Seeking Patterns Beneath
Seeking Patterns Beneath

Seeking Patterns Beneath

Lessons on creative wisdom from jazz and its disciplines.

Appears in Fall 2020

Musicians practice scales more than they can stand. Jazz musicians practice scales in every major and minor key, of course, tracing the notes of each key up and down, like rolling over differently shaped hills. Plus blues scales, plus all the modes. When my son, Philip, started learning jazz saxophone, I had only barely heard of modes. I thought they were something the Greeks were into, because they have Greek names like the dorian mode and mixolydian mode. Turns out modes are just another set of scales with the pattern of half and whole steps re-sorted. Each one has a different mood or quality, based on how those re-stacked intervals hit our ears. Jazz musicians need to know their modes as instinctively as the usual major and minor and blues scales. And their arpeggios, which are chords played one note at a time, outlined note by note, up and down within a scale. You can practice scales by leaps of thirds or fourths, you can slow them down or play them staccato. There’s no end to the variations.

You don’t look at notes on a page while doing this either. You just hold it all in your head. Jazz requires a lot of holding in the head. Fortunately, Philip has a knack for music theory. So does my husband, Ron, a mostly self-taught guitar and upright bass player. Some people’s brains, I’ve observed, are wired to master easily that mathematically elegant system of keys, chords, and scales, pulsing like a glowing web inside their brains, lighting up as needed to show them the way. My brain lacks this glowing web. Instead there’s a fog. Though I’ve played piano and viola since childhood, I can’t perceive much behind the notes on the sheet-music surface.

The uninitiated imagine that jazz is all freedom and randomness, but quite the opposite is true. Jazz is highly structured, based on internalized patterns of scales, common chord progressions, standard repertoire, conventions for how songs proceed, bushels of standard “licks,” and much more. The apparent freedom only arises from constant, creative assembly and reassembly of elaborate patterns.

Jazz requires a lot of holding in the head.

Jazz is one of many human art forms from which we learn that joyful freedom arises out of shared patterns, internalized through repetition. Or more simply: joy needs a scaffolding. Whenever something thrives, that vitality depends on What Lies Beneath. That is, patterns that are both reliable and flexible. And there’s only one way to learn patterns: repetition.

Besides scales and arpeggios, jazz students practice common chord progressions like ii-V7-I (chords are identified with Roman numerals and superscript numbers) and they learn songs. Learning a song means memorizing the melody—the “head”—and the series of chords underneath the melody. That’s called a chart. Combos of real pros can come together with no rehearsal at all and easily play a full set because they have hundreds of charts in their heads. Someone throws out a song title and a key (of course you can play in any key—that’s why you practice your scales), counts out a tempo, and then the players signal to each other with a flash of the eyes, a jounce of a horn, or a swoop of an elbow. A good drummer can create an elaborate soundscape on the fly just by varying texture, pace, volume—the other players in the group will respond to the drummer’s lead, embroidering the chord progression and passing solos around, taking turns, trading fours and eights. It sounds free, but there’s a solid scaffolding underneath, a shared conventional structure that all the players have internalized.

Even improvisational solos are not as random as they might seem. I’ve seen Philip solo, and it seems miraculous, but he knows what chords are flowing along underneath what he’s doing, spooling out in standard units of measures. And based on that internal music-theory web, he instinctively assembles a passel of possible notes that will “work” at any given moment. He has studied famous solos too, transcribing them note by note to learn new patterns. A practiced soloist shapes a solo without even thinking, really. She builds contour, tension-and-release, varied tone and texture from muscle memory and hard-earned instinct. A single one-and-a-half-minute solo might be built from hundreds of hours of listening and drilling, over and over and over again. Not to diminish the miracle of musical improvisation, but soloing is closer to putting together Legos than receiving the ambrosia of the gods.

Basketball, that jazziest of sports, is another good example of scaffolded joy. The ebb and flow, the artful freedom of basketball comes from years of drills and drills. Young players learn basic techniques and standard plays—pick and roll, backdoor post-up—and they play and play, and eventually it’s mostly muscle memory. That apparent improvisational suppleness only happens because everything else about the game is so clearly structured, the timing, the rules. Not only within the august majesty of the NCAA or the NBA, but in pickup basketball too, which has its own communal conventions. Sport, like art, is built on the freedom that emerges upon mastering an internalized web of patterns.

Maybe this helps explain why the COVID-19 pandemic has been so stressful and exhausting. Even apart from fears of actually contracting the illness, our mitigation measures have stolen our customary patterns. We’ve lost our scaffolding. Quarantined away are the usual structures of our days—school, office, sports and concerts, restaurants and visits with friends, worship services, milestone events—we have felt ourselves flounder. We don’t quite know what the chords are, or how many measures are going by, or even, really, what song we are playing.

Denied our usual patterns, we have clawed instinctively toward new structures to shape our days. People go for more runs and do more gardening. For some reason, sourdough breadmaking seems to soothe people’s nerves. My own efforts have included a nightly ritual involving the New York Times crossword and precisely three Dove chocolates. I have taken up a new walking exercise route. I have gotten slightly better at yoga. My family cooks and eats together a lot more, because evening events that interrupt dinner time have all but disappeared. We’ve found joys here and there, held gently in the tissue paper of our hastily built rituals.

It’s true, I think, that generally speaking we need a balance between certainty and uncertainty. Too much certainty can be poisonous and stultifying. We need a degree of uncertainty in order to be creative. In an ecological context, biologists talk about “stochastic” elements in an ecosystem. It’s a way of saying that some things are just random. A genetic mutation, a weather event that blows down an old tree, a population boom among predator or prey animals. These random events prompt adaptations that move the ecosystem along. That downed tree opens up the canopy for a lot of waiting baby trees and provides a whole new rotting-tree hotel for critters and insects.

For us, too, a little disturbance prompts creative adaptation. Jazz musicians like to quote Miles Davis: “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note—it’s the note you play afterward that makes it right or wrong.” In other words, you can mess up, but if you use the next note to bring the music back to the underlying structure, then your mess-up becomes cool. Similarly, as long as we have some stability, uncertainty is okay, even good. Ron found this out in a jazz context when he went to a multi-generational summer jazz camp. He came home with one abiding lesson: the bassist’s job is to provide stability. Hit the root of the chord on the downbeat. Do not get lost. You and the drummer hold everything together. If you’re not solid, as Othello might say, “chaos shall come again.”

For me, this is why the most grievous loss during the pandemic has been our regular worship practice. In my own faith practice, the root of the chord on the downbeat has always been Sunday-morning worship. It structures the week, reorients me to what is ultimately real and important. I can handle difficulty and uncertainty if I have worship to provide that communal bass line.

Or maybe it’s more like this: What is liturgy, after all, but practicing our scales together, a repetition that strengthens the structured web of our spiritual lives? Liturgical patterns carry meaning in themselves; they build capacities. We learn joy through ritual joy—hymns of praise, maybe. We learn contrition through ritual confession. We learn listening, giving, gratitude, purpose, all through the patterns we learn in worship, year after year. Watching my church’s live Zoom service on my living-room sofa is not the same. However thoughtfully done, virtual worship is only a shadow. I miss the physical presence of others, the physical space of the sanctuary. And I miss the music.

Bereft of our accustomed patterns, bereft of any confidence about what comes next, so many of us feel as if we are swimming in strong, disorienting currents of uncertainty. On our lowest days, we feel exhausted, anxious, angry—and afraid.

To use a biological term again, we are in a state of extreme disturbance. Biologists have observed that even amid extreme disturbance, though, some things will survive and even thrive. Where that happens, you have what is called a refugium. Refugia are more than shelters. They are places where biodiversity persists amid disturbance. If all goes well, they are seedbeds and species incubators out of which the ecosystem regrows. What happens in that refugium matters, because what persists there—the particular mix of DNA and species and microbiome—will shape the new version of the ecosystem. Vitality depends on What Lies Beneath, the particular microbes and plants and fungi and terrain and conditions, the underlying structures out of which life will find a way.

Extreme disturbance . . . is a time to create new patterns, or reinforce the ones that work and eliminate the ones that don't. 

The new field of refugial conservation biology, in fact, focuses on identifying and even creating refugia in order to help nature along after extreme disturbance. As the articles in a recent issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment explain, researchers might tramp out into forests and scrape DNA from white bark pines, for example, in order to determine pockets of genetic diversity. Where the genes are more diverse, the species is more resilient. So those are the most likely refugia and that’s where conservation efforts should be concentrated. Or managers might help reseed a burned forest so that it inches a little further north or toward the cooler slopes of the mountainside in order to enhance that forest’s chances of healthy regrowth in a hotter world.

Extreme disturbance, in other words, is a time to create new patterns, or reinforce the ones that work and eliminate the ones that don’t. This is true not only on a personal but also on a societal scale. Whether my crossword-puzzling and yoga-practicing habits will persist post-COVID, I don’t know. Who knows what we will take with us from our Zoom worship experiments or from our awkward beginner’s attempts at online learning? No one knows anything right now.

We can ask, though: What patterns do we want? We can learn, in particular, from people who know all about survival in refugia. Listening to African Americans, for example, can help many kinds of people understand how to lament, how to cry out in pain—and how to practice joy. The Black Joy Project foregrounds how black Americans have persisted in “creating space” for joy, even amid what could be described as four hundred years of extreme disturbance. Even amid suffering and uncertainty, wise and resilient people have established patterns that scaffold joy.

Similarly, others are insisting that this is precisely the opportune moment to find the right bass lines, and the right baselines, to practice the fundamentals again and remind ourselves of the most important basic principles, like fairness, equity, dignity, kindness. While things are in flux, can we nudge our way toward harmonious patterns? Can we adjust our physical and social infrastructures—and our imaginations—to prepare for resilience in a climate-changed world, for example? Can we do so with a renewed commitment to leaving behind patterns of White supremacy, for example, instead promoting equitable leadership of black people, indigenous people, and people of color?

The people working for a “just transition” are right. It matters, right now, which patterns we are establishing. It’s hard. We’re tired. Even so, now is when we must be settling into good ways of doing things. It feels as if fires are burning in some places, but maybe that’s the prompt for other things to grow. Some trees only open their seed cones under the heat of fire.

It’s curious that jazz music arose out of suffering, oppression, and resistance . . . all of it came from an alchemy of patterns concocted in the midst of disturbance.

When musicians find themselves struggling—when the concert didn’t go well or that lick just isn’t coming along—it’s time to go back to the fundamentals. Practice scales, slowly and deliberately, focus on technique, play slowly and mindfully. Jazz musicians never, ever stop practicing scales. Athletes, too, never stop practicing the fundamentals. They reinforce the patterns through repetition, doing it correctly, and doing it a lot, all their lives.

What does it mean to practice our scales and chord progressions and basic repertoire right now—personally and together? What is the web beneath that we want to strengthen and build? Maybe it has to do with diversity and inclusion, with the fruits of the spirit, with virtues we need most right now, like humility, generosity, and accepting limits.

It’s curious that jazz music arose out of suffering, oppression, and resistance. One of the most original American art forms, with all its sophistication, structure, and freedom, was a response to the pressure of extreme limits. The melancholy and sly humor of the blues, the stylish wink of swing, the manic exuberance of bebop—all of it came from an alchemy of patterns concocted in the midst of disturbance.

It’s possible. We can respond to disturbance with creativity. This period of disturbance is far from over, so we will have a long time to practice. That’s okay. It takes thousands of repetitions to internalize patterns, strengthen that inner web until it can light up with joy. And don’t forget modes. Every mode has a mood. Which scrambling of half and whole steps will give the right feel in our shared, communal music now? What will give us the balance of structure and uncertainty that we need to release joyful freedom again?

Debra Rienstra
Debra Rienstra

Debra Rienstra is professor of English at Calvin University, specializing in early modern British literature and creative writing. She is the author of three books—Great with Child: On Becoming a Mother, So Much More: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality, and Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry—as well as numerous essays and poems. She writes biweekly for The Twelve, an online magazine connected with The Reformed Journal, writing about spirituality, pop culture, the church, the arts, higher ed, and more.


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