Archive for May, 2011

May 19, 2011

#14) Spinning the productivity wheel (The Blank Canvas)

In a previous blog post, I described what I call the “productivity wheel”.  I have had a little bit of a cold the past few days, which means no gym and limited hiking, and with the house to myself and no students to teach until 4:30 this afternoon (Thursday, May 19th), and with several possible ways to spend my time productively but not a whole lot of motivation to do so, I decided to spin the wheel.  The number: 9, or “Write blog post.”  Well, since I haven’t been hiking, there’s not much to report on, and while I’ve been continuing to take a lot of pictures, submit them and have a few of them downloaded, there’s not really a whole lot to add to Nature Pic Mercenary.  I had a few D-theory drafts I was thinking of revising, but instead I thought it would be more fun to “kick it freestyle.”  If KCRW radio dramatist Joe Frank can make a whole hour-long program about how doesn’t have a show, I can do a short blog about how I don’t have anything to write about.

As a music teacher, I’ve noticed how often times, students both young and old, are afraid of improvisation.  In fact, no less than Yo-Yo Ma described his first experience improvising in public as “terrifying.”  The blank canvas represents the unknown; rules can make one’s life easier.   I myself have always enjoyed improvising more than having to read notes; while I often see my stubborn younger self in my students, this is an area in which we differ.  But I can understand why improvisation, be it in music or otherwise, can be tough.

On the Food Network’s show “Chopped”, four chefs are challenged to improvise an appetizer, entree and dessert from “mystery baskets,” which contain food items that you wouldn’t think go together very well.  Goat brains, rattlesnake meat, olive loaf and some kind of fruit whose name I forget which is poisonous if not cooked correctly are a few of the examples of items that have appeared in baskets.  The chefs have only 30 minutes to create their dish.  It’s always interesting to see what the come up with and to see how they handle the tasks of improvisation.

Improv comedy has also been a favorite of mine.  I’ve played in the “house bands” of a few such shows, and on one (I was thankfully in the audience this time around) the band actually helped the actors improvise a musical.  This sort of spontaneity has helped live theater achieve something of a resurgence in Hollywood; it’s also been given as an explanation for the popularity of reality television in that audiences are craving a new experience, something that seems fresh and natural, perhaps a little flawed; not the canned stuff that they’re used to.

The beauty of improvisation in music is that one cannot make a mistake.  I always tell my students that if you play a note that makes you cringe, play it again.  It will help convince your audience that you meant to do it, and you’ll also expand your ears and open your mind to new sounds.  Not everything sounds good the first time we hear it; Beethoven allegedly caught a lot of grief for having the audacity to start one of his symphonic movements with the dominant 7th chord instead of the tonic.  Musical comedian Tom Lehrer described one of his songs as being “in a mode: or, every so often, I play a wrong note.”   I am fond of telling my students that in improvisation, there are no wrong notes; there are just right notes that sound like shit.

And who said that anything is so bad about making a mistake?  In addition to being something from which lessons can be learned, “mistakes” can sometimes result in a better product.  Post-its, basketball and Coke were all mistakes.   If James Naismith’s assistant had followed his directions, Kobe Bryant and D. Wade would be shooting toward a square target.

So whether it’s a question of trial and error, being creative or just letting yourself go, improvisation is important.  Blank canvases are all over the place, just waiting to be filled with something great.

May 16, 2011

#13) Pain

This last week has seen two people that are closed to me lose loved ones.  I am fortunate in that neither loss affects me directly; one of the departed I only met once, the other never.  The deaths, both from cancer, happened peacefully in the company of loved ones.  But under no circumstances, of course, is a death easy to deal with.

It’s gotten me thinking about the issue of pain, not necessarily in the way that the kids at the local high school who listen to Morrissey do.  I’ve realized that while no one (well, almost no one) likes dealing with it, pain has some upsides.

Pain is designed to wake you up.  Bad things happen, but sometimes good can come from them.  Stanley Forman’s picture of two girls falling from a collapsing fire escape in Boston lead to building code reforms.  Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote “When Bad Things Happen To Good People” after the death of his son, and in so doing helped millions find peace and comfort.  Deaths in car accidents have lead to safety innovations; deaths from disease have lead to people rallying together to help find cures and support each other.

On a personal level, after my divorce a few years ago, I re-evaluated what I wanted in a relationship and started thinking about the type of women whom I seemed to be attracting.  There seemed to be a pattern that I hadn’t seen earlier, and when I recognized it, I was able to change it.  The result has been a great relationship that has been all I could have asked for.

Speaking of divorce, Reese Witherspoon had this to say after hers: “If it’s not painful, maybe it wasn’t the right decision to marry to begin with.”  In other words, sometimes pain exists because of better things, such as love.  Many people fear pain; they don’t want their feelings hurt or to have to deal with the discomfort.  But whether it’s a wakeup call or a result of having taken a chance, pain is a part of life, and it doesn’t have to be entirely bad.

The last word is left to Butters, the character on TV’s “South Park.”  After his heart is broken by Lexus, the girl who works at Raisins, he says:  “Well yeah, and I’m sad, but at the same time I’m really happy that something could make me feel that sad. It’s like, it makes me feel alive, you know? It makes me feel human. And the only way I could feel this sad now is if I felt somethin’ really good before. So I have to take the bad with the good, so I guess what I’m feelin’ is like a, beautiful sadness.”

May 9, 2011

#12) The R.P.M. Jazz Trio and the Joshua Bell factor

Yesterday (Sunday, May 8th) I attended a jazz performance by a friend of mine, drummer/producer Paul Tavenner, at a church in Santa Monica.  It was the first time in a while I really sat and listened to live jazz, and it was very enjoyable.  Bassist Matt van Benschoten turned in a solid performance on his electric upright, and 17-year old jazz virtuoso Rachel Flowers brought the goods, mainly on piano, sometimes on flute, and simultaneously on one song.  She played with a mix of traditional influence and originality that is unusual, especially for someone her age.

The group played a nice variety of standards, including Coltrane’s “Naima”, Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” and “Dolphin Dance” and more.  When I saw a toddler bopping up and down to the music, it reminded me of another story I heard about the famous violinist Joshua Bell.

In January of 2007, Bell dressed anonymously and stood in a Washington, D.C. subway station during rush hour and played for 45 minutes.  Most people walked by; some stopped and listened for a little while but soon were on their way.  Apparently, several children showed some interest–just as the little girl in the church did–but their parents hurried them along.

The point of the article was that virtually none of the thousands of commuters had any idea what they were listening to.   Another parallel between the violinist and the jazz trio occurred to me: while this performance was attended by probably close to 100 people, most residents of Santa Monica, and indeed the greater L.A. area, probably had no idea that on this Sunday afternoon, they could hear some great jazz.  Perhaps some might even have walked right by the church without knowing what was going on inside.

Even musicians themselves might learn a thing or two: many (certainly myself) are guilty of bemoaning the current state of the music business, especially jazz, but closer looks reveal that the art is alive and well.

For a video of Joshua Bell’s subway performance, click here.  For an article about Rachel Flowers, click here.