Saturday, November 9, 2013


The Wilson Sisters ~ Kicking & Dreaming

I recently finished a book I didn't think I'd love, but the story of the Wilson sisters' rise to musical fame, is endearing and definitely historic.  They tell the unprobable story of creating and driving the female-led rock band HEART, the soundtrack of my adolescence, to success.  A recent listen to their 1978 album, Dog & Butterfly, put me right back in my junior high-school bedroom, snugged up close to the speakers, relishing every word, every note...Ann's voice still transports me & I loved that they were sisters (I am the eldest of 5 girls).

KICKING & DREAMING: A Story of HEART, Soul, and Rock & Rollby Ann & Nancy Wilson is pure coming-of-age story, mixed with the sounds of the 1970's 'hard rock or disco' era.  You were apparently one or the other.  They describe in detail the feeling of experiencing The Beatles and Elvis on variety-show TV for the first time, how powerful and formative that experience was.  After forming their rock band Heart, they describe the surprise surge of success and the constant change in the male-dominated music industry, as it worked to organize the many groups that rushed to play in their wake.

I'm including this review in The Lead Sheet because of the following quote by Ann Wilson, where she discusses her early musical learning experience and parent support:  "In my junior and senior years in school, choir became a huge part of my life.  I was a second alto.  The hundred-member choir was filled with cliques like the rest of school, but our instructor, Allen Lund, changed my life and was the best teacher I ever had.  He taught me how to breathe while singing.  He said to imagine my body as an empty pitcher, with my breath being water going into the vessel, and to breathe from the part of the pitcher where the water hit first.  Once I learned that, my voice soared.  But the most exciting part of choir came senior year, when we traveled to Europe for a series of performances.  Our mother organized fundraising for the journey and signed on to be a chaperone, and consequently fourteen-year-old Nancy got to tag along. We went to Norway, Sweden, Holland, and Germany and sang in cathedrals and opera houses."  When someone says, "changed my life," in regards to education, I listen up.

The Wilsons were a military family, and consequently moved many times as duty called, but eventually the family ended up in the Pacific Northwest.  Ann Wilson, the eldest, describes her introduction to school music in seventh grade and explains the process of a sectional 'challenge', something I remember well.  "That year (1962) I started to play the flute and joined the school band.  Bellevue [Washington] schools were very supportive of the arts, and my band teacher was first rate.  For each instrument there was a chair ranking, and to move up a notch you had to challenge the person ahead of you to a playoff.  I started as seventh chair, but after two successful playoffs, I moved to fourth chair, where I held steady.  Anything above third chair was nearly impossible to obtain, and would have been held by girls who got straight A's, and were super committed, which I was not.  Still, being good at the flute was one of the few areas in my life where I felt I was on solid ground."  I can identify with this statement so much.  Short of good test scores, it's not always easy to showcase your skills or show your personality in academic classes, nor is it easy to mix with students outside your year.  Music classes actually make both of these challenges non-issues.  Wheras educators may take vastly different paths to teaching and testing a student's understanding, music performance classes basically run the same way.  Simplified, it begins with sightreading, moves on to practice & perfecting, ultimately culminating in an exciting performance.  It must be comforting to a student who moves constantly.  More than any others, I remember my junior high and high school band and orchestra teachers the most.  Add to that, some of my very best friends were found in those Los Angeles Unified School District classes (including saxophonist, Ravi Coltrane, son of John Coltrane, who sat next to me in junior high school and high school marching band. :0 Bringing his quartet to our hometown theater, I was so happy to reminisce and proud to introduce him to my jazz-loving boys).

Purely because it is interesting and news to me, I include the last quote from Nancy Wilson:  "When I was growing up, Mama once told me something about scientific research on music: That when you die, the last thing to go is your memory of music.  When all else is gone, there is still music in your brain.  Mama couldn't talk anymore, but she was lying there in bed tapping her toe to the music we were playing."  This brings to mind the amazing music-therapy work Oliver Sacks describes in his book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music & the Brain.  When brain-damaged patients were so injured, they seemed completely cut off from reality, often music was the only way to reach them.  Music Therapy is real and happening.

A postscript: I often tell my boys how different shopping for music was when Dog & Butterfly was all the rage.  I babysat every weekend and usually made $10.  The next day saw me at the Topanga Mall selecting my next album.  Holding the large vinyl cover, many of them works of art, ripping off the cellophane to see what awaits inside.  Hoping for lyrics, and many more pictures, and laying that beautiful pristine black disc on the turntable for the first time was all part of the magic.  The switch to CDs, while audibly superior, just doesn't meet the vinyl experience, and a download?  Not even close.  And don't get me started on buying songs instead of albums!  We, born of the late 1960s, are from the era of the Rock Opera.  Bands took seriously the idea of creating a related collection of songs.  I can't imagine breaking that up.  Yet, kids do it every day now.  It's the norm, though my boys and their friends relish my substantial collection.  (For anyone interested in reading about the changes in the music industry from vinyl to audio-tape to CD to video to download from an industry insider, you can't do better than Tommy Motola's new autobiography called Hitmaker: The Man & His Music.)

Motola, Tommy.  Hitmaker: The Man & His Music.  New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2013.

Sacks, Oliver.  Musicophilia: Tales of Music & the Brain.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

Wilson, Ann & Nancy.  Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of HEART, Soul, and Rock & Roll.  New York: Harper Collins, 2012.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Interview with Ryan Ayres ~ Music Brainiac

I had the privilege of carpooling to SFJAZZ rehearsals with Ryan Ayres, so I can speak to knowing his mind a little bit.  He is a fan of the same geeky, high-brow humor as I,* and he is drastically well-informed on...well, everything.  I learned a few things on those rides, listening to him and my son talk and laugh.  I can also tell you that along with his eloquence, he is as school-smart as he is music-wise: many AP classes were on his transcript, along with several extra-curricular bands and talent awards (by the time you get to the list of annotations at the end of his interview, you'll understand not only what he wishes to convey, but that he is eloquent, meticulous and multi-talented).  He appears to be thriving at college with his choice of major, Music Composition.  Listen up, people!  Remember his name, you'll be hearing it again.   



Primary Instruments: Baritone saxophone, bassoon, composition
Secondary Instruments: Clarinet, bass clarinet, alto and soprano saxes, flute, piano... it's complicated!
Music I playMinimalism, classical, jazz
Music I listen to: Minimalism, orchestral, band, and chamber classical, renaissance, jazz big band, rock, electronica- a whole bunch of stuff!
Private lessons: 5 years jazz saxophone (alto/bari), currently 2 years deep in bassoon and composition lessons
Graduated HS: 2012
College: University of North Texas ~ Denton, Texas

5 Q's for Ryan

1. How do you approach improvisation?

As a composer, I tend to see improvisation as composition in the moment. When I compose, it takes countless hours to consider all of the factors that go into making a great piece - melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, and so on. In an improvisatory setting, these decisions are made much faster, and are inevitably crafted with (at the very least) less foresight and planning. Each note I choose to play next is chosen in the context of what just happened before it and in what general direction I want to take the phrase as a whole. I might start with a very rough idea of what I want to play based on what tune I'm playing or what I've been listening to recently that I want to emulate (or even steal!), but that rough idea changes as I being to play and interact with the other musicians I'm playing with.  Whereas composing is a very calculated, distant, logical process, improvising is the exact opposite - a fully spontaneous, interactive, emotional experience. It won't always go exactly the way you intend, but the beautiful thing about it is that it's in the moment - you adapt as time passes.

2. What makes you play the way you play? (Influences? Where do you find your inspiration? Group vs. Solo?)

For most of my musical career, I've been influenced by the two very distinct worlds of classical music and jazz. As I've learned how to play both, my knowledge of one genre has blended with the way I play the other, and I consider this a strength. I'm as much influenced by Steve Reich1 and Stravinskii2** in my jazz playing as I am by Maria Schneider3 and Pat Metheny4 in my classical studies. It's all music - you can always learn something useful on whatever instrument you're playing. My other influences range from Charlie Parker5 to Frank6 Zappa7 (did you know that he released a classical album? Great stuff!), Josquin de Près8 to John Coltrane9, Bill Evans10 to Aaron Copland.11
As far as style preference goes, I've always appreciated simplicity and structure. I can listen to Philip Glass12 for hours without getting bored; my attention never fades in Coltrane's Africa Brass13Count Basie14 manages to keep me on the edge of my seat with his piano playing and compositions despite them being very simple and sparse. For me, the simplest way to play or write something is the most musically gratifying. You'd think my preference for simplicity would mean that I like solo playing15 more than group16 performance17, which tends to be more involved and complicated. Despite that, I still prefer playing in larger groups- I love the feeling that comes from cooperating with a group to produce something larger than ourselves. Nothing else comes close!

3. When you're frustrated and want to quit, what makes you come back to your instrument?

Especially now that I've been at the University of North Texas for over a year, the prospect of being able to play with incredibly talented musicians on a daily basis keeps me motivated. Whether it's saxophone in a jazz big band or a bassoon duet with piano, the thought of working together to create awesome music always brings me back, no matter how frustrated I become. It works the same way with composition, too. If I'm ever frustrated with the way I write, I can always listen to the great music of those I admire and become motivated to rise to that level - not to mention the fact that creating new music for performers and audience members to enjoy is the most gratifying part of my musical life.


4. How does pressure ('good' or 'bad') affect your performance?

I'm always working to be the best possible composer and performer I can be. If I feel the negative pressure getting to me, I remind myself that all I can do is present the best possible version of my musical self to an audience. As long as I am trying my hardest to present a good, polished performance for my audience there's nothing else I can ask of myself. I don't beat myself up over mistakes before they happen; it does no good to let any kind of criticism (worst of all, self-criticism) get in the way of playing well. In my book, play as well as you can, and let the dice fall where they may. If you make a mistake, so what? That's just another thing to improve in the future!

5. Parent support directly affects musical achievement. How does parent support look in your family?
         I'm extremely lucky to have parents that didn't gulp nervously and recommend I go to medical school when I said I wanted to compose and perform for a living, and that I had no backup plan. They've always encouraged me to develop my talents and do what makes me happy - and if I can manage to make money doing what I love the most, they've always wanted to be there in any way they can to make that possible. I would not be where I am today without my parents' support!


Shameless self-promotion:


 *   An original joke, simultaneously co-written by Ryan & Shamera ~
      Q: What do you call a person obsessed with math homework? 
            (or someone who willingly chooses to study Applied Mathematics in college? :)) 
      A:  A 'Mathochist'

**  Ryan informs me that Igor Stravinsky's birthname was originally spelled with the 'ii' ending.  

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Leading Latin Lady ~ Rebeca Mauleón

Rebeca Mauleón & band at Stanford University, summer 2013.  Photo by Scott Chernis.

Rebeca Mauleón is a tour de force.  She has leveled the playing field with her piano prowess and rythmic rule.  She has proven that ladies in jazz are center stage as an acclaimed pianist, composer, arranger, author, educator and producer.  Her composing credits include music for television, film, software and symphony orchestra.  She is a Grammy-nominated producer, a tenured professor of music history, performance and composition, a contributing writer to National Geographic and JazzTimes Magazine, and is Director of Education for SFJAZZ.

Her Wikipedia entry begins: "Rebeca Mauleón is an American pianist, composer, arranger, and writer, specializing in salsa and other Latin American and Afro-Caribbean music...Since her early twenties, she has performed and recorded with celebrities in the Latin and jazz music scenes, including Tito Puente, Carlos Santana, Cachao, the celebrated conguero Carlos "Patato" Valdes, Armando Peraza, Giovanni Hidalgo, Joe Henderson, Sheila E, Steve Winwood, Michael Nesmith and others, and has made a name for herself as one of very few female band-leaders in Afro-Caribbean jazz."  Just as her band list is a Who's Who of Latin American & Afro-Cuban Jazz, so is her list of revered performance forums:  'Woman in Jazz' at The Kennedy Center, the Monterey Jazz Festival, the San Francisco Jazz Festival, SFJAZZ Center, Sundance (as a Composers fellow), Woodstock, and the Conan O'Brien and Regis & Kathy Lee television shows, to name a few.  She was also nominated for a Latin Grammy for Best Traditional Tropical Album.  How could I know that our paths would eventually cross when we were buying up her salsa primer for drum lessons?  This primer she has written is widely regarded as the "bible" of salsa, outlining the complicated rhythmic patterns therein.  In addition to several books with play-along CDs and original sheet music for big band & combos, she has also authored MIDI-based instructional music software, invaluable to any student looking to immerse themselves in the nuances of traditional Latin phrasing.  In 2011, she was named  Educational Director of SFJAZZ, and we have benefitted from her support and expertise ever since.  In addition to overseeing the SFJAZZ All-Stars programs, she also authors and directs the popular Discover Jazz series, where lay people can study music.  I carry her Cuban class book as reference for this blog and now understand the 'Latin' music misnomer.  But, it was the experience of attending her 2013 sold-out SFJAZZ Center show, that really got my attention.  A typical Afro-Cuban rhythm section is very different from the standard: in addition to piano, bass and drum-set, you'll see timbales, congas, bongos, and claves.  And, more.  The combination of all these beautiful instruments, with their interwoven rhythms and textures is awesome to behold, individually complicated but comprising a beautiful whole.  Watching her leading this all-male band, bringing down the house, reducing it to the joy of music and dancing, is when I truly understood the comment of one of her SFJAZZ comrades:  "She's bad ass!"

I am privileged to offer Rebeca's answers to the 4 Educator Questions, in her own words.

Educator Questions

1.  How do you find a balance between imposing your own ideas over the student's creativity?

The trick is allowing the student to realize that his/her creativity is inevitably limited by their skill-set. I had a dance instructor who once said, "I can only teach you the steps; I can't teach you how to dance!" Ultimately the only thing a teacher can really do is present an idea that you hope will have the most positive results for that particular student, while allowing the student to fully incorporate the concept into their playing on their terms. It's more than just saying, "Do it because it's good for you" of course, and I have always found the best results are achieved when you find the path of least resistance. If the student feels invested in the process they are less likely to resist what you are "imposing" upon them. As I said, it's tricky!

2. Practice + Parent Support = Musical Achievement

Assuming parent support includes lessons or school classes,  do you see this statement as accurate?

Yes and no. First there has to be student-initiated drive, and often too much parental involvement can result in a student who doesn't cultivate the work ethic necessary to achieve their goals. So practice, yes - practice makes you better (there is no "perfect" here). Parental support should combine equal doses of gentle nagging ("Hey, if you've got a free hour maybe you can work on that cool groove I heard you play the other day...") with positive reinforcement ("Wow, I didn't know you knew how to transpose that song into different keys - that's amazing!"). Musical "achievement," on the other hand, can be measured in multiple ways. In my book any young musician who genuinely WANTS to play well knows how competitive the music scene can be, and the mere fact that they have chosen this path will have a long-lasting impact on their life skills. A life in music, no matter what the end result, will always strike a high note on those college apps!

3.  What is your approach to teaching a student a process as intangible and personal as improvisation?

The first thing every student must do is LISTEN to as much as they can, then listen some more! I tell them they must first be INSPIRED by what they hear, then MOTIVATED to imitate what they love, which entails multiple processes including analysis, transcription, memorization and other steps. Kenny Barron commented that he challenges his students to MOVE him - make him cry, give him goosebumps. No small order of course, but my philosophy is that anyone can memorize a bunch of licks; it takes passion and commitment to command an audience during a solo. While improvisation has many intangible elements, the sheer act of putting yourself out there and literally abandoning your control impulses is perhaps the best lesson a teacher can impart on a student. Let them know you've been there, that it's scary and wonderful, and that the outcome is completely unknown yet completely fulfilling. Plus I always remind them to finish up with a bang: no matter the beginning, a strong ending is often the best redemption.

4. What qualities have you seen in students that seem to predict future success in music?

Personal drive and commitment, no wishy-washiness, professional conduct at all times, self-advocacy without arrogance (a tricky one), confidence and humility (also tricky), punctuality, empathy, curiosity and continual thirst for knowledge and self-improvement. I could go on...:-)

Rebeca Mauleón.  Wikipedia, 20 August 2013.  <>

Rebeca Mauleón Publications.  15 October 2013.  <>

Afro-Cuban Jazz.  Wikipedia, 8 October 2013.  <>

Sunday, October 6, 2013


"Music in the soul can be heard by the universe."
                                       ~ Lao Tzu

Continuing my exploration of creativity and how it is handled by the brain, I'm setting my sights, my ears on improvisation, the musical version of innovation.  At the end of the last post on the subject (He Sways While He Plays), Yo-Yo Ma expressed a feeling that the less conscious he was of his playing, the more emotion was expressed in his performance.  Paraphrased by Jonah Lehrer in IMAGINE: How Creativity Works, as 'The Letting Go,' this aspect of performance can be truly scary. It means relinquishing the possibility of perfection and possibly expressing something we did not mean to, the essence of losing control.  This loss of control opens the door for spontaneity, an important part of creativity.  Indeed, many modern compositions would not be in existance without this vital and valuable source of creation.  "[From] John Coltrane's saxophone solos to Jackson Pollock's drip paintings.  It's Miles Davis playing his trumpet on Kind of Blue - most of the album was recorded on the very first take - and Lenny Bruce inventing jokes at Carnegie Hall."

There is a Nepalese word that to me, perfectly describes a jazz band in full improvisational glory.  Rungi-chungi jilli-milli means total bombardment on every level, multi-layered chaos, congestion & pandemonius beauty.  What an expressive word (or words).

How does this happen?  By letting go?  By doing essentially nothing?  It does not compute.   These questions are exactly the ones that inspired this blog.  Asking jazz students how they approach improvisation turned out to be a creative free-for-all, with answers all over the board.  Charles Limb, a neuroscientist and self-described music addict, at Johns Hopkins University, has also asked those questions.  In his own words, "How did Coltrane do it?  How did he get up there onstage and improvise his music for an hour or sometimes more?  Sure, a lot of musicians can throw out a creative little ditty here and there, but to continually produce masterpiece after masterpiece is nothing short of remarkable.  I wanted to know how that happened."   Me too.

Limb organized a simple experiment: he was going to watch jazz pianists improvise new tunes while in a fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scanner.*   Each musician began the experiment by playing passages they knew and required no imagination, a C-major scale, a standard previously-memorized blues tune.  This created the baseline reading for a brain reproducing material it had mastered.  The so-called Creativity Condition was introduced by asking the subject to improvise a new tune, a melody, as they played along with a recording of a jazz quartet.  While they were improvising, the scanner was looking for minor shifts in brain activity.  "The scientists found that jazz improv relied on a carefully choreographed set of mental events.  The process started with a surge of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area at the front of the brain that is closely associated with self-expression (Limb refers to it as the "center of autobiography" in the brain).  This suggests that the musician was engaged in a kind of storytelling, searching for the notes that reflected her personal style."  I find that truly interesting.  But it gets better.   "At the same time, the scientists observed, there was a dramatic shift in a nearby circuit, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).  While the DLPFC has many talents, it's most closely associated with impulse control.  This is the bit of neural matter that keeps each of us from making embarrassing confessions, or grabbing at food, or stealing from a store.  In other words, it's a neural restraint system, a set of handcuffs that the mind uses on itself."  Self-control and improvisation: what is the correlation?  Would it make sense to you that during times of experimentation, your brain is eliciting as much control as it can while venturing into new terrain?  Well here's what happened...

"Before a single note was played in the improv condition, each of the pianists exhibited a 'deactivation' of the DLPFC, as the brain instantly silenced the circuit.  In contrast, this area remained active when the pianist played a memorized tune.  The musicians were inhibiting their inhibitions, slipping off those mental handcuffs."  According to Limb, this allowed them to create new music without worrying about what they were creating.  They were letting themselves go.  Wow.  That is a risky and very bold thing to do, especially on stage.  I believe for those that understand the dynamics of jazz, that is a large part of why people are so drawn to live jazz performance.  

It turns out that this is merely the beginning of a particular series of brain events that must occur for successful improvisation.  After the deactivation of the DLPFC, the brain must contrive something interesting to output.  The generation phase of the improvisation process begins with a flood of material, general in the beginning.  But, there are important constraints on the execution of this material, all related to the format of the jazz chart.  As explained in YOUR BRAIN ON JAZZ, the subjects needed to improvise in the right key, the right tempo and the right style (and, if they were playing in a band, to improvise while also incorporating aspects of their bandmates' solos).    

There is another fMRI study conducted at Harvard, where twelve classically-trained pianists were asked to compose original melodies.  While the Limb study compared brain activity during performance of memorized pieces and improvised pieces, this experiment compared activity in the brain during different kinds of improvisation.  "This would allow the scientists to detect the neural substrate shared by every form of spontaneous creativity, not just those bits of brain associated with particular types of music."  They expected the various improv conditions, independent of musical genre,  to lead to a surge in the premotor cortex (musical patterns translated into bodily movements).  But, the surge in the inferior frontal gyrus, most closely associated with language and the production of speech, was a bit of a surprise.  The metaphor of a musical phrase as sentence, where every note is a word, is argued by scientists as using the same mental muscles.  "Those bebop players play what sounds like seventy notes within a few seconds," says Aaron Berkowitz, the lead author on the Harvard study.  "There's no time to think of each individual note.  They have to have some patterns in their toolbox."  This is reminiscent of Dann Zinn's step-by-step instruction process beginning with 2-5-1 Licks (explained in The SINGULAR Dann Zinn) and nearly exactly the "conversational jazz" of Paul Contos (Interview with Paul Contos, director of SFJAZZ).  Berkowitz continues by likening improvisation to learning a second language.  Immersion in jazz, like memorizing vocabulary, nouns, adjectives and verb conjugations, causes a student to internalize "the intricacies of Shostakovich or Coltaine or Hendrix."  After years of this exposure, the process of articulating these musical phrases becomes automatic.  Gone are the worries of consulting scale charts and paying close attention to the proper technical movement of fingers, hands and arms.  It is only after this expertise has been gained that true improvisation can be performed.  Hard work belies the ease they present.   Jonah Lehrer, speaking for 'we' humans, says it best: "This is what we sound like when nothing is holding us back."

* "The giant superconducting magnets in fMRI machines require absolute stillness of the body part being studied, which meant that Limb needed to design a custom keyboard that could be played while the pianists were lying down.  (The setup involved an intricate system of angled mirrors, so the subjects could see their hands.)"

Lehrer, Jonah.  IMAGINE: How Creativity Works. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012.  

Limb, Charles.  "Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation."  PLOS ONE: e1679.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001679: 2008.

Berkowitz, Aaron & Ansari, Daniel.  "Generation of Novel Motor Sequences: The Neural Correlates of Musical Improvisation."  Neuroimage 41: 2008, page 535-543.

Play It Again

The idea behind this new book, appropriately entitled, Play It Again, reminds me of the premise of Guitar Zero, by neurologist Gary Marcus, in that a professional non-musician, in this case a newspaper editor, declares a musical goal and documents the journey.  It made #4 on O Magazine's "The WOW List: a rousing roundup of awe-inspiring innovations, people and phenomena..."

"British newspaper editor Alan Rusbridger learned - "over 16 months of snatched private moments" - Chopin's nearly ten-minute-long Ballade No. 1 in G minor, one of the most difficult piano pieces ever written.  Read about Rusbridger's obsession in his inspiring, diary-like new book, Play It Again."

Excerpt #4 in "The WOW List." O Magazine, August 2013: Page 91.

Marcus, Gary F. Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The SINGULAR Dann Zinn

The SINGULAR Dann Zinn

Dann Zinn may be one of the most interesting people in the Bay Area Jazz scene.  He is well known as a passionate educator, mentoring his private students into great feats of performance as well as his elite High School All-Stars Jazz Combo at SFJAZZ (as described in THE PARENT PART), and various groups at CSUEB and Chabot College.  He is intense in that he has real requirements for his students; he expects true improvement each week and he gets it.  In addition to his own superior skills as a saxophonist, he is a published composer and performer.  Dann is also a collector of and an expert on ethnic flutes.  While he still practices his craft hours daily, he is also a devotee of the Chinese martial art called Wing Chun, a self-defense form utilizing striking and grappling in close combat.  This is very interesting to me, as professional musicians are typically known to protect their fingers, hands and wrists at all costs, sometimes insuring them for millions.  I ask about this and he sees it as no big deal: "just be careful," he says.  To me, that is beyond self-control, and onto controlling your opponent and environment.  His stories of sacrafice for his art are legendary with the students and highlight this characteristic of control; they imagine having the fortitude to practice upwards of 12 hours a day, eschewing college for a year to arrive super-prepared, subsisting on noodles and becoming vitamin-deficient in the process.  These shared stories give students a taste of what true mastership might look like in the beginning.   And what it might grow into...stories of Dann's private lessons are filled with one-liners and plain speaking, definitely not for the faint of heart.  As anticipated, his answers are just as interesting.                                                                                                                                                                            

In the recent book, Guitar Zero, written by a neuroscientist about music education, It has been claimed that the following statement is true: 

Practice + Parent Support = Musical Achievement

Assuming parent support includes lessons or school classes, do you see this statement as accurate?

Dann doesn't know the book, but hits me with a resounding 'No."   He says that these two things are just two ingredients of a student's musical journey.  He continues by saying there are personal characteristics more important to true achievement.  "Well, talent obviously.  I don't want to say, 'you have it or you don't!'  Curiosity.....talent levels vary but I think a bigger issue is curiosity.  That's what I find lacking.  If you have curiosity, you will practice a lot, you'll do everything.  Musicians are profoundly undisciplined, but if you do something you love you don't need discipline.  You just do it because that's what you do.  I'd say curiosity trumps those other things by far.  That's the way I teach.  That's my biggest thing; kids are so used to being dumped information by teachers and then regurgitating the information.  But this thing is the exact opposite.  If kids have trouble playing music, it's because they're expecting to be taught everything the way they have been before.  Here's a spark: run, run with it!  Here's a seed, grow!  And, if a kid doesn't run and grow, then it's not going to happen."

Dann has a reputation for being outspoken and forthright.  When I suggest that he has no problem telling a student when things aren't working, he begs to differ.  "I have a big problem with it, but I'll do it.  It needs to be done.  I think it's important for a kid to know.  Your parents are paying money.  Even if I have to make a hard lesson, it's not a way to live a life.  If you don't love what you're doing, find something you love to do and do that.  That's all.  And, it's not easy.  I spend many weeks.  I try to get a kid to tell me they're quitting.  I like that much better, but sometime's it's tough to do.  When you're a kid you think you're good.  They complain that an organization didn't choose their audition tape, 'it's their fault because they don't like [my school]'....  I ask to listen to it and it's not good, even though he thinks he's the best player around, he isn't.  You have to learn what you don't know and then you learn how to do it."  

"The parents come in and say, 'my kid's the most talented, but he beats up on himself' and I have to tell the parent, 'your child is very good for a beginner,' and the face just falls.  But, he's a beginner.  I'm not going to tell him he's the most talented kid.  I say to the kid, you have such a big ego, that's why you beat up on yourself.  If you didn't think you were so good, you wouldn't beat up on yourself.  The only reason you beat up on yourself is because you were told by your mommy how great you are!  You're really a great person, but you're not a great player yet, so let's get to work!  Here's where you are...and once you finally establish that, and some kids will never establish that, it's okay to say 'okay, I'm not great, here's where I am'.  The confidence level and self-esteem, it's good in one way, but a hindrance in another.  Some kids, I hate to say it, but you have to break them down until they hear that they need to work."

"As a human being it's hard to see yourself accurately, because we live inside our brains.  The two most important things I teach are curiosity and objectivity.  If you can hear yourself objectively, you know what to practice, how much to practice, etc.  It answers all questions.  And that, for some people is a miserable experience and very difficult.  Every musician I know hates their playing.  All my students are like this, I expect this from all my students.  To get to this level [of an SFJAZZ All-Star] and believe all the praise is not good, because there's always so much to do.  There's no end to this thing.  So, say you start out at a higher level, it doesn't mean you get to the finishing point, it just means you're at that level.  That's what musicians do....blowing it apart and trying to get better every day.  You've got to get better every day.  A lot of musicians don't do that, they stop.  To me that's cleverness, that's not jazz.  They're very clever, they have some talent, they can play well.  But, I'm not interested in clever.  I want to see somebody who's digging in the muck.  Alot of guys are clever, they get to a certain level and they don't practice.  If you know how to do it, why practice?  And, in a way it's true."

What is your approach to teaching a student a process as intangible and personal as improvisation?

"I try to make it as tangible as possible.  I have a step-by-step method.  At first, there are improv exercises.  First there's blues,  you have to walk a bass line.  So, it's just a soloist and a metronome.  They walk a bass line with 3 notes on a chord, called a triad.  Then, they improvise with just those 3 notes.  Then 4 notes, called a seventh chord, you improvise with just those 4 notes.  Then a scale.  And then, controversially, I have them stick in these things called 2-5-1 Licks*.  You voice lead them, and the idea is you have to get into the lick and out of the lick so smoothly without anyone knowing you're sticking it in, and really, this is how guys play in a lot of ways.  And then, that's the end of the improv exercise.  I start the real process.  You know there are notes, chords and scales involved and now you are learning the language, you start transcribing** some solos.  You're taking somebody's ideas, using the language, the chords & scales, the 2-5-1 licks and you start what is called running lines***, you start improvising and trying to connect things in a fluid sort of way.  This is all for the one blues.  And, I will stay on that until somebody sounds like a jazz blues which can go anywhere from 2 months to 2 years.  I will not leave this until somebody can play jazz.  

"Once you can do that, I start to expand and get into theory.  It's really learning the language.  The  process is linear, but the experience is three-dimensional.  It's not step, step, step and it starts working.  Things are coming from below and above, connections have to be made on many levels from many different levels of your brain, simultaneously.  The problem is that if someone is a linear learner, as it is in school, that person will have to adapt.  This is Chapters 1, 6 & 9 all happening at the same time.  Some people can connect that stuff instantly, like the kids in my SFJAZZ Combo, and some cannot.  

"So, there is a process and this process almost takes it to the level of classical music where instead of working on set notes, you're working with choices of set ideas.  It's very much like learning a language; when you start dreaming in the language you know you're brain has incorporated this new information.  So, you want to start dreaming jazz and the way to do that is to immerse yourself.  It's much trickier than it appears.  That's why it takes curiosity, because if a kid's not interested in doing that, how are they going to make all these fancy connections?   And this is just learning, the art of it comes way later."      

How do you find a balance between imposing your own ideas over the student's creativity?

"I always leave my teaching open.  This is folk music, it's passed down.  I don't believe certain licks are related to certain forms, though there are books of blues licks.  It's about what you're hearing at the time and the stuff you like.  If you hear something on a record, you learn it.  This is a mentor/apprenticeship thing.  The mentor is the jazz great and you're the apprentice.  You sit and watch, destroy many attempts until you get one success, then you have another success.  If Pat Metheny walked in, I wouldn't say 'you have to do it this way,' ever."  When I comment that this tells me he is still learning, he agrees wholeheartedly.  "Every day, I practice.  I practice.  A couple hours every day.  I get up in the morning and practice; I did it before coming here.  When I'm telling these guys to practice, I mean it.  I'm doing it.  I'm not telling someone to do something I haven't done."  

 What qualities have you seen in students that seem to predict future success in music?

"What do you mean by success?  Financial success?"  I concede that that is indeed another question, but float "let's say making a living at music after college."  "Hustling, I guess," he replies, "that quality.  Some of my students have it but a lot of them don't."  I qualify by suggesting this quality represents self-promotion and he agrees.  I am a little surprised that this is his #1 quality for success, though I shouldn't be, coming from a sales-oriented, family business type of family.  I know if you can't set up a gig, follow through and get paid, you're not going to get very far.  My eldest son has surprised and delighted me by the fact that he was negotiating gigs and making real money at this by age 14.  I ask if you can be a lesser musician if you have that quality of self-promotion, stage presence enough so people want to hire you.  He says, "yes, absolutely.  Look at the rock groups."

I ask about other qualities that predict future success.  He surprises me again by explaining what sounds like the Golden Rule to me: be a nice person, don't talk about other people.  Jazz musicians, apparently love to talk about their comrades.  He continues, "just bite your tongue.  It doesn't matter what you think.  You're trying to make a career.  Maybe when you're older."  

*2-5-1 Licks: The II-V-I (or 2-5-1) progression is one of the most common and important progressions in Jazz music, and is found in almost every standard. Knowledge of the progression and how to navigate it will improve your improvisation and visualisation technique over changes.  In essence the progression is formed by building chords from the II, V and I (2nd, 5th & 1st notes of a scale) from any given key; so in the key of C:
Dm7 - G7 - Cmaj7
This takes advantage of the tension created by a dominant 7 chord and resolves to the tonic.  Of course a seasoned Jazz player will freely extend these chords with all manner of alterations, so don't feel confused by looking at progressions such as:
Dm9 - G7#5b9 - Cmaj13#11
We still have the same root movement which creates our resolution, we have just added more tension in the right places for a little aural [interest].  I cannot recommend this progression enough.  As a young player it was the lines of Charlie Parker that brought a huge amount of chromaticism to my otherwise tired [improvisation licks].

**Transcribing: In music, transcription can mean notating a piece or a sound which was previously unnotated, as, for example, an improvised jazz solo.

***Running Lines:
In jazz music slang, what they call 'running lines' is what is known, in other music forms as harmonic improvisationwhich is creating a new melodic line by drawing on notes from each chord as it goes by in the harmonic progression.    

An example: the opening of a song uses the harmony C in bar 1, then G7 in bar 2.  (All you need to know is that the chord "C" contains certain notes, while the chord "G7" contains other notes.)  During bar 1, any notes from the "C" chord will be consonant, and others are likely to be dissonant (i.e., they will produce tension that needs to be resolved).  In bar 2, the situation shifts: the consonant notes are those in the "G7" chord.  A soloist using harmonic improvisation must keep track of the chords (or "changes" as jazz musicians often call them) and continually adjust the melodic line to fit the harmonic background.

Marcus, Gary F. Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012.

Introduction to the II-V-I.  Levi Clay, 29 September 2013.

Running Lines (jazz music)., 29 September 2013.

Transcription (music).  Wikipedia, 10 September 2013. <>

Wing Chun.  Wikipedia, 12 September 2013.