Set & Setting in the Combo Room

By Hal Galper


Attitude Is Everything

Probably the least understood but most important musical admonition, the student/teacher mind set is critical to the quality of the teaching experience. The bandstand and the combo room are very special places where very special things occur.  It is a space that must be protected and nurtured by every participant for the learning/creative processes to be developed. (See video The Tribal Attitude.)

In part one we discussed how to exert control over your external environment. However, you can’t control your external environment until you control your internal environment. The two are inextricably linked. George Kochevitsky in his book the “The Art of Playing The Piano, A Scientific Approach” proved that when we perform, our mind, body and emotions exactly express our inner state of being, i.e. what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing. One’s inner state of being can then be analyzed by one’s mental, emotional and physical behavior while performing. Our minds, bodies and emotions are trainable. They are the tools with which we perform. (see video You Are The Instrument)

Mental Preparation

There is a difference between a “practicing” attitude and a “playing” attitude. Developing students tend to spend more time practicing then playing. Without realizing it they are developing a “practicing” attitude. Not having enough performing experience to tell the difference, they attempt to bring the practicing attitude with them to the performance situation assuming that that’s the attitude you use to play. But it never works. The intellectual processes are too slow to use in the process of performance. How many of you have worked on a phrase and tried to introduce it into your solo? It completely stops the flow of ideas. To quote Sonny Rollins “You can’t think and play at the same time.” The ears and intuition working together make musical decisions 20,000 times faster than the intellect. So fast you are not consciously aware of it. The most effective attitude towards the study of the music is goal orientation. The most effective attitude toward performance is process orientation. It’s not so much what you play but how you play. It’s the study of the music one must take seriously. Taking the performance of music “seriously“ is its death knell. We must never lose the connection with the basic reason we all started playing music, for fun. We are all born with a playful state of mind, a natural process that, as we grow older, society sublimates in order to create a predictable and responsible citizenry. The playful state of mind is always with us and can be brought to the forefront of your playing experience. The student may be able to practice a playful state of mind in the practice room but the challenge will be maintaining that attitude while playing in the combo room or in public. Another reason I stress public performance as an integral element of the educational process.

A gig starts hours before you put your foot on the bandstand and hours after you leave it. As athletes “phsyc” themselves up before game time, we have to mentally prepare for the playing/learning experience. Unfortunately, class scheduling leaves little time between classes to mentally prepare for the combo experience. In that case take time before leaving for school that day, to go over everything that may be coming up in that day’s combo workshop.

A problem occurs when reading music while playing. The brain works in a serial, horizontal manner, from one idea to the next. One can’t look and listen at the same time. If you’ve ever watched CNN notice that if you read the running text at the bottom of the screen you can’t hear what the commentator is saying. Conversely, if you listen to what the commentator is saying it is almost impossible to read the ongoing text at the bottom of the screen. If you listen to 4-part Bach fugue and focus on one line, the others recede from your consciousness. If you’re reading music you can’t hear it at the same time. Most combo teachers have a particular set of tunes they use in the combo sessions, each highlighting a specific set of styles and rhythmic or harmonic problems. Ask your teacher for the list of tunes that semester and when they will be scheduled for a combo session. You can’t really be creative on a tune if you have to think about its harmony, rhythm or form while playing. Your goal is to internalize the harmony, rhythm and form on a sub cortical level so you can play without thinking about the tune’s components. For more on how this process works see Complex Adaptive Process.

During my 14 years tenure teaching at SUNY Purchase many of the combo leaders, including myself, would not allow any paper in the combo room. With the help of the teacher, tunes were learned by the combo working together to take them off the record by ear. Eventually the speed of your ability to memorize/internalize tunes will improve. By the time I left Berklee I had learned 1000 tunes. Eventually you begin to acquire an overview, to see that they’re are only about 20 song forms and harmonic progressions and most are various combinations of these 20 components. Makes it much easier to learn a tune quickly.

The best time to review a tune is when you’re lying in bed before you go to sleep. At a certain point the brain goes into alpha state, the ideal mental state in which to work on memorization. Review all of the elements of the tune making mental notes of what you can’t remember then work on them the next day. (See article “How To Learn A Tune”.”

I was fortunate to have played under the leadership of Sam Rivers for six years. Sam always stressed the importance of being able to memorize including remembering what you played or what someone else played on their solo. After playing a set he would test me, asking me what line he played on the fifth bar on the bridge of a tune or what line I played for a turnaround at a certain point on a tune. Eventually I developed the ability to remember what I played on most of my solos. In later years I would use this technique to go over my solos (in alpha state) looking for any ideas I may have played that I should remember or work on later.

Always record every combo session. You won’t have time to be taking notes. After the combo review the recording and transcribe it’s salient points into a notebook.  Don’t put this off. The writing will reinforce what you learned that day and act as a handy reference point for your continuing studies. Don’t wait too long to transcribe these notes. If you get too far behind you’ll never find the time to catch up.

Emotional Preparation

It is almost comic when meeting a new combo for the first time. The students look scared to death. My stock response is “who died?”  One cannot be creative if your have the slightest iota of fear in your heart. When asked how many in my combo are afraid of making mistakes they all raise their hands. There is no such thing as a mistake. That is a negative perception. The more positive perception is to consider every “mistake” a window of opportunity to play something you didn’t expect to play. When I realized I had this problem I practiced “creative mistake-making.” Eventually I was never afraid of making mistakes because I had learned how to make “wrong” “right.”

The Chinese character for “chaos” has two alternate meanings, the other being “creativity.” 

About halfway through my combo course I usually have my students experiment with playing “wrong,” instructing them to ignore the chord changes, key and form while keeping the tempo between the drums and bass constant. Because they have spent so much time trying to play correctly they are at first apprehensive about the idea. However, the joy of being freed up from all the restrictions placed on them by their academic studies soon overtakes their fears. They are having fun without any concerns of “correctness” Finally comprehending that this sense of joy and freedom from the rules is the state of mind they are working toward achieving. I mean really, if you’re not having fun, why bother to play a musical instrument at all.

As I mentioned earlier athletes psych themselves up before going on the field to play. Conversely, musicians who become nervous or afraid need to psych themselves down before performing. As I did, you can develop mantras that you repeat to yourself before the performing experience. Since space is a consideration see my article on “Stagefright and Relaxation. ” Your goal as an improviser is be quiet, physically, mentally and emotionally quiet. However, the over production of adrenaline can also lead to the excessive use of energy, generally leading to over-playing your instrument. The assumption seems to be that in order to emote one must work oneself into an emotional frenzy. As a general rule one must use only the amount of energy input required to do the job. Anything in excess of that has a disastrous affect on yours and everybody else’s performance. Most students don’t think about energy production at all.

I was with Chet Baker‘s band in the early 60’s. We were playing in Shelly’s Manhole, a club in Los Angeles, when drummer Philly Joe Jones sat in with the band. Was a small bandstand and Philly was sitting only a few feet from me swinging furiously and giving me one of it! I was shocked. All of his energy was directed off the bandstand to the audience. That night I went back to the motel we were staying and after mulling this experience over realized he was controlling the direction of his energy output. It had never occurred to me that energy could be directed. The next night I went to the gig and thought of my energy going outward and have been doing so ever since. If you don’t think of where your energy is going it will all wash around the combo room or bandstand affecting everybody else’s performance.

Physical Preparation And The Public Performance Connection

This can be the most difficult challenge for the combo room experience. There is no audience in a combo room. However, playing for an audience is an integral element in the learning process. Jazz is, in part, the product of an African musical sensibility. For example, the lead drummer of an African musical group takes “signals” from the dancers and listeners to either change the tempo or the beat to accommodate the dancer’s needs. It is the same with modern jazz performance. You are always playing for “a pair of ears,” to establish an emotional bond with an audience. One can actually feel that bond occurring thereby sensing what those pair of ears requires to stay involved in the music. This is a psychological aspect of public performance. See my article “The Social Contract.”

Playing for an audience can induce stress that stimulates the body’s “flight or fight” response. The body’s reaction to this response is often the over-production of adrenaline that can have an disastrous affect on performance quality. However, a degree of adrenaline production can be useful. For more on how to control your adrenaline production see Dr. Noa Kageyama‘s article “How to Make Performance Anxiety an Asset Instead of a Liability.“ Adrenaline is a crucial element to the learning experience. Recent studies with veterans suffering from PTSD have demonstrated that adrenaline is the chemical the binds emotional trauma to experience. The reduction of adrenaline by the use of beta-blockers has shown that these veterans were then able to discuss these traumatic experiences with out experiencing their emotional content. When I read these studies the reverse occurred to me, that adrenaline is a “learning“ chemical. It helps you remember experiences. When you hear the phrase “learning by experience” or “experience is the best teacher“ it means that your experiences while playing under the minimal influence of adrenaline are retained on a deeper lever than merely practicing or playing in the combo room.

Public performance is the eventual goal of every musician. That is when the “real” school begins. The combo room experience is but one step on the way to achieving that goal.