No, it’s not that kind of article. But it’ll probably drive up the hit count a bit… So set spam filters to maximum and we’re going in…
Go to your instrument and play a single simple G, nothing more. Listen to it, really listen to it. Listen to the attack and the way it rings. Listen to the effect it has on the silence in the room afterwards. Then do it again. Then one more time.
When you get back, I’ll tell you a story…
How was it for you? Did you even do it? Course you didn’t. Oh well, here’s the story anyway. Years ago I went to a Cedar Walton gig at London’s Jazz Café. For those who don’t know the venue, it’s a great place: huge, with a good stage, decent sound system and decor that, with hindsight, reminds me rather of a level of the videogame Halo. But I digress.
This gig had a really powerful effect on me. Sure, the band played wonderfully, but the bit that really stuck in my memory happened before it started. I was standing with my back to the stage, trying to attract the barman’s attention, and then something made me turn round. Sadly, it wasn’t the fair Sylvia.
It felt as though the air had changed. Cedar had quietly, and without any announcements or fanfare, sneaked onstage and sat down at the piano to check things out. I looked around the room. It’s a big room, like a club dancefloor. People were still milling about chatting and hardly anybody had noticed Cedar. The gig wasn’t due to start for 20 minutes and the stage lights were still down. So the change in my personal barometric pressure wasn’t down to audience vibe.
That man had made me turn through 180° (and lose my place at the bar) by simply sitting down at his instrument. Now I’m a very nuts’n’bolts kind of man, and I don’t go a great deal on hippie jive, man, but I swear the man was projecting musical intent before he’d even touched his instrument. Then he walked off.
Got me to thinking.
IS THAT ALL THERE IS TO IT?
How often have you heard someone play something on a gig or transcribed a lick, and then marvelled at just how simple it is? Is that all it is? Not even a flashy lick, just a triad or a scale fragment, or even a single damn note.
So what was the difference between a G played by Cedar and a G played by me?
I came to the conclusion that the difference was that when I played a G, I was pressing a button at a certain volume. But when someone like Cedar plays a G he means something, and the choice of the note G and the way it sounds is the way he expresses what he means. It’s not the note, it’s the intent behind it.
Pianists can be particularly prone to this sort of “mechanical” approach to music making because the instrument seems like a great big old-fashioned music-making typewriter made of wood. Do you write an email by using all the letters as much as you can? Nah, you make choices don’t you?
But all instrumentalists can fall into the trap. Do you go to a restaurant and order the entire menu? Music is a carrier wave for emotion – what matters is not what you play, it’s why you play it.
Too many learners are hung up on complexity. This is driven by fear – fear that if you’re not whacking out 500 notes per minute people will think you’re not very good. This is not true, but it takes an act of courage to get over the fear (as with everything in life). Sure, there are virtuosity junkies around (often they’re other musicians who have the same problem with fear and self-image), but honestly if you choose beautifully and play beautifully, the conviction behind your ten little notes can slay the room. Not that you should worry about slaying a room, but hey it’s a nice side effect! (We all need a pat on the head and a bone from time to time.) And oddly enough, if you take this approach, virtuosity will start to happen naturally. Really, it will. So open up and let it come.
BE A MUSICIAN, NOT A TECHNICIAN
True virtuosity is not about theatrical displays of effort. Leave the grunting, grimacing and posturing to those poor slobs trying to impress judges at competitions. The lovely textures in Rachmaninov should sound like an effortless flow of delicate filigree, not be rammed in your face to demonstrate how damned difficult the music is. (I have a big problem with “professional Rachmaninovers” who don’t seem to have the wit or wisdom to differentiate foreground and background.) And people don’t revere Tatum for how difficult he makes it look, but for how easy he makes it look. He used to laugh a lot when he played. He was enjoying himself.
Teachers like Kenny Werner and Hal Galper work a lot on these concepts. The point they stress is that we’re usually so busy trying to work on “music” that we forget to focus on the beautiful sound of our instrument. And as Kenny and Hal both demonstrate regularly on clinics, once you get really into the sound of the instrument – pure music, if you will – your musical intent comes flooding through of its own accord.
So don’t treat music as porn, treat it as lovemaking. Always listen – sometimes the best thing to play is nothing… or a single beautiful note. Now, go back to your instrument (actually do it this time) and find your G spot!