In 2008, Dave Douglas and I traded a few emails regarding his thoughts about ear training. That correspondence eventually led Dave Douglas to write an article about the practice of ear training, which he published on his blog. Since that time, I haven't communicated with Dave Douglas directly, but I have continued to read his blog and listen to his music. And he remains one of my favorite modern-day jazz musicians.
When I heard that Dave Douglas was going to be in town for a concert with the Georgia State University big band, I knew it would be an ideal opportunity for me to finally meet him in person. After asking around, I learned that he was going to be teaching a few master classes prior to the concert. I would have loved to attend his class on improvisation or his class on the music business, but due to previous commitments the only class I could attend was about composition.
MY EXPERIENCES WITH COMPOSITION
Over the years, I've written about twenty original tunes. Almost all of those compositions were written during a period of a few years, back when I lived in Chicago. The first few tunes were for a funk group that I played in during my second year of college. Once the funk group disbanded, I joined a jazz combo and I wrote a few more tunes for that group to play. The jazz combo lasted for about a year, and when it ended, I quit playing the trumpet and took up the guitar as my primary instrument. I also began playing the drums in a rock group.
The rock group inspired me to write a dozen more tunes. I never did anything with those tunes, but in my youthful imagination, I was quite positive they'd someday make their way onto my debut singer-songwriter album; an album which critics would inevitably compare to David Bowie's "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars." If not for its similar stroke of genius, then perhaps because it shares the same number of tracks.
Anyway, while sitting in Dave Douglas' composition master class, it dawned on me that I haven't composed any new music since I started playing the trumpet again, back in 2002. Why haven't I written any new music in ten years? I guess the best response I have is, "Why should I write something new?" I mean, what's the point? I'm not playing in public anymore. I'm not in a band. And I'm not going to record an album. And if I did record an album, I'd probably just rip off a bunch of Mace Hibbard's tunes (that guy can write!). My point is, if I wrote music today, nobody would ever hear it, so why bother?
To be clear, when I talk about "composition" I'm referring to the act of creating and writing down a new piece of music. While the act of improvisation also includes the creation of new music, there is a big difference: Improvisation is instantaneous. When you're improvising, you don't have the luxury of editing, nor can you think something through for a few days. In composition, however, you can take your time, changing your mind as often as you like until you're satisfied with the final product. Given this significant difference, composition uses a unique set of skills that don't really apply to my goals as a jazz improviser. At least, that's what I thought before the master class!
THE IMPORTANCE OF COMPOSITION
As I'd learn in Dave Douglas' master class, there are several ways in which composition can improve my skills as a jazz improviser. My favorites include:
Finding my sound
Most great jazz musicians have a unique sound or style of playing that sets them apart from everyone else. I'm definitely not a great jazz musician, but I'd still like to have an original quality to my playing that I can call my own. At least, I'd like for my sound to be characterized by something other than my inability to play above the staff. For the time being, that seems to be my trademark!
Due to the fact that improvisation is instantaneous, it can be difficult to develop a unique sound entirely while improvising. If I have an idea in my head that I'd like to play while improvising, I have a split second to think about it before it comes out of my horn. And if the idea is beyond my ability to play accurately by ear, I'll probably just ignore it and play something simpler. But what if something about that idea might help me develop as a musician and get me closer to my sound? This is where composition comes in handy.
By composing on a regular basis, we're more likely to have original ideas at a time when we can work them through and figure out all the notes. Those original ideas could very well be the building blocks for our original sound; a sound that might go undiscovered through improvisation alone.
Learning about other compositions
Since I don't write my own original music, I spend most of the time improvising to somebody else's compositions. Sure, I can read music and I can play along with chord changes, but that's all on the surface. Will I notice how the composer develops a simple motif from the first two measures through to the end of the piece? Will I understand how the chord progression supports the melody during the bridge? Subtle compositional nuances become more obvious when you're in the practice of composing yourself. Or to put it differently, it takes a composer to know one.
Familiarity with the art of composition will help us to more fully understand the intentions of other composers. As a result, our improvised solos might mesh better with the music and sound more like part of the composition and less like we're just blowin' through the changes.
COMPOSITION AND EAR TRAINING
When I wrote songs in the past, I'd typically noodle around on a piano, trumpet, or guitar to find ideas. Or, I'd sing something and then try to figure out the notes on an instrument before writing anything down. Regardless of where the ideas came from, I'd always rely on an instrument to help me find the notes. In the master class, however, Dave Douglas asked us to compose entirely by ear. This isn't something I would have tried before, but it turns out to be a fantastic exercise for both composition and ear training. And based on what I've said above, that means it's also useful for improvisation!
Here's the exercise: Compose a few measures of music, using a single octave of a piano's white notes from C to C. That gives you eight notes to work with (C D E F G A B C). Write everything down entirely by ear, without using an instrument to sound out any of the notes. When you're done, sing the composition aloud.
Let me just say, I love this exercise! The mix of ear training, transcription, and sight-singing really challenges your aural skills and your imagination. And, it has an infinite number of variations. If your aural skills aren't strong enough to use all of the white notes, you could begin by composing with just two or three notes (e.g. C D F). For extra variety, you could base your note selection on one of the scale modes, or you could pick a random group of notes from a chromatic scale. Similarly, you can add rhythmic restrictions, like using nothing but quarter notes. Or, you could force yourself to change meters every bar. See, the possibilities really are endless!
DAVE DOUGLAS, COMPOSER AND MUSICIAN
With about forty recordings as a leader, and even more as a sideman, Dave Douglas has a large and varied body of work that spans a number of genres. For better or worse, though, he's often classified as an "avant-garde" musician. In truth, very little of his music actually fits into that genre. There's nothing wrong with avant-garde music, but there are definitely those who see it as a haphazard, random, and perhaps unsophisticated art form. And by association, those same people tend to think Dave Douglas isn't as serious of a musician as his more traditional contemporaries. But that most definitely isn't true.
After the composition master class, there was another master class that was really more of a listening session. Dave Douglas played a variety of music, some jazz, some 20th century classical, and some world music. At the end of the session, he played one of his compositions for the 2009 SFJazz Collective. While the tune played, he wrote the entire form of the tune on a whiteboard, showing how one section built upon another, with the soloists weaving in and out. In total, the tune had about twenty different sections that seamlessly fit together to form a fully composed and carefully crafted piece of music. It was beautiful, too.
As I contemplated all that I had learned in the composition master class and as I watched the form unfold on the whiteboard, I couldn't help but think, if Dave Douglas isn't a serious musician, I don't know who is.