Friday, July 2, 2010


Well, this is the last one. At least, before Village Burial. I'm still not sure if I want to post that one. Maybe I will. But we're going to have a high quality video up soon, so we'll see...

Anyway, there's not much I can really say about learning this piece, simply because I didn't learn it. I guess I learned how to do it, but that skill wasn't learned at Peabody. I began improvising when I was really young--I think 4th grade was probably about when I started improvising, which is funny because that's also when I started studying percussion. However, I had a basic piano book that my dad used when he tried (and failed) to teach me piano, and using the little I learned from that book, I "wrote" my first piece (which was about the kids at school making fun of me, but that's a longer blog entry). Once I started taking piano lessons, I would always mess around with improvising, but to me it was nothing special. I thought I was "writing" music, which I guess I was--they were short, simple pieces that existed only for as long as I played them. I had no idea what I was doing was the same process that was used in jazz.

I got my first vibraphone in 8th or 9th grade, I can't exactly remember when. It was an old, beat up JenCo that my dad and I split the cost of. I mostly used it so I could practice the little bit of marimba I was learning in my drum set lessons, and so I could prepare the mallet parts in regionals and all-state auditions. When my dad told me I should start playing jazz, that didn't really take me much further than learning the heads to pieces like A Night in Tunisia straight out of the Real Book. I remember going to the improv class that the high school kids taught when I was in middle school, and trying to play a vibraphone solo. It was really bad, and I felt overwhelmed. I figured jazz wasn't something I would ever be very good at--trying to play the right scale to every chord just confused me! To me, "making it up as I went along" was much easier than "improvising".

It wasn't until I was in high school, and I was playing aux percussion in the what we called "Jazz II", which was the entry level jazz band in the high school. Basically, I played drum set on one or two charts, and played bongos and congas and other auxiliary instruments behind the drummer. However, every once and a while I would get a vibe chart to read, so I would get to play that. Near the beginning of the year, we played a chart called "Cubasa", in which the solo section was basically in F minor the whole time. I decided that playing scales on one chord was way easier than lots of chords like the blues form accosted me with, so I went home and started messing around in F minor. Next time we played it in jazz band, I asked if I could try a vibraphone solo.

It was a pretty big shock to me, as a 13 year old kid, to see my director and the rest of the band shocked with my solo. Nobody had any idea I could improvise, including me. So when my director said "Doug, I didn't know you could improvise," my response was "neither did I."

Basically, from that point on I decided that I was going to be a jazz vibes player. I figured out how to play over more than one chord at a time, and even put together my own jazz combo. I called it the "Blue Streak Jazz Combo". We were pretty bad, but it was fun. As I got older, I climbed up the ranks in the jazz bands. By my senior year, I was playing drum set in the top jazz band.

So, why did I go to school for classical music?

I think, in the end, I just had way too big of an ego. I thought I could waltz into any more school, be the best (or only, as it was in high school) jazz vibes player there, and even do classical music on the side. Instead, I discovered that classical music was a highly demanding world of detail and precision, and making that my focus was way more challenging and beneficial to me as a musician than being the big fish in a small pond again. Despite all the bumps in the road on the way, I was right--studying music that I wasn't making up on the spot forced me to explore lots of other sounds, colors, ideas... and made my arms move really well in the process (after nearly breaking them). It was exactly what I needed, and I'm so glad I decided to do it.

I hoped, in this improvisation, to express the relief of being done with Peabody, and perhaps what it was like to be a student at Peabody. I don't know how successful I was, especially considering there were definitely "mistakes"--or rather, chords and sounds I wasn't expecting to hear. But regardless, I was really happy with the way this one came out. Getting to close my program with an improv was basically the biggest sigh of relief I could perform!