Interview with Bradley Carter on Practicing
Hal Galper has played music with a list of people that reads like a who’s who of Jazz greatness. Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, John Scofield, Phil Woods, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, and the list goes on. Galper is a jazz piano and improvisational virtuoso fluent and comfortable with just about anything Jazz you could think of. His talents can maneuver around BeBop, Modal jazz, Classic American songbook tunes, and Swing Jazz.
But it is as a teacher that Galper seems to have really forged new ground. His ideas about teaching are like nothing I’ve ever come across, yet they are immediately accessible and understandable. His research is deep and far reaching and his conclusions about music highly intelligent but immediately pragmatic. Simply put, his ideas on music and especially improvisation, are some of the most sophisticated yet easily understood I’ve ever heard. It was an honor and a real treat to get to sit down and talk music with such a hugely influential musician. Look for the remainder of the interview in my practicing book.
You should rush over to his website right now and read some of his excellent articles and view his educational videos on music. I promise you’ll be glad you did.
BC: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today.
HG: Yeah, no problem man. I’m interested to hear what you’re doing. You’re writing a book on practicing? You know nobody knows how to do that! (laughs)
BC: Yeah, I’m still figuring it out.
HG: I think there are as many ways to practice as there are people practicing.
BC: Right! My whole trip is that I didn’t start playing music with any dedication till I was 30 and that’s pretty late. But at that point I knew I wanted to play as well as I could. I took lessons with folks and nobody ever told me how to practice. You know they would show me a lick or a song. But things never got better because I was doing it wrong. So eventually I started to research why I wasn’t getting better. What was I doing wrong? How do you practice better? So the book is what I wish I had when I started. The information I wish that I had.
HG: Let me caution you that I don’t know much about what goes on in the beginners area. I’m more of an advanced teacher so it will be interesting to see what I have to say and if it applies to the lower levels of practicing.
BC: I’ll do my best to steer things in a direction that will be fruitful.
HG: My first question to you is do you think there is a universal ideology for practicing? I’m not so sure there is.
BC: That’s a good question and I think for the advanced student there is not. They are going to have to figure out what they want and they’re going to guide their practice in their own direction. But if you’re a beginner, I think there is something of a universal methodology.
HG: Yeah, its repetition.
BC: Yes, and you need to know where your fingers go first. And then repetition comes into play.
BC: So your musical background online mentioned that you started with classical music?
HG: Yeah, I started piano when I was 5 or 6 years old and I hated every minute of it. The last thing I thought I would be was a piano player.
BC: When you started, were you forced to practice?
BC: Did your classical teachers tell you how to practice in any way?
HG: Just repeat it. Play it over and over. They wanted me to read but it turns out that my ears were so good that I could memorize quickly and the teacher could tell when I was playing from memory because I was interpreting it too much or something.
HG: No, but my teacher would yell from the kitchen when I had a lesson. “Harold, I can hear you’re not reading!” She could tell I was playing by ear. I felt the quality of playing was better of course by ear. But, she wanted me to have the discipline of reading, which is something else completely and which I never really mastered.
BC: At what point did you decide that Jazz was your thing?
HG: Well, I was such a poor student in high school that the only thing I seemed to excel at was in my sophomore year they put me in tech class and I was really good at learning how to be an electrician. My parents said, “OH, my son is going to be a scientist!” So Junior year they sent me to a prep school for engineering in Boston. I lived in Salem, Massachusetts about 20 miles north. That was the mistake they made because I was an absolute failure at the whole thing. At lunch hour I would leave the school and go to the Jazz club across the street to have my lunch there and listen to these guys rehearse. That’s where I got hooked. I took bongo lessons from the janitor, you know, for a while.
BC: What Jazz were you listening to?
HG: Bebop! Then when I got back to Salem High in my senior year the state has this thing called vocational rehabilitation. They‘d go around to all the high schools to see if anybody was disabled and offered all kinds of financial aid to disabled students. Well I only have one eye. They said I qualified for full tuition any place I wanted to go.My parents were not going to pay for me to go to music school. They wanted me to work at the grocery store you know. Basically I said hey folks, screw you, I’ve got tuition free to Berklee school of music. And you know they took anybody in those days. And that was it. That was how I started.
BC: Wow. Were you playing jazz before you went to Berklee?
HG: I knew the key of C a little bit and even less in the key of C minor. So I was fooling around with it. There were two jazz players in the Boston area, a trumpet player, Paul Fontaine, and Jimmy Mosher on alto and they were eventually THE guys in town. They came over to my house once and jammed with me. They totally wowed me and they sounded like all the really hip stuff. And Jimmy and I became good friends. About 30 years later I mentioned that day to Jimmy. Do you remember that day you came by the house? I said, Man you guys sounded great. He said, Man we just memorized three Bird solos and played them on everything! (Laughs)
So I went to Berklee for about 2 ½ years. Eventually the studies were getting in the way of my practicing and I quit. So I just jumped off the cliff. You know, trying to survive while I was practicing. First to get good enough to work because that’s where school is, it’s on the bandstand. It’s not sitting in a room practicing. That should be the goal of any musician, to get you up to par. So you can at least perform in public no matter what kind of music it is. Whatever. You get to play your instrument and work on your time, chords, listening. And all those things are going forward when you are on the bandstand.
BC: When you dropped out and started performing did you join some bands right away? Were you trying to get yourself ready for improvising in those situations?
HG: Well these were rent gigs. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, dances. They weren’t jazz gigs. The repertoire was the great American songbook, which were the songs that were played at the jam sessions. So you learned the songs on the gigs. I’d have all the books with me and I’d go to the job and they would do 5 or 6 songs in a row and I would never have a chance to even open up the book. So eventually I was learning the songs by ear and then going home and reading and making sure I improved what I didn’t know.
Basically I started out faking it. Which is basically the process involved in getting good at improvising.
BC: I read your article on faking it. That was great stuff. But before we get that far ahead I want to ask you, when you were in that stage of the game did you have any sort of system? Did you have any discipline or structure to it?
HG: Yeah. Well what happened was after a certain amount of time in school you achieve information overload and you’re forced to find a way to deal with all the information in a systematic manner. That’s when I think everybody deals with that in their own way. But what was common about all the students back then, that I just don’t see any more, is practice books. These days you can buy practice books that tell people to practice this or that way. But in those days you had to make up your own system just to survive the massive information overload. So yes, I developed a system and I might even have some exercises here.
So basically I had two books. In one book you collected good ideas. You have a good idea, you’d write it down. And the other book you wrote them out in all 12 keys with the fingerings and you analyzed them and then you tried to find as many ways to use them as you could. Basically that was it. Nowadays you don’t see practice books because of all the published material and students don’t even know you can do that. I tell my students that this is a good idea to deal with information overload.
BC: How many hours a day were you practicing at that point?
HG: I don’t really remember. Everybody tells me I was practicing all the time. It wasn’t until after I left school that I ran into technical problems because my early classical training was not sufficient for what I was going for. I had the good fortune to study with Madame Chaloff.
BC: I read a bit about her and she sounds like an amazing piano teacher.
HG: She was. I was very lucky and in that period it was 6 hours a day 6 days a week for 3 years. Lessons every week and then another 3 years of going back for tune ups and double checks.
BC: It sounds like lessons with her were very good at teaching a relaxed technique. It sounds like she really had a way of improving a person’s general technique I guess.
HG: She was part of that group of immigrants who came over from Russia along with Joseph Schillinger Nicholas Slonimsky and others. They left Russia and came to the U.S. about the same time. And Russia was more advanced musically than the U.S. and she taught a technique called the Russian shoulder technique. It was totally unique. It was so unique that they fired her from Boston University because other students were leaving there teachers and going to her. She was also a pedant and I had a hard time taking that from a woman at the time (laughs). But I did go back and I talked with her years later to make sure I was doing the right thing.
I was lucky. What she gave me was marvelous technique and it wasn’t until many, many years later I realized that was just the beginning because no matter what technique you have you have to personalize it to your own physicality.
BC: Let me maybe change the subject a little bit. When you were studying Jazz and working on improvisation, did you have a system for developing your improvisation at all or was it just kind of copying other musicians that you liked? In the beginning.
HG: Oh I copied everybody or my version of everybody if you will. I wouldn’t call it copying because at that time my ears were never that good that I could copy exactly. Lucky for me I studied the Schillinger system, which Berklee doesn’t teach anymore. You know Berklee was originally called Schillinger House. So I learned this Schillinger system, which was a great system for musical analysis. What I couldn’t hear I could analyze and figure out. I always had a good theoretical background in those times when I couldn’t hear. I could copy an idea and apply theory to it. I came up with a concept to learn 10 ideas and one hundred ways to use each one. And that is sort of a slow trail and error way of creative practicing.
BC: As a bluegrass musician who dabbles a little bit in Jazz I’m daunted by the melodic complexity and harmonic complexity that is possible in Jazz. All the modes and potential arpeggios. I would say that the only real Jazz that I’ve studied is Django Reinhardt. You know blue-grassers love that because it’s string band music.
HG: I love Bluegrass and mountain music. People always say that Jazz is the only real form of American music. I don’t agree. You’ve got to put mountain music and bluegrass in there too.
BC: In bluegrass you’re usually sticking to one key center and it rarely gets out of that and you’re usually playing scale type patterns in the bluegrass language. And 2 or 3 scales will do. Any more than that and it’s not going to sound too much like bluegrass anymore. But in Jazz there’s so many ways you can go and when I’ve studied jazz licks or playing over a 2-5-1 progression it seems crazy how many approaches there are. How does one distill all that down?
HG: You learn everything and throw out as much of it as possible.
But you can only throw it out after you’ve learned it. Sometimes I have a crazy idea of putting out something that I call the Jazz code. Which is basically the minimal amount of information you need to be a jazz improviser.
BC: How important is theory to all that?
HG: Well, listen, I had the good fortune to come up in the apprenticeship system. The now-defunct apprenticeship system. Almost all the great masters played by ear and could not tell you what they were doing. So there goes this whole idea that you need a whole lot of theory to play. You have to hear to play.
And you have to copy. Copy. Copy. That’s how all the early jazz musicians learned. They learned from the radio or on the bandstand.
BC: Learn the music first and apply theory later.
HG: To find out what you did.
BC: So you can get confused later.
HG: Yeah! You know Chet Baker didn’t know anything about music. He could read notes but he didn’t know anything about music. He was one of the most AMAZING improvisers I ever played with. Stan Getz, the same. I could go on and on. I don’t think theory is that much of an issue. I’m a strong believer in the oral tradition because this music comes from an oral tradition it’s an Eastern tradition. Whereas in Western society its all about the individual. The primacy of the individual. But in Eastern society or African society it’s all about the group effort. The community. They don’t know theory but they know what sounds good and what doesn’t.
I’m a big fan of the oral tradition of starting with a master and doing what they tell you to do.
BC. I’m studying old time fiddle with this gal named Rayna Gellert and she’s a master of old time fiddle. It’s all by ear. She plays it and I try to copy it.
HG: Here’s what it boils down to. You need to have a good beat and great ears.
BC: That brings me to a question about your teaching style. I especially like the video where you talk about Dizzy Gillespie and he’s talking about what he’s hearing when he’s playing. How when he’s playing he’s not hearing the music at a normal volume. Like, “bee bop buh do bee bop buh do.” He’s hearing it like this, “BEE BOP BUH DO BEE BOP BUH DO!!” He’s hearing it super loud in his head.
I thought that was amazing. I’ve never heard improvisation described like that. How do you develop what you’re hearing? That’s a big question I realize but how do you teach developing that level of hearing?
HG: Well it takes time. Look, some people are born with it. Some people are born with great ears and bad time and they have to learn to play with better time. Some people are born with good time and bad ears and they need to learn to hear better. It’s situational in that sense. But, the more you do it, the better you get at it. It’s really as simple as that. There’s a lot of money made in making things complicated.
BC: Trying to sell books and what not.
HG: College degrees, and teachers and universities. It’s a multi-million dollar business. Its information based and that’s the problem. Teaching should be process oriented. Not What you do but How you do it. And that’s what you get from studying with a master, how he thinks about it.
You probably saw a book in my articles by George Kochevitsky “The Art of Playing the Piano, a Scientific Approach.” I read that approach in 1980 and I told my wife at the time. My god, I’ve been teaching all wrong. I’ve been teaching information. And it’s really all about what’s going on in your brain. And your nervous system and I told my wife, she’s a college professor, I’m changing my way of teaching and she says, NO, NO, NO. We don’t do that! (Laughs) But I was teaching chords, and scales, and the same old stuff like anybody else. I don’t know if you read my article on radical change but I didn’t have patience for incremental change because something is only learned when something is physically changed in your brain. So if a person can leave my lesson physically changed he’s learned something. So I’ve guided all my teaching from Kochevitsky’s book, The only book on music and the brain that leads to actionable processes. And over the years I’ve tested it on my students. You can see in some of my videos that I can change a student’s playing radically within an hour because I change the way they think!
That includes technique too because Madame Chaloff’s technique is in the brain. She’d always say that, “Technique is in the brain, not the hands.” I’d say, yeah how come my hands are so slow, but my brain signals were slow. Not my hands.
BC: Right. I think I read that you were talking about how fast Art Tatum played and you listened to Art Tatum for a long time and you started playing faster.
HG: Yeah Art Tatum could hear faster. He didn’t have faster hands, he had faster ears! After many years she convinced me of that. Speed starts with hearing.
BC: You can’t think that fast.
HG: I had a student a few weeks ago who’d play some new exercises so slow. He was thinking. I told him to play them faster and he would say I can’t think that fast. I said that’s right! Speed it up. And then he played it faster to where he couldn’t think and he played it beautifully and a light bulb went off. It’s not thinking, it’s hearing.
BC: At what point did you decide you wanted to dig into teaching? You’re such a great teacher. I’ve been teaching bluegrass banjo for about 7 or 8 years and I feel like I’m just learning how to teach it.
HG: Most teaching is objective but my teaching is very invasive. A lot of teachers object to being invasive, because you’re influencing the student too much.
BC: How is it invasive?
HG: Getting in their brains and analyzing what’s going on. One of the greatest things that Kochevitsky said is that you play exactly the way you hear and you express physically, mentally, and emotionally exactly what is going on inside of you. That was such an amazing revelation! That means if I watch you and listen to you, I know what is going on inside your mind and emotions. Directly! One-to-one. That’s an amazing revelation.
BC: And it makes perfect sense. Its’ almost so simple it’s hiding in plain sight.
BC: I’ve never heard a single a bluegrass musician say that but it seems completely obvious when you think about it.
HG: You play exactly the way you hear. Exactly the way you feel. If you want to change the way you play. You change the way you hear!
BC: How much do you stress exercises for ear training?
HG: Everything is ear training. Whatever you do on any instrument at any time is ear training. But my first rule of practicing is that it is very important to practice when you are interested. I always had a problem with practicing. Being of a rebellious nature if I said OK I’m going to go practice now I’d run out the door and go swimming! So I had to find a way to get around that and I developed incentive-based practicing. In other words I don’t have any willpower nor do I have any discipline whatsoever. Both of those, they’re rumors to me.
BC: You wouldn’t notice it in your playing.
HG: Well I developed incentive-based practicing. I found that if I was interested in something I would work on it. So my first rule of practicing would be, any good jazz musician has to be rebellious in nature.
BC: Well if you look at the famous ones they all seem to be pretty rebellious.
HG: Right. So when I started I said all right, I’m not going to practice anymore I’m just going to go to the piano and have a good time. Just enjoy it. And I’d be playing and then I’d screw something up and I’d stop and say what did I mean to do there? I’d slow it down and work on it. Next thing you know hours would pass by. Then I’d get bored and say hey man screw this. Then I’d start playing again and enjoying myself. So I realized that my first rule of practicing is only practice what you are interested in. Linear practicing is not necessary. That’s another western approach that everybody says you’ve got to practice this before you practice this before you practice this. And I think that is totally incorrect because everything is connected. Nothing is separated. The knee-bone is connected to the toe-bone.
I’ll tell you how I learned this. For 15 years my roots had been bebop and post bebop. That was my goal was to become a great bebopper. But then the music started to change to the modal stuff. McCoy Tyner, Coltrane, modern intervallic playing. I wanted to know everything of course. So I wanted to learn that. I spent 15 years learning how to do that and playing that way. I stared my own band. I wrote tunes that forced me to play in that genre. I created exercises. I had books for all different licks that I made up from the theory. Pentatonic theory. Then after that period I joined the Phil Woods band and that was back to bebop and I found myself playing intervallic in a bebop situation and it didn’t work. It didn’t sound good.
So one night before a concert I’m sitting with my coffee and I’m thinking OK one of the traps of learning a new concept is that you want to keep trying it on the bandstand. And that’s good and it’s bad. It’s a double-edged sword because as soon as you say” I’m going to play this” you lock yourself into a narrow aural bandwidth. You need to approach the bandstand with no idea what you’re going to do whatsoever. No plans. And I realized I was going with a plan I had gone with for 15 years in order to learn a different music. So I thought tonight I’m going to go in there and I’m going to push those little black and white things up and down and just see what happens. And shockingly all my bebop came back!
BC: You literally weren’t thinking at all?
HG: No, thinking is no good.
BC: Right, and it seems like in this case you were especially in a kind of trance.
HG: I just said I’m not going to pre-plan. I’m not going to say I’m going to play any particular way. I’m just going to go up and play and see what happens. And the thing is my bebop playing came back as if I had been playing it for 15 years. And I hadn’t. That really showed me that it doesn’t make any difference what area you practice in. It improves all the other areas globally. Not specifically to the area you are working in. So let me backtrack.
If you are practicing only what you are interested in. And you’re interested in this, concept A. Work on concept A till you get bored with it. Then go to Concept B but Concept B is helping Concept A but you don’t realize it. See, everything is connected. Whenever you learn something new it improves you globally. Not just the area you’re working on. That was a shocking revelation to me. It was really helpful in terms of incentive based practicing. Because then my idea was to practice only what you like. You get bored with it. Then practice something else you like. It’s not like you have nothing else to practice.
You can skip around. You don’t have to follow a linear process you can have let intuitive-emotional selection process decide what to practice. Dizzy Gillespie said music is in the air around you. You just have to pull it out.
BC: Thanks for the great interview, Hal.
HG: No problem. I want a table copy of the book.
BC: You got it!