About Me

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

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Learning to Write with the Non-dominant Hand

I set a number of goals for myself in the past 12 months.  Some were boring jobs around the house.  Others were challenging, such as performing a Bach cello suite, or learning to circular breathe on the flute (more on that soon!).  The most profound exercise turned out to be something that had a practical purpose, and very unexpected results.

As a professor, I sometimes have to write a lot.  I'm a lefty, and my hand gets tired.  I had often considered how helpful it would be to be able to write with my right hand, so that I could switch back and forth.  Early attempts were illegible and frustrating, so I had basically given up.  At the end of May, I decided that it was time to get serious.

Repurposed cigar box and cursive template
I started very slowly, trying to copy the block-printing style that I use with my left hand.  I've been printing since middle school, basically because my cursive was messy and I got a lot of criticism, from one teacher in particular.  As I relearned with my right hand, I realized that developing a different style of cursive was going to be easier than simply trying to copy my left-handed style.  Pens like to be pulled, not pushed.  As a lefty, it is challenging to get a good flow of ink because you are always pushing the pen away from the hand and towards the right side of the paper.  A typical lefty solution is "over-writing," where the hand curls above the pen.  In this way, the pen can be pulled back towards the hand.  The downside to this technique is that it puts the hand in an uncomfortable position and it can be fatiguing.  With the right hand, one can simply pull the pen towards the hand and flow to the edge of the paper - at least if you happen to be writing in a western language, of course!

So, I decided to learn a new-to-me style of cursive with my right hand.  I went back to the old penmanship charts that grade school children use, but I didn't really like the way some of those letters looked.  I figured that, if I was going to do this, I should develop a font that I really like.  I was starting from scratch anyway, so why not really go for it.  In short order, I found myself looking at all sorts of calligraphy.  I've never been a big fan of gothic writing.  I much prefer the less formal handwriting of the 18th century.  Soon, I found myself with a flex nib fountain pen, trying to copy handwriting samples of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and even John Hancock's eponymous "John Hancock."  I also ended up looking at an 18th century manual for the self-taught gentleman, George Fisher's The Instructor.

A modified "Italian Hand" based on The Instructor

After several months of daily practice, I'm thrilled with the results.  I'm not sure how practical it will be to write comment sheets in 18th century calligraphy, but I've developed a skill that is also a hobby.  I've also felt some neurological and physical benefits from this practice.  On the saxophone, I have always struggled with the weakness of my right hand, at least when compared to my left.  The work with handwriting has given me noticeable increases in strength and dexterity with my non-dominant hand.  This was totally unexpected, but a very welcome side effect!

If I can learn to do this, anyone can.  Penmanship was an area where I was clearly designated as untalented.  With slow, daily practice, I have turned a weakness into a strength.  The experience makes me think about other weaknesses, and how I could find novel ways of turning them into strengths by harnessing the power of the Practice Monster.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Jazz: We're Doing It Right

If you are a jazz fan, a jazz musician, or a student of jazz, you have probably noticed several prominent articles about the music in the recent press.  These articles have been shared all over social media, and I'd rather not single one out, or drive any further traffic to their sites, as I suspect these articles are mainly "click bait."  However, I would like to put my opinion in writing.

What's Wrong With Jazz?

Good question.  The answer is "nothing."  Jazz is alive and well.  The music is doing what it has always done.  It is evolving with changes in instrument technology, recording techniques, and distribution methods.  Jazz is establishing connections with music from around the world, and reaching back to its roots.  It is vibrant, diverse, and interesting.  If you like jazz, there is something happening right now that you will like.  You might need to hunt a little to find exactly what you are into, but it shouldn't be very difficult.  All sorts of fantastic jazz music is being made, all over the world.  Absolutely nothing is wrong with jazz, unless you don't like jazz, which I believe is the case with some of these recent authors.

How Can We Make People Like Jazz?

We can't.  Make your music and put it out there.  If you are making music for the right reasons, you shouldn't care about what people like.  Make the music that you love.  If you are making art that you believe in, you shouldn't care what people like.  People like crap.  They like things that are smooth and predictable.  They like familiarity and convenience.  Sure, sometimes I like crap too, but I don't want to spend my life making crap!  If you modify your art so that people will like it, you will end up making crap.

Gigs vs. Careers

Sometimes you need to make money.  Gig = job.  A job requires that you provide a service that people want.  A gig is a short-term way to get by.  Gigs mean playing pretty for the people.  I am in no way demeaning pop music, or pop art.  It has real value, and there are first-class artists out there that happen to make top notch pop.  Unfortunately, most pop is motivated by "what people like."  Remember, people like crap.  So, go ahead and play gigs, but remember that they are not going to feed your soul.  In fact, they might start sucking your soul away.  When that happens, quit playing gigs and get a day job.  Or get better gigs.

I make music that most people definitely do not like.  I play multiple notes at the same time.  I play as softly as I possibly can, and as loudly as the physics of the moment will allow.  I like to make melodies, but I also like to make noise.  I like organization masquerading as chaos.  I don't care what you like.  I'm not making music for you.  I make it because I have to - it is bubbling up inside me and it has to come out.  Sometimes I play gigs, and when I am performing in a professional setting, I make the music that is appropriate for the situation.  But when I am playing my own concert, I don't care what people will like.  I make the music that I believe in.

In terms of gigging, I am very good at playing styles.  I can play cocktail music, old school funk, and Bach.  I like all those things, and everything between, but I'm not the best in the world at any of those things.  I might get a gig playing one of those styles, but only on the level that I am offering a commodity.  When I play my own music, I am not only the best, I am also the only.  If you happen to like my strange recipe, you will only be able to get it from me.  In that way, I built a career.  I make honest music that most people find strange, but a few people like it, and they have to come to me to get it.

Like This, Love That

People like crap.  They tend to like things, binge on them, use them up, and move on.  I don't want you to like my music.  I want you to love my music.  Love is different.  It is easy to like something, but love is a commitment.  Love is special.  Love is lasting.  You can be tricked into liking something, but love takes time.  If you make something that a few people love, they will keep coming back.  They will give you their trust, and you will be able to make more of what you love.  When it comes to love, there are no shortcuts.

So, I reject all these silly articles about how jazz is "doing it wrong," and how it should change.  Jazz is doing fine, and as musicians, we should keep doing what we have always done.  Work hard, listen, and create with relentless integrity.  The rest will sort itself out.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Cursive is like jazz!

When I first started writing with my right hand (I'm lifelong lefty), the biggest challenge was figuring out how to hold the pen, and how to control the basic movements.  The results were totally illegible!  It took some slow and disciplined practice, writing individual letters on a grid.  The hardest work seemed to be making symmetrical curves and decent circles.

Daily practice has really paid off.  In a matter of weeks, my "wrong-handed" handwriting has become neater than my old writing.  It is slower, but slowing down has changed the way I think about writing.  I suspect that it is even changing the creative process.  I was thinking this morning about how different handwriting is from typing on a computer.  The writing itself becomes a creative process . . . an improvisation!  Things go wrong, letters come out unexpectedly, and the ink doesn't always flow the same way.  Lines appear thicker, or thinner.  All this is happening while a different part of the brain is controlling the content of the writing.  I'm starting to wonder if there are differences in that content, depending on which hand is being used.

Cursive capital letters have proved to be the most difficult for me, and I've even had some challenges figuring out what style of letters to use.  Capital F is particularly interesting, and I'm starting to find that the style of letter depends upon the context itself, and that the decision comes intuitively, in the moment.  Cursive is a lot like jazz!

This process has reminded me of two very important points.  First, you can teach yourself to do just about anything, provided that you are willing to put in the time.  The secondary takeaway is more of a reminder that processes that are slow and thoughtful tend to become more personal.  Computers are wonderful at making things fast and easy, but there is value to be found in doing things by hand, and that includes the ancient art of writing.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Learning to Write Right (handed)

I, am not right-handed!  It took around a month of daily practice, but it almost feels normal to write with my right hand.  Slow and steady . . .

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Study Versus Practice - The Practice of Being Studious

This YouTube excerpt from Bret Primack's excellent episode of "The Hang" brings to mind an important lesson that I learned from Yusef Lateef.  He would frequently talk about the importance of being studious, and that practice alone was not enough to create an interesting career in music.  The entire episode is worth watching, but this excerpt with Adam Rudolph will give the general idea.

Study is a very important part of the life of a musician, and it can take many forms.  Music theory and history are both vital, but we can learn much from studying the lives of composers and performers.  Philosophy, world history, visual and performing arts, science, and mathematics are all part of music.  Yusef would say that music is just one aspect of culture, and to really grasp it, you should study the whole culture.

Here are some ideas for simple ways to incorporate the practice if being studious into your music life.

Young classical musicians tend to immediately delve into their own part without spending any time studying the full score.  Whether the piece is for soloist with accompaniment, or some kind of collaborative composition, the score holds answers that are unavailable in the part alone.

Whenever I perform a concerto, I request a photocopy of the full score.  I study it carefully, looking for anything that will help my performance, or interpretation.  I mark it up with a highlighter.  I make notes in the solo part, such as "unison with the trumpet," or "listen for tympani."  Just because you have a solo part, you don't always have the melody.  I will bracket parts that are accompaniment to the melody, if it is not in my own part.

When meeting with the conductor, or the collaborative musician/s, bring the score along.  Talk about your decisions.  I like to tell the conductor, "I'd like to slow down here," or "Please give me a strong cue at this spot."  This kind of work makes everything go more smoothly, saving time (time = money).

Music usually has a story.  Was it written for someone in particular?  Is it from some larger work?  Was it originally written in the form that you are performing, or is it transcribed from a different version?  Is it programmatic, or activist in nature?  There are many questions that, if answerable, will give you greater depth of understanding.

If the piece was written for a particular soloist, find a recording of that person performing it.  Make notes, especially if the performance differs from the score.  A good example for saxophonists are the errors in the published version of Tableaux de Provence, by Paule Maurice.  An attentive listening to Marcel Mule's famous recording will immediately illuminate some incorrect articulations in the first movement of the score/part, among other issues.

Was the piece written during a particular period, and is it in-line with what one might expect, or is it different?  The music of Darius Milhaud is a great example of work that was influence by jazz, but not in a heavy-handed way.  La Création du Monde is inseparable from 1920s Parisian culture, and the influence of Le Hot.  An authentic performance of this work requires a broader understanding of what was happening in Paris, in New York, and in the world.

  • ASK "WHY"
When you cannot play that note quietly, ask "Why?"  When you cannot get that note in-tune, ask "Why?"  If a note sounds strange with the accompaniment, ask "Why?"  Never simply accept that something is difficult.  That is just being lazy, or at least complacent.

Searching for the answers will require lessons with experts.  It will require reading books.  You will talk to your peers, read articles in journals, listen to recordings, and search the internet for clues.  Improvement begins with asking "Why?"

Study is not practice, but it should be a part of your overall routine.  Make time to read books, to watch documentaries, and to hang out with experts.  Buy someone lunch in exchange for picking their brains on a subject that they have mastered.  Schedule your time to study scores, and set aside time to analyze repertoire that you are working on.

Studiousness is a characteristic of master artists.  They are often experts on subjects beyond the ones that they are known for.  The act of studying tends to leak into other areas of one's life, resulting in painters that are also excellent chefs, musicians that are painters, and painters that are wine experts.  Study in your discipline will also influence your hobbies, and that will make you a more unique and interesting individual.

Practice, and study well!