Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Can 2016 Be Saved?

Many of my Facebook friends have decried 2016 to be the worst year ever. I fully understand their feelings, and I cannot disagree with the sentiment. The sheer quantity of beloved cultural icons that died this year is mind numbing: Prince, David Bowie, George Martin, Alan Rickman, Garry Shandling, Muhammad Ali, Kenny Baker, Gene Wilder, Gwen Ifill, Bill Nunn and George Michael, to name just a few of the ones who were important to me. The latest addition to that list, Carrie Fisher, is the rotten cherry on top of the 2016 shit sundae.

But prominent celebrity deaths alone don't tell the whole story of this terrible year. That would exclude the unending drivel coming from the parade of politicians, pundits and Facebook feeds that passed as political discourse this year. 

But before we declare 2016 the worst, we should pause just a moment to look back even further. America has experienced bad years before. By most accounts, 1968 was an utter disaster. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, there was horrific carnage in Vietnam, violence surrounded the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and years of racial tensions boiled over into riots in American cities.  

And, oh yeah -- let's not overlook that 1968 brought the election of a corrupt, ethically-challenged president. Hmmmm. Let's just hope that our current president-elect will, like Richard Nixon before him, demonstrate a sufficient sense of civic duty and choose to resign before his inevitable impeachment hearing, because an actual impeachment could rip the country apart worse than he already has done by his own divisive campaign.

But 1968 had some redeeming qualities, too. The nation's space program provided one uplifting moment, which was recalled in a memorable scene from the HBO docudrama "From the Earth to the Moon." As depicted in the show, while Apollo 8 astronauts were on their voyage home after becoming the first humans to orbit the moon and lay eyes on its far side, the CAPCOM called up and read a telegram that said simply, "You saved 1968." That was no small feat.

I love this moment from the show, but I appreciate 1968 for another reason. My lovely wife was born. And, well, not for nothing, so was I. So even after learning about all the tragedy and strife of 1968, I simply cannot hold the entire year in contempt. Some value came of it.

As 2016 comes to a close, we should acknowledge the good things that happened this year. Beyoncé turned lemons into lemonade, the force awakened, and the Cubs won. I think you can remember at least a few good things, too.

For me personally, I'd like to offer gratitude for the wonderful things that happened in my life this year, and say thanks to all the people who have made this time so deeply gratifying. I've had an amazing opportunity to take a sabbatical, and the time off has been refreshing in many ways. In the last several months alone I have been able to write and perform regularly with fantastic musicians -- students, colleagues, friends and family -- at local venues and around the country. Strange as it may sound, I feel like a musician again. Y'know, makin' music... because music.

Now we're about to start a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend five months in London. Beginning this Thursday, before 2016 has even ended, we'll get to check out British museums, concerts, theater, food, and then travel to other parts of the UK and Europe. And I've never even been to the continent before. I almost can't believe it's really happening. 

As we head off on our adventure abroad, I feel grateful for the gifts I received in 2016, and remain hopeful for a better 2017. I'm not ignoring the bad stuff, but I'm trying my darnedest to put it all into some type of larger context. I know it's not easy, but I do hope you're able to feel the same.

Cheerio, and happy new year-


Thursday, November 10, 2016

I'm not worried about ME.

I am incredibly lucky.

I am white. I have never had to live with what Professor Gerald Early describes in the Ken Burns' documentary "Jazz" -- that black Americans are "a people who have a historical consciousness of being unfree in a free country." I have never, nor could I ever, truly feel what it is like to be black in America. For Donald Trump to assert that he's the "least racist person," sounds like some macho dude bragging about his totally straight escapades in a blatant effort to compensate for his fear of exposing his latent homosexual feelings. It means the opposite, or at least at a minimum the lack of serious consideration about our racial divide in America.

I am male. I don't have to live with the threat of sexual harassment every day, at work, or just walking down the street. Maybe people have legitimate concerns about Hillary Clinton, but a good portion of what's been said and written about her over the past 30 years is straight-up misogyny. The fact that a majority of women voted for Trump doesn't change that. Perhaps this fact just means women have grown so accustomed to our "boys will be boys" mentality that they've learned to ignore it to survive. 

I am straightI don't have to live my life under threat that the Supreme Court's decision on gay marriage could be overturned at any time, legally invalidating my family. The court has only recently ruled that any two people have a right to marry and receive all the rights and benefits that go along with being married. President Trump will surely nominate one Supreme Court justice in his first 100 days, and could easily get to nominate a 2nd one. The Republican congress will surely rubber stamp any/all his nominees in short order. Still think this ruling is safe?

I was born in America. I didn't have to come to this amazing country to find a better life; I already have one here. I don't have to wake up every day worried about whether my immigration status might change, separating me from my family, or sending me back to a country that might torture me. I don't have to fear other kids at school harassing and threatening my children. I don't have to live with the knowledge that our next president has used and encouraged inflammatory words against my people.

I am not religious. I don't have to look over my shoulder while I walk to my place of worship, wondering if the stares I'm getting are a just a preface to some hostile action about to be taken against me or my family. I don't have to dread being lumped into the same group as terrorists who claim to worship the same god I do.

I know my fantastic village police officers, and they know me. I don't have to worry about whether they're working to protect me or not; I know that they are. I call them when I need them. When I get pulled over, we're all safe -- my family and the officers -- and I think we all know it. I believe most reasonable people are aware that some folks in other places do not reap this level of reward in their relationship with the police.

I have tenure at a wonderful comprehensive liberal arts college. I will never again have to worry about losing my job, or about being left behind in a changing economic world. I never have to worry about whether my children will have enough to eat, be clothed, or if they'll have the ability to pursue their passions in this life.

My life pretty much exemplifies the textbook definition of privilege.

By acknowledging my privileged status I am not saying that all my successes are based on luck. I have taken risks and have worked my ass off to achieve what I have. But the truth is that I started out with a multiple-stroke handicap (hmmm, I wonder if the fact that I just used a golf analogy to describe my upbringing says something significant).

I was lucky to be born into a family that cared about intellectual pursuits. Even though we didn't have money to spare growing up, my mom was always willing to spend a little extra on a book if I really needed it. I was encouraged to pursue my musical passion and permitted to spend thousands of hours working diligently so that I could ultimately achieve so much and have a satisfying and comfortable life.

For all this I am profoundly grateful.

So yeah, I'm not worried about me.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Human Beings, Jazz Musicians and Technology

Even though I am professor of jazz, I did spend a good chunk of time working in software development. During those years I thought quite a bit about interfaces -- how the living, breathing human beings on the other side of the screen physically interacted with my programs (apps, in modern parlance). I actually got started in software as a kid, during the budding personal computer era, way before the now-ubiquitous Graphical User Interface, when virtually all computer interaction was achieved by typing on the keyboard. The Apple II did have some other controls -- joysticks and the infamous game paddles -- but they were generally used in limited and specific ways. The primary device you used to use programs was the keyboard.

I distinctly remember the moment back in the early 80s when my dad came back from a trip to California with a new Lisa computer. It had a built-in screen, an external keyboard, and a thing he called a mouse.  

"A what?" I suppose it looked a bit like a mouse, with it's stringy little tail.

"It's the newest input device. The mouse will revolutionize the way people use computers," he said. 

Huh? You move the mouse around which then moved some "pointer" on the screen towards these little "icon" things and then you "click" on them?  But why?

"Exactly," he told me excitedly, "you get and incredible amount of precision and control."

I really didn't get it. The whole concept of clicking on things was driven by some esoteric analogy to a physical desktop. You created "files" and put them in "folders," and when you wanted to use one you pulled the folder out and put it onto your "desktop" where you "opened" it. It sounded very corporate and officey, and I was a teenaged kid who liked writing little BASIC game programs like "Super Tank Battle" and "Super Car Racer." The top of my desk was a utter mess and I sure didn't like doing work on it. The computer that sat atop it was an escape from homework. And I only encountered mice if I didn't clean up my Pringles crumbs.

Years later, in college, my dad gave me one of his old Macs. I found it useful. I wrote a few papers, and I even got hooked on Tetris for a while. But that Mac was surely not part of my day-to-day life as a musician.

But then one day dad handed me a big box marked Finale. "I bought this software package, but I'm never going to use it. Do you think you could get any use out of it?"

I told him I really didn't know if I would ever use it. It came with three thick manuals and bunch of floppy disks. I was supposed to write actual music with this? For live human beings to then perform?

Perhaps I was what you'd now call "old school." I wrote music with staff paper with pencils. I copied individual parts on card stock paper with a thick calligraphy sharpie. My buddy Dave Rivello would host part copying "parties" (I know, sounds fun, right?) with a bunch of us Eastman jazz writers where we'd sit around all night long copying parts for each other. Dave himself was really old school; he used an inkwell pen. Parts would often end up with coffee and tomato sauce stains.

But I tried Finale anyhow. And something in my brain clicked the moment I started clicking notes. I could get pitches into the staff really quickly and accurately. The computer would simultaneously play the pitches out of it's little speaker as I clicked them into the staff. Well, it sounded a little like "bink bonk beep," but that was OK; I could easily imagine how the tune might sound when real human being musicians would play it later.

In a very real way, this brain-to-computer connection is exactly the same skill a jazz musician needs to improvise on their instrument. We audiate the music -- "compose" it in our heads -- then get it to come out of our horns in real time. This is the aural version of the visual skill an interior designer needs: Visualize the space how you want it to be in your head, and then create it.

It has taken me many years to acquire this musical skill. I am absolutely not the greatest saxophonist in the world, but when I pick up my alto, it feels like a part of me. Yes, I fully know exactly how cliche that sounds, but I can usually play the notes I'm imagining, right when I hear them. In fact, I contend that the entire art of jazz improvisation could be distilled down to making this brain-to-horn connection. 

So, trying out Finale was my "a ha" moment with a computer mouse. This program allowed me to create a direct link between my musical thoughts and my computer. I immediately felt that Finales the program the mouse was really designed for. For people who liked drawing, perhaps that would have been MacPaint.

I would be several more years before Finale became the tool I used for all my written projects. I needed a faster computer and printer to create the parts, and a more powerful program that allowed for more professional score layout. But all those things would come eventually. 

I became a loyal customer, but I was also a proponent. I would tell my friends and colleagues about how much Finale sped up my workflow when I was writing arrangements and new compositions.

I paid for Finale upgrades early and often. With new versions came new ways of entering music. MakeMusic (née Coda Music Technology) came up with a way using the computer keyboard, in addition to another method that utilized a standard piano keyboard connected through a MIDI interface. These were interesting, but I'm a saxophonist, not a pianist. Neither of these methods made the immediate, visceral, direct connection from brain to computer the way that simple mouse entry did.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, they broke it. 

The company said the code base was old, and they were rewriting it from the ground up for the 2014 version. It came out with a whole bunch of new features, and I bought it.

I moment I started playing around with it I felt a horrible crack in my brain-to-computer link. Sometimes --- not every time, and not predictably --- the note I was trying to click was NOT the note that got entered into the score.

Huh?  Did I miss the staff line? Did I click in the wrong place?

No, they'd introduced some type of bug in this version with the new code.

Y'see folks, I'm just tryin' to enter my li'l melody into the score. I've got a little snippet running through my head. Let's say it's C-D-E-G. I click the first few notes, all is good. All of a sudden, I go to enter G, but F sounds and appears instead. Okay, okay, I gotta back up, hit "undo" and see if I can get the melody back in my head.  Uhhh, what was that tune again? Aarrgh, I forgot!

Coder and entrepreneur Joel Spolsky, of the blog "Joel on Software," once wrote a wonderful piece about how it's not the big problems with out computers that make us unhappy. Our joy is really killed by the mounting frustration of little interruptions that pile up us and stop us from accomplishing the very thing we originally sat down at our computer to do.

Am I able to get my projects done? Yes, I can. This is not a bug that completely prevents me from finishing my work.

But just how frustrating is this tiny little interruption? It feels equally as stupid to the popup window below, which just this morning popped up in Microsoft Outlook:

Oh, for the love of f&^ (*&$@^ &*^*@&^#$.

Really? I'm trying to save a photo of my house from an email into a folder, unsurprisingly called "House" if you really want to know. This little gem popped up only after I already tried the usual practice of dragging the photo from the email into the folder, which also didn't work. And boy, I'd really like to meet the software manager who OKd some programmers idea that the button "use both" appear in this dialog box.

And not for nuthin', because I did spend, oh I don't know, 8 years, working in web software development, I most certainly CAN save this document with the extension JPG at the end of the name!

But back to Finale: I want to be fair to the fine folks at MakeMusic. I know that it has taken an huge mountain of technological advances to make any desktop publishing like this possible at all. I have often written entire arrangements with my laptop and headphones, created PDF parts and demo recordings, and them Dropboxed the entire thing to an ensemble to practice, all from route 17 in the Catskills while sitting in the air conditioned comfort of the passenger seat of our minivan. Back in 1991, I could never have imagined this would have been possible.

Am I able to get my music printed without a constant interruption of broken brain/computer connections? Not anymore. If this bug were to hit me once an hour, perhaps I wouldn't mind so much. But when my concentration is broken every 30 seconds, I no longer feel comfortable expressing my musical voice. It's no longer me.


Thursday, May 5, 2016

On Risk and Careers


1. Exposure to the chance of injury or loss; a hazard or dangerous chance:
It's not worth the risk.

With graduation coming up, I've been thinking a lot about the implications of risk. "Injury" implies personal bodily harm, and we often hear about teenagers engaging in risky behaviors such as using drugs or skateboarding off a roof. But a "dangerous chance" could relate to loss of something else, perhaps money or status. Now that I am at a relatively secure moment in my life and career, I find myself thinking back on my non-linear path, and specifically about one major risk I took in 1999.

For the two years prior, I had been a full-time teacher in the 'burbs north of New York City, directing elementary school bands and teaching classroom instruments for the Paul Effman Music Service.

I had originally accepted the position at a particularly low moment in my life. I spent a few weeks looking through the newspaper want ads (for those who remember those), feeling as though I had no real job prospects whatsoever. I studied music performance and jazz in college and not music education, so I wasn't NYS certified to teach music and couldn't apply for public school teaching jobs.

When I got the Effman job, which involved teaching at private/parochial schools, I was relieved. I felt it was the only job I could get. I very much liked and respected my boss and co-workers, and even though I didn't have music ed credentials, I was using my musical training in my work.

The trouble for me was that the job was tremendously taxing. I was teaching in nine schools per week. Each day involved teaching an entire band program before lunch, then packing up, getting into the car and driving to a different school to teach another entire band program in the afternoon. Each weekday brought me to two more schools. At the end of the afternoon I was completely exhausted. I had taken the job so I could maintain a musical life, "making music" in the evenings, but actually playing or composing after hours was becoming less and less frequent.

Each time I talked to my dad about my situation, I could tell he was concerned about the direction of my thinking. Back in 1964 after he'd finished graduate school, he declined a high paying position in the business sector and instead took a stable (but significantly less financially rewarding) teaching post at the University of Rochester. I don't think he quite understood my dissatisfaction. He told me that for his generation, you simply did not leave a perfectly good job with a living wage and health benefits. He spent 45 years at the U of R, up until the day he died.

Professors Titlebaum

But I knew that my job was not a good fit for me. It was sapping me of musical energy without giving me the deep artistic satisfaction I craved. I felt that if I was going to continue to work that hard and not be musically fulfilled, I should at the very least make some real money.

In that time -- the years leading up to Y2K -- the news was filled with stories about the "dot-com boom." Venture capitalists were throwing millions at virtually any startup that had put up a website. Internet companies were popping up all over, and jobs were abundant. I had done some computer programming as a kid, so I wondered if perhaps getting some work in that area might be possible. After my first year teaching band, I dusted off my software chops and started taking a few programming classes at a local community college.  

I soon realized that all the childhood time I'd wasted spent sitting in front of my trusted Apple II computer typing up little BASIC programs with names like "Super Tank Battle" and "Super Car Racer" was directly helping me learn modern programming languages like Visual BASIC. I easily remembered logic & programming flow; I just needed to learn the new syntax.

After one more year of teaching music by day, then learning technologies like VB, Java, and some very rudimentary SQL at night, I sensed I was at a crossroads. I wondered if spending the daytime doing something entirely different -- like programming -- would allow me to be more musical after hours, in a way that was more satisfying.

I wasn't confident I could even get a real software job without a computer science degree. I was also concerned that if I quit my music teaching job, it was possible that I might not ever be able to get back to the world of music full time in the future.

However, I also sensed that the only way I could do it would be to leave the world of teaching without any type of lifeline and spend all my time and energy seeking software work.

So, I made the decision that spring. I told my boss I would be resigning at the end of the school year. I hadn't even started looking for a software gig yet; I just up-'n'-quit. To this day, I believe this was the most significant risk I've ever taken.

It was a risk, but it was calculated risk. I speculated that I had the capability to earn more money, enjoy my 9-to-5 life more and then make music after hours, even though I had no idea whether any of it would become true in the near future, or ever.

So, you may ask, did the risk work out in the end?

I believe my results stem from the combination of calculated risk, a willingness to work really hard, and some sheer luck.

The very first interview I got was with a tiny software consulting firm. The owner started the company with his wife, and they had about 8 employees in total. Their kids helped out sometimes, stuffing envelopes. They were, quite literally, a mom-and-pop company. My resume looked nothing like that of a typical software developer. I had two music degrees and a work history of teaching music teaching and playing jazz gigs. But I got lucky; their software manager was a musician himself and must have seen some spark in my eye. He took a risk and recommended me to the owners. I was hired below an entry level salary, but I worked my tuchus off and two years later I'd doubled it.

There was both risk and luck involved in this whole process, but there was one thing I knew about myself: I could work really hard and make something happen when I needed to.

I then left the first company -- quite risk-free, now that I had 2+ years of tangible software development experience under by belt -- to a larger company, where I then worked my way up to Director of Software Development within in the next four years.

I had created a pretty comfy life by then; wonderful wife, kids, house, car. By those measurements, the risks involved by leaving the unsatisfying teaching job had been completely worth it.

However, I still didn't feel like I had a musical life. I still played some gigs and I was writing and teaching a bit, but making music after hours was not actually working out that much better than it had while I was teaching.

Then quite suddenly, a job listing popped --- a one-year position as Director of Jazz Studies up in Ithaca. I just knew I had to go for it.

Oy, vey. Here we go again -- more risks and more calculations. I sent my resume, then prepared for 3 solid months for the interview I hoped would come. I guess you already know that taking this risk has been a solid positive too, 'cause it's now 8 years later, I feel like a musician again and they ain't gotten rid of me yet.

So, here's my bottom line: I encourage you new class of graduates to take risks. But don't take dumb, entirely incalculable risks. Think carefully about how your life could improve if you take the risk. Think about whether the benefits outweigh the potential downside. Think about the other people in your life who care about you and depend on you, because they're incredibly important, too.

But once you decide to take the plunge, go all in.