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Friday
Mar272009

Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate

Listening to Andy Hunt (co founder of the Pragmatic Bookshelf, author of Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, etc) at our keynote today got me thinking.  He had mentioned Clark Terry's quote "Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate" as part of the journey of going from beginner to mastery in a subject.

Ten years, roughly 10,000 hours of practice, I think was mentioned, is how long it takes to become an 'expert' in a field.  That makes sense to me.  I know I've been playing Jazz on and off now since I was in my late 20's (after progressive rock and fusion died in my head) and I can tell you I first attempted to play jazz analytically.  That failed miserably.

I was talking to my friend Roberto from work; we were discussing a piece he was interested in, and I had downloaded it.  It had a fast samba/straight 16ths feel to it, and I thought "man, that one is gonna be tough".  But after listening to my voice, I centered on the music, and felt the pulse.  I was getting myself to use the 'R-mode' or intuitive side of my brain, to start feeling the music, not analyzing it.  This switching modes from analytical to intuitive, from rational to emotional, was something we heard from Andy today, and it struck a chord.

As I get older, I realize the importance of finishing work you're working on less you have to switch to do something else.  When I was younger, I could switch between tasks almost instantly.  I guess with the advent of middle age, my mind can't do that as well.  But I do know how to get myself into a groove and get things done.  It's funny, really, that the same techniques I learned when I was 15, sitting with my drum teacher, still work today.  "If you think, you sink" was his line to me.  

If you think, you sink.  Huh.  What he was saying was, "don't analyze, FEEL."  And I think that's a problem with our society as a whole.  We've been taught, as Andy says, to be high-power analytical machines.  Crank out complex solution after complex solution.  Get 'er done.  So to speak.

It's not like that when I'm drumming.  I think I sort of cracked Andy up in the interview (coming in a few days), mentioning how, when I'm really letting my analytical thoughts go on the drum set, I'm almost making guttural noises.  He's a musician too (as you'll hear in the interview).  For what it's worth, other musicians do it.  I've heard it on a Chick Corea album (the first Acoustic band album, first cut).  Keith Jarrett does this on his music.  I've heard it in Art Blakey (listen to Caravan, on the album of the same name).  I play drums with my eyes closed in some cases, so that I can remove the distractions that might force me to focus and snap back to reality.  

I wanted to share something someone in the band sent me a while back, and everyone at work has it on their desks.  It's Monk's Rules for Musicians.  Hilarious reading, if you've ever played any jazz before, it has much truth.  Statements like "The inside of the tune (the bridge) is what makes the outside sound good", and "a note can be as small as a pin or as big as the world, it depends on your imagination".  Most of these things aren't technique.  They are little lessons on expressing yourself, and not becoming a wooden soldier.  I think for me, they tell me that you can come to Jazz from very different angles, and if you start with technique, you are in for a world of pain.

The good news here is that you don't have to start from technique.  The best rule is "don't play everything (or everytime), some music [is] just imagined".  YES.  If you listen to Miles Davis play solos, he often hangs back, throws a note out for a while to set a mood, uses what he needs to get the job done.  But he doesn't necessarily hot-dog.  Sure, Coltrane was an amazing sax player, but he played for many years before his work with Miles on Kind of Blue, or Giant Steps, or My Favorite Things.  There was a great interview series I recently found on iTunes (John Coltrane, "An Interview With"), and in the interview he mentions that he used to play horn with a friend, blowing tunes listening to records, imitating his heroes.

See, we all do that.  Andy mentioned visualization as a powerful way to practice.  He was visualizing what he wanted to sound like, attempted to make that sound, and could succeed, ultimately, and ended up creating his own way of approaching his instrument.

My wish for anyone reading this is to remember one thing: no matter how much skill you have as a musician, technologist, etc., remember that you can approach problem solving in many ways, and each one helps you peel those layers to reach truth.  In drumming, I may not play like Elvin Jones, Dave Weckl, Art Blakey, or anyone of that stature.  But I will find a path to saying what I want to say.  I hope you do the same.

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