Ask Damian Erskine: Learning new styles

Q: How did you go about learning the different styles that you get called to play? (salsa, etc.) This fits in to the whole notion of “diversification” you were discussing.

A: The short answer is by accepting every gig I could, getting the book (charts) and/or CD and shedding like mad so as not to embarrass myself!

I also realized at one point that in order to really do any new style justice, you must understand it at least a little bit. When I started taking Salsa gigs, for example, I asked the band leader what CDs I should pick up to better understand the music (what did he listen to?!). I’d listen to that in the car and on flights, etc… You have to get the overall sound and vibe of the music in your head. Knowing what notes to play and where is only a small part of it. If you can’t get the dance of the music in your body, you will only ever be “ok” at that style.

For that reason, I’ve intentionally stopped listening to a style other than what style I’ll be playing in while I drive to the gig!

If it’s a pop gig, I listen to Steely Dan or Maroon5, or whatever I’m kind of digging at the time. If it’s Salsa, I listen to Tito Puente, Dafnis Prieto, Spanish Harlem Orchestra. If it’s funk, I listen to James Brown, Sly Stone, Rufus, Chaka Khan… you get the picture.

Certain styles are inherently harder to feel than others unless you truly love them and listen to them. Straight ahead jazz, Salsa, African styles, etc… They are styles born out of a lifetime commitment to that style… Pop is easy to vibe, hard to play perfectly. Jazz doesn’t have to be perfect, but you’ve got to swing your a** off!

Swinging can’t be taught. It’s GOT to be felt. Same goes most of the world music we come across (Latin, Flamenco, W. African, etc…) If you can’t feel it, you can’t play it. So you’ve GOT to internalize it and that means listening and understanding it on at least a basic level. Funk is the same way! Can’t fake that… You’ve got to dance it from the inside out, or it’s stiff and just doesn’t feel right. I’ve known guys who don’t know a lick of theory, play a tune they don’t know, hit all the wrong notes and it doesn’t really matter… they’re FEELING it the right way, and that’s more important than notes.

Basically, in order to play something with authority, you’ve got to feel it. You’ve got to hear where it’s coming from and you have to have spent time with it.
There isn’t enough time to master EVERY style (most of us never master any of them!). But in order to play it well enough to at least kill the gig and get called back, the best bet is to familiarize yourself with the music and internalize it enough to feel it properly.

If you get a gig and there’s no CD to practice too, buy an album with a similar feel and play along, transcribe… dig deeper. Then study the charts (if there are any) and you’re good!

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Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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