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Dave Holland master class

Mark Schmieder

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I had the privilege of attending a Dave Holland ensemble master class at New England Conservatory while visiting my family in Boston this week.


The bass technique master class was only open to students and faculty, but there was a lot to learn as a bassist even from the ensemble master class, and it proved invaluable towards upping my game as an arranger and ensemble player.


Although fairly generalized and stripped of the context, I wrote up some salient points and sent them to all my band mates and jazz playing friends in the area. We are all very excited to start implementing some of the notions expressed during the master class, and I remained conscious of these lessons all through last night's rehearsal, which I now consider our best ever (plus we have a gig on Saturday).


This was only supposed to be a two hour class, but Dave decided to stretch it out to three hours. He is a very generous person, not at all egotistical, and is able to grab a few salient points while listening and critiquing people's performances and compositions in a way that is designed to change how they think but not instruct them on what to do.


Amazing tact, as well. After all, these are all young students, virtuosos with skills that go far beyond most musicians that I encounter in the SF Bay Area (NEC is one of the top music schools in the world and thanks to Gunther Schuller was the first to formally recognize jazz as a legitimate art form worth studying), but they don't have a lot of ensemble experience.


So, much of what he said is "obvious" to those of us who are seasoned, but the way he expresses it still proves beneficial to anyone in the room. I did love how he tactfully instructed one group that was all in their own individual head space to think how much more interesting it would be for the audience if they played off one another and listened to what everyone was doing. :-) I wish I could remember his exact wording. :-)


I feel like my life has been changed by this short three hour experience, and can only imagine how I would grow if I was taking regular lessons with Mr. Holland. When I lived in Boston, there were a few times that I actually contemplated a long drive for a lesson or two; just as some drummer friends did in order to catch some lessons from Jack DeJohnette.


I'm not sure if anyone would benefit from the specific points that I noted yesterday, a day after the master class. I can't resurrect those until home as the outgoing message is now on my home computer.


Anyway, I'm wondering if anyone else has had such a life-changing experience from a Dave Holland master class, or even a master class from another luminary.

Eugenio Upright, 60th Anniversary P-Bass, USA Geddy Lee J-Bass, Yamaha BBP35, D'angelico SS Bari, EXL1,

Select Strat, 70th Anniversary Esquire, LP 57, Eastman T486, T64, Ibanez PM2, Hammond XK4, Moog Voyager

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Sounds like this was a great opportunity and a good experience for you. I'm not recalling a master class where this happened to me but can say that some of the things that helped me progress as a player came from some extremely competant band mates that were not shy about pointing out some of the shortcomings in my playing.



I have basses to play, places to be and good music to make!
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Hi Mark,


I studied with Dave in the mid-'80s. Once a month or so, I used to drive to his place upstate, or he would come by my place in Brooklyn if he was coming to the city. I agree with you that he is an incredible teacher and very generous person. I'm glad that you had the chance to participate in his workshop . . . I'm sure a lot of the players there had the same reaction as you.


Dave has a clear way of explaining how he learned his technique and developed his musical skills. He has the ability to break things down to their smallest components and look at musical problems. I think Dave is inspiring for several reasons: He is unassuming, and he will tell you that he learned what he knows by practicing the correct things, correctly. Then he can show you the correct things to practice. He is a master player who demonstrates that he became masterful simply by hard work and study -- and challenges his students to do the same thing.


In our lessons, he analyzed my weak points without being judgmental and showed me how to grow out of the bad habits, replacing them with 'good' habits. He was very supportive.


I see him once in awhile at festivals here -- the last time was in July. He still sounds fantastic, at the top of his game.


It would be great if you could post your notes from the workshop. I think folks would be very interested.

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OK, here goes. Please bear in mind that I deliberately modified the "lessons" so that they would be understandable outside the context of being at the clinic and hearing the music (as well as watching the musicians) that inspired the remarks.


So these are not Dave's words (which I did not write down at the time), but my recombination of what I thought I had learned after reflecting on the class a day later. Also, this writeup was directed to my current jazz outfit and is presented as worded, so don't misconstrue what terms such as "us" and "our" mean. :-)




Before heading to the airport in Boston yesterday, I attended a free three hour ensemble masterclass at New England Conservatory led by bassist extraordinaire Dave Holland. He also led two other seminars -- one dedicated to upright bass technique -- but those were open exclusively to NEC faculty and students.


Although much of his critique of the student ensembles and their compositions was similar to what any of us would have said as experienced musicians (most of it boiling down to "listen and watch" instead of just being inside your own head space), I will try to summarize some salient points that he made, that help elevate the music:


1. The piano should use broken chords and sparse rhythms during most solos -- depending of course on the material -- and not shy away from using the lowest and highest registers for colour and contrast (especially when comping during solos)


2. Drums should generally lead into a piece with non-ornamental playing that emphasizes the main beat (often just the downbeat), but flourishes and fills (including by the bassist) can be doubled rhythmically to great effect in building the tension and drawing the listener into the overall form


3. Everyone should be careful to accent the form -- especially during solos -- so it doesn't get lost and so the listener is always aware of mileposts and reference points and also as this drives the underlying "story" forward in a more cohesive way


4. It can be a good idea to occasionally take a 3/4 piece into fast double-time 4/4, with the drums and especially the bass leading the transition and making it smooth, as 3/4 can otherwise start to sound more repetitious and potentially bore the audience during longer solo forms


5. Melody instruments should occasionally experiment -- especially when re-quoting the melody/head at the end of preparing for the return to the top -- with octave transposition; even if just for part of the main phrase


6. Rhythm instruments should be conscious of being less repetitive in their backing, and during solos should play more off of what the soloists are doing; requiring of course that the soloists also broadcast what they are about to do and that everyone maintain tight communication during solos vs. just playing the form


Bear in mind that ALL of these comments were in the context of highly advanced compositions that go way beyond standard Real Book fare and show tunes, and wouldn't necessarily apply to entertainment scenarios where the listener's attention often has to be grabbed less subtly and more quickly.


Dave is a remarkable individual and very generous with his time; he was only signed on for two hours but gave an extra hour because he felt like it. He is very tactful; the fourth group didn't sound like a group, nor was there any interplay, but he found ways to get his points across without being offensive and encouraged initiative to learn.


As for the musicianship of the students, they are all light years away from any of us, and that's already saying a lot, but we have better ensemble skills. It's amazing what virtuosity these young musicians possess, but working effectively and as a group seems to only come with age, maturity, and experience.


You may not know this, but NEC was the first conservatory in the US to have a jazz program (back in the 50's or earlier). Gunther Schuller is still alive, but now retired. This music school has always reached out to music beyond classical, without taking Berklee College of Music's approach of catering to game music composers and rock.

Eugenio Upright, 60th Anniversary P-Bass, USA Geddy Lee J-Bass, Yamaha BBP35, D'angelico SS Bari, EXL1,

Select Strat, 70th Anniversary Esquire, LP 57, Eastman T486, T64, Ibanez PM2, Hammond XK4, Moog Voyager

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Well, I put these notes into play BIG TIME at our five hour Farmer's Market gig yesterday, as did our keyboardist bandleader, and it made a HUGE difference on every song and kept people consistently inspired throughout the gig.


As this is a public forum and I value people's privacy, I won't drop names, but the manager of a very well known latin musician was present and came up to us with high compliments as well as a business card exchange that might land us some high-profile gigs.


I already feel like I got way more than I paid at that free master class. :-) Even way more than the plane ticket cost. :-)

Eugenio Upright, 60th Anniversary P-Bass, USA Geddy Lee J-Bass, Yamaha BBP35, D'angelico SS Bari, EXL1,

Select Strat, 70th Anniversary Esquire, LP 57, Eastman T486, T64, Ibanez PM2, Hammond XK4, Moog Voyager

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