About Me

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

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lessons from the pool hall (how to be mediocre forever)

It's a dream come true.  I own a pool table.  In fact, I've owned it for years.  I've made it!  But man, I am no pool player.  I own a pool table, but I stink up the room.  Why?

I don't get to use the pool table nearly as often as I would like, but when my son wants to play, or when I have friends over, we rack 'em up!  Awesome.  The problem is that we just play.  It is absolutely fun, but I really haven't improved my game much.  All play and no work makes for a nice hobby, but not a profession.  Maybe this isn't even a hobby, but just a social activity, or a time-killer.

A few summers ago, I got exceptionally motivated to learn how to take a target ball that is against the rail, to hit the cue ball beside it with some inside spin, and to push the target ball sideways into the corner pocket.  I watched some clips on the internet, made some notes, and lined up balls around all the corners.  I took the shot over and over again, learning to cut the angle closer to the target ball, compensating for deflection. I practiced this shot, again and again, for weeks.  No surprise, I have become quite good at this particular shot.  I practiced it.

I love to play, whether it's Bach or a good game of nine ball.  Play is important, but we can't expect any amount of play to ever equal real practice.  We make decisions about how hard we are willing to work, and how much skill we need to enjoy an activity.  If you intend to make a living as a musician (or a pool player), you will need those 10,000 hours of skill building before you can return to the joy of playing.  This is the secret of the virtuoso, and the way the seemingly impossible is made to appear easy, and even fun.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Shake the Hive

I've been working on an unaccompanied tenor saxophone composition for an upcoming performance.  There are literally no constraints, except that it must be for solo tenor and it must clock in around 7 minutes.  Given the considerable freedom that comes with a project like this,  I had several ideas, none of which panned out.

I had been thinking about writing two different pieces for a long time, both of which I have toyed around with, but I never got beyond the basic concept.  Over time, these ideas hardened in my mind, to the point that I couldn't do anything with them.  Each of them turned out to be dead ends.

To clear my head (and ears), I tried improvising on completely different material during my writing/practicing sessions.  At one point, I reversed my hands on the saxophone and tried to play with my hands in the wrong places.  When I found an interesting sound, I wrote down the fingering, and learned to play it with my hands in the correct place.  With a few new-to-me fingering combinations, and a new set of sounds, an idea quickly started to form into its own piece.

Fearful of locking myself into yet another dead end, I put the horn down and went to work on something else (non-musical).  I read a book, took a warm shower, met with a former student, cooked dinner . . . anything to keep the idea out of my head.  Later in the evening, I went back to work, reviewing what I had played that morning and making some notes - no more than 20 minutes.  It struck me that the piece sounds like a swarm of bees, which gave me a story to go with the music.  My brain surged with insight!

This morning, I made a leisurely breakfast, listened to the radio, and fueled up with a strong cup of coffee.  In a few hours of work, the piece poured out of my head in a swarm of creativity.  Armed with a still-malleable idea, an interesting story, and a little caffeine, the entire piece came to be in just a few days.  All that is left is to write it all down (the least fun part of the process for me, given all the non-traditional notation required for the multiphonics and strange fingerings).

The piece depicts someone shaking a bee hive, and you might guess what happens next.  From a personal standpoint, it is interesting that the creativity poured out much like the bees, disturbed from their hive.  The lesson here is that there is a danger in ruminating too long on a single idea.  We can become too attached, and ultimately unable to complete the project.  We need to work while the clay is still wet!

I'll premiere Shake the Hive at the World Saxophone Congress in Scotland this July.  Now, to write the darned thing down.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

What really moves the listener?

To continue discussion, I have taken the liberty of transferring the following commentary regarding the last blog entry from my FB page:

Do you think Ma, in his anecdote, was fearful of making mistakes?" ? Seems like it was boredom with his high achievement ("perfection") that caused him to feel like he was letting his audience (and himself) down. But I wonder if his audience felt what he was feeling, or if, in fact, one of the reasons that we love to listen to folks like him is precisely his precision. He says you should make people feel something. OK, how do you do that? Miss a note or rhythm every now and again? Flap your elbows? Does accuracy not move people? (I know it moves me!) You can say, 'sure, you have to know your notes and rhythms, but there's a certain "I-don't-know-what" that's what REALLY moves the listener.' What is it? Can you teach it? Seems to me like the best thing you can do for yourself as a performer is let those feelings of whether or not you are moving the listener go. (Blow not intensely, but from the heart, someone once told me.) Like tonglen, if you feel like you've done well for the world, breathe it out; if not, breathe it in. And keep on smashing, for god's sake. (In potentially-related news, you ever checked out Carolyn Abbate's paper, "Music—Drastic or Gnostic?"? http://goo.gl/dCEzq <-- It's here.)

From the Abbate paper: "There are differences between listening and performing that should not be ignored; the former hardly involves the same responsibilities and anxieties as the latter. One can more readily depart mentally from hearing music than from performing it, though mulling over the bank balance while your hands continue the sonata by themselves is not unheard of. But that, perhaps, is the point: to reflect, must one in some sense depart? Split a drastic self from a gnostic self?"]

There are broad questions here, worthy of a long discussion.  For starters, let's look at some research.

Jonah Lehrer references a study by Limb and Braun that used functional MRI to peek inside the brain of improvisors, and significantly, to compare these results with scans of the same performers playing prepared pieces.  You can view the original study here:


Limb and Braun discovered that improvisation involves the deactivation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.  This is a part of the brain that regulates self-consciousness.  There is even some indication that this part of the brain regulates truth-telling (or lying).  Check out this abstract on a study using magnetic stimulation of the DLPFC:


I am willing to speculate (I know, shame on me) that there is a connection between pure improvisation and spontaneous interpretation.  (This would be difficult to prove for two reasons:  the difficulty in creating such a situation while the musician is in the MRI machine, and the further challenge in quantifying genuinely spontaneous interpretations.)  If the musician could perform the neural trick of the improvisor and willfully shut down the DLPFC, effectively dampening social inhibition, the resulting performance might be significantly less cautious, and more personal.  If there is a transcendent self, the DLPFC seems to be protecting it, or at least keeping it on a leash.

I believe that Yo-Yo Ma wasn't talking about playing perfectly, but rather he was talking about worrying about playing perfectly.  This is the critical self being too active, and at the wrong time.  There needs to be a balance of reflective, feedback-controlled performance and being in the moment.  The internal world of the performer is quite different from that of the listener, and while precision can certainly be impressive, and even expressive, what else is going on?  What really moves the listener?

I have serious doubts that anyone could move an audience by purposefully making mistakes.  Accuracy is certainly important, especially in European-style, classical music.  I also think that most audiences can tell the difference between feigned affectation ("flapping elbows") and an uninhibited performance.  What I'm getting at here is that it would be difficult to act as though the DLPFC is turned off, and that bad acting is fairly easy to spot.  Just as in a play or movie, bad acting draws the audience out of the experience; suspension of disbelief collapses.  Clearly, the affectations of the performer must be believable, or better yet, completely genuine.

A listener could be moved by sympathy for the performer.  We feel a connection to the tortured artist, or the brave hero.  The virtuoso has a certain superhero quality that we love.  Of course, listeners also have their own internal experience (i.e., baggage), and a great performance can allow a listener, through introspection, to access emotions that are purely their own.  A combination of external sympathy and internal emotions would be a satisfying concert indeed!

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), we do not have the technology for biofeedback-based practice in the technique of turning off the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.  Perhaps the best advice really is to "let go," especially as it relates to concerns about what the audience is experiencing.  This is easier said than done, and best achieved through disciplined development of technique and interpretation.  When skill and experience converge, the performer might gain access to higher levels of expression.  While the discipline itself can certainly be taught, the performer must experience these higher levels on their own.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Hidden Art of the Master

I'm currently reading the newest book by Jonah Lehrer, Imagine.  Although I haven't finished it yet, I can already heartily recommended it.  It is beautifully researched and deeply insightful.  Buy it here:

Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer

Among the book's many topics that are connected to the subject of this blog, the following excerpt from a Yo-Yo Ma interview (from The New Yorker, with David Blum in 1989) appears on pp. 86-87:

    "I knew the music inside and out.  While sitting there at the concert, playing all the notes correctly, I started to wonder, 'Why am I here?  What's at stake?  Nothing.  Not only is the audience bored but I myself am bored.'  Perfection is not very communicative . . .  If you are only worried about not making a mistake, then you will communicate nothing . . .  You will have missed the point of making music, which is to make people feel something."

It is this realization that allows us to get on with uncovering the hidden art of the master musician.  We must free ourselves from fear and allow mistakes to happen without disturbing the creative flow.  Of course, this is only possible with a prerequisite level of high achievement, but there comes a point for letting go.