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Fresh Ideas: An Interview with Jon Damian

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Jon Damian

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Professor of Guitar Jon Damian is one of Berklee’s most creative and revered educators—a consummate out-of-the-box thinker and sage, who has inspired thousands of students over the years, including many who have gone on to brilliant careers, such as Bill Frisell, Mike Stern, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Wayne Krantz—and many others. He is the author of  The Chord Factory: Build Your Own Guitar Chord Dictionary (Berklee Press, 2007), The Guitarist’s Guide to Composing and Improvising (Berklee Press, 2002), and Fresh Music: Explorations with the Creative Workshop Ensemble for Musicians, Artists and Teachers (self published). As a performer, he has worked with an extraordinary list of artists: Luciano Pavarotti, the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozowa, the Boston Pops with John Williams, Johnny Cash, Jaki Byard, Leonard Bernstein, Howard McGhee, Jimmy Guiffre, Rosemary Clooney, Linda Rondstadt…. you get the picture! He’s also an extraordinarily entertaining writer. It was fun to interview him about some of his ideas about teaching, learning, and thinking about music.


Jonathan Feist: What is “good” music?

Jon Damian: “Good” is in the eyes and ears of the beholder. And to paraphrase Anaïs Nin, “We don’t hear things as they are; we hear them as we are.”

I have recently been inspired by the writings of John O’Donohue about beauty. They are inspiring me to find beauty in everything, including all music.

Let’s say you’re in the midst of working up (what you might call “comprovising”) a solo that isn’t what you personally feel is “good” yet. How might you improve it?

When I am comprovising and play an idea that at first seems “wrong,” I realize that I can simply repeat the idea blatantly to “right it,” or obviously, develop ideas from it.

If I play a lemon, I try to make lemonade with it.

Do you have any tips to make learning the guitar a bit easier?

If learning to play the guitar is hard, then you are going in the right direction. This holds true for at least a 53-year period. If my practice time feels too easy, I add a little “weight” on—perhaps that piece in 5/4 that’s been plaguing me for years?!!!

What ways have you found to help musicians get out of creative ruts?

Most important is to become a “polyartist”—to approach all art media as one and begin to hear the music in a painting or a poem, to see the dancer in the musician, to become the dancer in the viewing of a sculpture.

Having only music as our source of inspiration can lead to a tiring of ideas. A visit to a museum, or a walk in the woods to hear its symphony, can be quite refreshing! Olivier Messaien and Roland Kirk drew wonderful inspirations from the birds and the bees.

How about ways to make practicing more productive?

During practice time, having a performance goal of some kind is a necessity: a gig, an upcoming session, a lesson. The repertoire of these performances will ask you many questions technically, and theoretically, how you creatively deliver these ideas is up to you.

As a teacher and a writer, you are, if I might put it a little boldly, an eccentric delight. And I’ve heard or read so many of your students and readers speak passionately of your mentorship—almost like you have a cult following. I’m not sure that you could present your insights in a more mundane way, if you tried, but in the abstract sense, why do you think your approach is so effective and inspiring?

Writing and teaching are performance arts, right along with dance, music performance, and acting. It’s all show business, so in this regard, I just naturally write and teach with having fun in mind.

Everyone has an innate creative genius. What blinds this genius is a lack of creative, involvedness and love for what we teachers are teaching, or for what the students are learning.

So, I always try to bring a creative involvedness and love to it.

Is there a type of teaching approach that you find to be most effective?

I recently conducted jazz master classes for Berklee’s Guitar Sessions 2015, and what the students appreciated most is when I actually played for them. Actions speak many words. I have learned to appreciate what I have to offer as a performer from many years of study. Those who can hear what I have to say/play are illumined. Those who don’t aren’t.

Hearing music live is key advice, in my humble estimation.

Can you describe one of your lessons that frequently leads musicians to find exponential improvement or insight?

In my final lecture of this session, I addressed the issue of frustration that some of the students felt, after a week of activities. At that point in the seminar, many realize that there is a lot of development to be done technically, theoretically, and simply in getting experience.

To help the students appreciate the hard work they have already done in their young careers, I introduce my study “The Incredible Time Machine Study.” [Described in more detail in “The Guitarist’s Guide to Composing and Improvising.”] In this study, I take the group back in time to their first day with a guitar in their hands.

At first, before pressing the big red Time Machine button, I have each student come up with a nice vocal Time Machine sound effect. Perhaps….. “pishamegacket pishamegacket pishamegacket pishamegacket pishamegacket!!!” Or “bleepblopbleepblap bleepblopbleepblap bleepblopbleepblap bleepblopbleepblap.”

Then, I say, “When I press this red button, begin your Time Machine vocal effects, and at the same time, switch your guitars so that your pegboards are facing the opposite direction, and your picks end up in the opposite hand!!!”

Now that they are back in time, I say, “Can you please give me a simple accompaniment to a melody I recently composed?”

When I tell them the starting chord is an F major triad, early memories of difficulty trying their first bar chords quickly return! The next chord, a D7 chord, is equally perplexing.

They quickly learn that they’ve come a long way, baby, when we reengage the Time Machine and return to the present, playing the guitar in its usual orientation.

I tell them to someday share this study with their own developing students.

In addition to your life as a musician, you are also a wildlife enthusiast, and particularly, an avid birder. What’s your favorite bird, and why?

Chicken parmigiana. Because my name is originally Damiani!! I am of Italian distraction!! My mom, Rosie, made a beautiful chicken parmigiana. I wrote a solo guitar piece for her called “Rosie.” The piece is short and sweet, and so was she.

Take us out with a song, will you? Let’s watch a performance of you playing your famous invention, the Rubbertellie, at Bishop’s Academy in Quebec. Can you say a few words about it?

The piece is “Brother Sharpe,” composed for a wonderful drummer and departed friend D. Sharpe, a long time drummer with Carla Bley. I draw energy from him during the performance.

About

Jonathan Feist is editor in chief of Berklee Press, where he has been bringing hundreds of music education products to a worldwide market since 1998. He is the author of “Project Management for Musicians,” among other Berklee Press books and Berklee Online courses. He holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in composition from New England Conservatory of Music, and tends to various farm animals and a sweet little orchard in his backyard.

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