Free Piano Lesson
When I was a kid, I hated piano lessons. Mom made me. So if you're a kid and/or you hate the piano as much as I did, hit the "back" button on your browser now.
(Are you sure you want to take a piano lesson from this man?)
The following is a lesson I gave to a pianist by the name of Vince Voelz. He transcribed the lesson and was kind enough to send a copy to me.
Lesson with Bill Carrothers 9/5/98 - 12:00pm
[Setting: Vince sits at the piano, talking to Bill Carrothers, who is sitting on a nearby chair. Occasionally Bill sits next to Vince at the piano and demonstrates an idea.]
Bill: So maybe the first thing you want to do is just play a little for me so I could maybe hear where you're at.
[Vince plays some ii-V-I stuff, and then a very time-loose chorus of "Nice Work if You Can Get It"]
Bill: What I first want to know is what you're thinking about, and then I can tell you what I'm thinking about.
Vince: Yeah. Basically, I've heard you in concert, and I'd just like to know more about what your philosophy is, as far as where you get your harmonies, where … I guess how you approach the whole thing, your concept and philosophy.
Bill: Well, first of all, something I noticed in your playing right away, which is part of my philosophy and that is maybe different from what you were just doing there is --
First of all, I love this music. I love to play, I love to improvise. I like to be in front of a crowd, I'm a natural ham, I love it. That's just how it is for me. The bigger the crowd, the higher the pressure, the better I play. I just like it, you know? I enjoy … I'm not like the Bill Evans-type where I'm really scared to play in public, and have had to overcome that; a lot of guys are like that, man, and have a lot of trouble with that. They play great, yet they're still real nervous about playing in public, and that's natural for guys who are just like that, more of a introverted personality type.
I'm not that way at all. I used to perform as a little kid -- in front of my parents' friends, anybody, that kind of thing. So -- with that out of the way, I love to play. I love the music. That's the biggest thing. You know, whenever I give a clinic, that's the biggest key, and it sounds really simple and trite but to give you the nuts and bolts, well, that is the nuts and bolts. You gotta love this stuff. You just gotta love it. It's like a drug, I have to have it.
And when I sit down at the piano, I just love the instrument, and I love what I'm doing and one of the ways that manifests itself -- and something I noticed that you were just doing-- is the way you touch the piano. Be very aware of how you're touching the piano. It's like touching a woman, it's like a person. Again, I'm not real into the new-agey kind of stuff, but -- there is a kind of philosophy of how you come to the instrument, how you bring yourself, more like a respect. So when you play the piano it's more like a partnership, it's not a command. When you sit at a typewrite or your PC terminal, it's a command. You sit and you type and you issue commands. At the piano, it's more like a partnership.
Vince: A much more organic thing?
Bill: Yeah. And you see a lot of piano players -- like I noticed with you. I can see a little barrier even just in that little bit of your playing, just a little bit of a barrier between you and the instrument, like a-- I'm not trying pick on you, but just the warmth of the sound. Like the difference between…
[Bill plays some choppy whole-toney stuff]
[Bill plays much more expressively and thoughtfully. More sustained, deeper harmonies]
Just think of the piano like, uh ….the way I think of the touch and the feel of playing the piano is like the way you would massage someone's skin. Like their muscles. In other words, when you massage you don't go like this [pokes fingertip on his arm], you keep your hands on the subject. Have you ever given a massage or that kind of thing?
Vince: I've rubbed some feet in my time.
Bill: Ok. Well, along those lines. When you massage someone, you don't go like this [pokes arm], you go like this [massages arm]; you keep you hands on the subject when you work. Even if you aren't using your hands [at some point], you kind of move your hands like this, without losing the contact.
If you watch piano players like Horowitz, their hands rarely leave the keyboard. It's almost like they could play blind. And that's a good exercise. That's something you might want to try: play blindfolded. I did that for a while. Just started tying something around my head, or just not looking, closing my eyes and trying to play -- because it'll help eliminate pulling your hands away from the keyboard a lot. Now in the classical tradition, they'll give all sorts of this stuff - I don't buy it, and I never have, and most really great pianists don't do it if you watch them: Richter, Horowitz, and Gould. Glen Gould never did this kind of stuff [mimics hand flourishes]. You see these guys at recitals and they're like … [obnoxious hand flourishes]… fuck that. It doesn't work, in my opinion.
When I'm playing my best, my hands almost never leave the keyboard. Maybe just to make leaps and stuff [because] you can't climb your way up there. A really good example would be to watch someone who's blind play. Watch Marcus Roberts. Watch the way he's playing, the technique that he uses. Because he can't get visual cues, he has to constantly-- you, know for him, it's a measuring system. For him, for his hands being in a certain position is a measuring system, so he can't lose contact with the keys. Otherwise he's lost. If you picked Marcus Roberts up in the middle of a tune, took him off the bench and put him back down, he'd have to touch [the keys] first.
So that's one thing, as far as my philosophy, is to try and make that buttery sound. Try to coax that sound out of the piano. I don't try to "get" the sound, I try to coax the sound out. I don't know, maybe it's hard to explain ultimately. You kind of have to fiddle with it, you just have to approach the piano from that quiet place where…. And that's another thing. You know when I try to play, I don't care what I'm doing beforehand or afterwards, I don't have any regimen like some people do: having to be alone for the hour before I play, or having to soak my hands in cold water, I don't do any of that. I can be talking about snowmobiles right up until I have to get up on the bandstand. But when you sit down at the piano, it's like, "Focus." All that other shit is dead: my sled, my girlfriend, my folks in the audience -- all that stuff is junk. How many CDs am I gonna sell tonight? What did I have for lunch? Nice ass…. Whatever, it's all gone now.
So that's how I approach it. As far as the nuts and bolts of how to play….
Vince: How did you start out, and how did you get to where you are…besides just a lot of practice?
Bill: Well, a lot of practice, and a lot of luck too. You know, I've never been a real big technique practicer...
Vince: I was going to ask that too. How do you practice?
Bill: Well, earlier on, when I studied with Bobby Peterson, he had me doing just major scales, two hands, four octaves. Up and down, all twelve majors. He didn't have me do any of the minors, you know, once you know your major scales, they're all there…
Vince: …the modes…
Bill: …it's just a matter of which note you start on. And I think that after you play a while that doesn't [matter]. I never did that, anyway. I never practiced all the modes, starting from every key and every note [in that key] --- nah.
After a while, I found that once I had some of the technique together, I didn't want to hear the piano played that way. I just didn't want to hear it. It was a drag. I'd rather have even less technique, keep my fingers in a constant state of chaos, and have it be honest, and have me love the piano -- when I sit down, it's like, [whispers] "ahhhhh, that's the sound I want." -- than to be super up and super together and crisp and clear and impressive and sitting down to manipulate the piano. You hear guys that do that. They're great players; I've met some really great players where I still hear that barrier between them and the instrument, they're just sitting at the piano.
Vince: Too "lick"-y?
Bill: Yes. They're lick-y and emotionally very cool. Very cool and detached. And for some people, maybe that's their thing, they like that, but for me, I don't like that. For my own self, I'm a warm person and I want a warm feeling. And when I play, I don't want to impress people. I don't want people to leave the club and say, "Wow! That guy's unbelievable! Did you see his right hand? Man that guy kicks ass." That's not what I want to hear. What I'm trying to get anyway, is someone to leave the club and say, "Wow. I'm in a different place emotionally than when I came in the door. I felt something. He moved me." That's the ultimate compliment for me. It's not "He impressed me", but "He moved me."
And that's the job of the artist. The artist's job is not to impress. I mean, you can look at a painting -- and you can look at the technique, and as an up-and-coming artist, you do, you admire the various brush strokes and the detail, and what techniques they've used -- but ultimately, what gets you to become an artist in the first place, the thing that drew you to it in the first place, hopefully has nothing to do with the technique. It's "Wow, that guy -- Chagall, just jumps off the page at you. It's there" And then later, you go in and start [admiring technique].
So, as far as practicing, I do it as little as possible, but it is very critical. About practicing, a little of this: [sings ascending major scale patterns] is necessary, you have to do it to build up your hands and strength, and… I don't know how strong you are, it seems like you're pretty strong at the piano, so it seems like you're pretty muscular at it.
Vince: Yeah, my technique is pretty bad.
Bill: Let's hear your major scales once.
[Vince plays two-handed two-octave major scales in B-flat, somewhat half-heartedly, eventually flubbing…]
Bill: Yeah, that's okay. Right now I'm not worrying so much about how clean your playing is. What I'm noticing is your hands bouncing when you play: [Mimics "dup dup dup dup…."]..
…[Vince tries to emulate this]…
Bill: ….play slower….
[Vince player slower]
Bill: ...not necessarily softer. Think of the note as being a whole lot of levels beyond -- when you press down, there are a whole lot of levels beyond what you're actually hearing. It's more like a feeling, you know, the piano will pick that up, it's amazing. You can actually --- there's a stroke where…
[Bill "stabs" at a high key]
Bill: …okay, that's one way, and there's another thing where after you've hit the note, you're still pressing through it, it's almost like more of a feeling. But it comes through the piano, it's strange. [Keith] Jarrett is a master of that. He has some very strange technique to do it. It certainly wouldn't be they way you'd want to teach someone how to do it. He'd be an awful teacher in that regard, but as far as being connected to the instrument, there ain't much better than him, for that.
Vince: Who are your influences? Obviously, Jarrett…
Bill: Keith is one of them. I really like Lenny Tristano. Ever checked him out?
Vince: No, I haven't.
Bill: He's a great one. Very different player, way ahead of his time. I like a lot of classical players: Richter, a woman named Maria Pirez -- incredible sound, great, great piano player. I have the complete Mozart sonatas of hers that some people scoff at… Wilhelm Kempff another great piano player, classical guy. He's dead now along with Richter who has died here too last year.
[In] the jazz world: yeah, I listened to all of them at one time or another (well, not all of them, but a lot of them). Bud Powell I was really into for a while. Herbie Hancock, who of course is a life-long adventure. He's just a great one.
Vince: What do you think of Thelonious Monk?
Bill: Yeah, Monk, great. Now his playing is so different that again, it's one of those things where he's actually a very spiky player. He plays flat-handed -- he doesn't curl his fingers at all -- he's totally flat-handed if you watch films of him. Very difficult to do. Again, it works for him. But it would be like teaching Ty Cobb's batting stance: It works for Ty Cobb, and that's about it. He used to hold the bat with his hands apart -- worked for him! I'd rather teach a Ken Griffey type swing, which is a very sweet, natural swing, it's not that choppy.
So, other than that, let me see, who else do I like? I like a lot of music by guys that don't even play piano. One of my biggest early influences was Clifford Brown.
Bill: I love Clifford Brown. Clifford Brown rocks.
Vince: Is he still around?
Bill: Oh no. He died at 25 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike -- rolled over. Killed the piano player too -- Richie Powell, Bud's brother.
He's incredible. A have a lot of recordings of him if you want [to listen]. Of a recording of that nature, there's one called "Live at Basin Street", and it's all him and Max Roach and Sonny Rollins, and it's incredible. Clifford's great because his lines are so, he's….. like the Bach of the jazz world. Maybe even more so than Bird, in a way. Bird is like a foundation, of course, where all that comes from, but yet Clifford, to me, is even a little more "perfect" about it. I don't know, it's weird….
Vince: Less New Orleans-y?
Bill: He's like….[Bill laments his allergies] …well, he's just perfect. His lines are just so perfectly delineated, and they're just so balanced. Anyway he'd be a really good one to check out if you want to hear some really great be-bop. And of course Bird, you know, is great.
Who else…. Stan Getz is great. Sonny Rollins is great. 'Trane is great. Buy everything of Miles' that 's between 1955 and about 1970. I listen to a lot of singers.
Bill: Yeah, I'm way up on a lot of old, old recordings: Dick Haymes, Helen Forrest, and Jo Stafford, I love all that stuff. There's been some great [*****] over the years. A good music company -- there's been a bunch of really good [reissued] CDs that I've picked up from them, all radio broadcasts and old, old stuff. Music of the thirties and the twenties, I have an old roarin' twenties CD [by] Rudy Vallee --all that kind of stuff. But mainly, the singers of the fifties. Frank, and Billie Holiday. You should get [Frank Sinatra's] "Only The Lonely" -- great record….on Capitol, 1958. That's like required reading with me. That's like a must-have, you've got to hear that one. It will redefine for you what you can do with a ballad, like "this is how you do it, this is the jumping off point for really a pure art experience, musically." Just a direct connection between the emotion and the music. And then Billie Holiday, "Lady in Satin". It's the last record she did before she died in 1959, and that's an incredible, unbelievable record. She's scratched out, she can hardly sing, but it's so unbelievable…. it's pretty transcendent shit.
A lot of singers. Dick Haymes is on my pedestal right now I love Dick Haymes, the words [to] "Love Letters", it was an old forties' song. Your mom, maybe, would know Dick Haymes. Maybe even your grandmother would know about that kind of stuff. It gave me a big help when I was growing up, because my parents, they both don't play, but my mom knows every tune ever written. All of them. My mom, you know, she sight-reads -- but it's incredible, that encyclopedic knowledge of standards, when I was growing up, all I heard was standards, so it made it a lot easier. That's something you might want to do, just…
Vince: Yeah, how do you feel about learning from standards, playing standards…?
Bill: Oh, that's the key. Writing original stuff is great and that's cool. But when you discover new standards, old obscure things -- like, for instance, I played some of [at the gig] last night -- each one of them is like a whole world, a new world to me. All the nooks and crannies, and the idiosyncrasies of each tune, the possibilities, and each one like a little gift. And I just start looking at each standard, and that's why I'm getting addicted -- seriously addicted-- to this rediscovery of these old, old [tunes], everything from the sacred to the profane. Little silly tunes, you know… [sings a melody of a "silly" tune. "…a million dollar baby…." ..vaudevillian]
Each one of then has got their own little thing. Rudy Vallee… all the old tunes that he does. Dick Haymes, a bunch of stuff. I have a great CD of his, "I'll Get By" [sings: "You'll never know how much I love you/you'll never know just how much I care…"] Great stuff, all the old crooners, man. I feel like a time traveler sometimes, that I don't belong here. It's useful on the piano, but it sucks in regular daily life. I feel like I should have been 25 years old in 1940.
Back to the technique: let me think…. Okay lets go with those scales, because you're makin' me nervous with those.
[Vince plays more scales]
…let's hear just right hand alone….then the left hand alone…. That was the right fingering, now put them together.
You know, there's a book called the Hanon studies, it's got all the scales in it. Schmitt will have it, it's probably ten bucks. Not a big deal. They probably even have a version now that's spiral-bound, which would be great…
Vince: I don't know where I heard this, but I read that Herbie Hancock was a big proponent of this…
Bill: Yeah, he also did a lot of Czerny studies. Although, he did a different thing with them. I've think I've heard that interview, the one where he talks about that. What he did was finger every scale the same way, try that some time! Like, here, finger C one time…
[Vince plays the proper 1-2-3-1-2-3-4- fingering of a C scale]
Now try Bb…I don't know if he still plays that way, but at one time he learned how to play that way, how to finger everything the exact same way… go ahead and try Gb….
[Vince plays Gb using 1-2-3-1-2-3-4- the last note is a contortion!]
Get yourself some kind of Hanon book, it's the Hanon studies, and it gives you all these…..
[Bill plays ascending 1-3-4-5-6-5-4-3- and descending 6-4-3-2-1-2-3-4- patterns…]
They're boring as hell. Classical players, a lot of them… Rubenstein used to read while he did them. He would put a book on [the music stand] and read. Let his fingers go on autopilot. See I don't believe in that, but he did it, and it worked for him.
Vince: Is it just getting it in your muscle memory?
Bill: Yep. It's building up your endurance. That's what suffers the most for me. Now, the last three or four years, I haven't owned a piano. So I do most of my practicing in my head. And I just kind of …… But, it's becoming a problem now. It's nice, because it removes all the cliches from your playing. It just strips them right out; you can't do it, because they're not there, because you don't practice. It forces you to be honest. It like, "Well, you don't have anywhere to go." You play what you hear, and it's really nice. It removes that quick easy solution of being able to -- when you get into a spot -- being able to just toss off something. You don't want to be able to do that. But the temptation is great.
Now ultimately, as an artist, I want to get to the point where I can use those resources wisely. And that day will come. I'll be able to have all that technique, and yet still be quiet inside. But I think the last few years, it's been good for me. I don't think I would of… I'd want to show it off in my music, like "I got the weapon, I'm going to use it. I got the bomb, time to use it."
And it's a great temptation, so, it's been nice in that way. What's a drag about it is that you lose endurance. Like today [after a gig last night], my hands hurt. I'll soak them a little bit, and they'll be okay. I played in New York a couple weeks ago, and I hadn't played in five weeks. I hadn't really touched the piano to speak of in five weeks, and I hurt this tendon right along here [top of thumb]. Not a lot, but just enough where I'm a little embarrassed. So I have to get myself a piano.
But this is what I'm talking about. If you do those [Hanon exercises], that won't happen to you. Because you don't want it to. So, get the Hanon book, and go through the scales, and make sure you do the fingerings right. And if we do a lesson again, next time I see you …. I want a shine on those shoes! No, next we meet, I want to see those scales right on time. If we meet. I want to see two hands, four octaves.
Vince: By the way, how often are you in town?
Bill: I might be here at Christmas time. Otherwise, I might be moving back here, possibly in the spring. Yeah, it's looking that way. It not working out in New York. It's a lie, but that's a whole other discussion.
Vince: Who do you play with in New York?
Bill: Bill Stewart a lot…
Vince: He's great. I just got his "Telepathy" album, with you on it.
Bill: Yeah, he's great. He's a great player. He's a freak. I played with Scott Colley, and I did a record with Dave Douglas at Christmas time. I don't do a lot of playing in New York. I'm going to Paris next month, and I'm playing with Parisians. Actually, they're Americans, but one guy, a drummer, plays with Steve Lacy -- John Betch.
Bill: No. It's slow. Business is slow. And it's especially tough….. aw, do I want to go here? No….it's just a tough business. And frankly, the more connected you get to your music and the more connected you get to some of the stuff I'm talking about, the less you'll work.
Bill: Yeah, I think a lot of people are put off by it. Even in the jazz world, they're put off by the classical overtones to the things that I do…..that I would show you, anybody -- that's how I do it. And there are a lot of people put off by that. They don't really know what to do with it.
Vince: How do you incorporate that in. One thing I really like about you is that you're different. Your harmonic sense is so developed and you're incorporating all that…
Bill: Yeah, well, it's a lot of classical music. That's how I got it. I went to the record store and started buying a lot of classical music, which I had none of. And this was maybe ten years ago…twelve years ago. I started buying a lot of classical music -- stuff I like. I can give you some recommendations: I listen to a lot of Charles Ives. Charles Ives is my favorite. He's the man. He is the classical version of what I'm trying to do at the piano. Not really what I'm trying to do, but just how I hear it. Ives -- do you know Charles Ives?
Bill: …lots of quotes and a lot of…he's really great at just mixing stuff together. He's very organic but it works with him.
Vince: Was he ever improvisational?
Bill: Oh, absolutely. That's something that most of the modern classical performers don't even realize, that most of the classical writers -- all of them, Mozart, Bach, Ives -- they're all improvisers. They don't swing, but they all improvised, and in a lot of cases wrote it down later. In the case of Bach, he'd improvise a piece, and then he would -- with such a phenomenal memory -- would just go home and write it down. Mozart too; they were all very adept at just making something up. That's really a lost art form. In the classical world, that whole concept is considered, like….they all thought they received messages from on high and sat down and wrote them all out. They didn't, they were just screwing around like everyone else.
Vince: I was at the jazz program at the University of Minnesota], and you can tell there's this complete dichotomy between the classical people and the jazz. The classical cats are like, "Oh, you're just making that up." It's like that's exactly the opposite philosophy [you should have].
Bill: Yeah, well that's the problem. When I was at my year at North Texas, I ended up hanging out in the classical program. And the best jazz player I knew at North Texas - it's a big jazz music school -- was a classical piano teacher…one of them, Steve Harlos is the guy's name. Incredible jazz player. Great. Much better than any of those other guys -- Haerle ….he blew those guys away. He's a classical player, and he's the guy I glommed onto. I never thought of it that way, but he's probably the first guy that was like, "Wait a minute. We're all talking about the same thing here. We're talking about moving people and about art. How do we get to that place" And you draw from whatever works for you, whatever you love.
Again, it comes back to the first thing I said to you: You've gotta love this stuff. That's the overriding concern. And I know a lot of people who don't. Musicians who I don't get the feeling they love it to the depths of their heart…
Vince: Parlour tricks…
Bill: It's a trick, it's a skill, it's an ability, it's "this thing that I do, it's a great way to meet chicks" -- uh uh. That's the thing then -- go sell shoes or something, it's not for you.
So, harmonically, I listen to a lot of Charles Ives, and a lot of Prokofiev. Especially Romeo and Juliet…
Vince: I just bought that actually.
Bill: Did you? Did you get Dutoit and Montreal?
Vince: Ah, it was bargain basement, four bucks.
Bill: Well, if you've got some spare change in your pocket and you want to dump it off somewhere, go get Romeo and Juliet with Dutoit and the Montreal [Symphony]. It's really just a beautiful recording, and you'll learn a whole lot of stuff from that.
What I did is that after I'd pick out pieces and listen to them a while -- I actually listen all the time. More philosophy -- Here's a benchmark for you: I listen about 80% of the time, and I play the other 20%. And that's probably not enough listening -- it should be 90%/10%. So I listen all the time. That is one thing I did all the time -- I didn't practice that much, even when I was coming up. I practiced what I needed to get my shit together, to get to the place where I needed to be -- but I listen constantly. My parents would attest to that. I would put on the same piece fifty times. One after another, after another. It's the same piece. My mom would come out and say, "What are you doing?" I'd be downstairs, working on a train set or something when I was fourteen or fifteen years old, and I'd have this thing on, and it would just be the same thing over and over. And then later on -- twenty -- whatever I was doing around the house, something was on most of the time. And at my place in Woodstock, the stereo is one of the first things I turn on in the morning, and one of the last things I turn off at night before I go to bed.
And it helps, you know. And you don't have to be like…. I don't believe in transcribing at all. I've done none of it. I did two of them -- both as school assignments at North Texas State. I hated it, and I don't think it's the way to do it. Plenty of guys do, though, and if it works for you, okay. David Leibman was a huge transcriber and he plays his ass off, so….
But I don't believe in it. I'd rather listen to the piece 50 times and sing it. Be able to sing the whole thing. And, again, it'll come out of your playing more organically, it'll just come out of you -- and when you don't expect it. All of a sudden you'll be playing on a gig and you'll surprise yourself at what just came out. But see, then it's organic. It comes into you and it becomes part of you, and it comes out as part of you, rather than reading it off a page or transcribing it. Then it's an overlay. It's, "Now I'm going to do my eight bars of my Herbie Hancock imitation, now I'm going to my eight bars of McCoy Tyner, now I'll do a chorus of Keith Jarrett…." And that's the way guys sound.
Dan Haerle -- the one, the head piano instructor at North Texas -- was like that. You can listen to him and you could just see the gears shift: Click -- okay -- click -- McCoy Tyner for a while -- click -- let me play Herbie Hancock for a while. And that because that's the whole upbringing at North Texas -- well, not even North Texas -- but that schooled way of looking at the music.
Vince: Maybe that's good for jazz "education"?
Bill: It's great for education, but it's not great for turning out a ripened artist. That's why I left North Texas after a year. They turn out beautiful session players. Great, they can read spots off the wall, good jazz, solid professionals. It's like the Dunwoody of jazz music. They just turn out good solid, skilled professionals that can do their gig. They play their instrument and show up on time and leave, they can do a little of this, and a little of that, they can do some arranging if you'd like…. They're just a good, well-rounded individual. But they're wholly unoriginal, and boring as hell to listen to, and they're not an artist, they're like a craftsman. They turn out… tradesmen. And I didn't want to be a tradesman. I want to speak through the instrument in whatever pitiful little way I can. Whatever tiny little piece of the tradition I can be a part of, that's what I want to be part of. I don't want to be a "first-call" piano in L.A. I could give a shit about that. I'm poor and I'll stay poor. Whatever. So that's why those guys come out sounding like that. A little of this, and a little of that, but it hasn't allowed [the music] to grow, to gestate inside of them.
Here's a little required reading. You have to get this book. You have to read it. It's Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke -- German poet, turn-of-the-century. They are ten letters to a young poet, asking him for advice. Rilke himself was only 29 when the book was written, and this kid was maybe 19. He wanted to be a poet, and he was about to be drafted into the Austrian army, like, 1906, and wanted advice: "What should I do? What should I do with my life?" It is an owner's manual on how to be an artist. I'm not kidding. This is the most eye-opening book I have ever read, by far. It was put in much more beautiful language than what I'm trying to tell you here. And it will be much more useful to you than anything I can say here.
And there's a translation to get, it's Stephen Mitchell, who is an incredible translator. He did a version of Dante's Inferno which was unbelievable. Stephen Mitchell, and it's on Vintage Press for about $9. I've given a lot of copies away. I've bought it five or six times because I keep giving my copy away. If I had an extra, I'd give it to you. Unbelievable.
Anyway, in the book, he talks about that. He says, "Everything is gestation and birthing. The tree does not force its sap, but stands confidently in the snows of winter not knowing whether spring will come. It does come." What a beautiful way of looking at…. You know, to me, the whole transcribing thing -- this whole forcing of knowledge -- is like cramming for a test.
Ok, let's say you've got two students. One guy crams for a test the night before, and he aces them. But then, who would you rather be? That guy, or the guy who doesn't cram for the test, he loves his subject matter. He's really into ants, or biology, or whatever…. He's just totally into it. So for him, it's not a matter of cramming, it's an integral, organic part of his life. It's part of why he gets up in the morning. Now, later on in life, which biologist do you want working for you? The guy who has crammed for his tests and aced them all, and it's like a gig for him? And he may be pretty good at it. But you want the guy that lives, eats, and breathes it. And it's the very same thing with music. A lot of guys never get that very simple lesson. It's not about a "skill". It's about taking the stuff in…. I mean, inescapably, it's part of who you are. If you want to be an artist, and you really want to convey something to someone else, it has to come from this place inside of you that owns it.
For me, the listening part is how you learn to own it. When you're listening to something, a good exercise I'd you to try -- something I think you might be interested in -- is to pick a piece of music out that you really like, preferably a be-bop thing. Something that's clear and crisp and doesn't have a lot of nuance to it, just a nice straight-ahead blues. Maybe a Clifford Brown thing, or Bird or something. And learn to sing every note of it. Get to the point where you could, on demand, sing the entire record. I did that for a while. Like with Clifford Brown….
[Bill sings the head of a Clifford Brown tune]
…I don't care how you sing, that doesn't matter. We're not trying to make you a singer…
[Bill continues singing]
…get so you can hear the drum part, the bass part,….
[Bill continues singing]
…this is Clifford's solo…
[Bill sings the solo]
…it sounds really silly. You'll make your parents think that you've gone totally off the top…
Vince: They're already there.
Bill: …good, then you've already got them to document it… So that it's just inside of you. Then you don't need to transcribe it. It'll just start flowing out of you. But you have to own it. A couple times won't do it. You have to play it and play it and play it. And again, even there, not because you're trying to get some thing out of it -- I used to just play stuff because I wanted to hear it fifty times. It's like a drug. It's like tap the vein and stuff it in. Over and over and over. Same thing, fifty times. So that's….you kind of have to be obsessive. I never used to know that about myself…I know not everyone is like that [When I was a kid], I was like, "Mom, I gotta hear it again, and again, and again!" It would be the same tune over and over, and my mom was like, "Stop!! I can't hear this tune again! No, not Frank Sinatra again!" And my mom loves Frank, but I would play the same record fifty times. My mom would come down the spiral staircase: "Turn that shit off!" He's doing it again…
Vince: Do you ever listen to stuff and hear something you can't figure out, and then get obsessed about working it out?
Bill: Actually, there's a piece by Henri Dutilleux, a cello concerto which I highly recommend. It's hard to find, but it is available with Rostropovich playing. That was the first time I really ever had an experience of hearing something -- at least in the classical vein -- that I did not understand. It turns out it's this:
[Bill plays some extreme dense-notes phrase on the piano]
And when I heard that… it's weird, because I've noticed that you go through several phases when you hear something like that. It's like what you said, you hear something that you really love, and you don't understand, and you can't figure it out. First you go through that mystical attraction to it … I don't know, it's weird, I'm sounding so flaky here…
Again, it's like a drug, just a pure drug. And I remember sitting there with a Walkman and a tape deck in Italy, with my folks in our hotel room. Click --- rewind ---click -- listen --"Aw, it's unbelievable, what is that?" -- Click…. Not even caring what it was though. Not trying to figure it out, not sitting there trying to say, "Okay, there's a Eb there, and a G and a B…." No, just, "Oh my god -- that is unbelievable. It just fills me with the big thing, the big 'yes'."
Then, you go to that second phase, "Now I've got to figure out what makes it tick. How does it work?" And it's kind of a drag, because it kills it. You never hear it again the same way. That's why while that experience is happening -- of just pure wonder, of it being new, that you don't understand -- enjoy it. Because as soon as you pull it apart, it will never be the same again. You'll never listen to that piece of music in the same way again. It's too bad, but it is somewhat like E.B. White said about dissecting humor: "Dissecting humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested, and the frog dies."
Well that's what happens when you start to dissect it. And I got the score for it! I sent to Paris for the damn score, it took six weeks to get here. And I started pulling it apart, reading it and checking out, seeing how….and I had the whole thing, there it was in front me. And it was great, I still love the piece, but it's never the same again. I mean it's necessary -- I'm not saying you shouldn't do it, but just recognize that the process takes you through to this other place where now you own it, but in owning it, it no longer carries that mystical thing to it. It was a new world that you weren't familiar with. Now you're familiar with it. Once that connection is made you can't take it back. You can't take it back and have it be unfamiliar again.
There are a few pieces that remain unfamiliar no matter what you do. There are a couple of great one that are like that, where no matter how many times you listen to them, they just always have that timeless thing to them. They're always a new world, even when you know exactly what's going on. One of them is Mozart's Fortieth. I've listened to that a thousand times, I don't know, more, and it never loses its spell. I know what they're doing. I understand every note of it, but so what -- still, those are rare. Mozart, and a couple things of Ives and Prokofiev are like that. There's something about Romeo and Juliet…
I could give a laundry list of records. I don't know how much money you have, but go to town. I used to work in record stores so I could get records.
Vince: Good discounts?
Bill: Yeah, but you never go home with any money. I worked at Tower Records in the Village, and I blew half my paycheck there every week. I ate macaroni and cheese every night, I just wanted these records. I had a stash going there the size of this piano.
So, you go through those phases. Buy a lot of scores -- if you want to learn the classical harmonic thing like what I'm doing…I mean I can't really just sit down and show it to you, I mean, and I don't care, it's not a matter of protecting my….
Vince: But, are you synthesizing as you go along all the time…
Bill: What does that mean?
Vince: Are you just "composing" on the fly?
Bill: Yeah, yeah. That's what it is. When I play a ballad, I'm just composing. [Bill plays a few plaintive harmonies]… Give me a ballad.
Vince: How about "Body and Soul"
[Bill plays a haunting rendition of "Body and Soul", with his characteristically much-developed harmonies]
..it's like, using the melody and the bass … and then just composing. That's the way I look at, that the piano is just a big orchestra, and you get all those moving voices. And it takes time, man. It's not something where you can just… I can give a couple things to think about. Maybe "tricks", or ways of getting you started. Try thinking of the bass and the melody…
[Bill plays more "Body and Soul" like before, RH pinky outlining the melody, but with lush mid-voices]
Vince: So you have bass and melody, and are filling in the inner voicings?
Bill: Yep. I'm just moving them around. And one thing that you could do that works sometimes is…
[Bill plays an (essentially) four-voice harmony, rooting the bass (1st) note and the 3rd note, and exploring parallel motion in the 2nd and 4th voices]
Ever go to church much?
Vince: (hesitantly) Uh, not much lately…
Bill: Start going. Go once and steal a hymnal.
Vince: I have a hymnal.
Bill: Good. Crack it out. Read a couple of cool tunes because there's a lot of shit to be learned there. We do a couple of tunes, I do the Navy Hymn, I don't know if we did it this last time [at the gig].
[Bill plays the Navy Hymn]
…that's in there. That's in the hymn book. Check those out, because you'll find a lot of stuff….. Oh, I know what I was going to show you. Practice this -- this is actually an exercise you can practice -- holding notes in the middle, like a C minor chord:
[Bill plays more parallel motion while two notes are held…sometimes motion is in 1st and 3rd, sometimes 2nd and 4th]
…I'm kind of combining the two things I'm trying to tell you, I guess. The hymn part of it, which is…
[plays some hymn-like accompaniment to a melody: motion in bass and mid-voices take turns, following melody motion]
…so that's one thing. And play with… these two fingers (2nd and 4th voices) together in motion… [plays]....or just your "thumbs" (2nd and 3rd voices) …[plays] … not necessarily just your thumbs.. [plays]…It a good thing to practice just to start to hear… start to make your finger feel like that's possible, like that's a possibility, instead of thinking purely in a "jazz way", which is more….
[Bill plays LH chord, RH melody stuff]
…that's nice. You need to be able to do that too. I certainly came up doing a lot of that too, but, to me, that way of playing is "dead"….
Vince: …it's been done… ?
Bill: …better than I'll ever do it. And it's not what I hear. At some point I had to make this break -- maybe you will too -- make this break with what is "okay", with what is acceptable. I got to the point finally, where, to be perfectly honest, I didn't give a shit if it's "okay" or not. It's what I hear, so this is what I do. And ….you pay for that. But you sleep really well at night -- usually ….
Vince: Do you ever explore ideas purely on a mechanical basis?
Bill: ..like a shape?…
Vince: …Not so much listening, but almost the mechanics of how you're playing, or yeah, the idea of a line or something…
Bill: …like.... [Bill plays a descending four-note diminished lick]…that kind of stuff, like licks?
Vince: …yeah, do you ever get into playing where you're just…. It's almost not even thinking about what you're playing. Maybe that's even anti- what you're trying to do…
Bill: No, no, that's exactly what I'm trying to do. Actually the playing without thinking is exactly what I'm trying to do. If you get this where… when I'm playing the best, I'm just leaning out over the piano, and I'm not even thinking about my hands or anything, it just comes out, it just starts pouring out of me. Those are the nice moments, that's the part you live for. So, I'm not thinking of anything. It's just pure music, just here it comes, you know.
So, actually, when I'm not playing so well is when I'm thinking -- like you're saying -- "Well, gee, I could do this thing, or I could do this thing, and then I could hit 'em with this, and do this…." That's not… thankfully I don't do much of that anymore, man. I'd rather just suck than to do that. I'd rather just have a bad night than to let myself go into that, "I'll hit 'em with this, then I'll hit 'em with this…"
Vince: Do you ever find yourself limited by technique? Like, "here's what I hear, but I can't play it"?
Bill: Oh, absolutely.
Vince: And then do you work on that, or what?
Bill: I don't worry about it. There's always going to be stuff you can't do. Like I say, hopefully I'm getting to that point as an artist -- for myself -- where I'll be able to have that technique. I'll be able to use that power wisely. Right now, I'm not there. I can tell, emotionally I'm not. I'm not ready for that. So I'm just kind of… I'm getting close though. I'm feeling like I can go back to work now and really do some serious practicing and really get my hands together again, like they were when I was twenty. When I was twenty, I had way more chops than I have now.
Bill: Oh, hell yeah.
Vince: Just because you were playing all the time?
Bill: I was playing all the time and was practicing a lot more, and I was younger, and faster. I'm thirty-four now, I was twenty then…I could ride a bike all day and never think about it, I could… you know, all that stuff that you can do when you're that age, you just don't think about it. And now, I ride my sled [snowmobile] one day and I can't even walk.
So, I hope I'm getting to that place, but right now, I don't [practice]. So I'd rather… yeah,… [Bill hushes the family dog, who is barking..] So, that's why I'm reluctant, when you come in for a lesson, to sit down and [say], "Over C you can do this: [plays a tortured five-note voicing]…" You have to arrive at those decisions on your own, you have to do your own thinking and your own research. I can't just plug it in, and I wouldn't want to because then you end up….
Vince: It almost gets to the point where [you say], "Here are the twelve notes…."
Bill: It's your own world…
Vince: ..do whatever you want with them.
Bill: Right. Exactly. So the highlights are: love what you're doing. If you lose the love for it -- you know, that almost "horny-ness" for it, then do something else. And be true to what you want to hear, and then…. Drink milk.
Vince: It does a body good.
Bill: Doesn't it though? So I guess as far as a lesson, what I want to see "next time", is I'd like to have you…
Vince: Yes, give me meat…
Bill: I'm going to give you some goals now. I'd like you to have at least one tune, maybe more -- more would be better, extra credit will be awarded -- for being able to come in, play me a tune, and sing along with it. Put it on the tape deck there, and as it's playing, you'll sing it. The drum solo, whatever, everything that's on there, you'll sing it. The bass part… you don't have to sing so good to sing the bass lines, but…. Although, for a while I started to study how bass lines work. It's an interesting little thing, there's a sneaky little art to that, playing good bass lines. You can go, [sings a very step-wise line], or you can go, [sings more angular line to rhythm changes]. For a while, I went to school on bass players because I've got to play with them, I want to know what they're doing. I want to understand how they work so I can relate to them better. When we go to play, I'll know more what they're doing.
It would be like, if you were married, wouldn't you like to be a woman, for a weekend, so you know what they're thinking? Wouldn't that be great? You'd go back to being a man, but you'd carry with you all that … "their world". We all have a different world. Bass players' have got their world, their things, their problems, their natural hang-ups on the instrument. Like the sexes. You could learn about them, and take it back …. You know, if every man could be a woman for a week, they'd be a better man. And vice versa. So just knowing how the other side works helps you know how you work.
That was kind of flaky, wasn't it?
Bill: So, yeah, so pick up on bass players, pick up on drums. I practice drums. I bought myself a set and a I play.
Bill: Absolutely. And my piano playing is better because of it. I've noticed it. My piano playing is better from the drumming that I've studied. It helps me understand another part, a "third sex", the "drum sex". They're like the pure rhythm, and then the piano and the bassist. The bass is like the underpinning, and then the piano is like the whole orchestral palette. And each one has its own limitations and its own strengths and weaknesses…… Whether it's a piano player that plays too harsh, or a drummer that plays too loud, or a bass player who plays the bow and shouldn't. Everybody's got an instrument that can be defiled if they wanted to.
Vince: Do you ever write for ensembles? Or do you consider yourself mainly a soloist?
Bill: I've written for …. I wrote a string piece. Pretty involved, like seven or eight minutes long. It came out okay, it was years ago. Not for school, just because I wanted to. And I'm thinking about doing a record with Anton Denner… we're going to do a record of hymns and Christmas carols with a chorus. Him and I swirling around a chorus. We did this out at the "Golden Rule" House last year. The singers just happened to show up. They were caroling around the neighborhood while we were recording, and we invited them in by pure chance. We just told them to start singing some of their carols, and Anton and I played around them, kind of swirled around them. They were kind of like the set piece. The chorus was like thirty girls from a local college. And they just started singing their thing, "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and Anton and I just kind of flowed around them and did our thing. It turned out really cool. And I want to go to the studio and actually lay that out, but to do that it'll cost some money. Good singers that can read are hard to find, and cost money: thirty or forty buck an hour each. And you want it to be in real time too, so you can't have them singing parts on a set piece and record over it afterwards. Can't do that. I don't even like to splice two original recordings.
Vince: That seems really hard to do in the first place.
Bill: Not any more, not with ProTools and all that other stuff. They can cross-fade them and blend them, it's unbelievable. I watched one of them do it to one of my records, he said, "Just listen to this if we do this…" and I was like, "No, we're not doing that…" and he goes, "Well just listen to it." And it was flawless. You couldn't tell. If I was not there and hadn't played [the recorded song] myself, I would not know that it had been blended together, these two. The ending of one and the beginning of the other had been blended together. Unbelievable. I was like, "Do I even need to play this stuff, or can you just generate it?"
Vince: Our bass player does a lot of bluegrass, and he went in the studio and the vocals were flat. They just bend them up, and it sounds perfect.
Bill: You can harmonize as well. Madonna made her career using one of those. She sings everything through a vocal harmonizer, otherwise she'd be dead in the water. Good thing she can dance, her singing is awful. But I like her music. In fact, I just bought the "Immaculate Collection", it's great. It's hilarious, I love that stuff.
Vince: I've Bill Frisell playing [Vince sings "…I learned my lesson well…" from Madonna's song "Live to Tell"]
Bill: That's one of my favorite records. That's from [Frisell's album] "Have a Little Faith". Do you have that record?
Vince: I want to get it.
Bill: There's some Ives on there.
Vince: Yeah, it's like all this American music through the lens of Bill Frisell.
Bill: Killer. Yeah, that's an amazing record, I love that record. He's my favorite…. As far as right now, I think he's the most happening thing out there.
Vince: And he was knocked, too, for all his country leanings, but it's all part of Bill Frisell.
Bill: Yeah, who gives a shit anyway. [People were all uptight] because he didn't have the "right playing" on that Nashville record, it's like, fuck you. So what? So what if he does a Nashville record? I did a Civil War record, so what? People were like, "But you're a jazz player!" No, I'm a musician. I'm an artist, I do what I want. One time it's a jazz record, the next time it's some trumpet, another time it's a Civil War record, and tomorrow it might be something else. I love bluegrass music, it's great.
That's the other thing I would impart on you: Don't let there be any rules. Don't let anybody tell you what's -- you probably don't, you seem like a pretty free thinker -- don't let anybody… The jazz Nazis tell you what's okay to listen to and what's not: "What do you mean? You can't listen to that. That's not part of the tradition…" I don't care whether it's part of the tradition.
For me, it's like what Duke Ellington said: "There's only two kinds of music -- good and bad." And it doesn't really matter what you call it, as long as it breathes. Actually, William Saroyan, he said that about all great art. He said, "It doesn't matter what you call it, so long as it breathes." And good music breathes. It's a living thing with life of its own. And bad music doesn't -- it's dead and petrified and doesn't feel like it works.
That can be found in all forms. Whether it's bluegrass… I have some great bagpipe that's killer. Yeah, great stuff. I also have a record of Myron Floren polkas that rocks. I put that on one evening and Bill Stewart had come over to the house. "I see you've got baggage," he said. No, that's not true. I like Myron Floren, so what? It's nice. He's honest.
It's honesty that I like, whether it's bluegrass, or it's polkas, or it's Miles Davis -- honesty, that's the key. And what you call it, or what instruments are used, I don't really care. It could be Jeremy Irons reading a book. If the honesty comes through, it doesn't have to have any music at all.
But get that book [Letters to a Young Poet]. I'm real serious about that.
Vince: I will.
Bill: I wish I had a copy here…What time is it?
Vince: It's 1:30.