Monday, July 8, 2019

A New Lease on Learning & Teaching

Continuing Education

*Learning is never over*

I was fortunate in June to be among 16 musicians selected at the guinea pigs for a 4-day summer Improvisation Workshop led by drummer/composer Bobby Previte in Hudson, NY. Bobby is a brilliant musician, teacher, and radiant creative human being, and his enthusiasm captivated all of us from start to finish. I highly recommend you all check out his work if you haven't. Much to unpack there.

This workshop was a wonderful opportunity for me to set aside what I thought I knew about music and improvising (never easy to do) and simply enjoy the learning process with these other musicians, who came from 16 completely different musical backgrounds and had never played together. We quickly established a rapport, and I truly enjoyed everyone's creative contributions and individual personalities.

This was a hell of a process. 6-hours per day of intensive work together, exploring aspects of music so often forgotten or taken for granted, and far too often left unspoken in the academic sphere. 
By day two of this process, I already heard changes in everyone's playing (including my own).

 On day 4 we performed for about 100 people in Hudson Hall. It was an immersive concert experience, during which the audience and musicians were all in rapt attention while the music unfolded on its own. (I was excited to meet master improviser/violist Mat Maneri, who was in the audience that evening). It was a wonderful experience to share with so many folks, and I hope to create more experiences like this for people in the near future. 

One of my favorite experiences from the workshop was playing solo saxophone across the concert hall, delivering 30 seconds of my best musical effort for the other 15 musicians (plus Bobby), and then comparing that experience with the feeling of playing RIGHT ON TOP of that same group of folks, who were all standing right in my personal space! Wow...

The change in spacial relationship created a huge shift in the energy of the room! A powerful reminder that performing FOR PEOPLE is very different than being in your little bubble. We got to hear a few other musicians in the group try this same experience for themselves, I imagine it was as intense for them as it was for me. 

(Reminder: Get OUT of your bubble!!)

**Clicker was composed for 3 flutes, baritone saxophone, drumset, voices & synthesizer. It is a concept piece meant to simulate the feeling of turning radio dials through AM stations, and stumbling upon disparate stations along one's search for the right station.**

This whole experience in Hudson intensified my feelings about what it means to make music, and what it really means to TEACH music. Throughout the entire workshop, there were no discussions about what notes, harmonies, rhythms, or language we were expected to play! Rather, the whole series of exercises were designed to get us out of the "should" orientation, and into a frame of mind based in POSSIBILITY. What does the music need here and now. Nothing else matters.

Already, I can tell that my playing has changed since this experience, my listening has certainly changed, and my teaching concept is much much clearer to me. I've long wished to avoid "shoulds" in my teaching, insisting instead on empowering my students with the courage to CREATE from day 1.

Thanks to Bobby Previte, Hudson Hall, and all the musicians involved, for this wonderful experience!

Benjamin Zander

Along this journey toward awakening possibility in each student, learning to teach the WHY and HOW of music, not merely the WHAT, I have discovered the work of musician & teacher Benjamin Zander. 

Benjamin is a fantastic musician, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic & Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestras, and a world famous speaker, teacher, & author. Benjamin & his wife Rosamund Stone Zander co-authored a wonderful book entitled The Art Of Possibility back in 2000, and they made and even MORE wonderful audiobook version that I just finished listening to this weekend. Their passion for people and our ability to create lives worth LOVING is infectious and actionable. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Also worth checking out are Benjamin's "Interpretation of Music" series on Youtube. Absolutely marvelous teaching and playing. Very thought-provoking, and an incredible reminder of WHY we play music!


Recommended Videos

In 2 recent blog posts, I posited (rather strongly) that jazz education is largely missing the mark. I think it is important to use this platform to bring people's attention toward the gems as well as the pitfalls in this artistic pursuit of ours. Let's also remember that this is all about love, and expressing the human experience through song. Doesn't get much more direct than that!

Here are a couple of quirky yet extremely informative videos that bring attention to aspects worthy of more attention when we are teaching and learning jazz music. The processes highlighted here are intended to arm the student with the means of discovering themselves in their practice of standard songs, without prescribing the note choices or language required. The ear is here to guide us through the choice of pitches. Bill & Joe are offering us all a framework for discovery. 

(I'll add that Bill Frisell & Joe Lovano are two deep influences for me, and represent top-notch musicians of world renown who encapsulate both a love of musical tradition and a sense of adventure and possibility in their music.)


**Pay particular attention to the way both of these great musicians are practicing RUBATO, free from strict pulse - allowing space to HEAR what they are playing, and deliver each phrase in its own unique way. Notice ALSO, the strength with which each plays when a pulse IS enforced. Clearly there is power in our phrasing and sense of rhythm when we do not simply take metronomic pulse for granted, but instead, practice "time" as its own discipline, inclusive of the challenges of playing rubato**

Bill Frisell on "Days of Wine and Roses" & Practicing Tunes (Excerpt From The Guitar Artistry of Bill Frisell)

"Any song that I play, the MELODY is what gives an ARCHITECURE to what we improvise. If you combine all the theoretical knowledge: chords, scales, patterns, but keep the MELODY going - that's what will give you your own individual sound, really." - Bill Frisell

Joe Lovano on "Developing a Personal Approach to Improvisation"

"You're not practicing 'PRACTICING' - you're practicing PLAYING!" - Joe Lovano


Tootin' My Own Horn

A reminder that I am doing the life long work of integrating all of this into the work I am doing as a teacher for saxophonists & musicians who wish to get deeply in touch with their own creative impulses. 

I teach in the Baltimore & New York City areas.

visit my teaching page to learn more!

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Teaching & Learning Improvisation | Phrasing & Delivery


What is really happening when we improvise? What is happening when we interpret written music? What might be the same between those two processes?

Much of my background is in the study of jazz, and what I've found in my study & devotion to this music is a chasm between its practice and its instruction. 

While the history of jazz (in the broadest sense of the term) is overflowing with musicians who have expressed their basic creative impulses in a most dazzling array of personal achievements, jazz education is conspicuously bereft of the discussion of how and why one must cultivate their own creative impulse, and follow where that leads. 

Why is this??
Form & Function

Jazz educators have long found the quantifiable intellectual properties of the music (form, melody, harmony, rhythm) to be the easiest to teach, drawing on the history of formal music analysis which predates the existence of what we call "jazz" by many many years.

This is important work! 

Thanks to educational innovators like Jerry Coker, Jamey Aebersold, Barry Harris, David Liebman, George Russell, and countless others, there is now plenty of information available to help musicians decipher the written language of jazz, train our ears to identify the gravitational tendencies within, and identify the properties of the idiom. As a result of decades of that work being codified, there is now an intimidating amount of information across the internet, decoding the mathematical relationships that would appear to reduce "jazz theory" to a series of explainable phenomena.

With that stated, it is an incomplete picture of what is going on when we improvise, and we all know this. 

What's more, we almost completely gloss over the delivery and interpretation of the melodies to these tunes...

Most of the information in the current jazz education paradigm is offered from a solely theoretical perspective, dealing with the nuts and bolts of what notes to play & where in your solos - according to "THE TRADITION". 

These are prescriptions of "correct" harmonic language wherein bits of preordained vocabulary are ascribed to phrases within the forms of standard tunes, and pieced together to make solos that make sense on paper, but often are devoid of personal meaning or character. 

That is damn near 95% of the discussion among jazz musicians. Whose solo was the hippest or the most "killing" at the jam session? How "crushing" the harmonic substitutions or modern, angular lines are from X player...So rare is the discussion of how MOVING someone's playing is. 

The tradition in jazz education is to deal with chords & chord progressions as if they are stationary snapshots (out of context) giving the jazz student the impression that harmony is rather static - moving in blocks - and encouraging the soloist to play "on" the chords, one at a time. Once the musician becomes aware of the notion that we move THROUGH chord sequences, their efforts are often concentrated on memorizing phrases that someone else played over that same set of chord changes. Once they have an array of preordained vocabulary locked and loaded, they hope they'll be well on their way to expressing real music in the moment! Yet this is much more a recreative process than a creative one. Is this the only way?

Many teachers fail to deliver with appropriate urgency the importance HOW & WHY TO PLAY, ACCORDING TO YOUR PERSONAL MUSICAL IMPULSES IN THE MOMENT! 

Listening to what your ears are telling you. Asking the MUSIC what it needs.

I am drawing a line in the sand right now - I am here to suggest that knowing the "language" of jazz is not NEARLY enough to make great music happen...

MUSIC is something else, not just the right notes on the right chords. Music is something that "happens", not merely a series of explainable intellectual phenomena. It is a happening. An occurrence. It is ALIVE. Music is you, me, the audience, the resonant acoustic space. Music is alchemy. 


So there is the "problem" - how about a solution?

I wish to emphasize, first & foremost, that I believe the study of PHRASING (as it relates to the unfolding of a melodic idea) yields the greatest reward for the improviser. 

This orientation has immediate benefits in the short-term, while yielding tremendous long-term effects. 

1. RHYTHM may be understood as Mirriam-Webster defines it:

"An ordered recurrent alternation of strong and weak elements in the flow of sound and silence (in speech.)"

When we separate our notions about rhythm from the necessity of the metric component (even division of measures with a consistent pulse) even temporarily, it liberates us to explore the duration and stress of each note in a melody, observing how stressing some notes over others instigates a unique feeling of melodic motion. This puts us in a position of creative power, by comparing the flow and unfolding of melodic motion with that of our speech patterns. 

** Rhythm & melody are inexorably connected. **

RHYTHM IS ALSO OF UTMOST IMPORTANCE WHEN PLAYING RUBATO! (Rubato: the temporary disregarding of strict tempo to allow an expressive quickening or slackening, usually without altering the overall pace.)

If we are able to connect our sense of phrasing and rhythm with the flow of speech patterns, our music immediately takes on a more personal quality!

2. Rhythm, Melody & Harmony are all expressions of musical motion!

These three components function together to create what we perceive as cohesive musical ideas

The discipline of confidently delivering each idea we play is what makes the difference in how our music comes across to the listener. 

There are simple yet profound ways we can harness this ability, using melodies, intervals, scales, exercises, or pieces of music as our impetus…

A great goal for all musicians to have would be BRINGING EACH PHRASE TO LIFE!

In this way, it simply doesn’t matter WHAT you are practicing or playing, it is important HOW you play it. 

With primary emphasis places on phrasing (long/short duration, loud/soft dynamics, long/short arcs, articulations, etc.) we can play any melodic idea with many interpretations.


PLAY ANY MAJOR SCALE 12345671 using LONG notes as STRESSED notes or ARRIVALS and using SHORT notes as PASSING tones.

EXAMPLE: [ONE 2 3 FOUR, FIVE 6 7 ONE] Arabic numerals represent passing tones, with Stressed notes spelled out in capital letters.


THIS is phrasing. The shaping of a line. 

**What harmonic motion might we imply with the phrasing of our major scale above?**

Allow the duration to affect whether the note stands out as important or is only supporting other notes, by accenting the stressed 
notes in the line using dynamics

(much like the effect of emboldening or capitalizing words in a sentence.)

Now, try that same idea with the melody to “I Fall in Love Too Easily”.

Stressed notes will be represented by caps locked words in the lyrics:


(Check out how different the phrasing of this melody is when Chet Baker sings it from when Frank Sinatra sings it. We aren't looking to pick a favorite, we are listening for the subtle differences!)

The motion from these “stressed” notes THROUGH the passing tones and into the next STRESSED notes are what give shape to our melodic lines. THIS IS ALSO INEXORABLY LINKED TO THE FLOW OF HARMONIC RHYTHM! Of the stressed notes in the ballad above, how many of those words land on a chord tone on beat 1 or 3?? 

Our goal is to start connecting dots as soon as possible.

With only 12 chromatic pitches, a handful of harmonic colors (chords) & their corresponding scales – it is clearly our phrasing which defines the music we are attempting to deliver. Technique merely serves the phrasing. Yet, this is the single most overlooked aspect of music education to date.

I am making it my mission to bring this expressive power to all musicians, at all levels of performance & study.

Application In Real Life...

There is a gap for all of the folks who are going into, coming out of, opting out of, or transitioning between music schools... there is a gap between knowledge and application, practice and performance, conception and execution. We all reach a point where the necessary move is to leave behind our hard earned “expertise” and begin anew. To get back to the beginning. To find OUR MUSIC.

Performance and instruction of music of any variety is enriched by the musician’s full embrace ... reconsidering the simplest elements of musicality, phrasing, delivery, and composition from one note to the next. One phrase to the next. 

As improvisers, we need to consider the compositional process. Again, and again!

As interpreters of written music, the same elements must be considered in order to perform fully realized interpretations!

 This means that all musicians must be able to improvise clear, direct melodic ideas that establish the rules of tonal gravity, as well as the power of intention - grouping even “random” notes together in a melodious fashion that creates a sense of pleasing motion, departure and arrival! 

This is not necessarily “jazz” in its stylistic conception, but rather a spontaneous process of musical expression that assimilates all of the building blocks available to the musician in real time.

Every improvising musician bears the responsibility for the energy on stage, and therefore the energy in the audience. This is paramount - the control we are working toward is about directly connecting with the music, and bringing its magic to life. 

This is a huge responsibility!

Improvisation Instruction...

Improvisation is widely regarded as something that cannot be taught (by classical musicians and old school jazz musicians alike) - on the other hand, the working model for jazz education is largely predicated on the notion that “improvisation” is not a spontaneous creative process at all! It is instead represented as a clever reordering or recitation of preconceived “language” or “vocabulary”, acquired by copying recorded solos from the history of the music, and plugging these licks into the chord changes of a song...this cleverness is valued more than creativity, or should I say musicality, or taste. 

Classical musicians are experiencing a renaissance in exploring the world of improvisation in “new music” circles, and exciting explorations are happening, indeed. Extended techniques are largely emphasized, and improvisations are meant to give sections of the music an uncertain element of “chance”. This robs the performing classical musician of the gift of true study of improvisation in a melodic/ harmonic/ rhythmic (or should I say compositional or narrative) context. 

So what is missing in the study and teaching of improvisation is a method by which one discovers at their own pace, with their own ears, instrument, and value system - one note or phrase at a time - how to navigate and create strong melodic statements, without relying on cliches or preconceived lines, considering extended techniques to be fair game, while putting primary emphasis on the creation of clear and satisfying rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic motion.

 In real time. 

Teaching | The Primordial Impulse to Create (Part 1)

My student Abraham Wojewodzki (Right)
joins my band at Bertha's in Baltimore
for a set of free improvisation (December 2018)

Alongside my career as a performer & recording artist

I've been a private instructor for saxophonists & improvisers in the Baltimore area for 15 years and counting. I maintained studios at several area music stores and even some private schools, from age 17-30. It was honest work, and was instrumental in establishing myself as a young professional musician.

Private teaching is a major piece of the puzzle for many of us. It offers the potential for some financial stability and an opportunity to articulate the experience of making music - for ourselves and for our students. This ends up being a big part of our path - learning to articulate the more abstract concepts of music, along with the fundamentals of music making. This necessitates a level of proficiency on our instrument, and holds us accountable for the work we hope to accomplish as performers. Any paid work which holds us artistically accountable is a great opportunity. We stand to gain a lot by doing this well. We stand to gain more by getting better as we go.

With that stated, there are many pitfalls in the traditional situations that many of us find ourselves teaching in...and if we aren't prepared to swim upstream, we may find ourselves joylessly punching the clock rather than carrying the torch we set out with on day one, thereby abdicating the primary responsibility we have to our students: Sustaining and enhancing the joy and wonder of music making. I nearly fell into that trap a few years ago, and had to reassess my intentions as a private educator. Several aspects of the environments I was teaching in made it difficult to relay the most essential joys of music. I felt stymied by the music store cubicles and the shared teaching spaces of private schools. 

Many of these students came to me hoping to ace an audition, or compete against other students, neither of which align with the idea that music is a healing force in our universe, which is really why I believe we are drawn to music in the first place!

In order to focus with greater intensity on the experiential nature of music, I eventually left these institutions, endeavoring to coach musicians on an independent basis. This allowed me to get straight to the point of WHY we are making music, connecting students with the essence of our practice:
  1. The physiology of bringing an idea to life in real time. 
  2. The practicalities of actualizing and organizing the sounds in our mind.
  3. The magic of making cohesive music with other human beings. 

Suddenly I found a much deeper reason to teach, leading me to pursue facets of music and the saxophone that I may never have learned about if I were exclusively a performer. This changed EVERYTHING for the better.

Ever since that big shift, I’ve worked closely with many students, ranging from “day one” beginners to professionals reaching to expand their vocabulary, deepen their tone, open up their ears, or get in touch with their own personal mode of musical expression. Lessons are mostly offered in my own home these days, and am working to offer more clinics and masterclasses to the public, having truly enjoyed the opportunities I have had in this context in my recent past.

My FAVORITE aspect of teaching in this new way is the dismantling of the authoritarian approach to learning. I do not pretend to know everything, and I do not expect you to believe every word I say. My objective is to EMPOWER every musician with the confidence to go all the way every single time the instrument is being sounded.

Another EXCELLENT aspect of teaching from my home studio is that we have no distractions, time restrictions, or preordained curriculum we need to follow. This is just you and me, developing the music together. 
This means no excuses or expectations. Simply student & teacher, here & now, freeing the music from within. 

My students are able to go as far that they want to in these lessons. This experience rivals or perhaps supplements the experience of studying at a college, since we can dig in as long as you want and as far as you want into any particular area of study. The lack of prescribed curriculum means you are practicing that which is most enriching for you 100% of the time. Fundamentals of music are constantly reinforced, and illuminated as the basis for revealing the creative process. 

All are welcome in my studio. This work that gets more rewarding the more I do it, and I am grateful for the opportunity.


The Primordial Creative Impulse

In my 15 years as an independent music educator I've nurtured the impulse that pushes us to make a lean in and create something.

This impulse is the same energy that pushes us to survive, grow, and evolve...or to examine the world around us, and the world that thrives within us. Creative work is our way of striving to connect those inner & outer worlds, and this visceral impulse is the primordial ooze from which all of our creative ideas are born. 

My mission as a performer, educator, and communicator is to introduce people to that impulse, and encourage folks to indulge in it. The NEED to create. The nuts and bolts of the artist's chosen idiom or medium are merely the tools with which this impulse is a gift to the community...

 All too often, the idiom is celebrated as a bigger triumph than the vitality of the impulse which brought the art into being.

My ultimate objective is connecting all humans with the source of this impulse, liberating a sense of wonder and adventure in everyday life.

We do this by revitalizing our experience of simple, actionable, experiential goals - in the present moment. When our life is aligned with this need, this source of vibration, each and every action and observation in our lives is experienced with greater intensity. Only when music and art of any kind is an expression of this, do we FEEL moved by these subjective creations. 

I am determined to realign the discussion of improvisation in music by placing primary emphasis on our creative impulse - thereby reintroducing the intellectual processes of form, melody, harmony, rhythm as extensions of this NEED to create. Form and idiom function as expressions of this primordial impulse.

To understand this impulse, simply ask yourself: "Why?" The feeling that accompanies that question IS where this impulse comes from.

The Purpose of Music

An Die Musik with Dave Ballou-trumpet & Michael Formanek-bass "What is the job of a musician?” This is one of many rhe...