10 March 2007

Pattern Recognition

The ability to recognize patterns varies in individuals and is not universal. It is a skill that can be honed, but it does not come to everyone with equal ease. The people who design standardized tests seem to think it's quite important. I remember that in elementary school, there was always that question where you would be given a sequence of numbers and asked to say what the next number in the sequence was. For some reason, I had a knack for these things from an early age. A knack that is, not an interest. Fast forward about 15 years to my first encounter with Schoenberg's statement that sequences in music are worthless and serve no particularly important function other than to take up space. There was a time when I might have disagreed, but by the time I read this, it served not as a challenge to but as an affirmation of my own feelings towards sequence in music. Sequence grates on me like few other devices. Particularly with regard to jazz musicians, it truly has become nothing more than a fallback, a way to take up space and avoid embarrassment when the player doesn't know what else to do.

It's no mystery how this happened: jazz musicians are taught theory largely through sequence. Instead of taking the most direct route towards studying the way past musicians "used"scales, students today are constantly nudged towards constructing patterns in order to internalize the sound and feel of scales and keys. I myself worked out of Coker's Patterns for Jazz and Nelson'sPatterns for Improvisation quite extensively in my late high school and early college years. As well asaccomplishing the afore mentioned objectives, it helped build my chops tremendously.

We must, however, be very careful in defining the word "use." Does anyone really "use" scales or scale patterns? It depends on what that means. A phrase that happens to only use C's, D's and E's could be said to "use" the C major scale, but did the player really arrive at it this way? If this observation is not supefluous, it should be. Obviously, some players do actually think of themselves as "using" scales and some don't. I should not necessarily be predisposed to prefer one group over the other, but in fact, given the situation, the "use" of scales equates directly to the "use" of sequence in a way that I consistently find distasteful.

To put it another way, very few musicians who play sequences truly "use" them, as this term implies some certain intent on the part of a sentient being. Instead, they have spent so much time practicing scale patterns that when nothing else comes to mind, they habitually lapse into regurgitating a literal statement of what they have been praticing, even if it was never intended to be "used" this way in performance.

My point? Sometimes an etude is just an etude. In classical music, there are etudes that are performed (like Chopin's) and etudes that no one would dare allow to be heard outside the practice room (like much of the Arban book). Jazz could learn something from this practice. Patterns build chops and help the player conceive of keys, but they make poor materials with which to construct a solo, or any piece of music for that matter. (And I have to add that I have about the same feelings toward "materials" and "construct" in this context as I do toward "use.") In my mind, technical exercises that were constructed solely for their value as technical exercises and not as "real"music should not be available to be "used" (or abused) at all. They are of a fundamentally different nature than any "lick" a musician might pick up from others, which originated as a spontaneous and effective musical statement and retains at least a small amount of this potential over time. That's my opinion, at least. I am appalled that some musicians apparently do think that their practice of scale patterns serves to literally prepare "material" for"use" that they can pull out at any time while "constructing" something. I have no problem with such perparation, only with the chosen material. As an early teacher of mine wisely told me, use patterns with "extreme caution and restraint."

But what of the ability to recognizepatterns? If it was more universal, musicians would not get away with these shenanigans as often because more people would understand what they are doing and hear right through it. I hypothesize that my loathing of sequence is at least partially a consequence of it being so easy to recognize, and perhaps also that the ability to view something as sequential even if it was not intended that way has ruined my ability to enjoy a good deal of music. But the ability to recognize sequence is not the only variable: the other is how the listener responds to success or failure in this activity. Hence, I further hypothesize that some people must be gratified simply by recognizing sequence in music (i.e. by "getting it") and some people (like me) are indifferent or putoff by it. Given two two-way variables, that makes for four groups of listeners who will each approach the issue differently

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