Yielding to Practice

Peter Rubie By

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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.
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.

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 16 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.

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.

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.

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 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.



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