"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening,that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost." -Martha Graham
I am realizing how important it is for me to be able to express myself and to communicate clearly. I studied linguistics and I’m good at learning languages. I’ve communicated in Portuguese over a static-filled cell phone with someone with a speech impediment and not only could I understand, I won the argument we were having. I studied music and have the versatility to play in a range of styles and settings. I’m good at explaining drum rhythms to all kinds of learning styles in the samba group. During my creative journey, I’ve explored expressing myself through journaling, dance, collage, painting, and of course, music. But while music is my main art, there is something holding me back from expressing myself fully with it. It’s like the frustration I experience when I want to express extreme gratitude to my host in a foreign language and all I know how to say is a basic “thank you.” The holdup I’m experiencing is with improvisation and my lack of experience. I want nothing more than to be up on stage and just belt out a clarinet solo that is full of grace, soul, and most importantly, Stef. But I feel that I lack the skills I need in order to pull that off.
I’ve come a long way since the days of shaking my head so they’d skip me when it was time to solo in high school. Now I’m the front woman of my own group and I just fake it til I make it. Most of a solo is confidence anyway, right? That plus all the playing I've been doing, my work with The Artist's Way, and tips I’ve picked up from friends and teachers along the way (focus more on solid rhythms than the actual notes, don’t start on the root, play out!) have helped my solos develop to a place where they are maybe halfway decent. But I long for so much more than that. In order to head toward that goal, I know I need to play more and listen more, but I also need to work on building a better foundation of jazz theory.
I signed up for Jazz Improvisation at City College and have had a couple classes so far. It has been simultaneously frightening,inspiring, fun, frustrating, and the best thing I could do for myself right now. The professor Yochanan Winston (Doc)is tough but encouraging and has emphasized how everyone deserves and is capable of playing jazz. In the first class he said when someone performs jazz for the first time, the spirits of the elders like Miles and Coltrane are up there on stage with their arms around him saying “Hey, that’s a great tune, it’s a tough one but you’re gonna do great.” I love that. Doc said to play jazz we need to set our alarms to jazz in the morning,listen on the way to work, learn to play the tunes memorized and in several keys, transcribe other players’ solos by ear, know all the chords front and backwards, play all the time.
None of Doc’s suggestions are anything new that I haven’t heard before. So why am I so motivated to finally put these things into practice when I wasn’t before? I could have added Jazz 88 to my radio presets and practiced scales ages ago. I first thought that my problem was laziness or even worse, that improvising wasn’t important enough to me to work on it. But I realized that my music background has always been in an academic environment and I’m used to having some kind of teacher provide structure. If that’s a good way for me to learn, why not accept that and go with it. I know now that my motivation to get better at this stuff is there, I just needed a little push. Stay tuned for more stories as the semester progresses!