Pure Inspiration, by sdm on 08/01/2005, 16:03:42

I do love good jazz festivals and Centrum was great! This was my first time to this festival and next time we’ll do it differently. We drove up (about 4 ½ hours) Saturday morning, caught the day’s shows and did clubs afterwards. Caught the breakfast show and then back home. Randy (he was both facility and club performer) has suggested that I should consider at least going to the workshops as an audit student. I figure in a couple of years I may try to participate as a player but who knows.

But what’s really amazing about this weekend is something I’ve experienced before. As I listen to the wonderful players I think about how great it would be to be able to play like that -- even with half the skill, chops, and creativity they exhibit. There’s a part of me that can’t wait to get my hands on a keyboard to see if anything I heard comes out. But logically (is there anything logical about how we learn?) I rather expect to want to throw stones at my piano – not because of the piano of course, but because I expect my playing to seem so bad after listening to all of these greats.

What really happens is the most wonderful thing. Somehow, in a way I may never understand, I am truly inspired by these players to new heights of my own. I sat down yesterday afternoon tired from the driving and wondering if I would have a decent practice session or would plunk a few keys and give up in disgust. The result was astonishing! It seemed like the limits of my playing, both technically and musically, had simply been pushed out a couple of notches beyond anything I’d ever done before.

This has happened before. 15 years or so ago I was lucky enough to attend a few of the Jazz at Otter Crest events put on by Jim and Mary Brown over at the coast here in Oregon. There I also saw many greats (I first saw the Clayton brothers, who were at Centrum, there) including Gene Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Oliver Jones and others. Believe me, my limits then were more sever than now after the last year-plus of daily two-hour practice sessions, but I had the same feeling of expansion.

Now, I don’t remember if this was a permanent improvement but if felt so much like I often feel after suffering through a drought in good feelings – a plateau – and what happens when I finally have a good session again. I’m sure some of it will stick.

After all, I did things I had attempted but was not able to complete before. For instance, I played my open voicing comp chords through ii-V-Is in all the keys. I have been learning these by going up and down an octave chromatically. Slowly they are becoming “positions” that I will someday really know and I’ve known that the next step was to be able to run through the circle with them. I’ve tried a few times but was simply not yet up to it (didn’t have the patience to figure each one out). Yesterday, although it took some time, I could find them all without undue effort. I could hardly believe it. Even Karen commented on it.

There’s more – my scales were better: quicker, lighter; my fingers just felt more nimble and I seemed to have more “traction” on the keys. Even my doodling around was more interesting (at least to me). I was better in both comping and improvising on the rhythm changes and was able to record some of that. From the tape I don’t think it was just my imagination.

I have to conclude that a good festival is worth many lessons!

Of course, I picked up Randy Halberstadt’s “Metephor’s for the Musician” while I was there and, after this great practice session, started reading it. He pulls no punches, starting right into how most of us (it sure applies to me) go about learning a song all wrong (his “sequencer” idea – great!) and how we often don’t really learn them as well as we fool ourselves into thinking we do. Ah well, if this was easy everyone would be doing it!

Still, with the ups and downs of trying to learn to play this great music, this weekend, including the practice session of Sunday, was a real high!

I mentioned the plateaus of learning earlier. It has occurred to me to wonder if some of what we think of as a place of stagnation is really just a “dropping of the scales” from our eyes. That is, maybe we begin to feel stuck because we suddenly see our playing in a little truer light than we did just the week before. What this would really mean is that we’re ready to take the next step, however small, and, before we advance, we need to be able to see what needs improving. Thus we take a more objective look at the current state of our playing and suffer feeling sure we could do better than this. And most have experienced the joy when we get past this and our playing, just as suddenly, feels like it’s reached a whole new level and we’ve moved past this “plateau.” Then we stay happy while we explore these new skills for a while and the cycle starts over.

Now this is all just a pet theory and pure speculation. The plateau phenomenon is a well known aspect of learning in all areas, not just music, and I don’t remember seeing anything like this in my wanderings through the literature over the years. Still, any construct that helps us to think about our experience differently seems to me to have value. I’ll keep looking at this one.

LJP Journal: sdm

  • 12/05/2008 - Still at it...

    We’ve met and played a number of times now – maybe five or six – and the improvement is quite encouraging. We try to get together every two weeks but things do come up. We played this week and are feeling organized enough to leave some solo space, trade fours and end pretty much in the same place. Wow! Oh, and for the most part beat one stays in place but maybe better than that is that we almost never stop. If someone gets lost, and I do fairly often still, we are able to get back together somewhere be...

  • 04/10/2008 - Trio

    OK, I think I’ve recovered enough to write about my second attempt with a drummer and bass player. It really, from an objective viewpoint (well, as objective as I can conjure up) went pretty well. I was able to get through a number of the tunes we did without getting lost, did some reasonable if unremarkable improv, and we kept at it for a couple of hours. There must have been at least 32 bars through that two hours were we actually had a groove going too. So, why did I feel like I have always felt af...

  • 03/26/2008 - Easter was nice!

    Easter was a very nice family day with lots of talk, singing and games. Family and friends - how better to spend a day. But there was a special feature for me. The family piano is at my sister-in-law's house where we gathered so I screwed up my courage and spent about 20 or 30 minutes at the keyboard. It sure showed me that I need to memorize more -- I just didn't have enough to play. All comments were positive and very encouraging. I hope my next milestone is just around the corner. Early next m...

  • 01/24/2008 - On hold...

    This has been a frustrating period. First, of course, my attention has been focused on my wife as she has gone through here personal struggle. This had the effect of cutting down my time a bit but that by itself would have been fine. Somehow, however, I managed to add a tendon injury to the mix and that has presented the biggest frustration. Around the beginning of December I began to feel something happening at my elbow. This quickly spread along my arm to my wrist to the point that it began to ac...

  • 03/23/2007 - The climb.

    He’s climbing the cliff side. It’s incredibly steep and the material is sometimes crumbly but with great effort, courage and skill, he fights through slips, falling rock and other dangers to finally drag himself over the edge onto a shelf. He turns to examine his path and is awed and gratified by the magnificent view laid out at his feet. He catches his breath, stretches his limbs and turns around. And starts the climb again. Up to that point is was an image from a Marine recruiting television ad.

  • 09/23/2006 - Survival

    It’s amazing really: 30 years, a completely different instrument and all of my life experiences in that time and somehow this workshop affected me much like most of my experiences back in Eugene when I was twenty-something and trying to play a trumpet. The work shop itself was good. The level of both experience and comfort between us was a decent match although I still believe, as objectively as possible, that I was the least experience and skilled piano player in the room – and the most self-conscious ...

  • 09/03/2006 - Workshop - prelude

    Well, this should be interesting. I’m attending my first workshop as a piano player. Wow, unbelievable. I haven’t been to one of these in 30 years and then it was as a very weak trumpet player. I felt pretty lost the whole time, almost like I felt as a 5th grade basketball player trying to figure out which direction I should run. Well, 30 years or so after that I learned to play that game. I was never real good but I did learn to play and had a lot of fun at it. It was only a couple of weeks ago ...

  • I had a surprisingly good evening. It was a Friday after a long and sometimes trying week. We watched PBS news so I didn’t sit down to the keys until 8:00 or after. But this tired Friday evening I gave myself a break. No warm-ups, no scales or single-key exercises, not even chromatic chords, just tunes: listening and playing. I started with a new love, Kenny Barron’s Skylark on the Maybeck album. The only sheet I have is in F and he plays it in Eb so I not only need to try to understand what he does...

  • 06/08/2006 - Awesome partner

    To begin with it is important to understand the routine that has built up for my wife, Karen, and I as I have journeyed into this piano playing. I get home sometime around 5:30 or 6:00 in the evening. Karen is already home and we watch the news together. Some nights we have dinner and some nights we simply “graze” – works well. Around 7:00 or 7:30 I head down to the piano. Karen will spend the evening reading or watching the television and will head up to bed around 9:00 (she is the morning person). I...

  • 05/07/2006 - Pieces

    There is so much to do. I am learning about how chords and scales relate. As much as I’ve resisted the belief that I can actually learn this in some way that relates to making music, it seems to be happening. The Bebop Major for a major chord, and the melodic minor for a for some minor chords and dorian at other times or the Diminished / Whole-tone for an altered seventh. All so confusing but it seems this is some of the convergence of conscious – think of the chord-scale relationship – and, what, unc...

  • OK, that was cool! My 25 year-old rocker son, Jordan, brought his Gibson over yesterday and we spent the next five or so hours playing. Now, as I say, he’s a rocker (http://lucky-lucy.com) and not “schooled” – he doesn’t know theory and can’t even quickly identify the notes on the fret board but he can definitely play. He’s been playing for maybe 14-15 years and been with his current band for a couple of years and with parts of it for many years. This group has gigged around town but is working on chang...

  • Something new and interesting is beginning to happen although it is still rare: I occasionally feel like a bad piano player. Now, this may not sound like a good thing, given the qualifier and all, but it’s really very nice. The alternative, most of the time, is feeling more like a wannabe or pretender; someone who shouldn’t even be bothering with a piano or any other musical instrument for that matter. The beauty of this new feeling is that I now have a choice: I can stay a bad piano player (assuming...

  • 09/28/2005 - Progress???

    So I had a pretty good practice session last night. I'm learning the melodies of three new tunes. I picked two from the Aberesold book, “Night And Day” that I have: “Three Little Words” (up) and “My One And Only Love” (ballad). I’ve also started Duke’s “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart” for a medium swing piece. I’m not exactly sure what Randy has in mind with just learning the melodies first although I think it is about my phrasing and swing feel. I can play both the play-along songs at tempo which I t...

  • 08/01/2005 - Pure Inspiration

    I do love good jazz festivals and Centrum was great! This was my first time to this festival and next time we’ll do it differently. We drove up (about 4 ½ hours) Saturday morning, caught the day’s shows and did clubs afterwards. Caught the breakfast show and then back home. Randy (he was both facility and club performer) has suggested that I should consider at least going to the workshops as an audit student. I figure in a couple of years I may try to participate as a player but who knows. But what’...

  • OK, back into the woodshed. I’ve been on the road for the last week so no practice. On the way back I stopped and tried to play my step-mother’s wonderful Chickering spinet that will become mine. She has played by ear for much of her 92 years so her playing is much more musical than mine and I felt really clumsy but she said she was impressed with my progress (and marvels at my “book learning”). Still, I didn’t feel the progress! Then Ed came over today and our playing wasn’t so good so we spend some t...

  • My trumpet playing friend Ed postulates that learning an instrument (at least as an adult) follows the five stages of grief. I think he may have something here. We all talk about plateaus and getting stuck on the one hand and sudden leaps forward on the other. It kind of makes sense: one, denial – “I’m better than this, what the hell is happening?!?”, two, anger – don’t really need to say much here but it is frustrating when you can’t seem to stay on the black keys for instance, three, bargaining - “just...

  • There are some nice things starting to happen with my playing. Of course, only nice in comparison to my own history -- the thought of being a nice player is still beyond me so I try to keep the smaller picture in mind. First, I’m finally gaining what I think is the proper appreciation of slow. In the past I’ve worked under the assumption that if I only play it as fast as I can (whatever “it” is) over and over, I’ll eventually be able to play it well – and, of course, even faster. This all despite the ...

  • Gave myself a break last night. Well, really the last two nights because I had to watch the Illinois / NC game – good game – so didn’t practice at all Monday night. Last night I did spend an hour or so doing some technical stuff – careful scale work, chord exercises, and a little Hannon. After that I decided to go back a couple of songs rather than work on current “assignments.” Spent a half hour on a boogie base and then put on the Aebersold version of Night And Day and just jammed for 40 minutes. Ma...

  • 04/01/2005 - Click

    There was a small click last night. Whew! It's not been a good week. The weekend went alright although I didn't get as much practice time as I like (never!). Got together again with Ed and we did OK. As expected, the new tunes weren't in good shape and I ended up only playing one hand a lot. But it was a Monday evening lesson that sent me downward. Not Randy's fault of course, just where I am I guess. First of all, Monday's are just not good days and by the end my strength, what there is of it, ...

  • Slow! This is an exceedingly slow process. Sometimes it seems like the two or three hours a day I spend at the keys is just that, time spend with little or no return. Sure, I enjoy myself during that time. Beats the hell out of watching TV. But I guess I want continual progress (am I a victim of my business experience and the “continual improvement” fad?). I said something to Ed about wondering where this will go and he said “it’s a hobby” as if it’s only a hobby – a way to spend some time like woodwo...

  • Decent lesson last night. Randy was pleased with the improvement. Played “Night and Day” while he played a base line. Didn't get all the chords but did at least keep my place and some of the improvised lines were, well, respectable. Didn’t have time to play him “I’m a Fool To Want You”. Have to move on. Of course it had been a month or so since we’d gotten together so it’s a damn good thing he heard some improvement. Problem is now he thinks I’m ready for some changes. First he wants me to start...


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