“Progress”? What’s that??…Rolly’s Rule, and other folly…
My Manifesto: I think that, for me, I need to define “progress” as “making my music communicate in a clearer and more emotionally successful way to more listeners.” Whatever furthers that agenda is what I want to be doing. Often, that should lead me to playing less notes rather than more.
Recently I had the good fortune to take an afternoon workshop with Howard Alden, a great jazz guitarist. Howard was affable, clear, and responsive to questions, and I went away from the workshop with some concrete things to work on. But I also left the workshop thinking about the whole issue of what “progress” means when you’ve been playing the guitar seriously for 50 years. When we’re young, we focus on technical progress, and I often describe the mania for lots of notes and speed as “a juvenile stage of development” on the guitar. If you’re serious about the instrument, you probably need to go through that stage, and yet, the word “through” may imply that you also, at some point, need to be done with that stage! At some point, one assumes that you reach a maturity that allows you to be more judicious about how “notey” your playing is…or not….
Which leads me to what I narcissistically term “Rolly’s Rule”, because I think of it as being so central to my message as a guitarist and as a teacher. This is what the rule states:
ROLLY’S RULE: The more you can make your guitar, in some way, recall the sound and emotional content of the human voice, the more your listeners will be able to connect with your music.
A pretty simple concept, but, of course, there are exceptions. The most notable one is this: Sometimes, it’s not about the emotion (as in “wistfulness”, “affection”, “joy”, “sadness”, “elation”…). Sometimes, it’s just about The Energy; the toe-tapping, physically engaging musical ride that makes you want to dance or stamp your feet. This aspect is part of most genres of music, and certainly a large part of both Gypsy jazz and bluegrass.
Even if you’re playing a tune in which The Energy is paramount, though, musical maturity should still be enriching the music: phrasing, note choices, use of dynamics (loud/soft), and details of articulation (bends, vibrato, hammers, slides, etc.) all give music more life, even at warp speed.
Then there are issues of note choice; it’s amazing, given that there are only twelve tones in the Western musical paradigm, that there are so many ways of putting them together…
Here’s a calculation done by the great jazz maestro George Van Eps in order to give an idea of just how many ways we’re talking about. Click on the thumbnail to read the text. (You may have to click on the file again to enlarge it, too…)
So, the question arises; if you’re following “Rolly’s Rule”, how many scales and arpeggios and variations do you need to practice in order to maximize your ability to connect with listeners? And, does learning more and more combinations of combining notes always mean that you’re making “progress”? If we assume that the whole idea of “making progress” is unquestionably the goal in attaining musicianship, and we define “progress” as learning more stuff, playing faster, having more note combinations, is that always useful? More to the point, how would our conversational speech sound if we applied the same principles to verbal communication? Have you ever wondered about the motivation of a speaker who continually uses big words when simpler language would work better?
Okay, here’s what I think, noting that these answers are just for me. You need to find your own answers…
- I think that it makes sense to make sure that you’ve done all you can to achieve the best possible technique and speed that your potential allows. Then go on a maintenance program, so as not to lose ground.
- I think that, with most great players, their style is fairly set at an early age. From then on, it’s a matter of how much more development they have within the confines of their musical personality. That development may be for the better, may be for the worse (some players do their best work early on…), or they may just remain where they are. (If Bill Evans never went beyond the level he was at on “Portrait in Jazz”, or Miles Davis on “Kind of Blue”, would that have been such a terrible thing?)
- I think that, for me, I continue to try and add to the number of ways I can put notes together, but only insomuch as it doesn’t stray too far from “Rolly’s Rule”. There are great players for whom I have great admiration, but I don’t want to be them. Often, their music only has emotional content for other musicians, and, while I hope to have the respect of my peers, I also want my music to reach the “average listener”. I actually don’t always like the sound of jazz that’s “way out there”, even if I appreciate the skill involved, so I don’t feel obliged to try and master it.
- I think that, for me, I need to define “progress” as “making my music communicate in a clearer and more emotionally successful way to more listeners.” Whatever furthers that agenda is what I want to be doing. Often, that should lead me to playing less notes rather than more.
The things I want to improve on the most:
- Groove: having better control of time, and making rhythms more viscerally moving to listeners.
- Access: Rather than trying to learn more and more combinations, I’d like to have better immediate access to the combinations I already know and understand. Sometimes, after playing a solo, I feel like the guy who, after an argument, walks away saying, “What I should have said was_____…why can’t I ever think of that in the moment??”
- Awareness: I want to be more aware of which aspects and techniques in my music are communicating most effectively, and, when playing with others, be more aware of what they’re playing, and of how we’re interacting.
When I show great improvement at those 3 things, then I’ll want to show even greater improvement at those 3 things…