Dreaming Big Gets You Nowhere

 

 

It seems that collectively, in music and other disciplines, we have all decided that dreaming big and setting outlandishly ambitious goals is inherently virtuous. There are probably a billion different tacky memes with inspirational messages about dreaming big right now on Instagram. Actually, a quick Google search of the term “dream big meme” turned up things like this:

 

And this:

 

 

And this:

 

 

So…yeah.

 

I don’t want this to devolve into another well-worn cranky diatribe against being positive or encouraging. Far from it. I think that the intent behind all of these messages is awesome, and constantly aspiring for greatness is a common thread amongst all of the really successful musicians I know. In my own musical development, I know that my best growth has happened when I had a specific and ambitious goal in mind.  

 

But what I think gets left out of the equation too often are the intermediate steps – the short term, manageable, incremental goals that add up to accomplishing your dreams. It’s great to set a lofty goal, but there is some danger there. There have been a handful of times as a teacher where a well-meaning student has written or verbalized a manifesto about his or her goals, replete with bold statements about fantastic achievements over unreasonably short periods of time, as though merely positing the thought was worthy of admiration and respect. Usually they have nebulous descriptions of what they’re trying to accomplish (ie, “I want to master (blank)”, or “I want to be able to (blank) well enough to get a gig”). And these manifestos seem to almost always be followed pretty quickly by the sobering realization that it’s going to be more work than they realized, and that they can’t sustain the effort needed to do what they set out to do in the time frame they had specified, and then finally, abandoning the plan together.

 

The root of all of this is very healthy: a genuine desire to be better. But students would be better served picking one large “long term” goal, and then identifying a series of corresponding “short term” or “medium-term” goals - some benchmarks to reach that lead up to checking off the final box. Identifying these benchmarks can create a satisfying sense of accomplishment that can quench that thirst for tangible improvement and keep you on pace towards a broader task. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big, but being aspirational in and of itself won’t cut it. Here are some easy concrete, short- or medium- term goals that can motivate your practice.

 

Book a Public Performance With a Firm Date

 

Schedule a recital or a gig, with specific repertoire that will address the musical concepts you want to refine. Be careful not to schedule it so soon that you don’t have the time to comfortably develop your new skills – give yourself enough space to make sure you can pull it off. Conversely, don’t give yourself the option of cancelling if you feel the pressure a few weeks ahead of the performance. Want to get better at playing modal jazz? Work up two sets of Wayne Shorter compositions and bill it as such on the event flyers. Classical saxophone articulation? Program a recital including some baroque transcriptions. A word of caution, though: if you’re programming primarily or solely to address deficiencies, this might be better saved for a non-degree recital.

 

Last month I had the distinct pleasure of hanging with my friend and All-Universe First Team Saxophonist Nathan Bogert and working with his saxophone studio and the jazz ensembles at Ball State University. Dr. Bogert and I have become close since meeting two and a half years ago when he gave a guest recital at UMKC while I was working on my doctorate there. While having dinner in Muncie, Nate told me that he had scheduled that recital in Kansas City as a way to keep himself in shape, musically. He had finished his doctoral work at University of Iowa and had found another non-music related job that he enjoyed. “I could feel myself getting more invested in the job and getting too comfortable musically, so I booked that recital at a place where I knew I couldn’t cancel and I would have to be sharp”, he said (I’m paraphrasing). Of course, Nate has very high artistic standards and whatever he would perceive as “getting too comfortable” is probably better than anything most of us could ever dream of – but I digress. It was illuminating to me to hear someone as accomplished as Nate talk about voluntarily seeking out a playing opportunity solely to push himself artistically.

Pictured: Dr. Nate Bogert killing music.

Pictured: Dr. Nate Bogert killing music.

 

A Recording Session

 

This year the Sarcoline Quartet (sophomores Noah Staber, Logan Crapser, Thomas Lahren, and Brandon Polzin) from my studio at at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire decided to enter the Music Teacher’s National Association chamber music competition. In the weeks leading up to their performance at the state level, we scheduled a recording session because I mistakenly thought there was a pre-screening element to the submission. It ended up being a happy accident, because the guys buckled down and practiced with an extra level of focus leading up to the session and made huge progress in the week leading up to it. Another idea is to take advantage of social media by videotaping a performance of an etude or a piece you are working on and posting it, mistakes-be-damned. Brandon and I did this recently with a Ferling etude, and he gave one of his most refined and mature performances that week. Coincidence? Hmm…

 

There’s no motivator like knowing your performance will be documented permanently, for better or worse.

 

Competitions and Auditions

 

Listen, the idea of competing at music is kind of silly if you think about it too much. I remember Steve Lambert joking, en route to our college jazz ensemble’s performance at the University of Northern Colorado Jazz Festival, that we were on a quest to “win jazz”. But the real benefit of a competition, whether it be live or an audio submission, is the growth that comes with preparing for it. My most maniacal preparation and subsequent improvement has come when I was preparing for North American Saxophone Alliance competitions, submission for Downbeat Student Music Awards, and my master’s and doctoral graduate auditions. Any successes in those events were always really ancillary benefits to how much better I got preparing for them. Further, whether it’s fool’s gold or not, the confidence you can glean from “hanging” with some of the best in your field can give you a self-assurance that, in moderation, can be used as a springboard to more valuable things. My pal Hermon Mehari is a great example of the benefit of competitions, and that’s one of the least “competitive” great musicians I’ve ever met. I’ve literally never heard Hermon compare himself to anyone else – either positively or negatively – as long as I have known him. I don’t want to speak for him, but it always seemed that his preparation for those competitions always went just a little deeper and seemed to engender a different level of self-reflection and honest evaluation. His bigger, more valuable successes – like the album he’s due to release in the coming weeks – are to me at least partially assisted by some of the growth and the connections he made in those competitions.

Did I use this Hermon anecdote expressly as an excuse to share this photo of him eating a cheese curd drenched in ranch upon his visit to Wisconsin last month? You decide. 

Did I use this Hermon anecdote expressly as an excuse to share this photo of him eating a cheese curd drenched in ranch upon his visit to Wisconsin last month? You decide. 

 

Research People Who Have Done What You Want To Do, or Possess The Qualities You Want to Acquire

 

In most cases there is already a template in place for getting to where you want to get, musically. Figure out what parts of the journey of musicians you admire you can replicate in your own development. At UWEC a very bright young jazz trumpet player named Cody Longreen met with me in my office in his first few weeks as a freshman last year. He told me one of his big goals was to have a major label CD release under his own name by the time he was either 25 or 30 (I can’t remember the exact timeline, now). I told him to look at other trumpet players who had done that in recent years, and identify some of the building blocks towards those players had towards that goal (for practical purposes, I’m thinking of “major label” jazz CD releases as anything with significant radio airplay or media coverage that isn’t independently released, because there’s gosh darn near no-such-thing as a major label jazz release anymore). In the case of Ambrose Akinmusire, he won the Carmine Caruso Competition (hey, there’s that word again!) and the Monk Competition, was admitted into the Monk Institute graudate program, and had a full CD’s worth of original music (with a standard thrown in) for his first recording. Luckily in our case, we have an even more relevant model, as UWEC alum John Raymond has had major radio airplay and media coverage for his excellent recent releases on Fresh Sound New Talent and the Minnesota-based Shifting Paradigm Records. John recorded his first album before graduating at UWEC - a fairly humble release from what I understand. So we identified a few building blocks: start entering some competitions (Cody was a finalist in the National Trumpet Competition last year after that conversation), begin writing music so you have enough to choose from to fill out an album when it’s time (we started with some contrafacts this summer), and try and put something preliminary out while you’re young to build up towards trying to pitch to a label when the time is right. I can’t speak for Cody but I think these more immediately attainable goals have given some needed perspective towards the bigger, long-term goal.

 

Finally, and maybe most importantly, I think it’s important to fall in love with the day-to-day process of working towards a big dream. The stark truth is that many times the big dream is never fulfilled, for any number of reasons that may or may not even be under your control, even if you put in the work. You have to see value in the day-to-day pursuit and be fulfilled by that process, or your time will feel wasted if the end goal is the sole redeeming factor.

 

I remember learning this lesson from my high school buddy Patrick Lee. Patrick turned himself into a great high school basketball player (all-conference, right Patrick?) mostly through pretty tenacious workouts in the summer. I was, on the other hand, pretty average, mostly because I just didn’t want to put in the work. I wanted to be lazy in the summer and watch TV and eat generic Chips Ahoy from Aldi. When the season rolled around and Patrick was in impeccable shape, with new post moves to boot, I remember one time asking him how he “motivated himself” to “stomach” all that extra work, lifting weights and playing pickup games all summer. He looked at me like I was crazy. I realized that none of that work was actually work for Patrick; he wanted more playing time and to be better, but he wasn’t obsessed with the end goal so much as he loved the day-to-day process of going to the gym, regardless of the end result.

I couldn't dig up any pictures of Patrick playing hoops in high school, so here's proof of my Chips Ahoy-addled high school body trying to play basketball. Why didn't my parents tell me to get my haircut?

I couldn't dig up any pictures of Patrick playing hoops in high school, so here's proof of my Chips Ahoy-addled high school body trying to play basketball. Why didn't my parents tell me to get my haircut?

 

This is something that musicians and music educators would do well to ask themselves about sometimes. Is the juice going to be worth the squeeze if we don’t “win”, or if we don’t accomplish what we set out to? I love that the Essentially Ellington competition exists, but is it worth it to restrict your ensembles to only learning 5 Duke Ellington compositions for a year’s time, if that’s what it takes? Is entering that concerto competition at school going to be worth it if you practiced one piece for a year in lieu of other things that might have better contributed to your growth, especially if you don’t win?

 

Maybe that’s another blogpost…

 

So, TL;DR? Dream big, but don’t be afraid to dream medium, too.

 

 

 

On Picking a Music School

I'm not sure where it comes from, but many young musicians seem to have so closely linked the perceived prestige of their school to their actual musicianship that it severely clouds their judgment when choosing a school; or worse, gives them an out-of-touch view of what their degree will 'get' them when they graduate, only to be rudely awakened when they realize that diploma-brandishing is not a part of a blind symphony audition, nor a phone call about subbing for a wedding band.

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Pinstripes

Facebook's "On This Day" feature reminded me that two years ago yesterday I got fired from a gig for the first and only time. The owner of a restaurant in a relatively affluent Johnson County suburb of Kansas City called me and asked if I played "jazzy/bluesy kinds of things" and could play duet with piano. All I knew was the restaurant had just opened and was called "Pinstripes", which made me think "suits", and that combined with them asking for a duo made me assume wallpaper/dinner music at an upscale restaurant.

 

Nope. Rowdy outdoor shopping mall bowling alley with booze!

 

They also had a "stage" that you could tell they really wanted to use, which was an elevated plywood block about three feet above the floor, but only big enough for me and not Andrew Ouellette . So they set it up behind the shoe rental counter (?) and now I'm inexplicably towering over Andrew like a go-go dancer, only if go-go dancers wore suits and ties and held alto saxophones, and they cut off the house music which was "Takin' Care of Business" by Bachman-Turner Overdrive at the kind of raucous volume you would expect at a chain bowling alley that serves moderately-priced American cuisine, only for us to launch into what was almost certainly the most ill-advised rendition of Star Eyes ever performed.

 

She fired us halfway through Andrew's third chorus of Take The A-Train a half hour later (literally halfway - she said "Alright, we're done here"), but only after first producing a list of the kinds of songs she had apparently meant by "jazzy/bluesy kinds of things" - a compendium of Earth Wind and Fire, Van Morrison, and KC and the Sunshine Band wedding dance band tunes, explaining that "Our customers are having trouble identifying with your music."

 

We accepted a pro-rated version of our pay and a $50 gift certificate to - you guessed it - Pinstripes! as our recompense and ceased operations. The problem with that gift certificate, though, was that I was never coming back to that place and neither was Andrew. So if we were gonna use it it had to be right then. So we did. We sat at Pinstripes in our suits and enjoyed a free meal minutes after being fired from Pinstripes. The ensuing tension was not worth the free chicken fingers.

 

Also - then-Royals designated hitter Billy Butler was there. Which simultaneously tells you all you need to know about both Billy Butler and Pinstripes.

On New Jazz Order, and just starting out

This week, after ten years of leading a 16-piece big band called New Jazz Order, bandleader (and one of my closest friends) Clint Ashlock took to Facebook to announce that the group would at least temporarily cease playing on a weekly basis.

Starting in 2006 or 2007, NJO had taken up residency at Harling's Upstairs, an endearingly (sometimes disgustingly) rustic bar on Main Street in Midtown Kansas City, performing every Tuesday night from 9 PM to midnight. Of course, the gig didn't really pay in anything other than free booze (and even that was kind of under the table), and the vibe was so...um...casual*, that the gig almost never started or ended quite on time. It became a running joke when plugging the gig on Facebook to say something like "Tonight, from 9:07 to 12:16, it's NJO at Harling's!" When someone noticed that, despite the lack of Harling's signage, the complex in which it resided was evidently called the Southwell Building, we took to calling it just "The Southwell", like a five star hotel or something. 

*When I say casual, I mean that the bar had been voted "Worst Restrooms in the City" by The Pitch several years running, there were constantly leaks in the ceiling, there was no air conditioning, there was no signage on the door, taking the back entrance was prefaced by summiting two stories of wooden stairs that were so so so far below building code that I can't fully describe it; there was an inexplicably vacant room adjacent to the bar area that was filled with empty cardboard boxes, assorted furniture, empty liquor bottles from who-knows-when, it was cash-only and the "top shelf" liquor was McCormick's. A friend asked for wine once, and it was served in one of those clear plastic cups you get at the office water cooler. This place was and is surreal in all the wrong ways. We loved it.

Seriously - leaks everywhere.

Seriously - leaks everywhere.

NJO was, really, an incredibly ambitious undertaking for Clint. I don't think I knew that at the beginning. And I also just viewed him as sort of older and more experienced than he actually was at the time. It seemed totally normal to me - of course, this veteran jazz musician would have a band! It was only today, when Clint posted some vintage photos on Facebook, that I realized he was 26 when this thing started. Twenty-six! Just a puppy, and still in school at UMKC. He hustled a weekly performance space, assembled a book that was a hundred charts deep, wrote his own music for the group, and took on the task of getting 16 people to agree to play each week, managing egos and dealing with last-minute cancellations every Tuesday. This went on for ten years. Ten. Years. And Clint lost money on NJO - the economics of a big band are such that, when the pot of money is divided up 16 ways as opposed to most gigs which usually involve 2-6 musicians, Clint's share of the money was maybe only enough to cover the cost of the checks. If there was any money leftover, it usually went to the bartender. This thing was purely a labor of love - an unmitigated act of passion for music, and for the jazz community in KC at large. 

All of the items in this photo were just hanging out in the back room, for reasons unbeknownst to anybody. Except for Heinlein's KU hoodie, which he got at Kohl's.

All of the items in this photo were just hanging out in the back room, for reasons unbeknownst to anybody. Except for Heinlein's KU hoodie, which he got at Kohl's.

My own introduction to New Jazz Order came at a pretty pivotal point in my musical and personal life. I had been studying at UMKC for a few years, and really working hard and improving, but the process of getting out into the Kansas City jazz community and actually listening, hanging, and eventually working to get gigs hadn't really started yet. I had pretty crippling self-doubt and never felt like I was quite "ready" to go to jam sessions or try and sit in on more established musicians' gigs. Further, I had struggled socially in my early years in college - as a pretty tenacious practicer I often missed out on a lot of typical college experiences and only had two or three people I would regularly hang out with. Thankfully I had peers like Hermon Mehari, Steve Lambert, Ben Leifer, and others who would invite me out, anyway. These guys were constantly looking for a place to play, always trying to take what they were working on in the practice room out into the wild. I saw how much they were growing as a result, and I  finally had to start thinking about confronting my fears. When I got wind that Clint Ashlock had started a big band, that seemed like a "safer" or more comfortable way for me to finally break out of the confines of the practice rooms and actually dip my toe in the waters. I might not have been able to hang with the best players in town for four choruses of Donna Lee, I reasoned, but I could sit in a big band section and probably play something serviceable for a chorus of F blues. So I sent Clint (who I barely knew at the time) a message:

So much hilarious about this exchange: Clint calling me "Mike", "hoping" I would check my Facebook (this was when people used Facebook on computers...), and my needless self-deprecation to try and hide how much I actually really did loathe my own playing at the time..

So much hilarious about this exchange: Clint calling me "Mike", "hoping" I would check my Facebook (this was when people used Facebook on computers...), and my needless self-deprecation to try and hide how much I actually really did loathe my own playing at the time..

The learning curve was so steep, and the on-the-job training started pretty much right away: thinking I might impress some of the older guys in the band that first night, I decided to take advantage of the set break  by going off in the corner room and practicing something I was working on. I had read that John Coltrane used to do that. After about two minutes of this,  Zack Albetta yelled (or maybe he wasn't yelling, actually - Zack just has a very resonant way of speaking) "It's the set break. TAKE A BREAK!" 

So there was lesson #1: don't practice on the set break. Put your horn away and go work the room. Thanks, Zack.

New Jazz Order was really the perfect bridge from being a student to being a professional musician. While the demographic of the band was mostly young, there were seasoned pros sprinkled throughout the band. I sat in the section with people like Rich Wheeler and Kerry Strayer in the early years. Mark Lowrey, Kevin Cerovich, John Brewer, Doug Reneau and Sam Wisman would play. In other cities, the young jazz musicians who are thirsty for playing opportunities but not getting called for gigs yet will often resort to undercutting - that is, playing for free or less than the "going rate" just to have an audience. This epidemic can destroy a scene in a hurry. This never was quite the same problem in Kansas City, and I think that's largely because of NJO and Harling's. We had our place to play. 

NJO was always raw. That's not always a compliment - the intonation wasn't always pure, we goofed up the form of Clint's arrangement of Time Will Tell a thousand times, and I pretty much just played about every fourth note of the saxophone soli on Cherokee. But when I say raw, I also mean that the music was almost always real and honest and from the heart. The percentage of the output of that band that was totally sincere was higher than any musical outfit I have ever been a part of. It's not even close. And when it was on - when the right people were playing, when it was the middle of June and the windows were open and the music was pouring out onto a busy Main Street below, when the crowd was shoulder-to-shoulder, and Clint was back there throwing his patented 109 MPH fastball on Groove Merchant - man, it was SO on. Sometimes Bobby Watson showed up to play, and it was... well, you just had to be there.

"Why is there a couch in front of the band...and where did it come from?" "Don't ask questions."

"Why is there a couch in front of the band...and where did it come from?"

"Don't ask questions."

 

Often, especially after the group had been around for a few years and many of the members were working more and more, someone would come up and apologize to Clint. "Hey, man, I hate to do this, but I got this regular gig at..." and that would be it for them, for awhile. But there would almost always be a Next Man Up. Someone else that had been coming up to listen or sit in, waiting for their chance to get on the carousel. In other cases, musicians would move to Kansas City from other scenes. Ryan Heinlein, John Kizilarmut, Karl McComas-Reichl, Peter Schlamb, Brett Jackson ... some of the pillars of the community that didn't grow up musically in Kansas City helped get connected at least a little bit from playing in New Jazz Order, even if just for a few weeks. When calls started coming in a little bit more for me, it had to be a really good one to skip New Jazz Order. I know that I turned down at least a few hundred dollars in gigs a year to play in the band, and I'm not the only one. There were those that had been around and understood that what NJO had been and had meant to the much-ballyhooed renaissance of jazz in Kansas City over the past decade-plus, and that there was nothing analogous anywhere else in the world, and that meant more to us than a few gigs. Clint's at the top of the list. Did I mention how much money he lost keeping this thing afloat? It's a lot.

The band had many many triumphs. Clint was on the cover of The Pitch and I had this needlessly fluorescent picture run in a story about us in The Star: 

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We put out a CD that I'm both proud and ashamed of. Last fall, we even got invited to play at Game 1 of the World Series, which led to Clint and I meeting SPORTSWRITER JOE POSNANSKI!!!!:

At the end, New Jazz Order was even playing regularly for money that was actually pretty good, thanks to John Scott and the Green Lady Lounge.

At a certain point, the pipeline dried up, and the burden of trying to scrounge up a band every week got to be too much for Clint, with a family and so many other equally important (and better paying, usually) things on his plate. When I say the pipeline dried up, I don't mean to suggest that there is a dearth of talent coming up the ranks in KC; far from it. But more and more excuses for not playing kept coming  - a paper to write, an illness, a long commute, fatigue. I'm not completely sure what to attribute that to, and that's probably another blog post. Maybe the 20-year-olds found another place to play that I'm not aware of, or maybe they have found other ways to start working towards having an actual career in music in Kansas City. Maybe. A more likely story is that they see the successes of people like Clint, Steve, Hermon, Ben, and Brett (and the list goes on) and don't understand all of the less-glamorous heavy-lifting that led to those successes. I'm not suggesting any of those guys I just listed wouldn't still have top-notch careers without NJO, but playing at Harling's was one of the bricks that laid the foundation. I think they would all agree with that.

As for me? Well, I learned how to play blues in Db at Harling's. I learned that Woodchuck Draft Cider is not an acceptable drink choice for a grown man at Harling's. I got cut so bad by Matt Chalk and Nick Rowland on rhythm changes at Harling's that I actually moved in with my parents for two months so I could practice more over the summer. I dealt with my first, and most severe, romantic heartbreak as an adult at Harling's. When I applied for my first college teaching job, most of the things on my CV were an indirect result of playing at Harling's. 

Clint, my brother. Thank you.

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