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Blue Collar Rockin' #3-LISTENING!!!
By Mick Polich - 06/26/2007 - 11:19 AM EDT

Well, in a recent issue of US magazine, Lynn Spears states that her daughter, Britney,"is going to be all right". Apparently, Britney Spears just needs a little more time and love to get her act together as a parent, performer, and human being.

Whew - well, I guess I can move on with life now that that's out in the clear….

Of course, that’s got JACK to do with this month’s ARTICLE!!! But, it’s my duty to keep the public informed,YA KNOW? Actually, I was headed in the direction of the subject of listening for this column. Pretty simple - we as musicians all think we know how to do that,right? Oh gentle reader, you would be surprised – I’ve been through the art of ‘listening’ personally (something that my lovely bride Mary says is STILL an on-going process for me), and I have experienced the slings and arrows with band mates,the audience, booking agents, and short-order cooks….

But, we is gonna talk about how to LISTEN as musicians!

October,2004: my family has flow back to Des Moines from Atlanta in order to see my former guitar teacher, Don Archer,get inducted into the Iowa Jazz Hall Of Fame. Don was the ‘jazz guy’ to get lessons in music, and life, from back in DSM in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Back when I took lessons from Don -1979 - he had been retired from public performing for awhile. But all the good, hip cats – anybody who was anybody in Des Moines jazz – played with Don and his partner, Hammond organ genius and state legend Sam Salamone.  In fact, after the Hall Of Fame gig, Don sent me a SET of his performances, burned to CD, dating back to 1968 with various jazz and soul/jazz/funk groups in Des Moines and Omaha – hip clubs as the Black Playboy Club and Dino’s Apartment – stuff I have treasured since my only tape of Don was a jam recorded in good buddy/music mentor Doug Mier’s parents basement with Don, Sam,and Tommy Gordon (he of drumming groove fame with local cats the Cavaliers and national one-time legendary horn band Chase). Don was, and is, a character – at the time, many moons ago, I would walk down the steep, short basement steps to his basement studio to find Don, usually sitting by the piano, bottle of Pepsi in hand or on top of the piano, bandana ‘round his balding head, looking and talking like actor Willam Conrad’s twin brother.

Gruff, direct, imposing - that was my image of Don, as a 19 year old coming in from the farm to east Des Moines, driving my dad’s ’69 Chevy truck,Stratocaster in tow.  Don was legendary for preaching the music gospel and everybody heeding his call (as many have Miles Davis stories, a lot of us who took lessons have ‘Don’ stories,all done with proper voice, in character). “You gotta get a medium gauge set of Black Diamonds on there for jazz work!” Don would bark. I obliged, intimidated – too much of a weenie to say,”Don,it’s a ROCK guitar – what are you talking about?” Meekly, I restrung the Strat with heavy Black Diamond strings – much to the chagrin of the already established working band cartel I was trying to get gigs with (“You gotta be a real man to play these strings! Holy shit, Mick,what are you doing? These are telephone pole wires!” was a common theme…). Nonetheless, my lessons with Don would emerge in my personal music language years hence – pretty common, you just don’t get IT at nineteen - at least I didn’t.

After the Hall presentation and dinner, Mary took my picture with Don, and then I was moved to make a comment to him, "I gotta tell ya, Don - I learned a lot from you during our time, but you used to scare the shit outta me!" To wit the typical Don response: ”Well, you probably NEEDED it!” Which, I really did – I was just learning to not take myself so seriously (something my dad preached to me years before) and assert myself.  But, and now more to the point of all this lead - in, Don was, indirectly, one of the first people to make aware of listening - to music, musicians, the world around me.

In my discussions with all the people I have taught and/or played music with, we get around to the topic of the different musician types there are. Usually,the term ‘emotional’ gets tagged on the player who’s not formally schooled, or who’s music tech knowledge varies, but who can really put some grit and emotion into playing music. Now, this crosses barriers – there are school and un-schooled players who are very emotional and play with feeling, just as there are players on many levels with play with precision,yet detachment somewhat to the music.  Of course, both schools will say that they ‘listen’ as much as the next player to the music at hand, but I find experience plays a huge hand in this process.

One thing that drives me up a wall is a player that is off in Deep Space Nine or (insert player’s name here) ‘Ville while we’re playing a piece of music. Doesn’t matter to me what the playing skill involved is, student, pro, or bar band/church choir vet – get your groove on or go HOME!!! I know I have pissed off students and players alike with this pet peeve, but I have put the time in and want to play with others, ground floor level or penthouse, that feel the same – not a lot to ask, but some people think so. What follows are cases in point….

1980: I’m rehearsing in a basement in a small house on Des Moines’ east side (gotta love the east side o’ town-lotta funk happenin’ there...) with our current band, Street Life – a six piece jazz/funk aggrogate that’s been together for almost a year. We’re auditioning bass players – Jim Gage, a quiet,yet intensely funny, curly-haired, small, nimble-fingered-on-the-bass, young man, is off to pursue other musical interests. Sax, guitar, piano/synth/organ, drums, vocals – all we need is a bassist. A red-haired, bearded youngster makes his way downstairs to the rehearsal space – name escapes me at the present, but in the overall memory bank picture, if I had to choose between this dude’s name and remembering my wedding anniversary, I’ll pick my anniversary (besides, it’s SAFER!!!) . The Bass Guy plugs into his amp, and we start to run thru a tune (might have been our namesake tune, ”Street Life” by the Crusaders, for historical purposes - o.k., let’s just say it was to revise history and give the story some emotion heft - ooh, how Hollywood!). Anyway, midway thru the number, I notice that the bass groove is not happening – in fact, it’s NON-EXISTENT . I look to El Basso – he’s doing the ‘hey-look-isn’t- this-cool’ motion by playing a flurry of notes with his fret hand position OVER the top of the neck. Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Jennifer Batten - yeah, those folks will throw that in for showmanship once in a blue moon, but, as your regular playing style? O.k., yeah Jeff Healey - but the guy was blind and playing the guitar like a PIANO – give him the points! So, I tell B-Boy,”Would you mind playing in a regular fashion? The groove is getting lost.” Not a problem, sir, Bass-O-Matic sez,and so we pick another tune,probably “Maiden Voyage” by Herbie Hancock (again,Hollywood license). AGAIN, more notes than a Mc Flurry has calories, and hand-over-the-top. So, passively, aggressively, I ask, AGAIN, "Really, you need to just play conventional – not so many notes;we don’t need the hand show." If I didn’t say that, now, I wish I did! More tunes,more of the same. Now, I’ll be the first to admit when I can’t drive a groove-like a truck plowing into a fine art fair (no one injured, by the way, but oooh, those poor Elvis velvet paintings…), but,gosh, get a clue, people-are you listening? Apparently not, so thusly, no gig for the Low End Meister.

One thing I have learned over the years is the ability to recognize the 12 note system-not necessarily perfect pitch,but the ‘sort’ ability that a lot of musicians think,or don’t think they have but do,after playing for a number of years. This ability is no secret,but it is hard work to attain and keep going. A few titans have it naturally,but the rest of us mere mortals and schmucks just keep plugging along,hoping that Mt. Olympus isn’t that far of a climb. This 12 note system (not to mention the micro tone systems in various indigenous musics of our world) is the same that countless artists have used-it still amazes me that people like Stravinsky, Ella Fitzgerald,the Sex Pistols, and Ravi Shankar (he of the micro tone variety)use all these notes to such diverse and stunning effect in their music. And,to take a left turn for a sec,but still related to what we’re talking about – I get crap about,” How can you lump all these musics together?” The Sex Pistols? NOISE!! Latter-period John Coltrane? NOISE(but art,because he was a jazz dude,searching for a unified sound,and damn,boy,the Pistols,Stooges,MC5-just working class stiffs that didn’t know DIDDLEY about music! Hey,effete’ snob –go suck an egg!).

One of the first things I bring up in my lessons with students is that 12 note option/warning –yeah,we can learn songs by AFI or Fall Out Boy,but really,if you want to get the most out of listening to and making music,let’s get on the 12 note path(sounds like a recovery program) NOW!!! Recognizing notes is in the baby step system to chord construction,melody,harmony building,and riddum,mon! I’m surprised at how a lot of teachers don’t approach this,even with young kids and beginners. Hell,I’ve had some 5 year old students who get the idea better than adults – and I usually give adults more points for just being on the planet longer!

Let’s look at a couple of exercises for pitch,harmony,and rhythm – first pitch. I happened upon this exercise through the dean of guitar mags,Guitar Player,sometime in the mid-to-late 1970’s,and it requires another guitarist. Take two chairs,place them back to back. You,with your guitar of choice,sit in one chair,and your fellow guitarist sits in the other-you’re both back to back now. Why yes,Sally,it’s “Guess The Note”-you get the gold star,now SHADDUP!! Tech note: make sure your axes are close in note access or send a limit where you play the notes,or things could get veeeery interesting,and SCHTU-PID quickly….

One person starts by playing a note anywhere on the neck of their choosing ( within the Geneva Convention rules,of course). The other player has to find the note,play it,then correctly tell which note it is! You can make rules-give broad hints,just stop at correctly playing the note and not naming it,etc. But,yeah,this tunes your ears in a hurry! And this can be done with almost any instrument (boy,if you want to try to tell which pitches are what on a drum set and keep re-tuning the heads until they snap like wishbones,well,be my guest,Senator-that would be a good one! Einstein always said imagination is important,so USE IT!)

For guitar,piano,and even bass, learn to recognize chord SOUNDS in their basic triad form.This will help with note interval recognition – major,minor augmented and diminished sounds. Before I get into this,I used to ask little kids that I would teach what COLOR a chord sound made them think of and what kind of FEELING it gave them-you know,blue,green,scary,happy,sad,etc. This works great with everybody,regardless of age! Just because you’re older doesn’t mean you can’t continue to describe things in creative ways. Work in all keys,too-yeah,E,A,D,G, and C work well on guitar for different reasons,but attack ALL keys-sharps and flats. You’re tuning your mind and your ears! Don’t advance to complex chords with 7ths,9ths,11ths, and 13ths (no,Frank Zappa fans,hold off on the polychords at first….)-just see how many intervals and triads you can hear and recognize. Triads are harmony basics for anything –guitar,voice,piano,bass,orchestra,etc. When you do this exercise,write down the color/feeling for each chords. I remember reading an interview with the infamous Jeff ”Skunk” Baxter of Steely Dan and Doobie Brothers fame. Jeff was doing a session for Dolly Parton,and Dolly was trying to describe what guitar flavors she wanted in a song.Her words,to effect, were,”Well, could you just make it greens and blues,and make it sparkle??” Jeff replied with a stunning guitar part and Ol’ Doll was happy. But Dolly’s no fool-she knows what she wants to give her music COLOR! And Jeff LISTENED!

Finally,rhythm,or the musical ’mud’ as some refer to,that holds it together. Even in ‘free’ playing,there is rhythm,and here’s probably an exercise you all were doing since you were wee nippers,but not recognizing what was happening (as wee nippers will do). The washing machine working, a train passing by,car turn signals in operation, listening to the drone of an airplane engine while on a flight –every day stuff,natural and man-made,has got a RHYTHM! Keep your mind open and check things out -  I mean,o.k.,a few are rolling eyes now,and saying,”O.k., very New Age,I’m outta here!” ‘Tis a fact,pilgrims –just LISTEN and LEARN!!!

O.k.,for instrumentalists and vocalists –get yourself a book on basic drum cadences. First,tap out the rhythm on the first exercise  with your foot (or hand claps will work nicely). Then,assign a note pattern to the rhythm,and play the pattern. The sky’s the limit at this point because you can play ANY note pattern with any interval skip you would like. Now,for drummers,you folks can find a book of simple melodies (kid’s songs work nicely). “Yankee Doodle”,” How High The Moon”,” Smells Like Teen Spirit”-tap out the rhythmic patterns on your drum kit or practice pad (or,if you have 12 different drums that you can re-tune to all 12 music pitches,you can retune the heads to the pitches and actually try to play the melodies!).

To conclude,a few final thoughts on listening – the concept and practice never ends,no matter if you’re doing a solo gig,big band,or community orchestra. The more experience you gain playing your instrument or singing,the broader your music concept becomes. Well,DUH,professor,that’s a given ….well,no,it t’aint! If you listen to Miles Davis’ early recordings,he would play a lot of notes in his solos due to many factors:age, experience, music type (be-bop demanded those kinds of wordy solos from players),and the people he was playing with. Fast-forward to the ‘electric Miles’ period –the solos are shorter,more space,the music is DEFINITELY different,Miles is older and has tons of band leader experience-a lot of factors at hand. For whatever turmoil and trouble Miles had off the bandstand,the man was tuned in and LISTENING to his music. What can us lower management types learn from such music giants. Well,again, referencing my ol’ teach Don Archer,you gotta be CONSCIENTIOUS of what you’re playing WHEN YOU’RE PLAYING OR SINGING ! You would be surprised,my fellow Water Buffalo members –this simple act is the most confusing or misunderstood. I’ll tell ya, at business,domestic stuff,listening to my wife Mary Beth or son,I may be still learning and struggling,but I do know the aspects of being in the music moment!

Last point,then I’m outta here: when we lived in Atlanta,we attended a wonderful parish called St. Benedict’s for Sunday Mass. The 8:45 a.m. choir was pretty big-up to15 or 20 voices at a time,not including instruments,where I traded off either playing bass or electric lead guitar with a drummer,congas,piano, some-times a flautist,and sometimes two acoustic guitarists – all ranging in age,experience,and different music preferences. I played with the band from 2001 to 2007 –learned A LOT about playing church music and with an ensemble that could contain so much sound on any given Sunday morning. You know,up to that point,I was a recovering bar band vet,and just started branching out into solo gigs, experiment music labs, and jazz ensembles,so I never thought I would play any sort of ELECTRIC instrument in the Catholic Church,which ain’t know for being that musically progessive! Anyway,by the time I joined the choir,some members had been a part of it since it’s inception in the mid – ‘90s’. My family joined St. Ben’s in October 2001,and I started playing electric guitar and bass right away in the choir. If  I said it was a perfect musical fit right off the bat,I would be tried for perjury – it actually took about three years to figure out how to fit! Why? Well,it’s hard to first off, just ‘dropship’ yourself into a group and expect things to happen. You got to get to know people,learn their playing styles,as well as the group’s style. But I listened to what the group sound was like,and where I could fit –the single biggest factor to making it work was my ability as an old bar band pro, was the decision to work around their styles,not mine-it was easier (which may or may not be a good factor,but it worked),plus it supported the less experienced players and the overall sound. My shining moment was my last Mass with the group –Laurie,our choir director,said she never thought an electric guitar would work for our type of services,but to my credit it did for 5 ½ years. Those moments you cherish because you did your job,moved some people,and yourself, with music….

Listen,listen,listen-start now,and keep working on it! And to my lovely bride and son: I promise I will continue to work at practicing what I preach,guys-really!! 

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