Thoughts on Music

There's No Such Thing As Luck

Have you ever heard people say things like, “You're really lucky you met that person – they really helped open doors for you!”  Or, “You got so lucky!  What are the chances that this perfect job would open up at the exact time when you were looking?  It's the perfect fit!” Here’s the thing: I don’t think luck exists.

Luck implies something random, something unexpected or unplanned, a fortunate occurrence that you had no control over.  In music (and in life), is that really the case?  Are we all waiting to catch a lucky break?  In my experience, things that look like “lucky breaks” are more than just being in the right place at the right time.  There’s more to it than that.

Let me explain.

Let’s say you're a trumpet player.  You happen to find yourself in a jazz club one night after a gig.  You’re sitting there listening to some famous jazz musicians when you find out they need a trumpet player for a few tunes, as their normal guy is sick.  When your friends hear this, they tell these big shot jazz cats that you play the trumpet (aren’t friends great?).  They ask if you want to sit in with them.  So, you play a few tunes with them, they really like you, and the next week they call you to join them on their world tour.  Lucky, right?  No – you were prepared for that situation and you made the choice to get up on stage and take that risk.  If you weren’t a strong enough player, or willing to play on the spot, you would have just sat in the audience and life would have continued on just fine.  The “lucky” situation was not about you being the right place at the right time, it was about being prepared.

Here’s another example: Let's say you are at a coffee shop and you sit down at a table and pull out some music that you need to study.  A woman sitting at the table next to you notices you are looking at music and asks, "Excuse me, I noticed you are looking at the Mozart Clarinet Concerto - are you a clarinetist?"  You reply, "Yes, I am studying for my masters in clarinet performance at the college here."  You strike up a conversation with this woman about music, Mozart, other composers, and coffee.

It turns out she is a conductor for a regional orchestra about thirty minutes down the road.  You've been thinking about auditioning to get on sub lists for local orchestras and have been researching orchestras in the area.  You've actually read some about her orchestra and know a bit about their recent concerts and educational programs.  The conductor is clearly impressed with your professionalism, your knowledge, and your interest in the orchestra.  When you mention you were thinking of auditioning for the sub list she immediately pulls out a business card.  "Here's my card - call me when you come to audition and we can get together for another coffee - my treat!  I will put in a good word for you with the audition coordinator and let them know that we talked.  Do you have a card?"  You pull out your nice, simple business card that you paid almost nothing for, hand one to the conductor, and thank her for a wonderful conversation.

This chance encounter was lucky right?  I don't think so - you were prepared and professional.  If the conductor wasn't impressed with you, she wouldn't offer to help you.  You had done your research and were able to speak professionally with this conductor, creating an opportunity for yourself.

In my opinion, there’s no such thing as luck.  But, there is such a thing as being prepared.  Prepare yourself for success.  Be at the top of your game all the time, be a professional, do your research, and know your stuff.  If you’re prepared, you may find yourself coming out on the fortunate side of situations that might, at first, seem just lucky.

Happy Birthday, Gustav Mahler

Mahler will always be one of my favorite composers. Very few composers have created music with as much beauty, depth, and power as Mahler. I remember sitting in my college dorm room, listening over and over to the Adagietto movement from his 5th Symphony, which is still one of my favorite pieces of music of all time. Another favorite has to be the finale of his Symphony No. 2 – perhaps the most glorious music I know! I love Mahler’s lyricism, his power, and his directness. His music has always inspired me and I know it will always be a huge influence on me and my own compositions. Here is the great Leonard Bernstein conducting the Adagietto from Symphony No. 5:

Here is Bernstein conducting the last few minutes of Symphony No. 2:

Thanks for the Music, James Horner

My dad introduced me to the music of film music composer James Horner when I was a kid and I always loved the emotional power and lyricism of his music.  To this day, my favorite movie is Field of Dreams, in large part due to the soundtrack.  There is so much beauty and depth in this music, and I will always look back on it as some of the inspiration that made me want to create my own music.

A Reflection: Playing Under Gary Green in the University of Miami Wind Ensemble

This past weekend, Gary Green led his final concert as the conductor of the University of Miami Wind Ensemble and Director of Instrumental Performance at the University of Miami's Frost School of Music. When I arrived as a freshman at the University of Miami, I was assigned to Symphonic Winds, the "2nd band," in which I played bari sax. Even though it was not the “top band,” I remember thinking that the sound was amazingly rich. All those tubas, euphoniums, and trombones! Our high school band was good, but we only had one tuba – so yeah, the sound was pretty different. The Symphonic Winds rehearsed in the cavernous Fillmore hall, and though our conductor wasn't Gary Green, he occasionally visited rehearsals and guest conducted. Whenever a DMA applicant for wind conducting visited the school, he or she would conduct the band and Mr. Green would sit in the back, watching and observing how they used their time on the podium.

I still remember the first time I heard the Wind Ensemble under Mr. Green's direction – in fact, I remember the first chord. It was my first band concert at Miami — a split concert where the Symphonic Winds played the first half and the Wind Ensemble played the second half. I remember sitting in Gusman Hall as Mr. Green walked out onto the stage. The Wind Ensemble looked small to me — it wasn't a large band like I was used to playing in. It was one player per part — small and nimble. But, when he gave the downbeat for William Schuman’s “George Washington Bridge,” I remember that first chord being the best chord I had ever heard from a "band." It was so loud that I couldn't believe it was coming from the relatively few players on stage. Everyone was in sync and in tune, and it was at that moment that I realized that loudness is not only a reflection of numbers, but also intonation and articulation. Mind blown.

It was the first of many experiences playing in the bands at Miami where my ears and views of music were totally transformed.

For a freshman, the Wind Ensemble seemed a distant and elite group led by a renowned conductor. They were professional, polished. They rehearsed in Nancy Green Hall — a smaller, more intimate space (even the lighting was cooler, I swear). Although I was admittedly a little intimidated by the thought of playing alongside upperclassmen and graduate students, I wanted so badly to be a part of that group. Everyone did.

My second year, I got a chance. It felt surreal walking into that rehearsal in the Fall of my sophomore year, carrying my bari sax. I felt young and not entirely ready to play in the "top band." Nevertheless, I was excited and wanted to learn from Mr. Green, whose name carried a special weight and aura around the hallways.

Over the next three years, I encountered a wide range of music, from traditional repertoire to brand new commissions. We played some really beautiful pieces, and some that fell on the other side of the spectrum – dense, atonal, thrilling. At a time when my young ears were hearing contemporary music in classes and concerts (which I didn’t encounter much before college), having the opportunity to actually play some of this “new” music really opened my eyes and ears.

Here are 4 things that I remember most from my time playing under Mr. Green:

1. He treated everyone like a professional. From the way he conducted rehearsal to the way he spoke to students, I always felt like Mr. Green treated everyone like a professional. He gave everyone the benefit of the doubt — he never embarrassed anyone for making a mistake or not being prepared. He let you know there was an issue he wasn’t happy about, but he assumed that you would come back next time, like a professional, with the issue solved.

2. He inspired people around him. Mr. Green is one of those leaders who just makes you want to be better. You wanted to play better as an individual and as a group. You wanted him to take a moment, put down the baton, take off his glasses, and tell you a story about why that was so good and why it means something in our crazy world.

3. His depth of musicality was astonishing. Hearing Mr. Green talk about the music was just as thrilling as playing it. He thought deeply about what the music was doing, and what the composer was saying through each piece. He brought a level of humanity, gratitude, and joy to the podium — it was thrilling to be part of that.

4. He had the respect of every player in the group. When I think back to rehearsals with the Wind Ensemble, I don’t really remember players talking to each other. You know those moments — when we stop to rehearse something in the clarinets and everyone else in the group starts their own side conversations? People didn’t talk in these rehearsals – they didn’t mess around. They listened and paid attention. Mr. Green treated players like professionals, and they acted like it, with deep respect.

Finally, I want to mention the considerable bond Mr. Green formed with each of his conducting students. As a player, I watched Mr. Green coach his conducting students, interact with them, guide them. When a conductor finished their degree, Mr. Green took time at the end of a rehearsal to talk about that person’s journey and accomplishments and how much they meant to him. Each time, he had tears in his eyes. It was always apparent to me that he cared deeply about his students and those of us who played under his direction.

Thank you, Mr. Green, for caring so deeply about people. Thank you for inspiring students to want to become better musicians. And, thank you for sharing your music with us.

Image Credit: Frost School of Music, University of Miami

Advice for Musicians: Three Takeaways from My "Hangout" with Nancy Christensen

Last night I hosted a fun Google Hangout for with artist manager and entrepreneur Nancy Christensen, President and Founder of Christensen Arts LLC. Nancy had many great pieces of advice for musicians, and below are three that I especially liked. 1. Be Able to Communicate, and Be Unique Nancy said that when she is considering whether or not to take on a performer as a client, two important factors she considers are communication skills and uniqueness. She talked about the importance of not just being a great performer, but also being able to communicate with an audience, talk with donors after a concert, work with kids in an outreach setting, and more. She also stressed the importance of having something that sets you apart from the many other people that do similar things as you. What about you is different and unique, and why should people be interested in that?

2. Don’t Send People a Bunch of Unsolicited Stuff Being a composer who wants to get my music played and heard, I have definitely been guilty of this one. It is okay to email people you don’t know and introduce yourself. It’s okay to briefly mention what you do. But, you probably don’t want to send them your resume, links to all your performances, headshots, reviews, etc. right off the bat. Nancy talked about starting with just an introduction and trying to avoid overwhelming your recipient (who again, doesn’t know you) with too much stuff.

3. Go to Conferences Whether you want to be a performer, composer, arts administrator or anything in between, go to conferences that relate to your profession. Do your homework and talk to people about what conference(s) might make sense for you – what kind of people you want to meet, what kinds of things you want to learn, etc. For performers looking to meet managers and decide if particular management companies might be a good fit, Nancy suggested the Chamber Music America conference, held annually in New York City in January.

Conferences can be great places to meet people, build professional contacts, and learn about current happenings in the field. When you attend, bring business cards, try to meet as many people as you can (but be yourself - don’t feel like you constantly need to be a salesman or saleswoman) and learn as much as you can. Many conferences have discounts for students or young musicians, and some have scholarships available. You could even inquire with organizers of the conference to see if you could help out in some way at the conference in exchange for a free registration. Be creative!

See a recording of my hangout with Nancy conversation here.

Book Recommendation - Bernstein by Joan Peyser

A couple of months ago, I was browsing the floor-to-ceiling stacks of used books at our local bookstore and stumbled across Bernstein: A Biography by Joan Peyser.  I had actually been thinking about seeking out a biography of the renowned American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, so this was a perfect find! I just finished reading the book and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning about Bernstein’s life and career. Like many famous artists, his story is enthralling, captivating, and powerful. Joan Peyser provides wonderful insight into all facets of Bernstein’s life and career, from his childhood through his many artistic triumphs. Many fascinating stories illuminate Bernstein’s genius, his drive, as well as his sheer celebrity.  An excellent read on a truly remarkable musician.  Here is a link to the book on Amazon.

How Music Brings People Together: In Praise of Marching Band

High school marching band is a BIG deal many places, and it was a pretty big deal to my friends and I in high school.  I played saxophone in our marching band all four years of high school, and even though my senior year was 13 years ago now (WHAT!?!), I can still remember the feeling of stepping onto the field of competition, under the bright lights, our parents and directors screaming and waving cowbells (ah, the blue and gold cowbells).  It was magical.  We took a great deal of pride in our performance, our collective work throughout the summer and fall culminating in a competition at a local high school each Saturday night. Marching band is a team sport.  For some kids, sports are where they find their place.  For others, it is music.  And many band kids strive for excellence just as much as athletes do, practicing every day, working together, sharing struggles and triumphs, and ultimately building skills and relationships that will last a lifetime.

I have many vivid memories from marching band practices, football games, competitions, etc.  But I think the one memory that comes up again and again is the feeling of pride that we shared as a group.  It was camaraderie; it was teamwork.  The music brought us together into one singular goal - excellence as a group.  It was not about any one individual or section.  When the band gave a great performance, we all knew it - we felt it. And when we gave a mediocre performance, we felt that, too.  It wasn't a result of any one person - it was collective.  We were a team.

I remember trying to play well, "roll step," and maintain straight lines in the heat of the annual Labor Day parade.  That taught me about perseverance.

I remember trying to play in tune and keep feeling in my stiffening fingers on a particularly cold October night.  That taught me about dedication.

I remember, as a senior, trying to set a good example for freshman - teaching them, including them, showing them how much pride we took in this.  That taught me about leadership.

I remember when one of our band members got sick and passed away, and we tried to play "You'll Never Walk Alone" without crying.  That taught me about loss.

Everything I learned through marching band I carry with me to this day.  We represented our school, our band, ourselves, and that feeling of pride and team spirit runs deep.  Sometimes marching bands get the short end of the stick - they are the brunt of jokes.  But it is as serious as sports, as tight knit as any team, and as competitive as any game.  I am thankful for marching band - every experience I had, every relationship I built, every skill I gained.  Band kid for life!

Quiet Places

For the most part, we live in a noisy, fast, and relentless world. Sometimes, especially when I am trying to come up with the initial ideas for a new piece, I want to be in a quiet place.  A place where I can really savor the sounds I create and not be distracted by anything.  A basement practice room, an empty church.  For others, it's a garden, a backyard, a patio.  Here's to enjoying a few moments in your own quiet place!