’s Chamber Players, the Philharmonic Symphony of Westchester, and the Village Singers Choral Society. He appears with Connie Crothers on her Steeplechase recording PERCEPTION, Bob Arthurs’ Zinnia recording NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND and on several recordings of new and experimental music. Joe is currently on the music faculty at Kingsborough College in Brooklyn as well as the affiliate faculty at the New School and Long Island University. He also teaches privately in his Manhattan studio.
  3. runeight


    Jun 6, 2004
    Thank you very much for the above post.

  4. Hello Joe. Good to see you again. I was one of your students around 1979 or 80. I stopped playing for a while (about 19 years) when I moved to Florida, but have taken up the DB again as a hobby. Anyway, just wanted to say hi.
  5. lowb1970


    Feb 29, 2004
    Columbia SC
    Great article. thanks for the information.
  6. bdavis


    Jul 4, 2004
    Thank you for the insight. I purchased my first bass a few months ago and your atricle was very imformative. bd
  7. BrianBowman


    Sep 19, 2004
    Joe Solomon,

    Hi, I have a question for you.

    I'm a former Jazz Guitar Student of 3-4 years and have also studied Classical Guitar for 6 years (including 1.5 years with Ray Chester of Peabody Conservatory). I'm now 44 years old and frankly "tired" of the guitar. I've been playing Electric Bass Guitar for about 1 year.

    I would like to get into playing Double Bass, including the Arco technique. Do I face any unusual challenges beginning on the Double Bass at the "ripe middle age" of 44? For example, I've been told that acro technique fundamentals need to be developed by age 14 or so in order for bowing to ever become natural.

    I am a dedicated musician already with several years of reading, theory, harmony, and solfeggio training in my background. If I could commit 2-3 hours of practice per day under a solid professional teacher (there is a phenomenal Classical, Jazz, and Folk DB teacher in my area named Robby Link) would I, in your opinion, be able to develop solid, competent DB skills within say 5 - 7 years? Have you taught adult students who have begun from similar backgrounds and progressed to at least modest levels of professionalism?

    Thanks for any advice you can offer.

    Brian Bowman
  8. Geo313


    Jul 17, 2004
    Great and clear piece of advice/counseling. Appart from the bass, that's how any instrument learning and practicing approach should be. There's so much energy wasted down the road attempting to play more notes per second than anyone, that the focus on trying "just" to be musical gets lost. Come on guys, this is about music, not gymnastics! Let's Sing!!!
  9. Luciano_Bass

    Luciano_Bass Guest

    Nov 6, 2004
    I found this article really inspiring, thanks very much!

    -I better go and practice.... heh heh
  10. P-nut


    Dec 27, 2004
    Simply: Yeah.
    Finally someone who got it!

    Thanks a lot!

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