Blog Entries

Why We Play Music

October 21st, 2015


I was sitting backstage in the greenroom of a venue this past Saturday getting ready to walk on stage for the first time in almost a year when the question “Why do we play music?” popped into my head. This wasn’t a moment of crisis, not an “Oh, why, why do I play music?”, but just one of those thoughts that drifts through your head when you are trying to clear your mind. Driving home from the performance, reflecting over the good, the bad, the ugly, and those unexpected moments that reached the audience, I returned to this question. Why, in fact, do we do this music thing? I ask this because doing it well is really, really – oh heck let’s add in another – really challenging.

So, I dug back into my library of books and interviews looking for insights on why we are compelled to plop ourselves on stages, in front of microphones, and cameras to make sounds for a group of people.  Here’s my takeaway: Music allows us to connect with people in a meaningful, authentic, and at times, intimate way, often without words.   And, whether you are listening to it, writing it or in my case playing it, we all have to get out of our own way to engage with it.

The first part of this is perhaps the most exciting and creative. I get to gather a collection of pieces to share with others, I go into my musical vault of wondrousness and choose what stories I am going to tell, which feelings I am going to explore.  The performer becomes a musical curator, the brown coat and cap are optional.   Then the work begins where I get to “know” each piece and solidify an approach to each work.  I am lucky enough to become a sonic tour guide and advocate for what I choose to play, and if I’ve done my job, the individual spectator forgets where they are for a few moments and they’re connected together into an audience sharing a sonic experience with me and each other.  That’s a pretty good day’s work.

The latter part of this takeaway statement, for me, is the biggest challenge.  I say that because as I was in the middle of the first half of my program, this past weekend, I heard this little tiny voice offering free commentary on what was happening in real time. Don’t worry I haven’t decided to become Puppet Show and Zane Forshee, me on stage with a wise cracking ventriloquist’s dummy.  Actually, the closest thing I can relate this inner monologue to is if you’ve ever tried to meditate and found, once seated, that your mind is bouncing from one thing to the next whilst trying to focus, simply, on breathing.  It’s amazing to witness and even more fascinating to experience on stage before an audience.  Critics can be tough but that little narrator is brutal.  It’s the kind of self-sabotage we need to let go, as Timothy Gallwey and Barry Green discussed in their book The Inner Game of Music. Basically we are all hard on ourselves, but when you’re putting yourself and a composer’s hopes out there it can reach another level.

On my self-imposed literary hike I rediscovered an interview with Evelyn Glennie from the Mastery of Music by Barry Green. Eveyln’s approach really puts things into perspective:

“I have to believe and to be one hundred percent committed to the music—to what I feel at that particular moment. There is no holding back. I have to just do it consistently. It is just a way of life. I cannot let the music overwhelm me.  I know this because in recent years I have been learning how to ride a motorbike. At first it was one of the scariest things I had done in ages, and suddenly one day, I just thought, now I’m riding the bike. I’m in control of the bike as opposed to the bike controlling me. It was something that just happened and it wasn’t forced. It needs to become a part of me…It is much better for me to create the sound, rather than stepping back and observing it. It is the control aspect of knowing what I want, and this is what gives me satisfaction.”

Regarding live concerts and audiences she goes on to say:

“I can’t get them to all feel the same way. It’s just like going to a restaurant and everyone ordering the same exact meal. Some may eat more quickly than others, others may mix the vegetables in a different way, and in different combinations. So the meal will not taste the same to everyone. It is the same way in a concert. They come into the hall with all different reasons as to why they are there—some coming from work, some curious, some percussionists, some friends of the composer, some who had a crisis at home—this stuff in life all affects how they digest this music. Even the sound of my drums will not register the same to the people sitting in the balcony as to those sitting close to the stage. All I can do is be honest…and serve the best dish possible.”

Evelyn makes some great points, and offers an honest approach about what a performer can (and should) choose to focus on while in performance.

I couldn’t have revisited these ideas at a better time as I’m setting up to perform a new program of pieces by living composers for the Livewire New Music Festival.  I have dodged the laser beams, passed the retinal scan and pushed my palm into the goop that takes finger prints – all to get into my safe of great music which is incidentally located in the musical vault of wondrousness, I could turn all of the anti-theft devices off but I have to get my cardio in somehow. . .  With that done I’m preparing a riotous collection of works by Linda Dusman, David Revill, Ingram Marshall, & Ronald Pearl and with any luck I’ll get out of my own way so that the pieces have the opportunity to connect with the people who gather to hear them.  For me to perform a piece is to bring it to life, for many composers their work only lives when it is played.  The notes cannot just sit on the page, or screen, but need to be heard, whether it is fleetingly in a live concert or repeatedly on a favourite recording. As Glennie says everyone will take something different away from the event and I hope that there is a flavor in there that each and every person in the audience will enjoy.  I have to say that I think music just adds something good to the everyday, and being someone who can help deliver it is pretty darn cool.

Perhaps Frank Zappa summed it up best: “Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid.”

Yeah, Frank, that’s why we play music. That’s why.

Addition & Subtraction

October 5th, 2015


It’s been months since my last post and there’s a good reason for that—my family has expanded (like the galaxy). Where there were two, not including the cats, there are now three. Gravity has accordingly shifted and so we spin around our beautiful daughter, adapting and learning whilst trying to find the ‘how to’ guide we are sure she came with. This small addition has equalled a subtraction, “free time” has become the most elusive of commodities. In fact, this moment to return to my blog is being accomplished through that special gift known as jury duty. If only there was coffee available…

Here’s my big artistic discovery from the arrival of this new life form called my child: Addition and Subtraction. If you ever gave yourself a timetable or worked by a schedule as an artist, you can say goodbye to that structure in terms of time. The days of quietly contemplating a piece, gently pulling it apart, and plotting your approach while sipping a coffee have ended. We’ve gone rogue, guerrilla style missions move everything forward, time is snatched and intensity is everything. The work doesn’t change, you still think about it, worry about it, and labor at it…constantly. But you have these ah-ha moments in unexpected places, at least I do – like the produce aisle at the grocery store, while folding tiny baby clothes, or pushing the small earthling in their stroller. It’s really amazing how the subtraction of opportunity occurs but the addition of necessity allows you to get the work done, just differently. Clawing my way to the practice chair now happens at any and all hours. Each session looks different and if there isn’t a coffee propping me up, the work may not get done. I should buy stock in Bustelo. The only thing guaranteed, these days, is that I’m going to change diapers, read “Goodnight Moon” out loud (which everyone should read a few times), and that my practicing is going to be fragmented across the day, week, and month. All I can say is I make a lot of notes—musical bookmarks are my friend.

As a student one of my instructors told me “You don’t understand how busy you’re going to be if you get to do this for a job.” I should have had that tattooed on my arm and read it each morning as I got up at, what I thought of at the time as, a hellishly early 9:30am. Was this man a sage, a psychic, was I having a Marty McFly moment? No—he’s the bass trombone player who taught me conducting and orchestration (and he had 2 kids). I should send him a gift just for having had to watch me fumble around with that baton for an entire year. Let’s build him a low brass shrine.

So, after many sleepless nights, poopy diapers, crock pot meals, baby meltdowns, 2 Fret Fests in one semester, jury duty, and thoughts like: “How am I ever going to play again?” I’m back at it and slogging out the practice sessions getting ready to perform and record with the support and coordination of my mighty spouse, Susan. As the concert season begins, I’m excited to have the chance to be back on stage and to share a whole new pile of works in concert. To quote the great Steven Tyler, whose father was a piano tuner btw, “I’m back in the saddle again.” Addition and Subtraction…it’s a whole thing.

6th Annual Fret Festival at Peabody Preparatory

February 28th, 2015

The Fret Festival is back in full force with a concert by world-renowned guitarists SoloDuo headlines the Peabody Preparatory Department’s sixth annual Fret Festival, which welcomes guitar enthusiasts to learn and perform together. Fret Festival features high school ensemble coaching, jazz improvisation and Brazilian guitar workshops, a master class taught by acclaimed concert and recording artist and Conservatory Guitar Department Chair Julian Gray, a young guitarist’s showcase, and more on Sunday, March 1, 2015.

The daylong celebration of the guitar does offer something for everyone with nine workshops throughout the day. The youngest guitarists will have the opportunity to learn music fundamentals like rhythm and note identification and to learn about how guitars are constructed with a guitar-building workshop led by renowned local Luthier David Pace. Older guitar enthusiasts will enjoy a sense of musical adventure with Echo: a flute and guitar duo who plays their own arrangements of piano music. High school ensembles will receive coaching sessions, attend workshops led by renowned guitarists Danielle Cumming and Scott Borg, and will perform at the Guitar Ensemble Concert.

Be there!!!!!

Bob Dylan Wrecked My Christmas

December 22nd, 2014

Silent NightThe Tuesday before Thanksgiving I had the chance to hear one of my all time musical heroes, Bob Dylan, live in concert for the first time. It was an interesting experience attending his performance after so many years of listening to his recorded work because every song performed that evening was “re-imagined.”   That’s a nice way of saying you couldn’t figure out what tune it was until he hit the hook of the chorus. I knew this would be the case going into the concert but thought, “Those who weren’t able to catch it right away clearly weren’t serious fans of Mr. Dylan.” Let’s be honest, there are Dylan fans and then there are Dylan fans. I pitch my tent in the second camp and still there I was sitting with 2,000+ guests slowly figuring out what he was playing.

The concert became more and more fascinating as each song quietly revealed itself to the listener, like a child unwrapping a present. The audience repeatedly had this realization, through each song, where they found their musical bearings. The closest thing I can liken it to would be running into an old friend you’ve lost touch with in an airport, in a different city from the one you live, on the way to place you’ve never been. Dylan’s concert created that sense of surprise, confusion, familiarity, and warmth for two hours.

Driving home from Washington, DC that evening, I thought about that sense of the unfamiliar with the familiar. The delight audience members felt when they figured out just what it was they were enjoying and then, it wrecked my Christmas song.

So, here’s my holiday greeting to you (Click here). Much like Bob’s concert, the familiar hook of the song  “Silent Night” will emerge but you’ll have to wait for it.

Here’s a hint:

ƚʜǫin ƚnɘliƨ silent night

Wishing you and those closest to you Happy Holidays & New Year!

Eat the Frog

November 3rd, 2014
Arriving to Record

Arriving to Record

I was driving in the car a few weeks ago while thinking about how I wasn’t managing to practice everything on my plate. I was preparing for recording sessions in October and getting ready for several days in front of the microphones had proved challenging. Thoughts chugging along in my head, I flipped on the radio and heard an interview on Tech Nation (NPR) with behavioral neuroscientist Daniel Levitin about his book “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.” While Levitin is a scientist, he’s also a musician and this caught my interest.  What struck me was something that the author mentioned in passing. Levitin said, “Eat the Frog,” was a mantra around his house. The idea being this: if you have something difficult to take care of, work to do this task (or in my case tasks) first and then it’s off your plate. Ah, the return of  Dwight D. Eisenhower’s age old battle between the Urgent and the Important.

Hard at Work!

Hard at Work!

Armed with this frog consumption concept, I returned to my work and reevaluated my approach.  Behold, a revelation, I was arriving to the guitar too late in the day. After a few tweaks to my schedule and a bit more morning coffee, I managed to work on the difficult pieces first thing each day. What was most interesting about this, to me, was that while some practice sessions were better than others, my view of my progress was more positive. I felt “on track” towards my goal and this left me more motivated to continue working. The end result was a very successful run of recording sessions (yep–new album coming in 2015), and I finished the work feeling ready to dive into the next set of challenges.

If you want to find out more about the origins of this frog eating concept, click here.