There is no doubt that the practice of jazz and blues grounds me every day. The rhythms, the pivot of note sequences, their unexpected sounds, delight, challenge, and frustrate me.
Old habits, dormant all the years of absence, awaken as I tackle a new piece. One cannot approach syncopated rhythms or swing with the same mindset as the repetitive rhythms of a simple Bach sonata. Yet, my mind leaps in search of predictability.
What is predictable is the need for focus and effort. To become acquainted with a new piece, I sight read. I try on the piece, test my ability to follow the upper clef melody or lay down the rhythms in the lower clef. The decision to dig in and learn the piece is mine. As an adult learner, I make the choices based on appeal and intuition. Unlike the strict tutelage I endured as a child, I am as responsible for strategy and questions as my teacher.
The work is demanding, requiring inordinate patience with myself. I have been here before— at the crossroads of embracing a challenge, wondering if I have bitten off more than I can chew. The irony of learning jazz and blues is that the simplest, most basic pieces are boring.
Parts of my first book by Martha Meir, found at a local music store, were challenging enough to lead me through the frustration of fingering and counting new rhythms into a sense of possible mastery.
With increased confidence, I purchased Meir’s books 2, 3 and 4. Book 2 called out to me immediately. The piece, Misty Night Blues, infused delight like the first taste of hot fudge over vanilla ice cream. Since beginning lessons, I’ve learned to trust my instincts. Without knowing how, I make choices that work well for me.
During yesterday’s lesson, after playing a piece, Kim, my teacher, asked, “Did you notice any funky rhythms?” I had, acknowledging that I had “faked” or improvised one measure. Rendering the mix of an eighth rest, sixteenth and eighth notes all in 4 beats had frustrated and eluded me during practice sessions.
Kim reached for the music, took out her pencil and drew a straight line between every note and signature in the top and bottom measures. As I followed Kim’s mapping, my hands eased over the keys. I came away with a new keenness to tackle the “funky” parts of two other pieces. Jazz and blues demand precision. I must, in effect, contain my impulse to improvise until I master what the composer intended.
Some days, the Trump era news is so rattling, I fear I will not be able to concentrate. But once at the keyboard, beginning with a piece I know well, allowing my mind and body to merge and become entrained into the sound of coordinated rhythms, I am grateful to engage in possibility.