You probably will rarely find the name Chopin and John Coltrane in the same sentence but in many ways, these musical giants, bookend my musical direction of travel, over a lifetime.

I just got the Blues

I remember my road to Damascus moment at a Gary Moore concert many years ago in Montreux Switzerland. I had a vague knowledge of the Blues, but that night was transformational as Moore delivered an unforgettable performance with just a trio. I was enthralled that such a simple and unfashionable music could produce such emotional power. A year later he delivered a pop (record company) concert which was as disappointing as his Blues concert had been a tour de force.

Jam on it!

So I began a solitary journey back in May when I enrolled on Willie Wyette´s (online) Jazz course Summer Jam. Looking back, when I began my journey I was so young I didn´t even know what music was, yet alone whether I liked it; piano lessons began aged seven. Like millions of others and despite the certificates, I couldn´t actually sit down & play anything or figure out a tune by ear. So largely frustrated I had more or less given up having spent thousands; my own denouement coming in 2009 when I attempted to play at a friend´s memorial service & simply dried up: horrendous.

Pick n Mix

There is now a plethora of on-line courses, some good … some … . Again, a real teacher is a great help in navigating these, as in the end the costs rack up. However, there is enough free stuff (thank the hard marketing robots) to structure an educational patchwork quilt which can deliver those mythical just in time skills. But an experienced hand is really required to do this, hence a live teacher, until you become a SMART learner.

Doh oh Dear!

When I came across Summer Jam I had been toying with the idea of teaching English using songs rather than formal grammar. Cunningly much of the English I had learnt, had come in the form of songs and nursery rhymes (doh oh dear to quote Homer), and I figured this was a much easier pathway than using more didactic techniques; Children absorb music more or less effortlessly.

Doh reh mi! Una Melodia

My first problem, no keyboard, so I quickly purchased a 50€ second-hand keyboard, which though only 5 octave (66 note), also came with a bunch of pre-set demo Anglo tunes: Hey I didn´t even have to learn the tunes.

Cannel Vision I

However, I still really wanted to learn to play Jazz & Blues and I stumbled upon my dog-eared copy of Ward Cannel´s “How to play the piano despite years of lessons” (I really wanted to play Free´s My Brother Jake …). I had studied classical music for most of my life, disliking most of it, despite having somehow gained my grade 8 certificate in Pianoforte. In those days we were taught parrot fashion how to churn out pieces, with scant regard paid to the feel of the content or even how these pieces were constructed. Cannel´s book despite it´s homespun (pickup n shotguns) narrative is actually quite advanced (you have to be able to read music), if not anal in its detail as to how most music (classical & popular) is actually constructed. Very old school (1900s+) it´s still a great reference. As with much of my music experiences, I had picked up the book in 2002 and had barely got beyond the first few chapters. This time I mostly read the book whilst riding a bike in the gym. Whilst classical music gives a good foundation, it is a foundation and other skills are required to make a more personal music (imho).

The other aspect of learning Jazz was the improvisation; most of my English students really struggled to improvise in English, notwithstanding they knew the grammar & vocabulary, so I figured there might be a language spin-off in learning Jazz?

Willie Myette´s course Summer Jam began with a webinar & one of the things he really stressed was the dreaded p-word; practice, or more specifically a practice plan. This was a bit of a revelation for me, as I had always loathed practising & so the idea of planning this torture seemed … scary?  However, I had become familiar with lesson planning, so thought why not structure practice? The other thing he stressed was organization; you had to have everything needed to complete a practice session, so, for example, I kept a diary where I jotted down notes, and decided to practice every day at 7 am, as I figured out I´d be fresh & so something might stick?

A warm Descale

The other big change was that Scales became my warm-up in practice. I realized that learning to play an instrument has a huge muscle memory component. This came from my years of Gym & Yoga, and was soon confirmed; though I hadn´t played for six years, the Scales I had learned at seven, came back to me within a couple of weeks despite having a broken left wrist. I did have to concentrate but my fingers often went into auto-pilot, as I could soon reel off many Scales without thinking. I began Myette´s course but started the OpenLearn Jazz course a week later in June. Overcomplicating things has always been a weakness,  but I figured that two courses were better than one and the courses, should be complimentary, as Jazz is essentially a derivative of blues. Myette´s course was fairly straight-forward; a set of videos starting out very basic, & then getting more complex, though as he stuck to the 12 bar blues format, the pieces were pretty short, and could be mastered fairly quickly.

Sharp Practice

He also suggested that you practice each piece at least ten times. This has often been a problem, as I often struggled to practice a piece three times, but I stuck to his recommendation, though I only practised my scales three times (perfect), as I largely knew them anyway.

Steely ooman!

The OpenLearn course proved more problematic in that whilst it began with a simple version of Things ain´t what they use to be (Ray Mercer), it was far looser and demanded quite complex ideas such as sevenths,5/10,7/10, the full blues scales and weird (Jazz) voicings. Also, the fact that it was mainly improvised proved difficult as my classical training left me floundering when attempting triplets, swing time and scalar improvisation i.e. unwritten material. I was largely chimp trained to read notes & play them; I can´t say I was very good at this, but to just improvise without written music was a quantum leap.

Counter-point

The other problem was the basslines. In Jazz & Blues basslines form the backbone of the music, a hallmark. I knew I would have problems with my left hand so I deliberately picked a (simple) Boogie Woogie from the Internet, to strengthen my left hand, round about the time the arch exponent (Dr.John) passed. Despite the weakness in my left hand I found the Boogie Woogie more straight forward, as at least I had the Music in front of me.

Basslines
Time falls wanking t´da flaw

The last important factor was Time; in the past, I struggled to practice for an hour. This time I decided not to impose a practice time cap, as I really needed to develop that muscle memory & that needed time. I also needed to study the videos which also absorbed time; I found I was practising for up to five hours (with breaks) on a stretch. Whilst the OpenLearn course was the most challenging (little support or feedback), I found my years of study weren´t completely wasted and was able to support students who were having trouble both technically & motivationally. As a bit of a dab on the net, I was often able to find videos that dealt with many of the problems we were encountering, and eventually, I began to incorporate Oliver Prehn´s and Jonny May´s stuff into my practice.

Scrambled Eggs da Riddim?

Soon things became pretty complex as I had multiple teaching sources, but as a teacher, I had to structure things so I didn´t become overloaded. Two practice sessions were rarely the same, as they are always themed. I constantly incorporated new elements. According to (Jonny) May, students should love repetition. I loathe repetition. This meant progress slowed but at least it kept my interest up, and my fingers were telling me each day, ok you´re improving (through Yoga I had learned to listen to my body). I also developed themes to my practice based on the multitude of free lessons that flooded my mailbox. I began to incorporate these free five minute fixes, to refresh my practice as I felt the need. For example I´m currently working on May´s blues scales patterns in CF&G. Next, it might be Prehn´s arpeggio patterns. If Scales & Modals are the rules of engagement, jazz represents the breaking of those rules, very different from classical; sufficient yet necessary!

 I found that as I got nearer to the (recorded) sound I actually began to lose count, as I became immersed in trying to get the right sound, irrespective of my number of attempts. Sometimes it was 10 sometimes more, sometimes less. However, establishing a bench mark for practice was really important step in getting to grips with the content.  It was important not to clock watch & be disheartened by progress; I had been down this road many times before.

Sharp practice;the Matrix

In actual fact despite the many sources, as I progressed I became better at teaching myself and solving little glitches. Part of that, was the development of a practice matrix. Essentially progress on the Boogie Woogie was static; as I practised it 10 times through I noticed in Chic Corea´s words, several persistent glitches (practise what you can´t play). So what I determined, was to mark the glitches on the sheet music, and only completely play the piece once (it was 56 bars). I then practised those 10 glitches (slow, full speed, x10) and gave myself a mark for Accuracy, Speed & Feel. I could then add up my score to measure my daily progress. This also meant I reduced practice time, I could concentrate solely on one glitch if I wanted to (some times just one bar). The five-minute practice, Willie had spoken about actually became possible with my Matrix. I had made a metric for my learning. You need a metric as the threshold for music is very high; one note out of place and someone will undoubtedly notice it. The key point is you want to emerge from each practice session with an achievement; it can be simply solving one glitch, a better feel. Pointless practice is … pointless, always have a goal for your practice session! (Again a good teacher will do this for you). The other thing with the matrix is it helps memorisation; when you go back to reconstructing the piece, you will have a detailed map of where the transitions are in the piece. Having played the glitches up to 200 times over a four week period, memorisation of the piece will be much easier.

The three months turned out a bit of an up and down as my routine was interrupted by my mother´s arrival, and a funeral back in England, but by and large I stuck with my routine throughout. On the back of this I had introduced some metrics to my practice without becoming a clock watcher. I was spending roughly ten hours a week practising, and eventually made some breakthroughs.

Improvisation: 8 weeks: not Oscar Petersen but I could handle the base (CFG) scales.

Hand flexibility: 10 weeks: the Boogie Woogie actually sounded like one(bassline).

Chops:12 wks; mastered Boogie Woogie & could play some trimmings, blue licks etc.

¨Bass player and keyboard player required – must have Jazz Chops¨-

Dianny Dias´ Village Voice ad: the Legend of Steely Dan.

My hands began to do what I wanted, when I wanted. The strange thing is that one day nothing works & the next day everything works?

Conclusions

Learning to play an instrument is pretty difficult hence we idolise those who can do it. However it is not a god-given ability; practice (aka muscle memory) is the key and along with that, comes the motivation.

Fun fun fun

It should be fun and that is the role of the teacher to make it seem enjoyable, whilst ensuring that all the bases are covered; the practice plan. Like most plans, a good practice plan is flexible and caters to the needs of the student rather than the teacher. I have outlined my own path and a fundamental change for me, was writing my own practice plan (thanks Willie) and seeking out multiple sources, when trying to figure out problems. YouTube is the great game-changer here. However not all resources are appropriate or even reliable, and hence an important role for the teacher is advising on resources. Video annotation and control is also invaluable.

Feedback

Learning an instrument is a pretty solitary pursuit, and my summer re-inforced that. Through FB I am also aware that many learn languages on their own which kind of leaves me dumbfounded, as both Music & Language are in essence forms of communication. The nice thing about the OpenLearn Jazz course was that you were able to communicate with fellow students, and I found this invaluable & motivating; again the Internet is a game-changer as you no longer need to monastically bash away in silence at the keyboard.

Scaling Everest

Scales are fundamental and should be regarded as your warm-up; they frequently indicate what kind of quality your practice session will have. For Blues and Jazz you need to practice all the Scales including minors and blue/pentatonic scales. Eventually you will use these scales as the basis of your improvised runs & licks.

Modal Scales

Time is seen as a major issue when learning an instrument & I would say make it a non issue; … ignore it if possible. However, this does not mean don´t measure progress; metrics are essential to mastering an instrument quickly and often motivational.

Have goals will travel

My objective was to be able to sit at the piano without any music and improvise a tune by ear. I still haven´t reached my goal, and I won´t be giving the good Dr.(John) competition any time soon, but I reckon another summer and I´ll be pretty close; amazing since I have spent a lifetime getting nowhere near.

Time falls wanking to da flaw

Make Time your friend; experience is critical & the more hours you have logged, the better player you will be .. fact. However, tiredness is also a Time factor; don´t practice when tired. The fingers will tell you when they´ve had enough, and your stamina will improve with practice.

 Another factor is human attention span which is claimed to be 40 mins: you need those breaks, as it´s difficult to maintain the energy levels required: don´t practice tired, it´ll just demotivate.

Cannel Vision II

Cannel´s book gave me a framework; how Scales and Progressions work in creating music. Armed with this framework working out an arrangement of a tune becomes fairly straightforward & logical. Picking out melody lines (tunes) you can easily form a chordal arrangement if you follow the conventions of 90% of music making. You do need some theory (for Jazz etc.) or else it becomes whimsical especially when it comes to improvisation.

Melody

With a strategic plan, you will get to the top of the hill, though some will take longer than others. I didn´t mention it, but Visualisation is often a neglected skill; if you can see the footholds you will eventually climb the mountain, Visualisation helps tremendously with this.
Another problem is the Jargon: Music is littered with it, as one man´s sharp is another´s flat and so it goes; diminished, suspended, augmented … the nomenclature is horrendous and I have deliberately kept this blog as Jargon free as possible. Often it is simply another obstacle. Jargon is our internal language but often it´s just confusing for outsiders.

I have reiterated the commonality between Language & Music; you often see the learn a language in a month, or play made easy books/CDs, or worse apps. No matter what, learning an instrument is long and hard, hence the popularity of beat software (Pro-Tools) or even being a DJ.

Going Loopy; others must see the faker?

No practice, just cut, paste chutzpah. Guys like Oakenfield, Laurent Garnier, Carl Cox, Joey Negro & David Guetta masquerade under a banner of House, but really are parasites feeding off the musicians who have gone through the practice loop I´m talking about, but who lacked a market. Our kids form this market and ever the optimist hopefully it will go full circle, and real musicians will hold sway again, as computerised music (gym beat) fades.
I have also seen & tried the no memory required courses, as if we never use clichés. I can assure you it´s all moonshine, though it racks up sales. None of this stuff actually works. Like most skills, they are acquired by years of practice, and no one including me has the silver bullet. I´m far from a great piano player, but I know and can now play stuff, and you have to develop a purpose for your practice sessions. Motivation is key along with a plan … a good teacher can supply both.

Goodfellows

Online there are now many good teachers available (Rick Beato, Willie Mayette, Chic Corea, Jonny May, Oliver Prehn etc). So there is no reason anymore why you can´t become a decent player, provided you have access to the tools, make the time, and a good practice regime. I still think especially as a beginner you need to ask those how do I? questions, and hence the need for a live teacher or maybe I should say coach. Crucially you must attempt Music you actually like. I learned to pass exams; not great.

Reflective Practitoner

I often think rather than uploading a recital, you should upload your practice session to your tutor, or get your live teacher to sit in a practice session. So after all this am I a better piano player? No but I´m a much better practitioner (reflective practitioner) and maybe that´s the point!

Finally despite what they tell you, it´s not Rocket Science, though I must admit it can get complex.

Enjoy.