A musician's tools

A lot of people identify improvisation in music with speaking a language. I wholeheartedly agree with this metaphor, but it may be a bit over-used at this point. Instead, I like to think of improvising (and playing music in general) to that other favorite pastime of mine: carpentry. Consider the following:

A carpenter is often encountered with problems that must be solved by building things. Sometimes this involves building something new, from scratch. Sometimes this involves fixing something broken, with both old and new materials.

A carpenter uses tools to create the visions he sees in his head.

A carpenter uses technique to control the tools to do the job that he wills them to do. Good technique allows him to vary the force, angle, speed and precision of each tool he is controlling to get the appropriate result.

A good carpenter never allows the tools to control what he does or how he works.

A carpenter is often working with materials that must be shaped into various forms and permutations so that they may work with other pieces of the puzzle to be completed. If one piece doesn't fit, then it must be adjusted to work with the rest of the pieces.

The final product is the only thing that matters. If a carpenter's tools and technique are in good working order, then (and only then) will the completed work look appealing. Good tools do not guarantee good work, and good technique suffers if the tools are insufficient.

This philosophy of solving problems cleared up many doubts and questions in my mind when I finally figured it out. Many young musicians are initially frustrated by the amount of tools and technique needed to perform well. This is understandable and quite common, but everyone must acquire the necessary tools and skills in order to create a competent musical idea. Likewise, many players become obsessed with the idea of the tools and techniques as the final product. This is unfortunate. If I were constantly infatuated with my hammer's design, I would never accomplish anything as a carpenter. If I were constantly fascinated by the way that I was able to cut crown molding at a particular angle, all I would have to show for it would be many separate pieces of wood cut at various angles. It wouldn't add up to anything meaningful or significant. You must have both in order to complete the final task, which is the only thing that has any real value.

Have you been to a Home Depot lately? Have you seen how many tools are in that place? How many do you have in your arsenal? How are you using them?

Taking the initiative: The best thing you could POSSIBLY do

The new school year began on August 24 and now everything’s getting back into shape for what I would consider my “normal schedule”.  At the University of Houston there are two jazz bands: the Jazz Orchestra and the Jazz Ensemble.  I rehearse the latter (also known as the “second”) band twice a week.  A couple years ago, I started a Google Group for each band in hopes of making communications easier and to share music (NOT for illegal downloading!) as listening examples.  The following email showed up on the message board from a student:

Looking to get together with fellow students to work on tunes and general playing/reading/improvising. I'm booked solid Tuesdays and Thursdays unti 2:30. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I'm free after 11:00 a.m. Please don't wait until rehearsals to practice your parts.  I've been in too many bands and ensembles that waste time learning parts during valuable rehearsal time. We can make it fun and a valuable learning experience.

To which I replied:


This is great to hear!  Whether it's working on the ensemble's music or combo tunes and improvising, the outside practice and self-rehearsing will help your overall musicality in bounds.  My advice?  Take advantage of your time and situation while you're in school to put yourself in as many different musical situations as possible NOW.  Don't put it off, because you'll never get this time back (and you'll probably continue to put it off), it's important to practice as much as possible now when you have the luxury to do so.  It's important because you need to test your limits as a musician and then try to break through those limitations.

If anyone is interested in rehearsing combo tunes and improv, I'd suggest talking to some of the students in the Jazz Orchestra about this, since they're always looking to learn new material.  That group meets from 12-2pm MWF in room 175.  Also, if you haven't already done so, please go check out some local jam sessions around Houston.

Here's a short list:

Monday: Straight-No-Chaser Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Jam @ Smitty's Cafe and Bar Tuesday: King Biscuit Jazz Jam @ King Biscuit Patio Cafe Wednesday: Latin Jazz Jam @ Smitty's Cafe and Bar Thursday: Mike Owen Jazz Jam! @ Legends Jazz Cafe More info can be found at http://www.jazzhouston.com

Don't worry about showing up to play if you're new to this, but as a musician, you should definitely see what these are all about.  Then, maybe you can work up a small repertoire of tunes to play within a month or two.  It's just as important as going to see the symphony or opera!

Since then, a great deal of communication has been taking place on the group, planning for after-school jamming and rehearsing.

So what’s the point of all this?  I constantly stress to students (both new and senior) that they can’t sit around waiting for "it" to happen.  The "it" can be the gig you've been hoping for, or just simply progressing in your playing level.  We're not guaranteed anything in life, and the phone just isn't going to magically ring for work.  One popular saying is that "a good jazz musician is never at home alone every night of the week".  What this means is that hungry, motivated people are always out there seeing and hearing new things as well as meeting new people.  In the music world, this is especially true.  A quality musician is aware of what is going on in their world and yearns to interact with people on the bandstand.  Because a good percentage of this business requires a great deal of social networking, it is critical that you get out there and be seen, heard and liked!

We all cannot afford to waste any more time just simply hoping that "it" will happen for us.  Motivated students in turn motivate me to be a better teacher, player and person.