One thing which I think about a lot in my own playing and in my teaching is the importance of balancing and integrating structural work with creative work in my practice. Exactly what that balance looks like will vary from person to person and also in each individual at different points in their growth, but I think the general idea is an important one of which to be aware.
On the one hand, it’s very important to be successful in a given task, and structural competence, like technique or the ear, gives the foundation to better enhance anything creative. For example, playing a scale, or memorizing a tune, and cultivating the concentration and follow-through to do that is important. At the same time, I think it’s healthy for all musicians, and especially students of jazz and other kinds of improvised music, to spend significant amounts of time actively improvising from the beginning. I think this reminds us of some of what it was that drew us to the instrument in the first place-why we PLAY! I say this especially because research in music cognition is clearly showing that we use different parts of our brain in creative musical activity as opposed to interpretative. One’s not better that the other, they are just different. It would be like going to the gym and only working on your arms and shoulders, etc.
So, where does imitative practice, including transcription, fit into this thinking? On the one hand, I would say that it is another structural activity that is key to one’s development. Thus, jazz musicians need not only the instrumental control as would an interpreter, they also need the understanding of style, vocabulary, which includes gestures in different styles and also tunes as well as standard forms. At the same time, this idea of including improv will mean that we experiment with playing our own phrases, in these styles and forms. That’s why I love, to this day, playing along with records in a creative way along with imitative. I do both in other words.
Ultimately, I would say that we follow our on heart in terms of these kinds of things, so each of us will be a little different. My point with this brief essay is to remind and encourage you to include improvisation in your daily work. There is a rather interesting prejudice against improvisation, found not just with interpretative musicians, but also with many jazz musicians, and my feeling is that could be counterproductive. This creative work might be anywhere from less to 10% to almost 100%. All I’m saying is that including some time for it will help with your growth. Start with “free improvisation” because nothing is free once you make a decision. For example, I could decide to use the whole tone scale and deal with that for a while. I could decide to be in time or not, etc. Some of this kind of play is a nice contrast to the more usual activities of keeping up with some kind of “play along track” or the like. Spend some time every day in touch with your own sound. Then do all the rest!
The next topic from this line would be: What is the relationship of improvisation with composition? There are different opinions out there. Is is the same basic kind of activity with just differences in terms of practice or expressivity or control, or is it something altogether different? There’s a range of thought out there on it, so I would be interested in hearing your thoughts.
This follows nicely the previous post, Practice Outline.
Practicing is a personal kind of endeavor, and certainly evolves with each of us. I really, honestly, advise you to find your own specific methods, but, it’s good at times to take stock of what you’re doing and evaluate our organization. Lately, I’ve come to think about the many kinds of things which we do in musical practice/study to be grouped into three main areas: Core, Repertoire, Creative. Let me try to explain and give some examples.
Core will include anything specific to the instrument, so for us it starts with foundational things like shifting, finger studies, open string studies, arco and pizz, but also scales, patterns, etc. It could also include etudes and much more.
Repertoire for us as improvising musicians has a wide range. It could include tunes of course, as well as anything “classical” you study, like pieces, suites, but it also needs to include so-called transcriptions, which I like to call imitative practice, which helps to develop what some like to call “vocabulary,” in other words an understanding or reference to a sound and style. As musicians of the future, we need to be equally adept at reading and playing by ear, so both aspects are part of this.
Creative This of course means composition and it’s twin, improvisation. Not all will agree that they are exactly the same, but I’ll loosely paraphrase renowned saxophonist and composer Dave Liebman and say that composition can be though of as improvisation slowed down and vice versa. Of course there are advantages to each activity, and one should do both at least to some extent. The thing I observe with more than a few students is little or no activity that is actually creative. It’s understandable that we need to spend a lot of time with Core and Rep to become great musicians on any instrument, but don’t put off daily creative activity until later. In simple terms, express yourself! It might feel like what you want to do is not in line with what you think is expected of you, but that’s way too much thinking. The greats balance reference, expectancy with surprise. One of my favorite quotes from Benny Golson: “Ron Carter, you never know what that guy is going to do!” That to me means surprise. Work to really be in the moment when you play, and including this in your daily regimen will help you. Do something right now- improvise! It’s what you will be doing when you play with others, much of it anyway, so make it a habit as part of your practice and you will be more confident in your playing in groups.
I always loved Jimmy Garrison’s playing, it was really unique and so innovative. He was of course the perfect bassist for the John Coltrane Quartet, and there are many classic recordings you should know, like A Love Supreme, Crescent, Impressions, and Live at Birdland. Here are a couple of lesser known track you will enjoy. His rhythmic innovations are with us all!
First, the Beautiful Dear Lord, from Transition. The link mistakenly identifies the drummer as Roy Haynes, while it is most certainly Elvin Jones.
Here’s a track from Elvin Jones’ trio recording The Ultimate, with Jimmy and saxophonist (soprano here) Joe Farrell (an Illinois alum!- concentration in classical flute) in Jimmy’s composition Ascendant.
Here’s a live video of I Want to Talk About You, with some pretty good sound and a chance to see Jimmy and the group!
And last but not least, Impressions from the television show Jazz Casual. Check out Jimmy’s solo!
I think we are all aware of Ron’s importance to all playing the bass. In particular, his days with one of the greatest of all jazz groups, Miles Davis’ 2nd quintet, with one of the most important rhythm sections, cemented his position in history. Across the recordings he doesn’t play many solos, but he is a key element in the groups, and studying that work is key for all bassists.
This is an interesting concert video of the group playing some of its more standard fare. Note Carter’s solo on Autumn Leaves, in particular the fact that it’s out of tempo. This is something I remember a lot of bassists doing when I was coming up, as Garrison did in Impressions from my previous post.
I’ll close with a couple of examples of Ron’s section playing. His recorded sound is really something.
Herbie Hancock Speak Like a Child. Check out the slides and fills:
and Riot from the same record, wow!
Windows, from Sweet Rain by Stan Getz, with Chick Corea and Grady Tate.
And the original version of Wave. Note the bass line, good to know, different than the Real Book. This is the full album many great tunes, including Triste and Look to the Sky.
A very talented high school student I know recently asked:
Hey Mr. Gray hope you’re well. I’m writing because I’m curious about some practice methods I might not be aware of to enhance my sense of time and to give me a steadier beat and pulse. Do you have any suggestions/tips?Here’s my rather long answer, which I hope you enjoy.
Dear ………. thanks for your great question. It’s a very key topic. There are a lot of factors to consider, so I”ll throw down a lot here, especially some conceptual points I think are quite essential.I don’t know what methods you are aware of so I’ll just give you all I can think of.First of all it’s important to note that good time is actually natural to most of us, though it’s more commonly seen and experienced in speech than in music. And I’ve heard you play enough to have an opinion that you have a very good sense of time, really strong bass playing at an early age. We all go through various phases in our development and there are all kinds of factors going on, so the following outline hopes to break it down. Time does come out of musical style, so when one identifies with a particular musician or group they will form a concept that is related to what they listen to and admire. Thus, other styles may feel foreign, as we might expect. So, if I listen to a lot of Coltrane’s 60s group with Elvin et al, be-bop will sound and feel a little different. Of course, nowadays we’re listening to a ton of different styles, but it’s also inevitable that one will have preferences and I think it can help clarify why things sometimes don’t feel right. For the jazz bassist, it’s important to hear the early sounds like the Basie and Ellington bands, the be-bop style, and various post bop styles, especially the Coltrane and Miles groups among others as well as more modern developments. There’s a wide range of time feelings right there and so we want to strive to really understand and resonate with each. For example, Ron Carter and Ray Brown are two essential figures all bassists need to know and I would say they are quite different, especially in terms of time feel. Through in Jimmy Garrison, Paul Chambers, Scott LaFaro, Reggie Workman, Oscar Pettiford, Jimmy Blanton, Gary Peacock, Charles Mingus, Richard Davis, Dave Holland, Sam Jones, and so forth. and it’s just all over the placeOne primary element of bass playing is the physical aspect of the sound production, which I may have mentioned to you. Because playing bass involves pulling the string as a preparatory act to the note/beat, there is a tendency for the notes to come late, exacerbated by the low frequencies of the notes. Many bassists, including myself, will tend to overcompensate for that at first and may tend to rush. Thus it’s really important to play scales, etudes, etc. pizzicato too to develop a concept of when a note really starts which, like I state/imply above, is when the string is released after the preparatory pulling. Learning to have control over the front and back end of each note is kind of the DNA of your whole sound.Playing bass in a jazz group is a multilayered kind of experience. I like to say that the bassist must combine strength and flexibility. By this, I mean that we have to connect with the drummer and the rest of the band, not be in our own zone, but at the same time be strong to give each person in the band the freedom to play whatever they hear. Hearing in a jazz group is a kind of aural multitasking. There’s a hierarchy in the jazz group and bass, along with the drums has the primary job of creating the timeline/pulse that is the foundation for everything else, which includes the focal activity, typically the melody/head and solos and also the interactive activity, including comping and call and response. Now all the musicians produce time, but it’s important to realize, as I”m very sure you do, that the timeline instruments, have the function in general, of maintaining the general pulse, whereas the soloists is free to do anything ranging from totally ignoring the timeline, to rushing, dragging, or honoring it. In fact, where the soloist put his/her time is a key element to their sound.So, each bass/drum team finds their own collective solution to this situation. When I play with any drummer I am not just listening to my part or just theirs, but I’m really listening to the composite sound of the timeline pulse which we create. This means that what I am doing will be a little different with different drummers because I have a concept of not just how I would/should sound but how we sound. This is also informed by the style and by the rest of the band.That’s a lot of info right there, but I felt it needed to be said because just diving in and talking about metronomes or other specifics is incomplete. Overall my conception with time is that we need to create time/ a pulse and then align that pulse with the drummer and the other instruments. Essentially it comes down to being able to quickly find your own groove and align/center that with the music. We need to have at least some awareness that there is a myriad of partnerships of bassists with drummers, so working with recordings, listening, playing and transcribing will help greatly with developing one’s time and an awareness of how it works in context. It comes down to learning how to hear the band and not be distracted/deterred by it. Sometimes I use the physics of bass sound production to help with where my time is placed. If I feel like the drummer is really pushing ahead, I need to be careful about going that far up there. If I allow the string the take longer to get to the sounding point, this will slow down my tempo even though I’m feeling it a little faster than it’s now coming out. In another situation, I’d do the opposite and get to the sounding point much more quickly to pull the drummer along more. It can be dangerous, so you have to listen hard and keep your eyes and ears open to notice any effects on the drummer and the band.Be sure to practice rhythm away from the instrument. Be able to tap/sing be-bop heads, especially Charlie Parker, while patting your foot or maybe your other hand in various ostinatos, including quarters, half notes, backbeats and also one per bar, not just on one but on any beat. These kinds of activities will ensure that you’re creating the time. You can also use the metronome, what we might call an external ostinato. Clave practice is another excellent way to develop this sort of control and flexibility. Then, when you play the bass you can practice with various ostinati with your foot/feet. For example, the great bassist Andy Gonzalez mentioned being able to play anything while patting clave with his feet. Experiment a lot with patting your foot and not patting. Also, experiment with singing everything you play. The research seems to show that all humans have a better time with speech naturally. Another idea is metronomes that randomly rest, testing the consistency of your time especially during the dropout periods. Nor a bad idea, and one you could easily do in a sequencer or DAW. Overall the goal is to create a groove and then to align that with others and not be deterred by changes in the music, such as density, volume range, off beats and so forth. Speaking of DAWs, you could try recording your bass with a metronome or drum track or even a recording to analyze your tendencies. Overall, I”m sure you have an excellent sense of where you’re putting the beat. It’s also good to play electric bass because of the different styles you’ll encounter and also for the feel. Than you have a better viewpoint to play some of that on the double bass.Playing in odd times will help your time too, so play in 3/4 and then 5/4 7/4 and then 7/8 and 5/8 and so on. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you there’s a lot of that out there nowadays.That’s a long read, eh!I’m going to put this on my blog, it’s a great question, so thanks for posting it. Again I think your time is very good, but it’s very important to constantly monitor it and to keep building. The study of rhythm is for all time. Ultimately, the goal is not to acquire some super human machine like precision, that’s the wrong track, though there’s no harm and plenty of benefit to studying those kind of details. The idea is to make the music feel really, really good!Hope that helps, all the best!
Hello and welcome back! It’s been some time since I last posted, but I will be writing now on a much more regular basis.
I want to talk today about the importance of exercise and physical well being for you as a musician. Playing any musical instrument is a form of exercise in itself, especially playing string bass. Therefore, part of the journey for all of us is finding an approach to the bass that gives us a healthy physical activity which strengthens our body and helps to keep us well, as opposed to putting us in pain and giving us some kind of ailments like overuse syndrome or tendonitis. We are all individuals without a doubt, but what I’m striving to do as a teacher is help each of you define, develop and refine your path, and the physical aspects of playing the instrument is a very important part of that.
As I get older, I am able to assess my own strengths and weaknesses, especially having been in an accident in 2014 where I was hit by a panel truck rounding a corner and also having gotten my self into some issues with long distance running, starting with achilles tendon. I feel pretty good about having developed my own way of playing the bass over the years and realized after the accident, which was a direct hit to my lower spine, how strong my back really was. Because I play several instruments, I saw, starting with the first time I tried playing, a week afterwards, and starting with guitar, how much I use my back to play all my instruments. So, I’m encouraging you to continue to develop the self awareness of your body’s role in your practice. And, I’m also suggesting you include exercise and body/mind work in your program. This has always been a key element for me, and certain studies I pursued were very important in my own development, in terms of the physical strength and flexibility I describe.
I encourage you to investigate various disciplines in this regard, but I want to give a couple examples which have been quite important to me. Our family physician is also a Tai-Chi practitioner, and so I was influenced by him a great deal and learned several poses which I practice. I also pursued Alexander Technique in Chicago long ago with Ed Bouchard and was helped by him very much and it’s very much a part of my playing. For those here at school, Champaign Urbana is a kind of epicenter of AT, so I would encourage you to look into the local scene when you can. AT is hard to experience on YouTube, I would say, it’s a one on one kind of thing. I’ve not studied Yoga, other than some YouTube videos, but can tell you that I think it would be another wonderful avenue to pursue. There are several other kinds of bodywork I’m not really familiar with, including Feldenkrais, so if you know someone really into some discipline it might be worth investigating.
Of course, physical exercise, such as swimming, running and biking are very important too. It may be that just a brisk walk or bike ride will be all you’ll have time for, but some kind of aerobic exercise is important for health.
Weight training is another matter. I think it’s got some great potential, but it needs to be balanced, and I think it’s logical to suggest that the work be mostly lighter weights and high reps and not power lifting. I don’t think too many of you are into that, but it has come up in questions from students. There are some bassists out there that like to talk about the physical power aspect of playing, and it’s true when you look at someone with a really large stature it might seem, or in fact be, the case that making a big sound is easy. As a teacher, I always take the position that it’s the use of the self that makes the difference. Music starts in the mind and and the soul and as you come into touch with your own sound you will find the way to release. Thus, we need an efficient well formed physical mechanism, you and your bass, to do that.
Speaking of YouTube, I’ve found some wonderful video courses in a variety of areas, especially Tai-Chi and Yoga, that would be good places to start.
As hard as we all work on our musicianship and our bass playing, it really important to have this balance and establish it when we are young. It will pay off later, I’m here to tell you!
Here is a document from a few years ago for students, in which I propose thinking of our practice activities/duties as falling into six general areas..
I. Technic, Scales, Arpeggios
This can include technical studies for left or right hand, traditional and other scales, arpeggios, interval and chord studies on a variety of scales, up to and including the chromatic. In addition to playing these at the instrument, it would also include solfegge, or singing (or whistling or humming) , of all of these kinds of materials.
II. Imitative Practice
Working with great jazz recordings is an essential part of a student’s development. There’s general listening of course (see below), but the specific act of “copying” great players on our own and other instruments should be part of the process. Work away from the instrument as much as possible, singing along with the solo phrase by phrase. Once familiar with the material you may notate it, but try to be patient and wait until you have it in your ear before writing it down. You may choose to completely skip the notation phase of this process. The final phase is the playing of the solo with the recording using the instrument. It is at this point that questions relating to execution, like fingering and articulation, will be explored.
III. Creative Practice
Composition of Tunes and of Lines
Singing of Lines
Real-time Practice with the Instrument
Once you have decided on an “environment” in which you will be working for the specific practice session (a given tune, chord progression, etc), explore each of the above methods. Writing of lines is an invaluable exercise and can take several forms. Some musicians keep a journal of motifs and then practice using and developing these ideas in the writing and improvising. Singing of lines, both pre written and spontaneously conceived, is also an essential part of this process. The old adage “if you can’t sing it you can’t play it” holds very true n general. If singing is not comfortable it may just be a matter of self conscious-ness that is holding you back, so be sure to give this work time to grow. It’s not a matter of developing a great singing voice but rather the ability to hit the pitches. Some musicians prefer whistling, so itthat’s more comfortable, whistle, or even hum!
The last category, real time practice with the instrument is, of course, the final product, and represents “what we do” at a concert, jam session, recording, etc. Experience has shown me that we probably should spend only about 50% of our private practice time with this. Three other suggestions to this are worth considering.
First, vary the tempo from very slow to the full range. Spend a good chunk of the time, especially when the focus is on quality of lines, playing at very slow tempos, from 40-60 per quarter note for eighth note lines.
Secondly, remember to transpose. You don’t have to hit every key, but transposition help ensure that you are using your ear and not relying on patterns or “licks” to get by.
Thirdly, there are several options we can use for “assistance” with the practice. The metronome is, of course, a valuable tool we can use at times. Vary the ways is which you use the metronome. Place it on different beats in the measure ranging from all 4 beats in 4/4, for example, to 1 and 3 or 2 and 4 or even any one of the four beats. Play along recordings, like those published by Aebersold Publications, are useful, as are drums products, like Drum Genius, Paul Carman CD Metronome, Loop Loft, etc..
One other important tool to use is to play along with real jazz recordings, playing your own solo over the track. For example, solo along with John Coltrane “Live At The Village Vanguard,” or Miles Davis “Steaming.” This may seem odd at first, playing over a solo by a great artist such as Davis or Coltrane, as opposed to playing their solo, (this would of course be great, too!), but what you will find, if you try with a focused awareness, is an improvement in the time feel as well as a better understanding of the relationship between soloist and rhythm section.
IV. General Listening
Remember to listen actively as it is essential to ones development as a musician. Here are two very good listening exercises.
1. Listen to the track once through without emphasis on any one instrument, especially the soloist. Listen again all the way and only listen to the drummer. Listen again, only listening to the bass. Listen again, only listen to the piano or guitar. Listen again, only listening each soloist.
2. Before working with the recording, play the melody of a tune, singing along with it. Repeat this as many times as are necessary for you to be able to sing the melody from memory. Now, play the recording from the beginning, singing or playing the melody with the track. When the improvisation begins, keep singing the melody through each solo. You will have not only added another tune to your repertoire, but have a deeper understanding of the form of the song and its relation to the solos.
This can mean jazz or classical, but is here to empathize the great importance of reading on a regular basis. It could mean either at the instrument, or singing, with or without solfegge syllables. I would also add that pattern playing, starting with David Baker, Jerry Coker et al might be considered “jazz improviser’s etudes.”
For the jazz musician, knowing tunes is really very important, especially for students who grow up with fakebooks right on their phone! The best way to learn tunes is by ear, using either recordings or books. To learn a tune “by ear” from a book, I mean singing it as you commit it to memory. Transposition will be the best test of how well you know the tune. With “show tunes”, i.e. Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, etc., listening to recordings by great singers of the day (Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, etc.) will give you a much better reference because your getting into the lyric of the tune. When great jazz artists of those eras were creating these innovative performances we are studying now, they were very familiar with the original tune-it informed what they were doing. Therefore, it’s a good thing for today’s student to include as new tunes are learned.
At the same time, repertoire means much much than the “jazz canon” or “standards”. It can really mean any music that we know and can render, so it might include items from around the world, and hit music of today.
I do think a classical foundation is a good thing to pursue from which to investigate all kinds of music, far beyond jazz. So, depending on your instrument and inclination, you may find great joy in pursuing various great works of the European tradition, including, especially for me, Bach, but really across the gamut, from Medieval Music to many important developments of the 20th century, continuing into the future. For example, playing the Bach cello suites on the bass, or the Inventions, Sinfonias and Well Tempered Clavier at the piano, is a lifelong pursuit with innumerable applications for the improvising musician. There are many transcriptions available for guitar and of course each instrument has its own European based repertoire.
It’s important to know certain music, pieces, tunes, grooves, really well. We don’t want to spread ourselves too thin, thereby cutting corners, but at the same too a sense of openness can be a beautiful and beneficial thing.
This is the final product, whether it’s a rehearsal, jam session, or concert appearance. The key is communication, both with the other musicians and with the listener. How you do this defines who you are as a artist.
Examples of Practice Plans
Any of these plans could be the right plan for a given student/artist, depending on which phase of their development is current.
This plan is fairly balanced between all the areas.
This plan leans heavily on technic and scales, etc.
This plan strongly emphasizes imitative work.
This one emphasizes creative work.
The main point I’m hoping to convey is that your practice should have the flexibility to change as you feel is necessary. Hopefully, thinking of your various activities/tasks within your overall practice will result in a regimen that is more productive, while at the same time organized, intuitive, flexible, rewarding and fun! Send me an email if you have any questions- firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com