Play together, learn together.
Making music, like most abilities people learn, simply requires a lot of “doing” - this is the primary way our brains and bodies acquire skills. Over the years, Jazz Night School has seen this happening for many people in our combos and big bands, which is great because playing with others is fun!
Is that all it takes?
Growing jazz musicianship however requires the development of certain core areas which require work by ourselves. In fact, the state of our musicianship equals the amount of solitary time invested and the quality of effort dedicated to developing these primary components of music-making.
For anyone whose goal is to become an improvising musician, able to collaborate and compose spontaneously, there are six primary components of musicianship to develop which cannot be effectively achieved through the playing-with-others approach alone. Jazz Night School provides classes that help students develop each of these components of musicianship:
- Ear Training - Learning to recognize and understand what we hear.
- Instrument Proficiency - The sounds we make on our instruments depend entirely on how we learn to control them.
- Rhythm - Command of pulse, subdivision, duration, and accents.
- Improvisation - Musically “speaking” for ourselves - composing spontaneously.
- Jazz Theory - Knowledge of the music’s constructions and concepts.
- History - Paying respects to the origins and creators.
Learning to recognize and understand what we hear should be the starting point. Didn’t we all learn to speak by listening until we understood? And, to contribute to a conversation, we need to understand what is being said. Being able to hear and understand the sounds of the moment are essential capabilities for the spontaneous and collaborative creation of music.
Learning to recognize what we hear in music is actually not difficult, if we learn the “language” of music.
The good news is - learning the language of music can be more manageable than learning verbal languages. Instead of a system of arbitrary sound associations, the language of music is an assembly of universal sensations or perceptions that every hearing person subconsciously experiences and understands. In actuality, learning to hear and understand music is largely a process of our conscious brain becoming aware of things our subconscious already knows - a fun experience.
The elements of music we should develop our ability to hear and interact with instantly include: rhythms, flavors of tonalities (e.g., major and minor), tones within a tonality, flavors of the tones within a tonality, distances between tones (intervals), types of chords, harmonic progressions (sequences of chords), song forms, music styles, instruments, and musicians.
The sounds we make with our instruments - percussion, strings, horns, voice, everything - depend entirely on our physical encounters with the instrument, and the diversity of sound production we’re capable of depends on the size of our muscle memory vocabulary.
This, surprisingly, is easy to overlook! We “pick up” an instrument and start to play with others. Music is so wonderful, powerful, and generous - at any level of ability, playing music brings us joy. But how we play, the physical process required by our instrument, is integral to developing our musicianship.
Beyond the fundamental physical mechanics of operating an instrument (the actions required to create each pitch or sound), the physical manner in which they are executed determines quality of tone and dynamics, and the physical efficiency determines ease and velocity. We bundle these elements together through our exercise of building block portions of sound production. Each musician’s instrument proficiency is as great as the volume and care of their efforts towards this work.
In addition to classes, private instruction can be extremely valuable for learning and improving instrument facility.
It’s simple - it don’t mean a thing, if we can’t play in time with others and execute stylistic rhythmic ideas. Command of pulse, subdivision, duration, accents, meters and more are all essential in playing jazz. Rhythm is the foundation of the music. Rhythm fuels the feel and reveals the spirit of jazz.
Improvisation is musically speaking for ourselves. Many musicians prefer to perform compositions of others, and why not with all the great written music in the world. If that’s not enough for you, you can learn to compose for yourself. You can compose and notate permanent forms, and you can compose spontaneously, making music in the moment in an exhilarating real-time experience - improvisation. In either case, spontaneous or notated, music communicates with people when it makes sense in some way.
Composing, especially spontaneous composition, can sound like a hard thing to do, but it isn’t. Humans are naturally skilled at both being spontaneous and communicating in an understandable, sense-making way. With our lifetime of experience it’s easy for our subconscious to leverage these abilities into music-making abilities once we discover some of the ways music and melodies make sense to us.
Pursuing the knowledge of constructions, concepts, and elements at play in the music, informs and empowers our musicianship. Getting fluent in all keys, understanding how various tonalities function, understanding chord symbols, the Circle of Fifths, intervals… It all really helps! Developing knowledge of jazz theory, like each of the core areas of study, can be a fascinating, life-long journey. The more you understand about the workings of music, the more liberated you are to create your own.
Beware that just reading about a concept without personally putting it to use can be a waste of time. To succeed in growing musicianship, students in Jazz Night School classes take in new music knowledge by applying it and hearing its effect.
Jazz is a gift from the African American experience, a powerful gift that offers a way to transcend and transform. Paying respects to the origins and creators by learning about their life experiences and culture unlocks understanding both of the music and the people. Without understanding why the music is, we are short-changing ourselves, and more importantly, we are valuing a gift without valuing its creators.
And remember: Listen to music.
Surround your studies with listening to music. Encircling all of these learning experiences is the happily satisfiable requirement of listening to as much music as possible. There is no substitute for this step. Your mind and musical abilities will advance only through immersion in the listening experience. All types of music are learning ground, whether heard once or many times. Listening shallow or deep. As we grow in our musicianship, old familiar music will yield new layers to digest. Listen to your favorites over and over, sing along with the solos, and know that your subconscious is learning things you’ll draw on when you make your own music. Listen to music as much as you can.