Monday, January 30, 2012

Flexibility: Bend Don't Break


Strength from flexibility
There is a Japanese proverb that goes something like, "The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists".  In music there is a real strength that comes from adapting to what is going on around you as opposed to trying to insist on your way, regardless of whether you are right or wrong. 

A big part of the joy of playing jazz is dealing with the unknown.  No matter how much you practice, listen, and play with people, there will always be situations where you will be genuinely surprised.   In these types of situations there are a few helpful things that you can do related to this idea of musical flexibility.

1.  Listen/Watch
I have brought up the importance of listening in several previous posts, but it is so central to thriving in jazz that it bears repeating.  If you are not actively listening to everything that is going on around you, even in the most stable situation you will be in trouble.  When you add in the element of uncertainty however, listening goes from important to vital.  The sooner you hear what is happening, the better you will be able to respond.  Great jazz music comes without exception from great listeners.  

It is also important to look at each other and try to make visual contact in ambiguous situations.  This additional contact helps establish even better communication on the bandstand, so don't forget to look up when you are unsure of what is going on. 

2.  Don't try to win the argument
This is a somewhat more subtle point, but it is every bit as important as listening in terms of cultivating musical flexibility.  Jazz musicians can be very prideful at times.  We work hard on our craft, and often a great deal of our identity is wrapped up in our ability to play this music.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it can sometimes cause problems when it comes to surprising musical situations, particularly when the surprise comes from someone in the band making a mistake. 

For example, lets say that you are trading fours with the band, and the bass player comes in a beat early turning the beat around.  It is much more important to find a way to get back with the bass player so that the music can get to a comfortable spot than it is to "prove" that the bass player is wrong by keeping your place in the measure. 

This doesn't necessarily mean that you should always go to where the bass player is, or that the bass player should always come to you, but rather than the two of you should work together to get in the same spot by whatever means necessary.  In my experience with musical arguments on the bandstand, the only real losers are the audience. 


3.  Practice putting yourself into surprising environments
One of the best ways to experience these types of surprising musical situations is playing in jam sessions, where you are guaranteed to play lots of unfamiliar and potentially surprising music.  One of the real hidden benefits of going to jam sessions is the way that it trains you to be musically flexible.  

An example of me playing in a surprising musical environment was my appearances at the Washington Women In Jazz Festival from last year!  This festival is put together by my good friend, the terrifically talented Amy K Bormet, and was surprising for a number of reasons. 
  • I am not a woman
  • There was a jam session
  • There was a tap dancer at the jam session
Here is what happened:




Just a couple of quick points.  Despite the fact that there were some shaky moments, particularly in the trading section (starting around 5:21), we held together by listening and adapting to each other, and ended up having a blast!  Listen to Amy laugh a little at the uncertain trading around 6:04.  That is not the sound of someone who is worried about being right, that is the sound of a flexible musician!  

The four elements of drumset artistry: Musicality
Incidentally, in my forthcoming book "Melodic Syncopation" I refer to this kind of musical flexibility as musicality.  Musicality is one of the four essential elements of drumset artistry as described by John Riley.