Friday, November 24, 2017

Some thoughts on learning new tunes for improvisation

For the past three years I have been learning improvisational music. Having come from a classical tradition, much of my study has been concerned with how to approach music in a way that is conducive to improvisation, rather than replication of what is written on the page. For example, learning (by learning I largely mean memorizing) left and right hand parts independently allows for later improvisation, rather than left and right hand interdependence in memorization. This is very different than leaning a classical piece, in which the goal is accurate execution of what is written on the sheet music.

Improvisational music comes in many varieties. From free improvisation; which has no pre-written reference, to more traditional jazz; in which the form, harmonic progression, and melody serve as a starting point for spontaneous music making.  In this essay I am offering some thoughts on the latter, that of learning a traditional jazz piece for improvisation.

Learning left and right hands independently
I began memorizing my left and right hand parts separately after reading The Primacy of the Ear, by Ran Blake. As Blake describes, learning each hand alone allows for independent playing in either hand, which allows for easier improvisation. Both melodic and harmonic substitution become more fluid when the materials are learned separately. I begin by learning the melody, and then learning the harmonizations as written in the chart.

Singing the melody at the piano
A second habit that has helped me to learn new music for later improvisation is singing the melody while playing the harmonic accompaniment. Not only has this helped me to play the phrase more authentically at the piano, but has also helped me to learn the melody when playing my other instrument, the trombone. I have been told that saxophonist Phil Woods was an advocate of learning one-line playing by playing and singing the melodic with piano accompaniment.

Listening to multiple recordings with the score
The most important lesson that I have learned from my jazz musician friends is the importance of listening to recordings. The idea of manuscripting solos is a little different from the idea of manuscription in classical training. Although some of the jazz musicians I have spoken with literally write-out the solo lines taken by their favorite musicians, many use the term manuscripting as memorizing the solo line on your instrument through repeated listening. This practice has also enhanced my enjoyment of listening to artists whom I have played their solos.

Writing out my own score
This is another practice that I have learned from multiple jazz musicians. There are some variations as to how folks go about this, but all include writing out chord voicings and harmonic substitutions as a part of learning a new piece. Some do this by ear, others use a lead sheet as a reference. The habit that I have developed begins by hand manuscripting the melody and chord symbols as a two-stave piano transcription.  I then write out my harmonic voicings in either whole, half, or quarter note movement. Later, after I have learned the harmonic material as written in the score, I add my own harmonic substitutions. I do not use these hand-manuscripted charts when playing with friends, only as a way of learning and recording down my ideas. This has proven to help in memorization and reharmonization of the new music I am learning. Writing out a sparse voicing option is useful for comping.

Playing modes and arpeggios of the piece
Lastly, I have gotten into the habit of playing the modes (chord scales) and arpeggios of a new piece in time. This idea was taken from the Jamie Aerbersold method books. It is another great way to become familiar with the chart and free from what is written. It is also a pleasant way to practice scales and arpeggios, by practicing a different piece in each major or minor key.

Making the music my own has been the primary focus in the process of learning new tunes. Learning left and right hands independently, singing the melody line with harmonic accompaniment, listening to many recordings of the piece I am learning, writing out my own scores, and playing the modes and arpeggios of the piece has enhanced my ability to improvise as well as to accompany others. This process is different from that which I used when learning classical music. The nature of the music is different and this requires its own, unique, approach.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Harry Stack Sullivan and Interpersonal Psychology

Harry Stack Sullivan was an American psychiatrist who, along with Erich Fromm and Karen Horney, explored the idea of "personality" as a social phenomenon that emerges from an interpersonal context. Sullivan's theory was described by Eastern philosopher, Alan Watts, as one of the most promising Western systems of psychology, and described it as a bridge to Buddhist psychology. In this series of podcasts, I introduce the basic theory of Harry Stack Sullivan and discuss its practical value in our everyday lives.

Stack Sullivan wrote one book, Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry, but kept extensive notebooks and transcripts of his lectures. These notebooks were later edited and published, and are valuable resources to understanding Stack Sullivan's insights into the human condition. Many of these texts are available at

Stack Sullivan traces the beginnings of habitual reactions to others, in an effort to reduce anxiety and sustain a sense of safety, and demonstrates how those habitual thoughts and behaviors become adult patterns of a self system. For Stack Sullivan, change takes place when we become aware of and replace outdated habitual patterns of reaction with choices that are more conducive to our current, adult situations.

Harry Stack Sullivan founded the William Alanson White Institute, in New York City, which trains psychologists and psychiatrists in interpersonal psychotherapy.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A Theory of Depression: S. Freud's Mourning and Melancholia

Before describing and explaining Sigmund Freud's theoretical model for understanding depression, I would like to make some points about theory.

A theory is a working model; a way of conceptualizing a phenomenon that helps us to understand and effect change in ourselves or others. The American intellectual William James described how theoretical models can be useful for understanding while not being real. In this way, a theory can be true -meaning it works, while not being real. An example of this can be found in our everyday treatment of currency. What gives paper currency value is our belief in it, not the paper and ink itself, which is relatively worthless. It's value is symbolic and theoretical, not real. The value of the money is true in that it functions within our society in meaningful way. James shows us that theory can be true without being real. This being said, we can approach Freud's theory of depression as a model that can be useful in understanding the phenomenon, without becoming distracted by questions that have little bearing on its pragmatic functioning.