somebody cue michael w. smith

i hate to admit that i am terrible at motivating myself to do something. i often get down in the dumps about my own artwork, perceived image, place in the world, and progress towards an often undefined goal. i really hate to admit this as a music educator, knowing that with these characteristics, i put myself in the running for the biggest hypocrite going in institutionalized music. i frequently have epiphanal moments of my art in the here-and-now, but allow myself to get caught up in the philosophy and reflection of it all and then miss the boat on meeting that brainstorm with some real action. conversely, i occasionally pour a bunch of sweat and tears into something that may not always the goal that i want to be making strides towards (hello academia.)

now, i know that there are only 24 hours in the day. i also remember an inspirational quote i once read that reminded me that i have the same 24 hours in the day as albert einstein, helen keller, and louis pasteur. i used to schedule my time out hour by hour, guilting myself into efforting creativity on a superhuman level for 14+ hours every day. i was depressed when i quickly noticed that i couldn't maintain that tempo. i remember hearing from then classmates and now colleagues about how much they practice and how many gigs they get, blah blah blah, and felt like shit about how i ran my own regimen (still do, from time to time). and then one day it hit me - i get inspired and motivated by musical happenings from my friends.

my friend tim just played a gig with guitar monster ben monder. my friend brian played with brian wilson at a club. some of my friends open for big time acts. others teach master classes in exotic or well respected locales. some put together tours of their own music or as part of projects that they are excited about doing. others win gigs in big time orchestras or land jobs in higher ed. my wife burns up the highway with concerts and teaching gigs, rubbing shoulders with famous flutists, recognized composers, master teachers and incredible chamber musicians.

i like to talk to my friends about their experiences. why did you choose this project? what do you like about it? how do you tackle the challenges you have set in front of you? friends are friends, which means that we can be candid with each other. we can give lengthy answers to questions, if you want that. we don't try to hide the secrets to our success. we are actually excited about what we do and assume that, as friends, we each give a shit about the other one's joy or angst. we also are cool about revealing our hidden flaws, our insecurities, our gaps in our artistry. friends help friends understand artistic pursuits on a fundamental level because of the personal experiences attached to it. friends also know that their friends aren't necessarily interested in their "interview" answers to questions, because friends aren't asking questions in hopes of getting a clever one-liner that will help their article zing.

my friends are all into different stuff. hey - why do you like the meters? tell me about shirley horn. which aphex twin album should i start with? what did you learn from carol wincenc? did you read that david pink book yet? what was it like meeting boulez? friends share records, swap books, go to shows together, lament over philosophies of arts education, discuss cinematography, debate which is the better sitcom. i love talking about topics that feed directly into the passionate pursuits of my friends, the same way i love talking about kenny wheeler or meredith monk or dancer in the dark or emerson or chelsea lately. i don't assume that my friends are going to equally dig what i do, based upon the fact that i'm not instantly in love with everything they suggest. that's not the point for me. what trips your trigger? i'll show you mine if you show me yours, without passing judgement. my friends are cool with me being slow to embrace wayne shorter, just as i am about them not yet viewing the epic movie hot rod. neither is thinking less of the other (...right?)

my friends are my source, the reliable network of information and inspiration that keeps my life chugging forward. ...this reminds me of the mf doom track "deep fried frenz". you should totally check it out...


if you can't say something nice...

my mom used to deal me that line all the time. if you can't say something nice, then don't say anything at all. i hope she realizes that i have chewed a hole the size of a half dollar in my tongue, although i'm certain that she thinks that i'm a work in progress. (i'm a notorious big mouth - one who can't resist the one-liner, feeds off of the energy found in controversy and laughter, blurs the line of right time/right place, believes that the last word should be mine if it's up for grabs. hey...sor-ry.)

i have often wondered what the right etiquette is for chatting it up with performers/composers, conductors/educators after a concert. i realize that there are two sides to this - the distributor and the recipient. i also understand that a variety of backgrounds factor into this: generational style, examples made for you by others, musical genre, caliber of performance, knowledge of audience, etc. i'll present my perspective from both sides, and encourage others to weigh in with their experiences and preferences (and hopefully someone sees things the way i do...don't leave me hanging!!!)

as a performer: i'm usually cool with people telling me if they like the show, and am actually okay with comments of confusion or discomfort with my performance within reason. sometimes audience members will tell me that they got lost, turned around, or didn't get what i was trying to do. i admire someone having the stones to approach me and present that, and i DO want to know if there are some fundamental flaws in my presentation that keeps listeners who are willing to give up a couple of hours of their life for my art from getting it. the norm is for a bunch of people to wait semi-patiently to tell me they dug what i was doing, so the constructive comments can be offered and happily discussed in an appropriately brief manner. i don't want to value anyone's unsolicited comments over the next, but really am okay hearing all kinds of feedback. i think it's interesting when someone cites a particular song or improvisation (which i can never recall) as one of their favorites. i also like hearing comparisons from the listener (you sound just like ornette, have you ever heard this one zappa record, i liked that one part when you were playing with your hands crossed over on the horn, etc.) i'm not sure i try to see the comparisons or run right home and try to incorporate that stuff into what i do, but i sure do get a charge out of hearing people draw parallels for what i do. i also enjoy it when people tell me what they liked about the show itself, allowing me to understand if i tell too many jokes or talk too much or too fast or too soft. (i did a split show with one of my favorite bands at the cedar cultural center and got live recordings from both shows. the guy who ran the sound sent me the copies, and mentioned how he had to 'trim the fat' from the other band's storytelling. this is not a dis to that group at ALL; in fact, the 'fat' is an essential part to the show and a huge reason for their popularity.) it's important to note that i'm totally okay without talking to anybody after my performance. i am usually running through a million experiences in my head from what just happened, breaking them down into digestible chunks. you won't hurt my feelings at all if you hustle out the door to get a jump on the traffic or to make it home in time for the new law & order (i totally get that). i absolutely enjoy chatting it up after a performance, but my ego doesn't require it.

as a listener: i find myself trying to think of stuff to say that is intelligent and polite, make it sound like i paid attention to what was going on. as a musician, i can't help but listen critically. knowing what to say isn't too tough for me. first and foremost, i want to thank the performer for putting their neck out there and sharing their wares with an audience. i often remember specifics about what i liked and try to offer up one of them (musical moments, programming, interesting writing, etc). i don't know if they appreciate that, or if i do for that matter, but that's often what i end up doing. thanksthanksthanks and here's what i liked. a biggie for me is i don't speak after a performance with a performer if i wasn't into it. i'm not into phony comments, acting like i enjoyed it when i was ready to leave 90 minutes ago. i don't want someone feeding me that bullshit, so i'm not about to initiate the double standard. the only exceptions i make to this are for my friends and students. i want my friends to be my friends, and i want them to know that i've got their back through thick and thin. i also want to be supportive of students that are out there taking stabs at this. how many people went to concerts of mine when i was taking a dump on stuff right and left? i needed that support, and want to return the favor (does this mean i'm getting old?)

now - what do you really want to say? what do you really want to hear? i think these questions are answered on a case-by-case basis. sometimes i'm not in the mood to talk, fight the crowd, listen to a response. sometimes i'm trying to get on the road, think you won't want to talk, would really rather get some fresh air, talk to my friends about what happened instead. are these bad responses? no way - just human responses. furthermore, what exact words should i say? some of my classical friends rack their brains for next-level adjectives and adverbs and various configurations of sharing their impressive vocab, while most of my jazz/rock friends quip "yeah man", which can be interpreted in about a thousand different ways.

honestly, i don't care if someone comes up to talk to me or if i go talk to a performer. nose to the grindstone, thankful for the opportunity to share on either side of the glass, working tirelessly to be sure that i don't exit this world unfulfilled as an artist or with positive words for others left unsaid.

how about you?


lead that horse to water

in response to my friend Leigh's (a good friend with a quick mind and an interesting set of takes on the world) comment about the audience's perspective in a live show...

do music fans want their music "easy to swallow"? that's a tough thing to understand. one nice feature of the human race is the idea of incorrigible access to personal thoughts. i can't know the listening backgrounds of my listeners, nor the simultaneous mindset as an active audience. (still to come ... real-time reviews. i review albums in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, writing about what i think while i listen). it's important for musicians, conductors, lecturers, etc. to consider the crowd and attempt to include most of them while luring their ears into your lair. i believe that the most complex stuff can be combined with a spoonful of sugar (mary poppins), but there is definitely some work that precedes that act. a clear intent of inclusiveness in the both the music and supporting materials beforehand (program notes, onstage banter, publicity) goes nicely with music that is performed at its highest level. 'high music', as tom waits refers to it, can't be snobby and stand-offish. nobody likes that shit, in any arena. need proof? see one-chord jam bands, local indie rock groups that play out of tune, party cover bands...i've played in each of these and we had tons of people at the shows. they paid there cover, stayed all night, laughed and cried and danced and gawked and cheered, brought their friends, and - often most importantly- racked up a big bar bill. there are ways to crossover genres. see bela fleck, naked city, michael tilson thomas, johnny cash, kronos quartet, and my friends in project.

is it "the responsibility of an audience to do a little work as listeners"? wow - well, i'd like to hope for this but certainly can't expect them to do it, at least not on there own accord. i actually do think that, through social networking and fundamental self-promotion, i can suggest supplements to my art form. i post an 'earformation' twitter feed (check it out on the the left), listing what i'm listening to on a daily basis. i frequently play tunes that are either from the songbook of or arrangements made famous by musicians that i really dig. but, most importantly, i want to further develop (if not initially create) relationships with the listener off the stage. i don't want to talk with you about how great i am or how neat my tunes are, but i would love to share with you the names of the latest artists i've been checking out or recordings that go straight to my heart. off the top of my head - i love pat metheny 80/81, tan dun & kronos quartet ghost opera, colon nancarrow studies for player piano, pete rock & c.l. smooth the main ingredient. just suggestions.

full disclosure: i don't like talking to people. i especially don't like meeting people. it scares me to death. i'd personally prefer to play my music, go hide backstage, do another set, pack up my shit and get outta there. however... that is not the nature of this beast. i want people to check out what i'm doing, follow my music, dig my friends that play with me, share the joy i find in music/books/films that i treasure. as my friend paula tells me, i need to get over myself. i realize that i'm in the wrong business to be a recluse, so i suck down that horse pill of social fear and start shaking hands & kissing babies (providing it's an all ages show.)

yeah leigh ... it is my responsibility to prime my audience for my musical adventures in hopes that they'll be excited about sinking their teeth into what i'm doing artistically, without giving them more than they can chew.


i scream you scream we all scream for.. vocal jazz?

i attended the swcc vocal jazz festival in creston, ia (my old digs) this past weekend. i begrudgingly forked over my thirty hard-earned bucks for admittance to the evening concert, thinking to myself "well self, at least you're supporting the efforts of your buddy jeremy."

the show started with the r&b a cappella group audio radiance. i sang in this group WAY back in the day, when i would actually sing in public. they did some cool stuff, including "what is hip" by tower of power, featuring my teacher jason on vocal percussion. it was a blast to the memory bank hearing this group, remembering all of the gratifying experiences of that group of friends.

next was the premiere vj (an abbreviation i should probably quit using) group first take. they sang both with & without a rhythm section, sounding wonderful on the take 6 chart "goldmine". i felt old hearing audio radiance sing charts i did an unmentionable number of years ago, but felt ancient when i saw alec & allison smith singing their rear ends off in first take. i used to put gold stars on the bathroom door for 'little man' when he went in the potty, and would pick up allison for preschool.

one of the professional groups (to whom i assume i am helping sponsor with my ticket dinero) was m-pact. i saw some youtube (wow, youtube didn't get underlined in this document - is it a real word now?) footage of them and was frightened by the cheese factor in their show. however, live, they were actually pretty happening. did i love the tunes? not really. did i dig the all men a cappella idea? no again. what i impressed by their musicianship? yes ma'am.

what struck me during this concert was the excitement level generated by both the performers and the crowd. the singers were making eye contact with the general audience and each other while singing. m-pact had that shit down pat. and for each of the groups, there was an abundance of hoots and hollers throughout their songs. i must admit that the energy was getting to me too, helping me enjoy the set that much more. and it was genuine joy and ecstasy being yelped by the crowd, not some artificial stuff that is meant to facilitate the vibe or get your voice on the live recording. folks dug it, which got me thinking...

how can i generate excitement like that with my own music? in jazz, i think we have this mentality of -sit back, observe, applaud after solos, again at the end of the tune, think of something profound to say about the music to the guy next to you at the set break- i don't know that i necessarily want people yelling and screaming during my tunes, but i don't want folks to fall asleep while putting their time in at a live music event. the number of jazz & creative improvising groups that provide an entertainment value that could elicit cries of passion is nearly zero. some artists that get people excited are happy apple (a band that couples great playing with quirky stories) and matt wilson quartet (a band that blends accessible music with hilarious stage antics). i try to provide some of that in my act, but am frightened at the prospect of inching across the "line".

my tone-deaf dad judges my concerts as a success based upon the look on my face during the gig. my kids enjoy concerts that are fun to be at. my friends like it when i tell funny stories or try to save myself after telling a bomb joke. the vibe of positivity and humor and fun really illuminates high art. i need to remember that...