The Book Cooks
Excerpt from

The Music Mind Experience
Karl Berger
(Creative Music Studio; Woodstock, New York)

Chapter 9: Our Personal Touch

“What is most personal is most universal.” Carl R. Rogers, psychologist

Many years ago, at a festival in Italy, I was sitting in the back of a concert hall, answering the questions of a journalist while a piano technician was working on stage, tuning the piano for a recital by Rudolf Serkin. We were far enough away that the constant hammering of notes was not disturbing our conversation. All of a sudden, though, the notes took on a distinctively different sound. I looked up and saw Rudolf Serkin by the piano, playing those notes. There was such an uncanny difference in the sound that I’d have thought that Serkin was playing on a different piano.

RM: That story reminds me of a similar story you have told me about hearing Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk on the same piano.

You’re right. That was an amazing experience. I was at the Village Vanguard in New York sometime in the ‘60s. The Bill Evans Trio and the Thelonious Monk Quartet were both featured that night. There couldn’t have been a starker difference of tone between two piano players. I would have sworn that they were playing two different pianos if I hadn’t seen with my own eyes that there was only one piano on stage. Monk had a way of literally bending notes like no one else I have ever heard. He could make a piano sound out-of-tune. You would never describe Bill Evans’ playing in that way. When Bill started his set, the piano sounded perfectly in tune, and no one tampered or tuned the piano between sets. It was mind-boggling.

RM: I think of all the musicians I know who seem to be obsessed with their musical instruments. Sort of, “If I only had the Weezerphone 2200, man, then I’d play real good.” But I remember trying out a new valve trombone and inviting my teacher, Bill Holmes, who was a member of the US Army Blues, to help me compare horns. I pulled out the new trombone along with the other two horns I had. We both agreed that the new horn was more responsive and more fun to play, but I do recall that Bill, the seasoned professional, sounded very good on all three horns.

That’s a very good point. And I’ll bet Bill sounded like Bill on all three horns.

RM: Absolutely. From the beginning, the ideal for jazz players has been to cherish personality, a sound that was unique and that distinguished the player from others playing the same instrument. There could not be a starker differentiation of sound and diction between, let’s say, tenor saxophone players in jazz than Ben Webster to Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane.

RM: Let’s talk about classical musicians and personality.

While classical soloists are known for their distinctive sound and rhythmic phrasing, orchestral instrumentalists are more expected to conform to stylistic conventions. First of all, there is the convention of intonation. All instruments are expected to play, with as much precision as possible, the “tempered tuning” that was invented right around J.S. Bach’s time. The piano strings are tuned that way, and all instruments use these twelve pitches per octave. This makes it harder for classically trained players to experience each note as the harmony of partial tones or “harmonics” and to accept variations in tuning as something acceptable. We already talked a bit about that in Chapter 5, “Our Sense of Sound and Harmony.”

Another convention is the idea that a great classical orchestra should sound like one big instrument – an acoustic organ, if you will. The conductor is fully in charge of all details of the music’s articulation; all details of phrasing, timing, and dynamics are up to the conductor, not the player. Classical orchestra players will talk about the unique thrill that comes from a section playing completely in sync. They often say it is a feeling like no other.

Still, everyone has a distinctive sound, however subtle the differences may be. In the special world of the classical orchestra, all other energies of personal expression are channeled into a complete empathy with the personal expression of the conductor. But classical music offers ample chances for personal expression in chamber and solo music, where the conventions are sometimes challenged to the brink by creative players.

RM: But isn’t it the ideal in any music that melodies are played together, with as much unison phrasing as possible?

We touched upon that in Chapter 5 too. We find very different ideas about playing a melody together in many parts of the world. There is a story of a conversation between a classical conductor and Sun Ra, the famous leader of a jazz-based avant-garde orchestra. The conductor was talking to Sun Ra about the ideal of orchestras sounding like one instrument. Sun Ra responded, “When I have 100 players, I want to hear 100 players.”

We invited a Tibetan musician to offer a demonstration of Tibetan melodies at the Creative Music Studio. He responded that he couldn’t do so alone, because the music required two players minimum, so a duo of two double-reed instruments similar to bassoons played. He explained that for them music was what happened between the two instruments when they played the same melodies together but each in his own timing. The sound that occurred between the instruments was the music.

RM: I could use a little clarification.

They purposely did not play in unison. One might play a passage a little slower than the other. Notes were not sounding at the same time. Sometimes these differences were subtle and sometimes not subtle at all. And they might tune their instruments in ways that we might consider to be “out of tune.” What they were creating found its richness in the differences.

RM: I’ve never heard of that.

It generally isn’t a part of Western tradition, but I’ve heard similar ways of playing music in other parts of the world.

RM: In a related way, I think Ellington would have agreed with Sun Ra’s desire to hear all 100 of his musicians. I’ve read that he would rewrite arrangements in order incorporate the unique sound and personality of his players. It is no wonder that so many players were with him for decades.

Yes, Ellington was able to blend sound while honoring not only the players’ unique sound but also their personal styles of articulation and phrasing. The same is true for other jazz orchestras, such as Count Basie’s, that have played together for years and years. These were orchestras of individuals, all of them amazing soloists in their own right. And there are many examples of these principles at work in modern jazz and, of course, all music that crosses the boundaries of styles.

RM: It looks like the stylistic conventions and traditions that you are talking about also created a mentality of strict rules. As a kid, I loved to draw, and I tried to paint. There was an art teacher in my small town who taught oil painting. I wanted to study with her. I think I must have been nine or ten at the time. My Mom said she didn’t think that would be a good idea. She went on to say that all the paintings she had ever seen by students of this teacher tended to look like everyone else’s. I didn’t know enough to thank my mom then, but if she were still around, I would thank her now.

Your mom was onto something! I think she understood what I think of as “ground floor” education where the fundamentals of making music or painting reside. I doubt that art teacher had in mind to help her students find their own ways of expressing themselves.

RM: But boy, could they ever paint the heads of collies! At least those were the paintings that I saw from the kids who studied with her.

I remember a class at a university in Massachusetts, where I encouraged a classical piano student to look for her own way of phrasing a melodic line by singing it and then following her own peculiar way of phrasing this line on the piano. She responded, “Can you really do that? My teacher always tells me exactly how to phrase each note.” That teacher was also stuck in his own experience of the classical music conventions, rather than encouraging his students to follow their own feelings.

RM: That does raise a question. I often see art students at galleries trying to copy the works of the masters. In fact, the National Gallery in London did an exhibit of Picasso’s work copying the masters, and then presenting the ways in which he transformed those works into pieces that were truly Picasso. What can help music students learn from the masters and still find their own voices?

There are many levels of learning. One important one is imitating others. Actually, a lot of what we learn seems to start that way. We learn to walk and talk that way. Still, in the end, our way of walking and talking comes out different from others. And it does so quite naturally. We don’t have to learn to be different. We are different. We can’t help it. No matter how well we copy someone else’s playing, we will never be able to do so perfectly. Our personal nature will always shine through.

For some of us that is a matter of intense frustration. Never being able to play the way of this or that master might translate into, “I’ll never be as good.” We just can’t seem to believe then that our own way is worth pursuing. We all go through these feelings of doubt and uncertainty. A good teacher will encourage the students to trust their natural ability to develop their own interpretations, compositions, and improvisations. We all are infinitely more talented than we’ll ever realize in one lifetime. Once we get in touch with our own voice, our own ways, we simply have to stay with it. It is not a matter of an overnight revelation. It is a process – and one that never ends. Uncovering your personal nature and building complete confidence in it is a lifelong process of listening and learning. I have been at this for more than fifty years, and I am still learning new things about it.

To me there is no stylistic hierarchy in personal expression: we develop confidence in what wants to come out of us. That could be interpretations of songs that others have played a thousand times before, or it could be something entirely different, or anywhere in between.

And there is something else: by emulating master musicians whom we like, we more or less subconsciously also learn about the fundamentals of music-making, such as subtleties of articulation, phrasing, dynamics, tension-release, intricacies of timing, and sound production.


© 2022 Karl Berger


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