A Practice Flashback: 2018
A lot happened over the past year.
It was the second year since quitting my full-time job as an architect and trying to balance the life of part-time lecturing (still as an architect), practising and performing. I also got married to my beautiful wife (we had the most amazing DIY wedding with friends and family) and we spent our first year together in our little flat and said goodbye to the year with our #bunnymoon2018 in Japan.
Getting serious about practising (shedding: #mointheshed) and figuring out how to keep learning and developing as a musician with no formal training and little interaction with others outside of gigs and rehearsals was a serious challenge. More-especially in-between preparing lectures and tutoring students in a different field (at two different institutions and two different cities). Changing mental gears was quite sticky. It was difficult to focus on one thing at a time – especially with emails flashing on my screen every few minutes, demanding an immediate response (or so I thought).
Every so often I’d use my phone / DSLR camera to record footage of my work. It made the process less lonely and it was a good tool to remember what I’d done the previous day/week. This was before I got into keeping a weekly and monthly journal of what exactly I’m working on in the shed. Also, all this before I signed up for Bob Reynolds’ online studio (https://lessons.bobreynoldsmusic.com/) which was an absolute game changer.
Here are some of the highlights that I’d like to jot down for the year ahead:
1. Transcribing is listening
This is akin to drawing what you see for visual artists. It’s about getting your ears attuned, really really attuned to what’s happening around you and being able to be still within it. 2018 was my first year of actual transcribing. I kicked off with a solo by Joachim Schoenecker on Along Came Betty, followed by Bheki Mseleku on Angola and even dug into about 5 choruses of Coltrane on Giant Steps. Once I’d walked through the process I wanted to transcribe everything, hear everything – get into everything. The relationship between music – happening outside of me, anywhere, anytime and all the time – and my horn strengthened.
Moving on from that initial insight I really took a lot from Bob Reynolds who talks about working on ideas in nuggets. This means that, yes it does look very, very cool when you can play along to an entire Sonny Stitt solo at speed, record it and post it on facebook, but it’s cooler when you take a few seconds of the music and really check it out: understand the harmony, the line, the rhythm, the texture and then start to develop your own ideas from it. If I were to explain this to my architectural design students I’d say – “Well what’s the point of redrawing something to look exactly as it does in reality? A photograph can’t even do that. The point of drawing from observation is to develop a vocabulary, to learn from what you’re drawing, to have a conversation with it.”
Listening and transcribing is no different.
2. Repetition, repetition, repetition, & did I mention, Repetition.
Now, in all honesty, there are two sides to this. On the one hand, you could repeat something aimlessly and without intent. This, though tempting, is a little dangerous. It means that without really listening to what I was doing I would repeat bad habits, gloss over the details and all I’d really be doing is passing the time, with the horn in my mouth. The other side is that taking out ideas, small ones and working them over – and over again, finding the mistakes, stopping and correcting them. This is gold. In all my life as a player (about 22 years now), I’ve never done this. I’ve never so thoroughly enjoyed the process of development. Repetition is also scalar. I could repeat something over the course of a 25 min session, over a day, over a week and usually for about a month before it sits.
3. Ironing it out
Tash & I share the ironing at home. I’m not very good at it though. I usually put something on to watch/listen to while I do it. One eye on the screen and the other on the pile that never diminishes. Yet, when I come across an item of clothing that I really really like (like the white Muji cotton shirt I recently bought in Japan), I go at the corners. I find ways to make that iron fit. I use the spray bottle and a cloth. I make sure that when I’m done the shirt is crisp and sits effortlessly over the hanger.
This might seem strange, but the same principle applies to anything on the horn (and probably anything in life). Yes, it’s way more difficult on things you don’t enjoy (like underwear or intervals), but if you want crispness (as I do) then it’s really about slowing down, listening, isolating sections and focusing on ironing it out.
4. Setting goals
I’ve been keeping a practice journal for a while. It’s kinda like my design journal: Sketches, concepts and ideas. I love this, it’s a complete mess and like every creative practice in my life --- it breeds and feeds chaos. Bob Reynolds also introduced me to the idea of setting goals though (this outside the journal). I now have three tiers to goal setting: Monthly (usually a tune a month), Weekly (a breakdown of parts of that – melody, harmony, triads, quartads, transcribing) and Daily.
Practice is an active process. I repeat, practice is an active process. Taking 5 mins to really think about what I’m about to work on before I sit down (whether for 3 hours or 25 min) makes a world of difference. It’s all about intention and action working together and feeding one another. This might sound boring and uncreative, but when you make the decision regarding what it is you’re about to work on beforehand, your creative mind can really focus on tackling that problem and doing what it does best.
5. Keeping time
Awareness is about time. Things move in natural cadences. The moon, the seas, the seasons and the day. Our body is like clockwork. There’s no moment that it isn’t deeply aware of – even if our minds aren’t. Music slots into this biology seamlessly. It’s, after all, a natural phenomenon.
Hanging onto the time is about synchronicity. At a micro level: with oneself and with other musicians and at a macro level: with, my own expectations, relationships and a community of people with phenomenal ideas, abilities and dreams.
At a foundational level, I think I’m beginning to realise this as a player. I’m beginning to see the limitations of rushing, the limitations of haste and to appreciate growth as a process and a natural order of things.
I now practice keeping time, at 60 beats per minute, one beat at a time.