Metaphors for the Musician, Perspectives from a Jazz Pianist

Jason West By

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Metaphors Metaphors for the Musician
Randy Halberstadt
Sher Music Co.
ISBN: 0-306-81066-2

A good instruction book on jazz can go along way in the inspiration and development of student musicians. A jazzman's tips, secrets, encouragement and advice are gold to young performers struggling to make it happen in the business. Luckily, there are some musicians, like Seattle pianist Randy Halberstadt, who are able to put their on-the-job perspectives into words. Halberstadt's new book is the subject of this month's Seattle Sound.

"A difficult concept often becomes very simple if you can relate it to something familiar," writes Randy Halberstadt in the introduction to his new jazz instruction book, Metaphors for the Musician, Perspectives from a Jazz Pianist. Good teachers live by this rule, and Halberstadt-a jazz pianist and music professor at Cornish College of the Arts-applies it effectively throughout his comprehensive, 343-page text.

Turn to the chapter on harmonic theory and you'll find yourself exploring a musical solar system where chords are planets, scales are moons, and everything gravitates toward (resolves to) a giant tonic sun.

Rhythmically speaking, the piano is a drum set. Hearing a song's layers is "marinade for your ears." Limited practice time calls for "target bombing." And, "rather than playing with each and every idea as if it merited equal attention," the jazz improviser should be kitten-like, and "stroll until you find something that grabs you, then play with it."

Halberstadt's appealing metaphors serve as effective introductions to a wide range of practical and philosophical information about music. Most chapters provide detailed music lessons accompanied by practice exercises. These lessons cover everything from effective practice methods, to improvisational development, to music theory, accompaniment, and performance. Practice exercises are combined with dozens of transcriptions from original recordings by Keith Jarrett, John Coltrane, Nat Cole, Thelonious Monk, Freddy Hubbard, Red Garland, Brad Mehldau and others. There's also a resource guide, an appendix, even a glossary of musical terms.

While Metaphors for the Musician is loaded with jazz knowledge, it succeeds as a learning tool primarily because of its author's supportive, conversational tone. With few exceptions, Halberstadt adopts an encouraging voice while identifying many of the struggles faced by aspiring jazz musicians. This tone is nowhere greater than in Metaphors' introduction, titled "A Crooked Road." In it we read, "[S]ome of the best roads you'll ever travel are the ones you find when you're hopelessly lost. So just sit back and enjoy the ride as much as you can. It's...going...to...be...all...right. Believe it."

As a compliment to friendly prose, Halberstadt sprinkles his text with tips gleaned from a career of on-the-job successes-and failures-as a musician and teacher. Amusing personal stories, like those recounting the author's inauspicious audition for entry into the UW Music School (as a trombonist!); his fear of teaching piano lessons (having never played a gig on the instrument); and his love/hate relationship with the cantankerous, music critic, Mr. Y. Zass, make Metaphors an entertaining read, even for casual jazz fans.

Like the study of jazz, however, Metaphors is designed for life-long learning. The text is primarily intended for student musicians, particularly pianists, with some prior knowledge of their instrument, music theory, and jazz in general. Since a number of the lessons are advanced-and could benefit from further explanation-the book is probably best used in conjunction with lessons from a music teacher. As a last line of technical support, the author's email address is provided for those with problems or questions.

Excerpts from Metaphors for the Musician, Perspectives from a Jazz Pianist:

On Note Choice: "You've probably heard the axiom: there are no wrong notes in jazz. But the most rigorous perspective is that there is only one right note: the one that I hear at that moment."

On Practicing at a Slow Tempo: A slow practice tempo is one at which you can consciously control all the various elements with ease. That means that you have time to send individual messages from the brain to the hand to control the notes, rhythms, articulation, dynamics and fingering-and you even have time left over to think how easy it all is!"

On Time: To me there's no question that time is the single most important element. If I hear a solo with bad time, I have to leave the room (at least figuratively speaking). No matter how intelligent the ideas are or how elegant the language is, that solo will just make me feel agitated and irritable. If I can tap my foot or snap my fingers to a solo, if there's a real pocket to the time feel, then I'll enjoy it no matter what other problems arise. I'd much rather hear wrong notes than bad time."


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