Tag Archives: Practicing

Practicing tip 1.5 ‘Tempo and time considerations’

an addendum to my earlier post on tempo.

Let’s think about time for a moment. What is time? As defined in the dictionary:

“the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.”

We measure it by second, minutes, hours, days, weeks and years. Time is passing all the time.  All we really have is the present, the past has already happened and the future has not happened yet. Most of us spend our waking time in one of these two places: either thinking about the past or dreaming about the future. As the Beastie Boys said “It’s time to get ill.”

I have to ask this question to musician’s in general and jazz musicians specifically;

“If you’re going faster than someone else in a tune that was counted at a specific (let’s say proper) tempo are you now ‘winning‘ because you’ve pushed the tempo into the red zone?” Do you want to be there first? Do you get a prize for being there first? A lot of young players have a bunch of energy and excitement. They want to play everything ‘fast, fast, fast.’ I admire their enthusiasm. It reminds me of the joke about running down as opposed to walking down the hill to a field of cows. I’ve watched this happen so many times and every one tenses up and chases after the ‘runaway train’ song. After being part of many a gig, jam session or other musical activity I would argue, NO you are not winning. The music is now losing. Music shouldn’t resemble the olympics although I’ve witnessed sessions that sound like the musical equivalent of  dead lifting 300 lbs. Conversely if you’re 30 bpm slower than where you started perhaps it’s time to start getting some exercise, coffee or sleep depending on your personal variables….I wonder can we both ‘arrive’ at the same time? That’s magic when that happens.

I’ve never been a fan of the faster=better musical equation that seems to occupy the fixation of so many musicians. Yes, it is exciting when watching a virtuoso perform a difficult maneuver and technical proficiency is a worthy goal to pursue. It’s often what you see at the NAMM shows and in product videos; somebody performing some sort of musical gymnastics or a feat of dexterous virtuosity in a solo setting. Sometimes these guys will even get together in a group full of ‘chop’ masters and ‘shredders’ and perform together. I know there are fans out of there of this sort of stuff but I’m not one of them.
When I was on the road with Larry McCray we played a showcase for Gibson guitars in Nashville TN and the band before us was comprised of chop masters and product endorsers and they played technically dazzling stuff but it fell flat. Larry, along with his brother Steve on drums, Noel Neal on bass, and myself on keys gave a soulful show that got the jaded music execs off of their feat finally giving us a standing ovation after the show concluded. Have a good TIME.
One more thing about time. I don’t really like playing live or recording to or with a click track though there are moments where it is appropriate to the music I suppose. Computers don’t breathe like us humans do. They don’t push and pull against the time for dramatic tension and release. However when I practice, I do often use a metronome during my routine to work on my time. When music is being played ‘for real’ in front of an audience the musicians should agree on the tempo. It’s an active conversation. It’s a group decision though much of the responsibility falls on the drummer and bassist.  Be warned, they might argue about it.

I have nothing against technique and dexterity, I’m always working on gaining more myself and I acknowledge and appreciate the time and dedication it takes to play fast tempos, passages, etc. But PLEASE don’t sacrifice emotion, feeling, expression and interaction in the pursuit of being “the baddest cat.” It’s an empty goal. Make music that moves people and gives them something they “need” even if they don’t know it. Slow down for a minute and look around you.

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I can hear the difference

I can hear it when it’s a fake organ, or a fake wurlitzer or Rhodes or whatever. It’s not the same thing. I can hear the non-Hammond percussion tone generator by Trek in my Hammond C2 and I can tell it’s not the same as a classic B3 hammond designed and installed percussion generator. I wish it was. It’s subtle and it bothers me.  It’s passable and most people think it sounds really good. But I can hear the difference.It detracts from my enjoyment of playing the instrument.

I’ve been overtly critical of recordings with bad organ sounds. It’s hard not to, they just sound really bad.  I’m kind of a nut when it comes to really listening to something. That’s how you learn to become a better musician and it even seems a better human. You really listen. 

I can hear the piano sample fart out in most keyboards while I’m playing. And sometimes I can’t hear the notes at all like in the mid to high octave of the Yamaha piano sample on my Nord Stage 88 a keyboard that I’ve owned for about five years. “Where does the note go?” I often think while I’m playing it. I’ve got a good line and the note disappears in the fray of sound around me. It doesn’t cut through and it takes me out of the moment of creating because I can’t hear myself and it’s made me think of something other than the music I’m making. 

Over the last week I was able to play two really fine Steinway pianos at both Cliff Bell’s and at the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe. As a keyboard player most of the time I soldier away at my role in the music business war on either my Nord Stage 88 or Yamaha Motif ES7. I play emulation of keyboards I own like the Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Hammond, Piano, etc. and some basic meat and potato synth stuff. But I rarely get to play a fine piano. I’m fortunate enough to have an early 20th Century Chickering to practice on at home and it’s decent but it ain’t a Steinway. It made a huge difference in my performance and enjoyment. I can hear the difference. I just with I could afford the difference.

I can hear it when a guys been practicing a lot. I dare say I can hear it when a guy’s been practicing too much and I can hear it when they ain’t been playing at all. There’s a time to step away from the instrument and have some life experience’s too. Maintain and develop your chops but don’t close yourself off to non-musical human contact and relationships. Go ride a bike or take a walk once in awhile. Read a book. Hug somebody. Listen to what someone else has to say for a moment. Especially someone older and more experienced. Time and time again it seems that the people who I really enjoy listening to are also very genuine, diversely educated, warm and engaging and this often comes through in their music and even beyond that in their personal presence. You could say I enjoy those who have cultivated their human side and allow it to permeate their music. 

I dread being in the audience or worse onstage and witnessing a musician continuously display chops (scales, patterns, licks, etc.) and very little in the way of emotion, development, interaction, timing, restraint, and space in chorus after chorus on every tune. They showboat forever never noticing that they’ve lost the audience and perhaps their fellow musician’s with their extended trip to solo heaven. Get in get out and get on with it.

The best improvisers, performers and entertainers are those who actually take the music somewhere and thereby bring the band and the audience with them. 

That’s what I believe we need to be striving for as musicians and performers. Engaging the music, your band members, the audience, and the space you’re in at the moment. Can you hear the difference? Have you listened? 

….and on that note I’ll be discussing the merit’s of taping oneself in an upcoming post.

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Practicing tip #1

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

(wait for it) Practice, Practice Practice!”

It’s an old joke but it’s true. There’s so much to practice. Where does one start? We all have a finite amount of time to practice, and it’s important to get the most out of the time you spend at the instrument. In an effort to help both efficiency and proficiency and in the spirit of Christmas, I’m going to share a few tips I’ve found helpful in honing my musical skills. I’ll share more in upcoming posts so if you like what you read here, sign up for more by pressing the follow button at the bottom of the page.

1. Always practice with a metronome. A lot of people resist this concept for whatever reason. Perhaps they feel it ‘limits their freedom” or that it’s “too restricting” or something of that ilk. Please, do yourself a favor and forget those statements. They are not true. Having ‘good time’ is an essential (and perhaps overlooked) element of being a good musician. The best way to develop and strengthen your internal pulse is to practice with a constant, steady and unchanging beat. I can almost hear some of  you say you can’t stand sound the ‘tick tick tick’ of your grandmother’s metronome, or the annoying chirp of an electric model. I hear you, and I feel your pain. If the sound of the metronome drives you nuts I’ve got some solutions. There are many metronomes and metronome applications for smart phones (I use Frozen Ape’s Tap Tempo for the iPhone) that allow you to change the sound of the pulse. Or try practicing along with a drum machine, software synth or a loop. It can be more inspiring than just a steady quarter note pulse. There are lots of cool loops in different styles  in programs like Garageband and there are plenty of free loops on the web. I’ve also found band-in-the-box to be a lot of fun for practicing. I like using a drum machine because it’s easy to change the tempo and you can’t often mute out a distracting or annoying sounds right from the controls. Or you can create your own patterns. Something to keep in mind when using electronic beat makers; make sure that the beats are simple enough that they don’t get in the way of the material that you’re practicing.

The metronome I've been using for years....

1a. Start playing the material you’re trying to learn a little slower than you want to play it at first. Yes, SLOWER. S-L-O-W-E-R. SLOW IT DOWN!!! Your ego will get in the way and say “I can play this fast right now, I don’t wanna play slow” and I admire your enthusiasm and your confidence! But all too often I hear rushed tempos, notes and passages that reveal that the performer has not spent the proper amount of time with the material. Learning a lick or pattern slowly and then gradually increasing the tempo by a few B.P.M (beats per minute) at a time after you’re able to play the material solidly, confidently and with assurance is the best way to get a difficult passage under your fingers. To the impatient mind this can be a maddeningly slow process but it truly is the best way I’ve found to improve one’s playing. I’m certainly not advocating robotic, metronomic playing on the stage but it’s a essential tool to work with during your practice time. As your sense and awareness of time as a constant becomes stronger you will be able to push or pull against the beat and that’s when the fun really begins. Why is it that you can play a transcription of a great solo and still not sound like the artist who played it? Part of what makes the greats great is there “time” and “feel” and the way that they played the notes made you feel something.

One compliment I’ve gotten from other players over my career is about my “time” or “feel.” I’ve made a point of practicing with a metronome when I first started to get into playing jazz. Before that I didn’t really like to use it. I thought it was a restriction. I was wrong. It’s been an essential part of developing my feel for walking bass lines with my left hand and being able to comp or solo with my right while playing Hammond organ. I think having “good time” is a truly important element that is often overlooked in the “I can play everything faster and better than you” mindset. (I also think that having a “good time” while playing is often undervalued as well…but that’s a topic for another post.) If you’re not using a metronome in your practice regime I suggest you give it a chance and watch what happens. (Yes, you can turn the metronome off during rubato passages you’re playing, but if you’re playing music with a pulse, use a metronome so you can be in the groove!)

I hope this helps your playing and I’d love to hear your comments or answer any questions you might have, so leave a comment if you like. (A note to young musicians with minimal time commitments. Practice as much as you can right now. I’m here to tell you it get’s harder to find the time to practice as much as you once could as life hands you more responsibilities.)

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