Aug 062011

You’ve got some talent? You’ve had some success?

According to hockey star Evgeni Malkin, that’s not enough.

Malkin (known as “Geno” by his teammates and fans) plays for the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. He won the legendary Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009 and was awarded the Most Valuable Player trophy for that year’s playoff season. All this in his early twenties. The man is just getting started.

Malkin missed half of the 2010-2011 season with a devastating knee injury. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he has learned the value of training and improving. This article points out the benefits of the rigorous rehab process for Malkin, who needed to learn better ways to work out.

My brilliant wife Robin points out that legendary NHL player Gary Roberts also learned about conditioning and training only after a serious injury. Roberts was a fan favorite in Pittsburgh a few years ago for his ferocious and tenacious effort on the ice, so I have a hard time imagining him in the skinny-fat club. (OK, why are you all looking at me when I say the term “skinny’fat”?)

For musicians, artists, actors, and writers, there’s a great lesson here. Talent and success need to be combined with self-improvement. Getting better is a skill. You can relax on last year’s success, hoping that your audience will not notice that you’re treading water. Or you can relish last year’s success while working hard to do your best on your current creative work. Nothing takes the place of a serious work ethic.

Jul 302011

Jazz pianist Marcus Roberts’s music is very smart and very spirited. His trio’s recordings are free, beautiful, fun, and brilliant. I particularly recommend their “Time And Circumstance” CD where all three members of the trio stretch out, really showing some personality and imagination. All the Marcus Roberts CDs I’ve heard have been fabulous, so I’d recommend any of them.

I recently read the Q and A section of Roberts’s website. Very thoughtful stuff. When people say “just play scales, just practice the mechanics,” it’s great to know that people like Roberts are out there putting all their mind, imagination, and determination into the music.

A few highlights from the Q and A page:

  • Roberts sees practicing as “solving problems.” This is one of my favorite phrases when practicing or teaching. You got to listen to the sound you’re making. Then you got to figure out what the problems are. Then you know what to solve. Practicing is a lot more than just going through some motions.
  • Roberts talks about how the notion of innovation is overrated. If everyone creates a new genre, a new subgenera, a totally unique approach, then we don’t have much connection and community. Roberts seems to be saying, put your personality and unique voice into the music, but you’re still best off standing on the shoulders of those who have made this music in past generations.
  • Roberts speaks about how musicians should listen to great recordings and figure out what all the instruments are doing, not just yours. This has come up a good bit recently, as I mentioned in a post about how Del Ray gets a lot of her guitar bass lines from boogie piano. Listening is a huge part of being an evolving musician.

Jul 262011

In Moving To Higher Ground, Wynton Marsalis gives a concise, broad survey of jazz music and it history. The subtitle of the book is How Jazz Can Change Your Life, because he writes about his struggles to mature as an American through his experiences as a musician. It’s an interesting combination. Everything you need to know about jazz, plus one musician’s take on why jazz music matters.

On the jazz instruction side, Marsalis cuts through a lot of vague slippery stuff to explain the building blocks. Jazz is about freedom, and its musicians must explore and present their individual uniqueness to make the music come alive. Jazz is about swing, which means that the music thrives when performers and audience all feel a common pulse of rhythm. Swing is about community, and the musician who can’t or won’t play in time sticks out like a child having a tantrum. Marsalis also writes about blues as the emotional content and story of jazz. Anyone who takes a sober look at American history understands why blues is the central melody running through all American music.

The personal stuff in this book is just as precious as the conceptual material. Marsalis has so many great stories about how older musicians taught and humbled him. Dizzy asked him to play something for him when they first met, and the teen Marsalis gave it a try. Dizzy leaned close and whispered, “Practice, motherf’er!” Great stories like that all over the place.

Here’s the deal: If you’re a musician or jazz fan, you’ll get something out of this book. It’s instructive, entertaining, and it’s also a great reminder that you better stop trying to be the next Charlie Parker or whoever. Grow, be humble, play your music, play good music. That’s a pretty good approach to things, don’t you think?

Jul 192011

In The Inner Game of Music, Barry Green has a great chapter on integrating the analytical and intuitive sides of the musician’s mind.

Some musicians play from intuition, searching for expressions of beauty, passion, shock, sadness, and joy. The intuitive performer sometimes sounds sappy, gushy, corny, or sloppy because pitch, rhythm, and consistent control are not his foremost concern.

Other musicians are analytical, focusing on playing the notes correctly according to the marks on the page. The extreme form of the analytical musician functions like a musical robot, turning out sounds mechanically while suppressing all creative, human, emotional output.

Most musical kids grow up in the analytical path. They are scolded for inventing noises and improvising on their instruments. Band practice is about playing the correct notes and watching the director. Some kids sit there hardly making a sound so they will not get yelled at.

The intuitive kids are the ones who teach themselves how to play guitar or piano because they are fans of so-and-so. Sometimes there is a pride in being sloppy and untrained. I have met musicians who brag about not being able to read music and not even knowing the names of notes.

The struggle between intuitive and analytical can lead to performance problems. For example, imagine a musician is very intuitive when practicing. She enjoys practicing, enjoys exploring the music, and feels satisfied with her progress in getting more comfortable with her material. But when a performance comes along, she suddenly feels panic. Her analytical mind starts taking over, fueled by a sudden nervous surge of on-stage excitement. “How does that piece start?” “How fast should I play that thing?” “Am I playing that high part in tune?” It’s like having a committee meeting where one important member is brought in at the last second for a vote, but that member complains, “I don’t know what we’re voting on!”

Performance problems can come up for the analytical musician as well. SShe practices precisely, plays with sharp focus, good timing, and the correct articulations. When a performance comes along, she faces her intuitive mind, aroused from its hibernation by on-stage excitement. “What are all those people in the audience going to feel?” “Am I really ready for this?” “What if I sound boring?”

When practicing, notice which area you tend to emphasize. Are there ways to balance the analytical and intuitive sides in your practice?

Think about one of the music teachers you have had. Did that teacher have an emphasis on analytical or intuitive? Or did the teacher show a balance between the two, providing both structure and spontaneity?

Jan 122011

Here’s an interesting invention of mine. Yeah, I invented this, sure … so give me all the credit and royalties when y’all swipe it. (Ok, I know lots of other people practice like this, but it’s a new thing for me anyway.)

this is a new right-hand exercise that I’ve been using on flatpick guitar and on fiddle. I’m applying the concept of “paradiddles” from drum vocabulary to picking and bowing.

If you’re not familiar with paradiddles and other drum rudiments, just search the web and you’ll find lots about it. The key advantage of pulling paradiddles into picking and bowing is that they strengthen the independence of each stroke, make timing tighter, and thus richer and more explosive tone follows. A drummer wants left stick and right stick to be precise and independent. The same goes for pickers and fiddlers–work on these exercises to make your down stroke and up stroke more precise and independent.

Here are the three basic paradiddle exercises. Find a comfortable, relaxed speed on your metronome, and let your muscles nerd up for a while on this. The “d” means down stroke, “u” means up stroke. Play these patterns over some scales, one measure per scale tone. Or, get creative and play multiple scale tones per measure.

1. A measure of eighth notes: du dd ud uu

2. A measure of eighth-note triplets: dud udd udu duu

3. A measure of sixteenth notes: dudu dudd udud uduu

So there it is, just a simple idea that it’s good to break the “down followed by up followed by down” rule. Try doing these three exercises for a minute every day for the next week, and see if it helps your tone and timing. Then you can push the boundaries by playing these patterns at faster speeds, and by creating more complex patterns. Again, the goal here is that each stroke can be independent of the one before it, breaking the down-up-down-up habit.

I don’t recommend application of these paradiddles in actual performances. It’s just an exercise, just spending time in the gym to get ready for the tennis tournament.

I have some other right-hand exercises for guitar here at my music site.