Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


Listen More Closely to the Playback

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Jazz is art imitating life.

In the jazz culture what we value can be directly reflected in how we sound when we perform. In truth, there are two disparate ways that we sound: the way we think we sound and the way we actually sound. The way we think we sound exists only inside our heads. In there, we may run the gamut from legends to talentless clods. We don’t truly know how we sound until we can gain a bit of distance or objectivity.

Most of the battle in jazz is getting to a point where we can accurately and objectively hear ourselves in real time. To that end, I tell my students to record everything they do. When they have a whole hour to practice, they must practice for only half an hour while recording themselves and then they must listen to that practice for half an hour. There are many things to listen for. Were they patient with themselves? Were they steady like the metronome the whole time? Was their intonation as precise as they thought?  Did they just spend their time repeating something that they already knew how to do, never venturing off into more challenging sections of the music?

The trick is to get them to see their challenges, then encourage them to neither excuse their missteps nor abuse themselves over them. I tell them that even Baryshnikov started out as a stumbling toddler. The idea is to have access to the truth right away so that you can clearly see the real work that you have to do.

Accessing the truth is one thing. Fully accepting it is yet quite another battle. In our culture, one’s rate of improvement is most often directly correlated to one’s desire to traffic in the truth. I find that students who can soldier through a lot of truth learn and improve very quickly. Students who want the truth sugar-coated and in smaller doses improve much slower.

Then there are the students who don’t really want to hear the truth at all. They’re only comfortable with the good news when they perform, and unless they’re in situations where they shine, they will feel ambushed. These individuals rarely improve, but over time, they tend to find social language that gives value to their mediocrity, all the while lamenting the fact that they’re not getting more attention and appreciation within their community. Ultimately these little emperors will become rulers of alternate realities and attract like-minded followers to defend the borders of their illusory fiefdoms.

Does any of this sound familiar? I’m certain it’s a matter of proverb. After all, universities were organized centuries ago as places where communities of scholars gathered to refine their thinking and bring greater civility to our society as a whole. Has that gone well so far? Religion isn’t doing such a great job either. Why can’t our “civilization” have as much passion about human rights as we have about the politics of commerce?

Where can borderless love and tolerance grow? I suggest we listen more closely to the playback.

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