Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Practice Tips - Get the most out of your study time - Part 1

First off - I'm not the best at practice. I'd like to be, but sadly it's not something I'm good at. However, what I do have to offer is years of experience in getting the best out of the time I do have to practice. Some things have worked for me, others not. Alot of these ideas are work in progress and maybe will change over time. I'm happy to receive feedback or edit this post at a later point.


  1.  Be free from distractions. This is the number one killer of concentrated work. Even if you are only able to work ten minutes a day, do those ten minutes fully focused. Switch off all gadgets and other things that are likely to disturb you. Likewise make sure you have a place where others do not disturb your time and energy.
  2. Have patience. Practice takes practice. Yes, the greats all worked huge amounts of hours but it's not going to happen over night. Build it up. It can take years for your level of concentration and interest to be sufficient to work those long hours you would like to.
  3. Start early in the day. If possible schedule time first thing when you are fresh and the mind is rested and ready to work. We all know that the day can go anywhere from there, and the earliest part of the day is the most likely point when work will get done at it's best. Work can happen at night too - but try to keep the more concentrated things for earlier on.
  4. Plan your practice. Another big time killer is unplanned work. You've woken up early, you are fresh and... you are not sure what you should be working on, and already half an hour has passed. Keep notes and a diary of everything you do so that it's clear where to start off. Especially if you have breaks from practice during the week for other things, this is very important. 
  5. Vary your practice routine. Sometimes working on one particular thing for long periods can kill some of the enthusiasm for work. A change is as good as a rest as they say. Once those scales are done, move on to something else. It's surprising how often this can extend your concentration levels.
  6. Take breaks. It's been said many times before but this helps alot. When concentration starts to lapse, take a break. Be careful though! Picking up the phone or switching on the laptop is not a good idea. It will fill your mind with other things and won't be restful. Have a drink, take a walk. Anything quiet that rests the mind. You will be surprised also during that silence how much of the work you were previously doing is being assimilated. This in itself can be a topic for another post.
That's probably enough for now. I'll share more tips later on. There are plenty more. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Reeds

This is more of a question than a post because I am very curious to know how others feel. 

Are reeds generally worse to play in the last ten years?

My feeling is yes. 

These days I buy a lot of reeds for all my saxes. Boxes of all the different brands and strengths and quite honestly I find the quality compared to 5-10 years before much lower. 

We've heard many people say that they can only play two or three in a box of ten but these days I find that some boxes are completely unplayable. Time and time again I've found reeds that I wouldn't even expect of the cheapest of reeds. Reeds that not only sound bad but do not even play certain notes. 

In fact in order to verify this I ordered recently a box of orange box Ricos and I found them quite a lot better than some of the more reputable brands. 

Is this only me? So far other sax players have agreed with me and all offered their own views on why. 

How do you feel? Mail me at matt-jazz@hotmail.com or leave a comment here and we can see where this goes. 

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Peter Martin - Two minute Lessons

Following on from my last post, another series of podcasts worth listening to are the Peter Martin, two minute Jazz piano video lessons.

Over the continuing series of 40 episodes, they cover large numbers of topics regarding practicing jazz piano. They range from beginner to advanced techniques, and are well worth having a look at for most levels. 

Two minutes is a short time to cover information, and admittedly he proceeds at quite a rate, but if you download the episodes and review them slowly - especially the recorded video - there is lots to learn and work on later. 

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Robin Sharma - Podcasts

Author Robin Sharma is well known for his book 'The Monk who sold his Ferrari' as well as numerous books on Leadership and generally getting the best out of life.

Recently I discovered his 'Mastery' series of podcasts and I was struck by how well a lot of the things he talks about related to music and practicing. 

All of them are well worth listening, and as I have done, worth making notes of some of the key points. He speaks very clearly and his thoughts are well organised so it is not a difficult exercise. 

Many of the things he talks about such as staying creative, getting through difficult times, being world class and generally mastering our chosen paths, all apply to the music field. 

This might not be for everyone. I myself took a while to warm to him. His self confidence can be a little overwhelming in the beginning, but I think there is a lot there to help musicians and artists to get the best out of what they do. 


Here is the link for Apple users. The Apple podcast player is probably one of the best around for organising and downloading. These can also be played on iTunes.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Refuge at B Flat Bangalore

Bflat is a wonderful club in Bangalore that we have performed at many times over the years.

Here is a clip from "Refuge" taken last year at the end of a tour.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cN7DBnXIdF4

What I've been up to

These last months has seen large amounts of musical activity. The largest part was taken up by 'Millidacious' the second original musical to be written, directed an performed in Auroville. In all it's about a years work, starting with weekly meetings with a core group and ending with performances with almost a hundred people. 

I love composing and writing songs for people to sing on stage is very satisfying. Add to that working with a wonderful team that constantly gives you ideas and support, it was one of the richest experiences of my life. 

Some of the bands I play for have done very well in the last year. Refuge, lead by Aman Mahajan is a fabulous group. Jazz based, with the hint of Indian classical and folk, it is a show case for Aman's compositions and the improvisational talents of some exceptional musicians. Working with Aman, Jeoraj George, and Mishko M'ba has again been a great pleasure, as I've learnt a lot playing with them. We have been performing a lot around India and hope to do more this year. 

Add to this that I have recently bought an Alto sax. After 10 years I have rediscovered this beautiful instrument and have put myself fully into this. The combination of Soprano and Alto is not easy, and It it taking time to get the same quality of sound I have on the other instruments but it is something exciting to be working on. 

Lastly I am currently arranging the music for a series of concerts in Auroville for choir and orchestra. Another very interesting project featuring a lot of great musicians from around the area.  More to come on that later. 

Once again

Yet again I see that I haven't posted in quite sometime - yet I still have things on my mind I wish to share here. I'm also sorry for the people who read my blog, and are interested in new articles, as I do receive positive feedback for what I write. 

I will be looking in to more efficient ways of posting and doing it more regularly. 

As always please mail me with any feedback or suggestions at matt-jazz@hotmail.com

Matt

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Applying scales to tunes - restricted Improvisation

If you start to go a little deeper into your practice of a certain tune or standard you will always notice points in the tune in which you are not as comfortable. Some places it flows, and others your resource of ideas or licks become limited and you may even resort to just relying on your ear on occasions.

One way to overcome this (once you have a certain grip on a tune - ie,  familiar with which scales you want to play over which chords -) is to set yourself the challenge of a restricted improvisation or an improvisation that has certain set limits.

When I say restricted, for example I decide at the beginning of a particular exercise that I am only going to start the phrases of my improivisation on a certain note. For example. If I am practicing 'Stella by Starlight' because i would like to tackle melodic minor phrases over -7b5 and alt chords I will start a session deciding that on those chords or sclaes I will start each phrase on the 3rd degree of the scale.

Once I'm comfortable with that I'll pick another.  - And so on till over time you have covered all of them.

What this does I have noticed is twofold. First it allows you to memorize much better the notes of each scale and secondly it forces you to make phrases that do not always start on the note you desire. This is very useful for improvising, since you don't always land or start a phrase on the note that you decide apon!

I havn't tried this yet but I'm sure it would work rhythmically too. Pick a particular rhythmic phrase and apply it to each set of chords. It would lead to interesting results.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Practicing in different keys

Sadly it's not everyday that I get the time to work out tunes that I'm practicing in different keys - let alone all of them.

Having said that, I see that the benefit of working on a tune in at least a couple of other keys is enormous. 

The first thing for me is that if you practice say 'Autumn Leaves' in A, as well as G then you are simply going to play it differently in the new key. You will play licks and patterns in A you won't naturally play in G. If you then take the time to observe these ideas and then work them back in the original key, it gives you a huge amount of new material. 

Add to that a few more 'difficult' keys, then you really have a good thing. Practicing phrases in the keys you can naturally play them is one thing but in the harder tonality, you probably don't play them as well. Any practice here will help a lot. 

With the piano, when you comp the same standard in different keys, it adds a wealth of depth to the colours you can use. Sometimes you use a different voicing in a higher or lower key that you wouldn't of thought of in the original key - but still sounds nice if it's used. 

One can also try using the transpose function on the piano/keyboard. Comp the tune sounding in the same pitch, but play it in a different key. This allows your ear to discover new voicings that you might like to incorporate in the original key. 

This I do quite often. Back to Autumn leaves, I'll transpose the piano down two semi tones and then comp the tune up two semi tones. I.e you play in A but the piano sounds in G - the original key you were working on. It leads to amazing results. As soon as you hit a chord that is different you will hear it. It can really add a new dimension to your comping. 

Musical coincidences - again!

Having written the last post only a couple days ago quite a good one happened in practice today. 

I was working on a standard and having finished some harmony work, I thought I'd have a listen to a recording of the same tune and I'd comp along with the piano player. About half way through the second chorus I play what I thought was a nice line and immediately after, the pianist plays exactly the same phrase. I burst out laughing. 

Just goes to show. Practice is important but when it comes to finally playing your solos, the less thinking the better. However else could you be open to such things?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Musical Coincidences - allow the unexpected

This is something I've meant to write about for a long time but didn't get around to it until this morning's practice session  when something strange happened.

I record a lot. I have a laptop and sound card and I either record for pleasure or work. One of the things I've noticed is that on occasions one records things that follow logically and musically - yet they've been recorded at different times and in different chronological orders.

Here's an example. This morning I recorded a backing track for a standard that I wanted to practice on. I recorded the piano part first - comping and solo. Later I added the sax.

Once I listened to the final track I remarked that the sax solo lead very nicely into the piano solo. In fact the piano was more or less a copy of the previous sax phrase. Yet - The piano solo was recorded before the sax! How was it possible for the piano to pick up from a solo that did not yet exist?!

This happens time and time again. Recently I recorded the music for a play. I added trumpet lines to a melody. Later I noticed that the preceding piano part exactly mirrored the trumpet lines that were recorded days before. It sounded like I had recorded the piano part - and followed up with matching trumpet riffs. It was however entirely the other way around.

Too me this boils down to one thing. No matter how much you practice and plan, there is always a greater force in music that one always has to be open to. Thinking and scheming during solos is great, but one must always let the unexpected to happen - the musical coincidences that you can never plan - and that will often sound a lot better than what you could have worked out in your mind. The same is with mistakes. Allow them to happen. Sometimes they can turn into something better than what you wanted to play.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Harmonicas - second impressions

Sometimes I like reading reviews on instruments by non specialists - i.e people that don't play a particular instrument full time. It often gives a perspective on the instrument a professional might not think about - or maybe felt not interesting enough to talk about.

So what does a saxophone player feel about certain standard Hohner harmonicas? Well a year on, I have quite a few in my collection. As before, I'm still a beginner, but I do enjoy playing as much as I can. 

Hohner Special 20

As I mentioned before any, pro or non pro can't go wrong with this instrument. It's got a beautiful sound and for me is one of the easiest of the harmonicas I have to play. The notes bend easily and it's got a great clear and smooth tone for any kind of music. Its a joy to play. 

Hohner Golden Melody

This is one I my newest buys. I haven't used it a lot, mainly because I find it more difficult to play than the others. The wholes on the comb seem to be spaced further apart, so for a beginner like me I tend to hit (even) more bad notes that I usually do. Having said that, it's a great instrument. It's got a very open, more penetrating sound than that of the special 20 and is perfect for the single melody lines it's designed for. The equal temperament tuning it comes in, also gives it a sound of it's own compared to the others. 

Hohner Blues Harp MS

I really like this harmonica. It's got a wooden comb which gives it a warmer sound than the others. It's not as loud as the others but the sound is very rich and bluesy. 

Hohner Big River

This is the cheapest of all four, but for the price it is definitely value for money. It has a dark earthy sound which I really like, though like the Blues Harp doesn't project quite as much as the other two. It's nice for playing ballads and slower tunes. 

At the end of the day, all of these harmonicas are good buys and can be played by begenners or seasoned performers alike. At this stage if I were to pick one, it would be the Special 20. It has such all round qualities that allow you to play any kind of music. I've even tried Indian classical and it sounds quite ok. Price wise it's less than the Golden Melody but only just more expensive than the other two, making it a very good deal. 

More to come as I move on!


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sacred Music Festival in Thanjavur

The long hot summer is approaching. It's been hectic, with shows in Pune, Bangalore, Pondicherry,  Hyderabad, Thanjavur and Chennai. Here's a little montage/clip (thanks to My Thanjavur on Facebook) from the Sacred Music festival we played at in historical Thanjavur. It was a wonderful event, soaked in atmosphere, on the banks of the Cauvery river. Notice the fireworks in the background as we played. It was quite something for both ears and eyes.

http://tinyurl.com/mne8are

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Musings

After months of inactivity on this blog, I am happy to log in today and see that people are reading. It gives me heart, and I will try to update more in the nearest future. Till now work has been very hectic. The music season in India kicks of at around the end of October and lasts till April. I have traveled all over the country playing with different bands and musical styles and it has been very satisfying.

Still it is not over, concerts are still coming thick and fast and I will be happily performing both on saxophone and piano in various projects in months to come. Furthermore, in addition to my previous post on creating a musical, with the same team of people as before, we have commenced work on a new show that will be performed at the end of September. Exciting times - and it is again wonderful to be part of the birth of a completely new production such as this.

Summer, as always, will be hot and slow, but also the time I will update more frequently and get down to practicing and sharing more ideas. I will also give links to some of the great events that have taken place in Jazz and other forms of music around the country.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

I Real Pro - a review

Most users of modern devices have probably come across this app by now. It's like the old real book that you used to be able to buy under the counter - but way better.

Not only do you have literally thousands of charts available online, they can be downloaded in an instant, saved for offline use on the road. Furthermore they can be transposed and used as a practice tool BIAB style. 

So what's good and what's not?

The plus:

- thousands of charts in all styles available through the forum. Blues, Pop and Rock becoming more available as more people use. 

- when your in time trouble and need charts fast there is nothing better. 

- transposing is very easy. 

- the app can act as a traveling play-along tool. 

- easy to create playlists for gigs. Have all your songs in one place. 

The minus:

- many of the charts are wrong. Time saved transcribing is lost correcting errors. This is not the fault of the app. You rely on work done by others and naturally there will be mistakes. 

- as yet, the play along feature is weak. If you enjoy practicing with such things BIAB is much better. There are lots of styles to choose from but it's a little stiff.

- melodies are not shown in the score. This is a big disadvantage for me. Especially when it's a new tune, the melody is really needed. 

- click back on an Android tablet and it exits! Hard to get used to that. 

- you spend less time getting better at transcribing songs!!

On the whole this is a superb application.  It has already saved me countless hours and I love having all my charts in one place. Furthermore it's updated regularly so I can only see it getting better. I hope that sometime there will be the possibility to see the melody on the chart but for now this is a wonderful tool. 


Sunday, October 05, 2014

The modern Jazz musician - What is it really like?

Rarely have I read an article that hit home more. Musician or not, this makes for a thought provoking read. For those who are, it will strike a chord, and for those who are not, it might give an insight into this fascinating and unique life that we lead. The article is written by Jeremy Gantz for inthesetimes.com.

 http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/16833/working_40_jazz_musician


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Writing a musical - Sorcery at Sea

Last year I had the great pleasure of being part of a team of people in Auroville that put together an original musical. As a collaborative musical effort this was probably one of the most enjoyable and satisfying things I've been a part of. The Video posted below gives a good idea of the work behind the scenes that went into the production. It includes interviews with myself, Paul Blanchflower, who wrote the script and co wrote the music, and Clare Stewart who co wrote the lyrics and was involved in pretty much everything in the project.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-OwUqR0aDY



Sunday, August 17, 2014

Practicing Slowly - When you havn't much time

Alot has been written on this subject on the internet by excellent writers and knowledgeable teachers of music, but I felt I had to post something on this subject because it is so important. In fact I would say that if there was one thing I would recommend to any student this would be it. If you want to become better faster - even in a short space of time - practice slowly.

Some weeks ago I was practicing the piano for a concert in which I had to play tunes at a faster tempo than I'm usually able to handle. In the short space of time I had, there wasn't alot of hope for me to achieve the desired technique, but with several concentrated sessions of slow practice, I was at least able to get to a point where I was relaxed while playing at these faster speeds. I may not having been ripping around all over the piano, but I could play, and I was playing comfortable solos within my limitations. The results were undeniably better than the fumbling, tense improvisations of my previous attempts.

When you are short on time the natural thing to do when you need to improvise on a fast tune would be to crank up the metronome and hope by brute force you'd hit the mark. But does it work? I don't think so. The best you can hope for using this technique are very short term results. Try playing the same solo a few days later and most probably you are back to where you started.

So what happened when I gave those hours to slowly building up the tempo? Starting at a cool medium pace and notching the metronome up every 15 minutes or so. Suddenly everything was different. I was relaxed, I could see the notes in front of me, I was aware, conscious of the movement of my fingers, my brain had time to make musical decisions, my brain had time to cope with those unexpected twists and lines that come when you improvise, I was rhythmically solid, and I was enjoying the moment... I was making good music!

And when I came back several days later and had to play the same solo again cold? Well... it was ok. It took me time to reach where I was, but I know that it was alot better than if I had done all that practice at speed. I wasn't starting afresh each time I reached the piano. Body and mind knew it was going in the right direction and with a couple more similar sessions I probably would hit that mark.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Piano voicings - 7th chords made easy

Ive been having to do a bit of a refresher these last weeks. I get by reasonably well on piano but since I don't play as much as Saxophone some things slip. Playing through the changes of "All of Me" for a recording I realised that the conventional 7th rootless voicings were not coming out as I would have liked. They were missing some of the fuller, darker quality I usually enjoy in other chords.

I gave it some time and this is what works for me. Here are two simple voicings that work very well. As with most of the things I study, I try to keep things as simple as possible to remember:

1. In the left hand all you need to play is the third and seventh in either inversion. 
2. In the right hand play a stack of three 4ths starting on either the 6th or the 9th.
3. Take a look at the score below to see how.
4. www.noteflight.com/scores/v...


The score was made with www.noteflight.com

Later on this week I'll post on how to make these voicings sound even richer by altering the notes in the left hand.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Jazz Hero TV - Jazztutorial on Youtube

I came across this today, a very useful channel on YouTube by pianist Julian Bradley. The videos cover a wide variety of topics and are very well explained. From what I've looked at so far its geared towards beginner and intermediate players and is an excellent and comprehensive resource for students of Jazz piano as well as Jazz theory in general. I will definately be recommending this to my students.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCu1yiKjTRetsoZ-OSeOMmzg

For more information have a look at this trailer: