I came across a wonderful document online. It is purportedly a list of advice given by Theolonius Monk on how to play music and was written down by saxophonist Steve Lacy in 1960.
It’s the condensed wisdom of Monk scribbled onto a spiral bound notepad. Makes you wonder what other great thoughts are to be found in similar notepads throughout the world.
I’ve made some commentary on Monk’s words but not too much. He gets in, gets straight to the point, makes a perfect statement and he gets out again. A lot like his music.
T.MONK’S ADVICE (1960)
JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT A DRUMMER, DOESN’T MEAN THAT YOU DON’T HAVE TO KEEP TIME.
I love this one and I’m glad he says it first because, as I’ve written in both my books, it is the single most important element of making music. A friend of mine who plays in an amateur music ensemble recently spoke of her enthusiasm for the two “professional level” musicians in the group.
She said, “They make everyone else sound good. They keep us all on time.”
Clearly the major difference between good and lesser quality music is the degree to which you keep time.
And it doesn’t matter what instrument you play… those “professional level” musicians play flute and concertina.
PAT YOUR FOOT & SING THE MELODY IN YOUR HEAD, WHEN YOU PLAY.
For instrumental playing these 2 actions will make sure a) you keep time and b) your music makes sense and you don’t get lost.
STOP PLAYING ALL THOSE WEIRD NOTES (THAT BULLSHIT), PLAY THE MELODY!
This one is for jazz soloists more than more the average ukulele player but the lesson holds true. Concentrate on making music and not on being pretentious.
MAKE THE DRUMMER SOUND GOOD.
We’re back to the first point. If your time keeping is off, the drummer will be constantly adjusting to your tempo and they won’t sound good.
DISCRIMINATION IS IMPORTANT.
Take care in what you play and what you don’t play. It can mean many things and maybe that’s how it should be. Whatever this means to you… do that!
YOU’VE GOT TO DIG IT TO DIG IT, YOU DIG?
Translation: Play music that makes you feel something. This will help you to feel the music when you play it.
I think his mind is wandering here…
ALWAYS KNOW… (MONK)
Mind still wandering?… OR is he suggesting to cultivate within yourself a level of confidence and inner connection so you always know what to play and when.
IT MUST BE ALWAYS NIGHT, OTHERWISE THEY WOULDN’T NEED THE LIGHTS.
A comment on poorly lit jazz venues? I think he fell asleep for a moment…
LET’S LIFT THE BAND STAND!!
Excellent, he woke up and tells us to always perform with energy!
I WANT TO AVOID THE HECKLERS.
Stay focused on the music, not on the crowd.
DON’T PLAY THE PIANO PART, I’M PLAYING THAT. DON’T LISTEN TO ME. I’M SUPPOSED TO BE ACCOMPANYING YOU!
If you’re the soloist then be the soloist.
THE INSIDE OF THE TUNE (THE BRIDGE) IS THE PART THAT MAKES THE OUTSIDE SOUND GOOD.
This is more about songwriting than performing but it still gives us a clue about how to treat the different parts of a song. Make them distinct!
DON’T PLAY EVERYTHING (OR EVERY TIME); LET SOME THINGS GO BY. SOME MUSIC JUST IMAGINED. WHAT YOU DON’T PLAY CAN BE MORE IMPORTANT THAN WHAT YOU DO.
ALWAYS LEAVE THEM WANTING MORE.
A NOTE CAN BE SMALL AS A PIN OR AS BIG AS THE WORLD, IT DEPENDS ON YOUR IMAGINATION.
And your ability to feel the music.
STAY IN SHAPE! SOMETIMES A MUSICIAN WAITS FOR A GIG, & WHEN IT COMES, HE’S OUT OF SHAPE & CAN’T MAKE IT.
He means musical shape. Practice as if you were regularly gigging. But while you’re at it you might as well stay in good physical shape too.
WHEN YOU’RE SWINGING, SWING SOME MORE!
There is always more to do and another musical place where you can go.
(WHAT SHOULD WE WEAR TONIGHT? SHARP AS POSSIBLE!)
That’s what I do. You must wear a bow tie. Kidding! At the minimum though you should generally aim to look better than the audience. But don’t overdo it, formal wear at a ukulele open mic may be a bit much.
DON’T SOUND ANYBODY FOR A GIG, JUST BE ON THE SCENE. THESE PIECES WERE WRITTEN SO AS TO HAVE SOMETHING TO PLAY, & TO GET CATS INTERESTED ENOUGH TO COME TO REHEARSAL.
Monk astutely recognizes that your relationships with other musicians are an important part of the music.
YOU’VE GOT IT! IF YOU DON’T WANT TO PLAY, TELL A JOKE OR DANCE, BUT IN ANY CASE, YOU GOT IT! (TO A DRUMMER WHO DIDN’T WANT TO SOLO).
Bahahaha! I love this one. It tells us you can always do SOMETHING!
WHATEVER YOU THINK CAN’T BE DONE, SOMEBODY WILL COME ALONG & DO IT.
So don’t give up and assume that something can’t be done. Keep trying!
A GENIUS IS THE ONE MOST LIKE HIMSELF.
Yeah. Or HERself….
THEY TRIED TO GET ME TO HATE WHITE PEOPLE, BUT SOMEONE WOULD ALWAYS COME ALONG & SPOIL IT.
Music already has so much going on, it’s terribly hard to find time to be hating people too!
© Ralph Shaw 2017