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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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  • Marilyn on

    Interesting post, Dave! However, not only educators may disagree with your thoughts on articulation!? In the recording studios of the 70s and 80s, the musicians we hired to play jingles were well versed in the effects implied by the way the music was notated, and extensive articulations weren’t necessary. But over the past 30 years, their work frequency has fallen off radically and NOW if we want to hear what we’ve composed played properly, first time every time, we need to “spell it out for ’em” with accents on every note! Only that way will the interpretation be INSTANTLY and unequivocally understood and performed! Far from a means to separate the wheat from the chaff, I see what used to be considered excessive articulation as vital to getting to hear it the way I wanted it to be; I use it now because IT WORKS! ♥ XO – M

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