Advice For Jazz Students #16: P is for Practice, Play, Performance

I have to confess my position on this is fairly ramshackle. My brain doesn’t always function as it should, what and how I practised recedes from view like memories of learning to walk and talk. This means I don’t often attempt teaching about it. In fact, the only thing I have ever told students which I know for certain will work is a way of getting A4 photocopies to stay up on a music stand by pinching the centre of the bottom and top edges, thereby making it three dimensional, standing like an opened book. You can DM me for that.

But I have some suitably strung together advice about these three different, sort of similar stages of making music.

Practice” shouldn’t sound that good. People shouldn’t want to hear it. It’s private stuff. I wouldn’t pay to watch Aston Villa doing push ups. Most people prefer a methodical approach to it, something I often failed at (as far as I remember), because its efficient and it works. It arranges patterns and strategies in a systematic way which then, fingers crossed, emerge in “playing” and “performance”stages in more organic and musical forms. There are lots of online resources focused on this, but I think my former (often exasperated) teacher Simon Purcell should be your first port of call for varied and creative ways to practice.

Playing” is something you can practice too, as if someone were listening. For me it’s the practice of making a coherent whole statement…there are some musicians that blur this boundary, people like Sonny Rollins who get into something so intensely on stage that it feels like they are working it out for themselves. More like a process, an endless working out that can be two minutes or two hours long. It’s my favourite stage in many ways, but….

Whether playing or practising, whatever you play in a small room comes right back at you like a tennis ball off a school playground wall. This is not true of “performance“, which can sometimes feel more like trying to throw an inflatable doll across a windy river.

In order to get a crowd interested, and keep them there, you may need to do things you don’t practice. “Showboating”, as it is sometimes condescendingly called, is often called for. Personally I have a couple of tricks, and I don’t practice them because to remember you need them is to be on the stage, usually with a drummer who has around him a whole set of things designed to be hit hard outdoors. And you have an instrument that seemed loud in 1700 because it made more noise than a harpsichord. You need some kind of David and Goliath strategy here. It’s fun too, but it won’t happen in lessons, in your bedroom, or playing along with Art Blakey records. Blakey’s coming out of a little box, and like that other little box, the X Box, the guns aren’t real. I saw him once. And he was loud, dense, like a challenge….come on, what have you got? Guns blazing.

It’s not all about volume though. I once saw improvising singer Phil Minton upstairs in a London pub. It was a small room. He had no microphone and was making tiny sounds, if I closed my eyes I could see a miniature horse in mild distress. It was quiet, it filled the room. He drowned out the jukebox (yes it was a long time ago) coming from downstairs. This was pure musicianship, at least to me. It sounded like anyone could do it, and I confess I tried when I got home after the gig. My throat hurt after about a minute. It’s not easy.

Fill the room with big, soft, raging music. And move with the audience, see if you can go around again, have you lost them or do they want more? This is performance, and to do it you have to do it. There are no internet fast track plans, you cannot learn German in your sleep whilst losing wrinkles and earning 300K a year by following this link. Or this one. You can however, scroll to the bottom of this page for premature and garish orthodontic surgery, or whichever other goodies are on sale.

The choice is yours, only you can decide.

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