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Elevating oneself

Discussion in 'Music Theory [DB]' started by Alex Scott, Mar 12, 2004.

  1. Alex Scott

    Alex Scott

    May 8, 2002
    Austin, TX
    Ok, Here is my situation:

    I have been playing for like 15 years,
    Play a bunch of crummy gigs, have been doing so for years,

    I second guess what notes I am playing all the time, I can name any chord with all tones and play it in seconds.

    It is just connecting the dots that I have trouble with. Maybe from playing too many crummy gigs or just wasting all my practice time playing gigs, I don't know.

    Any suggestions?

    piano lessons, quitting a bunch of groups for a practice hiatus?

  2. godoze


    Oct 21, 2002
    what is your goal exactly ? when you say "connecting the dots" do you mean that literally as in your having trouble reading music ? not sure I understand your dilemma...
  3. Alex Scott

    Alex Scott

    May 8, 2002
    Austin, TX
    I mean smoothly getting between chords, constructing more engaging basslines, becoming a more authoritative presence in a band harmonically, for this forum, although I could say the same rythmically in another.

    I guess the dilemna is:

    How can I play more like Ray Brown, with his ultimate sense of what notes are perfect.

    I'm just tired of playing wanker notes that look good on paper but don't sound that great or authoritative

    Please say something besides stop everything and transcribe as many of Ray's Basslines as possible, because that is all I could come up with. Thanks
  4. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    The ultimate goal of many great players is to get the sounds they are hearing in their heads to come out of their instruments without interruption or loss of clarity. If I were you, I would practice singing both bass lines and melodic solos over the material you are working on, then make an assessment of whether what you are seeking to improve lies more between your ears or at the ends of your arms. If you can sing something but can't get it out of your bass, then work on technique. If you can't sing anything that you think is worthwhile, then I would focus my energy in that area until the sung ideas get to the level where you want to play them.
  5. Alex:

    I share your pain, except I've been playing for better than twenty years with varying degrees of commitment and intensity.

    Especially when I'm on the bandstand with guys who are great soloists, I become painfully aware that much of what I do solo-wise amounts to nothing more than extravagant finger-wiggling. Once in a while I'll play a chorus that makes me feel like I know what I'm doing, but that feeling is short-lived, usually gone by the end of the next chorus.

    My aim is to build my vocabulary via transcribing solos from CDs as well as my own sung musical ideas, as Chris mentioned. I'm also going to try to work my way through the "Woodshedder's Sourcebook" by Emile DiCosmo to build my technical skills. A world-class guitarist I know says he practices from this book each day and that it's the foundation of his entire technique. I'll get back to you in about a year to let you know how its going. As Chris also alluded to, its no good having ideas if you don't have the ability to reproduce them.
  6. Sam Sherry

    Sam Sherry Inadvertent Microtonalist Supporting Member

    Sep 26, 2001
    Portland, ME
    Euphonic Audio "Player"
    Alex, what a great question. Who the heck am I to even dare to respond to it? When did that ever shut me up, though?

    First of all, as Yogi Berra said, "90 percent of this game is half mental." Looking at your profile, it seems that you have already gone to some places most of us can only dream of! And you've been at it for long enough to know that there are ruts and there are spurts. Look up, hombre, it's a tunnel, not a hole.

    Second: Yep, "Bad Jazz" is a real phenomenon. There are those Same Old gigs, playing the same old tunes in the same old keys at the same old tempos while The Guys In Ties play the same **** solos they've played since the advent of the long-playing record. If you're stuck in a loop of Bad Jazz gigs, you don't have too many options if you're gonna stick around. They would be a) lump it; b) elevate your own playing; and c) shake up the group. For the latter, maybe the fellas will take some small chances -- a new tempo, a new key, a different standard. But as for your own playing, here's a quick check: "How would you play differently if you thought that Ray Brown was in the audience?"

    Or, of course, you can elevate your playing by elevating your surroundings. Book a gig. I know, it's easy to say and hard to do, but book a blinkin' session if you really can't book a gig. Call the best players you know. Call great players you DON'T know. You would be amazed who you can talk to -- man, it's an honor to be told "no" by some folks! And for better or worse, you would be amazed who will say "yes," and for how little.

    Finally, I know it's a frequent refrain around here, but studying with a teacher can have an invigorating effect on your playing. I went between lessons for a LONG time. Last summer I started up again. And guess what, I started practicing more, and playing less badly.

    And now for a more informed perspective . . . .
  7. Johnny L

    Johnny L

    Feb 14, 2002
    Victoria, TX
    The only dots I've ever been able to connect are the ones I can see. If increasing the chance of connecting the chords is your goal, your best first step may be to know the progression so that you can think ahead and work your way there with your note choices.

    If you want to connect the dots every time dead-on, stop improvising and plan ahead - just like plenty of really, really great painters do.
  8. Alex Scott

    Alex Scott

    May 8, 2002
    Austin, TX
    Thanks guys, very helpful

    Some more info-
    This is mental, and perhaps real book induced, I just don't always use my ears, also I spent about 13 of the last 15 years listening to mostly free jazz, although I don't know how that affects things, except that now I really want to investigate some more "establishment" based styles of the tradition, or allow me to attempt a paraphrase- I want to be a more active participant in the jazz tradition, understanding the past more, listen to more pre-post bop, if that makes sense.

    So my ears are perhaps over-extended. A ton of subs or complicated structures sort of takes away from my ability to be a well-rounded musician. I just never thought playing 1 5 1 was very cool, and missed out on a great deal of subtlety because of that- my first jazz album was the shape of jazz to come by ornette.

    Now I want to learn all the cliches, but in a more meaningful way, like when Ray Brown played them, they weren't cheesy, and I avoid cliches because they do sound like cheese.

    Good point on getting some of my own gigs, I don't think I am quite ready, but maybe a year out.

    So what does anyone suggest about relearning basic changes and harmonies? Thanks
  9. Peter Dalla

    Peter Dalla

    Feb 2, 2004
    First you say "I just don't always use my ears" and then you say "also I spent about 13 of the last 15 years listening to mostly free jazz". Like it's two different things. If you are not playing what you are hearing, you are not playing music. If you are not listening to the people you are playing with (generally) you don't have a chance of creating a musical moment.

    There are a couple of threads going you might want to check out, Mike Da Mook's thread on soloing and walking and the thread on memorizong standards (although I don't really agree with a lot that's been said in that thread)

    Believe me, I've been EXACTLY where you are. Your playing has gotten to a point where you sound like you can play and people call you for gigs, but you can't seem to make the conceptual leap to get where people you hear on records are playing. There are some things that have been said here that I have NOT found to work, in my own personal experience.

    My aim is to build my vocabulary - it's not about vocabulary. That was my big revelation after coming north. I would paly duo or trio with all of these players who had great ideas, tune after tune, night after night. And then I would be hard pressed to come up with a chorus or two that didn't sound like gibberish. So I thought " Must learn more vocabulary". So I studied with a great player, we learned all sorts of scales, modes, chordscales for altered chords, modes of the melodic minor scale, blah, blah, blah. What it gave me was more notes to choose from but no real clear way to determine what notes I really wanted to play. It's not about vocabulary, it's about meaning and intent. You can pick all the notes that are supposed to work over a dominant chord you want to, if you are not clearly hearing what you want to play it is IMPOSSIBLE to come up with a coherent and intelligible line (bearing in mind the monkeys/typewriter/Shakespeare scenario. But do you really want to wait for happenstance or do you want to be self directed?). If all you can clearly hear is a limited vocabulary, but you REALLY hear how the chords move and REALLY hear the notes in your limited vocabulary within the harmonic progression and have the wherewithal to play those notes you clearly hear and know (can identify with clarity) on your instrument, the suddenly what you can play communicates to the other musicians and to the audience WHAT YOU ARE HEARING when you are playing say OUT OF NOWHERE. You're not stumbling blindly through the woods, you are exploring a path that is taking you towards the destination (whose location you know). It may not be the most complex path at the beginning, but it will be evident for anyone who is watching (AKA listening) "Oh, he's going there and that's how he's getting there".

    its no good having ideas if you don't have the ability to reproduce them. - learning technique is not going to give you ideas. If you hear something clearly enough, you are going to do WHATEVER it takes to get that idea out, even if it means playing it on one string. Charlie Haden is a great example, his technique is fairly atrocious. But he gets the ideas out. Sure, if you come up against your technique on a gig (you don't have the chops to play the idea at tempo, your fingering was a mess cause you haven't spent enough time on two octave harmonic minor scales with string crossing descending etc.) you shed what gave you a problem until it is no longer a problem. But the idea came first. Because you heard something clearly that you wanted to play.

    So my ears are perhaps over-extended. A ton of subs or complicated structures sort of takes away from my ability to be a well-rounded musician. I just never thought playing 1 5 1 was very cool, and missed out on a great deal of subtlety because of that- my first jazz album was the shape of jazz to come by ornette.

    I'm not sure what you're really saying here. If you are really really hearing subs or "complicated structures" you will use them in the way you are hearing them. If all you are doing is dropping subs in because you think you are supposed to or because somebody told you it was hip, it sounds like you're just not listening. The only reason you should play a note is because that is the note you are hearing in the context of what you are doing.
    Think of it like a conversation. Not just a "hey how ya doing how's the weather what did you see on TV last night" but a conversation with somebody that is involving and deep and you really want to hear what they have to say cause it's just interesting as all get out and they want to hear what you have to say because you have some points that they really haven't thought about in this context but now that you mention it that really is true. A true and honest exchange of thought and feeling. When you're in that kind of conversation, what you bring to it is the things that you have thought about a lot, that you express in the EXACT and SPECIFIC words that express that thought in your own true voice.
    So you can't bring a lot of words that you don't really use in your everday conversation, you can't drop in phrases you read in a book recently or something that somebody else said. Yuo play a sub because that's where you heard the tune going, either in something the soloist did or the accompanist did.

    Anyway, I gotta run and meet my girlfriend, I'll try to finish up in a couple of days or something.

    But this is exactly where I was a few years back, and the thing that got me on the other side of that brick wall wasn't learning more vocabulary.

  10. Lovebown


    Jan 6, 2001
    Wow the Ed Fuqua resemblance is stunning here! Hehe...

  11. Damon Rondeau

    Damon Rondeau Journeyman Clam Artist Supporting Member

    Nov 19, 2002
    Winnipeg, baby
    I was thinking much the same. Why don't we just force the issue?

    Peter Dalla IS Ed Fuqua! If he isn't, he might as well be.

    "Nice piano player", indeed.

  12. Yes, fuquatic
  13. Alex, I totally hear what you're saying. My first jazz album was also Shape of Jazz to Come, and my approach into jazz has also been down the back slope first, so to speak. For me, it was just the degeneration of instrumental punk as odd musical shapes and colors that drew me toward jazz, and I think Ornette COleman is such an approriate introduction, since it was said (this may be apocryphal) that he was studying theory and that the day he really realized how backwards he had come into it, there was a look of terror in his eyes. This isn't to say there is a 'right' way or 'wrong' way of learning about jazz, but...

    For me, I am having trouble reconciling the theory with what's in my ears, and its a stumbling, often wrong path forward. I know I could 'wow them' alot better if I just went for a more formulaic way of thinking about stuff, but it wouldn't fool other musicians, it wouldn't fool true listeners. Sometimes I get there, and its definitely not by having vocabulary as per the last post. But I am probably about where you are in this journey - I just wanted to let you know, you ain't alone!
  14. Don Higdon

    Don Higdon In Memoriam

    Dec 11, 1999
    Princeton Junction, NJ
    No way.
  15. I think some points need to be clarified here. First of all, Alex, you have taken an important step in your desire to be more grounded in the tradition. I feel strongly about the necessity to learn conventions first, then deviate from them later if you are inclined.

    By "connecting the dots" I think what you are referring to is voice leading, yes? In other words, you want to move beyond the "station-to-station" mindset of this scale goes with this chord, then this other scale with the next, etc. You want to understand how the inner voices move when the chords change. Then you want to illustrate that movement (or lack thereof, if a note holds as a common tone) over the barline by incorporating it into a melody.

    First, try this exercise. Start on a chord tone. It can be a basic chord tone or an upper extension. When the chord changes, move to a note that is a step away in either direction. Then string together a series of steps in the same direction on successive chords. This way you will start to think more linearly/horizontally and less vertically. For example, on the first 8 bars of Stella, play the following whole notes: Bb,A,G,F,Eb,D,C,Bb. Then concoct a melody in which those notes are the focal point of each measure. Here is another example using more upper extensions: D (7th of E-7b5), Eb (#11 of A7), F (11th of C-7), Gb (b9 of F7), G (9th of F-7), Ab (7th of Bb7), A (#11 of EbMA7), Bb (9th of Ab9).

    Next point to clarify: the development of vocabulary is a good thing. Peter Dalla seems to have suggested that "vocabulary" consists of scales and arpeggios. I would submit that this is not what Alex was referring to. When I think of "vocabulary" as it relates to jazz improvisation, what comes to mind is melodic phrases, with varying degrees of cliche, and varying in length anywhere from 2 beats to 4 bars. All of the jazz greats, past and present, have contributed to the wealth of vocabulary which is its language. When you transcribe a solo, then steal some of the licks or melodic phrases, you are amassing your own collection of vocablary. IMHO, this is a big piece of the puzzle.
  16. Peter Dalla

    Peter Dalla

    Feb 2, 2004

    There are some very good points made early on when people (Chris Fitzgerald, Sam Sherry, et al) start talking about listening and singing, about playing in situations that stretch you, about moving around familiar things to stretch your ears. My own personal experience though is that what started to change things for me was working on improvisation in some very specific ways (some of which are outlined in Mike Da Mook's WALKING AND SOLOING thread) and by really working on specific ear training exercises ( the suggestion about finding someone to study with is a very good one, they will be able to listen objectively to you and suggest ways to work on what is concerning you) so that what I am hearing internally is clear and understandable and can be played.

    I understand where T-BAL is coming from. Transcribing is a wonderful tool and can be very helpful in a number of ways. My own experience has been that to merely use it as a "mine" for ideas or borrowed vocabulary (which can be thought of as scales or notes or arpeggios or phrases) can lead down some dead ends, in the long run.
    There was a great short film on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE many years back. It had Bill Murray, who was a drunken bum/street person who, lying on his back in the gutter, had the delusion/dream of being a great Shakespearean actor on stage doing a soliloquiy(sp?). You know, if only, I coulda been a contender, that sort of thing. But the speech he was giving was not one the great solo speeches (I'll just dodge the bullet), it was just a pastiche of lines from various Shakespearean plays (Oh, for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention. My kingdom for a horse, oh you band of brothers. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and never the twain shall meet. Etc.)
    Point being, it takes more than pulling phrases or notes or whatever off of a recording to get to the point where you are making a cogent statement. And, unless I am totally misunderstanding your point Alex, that's kind of where you are now.

    It is my experience so far (and is the methodology put forth by my teacher who has had his own experience with this method) that internalising someone else's solo (or line) is productive in mny other ways, perhaps the most important of which is making that connect between hearing a note/line/phrase in a specific harmonic situation, clearly identifying what you are hearing and then playing what you have identified. Because when you can do that with a Sonny Rollins solo, you can do that for your own line that you are hearing internally.

    But for whatever reason you are doing it, the mere act of transcribing does work on your ear and execution and some very powerful ways.
    T-BAL's suggestion to work on voice leading is a good one, in addition to helping you hear lines through harmony, it helps to work on understanding what it is you are hearing.

    As far as what I am saying sounding like someone else. I don't have a copyright, nobody does. This is information that people who have played this music have found to be a viable and productive approach. For all the intellectual understanding, theoretical insight, technical ability playing jazz demands of a player, the bottom line remains the ability of the player to communicate in a meaningful fashion what it is they are hearing. That was as true for Louis Armstrong as it is for Dave Douglas.
    As it is for you and me.
  17. Phil Smith

    Phil Smith Mr Sumisu 2 U

    May 30, 2000
    Peoples Republic of Brooklyn
    Creator of: iGigBook for Android/iOS
    This is a fascinating discussion and very informative especially for those of us that haven't been playing for a long time. Alex Scott, I think it would be beneficial if you could post a sample of your playing that illustrates your notion of being stuck. I would think that after 15 years of playing and gigging that you are already doing some voice leading and your lines fit in with the tune. Is it possible that you could post something?
  18. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    I think transcription is an extraordinarily powerful tool IF you take the time and effort to go about it correctly. While the notion of "correctly" is subjective, here are some of my thoughts:

    1) Choose a player whose solo concept you admire as a whole, or whose work exemplifies "the next level" in concept from where you are. Don't choose a solo because it "has a coupla cool licks in it".

    2) Write your transcription down in notation. Be as specific as you can, especially as regards rhythm, which is often the most overlooked aspect of any player's concept.

    3) While transcribing, DON'T USE YOUR CRUTCHES (instrument) UNTIL YOU ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO. A big part of the game is about training your ears to hear more specific things more quickly. If you are always hunting and pecking on some axe or other to try to find out what note you just heard, you aren't training your ear. Write out the rhythmic gesture first, then by knowing the changes and perhaps key notes in the line, try and fill in the rest by singing and educated guesswork. This will be a lot more beneficial to your ear than banging away on an instrument for every pitch, and will eventually be a lot faster. These days, I transcribe directly from the record into Sibelius, which is a pretty quick process. Once it's in the program, I can play it back, which lets me know any errors I might have made along the way - at which point adjusting them is simple. But by going with the ear/singing approach, I feel my ear has grown by leaps and bounds, whereas before (when I used to hunt and peck), it was a slow crawl at best. This step takes a great deal of discipline, so stick with it - IT PAYS!

    4) Once you are finished, analyze what you have transcribed for different aspects of construction, especially motivic development over the entire solo (which indicates closer than anything else I can think of how a player put his or her solo together in the first place), and tonality. When looking at tonality, pay special attention to when a player seems to be "outlining the changes" as opposed to when they are "playing across" the large-scale tonality of the moment. This is incredibly instructive, at least for me.

    5) Last, play the solo along with the recording in an effort to try and cop the feel of the player in question. When you can play along and not hear yourself because you are blending with the recording, you'll know that you've learned something about the player's feel. Pay attention to everything - volume, dynamics, attack, decay, release, timbre - along the way.

    I know that some disagree with this type of method, but I've found it to be extremely useful, and can only recommend it to others as such.
  19. Peter Dalla

    Peter Dalla

    Feb 2, 2004
    GREAT post, Chris. the only thing that I would add, that is the approach that I am working with is that before you put pen to paper (or hand to instrument) internalise the solo or line by singing it until you reach that point that Chris talks about, where your "voice" disappears and all you hear/sing is the solo or line. You get to the point where you are singing the solo as if it is coming out of your own head (which it really is by this point) finding the notes is easy.
  20. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Thanks, and excellent point. That's kind of what I meant when I was talking about choosing a solo to start with, but you put it much better than I did. Right now, I am really digging on a bunch of lines/solos from Drew Gress, singing them in the car, etc.....so I guess I know what my next couple of transcription projects will be!

    And conversely, when the transcribing is done, I notice a lot of the material from the transcription (more concepts than anything) coming out in my own playing, especially when I have the chance to record myself and listen back in depth later. That's probably the biggest payoff of all, especially when it happens subconsciously.

    Great thread.

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