I sometimes teach a bit of piano. It tends to be informal, and while I’ll certainly sometimes get waist-deep in technical or harmonic subtleties, it usually involves silly analogies with pint glasses and boxes of matches, sometimes even inventing a daft personality for your left foot – Tony the Tapper… Did a little impromptu one the other week with a singer, while setting up the stage prior to a gig (no, that isn’t us in the picture).
Incidentally, I like it when a horn player, singer, bassist (god, even sometimes a drummer) sits down and has a pre-gig whack at the piano. It indicates to me that they’re really into the music. Sometimes they play a piece better than I do, the multi-talented buggers. Very nice, now go over there and play the trumpet like the bloody Angel Gabriel too. You lovely person, you.
Anyway, on this occasion, in the course of running down some ideas for how to construct basslines, we touched on many points (no not like that – sigh, I’m starting to regret the Carry On reference already…) I’ve often felt that teaching is about throwing a handful of appropriate ideas and hoping that one or two of them stick. Bit like the old tradition of testing spaghetti against a wall to see whether it’s done.
One of the ones that really stuck for her was the following…
KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON!
Which is bad advice (and an exhausted meme best consigned to the bin). I’ll elaborate.
There are fundamentally two ways of practising: practising to solve problems and practising performing. The trick is to understand the way the two intersect. The question is whether to stop when you hit a problem, and the answer is yes and no…
I firmly believe that you should always practise as though you were performing at Carnegie Hall with a gun to your head – even if you have to do it really slowly. When you’re using five minutes noodling around at home, imagine an audience and project your playing to them. Even when a good player practises, they’re still performing. They ingrain the expression into a tricky passage, rather than running it as an exercise and then gluing the performance side of things on later.
When pros hit a tricky bit, they stop, turn on it and mercilessly beat it into submission like a playground bully. They know they can do the 95% just fine. But they hit the iffy 5% like a starved wolf. Incidentally, a pro will rarely do this during rehearsal with others – they’ll have already done it at home.
A proper rehearsal is for ironing out kinks among a group of people
who have already practised.
PRACTICE MAKES IMPERFECT?
You encounter a problem time and again with inexperienced players – they’ll play a piece from a set point, reach a stuff-up moment, fumble and stop. Then start again from the same set point and do it all over again – with the same result every time.
What such musicians are really doing is practising the half-page before the bit they can’t play, over and over again. They don’t actually need to practise that bit – they can play it very well, and they know they can. If instead they isolated the bit they’re hung up on and spent the time working on that, they’d improve in a week flat.
What they’re also doing is psychologically hobbling themselves – entrenching “that bit” as the dreaded moment. Every time they run up to the “tricky bit”, it becomes more like a troll lurking under the bridge in their mind. Face your trolls, people! (But only your personal ones – leave the online ones alone.)
A lot of classical pieces involve a similar passage repeated in a different key. For many players, their performance of the pseudo repeat is invariably weaker. They’ve learned the glory bit, told themselves the other bit is just roughly the same but up a third, and not devoted the same attention to it. Yeah, must get round to tightening that up… like that door handle. It’s very difficult psychologically to, as it were, learn something twice, but you have to find a way. You have to shortcircuit the perfectly natural and understandable “oh yeah, it’s just that again but a bit different” mentality.
Anyway, practising is not about having a bit of a play and making yourself feel good, it’s about working on what makes you feel bad, so you won’t feel bad about it anymore.
There’s a great deal to be said for carrying on. Keep going! If you fall at the first hurdle and keep tracking back for a run-up, you’re also devoting all your practice time to that one hurdle and ignoring all the other ugly bits lurking behind it.
Particularly in jazz, which tends to involve the same harmonic form over and over again. Didn’t nail that fast flurry of changes at the end of the A section? Okay. Don’t let it scare you or freeze you, just recognise the issue and earmark it. Even at a ting-ting-ta-ting medium tempo, you’re going to get at least half a dozen chances to hit it right over the course of the performance. If not that night, you can play it again tomorrow, or next week or…
I recall a remark allegedly by Monk (I think, to a young and frustrated Coltrane during their long stand at the Five Spot in the late ’50s): “We can play again tomorrow.” Balance between working on yourself and not winding yourself up is everything.
You shouldn’t take this attitude as an excuse not to work on your playing, of course. But it’s a very useful corrective if you’re inclined to mortify your flesh when you balls things up.
Good musicians in all styles of music make mistakes all over the place – but they’re experienced enough that the mistakes they make aren’t awful ones. Experience has also taught them that sh** happens. Harmonically knowledgeable musicians will often approximate bits of a part they’re reading cold. And even if they do make total clangers, they don’t grind to a halt and burst into tears, they play on. It’s their job.
My mental process when someone plonks an unfamiliar piece in front of me is a bit like this: “Yup, yup, yup, hang on a second – okay, yup. Yup, got that, yup, yup … what the fucking hell is that? Noted. And then… yup, yup, a bit of that, hmm tricky bit there, and then another yup.” I then devote at least 80% of my attention to the WTF bits. Doesn’t that make sense?
Practising is a double-edged thing. On the one hand, you should isolate and de-iffify the iffy bits. On the other hand, if you ingrain the habit of stopping when you hit a problem it can really muck you up when you’re performing. So it’s just as important to practise how to recover and keep going. But when you do stop, at least start again at a bit you can’t play, and work on it until it becomes a bit you can.