Some thoughts about playing the same tune for a year

About a month and a half ago I reached a personal milestone that felt important to me but I was very busy and I didn’t have time to write about  it, but for the first time in a very long time I felt a compelling need to get something written.  I had passed the one year anniversary of regularly and systematically playing one tune over and over, practice session after session. The idea isn’t original to me. I have long been familiar with some of the teachings of Lennie Tristano though I haven’t always used them in my own practice routine. I knew that he had his students work through their ideas using only a limited number of chord progressions.  I’d dabbled with the idea before, but now I wanted to take it to a much deeper level.

The germination of the playing began sometime in August/September 2014. Sometime in there I decided to systematically work through a series of rhythmic exercises while working exclusively on one piece of music.  And I knew just the piece that I wanted to learn, John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” That piece, long considered a milestone work by me and my many friends in jazz, was something of an Achilles’ heel for me. I’d played it quite a few times, but found it hard to follow and I often got lost playing it. I found it in some way to be the kind of tune that seemed more like a test than a tune.  “Can you play “Giant Steps”?” was an intimidating question and one that would cause me worry if it was asked on a bandstand, especially if it was my first time playing with someone.  I didn’t want to show my ignorance or reveal my inability to keep those tricky changes properly organized in my head. And so every year or so I’d play “Giant Steps”. Invariably I would get lost somewhere in the jam, and have little or nothing I could say profoundly on it on my instrument.  And then not play it again for a long, long time.

(I have a distinct memory of going to the Newport Jazz Festival and going to one of the small stages where Don Byron was leading his Ivey Divey band. And there on the stage, seated in a chair, Byron was playing ”Giant Steps”.  But he was playing in a way that was not what I was used to hearing from him. What I heard or what I was feeling from what I heard was Byron searching, ides that were certainly deliberate and yet somehow incomplete, it was as though he was working on “Giant Steps” in public.  In any case, that experience was a reminder that even someone I admire and taken for granted as a fully formed artist and soloist continues to work on their craft. ) 

So, over a year ago I made it my practice to work on “Giant Steps” at least 3 or 4 times a week.  I’m a person with limited practice time so I tend to create intentional activities that can teach as well as reinforce more than one conceptual aspect of my development at once.  And so I knew or at least I hoped that by picking a piece and picking an exercise I would learn both at a profound level. The exercise I was doing comes from one of Jerry Bergonzi’s books on Improvisation, Melodic Rhythms.  Early in the book there is a multi-page series of exercises that takes 22 short one bar rhythms and moves each rhythm through the bar so that if you do all of the exercise you will  end up playing the same figure but displacing it so that eventually you play it beginning on every possible part of the beat. I’d done the exercise a number of years ago, but this time I was going to apply it systematically to this one tune “Giant Steps”.

At first my practice sessions were quite difficult. I had trouble keeping focus.  I could not play through the tune without some kind of major error.  I got lost a LOT.  I had trouble hearing the chord progression despite the fact that I was using a play-along recording.  But little by little I noticed that I remembered more of the changes and could successfully get through the tune with fewer memory issues or problems finding the tonally correct notes for the chord at hand. After a while I could, with some effort, work my way through the daily rhythmic figure and play it very slowly, and then a little faster along with the play-along CD.  I was like a musical version of the little engine that could.  I kept at it each day. One of the big breakthroughs was when the chord progression was finally deeply embedded in my mind and I wasn’t relying on looking at the chords.  When that happened I could begin to imagine what I was about to play.  As that happened I was able to create different musical shapes and they often came out the way I wanted and correctly. Of course there were and still continue to be plenty of moments where I have train wrecks.  But somehow I am more comfortable with them and I can hear my way out of them and back into the chord changes. 

The thought came to me early this September. I thought to myself, I’ve been doing this project for a while now, how long have I been doing it?  I thumbed through my practice log and traced my work back to last August.  It had happened and I’d missed it.  I was so busy doing the work I missed the anniversary. I’d played the tune for over a year. This discovery, for me,  was anticlimactic.  As far as I had gotten I am close but not done with this exercise.  I still haven’t finished working through every permutation of the rhythmic figures in the exercise.  And in the year since I've started this project I've come up with a list of other exercises I want to explore. The problem with limited practice times is there is just never enough.  And there is so much that I want to work on (But I here I begin to ramble as there is no conclusion.  There's just getting back in the practice room and continuing the process. With any luck I'll be inspired again in the near future to write, but the music comes first!).

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