Monday June 4, 2012

It’s 10:30 pm.  I just got back from rehearsal.  Today we practiced Vai’s “I Would Love To” and “Ultra Zone.”

In the rehearsal hall with Vai (in the background with Dave Weiner) - learning Ultra Zone intro

In the 10-plus hours I was in the practice hall, there were 2 moments — two things — I was actually able to play.  I’ve since forgotten what they were, but I remember the sense of elation and ability.  The rest of the time I was flailing.

I’m so far out of my comfort zone – so far out of my natural-ability-zone.  And almost none of what I’m doing is anything I trained my whole life to do.

I keep wishing my jazz-intensive students could see me experiencing this kind of shell-shocked disconnect, because it’s exactly what I see them experience when they first begin studying with me – a sense of getting nowhere, flailing, demoralized, idiocy – that sense of “My God! Did I ever actually think I was a functioning musician???”

All of which I am experiencing.

When I see my students experiencing it, I know it’s just their brain shifting from an old way of knowing music to a new way, and that the deep sense of disorientation and uncoordination is part of making that shift.  I know that the things that seem obvious to me, are often completely invisible to them until the structures finally become clear in their minds.

Until then, it’s like trying to build a box out of fog.

I’ve never listened to or played Rock, and I have no idea how different Steve Vai’s work is from other rock artists.  To my ear it sounds like the virtuosity and compositional structure of Franz Liszt transported to the 21st century and combined with the raw drive and harmonic  angularity of Mussorgsky.  It’s music that must be played note-for-note exactly, with huge energy and drive, to support a virtuoso who’s passionate and exacting.

It all has to be memorized.  It all has to be played verbatim.

And none of it is written down.

There’s no chart, manuscript, or sheet music of what I need to play, except what I’ve written myself with the help of Berklee Music student Andrew Pevny, who helped me create basic charts before I left Boston and to whom I will be eternally grateful for that.

I’m not a note player.  It’s one reason I left classical music and shifted to jazz. 

The concept of playing specific notes has never made sense to me.  For me, music exists as a structure for improvisation, or as the emotional expression of a story.  So I’m completely out of my element.  I’ve simply never thought of music this way.

It’s also completely not ‘harpistic’ … yet.  That’s the beauty of the situation.  It’s also part of the huge difficulty.

Simply remembering the different tuning hybrids I use for each tune is a memory task.  Then there’s the enharmonic changes within each tune (substitute notes I need to figure out if my instrument doesn’t have the notes I need)and in a few cases, I use a Whammy pedal to create some fast chromatic shifts.  These are the kinds of memory tasks you’d normally ‘program’ into a synth – but I have to program my brain somehow.

So the down-side is that I constantly feel like an utterly unskilled musician with the memory of a sieve (except for those few bright moments each day).  And everyone keeps giving me advice on how I should go about learning the music, as if the problem is that I don’t know how to learn.   When in fact the problem for me is the huge overload of a completely new kind of material (for me), and that I need time and – most importantly – reference points so I can work out the coordination for an instrument that has absolutely no traditions or standards for this kind of music.

There are at least 3 steps I need to take before I can start ‘learning’ it.

The upside is that this an experience I could never pay for, an incredible opportunity to be pushed to learn, to develop.  And so long as the rest of the band can handle how long it takes me to get it all, the experience and the learning is all beyond the value anyone could place on it.  

And I can feel that it’s working my mind.  Not in ways that make it seem like I’m getting any ‘better’ from day to day — but I observe that my thinking is different.

For example, my brain now thinks that there’s a specific place in the room where my shoes go.  Anyone who’s ever lived with me will know what a radical difference that is for me.

So if I can somehow take that small sense of certainty and infuse the music with it, maybe I’ll feel like I have someplace I can stand in this music, without constantly finding myself face down on the floor.

Or maybe I should just learn to enjoy the smell of the floor.


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