Further adventures of an accompanying picaro

Monday, 17 December 2007 — 5:25pm | Jazz, Music, Pianism

Music can take you to some interesting places and unexpected situations, and its predilection for adventure is as evident as ever in the Christmas season. As my readers know, every now and then I hit black things and white things and make a lot of noise that might just resolve into the coherent pattern of a convenient overtone series (if I’m lucky). On the odd occasion I even get to do it while somebody else is singing.

This weekend, I had the opportunity to do just that with a local fantasy author of my acquaintance. It was not an especially public gig—only a Christmas-themed recital by the students of a vocal teacher—but one of the experiential benefits of being an instrumentalist in an auxiliary role, rather than the centre of attention, is the opportunity to communicate musically with people who are not there to see you.

The voice teacher in question already had a dedicated and polished accompanist, but the vocalist hired me on anyway for my apparent versatility—that I can read music straight up, but also improvise blues licks over a gospel groove if need be. From my perspective, this was a fairly routine procedure and nothing out of the ordinary—which is why I was so surprised at how well received my playing was, especially because it was honestly a tad sloppy (tripped up, no doubt, by the fact that I had to turn pages, something I never learned to do properly).

The compliments were beyond the layman’s usual polite appreciation, to boot: at least one of the students’ parents approached me after the concert, passed me a business card, and asked me in earnest to send her a CD. I had to tell her that regrettably, I don’t have one ready at the moment. In truth, for some time now I’ve been mentally drafting some ideas for a well-produced solo studio recording on a proper pianoforte, ideas I won’t reveal until the time is ripe. If I start telling people that I’m sketching an impressionistic suite of spontaneous meditations on the poetry of J.R.R. Tolkien, they might develop unreasonable expectations.

Whoops.

Nevertheless, the reaction at the concert drew my attention to the prevailing gap of perception regarding improvised music that persists even among trained musicians. There is a notion, among many developing instrumentalists, that you need the guidance of sheet music in order to play; indeed, that is often the first thing they ask for when they watch something on the order of an impressive YouTube video. How does one imitate that, they want to know? The first step, I think, is to realize that regardless of whether or not one is reading off the page, playing music is not a mechanical process, but a matter of the imagination.

When it comes to musical accreditations, we don’t just impose requirements of scale technique and basic harmonic theory to make you sweat: we do it to encourage thinking on higher levels of abstraction. You can’t solve a Rubik’s Cube if you only proceed twist by twist; you need to think of corner swaps and edge rotations. And the only real trick to improvised music is to stop thinking note by note. It’s the trivium at work: from grammar to logic to rhetoric.

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