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Archive for the ‘musician’ Category

Quit NowMy wife and I were discussing the children last night and their activities. Among that discussion was music lessons. One of the things we told our children is that they will learn to play a musical instrument starting no later than their 12th birthday. We’re not expecting any of them to become a virtuoso, but we do want them to experience what it’s like, to learn how to read music, and gain some appreciation for what musicians go through. My wife and I both grew up playing flute, and we know that it has been beneficial for us. We wanted to pass on those benefits to our children.

Our oldest two boys have taken up instruments. The oldest plays guitar. His younger brother, the iconoclast, chose the ocarina. My oldest loves playing. He willingly practices every day, usually multiple sessions every day. He’s fully embracing some of the lessons fromĀ Talent Is Overrated. My younger son, however, doesn’t enjoy structured playing all that much. Both boys have instructors. We told them that if they picked an instrument we were familiar with (flute and french horn for both of us, and trumpet as well for me) we could tutor them or we could find an instructor, if they preferred that. If they picked an instrument we weren’t familiar with, we’d have to find a tutor. We did happen to find an ocarina tutor, but unlike in Taiwan, there’s a limited amount that he can do without building a curriculum from scratch. As a result, my younger son’s tutor also introduced him to the recorder.

My younger son has done his part for 18 months. He has learned an instrument (actually, two), can read music, and has demonstrated a willingness to practice a piece until he can play it to the expected level. He has performed on both recorder and ocarina at a recital and did a fine job. He has shown the ability to play as a soloist and with accompaniment. He has done everything we’ve asked and expected. As a result, last night my wife and I decided to give him the option of stopping music lessons. It’s not something he’s passionate about. We’ve accomplished the objectives set forth with asking him to learn an instrument. Now it’s a question of whether or not it’s something he wants to continue to do.

In other words, from a parenting perspective, we decided it was time to quit. He won’t be graded on it for school this year (we homeschool) and we won’t insist he practice and continue to attend lessons. Now it’s his turn to determine whether or not to quit. I know that since he’s had the time to learn the ocarina and has gotten some skill with it, he will always play it from time-to-time. I’m like that with flute. However, I don’t want him taking lessons anymore if he doesn’t want to. I’d rather he pour the time and energy into something he’s passionate about.

In life, especially as we pursue our goals, we have to know when to quit. Maybe something is a worthwhile goal, but there is a bigger goal it’s taking us away from. If that’s the situation, and we have to choose, it’s likely time to quit the former and pursue the latter with the resources we get back. We don’t want to quit too early. We want to reap the benefits of pursuing a goal or endeavor. However, we can’t make decisions based solely on what we’ve already spent. That time, that energy, those resources, are already sunk cost. They are in the past. If the goal isn’t worth pursuing anymore or if the endeavor isn’t worth what we’re continuing to put into it, then it’s time to quit. Too often I’ve seen people continue down a particular road because of the miles they’ve already traveled. Whether or not they realize it, they’ve let the past imprison them in the present with further incarceration ordered for the future.

Every so often take time to assess where you are and what you’re doing. Look at each goal, each area of interest and effort, and each endeavor carefully. Judge your involvement and where you want to go and be in the future. If something doesn’t fit anymore, don’t be afraid to call it quits. Realize the impact, don’t do it too easily, but have the courage to make the change. And then pour the freed up resources into other areas of your life.

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flute Want to get better? Be intentional about it. Plan out your development. Think about what you need to do to improve and build a schedule or routine. This isn’t just for weight lifting, but for most anything in life.

A month ago I was playing some hymns on my flute and realized that I hadn’t technically challenged myself for a long time. About the hardest thing you see in hymns are eighth notes in 6/8 time at slower tempos. If you don’t know what that means musically, consider it to be a relatively easy task, something you would expect someone who had been playing only a couple of months to be able to handle. I picked up something, a solo piece that I used to use as a warm-up exercise, to see how I would do. I struggled.

It was then that I knew I wanted to get back to my old level of playing. To do so would take a lot of work. I didn’t want to go about things haphazardly. I wanted to make solid progress continually. However, I know I don’t have the two to three hours a day I used to spend practicing. Some days I may only get a 15 minute block. I need to make that time count. It was time to be intentional. Here is the schedule I devised depending on how much time I have:

15 minutes:

  • 5 min: warm-up – scales, lower notes held
  • 5 min: fingering & tonguing exercises
  • 5 min: 1 or 2 passages in chosen piece

30 minutes:

  • 5 min: warm up – lower notes held, chromatic scale
  • 5 min: scales
  • 10 min: fingering & tonguing exercises
  • 10 min: work on chosen piece

1 hr:

  • 5 min: warm up – lower notes held, chromatic scale
  • 10 min: scales
  • 15 min: fingering & tonguing exercises
  • 30 min: work on chosen piece

There isn’t anything fancy about this schedule. However, it hits everything I need in a reasonable breakdown of time for each type of practice. I use the timer on my smartphone to get me within the allocated time.

Look to do something similar for the areas you want to improve. Think about how best to progress and build yourself a schedule or routine. Then execute on it and stick with it. Be intentional about planning your practice. You’ll accomplish far more than if you go after it haphazardly.

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If you look on Amazon, you’ll see that Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art is highly recommended with over 200 5 star reviews (roughly 2/3 of the reviews listed). For part of the book, I’ll agree. For the rest of it, not so much. Let me explain. The book is divided into three distinct parts:

  • Part 1 – Defining Resistance, which is what wars against art and creativity.
  • Part 2 – Tactics and strategy for fighting Resistance.
  • Part 3 – a miss-mash of spiritual talk and literature and Jungian psychology and I’m not sure what else.

Part 1 is good. Part 2 is okay. Part 3, by my description, I’m pretty sure you’ve figured out I’m saying not to bother with. Notice I didn’t say great, so I’m not sure why it got 5 star reviews. Everyone has their own opinion, so here’s mine, for what its worth.

Pressfield tries to define that which keeps us from completing the creating projects we start. While focusing primarily on writing, Pressfield makes it clear that Resistance opposes any creative effort. So what is Resistance? Resistance is sort of a personification of those bad habits and self-destructive behaviors that prevent us from getting things done. Part 1 reviews them, considers why we have them, and talks about why they succeed. Now, I said part 1 is good. It’s good because it’s a welcome reminder of these behaviors. However, Pressfield isn’t coming from the position of any research, but rather his own empirical evidence. And the problem with empirical evidence like this is it consists of a test body of 1. Part 1 is good to read to provoke thought. Part 1 is good for one to look at and ask, “Are these true of me? Am I my own worst enemy and, if so, how specifically?” That leads to Part 2.

Part 2 defines fighting Resistance by concerted and consistent effort. Pressfield calls this “turning pro,” and it’s a great reminder that often times the key to success is to do just keep trying. Not everything we create is going to be great. Probably a lot of it won’t be. But the act of doing it repeatedly means occasionally we’ll have the success we desire. Even if we don’t, we’re built to create and we will find that we need to do this. Okay, I can buy all this. It’s the same sort of behavior you see constantly. “Do a little every day and it adds up to a lot.” “If you want to be a great writer, the secret is to write every day.” “Want to be a great musician? Practice at least 15 minutes a day, no matter what. Even if you’re sick, get out your horn.” Adopting this behavior is what Pressfield says separates the pro from the amateur. He has some great quotes, too, like the following:

“To the amateur, the game is his avocation. To the pro it’s his vocation.”

And that leads to Part 3. I should have been prepared for it when I read the Foreword and the writer noted he disagreed with Pressfield. Part 3 is supposed to be where you get your inspiration. Pressfield points to a higher plane, a non-physical one, and mixes a lot together for his view. He cites his own habit of reciting a prayer to the muse (and meaning it) before he sits down to work. Then he talks about angels, about Hindu sacred writings, about Greek gods and Native American characterizations of the same. He brings in some Jungian psychology and even stirs things up a little with the Bible. I’m not sure how much value there is to this last part. It might inspire some, but the simple act of getting out there and writing and doing whatever it is you find that fulfills you creatively.

Would I recommend this book? I don’t think so. It’s a short book by number of pages and that doesn’t really tell the true story. Many of the chapters are short and I can say that on the Kindle version there was a lot of white space so I’m assuming that in print the chapters look minimal, too. The only section I got much value of was part 1 and part 3 I felt was just not worth reading. I did so, to the end, to see if there was a hidden nugget of wisdom there, but left finding nothing worth the time spent. If you can get it through your library or by borrowing it from a friend, then Part 1 is worth the read, and possibly Part 2. However, there are quite a few folks that absolutely love this book, so perhaps I’m missing something.

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I’m evaluating the goals I have for 2010, and I’m breaking them based on a rough area of focus. The first list I really have together is the one of my creative goals for this year. They are:

  • Learn to Sew – I really want to learn how to sew, and sew well, for this coming year. It’s something I’ve put off for far too long.
  • Write a Book Targeted at Men’s Ministry – This is more of a calling that a personal desire. Hopefully I have something worthwhile to say on the subject.
  • Improve My Ocarina Playing – I have a sweet potato ocarina, like the one pictured to the right. I was starting to get used to playing it, but got busy and forgot about it. I want to get back to playing it, because it has a unique sound.
  • Become Consistent on My Flute Playing – When I tore up my shoulder back in 1993-1994, I lost a lot of technical proficiency. I never practiced to gain it back. I’ve maintained just enough practice to get my tone back after a couple of weeks of practice, but I’m not where I want to be with the caliber of my play. The only way to change this is to try and play every day.

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After reading one book by Wynton Marsalis, To a Young Jazz Musician: Letters from the Road, I went looking for more. I have an awesome public library, one that was rated the best in the nation a few years ago. They have a couple more books, including one that’s part biography and part auto-biography, Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life. It is writted primarily by Carl Vigeland, with comments here and there by Wynton Marsalis.

The book chronicles some of the travels and Marsalis and his band and in a lot of ways is an inside look at what it’s like to be an ensemble on the road. I say ensemble instead of band because when we think of bands, we often think of rock and pop bands that have made it big, and their experience is certainly different than those experienced by Marsalis’ crew. After all, Marsalis’ group played all over, from big gigs to ones in small towns. Also, because they were an ensemble looking to play “real jazz,” which isn’t so popular anymore. So you see a group that is going from destination to destination, usually low key, never really knowing what kind of crowds they’ll have, but a group of top notch musicians who are there to play. To play is everything.

And that’s what you realize what these cats have given up. What they have sacrificed. Those of us who have been musicians probably have dreamed of being on the road and just playing. It sounds like a great life, until you really consider what it costs you. These men struggle with their family lives. They struggle with the expectations of themselves, of the people that come to see them, of other musicians, and of the critics. They struggle with trying to balance playing with studio time to record albums. They struggle with playing. Nobody can always be on all the time. But when you’re a musician playing a gig and you care as passionately as these guys do, you give it your all. The folks who have come to see you deserve it.

Speaking of deserving things, after reading this book, I have a new found respect for Wynton Marsalis and his passion for nurturing other musicians. The same goes for the folks accompanying him. His group didn’t just work gigs. They did workshops at all levels. And you see cases where kids and youngsters have been able to get to a performance and he ends up giving an ad hoc lesson. Like one case where he helps a young trumpet player with her breathing. Some folks might be thinking, “Breathing? How hard could that be?” It can be very hard. As a flute player, it was something I struggled with early on. When I got to college and we were playing a lot longer frames, it meant I had to have more air capacity. A lot of that is based on how you breathe. Breathing is critical for any instrument requiring the power of your lungs. It was a lesson I learned on flute, but I had reinforced when I branched out and played trumpet and french horn, too. So for him to take the time for a lesson like that, without prep, likely without pay, says a lot.

Now, would I recommend this book? If you’re a musician or you a music type, especially someone who loves jazz, absolutely. If you’re easily offended, however, no. The language can be rough at times, as can some of the political and social views that are presented. If you want to gain an appreciation for someone working so passionately for their art and craft, this is a good book. As a minister and as a DBA, I gained new perspective on how to approach what I do. And I was humbled by what I read. We talk about passion. These guys have it.

 

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ToAYoungJazzMusicianHopefully Wynton Marsalis needs no introduction. If he does, follow the link! I’ve followed him for a long time as he represents one of the greatest musicians of our generation. And as a great musician, not just a great jazz musician, as he is sometimes thought of, he took the time to impart some of his knowledge and wisdom as a musician in the form of letters to a young, up and coming musician, similar to what Rainer Maria Rilke did once upon a time in Letters to a Young Poet.

Let me start the review by saying if you’re not a musician, you’ll still get something out of the book. If you’re a musician, even if you’re not a jazz musician, you’ll definitely get something out of the book. I enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s a quick read, but it’s one I found myself picking up again and again until I was finished. A lot of it resonated with me as the lessons he was imparting I’ve heard before from the “old cats” during my own experience playing jazz during high school.

Well, let’s start with what this book isn’t. This book isn’t:

  • A 1-2-3 manual on how to play jazz.
  • This book doesn’t delve much into the technical aspects of playing jazz at all.
  • This book doesn’t tell you what you’ve got to work on to be proficient as a musician.

So what does this book do?

  • It reveals the proper mindset to be a solid jazz musician. This isn’t technical, this is mental & emotional.
  • It reveals that what a young musician is struggling with, as far as performance goes, is not unusual. All good musicians go through them, and provides instruction on how to get through those challenges.
  • It is a reminder to set reasonable goals as a musician, work towards them, maintain patience as you do, because a lot of being a good musician is hard work and staying at the craft.
  • It is a reminder to know who our audience is and to play for them.
  • It is a reminder that jazz, because of the way jazz is, is all about interacting with the other musicians. You can’t be a lone wolf and play true jazz at a real gig.
  • It is a reminder that you can’t play half way. As a musician, this is unacceptable. You’ve got to play with all your passion. Do that, or don’t play.
  • It is a reminder to understand what has been laid out before we came along. Understand it. Use it. Build upon it. It’s a foundation for a reason. Tossing it all away so you can be a rebel is dumb and often completely fruitless.

One of the things that really impressed me about the book is how much Marsalis used examples from outside of jazz. He’s also a classical trumpet player and made references there. He even used art to demonstrate his line of thinking once or twice. Jazz isn’t just about the notes. It’s more than that, and I think Marsalis captured that in this book.

One warning to close on and that is the fact that there is some language. If you’re easily offended, you probably don’t want to pick this book up. In general it’s rather light, but there is some. No, it’s not like Eminem, but it’s not like Mother Teresa, either.

 

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