A Reflection on the “Play” Jam Session and Documentary

by Nia Blankson

Two Fridays ago, I had the pleasure of receiving an invitation to an event that I could only dream about prior to participating in Sound Thinking NYC. Whilst in the middle of my vacation, an email appeared in my inbox stating I, along with 6 other members of the cohort were selected to preview an unreleased documentary by Dave Grohl, as well as perform in an in-studio jam session, all in Downtown Music Publishing Studios. My immediate reaction, of course, was to re-read the email a few more times to make sure I read correctly, but I instantly started panicking, as I realized I’d never actually played piano with other people before. The extent of my playing up to that point was playing extremely rehearsed classical pieces alone on a stage in front of an audience in a performance hall. Regardless of how daunting that seems, I was feeling more overwhelmed by the fact that I would have to play unrehearsed, among other people, and having to add onto what they were doing on the spot.

STNYC-Play-piano

Finally, the day arrived, and unaware of what really to expect, I headed down to CAT, then to Downtown Music Publishing Studios to meet the other 6 chosen. When we arrived, we met Max, who was going to be the bassist of the group, and we found out that he was seventeen, plays other instruments as well as the bass, and has had quite a bit of experience working in studios. After our friendly introductions, we were seated in studio to preview Dave Grohl’s short documentary, “Play.” The first part of the documentary featured Grohl talking about music, and interviewing kids who are a part of a music program where they learn how to play instruments in private lessons, as well as come together in a band to play through the same program. This was quite interesting to see, as the music schools I have attended, as well as most others I’ve heard about, have all been centered around teaching children how to be solo musicians, unless you’re playing in an orchestra, or an occasional duet with your teacher. It was quite inspiring to watch the kids working things out by themselves (of course under the tutelage of their instructor,) and get a glimpse into their lives in music, plus being able to relate to them in several ways as well.

The second part of the documentary included the 23 minute instrumental completely composed and played by Dave Grohl himself, in which he plays multiple instruments edited together to create a lengthy masterpiece. We all listened and watched in awe as Grohl’s instrumental took many twists and turns, almost experimenting in various genres, showcasing his multifaceted skill-set and expertise of every instrument. When the documentary and the giant, high quality speakers in the studio went quiet, everyone in the room followed suit, and you could almost hear a pin drop. It remained completely silent for a few seconds, everyone exchanging glances, before we all burst into applause.

STNYC-Play-guitar

If I’m being completely honest, strangely enough, my favorite part of the documentary was just before it showed the final cut of the instrumental piece, and there were scenes of Dave Grohl making mistakes, doing parts of his instrumental over and over again until he got it perfect. He would either mess up a part, or simply want to give it another go as he knew for a fact he could perform much better than what he just played. These scenes highlighted my personal favorite section that stood out as it showed me that no one is perfect, and a huge part of music is trial and error. Even a professional like Dave Grohl needed multiple takes in order to get his piece to a standard that was acceptable for him.

STNYC-Play-drums

After the documentary ended, we ate lunch, and got ready to play in the recording studio. I personally have never been in a setting like this, and I hadn’t a clue as to how things would work. For the most part, I played the piano, occasionally switching between the synthesizer and the keyboard, but I wasn’t as comfortable with them. However, as we came up with our first melody, and began to add on to each other, although I was extremely nervous, I was becoming more comfortable with playing, and was able to figure out what to play, and how to fit in what I was playing into what everyone else was doing. The whole experience was extremely fun, and it challenged me to think quickly and collaborate with others live, but I also found it extremely helpful when Keith Johnston (CAT Program Director) was giving us some advice as we were playing that enabled us to try new things and think outside of the box.

The fact that the guest bassist, Max, that was playing with us was a male was of no real importance to me. In fact, I was quite excited that we were going to be working with someone who was already experienced working in music studios, and we all got along with him from the start. Everyone had the same goal, as at the end of the day, were just 7 musicians working together creating songs from scratch.

From watching Dave Grohl’s documentary to actually playing in the recording studio, I feel there needs to be more of an emphasis on music education. This experience had a positive impact on me, and I feel that more people could easily benefit from music education as a part of the core curriculum. Not only did both the documentary and the experience itself give me a deeper understanding into the music world, but they both highlighted the importance of collaboration, trial and error, and trying new things. Having to work with others to spontaneously produce a song, making mistakes, and attempting new things were all very prevalent in our jam session, and these are attributes that should be given more attention when it comes to music education.

I was fortunate enough to be able to be a part of this experience first-hand, and my wish is that more students who are passionate about music have the opportunity to go through something even similar to this. Through watching the documentary, and being able to participate in a jam session in a recording studio, I was able to understand how important it is to sometimes just set everything aside, focus, and simply play.

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