The following is an article I wrote for Greg Vail’s website, saxophone.us in September of 2006.
Can you do it amidst distraction? Can you make the shot when you must?
Words spoken by Kevin Costner in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to a young aspiring archer, yet extremely poignant words when applied to the aspiring working musician.
I recall my days in graduate school, being around all sorts of musicians who were persnickety in regards to “ideal” practice and playing conditions, reeds, etc. I would hear the constant whining when someone couldn’t concentrate with someone practicing in the next room, and the complaints from those trying to find the perfect reed. I must admit that I did my share of groaning when it came to the amount of lumber I would discard from each box of reeds.
I, being the atypical musician that I am, used to practice fundamentals (i.e. long tones, harmonics, isolated finger moves, etc.) in front of the TV or listening to talk radio, simply because I needed the distraction (I used to do the same if I was writing a paper for a class, and in fact, am doing such even as I write this article). I even remember visiting a friend of mine, another reed player who-prior to the days of stock trading online-would track commodities on his Quotron and make trades in the mornings while he was practicing.
Developing the skill of tuning certain distractions out can be helpful at many levels in this business we call music. There’s something to be said about the old adage “The show must go on.” Here’s a commonplace example: say you’re playing in a club-for grins, let’s say you’re soloing on a tender ballad-and a waitress drops a tray of drinks. Amidst your pensive solo protrudes the sound of several glasses breaking. Can you make the shot when you must?
In graduate school, when I gave my Masters recital, we joked about posting “Two drink minimum” signs. Interestingly, I actually had somewhat of an out-of-body experience during the classical portion of my recital–I felt as if I was an observer the whole time and thought I was emotionally uninvolved, in a matter of speaking, just going through the motions. I remember thinking about this in the middle of the Glazounov Concerto, and being rather distracted by it, yet I knew I had to persevere and see it to completion. At the time, I thought I played a rather uninspired first half of my recital, until my teacher said I did a great job. He mentioned to me that there would be times that this might happen-I just didn’t expect it to happen for the first time during my recital!
Two years prior, I had done another recital where my opening piece was Paule Maurice’s Tableaux de Provence. In the fifth movement, there is a nasty page turn coming out of the cadenza in a particularly hairy sixteenth note passage, with no breaks to the end of the piece. Stupid me thought I could do it without making a copy of the last page. In the heat of battle, as I made the last page turn, the music repositioned up at a 45 degree angle, and I had to finish the piece leaning to my left to read the music. I did a brilliant job, and the members of my panel laughed their collective asses off in amazement as I contorted my body to get the job done. The point is that I didn’t shut down. I immediately adjusted to the situation as if it were purely natural.
One of the advantages of learning to play with distractions is the fact that any bouts with nervousness will be fewer (eventually next to none), as well as workable. My whole life, I’ve never gotten star-struck . . . I’ve met ballplayers I idolized as a kid, musicians who were heroes to me growing up, politicians for whom I have had the utmost respect, actors and actresses of whose work I have been a fan . . . NEVER, EVER have been star-struck. Sunday night was a first. I’m doing my solo piano gig and the manager says to me, “Can you play the theme from Star Trek?” I said, “Sure. Why?” She says, “William Shatner is having dinner on the patio.” Because I learned to not be nervous on the gig, to be able to play in very adverse conditions and with lots of distractions, I can play in front of large crowds or in noisy clubs with no problem. I was a nervous wreck knowing that Captain Kirk was listening to me play. Still, I buckled down and did my job. Even got a smile from Mr. Shatner when I played the theme to T.J. Hooker . . .
For years I worked in one of the most adverse of musical situations: in a horn section with a trumpet player who played GROSSLY out of tune, typically sharp, and sometimes over fifty cents sharp. The louder the band got, the sharper he got–I think that he did it so that he could hear himself (of course, in school I was taught that if you can’t hear yourself in a section, chances are you are playing in tune). What was even worse was that he had an infallibility complex, and an unprofessional attitude when it came to intonation-if you told him that his intonation was off, he would argue with you vehemently. “Why did I continue to work in this situation?” you might ask. Simply put, I was young; I needed the money. To keep my sanity, I began to play mind games on the gig like pulling out his tuning slide on the breaks, only to have him push it back in when he realized it was out of place. When he would adjust his tuning slide in the middle of a song, I would immediately play disgustingly flat, just so that he would pull out more. I finally got to the point where I resigned myself to the fact that it was never going to get better. It was then that I made the decision to tune up to 440 at the beginning of the gig, keep my tuner attached to my horn (via transducer), and stay there all night-typically focusing in on where the bass player was. This taught me to play off of vibrations through my bone structure rather than direct sonic information. It was rather difficult, as my chops would get tired very quickly, since my natural tendency is to adjust to the lead instrument in a section. Moreover, it caused me to question my skills whenever I would get into a good playing situation. When I was finally able to cut that gig loose, I realized that this had actually finely tuned my intonation sensors, so that when I played with musicians who had good intonation, it was an absolute joy.
Reeds are another issue where adversity can rear its ugly head. I remember the days of complaining about the high reject rate per box. I remember my clarinet and oboe friends tirelessly working on reeds. I remember that I had finally found the “perfect” clarinet reed my first year of graduate school, played on it for a month, only to be disappointed when my hand accidentally came down on the mouthpiece while sitting in an orchestra pit, thus breaking the “perfect” reed.
In the world of the working musician, if you work as frequently as I do, and have as many outside interests as I do, there really is no time to spend working on reeds. Years ago, when I realized this, I made the decision to give up the oboe. Nowadays, I have a “slap-n-go” philosophy when it comes to reeds: I pull a new reed out of the box, if it works well enough, I stick with it until it wears out, and if it doesn’t work well enough, I toss it. It’s practical AND cost-effective.
I recently had a conversation about reeds with an old friend who is a respected professional oboist based on the east coast. Here’s what he told me: “Reeds can totally take over an oboists life. Most oboists are crazy when it comes to reeds. Me, I’m too damned lazy to be crazy. When I was a student, one of my mentors told me that he actually enjoyed my playing a little less when I started getting my reeds in shape-that I was content to have a nice sound, and not trying as hard to make something wonderful. I’d like to think that I can do both now. My old teacher told me once that he played an entire summer season on the same reed. Me, I make reeds only on an absolutely-need-to basis, which is decidedly not every day.”
I remember working at a theme park back in 1999 with a battle-wearied veteran of the music world who also happened to be a sax player. One day he happened to show me the reed he had played on for a month-it was worn out and broken in multiple places, yet you wouldn’t have known it by the way he was playing. I asked him why he didn’t just throw it out and put on a new one. He told me that it was just out of sheer laziness. I learned from that experience that no matter how bad the reed is you should be able to play on it.
This past year, I did a couple of gigs in Beaver Creek, Colorado, a town with a base elevation of 7400 feet-more than a mile high. All of my #3 reeds felt more like #4s, but I still had to buckle down and play two shows with the equipment I had. As my friend Greg Vail says in a saxophone.us article: “Just shut up and blow!”
I know it sounds cliché, but I learned early on from my days of scouting to “Be prepared.”
If you’ll indulge me a moment to play on the words of the late, great Julian “Cannonball” Adderley . . . “You know, sometimes we’re not prepared for adversity. When it happens, sometimes we’re caught short. We don’t know exactly how to handle it when it comes up. Sometimes we don’t know just what to do when adversity takes over. And I have advice for all us.” I got it from President Calvin Coolidge who wrote this passage “and it sounds like what you’re supposed to say when you have that kind of problem:”
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”