Monday, March 16, 2015

My True Self

As a teacher, I find myself often thinking back on some of the most formative events I experienced as a student. One particularly memorable moment happened when I traveled to Virginia to participate in a jazz saxophone competition.

I had been selected as a finalist for the competition, which was being held at a big saxophone conference. The three finalists were required to prepare a 20-minute set of music that we would perform live with a rhythm section provided to us by conference organizers. We could select any songs to perform, but they did impose one rule: We were required to play “Stella by Starlight."

I'm going to come clean on this: “Stella” is just not one of my favorite songs. I’ve never felt good about the song itself, or my ability to play it well. I realize it’s a standard. I accept that it is important to know the song, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. But I was excited to participate in the contest, so I decided I would do my best and work it up.

Since this was a jazz competition, I assumed that the judges would be listening for who had the most unique artistic vision. After all, one of the most compelling aspects of jazz is that the artists express their own distinctive voice. Uniqueness is valued. Jazz musicians learn all the melodic and harmonic content of their predecessors, put their own stamp on it to create something totally new. Because of this, the best jazz musicians are easily recognizable within two or three notes. 

For the previous year, I had been studying Thelonious Monk’s music pretty intensely. I was listening to lots of his recordings, learning his tunes, and playing his improvised solos (and those of his sidemen). I arranged Monk songs for groups I played in, and I loved how his music could be so adaptable yet simultaneously so Monkish.

Since my music was leaning decidedly Monkish at that time, I thought it would be really cool to arrange “Stella by Starlight” using the harmonic language of Monk’s tune “Skippy” (which is closely related to Monk’s own re-harmonizing of the standard “TeaFor Two"). So, this is what I came up with and played at the contest:

In retrospect, this is probably not at all what the contest organizers had in mind. It was unique for sure, but overly conceptual and a bit nerdy. Perhaps it was naïve of me to think that judging at a saxophone competition would be based on distinctiveness of artistic voice, but that is how I approached the contest.

To complete my set, I chose three other Monk tunes in a variety of tempos – the ballad “Ask Me Now,” the blues head “Straight, No Chaser” and the up-tempo “In Walked Bud.” I thought these would represent me well, since I was currently trying to integrate as much Monk vocabulary as possible into my own musicianship. I could play pretty on the ballad, show some roots on the blues, and flash just a little bebop with the up-tempo tune.

We were given 30 minutes to rehearse with the rhythm section.  They were a little confused by my “Stella” chord changes, but they did their best to play them both in the rehearsal and at the contest.

The performance itself was surreal. The other two guys were real nice. One was a buddy from school, but the other I had never met before. Both very good saxophonists. We played in a fairly large auditorium, in front of a hundred or so conference attendees in the audience sitting amongst the panel of judges. After each tune I played, the audience clapped quietly and politely for about 3.27 seconds. The entire thing could not possibly have felt less joyous or jazz-like. 

After I finished playing, I left the auditorium and stood out in the hallway while the audience filed past. For several minutes, nobody said anything to me. 

Nobody --- at all.

Not one word.

(Cue the sound of crickets chirping)

Most of the folks in the audience didn’t make eye contact as they walked past me. Nobody lied with a polite “nice job.” None of them even said “Thank you for travelling all this way.” I knew that almost everybody there completely hated my playing.

But about five or ten minutes later, an energetic, middle-aged guy with a broad smile approached me, shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and said this:
“I just wanted to introduce myself. My name is Patrick Meighan. I just heard the jazz contest. I really don’t care who wins. What I do care about is that you took the stage and tried to make music with your 20 minutes. You put together a varied program, you played musically, with style and authenticity, and you didn’t just try to impress everyone with flashy technique. I teach classical saxophone at Florida State University, and you are welcome to come down to Tallahassee anytime, in any capacity at all.”
We talked for a couple minutes, but I didn’t think very much more about the exchange at the time. I was still pretty bummed out, and since I clearly wasn’t winning the contest, the whole thing seemed like a bit of a waste of time and energy.

Fade out. 

Fade back in, a few years later. 

I was in Aspen CO for a few weeks, having recently finished a master's degree, playing in a summer big band. One day I got a call from the jazz director at Florida A&M University. He said they’d received the resume I’d submitted for a jazz saxophone job, and they wanted to do an interview. I guess I nailed the interview because I got the job, moved to Tallahassee, and started teaching.

A few months later, the FAMU jazz director told me how I'd managed to snag the interview. He was not too familiar with the world of saxophonists himself, so he showed the pile of resumes to the classical saxophone teacher across town to see if he knew of anyone FAMU should consider. That classical saxophone teacher saw my name in the pile, pulled my resume out and said something to my soon-to-be-boss, which was apparently something along the lines of "you might want to give this guy a 2nd look.”

Interesting, eh?

I’ve often thought back about that competition. It is possible that in the months leading up to the contest, I might have been able to work up more challenging or impressive repertoire. I could have played the tunes faster, with better technique, and maybe, if the moon and stars were all in alignment, won the contest (but I don’t take that as a given; the guy who won had real chops).

But if I had done all those things, I believe I would not have made the one real connection with Pat I did make that day. I think the reason my music connected with him was that I had been true to myself, and to my current state of musical development and voice. I was trying to develop my own sound and learn from the masters, and I was showing it. Pat walked into the auditorium that day expecting to hear a blur of fast notes, but instead he heard me. It is true that I might have been able to impress more people that day by pretending to be somebody else --- someone with better chops and facility --- but I wouldn't have impressed Pat that way. I would not have made the right connection for me.

I believe I serve the music better when I strive to reach just one person at a time, with honesty and authenticity. It's been my experience that I also receive huge benefits from doing that, too.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

On Wrong Notes

This was one of those moments when time froze.

I was pretty young, perhaps a freshman or sophomore in college, aspiring to be a jazz saxophonist, gigging with a group friends at a local restaurant. After we’d played a few songs, our jazz improv professor Bill Dobbins, whom I respected very much (and still do), walked into the place with his wife Daralene, sat down at a table next to the band, and ordered some drinks. It made me a little nervous for them to be there, but I tried to stay cool about it.

Someone in the band called the Dave Brubeck song "In Your Own Sweet Way." We had been working on this tune in improvisation class for a few weeks. I was not completely comfortable with it yet, but I wanted to show Bill I was worthy of being at the school and studying with him, so I gingerly agreed we should play it.

We started playing, and soon it was my turn to improvise a solo. The "A" sections are basically in the key of Bb, give or take a few flats. The chords progress quickly, changing every two beats. I was doing OK for a little while, hopefully exuding a fair bit of feigned confidence. Then, the bridge arrived.

The bridge (the "B" section) temporarily moves up to the key of D major. Relative to Bb, the key of D major is brighter. It is totally different; it feels more colorful and maybe a little distant. The shift in tonal atmosphere between the two sections is what makes the song work so well.

I do not remember exactly what I improvised in the first few bars of the bridge. However, I suddenly found myself playing a wrong note, quite loudly, squarely smack-dab on the downbeat.  This one particular note was so thoroughly terrible that I will remember it's impact for the rest of my life.

It was C natural:

Click to hear this monstrosity

C natural could not possibly sound worse with the harmony of that moment. I simply did not know what key we were in. But as soon as I heard the note emerge from my horn, I suddenly remembered that the bridge had gone to D major, and that my C natural sounded as ill-concieved as any single note can be.

If you have not attempted improvising jazz before, let me explain a little about the improvisers mindset. When improvising, jazz players are ultimately striving to empty their heads of conscious thought. We need to enter something of a dream-like state to spontaneously create beautiful melodies and to generate a swinging rhythmic feeling along with the other players in the group. When it's working really well, it feels like the music is just making itself.

I had been trying to get into a state like this, but at this particular moment, I was violently shocked back into consciousness. In that fraction of a second, my brain sent me a quite detailed message:

“Bill Dobbins, your esteemed professor, is sitting right in front of you. He can hear that you don’t know this song at all. He knows you're a complete fraud. You're going to fail his class, get kicked out of school and never become a musician. Your life is now over.”

I suppose I could have just stopped playing and skulked off the bandstand with my head down. But if I did that, everyone in the room would have known without any doubt how terrible a player I was. So, I didn't actually consider leaving. I decided to keep playing and see if I could find some way to fix it.

I once heard an adage that jazz improvisers are never farther than a half-step away from a better note.  This seemed like a good a time as any to test that theory. So, I immediately had to make a choice. I had to select which way to move --- up or down.  Because I had hesitated slightly when I first realized my mistake, playing that horrible C for one long excruciating beat, my decision was going to be which note to then put onto beat 2:

Click to hear option 1

Click to hear option 2

Sizing up the two options, I sensed that going down to B would effectively turn the C into a blue note, conveying a bluesy feeling that wouldn't be right for the mood of the song. I wasn’t at all certain that going up would work any better, but I took the path upward to C# and plowed ahead.

I immediately knew that C# was better than C natural, but this phrase didn’t sound intentional yet. I still didn’t sound as if I was melodically or artfully conveying the sound of D major. I'd just merely fixed a wood carving mistake with a sledge hammer.  I still needed find a way to make the mistake sound right.

At that moment I remembered another common saying in improvising; if you repeat a mistake enough times, it will sound like you really meant it. However, I didn't want to repeat the exact same two notes again. I thought there might be a way to sequence this "wrong note/right note" pair in an artful way. So, I thought about the next chord tone below the C#, which was A. To continue the pattern, I leapt down to a G#, which was actually a half-step below A, where I was going to arrive.  This effectively allowed me to repeat the pattern two steps down (a third below):

Click to hear it

It was a little better. It wasn't right yet, but I felt I was getting close to making this sound at least intentional. Could I possibly continue this sequence, which for lack of a better name I'll call "a half-step below a right note" pattern, for one more iteration?

Click to hear it

I could feel it – three was the magic number.  I was almost there.  But at this point I wondered if I could find some way to tie up the entire phrase with a nice, neat little bow. Was there one final note that could completely hide my original mistake?  Could I pull one last note out of my hat that was so clever that nobody in the room, including my professor, wouldn't notice I screwed up so badly in the first place?

Click to hear it
(Drops mic)

OK, perhaps I'm patting myself on the back a bit too much here. But that really was the just the perfect punctation needed in that moment.  Of course, I still had to finish playing the rest of the chorus, but at least I managed to escape the deep melodic hole I’d dug for myself.

Sidenote: Music theory fans may note the spelling change of C natural to B#, reflecting my entirely intentional melodic purpose here.  :)

I have thought about this moment many times since then, and I have gleaned several lessons from it:

(1) Keep calm and carry on. If you stay cool and keep your ears open, then the process of spontaneously composing jazz solos can be as simple and fun as making music with your friends.

(2) The process is more important than the product.  The process of creating jazz --- both in the immediate moment and in the long-term course of learning to do it --- is what makes the music so exciting. Perhaps scary sometimes. I believe this is why live or bootleg recordings can be so compelling. Some of my favorites are not packaged products; they’re simply an aural snapshot that captured the spontaneity of the moment in that time and place.

(2A) Making mistakes is part of the process. It may be a bit cliche, but there are some things you can only learn from making mistakes. If you are so careful that you never venture out of your comfort zone and screw up badly, you won’t learn from those mistakes and push yourself to greater heights.

(3) There is no such thing as a wrong note. Any note can work with any chord. This is not to say that it necessarily makes sense to just "play out" (whatever that means -- this descriptor has become how jazz players describe maximizing dissonance, which is not always done in a beautiful way). This is an acknowledgement that melody notes have varying degrees of consonance or dissonance relative to several things: the other melody notes that came before or after, the chord of the moment, and the key of the piece. And while it may sound overly simplistic or reductive, one of the great joys in creating your own music is exploring how notes and chords relate to each other. It's ultimately your uniqueness as an creative artist that will guide how you utilize those tonal relationships.

I have given my students a fun exercise to work on a single aspect of this, which requires them to consider how their notes relate to the chord of the moment. I ask them to pick any random note, and at the same time I’ll play a random chord on the piano. The first challenge is to figure out how their note relates to my chord, identifying whether it’s a chord tone, color tone, or non-chord tone. Then, they must improvise a short melodic phrase that makes their note sound right --- to progress melodically from their starting note and end somewhere so that the entire phrase sounds intentional. It's not always easy, but there is always some way to do it, and often many different solutions. At first, I'll choose fairly straightforward chords, then later get include more complex sounds as the students ears improve.

You can even practice this yourself by recording your own chords at the piano, using any recording device. When I do it for myself, I'll count to 4 slowly before each random chord, then play the same chord for about 20-30 seconds, take a short pause, then move on to some totally unrelated random chord. I'll continue like this for about 20 minutes. To complete the practice, play a random melody note along with your recording later, after you've forgotten which chords you played in the recording. They'll seem quite random to you, and will make a great exercise.


After the song was done, my buddy Rob Hudson, the trombonist in the band, leaned over and whispered, “You really didn’t mean that C-natural, did you?”

I guess you can't fool everyone.