Tony recently took part in a week long Jazz camp….read about his experience below!
We arrived at the Inside: Outside Retreat outside of Nashville, Tennessee on Tuesday evening. Our first gathering after a long day of travel was in the barn. We were told to bring our saxophones. As a way of introduction, we were to come up to the stage ten at a time. Each of us would then state our name, where we came from, and play a 30 second improv solo. Yikes! I came to this camp to learn how to improvise. I don’t exactly know how to improvise, yet. We got to pick from six different songs. I had heard of only the Stevie Wonder song, but I had no idea how to play it, nor what key it was in.
I’m Tony from Ann Arbor. I’ll play Bb Blues, please. I’m thinking, the key signature is right there in the name, so I got this. The beat starts, and off I go. When I say off, I mean I was way off. Who knew you could play wrong notes in improv? Aren’t we allowed to play whatever notes we want? Apparently the major scale doesn’t work too well in blues, and chord changes? Well, they happened, but I plowed through them like a member of a marching band mesmerized by the stadium crowd missing the sharp turn when the rest of the band shifts right. (That only happened to me once during my four years in the Michigan Marching Band.)
I was one of the first ones to (mis)play my solo. I then sat back and watched as the other 50 plus horns introduced themselves. These fellow campers came from literally all over the world. One from Toronto, another Vancouver. A German who moved to the UK. Someone from the UK who moved to Jersey. Another German who moved to Ames, Iowa because his profession was so specialized there were only a handful of places he could work. The furthest participant came from Melbourne, Australia. He’s skipping out on his winter to enjoy 90 muggy degrees here in Tennessee (where, oddly, very few people in our group were from). This is a big time camp! And the way they played their intros… Oh my. They’re here to fine tune a fantastic product. I’m here to figure out what product I’m trying to sell.
My musical ego took a very big punch in the stomach that evening. Ironically, or perhaps on purpose, I stared up at the rafters and noticed a sign encouraging us to leave the ego at the door. My ego couldn’t have escaped that barn faster if it had been on fire. I came to this camp remembering how I used to play. I was classically trained some 30 odd years ago, and in my humble opinion was pretty decent back then. Never in improv, but I figured I knew my way around the horn. How hard could it be? It turns out 30 years of my horn collecting dust didn’t help my situation. I have been back at it for a couple of years, but I’ve been playing in a basement in a classic rock band with friends – not jazz. Our only gigs were my daughter’s wedding (one well prepared song) and two band members’ kids’ graduation parties (and I was out of town for one of them).
We were to self-select our group level. Instructor, Bob F. gave us some guidelines to follow. Considering I didn’t understand half the terms he used to describe the groups, I easily selected level one wishing there were a remedial class instead. That wrapped up day one. I got in my car to check-in at the hotel. (Though I had planned to stay on site in a cabin, getting through a forest inhabited by three of the country’s four types of poisonous snakes in order to arrive at a small cabin shared by five people an arm’s length away from each other in small cots dissuaded me.) Most of the campers did stay on the premises, but, by 11:30 pm each night, I was happy to get off campus for a few hours. In fact, when I got back to civilization and saw I-40 towards home that first night…it was tempting.
Day two began with a fantastic meal. The meals, prepared by Chef Adam, were some of the highlights of my days at camp. I expected hot dogs and sloppy joes. Instead, we had lobster tail in a Florentine sauce and stuffed shells. Adam also had a comedic flare. He cracked us up before every meal. Throughout day one, our cell phones kept going off with the national emergency alarm whenever service was available to let us know there was an escaped prisoner in the area. Naturally, Adam came to lunch dressed in an orange jumpsuit. Classic.
My first sectional was with Bob R., an excellent teacher. (There were four main teachers at camp-three Bobs and Juan.) I, on the other hand, was that student who didn’t get the homework assignment done. He asked what song we’d like to play. Someone threw out an idea, and 80% of us nodded in agreement. My head was shaking the other way. We start playing, and I’m shrinking in my seat as I do not know the song. To be fair, it could have been any song, and that would have been the case. When it ends, Bob starts writing down the chord progressions using numbers. What do the numbers mean? Then he writes the name of the chords. Gm7, Cm, D triangle symbol. Apparently triangle means major scale. I know my major scales. I have forgotten my minor scales, but that’s okay. He starts talking about his friend Dorian. Who’s Dorian? Wrong question! What is dorian? Oh, just play the pentatonic. Apparently, this is not the group that harmonizes so well and plays a great rendition of Hallelujah. This is a five note scale. My head is spinning
I start to get the feeling of someone just transported to a foreign country. My eyes grew as large as saucers. My mind, taking everything in, responded by putting my body in full-blown panic mode. I needed to learn this language rapidly…like today…now!
We move on to the Moon room for session two. Juan and Russ were there with their horns. Again, we are asked, what would you like to jam to? The group picks, and off we play. Juan and Russ were more interested in having us play than the theory we picked up in session one. This makes sense. Theory only takes you so far. You can’t learn without playing. Juan could very well be the happiest person I have ever met. He always had an enormous smile on his face, and as we played, he rocked his head as if jamming to Sonny Rollins. Yet as I played, I could detect in his eyes a different reaction than his happy face suggested – especially when a note that was out of the chord range sounded. I play poker. I pick up on these tells. Outwardly, both Russ and Juan were nothing but encouraging. My ego, apparently it was still with me, wasn’t buying it though. By “it,” I mean both the encouraging words and the strained sounds coming from my horn.
On the second day of my horn making cow sounds during their jam lessons, I stopped and mentioned I just couldn’t hear the chord changes, nor could I hear how I fit with the rhythm section. Bob R. happened to be in the room at the time and suggested we sing our solos. Ha! That’s hysterical, I’m thinking. As bad as my horn may sound relative to this group, it is infinitely more melodious than anything coming from my vocal chords. Juan demonstrated a wonderful skat sound. Skat singing is apparently what it’s called when you ‘skatadee doo dop’ sing. He was fantastic and then played his horn to match the style of the skat. Amazing. Bob R. laughed and mentioned that might not have been very helpful as the brilliance of the performance would only be intimidating to us level one students. Bob R. performed a more scaled-down version. Of course, he had me do it next. I was tempted to take off my clothes at this point. It might distract them from my singing. But here’s the amazing thing. As I skatadee doo dopped through that song, I could hear the chord changes. I could see how it worked. I then tried to play it on my horn. We all did. It was an incredibly useful exercise. We all sounded better.
After these morning sessions ended, we could put our kazoos back in their cases for lunch. Our first section after lunch was with Bob H. His purpose was to get us to slow the heck down and notice our environment. Everyone should spend an hour with Bob H. Not just campers. Everyone! The world would be a better place. Barefoot and blindfolded, we walked around the forest using string as our guide. It was a fascinating exercise, and, for at least this one 75 minute period, I felt I was on equal footing with my peers. I was able to take it down a notch, but I was so revved up, I was still racing above the speed limit.
Our final group session of the day was with Bob F. The exercises and techniques he taught us were really neat. Overtones. Very cool! I had no idea that you could play an infinite amount of octaves from one key fingering on the horn as well as the fifth note of the scale above the key you’re fingering. I could actually get my horn to play two overtones. A brief moment of pride. Bob demonstrated the next seven levels on his horn, and my jaw dropped. This is one of those concepts that you can’t exactly teach. You just do. As Yoda says, “There is no try. Do, or do not!” We also learned multi-phonics. That’s right, you can play two notes at once. Just finger an A and an Eb, and two other notes join together (neither A, nor Eb). Bizzare. Ultimately, these exercises were meant to improve our sound when we played normal notes.
We got a 60 minute break before dinner. I used this time to call my wife. She could tell from the tone of my voice I was excited. Excitement is perhaps the wrong word. In an extreme mode of agitation, anxiety, and wonderment is more accurate. As I was trying to explain the day’s events, I noticed myself getting extremely emotional. I remembered my children had this reaction after their first day of preschool. They held themselves together well enough at school, but when they got home, they became psychological wrecks. I found this reaction in myself to be surprising and slightly amusing.
Bob R. wrapped up the teaching after dinner with a 90 minutes session on how to practice. That may sound silly, but it was perhaps the most important lesson of the week. I mean, don’t we all know how to practice? It turns out we do not. I took copious notes.
The day ended with jam sessions complete with a live rhythm section accompaniment. I was so unbelievably and totally exhausted to my core, I skipped out on day one, but I vowed to try it on day two, though I wasn’t sure how I’d muster the courage. Jon, from upstate New York, was instrumental (no pun intended) in pushing me past that fear. He assured me he went through the same self-doubt his first time (and still does – though he shouldn’t). He thought I’d regret it if I didn’t and reminded me that no matter how awful it is, I won’t die from it. This struck the right chord with me (pun intended). My wife and I frequently set the simple daily goal of breathing during the more difficult times of raising six children. As in, did we get through the day while still breathing? Check! Success! So, on day two, I went for it. I was awful, but I didn’t die. I was so frustrated, I decided to try again. I’m glad I did as it was the one time during the entire camp when I felt I sounded okay. I went into a weird Zen state. It just came out, and I didn’t cringe.
During the first evening back at the hotel, I got phone calls from two of my children. Both encouraged me to keep at it. They each gave an example of something similar they went through and all the wonderful things that occurred as a result. It was satisfying to hear my own advice echoing back at me through my children. This was a good moment for me. My parenting skills have improved after 25 years of dedicated effort and thought; perhaps I could also move from my novice status to a higher level of competency if I made a strong commitment to learning improv.
The next day, I had one of my favorite moments of camp. I was chilling in the Woodshed during one of our breaks. One of the bari-sax players, Jeremy, brought his guitar and started playing. Eventually, Barb, Jim, and Peter joined in with their saxes. Then, Jeremy went to the drum set and started playing both the guitar and the drums at the same time. This impromptu jam session blew me away. These folks are talented!
I spent my days trying to absorb as much as possible from everyone I encountered. I believe I learned something new from just about every camper I sat down with throughout the week. My fellow campers were super talented and had an incredible collective knowledge base. One camper was in a prestigious military band. The younger campers all seemed to be either on their way to a fantastic music school or already attending one. Props to the young man in Clemson’s marching band. (I threw a shrimp shell at him out of jealousy because while my Michigan Marching Band days took me to two Rose Bowls, there was no national championship game to march in back then.) Some of the older campers were ex-professionals.
Near the end of the week, we had the pleasure of learning from Chris Cheek and Jeff Coffin (of Dave Matthews Band fame). Both are world-renowned saxophonists. Both were surprisingly good, patient teachers considering they’re professional musicians, not educators. Chris had us playing practice exercises. This was one of the more comical moments of camp for me. He demonstrated a chromatic scale exercise at the speed of a Ferrari on the Autobahn. He then wanted us to do it. It sounded something like blah, blah, blat, splat, plunk. He waved us to stop and wondered out loud to himself what just happened. He asked just three of us to try it to see if he could figure out what went wrong. Blah, blah, blat, splatt, plunk. He then asked each of us to try alone with a metronome. Then he slowed down the metronome. I think the fastest of us was clocked at a horse and buggy pace on a dirt road in rural Tennessee.
We had a somewhat similar experience with Jeff. He had us try something well beyond our ability and then quickly adjusted his lesson plan to what we needed. Obviously, he knows how to improvise! I photographed the lesson he put up on the whiteboard and will practice daily. He showed us graphically how chord progressions could work and gave us a key to feeling the flow of the music through this exercise. It was brilliant in its simplicity.
On the last full day of camp, our groups were charged with learning two songs of our choice to perform at a concert in the evening. Two songs in four hours of practice time. Our level one group was called Atlantic. (Each group had the name of a record company.) We weren’t particularly great at this – though most of our group did have some experience. As an aside, I loved my group. We embraced where we were at and supported the heck out of each other.
Cecil, a member of our group who had previously attended camp, brought a full score for us to play complete with multiple parts for altos, tenors, and baritones. I can read music. Back in my comfort zone a bit! Then he says the name of the song is Sugar. I start belting out, in my best falsetto voice, the Maroon 5’s version of “Sugar.” “Sugar….You’re sweet!” Of course that’s not the song we played. It was a catchy jazz tune by Stanley Turrentine, and it has been stuck in my head since we left camp.
My solo would not be on this song, but rather the other tune we picked. Our very own Bob R.’s “Blues for Charlie.” We had to transcribe that music and get the chord breakdown which seemed overwhelming to do in the time we had. “Blues for Charlie” wasn’t a particularly difficult piece, but the solo part was because there wasn’t much happening behind the horn part. I spent most of my breaks that day listening to it over and over again trying to understand the beat, the rhythm, the way Bob R. played the solo himself. I wrote out the chords and figured out which notes might sound okay. I skat sang it. I did whatever I could to learn this song in the short amount of time I had.
We were the sixth group to go. The groups ahead of us were darn entertaining, and I really forgot about having to play myself. When it was finally our turn, I became terribly nervous. I mean, I have to admit, our last run through the songs without the solos sounded pretty good. I was impressed with Atlantic! The solo section started, and the first few soloists played. I stood in line waiting for my turn. The lights were on us, and we couldn’t really see the audience – which I suppose helped a bit. Finally, I had to step up to the mic and play.
This is the part of the story where everything is supposed to come together. Alas, all I can say is I didn’t die. The concepts I wanted to play never came out. Something did. I hit a few wrong notes. It was awkward. It wasn’t me. The first instruction given at the start of camp was to find your voice. Be yourself. I didn’t find it out there that day. I don’t think I have enough mastery of the fundamental building blocks to truly be myself yet. It’s a good goal though.
When our performance was over, I felt numb. I wasn’t depressed, but I may have looked that way. Perhaps somber is a better word. I don’t know. I’m having a difficult time understanding what exactly I was feeling. In some ways, I felt I failed. But not really. Not completely. This was difficult, and I was proud I stuck it out. Relief had to be one of my emotions. At least it was over. The solo was by no means good. I knew that. But the reality was I hadn’t earned it yet. The talent that my fellow campers had came from thousands of hours of training their ears. I sounded like a second grader learning a new language because that’s where I was in this journey. That’s okay. I now have the tools and the direction. I love jamming with my friends, and now I know what to work on and how to improve when I play with our group. That’s exciting. That’s what this camp was all about for me, so it was worthwhile and meaningful. I hope to return some day with more of the building blocks in my arsenal. Until then….