Chick Corea (RIP) Offers 16 Pieces of “Cheap But Good Advice for Playing Music in a Group” (1985)

Jazz instru­men­tal­ists who “play the changes” have learned to make impro­vi­sa­tion look easy. In live per­for­mance, the audi­ence shouldn’t see the years of study and prac­tice behind what Willie Thomas calls at Jazz Every­one, “a sys­tem that com­bines the basic jazz lan­guage with the impor­tant music the­o­ry con­cepts” and at the same time “allows a play­er to focus on how the music fits the tune and not the chord sym­bols and scales that often incum­ber per­for­mance.”

That may seem like a wordy expla­na­tion, but Thomas is care­ful to expli­cate the cliché “play the changes” for max­i­mum mean­ing, draw­ing on over forty years of expe­ri­ence him­self learn­ing the prin­ci­ple as a “use­ful tool for self expres­sion through jazz music.” The idea of play­ing to the tune may seem fun­da­men­tal­ly obvi­ous, but the more one devel­ops as a stu­dent, the far­ther away one can get from lived expe­ri­ence.

How might musi­cians apply ideals about ensem­ble play­ing to actu­al ensem­ble play­ing? For answers to this ques­tion, we might turn to jazz leg­end Chick Corea, mem­ber of Miles Davis’s band dur­ing the path­break­ing In a Silent Way and Bitch­es Brew ses­sions; play­er in and leader of more Gram­my-win­ning ensem­bles than per­haps any­one else (he’s col­lect­ed 23 awards so far); and “one of the jazz world’s most thought­ful and lucid cham­pi­ons.”

This descrip­tion comes from a Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor write-up of Corea’s appear­ance in a two-hour Q&A ses­sion at Berklee Col­lege of Music in 1985, where the pianist and jazz fusion key­board mas­ter had stu­dents pick up the typed hand­out above at the door. He begins with the sim­plest, but most impor­tant advice, “Play only what you hear,” then elab­o­rates in 16 rules which you can read in full below.

Corea’s pri­ma­ry metaphor is architectural—performance, he says, is about cre­at­ing spaces and taste­ful­ly fill­ing them. Doing this well requires seri­ous study and prac­tice. Then it requires remem­ber­ing some basic rules, or Chick Corea’s “Cheap But Good Advice for Play­ing Music in a Group.” My favorite: “always release what­ev­er ten­sion you cre­ate.” Like much of you we find here, it’s good all-around advice for every endeav­or.

  1. Play only what you hear.
  2. If you don’t hear any­thing, don’t play any­thing.
  3. Don’t let your fin­gers and limbs just wander—place these inten­tion­al­ly.
  4. Don’t impro­vise on endlessly—play some­thing with inten­tion, devel­op it or not, but then end off, take a break.
  5. Leave space—create space—intentionally cre­ate places where you don’t play.
  6. Make your sound blend. Lis­ten to your sound and adjust it to the rest of the band and the room.
  7. If you play more than one instru­ment at a time—like a drum kit or mul­ti­ple keyboards—make sure that they are bal­anced with one anoth­er.
  8. Don’t make any of your music mechan­i­cal­ly or just through pat­terns of habit. Cre­ate each sound, phrase, and piece with choice—deliberately.
  9. Guide your choice of what to play by what you like—not by what some­one else will think.
  10. Use con­trast and bal­ance the ele­ments: high/low, fast/slow, loud/soft, tense/relaxed, dense/sparse.
  11. Play to make the oth­er musi­cians sound good. Play things that will make the over­all music sound good.
  12. Play with a relaxed body. Always release what­ev­er ten­sion you cre­ate.
  13. Cre­ate space—begin, devel­op, and end phras­es with inten­tion.
  14. Nev­er beat or pound your instrument—play it eas­i­ly and grace­ful­ly.
  15. Cre­ate space—then place some­thing in it.
  16. Use mim­ic­ry sparsely—mostly cre­ate phras­es that con­trast with and devel­op the phras­es of the oth­er play­ers.

via Nate Chi­nen

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Thelo­nious Monk’s 25 Tips for Musi­cians (1960)

Wyn­ton Marsalis Gives 12 Tips on How to Prac­tice: For Musi­cians, Ath­letes, or Any­one Who Wants to Learn Some­thing New

John Coltrane Draws a Pic­ture Illus­trat­ing the Math­e­mat­ics of Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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