A Learned Instinct

My wife was telling me about bumping into two of our more musical friends who were talking about an improvising pianist who didn’t own a piano. She described how one was amazed that this pianist (whose name I wasn’t told) could play so well without an instrument to practice on. Then she told me that the other of our musical friends explained that “it was all in here!” while wiggling fingers for emphasis. This got me to thinking about my own approach to improvising and practice.

I remember spending a lot of time practicing when I was younger. First it was technical exercises, scales, and the various pieces that my junior high school orchestra played. Then, after I struck out on my own (something I’m still working on), I worked on things that were pertinent to work: long sessions with a metronome, practicing over chord progressions, learning tunes and solos from records. I still worked on technical exercises, but used method books for other instruments as well. Sometimes I would practice for stamina, and I still tell my students that they owe it to themselves to, at least once, practice their instrument for twenty-four hours, only stopping for a very brief snack or a bathroom break. (It doesn’t matter what is practiced, just as long as you play for as much of the twenty-four hour period as possible. Long tones are good!) Now that I’m pretty familiar with the instrument, I practice a lot less, probably less than is good. I still get the bass out when I get new music to work on that’s difficult, but that’s rarer these days.

I remember reading Glenn Gould’s ideas on practicing. He had a routine of practice where he could visualize himself at the piano and work on something, even a new piece, by imagining himself playing the piece, focusing on fingering and gesture, and not actually moving his body. He swore that it was just as effective as “the real thing.” I know that when I’m listening to music on the radio or the stereo by myself, I can feel how I would play the notes in my arms and hands without moving them; like “hearing” with my fingers. Years ago, I was at the loft of Fred Hersch, another fan of Gould, who was telling me about pianist/arranger Jim McNeely, who was living in a studio in the East Village at the time, but didn’t have his piano with him. Fred was in awe that McNeely could still meet deadlines and perform like this. But, then again, McNeely is a brilliant pianist as well and probably more than a little familiar with the writings of Gould. It’s my belief that in the never-ending process of one day being able to master music, there comes a point where you know what it is to play. It’s the only logical explanation of why we can sit down with our instruments and know when we’ve played something wrong.

This gave me an insight into the piece of music by Thelonious Monk that I’ve been working up a presentation on for the big-band class I’m auditing at Rutgers University. Monk was a tireless practicer. He practiced, though, not to master the piano, but to master the forms of the music he was to improvise on. Some of these were original compositions, like “Brilliant Corners,” the piece I’m analyzing. This piece is filled with non-tonal devices and is limited to just a few motivic gestures that, for lack of a better understanding on my part, are variations of pitch-class sets. Enough so that I switched from looking at the piece through the lens of keyboard gestures (which it certainly is) to looking at it through pitch-class set analysis, a la Alan Forte (I made the decision after finding the second Z-related pair). Through practicing the piano, Monk seems to have grokked an understanding of intervallic relationships used by cutting-edge “legitimate” atonal composers that he could write and improvise with in a tonal jazz vernacular. I’m certain that as he walked (or rather paced) around town, he was working on it all.

I still have to practice things, though. But I have been giving Gould’s method a shot, particularly as I drive to upstate NY to rehearse for this Sunday’s appearance at The Stone with Denman Maroney. It looks like we’ll be a duo, though. Our drummer had an emergency that demands his missing this one. Our thoughts are with you, Bob!

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