Interview with Hal Galper
Hal Galper may not be a household name outside of the Jazz world but the list of people that he has played music with reads like a who’s who of Jazz greatness. Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, John Scofield, Phil Woods, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, and the list goes on. Galper is a jazz piano and improvisational virtuoso fluent and comfortable with just about anything Jazz you could think of. His talents can maneuver around BeBop, Modal jazz, Classic American songbook tunes, and Swing Jazz.
But it is as a teacher that Galper seems to have really forged new ground. His ideas about teaching are like nothing I’ve ever come across, yet they are immediately accessible and understandable. His research is deep and far reaching and his conclusions about music highly intelligent but immediately pragmatic. Simply put his ideas on music and especially improvisation are some of the most sophisticated yet easily understood I’ve ever heard. It was an honor and a real treat to get to sit down and talk music with such a hugely influential musician. Look for the remainder of the interview in my practicing book.
You should rush over to his website right now and buy some music or at the very least read some of his excellent articles on music. I promise you’ll be glad you did.
BC: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today.
HG: Yeah, no problem man. I’m interested to hear what you’re doing. You’re writing a book on practicing? You know nobody knows how to do that! (laughs)
BC: Yeah, I’m still figuring it out.
HG: I think there are as many ways to practice as there are people practicing.
BC: Right! My whole trip is that I didn’t start playing music with any dedication till I was 30 and that’s pretty late. But at that point I knew I wanted to play as well as I could. I took lessons with folks and nobody ever told me how to practice. You know they would show me a lick or a song. But things never got better because I was doing it wrong. So eventually I started to research why I wasn’t getting better. What was I doing wrong? How do you practice better? So the book is what I wish I had when I started. The information I wish that I had.
HG: Let me caution you that I don’t know much about what goes on in the beginners area. I’m more of an advanced teacher so it will be interesting to see what I have to say and if it applies to the lower levels of practicing.
BC: I’ll do my best to steer things in a direction that will be fruitful.
HG: My first question to you is do you think there is a universal ideology for practicing? I’m not so sure there is.
BC: That’s a good question and I think for the advanced student there is not. They are going to have to figure out what they want and they’re going to guide their practice in their own direction. But if you’re a beginner, I think there is something of a universal methodology.
HG: Yeah, its repetition.
BC: Yes, and you need to know where your fingers go first. And then repetition comes into play.
BC: So your musical background online mentioned that you started with classical music?
HG: Yeah, I started piano when I was 5 or 6 years old and I hated every minute of it. The last thing I thought I would be was a piano player.
BC: When you started, were you forced to practice?
BC: Did your classical teachers tell you how to practice in any way?
HG: Just repeat it. Play it over and over. They wanted me to read but it turns out that my ears were so good that I could memorize quickly and the teacher could tell when I was playing from memory because I was interpreting it too much or something.
HG: No, but my mom would yell from the kitchen when I had a lesson. “Harold, I can hear you’re not reading!” She could tell I was playing by ear. I felt the quality of playing was better of course by ear. But, she wanted me to have the discipline of reading, which is something else completely and which I never really mastered.
BC: At what point did you decide that Jazz was your thing?
HG: Well, I was such a poor student in high school that the only thing I seemed to excel at was one year they put me in tech class and I was really good at learning how to be an electrician. They said, “OH, my son is going to be a scientist!” So sophomore year they sent me to a prep school for engineering in Boston. I lived in Salem, Massachusetts about 20 miles north. And that was the mistake they made because I was an absolute failure at the whole thing. And when it came to lunch hour I would leave and go to the Jazz club across the street and have my lunch there and listen to these guys rehearse. And that is where I got hooked. I took bongo lessons from the janitor, you know, for a while.
BC: What Jazz were you listening to?
HG: Bebop! Then when I got back to Salem High where I was from and the state has this thing called vocational rehabilitation. And they go around to all the high schools to see if anybody is disabled and they offer all kinds of financial aid to disabled students. Well I only have one eye. And they said I qualified for full tuition any place I wanted to go. And my parents were not going to pay for me to go to music school. And they wanted me to work at the grocery store you know. Basically I said hey folks, screw you, I’ve got tuition free to Berklee school of music. And you know they took anybody in those days. And that was it. That was how I started.
BC: Wow. Were you playing jazz before you went to Berklee?
HG: I knew the key of C a little bit and even less in the key of C minor. So I was fooling around with it. There were two alto players and a trumpet player in the Boston area. Paul Fontaine and Jimmy Moser on alto and they were THE, eventually the guys in town. And they came over to my house once and they played. They totally wowed me and they sounded like all the really hip stuff. And Jimmy and I became good friends. It was about 30 years later I mentioned that day to Jimmy. Do you remember that day you came by the house? I said, Man you guys sounded great. He said, Man we just memorized 3 Bird solos and played it on everything! (Laughs)
So I went to Berklee for about 2 ½ years and the studies were getting in the way of my practicing and I quit. So I just jumped off the cliff. You know of trying to survive while I was practicing. First to get good enough to work because that’s where school is. It's on the bandstand. It's not sitting in a room practicing. And that should be the goal of any musician to get you up to par. So you can at least perform in public no matter what kind of music it is. Whatever. You get to play your instrument to work on time, chords, listening. And all those things are going forward when things are on the bandstand.
BC: When you dropped out and started performing did you join some bands right away? Were you trying to get yourself ready for improvising in those situations?
HG: Well these were rent gigs. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, dances. They were rent gigs. They weren’t jazz gigs. The repertoire was the great American song book, which were the songs that were played at the jam sessions. So you learned the songs on the gigs. I’d have all the books with me and I’d go to the job and they would do 5 or 6 songs in a row and I would never have a chance to even open up the book. So eventually I was learning the songs by ear and then going home and reading and making sure I improved what I didn’t know.
Basically I started out faking it. Which is basically the process involved to get good.
BC: I read your article on faking it. That was great stuff. But before we get that far ahead I want to ask you, when you were in that stage of the game did you have any sort of system? Did you have any discipline or structure to it?
HG: Yeah. Well what happened was after a certain amount of time in school you achieve information overload and you’re forced to find a way to deal with all the information in a systematic manner. And that’s when I think everybody deals with that in their own way. But what was common about all the students back then that I just don’t see any more is practice books. Now you can buy practice books that tell people to practice this or that way. But in those days you had to make up your own system just to survive the massive information overload. So yes I developed a system and I might even have some exercises here.
So basically I had two books. And one book you collected good ideas in. You have a good idea you’d write it down. And the other book you wrote them out in all 12 keys and the fingerings and you analyzed them and then you tried to find as many ways to use them as you could. Basically that was it. Nowadays you don’t see practice books because of the published material and people don’t even know you can do that. And I tell my students that this is a good idea to deal with the information overload.
BC: How many hours a day were you practicing at that point?
HG: I don’t really remember. Everybody tells me I was practicing all the time. It wasn’t until after I left school that I ran into technical problems because my early classical training was not sufficient for what I was going for. I had the good fortune to study with Madame Chaloff.
BC: I read a bit about her and she sounds like an amazing piano teacher.
HG: She was. I was very lucky and in that period it was 6 hours a day 6 days a week for 3 years. Lessons every week and then another 3 years of going back for tune ups and double checks.
BC: It sounds like lessons with her were very good at teaching a relaxed technique. It sounds like she really had a way of improving a person's general technique I guess.
HG: She was part of that group of immigrants who came over from Russia. Joseph Schillinger and others. They left Russia and came to the U.S. about the same time. And Russia was more advanced musically than the U.S. and she taught a technique called the Russian shoulder technique. It was totally unique. It was so unique that they fired her from Boston college because other students were going to her. She was also a pedant and I had a hard time taking that from a woman at the time (laughs). But I did go back and I talked with her years later to make sure I was doing the right thing.
I was lucky. What she gave me was marvelous technique and it wasn’t until many, many years later I realized that was just the beginning because no matter what technique you have you have to personalize it to your own physicality.