Tag: education

Compromise and Conviction at the National Composers Intensive

“This is a piece that does something to you when you play it,” says Christopher Rountree. He’s about to conduct the ensemble wild Up in a performance of a new work by Jennifer Hill, a composition student at the University of North Texas. Entitled in memoriam my liver*, the piece demands that the trumpet player (in this case, Jonah Levy) hold a high C almost continuously for five minutes at a nearly inaudible volume, encircled by hushed, furtive gestures from the rest of the ensemble. It’s a risky gambit—“it’s incredibly physically and psychologically demanding for the performer,” conceded Hill—but one that pays off.

wild Up in concert at the Regent Theater. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

wild Up in concert at the Regent Theater. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

This was just one of many memorable moments at wild Up’s May 30 concert at the Regent Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. The event was the culmination of the National Composers Intensive, a program organized by the LA Philharmonic that invited ten young collegiate composers to write for wild Up, as well as attend various rehearsals, masterclasses, and concerts along the way. Hill was one of these selected composers, along with Daniel Allas, Emily Cooley, Natalie Dietterich, Patrick O’Malley, Jose Martinez, Anna Meadors, Laura Schwartz, Andrew Stock, and Wei Guo. All the works were read and recorded by the ensemble, with a few chosen for performance on the final concert.

While readings of student works are not uncommon in the new music world, the Intensive was unusual in that composers had multiple opportunities to hear and revise their works. After composing an initial draft, wild Up recorded read-throughs of the pieces that allowed the ensemble to give video feedback to the composers. After two weeks, the composers submitted a second draft, and during the week of the concert, last-minute changes could be made between rehearsals before the final reading.

National Composers Intensive fellows Emily Cooley, Laura Schwartz, and Wei Guo. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

National Composers Intensive fellows Emily Cooley, Laura Schwartz, and Wei Guo. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Some composers took advantage of this opportunity to make significant revisions to their works. Martinez, a master’s student at the University of Missouri, wrote the salsa-inflected Illegal Cycles, combining piano montunos with aleatoric figures and heavy metal influences. He removed layers of material from the score before the final reading to make the complex grooves more approachable for the ensemble. “During the final rehearsal it came to life…the groovy Latin vibe takes some time to marinate in the brain,” he acknowledged.

Dietterich, a master’s student at the Yale School of Music, received feedback about articulation and added considerable detail to her work Something Twisted before the final reading. O’Malley, a master’s student at the University of Southern California, also made cuts to certain parts in his work Ouroboros and added mutes to the brass to balance the ensemble in certain sections. Allas, also a University of Southern California student, made significant changes to the notation in his composition smear’d. Allas originally used a system of stemless noteheads and dotted bar lines to indicate the approximate placement of notes, while the ensemble favored notating these gestures as complex rhythms. Eventually, he removed the dotted bar lines but kept the stemless noteheads, a compromise that satisfied the ensemble. “wild Up committed fully to the notation style that I settled upon,” said Allas.

wild Up director Christopher Rountree in rehearsal. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

wild Up director Christopher Rountree in rehearsal. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Other composers were more obstinate. Stock, a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music, conceived of Roots, Bone, Skin, Ghosts (2) as a set of interlocking parts without a traditional score. “I got some pushback about the layout of the printed materials, but that’s the way they ended up playing it and it worked out,” said Stock. Hill’s high C was a similarly fought-for moment. This is one area where the Intensive distinguished itself from the typical new music reading format. In programs with a single reading session, interesting things often get sacrificed at the altar of practicality, and composers learn to dial back their ambitions. Here the exact opposite was true. It’s easy to imagine a less intrepid ensemble refusing to take these risks, or even sabotaging the performance with surliness, but to their credit, wild Up played these composers’ works with utter conviction.

Alongside the works by Allas, Dietterich, Hill, and Stock, wild Up programmed two works by slightly older (post-emerging? pre-established?) composers Andrew Tholl and Nina C. Young, as well as Public Kaleidoscope by Andrew Moses, a student of the LA Phil’s Composer Fellowship Program for high school composers. Together, these works represented three generations of young(ish) composers. Notably absent from the program were any of the usual suspects when it comes to old guard, established composers, and to be honest, their presence was not missed in this context. All of the music was original and well-crafted, and the students’ works held their own alongside the works of their more experienced counterparts.

View from the stage. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

View from the stage. Photo by: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

The Intensive was also cleverly planned to coincide with LA Phil’s Next on Grand festival of contemporary music, which allowed the fellows to attend several concerts, as well as schedule masterclasses and lessons with composers James Matheson, Julia Wolfe, Steven Mackey, Michael Gordon, Sean Friar, and Caroline Shaw. In the small amount of free time remaining, the students were able to experience a little bit of local culture. “I also had some very good tacos in downtown LA,” said Stock.

* The full title is actually in memoriam my liver subtitled i hate that you’re stoned all of the time subtitled Coldness and Cruelty: The Art of Masoch subtitled I have dozens of titles subtitled $1 lone star and i;m sry=

Why I’m Not Getting a Doctorate

school bus

Photo by Gerry Dincher, via Flickr

I envy those who feel compelled to teach collegiate composition and music theory, who pursue a doctorate with this end goal in mind. Academia offers a stable career option for a composer: a salary, benefits, and possible tenure in a field that’s notorious for instability and little financial reward.

In the field of music, though, so many composers default to pursuing a doctoral degree and a teaching career without 1) considering the musical and general strengths that could augment their composing career outside of academia, or 2) asking themselves whether they excel at teaching or even enjoy it. I’ve witnessed numerous colleagues continuing on to a doctoral degree simply because it’s the next logical step, something to delay having to find a job.

I adored my time at the University of Southern California, where I received my master’s degree. My two years there felt too short in many ways, not because of the classes I’d taken, but rather because of the wonderful professors, abundant performance opportunities, and colleagues who quickly became lifelong friends. I was tempted to continue on to a doctoral degree at USC, but to do so would’ve been ultimately motivated by fear. While there is beauty in pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, my getting a doctorate would have been staying in school only to delay the inevitable, the “real world” that seems so terrifying as a student.

This “real world” is just as full of performance opportunities and outstanding mentors/colleagues as a university, though; it just takes a little more work to discover them. I made a pact with myself when I graduated with my master’s degree that I’d give myself three years to pursue whatever it would take to turn composing into a full-time career, and to evaluate the many forms in which that career could take shape.

If the arch of my career started to flatline or decline over the course of those three years, I decided, I’d consider going back to school. If my career continued to ascend at the same rate it had previously—which is to say, each year I had more performances than the previous year, or performances with higher-profile groups; or I made a little more money composing; or I simply felt more confident in my ability to ultimately make a living as a composer—I wouldn’t go back to school. If I could make it through those three years, I reasoned, I could make it through ten, or twenty, or whatever it took until my income matched my aspirations.

It’s been four years since I made the decision not to get a doctorate. I knew I’d have to find other sources beyond composing to support myself initially; I worked part-time as a nanny after graduating with my master’s degree, and more recently I’ve been teaching piano and composition to a small roster of around 15 students.

I do find it slightly ironic that after choosing not to apply for a doctorate—insisting I don’t want to teach for a living—I’m now teaching private piano and composition lessons. But the students I teach now, who range from ages 5 to 15, are passionate about piano and/or composition, and they are—most days—an absolute joy to work with. I run my own teaching studio; I control when and to whom I teach, and I’m on the path to making a living solely from composing by 2017.

I teach Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons/evenings, with one flexible student on Sunday mornings. This leaves mornings and Thursdays, Fridays, and weekends for composing and the business of composing. I continue to do what I’ve been doing since high school: applying to every composing opportunity I can find that excites me and offers the chance to advance my career.

I’m lucky that I love to write music for chorus, one of the few fields where a majority of ensembles actively program new music. Choosing a few years of making $25,000-30,000 a year in favor of ultimately supporting myself through composition has been well worth the trade-off to me: I am the one in control of how I spend my time. Filing taxes is never a fun activity, but this year I was happy to find that close to half of my income in 2014 was from composing. This percentage has been growing steadily every year.

I’ve made the decision to pursue composition as a full-time career, to align myself with this choice daily and pursue it whole-heartedly; so far, it’s working.

Advice from Strangers: In Pursuit of Growth

green water color forest

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

Advice from Strangers explores shared challenges in the industries of new music and technology. This column is second in the series.

A recent conference of new music professionals devoted a workshop to the subject of creative growth. Participants toiled. There were groans of frustration and murmurs of revelation. Digital devices were set aside, notecards scribbled upon, thoughts shared. Forty-five minutes were dedicated to the development of strategies for relevant, positive, reflective growth. In those minutes, hearty seeds were planted that will share their yield for a long time to come.

In tech, where I’ve worked for the past decade, we are charged with innovating, iterating, and disrupting. We invent software, undermine old industries, create needs. We make new things all the time, even as we aim to better those that already exist. And yet, I wonder: is there a mismatch between this mandate and the method in which we’re growing creatively as individuals?

Skill-based learning vs. creative growth

Even though as an industry we champion the cause of innovation, as individuals, the practical day-to-day goal is to become more functionally proficient. So when we say we grow, we mean we continually build an arsenal of skills, enabling us to increase the efficiency and robustness of software, scale technological infrastructure, and support a growing business.

But most of us are in tech because we want to do cool new things, create new stuff, explore. Isn’t it important for us to grow that side of ourselves—the creative side—as well? If our ability to encourage disruption is so important, how do we open ourselves up to and equip ourselves for opportunities to do new and different rather than incrementally better and faster at the same thing? We must learn to expose ourselves to new processes of innovation and new interpretations that can bring us out of a local maximum toward a radically better solution.

The new music community offers us a model of rigorous self-examination, a thorough and ongoing exploration of the processes leading to creative innovation. The tech community favors a skills-based approach to growth. The strategies overlap, even as the applications differ. Here are the top growth strategies of 35 colleagues from the industries of new music and tech.


Growth strategies


Accept growth as a constant

It may seem obvious, but let’s start with this: there is always something more to learn in our ever-expanding universe of experience. If we don’t acknowledge this, we ride blindly past opportunities to grow.

“The first step to my growing is accepting the fact that growth is a constant in my life,” says freelance composer Garrett Schumann. “Over the last few years, believing this has led me to invent new challenges that force me to grow as a composer and member of the new music community… I designed my dissertation to force myself out of my compositional comfort zone. It is my most ambitious vocal work to date, and the process of creating it helped strengthen my confidence in setting text and writing for voice.”

Liz Cohen, director of marketing at a crowd-funding platform for start-ups, agrees. “I am open with myself about the fact that there is tons of room for me to grow. For everyone to grow. So I listen to people around me—the people who are ‘green’ and the people who have supposedly been doing this for decades.”

Getting comfortable with growth—having the willingness to tell someone, yourself even, “there’s something important that I don’t know”—opens the door to personal development. The rest is tactics.

Physical spaces, mental spaces

“I believe in space. You need to have a space associated with learning and creating,” says Vinitha Watson, executive director of ZooLabs. (More on ZooLabs later.) She mentions a “mind palace,” and I immediately picture a richly decorated temple for my thoughts. I’m not far off: the idea is to set aside a physical place for growth—a specific room at home, a favorite cafe. Routinely associate the space with creative or learning activities, and soon that atmosphere will envelop you whenever you enter.

Another approach is to find points in your daily routine that combine well with growth tasks, like a commute or quiet moment in the morning.

“I start my day just absorbing new information, catching up on blogs across life and work,” says Orlena Yeung, a product and marketing executive. “Setting aside this time helps me warm up for the day as well.”

Create and welcome challenges

One way to stretch our creative muscles is to reach for the fringe of what we know, find the edge of what we’re comfortable with—and hover there before moving even further along.

“I seek out opportunities that will push me way outside my comfort zone,” says mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen. “I focus on projects that make me light up. Then I always ask, ‘How can I make this happen?’ Sometimes they’re my ideas and sometimes they’re other people’s dreams and ideas. I just know that I want to see those ideas through to fruition, and I will learn whatever I need to along the way.”

“Take risks,” says technology consultant Jack Kustanowitz. “The nature of technology is that everyone is always learning, so the best way to grow is to take on projects that are just outside your comfort zone. I’m not advocating a professional poet agreeing to design a banking system, but if you are a technology expert and you have an opportunity to work in an area that is 50% stuff you’ve done before and 50% things you’ll have to learn, grab the opportunity, even if it means some late nights and unbilled time.”

Kiesha Garrison, a senior business development manager at Microsoft, creates thought challenges by looking at tough problems in her industry—and ignoring their existing solutions. “I look up the unsolvables to stimulate thinking. I want to know, ‘Why is this the issue?’ rather than the answer, so I can try to think about a new answer.”

The tricky thing about taking on new challenges is making them count. After all, time and resources are limited.

“I like to grow and learn, but struggle with translating that into things I can point to and say: ‘This is what I did,’” says Carole Snyder, a developer at Microsoft.

The key: actively digest what you learn, apply it, and share it with others.

One programmer mentioned that he writes about his findings on a blog and takes on speaking engagements to compile and process his learnings. In a similar vein, Garrett Schumann took on a blogging project that led him to listen to and report on the music of 150 of the composers and songwriters who follow him on Twitter.

I asked ZooLabs’ Watson to weigh in on the question of productive learning. ZooLabs is a start-up music accelerator that is invested in the intersection of creativity, craft, and commercial viability. Residents spend two weeks on-site in a program steeped in experiential learning. They quickly consume new material, learn its direct applications, jump back into their reality, and then come back with questions.

“If your goal is to learn a good skill, learn it, then do it,” she says. “Get away from the reading of it and actually apply what you’ve learned. It’s like cooking. You look at a recipe, you know what you want to accomplish, and you’re using someone else’s guide to do that. And then you do it! You’re in the kitchen, you go back and forth between the recipe and cooking.”

Keep in mind that learning can be productive even without producing something tangible. Simply switching contexts can be refreshing, reducing cynicism and burn-out. (Note: heavy terminology ahead. You will not be quizzed on it.)

“Two areas interesting me greatly right now are digital currency and just-intonation music,” says John Reale, director of solutions architecture at a healthcare startup. “The former has me immersed in blockchain trustless verification concepts, and the latter is exposing me to scala and microtonal sound card programming. I’m not sure how much conceptual inspiration I take from these fields back to my primary, but they certainly help [keep] me from getting burned out, so I can continue to grow in fairly traditional ways without getting sick of it.”

Learning can be a high-risk activity, sometimes without financial or otherwise tangible benefits. But choosing to take on difficult challenges—and then cementing those learnings by putting them into practice—will make them meaningful.

Question yourself

Ask yourself hard, meaningful, complicated questions, and do it often.

“Force yourself to constantly question how you are doing things,” says a software engineer at Google, a creative problem-solver I worked with for several years. Soprano Hillary LaBonte agrees: “Self-assessment is key to continuous progress—not only measuring where you stand in the current music industry, but against your past self as an artist. It’s important to take stock of yourself, and align to (or counter) the changes of your field with your own artistic ambitions.”

Finding the right questions is hard, and having a process for that helps. Composer Aaron Siegel suggests starting with a goal. Here’s his method:

  1. Think of a goal you have for the next year. (It could be writing a new type of composition, learning a coding language, implementing a new feature, or reaching a different audience.)
  2. Reframe the goal as a question.
  3. Ask yourself:

+ Is this question too easy to answer? (Hint: a good question is not easy to answer.)
+ Does it lead to other questions?
+ Do you care about the question? Does answering it matter?
+ Does it have poetry—other deeper implications or relevancies?

When you’re satisfied with your question, try keeping it in mind as you go about your day. You’ll be surprised how relevant—and informative—your experiences become.

Skill-based learning requires a forcing function

I have 27 open browser tabs. My own biggest growth challenge is finding time to sit down and learn specific things. Wandering, exploring in the world—these are my brain candy, they come naturally. But when I put skill-learning tasks on my calendar, they get…overlooked.

What to do? For each learning task, Watson suggests a project-oriented approach: define a start time, an end time, and milestones for success along the way. Completing those will give a nice little dopamine dump that’s associated with advancing.

If setting milestones doesn’t work, try collaborating on the task. Being accountable to a friend or client provides a forcing function—like a gym trainer—that keeps the pressure on until the task is done. Just ask any ensemble musician preparing for a concert.

Still, you don’t have to learn every day.

“Give yourself room to breathe,” says violinist and computer science professor Sheila Oh. “Being driven makes you want to plan—but not all learning is planned. If you schedule too much of your time, you can miss out on unplanned opportunities to grow.”

Purple water color mountains

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

Wander far afield

“I’m a firm believer that becoming the best artist means becoming the best person I can be, and that includes participating as a citizen of the world, with interests that extend outside my immediate circles,” says LaBonte.

There is indeed a special kind of critical growth that is possible when we position ourselves to experience something that differs vastly from our status quo. This experience is important because it provides new and unexpected context for old ideas, breaks down familiar ways of thinking, and helps us discover and feel empathy for new audiences. So how do we go about expanding our horizons?

“Make sure you’re talking—actually having a conversation—with a very diverse group of people,” says Garrison. “Talk to people who do not all mirror you in some way, or mirror each other.”

Composers should become “rabid consumers of multiple art forms,” says Daniel Felsenfeld, composer and co-founder of the New Music Gathering, an annual conference dedicated to the performance, production, promotion, support and creation of new concert music. “We should go to artist colonies to speak to people who do things differently, to collaborate with those people, to figure out how and why they do what they do. And of course we should listen to everything, not just for professional reasons but for personal reasons. We should know the canon inside out (which, yes, is impossible) and we should always be proudly peeking into its dark corners. And we should not be content with ‘scenes’ but should strive to expand the cast of characters with whom we do our business.”

In other words: get out there and explore all of the things. There is much to learn from being around people who do not share our values and interests, beyond the echo chambers of our niche conferences, office spaces, and artist colonies.

Learning is distracting, and that’s okay

“I’m always finding new things. My struggle is focusing and getting things done,” says Gil Reich, an engineering and product lead who is a veteran of several start-ups.

It’s not all his fault. Remember my 27 browser tabs? Watson says the elusive focal point might just be the nature of how technology is designed. You go to your phone for one thing, and end up doing something else.

It’s also the nature of learning. Curiosity leads to curiosity, and that’s exactly what it should do—and not just in the arts.

“Learning with an expansive amount of time and no goals is great,” says Watson. “It allows you to go off into space and dream, which I think is definitely necessary. It’s like floating, daydreaming. There’s some benefit to letting your mind wander through a forest of information. If that’s your goal, that’s fine.”

If that’s your goal.

“Learning is serving a function, and wandering serves a function. Wandering through information is not a bad thing, but it might be frustrating if someone has different goals,” she cautions.

Friends: growth is a skill, to be learned and honed. Our colleagues’ strategies, be they creative or skill-based, apply across the spectrum of our growth needs, across and beyond the reach of our own industries. Go forth and pursue growth, whether it be within your community or farther afield. Ask probing questions. Take on challenges you’re not entirely comfortable with. Wander to the far reaches of your comfort zone. Enjoy.

Next week: community.

Student Debt is a Music Policy Issue

Student Debt

Photo by Michael Fleshman, via Flickr

It’s no secret that there’s a student loan crisis in the United States. Americans now owe a full $1.2 trillion in student debt, and that number is only expected to increase.

It’s also no secret that this crisis impacts the music community. I know more than a few gifted musicians and composers who’ve had to ask themselves, “Do I keep working on music, or do I find another more lucrative kind of employment that will allow me to pay down my educational loans?”

At the same time, Future of Music Coalition’s research indicates that investment in education can have some clear benefits for careers in music. In 2012, as part of our Artist Revenue Streams research project measuring the ways that musicians and composers make a living, our research team crunched the numbers from a large-scale online survey completed by over 5,300 US-based musicians. Among our findings: conservatory and music school graduates were likely to be earning more and working more than non-music school graduates.

Music Education Survey Results

Thus, it’s important that students be given the tools to make informed choices and understand the full range of potential risks and rewards that investment in education may represent. The most responsible schools are increasingly giving students a candid assessment of what the job marketplace looks like before they get too far into their educational career, and some are working to better equip their students with entrepreneurial skills to navigate a challenging landscape.

Yet, as Ellen McSweeney points out in her excellent 2013 article about education debt for NewMusicBox, entrepreneurship itself depends on a degree of financial flexibility that many young graduates don’t have. Her article is a strong resource for thinking through the tough decisions young composers and musicians face in planning their educational and vocational paths. It’s got some hard-won advice from twenty-something musicians and composers in the process of paying off their educational debt.

It’s also likely that the current student loan crisis has other trickle-down effects for arts participation more generally, particularly on the audience spending side of the equation. Arts organizations are constantly experimenting with new initiatives to try and attract younger audiences, yet as recent graduates in all fields are more burdened with debt than ever before, they may opt for fewer, less adventurous, and less expensive entertainment options. Even sharply discounted symphony tickets can feel like an indulgence that’s hard to justify when you’ve got a $500 monthly student loan bill.

So regardless of whether they’re personally saddled with debt, this is an issue that could impact all musicians and composers. Thus, it’s worth keeping track of some things that have been happening in the broader policy conversation around student debt.

The Debt Collective, an activist group that began as an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, has been taking a unique approach to the issue. By buying up aggregated educational debt from lenders for pennies on the dollar, then abolishing the debt rather than collecting it, they’ve drawn attention to the incoherence of the present state of affairs. More recently, they’ve organized a group of more than 100 students who attended the for-profit Corinthian Colleges or their subsidiaries and who have refused to pay their federal loans in protest of predatory practices, asking the Department of Education to discharge their loans.

For-profit schools have been targeted because they account for a disproportionate amount of defaulting borrowers, and often have poor retention rates and high debt loads; the worst are accused of predatory lending practices and deliberately recruiting vulnerable low-income students. Indeed, earlier this month, the Department of Education fined Corinthian Colleges $30 million for misrepresenting job placement rates to current and prospective students, among other misdeeds, and today the company will shut down its remaining campuses.

For-profit schools are certainly part of the picture in music, too. Full Sail University, a for-profit school that’s certainly no stranger to controversy, is even sponsoring a stage at the popular Warped Tour summer music festival, targeting the next generation of aspiring rockers for their pricey music and recording classes. To be fair, for the right student in the right program at the right school, a for-profit school could end up being the right choice. But the problem of student debt extends far beyond that part of the sector.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen some modest but meaningful reforms and increased federal oversight. Borrowers can now choose repayment plans that take current levels of income into account when assessing monthly loan payment amounts. For those enrolled in these “income-driven repayment plans,” if their income is low enough, they could have a monthly payment of $0 and still be considered current on their loan payments. (For full-time employees of non-profit organizations, the entire federal loan can even be forgiven after ten years.) Yet while the Obama administration has expanded access to these plans, enrollment is still low, and these plans can’t do anything to address private student loans, which can have the worst interest rates. Senator Elizabeth Warren has again introduced legislation allowing borrowers to refinance older loans at current lower rates.

But why not think bigger—like encouraging state reinvestment in higher education with a goal of making college much more affordable and decreasing reliance on loans? With the 2016 elections on the horizon, it’s a good time to speak up about these issues and make sure that they’re on the table for consideration.

Getting the Point


Photo by Maurits Vermeulen, via Flickr

I met Laurie Frink just before I moved to New York in 2000. She was the last outpost on the way to an existential intersection. Either I would find a way to make my trumpet playing easier and less painful, or I needed to stop and do something else altogether. It was immediately clear to me that Laurie was more than a teacher. She was part “mom” and part Yoda, with a healthy dose of drinking buddy you can trust to “give it to you straight.” To a huge community of students, she was a one-woman hub in our musical flowchart. The proof of this is the tangible lack of center we have felt since she passed away in 2013.

I put a lot of pressure on myself to be good at playing the trumpet—to be great—always. I’m aware of how delusional that is, but I think anyone who has put an appreciable amount of time and energy into learning an instrument has a similar eccentricity at one point or another. While in this state, I was complaining about the lack of consistency in my playing to Laurie. I was frustrated with my shortcomings and was bearing down, practicing too much, and emotionally (and physically) exhausting myself. She stopped me in the middle of my tiny nervous breakdown and had me take a deep breath.

“Nate,” she said, “I’m going to tell you something very important that everyone should know about playing trumpet.”

A pause.

“Sometimes you just sound like shit.”

I made her clarify that she meant everyone sounds bad sometimes and not that every trumpet player should be aware of my personal limitations; a question she answered by calling me an idiot. I miss Laurie.

“You get the point, thought, right?”

Yeah, I did, and it’s stuck with me. And, in the broadest sense, everything I’ve written in the past month has to do with her point. It can be summed up in the following:

It’s just music.

My experience is that no one accidentally produces a masterpiece, and that there is no magical moment in time that is a distillation of all you are as a musician. The power of making music is found in the accretion of work and thought we put in over a lifetime, not single moments of inspiration. These brief periods of creation are important, of course, but don’t deserve the weight we give them as a culture.

The importance of John Coltrane is not found in Giant Steps. It’s present in decades of dedication to mastery of an instrument and exploring musical possibilities. However, because this is not easily quantifiable, more weight is put into a handful of moments like Giant Steps, either because they have become reified through writing or because they lend themselves to assessable classroom lessons. And that’s not a problem. It is an important step to understanding music. However, when our experience of a musician and her/his work stops at this level, a problematic mode of thinking occurs.

To start with, we hold ourselves to a standard that is unrealistic and, frankly, pointless to work toward. Pointless, not because no one can live up to John Coltrane, but because why would anyone want to? We can appreciate the knowledge gained from studying his music, but should only take his example as a starting point for our own. The only thing that can come from trying to live up to another artist’s work is to become paralyzed in our attempt to do so.

The concentration on what I’ll clumsily call “hero worship” leaves no room for critical thought and growth. The attachment to one particular artist, or to one period of their work, degrades potentially useful discussion into the modern equivalent of taking our ball and going home.

This is the crux of what I have been working towards, with a certain lack of elegance, for the past three weeks. I think it is crucial to remind ourselves of who we are and what we have learned by thinking critically. By being aware of our small moments of enlightenment, and expanding their lessons over a lifetime of creativity, we put our humanity into music instead of making music our lives.

Dotting Dots

Colorful bokeh

Photo by Susanne Nilsson via Flickr.

My early relationship to music was, for lack of a better term, pantheistic. I worshipped most jazz trumpet players—from Charlie Shavers to Miles Davis, from Woody Shaw to Barbara Donald. And I don’t use the term worship lightly. I’m not describing the typical process of transcribing solos or modeling my dress or stage presence after heroes. It went far, far beyond that point. I used the legends surrounding these players in the same way people use scriptural allegory as a basis for a moral and just life.

That’s a little tongue in cheek, but only a little. The fact of the matter is that, growing up, I had little or no contact with the greater world of music outside of magazines, books, and records. My imagination used these sources to mythologize my favorite players. And the few musicians I was meeting at jam sessions who had had contact with larger-than-life personalities like Miles et al. did nothing to dispel my romantic vision.

After finishing my undergraduate degree and still very much under my enhanced impression of jazz musicians, I began spending time with Ron Miles while doing my master’s degree at the University of Denver. Ron has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most interesting trumpet players of his generation, a fantastic teacher, and perhaps the nicest human being in jazz music. I don’t think it would be fair for me to claim to be his student; partially because our time together wasn’t structured in that way, but mostly because he worked hard to make me feel as if we were peers, even when I argued to the contrary. Of course, the lack of student-teacher dynamic didn’t affect how much I learned from him in that short period of time.

After my first short trip to New York, I saw Ron. He was interested in my impressions and, at length, I told him various stories about which trumpet players I felt were “ripping off” material from others and which I thought were really original. His reply, after a long pause, produced such a radical swing in my thinking that I tend to visualize it, now, as a tectonic plate shift. He said:

None of that matters. In the grand scheme of things, we’re all just dots on dots on dots on dots on dots.

I recognize that, taken out of context, it sounds nihilistic. And I probably would have dismissed it as such long ago but, with Ron, pessimism is an anomaly.

The essential truth in his statement is that we should not mistake reality for the presentation of a stylized world. The importance we attach to the physical presence of a human being who plays music can far outweigh how we view the work they produce and their acts outside of that world, creating a hierarchy that ultimately limits how we are able to interact with (and ultimately learn from) each other. Why did Ron treat me as a peer instead of as a student? Because I think that’s how he viewed me. I think that’s how he views everyone. We were just two people sharing knowledge about a similar interest. His attitude had more to do with equality of effort than hierarchy of success: everyone’s just a dot.

I started from scratch after this meeting. I stopped practicing trumpet under the weight of worship and started playing trumpet to see what I could add to the conversation. I was free to follow what I heard in my head, not as a challenge to the tradition of jazz trumpet, but as an extension of the idea of innovation on which it is based. While not feeling cocky about my ability, I appreciated that there may be a certain language that I could develop that would add to the grand conversation around the tradition and capability of the instrument. It was both exciting and daunting, the kind of experience in which you see how much work has been laid out before you and you’re almost giddy with the prospect of beginning—not with a goal in mind, but simply so you can enjoy the process as much as those before you did. The wonderful joy of realizing you’re a dot.

Decisions Made

“Before you take your horn out, there’s something we have to deal with.” This was my hello when Rob Blakeslee opened the door for our first lesson. I had just started college and was navigating a world in which Don Cherry, Dave Douglas, and Wynton Marsalis were given equal status as models for my trumpet playing. Rob was Portland’s legend of the underground, a totally unique free jazz trumpeter who had toiled in relative obscurity outside of a few brilliant records on Vinny Golia’s Nine Winds label in the 1990s.

He led me to his dining room table where we leafed through a huge art history book. He stopped first at an early, almost photo-real painting by Renoir. After pointing out how natural and clean the presentation was, Rob flipped forward a few hundred pages to a later work in which a similar figure—a young girl outside in springtime—was represented in a softer, more dream-like fashion. There was no question what Renoir was trying to do pictorially in each, but the way in which he conveyed the idea had changed considerably from the earlier painting to the latter.

tomato soup, abstracted

“That’s your decision to make,” he said. “You can make something that is clean and accurate or you can find ways to say the same thing by softening the edges, changing the colors, making it less obvious. Either way is fine, but you should be clear with yourself about how you are thinking.” It was a cut and dry statement: A or B. And, with that, we headed down to his studio to begin the lesson.

Sadly, I have lost touch with Rob, but the memory of that short demonstration lingers on. The simplicity of his demand has deconstructed into something else, but I recognize that he provided the germ. His point was that there are different ways to think of the same model: in this case, two paintings of similar scenes. And that I should be clear and honest with myself about which viewpoint I am operating under. While this lesson has served me well, the important offshoot of our trip through the art book was that one person was capable of such different interpretations in their lifetime—and that aesthetic decisions change.

As an 18-year old who had learned everything he knew from jazz records—moments frozen in time made specifically for commercial consumption—I had very little concept of the importance of growth. If anything, I had come up around older musicians who treated change as a disease: “Miles was cool in the 1940s and ’50s, then he changed,” etc. My learning involved periods of a musician’s output with no appreciation of the trajectory of how they thought.

But now, understanding the trajectory has become a major component of my judgment of quality. For better or worse, I have become more interested in the ways in which people think and grow than I am in their ability to reproduce subtle variations on a limited personal language, regardless of how successful that language may be. To that end, my heroes have become makers and thinkers that give weight to research and experimentation over recognizability.

In practice, I’ve made it a priority to follow every musical idea through to its logical end. That may be an hour of thought ending in the realization that the idea is just not feasible (or interesting). Or, it may mean years of performing works based on the fruits of research. To the latter, projects of mine such as Seven Storey Mountain or Syllables, which explore religious ecstatic music and the mechanics of linguistics respectively, resulted in multiple products from single simple ideas—not a reproducible master language.

And that’s the decision I ultimately have made. Not to find a specific “sound” that can be recognized, codified, and repeated, but to have my work be described (and ultimately judged) as a stream of thought and a lifelong picture of research—a snapshot of who I am and what I have accomplished in the little room of my mind before passing on. I’m happy with the decision I’ve made. I think Rob would be proud of it as well.

Lessons Learned


Photo by Michael Coghlan, via Flickr

Very few of us ignited our passion for music through critical thinking. Instead, small moments of enlightenment—flashes of understanding informing our future actions and ways of thinking—fanned the flames of initial interest into whatever inferno our obsession currently takes. It’s the primal urge to create, wherever it comes from, that remains at the center of what we do. And, no matter how we propose to articulate where we are and what we think, we are always coming from that place.

To that end, I see my series of posts this month as an opportunity to focus on my own essential moments of enlightenment and how they continue to affect the outgrowths of my work and philosophy, while steering away from articulating aesthetic, formal, and timbral concerns that live only on the surface of my thinking. In essence, I want to try to discover how the large lessons I’ve learned influence the way I think about and make music.

Natalie Lowrance was my piano teacher from ages ten to eighteen, when I decided to concentrate on trumpet. Mrs. Lowrance was a great teacher in the mold of so many great, underappreciated teachers. She uttered no magical phrase that changed the way her students viewed the world. She did, however, attempt to find an entry point for each one of us—to stoke our interest in music by speaking on our level and listening to what we had to say, creating an atmosphere in which one of those formational moments of enlightenment could be possible. For example, my first period of musical obsession came upon hearing a recording she gave me of Maurizio Pollini playing Schoenberg. It was not music she liked, but she recognized that it was resonating with me. We spent years talking about Schoenberg’s work frankly. We disagreed often, but always made the effort to logically back up our arguments and respect the other’s experience and opinion.

This experience changed the way I learn and is a model of how I want to engage with those around me. It is easy to believe that we are enriching ourselves, and those around us, by becoming living content providers: aggregators that provide information with a few simple comments and very little space for dissenting opinions. But, to provide the kind of entry points that allow other humans to spark a passion for music, we need to supplement this simple presentation of material with some shading of our humanity. We must create context by interacting with others to share the raw data by relating it to our own histories and opinions.

Essentially I’m suggesting we concentrate on the humanity of music by taking part in real discussion. By this, I do not mean “educating the unwashed masses” from a perceived aesthetic high ground, nor do I mean a forum in which everyone’s opinion is correct just for having been uttered. I mean beautiful, bloody, human arguments in which we listen, consider, reconsider, disagree, change our minds, or stick to our guns. Any discussion on any topic will do, as long as the end result is an exchange of ideas in which all participants leave with more to think about than when they entered. To that end, my editorial work with www.soundamerican.org is based on experiments with how to achieve this level of real discussion through a single-curator online publication.

What’s the lesson learned? Embracing the moment of discovery—recognizing what it is and sharing the knowledge we gain from it with others through one-on-one interaction—is an essential affirmation of our individuality and the way we grow as a community. Our main goal as human beings should be to seek out and experience as many of these flashes of understanding as possible. As individuals in a culture, we should strive to be an active participant in creating a collective atmosphere in which these sparks ignite more musical ideas.


Nate Wooley

Nate Wooley
Photo by Vera Marmelo

Nate Wooley was born in 1974 in Clatskanie, Oregon, a town of 2,000 people in the timber country of the Pacific Northwestern corner of the U.S. He began playing trumpet professionally with his father, a big band saxophonist, at the age of 13. His time in Oregon, a place of relative quiet and slow time reference, instilled in Nate a musical aesthetic that has informed all of his music making for the past 20 years, but in no situation more than his solo trumpet performances. He has performed regularly with such icons as John Zorn, Anthony Braxton, Eliane Radigue, Ken Vandermark, Fred Frith, Evan Parker, and Yoshi Wada, as well as being a collaborator with some of the brightest lights of his generation like Chris Corsano, C. Spencer Yeh, Peter Evans, and Mary Halvorson.

Whose Job Is It To Teach Audience Experience?

I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.

— Orson Welles

Orson Welles was addressing cinema as the art which becomes a social act, but his philosophy is no less true for classical music performance. At every step in our education, musicians are taught to rigorously train our understanding of technique, history, and theory. Many walk away with diplomas convinced that technical mastery is synonymous with the pinnacle of musical achievement. But despite this cultural emphasis on precision, there are thousands of displays of high-caliber technical skill that do not speak to us emotionally and do not fully convey the composer’s intent. There is more to musicianship than technical chops.

Inspired by Welles, I’d like to add my voice to the call for our community to pursue a successful audience experience as a priority on par with technical skill. When we perform with care for the holistic audience experience as well as care for the composer’s works, we can create a “social act” that is akin to magic. Audiences experience that magic when all performance elements align in the liminal space. Rigorous study is the pre-requisite for magic along with a thorough understanding of the perceptional foundations that underpin audience experience.

The audience comes to see themselves.

In order for us, as the actors, to successfully create magic and wonder, the audience must also be ready to suspend disbelief and jump into the experience with open eyes and ears. So, whose job is it to teach “audience experience” and create the performances and events that feel breathtaking?

First and most importantly, it starts with a musician’s duty to be a teaching artist. We have a plethora of opportunities to be advocates among our peers by helping to create a culture of curiosity within any ensemble in which we perform. Beyond our peers, we have the opportunity to pass on our vocation in a structured teaching environment, and it is there that we can be most effective.

I know firsthand how difficult it is to get beyond the technical skills we need to teach when we only have an hour per week (or less!) with each student. Eric Booth’s “Law of 80%” espoused in The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible: Becoming a Virtuoso Educator reads, “What you teach is who you are.” Are you devoted to being interested, curious—even captivated by your student musicians and the music they create? Regardless of the age or experience of your pupil, are you actively invested in how your charge is experiencing the music they and their peers are making?

As teachers, we know we are only a part of our student’s musical education. Our students spend a limited amount of time with us, so we should all aim to emphasize the “why” along with the “how” at every single stage of musical development. Teachers and teaching artists can create classroom plans, structure private lessons, and craft events and performances that require our students to study deeper engagement with all types of audiences. We can also encourage our students to be better audience members themselves. We teach our students to become part of the “social act” when they realize that listening is less about whether they “like” a piece of music than whether they can find something interesting or fascinating about the musical work. We must go beyond, “What do I want my students to know?” to asking ourselves, “What do I want my students to do with what they know?”

The job of teaching audience engagement extends to the other side of the fourth wall, too. We need to provide honest and constructive feedback on performance regularly. This is like user testing for your next performance. The idea is to gain insight from people with more experience by asking the right questions. The experience is not over when you tear down and leave the performance hall. It is over after you have had a chance to find out what worked and what didn’t from your perspective on stage and those in the audience whom you trust. You want to find out whether your listeners made a personal connection. If they did, they will come back for more. If they did not, they probably won’t. Audience feedback allows the performer and presenter to respect the various entry points and pathways the listener takes with the music.

If magic is the experience of a result without awareness of the process, arts organizations are in the business of magic. It is so challenging to cross all the t’s on a strict budget in our world, but it doesn’t exempt us from creating magic. Let your organizational benchmarks be measured against similar world-class experiences not just the dollar values. Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin in “Making Sense of Audience Engagement” define audience engagement as “a guiding philosophy in the creation and delivery of arts experiences in which the paramount concern is maximizing impact on the participant.” As arts organizations we must cherish our role in making the concert space a place of magic and pass on that love to our artists, interns, and colleagues.

It’s our job as musicians to nurture the audience. How do inexperienced musicians know how to do any of that without being taught? It is our job as arts administrators to care for our audience beyond their role as donors and ticket buyers. We must teach our colleagues and interns to raise more than funds. We need to raise our audience. As experienced audience members, we need to provide feedback regularly. Finally, it is our job as teachers in all facets to radicalize and actualize our students to understand the “why” and not just the “how” of making music for others.

Listen To Music, Dammit!

pile of CDs
Too often I hear people say things like “pop and rock concerts are a massive snore, unless you live and die by A minor and C major.” Defenders of popular music then launch back with lists of bands making sophisticated art in popular mediums, often followed by lists of pieces of concert music generally considered great that stick to one or two harmonies (hello, Electric Counterpoint; hello, first 136 bars of Das Rheingold). This line of argument isn’t that productive, though, and while we can use specific examples to poke each other all day, doing so doesn’t address how unhelpful the thinking behind such opinions can be. More importantly, it doesn’t address how positive keeping your ears open can be.

Listening to and trying to understand as much music as possible, even music that you don’t enjoy, is an incredibly important part of becoming a better and better musician. Different genres make use of different musical processes and ideas, and listeners raised in different traditions pay attention to different markers. Classical training, for instance, teaches us to follow tonal changes and listen for transformations, largely in the realms of pitch and rhythm. No wonder people who grew up steeped in this tradition find radio rock so boring—it does, in rather a lot of cases, tend to repeat the same four chords.

The rock tradition, on the other hand, trains listeners to pay attention to changes in color (here meaning timbre/sound). Those might be the same four chords, but this time they’re distorted, the drummer has moved from a closed high-hat to a crash, and the singer has moved from singing to screaming. Those markers, in rock, can mean the same thing to a rock listener that the move to dominant in a traditional sonata means to a classical listener. A rock listener, moreover, might entirely miss the structural importance of a change in harmony, because it may not be accompanied by a change in instrumentation. It certainly won’t in a piano sonata.

I’m not an expert in Hindustani music, but I assume there’s an equivalent structural/narrative device involved in listening to different ragas; different makams in Turkish classical music might serve the same purpose for its listeners, as might differences in the ways that different MCs place their lyrics across beats in rap and hip hop.
There is no way to make an argument that one type of music’s formal devices are better than another’s. This is not to say there isn’t a range in the quality of how well pieces take advantage of those devices. How convincing is that cadence? How dramatic is that color change? How cray is that shit, Jay?

I believe that creators have a responsibility to listeners to make ourselves aware of what’s out there, and to use what we learn through listening to improve our own art. I see no reason not to take advantage of multiple sets of signals to affect our listeners in the deepest way possible. If I’m writing something, I want it to be the best thing that I’m capable of writing, but there’s a whole world of possibilities out there that I might be missing. Even if hearing some of them doesn’t contribute directly to the work at hand, they can all contribute to my artistic understanding.

This, to me, is an extremely practical application of Plato’s allegory of the cave. A quick explanation: a group of people is chained up in a cave, in such a way that they can only see the wall in front of them. Behind them are their captors, and behind their captors is a fire. The prisoners have only ever known their current situation, and thus assume that the world consists entirely of their captors’ shadows on the wall in front of them. If they get free of their chains, they might think that the world consists solely of the cave, which includes the fire and the captors themselves. Upon escaping the cave, they’d learn that the world consists of a valley, and so on, and so on.

Today is an amazing time to be a listener with open ears. As we now have a practical means of easily accessing music from all times and all regions (Spotify and YouTube aren’t without their moral quandaries regarding royalties, but they’re a godsend for curious listeners), we have no excuse not to listen to everything we can get our ears on.

To be fair, no one has time to listen to everything that’s out there. I’ve only heard a little bit of Turkish classical music, and I don’t expect that I’ll ever become an expert on it. Of what I’ve listened to and read up on, I honestly haven’t enjoyed much. But for having heard it, I am a better composer, and better listener to other musics, than I was beforehand.

Maybe that’s the other side of expertise. If we realize there’s no way we can hear everything, and accept that we’ll never have anything near a complete understanding of the music being made today, then that frees us to grow infinitely. Knowing, experiencing, and learning from more than I knew, experienced, and learned from yesterday is a worthwhile goal.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: what, as an artist, is the benefit of being closed-minded or closed-eared? There isn’t one. What are the benefits to listening to and being aware of as much music as possible? There are about a zillion. Make it a mission to hear something new each day. Even if you hate it, figure out why you hate it. It’ll make you a better musician.