Saxophonist John Doheny was born in Seattle Washington in 1953 but has spent much of his adult life in Canada, primarily in Vancouver and Toronto. After early experiences accompanying strippers in bars and cabarets he became a professional R&B sideman in the late 1970s, touring and recording with artists both prominent and obscure. In 1991 he returned to Vancouver and began a program of intense musical study, both in academe (Vancouver Community College, the University of British Columbia) and in the more informal area of performance. He asserts that "all human intercourse is either an opportunity to learn or to teach. Everything that I know about jazz performance (to the extent that I know anything at all) I owe to those players, teachers and students who have suffered to share the bandstand and the teaching studio with me." Since 2003, Mr. Doheny has been a permanent resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, but makes every effort to spend summers in Canada because "it's too damn hot down here then."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

My Story cont.

...or maybe not so much my "story" as an overview of my approach to teaching, and approach which has been shaped, in large part, by my own development as a player.

One of the shibboleths of the Jazz Musician is the concept of "playing what you hear," ie. the ability to play the things you hear in your head in real time. A great deal of the things we do in the practise room are related to this, all of the transcribing of solos, drills on scales, modes, and various types of arpeggiated chords, all these things are ways of inculcating a kind of 'ear/hand' (or lip, or vocal chords) co-ordination, in which the player is able to instaneously and in real time play the melodies in his or her head.

Unfortunately this sometimes gives people the idea that all that stuff, those brilliant ideas, is already in there, and that all that is needed is the mastery of the instrument, the "technical barriers" to allow all this genius to spill forth. The most annoying manifestation of this way of thinking (at least to me) is the 'computer dweeb' musician model, the guy who thinks he doesn't need to learn how to play or compose, because "the computer does all that stuff for you."

To me this this is a gross misunderstanding of the way learning actually works. To any real musician it is self evident that the process is synergistic, that by studying and practising music and theory and constantly learning new things, you develop your ideas and ways of musical thinking as well, so that you can hear hipper things. It's not this compartmentalized box where you put such and such in here and so and so comes out there, and yet this is increasingly how education, not just music education but all education, is perceived as working. Otherwise why this constant push to cut 'frills' like music. (we'll leave aside for another day a discussion of why it's always arts that are cut, never sports).

I can think of no clearer example of this than a story told to me by a buddy who's a high-school music teacher. Half of his job involves defending his programs against cuts by cash-strapped administrators, and yet there always seems to be plenty of money for all sorts of computer geegaws. When he asked why this was so, he was told "parents know that computers are an integral part of success in the world of work, so they want their children to have an education that familiarizes them with this equipment." My guy thought for a minute and said, "wouldn't they rather their kids have the same kind of education as the guys who invented computers? You know, one with a music and arts component?"

I suppose one reason I find this 'short cut' mentality so irritating is that, as a young player, I suffered from a particularly destructive form of it. I had some very good teachers (the late Fraser Macpherson was a towering presence in my early development) and plenty of experienced musicians around offering me sound advice. But I suffered from crippling hubris, in general thought I was too hip for the room, and heard only what I wanted to hear. The worst tactical error I made in my late teens was the assumption that emulating the personal habits of the great players, particularly Charlie Parker, would somehow magically gift me with their chops. There's no mystery to how Parker aquired his skills. He was, quite simply, an obsessive practiser, as was Coltrane and probably every other player of note. But all I heard, all I wanted to hear, was Parker's famous quote, "if you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn."

Twenty years and a great deal of wasted potential later, having finally smartened up and got clean and sober, I read the full quote. "Music is your feelings, your thoughts, your experiences. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn." I was flabbergasted. Bird hadn't been saying I had to be more like him. He'd been saying I needed to be more like me. Since that moment, nearly twenty years ago now, I've stuck to the real winning combination, diligent practise with no chemical distractions.

That doesn't mean it's been all beer and skittles since then. My fat head still gets in my way, and I have to be very careful to really listen to what people tell me when I ask for advice. In New Orleans, I constantly find myself going head to head with brilliant players much younger than me, and I sometimes get scuffed up pretty bad in jam sessions. It's tempting to just go home and sulk, or maybe find some ways to occupy my time that aren't quite so hard on the ego, but instead I try to make a point to ask musicians whose playing I admire for tips and advice on what and how to practise, regardless of whether they are 20 or 30 years younger than me. In this way I've found myself in line for hearing, truly hearing some good suggestions, but at the back of all of them is the same principle. While hard work alone won't get it for you (all the practise in the world is wasted if you're just playing what you already know) and a great deal of success is tied up in how you practise, the bottom line is quantity. Play all the time. Practise all the time. Live it, breath it, sleep it. That's how the greats did it. There are no shortcuts.

Comments on "My Story cont."


Blogger Ellen said ... (10:34 AM) : 

Have you read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers? He posits that it requires at least 10k hours of practice before someone can become a true master (at anything), regardless of innate talent. Sounds like what you're saying, too.


Blogger Meretricious Consideration said ... (6:23 PM) : 

Interestingly enough, I was going to post pretty much the same exact comment. --Cassandra


Blogger John Doheny said ... (12:05 PM) : 

Haven't read the book, but did hear the author talking about it on CBC Radio Canada when playing up there last summer.

It's interesting, and probably worthy of a complete post, how and why these things are in any way "controversial" or even a surprise. Musicians and athletes know this whole 'talent' thing is a lot of hooey. If there is such a thing, it's not in any kind of inborn "musicality" but in an ability to truly enjoy 'playing' on the instrument.

In fact, the athletic analogy is a good one. Nobody had to force great athletes to "practise" their sport for set periods every day, those were people who, even as little kids, were out the door and on the basketball court or whatever as soon and for as long as possible. These are people who LOVE to play. Musicians, same deal.

Unfortunately the "American Idol" culture functions on a different paradigm, one where 'natural talent' is inborn, unnecessary to develop through study and practise, and simply needs a "lucky break" to catapult the talented one to fame and fortune.

It's all a shuck of course. The winners on that show are pros, whether they have careers already or not. They're pros in the sense that they've spent thousands of hours developing their musicality, in the practise room, the church choir etc. They're not just schmucks who like to sing in the shower and got lucky.


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