About Me

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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Can Dyslexia Teach Us About Learning Music?

*this article was originally published in Saxophone Today (Jan 2017)*
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Can Dyslexia Teach Us About Learning Music?

As a university saxophone professor, a large portion of my work is spent helping students to learn repertoire.  I’m also constantly working on new music, while trying to keep the old standards as fresh as possible.  This heavy emphasis on the learning process has lead to an obsession with increasingly effective methods of learning (and teaching).  We all have limits to the amount of time that we can devote to practicing, so we need to make every moment count.  I am particularly interested in what we can learn from modern technology, so when I heard Gabrielle Emanuel’s fascinating NPR report on current research to better understand dyslexia,  http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/11/29/503693391/researchers-study-what-makes-dyslexic-brains-different, I was very excited about what I perceived to be obvious parallels between understanding the way humans read written words and the way we read music.  Moreover, a method for helping dyslexics to improve reading skills seems likely to have applications in music.

In the big picture, written language is a relatively new development for humans.  Evolution has hard-wired our brains for certain critical skills, like recognizing faces and learning spoken language, but reading requires a step beyond pure instinct.  Without getting too technical (and I encourage you to read Emanuel’s excellent article for slightly more detailed information), our brain likes to take pictures of things.  The first time you see an object, your brain needs to learn what the object looks like, and that means recognizing it from many angles.  Figuring something out for the first time happens in a particular part of the brain, but a different structure takes over when you can recognize an object in the abstract.  For example, if you see a car from the rear, you still easily recognize it as a car.  This skill involves a certain part of the brain called the occipitotemporal cortex.  Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) shows that this area of the brain is not only used for recognizing objects, but it also plays an important role in reading written language.

Our brains basically try to take “pictures” of words, so that we can quickly recognize those words without having to sound them out every time we see them.  This allows the brain to treat common words like symbols, seeing them as discrete objects, rather than a bunch of letters.  If you see the word “the,” your brain recognizes it quickly because it has stored an image of that word.   Words like this are known as sight words, and they are a vital component of learning to read.  Unlike cars, words are not objects that have the same meaning from different angles; think about a young child that writes some of their letters backwards, or reverses mirror-image letters like lowercase b and d.  This is unnatural for the brain, which is why we all need time and practice to learn the art of reading and writing.  [I taught myself to write with both hands, but I sometimes have trouble writing lower case q with my right hand, because I can’t remember which way the letter is oriented, but this only happens with my non-dominant hand, and only when I am tired!]  Dyslexics exhibit difficulty with sight words, and fMRI shows that their brains are less active in the involved neural structures when they are exposed to sight words, when compared to non-dyslexics.  Everyone must learn that a car, when viewed from any angle, is always a car, but letters and words are like one-way streets – direction matters!

Emanuel goes on to explain research being conducted by Guinevere Eden of Georgetown University.  In short, subjects with dyslexia were given intense training in learning to recognize words at sight, which resulted in a measured increase in activity in the appropriate structures of the brain.  Moreover, fMRI showed an increase of activity in other parts of the brain, suggesting that the brain can compensate for problems in some areas by recruiting other structures.  This can also be seen in patients with brains damaged by injury.  With disciplined practice, the brain forges new neural pathways.

In many ways, reading music is identical to reading language.  When we first learn to read music, we count the lines and spaces on the staff and use a mnemonic device (like “Every Good Boy Does Fine”) to determine the note names.   With practice, our brains will memorize an image of the staff, and then quickly identify note names by their positions in the staff.  I find it particularly interesting that an inexperienced music reader might confuse B with D, for example, because the two notes form a similar image, especially if one temporarily loses the visual center line of the staff.  From a more advanced perspective, scale passages are quickly recognized at sight, and the same holds true for triads and chordal structures.  A similar process happens when reading rhythms, where we go from having to count out the individual components to seeing a group of notes as an image that is a symbol for a certain cliché.  Young readers can easily execute quarter notes in a row, but syncopated figures are like little riddles that must be solved (sounded out?) before they can become grouped into images that can be recognized at sight.

 All this had me thinking about a method of practicing that I use, and how this method could be refined to take advantage of the brain’s strong tendency to organize components into meaningful image-symbols.  I tried working on some long, complex lines of music using the following method:

1.     Divide the line into clear visual groupings of notes.
2.     Play each group slowly with a pause between each group.
3.     Gradually increase the tempo within each group, but maintain a pause between groups.
4.     Play the line very slowly with no pauses, but still try to see each group as a separate unit within the longer line.
5.     Play in time, as written, increasing to the desired tempo.

In my own practice, this method worked very well.  In a relatively short amount of time, I was able to see each group as a “chunk,” and my eyes were free to move ahead to the next grouping while I was still playing the notes of the previous group.  I tried it with some of my students who came to their lessons with trouble spots in their prepared etudes.  While none of this was done in a scientific manner, I can say that the anecdotal evidence of taking the student through these five steps resulted in a rapid improvement, and the desired outcome was reached with seemingly far less repetitions than is required by the common method of repeating the line slowly and very gradually increasing tempo.

There are many well-known approaches to “note grouping” as a method for learning and interpreting music, so this is not really anything new.  With that said, fMRI is providing us with profound insights into the way that our brains work, and this information is bound to have broad applications for enhancing the way that we teach and learn.  While we might not ever be able to download talent directly into our minds like in The Matrix movies, we can definitely supercharge our practice by knowing how to quickly stimulate the parts of the brain that are involved in the acquisition of certain skills.  I will be following up on this article when I have a chance to do some of my own research.  Good luck, and practice well!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

How I Found Myself While Pretending to be Prince

So, thirty years ago, I won a lip sync contest.  

  If you know me, you know that the only thing that could be more unlikely than me even entering a lip sync contest, is me winning a lip sync contest.  The significance of this improbable moment in my young life requires a little backstory.

All through grade school, I was bullied for being feminine.  I was a shy and skinny, and I had a mouthful of every orthodontic torture device ever invented.  If you can think of a gay slur, I was surely called it as I received regular beatings while being held under the downspout in the rain and stuffed into playground garbage cans.  They liked to punch me in the upper thighs while I was at the urinal, because I would piss myself and be too embarrassed to show anyone the bruises.  I had no self-confidence, no hope for the future, and my only goal was to get through the day without getting cornered.  In the sixth grade, they lined up and took turns punching me in the face until my retainer broke in my mouth.  I wanted to die.

In junior high, things got a little better.  I finally started growing, and even though I still took a few pretty good beatings, I wasn't getting put in trash cans anymore, and I started making friends (many of them a few years older than me) through the school band.  In 1986, I switched from flute to saxophone and I bought a hat and some Converse All-Stars.  I figured that it couldn't hurt.

My church youth group hosted a dance that year.  I mostly stuck close to the walls, trying not to be noticed.  There were teens there from other churches, and when the DJ announced a lip sync contest, I suppose that I figured that most of those kids didn't know me anyway, so I had nothing to lose.  It was totally out of character, and I have no idea how I mustered the courage, but I shot for the moon.  At the end of the contest, the DJ named the winner by who got the most applause.  I won.  I couldn't believe it.  Later on, a pretty girl  (I never saw her before, or ever again) asked me to dance.  I was reborn that night, and Prince was there.

Well, not really, but my song was Prince's "Kiss."  To this day, whenever I hear that song, I am filled with gratitude.  It's a cliché, but Prince helped me to know myself, and to find my creative voice.  Prince seems like an unusual source of inspiration for a guy like me, until you get beneath the surface.  In actuality, Prince was exactly the unconventional kind of hero that I so desperately needed.

Prince was an unlikely sex symbol - not exactly what one would consider a natural "leading man."  He was short (5' 2"), his look was very unorthodox, and he dressed a bit like an 18th century dandy.  He was all ruffles and purple velvet, dancing his ass off and rocking out in falsetto.  He embraced his femininity fearlessly and with full force - and it only made him sexier.  Way sexier.  He was unambiguously heterosexual, but he wasn't like most men, and certainly not like most rock stars.  For a teenager like me, that wasn't into sports and typical "manly" stuff, Prince presented a very different set of possibilities.  Clearly, my path would be quite a bit more conservative than that of a flamboyant rock star, but I was obviously never going to be varsity quarterback, and it was reassuring to see that there was more than one way to be a man.

Of course, Prince wasn't just about seduction.  He was also an incredible artist.  He could play nearly every instrument on the stage, and he was one of the greatest rock guitarists we will ever know.  (Even Stevie Wonder had to bring in Jeff Beck for a few guitar solos!)  He was a prolific songwriter.  He had multiple singing voices (and ranges), and he sang in-tune, live.  He rocked like Jimi Hendrix, he grooved like James Brown, and in the end, he was much more than the sum of his influences.  There is only one word in the English language that can properly describe him:  Prince.

At first glance, it might seem that Prince surrounded himself with women because he was objectifying them; there were certainly more than enough scantily-clad ladies on stage to raise those concerns.  He clearly loved women, but I think there was more than met the eye.  In the same way that he valued his own feminine qualities, he valued femininity in general.  His off-stage persona was shy and reserved.  He wasn't known for wild parties, and the women on the stage were rarely mere ornaments - they were usually there on artistic merit:  Sheila E, Candy Dulfer, and far too many others to mention.  At first, I was surprised to learn that Susan Rogers was his recording engineer in the 80s, but this really shouldn't be shocking in any way.  Even behind the scenes, he valued the female perspective.  The iconic symbol that temporarily served as a legal substitution for his name was obviously an expression of the beauty that comes from the unity of a balanced whole - a yin yang analog of gender and sexuality, yes, but also a thing of inclusive beauty unto itself.

Prince was unwavering in his pursuit of artistic freedom.  He was composer, performer, producer, and he led the rebellion against corporate record labels.  Prince and the Revolution?  Prince was the Revolution.  His death comes tragically too soon, and I won't be surprised if the autopsy reveals a man that simply worked himself to death.

Thirty years later, I find myself settled into a fantastic life and a successful career.  In some ways, I bucked the system by refusing to limit myself to one genre of music, knowing that it made my path more difficult.  In order to keep myself nourished, I habitually take my own artistic risks and I try to challenge what it means to be a saxophone professor.  Whenever I find myself in a moment of doubt, which is rather frequent, I remember that nothing could be as reckless as the time that I mimed to The Purple One.  I never had the chance to see him perform live, but in this nearly random moment back in 1986, he gave me this incredible gift of bravery, to be my own kind of artist and my own kind of man, and I will reap the rewards for all of my life.

You were, and ever shall be, the one and only Prince.  
Purple Heart on Google Android 6.0.1

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"You have to pay the bills, right?"

     When I meet someone and they discover that I am a saxophone professor, there are a few common reactions.  "Wow!  I didn't know that was a thing."  I always smile and explain that all college music majors study their instruments with a professor, and that we are a part of a master-apprentice system that goes back through the ages.  Another common reaction happens when a person already knows that I am a musician, and upon learning that I am a teacher, they say "Well, you have to pay the bills, right?"

I used to just laugh it off, but I've changed my mind about how to approach the situation.  Obviously, everyone has to pay the bills, but suggesting that teaching is a great way to pay the bills?  It's ridiculous, and it hurts my profession to not address the idea.  Here's why:


If your goal was to make money, why would you choose teaching?  Teachers are underpaid.  Take a look at this listing of average starting salaries for teachers (according to the National Education Association).  Higher education in music isn't much better.  I am not complaining, but if my goal was to make money, I would have easily found a different career that paid better, and certainly one that paid better out of the gate.  The idea that anyone would pursue teaching for the easy money is completely insane and should be treated as such.

There is always the argument that the hours are light and we have the summers off.  When teachers aren't in the classroom, they are busy preparing, making lesson plans, studying.  Teachers are lifelong learners.  They are attending and presenting at conferences - the kind that have you busy all day and into the night.  They are getting training to teach new subjects and to meet the changing needs of modern students.  Teachers are always on the clock, always thinking (and often worrying) about their students.  The actual hours spent in the classroom don't even begin to tell the full story of what it means to be a teacher.


I have been teaching professionally for more than 20 years.  I have easily taught over a hundred students in private lessons, and that number expands exponentially when you consider all the students that I have taught in classroom and ensemble settings.  I dare you to ask one of them, at random, if they ever thought for a sigle second that they were my "fallback" career.  I teach because I love to teach, and because I love students.  I teach for the love of teaching.  I teach to pay back my teachers.  I teach for love.  Anyone that tries teaching as a fallback position will be a terrible teacher, and have a life of misery.


The greatest teachers of art, any art, are world-class artists.  In my field, the single most important qualification is musicianship.  My colleagues have performed all over the world, and with some of the most famous artists and conductors.  This isn't special.  It's normal.  The notion that you can fail as an artist and succeed as a teacher is preposterous.  I don't perform "on the side," or as a hobby.  I am a professional musician.  If I didn't have the ability to perform at the highest level, I would not be able to teach.  The best teachers are the best artists.


Someone recently asked me, half sarcastically, "How do I get your [cushy] job?"  I replied, with a friendly smile, "practice the saxophone for about 20,000 hours, borrow $100K to go to the best universities for ten years, and get an international reputation as a performer, author, and composer.  Then, compete against a hundred other highly qualified applicants for only a handful of positions in the entire world." I could have added, "and be prepared to accept a starting salary in the forty-thousand range with no ability to negotiate."

I'm not being snarky.  This is the reality, and I accept it with a smile because I love my job, even when I am swimming against the tide of criticism and public misunderstanding about what I actually do.  I also keep things in keen perspective by comparing my situation to what K-12 public school teachers face.  With standardized testing scores connected to funding, pressure to teach outside their areas of interest and specialty, lack of support for students with special needs and language barriers, and a general lack of support from politicians and the media, it is much, much worse for them.

But teachers will continue to teach.  Not to pay the bills - there are better ways to do that.  Not because they "fell back" - that's a myth.  And certainly not because "those that can't do . . . " - give me a break!

Teachers will continue to teach for the love of humanity.  If you've ever had a teacher that made an impact on your life, don't miss the chance to say thank you.  It means more to us than you could possibly know.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Remembering Phil Woods

When I was a student at UMASS, the jazz ensemble played a festival that was judged by the legendary Phil Woods.  On the scoring sheet, he singled me out with a very nice comment.  My teacher at the time convinced me that I should ask Phil if I could use the quote in my promotional materials.  (I was probably 20 years old at the time, so my resume was still a little slim!)  I thought it was a great idea, but I certainly had no idea how to contact him, so I forgot about it.

A year later, I had a job at a music company that did some work with Phil and I was able to get permission to copy down his mailing address to send a letter.  On my old electric typewriter, I pounded out something like, "Dear Mr. Woods, Thanks for being awesome.  I don't ever expect you to reply to this letter, but if you would give me permission to use that quote, I would be ever grateful."  I mailed the letter and imagined that he would never even read it, so once again, I forgot about it.

It was summer and I was living at my parents house while I made some money for the coming school year.  I got home from work one day and my younger sister said, "Some guy named Phil left you a message."  I was thinking, "Phil who?"  When I hit play on the answering machine, there was the voice of THE Phil Woods, happily telling me to use the quote as much as I would like, and wishing me luck in my career.  I freaked out.  I couldn't believe that he would give me permission to use the quote, never mind that he took the time to call me and leave a nice message.  I still have it on a foggy sounding cassette tape somewhere in my archive of unplayable and ancient recorded media.

When I was a graduate student, I was at a jazz education conference and I walked into the hotel restaurant to see a crowd around the bar.  At the center of the group was THE Phil Woods, trademark hat and all.  I quietly sat down at a table, not wanting to disturb him, as he was already being sufficiently worshipped by his friends and fans.  As I looked at my menu, I heard my name called out, "David Pope!  How the heck are you?"  He said something like, "Do you guys know this cat?  You should check him out.  He's going places!"  I ran over to him and shook his hand and he put his hand on my shoulder.  I'll never forget it.  For thirty seconds, I was the coolest guy in the bar.

Phil Woods was the architect of the modern jazz alto sound.  He played with a tone as big as the room.  His time, language, and phrasing were definitive.  It's also worth noting that his solo on Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are," is possibly one of the most perfect improvised solos in the history of pop music.  He was a solid composer, contributing several pieces of core repertoire for saxophone/piano and saxophone quartet.  He performed with everyone from Thelonious Monk to Paul Simon, and he won multiple grammy awards with his own groups.

Phil had a reputation for being tough, and he certainly had a low tolerance for anything that smacked of jive.  I was lucky enough to have a few encounters with him, all of which showed him to be a kind and generous soul.  Only a few weeks ago, I played "Cheek to Cheek" from my vinyl copy of LIVE AT THE SHOWBOAT for a couple of students.  That track still gives me a particular thrill.  The master is now gone, but he gives us seven decades of recordings that leave his permanent footprint in jazz history.  He also taught us how to wear a hat.  Rest well, Brother Phil.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Advice for the Freshman Music Major

Your first year in college is an incredible adventure.  It is likely your first time completely away from home.  You will experience freedoms that are totally new, but as the old saying goes, with great freedom comes great responsibility.  While every discipline of study has unique challenges, music majors have particularly heavy workloads.  You might have nearly twice as many credits as your non-music friends, and when you are done with all that homework, you face the never ending climb that happens in the practice room.

In truth, being a music major is excellent preparation for a career in music.  We are extremely busy people. Professional musicians typically balance a wild schedule of teaching, rehearsing, performing, and practicing, all while trying to keep a social schedule and a family life.  We are often our own managers, promoters, accountants, copyists, and so on.  Here are a few pieces of advice for the freshman music major.

Actively Manage Your Time

You are about to be the busiest that you have ever been in your entire life, and you won't have anyone constantly looking over your shoulder.  Only you can make sure that you get everything done.  Your high school life had a certain structure that helped you to keep things compartmentalized - all your classes were during the day, you had after school activities, and you did your studying at night.  As a college student, your classes will be spread out and you may have intense blocks of back-to-back coursework with irregular breaks.  You can't afford to wing it.  You need to be organized, to think ahead, and to anticipate what needs to happen across the day, the week, and the semester.

The Power of the Paper Planner

There are many ways to keep track of your responsibilities.  There are plenty of apps and cloud-based solutions, like google calendar and iCal.  The trouble with these things is that you actually have to remember to look at them, and my experience as a professor tells me that many students simply forget to check their calendar, or they get distracted by other things happening on their various electronic devices.  For this reason, I strongly recommend an old school, paper planner.

One of the problems with using the calendar on your phone is that, well, your phone is a phone.  It is basically a time killing distraction machine.  A paper planner is a book that does exactly one thing, and the more you use it, the better it gets.  There is also research that indicates that we remember much more of what we write in our own handwriting.  I recommend that my students have a paper planner, and that they schedule out every waking hour of the day.  Schedule your meals, your practice, your homework and studying, and when you will go to bed.  Never be without your planner, and read it frequently.  Make notes about upcoming projects, papers, and presentations.  Fill your datebook with all your concerts and rehearsals, and don't forget those extra dress rehearsals.  It takes some time to get the book filled in, but once it is complete, you will always be able to deal with stress, depression, or boredom (it happens) by leaning on your schedule.

Keep a List of "Time Bombs"

In addition to the paper planner, you should have a separate list of the big stuff.  I call these items "time bombs," and I sort them according to the ones with the shortest fuses.  That music theory quiz next week would be high on the list because it is going to blow up soonest.  Preparing the parts for a concert next month might be in the middle of the list, where final exams and your jury would be towards the bottom.  When something big is completed, cross it off the list.  This additional bit of "big picture" organization will ensure that you don't miss something on your datebook because it didn't stand out.  Again, a little preparation at the beginning of the semester will pay off throughout the coming months.

A Sense of Place

Music majors tend to spend a lot of time in what many of us call "the music building."  Oftentimes, your classes, rehearsals, and practice space are all in one building.  You spend much of your time there, and you see the same people hanging out, especially in that dreaded den of distraction, the student lounge!  By keeping certain activities sorted into specific places, you will limit distractions, and it is wise to find ways of doing certain types of work as far away from the music building as possible.  Obviously, the practice room is for practicing, and you might need to do your theory and ear training work there as well, so that you can use the piano and feel free to sing and make noise.  Try doing your reading work in a quiet corner of the main library (NOT the music library!).  Find special places that work well for specific tasks, and keep them sacred to their designated activities.


Do not skip meals.  Your body and your brain need energy, and you can't live on coffee and energy drinks.  Eat regular meals, a balanced diet, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.  "I'm too busy to eat today," is not acceptable.  Ever.  Pack a lunch.  Have a granola bar and a banana in your backpack.  No excuses.  Eat.


If you are overtired, you will find it difficult to concentrate, you will be more susceptible to stress, and you will be more likely actually waste time by being unproductive.  Lack of sleep is also a leading cause of catching a cold.  Schedule what time you will go to bed, and try to stick to the plan.  You are better to go to bed and get up early to do some last minute studying than to stay up all night and try to sleep for a couple of hours before that 8AM test.  The 20-minute power nap is also a very useful tool for those days when you can't get enough rest.  Set your alarm for twenty minutes, close your eyes and drift off.  Just make sure to get up after twenty minutes.  Any longer and you risk falling into deeper sleep and not waking up, or getting that dreaded groggy "nap head" feeling.

"How Do I Feel?"

Ask yourself, "How do I feel?"  Are you hungry?  tired?  tense?  Assess your state of being and try to address specific problems.  Make some time to do something that makes you feel healthy.  Go to the gym.  Take a swim in the pool.  Go for a walk by yourself.  Meditate.  Something as simple as sitting quietly for 5 minutes can have a surprising effect on your overall state of physical and mental health.  Only you know how you feel, and you can't take care of yourself if you don't think about what you need to feel good.

Blue Light

Humanity evolved to recognize that blue wavelength light signals time to be awake, red wavelength light triggers the sleep cycle, and darkness is for sleeping.  Unfortunately, our electronic devices are super-exposing us to blue light, and it is making it harder for us to go to sleep.  Instead of staring at a screen until the moment you attempt to go to sleep, try unplugging yourself from light emitting devices an hour before bed.  At the very least, dim the screen as much as possible.  It is far better to read a book before bed, by which I mean an actual, paper book.  It is also important to resist the urge to look at your phone in bed.  Just as the library is your place for studying, bed should be for sleeping.  

I hope these bits of advice will help you to have a great freshman year, and set you up for many years of success.  The good habits that you establish in this important time will set the tone for the rest of your life.  Practice Monster Smash!!!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Reflecting on Ornette Coleman

  Ornette Coleman passed away on June 11, 2015.  His impact on modern jazz is beyond measure, but as is often the case with artists that revolutionize an artform, his influence has spread to such ubiquity that it is not readily apparent to contemporary ears.  I once played a few tracks from "Change of the Century" for a group of elementary school students and they didn't bat an eye.  To them, it sounded like jazz.  Period.

When I first became interested in jazz, I read a few history books.  The sections on Ornette Coleman painted a picture of a wild and rebellious eccentric.  I read about mainstream artists heckling him, even chasing him.  Critics were afraid to review him because they weren't sure if he was serious, or if his music was an elaborate ruse.  I decided that I wasn't ready to listen to something so controversial, so I forgot about him.

By the time I got to college, I had already stretched my ears by listening to George Adams, The Fringe, and even some late Coltrane.  I had listened to Ornette's "Free Jazz," but I recognized that the double quartet improvisations were not really showing me the man's artistic core.  It felt more artifice than art, and since I had heard other artists cover the tune "Ramblin'," I went to the record store to find the original version.  This was a pivotal moment in my young musical life.

My first impression of "Change of the Century" was highly positive, but I was also a bit puzzled.  What the heck was all the fuss about?  I heard swinging grooves, singable melodies, and the blues.  Sure, Ornette's saxophone and Don Cherry's trumpet tones were a little rough, not exactly conservatory quality, but nothing that would lead me to believe that they were faking.  The bebop language was a little discombobulated, but it still seemed logical.

If we could hear his early albums with the ears of the time, our experience would be very different from my own, which was some twenty years ago and thirty years after the time of recording.  At the end of the fifties, bebop was in full flourish.  Jazz was cool, hip, and smooth.  Ornette's music was raw, stripped down to the essential elements.  There was no effort to be pretty, at least not in the "with strings" sort of aesthetic that was so dominant with popular music of the era.  Ornette Coleman was certainly not going to be playing over lush arrangements of the American songbook!

In a time when jazz musicians were mostly improvising on slick bits of language that they had worked out ahead of time, Coleman was doing something radically different.  Instead of elegantly plugging cliches and intricate patterns into the corresponding harmonic structures of song forms, he was improvising on the essence of the songs.  He was an expressionist, a seeker of musical truth.  At a time when most artists were playing pretty love songs, Ornette Coleman was trying to play the way that love really feels.  His solos were jubilant and joyful, or twisted up in pain.  He was like a toddler that needed a nap, pouring out emotions as fast as they would come.  He cut the music open and let the blood and guts spill out all over the place, and not everyone has the stomach for that kind of brutal honesty.

I once almost met Ornette Coleman in New York City.  I was standing no more than ten feet away from him.  He was calm and congenial, accepting congratulations from some fans, as he had just received an award.  I wanted to talk to him, but I didn't know what to say.  What I wanted to do is to throw myself at his feet and thank him for risking everything to change music, so that I could have a career making the kind of music that spoke to me at a deep level.  I wanted to thank him for not giving up after he was literally beaten after a gig in Baton Rouge, and for not packing it up when those guys smashed his saxophone beyond repair.  I wanted to thank him for bravely listening to his inner voice, and for chasing his dreams.  I wish that I had just squeezed his hand and said "Thank you, Mr. Coleman.  For everything."

It is difficult to process that all his great colleagues from the original quartet albums are gone, and that he managed to outlive them all.  I didn't like everything that he recorded, but he had my respect for staying true to his vision.  I hear his influence in Keith Jarrett, Joe Lovano, and just about every young improviser on the scene today.  Ornette Coleman didn't just open doors, but he also held them open so that the rest of us could pass through.  Thank you, Mr. Coleman.  For everything.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Listening Bias

I recently conducted an interesting experiment with my saxophone class at James Madison University.  I explained to the students that we were going to listen to two recordings of the prelude from the first Bach cello suite.  One recording was of a noted master, and the other was by a student cellist.  We listened to each recording and then, I opened the floor for comments.

First Listening

The students were roughly split down the middle about which recording was the master musician.  They made excellent critical observations about both versions, often stating that they had a preference for one or the other.  After a vigorous discussion, some of the the students actually changed their minds about which recording was which.

Second Listening

We listened again.  Some of the students were even more firm in their resolve about which recording was the actual virtuoso.  Although there was no consensus, there did seem to be a bit of a "group think" effect that caused some of the students to change their minds.  One student even admitted that he was having a hard time discerning the student from the master, and that he was vacillating back and forth.

Which recordings did I play for the class?

Janos Starker (RCA, 1997)                              Yo-Yo Ma (Sony, 1983)


We all had a good laugh, and everyone felt a little better about having a hard time deciding which recording was "better."  Obviously, both of these recordings are historically significant contributions by undisputed masters of the instrument and the repertoire.  Once we had established that neither recording was by a so-called student, we listened again.

Listening with Different Expectations

This time, the commentary took on a decidedly positive tone, and criticisms gave way to observations about interpretation.  Some of my students noted that they tended to focus more on the positive aspects of the individual recordings, where they had previously been looking for weaknesses that would reveal which musician was inferior.  At this point, everyone was becoming familiar with the recordings, so we just listened to about the first minute of each version.

The Expectations of Short-Term Memory

For our final listening, I changed the order of the recordings (a fact that I did not hide from the students).  A very peculiar thing happened when we swapped the order.  In each of the last two listenings, I noticed that I had a relatively strong preference for the first recording.  This took me by surprise, but when we listened to Starker first, I found him to be thoughtfully romantic, and Yo-Yo Ma sounded hurried and slightly cool.  When we reversed the order, I found Ma to be elegant and logical, but Starker sounded jagged and hesitant.  (I use these terms very loosely and in context of my "gut reaction," as I know both versions quite well and admire them both!)  No matter the order, the second recording was always held up in my mind against the strong memory of the first recording.

The Prejudice of Preconceptions

I expected this to be an enlightening experience for my students, and in many ways, they learned exactly what I had hoped for.  They formed preferences based on the preconception that one of the recordings was inherently better than the other.  They also influenced each other with a combination of insightful critique and  peer pressure, even if that pressure was mostly unintentional.  Something as subtle as the character of the audio recording influenced individual opinions, as some people preferred the warm presence of the RCA recording, while the Sony was a bit more distant, as if the listener was seated in a larger space.  One student commented that he was concerned that he was being influenced by a perceived difference in the loudness of the two playbacks (which we corrected after the initial listening).

Experience and Expectation

The moral of the story is clear:  Our listening experience is profoundly connected to our expectations.  If we believe something is great, we will tend to focus on the positive, where a negative connotation will immediately shift our attention to any apparent weaknesses.  Neither of the aforementioned recordings are perfect, and tiny imperfections can easily be ignored or magnified, depending on the posture of the listener.  We also tend to form preferences quickly, but those preferences are not impervious to self-doubt or peer commentary.

A Fragile Reality

It is important to remember that prejudice can prevent us from hearing deeply into the music.  We must do our best to keep an open mind, and to be cautious about blindly accepting the opinions of others. Our ability to discern is imperfect at best, and it is easily influenced by all sorts of external elements.  Internal factors, including one's mood or recent experiences, can also steer the formation of preferences and opinions.  Reality is merely cobbled together in our minds from one moment to the next.  As a musician, it is vital to develop a critical ear, and the ability to discern between quality and trickery.  Listen often, and well!