Friday, July 27, 2012

Grooving like Victor Wooten

Victor Wooten, Groove Master

Victor Wooten is a phenomenal musician. He plays bass with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, but he is also an unbelievable solo bassist. If you're unfamiliar with Wooten's music, check him out. He is truly the master of the groove. ("You can't hold no groove if you ain't got no pocket!") 

Today I stumbled upon a video of Wooten explaining how he integrates the metronome into his practice routine. After watching it, my attitude toward the metronome changed drastically. Your teachers aren't lying when they tell you that "the metronome is your friend."

The metronome really is powerful tool, especially when it's used as Victor Wooten uses it. In the clip, he outlines a method of practicing with the metronome which has the goal of weaning yourself off of the metronome. As opposed to relying on an external click to provide the groove, this method helps develop your own internal sense of groove. Check it out:

Applying Wooten's Lesson

So, rather than always setting the metronome to one click per beat (4 clicks in one measure of 4/4), Wooten suggests gradually decreasing the number of clicks per measure (e.g. 2 clicks per measure, then just 1 click per measure). This way, you force yourself to rely only on your internal sense of time. The infrequent metronome clicks now act more as reinforcement of the groove. Or, if your groove deviates at all, the clicks help to correct you and get your internal metronome back on track.

After watching the clip, I migrated to the piano and tried it out for myself. I played a left hand bass line to "Georgia On My Mind" to explore the concept. Bass lines work well for this kind of practice, because they are monophonic (single melodic line) and allow for focused attention on just one aspect of music
in this case, the groove.

I started the metronome at 80 BPM (4 clicks per measure) and played a simple bass line through the form several times. Once I was comfortable with that, I reduced the 'nome to 40 BPM (8 clicks per measure). This variation took some time for me to adjust to. At times I rushed, and at times I lagged behind a bit. But once I locked into the groove, I could really tell. And I knew that I was relying more on my internal metronome than the audible clicks of the external metronome.

After this, I tried out his final practice idea from the YouTube clip. The idea here is to divide an interval of time into 5 beats, so your metronome is clicking once every 5 beats. But instead of using this clicking pattern to play in a 5/4 time signature, play over 4/4. When you do this, the click will sound at a different beat of the measure each time. That looks like this:

Before I could even attempt playing over this metronome pattern, I had to spend some time simply counting along: "One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four." Once you have that mastered, try playing over it! It really puts your internal sense of time to the test!

The Metronome Is Your Friend

Wooten is an excellent teacher, and through these metronome practice exercises, he teaches us a couple main points regarding the metronome:

  1. Practicing with the metronome does not have to be boring/dull/static.
  2. The metronome isn't there to give you the groove. You supply the groove, and the metronome helps you check it.
So, pull your metronome out of the trash can (and give it a good wash). Resurrect that clicking machine, and try out some of these exercises.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Personal Practice Project: Creston Chunks

This summer I've been working on a rather difficult accompaniment, Paul Creston's Sonata for E-flat Alto Saxophone and Piano. Early on, I began the piece very methodically and thoroughly, but somewhere along the way, I got off track. My progress slowed, and I wasn't learning the music as well as I needed to.

Paul Creston
So, in the same vein as the "baby steps" method mentioned in my last post, I'm doing this "Creston Chunks" project. I'm giving myself the deadline of September 1 to learn every measure of the piece. But I'll only add a few measures each day, learning the music in chunks.

Chunking is a great way to bring focus to your practice routine. Instead of merely playing through pieces over and over (the same way every time), chunking helps you identify problematic areas and isolate them. I'm going to use this method, but apply it to the entire piece.

The reason I'm going with a chunk method for the entire piece is that there isn't a lot of recurring material throughout the whole thing. While there are recurring motifs and melodic ideas, it modulates so often that you never really play the same exact thing twice. For those reasons plus the fact that this project will give me some structure and accountability in my preparation of this piece, I shall chunk the whole thing.

The piece is 123 measures long, and from today to September 1, I have 37 days. According to the operation of division, that means I need to learn 3.32 measures a day. I'll round that up or down, depending on the difficulty of each chunk.

The goal here is to learn the piece thoroughly. So for each chunkin particular the tougher chunksI will analyze them and study them as closely as possible. Since the piece moves along briskly and since I'll be accompanying another musician, it's important that I know the music inside and out.

I'll give an update of my progress every once in a while, and I might even  occasionally post about my explication of a particular chunk. Stay tuned for updates on my Creston Chunks project!

What do you think about chunking? How do you use chunking in your own practice sessions?

The Gigantic Problem and the Simple Solution

The Gigantic Problem

As I mentioned in my introductory Q&A post, there’s a lot of information out there (in music, or otherwise).

When you look at the study of music all at once, you’ll likely be discouraged. Taken as a whole, the quest for knowledge and skill in music can be seen as a gigantic problem.

For example, a music student might be confused by strange Latin or Greek terminology, bored by the histories of old (dead) composers, or discouraged by a seemingly impossible new piece of music assigned to them by their instructor.

And even once you conquer one case of confusion, or overcome one bout of disinterest of a topic, you'll find thatwhile you were solving that problem, a new problem has presented itself. At every step of the way, you keep discovering that there is always much, much, more to learn.

You can look at this as an overwhelming, daunting “gigantic problem,” or you can look at it differently...

It's Good to Have Problems


Many people perceive a "problem" as a bad thing. This, in fact, is often a proper perceptionof course no one wants to have problems (financial, social, medical). Having a problem, in this sense, means that something is wrong.

But in the world of education, a "problem" is an opportunity to learn. In the quest for knowledgemusical or otherwiseit's imperative that you identify problems and take on challenges. Once problems are identified, steps can be taken to think critically and work toward a solution.
It's important to correctly identify the problem at hand!

There's no use in denying the difficulty of the road ahead. It is to our advantage, as learners, to acknowledge that there's a lot to learn. Take Shakespeare's words: "The fool doth think himself wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool." Or take any one of these Bible verse translations expressing the same idea.

Looking at the problem realistically and acknowledging that there's a long road ahead is the first step.

The Solution

The learning process—again, in music or otherwise—requires the ability to clearly identify the problem at hand and to ask the best questions to help guide your learning. As Nancy Willard said, "Sometimes questions are more important than answers." If you haven't identified the problem, you can't begin on the solution.

So, give yourself an honest assessment to identify that which you have already learned, and that which you have yet to learn.

From there, the trick is to take baby steps, and to build slowly upon a solid foundation. Learn each new chunk of information by studying and practicing in a thorough, focused manner. Shortcuts and sloppy practice will not result in a solid foundation. (If you build upon a shaky foundation, the structure as a whole will be unsound and will eventually collapse.)
"Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs."  —Henry Ford
“It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward." —Chinese Proverb
"The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret to getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks and then starting on the first one."  —Mark Twain
As it turns out, a whole slew of successful people  have an affinity for small steps.

Baby Steps in the Practice Room

Although the above advice is nothing new or revolutionary, I have found that it's easy to forget about baby steps when I step into a practice room. I might try to take on more than I can handle, or I might slop through a piece rather than approach it with slow, focused practice.

So, the next time you step into the practice room, keep these keywords in mind:
  • Solid foundation
  • Baby steps
  • Thorough
  • Focus
"What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step." Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Q&A (An introduction to the blog)

Why are you making a music blog?

Good question.

Essentially, I'm making this blog because I love music, and I also love to write. A blog is a slick way to combine those two interests and to share the results with people who might care to read.

Give me more reasons.



One primary reason I've created this thing is this: there's a lot of information out there (music textbooks, recordings, videos, web sites, brainy music professors). This blog will hopefully help me (and you) sort it all out.

It will be a nice way to 1) help with my own navigation through the music world (documenting personal projects and musical development, reflecting on my own views of this or that) and to 2) help/teach/bore/excite/entertain other music-lovers and music-learners (creating mini-music lessons, sharing useful practice tips, sharing YouTube clips of inspiring, masterful performances)

Why is your blog title so vague?


I couldn't think of anything better, and I had been putting off the creation of the blog for too long to keep stewing over title ideas.

But it WORKS. I am going to be writing about music here. And I didn't want to limit myself to just one component of music: just piano music, or just music theory, or just the genre of, say, jazz.

I want to cover it all! It's all important.

So, you're writing about all of it. 


 That's my intention, yes.

Can you...narrow that down, at least a little bit?


Narrow down? Maybe not. Define? Maybe a little bit. I'll try. Content will probably fall within one of these (broad...) categories:
  • Music theory
  • Music history (biographies of people I find to be interesting and/or important, or just random tidbits of any amusing historical information I come across)
  • Videos/recordings
  • Piano lessons (bite-sized mini-lessons, but they won't actually be edible)
  • Practice tips
  • Personal music projects


Wow! What a cool bunch of broad categories.

Thank you.

You mentioned music theory. Are you going to bore and confuse me with a bunch of technical jargon?


Yes. Yes I am.

Well, no. No I won't. I'll try not to. I will be writing using technical terms to discuss music theory at times. But in doing so, I will try to be as concise, clear, and as helpful as I can be.

I can't promise that I won't bore you, because, well, some people just aren't as excited as me when it comes to, say, the German augmented sixth chord.

German augmented sixth chords? Cool! I'm hooked. How can I easily follow this blog?


You can simply bookmark the URL and put it in your bookmarks folder labelled "MUST READ." Alternatively if you use a feed reader, you can subscribe to the blog's RSS feed found at the bottom of the page.

Could you please occasionally post some of your favorite music puns to the blog?


Absolutely! [I wanted that response to be a pun in itself. In this case, it's not really a pun. But it's filled with musical terms: Ab (A-flat), sol (after fa, before ti), lute (a plucked string instrument).]

Do you encourage readers to comment on blog posts and ask music-related questions that they would like to have answered?


What a curiously specific question! As it so happens, I do encourage all of the above. 

Cool! I have one last question about the blog: What will you write about here? I forgot.


I will write about music here.
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