Friday, September 20, 2019

A Path To Juilliard

When several students start out and study with me, a question that comes up is how to prepare themselves for a major conservatory. I never think of my teaching in any format of leading to a goal like that, but more of self discovery and the ultimate potential of the student as an individual. But as of late I’m reflecting on a recent student I’ve had since junior high where he was basically a beginner- all the way to his graduation acceptance and enrollment at the Juilliard School. I’m always interested in the human condition and the pieces that lead to the present we create for ourselves. I reflect on the seven years I had with this student, from the trials and tribulations, to how he got to where he wanted to go. My family and his family decided to have dinner together and explore this “formula” for lack of a better word. In short, we found it takes a village. We found it takes an ultimate commitment in priority to the arts as religion. We found that it is much the parents heart and support, as it is the teachers output of tools and practice. But the thing that stuck out the most to me is the work of self discovery to become an artist at the youngest age possible. In other words to play drums great at any age you have to also learn about yourself. The head game, the soul game, the body game, all three as one. Of course I’m not implying there is any concrete formula that I can write down as a scientifically sound path from beginner to conservatory. But I will say this, if you’re focus is on being the best you, then any goal is possible!

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Zen And The Art Of Mentorship

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I had never thought the countless, painstaking hours in my father‘s auto repair shop would translate to the life skills needed to not only be an artist and musician, but a human being. Work ethic, ardency, patience, creativity, integrity, and determination, all leading to the transcendence of a running machine is a priceless experience we can apply to anyting. We seem to take for granted the importance of mentors in our lives. Especially today, with social media, YouTube and the sort of simulation disconnect, we seem to have lost real value in mentorship. I’ve been reflecting back on all my teachers- from my seventh grade band teacher to my high school English literature teacher, to all the music sages and coaches that I am so grateful to have learned from in my life. I’ve been fortunate enough to study with some of the greatest artists in the world. Joe Porcaro, who is basically the father of Studio drumming and percussion. To John Riley and Jeff Hamilton, who are simply masters at their craft- the art of jazz and improvisation. The Takeaway is something far deeper than tools and craft. It’s a human transmission of an art form that just can’t be conveyed through iPhone or computer screens. It’s literally a touch that you have to be there to feel, hear, and experience. It is very much like the Zen concept of “dharma-transmission” from a Zen master to a disciple. There is no other way to attain this knowledge and wisdom but through direct experience. For example… my time studying with Jeff Hamilton was not only a master class in jazz drumming, but ride cymbal sound and analysis. I must have went through hundreds of prototypes with Jeff trying to recreate the old "K" sound. Comparing them to vintage cymbals that Jeff owned and revered. Jeff definitely has a particular taste of sound in jazz rides. Fast forward 20 years later- I am in a drum shop in New York City going through tons of new rides, not paying any attention to brand, model, etc., only sound. After a painstaking search I bring a Bosphorus 22 inch ride to the counter for purchase. The clerk turns the cymbal upside down to show me that is is actually the "Jeff Hamilton Model" ride I picked out, with his signature right under the bell! Coincidence or divine transmission? You can decide. But If progress is ultimately at the source of any art form, than human to human transmission is something we should revere deeply and understand as a bedrock.
I know the value and truth mentorship has brought into my life and work. I simply would not be me without them.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Breakfast For The Gig

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Does what I had for breakfast last Monday have any affect on my performance Saturday night? An emphatic YES! We constantly hear the promoting of a holistic lifestyle. The things we eat, watch, read, and do in our spare time do affect our overall wellbeing as well as our performance.  Artists are known for either being too busy or not busy at all. We seem to have a pattern of doing whatever is necessary during busy times, i.e.- grab whatever to eat, skip meditation and exercise, stop reading, watching crap from any tube outlet, etc. And when we are not busy we “pull our life together” and work on our mental/emotional wellness… A sort of destruction creation pattern. How do we create consistency? How can we create a balance without degenerating in one direction or another? Life at times can feel like that old arcade game “Whac A Mole,” where you have to smash down the heads of the moles as they pop up. The Zen response to that game would be not to whack anything, but instead to do nothing. Let the moles come up and just observe. Is this concept adaptable to our performance life balance? Yes! Do nothing is the greatest asset we have to empower our lives. How does this work? Part of the pattern I have observed being a working musician is that we come home physically and emotionally exhausted from a performance, and the first thing we do is grab high calorie, nutrition-less food (and probably something naughty to drink) and fulfillment is attained! Or, just plop on to the couch and flip through channels so that every image a manipulative marketer wants engrained in us is at work. Thus assuming some sort of “decompressing” is taking place, when in actuality the opposite is happening. Now a mental habit is being created… Need crap to consume (whether media or food) to get by! How about do nothing until a “good choice” arises? But I know the doubts. Sitting and doing nothing is creepy! And if I sit still I may go crazy with my thoughts and feelings. Well, it clearly looks like you may have some internal work to do! Addressing our fears and emotions always leads to a greater level of being, awareness, and positive communication. These feeling that seem distracting are actually necessary seeds to deal through for growth. In our society we are expected to be (or just look) productive. What’s wrong with watching a bit of boob tube and eating crap? Plenty is wrong with that. Whether in the form of food or alcohol, refined sugar is an addictive drug (so is television!) that eats away the frontal lobe of the brain. The frontal lobe is responsible for everything from cognition, choice making, memory, and mood/emotional swings. I think for any human being, particularly an artist, you want this part of you functioning at the greatest capacity. So dropping down a pint of ice cream, or having a few drinks will definitely affect your future performances in some way. And the more a habit and addiction of consuming toxins is engrained, the more the quality of our output and lives are degenerated.

Negative media consumption is part and parcel with negative food consumption. We all respond to images and titles much deeper than we think. Think of the conscious mind as momentarily attaching to an object and pondering that object into the subconscious. That is how our cognition basically works. So if I am cruising the internet and flip by “10 Sexiest WHOEVERS of 2015,” I’m now attached to that message-pondering it whether I am aware or not, let alone interested or not. The message is engraining in my mind as societal importance. Instead I choose to search the web and consume myself with specific subjects of personal beneficial interests - like “The 10 Sexiest Module Synthesizers of 2015.” But for me, I much rather glance at a Jackson Pollack (or any artist’s) painting and ponder that affect in any direction. Even a drawing my 8 year-old daughter conceived is well enlightening, trying to understand what is being expressed and communicated with her mind and heart, and how that expression affects me. In an age of infinite choice and available information we must be deeply mindful of EVERTHING we consume. It affects every aspect of our lives and the whole.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Scripted Improvisation

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I am inquiring on improvisation- particularly as an instrumentalist musician, but hopefully this inquiry will be an adaptable discussion to all art forms. The definition of improvisation is obscurely stated as created without preparation. It seems in music there is a myriad of preparation to improvising, from learning chord changes and structure, to the years of mastering an instrument’s control. Craft and structure prep aside, I want to address the contradiction to this definition, which is at the core of the collectively accepted concept of musical improvisation. Preparing “licks” and phrases, and piecing them together in a premeditated way to create the narrative. I have difficulty resonating with the telos and concept of these solos that are collectively praised.  I call it the “The Circus Act!” The concept is a visual/aural super human ability that strings together pieces to woo an audience or listener. I accept this approach as a form of improvisation surely (a kind of “paint by numbers solo” whose painter’s skill to draw inside the lines are impeccable). But to me improvisational intent and concept should be based on a narrative with a risk and an unknown outcome. In other words instead of thinking in a pseudo-panoramic view as I usually tend to do, I think in terms of “I don’t know where this is going, but I trust a narrative will organically take place.” The risk involved in an improvised piece is paramount to authenticity. Can you discipline your mind during improv to be only as far forward as the concept you are creating at that moment, thus allowing a deeper connection to that concept which then organically directs you on to the next segment of the story. I think selflessness plays a huge role here. I can feel those Type-A musicians fear, not getting the “game winning lick” in. The sort of “Look what I can do!” part of the story- if not the whole story. The intent and telos should always maintain music as the only objective. Simply ask yourself “why is what I played musical?” And see if you can respond objectively to that question as opposed to narcissistically. Is what I played an expression of a crammed agenda, or an organic risked filled narrative? The narrative is what connects us to the human experience. Listening to an improvised solo I resonate deeply to a storied journey with a performer rather than a crowd cheering woo fest. It seems demeaning to take the transcendence of human expression in live performance and reduce it to a “circus act.” I much rather be awed by connection than awed by self-absorbed impressions.

Can we affect our lives by improvisational virtue? Can we stay in the moment, let it lead you, take risks, and let go of the outcome? When I do I am much more connected to my experience and others. I am free. It is my narrative. It is my practice.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Football Man

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“I’m a football man.” Says Sir Alex Ferguson, retired manager of the English Premier League soccer team Manchester Untied- arguably the greatest championship franchise in sports (for the record I’m a Liverpool FC fan.). This statement was in response to a question asking how to deal with all of the publicity of the team, players, politics, money, fans, etc. This statement strikes me deep. Mr. Ferguson is articulating the exact point of how he became the most successful manager of all time. His ability to maintain focus on the simple playful transcendence of the craft he loves and all it delivers in the human experience is the key to success. Being distracted by the fringes of politics and the ‘show biz’ of any craft only distances one away from divine performance and the goal (no pun intended) one truly seeks.

“I’m a music man.”

As a professional performer being a consummate artist is part and parcel. Understanding and negotiating relationships, political ties, finance, presentation, and emotional intelligence is all part of being a professional artist. But what about craft? How is that affected? My output? What about the transcendence of music? What about my individual, expressive, therapeutic outlet? Remaining focused and connected to the divinity of the experience of being a performing artist is key. That connection can be a struggle at times. The path is growth. Growth is what is natural. The start of that path is focus. When we do not grow, not only are we in cross with nature, but also the artist in us starts to die. When that artist dies we are at the whim of our surroundings and toiles, and far away from the creative drive that propels us. We lose our touch with the divinity of what we are meant to do, and what we are ultimately expected to deliver as performers. Practice, practice, practice…  No matter how busy working I may be at times, I must find creative and technical practice time. My instrument speaks to me… Am I forcing? Am I unfocused? Am I impatient? Am I struggling with something outside of my playing affecting my performance et al? I find this only in the solitude of practice. The instrument answers these questions. I am then reminded what my work is truly about, returning to the stage anew- undistracted, playful transcendence.

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Monday, September 9, 2013

Some of my favorite sentiments on music...

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Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.

Without music, life would be a mistake.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Music doesn't lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.
Jimi Hendrix

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.
Victor Hugo

I think music in itself is healing. It's an explosive expression of humanity. It's something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we're from, everyone loves music.
Billy Joel

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.
Aldous Huxley

Music is everybody's possession. It's only publishers who think that people own it.
John Lennon

Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.
Lao Tzu

Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us.
Martin Luther

Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.
Ludwig van Beethoven

Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.

Music is my religion.
Jimi Hendrix

It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature and everlasting beauty of monotony.
Benjamin Britten

Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.
Berthold Auerbach

Music can change the world because it can change people.

Music is the shorthand of emotion.
Leo Tolstoy

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Instrument Practice And Us

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Daily instrument practice really means more to our personal growth and wellness than simply having greater veracity on an instrument. As a professional musician practice time can be scarce. “We practice on the gig” as they say. The truth is the solitude needed for a true connection to practice is best done in the practice room, away from anyone else. It is a sensory meditation of sorts. The sound of your own instrument speaks to you. It tells you every bit of information you need. Just the single stroke of a cymbal hit and its resonance can be therapeutic. How does the cymbal sound? How am I reacting to it today? Where then does it direct me musically? As we play we must listen to ourselves intently. I want to be clear about the idea of listening to ourselves, not to be confused with judging ourselves as we play. That is the mental/emotional trap all artists fall into. Playing is output time. When we play if we listen without judgment our stream of consciousness will direct us and our performance output will be optimal. If we judge ourselves it only hinders the flow. The hindrance comes from the notion that we only have so much mental capacity, and all of it must be on the experience of creating music. When we choose to split of mental energy into judgments of our playing, we are not creating and growing at our optimum. There is plenty of time to criticize ourselves to improve. Recording devices do just fine. Even just reflecting on a performance after the performance is a helpful tool for improvement. But we must honor the power of music with our greatest focus and being to serve when playing. We serve not only for others listening, but for ourselves. The service to ourselves is about our spiritual expression and growth as a human being. If mental occupation is all you seek out of instrument study there are better devices out there designed to focus on just that. Playing music is an infinitely greater experience that challenges the whole of our being. Playing music is an expression and communication of emotional and transcendent connections between us and others, as well as us to ourselves. Back to daily practice- How and what we are playing is what connects and communicates to the transcendence of our life beyond the instrument play. For example, when I practice if I notice that I am clenching the sticks, it definitely has a relationship with my life. Perhaps I am fixating on something unhealthily, or afraid to let go of something. Just like I would choke my flow and sound clenching the stick too tight, I choke out the flow in my life by fixating or not letting go of something. Then there’s the practice session where I am a franticly forcing things in, and not letting a flow of ideas stream, even if I am technically sound and relaxed. I explore where in my life does this notion of forcing things persist? Where am I forcing something that just doesn’t fit my path? Our music practice and life are one in the same. Both interrelate to affect our sound performing, and daily experience. I have worked with countless students, from the young to professional colleagues on this concept and see their playing and life (as mine), change for the positive instantly. Art is life. Never forget that we play music for that which transcends us. The growth and exploration is infinite, the power to transform us a divine gift.