Hearing Protection

Years ago, after playing professionally for many years, both live and studio work, lots of acoustic jazz, but also a wide range of musical styles, but none at what would be considered excessively high volume levels, I went to Michael Santucci of Chicago’s Sensaphonics for the test. I was disappointed to learn at the time, when I was in my forties, that I indeed had a hearing loss in my left ear, with the right happily being unaffected. This loss, fairly common I believe, is a “notch”, meaning the damage is in a certain specific frequency range, in my case 5K-7K, roughly the area in which the ride cymbal frequencies tend to reside. Above 7K it was found to be normal and the same below 5K. From that time until the present, I have been a consistent user of hearing protection.

The pro plugs can be fitted with filters in different levels of noise reduction, usually -15db and -25db the most common. I had some -9db filters at one point, which I really like, but mostly used the -15db ones and they work well for the range of my work. The bottom line for me is that I love playing music wearing the earplugs and do not find them to be detrimental to me in any way. I think wind instruments are more of a challenge and so I defer to those players but will say that I enjoy playing flute, which is my only wind instrument, with the plugs, though it’s different. Playing bass, guitar, piano, etc. is a blast because I hear a good representation of the sonic image, just softer, and at the same time I can sing along with my playing which, in some cases at least, gives me a bit of a stronger sense of self image and presence. So, I highly recommend earplugs for your health and musical longevity.

Recently, I lost one of my pro plugs, and so had to resort to over the counter products and want to report on the two brands I purchased. I think both work very well, though I do plan to eventually get a new set of pro plugs. I think, for students on a budget, it’s important to state that these products are very close, if not the equal of the pro product. The main criteria I would mention are getting a good seal while being comfortable to wear, providing a reasonable representation of the sound (not muffled) and providing sufficient protection.

I purchased a set of “Earasers” plugs, at around $40 and also a set of “Hearos Rock and Roll” at around $8. I’m finding the Hearos to work well for general gigs with some degree of volume. Vendors like Guitar Center also sell other variations of the Hearos which are less noise reduction, so surely will be even more enjoyable. They are -26 db, so a little more than I would like, but I’m doing ok with them. In other instances, the Earasers are giving me more detail, so they are worth the extra money I think, but might not be enough protection for some gigs. The most important thing to notice is that they come in different sizes so you need to choose carefully. Go to their website and go over the video instructions. https://www.earasers.store.

So, my advice is to protect your hearing and do it today! If you have the money ($150 for the plugs along + an exam) the pro plugs are the best, but just don’t lose them! In the meantime, I think the over the counter products, the right brands at least, are very close, and so I highly recommend you consider them. There are other brands out there, so my report is not scientific, but just on the two I chose to buy. Feel free to comment with your own experiences with earplugs or related questions.

Four Key Elements

I must be honest and admit that while I don’t always adhere to what I”m about to tell you, I definitely feel better when I do!

For the musician I think that it’s important to have a daily regimen of core activities some with and some away from our chosen musical instrument. For me, there are four essential activities-exercise, meditation, core work at the instrument and improvisation. You will undoubtedly make your own list, but I would say that this would be a very good place to start.

While core instrumental work, such as technic, scales, rudiments and such and improvisation can both be thought of and experienced as meditative, I do find/feel that pure meditation is a separate practice and should be explored as such. . For me, a Zen style of meditation, quiet sitting with an empty mind (or facsimile thereof!) is very rejuvenating. Cycling or running, especially running, is the best for me. If I find time for these two practice away from the instrument, I’m in a much better place when I do get to it. I think it’s a good balance to have one of the away from the instrument activities be active and the other be passive. Practices like Tai Chi, Yoga do both, so you might have active and passive in one discipline. As I said, find your own way. To be fair and complete, reading music in a deep way is equally meditative, so we all design our own program. Find what works best for you!

At the instrument, as I think we all realize, the more efficient our technical system is, the better we’ll be in terms of musical output- we’ll play more, it will sound better, and we won’t hurt. Further, it will actually feel good, as in the best thing we could possibly be doing for our health and well-being. This is why I believe core work at the instrument is so essential for the complete musician. People who get this down when they are very young are blessed to be able to not have to think about it so much, but there’s still a maintenance factor and damage can and will occur is the system is not functioning efficiently. This is why I highly recommend a significant amount of core practice in your work at the instrument. Most students I see are still very much getting it together when they arrive in college, so that is, in particular, why I’m mentioning this to my college students.

Improvisation is the balancing element, in my view, and should be port of the core work, before we get to playing a specific tune, form or chord progression. On the one hand it’s important to be able to play a particular rudiment, such as a finger combination, scale or the like, in an exact, prescribed manner. On the other, applying such rudiments in play both reinforces the assimilation of the device and helps build the creative juices along with the overall comfort of the physical aspects of the player, and the sound. I’m talking here about improvisation which if free of any particular preconceptions, such as playing a certain tune or form. Basically, if I spend ten minutes on a chromatic finger study, working to perfect its execution literally, I want to spend ten or more minutes improvising, but improvising using primarily the same kinds of chromatic figures. So that’s the fourth element, the act of play.

So there you have it, four elements in your core work – exercise, meditation, core technical work and improvisation. See if you can begin each day with all of them before moving on to a specific tune or piece. I hope you find this thinking helpful in your own work, let me know if you have a comment or question.

More Thoughts on Practicing

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.

Practice Outline

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 it that’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. 

V.  Etudes

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.”

VI. Repertoire.

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.

VII. Performance

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 is fairly balanced between all the areas

This plan leans heavily on technic and scales, etc.

This plan leans heavily on technic and scales, etc.

This plan strongly emphasizes imitative work.

This plan strongly emphasizes imitative work.

This one emphasizes creative 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- larry@larrygraymusic.com or lwgray@illinois.edu