How to unlock your creative message

8/27/12

Inside all people there is a creative impulse waiting to be energized by taking a positive step.

I am not the first person to see this in the results of my own work, which is mostly dominated by composing and playing music. My approach to getting the energy flowing is not borne of a secret method, but rather to reflect on the first creative idea that I have and trusting that it will grow and enlarge organically. Catching the creative energy is akin to catching a lightning bug on a summer night.

After I connect with this idea my response is to enjoy the feeling and to share it with myself and share it with others to see if we are on the same wave length. My wife is always a good person to bounce an idea off of and my fellow musicians and friends also act as filters for these ideas. My son, like my wife, can be counted on to give an honest accounting of his reaction to any idea.

Many of the most creative people have had long relationships with the person they live with, or, if they are very lucky, are married to. Your partner in a committed relationship will have your best interest in mind. When I was single and in the beginning stages of development in music, I often noticed that people in solid relationships seemed to flourish better in art. No matter what your creative bent, it is more healthy, in my opinion, to have someone to bounce ideas off. That is why joining a group of writers, musicians, dancers or whatever your choice, the feed back will always help.

If people don't tell you what you want to hear, try to examine how they structure their viewpoint They are entitled to their viewpoint and you might even agree with them.

If you have had some training in your chosen artistic form, you will have to eventually follow your own instincts.

In the morning, if I have my wits together, which means I had a good night's sleep, I start off with some slow exercises and conclude with some tai chi chuan. If I am in rare form I will try to go for a swim. This is another example of my wife's good influence on me. She is Always, with varying results, trying to get me to exercise.

When I was younger I walked a lot in New York City and since I was playing more, I was constantly practicing and taking private lessons so more activity was keeping me sharp as a tack. Now I'm more interested in composing and my practice time is less physical.

My solution for unlocking the creative spark for all my years was promoted by a good positive outlook and a good sense of humor. If you take things too seriously, you burden yourself down with self doubt. I also go to doctors whom I trust and this keeps my mental outlook positive. In my case I never did drugs or really drank much so I'm lucky that way. My personal problem which led me to COPD was smoking cigars and pipes. This habit stopped over twenty years ago.

The early album covers and liner notes of most music I was interested in, jazz and classical, always seemed to show the composer or musician with a pipe, cigar, or cigarette in his mouth. This was A subliminal message and I received it.

So now, let's try to put these points to good use:

Now you can start unlocking your own special creative message.

Drop me an email if this has helped.

Ron Smith


A personal note on Clem DeRosa

February 6, 2012

If you have been reading my Musings you are probably aware of the huge impact my friendship with Clem DeRosa has had on me. Clem passed away on 12/20/11 in Dallas, Texas.

Clem was my high school music teacher at the Walt Whitman High School in South Huntington, NY, on the north shore of Long Island. I played tuba in his excellent concert band and marching band, and Clem also did the preparation of the pit orchestra for the school musicals. These ensembles gave me the grounding to play string bass in the dance band.

His rehearsals were no different then any later professional rehearsals I encountered in the real music business, other than that they were situated in an environment of the public school classroom.

When I entered the public schools as a New York City music teacher, in Chinatown, Brooklyn, Harlem and finally at the F.H. La Guardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts, I carried a special emotional teaching message that had begun with Clem. This message was never to leave out the small details in rehearsal, and never forget you are there for the students.

Through the Stan Kenton Clinics, Clem introduced myself and his other jazz students to the great master teachers of that era. Among them were Leon Breeden from North Texas State University, now UNT, in Denton, Texas; Herb Pomeroy, John LaPorta, Charlie Mariano, Phil Wilson, from The Berklee School of Music, now The Berklee College of Music, in Boston, and many professional jazz artists. In later years I found out that Clem had me on his list of Clinicians for his latest endeavor, American Jazz Venues.

Clem, whom we called "Mr. D," was always there to help us with well thought out advice. Through his good contacts I secured an audition to Berklee when I moved from Texas, and he helped arrange an audition for the Army Band when that was on the horizon. I even got a contact for the Buddy Rich Band because Milt Hinton found out I played in Clemʼs band, among others, and put in a personal recommendation for me.

So many of Clemʼs students went on to professional careers in music and teaching. Our musical experience has been compared to the "Austin High" group of musicians from outside of Chicago, which boasted such jazz greats as Jimmy McPartland.

It was my good fortune to know Clem DeRosa, and my aspiration has been to extend his legacy to the new generations of musicians I am privileged to teach.

Ron Smith


Let's talk the practice room

October 15, 2011

In days of a bygone era, the musician practiced in the woodshed as the family needed some peace of mind from the tuba or the string bass pre-electric bass, pre-electricity!

This practice was called "woodshedding." If you had a lot of money and lived in the big city maybe you practiced in the parlor which was off the sitting room and the living room. If you were a good cook maybe you practiced in the kitchen where you got your cooking skills together. Hence the the term of endearment he/she was "cooking" or it was a "burning" solo. Musicians like to eat and this makes no difference whether you live in the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Germany, Japan, Australia, or for that matter anywhere where SKYPE is available, a small advertising plug for lessons and Jazz for all Occasions.

Now back to the topic of discussion, the practice room.

It needn't be sound proofed but you need to let your family and neighbors know by your custom of practice that you are serious. A tip from my wife a few years back was to occasionally play a melody. Examples on our instruments are Ray Brown, and Gary Karr, both string bassists, Jimmy Haslip, Jaco Pastorious, electric bassists, Velvet Brown, Harvey Phillips, Howard Johnson, tuba players.

Arrange your method books in a file by whatever your preference. Mine was method books, collections of classical etudes, solos and contemporary music you can enter on your Mac screen so that your laptop becomes a virtual practice room.

The practice room need not be an area to text your friends. They will know you are serious and respect your time. Just get back to them. I often put my cell phone on a setting of hourly reminder rings to keep me abreast of how many hours I'm in this room.

If you want to take a break every couple of hours a futon is handy to have. I picked up this habit when I was in the Army band at Camp Zama outside Tokyo. I used this format to relax in my storefront in the East Village for many years. Now I sleep on my studio rug and use my meditation pillow as a regular pillow.

It is also good to keep the room well ventilated with any air purifier that has a hepa filter. If you can't breath well you will get tired. Some water or green tea is a good idea as they are very healthy habits to get into.

Try to get the clutter of arrangements you are composing or practicing in order as time permits. Some tools will be listed below in no particular order of importance. This is your practice room!

Keyboard, music stand (not folding) if possible, metronome, plenty of light, Zoom or other recording device. Lap top for storage of music materials. A good seat that is not so comfortable to make you sleepy. A bench without a back is a good Zen alternative.

A meditation candle to get your focus together to enter and leave your practice situation. DON'T forget to blow it out. Burning down your home or apartment will probably not make you popular with your neighbors.

Your practice room is your special area in your dwelling.

Musically yours,

Ron Smith


Let's talk practice objectives

10/1/11

In order to practice in a productive manner, the musician needs to have a meaningful goal that he/she is working on. My students and friends who are players of a high calibre are always aware of what they are about to practice. To do otherwise is to spin your musical wheels.

Talking about wheels as a metaphor for practice. When you are driving your car equipped with all wheel drive up a driveway during a blizzard for the first job with your band the goal is to reach your destination of the concert hall.

The practice routine, which will take much patience, is to go up selected hills on dry, wet, and snow covered terrain much as an elite unit in the Navy Seals. This may take weeks of practice under differing conditions until you can master the "task at hand." To do otherwise can jeopardize your mission and then the all pervasive ego icon will rear its ugly head.

I am assuming the reader of this Musing is a musician and possibly a bass or tuba player. So let's come up with a possible scenario for practice of a F7 chord.

The choice of how to climb this hill is up to the experienced player. Choice is a mandate of a creative musician. In order to give energy to choice you must have a high degree of humor to lubricate the task at hand or you will give up and not be prepared to achieve your goal of becoming the master of the F7 chord.

The components of this chord are F,A,C,Eb. To a guitarist or pianist this maybe a simple chord to play in the root,1st, 2nd,or 3rd inversion. To the bass or tuba player this may be a problem if he/she can't sing the component notes.

The human voice of each musician has only so much range and so step #1 can be to play these notes on the piano keyboard starting 2 octaves below C4 "middle C" to include C2,C3,C4. C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C. Play them up scale wise to locate these pitches,and back down the scale.

Step #2 your choice can now be to start on F2,A2,C3 and down those notes. This gives you the notes in the Fmajor triad.

Step #3 your choice can now be to add the (lowered 7th Eb) to your practice.

You are now coming up with a useful practice tool to embed your oral(musical memory) with a sensory feeling to make this chord "practice friendly."

As I remind the readers of this Musing this is not intended to be a lesson but a suggestion.

As artists we are all students through all our lives and this, my suggestion, is to enjoy your practice. Good practice is not supposed to be like labor in a prison exercise yard. We are not inmates. This is the reason prisoners like to have concerts by musicians with free sprits! This is the reason people like John Coltrane the great saxophonist reached so many people. The same is true for the Conductor/Composer Leonard Bernstein.

A last thought on this practice routine objective is, not to let this process drive you nuts. Rather the overall objective is to help you play in a creative manner which will lead to playing jobs. Step #4 is to use part of your well earned money to buy nuts. One of my favorites is Almonds which go well in a salad. That's another Musing.

Musically yours,

Ron Smith


Let's talk bass bows

August 15, 2011

Did you know?

In the first orchestras, the development of the German bow was based on the design of the Gamba bow, which from outward appearance was similar to that of the bow for archery.

There is spirited debate about the German bow versus French bow. To a great extent, early preferences were a case of "musical nationalism." I play and teach both the German and French bows and find their unique characteristics always a pleasant experience when I am faithful to a practice routine. This said, the German bow was felt to produce a strong heavy sound as the frog is broad in shape and the focal point of pressure is derived from the thumb.

This is just a starting point to explain the distinction. The French bow looks like a violin, viola, or cello bow and has their slimmer shape. The focal point of pressure is derived from the forefinger. This bow was traditionally felt to give more of, shall we say, the French or light sound.

In many symphony orchestras of the past, the bass section would be considered either a French bow or German bow section. That meant that the men (who dominated the section) had a principal player who favored his bow. Now that is changing.

Today, in the modern more "democratic orchestra," we more often have the mixed bass section with both German and French bows. In the modern, more "gender friendly" orchestras, we now have both men and women. The last barrier in the classical symphony orchestra is still the absence of people of color, who I believe are denied the chance to play this music by unfair audition practices. Thatʼs a whole Muse of its own.

The length of the bow should be as long as possible. This makes bow changes less frequent and affords the musician a chance to play longer phrases without having to change from down bows to up bows as often. The weight and balance are two other considerations. The bigger framed player will have a chance to play with more volume if the bow is slightly heavier. This is a choice to be made when buying a bow. Try to go to a dealer who is well known in your area. In my case, when I am in New York City, my first stop would be David Gage Strings on Walker St. The extra bonus for me is its proximity to Chinatown where I also get my best chop sticks but that is another Muse.

Another consideration with your bow is the type of rosin you use on the hair of the bow. Traditionally the bass player uses a slightly more sticky rosin than the cello, viola, or violin. This gives him/her the chance to grip the hair, which is traditionally from the horseʼs tail. The hair can be white, which should produce a lighter sound; dark hair, or a mixture of both, called salt and pepper. You can turn this into a large decision if this fits your personality and musical temperament.

Another decision is the type of material used in the making of the stick. A favored wood was often Pernambuco, which was grown in South America. Now there are bows of different materials which are giving the player a good balance and bounce to make the bowings work out in the passages.

The jazz musician may on occasion want a lighter bow to be able to play fluid swing and bebop or fusion type passages. This is, of course, an individual taste and musical determination based on the particular venue you are in. If you play an electric upright bass, you might want to try a cello bow.

As always, please get back to me with any questions or comments you have.

Musically yours,

Ron


Let's talk bass lines

August 1, 2011

Someone has to play the bass line. I often wonder, as I hear students play, if they have any idea why they are getting involved with this skill. They seem to give no direction to the music or to help the other musicians to realize where they are in the melody.

When a bassist is learning his/her craft, a major help is to listen to well established artists on their chosen instrument. In my youthful exuberance while learning jazz bass playing, I listened to as many examples of professional players as I could.

Sam Goody and other music stores of that era afforded me the chance to go into the jazz section and peruse the music of different bands of numerous periods of jazz. Then I would meander over to the classical music, German band music, country western, and eventually the music of groups like Blood Sweat and Tears because they also had tuba on some of the selections. There of course was R&B and Latin and Fusion and Rock and World Music. I was getting exhausted with all the subdivisions and still I was not hearing much clarity in student players.

One of the reasons that this confusion in bass line playing occurs is that many of the players don't take enough time to really hear the melody and realize as a bassist you are in a valuable support group called the rhythm section.

If you are a student reading this and are in elementary, junior high, high school, or college, I have a good way for you to learn to internalize melodies for free. Join the marching band, wind ensemble, concert band, jazz band, symphony orchestra, pit orchestra, rock band, Latin ensemble. Don't forget the different chamber music groups that need a string bass or tuba, and why not think of a small rock group as chamber music? Don't forget folk music, blues, Blue Grass .... the list goes on.

Go to your neighborhood music store and buy sheet music. Play the melody and the bass lines and try to make the connection.

This is the second in my series of Muse articles. I would be happy for any feedback or questions you have. The musings are not meant to take the place of lessons but they will hopefully give you a few topics to think over until the next installment.

Inquiries or comments can be sent from my Contact page.

To learn where the quintet is playing next, send me your contact info and I'll put you on my mailing list. If you do come to any of these events, come up and say hello. If by any chance you are a former student, I would be happy to hear what you are up to!

Thanks,

Ron


Letís talk Jazz by Ron Smith

July 15, 2011

So what do you think jazz is? Jazz is not even a term that Duke Ellington wanted to use towards the maturity of his experience. I am still expanding my understanding of this art form every time I play in a jam session.

I knew what it was when my playing started to evolve as a string bass player in the music of Count Basie and the sounds of Stan Kenton, with the arrangements and compositions of Johnny Richards (the Cuban Fire Suite was one of my favorites).

I certainly understood that you had a rhythm section and you donít have that terminology in the symphony orchestra. When Ravi Shankar plays the sitar in his music, he doesnít wait for a trap set player to trade fours with him.

Those of us who play the tuba found out fast that, unless we played in a traditional marching band, we were becoming old fashioned. Then of course there were those tuba parts in the orchestrations of music like the Kenton band and, yes, the Birth of the Cool band where Gil Evans wrote his fantastic arrangements for Miles Davis.

It was a revelation when I stood in front of the jazz big band in my teaching in New York City at the F.H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art & the Performing Arts (the "Fame" school). That band had a grand legacy, started by Justin Dicioccio, followed by Bob Stewart, myself, Gary Fogel and Kevin Blancq.

A logical question from the uninitiated could be whether it is considered a prerequisite to play this music born of the American experience in the public schools and in the college music ensembles across America. Historically the moniker for these type of programs went thru a succession of names ending in Lab Band at U.N.T. in Denton, Texas. The Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts called these classes Jazz Workshops. My guess is that "sand lot" baseball is great, but the next step is the high school, college, minor league, major league experience. After all, this is America, the land that espouses that we can all get to home plate if we earn our respective stripes.

Speaking of stripes, as a musician in the US Army Band, 1970-1973, my MOS was Tuba player. In those days they were SOFT stripes for musicians, and HARD stripes for the combat soldiers. Now my son, who has been overseas in Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany under NATO, and stateside at West Point, has the MOS of M.P. (Military Police). They have HARD stripes as do all the soldiers in this modern Army. In fact, he has given a great deal of credit to the musicians he has heard in the various stations as always, without exception, being prepared.

So the next logical question might be, "How do you get this ALL IMPORTANT PREPARATION?" YOU TAKE LESSONS! In the all important Zen circle, you start from the beginning and do it over and over, as the circle revolves for a short period of about 10 years. That is only if you want to become a MASTER!