Sometimes, someone says something that really makes an impact on me. It may be a small part of a much more wide-ranging conversation, but there’s that one point that really hits home and becomes a real “a-ha moment.” In Episode 42 of the Performers Pathway Podcast saxophonist Walt Weiskopf said this:
“In my teaching, I’ve said that when you sit down to practice, try just to start playing. Have something you’re working on. Don’t think too much about what am I going to do. Just start your project.”
“I could go down the black hole of, “Am I practicing the right thing? Should I go on to a different tune?” Sometimes I tell myself, don’t think. Just play the routine. And that’s half the battle, is just getting through your routine. At this point, my routine is get the horn out, put a reed on, and play “Hot House” in 12 keys. Which I’ve been telling myself I should be able to do, but it was a huge project for me. It took me months and months.”
So, there are a few takeaways for me here:
First, have a routine. A project you’re working on. Don’t think about it too much as long as your working on something that’s has some challenge to it. Just getting on the instrument and spending time with it is valuable. Second, don’t go down the rabbit hole of , “Am I practicing the right things?” If you haven’t yet developed the mental or physical skills needed to execute the music you’re working on, why worry about moving on to another challenge? Finally, we need to have patience. Weiskopf, a world-class musician with 20 critically-acclaimed CDs and countless sideman credits, including performing and recording with Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra, Steely Dan admits that his project of playing Hot House in all 12 keys took months for him to master.
So set your goal and make it your daily routine to get to work on that project and chip away at it a little bit everyday. Don’t question it. Don’t get discouraged when it feels like you aren’t making progress. Don’t skip a day when the novelty has worn off, and you’d rather play something new. Yes, you can absolutely modify your goals and routines as you progress, find new inspirations, or approaches, but don’t jump from one idea to another too quickly. Put the time in to fully master the music even if it takes months and months.
This has certainly made me reevaluate what my daily practice routine could look like and I’ll be sharing more of that here soon.
Possibly the best presentation I’ve ever seen on the concept of musical concentration and the practice habits to help get you into the zone. A highly recommended watch.
One question this video has made me think about a lot: does it matter whether we keep our eyes open or not when when play, and specifically while we are improvising?
Assuming I don’t have to read music, there are a few things I might be doing with my eyes when I play: looking at my hands, keeping my eyes closed, looking at something else happening in the room, or open but unfocused. I think any of these things are fine to do and over the course of a gig I’ll probably do all of them, but as I’ve considered how each of these situations affect my ability to listen, focus, and to tap into a flow state, I think I’ve come to the conclusion that keeping my eyes open but not focused on anything specific seems to be the best situation for me, especially in terms of deep listening and really getting into the flow.
I have no problem with looking at my fingers if I’m trying to complete a technical passage. The visual support often helps me with movements that require a high degree of accuracy, like a big position shift or a harmonic I want to be sure to nail. But if I’m improvising, I think it might actually limit my imagination. I’m not sure, but I feel like looking at my hands while improvising may actually lock me into playing ideas that I know I can play – or at least ways of moving through changes that are familiar tried-and-true routes around the fingerboard.
Keeping my eyes closed seems like the natural option for going inward and digging deeper into the music, but as Paul notes in his video this may not be the distraction-free environment we think it is. In my case, I’m a really visual person and closing my eyes doesn’t mean turning off visual input. It just means changing the visuals. In fact, my mind’s eye may create an even more powerful visual world if I’m not careful. In some instances, this can really lend itself to the flow of the music, but it can also just create a new set of distractions or even give me the illusion that my music is coming across with more depth and meaning than it really is for the listener. So while closing my eyes occasionally is fine, I have to be careful not to create an alternate reality that is not connected with what I’m delivering musically.
Obviously, looking at something else happening in the room generally takes me out of the flow and sets me on autopilot so I’m not going to spend much time on it here. I do think there is a need for some autopilot on a gig and that you need to be aware of things happening in the environment and respond to them if necessary. Whether it’s thanking someone for dropping a tip in your glass, responding to a staff member asking the band to turn down, or something else, this skill super-important but does not lend itself to focus or flow-state.
Finally, that brings me to eyes open but unfocused, or at least not focused on anything specific which is the big takeaway for me here. Paul mentions focusing on something or someone in the room. So far, I think I’m more successful in bringing my gaze to some non-specific middle distance that isn’t really focused on anything. Whatever gets you there, Paul puts it best that it’s really about making your “eyesight disappear.” This is an interesting place to be in because I can be aware of outward visual cues if need be, but I’m not generally as distracted by them as I might be just looking around the room, nor am I sinking into my own internal world that can happen when keeping my eyes closed. Further, I feel like it really let’s my ears take over and allows my fingers to follow the music in my head rather than me trying to conjure up music by focusing on what I think my fingers can do. As I experiment with this, I find myself reminded of my first dog, Katie. When she caught the scent of something exciting her nose would take over completely and her eyes would get a faraway look in them as she became fully engrossed in processing whatever olfactory information she had discovered. Similarly, I feel like I can more fully engage in listening – whether to internal ideas or external musical conversation – when I disengage from visual cues in this manner.
I’m going to keep trying this approach for a while and see if brings additional insights.
Here’s a great exercise I picked up from saxophonist Mike Titlebaum. His video “Improvisation Using Simple Melodic Embellishment,” a jazz clinic by Mike Titlebaum has lots of great concepts worth you time. Check out the video at about the 11:11 for a more complete explanation of the technique this exercise is built on.
The 3-note enclosure patterns shown leading up to each circled note are commonly heard embellishments in bebop playing and are applied here to each note of a major scale. I’ve notated it here in all keys with guitar tab placing the patterns mostly around the 5th position but once this exercise is mastered you could transpose any of the patterns other places on the fingerboard. Some keys will likely feel more difficult than others. Personally, I feel that the fingerings for the F and Eb major scales are some of the more intuitive and may be a good place to start if this is a new pattern for you. Scales with 5-fret stretches, like the A , D, and G scales here took me a little more time to get under my fingers but as always, YMMV. Probably the most important thing is to internalize the sound of the enclosure patterns and where they fall in the scale and let your fingers follow your ear to find the sounds in each key. In other words, don’t depend on the tablature or designated fingerings too much.
Enjoy the challenge and please let me know if you work through it.
Sweet charm of my solitude,
Creator of the calm in my nights,
Share the secret worries
of my tender yearnings!
Now joyful, now plaintive,
Oh guitar, echo of my sighs,
Express with my attentive voice
Both my pain and my pleasure.
Excerpt from nineteenth-century poem
Artwork by Alena Aenami
All the Things You Are
All of Me
But Not for Me
Bye Bye Blackbird
Days of Wine & Roses
Don’t Get Around Much Anymore Doxy
Fly Me to the Moon
Have You Met Ms. Jones
How High the Moon
I Got Rhythm
If I Should Lose You
If I Were a Bell
In a Mellow Tone
Night & Day
Pennies from Heaven
Softly As a Morning Sunrise
Stella by Starlight
Sweet Georgia Brown
Take the A Train
There is No Greater Love
Things Ain’t What They Used to Be
There Will Never Be Another You
Well You Needn’t
What is This Thing Called Love
3/4 or 6/8
Alice in Wonderland
My Favorite Things
Some Day My Prince Will Come
Up Jumped Spring
Girl from Ipanema
Green Dolphin Street
Night in Tunisia
Mercy Mercy Mercy
Body & Soul
Georgia on My Mind
In a Sentimental Mood
My Funny Valentine
Polka Dots & Moonbeams
Freddie the Freeloader
Now’s the Time
Blues for Alice
Also see the post, Bruce Forman’s 10 Essential Jazz Standards for more repertoire suggestions.
Take the A Train
All the Things You Are
There Will Never Be Another You\
On Green Dolphin Street
Ain’t Misbehavin’ -or- It Could Happen to You
Stella By Starlight
I once had a student ask me which jazz standards he should be working on. I directed him to choose a few from a list of songs that had been put together by the chair of our jazz program at Ohio University. (You can see that list here: A Selected List of Standard Jazz Tunes for Memorization – Ohio University Jazz 2016)
When he saw the list of nearly 100 songs he was visibly overwhelmed. I remember him saying that it was too long a list of songs to really be helpful. Which ones were really important to his development? Which ones might be called at a jam session? While that list is an excellent resource and included many of the most important tunes standards you’d expect, I understood his feelings completely.
Soon after, I found that guitarist Bruce Forman had created a list of 10 essential jazz standards for his students to start with that comprise many of of the most common sounds, cadences, and forms that jazz musicians will encounter as soloists and accompanists. I’ve since started using these pieces with many of my students as entry points into the jazz repertoire. Bruce discusses why he chose these specific tunes in more detail on Episode 99 V of the GuitarWank Podcast.
I’d also add the super-obvious recommendation that students should have a blues song and a rhythm changes tune in their repertoire.
A while back I moved johnhorneguitar.com from a wordpress-based site to a new site hosted by Bandzoogle. It’s great for a lot of things, but not so great for journaling, sharing thoughts ideas, or collecting articles of interest I find online. I’ve been missing that aspect of my old site, so I’m going to try a free WordPress blog and post about what I’m practicing and working on here. I’m not completely sure this is the best format – maybe YouTube or some other platform would be better, but I feel strongly that I want to stay away from popular social media platforms right now so that I can just post about my work without worrying about likes or comments. I also want a platform which is easily searchable so I can go back and find posts later. I hope readers will find some of my ideas or thought process interesting or helpful in their own musical journey.