28 June 2010

My Quest, Day 1

Here is the order of events and thoughts leading to my conclusion that I should strip my musicianship down to the frame and rebuild it over the course of the next year, documenting everything publicly in a practice journal/blog:

  1. I got middle-aged. My 39th Birthday is coming up in a month.
  2. I started playing with a group of musicians who all operate more in the natural universe of music – flowing, interacting, etc. I have been playing with these guys for close to a year now.
  3. I realized that the way I learned music is mostly wrong. E.g. reading music is really useful sometimes, but it has no direct link with music itself; it is just a clever, useful little tool. Same with the finer points of theory, history, and musicology.
  4. I went on vacation.

    1. On this vacation my iPod, which acts as my all-purpose practice tool with backing tracks and music production software, broke. I ended up playing with just my favorite guitar and my favorite amp (the DC powered First Act MA104 – yes, I'm serious). I heard myself clearer than I have let myself listen in a while.
    2. On this vacation I saw that my luddite parents used Skype, which I had never even seen in person. I tinkered with video chat in the late 1990's when it was hip futurism, but hadn't bought a new webcam in over a decade. Seeing my parents with a slick setup made me realize that I was overdue to get with the times. I got the nicest webcam I could find when I got home (Microsoft Lifecam Cinema).
  5. I tested this webcam with the following video, which made me feel reeeeeeealy bad about my playing.

So here's what I'm doing about it.

I've decided that I'm going to significantly raise my level of musicianship in the genre I play most right now, R&B, plus get good enough at Jazz that I can work as regularly in that genre. I am trying to do this by my 40th birthday, which will happen in August of 2011.

After a lot of reading and experience over the course of my life as a musician - especially lately - I have come to understand music as the organization of sound into pitches in rhythm. Practically, to play music is to recognize what you hear and respond to it intentionally. E.g. you play a casual gig. Someone calls a tune you've never heard. Ideally you can play one tentative note to get your bearings and pick up the key and chord in that key, then home in on tones you want to focus on. A tone might be a melody you're going to play (maybe as part of a solo) or maybe the top note in a chord voicing.

There's nothing revelatory in any of that - every musician knows how music works. But to simply set the goal of becoming a better musician is a little too abstract. I think it helps to break down what's going on in the previous scenario into a couple categories: recognition (ear) and repertoire (vocabulary or bag).

Chord Progressions (Cadences).
Every old time Protestant church organist knows what I IV V I sounds like. Every
rocker knows bVII up to I (over and over and over and over and over)! I'm
thinking that the really good musicians in each genre can hear and recognize
every cadence that they are likely to hear on a gig.
Chord Voicings
Each chord is made up of individual tones. The better you hear each tone in a
chord, the deeper your musical perception.
If you hear which chord tone the singer intones with his voice, you've got the
melody (minus rhythm, color tones, and ornaments).
If it sounds silly to list rhythm as a category of perception, consider the last
time you heard a great drum solo, e.g. Dennis Chambers soloing over a
. The stuff that sounds like it's floating outside the beat is still in
time; it's just an unfamiliar rhythmic concept, e.g. an odd polyrhythm.
In general, I'm calling repertoire what most people call vocabulary or bag or licks. It's everything that you have memorized that you can spit back out in context. It may be as simple as a rhythm or as complete as a tricky musical phrase that only works over VI(alt) ii V I.
This is where I most urgently need work. Listening to my webcam blues jam, I am
horrified at how straight and bland my rhythmic concept is. I think I will have
lots more fun with music after just a few weeks of adding more interesting
rhythms to my repertoire. Since I need to learn all the songs for my current
band by Friday anyway, I'll focus on rhythms in the songs themselves. Generally
there is a lot of good material of every kind in any hit song if you listen for
I notice in my video above that I tend to move only in steps. If I start taking
bigger intervals it's because I've switched to a pentatonic scale, which
includes skips of a third but it is still a step in the scale. I don't have a
lot of variety in contours, which is the general shape of a line as it goes up
and down. E.g. "Here Comes the Bride" goes up a fourth, back to where it
started, up a fifth, down a third, then home; that's its contour.
I am past the point of caring that I am spitting out licks. Licks are nothing
but fragments of good melodies. To say I'm not going to play any licks is like
saying I'm going to cook with nothing but raw ingredients - and I will not use
any recipes for anything; it's insane. I definitely want more licks.
A pattern is a sequence that runs through iterations up or down a scale. E.g.
the melody to "Santa Clause Is Coming to Town" starts a pattern: "Better not
shout," (first iteration); "Better not cry," (second); "Better not pout"
(third); then it breaks out of it. Before today I probably would have said that
running patterns is bad. But clearly running interesting patterns would be a
step up from where I'm at. And the fact that it is easy to recall a hit song
whose melody is comprised mainly of such a sequence has got to tell you
I guess you could say that good general time is just a result of the specificity
of your repertoire of rhythms. However, as a practical matter I can clearly see
in my video that simply paying attention to the metronome makes a huge
difference in how good/musical my time is. So I'm going to pay more attention to
it as a rule.
One more thing about my definition of music and its categories that matter to a performer. Recognition and Repertoire are both in play when music is coming in and when music is going out of the musician's mind. You are able to easily hear things similar to what's cataloged in your repertoire, and obviously having memorized lots of musical fragments and mapped them to your voice or instrument in context is going to help when you play music.
So that's my quest - I want to get proficient enough with all those things in R&B that I never struggle onstage - I can just flow without every really thinking much. And I want to develop enough recognition and repertoire in the jazz idiom that I can work a few nights a week in the jazz scene (currently I only play jazz at jams and occasionally as part of non-jazz shows).
I am also switching to tuning in all 4ths, which I am going to call General Musical Tuning, or GMT. This has two advantages: first and most importantly, it maps the tones on the guitar to a consistent shape in every register on every subset of strings. I.e. things look/sound the same everywhere on the guitar, so I can get by with one or at most two fingerings for any given musical fragment (as opposed to 18 or more with Standard Tuning). The other advantage is that it at least temporarily puts me back on a very rudimentary level of fingerboard mastery, so that anyone who is interested in following along is in the same boat as me, even if they don't know a ton of scale and chord shapes. I'm blogging this partly because writing is good for sorting out my ideas, but also because it might help other guitar players.

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