honesty is the best policy

(no, this isn't a guilt trip from my mom...)

some musicians - most notably 20th classical specialists and jazz acts - suffer from the superficial satisfaction (and a mild case of alliteration) of happily doing art that is beyond the regular joe's comprehension. there is a mistaken sense of pride found in doing something that folks just can't get with. presenting art in this fashion is masturbatory in nature (pardon the visual). composers are often writing for their own sake, concerned with how the music looks on the page and not necessarily how it sounds in the hall. improvisers are proud of themselves for executing patterns that bear their own sweat and tears, not considering where these flying licks land. the push here is a fuzzy understanding of what is actually respectable amongst peers yet accessible to the listener.

i try so desperately to have my improvisations be an immediate conveyance of the abstract shapes in my head, realized through my horn. i try every time to do that. every time. i do practice this skill as often as i can, yet don't always require my horn in hand to further its development. i don't whip out automatic licks (truth be told, i can't really remember any, no matter how hard i practice). i spontaneously compose with all of the elements around me: participating musicians, visual stimuli, my physical state, my ears comprehension of what i am doing inside my noggin. i am so scared to miss out on the obvious musical moment that needs to be represented.

phil always talked about serving the music, and i often thought he was full of shit. turns out he is right on the mark. so, uh, sorry man...

the last couple of days have shown me the value of honesty in music. my buddy ryan plays fiddle in trampled by turtles. they did a show last night in ames, and the vibe was so positive. their energetic-while-artistic bluegrass tunes were joyous and unpretentious. the crowd loved it, so did the band, and i actually stuck around through the entire set. this afternoon i heard the boston brass quintet play some stuff. they sounded fantastic and treated the noon hour concert/masterclass in a professional way. they never came across condescending in their instruction or their playing. they even seemed to enjoy being there. tonight i heard the envy corps, one of my favorite indie rock bands going. the singers vocal quality alone sounds unabashedly genuine (just like brandon flowers, whose band they toured with for awhile.)

these music acts were all doing their thing, in an honest fashion.

my little ricky had a classroom demonstration last night, which included a tune sung by he and his 16 other classmates. they stood up, pinned their proverbial ears back, and belted out a song about freedom and equal rights in the world. a bunch of it was out of tune, some kids forgot the words, and the teacher was inconspicuously singing along to keep the train on the tracks. but i'll tell you what - those kids were singing for all they were worth, getting that song out of their hearts and into our ears in the only way they knew how... honestly.

it literally is my job to teach aspiring musicians about all the different aspects of successful musicianship through both pedagogy and performance. but - it is my responsibility as an artist to encourage (no, insist upon) the myopic dedication to honest music making.


new blood

it's always good to have a new perspective on something (and whether you embrace the new idea or not - well - that's another story altogether.) fresh faces often suggest new ways of thinking, which may steer you in a different direction OR invigorate an old concept that had gone to pasture sometime ago. my friend Jacob introduced the topic of rehearsal technique on his blog, and that really got me thinking. i have compiled my (ever-developing) opinion of rehearsal technique through my experiences as a student, as a bandleader, and as an educator. leading a session is truly an art, one that is never really emphasized in academia yet is essential to having a successful and satisfying musical experience with an ensemble.

how do i learn about RT (that's right, i got tired of typing the whole thing out)? i try to observe what others are doing while i am simply a participant. determining what is effective often depends upon the person receiving the instruction, their personality, their mood, and their abilities. masterclasses offer a great insight into working on something with someone you don't know, however lack the huge advantage of familiarity with all parties considered. when i watch someone give a masterclass or work an ensemble, i am constantly keeping a tally of what works and what doesn't. i'm not carving up the leader per se, just observing their technique (and you know who is incredible at this? Keith) i have learned that there a handful things that are characteristics of effective RT. in no particular order...

Rapport. as a bandleader, i want my fellow musicians to feel comfortable (my friend Erin once told me that she liked working with me because of 'how i am on the gig'. not just my good looks, i guess....) my musician friends will try stuff, no matter how zany or flawed it might be, if they like me and are enjoying themselves. as an educator i have discovered that my students will stick it out a bit longer, stay a bit later, try a bit harder if they are in a comfortable environment. that's on me. i'm not bringing cupcakes and booze to my rehearsals, but i am bringing a positive attitude and a sense of humor - even if i don't feel like it. i also respect their opinions. fellow musicians may have ideas about how to do something different and, whether i like the idea or not, i want them to feel like they can share their thoughts and not think i'll laugh them off. i want my students to understand that i am willing to answer whatever question they may have, and that i won't judge them regarding their question. lord knows i asked a ton of questions that everyone else in the room seemed to already understand, but rarely felt lousy about myself when given an explanation (and when i did feel stupid, how could the person talking to me handle it differently?)

Credibility. this is huge. as a bandleader, i need to know my charts inside and out, need to be able to play them better than everyone else, need to know how to convey my thoughts. as an educator, i need to know all about all of the parts, need to be able to field nearly every question that someone has with an informed answer, need to exhibit to them that i actually do know what i am talking about. nothing shoots RT in the foot like the leader revealing that he/she really has no idea about what to do in a certain situation. you lose the students. you lose the musicians. and you spend the rest of your days trying to build your credibility back up.

Preparation. as an educator, it's important to continue to do score study. i practice my students literature, listen to the pieces my groups are playing, occasionally sit down at the piano and work through stuff, and look at the scores. i don't do all of these all of the time, but try to keep up with a snippet of the aforementioned on a regular basis. as a student and as a sideman, i absolutely notice when the leader isn't prepared. they have lost me immediately, and (as mean as it sounds) need to prove to me that what they want to accomplish is a worthwhile goal. i could only assume that i have students and peers that feel the same way, and i certainly don't want to waste their time with my laziness or (heaven forbid) lose my credibility with them.

Objectives. this may be the most essential element to successful RT. as an educator, i need to know what i want to get done and how much time i've got to accomplish it. various levels of intensity + various sections of material usually = success. i am thinking of attention spans (knowing that mine sucks) and how long i can get high quality work out of my students. as a bandleader, i work tirelessly to keep the fellow musicians engaged in what's going on. everyone wants a sniff of the action eventually. everyone wants to like your project initially. i try not to get too long-winded with my stories or descriptions. more & more of the pro players i meet are ALL about playing the music, then shooting the shit afterwards. my teacher John told me once that i needed to do more playing & less talking, about a 90-10 split. as a sideman, i've got one eye on the music and one eye on the clock. union gigs, stuff you have to travel for, music that sucks, and fatigue all benefit from efficient RT.

so... do i do all of these? let's just say i'm a work in progress.


final projects

True confessions – I never intended to be a music educator. In fact, I never thought I would end up doing music at all. I liked it in grade school, thought it was easy in middle school, and put about zero effort into it during high school. I decided to go to the local community college to get an A.A. degree and transfer smoothly into a college (which was yet to be determined). I took an entrance exam for the music program, basically because I had been given (and greedily accepted) scholarships that were contingent upon me continuing to participate in music during college. Like most music entrance exams, it started with the dictation. Once that part was given, we had the remainder of the hour to complete the written stuff. I looked at the questions and didn’t understand one thing. Seriously, not one. I walked to the front of the room and turned in my exam to the teacher, completing only the dictation and my name. I walked out of the room and immediately to the h.r. office to withdraw from my music classes and decline all of my scholarships. Hello English major.

The same guy who had given the exam asked me to swing by and discuss my exam. To make a long story short, he convinced me to try again. I did, and he (and all of the wonderful people I met there) saved my life so to speak. One of the great features of my school was the cumulative individual performance that each student gave at the end of each semester. These were known as Final Projects. Basically, you needed to perform everything that you were studying in a 45-minute slot. Intense. Exhilarating. Unparalleled. Hard.

I remember my projects including classical voice, jazz voice, classical saxophone, jazz saxophone, classical piano, jazz piano, a large group vocal arrangement, a studio jingle, and any kind of fun collaboration. The music program’s mission was reflected by these semester performances. The final projects were so great for me (and for all of us). They stretched us beyond our comfort zones, encouraged us to rely upon one another to learn and grow, and challenged us to realize our potential. When I continued in college, I met my friend Louis. He was practicing his trumpet a ton, and I naively asked him when did he make time to work on jazz keys and voice lessons. He looked at me like I was from Mars, and told me that he just focused on trumpet. I remember that moment like it was yesterday – I had never realized you could pick!

Some people also think that having so many musical interests is an impossible puzzle. How could somebody really ever become great at something if you were juggling a half-dozen somethings? Is it really a drawback to have a variety of interests? Is it a waste of time to have a musical focus split in so many different directions? I guess that, in retrospect, I needed to know about all of these different music disciplines. I truly believe that my complete education (which i often choked down) paid off exponentially when attempting to understand other approaches to music. I think that, after having experienced so many types of study, I was even more comfortable with my decision to work on my horn. As an artist, I believe that you can survive if 1) you get pretty good at something, 2) you find a niche in this world, 3) people give a shit about it, 4) you’re a nice guy, and 5) you deliver every time. Yes, being a jack-of-all-trades can come in handy at times. However, when considering the aforementioned criteria, choosing one thing like Louis suggested is probably the way to go.

I am thankful for my time spent in the SMV program and, as an educator, often ponder its mission and how it has affected me both then and now.


fast food music

my kids are 11 & 9, and both dig listening to the local pop station. they have their favorites and, from those, i have a scant few. but hey - i'm trying to be a cool dad, so i check out what they are into (although they TOTALLY don't return the favor. my wife reminds me that they are 11 & 9)

i ponied up three bucks and allowed iTunes to enlighten me to the details of what my kids are checking out. i immediately realized a significant dip in quality. (omg...i already feel like a stuck-in-the-mud. i have a magnet in my office that shows a dad talking to his son, and the caption reads "it's not that i'm old, your music just sucks").

jay-z's new cut 'empire state of mind' lacks on so many levels. firstly, jay used to bring it. foxy brown, live with the roots, the annie hook, even the recent pharrell shit. now his rhymes are broke down and don't have solid references (i know, i know - lebron & dwyane wade). jay still comes with the 'yessss' and 'uh-huh' in all the right places, but he gets fatigued during this track. however, i can't stop listening to this because alicia keys is turning it OUT. man, she sounds really good, and the hook is super strong.

jay sean sings a nice (and ultra-simple) tune 'down'. he sounds pretty good on it, but is definitely not taking any chances vocally (sticks to about 6 notes). he feeds the hook in the intro, throughout the tune, and beats us into submission with it in the out. guest rap by lil wayne is pretty lousy, although he does flash the golden grill in the video while rocking some goofy hat and tatted-out arms. i like this tune, but much prefer the a cappella version by nota.

black eyed peas 'boom boom pow' is a slamming track. the auto-tune actually sounds cool here, and i can't help but notice that the rhymes are pretty sad. seems like they are channeling some m.c. hammer. (however, the visual i get when fergie shows up ... ooh la la). musically speaking; roots slide around without any actual chord tones describing the harmonic movement, the drum grooves and how they propel the arrangement is clever and well-done (albeit a bit long).

and maybe this is the problem... 'musically speaking'. is the point here to be musical? appeal to music school kids or washed up jazzers or jealous classical folks? i suppose that our fast food society has drenched us in most other lifestyle choices. we want a hook, one that appears sooner than later, something that we don't need to devote a lot of brain space towards remembering. hey improvisers - should we acknowledge this or shun it in favor of art for art's sake? should tunes be compact or lengthy? i admit that i'm drawn to 4 minute tunes and hesitate to commit to listening to a jazz jam that weighs in at 20+ minutes, regardless of the musicians.

and who are we making our music for - the casual listener who appreciates a snapshot of musical artistry that never gets to complex, or the jazz aficionado who will endure an exploratory set while sizing you up next to heroes in music history? do you really think about this? do you care about your music's appeal? do you consider your audience's attention span?

okay... these acts aren't even close to eric b. & rakim, pete rock & c.l. smooth, tribe, method man, the foreign exchange, mos def, slick rick the ruler (whom i grew up on), chuck d, or even tupac & biggie. i know it's unfair (although completely fair) to compare them to music that i like. but, in an effort to keep up to speed with what's going on in pop radio today, i wanted to give these guys a shot. i still choose my guys every time.

but i can't seem to get these tunes out of my head...