Tamp 'Em Up Solid

fingerstyle improvisation Jan 30, 2019

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Under The Bodhi Tree

I always thought the phrase "Once more to the Bodhi Tree" was some official Buddhist quote, but a quick search, at least, does not reveal this to be so. What I know about Buddhism fits easily into a thimble, one already filled nine-tenths of the way with sand, so no screaming if I get this wrong, but essentially, the Bodhi Tree is the one under which the Buddha meditated until achieving enlightenment. So around Casa Fretboard, with its population, at last census, of not one but two adult humans constantly navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of art and commerce, the phrase "Once more to the Bodhi Tree" is shorthand for "yeah, I knew this truth [don't read the news after 10pm / don't wait for external validation / don't get into a land war in Asia] but I clearly need to learn it again." Once more to the Bodhi Tree. Or, if there are no kids around, "Once more to the f**king Bodhi Tree," accompanied by much stomping of feet and gnashing of teeth. (No rending of garments, though – we've both just Marie Kondo'd the closet so if we're wearing it, it can't be spared for rending. Rent pearl-snap shirts do not spark joy.)

On a recent episode of Leo Sidran's The Third Story podcast, jazz pianist Kenny Werner recounts how someone came into the studio control room while Tatum was making a solo recording, and, surprised by what he saw, asked, "Why's Art got headphones on to make a solo recording?" And the engineer replied, "Well, he's listening to the World Series."

According to Werner, because Tatum had everything so wired into his mind and body as a player, it actually helped to think about something else as he played. Werner theorizes that it's the thinking that messes up your playing, that when you're worried about if you're any good or not, you play instead of practice, and practice when you should be playing. That is, while you're meaning to be practicing – slowing things down, working out the things you can't yet do until you can – it's common to start worrying that you just can't really play, and so you start to play, not practice, just to make sure you actually still can. Then, while you're playing – by which Werner means performing onstage – you reach for things you can't do yet, things you think you should be able to do – and that takes you out of the flow, the place of being musical and responsive and intuitive, because you're trying to be hip and impress people, not make music with what you've already got down. So the worrying messes up both states, practicing and performing.

By having the World Series in his ears during the session, Tatum was theoretically able to follow the game and let his intuition take him wherever it wanted to on the keyboard. If you're not thinking about what you're doing, you can't be trying, and you certainly aren't busy worrying about whether you're hip enough at the moment. I'm no Art Tatum, but things go better for me too when I quit worrying, or trying, and just make something I want to make, the way I want to make it. And correspondingly, the moment I start focusing on how the results will go over, the magic tap turns off, and the flow of inspiration and good ideas slows to a trickle, if that. With a little observation, I can even see how this goes not just for performing, but for things like composing and teaching as well.

For example, some time last spring, I started feeling like I'd finally dialed in my Youtube channel. I had relaxed a little, stopped worrying about what kinds of lessons I should be shooting, and spent some time just making the lessons I felt like making. And to my genuine surprise, those seemed to be the lessons that people liked the best. So naturally I began thinking, "Ah, ok, now I need to make more lessons like that."

And the minute I had that thought, I stopped feeling like I could just experiment and have fun and enjoy what I was doing, because I was now already trying again – trying to make the kinds of lessons people would like because they were like that last bunch I had made. And there it was: no more Youtube lessons. Because even when I shot some – and I did – they felt lame, and and I deep-sixed them rather than put out stuff I could tell was me trying to make something cool and useful, not actually making something cool and useful.

It took a few more trips to the Bodhi Tree, but at some point I did figure out some lessons I wanted to make, and a bit more about how I wanted to make them, and so there are, at last, more lessons in the chute, starting with this week's video on how to improvise on "Tamp 'Em Up Solid." I'm sure it'll happen again, if not with Youtube, then with something else, but that's cool. There are worse places to hang out than under the Bodhi Tree. Hope you enjoy the lesson, and if you've got questions about it or suggestions for other tunes, please leave them in the comments below.