Me with John Stoddard (left) and Kirk Whalum
It sounds like a cliche, but it was a privilege, an honor, and a real delight to spend some time with grammy winning musician and recording artist Kirk Whalum yesterday. Kirk and his accompanist John Stoddard were in town to perform with the Schoolcraft College Jazz program on Monday evening, and they gave a clinic on Monday afternoon.
There were only about 20 people in the audience, which is shame because this was a great opportunity. But with such a small crowd, it became an intimate and personal experience - almost like just hangin' out with some friends.
Kirk and John spoke about music as communication than can operate on a different level from human language, and that being able to express yourself in that way is a sacred trust. This operates horizontally when we transmit or absorb ideas from, or impress or are impressed by other people. Besides just the notes, consonance, dissonance, the musical context and attitude of the player all come into play.
The language of music can communicate, entertain, and uplift with emotions and feelings that are outside of spoken language or even comprehension.
The horizontal aspect comes to and from each other, from experiences and cultural richness. In the process we can impress each other, but impressions wear off. However, it is possible to go beyond that and make an impact that moves someone in a permanent way.
The vertical aspect is more elusive, and has a spiritual component. Kirk is also an ordained minister, and in his view the kind of inspiration that produces great improvisation comes directly from God. But to get there, you have to be prepared. His analogy was that when you put God in the driver's seat, you don't want to provide a broken down 1983 Chevvy. You want to have a shiny, new Chrysler 300.
The strategy for better inspiration comes from a grounding in fundamentals, preparation and practice. The fundamentals are your musical vocabulary. Preparation and practice develop first what Kirk called "head room" - what an engineer would call a margin of safety: a grounding in fundamentals such that when the moment for vertical inspiration arrives, you don't run out of tools and horse power; and second "working it out."
He emphasized the importance of practicing slow - walk before you run. The other element is repetition. This can be the drudgery part of practice, but use your creativity to find a way to make it fun.
In the Q and A, I asked Kirk how an improvisor should approach taking on a new song with a difficult set of chord changes. He said, first get to know the song - really KNOW that song. Memorize the melody, feel the chord moments, sing the words. Then play the roots, in time with a metronome. A hundred times. Then play the thirds another hundred. Then fit in the scales associated with the chords. Ill throw in that it's also worth while to know the arpeggios. There is a certain nerdiness to approaching music this way.
Kirk's advice: Embrace the nerdiness.
Afterward, I shook his hand and told him that I had never heard him before, but within two minutes of when he started talking, I felt like I'd known him forever. He is a very genuine, well grounded guy, and seemed to be touched by that.