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journey of a ten through talons

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In-Depth Post 6: As it Approaches

Another two weeks have passed, and I’m still working hard at my in-depth project. It’s been difficult finding time to practice, amid various performances for drama, preparation for a classical piano festival next week, overnight hikes on the weekends, and the never-ending demands of being a TALONS student, but I have found time to hunker down and jam out to some jazz piano. Here’s a recording of I Hear a Rhapsody, composed by George Fragos, Jack Baker, and Dick Gasparre:

Here is a recording by the legendary Bill Evans:

I’ve been experimenting a lot with different voicings, and when to use which voicings in relation to the situation. It’s definitely a challenge, since I have to think of what to play on the spot, and it has the possibility of not sounding good in the context of the piece. However, the more I try things out, the more I can understand which voicings will work and if they can be applied in other songs as well. The voicings definitely are able to add more colours to the piece, and can fill it out more.

I also had the chance to practice twice with the combo, and we worked on Holy Land (I was unable to get a recording, but will when we meet again). The leader of the combo, Ben (check out his blog here), has been passing on his advice during our rehearsals, and I’ve made sure to record it. It’s definitely come in handy when I’m playing in an ensemble.

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In just a few days, I will be performing at Parkwood Manor (an old folk’s home) with Tori (check out her lovely blog here). We’re planning on playing a few jazz pieces, including Autumn Leaves (she’ll be singing while I play), and I’ll play a few other songs. It’s the first time I’ll be performing jazz piano, and it probably will be pretty nerve-wracking. We’ll see how it goes!

Due to my unavailability for most days after school, and possible lesson dates falling through, I wasn’t able to meet with my mentor this week. However, I looked at conversations I’ve had in past lesson with him, and found that there are several examples of what is to be explored this post with de Bono’s How to Have a Beautiful Mind: Concepts, and Alternatives.

Concepts:

  • A major concept raised by my mentor in almost every session is about improvisation. It’s interwoven into basically every piece of jazz, and I’ve spent a lot of time working on it with him. Most recently, he spoke about various practical ideas related to improvisations: playing less frequently, using motives to create a more cohesive improvisation, while still keeping a strong rhythm in the non-improvising hand.
  • Another concept has to do with voicings. It may seem like a “practical idea”, but the importance of voicings is so profound that it has various practical ideas within it. For example, a few practical ideas would include playing more than just the root, 3rd, and 5th of a chord, playing chords in inversion to give them a different sound, and playing exploring the best pitch combinations that would make up a “jazzy” chord.
  • Finally, the last concept I’ve learned is about accompanying, or “comping”. A lot of wisdom has been passed down by my mentor, but also Ben (the leader of the combo). As seen in the photo above, I’ve kept track of what he’s told me. At my last mentor session, my mentor spoke a lot about “comping”. A main practical idea he gave me was to play less. Another was to thin out the texture by splitting notes between my two hands.

Alternatives:

  • Voicings in themselves are alternatives, since they are a different way to play chords. The first time I played a piece for my mentor, he already started to encourage me to use inversions and different ways to play chords. They definitely sounded better afterwards, and these are alternatives that I still explore every time I play jazz piano.
  • A major alternative during this project has been about the direction my project is going. At the start, I thought that it was a lot more linear, with me focusing on scales, then rhythms, then improvisation. But my mentor gave me an alternative, by showing me that those three elements of jazz (along with countless of others) were interwoven together, and could be learned at the same time.
  • One more detailed alternative came a few months(!) ago, when I had just finished playing a piece for my mentor. At the end of most jazz pieces, the pianist ends off with a decoration of sorts, mostly an arpeggio, or some random melody. However, my mentor offered me an alternative that I could use for the endings of that piece: a rolled chord. It made a lot more sense in the context of the piece, and I’ve been exploring different kinds of endings to jazz pieces every since.

 

A little over a month to go!

You never master the instrument. You always just strive to get better.

-Bill Evans

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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.

(Both Lucases in unison): THREE MONTHS OF IN-DEPTH HAVE PASSED!

Spooky. (photo from https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/46/05/69/4605698164f3d78307c5912381538465.jpg)

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

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In-Depth Post 4: Finding a Voice

Nearly two months into this endeavour, and I’ve learned so much in just four lessons with my mentor. I also practiced with the combo once right before the gala. However, several people were missing, rehearsals were cancelled due to snow and holidays, and we decided we just weren’t ready for the Gala. That being said, plans are already being made for a possible year-end performance at another venue!

Here is another recording of “Autumn Leaves” (with double bass):

Yesterday, I had my fourth lesson with my mentor. We covered two main subjects, the first being voicings:

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Voicings are the specific arrangement of the notes in a jazz chord; certain voicings sound better than others. The preferable voicings have been compiled into a progression chart in every key possible. I asked my mentor if there was any way I could memorize and use these voicings in a piece more easily, and he gave me a few tricks that he used when he was learning them.

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Also, I played “Autumn Leaves” for him. We worked on integrating the voicings I had asked him about into the piece, as well as improvising. At the bottom of the picture are the four main points he spoke about (scales, motifs, silence, and using the melody in an improvisation). We then discussed what an improvisation was, and he defined it as something that was very spontaneous but still had elements that were controlled and thought of beforehand.

Overall, another very productive lesson (every lesson I’ve had has been very rewarding and useful!).

Here’s how I integrated a few more lessons from Edward di Bono’s book How to Have a Beautiful Mind:

  1. How to Listen: My lessons are always very dense in information and I am constantly learning from my mentor. However, at home, I often run into problems that I need help with. So, at the beginning of my lessons, I always have a few questions for my mentor that he can hopefully answer. During this last session, I found a completely different point of view about improvisation that I never thought about before. My mentor stated that improvisation wasn’t completely spontaneous; rather, it was elements that had been thought about before combined in ways that were spontaneous based on how the performer was feeling, the mood of the piece, etc. Previously, I had always thought that improvising was completely in the moment, which is probably why I always found it so nerve-wracking. My main differences with my mentor arise in our training: he is an amazing jazz pianist, and learned that way. I’ve been playing classical piano for more than ten years. The two genres are completely different in countless ways (improvisation, rhythm, harmonies to just name a few), and are the main places that I find myself unfamiliar with what my mentor is talking about. A main point that my mentor focused on in my previous lesson was voicings, which he highly stressed. I decided to go home, and look into the importance of chord voicings. I found several resources stating that voicings were an indispensable component of jazz, and showed a few more that I could learn. Here is one website.

Questions:

  1. As stated above, I always come to my lessons with a few questions that have come up in the two weeks since we last met. I often write them down on a page in my notebook when they come up, so I don’t forget during my lesson. I ask my mentor these questions because I find that he is always able to answer them and provide me with a new tip or fact that can help with my playing, and he’s a great first-hand resource for questions about performing. One particular skill we went deeper into was voicings, and he spent a lot of time breaking down the chord note by note, and describing why it was there. When he spent the time and effort to do that, it made much more sense to me. Also, I tried to ask questions with multiple choices, but found that it was usually a “this or that” statement. However, I think that it’s better to ask a wide question, and clarify if necessary, because giving someone a set of answers limits their response. Finally, my mentor is very detailed in his responses, and usually describes why he’s telling me something. For example, when he taught me a trick about voicings, he said it was useful because it was a faster option and was easier to memorize.

Nearly halfway! Here comes the other side.

It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.”

-Miles Davis, jazz trumpeter.

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In-Depth Post 3: All About Improv

Since my last post, nearly three weeks have passed. I progressed a lot, too – here’s a quick recap:

With a lighter course load in second semester, I had a lot more time to practice jazz piano. I worked on Autumn Leaves for a long time, as well as a new piece called “Holy Land”. Below is my favourite instrumental recording of the work, performed by the Bill Evans Trio.

At the end of my previous lesson with my mentor, I asked him if he had a few recommendations of jazz pianists that I could listen to. He came up with a very long list of pianists, and I was able to listen to most of the performers he mentioned. It definitely helped me feel the style and rhythm of jazz more, and my favourite pianist was probably Keith Jarrett (shown below). He is well known for his eccentricities when he plays, including stomping and standing up when he plays. But the music was incredibly phenomenal!

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I also practiced once with the jazz combo, in preparation for the Jazz Gala taking place in just a few weeks. We played over Autumn Leaves multiple times, and started to practice Holy Land. I played the vibraphone (an instrument similar to the xylophone) to get used to the melody, since I had never played it before.

Finally, to finish off my Family Day long weekend, I had a lesson with my mentor. We covered a large amount of ground, especially about improvisation, which I had no idea was so complex and detailed, and I wrote down several notes during the lesson that are shown below:

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To summarize:

  1. First of all, I asked him about how to finish any piece of music: with a scale, glissando, arpeggio, or any other kind of embellishment to signify that it was over. My mentor responded by saying that it depended on the style of the piece, and gave me a few ideas.
  2. To help with my improvisation, my mentor said I could try singing a random tune that came into my head. Basically, it’s vocal improvisation, but also helping my piano skills.
  3. Together, we went through and used Roman numerals to analyze the chords that were given in one piece of music. This skill could help me memorize the piece of music more quickly, and also help give me some ideas for improvisation.
  4. I also started using scales to help my improvisation. My mentor had me play the chord progression with my left hand, while playing a simple scale (in whatever key the piece was in) with my right hand. I would change directions whenever I thought it would make the most sense.
  5. During my first improvisations during my lesson, I often found myself losing my spot in the progression, and playing a chord too early or late with my left hand. My mentor said that he struggled with it as well when he was learning jazz piano, and told me just to keep a steady beat in my head while I was playing.
  6. To compensate for 4), I started playing my right hand in straight quarter notes on the downbeat. This gave my music a certain stiffness, and my mentor told me to start playing more on the offbeat, and experimenting with the different rhythms I could use.
  7. He also said that I should start leaving more rests in between improvisational ideas; that is, realizing that silence was just as important to a strong improvisation as the notes themselves.
  8. Finally, skipping the line “Don’t have to respond” and the three lines following, my mentor told me that the improvisation was mine to work with, and every musical choice was mine to make.

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To finish off my post, here are some more aspects from “How to Have a Beautiful Mind” that I focused on in my last lesson:

  1. How to be interesting: I tried to actively engage as much as possible in my lesson yesterday. First of all, I connected some tips my mentor gave me about improvisation to a recording I had listened to, and that helped spark a conversation about different jazz piano styles. Also, when he taught me a scale that had an interesting physical shape on the keys, I displayed genuine surprise and interest that the scale worked like that. Finally, when we were talking about jazz piano “endings”, I brought up various scenarios where the endings would change with a “what if?” statement.
  2. How to respond: My mentor is very skilled at giving me clear tips and instructions, so I am rarely confused with what he says. However, I was once puzzled by a progression he showed me, and asked him about it. After he went into some more detail with it, I understood what he meant. When we were discussing Keith Jarrett, I had read an interesting article about his performance in Paris, and shared it with my mentor (the article can be found here). Moreover, I also shared a personal experience before where the audience was disruptive when I was performing. I felt that it help connect me and my mentor more. Lastly, I slightly changed a point he made about improvisation to me that made more sense, and wrote it down so I could understand it later.

 

The Gala’s coming up soon!

In Jazz, improvisation isn’t a matter of just making any ol’ thing up. Jazz, like any language, has its own grammar and vocabulary. There’s no right or wrong, just some choices that are better than others.

-Wynton Marsalis

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In-Depth Post 2: Jazzin’ It Up

Second post!

My In-depth project has seen great progress in the last two weeks. I did record myself at the beginning of January, playing some pieces that Chris (my mentor) gave me to practice, but plan on storing it away in the archive until the end of the project. Instead, I recorded one of the pieces I’m playing with our jazz combo in preparation for the Jazz Gala: Autumn Leaves (here’s a link to a professional recording). The combo’s recording is below:

(Sorry for the awful recording quality – the only device I had was my phone)

I improvised in a section of the piece, and it was a rather daunting task. The keyboard in front of me suddenly seemed like a mass void, with an endless amount of possibilities that I could undertake. Since my combo practice days are on the same day as my jazz piano lessons with Chris, I made sure to ask him if he had any tips on how to improvise.

We covered a large amount of ground during our second lesson, including chord “voicings” (arranging the notes of a chord so they sound better), a new piece called “Blue Bossa”, and improvisation. The first time I was making things up on the spot, I had a similar feeling to when I was improvising with the combo: I often felt lost, and lost track of where I was in the music – improvisations still occur over a steady chord progression often played by the left hand. Then, my mentor, sensing this, offered a piece of advice that was very helpful. He told me to slow down, and focus on small melodic patterns to repeat and transpose. That way, I could actually know what I was playing, rather than just using random notes like I had been doing previously. Afterward, my changed approach to improvising was much better. I was still playing spontaneously, yet I had a clear vision of what I was playing. Another thing I learned was that the skill of being able to improvise comes through practice. In just a few weeks, my skills have improved enormously through continuous repetition. But practicing isn’t necessarily very boring and laborious – improvising means that I’ll play something completely different each time.

Below are the three aspects of How to Have a Beautiful Mind we were to focus on:

  1. How to agree: in the first two lessons, my mentor has been giving me a lot of information about jazz piano and some basic skills. I often try to find particular points that I find interesting and give my own take on it. I believe that this will help my mentor know I am listening to him, and also help enrich my own learning. At times, my mentor did mention some basic theory knowledge that I learned several years ago, and I found it slightly annoying. However, I then tried to consider that he didn’t know me and my knowledge base very well, and had to make sure that I understood basic concepts. It also helped me review some basic terminology!
  2. How to disagree: I haven’t been in any big situation with my mentor yet where I’ve disagreed with him. The only instance I remember is when he was speaking about my eminent person (Glenn Gould), and stated a few common misconceptions and generalizations about a famous story about Gould. I considered pointing it out to him, but ultimately decided against doing it, as it wouldn’t have proved anything, and we had just met. Also, I noticed that he was reading a biography about Gould, so perhaps the story will pop up in there!
  3. How to differ: Again, I haven’t had any differences with my mentor. I do envision possible differences in the future arising over our interpretations of pieces – this could be due to our different musical backgrounds (classical and jazz). I think that it should be averted fairly easily, since no interpretation is wrong in music. I believe I can listen to my own opinions, but also listen carefully to my mentor’s, since he is more experienced in the field of jazz piano.

 

Month 1: Over!

“Life is a lot like jazz… it’s best when you improvise.”

George Gershwin

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In-Depth Post 1: The Beginning

And so the second main pillar of the TALONS program begins!

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For my in-depth project, after a few days of deliberation (and several voices of input from family members, as well as my interviewee for my eminent person) between recording music and jazz piano, I chose the latter. I have played classical piano for the last ten years, and played jazz pieces once or twice, and I was intrigued by the art. I would occasionally hear “Tonic”, a jazz radio show, at night on CBC Radio 2. I believe that jazz piano will make me a better overall musician, once I have embraced different types of music. Jazz represents a very different style than classical music, and I believe it can make my interpretations more rich, creative and personal. Jazz piano, in many ways, is more accessible to general audiences than classical music, which will be an advantage when I’m in a more comfortable and relaxed setting, such as Coffee House. Basically, it’ll offer me a opportunity in which I can learn a new genre, improve my classical playing, and also help for future performances and gigs.

My goals for this project are to accomplish the above, but I also set out more skills that I want to learn by the end of May:

  1. Be able to learn basic jazz “notes”, scales and rhythms
  2. Be able to learn basic jazz accompaniment, and briefly explore styles of jazz (bebop, swing, stride, etc.)
  3. Be able to learn basic, short melodic improvisations based on a set of chord progressions
  4. Be able to play in a jazz ensemble, and learn various skills to work together with the other musicians in weekly sessions
  5. By June, have performed in various different settings (for individuals, in small groups, and before large audiences)

The jazz ensemble I’m part of is run by Ben Sigerson (his blog link is here), and includes a few grade 10 TALONS and other students. I had my first practice with them this past Monday, and it was fairly nerve-wracking to sight read music I had never seen before. It was especially difficult because jazz piano notation is made of a melody line with chords above it, which is very different than classical piano scores. But I was able to adjust by the end, and Ben helped me by playing a bassline.

For my mentor, after some searching, I connected with Chris Sigerson (yes, Ben’s dad!) through a mutual friend. His biography is very extensive, and here is just a short portion of his website bio:

He has played many gigs over that time from small jobs playing background music to concert halls and recording studios. Chris has collaborated with a wide range of artists, Canadian and international, and feels fortunate to have worked with many of the world-class musicians and vocalists in Vancouver. Chris has been featured on many CBC radio broadcasts over the years as a sideman and leader and continues to work in the recording studio for others’ and his own projects. He has produced five albums. They include; “Heritage”, “A Father’s Dream”, “Merry Chris, Chris, Christmas”, “A Christmas Tribute”, and “Live At The Thomas Ave. Grill”.

Chris also teaches jazz piano at Capilano University, as well as students in his home studio. I went to his house just yesterday to have my first lesson with him. Here are some of the materials he gave me:

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In just one lesson, we covered some basic jazz chords and progressions, and how to read jazz notation. By the end of our lesson, I did some basic improvisation over a chord progression that he played. I found that his laid-back, conversational nature of teaching was very easy to interact with, as he was able to make connections between classical and jazz piano and was knowledgeable in both areas. I didn’t find that there were any difficulties I encountered, other than the improvising. During it, I noticed that I ran out of ideas after a few bars. But this lesson was mainly to introduce the art of jazz piano, so there should be more concentrated focus on improvising in the near future.

Overall, I thought that I accomplished a sizeable portion of the introduction to my project – making goals, practicing with the ensemble, finding and starting to meet with my mentor. I’m excited to see what will happen in the next five months!

If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.

-Louis Armstrong

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