Wednesday, March 4, 2015

On Wrong Notes

This was one of those moments when time froze.

I was pretty young, perhaps a freshman or sophomore in college, aspiring to be a jazz saxophonist, gigging with a group friends at a local restaurant. After we’d played a few songs, our jazz improv professor Bill Dobbins, whom I respected very much (and still do), walked into the place with his wife Daralene, sat down at a table next to the band, and ordered some drinks. It made me a little nervous for them to be there, but I tried to stay cool about it.

Someone in the band called the Dave Brubeck song "In Your Own Sweet Way." We had been working on this tune in improvisation class for a few weeks. I was not completely comfortable with it yet, but I wanted to show Bill I was worthy of being at the school and studying with him, so I gingerly agreed we should play it.

We started playing, and soon it was my turn to improvise a solo. The "A" sections are basically in the key of Bb, give or take a few flats. The chords progress quickly, changing every two beats. I was doing OK for a little while, hopefully exuding a fair bit of feigned confidence. Then, the bridge arrived.

The bridge (the "B" section) temporarily moves up to the key of D major. Relative to Bb, the key of D major is brighter. It is totally different; it feels more colorful and maybe a little distant. The shift in tonal atmosphere between the two sections is what makes the song work so well.

I do not remember exactly what I improvised in the first few bars of the bridge. However, I suddenly found myself playing a wrong note, quite loudly, squarely smack-dab on the downbeat.  This one particular note was so thoroughly terrible that I will remember it's impact for the rest of my life.

It was C natural:

Click to hear this monstrosity

C natural could not possibly sound worse with the harmony of that moment. I simply did not know what key we were in. But as soon as I heard the note emerge from my horn, I suddenly remembered that the bridge had gone to D major, and that my C natural sounded as ill-concieved as any single note can be.

If you have not attempted improvising jazz before, let me explain a little about the improvisers mindset. When improvising, jazz players are ultimately striving to empty their heads of conscious thought. We need to enter something of a dream-like state to spontaneously create beautiful melodies and to generate a swinging rhythmic feeling along with the other players in the group. When it's working really well, it feels like the music is just making itself.

I had been trying to get into a state like this, but at this particular moment, I was violently shocked back into consciousness. In that fraction of a second, my brain sent me a quite detailed message:

“Bill Dobbins, your esteemed professor, is sitting right in front of you. He can hear that you don’t know this song at all. He knows you're a complete fraud. You're going to fail his class, get kicked out of school and never become a musician. Your life is now over.”

I suppose I could have just stopped playing and skulked off the bandstand with my head down. But if I did that, everyone in the room would have known without any doubt how terrible a player I was. So, I didn't actually consider leaving. I decided to keep playing and see if I could find some way to fix it.

I once heard an adage that jazz improvisers are never farther than a half-step away from a better note.  This seemed like a good a time as any to test that theory. So, I immediately had to make a choice. I had to select which way to move --- up or down.  Because I had hesitated slightly when I first realized my mistake, playing that horrible C for one long excruciating beat, my decision was going to be which note to then put onto beat 2:

Click to hear option 1

Click to hear option 2

Sizing up the two options, I sensed that going down to B would effectively turn the C into a blue note, conveying a bluesy feeling that wouldn't be right for the mood of the song. I wasn’t at all certain that going up would work any better, but I took the path upward to C# and plowed ahead.

I immediately knew that C# was better than C natural, but this phrase didn’t sound intentional yet. I still didn’t sound as if I was melodically or artfully conveying the sound of D major. I'd just merely fixed a wood carving mistake with a sledge hammer.  I still needed find a way to make the mistake sound right.

At that moment I remembered another common saying in improvising; if you repeat a mistake enough times, it will sound like you really meant it. However, I didn't want to repeat the exact same two notes again. I thought there might be a way to sequence this "wrong note/right note" pair in an artful way. So, I thought about the next chord tone below the C#, which was A. To continue the pattern, I leapt down to a G#, which was actually a half-step below A, where I was going to arrive.  This effectively allowed me to repeat the pattern two steps down (a third below):

Click to hear it

It was a little better. It wasn't right yet, but I felt I was getting close to making this sound at least intentional. Could I possibly continue this sequence, which for lack of a better name I'll call "a half-step below a right note" pattern, for one more iteration?

Click to hear it

I could feel it – three was the magic number.  I was almost there.  But at this point I wondered if I could find some way to tie up the entire phrase with a nice, neat little bow. Was there one final note that could completely hide my original mistake?  Could I pull one last note out of my hat that was so clever that nobody in the room, including my professor, wouldn't notice I screwed up so badly in the first place?

Click to hear it
(Drops mic)

OK, perhaps I'm patting myself on the back a bit too much here. But that really was the just the perfect punctation needed in that moment.  Of course, I still had to finish playing the rest of the chorus, but at least I managed to escape the deep melodic hole I’d dug for myself.

Sidenote: Music theory fans may note the spelling change of C natural to B#, reflecting my entirely intentional melodic purpose here.  :)

I have thought about this moment many times since then, and I have gleaned several lessons from it:

(1) Keep calm and carry on. If you stay cool and keep your ears open, then the process of spontaneously composing jazz solos can be as simple and fun as making music with your friends.

(2) The process is more important than the product.  The process of creating jazz --- both in the immediate moment and in the long-term course of learning to do it --- is what makes the music so exciting. Perhaps scary sometimes. I believe this is why live or bootleg recordings can be so compelling. Some of my favorites are not packaged products; they’re simply an aural snapshot that captured the spontaneity of the moment in that time and place.

(2A) Making mistakes is part of the process. It may be a bit cliche, but there are some things you can only learn from making mistakes. If you are so careful that you never venture out of your comfort zone and screw up badly, you won’t learn from those mistakes and push yourself to greater heights.

(3) There is no such thing as a wrong note. Any note can work with any chord. This is not to say that it necessarily makes sense to just "play out" (whatever that means -- this descriptor has become how jazz players describe maximizing dissonance, which is not always done in a beautiful way). This is an acknowledgement that melody notes have varying degrees of consonance or dissonance relative to several things: the other melody notes that came before or after, the chord of the moment, and the key of the piece. And while it may sound overly simplistic or reductive, one of the great joys in creating your own music is exploring how notes and chords relate to each other. It's ultimately your uniqueness as an creative artist that will guide how you utilize those tonal relationships.

I have given my students a fun exercise to work on a single aspect of this, which requires them to consider how their notes relate to the chord of the moment. I ask them to pick any random note, and at the same time I’ll play a random chord on the piano. The first challenge is to figure out how their note relates to my chord, identifying whether it’s a chord tone, color tone, or non-chord tone. Then, they must improvise a short melodic phrase that makes their note sound right --- to progress melodically from their starting note and end somewhere so that the entire phrase sounds intentional. It's not always easy, but there is always some way to do it, and often many different solutions. At first, I'll choose fairly straightforward chords, then later get include more complex sounds as the students ears improve.

You can even practice this yourself by recording your own chords at the piano, using any recording device. When I do it for myself, I'll count to 4 slowly before each random chord, then play the same chord for about 20-30 seconds, take a short pause, then move on to some totally unrelated random chord. I'll continue like this for about 20 minutes. To complete the practice, play a random melody note along with your recording later, after you've forgotten which chords you played in the recording. They'll seem quite random to you, and will make a great exercise.


After the song was done, my buddy Rob Hudson, the trombonist in the band, leaned over and whispered, “You really didn’t mean that C-natural, did you?”

I guess you can't fool everyone.

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