Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Playing in Keys. The headache is worth it.

It's summer time (so they say). The piano goes more out of tune than at any other time of the year. I could do a quick unison tuning and that might help but I've been taking to putting in my ear inserts to tone down the sound in this small room I have with my lovely little 'Steigerman' grand piano. For some reason that helps to bare the out-of-phasing of the unison-piano-strings.  It would be nice to have it in tune because I've convinced myself that I need to play even complex songs in 12 keys.

I've been using some precious time to do this. I'm finding it helps in many areas:

1. It gives me a better understanding of the harmony because the new keys are harder to figure out without this understanding.
2. It definitely helps with hearing intervals, especially leaps.
3. It creates a better understanding of all keys.
4. It helps to play in keys that don't always get played in and breaks the tactile memory and makes the player work harder to overcome this.
5. It's great for technique and fingering issues.
6. It is good for the understanding of voice leading.
7. It helps with hearing and the understanding of tonality and all 12 tonal centers.
8. It helps in the development of piano texture-creation in the new keys which will influence the texture and understanding upon the return to the original key. I always come back to the original key refreshed.
9. It helps tremendously with improvisation and line creation. Now I can better improvise in these keys and others (I say to myself).
10. It mainly benefits the inner ear and solidifies the sense of a particular tonality.

The thing is that the songs might be played slower in unfamiliar keys but one rule of thumb is to play musically. Have articulations, dynamics and beautiful tone uppermost in the mind as the struggle to  play in unfamiliar territory proceeds. I find myself often more 'transported' playing in this way through these keys. In a way the sounds of these keys or at least 'piano keys' will sound new and are worth lingering on in a lyrical manner. In the jazz world (of old and even now) the keys of E, A, B, F# are played much less than the 'flat' keys so there is much territory to be explored. Its nice to be able to play Charlie Parker heads in keys as well and extrapolate phrases and run them through sequential root motion patterns.

I'll follow this article with another featuring one of my favorite and most useful aspects of 7th chord-tones substitution and the pathways that are present when one or more of the chord tone leads to an adjacent chord extension tone—it can contribute to the solo line concept as well.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Cross - Connecting

Hi all. Once again my friend CKM has come up with some thoughtful responses to a piano lesson with me. In the lessons we are gradually getting to work on techniques and dynamics/articulations in bebop heads, a great resource for building jazz language skills. These particular thoughts to my mind, essentially deal with the 'Macro and Micro' dynamics and articulation choices in piano jazz. There truly is no 'one' way to play lines and figures (unless agreed upon in an ensemble situation). So I humbly submit the following thoughts from one who brings many insightful thoughts and perspectives. What else would you expect from a math/computer/engineer/genius-nice person ? !! (I'm "C". in this monologue).

Cross-connecting (by CKM).


I liked that lesson today.   We just went over most the of the songs, working on dynamics and articulation and swing and all that stuff.   I'm kind of feeling for the first time that I'm generalizing correctly about all kinds of things in that domain.  The expression markings I'd written in on several of the songs were good for the most part.   Some of those were based on listening to how C played them on the recording last week, but some of them were just that I thought it sounded right a certain way because it instantiated a certain pattern that I recognized from another song.

It's a neural net training problem really.  When you design software neural nets to solve a problem (neural nets simulate the brain directly in a simple sense, in terms of the neuron connections and strengthening connections that are used and building associations) you have to train the net on the problem domain.  A typical application of a neural net might be facial recognition, and you would train the software by showing it a number of pictures of the subject it was being taught to recognize.   It's a little tricky, because it's important to get the size of the training set right.  If you show too few pictures of the subject, the net won't have enough information to generalize, and won't recognize other similar pictures.  But, perhaps surprisingly, if you show too many pictures of the subject, the net will become "over-trained" and will think it has a perfect and complete understanding of the subject, and nothing can be added to it, so it won't recognize new pictures of the subject very well either, because they are different from the pictures it knows about.   Its understanding is over-specific and normal variation messes it up.

Anyway, I think broadly speaking I've been suffering from too few items in the training set, largely because of not having spent decades listening to this music, and although I have worked on lots of songs, because I've worked on them sequentially, there has been limited carry-over of pattern recognition from one song to the next.  Each one has been a whole new adventure.  Which has been fun, but it's certainly being useful in a different way to have the patterns from a dozen songs all in my mind at once, because there are cross-connections every which way, and it makes it easy to see them.

Sometimes, in another sense, I get too many items in the training set, like when I want C to specify every microscopic dynamic in a line, but it just doesn't matter all that much.  There are situations where there is some essential characteristic that needs to be kept, but the tiny details can be done many different ways, but I don't distinguish those two categories.   From a neural net perspective, it's desirable for the net to identify the essential characteristic, and be flexible about the rest of it, but is overtraining when the net perceives the non-essential characteristics as part of the essential identity.  But how to tell the difference?  That's the tricky training set size and content thing, and even with software, de facto it gets worked out on a trial and error basis until you come up with the right approach for the problem domain.

I wasn't thinking about any of this, this morning though.  I was thinking lift & drop, putting weight into keys, using the weight of my arm to roll into notes and phrases, and keeping relaxed, and trying to always make phrases be going somewhere dynamically, never just sitting there, and just trying to be totally focused on whatever we were working on.   That kind kind of focus just makes me so happy, both at the time, and thinking about it later.

Austinato: We had a further dialogue to kind of tie things together—Thank you dear reader:

  1. austinatoJune 21, 2012 11:54 PM
    Uh huh !!

    I love this... It would benefit others to hear about this... because in my limited scope here, what your saying here is correct. It's akin to balance when playing: don't try too hard and conversely don't try to little. Balance of the musical forces. It would be hard to phrase the exact same way every time but if you are in the groove and in the moment, one can balance the dynamics as you proceed. It's processual !!

    1. CKM: This: "It would be hard to phrase the exact same way every time but if you are in the groove and in the moment, one can balance the dynamics as you proceed."

      It has to end up like that.
    2. austinatoJune 22, 2012 10:03 AM
      I think it becomes what is called by many: intuitive.
    3. austinatoJune 22, 2012 4:49 PM
      This is a key:" Its understanding is over-specific and normal variation messes it up".

      Heavy duty is this: There are situations where there is some essential characteristic that needs to be kept, but the tiny details can be done many different ways,

      and this: it's desirable for the net to identify the essential characteristic, and be flexible about the rest of it, but is overtraining when the net perceives the non-essential characteristics as part of the essential identity....Oh Yeah !!

  2. austinatoJune 22, 2012 5:05 PM
    That's not to say that the plethora of detail infinitudes, should be ignored. They 'play' a big part in the shape and vitality of a line

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Animating Principle

Animating Principle: Dynamics and Articulation in swing music.

I’ve always been taught and have been teaching the triplet 8th nature of swing at least at slow to mid tempos. When swing gets quite fast, say over MM = 200, the swing 8ths definitely straighten out somewhat and the swing component is more implied with shots and accents than the actual triplet 8ths. But as long as a tempo is such that continuous triplet 8ths can be played say, in a solo, the 8ths written in duple can be swung, again, depending on the tempo.

I first learned ‘Swing’ playing in a 1958 ‘Rock’ band (The [Vancouver] Shades). We started every gig with a shuffle called ‘Honky Tonk’ by Bill Doggett. It was a slow blues shuffle and I remember instinctively accenting every ‘back’ 8th because it was essentially in a walking 12/8 time. i.e.

  >   >   >   >
1+a 2+a 3+a 4+a
    <       <

Of course 2 and 4 backbeats are being pounded out as well. It could really groove this way. The ‘back’ 8th (the ‘a’) being accented creates a power vacuum which is filled by the oncoming downbeat (any on-beat 8th etc.) which itself creates a propelling force. I think (I’m not the only one—if it’s good enough for ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie it certainly is good enough for me), that it definitely animates the time feel. I love it when drummers do an 8th triplet fill into a downbeat playing with this dynamic as it really pushes things along. As Duke Ellington said more than once when an audience of the 'unhip' would ‘clap’ in time on beats 1 and 3: “Please clap on 2 and 4 as clapping ON the beat is considered ‘Aggressive’.” That’s a bit of a joke but his point is well taken. This backbeat accent principle is also applied to the ‘back’ 8th (‘a’). It creates a lively momentum and is great to play on. Back to drummers doing triplet 8th fills—when they dooo accent the down beats "continuously" during a fill to the downbeat, they are creating this same ‘aggressive’ (ie. mostly unhip) ‘slogging’ of the beat. When that happens I think the player is begging the question! Of course there is a time and place for everything (just a little pet peeve of mine).

When applying this accenting back 8th rule of thumb, in creating 8th note lines, similar respect can be given to the swing-animation principle.

Here are some thoughts by a friend of mine, (CKM) a student of jazz piano who has the presence of mind to analyze the articulation and dynamics of a swing jazz 8th note line. This person is learning Bebop Jazz lines, style, and tunes such as T. Monk’s Straight No Chaser and has these observations about dynamics and articulations in a vibrant 8th note-type line. To this person this is a new phenomenon. I have highlighted some important words with capitals and have written the occasional aside. N.B.

I am ‘C’ in this monologue/dialogue.

It's been really different practicing recently. I am not preparing anything for lessons -- I am just trying to work on the rhythm and articulation and dynamics of all these little songs. For most of them I feel like I have got a clear idea, and even manage to play in accordance, at least on occasion, but it's very easy to slip out of it and just play it without it being ALIVE properly. When it works right it's like it's animated from within, and dances itself, But if it's not working, it's all awkward like a marionette and I have to move all the parts on purpose and they often don't coordinate perfectly.
After the last lesson I took out the left hand completely, because it distracted me from doing the right hand how I wanted to. The last couple days I've been working on putting it back, just roots, very minimal. Even that is usually too much and kills the melody. Not giving up though. Some of them are coming together a little bit. When it works right the left hand interacts with and supports the melody. A common pattern, for example, is to hit the downbeat with the left hand followed by a pick-up on the second eighth in the melody.
Another thing I'm thinking about a lot is the patterns of eighth note accenting. It's by no means just back-eighths, and I'm beginning to understand what is going on with that I think. C was marking in which eighth-notes were to be brought out, and at first it seemed kind of arbitrary, but with so many songs, I can see the same patterns over and over again in different contexts. These are the most common accent patterns I've noticed:
CKM: Back-eighths -- when nothing more important is happening to override this default. 
(C: Over-riding factors like intervallic leaps on downbeats might needed to be accented and this overrides the back 8th accent idea)
CKM: Drop-landing notes -- often the back-eighth, but not necessarily.
(C: Like the drums, accents on a piano keyboard come out best if they are ‘dropped’ on with a true release, surrendering to gravity which creates the best accented sound).
CKM: Melodic sequence -- sometimes there is an ascending or descending line that needs to be brought out, and it's not all back-eighths.
(C: An ascending or descending line might need an accent on a downbeat just to establish the meter and create a jumping off point for the next push or anticipation).
CKM: Four eighth-note series alone -- really this is just a special case of #2, with a drop-landing note 1, and then a back-eighth note 4, but it's such a common pattern I think about it by itself.
(C: The '4th' 8th-note may be held in a tie in which case there is a natural accent at work. If the 4th note is short, it can be bounced off by literally bouncing the hand off the note creating an effective accent—further to that, notes that are accented in a legato swing line should be, if possible, accented by (subtly?) flinging the weight of the arm down and catching it at the bed of the keyboard. There is another technique such as a wrist-arm relaxed twist which will create an effective accent at the end of a 4 – 8th note line.)
CKM: Destination note -- seems like the arrival point of the preceding few notes or phrase, and gets an accent regardless of what kind of eighth it is.
(C: Yes!)
CKM: I am trying to think in terms of medium-long phrases when playing, like always having something be happening dynamically. It's that aspect specifically that falls apart when I introduce the left hand. But eventually it won't. I've never really thought about Dynamics as an Inherent and Animating quality to the line before. In the olden days that I don't like to remember, dynamics were treated as cosmetic improvements that needed to be "added" once the notes were under control ("musicianship" -- worth 20% of the mark!). But That is Completely Wrong. The Dynamics and Associated Aspects are the LIFE of it.
(C. Again, thank you my friend [CKM], for your insight and clarity on the grossly underestimated area of dynamics and articulation).

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Music life stories !!

Stories I have a plenty if and when I remember them. They had it pretty tough during the depression. The Johnsons (my Mom's maiden name) had only One knife for cutting anything and buttering etc. 'Pass the knife please' was commonly heard at the dinner table. 

What did we Austins do before TV.... ? Radio plays, music, kid's shows, news. Even some live shows CKWX had a vocal trio that made quite a name for themselves. I remember one announcer had an unusual news voice. It had a high edge and he spoke very plainly and specifically—it was a voice I remembered—more later. 


When I was about 27 in 1969-70 I got a gig at this 'Mobster' Club— The "Penthouse" Mafiasoish etc. —we played for the acts there. Singers, but mostly 'dancers' (ie. they weren't Paint 'strippers'). I was lucky to have it. It was a low point in general for me but it was interesting. I made some good friends there who really helped me. So this was a low place —gangsters, WGs (working girls), and pimp type people, gamblers thieves too I think and I pretty sure I rubbed (if you'll pardon the expression) shoulders with a dedicated hit man or 2. I think the head chef was also administrating some of the girls—I got to know some of them. There were a few sad cases and occasional bright lights in the mix though.

I played for Big Miller there and also actually met Duke Ellington (shook hands) through Big Miller and also Cannonball Adderly. Why do I mention this (it was 6 nights a week)? Because after 20 years or so I finally saw the man behind the radio voice I mentioned earlier, at this very club. He looked like he was right into the whole underworld life style—perhaps a gambler not obviously shady but comfortable looking in this club. It just seemed an odd juxtaposition !! 

I stayed there for a year and went through quite a bit (what me with me BMus in performance piano, playing half a Hammond organ and an electric keyboard on top for bass). The saxophone guy hired me—he was a pretty nice guy who ended up quite wealthy as a kind of front man for the Philiponies, who owned the club (the oldest brother Joe was later murdered by a robber which was made into a CBC radio play: imagine !! and I knew that guy). The drummer Lou was laid back but a nice enough guy. What did we play: apart from our resident Italian tenor named Tony (sweet guy really) we played every style, lots of blues, jazz: I was constantly being mentored by one of the best jazz singers there ever will be. How do I know this? by working with him every night. "Big" Clarence Miller was quite a profound influence in the swinging/creative/hard driving/hip changes department. It was often tough to know what he was talking about but there was a great deal that came through. He really had a voice and could out scat just about anybody: save Ella (who may have been a little hipper). He swung so easy and so hard !!

Then I met G. after I moved out of my parents place after being there for a year, and into a house with multiple tenants, one of which was indeed G. I had long hair down to my shoulders which would be the envy of any girl... it had this big wave in it... I had a beard too. I did look good from the back !! :)...  Later I went on the road with this trio (Arni May drums: who ran Rossinis' in Vancouver for many years) from a phone call from my dear friend Stu Millman who taught me a lot in his own way— he had a great ear and a great memory for tunes. Later we came to and through Edmonton just having been married to G.

The upshot of it is I made friends through this Penthouse club who I hung out with and slowly recovered from my 'hermit' band experience that we had tried to put together in the summer of 69 (nobly called "The Infinite Family"). I started to play piano a lot more but was spinning my wheels for a while. G and I moved in together in November of 1970 and I bought an upright and played all day (Beethoven, Chopin and Bill Evans) while she went to work... I worked too... some gigs and some teaching. The rent was cheap. Things miraculously have been going well ever since with a few major and minor discords but we're still here (touch wood). Moved to Edmonton, Grant MacEwan music.... this was serious stuff—I now had a family. It was a dream job but I did  also play 6 nights a week... sooooo tired. It was cruel and unusual punishment but I could've said no (no way)...I did stop doing that after a few years and had a lot of other cool gigs thanks to a well known senator (T.B): 2nd city TV shows, theatre shows, Telethones etc. it was in retrospect, totally awesome. 

Thirty + years at MacEwan Music. Intuitive dynamotion (rhythm, articulation and dynamics) , The Sound, 450 pieces in 15 keys, The MEd degree at 49 years, The Jazz Improv System, Blues tunes demonstrating the system, countless arrangements for showcase bands, An Approach to Jazz Piano (from a sabatical in 2000), and now some playing. Analyzing Bach Preludes and Fugues, watching former students blow by me !! Learning from everybody these days with 'retirement.' I really respect the professors and instructors working at MacEwan Music these days. It's really going somewhere. I've had quite a few people to thank and be eternally grateful to. I might do something useful yet — I pray !!


My Mom:

Both my younger sister and myself were born war babies. My Dad was in the army in Nova Scotia (he [we] lucked out when they found he could type and do short hand so ended up as a supply Sergeant).  I didn't see very much of him until mid-1947 when he came back to stay (we lived in Vancouver). So it was life with my Mother and later my sister.

I think I have memories of being a baby naked and being weighed at some health center. One time as a toddler I had a needle given to prevent something or other. I was quite shaken by that and was turning blue when we got home where my Mom put me in a tub of water on the wood stove to warm me up. I did survive that, but we never never did go back to that health center. Mom was on her own in a little house on Gravely St. in Vancouver. Considering she had a very serious bone infection for over 12 years and was always treating it. It was mostly in her knees and she was constantly draining this infection through running sores with nothing but cotton baton and I think she received sulfa drugs. It was finally whipped in 1952 when she stayed in hospital after my brother was born, and had some surgery which finally defeated this life threatening disease (or rather a life-long remission).

During the war, Mom always kept us aware of our Dad but we were raised for the most part by our virtual single parent. We did have plenty of attention from our grandparents and aunts and uncles. My Mom was the eldest of 7 and my Dad had 2 sisters so we had lots of relatives. The maternal grandparents lived down a couple of blocks and I would toddle off at the age of 3 down to see them on Charles St. My Mom came after me in hot pursuit with my baby sister under her arm!—I was pretty fast and perhaps a little too fearless but I adored both grandmothers but my Mom's mom lived right there. She was very generous and happy, smart, and formidable in her own right.

My Mom's many many stories focused around the development of a large family during the depression and we heard plenty about how they got by. Mom used to go out fishing with her dad in the Burrard Inlet with a homemade boat he had put together. They caught crabs and fish and they somehow did OK. Mom tells the story about finding a huge cabbage that had fallen of a truck into the roadside and how this was the prized vegetable which meant a lot to them. Wouldn't you know it the whole family was involved with music—singing and playing. My Granddad could really make a piano speak—he  played rag-style stompin' stuff. I've never heard anything quite like it since. I grew up on that very good quality piano which was purchased sometime in the early thirties—quite an extravagant luxury given the scarcity of work at that time.

Being the eldest of 7 meant that she got a lot of practise at being a mom. She had a special pal in my Uncle Lance but was important to all her brothers and sisters. She was born in England in 1916 and came over to Canada at about age 5 or 6. It's interesting that her mom wanted to live in Vancouver and not Toronto where my granddad had a job but, to Vancouver they went.

The world revolved around Mom in my Dad's eyes. She was not knick-named "Dolly" for nothing. As a young girl she had big blue eyes and long thick hair. I've played Hello Dolly quite a few times for her. She was always very encouraging with music and performing. My sister got to dance and I got the piano (happily) but I always like the idea of dancing and singing. Did I mention we all sang a lot. My Dad was an especially good singer and although not trained, had a deep appreciation for music — and quality music, especially singing. He was a very enthusiastic no holds barred conductor of the kiddy  choir in Sunday School—like I say, I was almost embarrassed by his involvement — he thought is was important though.

So I never had a very good hand at penmanship and when I first started school she made me print stuff for about 1/2 an hour or more, which didn't go well while everybody else was out playing baseball on the street. I think I was among the last ones in my grade four class to get to write with a pen-nib with ink. Ball point was just around the corner though. It was kind of grating on my little ego at the time.

We went to a church and both Mom and Dad were in the choir and involved. Mom sang soprano and really had a soloists voice and she played the piano and could chord along with her singing. She was also a featured vocalist in the choir services as well. The church provided a nice (even) fun sense of community in North Burnaby. Did I mention singing. I sang in a boy soprano and could sing as high as my Mom. I did enjoy singing a lot. I didn't start piano 'till I was 11 so I sang until my voice broke—brutally as it turned out: I got hit in the top of the head with a huge snow ball (ice more like) and my voice changed on the spot. I became a donkey in a matter of seconds. It was rather odd. Kids can be malicious even in those days. What did we know?

Mom occasionally got pretty upset with me when I joined a "rock" band when I was 15. It was those late nights rehearsing— but we actually got gigs and it was a real hoot except that I had no power and pounded the crap out of the pianos that were in the hall and of course being drowned out all night with guitar, bass, 2 saxes and drums. Occasionally there was a Hammond B3 at the gig (imagine !!). There were a few tense moments when the band rehearsed at my parents house when they weren't home—The neighbor complained to Dad and had apparently complained about it the week before — Dad had told the neighbor that it wouldn't happen again (he never told me !!). So— he informed me of his embarrassing position that I had put him in. What could I do? I apologized profusely to our neighbor and I think we only rehearsed in the afternoons after that.

Of course I had to have the car when I finally got a license. Mom was too kind to me there I think.

She supported all 3 of her children through our adult lives and even our children and grand kids. She was the best Mom anyone could have. I know that's a cliche and that most of us feel that way but when she's gone it's a game changer. It leaves a pretty empty spot. She would be thee person that you've known the longest and arguably, the most intense presence in one's life.

Dolly past away at 2.35 AM May 29, 2012 (the day before my Dad's birthday). She was almost 96 years old and was predeceased by my Dad by 5 years.