Monday, August 08, 2016

If you can sing it you can play it

This short video of Isaac Stern giving a masterclass in 1979 should be food for thought for any kind of musician.

http://www.nytimes.com/video/multimedia/1194841317720/isaac-stern-with-ho-hongying-in-1979.html?action=click&contentCollection=Music&module=RelatedCoverage&region=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article

If you can sing it you can play it.  - Then if this is the case why not learn to sing?

Well, I couldn't agree more. Though I'm not talking about singing per-say as your chosen instrument of study.

As an improviser, singing (however bad and untrained) should be your most valuable tool. If you can sing a particular line then it's a question of then transferring it to your instrument as is being described here. But if you can't sing the line you trying to play? How can you expect to allow it to come through your instrument? If you can not transmit something through the body's most natural instrument, then it won't come through when you add the extra difficulty of having an instrument to play..

This is why everything you learn you should learn to sing first. Rhythms, melodies, harmonies. Everything. Once you can sing something properly, feel it through your body, you can play it.

What about transcribing? Writing down solos on paper serves good technical purposes, but if you really want to internalise music and gain the maximum benefit, learn to sing it. Not only will you feel the music better and gain valuable vocabulary but it will also aid enormously your listening and memory skills.

If this doesn't make sense then experiment. Try learning a new song in two different ways. The first in a traditional way. Read it and learn to play from paper. The second, learn to sing it first and then transfer it to your instrument once you have grasped it. Which one will help you learn the song better and to be able to have the confidence that you know it well enough in any kind of musical situation? Which one will help you remember the song longer?

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Teaching - Jazz Piano and Improvisation Primers

I have been teaching for many years now. Through this blog and the educational work I do in private classes my aim has been to share the knowledge that I have gained over the years as a musician. I have been working professionally now for almost 25 years and I have been fortunate to play in all kinds of musical situations and styles. My focus is on improvised music - often jazz based - though increasingly I see music in a broader sense and use jazz as the tool to learn.

I am having an increasing number of students that approach me for lessons. Sometimes, it is difficult for people to travel long distances or to take the time to work one to one as often as they would have liked, so I have written some texts or primers to help people get started. That way they can follow the methods that I use and keep in touch, even if they are far away.

At present I have two courses of study - one that focuses on the basics of Jazz piano and another on generally learning how to improvise in Jazz. These are directed towards musicians with an intermediate to advanced knowledge of their instrument who would like to move towards improvised based music. They come in easily digestible Chapters which focus on various topics.

In these primers I share all kinds of material gathered from ideas that I have collected from musicians and teachers all over the world. I also take considerably from music in South India.

If you are interested in learning from these, please contact me through mail matt-jazz@hotmail.com and we can see what suits you the best.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

How to play better at gigs - Really!

If there was a single piece of advice I could give young people starting out in this line of work, it would be this: LEARN THE PIECES.

It is amazing really how often this is overlooked. Time and time again, (myself included), have looked at those bad shows and said 'what happened'?

Ninety percent of the time the answer is simple. 'I didn't know the pieces well enough and it lead to mistakes'

It is obvious when you think about it, but I would say it's the number one cause of bad shows. Whether it's because of lack of time, or laziness,  overconfidence or something else it is what contributes mainly to mistakes.

That said, if we want to get ahead in music, especially if you work in a lot of different music situations, this is the way you can get ahead of a lot of people regardless of your level. We have all been in shows where you've been playing along side technically superior musicians, but when they don't know the material, who has the better result?

It's not easy to do. It takes time and energy, and I'm sure we all feel it's taking precious hours away from our scales and technical studies. Still, the message is clear to me, and I've had my fingers burned many times and probably not for the last time!

LEARN THE PIECES

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Jazz Fonts - Making chord charts

Unless you have purchased a program for notating chords this is a surprisingly difficult task. Even in word, fonts such as the 'Fakebook' type used in the old Real books seem to be closely guarded secrets or fairly expensive to buy. I've tried writing chord carts in I Real Pro too but I found that pretty unfriendly to use.

After a morning searching on the web this is what I found. I hope it makes your life easier in case you want to jot a few chords down in on a word processor.

An excellent explanation on Music Fonts by piano teacher Joy Morin:

http://colorinmypiano.com/2012/04/23/music-fonts/

The only fully usable chord font I could find found at Klarlied music. Thanks to Alan Humm.

http://klarlied-music.com/Fonts/chordsfont.html

Another good explanation on free Music fonts by Matthew Hindson. Includes a Saxophone fingering font!!:

http://hindson.com.au/info/free/free-fonts-available-for-download/

Please let me know if you find more. I will update this post as necessary.



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This I found later by Clemens Neiderberger - Realbook fonts for the LaTex document publishing system. Works pretty well. The fonts are included in the Zip file.




Sunday, June 05, 2016

Caustic 3 - First impressions

Sometimes you don't just buy music making tools for work. Some simply fall into the category of pure fun. Caustic is in the latter.

I don't think I've had more fun with a music software since the early days of Reason, but this is different. You can do everything on your phone!

I don't have an expensive phone, but within minutes of installing this software I was making and editing music as if it was on my laptop. I couldn't believe it.

Like Reason, it is inspired by rack mounted synthesizers and it even has a similar feel. What surprised me though was how much depth such a small application had. The kind of sounds you can create are virtually limitless and the pattern and matrix editors are as easy to use as FL studio or any other.

This type of music tool is definitely more geared towards electronic music, but I had a quick look at some of the acoustic instruments and they sound amazingly good. On Google play there are hundreds of demos and presets you can download for free to get you going even further.

A must have for any music enthusiast and for the price of a pint of beer, you can't go wrong.

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.singlecellsoftware.caustic&hl=en_GB

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Amit Heri - Live at B Flat Bangalore

In February I had the pleasure to play with these fabulous musicians. These are some of India's finest.

This is a composition by Amit Heri entitled Elephant Walk.

Amit Heri - Guitar
Keith Peters - Bass
Gino Banks - Drums
Matt Littlewood - Soprano Sax


Friday, June 03, 2016

Professional Saxophone Musician / Player Set-Ups

This was one of my most viewed posts but sadly the link was out of date. Thanks to those who pointed it out. Here is the revised post.

http://saxindia.blogspot.in/2009/07/professional-saxophone-musician-player.html

4 Habits to better practicing

Thanks to Thomas Drouin for sending me this. A nice video podcast from learnjazzstandards.com on practising.

Some great advice, and a good one to continue from my last post. More to follow soon.


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!