When I walk the halls and listen to various students’ practice, most of the time I am thinking of the concept “Quality versus Quantity”. Practice just for the sake of practicing to put “time in” just to say you put your “time in” is not good enough. So how do we get more “Quality” of time in? Everything we practice must have purpose and direction with a very specific goal in mind. Some goals can be short term goals, but we must always have an idea of what are long term goals are. Short term goals tend to be immediate situations, like learning a piece of music for a concert. Long term goals tend to be the fundamental musical elements that make us better musicians, like ear training, command of your instrument, knowledge of theoretical concepts, and research into the historical background of multiple styles.
So why do we practice the way we practice? This is an important question that we need to deal with before we even head to the practice room. If the answer is for reasons like passing a class or because you were told to, then you may need to rethink why you are doing what you are doing. The next reason is back to the concept of just learning repertoire for the next concert. That short term goal or mentality of pumping out music for the next concert or event. With this approach, you build limited technique and a limited understanding of your instrument that is repertoire driven only or learning how to do one thing only one way. Finally, we can practice the way we do from an obsession with music standpoint. We practice from a wholistic standpoint that comes from an obsessive need and a deep desire to experience music.
Let’s discuss first the short-term goal of practicing or what I refer to as repertoire driven practicing. Of course, learning repertoire is important and essential. We all understand that, and I don’t want to belittle the importance of that. But, when it comes to becoming the best well-rounded musicians we can possibly become, sometimes repertoire is beside the point. Sometimes we get so hyper-focused on learning music for the “next” event that we just learn notes and rhythms on a page and go no deeper then that. This is Quantity practice. A lot of music education is quantity practice, whether it’s applied lessons or ensembles. The other issue of just doing repertoire driven practicing is building your facility technique just from the music, etude, concerto, or whatever it is that’s in front of you. The idea of learning one thing one way only is limiting as a musician. For example, if you have ever performed a piece of music that has fourth intervals in it, but only in one key and only one way, then you are not going to hear the interval of a fourth very well. You are learning that pattern from a muscle memory standpoint for that one situation. You have not learned how to hear fourths better. So, every time you encounter a musical phrase in a piece of music that deals with fourths, you are starting over every time learning that pattern of fourths for that composition. You are learning music from a mostly visual standpoint and rarely from an aural standpoint. The better we hear something, the better we understand something, so the better we play something.
So how do we get to more of a long-term practicing goal? How do get more quality practice time? First, we must let go of the dogma that repertoire is the only important thing. Performing repertoire from a deep personal and passionate place is the end goal, but it’s not the only long-term goal as musicians. There are musical elements we must tackle from a practicing standpoint to be able to become effortless with our performances. Fifteen minutes, or “Quality of Time”, of disciplined and concentrated practice on a specific situation is always better then an hour plus, or “Quantity of Time”, of undisciplined and non-concentrated practice running a piece of music over and over. Philosophers and musicians have discussed the 10,000-hour rule where you need to spend 10,000 hours practicing something to master it. But that only works if it is 10,000 hours of correct and disciplined practice. So, what are the things we should practice getting to these goals? Fundamentals! If we want better individual musicianship quality and deeper experiences in our performances, we must become effortless with basic music fundamentals. And what are these music fundamentals? Ear training or how we hear things, facility technique, command of your instrumental or vocal medium, sound and time, music theory knowledge, and historically correct style. And, reading music out of books is not the end game. Technique and etude books should be used as a guide for contextual musical suggestions, not as a visual dependency to box us in and disconnect us from how we hear music. Get off the page when practicing scales. Be spontaneous and creative playing your scales every possible way (intervals, triads, arpeggios, contrary motion, change of note order, etc.). Improvise ideas, situations, and musical shapes within the sound of a scale with and without a metronome and drone. Compose your own etudes, especially around situations that are hard for you.
How you practice sets up how you perform. Be OK with spending more time on music fundamentals then music repertoire. We all understand that the end game is to perform repertoire in a live situation with as much emotional content as we can. But, quantity will come if you focus your practice on quality. Make the live experience about your personal experience with every moment of everything you do, and everyone will see the quality in you and your performances.
Downbeat June 2017 - 4 ½ Stars - Reviewed by Carlo Wolff
Bobby Selvaggio Transcendental Orchestra - Quantum Man – Dot Time Records 9058
Bobby Selvaggio’s saxophone and warm yet bracing compositions star on what may be his most adventurous album. Even at its most abstract, the highly textured, refreshingly unpredictable Quantum Man is persuasive and moving. It’s Selvaggio’s first effort with his Transcendental Orchestra, which includes a Jazz quartet, string quintet, voice, percussion, and electronics.
This album begins with “Vanishing Thought”, a soaring, aspiring showcase for Selvaggio’s fevered alto. Then comes the deliberate title track, a conversation that sets Selvaggio’s cautious single notes and jaunty voice-box effects against a calming string section. The tune thickens as Selvaggio’s single notes recede behind Theron Brown’s energetic piano, transforming the song into a kind of geometric round.
And so the album evolves, taking the listener through a complex three-part suite called “Fading Rose” to “House On a Hill”, one of the most haunting tracks.
The notion of bel canto, perhaps ingrained in Selvaggio as the son of Cleveland Jazz accordionist Pete Selvaggio, permeates Quantum Man; it’s palpable at the beginning of “Fading Rose” as Selvaggio plays a caramel motif, building on it with ferocity.
Ultimately, the album’s eclecticism is liberating, spanning the lyrical “House On a Hill”, the edgy, eccentric “Proteanism” and “Love Within”, a ballad so mellow you might think it’s a lost track from Focus, the Stan Getz-Eddie Sauter classic.
Over the last few years, there have been a number of releases adding string ensembles and integrating this to the jazz format. In my opinion some more successful than others. Far too often with this type of release the string ensemble is relegated to the background providing little more than harmonic padding missing the opportunity to fully explore the extra sonic possibilities available. This is not the case with “Quantum Man”; Selvaggio has taken great care to fully integrate the strings into the ensemble creating an expanded sound-scape where all instruments play an integral role in the arrangements.
Quantum Man features nine original compositions penned by Selvaggio creating in his own words “a sonic adventure for the listener”. I couldn’t agree more with this statement; this album continues to surprise from the fist track to the last. Throughout the album Selvaggio shows that he is not only a performer at the top of his game but also a composer fully in command of his craft. Notable tracks on the album include the opening track “Vanishing Thought” and “Proteanism” an odd meter composition that explores the full possibilities of the extended ensemble.
Quantum man is an exceptionally well produced album on the cutting edge of creativity. I can’t recommend this album highly enough.
Vanishing Thought | 2 Quantum Man | 3 Fading Rose 1st movement | 4 Fading Rose 2nd movement | 5 Fading Rose 3rd movement | 6 House On a Hill | 7 Proteanism | 8 Love Within | 9 Up Is Down.
Bobby Selvaggio – alto & soprano sax, alto clarinet, voice box effects pedal and keyboard Theron Brown – piano, keyboards | Dustin May – drums | Dan Pappalardo – acoustic & electric bass | Jamey Haddad – percussion | Chelsea Selvaggio – voice | Chiara Stauffer 1st violin | Amber Dimoff 2nd violin | Andrea Belding – 1st viola | Christina Spackey 2nd viola | Trevor Kazarian – cello
Quantum Man-Bobby Selvaggio
Dot Time Records DT9058
If there’s one comment I hear above all others about jazz music in academia is that it’s making jazz performers sound too much like they are playing out of a book. Another way of looking at that is the concept of “head” versus “heart”; performing too technical or theoretical versus playing from the soul or with emotion. Jazz was always a music that was learned in the clubs or at jam sessions, places where musicians would gather and hang out, talk about music, and play together. Jazz traditionally was an environment where young and upcoming musicians would learn things from a mentor, go practice all day, and then perform all night. Now that colleges have been offering programs in Jazz Studies for many years, too often that environment has encouraged taking out a fake book, learn some licks over some tunes, and perform those at a jury to pass your class. We have lost sight of the basic fundamental aspect of jazz music in general, that it is an improvisational driven music.
Another big difference with young jazz students today versus years’ past is they are not growing up listening to jazz music on a regular basis, if at all. I have seen too often students come into college wanting to be a jazz musician or teach High School Jazz Bands and they don’t have any extensive idea of what jazz sounds like. They played in a Big Band in High School, liked that a lot, and think they want to play or teach jazz. Besides the fact that jazz music is not even a little part of everyday society, so they come in having no real understanding of what jazz really is. Let’s start with a process to build jazz education curriculum around and then deal with how that applies to music education.
As I have developed, as an educator in particular, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what the concept of improvisational driven is. I feel it breaks down into four main elements; Ear Training, Theory, Technique, and Style. This might be slightly old school of me, but learning tunes out of a fake book is very counterproductive. Developing the ear is essential in jazz, let alone all music. If we always use a fake book to learn jazz repertoire, we have taken an essential element of jazz development out of the equation. Do melodic and harmonic ear training with your students. Make them learn tunes off of a record, not from a book. This way they not only learn the music, but they are learning the sounds of jazz through repetitious listening. This also helps develop the concept of selective listening versus casual listening. Making them focus on the chords or just the bass line to figure out the harmony, or the interpretation of the melody, or the interaction of all the musicians during improvisations. Ear training is at the forefront of all we do in music.
As important as ear training is, theory is an essential element of performing music and to be able to understand and explain the things you play. I talk with students a lot about being effortless and immediate with everything you do. As improvising musicians, jazz players have to make instantaneous decisions, manipulations, and developments to the music we play all the time. In essence, jazz improvisation is spontaneous composition. Since we compose in real time, our ability to apply theory instantaneously is always important. This is essentially the same for technique. The immediacy of every we do from a facility standpoint. When I’ve transcribed and analyzed the most complex solos (i.e. John Coltranes solo on India), the one thing I’ve come to notice is how fairly fundamental all of the ideas being played are. It comes back to the same thing, time after time; know your scales, intervals, triads, and arpeggios effortlessly. And don’t always use a book to practice those things. There’s no need to use a book to practice all of that. We use a book because it makes it easy to have it in front of us to read. Make it harder on yourself being creative coming up with ways to practice this stuff. I tell my students all the time to create their own book.
The biggest comment I get from non-musicians when I’m performing modern original jazz is “what kind of music are you playing?”. People don’t in general understand there are many styles of jazz. They always say how much they like and have enjoyed the music, but they don’t realize it’s jazz. Young jazz students and music education majors need to be educated that jazz continued to evolve after the 1930’s. To put it simply, when it comes to style, you need to imitate, assimilate, and innovate. In this way, you are learning the tradition while moving the music forward with an individualistic voice.
When I went to OMEA last year in Cincinnati, I gave a clinic on improvisation. I started the clinic with a series of questions to the High School Jazz Band directors in particular. Of the 20 or so directors there, this is how it went. “How many of you played in a High School Jazz Band?”. They all raised their hands. “How many of you played in a College Jazz Band?”. Half raised their hands. “How many of you took a Jazz Techniques class at the college level?”. Three raised their hands. Music educations majors are expected to teach jazz bands with little or no jazz training. They have no idea of the process I’ve explained above for teaching jazz and improvisation. They have no real idea of what jazz sounds like or any understanding of what it is. If we look at jazz curriculum and how it should be taught at the college level, we will see a domino effect in the understanding, appreciation, and proficiency of jazz.
- Edited by Liz Carney
When it comes to "how many tunes should you know?", I'm a big believer in "quality" vs "quantity". Knowing less tunes effortlessly is, I believe, more important than "kind of knowing" lot's and lot's of tunes. Then you have to deal with memorizing tunes. Maybe we should focus more time on the retention of the tunes we memorize. Retention comes through the constant active involvement of applying the thing we learn/memorize. Thus, that leads us to true "Effortlessness". Every tune I've retained through the years I've performed it countless times. Worse at first and hopefully better later, but I've played it live. This is essential!! Also, put the "Fake Books" down. Transcribe tunes off of records, the melodies and the harmonies. But, understand you may be learning an "interpretation" of the tune. Here's where being a researcher is important. Research the original version of the melody. Then, experiment with your own interpretations, hopefully inspired by the Masters you are constantly listening to. I use to, when I lived in NYC in the early/mid 90's, go to a sheet music store in Manhattan and find one sheets of the original versions of old standards. The covers always had neat pictures from some movie or show. These charts were very watered down of course, but the melodies were what the original composer intended. Today, you have the internet. Make use. Knowing a tune doesn't mean "knowing it" if you can only play Trane's version of it. The importance of learning tunes/standards from the original version is that those melodies are part of the fundamental vocabulary of our music, Jazz. Whether you play very traditionally only, very modern only, or if you really have it all together and can play "all of the above", it is essential to learn and retain tunes, especially with their original intent. I know some places want you to learn 8 million tunes a semester. If there isn't quality in this, it's like trying to memorize the state capitals just to pass a test. Most of us probably can't get through 10 anymore (I'd be lucky for that) without asking google for help. Make everything you do have a purpose. Be disciplined and relentless. We are the next torch bearers of Jazz, so it's up to us to either be serious about it or not. There's no in between.
Bobby is excited to announce that his new CD "Quantum Man", featuring the Transcendental Orchestra, will be released by Dot Time Records Fall 2016. Look for updates on the website as Fall nears. "Quantum Man" features Theron Brown piano, Dan Pappalardo bass, Dustin May drums, Chelsea Selvaggio voice, and Jamey Haddad percussion. The Transcendental Orchestra also features a string quintet.
We don't study the Jazz tradition for imitation purposes, we study the Jazz tradition to understand what this music means so we can work towards adding to the tradition with our individual voice. And we do that by understanding who we are and being honest about that, whatever that is. Sound. Not just the actual sound of the instrument, but everything you play; your lines, the types of rhythms, the harmonic inflections. Your sound is just a reflection of who you are. We all resonate a certain way. Our mind, body, and whole being resonate a certain way and we have to find a way to tune into that. If you want to tune into that, you must be like a calm stream. A calm stream resonates smoothly with everything around it. When the storm comes, the stream becomes violent and is unsettled with everything around it. a clouded mind is like the storm. Clear your mind, calm the stream, find your resonating self, and you will be on your path towards your individual voice. Continue the tradition moving forward!
The Noble Eightfold Path is one of the principal teachings of Buddha and the fourth of Buddha's Four Noble Truths. It is described as the way leading to the cessation of suffering and the achievement of self-awakening. It's eight factors are:
- Right View
- Right Intention
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Concentration
Jazz is "Improvisational Driven" music. What I mean is that every aspect of the music is improvisational driven. From how we solo, to how we interpret and phrase melodies, to the melody's/harmonies/rhythms we play, to how we build technique, learn repertoire, interact with each other, and how educate others and learn from others. When you take these elements out of Jazz music, it is no longer "Jazz". Doesn't make it better or worse. "It is what it is" as some have said through the years. When "Pop" artists pretend to do Jazz, whether record it, perform it at festivals, whatever, they miss this point. This is what we as Jazz Musicians need to hold on to. Be honest with all you do and people will appreciate it.
To be at your most CREATIVE, you must be completely HONEST.
I would rather know 10 tunes effortlessly than not really knowing 1000 tunes. If you are the kind of person who can learn 1000 tunes effortlessly, and I know a few musicians like that, then awesome. But not everyone is like that. And, knowing a tune effortlessly means that when I call it in a different key, you can still play it. When I call it in a different meter, you can still play it. When I call it in a different style, you can still play it. It doesn’t mean when I call it as it is originally known to be played, you say “Yea, I can play that” and then proceed to get out your IRealbook phone app and proceed to miss half the changes because the screen is too small. I don’t like when Universities put so much emphasis on learning 1000 tunes. That to me is like making kids memorize all the state capitals. What’s the real purpose behind that? Is the student really getting something out of it or is it just busy work to fulfill some kind of quota? Repertoire is important and essential. It’s part of learning the History and Heritage of Jazz music. But it’s also important to teach a student the importance of quality vs quantity.
For me, when it comes to composing music, I let the Music guide me. Because we have techniques in composition doesn't mean we should go into composing music with the thought of using those techniques. It may sound right, but that doesn't mean it is right. Come up with a Musical Thought and let THAT be your guide. I've always been taught, rightly so, to be more like a composer when improvising. I also think that composers should be more like great improvisers when composing. Great Improvisers don't Think about what they are going to do before they play so they can Improvise moment by moment.
This is one of my favorite quotes of all time. I feel this is the answer to about everything. "Make things as Simple as possible, but Not Simpler" - Einstein
When I'm asked ( in particular as a Jazz Musician, but this holds true for anything ) "What one thing should I Master?”, I will answer “Yourself”.