Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
There must be a metaphor in here somewhere …
I remember when I was much younger and considering myself a short-story writer in the vein of Raymond Carver and Bobby Ann Mason (back in the day), thinking, Hell, I could never write a novel. But at some point, something in me clicked and I gave it a shot. Actually finished a novel. A big one. Hundreds of pages (I had no chops for revising back then). Of course, nothing ever happened with that one, though I’ve carted it around from home to home in a large box, lo, these thirty years.
Well, as I’ve said before, I don’t have the same enthusiasm for the challenges of novel writing as I had in those days. But the same impulses come out where music is concerned.
Example. I’ve been working my way through songbooks of my jazz guitar heroes — Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell — for a few years now. It’s fun. It’s time-consuming (in a good way). Rewarding. But as soon as I’ve learned a song and stop playing it regularly, I forget it. A couple of exceptions, like Wes’s “Mi Cosa” and “Yesterdays,” stick with me, but because I don’t have a strong foundation in music theory, my brain soon lets go of that which it doesn’t understand.
Then somewhere I read, “You should do your own transcriptions. It’ll teach you more than learning someone else’s.” And I said, “Hell, I could never do my own transcription.”
Until now, that is. Something in me clicked a couple months ago, and I dug into Kenny Burrell’s “Lament.” I’ve made my way, at last, through the whole thing, using nothing but the recording and YouTube’s half-speed tool.
Listen to the song. It’s a beauty. And imagine how impossible it must have seemed to me at the outset. When the intro felt too intimidating, I skipped ahead to the solo around two minutes in and quickly found that the single-note lines weren’t too difficult. And, patiently, I listened to the chords and tried to pick out a couple of notes in them. That way, knowing a lot of the chord shapes Kenny favors, I tried different possibilities until I got a match, then onto the next bar.
And that’s how books get written too. Note by note. Trying to envision the completed thing when you start is way too intimidating. You just have to get going and put in the work. One day, you find that you’ve finished it.
Last week I went back to the intro of “Lament” and tried some things that hadn’t occurred to me earlier. This time they worked. In a few days I’d mapped my way through the impossible two minutes I couldn’t crack when I began, and now I can play the song from start to finish — all 6:23 of it — and without the aid of a songbook.
That’s a victory big enough to get me started on a search for the next one …