Imitate, assimilate and innovate...

There is nothing exciting about practicing an instrument in the early stages - especially relearning some basics and changing some bad habits. It is just work. Not that practicing can't be fun at times, but fun isn't the presenting issue. Patience and musicality are the name of the game for the individual practicing, yes? Playing with friends is a gas. Learning new songs for a gig has a pay-off and more or less an immediate gratification. But as I am discovering again after decades away from this discipline: there is nothing immediately exciting about practicing an instrument.

And that is probably as it should be because without serious effort and hard work nothing changes - and I want a few things about my playing to change. First, I want/need better intonation as a bass player. And that means I have to clean up how I use my left hand on the neck. When I started lessons, I was practicing before a mirror - the time-tested process that all good teachers swear by - but as I grew impatient (and Advent/Christmas made other demands on my time) my lessons (and my mirror) fell by the wayside. That means I went for easy and fast rather than good form and precision. And in the short term that was ok. Two years later, however, I realize that I have to reclaim some fundamentals if I want to clean-up my playing. So, out comes the old mirror tomorrow and a lot of drills about correct hand position. 

Second, I want to know more about music theory - so I'm working with a virtual keyboard to work out intervals and key changes - and that may be the exciting part of practice. I have beginner's mind about all of this, so each insight is a wonderful revelation into the "why" of the music I love. And I want to know more about how certain bass players make their instrument their own. Next week and for the next three months, that means I am going to be listening to five or six master bass players as I try to discern how they tell their own story with their music. 

Two bass players from very different genres knock me out:  the master jazz man, Ray Brown, from Pittsburgh, PA and the Celtic rock bass man from Pentangle, Danny Thompson, from Devon, UK.. (I am going to listen to a lot of Ron Carter, Christian McBride and Paul Chambers, too.) For my tastes, I like a mellow, rich sound that connects the heart and soul with the flesh - and while these players are vastly different, they speak to me in ways greater than words.

In other words, what I am trying to do is just what the late Clark Terry suggested: imitate, assimilate and innovate. He put it like this:

Imitation: Listening. Learning lines by ear. Transcribing solos. Absorbing a player’s feel, articulation, and time. This is where it all begins. Imitation is an integral first step in learning to improvise, but sadly, it’s often overlooked by beginners because scales and theory are immediately thrown in their faces. While you do need to have a solid understanding of music theory, the truth is that scales and chords, no matter how much you memorize them or run them up and down, aren’t going to magically turn into great stylistic improvisations full of long lines and interesting harmonies. To do that you need a model.
The reat thing about jazz is that who you choose to imitate is entirely up to you. Maybe you dig a player’s sound and articulation, maybe an unconventional ii-V7 line catches your ear, or perhaps the way a soloist uses space in their phrases may be something you desire in your personal concept. Imitation is not relegated to only harmonic ideas or even to the players on your own instrument. If you like what you hear, learn it and incorporate it into your playing. By imitating the players you love, you’ll begin to understand the music on a deeper level and begin to see a personal sound develop in your own approach to improvisation. Questions that can’t be answered by music theory or etude books, like how to play longer lines or how to articulate and swing, will reveal themselves as you start to imitate the masters.
Assimilation means ingraining these stylistic nuances, harmonic devices, and lines that you’ve transcribed into your musical conception. Not just mentally understanding them on the surface level, but truly connecting them to your ear and body. This is where the hours of dedication and work come in. Get into the practice room and repeat these lines over and over again, hundreds of times, until they are an unconscious part of your musical conception. Take these phrases through all keys, all ranges, and all inversions. Begin slowly and incrementally increase the speed until you can easily play them. Don’t feelsatisfied until you can play these lines in your sleep.
Innovation: Creating a fresh and personal approach to the music. Many young musicians want to skip to this step as soon as they start learning how to improvise. They want to have their own harmonic concept and a unique sound on their instrument right from the get-go. Without a model or in-depth conception of harmony and melody though, it will be much more difficult to create a truly unique approach. Innovation is the direct result of hours upon hours of imitation and assimilation. Take a look at the great innovators that this music has already seen. Each one spent countless hours studying harmony, solos, form, tunes, etc. in order to realize their own personal concept.
\\ These cats have spent a LIFE TIME doing what brother Terry commends. I am grateful that at the ripe old age of 63 (almost) I have this time set aside to imitate some of the giants, assimilate and see what happens with the innovation.


Popular Posts