The Danger of Versatility

A common theme in music circles seems to be that the more hats you can wear, or the more tools that you have in your musical tool belt (there are some other stupid similes I could use, too), the better off you are; or at least, the more equipped you are to make a living. And this is true, for the most part. Budget cuts, piracy, a growing public indifference towards live performance in general, and a whole catalog of other factors mean that the available jobs in performance and pedagogy typically call for someone who can do the job of several people at once. In my own professional life, I got my job at UW-Eau Claire largely because of versatility: fluency in both jazz improvisation and concert saxophone idioms. When I look around at my colleagues at the University, many of them are musical Swiss Army knives (I told you there were other stupid similes lying in the weeds!). Maybe the best example is the truly preposterous musical wizard Phil Ostrander  , who casually plays excellent jazz trombone, is principal trombone in the Minnesota Opera pit, conducts the Symphony Band at UW-Eau Claire, and oh yeah, accompanied me on jazz piano when I interviewed two years ago.

 "Dr. Ostrander, I was wondering if you could make my trombone levitate just by staring really intently and holding your hands about shoulder width apart?"

"Dr. Ostrander, I was wondering if you could make my trombone levitate just by staring really intently and holding your hands about shoulder width apart?"

So - this idea of the importance of versatility is a good one, and well-founded. But I have to say that I worry a little bit that the message is being driven home so relentlessly, and mindlessly, and without much qualifying information, that some students are getting the wrong message. 

A year ago while doing research on my dissertation* I came across a great quote from Steve Duke, retired professor of saxophone at Northern Illinois University. Duke stakes the claim to having been the first person to talk about "crossover" saxophone-playing (that is, switching back and forth between jazz and classical styles) from a pedagogical standpoint. He wrote:

A person’s motives for learning another style affects the learning experience. Classical players frequently want to learn jazz because they want to become more marketable. Jazz players frequently want to learn classical music because they want to work on their ‘chops’.
Both jazz and classical music are art forms, and being such demand commitment. Classically-oriented musicians rarely view learning classical music as mere exercise, and jazz-oriented musicians are rarely motivated to learn jazz solely for monetary gain.
In short, learning music in order to ‘use’ it leaves out a basic value: music, the performing art.
 Steve Duke - also possibly a wizard, I guess, though I've never met him. But a very obviously smart guy.

Steve Duke - also possibly a wizard, I guess, though I've never met him. But a very obviously smart guy.

*It wasn't actually a dissertation, it was a research document that was supposed to count as 1/3rd of a dissertation, but it ended up being pretty lengthy and thorough and it's easier to just call it a "dissertation" rather than saying "it was a research document that was supposed to count as 1/3rd of a dissertation, but it ended up being pretty lengthy and thorough", but I guess I sort of defeated the purpose just now. Anyway- I wrote a paper and it contributed to me having a Doctorate of Musical Arts.

I really thought Dr. Duke nailed it with this quote. Too often I fear that music students are arbitrarily seeking out secondary musical disciplines simply because of the perceived practicality of it. To me, this means this endeavor is defeated from the very start. When I talk to musicians that are versatile, they rarely talk in terms of "primary" or "secondary" skills - they are just as passionate about every single facet of their musical life. These peripheral-skills-that-aren't-actually-peripheral all came organically, from genuine interest. 

Just throwing out a couple of people off the cuff that I know:  Clint Ashlock doesn't talk about his "side-project" as a big band composer or how he "dabbles" in lead trumpet - he writes for small-group, arranges for big band, leads the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, improvises, and plays high notes because he loves those things, and can and will talk your ear off about any of them. I think of  Aaron Hedenstrom as one of my favorite jazz saxophone improvisers in my age bracket anywhere, but when he gave a masterclass to my saxophone studio at UWEC this winter, he geeked out on some of the film score music he had been working on over the past few months for most of the class. Hermon Mehari is one of the top young jazz trumpet players in the world, but his notoriety in Kansas City came largely from collaborating with hip hop emcees and his musical projects that organically fuse jazz principles with other genres - talk to him about those other genres and you realize he's every bit as deep in the mine with Verdi as he is with Low End Theory as he is with Friday Night Live at the Blackhawk.

I hear many of my saxophone students begrudgingly working on flute and clarinet doubles. And yes, a base level of aptitude on these instruments is necessary for a saxophonist that wants to work, or at least it's really helpful. But if you are approaching your doubles with that attitude - "Well, I gotta put the time in on flute and clarinet, because you can't get any work without them" - you'll never get to the level needed to get meaningful work on those instruments! This was really driven home last year by a visit to UW-Eau Claire by my friend Brett McDonald , a monster saxophonist and composer/arranger who has been very successful as a woodwind doubler - touring with Dreamgirls and A Christmas Story in recent years. Brett talked about flute and clarinet with the same passion as he does saxophone, and spent at least ten minutes excitedly showing me all the composing he had been able to do on his Surface Pro 3 while on the road. You think you're going to steal work from someone like this by practicing a half hour of clarinet a day because it's "practical"? No way. 

 Here's a picture of Brett, because pictures help break up the monotony of all of this white text against a black background. Hey Brett.

Here's a picture of Brett, because pictures help break up the monotony of all of this white text against a black background. Hey Brett.

I made a decision about five or six years ago to try and be as equally authentic as I could in both classical and jazz saxophone idioms. A few teachers, independently of one another, had smartly suggested that this was a skill that I had a fairly good grasp of, and if I harvested it and honed it, it would bode well for a future career in college teaching. I looked around the saxophone world and felt (and still feel) that while many many many pedagogues are claiming to be fluent in both styles, in most cases one lags pretty far behind the other. You would see this versatility touted in the first line of a bio, but notice that the "recordings" section of the website would only feature one or the other. I felt that this was a niche that I could fill, and of course it's still a work-in-progress, but I'm very proud of the work that I have done to try and put out something authentic and refined in both the recital hall and the club. But this came at a cost. All of that time I spent working on the Albright Sonata and Distances Within Me (and, not to be self-congratulatory, but it was a lot!) meant no time for flute and clarinet. And that's OK, for me. I couldn't see myself playing in a musical pit or teaching multiple woodwinds anywhere, and felt that the standard was so high on those instruments that I would be kidding myself to think that I could catch up. I could play them well enough to play pads in a big band section (see photo below), which is work that I actually wanted. Further, I really love concert saxophone. I found myself walking around campus with earbuds checking out Claude Delangle or Tim Mcallister's recordings and happily shaking my head the same way I did with Kenny Garrett or Seamus Blake. I realized that I didn't want to make musical and artistic decisions based purely on practicality - and if that meant that I had to work 12 hours a week at The Gap in the summers because I couldn't play penny whistle with the Heartland Men's Chorus (this is not a hypothetical scenario - that literally happened in 2013) I was OK with it. I don't want this to sound like a cop out - at a certain point I'll probably get on those doubles a little more. But if I had fallen into the trap of spreading myself too thin, trying to do everything at once because it's supposedly practical, I have a feeling I would be stuck in musical purgatory right now - not quite a strong enough saxophonist for my current position, but probably not good enough to be getting any serious pit work, either.

 I looked a whole lot better than I sounded in this Kansas City Star file photo, and that's not saying very much.

I looked a whole lot better than I sounded in this Kansas City Star file photo, and that's not saying very much.

So - in summary, my advice to younger musicians (emphasize "-er" because I'm still really young) might be: 

  1. Strive to be versatile, but be conscious and calculated about why. If you have to force yourself to pursue a new or different musical skill purely for practicality's sake, it's going to be an uphill battle to ever hone that skill well enough to get work over people who are truly passionate about it... which means the purpose of pursuing it to begin with has been wholly defeated.
  2. Be careful about viewing skills as "secondary". Yes, realistically, there's only so much time in the day, and knowing you may never be a virtuoso shouldn't necessarily discourage you from trying, but the dabbling mindset can really hamper your growth. If you pick something up, try your best to be authentic with it.
  3. Be wary of spreading yourself too thin chasing extra disciplines. Achieving enough mastery in any forum typically requires that you be myopic, at least for a stretch. Doing 11 things at a semi-professional level is not going to help you as much as doing two or three at a professional level. 
  4. Remember Steve Duke's words: "Learning music in order to 'use' it leaves out a basic value: music, the performing art."