the best musicians are not professional musicians or “successful” musicians, but the musicians who struggle to deepen and strengthen their voice.
Music theorist, trombonist, (and my former road roomate) Chris Stover writes about how applying ideas from the practice of music theory can help us understand each other.
Remember that music theory is itself a creative practice, that it does not seek “truth” so much as rich modes of sense-making, and that it is first of all communicative.
I never really thought about how studying Haydn and sonata form would help me do a better job of having empathy (or at least understanding) for my fellow humans, but the idea that all meaning derives from context really hit me.
I just learned of the passing of Ellis Marsalis, Jr., the great pianist and teacher. There will be many greater eulogies and histories across the internet, so I just want to tell one story. I got my MM from the University if New Orleans when Ellis taught there. He conducted the Concert Jazz Orchestra and was on my graduate committee. The jazz orchestra took a trip to Salvador, Bahia, Brazil right as I was graduating, and I was the de facto road manager for the band as part of my assistantship. There are many great stories from that trip, but my favorite has to do with a music school that was up the hill in the favela. The father of an exchange student at UNO ran the school and Ellis and the band visited one afternoon. When Ellis asked the folks in the neighborhood if they were coming to our concert on Friday night, people laughed. We did not know that a ticket to our concert downtown in the theater was more than one month’s salary for most of the people in this neighborhood. When Ellis heard this he immediately said, “oh, well then we will come play a concert here Saturday afternoon.” We did, and the joy of Brazilian children dancing to Thad Jones’s “Groove Merchant” is forever burned into my memory. That is the great man I remember. RIP Mr. Marsalis.
On December 12, a friend died. She was younger than me, and had only known about her cancer for 11 months. Those 11 months contained some fear and some optimism. At one point she asked fearfully, “what if I die? What will my life have meant?” I didn’t know how to answer. I mentioned her many students and friends and all of the other people whose days and lives she brightened, but I don’t think that was what she wanted to hear.
After her death, a friend from her teenage years shared something that was written 20+ years ago. in 1997, my now deceased friend wrote, “One more thing: When I die, I would like to be remembered as an open person, open to the world. With big and understanding eyes that have seen and see lots of things. More than full of knowledge, wise (in the greek sense, I mean, I don’t want to tell books by memory, but know how to live and help others to do the same).” (This was translated from Spanish)
That is a lovely and accurate description of my friend. She was open and understanding and wise. She successfully lived the life she imagined for herself when she was a teenager. May we all live so successfully. Rest in peace my friend.
The last time this blog was REALLY active, Spotify was not yet a thing, Napster was a problem, iTunes only sold downloads, and MySpace was still a real thing. A lot has happened since then, and I wonder, are we better off? I ask this question in two domains: how people hear our music, and how we connect with the people who (may) want to hear our music.
Let’s start with how people hear our music. I probably wrote somewhere on this blog something to the effect of, “once we find a way for cheap easy legal music distribution, piracy will be a thing of the past (or at least we will quit talking about it).” That has become true. It is now way easier for people to hear my music, and I believe more people are hearing my music. I’m probably not making much less money from recorded music now than I was then. Those all sound like wins, but my concern is around the question of control. Since people are getting to my music through Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, or even Bandcamp, I am in a position in which a policy change by any of these companies can effect how I get music to the people who want to hear it. What happened to the internet being democratizing, and removing the middle men (people/entities/bots?)? Why can’t I simply directly interact with my listeners?
Which brings me to how we interact with our listeners (or friendly experiencers to quote a favorite artist). Social media has the same problem streaming services have: when they change policy it thwarts our plans to reach people. I liked email lists…apparently I was the only one. How do we get to a system that lets people get the information they want from the artist/label/venue directly? I don’t want to have to figure out Facebook algorithms (or Instagram or whoever, and yes, I know they are really the same thing) to get to people who already know they want information from me (or my series or whatever). I get playing the social media game to find new listeners, but can we be in control of the relationships we already have? Is text/SMS lists the new thing?
I would love it if you would comment with your thoughts.
The ranking of creative activity often strikes me as awkward at best, and counter-productive at worst. Competitive cooking shows are a great example. One chef leaves in tears, as I am thinking, “that looks great, pass that plate over here.” “This band is better than that band” always seems like a futile exercise.
Last night we attended the big end of the season high school marching band competition. My daughter is in one of the bands that competed. This competition has a prelims and finals format. They played two great shows. I think the best two shows they have played all season. When the rankings were announced after finals, they did not place as high as many hoped, or expected. There are some natural emotional reactions that can flow out in times like that. But, it made me remember something that my step-son said to me a few years ago.
My step-son, Blake, spent three summers performing on the DCI Tour with the Madison Scouts. (DCI is the highest level of marching band field show in the world. They would be pros, except you have to pay to do it…maybe another post.) At the end of one of Blake’s seasons, as I picked him up at the airport the day after finals, I commented that I thought they should have placed much higher. His response taught me something. He said that they had played one of their best shows of the season, and the audience loved it, and that was what they were there to do; be as good as they could be, and make something that moved people. They did that, and it was a success in his mind.
I feel like that is what my daughter’s band did last night. They performed as well as they could, and people liked it. That’s all that really matters.
…and that third place cheesecake can still make someone VERY happy.
I love the idea of the very low barrier to entry, but I wonder if it can be a viable professional tool. Is it meant to be a professional tool? Either way, it is fun.
The Music Industry Studies Program at Loyola University New Orleans (where I teach) has a weekly forum with all of our students. A couple of months ago our guest speaker was ill, so I put together a discussion on ideas around genre. There is video evidence. The talk starts about 10:30 in, after the student announcements.
The money or art conversation came up in class the other day. This article takes some interesting looks at the topic. Note the articles preference for and use of the word art…
“Comparing artists to start-ups is a trend that has emerged this last couple of years as music and tech became ever more increasingly tied and the latter churned out its daily dose of spectacular stories and unicorns. When a particular field is successful, it would be a shame not to try to find some key take aways and apply them to an ecosystem like music where everything has been challenged and turned upside down these last 15 years or so.”