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Learning the Language

David Berger



I know I'm going to get a lot of flack for this column, but I think it's important. A few weeks ago I got a phone call from a friend of mine who manages a big band that had just rehearsed a couple of charts of mine. She said there was confusion because of my limited use of notated articulations. 


Her husband, a fine trombonist in the band, called me when he got home and explained that he was experienced enough to know how to interpret the music, but that several others, including the leader, were clueless. He went on to say that I would have more success selling music to school bands if I would mark every note with an accent, a short or long and a dynamic. He went on to say that high school band directors generally don't know much or anything about jazz, and will need this information. He has a good point, but here was my response.


When we learn how to read English in first grade (Dick and Jane books for my generation, Bob's Books for my grandkids), they don't have phonetic spelling for each vowel. Kids are taught the pronunciation of certain words, which are committed to memory pretty quickly through repetition. Then these brilliant young 6-year-olds begin to recognize the same patterns in other words, and before long, they can read English. 


Of course, none of this would be possible if they had never heard English spoken. As infants, they heard their parents and older siblings speaking English, and they strove to emulate them, and then to express their needs using the words they learned.  This is the natural way that languages have been passed down for millennia. 


Similarly, jazz was passed down the same way for generations; we listened to it, we imitated it and then we learned to read it. In order to make the music readable and afford players some creative license, articulations and dynamics were kept to a minimum. It was assumed that we knew how to speak the jazz language, and we would apply our knowledge to interpreting the written music. 


It was assumed that we knew when to swing eighth notes, which notes to accent, and which to slur. Quarter notes were generally played short, and eighth notes were full value except when followed by rests. Crescendo as the line goes up and diminuendo as you descend. All this can be taught in 15 minutes. It's not rocket science. Playing an instrument at a virtuoso level with sensitivity and great emotion—that's more like rocket science, especially if you are improvising at the same time.


When I was a kid, I attended Hebrew school for three years. We learned how to read the language and we absorbed a limited vocabulary, which included all the prayers we encountered in our various religious services. In temple we would read from the prayer book, and we understood what we were reading. 


On the opposite page was a written transliteration of each prayer for those people that couldn't speak Hebrew and couldn't read the Hebrew alphabet. Those poor souls would read phonetic English letters and say approximately the Hebrew prayers, but with absolutely no understanding of what the words meant. This always seemed absurd to me. 


Now I see this same absurd situation in jazz. Musicians and students who are too lazy to learn the language want it spoon fed to them, so they can sound like they know what they are saying, but of course, they don't.  


If I were to become an opera singer, the first thing I would do is move to Italy and learn to speak Italian like a native. How else could I ever be convincing playing a role in a Verdi or Puccini opera? Since those are my favorite operas, it would be a labor of love to learn the language.  


There are no shortcuts to greatness. There are no fakers at this level. We want to hear the authentic, real McCoy. I know some jazz educators will disagree with what I've said, but I'm not in the business of handing out a trophy to every kid on the team or awarding diplomas to students who don't pass the final exams. Jazz is fun, but it takes hard work and practice or you're just pretending. God knows when you're pretending, and so does the audience.

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  • Michael Parkinson on

    Hi, David. Thanks for the article. Over the years, I’ve come to believe in editing the parts and scores more – putting the accents, crescendos, falls, note releases (as in -4). Why? A lack of rehearsal time is the biggest reason and more students coming into big bands with much less prior experience. The most important question that a band director has to be able to answer and then get the students to answer is “What do you want it to sound like?” So, in reality I totally agree, but in reality I prep the parts – and I give them links to as many recordings as possible…. Keep on keeping on….

  • Bobby Sanabria on

    WELL SAID!!!

  • David Beatty on

    Thanks for the article. It has certainly provoked me to thinking about this subject. As a veteran of many big bands many years as a professional music copyist, and now a music educator, this topic is certainly of interest to me. First, I think the issue of how much or how little to notate expressions, dynamics and articulations is one that is shaped by the computer age in which we live. As someone who navigated the transition from hand-written to software-generated music notation I have observed changes in expectations among players. As hand copying went the way of the buggy whip, and Finale/Sibelius/Logic/etc began to be widely used,I noticed players began to demand much more information on the page and have it printed in a very exacting way. Here are a couple of examples: The original application of an accidental was that the note to which it was attached and all other octaves of that note would be altered, until the end of the measure in which it appeared or until it was cancelled by another accidental in the same measure, regardless of octave. That “rule” has undergone a pretty significant change. Players now typically apply the accidental only to the octave of the note to which it is attached. If that same note appears in another octave, players now expect another accidental. Here is a second example: One of the finest woodwind players in Los Angeles, and a great jazz player in his own right, once took me aside and complained about the spatial distance between the clef sign and the first beat of the measure on the music he was being asked to record. (It was generated by Finale, and he knew enough about the program to know it was possible to adjust that distance). I was dumbfounded to say the least. If one compares the computer=generated music most of us play now, with some of the hand-written music many of us grew up on, there is no comparison. We used to get by just fine with some pretty lousy looking music. If you don’t think the change is significant, just pass out a hand-written big band chart to a college band and watch them look at the music like it is hieroglyphics. We live in an age in which many now measure the quality of the prepared part by how much information is on the page. It often has nothing to do with the genre or whether or not the information is actually essential and helpful.

  • Jack Siegel on

    I think students (and maybe some instructors) don’t really listen enough to the greats. I learned how to swing in junior high by listening to records: Basie, Ellington, etc. When I played in the swing band in high school it just felt natural to swing.
    I very rarely put any markings in my own charts unless I want something unusual – like long quarters or sort eights.

  • Ronald S. Smith on

    Dave, as usual a good article an straight to the point.

    I think one thing I remember from my first experiences playing in a big band, was you observed, and were also told to listen to the lead player for interpretation of phrasing, and rhythm.

    There is a correlation to the symphony orchestra where the principle violinist marks the bowings and this moves all the way down to the double bass.

    As Clark Terry commented to me “from ear to mouth”. In other words if the players in the ensemble listen to the band leader, and the concept is passed to the lead players, the rhythm will seep into the players like a natural conversation. An important thing is to have the rhythm section sit in silence as the ensemble does a first reading. On the next reading the rhythm section will move the swing chi. Later the audience will pick up all the nuances.

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