Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Where Is One?

My first month at Berklee College of Music was, hmm... let's say, "challenging."

I was nineteen.

I was a thousand miles from home.

I was a suburban kid who suddenly found himself living in the heart of the city.

Since my focus was composition and arranging, I'd declared piano as my principal instrument. This in and of itself was not a challenge. However, I was a sax player. I'd just begun to play piano six months earlier. All the other pianists had been playing since they were five.

To make things even more challenging, I'd decided that having my sax with me might become a crutch. So I'd left it at home, a thousand miles away.

Fortunately for me, the first month at Berklee was challenging for pretty much everyone. Unlike many colleges and universities that pack freshmen into large lecture halls for core curricula, Berklee divided each core course into thirteen sections defined by skill level. We spent the first week of school completing evaluations that determined our skill levels in areas like music theory, ear training, composition, arranging and analysis. At the end of the week we were placed into sections with others who had tested similarly.

The result was that there was no one in a given section for whom the work was easy. If one was challenged, then you could bet that everyone was challenged.

Fortunately for me (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it), I tested quite well. Each core course had sections A through M. All my sections ended up being L or M. Like I said, "Challenging."

The first day of ear training, the teacher walked into class smoking an unfiltered Camel. He dropped his backpack on the desk and retrieved a John Coltrane album. He placed the record on the turntable at the front of the room, dropped the needle in the middle of a solo, turned to the class and said, "Write this down."

Everyone just laughed thinking that he must be kidding: everyone, that is, but one guy, a nerdy looking guitar player from Long Island who'd immediately begun jotting down the notes as they flew by in flocks of seven and thirteen. Turns out that being in section M was kind of like fighting in the heavy weight category; there was no upper limit.

I'd always been good at transcription and ear training. I could do it better than anyone I'd known. But this guy... challenging.

As the semester progressed, I began to hit my stride and the courses became easier. Well, all of them but ear training. In ear training the teacher was determined to never let us actually catch the carrot or fully clear the bar. He never let anyone get too far behind, but no one ever got that far ahead. Before long even the guitar player from Long Island had become part of the pack racing after the carrot.

One day the teacher talked about always knowing where "one" was. In this case, "one" refers to the downbeat of a bar of music. A 4/4 bar has four quarter notes: ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR. A 3/4 bar has three. A 5/8 has two-and-a-half quarter notes or five eighth notes. As you listen to a piece of music, you first determine the meter. Is it 4/4 or 3/4 or 5/8 or 3/8, etc. Next, you listen for the downbeat (the beginning of each bar). Then you count.

It sounds pretty straight-forward and it is. However, that was only the beginning. The teacher wanted us not to count, but instead, to simply "know" where the downbeat was.  He'd play a tune and we'd tap our hands on our desks with each downbeat.

Once we had the basics, he pushed the carrot a little further out. He'd turn down the volume for a moment and ask us to continue tapping on one. A moment or two later, he'd turn up the volume to see if we were still in sync with the music.  You'd be amazed at how quickly a room of good musicians could drift far from the beat they were trying to maintain.

The nice part was the no one found the exercises demoralizing. Instead, we were all inspired to practice. Slowly we began to hold the beat over longer and longer periods of silence. As we did, the carrot sped ahead.

The teacher would call one of us to the front of the class and ask us to keep time. He'd turn down the music and the student would continue to tap on one.  He'd turn up the music to confirm that the student was still in sync.

Next, he'd ask the student to stop tapping and to begin to tap when asked, "Where's one?"

He'd play the music and then turn it down.

A bit later he ask, "Where's one?"

You'd start tapping.

He'd turn up the music.

It was challenging, but in reach. So the carrot sped ahead.

He'd play the music.

He'd turn down the volume.

He'd ask you about your weekend.

In the midst of your answer, he interrupt and ask, "Where's one?"

You'd start tapping.

He'd turn up the volume.

It was a challenge, an amazingly worthwhile challenge. By the end of the first semester, without thought or effort, every one of us absolutely knew where one was. Our internal clocks had become precision machines incapable of losing time.

As I think about it now, knowing where one is is fundamental to music. Yet, I know many musicians who've never acquired this basic skill. They often lose track of one or must count aloud to maintain it. Not having a sense of "one" makes it impossible to play a groove or to solo over breaks. Having to think about it is distracting and compromises your playing. Yet, not knowing is more common than knowing.

The tricky part is that most of us are reluctant to set aside time to learn basic skills that we've missed along the way. It seems silly to spend time on rudiments when we've been working on advanced skills. Yet, without the rudiments, the advanced skills never quite work.

Knowing where one is is just one of many such skills.

Happy Wednesday,

PS Happy Birthday, Iris


  1. Tef: in line with your quote-ful post today, here's a quote from a musician that I ran across the other day, that applies to this great post also: "The reason to learn technique is so the body doesn't obstruct the soul's expression".

  2. Wow Sree, that's it exactly and so beautifully said.


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