Studies in Studying

My first post for this blog compared my first lesson with Miguel Zenón to reading
Photo by Michael Hoefner (Wikimedia Commons)
Descartes's Discourse on Method. At the time, I was reading Descartes for historical context in a class that focused on Milton's Paradise Lost as a foundational work of the Early Modern period. I was astounded by Descartes's lack of pretentiousness and generally intuitive, practical approach to learning, which includes the following four rules:
The first was never to accept anything as true that I did not plainly know to be such... 
The second, to divide each of the difficulties I would examine into as many parts as possible and as was required in order better to resolve them... 
The third, to conduct my thoughts in an orderly fashion, by commencing with those objects that are simplest and easiest to know, in order to ascend little by little, as by degrees, to the knowledge of the most composite things... 
And the last, everywhere to make enumerations so complete and reviews so general that I was assured of having omitted nothing." 
Pretty easy to follow and hard to argue with from a layman's point of view (me). I recently had my last lesson with Miguel after four semesters of private study, but I've seen the consistency of this fundamentals-based approach upheld during this entire period. On a basic level, I've been impressed by the simplicity of trying to remove obstacles from interfering with improvisation, i.e., practicing scales, refining articulation, and just generally dealing with consistency in the basic dimensions of playing the instrument. Although I haven't practiced as much as I would have liked in the past few years, I'll finally have two semesters after graduation to devote to the music; it seems clear to me that the way to go is to focus on fundamentals, since I'll likely never have as much time (or as much concentration) to spend on these things for the rest of my life. Miguel said as much when I asked about what he practiced in school: there's enough information available out in the world to keep you busy for a lifetime, but there's only a finite amount of time to develop a solid foundation for that lifetime.

My approach to transcribing has also changed since studying with Miguel. I was originally reluctant to transcribe, having read contrary opinions about its efficacy or value in learning. As it turns out, part of this reluctance also had to do with an inhibition about how to get started in the first place: what was the best method, so as to maximize internalization and deep learning, so as to avoid wasting time while going about it (because it is a time-consuming process). I had heard from many people that writing down solos is anathema to the project of transcribing, i.e., developing the ear and really hearing what one is going to play or what is played; learning that some great musicians like Miguel sometimes wrote down solos helped me convince myself that there's not necessarily a best way of transcribing. I started this blog partially as a way of committing myself to regular transcribing, which has been pretty successful; the next step is to methodically go about learning more solos, which has been far more challenging but also much more rewarding in terms of improving my playing.

An irony that's presented itself to me over time has been the issue of learning something new: when you learn something new that you want to do well (e.g., a musical technique or something that will hopefully prove to be artistically useful for a lifetime), you might be inclined to approach it cautiously, so as to avoid learning it "wrong" or developing inefficient or even deleterious habits. This same caution, though, can also be inhibitive or even deleterious in itself by causing your study of something to grind to a halt or else never even start moving. I'd say that this is what happened to me with transcribing before studying with Miguel, and also what's been happening with me in composition. Ideally, I'd be so unselfconscious and driven to learn that I'd throw myself into something without such doubts, but I'm not quite like that; according to Schiller's terminology, I'd be more sentimental than naïve, which isn't necessarily bad, but does have its limitations. 

Reading a book like Radhika Philip's Being Here: Conversations on Music (2013) has been invaluable for my practicing mentality simply by affirming that there's a plurality of approaches to learning this music and that many of these approaches yield great, original art. That's not to say that being aware of different approaches and availing oneself of their respective benefits isn't important, but more that throwing oneself into a subject earlier rather than later will probably be more productive; difficulties and questions will present themselves so that if an opportunity comes to ask about the topic, these thoughts will be at hand. Dave Binney's approach to composition comes to mind; at one point, he mentions in the interview:

“I just play what I hear. I don’t think about form, I don’t think about anything, I just write what I hear, and then I orchestrate it. I didn’t study composition or orchestration so I come up with my own ways of doing things. There is a naiveté about it. 
I mean I know about theory and all that. I studied all that, but I didn’t learn how to play piano, and I didn’t study composition. 
I’m probably breaking every rule that people are taught.”
It's redundant for me to describe the above approach as a sort of breakthrough, although as someone who's only ever been studying music in a formal manner, it is pretty new and exciting for me. I tend to see myself as a slow learner, though, but I think there are advantages to that in itself.

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In other news, bassist Aidan Carroll is going into the studio to record his first record with an incredible cast of musicians: John Ellis, Sullivan Fortner, Joe Dyson, David Bryant, Justin Brown, Logan Richardson, and Christopher Turner. I usually don't comment too much on contemporary projects, but Aidan brought this to my attention and it looks like a great project (also, I'm not getting paid to plug it! I just want to hear the record when it comes out). Support it on Indiegogo here — there's only 63 hours to go.

Also, Peter Hum recently posted a great list of holiday book suggestions for jazz nerds. Highly recommended if you're looking to surprise a jazz nerd with your perspicacious taste in the contemporary literature.