Music is Your Friend For Life

I often tell my young students “if you make friends with music now, music will be your friend for life”. At least in my own life, I have found this to be true. I have considered music to be my close friend for more than forty years now. Of course like any long friendship, it’s complicated. Music is very demanding! There are times when I think we are working beautifully together, and times when I wish music would just do what I want it to and stop complaining. Music is often elusive, difficult, temperamental. In the end we never truly know music any more than we truly know other people.

When you are first learning music you often feel inadequate. Music can seem tedious, moody, even cruel. You have to work hard to deepen this relationship. Eventually, it helps you to explore the inner structure of music. Then you may become so close that each of you knows what the other is thinking. In this way, you develop empathy with the music, with your fellow musicians, and your audience. In some strange way, music seems to have empathy with you. It has accepted you as a friend.

Like any long friendship, my friendship with music has gone through a number of distinct phases. Sometimes we have only seen each other rarely for long periods. Sometimes I wanted to spend more time with music than I was able to. Other times I felt like it was best for us to spend some time apart for a while. Then we would go through intense periods where we would see each other every day. At these times the relationship grew stronger and deeper. Even at the worst of times, we never lost touch.

Now that music is also my business partner again, after a long time off, the friendship is in yet another phase. The music business is even more difficult than music itself! Still, I’m happy to report that we are getting along better than ever. I feel that when I teach I am paying music back for everything it has given to me, by introducing it to young people, people who may find that they love it too.

We’re hanging out on Saturday night. You should stop by.

Thelonious Monk

The story of Thelonious Monk is a story of contradictions. A musical revolutionary who lived long enough to be considered old-fashioned. A man with a reputation for erratic behavior who was also a devoted husband and father. A piano player who’s seemingly primitive technique belied his true mastery of the instrument. A writer of songs that are often deceptively complex or else deceptively simple. Forever holding these contradictions in an uneasy balance was Monk himself, and his story is ultimately about his own persistence.

Robin Kelley’s definitive biography of Monk, a massive, incredibly researched labor of love, does a lot to puncture the mythology surrounding Monk’s life and work. In addition to Monk’s own internal contradictions, we see how his image and mythology conflicts with the reality of the man. Often described as lacking in formal musical training, he actually had a thorough and sophisticated musical education. Notorious for being unreliable and late to gigs, he was often very professional and hard-working. Mythologized as The High Priest of Bebop, he left that music’s scorching tempos behind in favor of his own medium tempo explorations. Monk’s music ultimately doesn’t sound like anyone else.

Contributing greatly to Monk’s difficulties was his mental illness, probably bipolar disorder, which was poorly understood and treated. People are fascinated by mental illness in artists, while tending not to give a damn about it in the general population. Certainly it is hard to separate Monk’s illness from his personality. However it is hard to argue that mental illness helped Monk’s music career. In fact, it severely hampered his ability to produce music, to maintain his grueling performance schedule, and handle his business.

The book also exposes the conflict between the artistic expectations of critics and the public, and the reality of life as a working musician. Sometimes appallingly misunderstood by critics early in his career, portrayed as atonal, unskilled, and inscrutable, ignored by the public, Monk lived long enough to be derided as predictable and nostalgic by the same critics, even as the public adored him. Later in his life, the jazz press wondered why he didn’t write more new songs, why he still played the same tunes all the time. But where was the time to compose or rehearse a band when Monk was the sole breadwinner for his family, constantly touring, hampered by physical and mental illness? In fact, even though Monk achieved every musician’s dream, traveling the world, making records, being recognized for his genius, he always struggled financially. Monk didn’t make a steady living until his forties, and never made enough to be truly secure.

Ultimately Monk never solved these contradictions, instead holding them in an uneasy balance seemingly through sheer force of will. The true unity that emerges from this story is that of Monk’s music itself. One thing everyone who played with Monk agreed on was that he was a great teacher, and that the lesson came not so much from what he said as from simply playing his music. Through these songs one becomes immersed in Monk’s unique concept. What seems strange and unpredictable suddenly reveals it’s irresistible internal logic. What initially sounds harsh and forbidding gradually opens to show an intense beauty within. Monk’s compositions are incredibly diverse, but they all sound unmistakably like their creator. In the end, it was Monk himself who held it all together.

The Jazz Loft Project

The Jazz Loft Project is a story told in fragments by disembodied voices. It is a successful work of art made from the ruins of a failed one, a complete work made from an intentionally incomplete one. It is the story of 2 equally obsessive men, photographer W. Eugene Smith, who made thousands of hours of reel-to-reel tapes at his New York City loft, including jam sessions with some of the greatest jazz artists, and Sam Stephenson, who discovered the archive decades later and produced the book and accompanying film (and website). Smith and Stephenson collaborated on the Jazz Loft Project, decades apart, without ever knowing each other. But this is a work with many authors, some of them unwitting. In addition to the tapes, Smith took thousands of photos of the goings-on in the street below in the flower district. These images together with the tapes create a portrait of a unique time and place in jazz history.

The jazz loft itself was the product of another failed obsession, Smith’s photo-essay of Pittsburgh. A famous photojournalist at Life magazine, severely wounded in WWII while working as a battlefield photographer, Smith quarreled with his superiors and eventually quit. Receiving a commission to create a portrait of Pittsburgh, he ended up taking thousands of photos, expanding the project far beyond it’s intended scope. Enthralled with the idea of creating a complete portrait of a city in pictures, Smith was attempting to do the impossible. Like Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a similarly incomplete attempt to embody a city in words and images, the project eventually collapsed under it’s own weight and uncertain structure. Telling a coherent story from all of these disconnected fragments proved too difficult. Breaking down emotionally and financially, Smith abandoned the project (and his family), living illegally at the flower district loft, covering every available space with photographs, and wiring the entire place with microphones. He recorded everything, not just music but conversations, radio shows, television sound, the sound of his cat and the sound of the street.

Jazz musicians both famous and obscure came to the loft, sometimes even living there, jamming after hours until early morning. The personnel and the music were free-flowing, unpredictable. Smith recorded everything, with remarkable sound quality, while quietly capturing the scene on his camera from the background. Thelonious Monk rehearsed his Town Hall big band there, and the recordings of him working on the arrangements with Hall Overton is one of the highlights of the project. Even in the so-called golden age of jazz, many of these great artists were struggling. Substance abuse took a terrible toll. Pianist Sonny Clark overdoses at the loft in a particularly harrowing scene. The loft’s resident drummer Ronnie Free, rescued from obscurity by his inclusion on the tapes, became an addict and ended up in the mental hospital before leaving town for good.

Jazz itself is revealed as a music of deep obsession. It is a music of incredible freedom and incredible precision. Smith clearly admired and related to these qualities in the music because of the improvisational approach and meticulous attention to detail he displayed in his own art. An art form requiring incredible dedication, with limited popularity and financial reward, jazz is the story of people who are willing to take enormous risks for the life they choose. Jazz was created in the crucible of these endless jam sessions, these experiments in spontaneous collaboration. The Jazz Loft Project is a work of archaeology, of reconstruction from bits of disconnected evidence. Like jazz, it attempts to create something permanent out of these fleeting moments. Like jazz, it weaves all of its disparate, chaotic elements into something lasting and beautiful.

Artists as Workers

In 1935, with the country in the grips of depression, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Federal Music Project, part of Federal Project Number One, which included related programs for visual artists, writers, and the theater. Despite his patrician upbringing, FDR was not a great patron of the arts, and was only lukewarm about the program. His wife Eleanor, a culture enthusiast, was in fact the driving force behind it. However one thing FDR did recognize was that artists were unemployed and suffering just like everyone else, and deserved to participate in the benefits of the New Deal. In addition, he felt that the arts would help entertain and enrich the public, taking their minds away from their difficulties. In short, FDR decided to treat artists as workers.

Although many of the problems facing creative people today are related to the general plight of workers in our society, there are also cultural factors. Many of the problems faced by professional musicians and artists in general can be traced to the refusal of society to view what we do as real work. Some of this refusal in turn can be traced to certain myths about artists and their role in society. Unfortunately, as artists we often internalize and even perpetuate these myths. While there is a grain of truth to some of them, the overall effect is to make it hard to see ourselves as skilled workers, deserving of the same respect and compensation as any other profession.

One of these myths is the Artist as Mad Genius. In this conception, the artist is an isolated, vaguely disreputable figure, following his inspiration in private, unafraid to suffer, content to be remembered after his death. Those who simply get up, work hard and support their families without unnecessary drama aren’t real artists, or at least not as good.

A related myth is the Artist as Starving Bohemian. This person lives in poverty, but is happy because he can survive on the nourishment of his own genius. What reason is there to pay someone who is only in it for the art? Getting paid would only taint the purity of the accomplishment. The arch-enemy of the starving artist is the sellout. This is the traitor artist who is strangely immune to the charms of poverty and agrees to produce inferior art for money! At any rate, artists enjoy what they do, and real work is by definition unpleasant, so artists don’t deserve to get paid. Note that this principle does not to apply to people who enjoy being doctors, lawyers, or politicians.

Some artists achieve fame and fortune of course, but then the promise of fame is used to exploit others. Every musician is familiar with being asked to play “for the exposure” (“people die from exposure” is the proper response). The idea that you could hit it big is an enticing one, and it is used to get artists to do a lot of free labor. This makes creative work more like playing the lottery, and less like real work.

The Federal Music project produced thousands of concerts, provided free music lessons, and organized music festivals. Critically, its workers recorded thousands of hours of american folk and blues music, leading to the creation of the field of ethnomusicology. Together they preserved a precious cultural heritage that would have otherwise been lost. A popular target of budget cutters and red-baiters, the program eventually ended in 1943. In many ways, the idea of artists as everyday workers died as well. We would do well to revive it.

Charlie Parker

I’m not here today to talk about Charlie “Bird” Parker as a musical revolutionary. I’m not interested in discussing his troubled life and early death. I don’t want to debate whether he’s the man who destroyed jazz or the man who saved it. Instead I want to talk about his alto saxophone tone, because it is in listening to that tone that you hear the poetic soul at the center of Charlie Parker’s music.

Charlie Parker, and the music called Bebop that he helped to invent, has a reputation for angular, difficult melodies played at extremely fast tempos. Experimental, serious music that’s hard to sing along or dance to. Lighting-fast solos that are difficult to follow. But the sweet sound of Bird’s horn subverts this narrative, revealing bebop to be the romantic, passionate, risky, beautiful music that it is. This isn’t music meant to frighten people. This is music played for love.

Bird’s tone, so round, so warm and full of joy, is what drew me to his playing before I ever began to understand what he was doing harmonically or melodically. Together with his unerring sense of phrasing, his tone is the reason his version of a jazz melody is always my favorite version. Listen to the way he plays “Star Eyes”, “Lover Man”, “The Song is You”. He sings the melody with his horn like a great vocalist would.

Discussing Bebop, Bird once said: “It’s just music, It’s trying to play clean and looking for the pretty notes”. At first I thought he was being disingenuous here. But once I began to learn Bebop, and the way it uses the upper intervals of chords to form new melodies, I began to see the truth in what Bird said. He found pretty notes nobody had ever found before, and brought them to life with the sound of his horn.

As far as playing fast, it was once said of banjo great Earl Scruggs that no matter how fast he played, each note was always distinct, like pearls on a string. So it is with Charlie Parker. No matter how fast he played, if you listen carefully you can hear almost every note. Again it’s the ability to produce a consistently beautiful sound at any tempo that makes this possible, that makes it sound like music instead of just notes.

Listen to the Charlie Parker with Strings sessions, admittedly a fairly commercial venture, and you hear Bird’s tone used to maximum effect on a series of gorgeous jazz melodies and expressive solos. These sessions, coinciding with a brief period of commercial success and relative sobriety, reveal Bird’s poetic heart. Without Bird, this would be elevator music, cheesy and forgettable. With Bird, it is transformed into the epitome of romantic splendor.

Curtis Mayfield

I’m not sure why more people don’t dig Curtis Mayfield. Even a lot of musicians I’ve met don’t know much about his work, or aren’t into it, at least at first. Some find it overproduced, in that 1970s way when you could get an entire orchestra to play on your record. Others react negatively to the falsetto vocals. Personally, I find the vocals to be devastatingly beautiful. He often sounds like someone confessing a terrible secret. The arrangements are a bit more of an acquired taste, but after a while you begin to revel in the lushness of it all. Mayfield’s songs are as funky as James Brown’s, but more melodic and fully-formed. His vocal skill is the equal of Marvin Gaye or Al Green. Curtis Mayfield was the complete package: singer, songwriter, producer, guitarist, bandleader.

It’s not that he is completely unappreciated, especially in the black community and among soul music aficionados. His best known songs like It’s Alright or People Get Ready are recognized by many, and the Superfly soundtrack remains popular, but he is rarely mentioned with other giants like Brown or Green. Certainly his choice to strike out on his own early on, starting his own record label and running his own sessions, contributed to his obscurity even while giving him near total artistic freedom. By the time he was paralyzed from the neck down after a lighting rig fell on him during a performance, he had largely fallen out of the public eye. Ironically after the accident he gained quite a bit of attention, which ended up reviving his career. Before he eventually died from his injuries, he released several more albums with a slew of guest stars, albums that would have been remarkable coming from an able-bodied man. It turned out that Curtis was very much appreciated after all.

Curtis Mayfield’s songs are all fully realized expressions of an artistic idea, even when he was seeking a commercial goal. Take the Superfly soundtrack. The Blaxploitation films of the 70s spawned soundtracks that have long outlived most of the movies. For Superfly, Curtis wrote a song for every character in the film. The songs capture the characters better than the movie does! Unfortunately, the music wasn’t used that way in the film, but it shows his gift for writing a fully realized song on almost any subject.

Check out the gorgeous ballad The Makings of You. In addition to it’s unique chord structure and time changes, listen to the amazing number of positive words Curtis packs into the song: expression, happiness, roses, astound, joy, children, laughing, righteous. This song isn’t just about a lover, it’s about love itself, universal love, love for all mankind.

Or take the song Party Night from the Give, Get, Take, and Have album. A naked attempt to capitalize on the disco craze, it starts out in a typical disco groove, then suddenly turns into something quite different. Despite ridiculous lyrics like “Having cheese and wine, dancing all the time”, by the end it has turned into something beautiful and uplifting. Even when trying to be brazenly commercial, Curtis Mayfield couldn’t help but create great art.

Fame and Obscurity in the Music Business

Many people strive for fame, but few can actually handle it. Fame invades your personal life, alters friendships, and creates a lot of trouble. This is why I have always made sure never to become famous!

Several recent films illustrate the contrast between some who became famous in the music business with tragic results, and others who toiled in relative obscurity with mostly positive results. The drama Love and Mercy, about Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, and the documentary Amy, about the late Amy Winehouse, tell parallel stories of too much fame achieved too fast without the necessary social support. Both artists had difficult fathers, domineering in his case, absent in hers, at least until she got famous. Both sought refuge in music, their true talent. The enormous pressure of producing for the music industry led to anxiety, mental instability, drug abuse, and eventual breakdowns. When you are famous everybody wants something, but nobody is truly looking out for you. When the crisis hits, you don’t know who your real friends are.

The documentary The Wrecking Crew, along with similar recent films about Stax, Muscle Shoals and others, tell a very different tale, a tale of working musicians producing legendary records mostly in complete anonymity. Put together, these films tell a kind of secret history of the American music business in the 1950s and 60s. Great session musicians and backup singers who have performed on hundreds of famous songs, film soundtracks, and television shows are brought out of the shadows to receive long overdue recognition. These are people who saw fame up close up, but still from the outside. Some, like Glenn Campbell of the Wrecking Crew, crossed over into stardom. Others tried and failed. Some are more famous now simply because of these films. Many were content staying in the shadows. Notably, many were able to make good money while having happy families and stable lives.

There is an indelible link in the public mind between great art and madness, drug abuse, and self-destruction. The truth is that although some artists fit this mold, most do not, including many great geniuses. There is no necessary link between art and madness. Most successful artists are more like the members of the Wrecking Crew: hardworking, detail-oriented, professional. Most people with mental illness, lacking artistic talent, suffer in anonymity. With better parents and better friends, Wilson and Winehouse could easily have turned out differently. Perhaps they wouldn’t have gotten famous, but that might have been better for them.

The members of the Wrecking Crew, played by actors, appear in Love and Mercy, recording the tracks for the legendary Pet Sounds album. At one point, one of them tells Brian Wilson that he is one of the best they’ve ever worked with, and they’ve worked with everybody. It’s the happiest Wilson looks in the entire movie. More than fame or public adulation, he craved the respect of his peers. Similarly, late in the Amy Winehouse film she is shown recording with Tony Bennett, who she idolizes. Nervous at first, she starts to gain confidence. After this session, she is briefly able to turn her life around. After her death, Bennett is interviewed. He loved her and is grieving. He compares her to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. He is the very image of the alternate path: managing your fame, focusing on the music, keeping your business together, and living to be an elder statesman. “You learn a few things” he says “if you live long enough”.

The Persistence of Muscle Memory

In my last post, I mentioned that many people who pick up an instrument that they used to play are surprised by how much they remember, even if it’s been years since they last played. The primary reason for this is the persistence of muscle memory. Muscle memory is the reason we never forget how to ride a bike. It’s why we’re able to keep walking while trying to remember whether we fed the cat this morning. Without muscle memory, playing music, as well as most other activities of daily life, would be impossible.

Of course, your muscles are not literally remembering things. Muscle memory happens in the brain, although it’s a bit unclear which parts of the brain are most responsible. The key thing is that it happens in the subconscious mind. When we see a toddler concentrating hard on learning to walk, that child is building muscle memory. Eventually, these movements are mastered, and no longer require concentration. Then the child can proceed to running, jumping, and more complex movements. Similarly, a beginning musician has to work hard just to play the right notes, while an advanced player has enough spare brain power to focus on making real music.

While playing music is physical like riding a bike, music is also a language. Advanced players engage the powerful linguistic parts of the brain as well as the muscle memory. Great players think of music in large chunks, like skilled speakers of a language think in terms of whole sentences instead of just words.

When I play an improvised solo, something I’ve done a great many times, the executive or conscious part of my mind doesn’t really do that much. I’m usually thinking something like: “Ok play something simple to start … here comes a tricky chord change … here’s the bridge … mistake! swallow it! … ok feeling good here … coming to the end, finish strong, and we’re done.” Meanwhile I’m listening to my fellow players, looking around the room, sometimes even letting my mind wander a bit.

Music is simultaneously a language, a physical activity, and an art form. In order to use it as an art, we need to overlearn it as a language and a physical activity, to activate our subconscious. Once we do this, we are able to use music for our own purposes. When we learn music, we are stimulating all of these different areas of the mind, teaching them to work in harmony with each other. This is when we start to achieve something powerful, uniting the body, the linguistic mind, the subconscious mind, the executive mind, and what some of us call the spirit, to express something wonderful.

I Used to Play in the School Band

When people find out I’m a music teacher they often tell me some version of the following: “Oh you play (flute, clarinet, saxophone)! I used to play (flute, clarinet, saxophone) in the school band. I really liked it but (I quit to play sports, budgets were slashed, or some other reason). I still have my horn though! I wonder if I could still play it.” I always tell these people that if they get out their instrument and start playing, they might be amazed at what they still remember, even if it’s been decades since they played. The reason is that muscle memory lasts much longer than regular memory. Your body remembers how to do things that your mind has long forgotten.

I used to play flute in the school band, and it was a great experience. It teaches you how to blend into an ensemble, how to follow a conductor, and how to read music. However it doesn’t do a lot to help you improve your individual technique. That’s why I started taking private lessons when I was fairly young. Once I started doing that, and practicing more regularly, I noticed that I got better much faster than most of the other students.

During my first couple of years of high school, I didn’t play in the band. I was making a lot of progress in my private lessons, and getting ahead of the other students who were only in the band. Music classes could be frustrating sometimes. We played the same pieces over and over every day, and often didn’t make much progress because people weren’t practicing at home. Being a school band director can be very stressful. It’s like teaching a regular class of 30-40 students who all have really loud noisemakers. Because of this, the directors would sometimes get pretty angry, or even melt down completely. It’s only now that I have some understanding of how difficult their jobs really were.

My high school had terrific music teachers, and when I started playing in the band again I enjoyed it and learned a lot. I was also in the choir and the jazz choir (did I mention that I was in choirs my whole childhood as well?). In college I picked up the saxophone and joined the jazz band, but I decided not to major in music so I eventually moved on.

I’ve been a part of one music project or another for most of my adult life, and I’ve learned that the basic things you learn in school band apply to any music group. Listen carefully, play in tune, play together, follow the director. Playing at home is wonderful, and helps you to get a lot better, but ultimately music is a cooperative endeavor. There is nothing like the feeling of being a part of something bigger than yourself, contributing to the creation of beautiful music with people that you appreciate and care for. This shared experience is why I think of musicians all over the world, despite our differences, as part of one big family.

Music Lesson Anxiety

When I talk to adults who are interested in taking music lessons, I frequently hear some variation on the following story: “My parents made me take lessons as a child and I hated it. The teacher was very strict and critical, I hated practicing, and I quit as soon as my parents let me”. I call this phenomenon “Music Lesson Anxiety”, and it can easily lead to the dreaded “Music Lesson Trauma”, which renders the victim unable to pick up an instrument for life. It is a sad situation, because these people often love music, and may even have some musical talent, but their childhood experiences have convinced them that learning music is a tedious, stressful chore.

However there is good news. Music Lesson Anxiety can be cured! The cure is to make learning music fun, the way it should be. Many who suffer from this syndrome had to endure an older, classically-inspired approach that emphasized perfectionism, discipline, and intense criticism. This approach can work for some, very dedicated students, but for most people it is a disaster. Let’s face it, most people are not going to become professional musicians. These people want to play music because it is a fun, social activity. Subjecting these people to strict discipline is likely to turn them off to playing music forever.

I like to combat Music Lesson Anxiety with a few simple methods. First, I like to start with music the student already knows and appreciates. If a student can learn to play a song she likes after only a couple of lessons, that’s exciting! There’s no reason to force someone to play Beethoven if they don’t want to.

Second, I don’t set strict rules on practicing. While you can’t get better without practicing, you also can’t get better by feeling guilty about not practicing. I encourage students to set realistic goals about how often and how long they practice. Perhaps three times a week for half and hour. The fact is, you get better every time you play, even if it’s just for twenty minutes. In addition, you should have fun when you play, not just spend the whole time playing scales.

Third, I try to favor encouragement over criticism during lessons. I focus on what the student is doing right, and then make gentle suggestions for improvement. Once a student is more advanced, he may benefit from a more critical approach, but for beginners and adults who are starting over it is important to focus on the positive.

If you suffer from Music Lesson Anxiety or Music Lesson Trauma from childhood, there is hope! If your child is interested in music lessons, there are ways to teach them so that they will never experience these problems. Music shouldn’t cause anxiety or trauma. Music is fun. Music is beautiful.