Monday, August 20, 2012

Phish's Page McConnell on The Art of Improvisation

I came across Page McConnell’s 1987 senior study from Goddard College, entitled The Art of Improvisation.  Mr. McConnell is of course the keyboardist for Phish, a band that I saw live about 40 times from 1994 to 2004.  Phish took an extended break from touring and recording between Fall 2004 and March 2009.  It was toward the end of those years that I began taking a serious interest in traditional music and learning to play tenor banjo.  Instrumental folk tunes do not share a whole lot in common with jazz improvisation, nonetheless I found a few quotes from Page’s thesis to be particularly relevant.

Excerpts from Page McConnell's "The Art of Improvisation".

Page McConnell - 1987
Economy is a trait that I try to keep prevalent in my improvising today.  Keeping a melody simple, particularly in the beginning of a solo, gives the performer (as well as the other musicians and the audience) something to grasp onto, a starting point from which to travel.  

(Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery) has proven to be the most valuable piece of literature I have ever read in terms of helping me helping me gain an understanding of discipline and helping me define myself as an artist.  

When you commit music to memory, the brain can remember and recall it, but when music is analyzed the retention is much deeper and more solid.  A performer that has analyzed music knows and understands the movement of the melody, where it is headed, and why it is headed there.

I have found that as one who plays by ear the easiest way to learn is to listen.  

In jazz, it is the melody not the mode that determines what can and can't be played.  The melody determines the chords of the tune, and these chords (with the melody inherent) are what the improviser uses to direct his solo.  

The thesis in its entirety is copied below.

Submitted in partial fulfillment of                              
the requirements for the degree of                              
Bachelor of Arts at Goddard College
Page McConnell                                                  
December 19, 1987

     At the age of four I began taking piano lessons.  For the next
twelve years I studied with four different teachers.  They
attempted to teach me to read music, a skill I never fully
developed.  My dyslexic tendencies made the process very difficult
and a good ear made it easier for me to play by ear.  In my early
years of lessons I had no problem playing the pieces that were
assigned to me as long as I had heard my piano teachers play them
for me.  As the level of difficulty in the pieces I was playing
increased, I was forced to learn how to read.  I struggled with the
process and didn't entirely enjoy it, though the ones that I did
learn stretched my technical abilities.  The most difficult piece
that I learned was Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag."

     During my ninth grade year I stopped taking piano lessons.  It
was during this next stage of my playing that I began to really
enjoy playing.  Obviously this was because I was playing for
myself, not for my piano teachers or parents.  I spent much of the
next year listening to rock albums, playing what I heard, and
taking my improvisation more seriously.  Often I was just
improvising the voicings to the songs that I was playing, but my
ability to do blues improvisation increased also.  My first
introduction to the blues was a book I received in first grade
called Jazz and Blues for Beginners.  This book introduced me to
blues progressions.  These are progressions that alternate between
the I7 and the IV7 chord and generally end with a V7-IV7-I7
progression.  Both rock and jazz find their roots in the blues, and
in fact rock has never really left.  The majority of rock songs
written are a variation on the I7-IV7-V7 progression.  Many do not
vary at all.  

     I suppose that my main motivating factor for practicing during
my high school years (other than the fact that I enjoyed it) was
that I had some opportunity to perform.  These opportunities
generally arose at parties where there would be a piano and I would
play.  I was at the time also involved with a jazz band.  The group
was founded in fifth grade and I started playing with them in
seventh grade.  By ninth grade we had a small  repertoire of
jazz/pop tunes ranging from Herb Alpert's "Taste of Honey"  to Van
Morrison's "Moondance" to Horace Silver's "Song for my Father."  I
had begun to experiment with playing over chord changes, though I
didn't really understand what I was doing.  I used my limited    
knowledge of blues in these situations, but I usually didn't solo.
What I did understand and enjoy was learning how to communicate
with other musicians.  The band was not extremely dedicated.  We
practiced very little and had only a handful of gigs during the
years we played together.  My soloing may have left a lot to be
desired but I  did learn how to comp, to play behind someone else's

     Around tenth grade I found a teacher who was going to teach me
"Jazz Improv."  His name is Doug Frueler and he has some
interesting ideas concerning improvisation.  He had developed a
theory that there weren't 7 modes as taught in Baroque theory, but
that there were 72 modes.  At the time I wasn't familiar with modes
at all, and even now I'm not sure how he arrived at the number 72;
however I did learn some important lessons from him.  I learned
that there is no right or wrong way to approach improvising and
that as long as you really put yourself into it, it can work.  Doug
and his method are perfect examples of this.  I also learned some
valuable tools through exercises that we did, primarily the tool of
economy.  Doug would have me do exercises where I would have to
form melodies, or play over blues progressions using only three or
four notes.  I found that this approach could work and that I
could create interesting melodies with only a few notes.

     Economy is a trait that I try to keep prevalent in my
improvising today.  Keeping a melody simple, particularly in the
beginning of a solo, gives the performer (as well as the other
musicians and the audience) something to grasp onto, a starting
point from which to travel.  Economy is an element of jazz that is
often attributed to Count Basie.  As a pianist and a band leader,
he grew out of the Fats Waller tradition.  "Fats had the strongest
left hand in traditional jazz -- a left hand which could replace
not only a rhythm section but a whole band...  Today, one can
sometimes hear in the piano solos Basie plays with his band that he
comes from Fats Waller.  He plays a kind of "economized" Fats: an
ingeniously abstract structure of Waller music in which only the
cornerstones remain -- but they stand for everything else.  Basie
became one of the most economical pianists in jazz history, and the
way he manages to create tension between often widely spaced notes
is incomparable." 1

     Economy is a trait I admire in my influences.  Bill Evans,
probably my most important jazz piano influence, plays an entirely
different style than Basie yet he incorporates economy:
"He has worked unceasingly to arrive at a clearer, less cluttered
jazz conception, one with no false starts, no side issues, no  
merely showy licks.  The logic with which one phrase follows
another is impeccable.  Though he sometimes uses locked-hands    
chords or moving left-hand figures, a typical Evans solo consists
almost entirely of a single line in the right hand (occasionally
incorporating some thirds) supported by sustained voicings in the
left hand that have been almost brutally pared down until        
all that remains is the naked skeleton of jazz harmony."2

     After my lessons with Doug, which lasted only a few months,
I went through a period of relative musical stagnation.  I
practiced for my own enjoyment, but I wasn't playing with other
musicians on any kind of regular basis, and my opportunities for
performance were practically non-existent.  For the next four years
(one year at home, one year at boarding school, and two years at
S.M.U. in Dallas) my practice schedule was very undisciplined
though I did try to play every couple of days.  While at S.M.U., I
majored in music for one semester and learned a lot about a music
education at a traditional institution.  There seemed to be two
goals in that educational system:  one was to train people to
become concert musicians;  the other was to teach the students that
weren't good enough to become concert musicians to be able to teach
the next generation exactly the same thing.  At the time I didn't
see how their approach to music applied to my approach to music.
Much of the theory they taught I thought of as common sense.  I did
learn modal theory, which proved useful in my early days with Phish
(the band I currently play with) when most of our jamming was done
over modal progression.

     At the end of my S.M.U. career (just weeks before I started
Goddard) I took a course called "Imagination, Awareness and Ideas."
The course dealt with promoting creativity, left-right brain
exercises, alpha states, imagination, awareness and ideas.  It  is
the most important course I've ever taken.  I learned how to (or
perhaps how not to) deal with creative blocks.

     I took my newly learned insights and came to Goddard in the
Fall of '84.  I finally felt that I was in a situation where my
education would be equated with what I was learning.  Upon arriving
at Goddard I began to play the piano considerably more than I ever
had before, usually at least two hours a day.  Within weeks I began
having musical experiences and feelings that I had never had
before.  The feelings could either be described as detaching myself
from the conscious process of playing the piano, or totally
attaching myself, becoming one with the instrument.  I became able
to hear music in my head and simultaneously be playing it.  The
breakthrough was a result of my ear training, the attitude I had
developed in Imagination, Awareness and Ideas, and the discipline
of practicing every day.  The process I am describing is similar to
a process described in Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery
when he tells of a swordsman that is learning to master his art:
"The pupil must develop a new sense or, more accurately, a new
alertness of all his senses, which will enable him to avoid
dangerous thrusts as though he could feel them coming.  Once he  
has mastered this art of evasion, he no longer needs to watch
undivided attention the movements of his opponents, or even of
several opponents at once.  Rather, he sees and feels what is going
to happen, and at the sane moment he has already avoided its effect
without there being "A hair's breadth" between perceiving and
avoiding.  This, then, is what counts:  a lightening reaction which
has no further need of conscious observation.  In this respect at
least the pupil makes himself independent of all conscious purpose,
and this is a great gain."3

This book has proven to be the most valuable piece of literature I
have ever read in terms of helping me helping me gain an
understanding of discipline and helping me define myself as an

     I spent that first year (Fall '84, Spring '85) practicing,
recording with the school's 4-track, and playing in a number of  
musical situations.  I played with three bands., but the most
rewarding musical situation, and the only real musical
communication I experienced was with an acoustic guitar player
named Thomas McCommas.  We would play regularly in the Haybarn,
acoustically, and the arrangement was very satisfying.  The sounds
of our instruments blended very well and we played comfortably off
each other, having similar musical tastes.  Most of the band
experiences that I had that year were not so positive.  I couldn't
find anyone on my musical level to play with.  I continued to
record the piano and was very pleased with the results.

     In May of '85 -- at Springfest -- I was introduced to a band:
Phish.  I immediately knew that I wanted to be a member.  I moved
to Burlington and joined the band.

     It has taken roughly two years for me to figure out what my
musical role is in the band.  When I joined there were five of us:
two guitars; bass; drums; and keyboards.  The music was extremely
busy and there wasn't much space for me to shape the sound.  After
one year one of the guitar players left, and I began to grow into
my space and develop my style.  It was during my fourth semester
that I began taking lessons with Lar Duggan a jazz pianist in

     Lar has been the single most important person in helping me
develop my improvisation.  A master of improvisation himself, he
doesn't suggest directions that he feels are important for me to
follow, rather he will guide me through any direction I choose.
When I began taking lessons with him I felt that the area most
lacking in my playing was my left hand and its interaction with my
right hand.  In retrospect that probably wasn't my most lacking
attribute but Lar helped me find exercises that would develop
continuity between my two hands, and offered different approaches
to improvisation such as ones that focused on the left hand and let
the right hand comp behind it.  From these exercises I learned many
things, namely that my left hand already led my right hand along
and that my left hand has a better sense of timing.

     It wasn't until I began reading music again that I felt that
my right and left hands were working well together.  Two pieces in
particular contributed to this feeling of unity:  1) a two-part
invention written by Trey Anastasio, the guitar player and composer
in Phish; 2) Bach's two-part invention #8 in F major.  I began
learning Trey's piece the summer after I started lessons with Lar.
The piece was inspired by Bach's inventions and is about as
technically demanding.  There is a great deal of imitation and
inversion between the right hand and the left hand.  It took me
months to learn it, but once I did I noticed a feeling and an
attitude towards my hands that I hadn't felt before.  My left hand
felt stronger and I had more confidence in it. It was performing
the same functions as my right hand.  The next semester began at
Goddard, and I was back on campus studying classical piano with
Lois Harris.  I started working on Bach's invention #8.  I picked
the piece up fairly quickly and had it memorized within a few
weeks.  This was partially due to the fact that Lois had helped me
finger the piece correctly.  Once I had learned it I played it over
and over because it is so beautiful and so easy to play through, or
rather it is difficult for me not to play through the entire piece.
Once I play the first phrase, there is essentially no way to stop.
The piece moves so fluidly and logically that it is almost
impossible to keep myself from playing the whole piece once I play
the opening notes.  I was putting so much energy into the piece
that I decided to drop my classical lessons because I thought that
they were detracting energy that I wanted to be devoting to jazz,
my primary focus.  These two inventions have given me confidence
and ability I couldn't have gained any other way.

     My playing of the Bach piece has continued to improve.  This
semester I set out with an interest in composition.  The best way
to learn about composition is by analyzing other compositions.
Bach's invention #8 seemed like a likely place to start since I was
already familiar with the piece and was curious to see how the
melody modulated.  I did decide after much analysis that my
discipline this semester wouldn't be composition, but that my true
passion is improvisation.  However, my analysis (which is included
in my senior study) has proved very useful to me.  My performance
of the invention has improved immensely since this analysis.  I
have learned from talking to Lar that this happens because when you
commit music to memory, the brain can remember and recall it, but
when music is analyzed the retention is much deeper and more solid.
A performer that has analyzed music knows and understands the
movement of the melody, where it is headed, and why it is headed
there.  The result of my analysis can be heard in my performance of
this piece.  Since I have a deeper understanding    of the
intentions and movements of the music, my interpretation of  the
piece has become much more in tune and responsive to the harmonic
and rhythmic movement of the piece.  I still play this piece once
nearly every time I sit down at the piano.

     My practice sessions at Goddard for the first few years that
I was here were rather undisciplined.  I was disciplined in that I
was playing every day, but the sessions themselves were
unstructured.  I would spend hours playing songs (mostly rock),
singing, and improvising over these songs.  Most of these songs are
harmonically simple, in fact boring.  This was the music I listened
to and the music I played, and I was satisfied with my practice
sessions because I knew that I could become a good rock piano
player that way.  Once I started taking lessons with Lar and
listening to jazz, I was humbled.  I have made an effort in the
past year and a half to listen to as much jazz as possible and as
little rock as possible.  I have found that as one who plays by ear
the easiest way to learn is to listen.  I have three major jazz
influences: Bill Evans; Duke Ellington; and Art Tatum.  I have
listened to more Evans and Ellington than anything else.  From Bill
Evans I have learned to try to play fluidly.  I have studied his
solos "the logic with which one phrase follows another."4  I
appreciate him in the say way I find Bach's work logically
graceful.  I have directly "copped riffs" from him and I have tried
to develop my own fluidity through relaxation, but I have a long
way to go.  I know that I have a good ability to tap into someone
else's flow and comp behind them when they are soloing.  My ability
to communicate with other musicians is, I feel, my most highly
developed jazz attribute.  Listening to Duke Ellington's band has
also been a great influence, primarily in two ways.  First, by
listening to the members of his band, particularly the horn
players, I have gotten a feel for swing.  Those guys know how to
swing.  They could make their instruments talk, and I found what
they had to say interesting harmonically as well as rhythmically.
I have tried to incorporate the swing feel into my playing, and I
feel that just within the past three gigs that I have any kind of
consistent feel for it.  The second way that Duke  Ellington has
influenced me is through his (and Billy Strayhorn's) compositions.
My analysis of music moved from classical into jazz as my interest
in composition moved to an interest in improvisation.  My analyses
of "Mood Indigo",  "Take the A Train" and "Sophisticated Lady" were
not so much structural as they were analyses of how one might play
over them.  In particular I studied what scales could be used and
how certain notes in the melodies determined these scales.  These
analyses have been integral in my growing ability to play over
changes.  The third influence I mentioned was Art Tatum.  He has
opened me up to a truly pianistic approach to jazz.  I envy his
long runs and his perfectly executed trills, but unless I study
more classical music, I won't really be able to incorporate his
style into my playing.

     Back to my practice sessions -- I realized that I couldn't
achieve the status of jazz piano player going along practicing with
the attitude of a rock musician.  The rock music that I had been
playing and improvising over was almost all modal or strictly
blues.  This made improvising fairly easy as long as I was playing
in the right mode or the proper blues scale.  In jazz, it is the
melody not the mode that determines what can and can't be played.
The melody determines the chords of the tune, and these chords
(with the melody inherent) are what the improviser uses to direct
his solo.  Modal jamming is a small aspect of jazz improvisation,
but only a fraction of what jazz is. The ability to play over jazz
changes requires a deeper understanding of music and a much more
spiritual approach to improvising than in rock music.  One needs to
discipline himself and practice, learn the music and when it comes
time to play leave all preconceptions behind.  The object is to
play what one hears at the moment, and any preconceptions about
what is going to be played will have a tendency to detract from the
life of the solo.  A good way to achieve this is to sing along
while you improvise.  This is a tool which Lar introduced me to, a
tool which I have since heard many jazz greats (including Art
Tatum) do on albums.  By singing, even if it isn't audible or isn't
exactly the melody you're playing, you open up yourself to any
internal melodies, and these can be sources of inspiration.

     It wasn't until this semester that I began to take on a much
more serious attitude towards practicing.  This has been due
largely to my reading of Zen in the Art of Archery.  My primary
source of discipline this semester has been working out of C.L.
Hanon's The Virtuoso Pianist, a book designed "for the acquirement
of agility, independence, strength, and perfect evenness in the
fingers, as  well as suppleness of the wrist."5  These Hanon
exercises have helped me with all these areas.  I began doing these
exercises daily and working with the metronome.  After I had worked
through the first twenty exercises in the book I began to speed up
the metronome as recommended. I was having problems with muscle
cramping and a general tightness in my body.  I went to Lar for
advice, and he helped me position my body and hands so that they
were in a much more natural position.  He suggested that I focus my
attention on relaxing instead of trying to hit every note, or
focusing on the metronome.  He said that I should constantly be
checking my wrists and elbows to be sure they aren't tight.  He
mentioned that playing with a metronome can sometimes lead a
musician to start playing like a metronome, which sounds lifeless
and inhibits one's ability to swing.  Concerning the tightness I
was feeling all over, he thought it might be from improper
breathing.  He suggested that I try screaming a phrase over and
over while playing the Hanon exercises.  This approach seems rather
unorthodox,  but it got results.  By concentrating on my voice and
lungs, not only did my breathing regulate itself, and by body
loosen up, but I played the exercises with more conviction,
emphasizing each note.  

     The importance of proper breathing did not just apply to these
exercises but turned out to be the most important aspect of feeling
comfortable while improvising.  I learned this through Lar and I
learned this through Zen in the Art of Archery.  In this passage
the master is describing what is necessary for the artist to let go
of himself for the sake of the art, in this case an arch with
" ... Thus between these two states of bodily relaxedness on the
one hand and spiritual freedom on the other there is a difference
level which cannot be overcome by breath-control alone, but only by
withdrawing from all attachments whatsoever, by becoming utterly
egoless:  so that the soul, sunk within itself, stands in the
plentitude of its nameless origin.
The demand that the door of the senses be not closed is not met
by turning energetically away from the sensible world, but rather
by a readiness to yield without  resistance.  In order that this
actionless activity may be accomplished instinctively, the soul
needs an inner hold,  and it wins by concentrating on breathing ...
The more one concentrates on breathing, the more the external
stimuli fade into the background."6

     I am fortunate enough to be in a band that gigs regularly, and
this has given me many opportunities to practice my relaxation
techniques.  While playing in front of people, if I feel myself
tightening up, or am not feeling inspired (especially during
solos) I concentrate on breathing and everything usually falls
into place.

     About the same time I began to understand relaxation, I began
playing jazz regularly with a sax, drum, and bass player.  We
primarily play jazz standards though more recently we've gotten  
into originals written by our sax man (my advisor) Karl Boyle.  I
have used these sessions not only to improve my playing but to
gauge my improvement as a jazz musician.  As the semester went on
I began to be able to play these tunes with much looser feel, and
even felt comfortable improvising over songs that I had never seen
or heard before such as Karl's originals.

     My proper breathing, my playing out, my listening to jazz and
my discipline have given me a new confidence.  I know that even
though I have a long way to go that I am a good jazz player.  This
confidence has helped me approach improvising with fewer
preconceptions about where the music is going to go.  I don't have
to worry because I know that my improvisations will lead me to a
good place musically, and if they don't I have the confidence that
I will be able to get myself out of any awkward musical situations,
and in fact use these situations to create tension.

     At this point (the end of the semester) I took my skills to a
recording studio where I would learn even more about my playing.
We (Phish) went to Boston to record a three song demo.  The
experience of working in a recording studio is different from any
I'd ever had before.  The energy level was high though it was much
different than playing in front of people.  We laid down the
initial tracks.  I didn't feel very comfortable with the playing at
the time, and in fact I didn't think it was very good.  However,
upon listening to it a few times I found that much of what I'd
played was interesting.  I'd learned another lesson: even if I'm
not moved by what I play, it doesn't mean that it's not good.  As
a musician I need to become as good as I can, and believe that what
I'm playing is good, even if I'm not have an amazing musical
experience.  Hearing the work I did in the studio has given me even
more confidence. 

Page McConnell - 2012
1.    Berendt, Joachim E.,  The Jazz Book,  p. 223, Westport,
Connecticut.,  Lawrence Hill & Co.,  1975.
2.    Aikin, Jim,  "Bill Evans"..  Contemporary Keyboard,  Vol 6,
No. 6.,  p. 45,  June 1980.
3.    Herrigel, Eugen,  Zen in the Art of Archery,  p, 82, New
York, Vintage Books,  1953.
4.    Aikin.,  p. 45.
5.    Hanon, C.L.,  The Virtuoso Pianist, New York, G. Schirmer,
6.    Herrigel,   p. 38.

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