Sunday, August 17, 2014

NUVO Chamber Trio

About a month ago I, along with the cellist and percussionist from The NUVO Chamber Trio, had a fabulous time playing for 100 guests at The Chapel of The Chimes in North Oakland.  The Moorish & Gothic architecture was such an inspiration for me to really listen, as if audiences from all the previous decade of performances were present in the room. I mean, when I pass on (the venue is, after all, an historic crematory and columbarium) I would certainly want to hear the mix of music that we presented—a slow Rachmaninoff theme became a fast jazz waltz, a nearly lost Sephardic melody came to life as a Latin journey, and my Turkish suite grew to five players with the help of our digital loopers.  And I didn't forget that those who have passed on really enjoy humor, and so I had tons of fun performing the re-enactment of my conversations with the French romantic composer Gabriel Faure. The audience was very appreciative of our intriguing mix and gave us a standing ovation (and bought out nearly all of my CDs).

Friday, July 18, 2014

Getting ready for NUVO Chamber Trio's performance

Group rehearsal, personal practice, logistics, plan B's and C's. 
Getting everything ready for this Sunday's NUVO Chamber Trio at the Chapel of the Chimes.

Sunday July 20th
Jazz At The Chimes, Oakland

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Thank you KCSM

Had a great time chatting with Harry Hall on KCSM last Sunday. Plugging the NUVO Chamber Trio performance this Sunday at Jazz at the Chimes as well as news on my upcoming KRIYA octet album Essentions, which is getting its final touches.

Here are the tracks that were featured on the show: a mix of tracks new, newish and old.

KRIYA Octet - Counterpoint

Cut from the new album, coming out later this year.
NUVO Chamber Trio - Homage a Gismonti, Y'vonim
Chamber jazz trio with me, Sam Bass and Brian Rice. 

The first track is dedicated to Egberto Gismonti, Brazilian composer and master of the ten string guitar.  
The second is an arrangement of a Sephardic piece - hear these and other pieces live this Sunday!

Michael Smolens - Last Rendezvous
From my chamber jazz album, featuring Zakir Hussain on tabla and Oregon reed player Paul McCandless.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Hommage a Gismonti (excerpt) - NUVO Chamber Trio

It's really fun doing Hommage a Gismonti with cello versus sax. The cello can play so many functions besides just the melody (like bass lines and counter melodies) and it's great to hear that instrument at high speeds. My piano part (except for my solo) is the only piece in that group's repertoire that is written out note-for-note and is quite demanding ! When I listen to the current video and compare it to the Live Vol. 1 Limbo Eruption duets with Sheldon Brown from 2000, it proves to me that any piece can become manageable given enough time and patience to breakdown the problem areas (particularly around 'grouping'). It's like a very fast car ride through Sao Paulo !

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Composing–Isn’t It Just Like Ironing Your Shirt? Part IV

In this post, we examine Games and Free Writing as tools for the composer.

Here is where Self-Analysis gets applied. Let’s say you’ve noticed that you have a strong tendency to compose songs that start with an 8-bar rhythmic introduction (generally referred to as a vamp ) with your guitar. Also, your lyrics are usually written after you’ve created your vamp. This is likely the reason that your songs don’t have the variety that you’re searching for. A quick way to address this tendency would be to compose three different sets of text, four lines each, on completely different subjects, and create a melody for each without any accompaniment. This game is designed to force you to deal with the inherent differences in text without the distraction of your guitar playing. 

Working on (and even creating) compositional games that focus on a weak area has many advantages. One is that each project can be short, quite short, in fact, so it will feel less intimidating. The next is that no real inspiration is needed for this; you treat it more or less just like a crossword puzzle, something you might do nonchalantly. Another is that it is easier to maintain a sense of detachment when reviewing your efforts because it’s fundamentally an exercise, though you may find yourself surprised to notice ho w invested you’ve become! Lastly, your game needn’t be developed into a completed piece or even performed, so this is a great way of taking the pressure off of the process. I recall one of my composition teachers saying to me, “Michael, your problem is that you think everything you compose has to be made public.” Point taken... 

Free Writing 
Composing without any restrictions is, in a sense, like breathing. It’s essential to maintaining a healthy sense of self-expression and artistic autonomy. If you have the time and focus to be able to fit in your other writing projects (and instrumental and/or vocal assignments), I generally recommend that you always keep it in your schedule to some extent. Depending upon your temperament, you’ll prioritize free writing to suit you, and this will almost certainly fluctuate over time. 

Occasionally, I’ll recommend that a student only listen to and write in one particular style, or in the style of an influential composer, or some specific parameter (a tempo, form, etc.) to address some imbalance in their writing. Let’s say that a writer tends to always write fast pieces with many chord changes. I might suggest that they compose a minute-long, unaccompanied melody where occasional quarter notes are the fastest events in the piece. I might also suggest that they listen to very slow pieces from various folk, classical, and world music traditions to help support this new-found sensibility. A comparable situation would be assigning a student to only make slow “hu” sounds to relieve chronic vocal tension. It’s amazing what a short immersion experience can yield! 

In Part V, wrapping it up with the final two modalities, Skill Building and Listening.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Composing–Isn’t It Just Like Ironing Your Shirt? Part III

In part III, what Analysis and Self-Analysis offers a composer.

Analysis (oh no, not THEORY...) 
People often hear “theory” used interchangeably with “analysis, ” so I’m going to address how most musicians encounter theory, which is usually in the context of a music class or sometimes through private instruction. Invariably, the vocabulary of written music is introduced (note values, rests, meter, key signatures, etc.) followed by long courses about how our harmony system works (i.e. the world of chord progressions). Now, there’s nothing wrong with this, yet these are only two of a dozen or so major areas of study. Only much later are other areas generally addressed. And because theory is most often taught without a concurrent connection to composition or improvisation, many students are dismayed by such an abstract and disembodied method. What this traditional approach fails to do is equip students to listen to any style of music, no matter how seemingly simple or absolutely unfamiliar, and observe the patterns that the piece creates. If you’ve been groomed to listen primarily to harmony, you’re going to miss out on a lot of music that doesn’t gravitate around traditional harmonic practice. 

Like a great painting, a piece of music can be studied in detail to reveal its many qualities— some quite subtle, some surprisingly obvious. Good places to start your investigation of pieces that inspire you are: style, overall form, lyrics (if present), phrasing, melody, rhythm, harmony, arrangement, tone color, and rate of change. Less traditional, and still fascinating elements are: global placement, elemental qualities, lightness spectrum, social/political context, style tendencies, and placement within the composer’s overall output. 

So, if analysis is an after-the-fact phenomenon and is not actually composing, why bother? The first and most obvious benefit will become apparent when you feel stuck on some part of a piece and need a way to get “un-stuck.” After all, even the most experienced composers get stuck sometimes. The tools that come from analysis are akin to having your very own emergency roadside service. Anytime you feel the need for a “jump”, or a good flashlight to help you see why you’re at an impasse, you’ll thank yourself for having those skills. 

Another benefit you’ll feel from analysis lies in your ability to pre-plan. Granted, I pay careful attention to my unexpected ideas (and gifts) that show up and incorporate them when they strengthen a piece. But I also appreciate the ability to compose based upon certain elements that I know in advance, like style, key, melodic range, piece length, type of event that the piece will be played for, etc. 

The final benefit is more unconscious in nature, but no less important. Learning how to take apart music will help you trust your first instincts—a critical skill for any composer. Over the last several decades of composing, I have noticed that I feel much more trusting of my ideas as they occur, even when they don’t at first seem to make sense. Time after time I’ve observed that my first impulse was correct when I looked at my decision-making process using the tools of analysis (though not during the purely creative phase). I love that feeling of knowing that I can “find my way home”, no matter how far afield I travel. 

All of the benefits outlined in the previous section certainly h old true when you examine your own work. And there is a skill to keeping that analytic part of your mind at bay when you are in the exploratory phase of a new song, so don’t be alarmed if you notice a bit of that internal chatter at first. It’s a natural tendency to become conscious of your creative process when learning the various aspects of composing. 

When students who have done a fair amount of composing take a step back, they can quickly see what styles, forms, and approaches they’ve taken a liking to. Chances are good that many of their compositional choices are the result of unconscious habit, and this is where detailed observations and gentle suggestions from an experienced coach can make a big difference. For more advanced or professional composers, the role of the coach is to instill a system of observation that enables more risk-taking and more ambitious projects.

I’ve been observing for quite some time what styles of music I listen to and improvise in, yet in which I have not yet created finished compositions. For that very reason, I recently composed both a three-movement suite in a classical Turkish style, and I am currently completing my first odd-time funk piece in 5/4. Consequently, I find myself able to not only visit these styles, like exotic destinations, but to inhabit them as well.

In Part IV, we'll look at Games and Free Writing. Stay tuned...

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Composing–Isn’t It Just Like Ironing Your Shirt? Part II

My Combined Approach For Training (to getting that shirt really ironed...) 
1) Analyze composers whose works inspire you, regardless of the style 
2) Analyze your own works as in-depth as you would works by any other composer 
3) Create compositional games or projects that focus on your weak area(s) 
4) Compose pieces without any restrictions 
5) Develop any basic skill (instrumental/vocal/theoretical/rhythmic/etc.) that might be holding you back 
6) Listen to new composers, styles, and music from other cultures that challenge your comfort levels and aesthetic assumptions, as well as familiar composers and styles for greater depth 

These half-dozen approaches have always felt very natural to me and have been successful with students who do medium- and long-term work. When I do short-term work with a student for a session or two, I’m usually looking at a specific project or issue that will likely draw upon just one or two approaches. From that, I’ll frequently assign them projects using one or more modalities to address a particular weakness in their writing. 

Yet, over many decades of teaching, I’ve noticed that none of my students have ever been exposed to this range of approaches; one or two, occasionally three, but never more. I began to wonder about why this is the case, and thought it would be fruitful to examine where and how musicians typically get training in composing.

Where To Learn To Compose (other than privately...) 
Here are the most typical scenarios where musicians become trained in composition other than private lessons: 

Conservatory (or University) 
Here you’d enter a composition program and spend most of your time studying and composing in various classical techniques (counterpoint, serialism, orchestration) along with detailed analyses of various classical composers from different eras. Free composing generally happens toward the end of the program. Exposure to student and faculty works, access to various performance ensembles and highly specialized equipment, and of course certification, are key benefits to studying in this setting. Still, others find the personal and musical relationships that come out of this experience to be invaluable. You’ll hear MYTH #6 often circulating here.

Though you will likely be in frequent proximity to them, the majority of time with a mentor will be spent performing logistical and administrative tasks. You will be observing them in a variety of contexts, and eventually you will likely be entrusted with tasks of a more artistic nature. The decision of an artist to take on an apprentice is very individual, i.e. some do it based upon timing, some do it based upon the personality of the applicant, and some never take on an apprentice at all. As a result, you’d be wise not to take their decision to reject (or accept) you personally. The opportunity to work closely with an artist whom you revere can be highly rewarding. MYTH #3 has been known to appear here. 

The focus here is creating a new piece, usually in a specific pr e-existing form, e.g. a 12-bar blues, a call-and-response chant, a verse-chorus song, etc. Following the form and being exposed to significant exemplars of the style or form at hand ar e the primary features. (A smaller number of workshops do not restrict the style and allow your piece to be completely open-ended). The comments on your piece may come solely from the instructor or from the participants, or both. The format of a single day (or time slot) devoted to just one piece can be very attractive, as are the opportunities to network and meet like-minded musicians. You might hear MYTH #5 in this environment. 

In either joining or forming a band, the primary goal is to foster and feature original works. The promise of performing and/or recording original songs is so powerful that many writers are involved with more than one band. Songs are created either as a group, from a pair within the band, or solo, and instruction usually comes more from the mixing of the band members’ strengths rather than teaching per se. Real coaching can happen depending on members’ backgrounds and communication skills. Bands that focus on original compositions tend to be very catalytic because of the immediate feedback opportunity from constant rehearsing. MYTHS #4 & #7 frequently appear here.

Typically you’d enter a liberal arts type of program that centers on Art-As-Expression. High priority is given to authentic self-expression rather than analysis of prominent musical icons. Significant focus is put on examining the motivation of your dec ision-making process, and establishing a clear criteria for making your pieces feel genuine. These programs tend to be interdisciplinary, and encourage you to include other art forms (movement, writing, film, etc.) to complete the piece’s concept and enhance the process. Programs like this can be very personally healing and are excellent preparation for work in any art-related therapy career. You might hear MYTH #7 circulating here. 

Self-Education is ideal for someone who is very motivated and has a history of designing and carrying out projects on their own. The resources may include textbooks, workbooks, and online tutorials. Self-pacing and the ability to design a highly individual program are the main attractions.

Students often use this path in conjunction with modalities that have contact with other people such as periodic sessions with an instructor, attending live concerts and/or open rehearsals, and even composing collaboratively with others either in-person or over the internet. 

It has been my observation that students, regardless of their interests or learning styles, still require a healthy dose of both support and accountability to develop their musicality. Joining or forming a peer-oriented group can generate tangible results without an instructor if the participants are highly motivated. Group support and publicly-declared, time-specific promises to its members are central to that kind o f program. Also, in-group and public performances, along with guest presenters, can greatly strengthen the impact of the experience. Examples of this format would be a Meetup, Mastermind, or Artist Anonymous group. In fact, all of the above venues, include support and accountability as an integral part of their structure. 

At this point I should state that depending upon the needs and timing of the student, any one of the above learning models might be an excellent vehicle for their growth. They can also be used in combination to produce dramatic results, as I have personally experienced.

Let’s recap the six different modalities that I’ve recommended, with abbreviated labels: 
1) Analysis 
2) Self-Analysis 
3) Games 
4) Free Writing 
5) Skill Building 
6) Listening 

In Part III I take a look at what each one has to offer a composer...

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Practical Steps to Performace Freedom, Part II

Who among us haven't been moved by a great performance? There is something that happens when a performer or group conveys their art so clearly and directly that we are just transfixed 'in the moment', where everything feels very slow and remarkably clear and present. And now, Part II of Practical Steps to Performance Freedom.

 Most people have the experience of going out to hear music at a club, festival, or even a benefit, and think, "Gee, wouldn't it be exciting to perform at a place like this ? " Even though things may appear to be running smoothly, there are usually a host of problems beyond the ones mentioned above, that the performers are doing their best to manage. 

For those who are just beginning to perform, I would strongly urge you to consider opportunities that are either: 1) more controlled, 2) more supportive, or 3) more forgiving, or some combination of two of these. By controlled I mean that you can hear your playing and/or singing easily without straining, be in clear visual contact with your partner(s), be performing reasonably close to the time promised by the venue, and have had at least one rehearsal with the other players. A supportive environment is usually created when most of the people are either participating as performers or they are there specifically to support their friend's musical efforts. For here, the audience would value the contribution you're making more than your degree of technical polish. And a forgiving situation means that the person knows that they are not commanding focused attention, i.e. fulfilling a more background function. Part of your development as a performer will include acquiring the wisdom to distinguish between these three general types of performance situations. 

Here are some examples positive performing environments: 

  • a performance class — or any class that includes a performance option at the end 
  • a "potluck performance" — a pooled meal and opportunity to perform 
  • a gift to someone's landmark event — a birthday, wedding, graduation, or passing 
  • performing to help create ambience — a party, a dance class, or during a poetry reading 
  • a "non -performance" environment — a community -oriented festival or ritual 

For many types of situations, having focused audience attention is essential for the performer. It allows all of the preparation and intention "to bake" and reveal essential strengths and weaknesses about the piece, and the performer. It also allows the performer to be powerfully witnessed and acknowledged. Simultaneously, performing in a more forgiving environment can be immensely liberating from the pressure of perfectionism, and allow a new performer to acclimate to the shifting sensations and phases of being on stage. The key here is to clarify which type of situation is most appropriate for the piece, or the level of the performer. Hence, it is not always the novice who will benefit from a background type of event. Maybe an experienced performer is working on new material, a different type of ensemble set -up, or even playing a more challenging instrument.

What is ironic is that environments that are billed as "low key" can be much more stressful, and hence higher risk, than what most professionals would likely encounter. An example that comes to mind is the "open mic" format that is found in many jazz cafes or clubs where vocalists and instruments wait their turn to play one or two songs. Very often, there are many variables that are left to chance — monitor mix, quality of the instruments on stage, accuracy of the printed music, degree of listening and musical communication present, etc. This is an example of an environment that is usually high in support (2), but very low in control (1). For novice performers, this might be exciting, tolerable, or unacceptable --- only experience will clarify this for you. 

What is most important at any phase of your development is choosing your focus and purpose for a performance. A "performance victory" is making a clear assessment about where you are, what you have to do in your continuing development, and then following through on that plan. By stepping outside of your 'box', it may appear at first that you are going backward, but a deep voice within you will invariably lead you to your next step. For example, suppose someone has played keyboards for a long time in a Salsa band, and wants to broaden themselves by developing a more romantic approach to solo jazz piano. They might have been highly paid as an Afro -Cuban band member, but in order to act on their desire, they would do best to take a more forgiving (3) performance situation that would allow them to perform their new piano style for considerably less money. As their experience accrues, they become more confident and ready to apply for more high profile and (better paying) solo piano venues. This is an example of a "performance victory". Any performer who wants to continue developing would routinely ask these two questions: "What do I need to doing ? " and "Where would be the best place for me to do it ? " ...i.e., getting out of your comfort zone to "lay new track" as a performer. 

Here are some valuable things to consider for your 'day of' preparations: 
  1. List ways that you could free up time on the day of your performance by limiting activities you would normally do, or by moving them to other days (e.g. working a partial day, doing errands on a different day)
  2. List activities or practices that you might indulge in that would affect your ability to be relaxed and creative at your performance (e.g. receiving bodywork, meditation, going to the beach, getting a support call from a friend or lover, etc.)
  3. List all the things you will need to do, and people to call, the day of the performance, including warming up on your instrument/voice. Make sure that only things that need to be done the day of the performance are listed here.
  4. List all the items that you will need for your performance to run smoothly. These may include the following categories: Instrument Related, Amplification, Recording/Lighting Equipment, Outdoor/Clothing/Personal Needs, Logistics, Marketing Items, Merchandise, Needs.
Effectively scheduling the things you need to do before your performance can make the difference between feeling relaxed and confident on stage, or being uncomfortably nervous and unable to put your music across convincingly. I recommend scheduling your performance day from when you get up to when you actually get on stage by "thinking backwards" (e.g. Performance Begins – 8:30 pm/Band Meeting – 8:15 pm/Sound Check – 7:00 pm/pick up bass player – 6:00 pm, etc.). Also include any appointments you've set up for the performance day, such as a massage. Allow more time than usual between your activities and appointments to ensure your performance day does not feel rushed and that it can absorb potential breakdowns and delays— they will happen! Find a coach who can help bring these tools to work with your instrumental and/or vocal training. As soon as you bring these concepts into your awareness, you'll be amazed at how much more you will be able to give to your audience, and in turn, to yourself.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Practical Steps to Performace Freedom, Part I

Who among us haven't been moved by a great performance? There is something that happens when a performer or group conveys their art so clearly and directly that we are just transfixed 'in the moment', where everything feels very slow and remarkably clear and present.

I've attended countless performances, some of which have left permanent impressions on me. Here are a few that I remember like they just happened: the late Nubian master Hamsa El Din in a house concert, Brad Mehldau's jazz trio at Zellerbach Auditorium, the Bach Collegium Japan, a solo song by the Brazilian composer Guinga at Yoshi's Jazz house, the premiere of Ligeti's second book of Piano Etudes at Hertz Hall, and the "end-of-an-era" concert by SoVoSo at the Noe Valley Ministry. Each one has uniquely shaped my vision about not only performing, but also composing arranging, and bandleading.

And yet for most of us performing feels pretty stressful, especially at first. It's not surprising that most people in industrial countries find the specter of public speaking second only to death! And yet, somehow our culture has created the myth that performing is a simple, straightforward way of connecting with the different parts of ourselves and this gift to a receptive audience. This is a worthy goal work but for the vast majority of developing musicians performing at first feels more an Afro -Haitian dance in their chest! Even professional speakers(probably the least outwardly exertive performance art) experience physical changes, elevated pressure.

I recall the first time I spoke to an audience as part of my band's very first performance in 1982. I was so nervous I thought the presenter would have to take me off stage on a stretcher! Now I find myself very comfortable relating to the audience in a relaxed, improvisational style — some have called it "stand-up band leading." This happened after many, performances and coaching sessions with highly skilled trainers.

There has been a parallel development with my playing and singing. I noticed that in the beginning I performed only about a third as well as I did in my best private sessions or group rehearsals. Over time I saw that gap becoming progressively smaller, and I remember joking to friends about my "performance loss" figures improving. (I also noticed that most of my students reported very similar experiences around their performing). I explained to them that a "performance loss" figure was the gap between my best rehearsal and a performance. It was only after many years of experience that my performances began to exceed what I was doing in rehearsals.

There is a set of skills just as important (if not more important) as your musical preparation. It involves taking note of every non -musical variable that could (and often does) show up as an energy drain and distraction to your performing. Some common examples are:

  • not allowing for travel delays 
  • not bringing some important item, like a set list or your music 
  • not knowing the stage dimensions or sound system set -up not preparing for unusual lighting on 
  • not having key spare parts of equipment in case of breakdowns
  • not confirming a recent change of musical arrangement with other band members 

The more responsibility an individual takes on in an ensemble, the greater impact these items will have. And for vocalists, the issue of a thorough sound check cannot be over emphasized.

In Part II of Practical Steps to Performance Freedom: Choosing the Right Venues, "Performance Victory," The Performance Tool Kit, and Scheduling Guidelines. Stay Tuned...

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Composing–Isn’t It Just Like Ironing Your Shirt? Part I

 Isn’t It Just Like Ironing Your Shirt?

Persistent Composing Myths
When I mention to people that I help musicians develop their songs and instrumental pieces beyond what they thought was possible, they are usually enthusiastic. Yet, very often I’ll hear them follow up with a comment like one of these:

MYTH #1 – Composing can’t really be taught, it’s something mysterious that just happens to those who have “talent.” (Translation—only a small group of people are capable of composing).

MYTH #2 – Great composers started writing when they were very young. (Translation—composers don’t develop, they either “have it” or they don’t.)

MYTH #3 – If you don’t have a strikingly original sound, there’s no point to composing at all. (Translation—who wants to sound like any other composer?)

MYTH #4 – True composers need to have really suffered in their lives to be able to write anything that rings true. (Translation—isn’t that where the blues comes from?)

MYTH #5 – You have to have grown up in the culture that you’re drawing from musically. (Translation—non-natives are merely “musical impostors”.)

MYTH #6 – Real composers study The Masters for a long time before even trying anything on their own. (Translation—they’re called Masters for a very good reason and I’ll never be one of them.)

MYTH #7 – Studying composition is pointless because it will only get in the way of your creativity. (Translation—who wants to sound self-conscious, formulaic, or unfeeling?)

MYTH #8 – Composers write music because they can’t play an instrument. (Translation—composers don’t have the discipline to really learn an instrument.)

MYTH #9 – Why should I compose when I don’t have anything to say? (Translation—I have no value.) I’ve heard these comments and their variations for as long as I can remember.

They’re remarkably persistent, and they’re all myths, fostered by a culture that sends a parade of confusing messages about the creative process.

Frankly, the longer I teach composition, and compose, the less those beliefs have any validity.

I’ve seen many of my students, regardless of their interest(s), reveal how one or more of these myths have held back their composing in some way. Some are very aware of a particular myth from the first lesson, and for others a myth emerges after months of studying. When I explain that learning to compose is very much like learning how to iron a shirt, their faces always light up in surprise. In order to get that clean just-off-the-rack look, you’ve got to iron the shirt in many directions. And it’s the very same approach that I use for helping students expand their composing and creativity.

Stay tuned for Part II: My Combined Approach For Training