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.