i AM the one to judge

my philosophy on music (or at least this small sliver of it anyway) (today, for that matter) is that all of us who are chipping away at this huge stone slab known as music are entitled to our own pace and own approach. i do it my way, and certainly appreciate it when others acknowledge my path and method and progress for what they are at face value and don't get into my business - unless i ask them to offer their two cents. and, as i preach to my kids, the sure-fire way to expect that treatment from someone is to provide it to them initially and without any expectation of reciprocation. what in the heck am i saying?  i don't want somebody passing judgment on how i handle my music.  i'm my own worst critic, and honestly... that's plenty.

with that being said, part of the gig in academia is telling people how to do music better.  i tell students what needs fixing, what is working, and how to get their act together musically.  in my freelance calendar, i occasionally pick up some adjudicating work.  lots of jazz stuff (big band, combos) and some classical work.  yesterday i judged the all state competition (at one of six centers), a very cutthroat and stressful process that gives the winners the highly regarded title of all state musician.

the all state audition day is pressure packed.  a bunch of high school hopefuls all gather at the crack of dawn in some high school gymnasium, reeking of axe cologne and hair spray. pillows, sweatpants with words on the butt, all sorts of instrument cases, too many singers, ipods, buttoned-up directors, obnoxiously supportive parents, cell phones, sheet music, dorritos, mountain dew, and shoulder massage trains. each instrumentalist gets a five minute slot, which includes the following: three major scales, chromatic scale, fast etude, slow etude, and an excerpt of a solo.  i score each of these individually in addition to assessing general things like tone quality and intonation.  in the room, small talk, play the shit down, small talk, out the door. and don't even think about getting behind schedule.

as i hear these kids, most of my brain is listening critically, acting professionally, and scoring appropriately. but, a teeny tiny part of my head is making all sort of observations.  do these kids know when they are playing something wrong?  some keep right on playing, and i wonder if they know they have screwed up or if they think it's going great and they're knocking me off my feet.  does that tenor saxophone girl know that i know she didn't play f# major and instead tried to play f major?   why do some of these kids treat the chromatic scale as a traumatic experience, recklessly blasting through it with no regard for note accuracy of tone quality?  how can that girl stand on those 3" pumps and play that baritone saxophone?  when somebody nails these etudes, did the kids on deck hear them?  does that affect their playing, or not, or were they texting their friends and miss the whole thing?  does circling and marking up your music to the point where you can't even read the note names actually help?  do these kids read the color coordinated highlighter markings in their etudes?  do they kids take this audition because they want to win, because they want the experience, or because their director is making them do it? do these girls think that their outfits are flattering?  did that kid tie his own tie?  do they hope to play music later in life, in college, throughout high school, or just to pacify their parents?  do these kids really think their instrument is spelled saxaphone?  and seriously, does that one kid think it's spelled saxsophone?  

truthfully, i head several very promising young musicians. there are always more talented kids than spots in the band that i can award.  someone always plays the best they ever have, while someone else plays their worst audition ever. some kid still doesn't make the band and some kid makes it for the first time. some are freshmen, some are seniors.  it's really quite a phenomenal environment that is created by all of these emotions.  it's exhausting, both mentally and physically.

and i get nervous too...


you can't swim and smoke at the same time

my friend and musical chum greg oakes (whom you should totally check out) approached me the other day and said "hey man - are you free thursday night?"  my initial reaction was "well, if i am, that means i'm parking it in front of the tv and wrapping up in a blanket, because these past couple of weeks have been busy as hell."  thankfully, my real reaction was "nah man, why, what's up?"  greg tells me he has an extra ticket to go see this guy David Sedaris do some kind of show over at the big venue in town and wants to know if i want to tag along. he seemed excited, so i tried to get excited with/for him, although i had no clue what he was talking about.  we agreed that i would ditch the telly and instead meet him for dinner before we go see david whatever-his-last-name-is.  

turns out, a bunch of people knew about this guy.  the parking lot was jammed and lots of jovial folks were giggling in anticipation, toting books under their arms as they hustled to the front doors. i was figuring it out - he's a writer, he'll probably read some of his stuff, i bet it's funny, and he'll sign some books afterward.  greg had good seats - 2nd row.  i felt guilty sitting so close, not having any type of appreciation for the evening's promise.  david sedaris came out, rather unassuming, and started reading from his latest book.  the only time i had ever seen anyone do a reading was in the open mic scenes from that movie love jones (with a killer soundtrack).  this was a far cry from that.  he was hilarious.  tactfully brash. cleverly condescending.  artfully illustrative.  and he dug sharing it - even in lames iowa!!! 

folks were falling out all night, me included.  everyone laughing at the big jokes, several of us laughing at delivery or foreshadowed humor or upon reflecting on where this was all going.  i wonder - does he think he's funny?  does he write to be funny or realize that he simply is.  some say that i'm funny (not my wife, however) and i don't know if i am or not, but i sure do love it when people laugh at something that i say.  he played a snippet of some legendary broadway lady (whom he said that, if you haven't heard of her, you're not homosexual) reading an excerpt of his writing, and tee-heed like a school girl throughout her recitation of his work.  

he told jokes, which was charming, but not the complete schtick.  he more or less shared stories and snapshots of his mind's incorrigible access with us.  he used a pencil occasionally, making edit marks on his manuscript while reading (later confessing that they were cuts he wanted to make or words he wanted to eliminate for further readings). can musician's do this?  do i play something and, midway, mark in a breath that i wish i had taken?  should i be circling chord changes that i need to shed or quickly transcribe an idea i just had so i can reuse it again?  

i was soaking it all in, not making an effort to pack some of it in such a way that i could regurgitate it to sonja later that evening.  i'm terrible at that - can't remember jokes to save my life, don't retain song titles, and lose the chronology of events in movies.  i'm always jealous of those that have that instant recall.  do people do that same thing when they go hear music shows?  remember turnaround licks, money chords, certain idiomatic techniques?  is it more important to absorb information in a macro or micro fashion... or both?  

he also chose particular material to share.  something from the new book, something from an older book, an article from the new yorker, diary entries, and even snippets from another guy's book that he really dug.  does this set rotate for the type of venue (large/small, midwest/coast) or is it the same lineup each time, regardless of demographic?  i know it's folly for band groupies to get their hands on set lists from different shows, comparing and hypothesizing why a certain tune made it in wichita yet got bumped in austin. does this happen with writers?  should i be tailoring my set lists for the audience or for myself?  i don't want to get bored with what i'm playing yet fear that i may alienate a group of listeners by playing shit that i want to play and who cares if you're down with it just sit there and take it because you need to hear this it's good for you i'm blazing new paths in the music world baby and it's time for you to recognize.  

artists need the audience ... and furthermore ... need the audience to need the artists

david sedaris was brilliant.  i am so thankful that greg thought to ask me.  and i actually remember a joke from that evening.  before sharing, he told the audience that it was the best joke in the world, so i tried to momentarily silence my a.d.d. and pay attention.  --what's the worst part about blowing willie nelson?  --when he says "i'm not willie nelson"


selective listening

i stay up late most nights, struggling to sleep.  i can't get my brain to cool off, quit worrying about stuff beyond my control (i know, i know), and let me drift into dreamland.  my guilty pleasure in the wee hours is watching the jimmy fallon show.  i think the writing is original, don't mind watching him laugh at his own jokes, and can't get enough of his house band The Roots.  occasionally i dvr some clips for my kids that i think they will dig.  jabberwockees, dance your hat and gloves off, john cena, charades, andy samberg, big boi, david murray (can you believe it?), etc.  

anyway - justin timberlake was on the show a couple nights ago, promoting his new movie "the social network".  he is one of the most charismatic people i have ever seen.  we have his most recent snl appearance on the dvr too.  the kids dig him, i do too, and it sure beats "the suite life of zach and cody".

honestly, this really is worth checking out
at any rate... jimmy and justin do this incredible medley of old school hip-hop jams.  they run the gamut of snippets from sugar hill gang, biggie, snoop, eminem, run dmc, kanye, beasties, ti, tribe, missy, tupac, jay-z, the roots, digital underground, and soulja boy.  i gotta admit - it was pretty tight.  the roots sounded incredible too.  these were my jams from back in the day.  i hooked up the orange external to my macbook and played the original clips for my kids.  what a fun moment for us.  sure feels good earning some parental cred with your own kids.

here's what i don't get.  simon (11) and kale (10) watched this clip about four times and memorized all of the lyrics. they can sing all of the hooks, but initially only recognized "the humpty dance" their brain power is amazing.  even more puzzling to me is their inability to retain any kind of instructions or new rules for the house.  i guess i need to start giving lectures over a background track by the neptunes.  

everything i know i learned in P90X

i know that my students are tired of hearing about my latest physical fitness crusade.  i try to spin the lessons i'm learning from tony horton into musical situations, but find out that most of the epiphanies that resonate loudest within me are personal discoveries.  

as they say on MTV Cribs - "this is where the magic happens"

i eat too much.  i have learned that, although i've been selling myself on the idea that i'm eating healthier cuisine than before, i never really addressed the quantity that i consume.  i'm eating way more fruits and vegetables, eating earlier in the day, drinking lots of chocolate milk (my ghetto recovery drink), and toting around a water bottle.  paying attention to what is going on in my daily diet parallels my commitment to sound quality.  i preach that it is crucial to use good technique and make a beautiful sound every single time, paying attention to all of the daily detail that ultimately makes a difference.

i wasn't really that fit to begin with.  uh, it's humbling - that's for sure.  i spend a fair amount of time doing physical stuff, lifting, exercising, abs, etc.  week one on this thing revealed quite a bit to me.  so did the "before" pics sonja took of me.  eek.  the musical equivalent that i encourage my students to do (but am lackadaisical about employing myself) is recording on a regular basis.  when i hear my true sound, i am far quicker to address the hang-ups in my playing than just estimating where i'm at on tone and execution of ideas.  i benefit from a real time reflection of my playing and am hesitant to pursue that, probably for fear of what it may disclose.

i am motivated by results.  it's kinda weird, but i really am seeing a transformation in my body through the P90X stuff.  i would hope so - geesh.  i write down my progress and work out in front of a mirror to be sure that i'm using good form and technique.  my ego feels wonderful with this gawking, but it actually is showing my progress and pushing me to achieve more ambitious goals.  hearing my own progress, getting positive feedback from listeners and colleagues alike provides me with evidence of musical growth.  results, although few and far between in the arts, are the motivational fuel that i desperately need.

i appreciate clear instructions.  horton is telling me stuff that, yeah - it's motivational and encouraging, but is also understandable and applicable.  phrases like "your ears need to be next to your biceps" or "the distance between your toes and your heels should be the same" are directions i can comprehend.  i am able to maximize the moves immediately without guessing what in the hell he actually means.  this relates directly to my one-on-one teaching and rehearsal technique.  i can make more efficient headway by conveying exactly what i mean with clear and concise suggestions.

credibility is key.  these exercises are a bitch, and he is actually doing them.  so are the other folks in the video (in fact, they are the ones really doing it while he's coaching).  i make it a point in my teaching to show my students what i'm asking them to do, to empower them in a way.  i know that sounds cheesy, but i want them to know that i'm just a regular guy like them and i can do the exercise that i'm asking them to attempt.  i'm not coming up with ideas that are ridiculous or unfathomable, and the quickest way i can show their legitimacy is by doing them live for my students.  credibility is difficult to establish and, once lost, nearly impossible to reacquire.  

i found something that is working for me.  i need the accountability of these exercises and the journals. i like the discipline and the challenge and the levity and the barking and the jokes.  i need that timer on the video expiring, the other workout pals sweating, the positive affirmations.  i need the variety, the limited downtime between moves, the fired up vibe when me and the video dudes complete an exercise successfully.  i often struggle with making progress in my writing or my practicing or my educational research, and then i realize that i have yet to find the angle that works for me.  when i do, the sky's the limit.  this silly workout dvd has reminded me that i am my own personal trainer in life, which is a difficult yet necessary pill to swallow.  


lessons from the tempted

this past week i had the opportunity to do a couple of shows with R&B legends (sadly, not new edition) The Temptations and The Four Tops.  initial impressions:  i don't know any of these guys' tunes, this pays nice, get my high baffle saxophone sound on, fun to have this experience.  final impressions:  way the hell different.

i did two shows with The Temptations, one with The Four Tops.  turns out, i actually do know a bunch of material from both of these acts.  so did the sold-out audiences.  i didn't recognize many by the titles (with the exception of My Girl ... hello) and the background figures didn't trip many memory switches for me.  but once these acts started doing their thing, my brain exploded with years and years of melodies and lyrics and dance moves and harmonies and codified curly-q licks.  these tunes have legs (and so did these old dudes), standing the test of time.  sure it was an older crowd, but young faces in the house were bouncing right along with those arthritic-riddled blue hairs.  

the stage presence by both acts was spot-on, as you would expect.  they had their schtick together, and it worked smoothly.  they always gave a "i'm not tired at all" and "we love playing in iowa" and "i'm really into it" disposition to the audience.  when members caught a breather, it was with their backs to the audience.  toweling off, sucking back some water (and coffee!), regaining their composure, giggling amongst themselves - keeping it to themselves.  no down time between tunes either, which is always impressive.  my lips were begging for a break, but i wasn't about to complain.  i'm half their age and just sitting down the entire time.

both groups had rehearsals the afternoon before the evening show.  both musical directors (Bob - temps, 'Tree - tops) worked without scores.  they talked down a bunch of the show, not really throwing around a bunch of musical terminology.  their conducting technique was so-so.  their rapport with the musicians was good.  but man, they totally knew these charts.  every little rhythm missed, every accidental ignored, these guys were on it like stink on shit.  i was so impressed with how fast their ears were working and how relaxed they were about the whole thing, it made me begin to wonder about the value of music school.  these tunes worked, the charts worked, the finale parts were decent, and these guys never breathed a word about senior recital or solfege or student loans.  in fact, they trusted our musicianship.  'Tree was especially faithful, talking us through nearly the entire book without having us play much at all.  i had solos with The Four Tops, and he never had me run them.  not in the rehearsal, not in the soundcheck.  he just looked at me and said "you're gonna be great, man".  

the shows were all pro caliber.  production was good, traveling rhythm sections were nice, schedules were kept pretty on point, the main singers were professional and thankful, the food was okay, and the bread was decent.  a wonderful experience.  it was also my professional debut on flute, which had me super nervous for about a month.  turns out, there was only one chart with flute, and it was unison within the section.  lynne hart played 2nd alto, and she can really play flute, so i backed off the mic a bit (a lot) and let her shine.  

not so wonderful?  i checked into the Holiday Inn in cedar falls after the double bill show, tired as hell.  got the keys to my room on the other end of the hotel, carted all of my crap down there, and found out that neither of the keys worked in the door.  i hoofed it back to the front desk (with my stuff), got new keys, and a hotel clerk accompanied me to my room.  i'm not sure if he thought i didn't know how to work the key or what, but i was too tired to care.  we went all the way back again and, sure enough, my keys worked just fine.  the clerk gave me a smug look, and then propped open the door so i could get in the room with all of my luggage.  i took two steps into the room and halted immediately when i heard a guy say "i'm in here man, i'm in here!"  geesh - there was already somebody in my room!!!  we apologized and went back to the front desk again to figure it out.  the clerk and i joked about how thankful we were that we didn't walk in on some hanky panky going on.  i got a new room, and went with the clerk again to go find it.  he was new to the gig (of course) and couldn't locate the room.  we walked around for a while, found it, got the keys to function properly, and knocked before entering.  bizarre...