When I was 14 years old, I wrote a letter to the great jazz pianist Chick Corea, asking “I can’t believe you’re actually making this stuff up on the spot. Can you please tell me if this is so, and if so, what the secret is?” I never heard back, but I set forth to figure it out for myself, and after a lot of years at it, I’ve developed an approach to teaching music that illuminates these intangibles and makes them very real and useable. And much of what I’ve learned along the way I’ve distilled into something like “physics principles”. Figuring out these principles was what really put me on the map as a professional touring and recording musician, and they are the basis of what I do as an instructor.
We don’t learn to surf by just sitting on our surfboard in the garage, or reading about the experience; we need to be in motion to get a feel for the dynamic of riding a wave (and to figure out how fun and inspiring it can be), and the same applies to improvised music. If a student hasn’t yet dug in to improvisation, my focus is on putting them in motion quickly with these physics principles; we can be making music that sounds good sooner than most people realize. If the student is already on their way as a soloist, it’s amazing how certain kinds of awareness can help put their playing into focus and playing becomes more effortless and intuitive (I have a lesson on one of these principles coming out in Keyboard Magazine, June 2015). I played for a lot of years before these ideas were shown or occurred to me, but my career as a professional musician didn’t take off until I’d assimilated them, and they are now the basis of my instruction.
As part of my instruction, I’ve always integrated a computer-based recording system. I’ve created a couple hundred different play-along tracks in different styles that are great fun to practice and play with (“waves” to surf…), and which also afford us the chance to record what a student is playing and listen and analyze (for keyboard players, we can also instantly see their playing as notated music). This is also a great opportunity to get our feet wet doing some recording and exploring the psychology of relaxing and playing well, being ourselves and being creative when we are recording. Confidence in this sphere was a long time coming for me; even when I was touring the world with the Brecker Brothers, one of the top electric jazz bands in the 1990s, I had trouble relaxing onstage until I finally “saw the light” in about 1996. And what I learned from these experiences is possibly the best thing I’ve gotten out of music: getting clear of various hangups, to just quit suffering and start surfing. Improvised music is uniquely illuminating as an allegory for life in this regard.
I have done dozens of workshops around the world in the art of computer-based PRODUCTION as well, and for students interested in this, the art of creating a track from scratch, either with live musicians or purely computer-based, I have found this to be a great experience and a great motivator. There is something uniquely satisfying about creating a fully realized piece of music. It’s one thing to play well in the abstract: put the horn in your mouth and you sound great, take it out and there’s no sound any more. But there’s a whole new dimension, a whole new reason to practice and master, if we are working on a recording of what we’re doing, something that can be shared with the whole world when it’s ready. So for students who are interested beyond the playing aspect, I heartily encourage that we dive in and learn this other side of the experience. Making a career in music, especially, involves precisely these skills: knowing how to add and optimize our dimension to a piece of music is hugely facilitated by understanding how a track is put together in the first place. In every great band I’ve worked with, I can point to any musician and say “that person is a great producer” even if they’ve never produced a single tune: they all THINK like producers; they hear the big picture and selflessly add to it. And THAT is one thing I can consistently identify as something that gets us HIRED!
Perhaps the thing I’ve enjoyed most in the last 20 years or so has been the scoring I’ve done for TV and film projects. This is a completely different way of collaborating, and the stimulus provided by narrative and imagery is something that activates a different sort of “musical erogenous zone” in the brain. It’s something I’ll stay up until 6 a.m. working on, purely on the high of seeing the project come together. You can see a number of examples of my work in this sphere here. For any student who’s interested in this work, to me it’s a way of adding a complete 4th dimension to our musicianship (as well as a 4th dimension to our career possibilities); the things I’ve come up with working in that world constitute expansion I’d NEVER have done had I not been poked, prodded, and sometimes pulled kicking and screaming by what was on the screen.
To me, really great improvised music is to me one of the highest expressions of the human potential. It’s a fusion of extreme mental acuity, great physical dexterity, a lot of determination and discipline and, more than anything else, a very liberal dose of what’s best about the human soul. It asks a question of who we are and who we can be, who we can become if we apply ourselves to spending our lives growing. From the most technical aspects of music to the most atechnical (did I just make that word up?) probings of our inner cosmos, I enjoy the hell out of working to turn on light bulbs with people who study with me. It has been, and continues to be, a great voyage of discovery for me, and I like to see my students experience that as well.