Musings and thoughts during the winter
I just wrapped up the busy part of the school year. "How busy was it?" So busy that when I knew things were serious between me and Lisa, I warned her that she might not see me for five weeks during the month of January and February because of concerts, contests, and festivals. She said: "no problem, I usually give a lot of talks and presentations during the same time." Perfect! Let's buy a house together!
photo by Anna Jones Photography
Having someone in my life that laughs, loves, and challenges me brings a lot of much needed balance. Left on my own, I’d only see the world through my lens; seeing it through Lisa’s eyes invites so much more perspective. Our common artistic language but unique fields allow for inspiring insight. The conversations at our kitchen table spark a lot of creativity. But our relationship isn’t all work and career, it’s love, life, and family. A lot of balance and support…and it’s all worth it.
Recently, someone asked me about the effects I use on my saxophone. I first used guitar pedals on my saxophone in the early 90’s; anything that my friends would loan me. I got out of them for a while but then returned to them in 2001. I started with a Boss VF-1. From there, I added and subtracted pedals. I got to a point where I could have played a kazoo through the board and it would have sounded the same 🤣 Besides the sonic texture, I also found that some of the pedals were playing me…like the AdrennaLinn for example; I was just playing whole notes and the pedal was doing everything else. I stripped things down to a reverb and delay pedal. My rig now is a VocoLoco, Timeline delay, and SLO reverb. The Strymon Timeline has the options I want without getting in the way and the Walrus Audio SLO is so great but I feel like I use only a fraction of what it can do. My favorite feature on the SLO is the sustain button; I feel that it’s really expressive and allows for some creative textures.
Understand just enough. You don’t have to have it all figured to get started. In fact, you might not start if you’re too busy figuring it out. Music is my analogy for everything and there’s no wrong way to get started with music. Do you only know a few notes? Great, play every song you can with those notes. Do you only know a few chords? Do everything you can with those chords? Songs? Same thing. The answer is always found in the music and the only way to get the answer is to play the music. Music is a full-contact sport; it’s not an activity for someone on the bench. So get started. Doesn’t matter how…just do it now.
Making the best of a situation
I was talking about improvisation to my students recently and I said: “when an idea doesn’t go as planned, you’re truly improvising” When I was in high school, I begged my parents to buy me a book on music from the bookstore in the mall. The book was mostly blank manuscript paper but the first part of the book contained a musical dictionary. In the forward was a quote from Quincy Jones, that I can’t remember word for word, but he said that everyone should learn jazz and improvisation because it helps you navigate life when things don’t go as planned. That’s so true! Just like music, all improvisation starts with rules and boundaries, not because limits are bad but because you need to know where the edge of the sandbox is so you can play in it…and throw sand out of it if you want to. Once you know the rules, you can work within them. Don’t see them as limits; don’t try to work outside of the box. Follow the advice of Twyla Tharp in her book The Creative Habit: Think inside the box. Be so comfortable with the rules that you don’t think about them. And that way, when it rains on your concert, you continue playing in the rain. Stay positive, stay optimistic, and remember that I’m rooting for you.
ENGLISH @ The Gaslamp, Des Moines February 2022
“Do you have your boys?” That was the question and the indirect advice that Dave Liebman gave Donny McCaslin upon moving to New York City. The story was told when the interviewer brought up the idea of being a soloist versus being in a band and why one might be better than the other because it’s very common for some musicians to never be a member of a band; they just exist as a musician-for-hire. Donny McCaslin went on to say that Dave Liebman’s advice was very important because having a band meant that you could workshop song ideas every week with the same musicians. This idea was echoed in an a recent interview of Pat Metheny with Rick Beato. When Pat Metheny got his first record deal he assumed that he would use musicians on the ECM label but it was his mentor Gary Burton that said to him: “Don’t you have a band? You’ve got that bass player…Jaco?” I have to stop here and say that I think it’s important for every musician to look out for themselves and their career. But with that said, always realize that you never really do it on your own. Anyone actively doing something got there with the help of others. Brian Eno strongly argues against the idea of a genius and instead insists that anyone creative comes out of a scene or scenius. It’s all about collaboration and most importantly, your ability to collaborate. What I mean by that isn’t just accepting everything thrown at you but what you bring to the situation. Anytime I play with any band, I am trying to be that band’s best saxophone player; that’s all…I’m not thinking beyond that moment. That way, I’m going to do my best for those musicians on those songs in that moment. It keeps my ego in check, my anxiety in check, my gratitude, and my empathy; all in check. Being in a band is having each other’s back at all times. When things go right or wrong, we’re doing it together. Do you have your boys? Your girls? Who’s got your back? Who are you working your ideas out with? Who’s keeping you in check?
Dr. Koplow & MLK
Sometimes, we’re close to our mentors. Like Dr. Koplow, my undergraduate music theory professor. Sometimes, we don’t personally know our mentors or even live at the same time, like Dr. Martin Luther King. But all mentors have something in common. They guide us. They give us work to do that we don’t always understand. They see potential in us that we don’t see in ourselves. They are wise and they are sometimes flawed. They ask us to find our voice to speak the truth. They have experiences and stories that we find hard to believe but through each one, they allow us to create our own experiences and stories.
When everyone else at school wanted to toughen me up and have me experience the hardships of life, Dr. Koplow (pronounced Cop-low) was incredibly kind and welcoming. The first day of class, he told us all how he didn’t know how to read until he was about 8 or 9. I think it was his way of saying: “I’m going to help you learn music theory regardless of your current ability.” He was never one to simply tell you information; he would occasionally demonstrate it. Like the time he ran across the room, leaped into the air, crashed into the door, and slid to a stop to help us visualize an appoggiatura; a non-harmonic tone that is approached by a leap and resolved by a step.
The manuscript in the photo is from his composition Sonata in Memoriam—Martin Luther King, Jr for Viola and Piano. I needed one more piece to play on my senior recital. Not one to take the easy route, I focused on tenor saxophone in undergrad and there’s not a lot of classical music written for the tenor sax. Dr. Koplow said to me in the hall one day, “why don’t you transcribe this for tenor saxophone. I think the range of the viola would work nicely…of course, you’ll need to find a solution for the double-stops.” I spent quite a bit of time working on it only to not play it. Despite my enthusiasm, I ran out of time to make my proposal for my senior recital and had to substitute it with another piece. That in itself was a lesson.
Dr. Koplow’s teachings stay with me to this day. He’s why I teach. He’s why I’m patient. He’s why I remember to laugh.
what I practice
Long tones starting in the middle of the horn
Book: Path to Altissimo by Ben Wendel
Playing the range of the saxophone: three octaves
Bach: Partita in upper octave
Take a break
7th chords the range of the horn
Practicing should be challenging and familiar
Book & online audio: Iconic Lines by Janek Gwizdala
Learning by ear
Not looking for the answer but finding the answer
If I can sing it, I got it
Taking your time
Using your theory brain to get you back to playing
Getting the language into your playing
Two months ago, I tested positive for COVID. It wasn't fun at all. Despite being vaccinated and boosted, I still got it; the reality of being a school teacher. The first week, I did nothing...really...nothing. Watching TV wore me out. The second week was a little better because Lisa bought me a book to read. Will COVID gifts become a thing? I sincerely hope not. Despite my fatigue, I burned through all 300 pages of Dave Grohl The Story Teller in a few days. Great tales about being a human and a musician. My favorite chapter: having to make a decision to play drums for Tom Petty or give his on songs a go. Read it for yourself.
And...if you have Disney+, every musician should watch The Beatles: Get Back. "Why?" "Because" but also so because it is a checklist of what every band should do:
Communicate...even when it's uncomfortable
Play a lot of songs...your songs...other peoples songs
Hear each other out and be nice...the idea might be silly but give it a shot anyway
Accept that the process will take longer than expected
Don't get caught up in the details
Other people will have an opinion...sometimes it matters and sometimes it doesn't
Have a work ethic
Show up every day
Don't confuse silliness with lazyiness...they are two completely different things
Play in-tune and in-time all of the time...treat every run-through like it's going to appear on the album
As always, thanks for reading. Sign up for newsletters and show announcements, follow me on Instagram, take care of yourself and one another.