All The Right Notes

Who am I to judge whether a note is “right” or “wrong?” That is a very subjective thing, especially in the context of jazz. Well, I am a college-educated music teacher after all; I better be able to tell the difference! Besides directing the music, a conductor’s job is to catch incorrect notes/articulations/whatever and correct them in rehearsal before they are made in a concert performance. In college conducting class, I excelled at hearing and singling-out “clams” from among the many musicians of the concert band (played on purpose for training)—the happy result of my natural ear for harmony.

As a Classically-trained musician (my training was on clarinet), cardinal rule number one is “thou shalt not make mistakes.” It is only at the point of perfecting the written-in-stone music that you can begin to interpret the music and put your own unique stamp on it, and to express feeling. The composer’s job is simply to give you the framework with which to express yourself.

I am well-aware that many folks consider classical musicians to be musical robots, blandly regurgitating the unchanging music of long-dead composers. To be honest, many are! Many couldn’t play Happy Birthday without the sheet music to save their life. But most of them can sight-read stuff that would make your head spin and play notes that you didn’t even know existed! To rise above that highly-trained plateau and be a big solo star takes a profound gift for interpretation, a soloist’s charisma (aka stage presence), or both.

 “In art as in lovemaking, heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill, but what you want is passionate virtuosity” [emphasis added]

John Barth

I have long realized that I missed my true calling; I believe I was supposed to have been a Classical musician (piano or cello—the instruments I most-love to listen to). My musical gift leans much more to the memorization and interpretation side than to the make-it-up-as-you-go side. I believe that’s why I’ve taken so well to the Classic banjo repertoire; it satisfies my inner need for “serious” music (within the obvious limitations of the instrument). Buddy Wachter once told me that he loves the “challenge of making great music on the banjo”; it’s the reason he stuck with it instead of concentrating on a “more-serious,” better-appreciated/compensated instrument (he of course plays many instruments at an extremely high professional level).

With my childhood shyness though, I probably would have leaned toward being a section player rather than a soloist; orchestras and concert bands consist almost entirely of section players, so there’s nothing wrong with that. Plus, you don’t get scolded for “not smiling enough!” Someone has to play the third part! The second and third concert band clarinet parts for example have some of the best stuff (the leftover, fill-in notes), without the pressure of being a “soloist”; I’m happy to play those parts.

Training aside, my penchant for hearing wrong notes comes from my childhood; I was very shy, and was deathly afraid of making mistakes. While I had a great ear—and could “memorize” songs on first hearing—it was all I could do to get up in front of people and play the banjo. My first time in front of an audience all by myself didn’t come until the age of 28 (Boise Circle the Wagons)! I was a nervous wreck, but I was determined to break through that barrier, mistakes and all; all these years later I still get nervous, but not nearly so bad!

Mistakes still embarrass me, but now it’s more of a stubborn self-esteem issue than it is a fear of being laughed at (my fear in childhood). I have an overriding desire to “do it right,” and feel like a failure if I make too many mistakes (in everything, not just music). I have mostly learned to hide my self-disgust, and in fact, have learned to laugh at myself and turn flubs into “entertainment opportunities.”

My Father (Myron Hinkle) was an obsessive perfectionist as well; I’m sure that’s where I got it from. The fear was not “beaten into me,” mind you; I was just a good, super-sensitive parrot. I have gradually come to realize that my fear-driven ability to differentiate between right and wrong notes has a positive flip-side; I believe listeners as well would prefer that I play the right notes!

The result of this is that I am cautious and don’t take chances on stage. I rehearse and present the most-difficult music I can manage in an on-going effort to push my boundaries and raise expectations for the banjo. I have no interest in playing “just a bunch of songs” (actually what the audience would prefer); I aim to make a musical statement! I would never attempt that level of difficulty on the fly though. Some of the best audience reactions I’ve ever gotten have been when I was on the ragged edge and didn’t quite make it; I guess it sounded like it was on the fly—that I was relying on my instincts to get through it. In short, it sounded human, and not like a machine. My favorite backhanded “compliment” is “That sounded really difficult!” Of course, my goal is to make it sound easy.

More than anything else, I believe this is why I have become obsessed with jazz improvisation. It isn’t any-more technically-difficult than what I already do, but it is definitely “on the fly!” I see it as the thing—once achieved—that will once and for all break me out of my fear-of-mistakes shyness, and set me free to play in public what I can do in the privacy of my music room—my true potential, no-longer shackled by fear.

Okay, what constitutes a “wrong” note? In written music of course, that’s a no-brainer; a note different from what the composer/arranger wrote! I confess that when playing difficult band music, I am adept at changing an “impossible” passage by leaving out a few notes (you should see some of the stuff clarinetists are expected to play; we are the violinists of the concert band), or by playing an equally-correct note in place of one I can’t quite reach. Again, I have my ear to thank for this! If you’re going to play a different note, just make sure it’s not a wrong note! I have even been known to put in extra notes in simple music—especially in arranged jazz tunes or pep-band style charts. And of course, I have taken a bit of “editorial license” with the Classic banjo sheet music and my solo interpretation of it.

In the jazz improv world on the other hand, the concept of right/wrong is very subjective. One player’s/listener’s gold is another’s gibberish. I believe though that you will find one thing in common with the music of top jazz musicians (whether you like their music or not); the vast majority of their notes are good notes (interpret that any way you like!), or they would not rise to the top! Compare this with “Pop” musicians, who often achieve fame more through their looks than through their “music.” The other musicians and music critics would—and do—see to it that they don’t get a call-back otherwise. The serious Classical and Jazz worlds are brutally competitive—certainly more-so than the four-string banjo world!

Would an obsession with correct notes serve one well in the jazz world? Let me answer that with a hypothetical question from the opposite direction: Would a musician who just blows hard and wiggles his/her fingers with no regard for recognizable musical form or harmony be someone you would want to listen to? Let me answer that in a way you might not expect: If the player in question has already proven him/herself to be a fine musician, I might give them the benefit of the doubt—at least for a little bit. They may be simply trying to make a musical point, but if the noise persisted for longer than 30 seconds, I would probably write them off as having gone “over the edge” of sanity.

If evolutionary history proves me wrong (Charlie Parker was not universally liked or understood at first—some still don’t, 80 years on!), I would hope that I could evolve as a listener to at least accept it, if not like it. And yes, I like “Free Jazz” ( It actually reminds me of Trad Jazz (my first love) in its free-wheeling collective improvisation.

There is a popular myth that jazz musicians just play whatever “pops into their head” in the heat of the moment. If too many provably-wrong notes “pop out of their instrument” though, they will be laughed off the stage and sent scurrying to the practice room for some “creative loneliness.” Of course they are concerned with playing the right notes! Their natural gift for them (there are a few savants out there)—or more likely their prior training in correct notes—guides them and informs their music in the heat of the moment.

I say all this because I believe it is possible to learn to improvise jazz; it is not the sole domain of savants, as many would have you believe. You would be amazed at what a solid background in music theory and technical studies can do for you (available to anyone who can read music, which in turn is something anyone can learn to do). You would also be amazed at how many working jazz musicians got there by hard work and study on the classical side of music (another thing that anyone can do) in lieu of a “natural” gift! I knew and worked with many fine jazz musicians in college and the Army band; some were naturals, but most were simply hard workers. All of them could read really well—prerequisite #1 in those places.

If you go “mute” when presented with an improvisational opportunity (“take it!”), knowing how to play something might get you by—especially if that something consisted of good (as opposed to wrong) notes. You learn this by first learning scales and arpeggios (the “grammar”), and then putting them together into musical patterns (the “sentences/paragraphs/ etc.”). You then learn improv by having those skills ingrained in your head and fingers, and then setting them free; if you don’t have those skills pre-learned, just what is it that you plan to set free? Right, listenable notes or “on a wing and a prayer?” It’s your choice.

2 comments on “All The Right NotesAdd yours →

  1. Ron, nice blog. I agree that everyone has a place in music.
    I prefer a buffet when I want a variety but will still go to a specialty restaurant when I want something that someone has given their all to produce. Vin

  2. Nice article, Ron!

    Hope this little anecdote will shed a different light on the difference between good notes and clams… btw, you are probably aware of this already but Jimmy Dorsey’s band-within-a-band was named the “Clambake Seven”… !

    Anyway, I was on a mainstream/traditional jazz cruise a couple of years ago and there was an excellent piano player whose name alas I cannot recall….

    Came his turn to play a solo and he began by playing just one chord and letting it linger for a few seconds.

    This chord was somewhere in that gray area between “right” and “wrong”.

    The effect on the audience was immediate… “Oooooohhhh….” said someone, and I think the rest if us felt the same way…

    I only wish MY clams on banjo or guitar had the same effect!

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