April 17, 2012

Teaching melodic improvisation

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a colleague about a practice session that I had earlier in the day with another saxophone player.  In the session, we talked about what we had been practicing.  Both of us had been practicing some theory and math-heavy improvisational concepts.  The colleague asked if those sorts of ideas were what the improvisation course at the Manhattan School of Music had covered when I was there.  I said that yes, to a certain extent, the improvisation courses dealt with fairly calculated ways of constructing solos — using certain rules or formulas to generate solos that sounded like the jazz idiom.  Perhaps not true “improvisation” in the purest sense, but a great way to show a player how to achieve a certain sound.

The colleague mentioned that he wondered why there isn’t more focus on melodic improvisation in music education.  By this, I think he meant focusing on how to make our solos naturally melodic and improvisatory rather than focusing on specific rhythmic or harmonic devices that end up “forcing” a player to play certain things.  Maybe a good analogy would be the difference between writing a freeform story with no constraints as opposed to being given an outline of the plot and specific vocabulary words to use while writing an essay.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this since he brought this up.  The question I keep coming back to, is how does one teach melodic improvisation?  In classical education, melodic composition is often taught with “motivic development,” which encompasses a set of devices that can be used to alter a melody and develop it over time.  All the devices (augmentation, diminution, inversion, etc) are certainly applicable to soloing, but do they really teach the player to be any more melodic than the harmonic and rhythmic devices do?  After all, it’s still using a set of rules to achieve the result.

It seems like improvisation courses should be as comprehensive as possible, including information on harmonic and rhythmic formulas, melodic/motivic development, free playing, etc.  It’s the combination of all of these devices that creates a great solo in an experienced player.  Unfortunately, the reality is that it takes a huge amount of time to study and internalize all of these devices and be able to apply them in real-time during a solo.  A one year improvisation course can cover a lot of theoretical ground, but the time that it takes a player to be comfortable using the information will almost certainly be longer.


March 26, 2012

Portland jazz musicians share their thoughts about a changing industry

Last month, saxophonist (and skilled wordsmith) Tim Willcox interviewed me and a few other Portland jazz musicians about our thoughts about the current state and future of our industry.  The piece was originally published in the Jazz Society of Oregon newsletter, but Tim has also reprinted it on his label’s website.

It’s an interesting read with a few different perspectives on a subject I spend a lot of time thinking about.

Strategies for musicians and listeners (via Ninjazz Records).

March 16, 2012

Minor-Friendly Venues in Portland

When I was in school studying music, I went to see a ton of live shows.  When I was in middle school and the first couple of years of high school, the Oregon Liqueur Control Commission had very strict rules about minors being in bars and even some restaurants, so most of the regular venues were unavailable to me.  My parents did a great job of finding other opportunities for me to see music though — we used to go to performances at the Central Library, Borders bookstores, Music Millennium, outdoor concerts during the summers, etc. By high school, the OLCC had relaxed a little and I went to hear music every week. In many ways, it taught me more about playing than any private lessons or classes have.

Now that I’m a teacher myself, I’ve begun to realize how few students get or take the opportunity to hear live music.  It’s such an important part of not only learning to play music, but also of being a part of the arts community in general.

There are quite a few reasons that getting out to see music can be difficult.  Students today are increasingly busy with extra-curricular activities.  It usually costs money to go out and see a show.  And, it can be difficult to know where to go to hear music and if the venue allows minors.  That last point is one that I figured I could try to do something about.

I’ve compiled a list of minor-friendly venues in Portland and a couple sentences explaining what you’re likely to find there.  Hopefully, this list can make it just a little easier for students to go out and find the music that is so important to hear.

Feel free to copy and distribute the list — the more it’s out there, the better.

Download the list in PDF form.

March 9, 2012

Keeping a practice record

In high school, before bed each night, I’d write down how much time I spent practicing each instrument.  I’d go to school early each day and practice in the hall or in the band room before classes started.  If I had an empty class period, I’d practice during that.  At lunch, I’d eat quickly, and then practice.  And of course, after school, I’d practice.  It’s possible that I practiced more in high school than I have since.

In the last year and a half or so, I’ve tried to get back to a more serious practice routine.  I think one thing that’s helped is that I’ve learned to practice better than I did when I was younger.  Don’t get me wrong — practicing for hours and hours is great, especially for building strength and familiarity with the instrument, but a focused practice session can be even more rewarding for working on specific concepts.

Now, for the first time since high school, I’ve started keeping a practice record.  I’m not recording how much time I spend (although maybe I should be — I’m trying to incrementally increase the time, but it’s hard with a variable schedule), but rather what I practice.  Meaning, my practice log might say “Long tones on flute, Blues in 12 keys on alto with Maj7#5 substitutions on dominant chords.”  It’s part of my goal to have a more focused routine.  Instead of practicing something different each day, or practicing only one thing for a couple of weeks and neglecting other areas, I’m trying to focus in on a couple key concepts and hit them every day.  I’m also hoping that it’ll be something good to refer back to when I want to brush up on concepts that I’ve studied in the past.

The practice record doesn’t have to be anything fancy.  A blank book of manuscript paper works great.  That way, especially if there aren’t too many staves per page, you can write down what you were working on and notate any examples.


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