Monday 12/19/2011 by Lemuria

THE ART OF IMPROVISATION - PAGE'S THESIS

The following is the text of Page's senior study from Goddard College. It was first "kindly made available to readers of the net" in 1992 by then-fan (later employee) Shelly Culbertson, who posted it to the then-nascent Phish.net mailing list, and is now reposted 19 years later in celebration of the 24th anniversary of its submission.

THE ART OF IMPROVISATION

Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Arts at Goddard College
Page McConnell
December 19, 1987

At the age of four I began taking piano lessons. For the next twelve years I studied with four different teachers. They attempted to teach me to read music, a skill I never fully developed. My dyslexic tendencies made the process very difficult and a good ear made it easier for me to play by ear. In my early years of lessons I had no problem playing the pieces that were assigned to me as long as I had heard my piano teachers play them for me. As the level of difficulty in the pieces I was playing increased, I was forced to learn how to read. I struggled with the process and didn't entirely enjoy it, though the ones that I did learn stretched my technical abilities. The most difficult piece that I learned was Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag."

During my ninth grade year I stopped taking piano lessons. It was during this next stage of my playing that I began to really enjoy playing. Obviously this was because I was playing for myself, not for my piano teachers or parents. I spent much of the next year listening to rock albums, playing what I heard, and taking my improvisation more seriously. Often I was just improvising the voicings to the songs that I was playing, but my ability to do blues improvisation increased also. My first introduction to the blues was a book I received in first grade called Jazz and Blues for Beginners. This book introduced me to blues progressions. These are progressions that alternate between the 17 and the IV7 chord and generally end with a V7-IV7-17 progression. Both rock and jazz find their roots in the blues, and in fact rock has never really left. The majority of rock songs written are a variation on the 17-IV7-V7 progression. Many do not vary at all.

I suppose that my main motivating factor for practicing during my high school years (other than the fact that I enjoyed it) was that...

I had some opportunity to perform. These opportunities generally arose at parties where there would be a piano and I would play. I was at the time also involved with a jazz band. The group was founded in fifth grade and I started playing with them in seventh grade. By ninth grade we had a small repertoire of jazz/pop tunes ranging from Herb Alpert's "Taste of Honey" to Van Morrison's "Moondance" to Horace Silver's "Song for my Father." I had begun to experiment with playing over chord changes, though I didn't really understand what I was doing. I used my limited knowledge of blues in these situations, but I usually didn't solo. What I did understand and enjoy was learning how to communicate with other musicians. The band was not extremely dedicated. We practiced very little and had only a handful of gigs during the years we played together. My soloing may have left a lot to be desired but I did learn how to comp, to play behind someone else's solo.

Around tenth grade I found a teacher who was going to teach me "Jazz Improv." His name is Doug Frueler and he has some interesting ideas concerning improvisation. He had developed a theory that there weren't 7 modes as taught in Baroque theory, but that there were 72 modes. At the time I wasn't familiar with modes at all, and even now I'm not sure how he arrived at the number 72; however I did learn some important lessons from him. I learned that there is no right or wrong way to approach improvising and that as long as you really put yourself into it, it can work. Doug and his method are perfect examples of this. I also learned some valuable tools through exercises that we did, primarily the tool of economy. Doug would have me do exercises where I would have to form melodies, or play over blues progressions using only three or four notes. I found that this approach could work and that I could create interesting melodies with only a few notes.

Economy is a trait that I try to keep prevalent in my improvising today. Keeping a melody simple, particularly in the beginning of a solo, gives the performer (as well as the other musicians and the audience) something to grasp onto, a starting point from which to travel. Economy is an element of jazz that is often attributed to Count Basie. As a pianist and a band leader, he grew out of the Fats Waller tradition. "Fats had the strongest left hand in traditional jazz -- a left hand which could replace not only a rhythm section but a whole band... Today, one can sometimes hear in the piano solos Basie plays with his band that he comes from Fats Waller. He plays a kind of "economized" Fats: an ingeniously abstract structure of Waller music in which only the cornerstones remain -- but they stand for everything else. Basie became one of the most economical pianists in jazz history, and the way he manages to create tension between often widely spaced notes is incomparable." 1

Economy is a trait I admire in my influences. Bill Evans, probably my most important jazz piano influence, plays an entirely different style than Basie yet he incorporates economy: "He has worked unceasingly to arrive at a clearer, less cluttered jazz conception„ one with no false starts, no side issues, no merely showy licks. The logic with which one phrase follows another is impeccable. Though he sometimes uses locked-hand chords or moving left-hand figures, a typical Evans solo consists almost entirely of a single line in the right hand (occasionally incorporating some thirds) supported by sustained voicings in the left hand that have been almost brutally pared down until all that remains is the naked skeleton of jazz harmony."2

After my lessons with Doug, which lasted only a few months, I went through a period of relative musical stagnation. I practiced for my own enjoyment, but I wasn't playing with other musicians on any kind of regular basis, and my opportunities for performance were practically non-existent. For the next four years (one year at home, one year at boarding school, and two years at S.M.U. in Dallas) my practice schedule was very undisciplined though I did try to play every couple of days. While at S.M.U., I majored in music for one semester and learned a lot about a music education at a traditional institution. There seemed to be two goals in that educational system: one was to train people to become concert musicians; the other was to teach the students that weren't good enough to become concert musicians to be able to teach the next generation exactly the same thing. At the time I didn't see how their approach to music applied to my approach to music. Much of the theory they taught I thought of as common sense. I did learn modal theory, which proved useful in my early days with Phish (the band I currently play with) when most of our jamming was done over modal progression.

At the end of my S.M.U. career (just weeks before I started Goddard) I took a course called "Imagination, Awareness and Ideas." The course dealt with promoting creativity, left-right brain exercises, alpha states, imagination, awareness and ideas. It is the most important course I've ever taken. I learned how to (or perhaps how not to) deal with creative blocks.

I took my newly learned insights and came to Goddard in the Fall of '84. I finally felt that I was in a situation where my education would be equated with what I was learning. Upon arriving at Goddard I began to play the piano considerably more than I ever had before, usually at least two hours a day. Within weeks I began having musical experiences and feelings that I had never had before. The feelings could either be described as detaching myself from the conscious process of playing the piano, or totally attaching myself, becoming one with the instrument. I became able to hear music in my head and simultaneously be playing it. The breakthrough was a result of my ear training, the attitude I had developed in Imagination, Awareness and Ideas, and the discipline of practicing every day. The process I am describing is similar to a process described in Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery when he tells of a swordsman that is learning to master his art: "The pupil must develop a new sense or, more accurately, a new alertness of all his senses, which will enable him to avoid dangerous thrusts as though he could feel them coming. Once he has mastered this art of evasion, he no longer needs to watch undivided attention the movements of his opponents, or even of several opponents at once. Rather, he sees and feels what is going to happen, and at the sane moment he has already avoided its effect without there being "A hair's breadth" between perceiving and avoiding. This, then, is what counts: a lightening reaction which has no further need of conscious observation. In this respect at least the pupil makes himself independent of all conscious purpose, and this is a great gain."3 This book has proven to be the most valuable piece of literature I have ever read in terms of helping me helping me gain an understanding of discipline and helping me define myself as an artist.

I spent that first year (Fall '84, Spring '85) practicing, recording with the school's 4-track, and playing in a number of musical situations. I played with three bands., but the most rewarding musical situation, and the only real musical communication I experienced was with an acoustic guitar player named Thomas McCommas. We would play regularly in the Haybarn, acoustically, and the arrangement was very satisfying. The sounds of our instruments blended very well and we played comfortably off each other, having similar musical tastes. Most of the band experiences that I had that year were not so positive. I couldn't find anyone on my musical level to play with. I continued to record the piano and was very pleased with the results.

In May of '85 -- at Springfest -- I was introduced to a band: Phish. I immediately knew that I wanted to be a member. I moved to Burlington and joined the band. It has taken roughly two years for me to figure out what my musical role is in the band. When I joined there were five of us: two guitars; bass; drums; and keyboards. The music was extremely busy and there wasn't much space for me to shape the sound. After one year one of the guitar players left, and I began to grow into my space and develop my style. It was during my fourth semester that I began taking lessons with Lar Duggan a jazz pianist in Burlington. Lar has been the single most important person in helping me develop my improvisation. A master of improvisation himself, he doesn't suggest directions that he feels are important for me to follow, rather he will guide me through any direction I choose. When I began taking lessons with him I felt that the area most lacking in my playing was my left hand and its interaction with my right hand. In retrospect that probably wasn't my most lacking attribute but Lar helped me find exercises that would develop continuity between my two hands, and offered different approaches to improvisation such as ones that focused on the left hand and let the right hand comp behind it. From these exercises I learned many things, namely that my left hand already led my right hand along and that my left hand has a better sense of timing.

It wasn't until I began reading music again that I felt that my right and left hands were working well together. Two pieces in particular contributed to this feeling of unity: 1) a two-part invention written by Trey Anastasio, the guitar player and composer in Phish; 2) Bach's two-part invention #8 in F major. I began learning Trey's piece the summer after I started lessons with Lar. The piece was inspired by Bach's inventions and is about as technically demanding. There is a great deal of imitation and inversion between the right hand and the left hand. It took me months to learn it, but once I did I noticed a feeling and an attitude towards my hands that I hadn't felt before. My left hand felt stronger and I had more confidence in it. It was performing the same functions as my right hand. The next semester began at Goddard, and I was back on campus studying classical piano with Lois Harris. I started working on Bach's invention #8. I picked the piece up fairly quickly and had it memorized within a few weeks. This was partially due to the fact that Lois had helped me finger the piece correctly. Once I had learned it I played it over and over because it is so beautiful and so easy to play through, or rather it is difficult for me not to play through the entire piece. Once I play the first phrase, there is essentially no way to top. The piece moves so fluidly and logically that it is almost impossible to keep myself from playing the whole piece once I play the opening notes. I was putting so much energy into the piece that I decided to drop my classical lessons because I thought that they were detracting energy that I wanted to be devoting to jazz, my primary focus. These two inventions have given me confidence and ability I couldn't have gained any other way.

My playing of the Bach piece has continued to improve. This semester I set out with an interest in composition. The best way to learn about composition is by analyzing other compositions. Bach's invention #8 seemed like a likely place to start since I was already familiar with the piece and was curious to see how the melody modulated. I did decide after much analysis that my discipline this semester wouldn't be composition, but that my true passion is improvisation. However, my analysis (which is included in my senior study) has proved very useful to me. My performance of the invention has improved immensely since this analysis. I have learned from talking to Lar that this happens because when you commit music to memory, the brain can remember and recall it, but when music is analyzed the retention is much deeper and more solid. A performer that has analyzed music knows and understands the movement of the melody, where it is headed, and why it is headed there. The result of my analysis can be heard in my performance of this piece. Since I have a deeper understanding of the intentions and movements of the music, my interpretation of the piece has become much more in tune and responsive to the harmonic and rhythmic movement of the piece. I still play this piece once nearly every time I sit down at the piano.

My practice sessions at Goddard for the first few years that I was here were rather undisciplined. I was disciplined in that I was playing every day, but the sessions themselves were unstructured. I would spend hours playing songs (mostly rock), singing, and improvising over these songs. Most of these songs are harmonically simple, in fact boring. This was the music I listened to and the music I played, and I was satisfied with my practice sessions because I knew that I could become a good rock piano player that way. Once I started taking lessons with Lar and listening to jazz, I was humbled. I have made an effort in the past year and a half to listen to as much jazz as possible and as little rock as possible. I have found that as one who plays by ear the easiest way to learn is to listen. I have three major jazz influences: Bill Evans; Duke Ellington; and Art Tatum. I have listened to more Evans and Ellington than anything else. From Bill Evans I have learned to try to play fluidly. I have studied his solos "the logic with which one phrase follows another."4 I appreciate him in the say way I find Bach's work logically graceful. I have directly "copped riffs" from him and I have tried to develop my own fluidity through relaxation, but I have a long way to go. I know that I have a good ability to tap into someone else's flow and comp behind them when they are soloing. My ability to communicate with other musicians is, I feel, my most highly developed jazz attribute. Listening to Duke Ellington's band has also been a great influence, primarily in two ways. First, by listening to the members of his band, particularly the horn players, I have gotten a feel for swing. Those guys know how to swing. They could make their instruments talk, and I found what they had to say interesting harmonically as well as rhythmically. I have tried to incorporate the swing feel into my playing, and I feel that just within the past three gigs that I have any kind of consistent feel for it. The second way that Duke Ellington has influenced me is through his (and Billy Strayhorn's) compositions. My analysis of music moved from classical into jazz as my interest in composition moved to an interest in improvisation. My analyses of "Mood Indigo", "Take the A Train" and "Sophisticated Lady" were not so much structural as they were analyses of how one might play over them. In particular I studied what scales could be used and how certain notes in the melodies determined these scales. These analyses have been integral in my growing ability to play over changes. The third influence I mentioned was Art Tatum. He has opened me up to a truly pianistic approach to jazz. I envy his long runs and his perfectly executed trills, but unless I study more classical music, I won't really be able to incorporate his style into my playing.

Back to my practice sessions -- I realized that I couldn't achieve the status of jazz piano player going along practicing with the attitude of a rock musician. The rock music that I had been playing and improvising over was almost all modal or strictly blues. This made improvising fairly easy as long as I was playing in the right mode or the proper blues scale. In jazz, it is the melody not the mode that determines what can and can't be played. The melody determines the chords of the tune, and these chords (with the melody inherent) are what the improviser uses to direct his solo. Modal jamming is a small aspect of jazz improvisation, but only a fraction of what jazz is. The ability to play over jazz changes requires a deeper understanding of music and a much more spiritual approach to improvising than in rock music. One needs to discipline himself and practice, learn the music and when it comes time to play leave all preconceptions behind. The object is to play what one hears at the moment, and any preconceptions about what is going to be played will have a tendency to detract from the life of the solo. A good way to achieve this is to sing along while you improvise. This is a tool which Lar introduced me to, a tool which I have since heard many jazz greats (including Art Tatum) do on albums. By singing, even if it isn't audible or isn't exactly the melody you're playing, you open up yourself to any internal melodies, and these can be sources of inspiration.

It wasn't until this semester that I began to take on a much more serious attitude towards practicing. This has been due largely to my reading of Zen in the Art of Archery. My primary source of discipline this semester has been working out of C.L. Hanon's The Virtuoso Pianist, a book designed "for the acquirement of agility, independence, strength, and perfect evenness in the fingers, as well as suppleness of the wrist."5 These Hanon exercises have helped me with all these areas. I began doing these exercises daily and working with the metronome. After I had worked through the first twenty exercises in the book I began to speed up the metronome as recommended. I was having problems with muscle cramping and a general tightness in my body. I went to Lar for advice, and he helped me position my body and hands so that they were in a much more natural position. He suggested that I focus my attention on relaxing instead of trying to hit every note, or focusing on the metronome. He said that I should constantly be checking my wrists and elbows to be sure they aren't tight. He mentioned that playing with a metronome can sometimes lead a musician to start playing like a metronome, which sounds lifeless and inhibits one's ability to swing. Concerning the tightness I was feeling all over, he thought it might be from improper breathing. He suggested that I try screaming a phrase over and over while playing the Hanon exercises. This approach seems rather unorthodox, but it got results. By concentrating on my voice and lungs, not only did my breathing regulate itself, and by body loosen up, but I played the exercises with more conviction, emphasizing each note.

The importance of proper breathing did not just apply to these exercises but turned out to be the most important aspect of feeling comfortable while improvising. I learned this through Lar and I learned this through Zen in the Art of Archery. In this passage the master is describing what is necessary for the artist to let go of himself for the sake of the art, in this case an arch with archery: " ... Thus between these two states of bodily relaxedness on the one hand and spiritual freedom on the other there is a difference level which cannot be overcome by breath-control alone, but only by withdrawing from all attachments whatsoever, by becoming utterly egoless: so that the soul, sunk within itself, stands in the plentitude of its nameless origin. The demand that the door of the senses be not closed is not met by turning energetically away from the sensible world, but rather by a readiness to yield without resistance. In order that this actionless activity may be accomplished instinctively, the soul needs an inner hold, and it wins by concentrating on breathing ... The more one concentrates on breathing, the more the external stimuli fade into the background."6 I am fortunate enough to be in a band that gigs regularly, and this has given me many opportunities to practice my relaxation techniques.

While playing in front of people, if I feel myself tightening up, or am not feeling inspired (especially during solos) I concentrate on breathing and everything usually falls into place.

About the same time I began to understand relaxation, I began playing jazz regularly with a sax, drum, and bass player. We primarily play jazz standards though more recently we've gotten into originals written by our sax man (my advisor) Karl Boyle. I have used these sessions not only to improve my playing but to gauge my improvement as a jazz musician. As the semester went on I began to be able to play these tunes with much looser feel, and even felt comfortable improvising over songs that I had never seen or heard before such as Karl's originals.

My proper breathing, my playing out, my listening to jazz and my discipline have given me a new confidence. I know that even though I have a long way to go that I am a good jazz player. This confidence has helped me approach improvising with fewer preconceptions about where the music is going to go. I don't have to worry because I know that my improvisations will lead me to a good place musically, and if they don't I have the confidence that I will be able to get myself out of any awkward musical situations, and in fact use these situations to create tension.

At this point (the end of the semester) I took my skills to a recording studio where I would learn even more about my playing. We (Phish) went to Boston to record a three song demo. The experience of working in a recording studio is different from any I'd ever had before. The energy level was high though it was much different than playing in front of people. We laid down the initial tracks. I didn't feel very comfortable with the playing at the time, and in fact I didn't think it was very good. However, upon listening to it a few times I found that much of what I'd played was interesting. I'd learned another lesson: even if I'm not moved by what I play, it doesn't mean that it's not good. As a musician I need to become as good as I can, and believe that what I'm playing is good, even if I'm not have an amazing musical experience. Hearing the work I did in the studio has given me even more confidence.

Bibliography

1. Berendt, Joachim E., The Jazz Book, p. 223, Westport, Connecticut., Lawrence Hill & Co., 1975.

2. Aikin, Jim, "Bill Evans".. Contemporary Keyboard, Vol 6, No. 6., p. 45, June 1980.

3. Herrigel, Eugen, Zen in the Art of Archery, p, 82, New York, Vintage Books, 1953.

4. Aikin., p. 45.

5.Hanon, C.L., The Virtuoso Pianist, New York, G. Schirmer, Inc.

6. Herrigel, p. 38.

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Comments

, comment by kindtrades
kindtrades great read / SOOO glad that I could read this/find this...

I will not be the only one to say, "THANK YOU FOR SHARING THIS!"

can't wait to see Page and the boys in a few days... safe travels to everyone!

destiny unbound!

, comment by kindtrades
kindtrades ::suggestion:: save this to email. I did.

p.s. - Phish, you guys rock.
, comment by kindtrades
kindtrades "What I did understand and enjoy was learning how to communicate with other musicians." - Page.

I love this line. Phish listens to each other, and whew...the live improvisational jam experience is what we live for! Thank you Phish.

, comment by GhostlikeSwayze
GhostlikeSwayze I have been interested in reading Fishman's Goddard thesis, "A Self-Taught Guide to Drumming in Retrospect" for some time now. The record keeper at Goddard informed me that they cannot divulge it without express written consent from the author. So if anyone meets Fishman, don't as for his autograph unless its on a paper that says he's allowing his thesis to be read!
, comment by DollarBill
DollarBill This is a great read.

"I don't have to worry because I know that my improvisations will lead me to a good place musically, and if they don't I have the confidence that I will be able to get myself out of any awkward musical situations, and in fact use these situations to create tension."

Page in an awkward musical situation? Never! I've said it before, Page is the glue that keeps this band together. He seems to keep everyone on track in awkward spaces and understand what Trey might be doing and where they are going.

Long live the Chairman of the Boards!
, comment by chefbrett
chefbrett Well, maybe you gave the librarian the creeps, because Trey, Page, and Fish's theses are available to read, you just have to check them out. They are kept in a special room or office, along with Mamet's and William H. Macy's theses. It's sort of funny that Page's is circulating while Fishman's is not, given that Page's isn't so well-researched or particularly well-written. It can barely be considered a thesis, clocking in at twelves pages and only citing 6 sources, it is more of a long newspaper column. At least Fishman faked it properly, writing 35 pages about learning to drum backwards. Trey's is very well-written, and extremely in-depth, and you all know the story well. The accompanying tape was unfortunately pilfered from the library long ago.
, comment by hooter
hooter Does anyone know if we can read Trey's or Fishman's online anywhere, or do we have to go bother the folks @ Goddard one by one?

I wish they all wrote books. Or at least blogs. I would kill for a sample of Gizzard's writing...
, comment by freee
freee .....surrender to the flow.....thanks so much for sharing this......can't wait to see everyone next week!
, comment by MikesH2Weekapaug
MikesH2Weekapaug Thanks for sharing!!! LEO!!!!
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