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How to Play a Tin Whistle Like Michael Brecker


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Pretty much, my playing is mimicking other things that I've heard. I'm not tremendously original. I listen to things, and then I learn then and get them into my psyche—and then I distort the hell out of them.
—Michael Brecker (on practicing)
I was talking to a musician friend of mine the other day, asking her how her move from Brooklyn to Forrest Hills was going. She said, "I love it! I love the neighborhood and best of all, musically, I'm not running any more jam sessions at the moment, just doing gigs—and practicing! It's great."

And practicing is a high for me as well. I miss it when I don't do it. Given that we are all wrestling with our coronavirus fears at the moment, it strikes me that it's a good time to stay home more and do some serious shedding.

I usually practice in the evening once everyone in my home has gone to bed if I'm not out playing. But sometimes I manage to get in half an hour first thing in the morning instead of reading the paper and starting my day job work. And my son practices jazz violin ALL the time when he's not working on the classical pieces he has to learn. He's 17 so there's that, but he walks around with Bluetooth headphones on ALL the time, listening to jazz on Spotify and YouTube mostly, excitedly surfacing from ignoring my wife and I to interrupt me, saying, "listen to this!" in an almost orgasmic tone of voice. And then playing me on his phone whatever it is that has set him alight, regardless of what I'm actually trying to do at that moment. For him, listening is now a form of non-playing practice. Learning the language, learning how it can be used, delighting in the performances of other musicians the way actors study how other actors tackle their craft.

The thing about practicing is that for it to be worth anything you have to do it properly, whatever that means. I knew guys who were not that good as players who nonetheless practiced hours every day. But practicing isn't just about the time you put into it. It's HOW you put in that time that counts. And if anything, THAT was the lesson that my music teachers instilled in me.

There's a commonality I've heard in the great players I've known or come across when it comes to practicing. Michael Brecker sums it up best I think. In a video done in 1984 at North Texas State he said, "Pretty much, my playing is mimicking other things that I've heard. I'm not tremendously original. I listen to things, and then I learn them and get them into my psyche—and then I distort the hell out of them."

Later on he added, "The only suggestion I can make is go for what you hear—if possible, try to not let anyone sway you if you're looking for a sound. Stick with it, unless it's really obviously not working . . . I just have to go with what I think sounds good."

I once asked Martin Taylor how he handled practicing after he started touring with Stephane Grappelli. He said, "I really couldn't practice nearly as much because we were travelling all the time. When I started doing solo guitar concerts in particular, because of the travelling I started practicing in my head while I was on a bus or a plane. I'd imagine what I'd play and how I'd play it, see the fingerboard, and then that night I already knew what it was I was likely to do. Because I'd practiced it in my head earlier."

A trick, I might add, I'm in awe of because I've never been able to master that kind of musical focus away from the instrument with any real success, though it's worth trying for the mental exercise.

Brecker said something that Peter Bernstein also told me he did when he was younger. "If I hear anyone play a phrase," Brecker said, "if it really gets my ear, I try to figure out what it is. Find a record that it's on, slow it down if I have to, and figure out what it is." Yes, he said, he learned solos, "but more often I took pieces; guitars, or saxophones, or trumpets, piano solos. And if I heard a lick that I liked, I'd steal it. [But] my memory is not so good, and so I'd forget it and it would come out in some other weird bizarre way three months later."

Practicing these days is not a perfect situation for me, but with everything else I do, it suffices. I'm writing this instead of practicing, for example. I've reached the stage where every time I go out and play, on a gig or a session, I think of it as a learning experience, a form of practice. An exercise in listening and "blending," as Michael Kanan not so long ago beautifully described to me how he thinks about playing with someone else. I once heard Warne Marsh playing along with a Jamey Aebersold record as I arrived for a lesson at his studio at Breton Hall, on 86th and Broadway, and deliberately went in late just so I could stand outside his apartment in the dingy hallway and listen to him practice. (There are a couple of recordings of him doing just this if you scour the internet.)

I think of solo practicing as a kind of daily meditation in a way. After I'd been in New York for a few years I had to move apartments and come up with more than twice what I'd been paying before in rent, and there followed a period of about two decades when I stopped practicing. I had been in crisis when I moved. I lost my nerve musically, and a non- musician friend told me, unhelpfully, "however good a musician you think you are, you're a much better writer." I looked around at all the great players I knew and thought, "I'll never be as good as these people." Which, of course, was the wrong way to look at things. And then I thought, "I don't want to teach music, I've done that already back in England." And after that I thought, "I don't want to play weddings, and do gigs like that because I've done that in England already too." But deep down I was just afraid that was all I'd ever end up doing, and it wasn't the kind of musician I was practicing to be.

In retrospect, of course, musically that was a mistake, but it was where I was then. So, while I didn't really stop playing, because nearly all my close friends were musicians, I did stop practicing and doing gigs for the most part. And that was a monumental decision— THE life changing decision of my life at that time really. Up to that point I had not been able to conceive of not practicing every day—either playing the guitar, or building and maintaining my ear in some way. And for a month or so after I made the decision, I felt enormous guilt every day. But I gradually got used to not doing it. I would still hang with musician friends and play, but I didn't practice anymore and it might be days or even a week or more in between my picking up the guitar. "Why not?" one of my friends asked me once, over a beer at the end of a jazz jamming party. And I said, "I don't date my ex-wife. But I still sometimes have the equivalent of a one night stand, musically."

It wasn't until about 20 years later, when my son turned five and decided on his own he wanted to learn the violin that I started practicing again, more than anything else to give him a model of someone who practices so it wouldn't be this exotic thing to him. And I found I was really enjoying it. Practicing is partly a habit, and partly something else. Something profound that goes beyond a means to an end. It's a rhythm of daily life, and when you don't do it, like yoga or meditation, your days feel somehow incomplete; like you're missing a part of yourself.

One of the things I find I admire in my son (even though I try hard to keep him on the rails much to his aggravation) is his willingness, his eagerness to explore on an instrument. I've written elsewhere about playing free, but it's really just about improvising in sound where nothing can be considered a wrong note or rhythm.

I was incredibly lucky that my first real music teacher, Peter Ind, taught me as much about how to practice as what to practice. A lot of musicians think practicing is something you have to endure or "master" in order to be able to get on stage with other musicians and jam out to loud acclaim. A very lucky few actually manage to practice on stage as they're playing. But for most of us, practicing is or should be about forward movement, which should be reward enough. Warne used to practice all the time, for example, as did Michael Brecker. Julian Lage (check out Julian's take on daily practicing here) and Pat Metheny have admitted to being obsessive practicers when they were younger. I heard Joe Pass, on the other hand, confess in an interview he gave in London when he was touring as a solo artist, that he didn't practice at all any more. Though he did admit one of his big influences was Clifford Brown, and he had learned to play Coleman Hawkins' Body and Soul solo on the guitar as a young man.

At least part of practicing involves a level of fantasy role playing I think, where we can momentarily imagine ourselves as Charlie Parker or Wes Montgomery or McCoy Tyner as we play along with their records. Wes, famously, confessed that when he was starting out he learned a lot of Charlie Christian solos and played them on gigs. Learning to play along with a recorded solo is when we really start to intuitively understand the feels of jazz in a way that reading can never impart. Listening and playing along with Larry Koonse, for example, you start to hear Keith Jarrett, and Wes, and Monk, and Warne Marsh (whom he played with as a young man) but Larry's musical voice is uniquely his own. Listen to Peter Bernstein and you hear the brilliance of the same sense of flow in the music Larry has, but it's different. Pete's use of space is terrific, his influences from Grant Green and Kenny Burrell, to Lou Donaldson, Monk, Wes and Jim Hall are sometimes recognizable but Pete's voice is uniquely his own. (There is one track of Pete and Larry recorded together at John Pisano's LA guitar session (My One and Only Love) you really should check out).

I remember lessons I had with Peter Ind, sitting in his converted potting shed/music studio in Twickenham, in the suburbs of London, at the bottom of his mum's garden. But that description defies the sacredness of that space and what happened there. We weren't just exploring music, and ways to practice it and discussions about what honest playing was, we were slowly but surely getting involved in a kind of rough and ready therapy, trying to open me up in a way that would allow me to start practicing real improvisation. Peter once said to me, fairly early on in our lessons, that teaching improvisation wasn't really about learning this scale or that progression. Superficially, of course, that was what we were doing in those sessions, but it was really about coming to terms with why I was having difficulties mastering this or that thing. Why did I have such a problem singing along with solos out loud? Why spend so much time on a solo? I should be on to the next thing by now. Why did I struggle with that scale exercise? I recall sitting in Peter's studio and struggling to sing a Lester Young solo that I'd been working on for about ten days. Why was I so reluctant to be full throatedly engaged? What was holding me back?

In the one and only time he was ever brusque with me, he sat me down next to the record player, put on a Lester Young solo I'd never heard before, and demanded, "Sing It!" I resisted and struggled, but he was adamant. "Sing it," he insisted as the notes rolled out of the speaker. And I wanted to, and I didn't want to disappoint him. It felt so hard, and I struggled, and caught this phrase and sang it, and there was a flurry of notes I missed, then I caught another phrase and sang that and missed another flurry of notes, and then caught a third phrase, and by the time the solo ended I had managed to sing pretty much a third of it as it came out of the speaker. I went home after a "tough love" fifteen minute lesson finally beginning to understand viscerally the connection between ear and fingers, and how the ear should dominate the fingers, not the other way around.

Peter knew I was determined to try to master the craft he was teaching me. So he was generally patient with my weaknesses. And slowly but surely, we began an inner journey to try and discover who I was, and express that through my playing. Did I succeed? Certainly not then. Indeed, I feel I'm still wrestling with that now. But it did set me on a path that I may have rested on for a while, but was pretty easy to follow again when I was ready. And it's that path I am trying to help my son start down. I think he's getting there. He's lucky, in the sense that he's a musical sponge, and has teachers who naturally understand what he needs and are crafting the knowledge and lessons he needs by shaping the lessons to him, not trying to shape him to the lessons.

My music lessons, and the weekly practice they engendered, were a bond between Peter and myself. When I was suddenly out of work at 24 with no idea how to pay the bills once my unemployment money (we called it "the dole") ran out, I told Peter I'd have to stop studying with him because I couldn't afford to pay for my lessons any more. And to my shocked surprise he said, "That's ok. You can pay me when you find work." And he continued to give me lessons, because he understood that the practicing and the lessons and my growth as a person were all tied together. He was generous and perceptive and understood how determined I was. I had come to serious music late and was trying to make up for lost time. All these years later I'm still taken aback with gratitude for the belief in me he demonstrated by making me that generous gift few others would have given me.

After about four years or so of study, I recognized that my lessons with Peter were becoming a crutch. I knew what I had to do, I just had to get down and practice it, rather than strive weekly for someone else's approval. The practicing was an end in itself now, a means to not just get better as a musician technically, but as a person, all of which hopefully infused my quest for a musical voice.

I met Warne Marsh when I was out of work. I talked Peter into letting me drive the band bus when Warne and Lee Konitz and Peter, and Alan Levitt and my friend Dave Cliff toured the U.K., in a reunion band before heading off to Europe and recording several records in Holland.

I responded to Warne's playing on record in a way I still can't explain. It intrigued and enthralled me. The chance to see Warne play live at almost every gig the group played in the U.K. for close to a month, and hang with him and the other guys, was a once in a lifetime thing, I knew. When I took a couple of lessons with him, he said to me, "The voice is the first instrument."

When he returned to the States, I got in touch with him after a few months, and for the better part of eighteen months I had lessons by mail! This was the 1970s remember, so we didn't have Skype. We had the postal service. I would spend a month learning this thing and that thing, and mastering a solo all of which I would record on a cassette tape and send off to him with a check. About two weeks later, he would send me a handwritten letter telling me what to work on next. I'd record another tape, anxiously wait, and eventually get another letter critiquing my effort and making suggestions for my practicing. And so we went. It seems crude now, and perhaps even a little desperate on my part. But it informed my practicing, and the discipline of it was a change from the freeform lessons that I'd developed with Peter.

Studying with Warne was one of the reasons I took a cruise ship gig sailing out of Miami. After my six months was up I quickly ended up in New York, where he helped me find a room in an apartment in Harlem. I had a mattress and a couple of chairs, sharing the large space with six other people including a dancer and a fine artist, and found a job washing up in a restaurant. The building was filled with musicians and nearly all of us were broke, but we would often have late night jam sessions. And all I had to do was find $100 a month, eat mostly at the restaurant—and avoid the INS. In the warm months during the days I wasn't working or gigging, I would earn as much as $50 a day playing on the streets— duos, trios, quartets, it didn't matter. They say what you practice will come out in your playing in about six months. Playing eight hours a day like this pretty much every day, what I was practicing started appearing in my playing within weeks. I studied with Warne for the next eighteen months or so before he returned to LA.

I remember once coming for a lesson, and as I came through the door he said, in his laconic but focused way, "Sing me a second inversion major seventh chord." To which I replied, "Can I take my coat off first please?" But he knew it was a ploy to give myself time to figure it out because he'd caught me off balance. He just nodded and smiled a small knowing smile and waited patiently. Once the coat was off I sang the phrase, I Feel Pretty , from West Side Story, and on with the lesson we went.

Back then everyone was practicing around me—all the time. It was what we did. It made us who we were. Peter Ind told me a story of being in New York in the 1950s when a fellow Tristano student arrived for a lesson with Lennie having travelled across town in a bus during a rain storm. "Do you know," the student said excitedly, "those bus windscreen wipers were going 15/8!"

I recall a young trumpet player named Richard I shared space with for a while who had, to me at that time anyway, the most amazing ear. He would sit at the kitchen table, with headphones on and a sheet of blank staff paper and a pencil in front of him. And he made part of his practicing a way to earn some cash on the side. Merengue was the big thing in the early 1980s. It was called by some "coca" music because this originally slow dance had been speeded up, as though the whole brass section were high on cocaine. Richard would give himself a note on the trumpet to orient his ear, and then he would listen to a tape on a Walkman and transcribe all the parts in the same way I might dictate a letter to you and you wrote down what I said. (Yes, he had mastered Peter Ind's lesson to me of a few years earlier.) Not just one part, though, but each of several parts. And the merengue musicians who hired Richard to arrange for them were rudimentary music readers, and paid him handsomely for these charts. And through Richard I learned how to write music neatly and practice a more formal music writing style, though I confess my music reading has always been weak despite my six months stint in the show band on the cruise ship and my time hanging with Richard.

These days I am trying to teach my son what I learned from all this: practice s-l-o-w-l-y. I hear him listening to Benny Green, and Michael Brecker, and Joel Frahm, and Oscar Peterson and know he wants to play the violin like that. And he believes that practicing fast tempos at speed is the way to do it. But the real test, I tell him, is to play at metronome mark 40—not 400. And to play as much as you can with as many people as are willing to let you play with them. It's how I practice now, or try to. And now that I'm much older I see the holes I've left in my playing, and try and plug some of those yawning gaps. I continue to master the fingerboard, focus on better fingering, on deficiencies with my rhythmic invention, of transposition on the fly, forcing myself to remember on the stand that an improvisation is not just flurries of notes—but also silences, space. That an improvisation has energy, and you should be aware of that energy. The pianist Marc Cary once said to me, "Better a musician should keep the energy up and stop halfway through a chorus, than keep on playing and let the energy just drain out of not just his playing, but as a result everyone else's as well."

Jam sessions are a decent way to practice some aspects of playing, but tricky, because they can be these great moments to work on your ear training, and transposition, and "blending." There's that whispy singer who says in a delicate, almost apologetic voice, "I don't know what my key is. Can we do "Stella" in D maybe?" And you say with bravado, "Sure." And then you start to run the changes in your head and you hit those spots in the tune you thought you knew cold that you suddenly realize you don't that well after all and it's moments before you have to perform it in public with someone you've never played with before. All the while she's saying, "Will you play an introduction for me please?" and you just KNOW from her demeanor that you're going to need to not just play a decent four or eight bar introduction, but hit that last chord of the intro in such a way that her starting melody note is prominent and queued up for her ahead of time. I LIKE that challenge. For me, making music like this is the whole point of practicing, so that I can listen to others and be confident and skilled enough to react to and support their music making. And before you know it, if you're lucky you're on a wonderful, momentary adventure when there is this spontaneous coming together where 2 plus 2 equals 5, or perhaps more! Then again, jam sessions can be testosterone laden gladiatorial events, filled with notes and thunder where, frankly, making music with others has become secondary to a cross between being a "deer in the headlights," and a kind of half-deaf musical masturbation. You never know until you're up there.

Of course, my teenage son doesn't want to listen to half of what I have to say, at least outwardly anyway, which is probably for the best, as he has his teachers, who are very good, and his own evolving musical instinct which is definitely becoming more and more dependable. But I also hear him hit brick walls at times in his practicing, and then when he thinks no one is listening, he resorts to some of what his old man suggests, and lo and behold, it actually helps. And going over this stuff with him helps me as well. It reminds me that, for example, vocalizing your improvisations forces you to play what you sing rather than sing what you play, and helps you get away from the trap of what a teacher of mine once called "finger pleasure" on your instrument. The voice is the first instrument.

Practicing takes us beyond a simple quest for mastery of our instruments, or even more broadly, music itself. If we yield to it, practicing helps us find out who we are and what we really sound like. And in the end, surely, that's the real pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, isn't it?

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