Lessons with Connie Crothers
I’ve been taking weekly improvisation lessons with pianist Connie Crothers for the last four months and, frankly, they’ve been the best lessons I’ve ever had. Connie studied with Lennie Tristano, whom I based my senior thesis on at NIU, for many years. I was looking for a new teacher when I moved to Brooklyn and a couple of friends had mentioned to try to get a hold of Connie. I had heard some of her music before, but wasn’t aware that she is a very well-established teacher out here. This video convinced me to get in touch:
We then met up just to chat and see if we’d be a good fit for each other. Everything she was saying really resonated with me, especially since many of the ideas she teaches tend to be completely ignored in the universities. Ever since I graduated college I’ve been fighting to strip away much of the intellectual, mathematical, and theoretical guidelines that are shoved down your throat there. Connie has no interest in dealing with these largely objective aspects of music and is more interested in investigating the harder to define ideas like how music and playing an instrument make one feel. I must admit, that this type of teaching may not work for everybody, but it has definitely found me at a perfect time in my development.
One of the things Connie has me work on a lot is my breathing. She has said to me that the only human being that breathes correctly is an infant. After this phase in our lives, we develop bad habits and life becomes too stressful. Thus, our breathing suffers. It’s not important to go into how much breathing effects our well-being. Everyone is becoming more conscious of this idea as exemplified by the ever-growing popularity of meditation and yoga. Regardless, I noticed instantly, through exercises that Connie has given me, the damage I was doing to my body by not breathing correctly. I also realized how much potential energy I was wasting by not breathing correctly. By no means am I an expert at it, yet, but I now have a very clear idea of how to get to where I want to be.
Another idea Connie stresses is singing as much as possible. This also makes a lot of sense to me. The very idea of finding one’s own ‘voice’ on his or her instrument obviously beckons the student to sing. Specifically, I have been singing along with many different Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and Charlie Christian tracks. It really has been amazing to dig farther into this music only to find even more depth and vastness in it than I ever imagined. Singing with these tracks has really developed my sound and phrasing on the guitar. It’s also important to note that Connie does not stress ‘nailing’ the pitches of the track. She’s more interested in capturing the feeling and spirit of the ideas rather than the specific notes themselves. I’m also not required to play the songs or solos on the guitar. This method is very different from any I’ve used before and it’s exciting to see how it has effected my playing in a positive way.
In addition to working on standards, Connie and I spend a fair amount of time on working on free improvisation. One of the logical conclusions I’ve come to is that these two methods of playing are much more closely related than most people perceive. One exercise that has been particularly mind-expanding is improvising freely with a standard. This can really mean anything, as long as the song (the melody) is in one’s head. One time I expressed to Connie that I was feeling self-conscious about doing this because sometimes I would just start playing the form of the tune. To me, that didn’t seem like a spontaneous way of improvising freely. Her response was basically that if that is what comes out, then don’t fight it. The true way to improvise freely is to let the music come out of you, unfiltered. To let go, to not think. I then expressed to her that if I didn’t ‘think’, then I would end up playing too much. Her response to this was that if one edits his or herself, then the result is, by definition, not true free improvisation.
Connie’s teaching is full of paradoxes like this. I love this about my lessons with her. I’m always leaving with something that really turns my head inside out that I’m pondering for days until the next lesson, when she gives me some new idea to chew on. Connie tends to be a polarizing figure in the jazz world. It doesn’t surprise me that this is the case. Her teaching method is radical, though only when it’s juxtaposed against the modern and more or less accepted method of teaching jazz. To me, however, it seems completely logical and is a perfect way to deal with the more mystical side of music. It is a way for me to deal with the ideas about music that I have known are important, but which I didn’t know how to approach and develop.
Connie is a fantastic musician and teacher and I would recommend studying with her if you live in the New York City area.
Here’s a wonderful recent interview with Connie (download the magazine issue in .pdf format):
And here’s an awe-inspiring video of Connie playing solo:
Please check out some of Connie’s music at New Artist Records.