Thursday, March 29, 2012

Wrong Place, Right Time: How Dr. John Reminded Me To Study the Masters In Music and Writing

The other day I made a decision to study Dr. John's piano technique. For those of you who don't follow music, Dr. John is the dean of New Orleans-style piano players, and he's well versed in the history of music in his city. Here's a YouTube link if you want to hear him:

I've been familiar with his music for years, but I never took the time to study it closely. I always figured I could approximate the New Orleans style with the skills I had, but lately I've been unhappy with my solo work when playing jobs with my bands, and I decided delve deeper into the New Orleans sound for inspiration.

It was a good thing I did--my idea of New Orleans piano had drifted considerably over the years...I thought I knew the sound and the techniques, but a few minutes of listening showed that I'd been fooling myself. I sounded nothing like Dr. John--and in fact, I was completely wrong in my interpretation of the style. Listen to the video--Dr. John has that distinctive right hand trill in his solos, and I had completely forgotten about it because I'd stopped listening to the music I was attempting to emulate.

I could have rationalized. After all, I was interpreting the style in my own unique way--I could have been satisfied with faking it. I could have continued playing the same old crap and telling myself it was good enough when it really wasn't. I probably would have done that (hell, I did do that!), but I finally got fed up with my same-old, same-old solos that never changed from one week to the next.

I realized that I stopped adding the trills to my solos because they were hard to do. Somewhere over the years they had slipped away from me, and when I started practicing I realized how bad my overall technique was--I'd also stopped practicing between jobs a while back.

Writing and music have a lot in common, and writers must be readers in the same way musicians have to also listen to music. I'm not trying to copy Dr. John anymore than I try to copy Ken Follett or Stephen King.  

But I must understand Dr. John's music in order to play Jeff Currie's style of New Orleans blues. Dr. John has to understand the music of Professor Longhair and Jelly Roll Morton to create the "Dr. John" style. I might not use the right hand trill often, but it needs to be in my bag of tricks, along with other techniques I glean during my piano studies. If nothing else, I'll have that little push I need to get me out of my comfort zone.

Everyone has to have a baseline of knowledge to perfect (or even improve) a skill. Listening to the style and technique of the masters is the first step toward that end for a musician, and reading and studying the work of top writers, is the first step for a writer. In other words, when you find yourself on the right road but you took a wrong turn, get back to basics...

I been in the right place
But it must have been the wrong time
I'd have said the right thing
But I must have used the wrong line
I'd a took the right road
But I must have took a wrong turn
Would have made the right move
But I made it at the wrong time
I been on the right road
But I must have used the wrong car
My head was in a good place
And I wonder what it's bad for...
From "Right Place, Wrong Time", Dr. John

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