A Good Question

Posted by: Dave Douglas on March 4, 2009 @ 2:11 pm
Filed under: Dave Douglas (Artist Thoughts)

Because of the convenience of the internet, I receive a lot of correspondence–questions, comments, thoughts, ideas, the occasional poem. I am very grateful for that and I learn a lot. I try to respond to every single person.

This email really struck me, and I asked the sender if I could post it. I’ve Xed out the person’s name and location (didn’t want to outrage the profs), but the question gets at something pretty universal. How do you reconcile the craft side of art with the creative side? How do you work on “saying something?”

I’ve been studying music here at university for 3 years now, and more recently I’ve been feeling that my playing, particularly my improvising, is very empty. It’s more frustrating because I feel disconnected from the ideas, and sometimes lack thereof, which makes me feel like there’s no deeper meaning in what I’m playing.

My teacher here has me practicing: 1hr – Technical warmup (Long tones, Triad Pairs through cycle, symmetrical intervals, alternating symmetrical intervals “i.e. P4-m3, P4-M3”), 1hr – ii-V/Turnaround/Pattern through cycle, 1hr – Transcribing solos, 1hr – Learning tunes.

At this stage of the game, do you agree with this practice regimen? I think it’s not leaving enough time for creative ideas, as most of the things he has me working on are technical based. Also, with this much practice per day, plus class and homework, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for creative composing, my other passion. What are your thoughts on composing with a very time-consuming schedule?

I hope you find a spare second to try and help me out of this rut!


First of all, let’s give it up for the four hours of practicing a day. That’s admirable.

But before I wade in with other suggestions, I thought maybe some of you in the community might have some thoughts on this issue. On the road with SFJAZZ Collective I had a chance to discuss it a little bit, and heard some pretty surprising answers. And I’ll bet you all have more. Let ‘er rip.


  1. About finding time for creative composing:

    Adam Benjamin taught me a little exercise that you can do daily. Take 15 minutes to write 3 pieces, without using an instrument, just sitting somewhere quietly with a piece of staff paper. The time limit requires you to write the first things that pop into your mind, and it forces you to write only what you can hear in your mind’s ear. The “transcription” errors you make can turn out to be exciting surprises. This is a great exercise for generating new material, and it is also a way of making creativity a habit.

    Comment by Matt Rubin — March 4, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

  2. Wow. That’s a great idea. Thanks for sending, Matt.

    I sometimes go to the public library to write music. Not only shuts out distractions and forces a creative approach, but it also helps with finding song titles…

    Learning tunes is another thing that can be effective to work on away from an instrument. Mentally outlining the forms and going through the melody notes and chords in various keys. In your head. No wonder musicians have a reputation for being ‘spacy.’ 😉

    Comment by Dave — March 4, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

  3. In school, I used to do this with a couple buddies — we all met up at someones apartment and hashed out ideas based on what we’d been practicing. Little bits and riffs that everyone had in their arsenal we wrote into tunes. I wrote so much stuff at those sessions that I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own. And it really changed my perception of the writing process–how it’s open-ended. And how rewarding sharing the process with someone you trust can be.

    The other way I generate ideas is by going through classical scores, finding a few bars I really like no matter the instrument. Then mess with it. Retrograde. Invert. Change the key. Change the mode. And always make sure you can sing it. That consistently opens up doors for me.

    Always make time for writing. It’s why we all play music right?

    Comment by Jim — March 4, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

  4. Hey, thanks for the mention Matt.

    To the original poster, I generally recommend that if you are spending a lot of time on the type of exercises you are doing, that at least 50% of them are self-generated. By composing your own patterns over 2-5-1 and similar, and moving them around tonally and rhythmically in ways of your choosing, you are able to use the creative part of your brain, and develop a more personal playing vocabulary, all while working on the technical skills your prof feels that you need.

    As far as finding time for composing, as Matt mentioned I like exercises where you compose quickly and away from the instrument. I also like to improvise and record short vignettes which can then be quickly edited into compositions. In general, I think “practicing” of composition is best achieved by bringing the greatest number of pieces to a state of completion, and then playing them (with others preferably). It’s easy to spend a long time tweaking details and trying to get a Great Composition but in general I learn more when I finish something, see it from some distance, see what works and what doesn’t, and then move on to writing more. All the great composers were prolific to some degree – just like playing gigs, the only way to really get good at it is to do it a lot.

    Overfocusing on individual compositions can also lead to a classic problem, which I call “trying to make The thing rather than A thing”, a kind of fetishizing of our compositional work in which we load up individual pieces with too many ideas and take too precious of an approach. Make a thing and then make the next thing, but don’t try to make one piece express everything you could possibly say.

    Another thought for maintaining creativity: maintain a good balance between practicing and performing. Even the best practicers will eventually burn out if you don’t have a venue to regularly apply your knowledge. This can be a problem in school situations, and why I feel one of the most valuable things a jazz program can do for its students is provide a lot of performance opportunities for their students.

    And finally, don’t get buried in music and forget the big picture. Looking back on my years in music school, I feel that I grew as an artist just as much from my life experiences as I did from practicing, performing, and composing. I was lucky enough to have teachers that encouraged me to seek out what I found inspiring in life. Don’t forget art, literature, TV, walks, oceans, philately, and people. If you want your art to be expressive, you have to be in touch with what you want to express.

    Comment by Adam Benjamin — March 4, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

  5. This is exactly the type of thing I saw drain the life out of many of my classmates while in music school, myself included.

    To me its also the sign of lazy teacher. Its easy to tell students to learn this pattern in all keys, do that in f triple sharp, whatever. Its a lot harder to teach someone how to find their own music.

    I’m not knocking the value of developing these skills, because they are immensely valuable. But developing skills should be in service to a students own music. Not just learning skills for a jury or grade…

    my two cents? spend those four hours writing your own music, discovering new ideas, developing them, improvising, writing and rehearsing your own music. You might get flack from some teachers but who cares. Find a different teacher. You go to music school to become an artist right? Not become a ii-V/asymmetrical interval ninja.

    Comment by Greg — March 4, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

  6. “Overfocusing on individual compositions can also lead to a classic problem, which I call “trying to make The thing rather than A thing”, a kind of fetishizing of our compositional work in which we load up individual pieces with too many ideas and take too precious of an approach. Make a thing and then make the next thing, but don’t try to make one piece express everything you could possibly say.”

    Wise words.

    Comment by Jim — March 4, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

  7. I’ve heard Philly saxophonist Odean Pope recommend writing something every day. Even if it’s only a few bars or even a few notes. Though I’ve unfortunately never been that disciplined I always carry a little manuscript pad around with me. Those germs of ideas have turned into tunes on many occasions.

    Another idea I was just exposed to was through this residency here in Philly that I have been participating in (www.bigearsphilly.com). It’s being led by drummer/composer/bandleader John Hollenbeck. He told us to catalog our individual extended techniques. So for me as a trumpet player I have been breaking it down into categories with various techniques fitting into their specific categories: sounds made with air (no lip buzzing); pedal tones; tonal effects; valve effects (smears, alternate fingerings); effects from the adjustment (or removal) of slides; mutes, etc. The list can get pretty extensive, but it’s a good way to take stock in all the various ways one can express themselves on their instrument – besides just playing a standard sound. And the catalog will keep growing the more one investigates. And then thinking of ways to incorporate these techniques in more various settings is also a way to broaden your creative palette. I think it’s a pretty cool and beneficial exercise.

    Comment by Bart — March 4, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

  8. Thanks Adam, Greg, and Bart. Great comments.

    Here are three other thoughts:

    1. As suggested in all these comments, practice the material you have creatively. Add your own touches, modify your materials.

    2. Practice things very slow and with the metronome. If that seems too easy, then find things you can’t do slow. And then learn to do them.

    3. With transcriptions, it’s what you do with the material you’ve transcribed. Pick the materials that interest you most and learn them in different keys, derive systems from them.

    But to get to the original question, it seems like getting in touch with your real feeling for music is the most important thing. So the goal of practicing would be to get your head OUT OF THE WAY when you go to perform. So you are not thinking about what you practice when you play, but just letting the music flow.

    Comment by Dave — March 5, 2009 @ 6:50 am

  9. Another option is to approach your practice regimen with more of a “composer’s mind”. As you work on those triad pairs or symmetrical intervals, all sorts of melodies and compositional ideas can turn up. Be ready to write them down and/or go off on a tangent. Another idea is to take one these practice assignments and write a tune based on it.

    I think Adam’s thoughts on composing are spot on. The more you write, the more you learn about compositional process and how it pertains to your musical identity. Good luck.

    Comment by Michael Bates — March 5, 2009 @ 7:35 am

  10. Another thought…

    I’ve found it very important to keep a book of manuscript next to my bed. Those nights when my head keeps thinking of everything but sleep, or the early morning dream sequence usually yield some fine results. A bit more abstract than practice, but time spent writing without my instrument makes me come up with a lot.

    Comment by Jim — March 5, 2009 @ 9:40 am

  11. OR … Get 5 or 6 of your music comrades together, the ones who are as intensely nuts about music as yourself. Smoke some reefer (as high quality as possible). Get comfy. And sit down and listen, really listen, hard to Duke, Newport 56 or Art Blakey Free for All or any Wayne record on Blue Note or Bird and the All Stars Live at Birdland or any number of the truly great recordings of this music that have been made (I’ve left out a few). Do this for an extended period of time until such time as the high wears off. Then smoke some more or maybe fire up the blender. Invite over other friends, possibly of the opposite sex. Order a pizza or two. Maybe put on a James Brown record. Dance. Have fun. Understand the pure joy in the music.

    Repeat 3 or 4 times a week for as long as possible. You’ll know when you’ve had enough. You’ll be inspired to create and find your voice. I promise you.

    Comment by Mike Grimaldi — March 5, 2009 @ 9:56 am

  12. I wouldn’t recommend the reefer personally…I’ve taken that advice for too long in the past, and it can be very destructive and counter productive. You don’t need to substances that are external to enjoy music, or to feel comfortable with yourself. That being said, be inspired by as many things as possible, even things as seemingly simple as relaxing with good friends and listening to good music (that isn’t necessarily jazz!) Hell, shoot the moon, check out some Morton Feldman, or some Lutoslawski get re-inspired to go for it!

    Comment by Matt Smiley — March 6, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

  13. Besides writing out your musical thoughts, which I am not really capable of without software, my most favorite musical diversion is my multitrack digital recorder and the slew of intruments that I have grown to love. Laying down a rhythm track, then essentially jamming or carefully composing a song form provides an endless non-drill musical endeavor which I can work on periodically.
    That is if you are alone and in between sessions with your fellow artists. I have accumulated hours of musical “sketches” which exist as recordings rather than as notation. Basically it is really fun. Following Mike Grimaldi’s advice is will add the necessary “freedom” and relaxation techniques!

    Comment by Frank Visconti — March 6, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

  14. “check out some Morton Feldman”

    Or some Morton Subotnick. Silver Apples of the Moon!

    …or Silver Apples.

    Comment by Jim — March 6, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

  15. Sing! Bang on some drums! Or going a step further: learn another instrument. Take a few hours a week to explore a new instrument on your own terms with no scheduled practice regiment. The summer break is a perfect opportunity I have found. I would not be surprised if in doing this, you discover new sounds, compose something completely original, start hearing phrases in a new register, develop an appreciation for new musicians, all while sharpening your overall musical awareness on your main instrument.

    Putting yourself out of your element and your years of training will only help to expose your innermost musicality.

    Comment by Alan Munshower — March 6, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

  16. Grimaldi,
    Thanks for endorsing the “greenleaf” way. But just to be clear we’re not endorsing, supporting or using at the moment.

    Matt and Jim,
    Morton Feldman, Morton Subotnik, or Jelly Roll Morton. All good.

    Alan and all,
    Thanks for the great comments!

    Comment by Dave — March 7, 2009 @ 11:55 am

  17. Personally, I find it hard to be composing and practicing in the same time frame. Practicing seems to limit my ability to connect with the creative flow. For composing I need to let my “self” get out of the way so that inspiration can enter my consciousness. I like to listen to a lot of music, especially unfamiliar music, then I just let it seep in however it wants to. I like to let whatever wants to come out come out. When I try to guide it too much the result isn’t as powerful. I also find that reading poetry before composing can help me open to whatever wants to come.

    I also like to take a long time to finish a piece. If I can work on it for a week or more it morphs and each time I revisit it there is a chance for a different dimension to reveal itself.

    Making stuff up and singing it is fun, imagining stuff in my head is good, playing on my instrument is good too. Whatever, when it’s ready to come out it does.

    So now we all know I’m crazy, all the better.

    Comment by Kathy Kelly — March 7, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

  18. Jelly Roll Morton! Huzzah! As a side note, I often feel that Louis Armstrong is occasionally over-emphasized in jazz education (speaking of) than Morton, who as far as I’m concerned was the most innovative American musician of the century – he combined more elements of various musical styles together more effectively than anyone else was doing in his time, and practically invented swing (check out his 1923 solos versus his 1940’s ones)…His ability to craft all these things together into not only a unique playing style but also a unique compositional style (especially his extremely careful integration of improvisation and written parts in his small groups) has been a great model to me as a composer. Perhaps we can learn a lesson from him too in this discussion – he always said that he wanted his solo playing to replicate a band, and listening to his solo and band renditions of his original tunes that philosophy becomes very clear. Perhaps a good way to integrate creative composition into practicing is to let your improvisations guide your composing, as Michael suggested above, or maybe I am just trying to get at the idea that the composer/improviser distinction shouldn

    Comment by Andrew Oliver — March 8, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

  19. Well, I can write and write, but the url has a recording, all extemporaneous, all fun.

    Comment by frank — March 11, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

Leave a comment