Note – This post was inspired by an essay that Brad Edward’s wrote over 10 years ago. In fact I had started writing up this one a while back, but never got around to finishing it and publishing it. As I was looking through some old drafts, I came across this one and decided it was time to finish it.
I want to start this post off plugging Brad Edwards’s blog post (Encoding Habits) that got me thinking about this particular topic. In Brad’s writeup he poses an interesting hypothetical question when confronted with a relatively young student who wants to begin working on orchestral etudes. He described some thoughts he had when considering if the student was ready.
[I]f a high school player starts working on these excerpts without solid technique and possibly not a clear concept of “how it goes” musically, they will probably struggle with the excerpt.
Furthermore, if they learn that excerpt with bad habits, they can pull out the same music years later and BOOM those old bad habits are right there! It’s as if the bad habits are literally encoded into the music.Brad Edwards – Encoding Habits
Brad’s discussion that follows is worth reading, but the above quote struck me as familiar. While I do tend to focus my artistic efforts on jazz, I also love playing classical music and keep a foot in both worlds, both as a musician and a teacher. While attitudes have changed, there still are some caricatures of the “jazz” teacher versus the “classical” teacher when it comes to how to approach teaching.
How might we look hypothetically at Brad’s thought, but from the standpoint of a young jazz student?
If a high school player starts working on improvising over tunes without solid technique and musical understanding they will probably struggle with the tune.
Furthermore, if they learn that tune with bad habits, they can play over the same tune years later and those bad habits return.
There are two parts to this conundrum.
First, there is the issue of the student playing with poor technique. This is one of the reasons why I tend to isolate technique practice and separate it from musical practice. I know that this idea isn’t very popular with some players and teachers who prefer to teach everything through assignments of music, but making technique corrections can take years of practice. If there is a concern about playing mechanics limiting the student’s abilities then I prefer to address them through assignments of exercises. The exercises should be simple enough to describe and while they might be a challenge to play, the student’s attention should be focused on playing correctly, not playing musically. The idea here is that fixing playing technique separate from music will keep the student from having to split attention into both how he or she is playing and how expressive he or she is playing. Once the technique has been assimilated it will become the way the student always plays – because that’s what works. This won’t risk teaching an unmusical performance because we’re going to work on playing with expression too, just at a different time.
The other issue is the musical understanding. This one is conceptually a more difficult concept to work with, I think. Let me offer a personal example.
For years as a young jazz student I struggled with playing the last measure of Blue Monk correctly. If you’re not familiar with the tune, the last phrase is played twice, but offset by a beat the second time in an unusual way that is a huge part of Thelonious Monk’s compositional (and improvisational) style. While playing the head I was constantly turning around the beat on this last measure and coming in a beat late on the repeat. I was aware that I was doing this, but I had a lot of trouble feeling this phrase differently from the way I learned it. Making the correction involved replacing that mental concept with the correct one through a combination of listening to the tune a lot and adding a mental count of the remaining beats to how long I hold the final note (“2, 3, 4..” instead of intuiting that the final note of the phrase ends on the previous measure).
I happened to be jamming on this tune last night with some students and didn’t screw up that phrase. I have established a new habit where even though the phrase still feels funny to me (I think that was what Monk was going for anyway) I no longer worry about playing it wrong.
Another example is the changes are too unfamiliar or move by too fast for the student to comfortably negotiate. Much like addressing technique separate from music, I like to address improvisation through isolating a particular topic and removing other elements from the mix for a while. For example, if the student is having trouble making a ii-V-I in a particular key I would have the student practice just that phrase outside of the context of the entire tune. If the tempo is the issue, we slow down or even eliminate tempo altogether. If the student has trouble playing good note choices I might have him or her practice improvising by only playing chord tones.
When practicing in this manner, the only thing you’re going to focus on is your particular practice goal. Anything else that comes out and happens to sound bad is OK for now. Improvising is a little like juggling many balls. If you focus on one ball, other balls that have not yet become unconscious will be dropped. That’s OK, you’ve now identified other areas that you can work on at another time in the same manner. Fix one issue at a time.
Jugglers have an expression, “If you’re not dropping you’re not learning.” As musicians and music teachers we should take a similar approach. Lessons and practice sessions are about identifying mistakes and correcting them by focusing on what’s wrong and what should be happening. I don’t feel the issue is so much about the risk of encoding a bad habit that comes back years later, but rather the lack of identifying the mistakes and making the effort to isolate and correct them early on.