WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Why fret?

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.

Eureka!

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 …

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11 comments on “Why fret?

  1. pinklightsabre
    June 1, 2016

    I like the metaphor note by note — another one is from Seth Godin, about drops in a bucket. If I’d apply my experience as a project manager, I’d say it’s more “Agile” than “Waterfall.” The way tech projects used to get planned out assumed a deterministic plan was possible, that you could imagine and plot out and detail an entire project end-to-end. With Agile, it comes in two week bursts of focus, and gets built like an erector set that way. The small focus, and feeling the satisfaction of delivering something in pieces, feels more doable to me.
    Thanks for the confidence boost Kevin! I’m going to check out “Lament,” too. The only versions I know of that song are written by The Cure and Guenter Schlienz (certainly different songs, same name).

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 1, 2016

      It’s interesting, the comparison to a tech project. I can see the need for a comprehensive view in that sort of thing, where you don’t want changes or surprises along the way. But those are just the thing that makes writing a novel so fascinating.

      This “Lament” was written by J. J. Johnson, the great jazz trombone player. Come to think of it, I’d like to hear The Cure cover it!

  2. S.K. Nicholls
    June 1, 2016

    I feel the metaphor. I get an idea and before long it’s snowballed into a novel idea. Kinda the same thing, but different. Now, if I could just execute them and get the things written I’d really be on a roll.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 1, 2016

      Yep, it’s all in the execution. Note by note, man. That’s the hard part.

  3. ericjbaker
    June 1, 2016

    Fro some reason I’ve always viewed others’ songs as alien languages. Instead of learning them, I do ad-hoc translations. It’s much easier for me to write my own material.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 1, 2016

      That works. The old composers used to do improvs “in the style of” someone else. But we remember them for their own stuff, eh?

  4. Helena Hann-Basquiat
    June 1, 2016

    Glad I’m not the only one who was intimidated by the thought of writing a novel. “I’ll just write short stories”…. I said this, too, only I wanted to be Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, Rod Serling.

    Same goes with music, my friend. You’re right. One note at a time. One day I’ll figure out Tom Waits’ “Blue Valentines”.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 1, 2016

      A beaut, “Blue Valentines.” I bet you can work that one out in time. Singing it like Tom, though? Not too likely … 😎

      • Helena Hann-Basquiat
        June 2, 2016

        Hey, I’ll have you know I do a pretty mean Tom Waits impression. When I’m in the car. And no one can hear me. And, okay, it sounds more like Cookie Monster….

      • Kevin Brennan
        June 2, 2016

        You just gave me a great idea! “Cookie Monster Sings the Tom Waits Songbook.” 🎶

      • Helena Hann-Basquiat
        June 2, 2016

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This entry was posted on June 1, 2016 by in Music and tagged , , , .
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