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journey of a ten through talons


In-Depth Post 5: Distilling it Down

A short conversation between me and myself this morning:

Lucas: It’s April. Yay

Lucas: What.

Lucas: Does that mean…it’s SUMMER SOON?

Lucas: No?

Lucas: Does that mean…it’s Aprilmayjune now?

Lucas: Yes…but no.

Lucas: OH NO.

Lucas: Yep.


Spooky. (photo from

Anyway, this fictitious conversation has been occurring in my head pretty often; the fact that this endeavour is more than 60% done scares me (about how much I’ve been neglecting it recently because of the intense school workload, how I have to perform in a few months, etc.) But then I look back, and realize how much I’ve learned in such a short period of time, especially having not known anything about jazz piano before I started.

I did get around to recording one piece, however, and that is Tempus Fugit by the great Bud Powell.

Here is a much more professional recording, by Bud Powell himself:

I thought it was a nice, quick and fun piece to play, and I also worked on it with my mentor during my lesson.

The combo has started to meet more frequently, because we are actually planning on performing at Frankie’s Italian Kitchen and Bar some time in June with the other jazz combo in Gleneagle, as well as the jazz band. Also, I’m performing at an old folk’s home on April 16th, so there are several opportunities coming up where I can actually start playing in front of crowds.

Tonight, for the first time in nearly one month (due to vacations and busy schedules), I met with my mentor. We worked on Tempus Fugit, as well as a tune I’ve been playing for a while, Holy Land. The main focus was how to “comp” (short for accompanying, which is what to play when other instruments are improvising). The first time I played it, he mentioned that it was very dense and thick. This was due to me playing the full chord (four notes) in both hands, totaling eight notes and a pretty muddy sound! After several attempts, we finally pared down the sound to only a couple of notes in each hand at once, and it sounded much, much better. Afterward, he then spoke to me about silence in “comping” and how it was totally appropriate to take a break for a few bars to help add more tension. Through our lessons, I’ve noticed that he comes back to this statement a lot: that silence is just as important as sound. Not 15 minutes later, when we were speaking about improvising, he told me again how important silence was in a good solo. He also taught me an important skill: humming. It may sound weird (it did to me at first!), but it’s surprising how useful singing a tune when you’re playing it can be. I think it was able to help create a melody that made more sense to me, with better melodic shape and contour, because I could sing it.

I was able to record a conversation I had with my mentor today, and I picked some quotes from it that relate to the “Six Hats” concept by Edward de Bono:

  • White hat: When listening to my conversations with my mentor, I realized that he usually starts off a concept he’s teaching me with some hard facts. This includes explaining an overview of the concept, and some basic reasons for why the concept is important. For example, today he stated that “Accompanying is basically what to play when other people are soloing. This is usually made up of chords spread out through the two hands, and…arranged in a certain way so the texture supports the soloist but does not ‘steal the show’!” These facts are objective statements that most jazz musicians would agree with. My mentor also does a great job of making sure he covers these basic concepts, so that I have a general overview of the skill he’s trying to teach me. Most of the time my mentor and I spend together (other than playing) is engaging in “white hat” conversations: he tells me facts about a skill, I respond with something I’ve heard about the skill, he tells a story that reinforces the importance of the skill, and so on.
  • Red hat: Most of the content of a “red hat” conversation between my mentor and I are usually before and after I play. He suggests an idea that I could have, and doesn’t necessarily explain it. This is probably because he wants me to try it out for myself, and he has an intuition that it will work (it usually does!). Today, before a solo, he played a few melodic ideas for me, and said to “go with it, and see what happens”. I was a little apprehensive at first, but then realized his lengthy experience playing jazz piano gave him an idea that he had a good feeling about. Also, after I play something, the first thing he says is “good”, or “not bad”, or “there you go”, and so on. I believe that these statements are based purely off of my mentor’s intuition, and he said what his first thought was after I had finished playing.
  • Black hat: In our conversations, my mentor had to do some “black hat” filtering when he was teaching me a skill. He’s used to teaching older students at Capilano University, so being faced with a beginner might be a bit of an adjustment for him. That’s why he focuses on teaching me more basic, simple skills that I can easily understand and learn quickly. When he gave me advice about “comping”, he didn’t teach me something that professionals do, but rather a small skill (“try splitting up the chords between your hands”) that I could incorporate into my playing right away.
  • Yellow hat: My mentor is very skilled at explaining why something should work, and backs it up with reasons and evidence (white hat). For example, when explaining “comping” today, he said that “playing less notes with only a few players sounds like a bad idea, but in reality, that’s not the case. In a whole group setting, the thinner texture from one instrument can go a long way for a better sound, and be a very useful tool in most cases.”
  • Green hat: “Green hat” thinking is inherently included in every single lesson with my mentor, because jazz in itself is an incredibly creative genre and always opens itself up to new possibilities. My mentor, rather than naming alternatives and boxing me into a solo with a predetermined plan, opens things up and suggests methods that can allow me to flourish. This meeting, he taught me about humming, and said that it was “a great way to open up new ways to play, while still making sure the improvisation makes sense and is coherent”. That, in a way, is a great microcosm of the “green hat”: creating new ideas and opening paths for exploration while still making sense for others in order to create a more productive atmosphere.
  • Blue hat: Perhaps the most important hat, the “blue hat” made its way several times into my lesson tonight. Before each lesson begins, my mentor always asks me what I’ve been working on, and what I want to play for him. We then make some goals for the lesson, such as “learning new voicings”, or “basic improvisation”. That helps focus the lesson into a series of small benchmarks we want to meet. This lesson, I suggested that we work on “comping”, as well as some improvisation. Those were the main two goals for the lesson, and we definitely met them!

Another post done, and I’m still learning more and more! Aprilmayjune, here we go.

Don’t worry about playing a lot of notes. Just find one pretty one

-Miles Davis

2 Responses to In-Depth Post 5: Distilling it Down

  1. Mulder says:

    Great six hat analysis. I am impressed with the number of opportunities you have for performing your talent, When in June, may be you should set this up as a cultural event for TALONS. New TALONS could be invited, too. In fact, do you know some of them already? They could help you organize it rather than doing one next year. Just an idea.

    • lucas says:

      Thanks! It’s nice to have so many opportunities, because, as my piano teacher estimates, one performance is worth three lessons (or more!). A cultural event could definitely be an option, and also be an orientation-of-sorts as well. Melissa is in the combo as well, and we could talk it over together.

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