Monday, November 09, 2015

Weekly Wisdom

In 1966 Bill Evans sat down for an interview with his older brother, Harry.  The result was “The Universal Mind of Bill Evans”, an educational video in which Evans talks about, amongst other things, his creative process, and how he built himself into the player he was.  There are a number of lessons in this video that we all, regardless of instrument, can benefit from.  

Some of my favorite excerpts...

“I think the problem is that [people]...tend to approximate the product rather than attacking it in a realistic, true way at any elementary level - regardless of how elementary - but it must be entirely true and entirely real and entirely accurate.  They would rather approximate the entire problem than to take a small part of it and be real and true about it.  And I think this is a very important thing that you must be satisfied to be very clear and very real and to be very analytical at any level.  You can’t take the whole thing, and to approximate the whole thing in a vague way gives one a feeling that they...more or less touched the thing.  But in this way you just lead yourself toward confusion.  You know, and ultimately you’re going to get so confused that you’ll never find your way out.”

I couldn’t have said it any better myself.  We’ve all seen musicians trying to play far beyond their ability.  To me, this is a disservice to both themselves and the music.  Sure, we’ve all been guilty of this at times - and I’m also not suggesting that we shouldn’t take risks - but in general I feel it’s better to play something that is simpler, or more basic, really, really well, than to try ramming some poorly played “advanced” material down an audiences throat.

Bill continues:

“It is true of any subject that the person that succeeds in anything has the realistic viewpoint at the beginning in knowing that the problem is large and that he has to take it a step at a time and he has to enjoy the step by step learning procedure.”

He goes on to give an example at the piano, playing a note-y improvisation on “How About You?”, discussing players who, for lack of a better term, fake their way through a chopsy solo rather than playing something “honestly and real-ly”, i.e. confidently.

Bill's brother, Harry, who is leading the interview, suggests that the average player has to overplay simply because they don’t have the hours to put in on the instrument.  Bill responds perfectly:

“The point is, what are you satisfied with?  In other words, it’s better to do something simple which is can still be satisfactory, but it’s something that you can build on because you know what you’re doing. ...  Whereas if you try to approximate something which is very advanced and don’t know what you’re doing then you can’t advance and build on it.”

I love that idea of having something to build on.  We as musicians, have to have a foundation.  We must walk before we can run, or anything other very true cliché that you can think of.  As Bill puts it:

“The whole process of learning the facility of being able to play jazz is to take these problems from the outer level in, one by one, and to stay with it at a very intense conscious concentration level until that process becomes secondary and subconscious.  Now, when that becomes subconscious then you can begin concentrating on that next problem which is to allow you to do a little bit more.

The aforementioned foundation must be absolute second nature.  When you’re reading a book, or looking at a computer screen and want to take a sip of coffee you don’t need a mirror.  You don’t stop reading so that you can focus your attention on making sure you don’t miss your mouth.  It’s second nature, or as Bill puts it, it’s subconscious.  The more music and facility we have in our subconscious, the more we can then do with our conscious.

“I would certainly say it’s more than worth it, but I think most people just don’t realize the immensity of the problem and either because they can’t conquer [it] immediately think that they haven’t gotten the ability or they’re so impatient to conquer it that they never do see it through.  But, if you do understand the problem I think then you can enjoy your whole trip through.

Here is the video in it's entirety.  It's definitely worth 45 minutes of your time.