Will Cook Makes the Texas All-State Band

Congratulations

This is great news that I am excited to share! Will Cook, who has been my student since he was in junior high, just auditioned and won a spot in the Texas All-State Bands. In the message he left on my cell he said that he came in third for his area and that this is the first year his region ever sent two trumpet players to All-State.

Congratulations Will! Great job!

Will’s Trumpet Career

It really isn’t surprising that Will made All-State when you look at the accomplishments he has racked up over the past five years, beginning with making first chair in the junior high All-Region band his eighth grade year. Since then, Will Cook has won spots in the high school region band, orchestra and jazz ensemble all four years of his high school career. That makes a total of twelve all-region auditions at the high school level and he never placed lower than third chair in any of those ensembles. (In fact, he was so accustomed to being first chair in his region ensembles that he considered it a defeat to come in second.)

Will has also had an impeccable record at the solo contests each year with first division ratings every year. Last year he took his solo to state UIL contest and got a first division there as well (performing the Arutunian).

He also won awards in music theory at the state UIL contest.

Outside of school, Will has completed one tour with a traveling jazz ensemble (that I can never seem to remember the name of) out of Michigan and is committed to touring with the band again this summer as their jazz trumpet player.

Then, the icing on the cake, Will is also a budding composer. I haven’t worked much with him in that capacity, but what I have seen of his work is consistent with college level writing.

A Privilege and an Honor

I enjoy working with all of my students, but Will Cook has been the kind of student that most teachers only get to dream about. I noticed from the very beginning that he not only understood my instructions, but also exercised the will power to carry them out. Rarely in our five years together has Will ever had to come up with an excuse for not doing what I told him to.

To understand how important that is to me, you must understand my teaching style. Even though I do teach students how the music is supposed to go, that is not the meat and potatoes of my approach. I am more of a practice coach. I teach my students how to practice so that they can accomplish anything they set their minds on.

Those who follow my directions are always going to benefit the most from our lessons. Yes, I can tell you to make this note short and that one long. I can tell you to slow down here and speed up there. But if you follow my directions about how to practice, you will learn something that you can apply to music for the rest of your life. When you learn how to practice, it puts the entire world of music in your grasp.

Unfortunately, not all of my students do what I tell them to. In fact, I would say that only about one fourth of them do. (Praise God for that one fourth by the way!) Will is one of those. Will takes the understanding and makes it his own and moves forward with it. All the while he is doing what needs to be done.

So yes, it has been an honor working with him over these past five years and I am happy for him that he made the All-State bands.

Congratulations Will!

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Loaves and Fishes – a Message of Hope

Loaves and Fishes Miracles

God has been speaking to me about “Loaves and Fishes” (Luke 9:10-17) miracles for seven years now, ever since He called us to do what was clearly impossible. God introduced me to the love of my life knowing it was going to take a miracle for us to be together.

Pearl and I knew God made us for each other soon after we met. The problem was that we were eight thousand miles apart. I was in Houston, Texas and she was living in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Us getting married was actually even more impossible than it seemed to me at the time. I won’t go into the details but I will tell you that it was primarily a financial impossibility. When I look back today at what God did for us, I see miracles that were put into place even before we met.

God provided the miracles and today Pearl and I have been married for four and a half years, living here in Houston. I clearly remember acknowledging to God, in prayer, that there was no way I could even get enough money for a flight to South Africa, let alone take care of all of the legal red tape that it was going to take to get us together. But going to Him in prayer that way opened the doors for miracles to happen.

A Message of Hope

The “Fishes and Loaves” story is a message of hope. God is telling us that He can take what little we have in this life and stretch it, multiply it or grow it to meet our needs. When we go to Him with our problems, as our heavenly Father it is His desire to take care of us. But we must believe He can do it. We must believe that He can take our crumbs and turn them into a banquet. We must believe He can take our current finances and make them sufficient for our needs.

There is a temptation at this point to say, “yes, that’s true, but it is more complicated than that.” Maybe it is more complicated, but I do believe that it’s only as complicated as we make it. Some people think there is a long list of requirements we must meet before God will bless us with any kind of miracle, but our grace has already been paid for in advance. We do not need to live perfect lives before we can deserve God’s love and His miracles. That is why it is called Grace, because it is available to us even though we do not deserve it and we have not earned it.

I’m not God and I cannot speak for Him. But I have experienced many miracles in my lifetime and none of them were earned. None of them were deserved. There was nothing I did to try to get God to give me those miracles. I didn’t have to bargain with Him or make sacrifices to Him. All I ever did was go to Him with my needs and He met them for me with what little I had to work with.

Home Art Project

Lately, Pearl and I have been working on a couple of acrylic paintings that represent the “Loaves and Fishes.” Part of the reason we are doing this is as an exercise to help remind us that God provides for our needs and does so miraculously when it’s necessary. The time it takes to paint has given us plenty of time to contemplate how God works in our lives.

One of the things I thought about as we painted was that there are a great many needs that God can meet this way. God can take up the slack whenever we fall short. Maybe we aren’t the most talented musicians in the world, He will take what we have an stretch it to fill a need. Maybe we don’t have the strongest bodies in the world, but God can take what little strength we do have and multiply it in a way that it covers all of our physical needs. Any area of our lives where we fall short, God is there for us to pick up the slack.

Think of that as you begin the week at the start of this new year. Whatever your needs are, wherever you fall short, you can go to God for help and He will provide, He will take care of you. In my opinion, that is the biggest difference between the Christianity that I live each day and the other religions of the world. I have a heavenly Father who actually DOES stuff for me. Praise God! And the good news is that He loves you just as much as He loves me and He will meet your needs if you ask Him to.

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Need Some Advice?

A very nice video I found on YouTube about hearing from God:

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Reflecting on Love Is Not Self-Seeking

Love is Not Self-Seeking

We had our first Bible Study of the new year last night. In our study, we are working our way through the famous “Love Is” list from 1 Cor 13. When we first set out to prepare for this week’s topic, I thought there wasn’t much to it. In fact, my first thought was, “This is a no brainer.” In contrast to the previous words in the “love is” list, “love is not self-seeking” is pretty much what it sounds like.

However, the deeper I delved into the topic, the more certain details became apparent. There are times when we are well intending, but lack the staying power when confronted with temptations. We say all the things that sound like someone who puts others before ourselves, but when it comes time to actually live out our selflessness, we cave to our own selfish desires.

The truth is that none of us are completely selfless. Being self-seeking is incremental and sometimes we are better at avoiding it than others, but none of us are perfectly and entirely selfless. This is one of those areas where we all need more growth in our lives.

All or Nothing?

Recently I have heard several people say that, when it is impossible to be perfect at something, we are wasting our time trying to do that thing. For example, they say that it is impossible to be completely objective, so they do not value or pursue objectivity. Instead, they revel in the subjectivity of passion. Their excuse for throwing objectivity to the wind is that objectivity is unobtainable. What they fail to recognize is that objectivity is unobtainable only in its perfect form. The line between the extremes of objectivity and subjectivity is scalar. Choosing 100% subjectivity just because you cannot achieve 100% objectivity is a lazy form of foolishness.

The same is true for the sliding scale between the two extremes of self-sacrifice and self-seeking. Just because you cannot be 100% selfless does not mean it’s okay to give up on it all-together. Being a Christian is not about being perfectly holy. It is a desire in our hearts to become increasingly more holy as we grow in Christ. In that respect, the desire to be holy and more Christ-like is what makes us Christian – not the righteousness itself, because we will never be righteous enough to ever say that we are perfect. Self-sacrifice is, for that reason, a constant pursuit for all of us regardless of our current position on that continuum.

Obedience vs. Sacrifice

Something else worth mentioning in this context is that God prefers obedience over sacrifice (1 Samuel 15:22, Isaiah 1:11-19). Often the sacrifices we make for the sake of being selfless are misplaced and inappropriate. Self-sacrifice is no longer self-sacrifice when it involves forcing others to suffer along with me. I often use stories from my career to demonstrate this kind of sacrifice. In my capacity as a band leader, I have the responsibility of hiring and firing musicians. If a musician proves to be unreliable (for example, the musician shows up late to gigs or worse, doesn’t bother to show up at all), then I have a responsibility to those who rely on me to not hire that musician again. On the surface, hiring an unreliable musician over and over again may seem like the selfless thing to do. I could convince myself to bear that sacrifice in the name of selflessness. But when my business suffers as a result of this sacrifice, so do those who rely on the work I provide for them. When my business is affected by my sacrifice, those who need my product or service also suffer. By accommodating the unreliability under the guise of being selfless, I am encouraging a behavior that is contrary to God’s word. The Bible presents numerous references about the importance of honoring commitments and one’s word.

When I married Pearl, I made a promise to God and to her to “love, honor, guide and protect” her. If I make sacrifices in my business that compromise that promise, then I have chosen sacrifice over obedience to God. I feel the same applies when considering the verbal contract between myself and the members of the band I hire for a gig. For any business owner to sacrifice the business that provides for the needs of so many people is a form of disobedience. A well-meaning owner who continues to sacrifice his business for the sake of being selfless towards only one of his employees (at the expense of the rest) has missed the mark entirely. We should indeed be forgiving and act selflessly towards such wayward and needy employees, but never in a way that will compromise our commitments to the others.

Ask For Wisdom

As you can see, “love is not self-seeking” is not as simple as it seems on the surface after all. Our relationships with individuals do not exist in a vacuum. Each relationship can be seen as a thread, and those threads are often intertwined. What happens in one friendship can have profound effects on another. It’s foolish to go off half-cocked and throw the baby out with the bathwater. God invites us to ask for wisdom. When we are unsure of how and when to choose selflessness we should ask the Holy Spirit for guidance. Ask God what He wants you to do in every situation so the love of God is evidenced in all we do.

Invitation

Our Bible study is on Wednesday nights at 6:00 at CT Church. While this particular study group was created to accommodate those in the music ministry who cannot attend other Bible studies at 7 pm, you don’t need to be part of the music ministry to attend. Anyone interested in studying God’s word is welcome. Please feel free to join us.

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Bay Area Park Bird Pictures

My First Turkey Vulture Pix

Just from reading the field guides I knew there were turkey vultures in this area, but I never saw them. I have seen hundreds (or even thousands) of black vultures but never the red headed turkeys. So this was a special treat.

Bay Area Park is a picnic and sports area just west of Armond Bayou. Our original plan was to go to Armond Bayou but it turns out they are no longer open on Tuesdays (not sure when that changed). So we went a couple miles farther down the road to Bay Area Park and caught a few birds interested in posing for the camera.

Mockingbird

Great Blue Heron

We saw at least four different great blue herons at the park this time. And for once, they didn’t mind having their pictures taken. We watched this guy until he finally caught something.

Lunch time!

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Musicians and Verbal Contracts

Verbal Contracts In Music

Right or wrong, good or bad, a lot of the local music biz is done by verbal contract. As a sideman, there is only one band I have ever worked for that insisted on contracts between the band leader and the sidemen. All the rest work on a variety of levels of verbal agreements. Most of the time this works fine, but sometimes there are problems. For verbal agreements to work, both sides need to be trustworthy and honor their word.

Unfortunately, the music industry is not entirely professional. Many bands and musicians do what they do because it is part of their culture. To them, performing and playing gigs isn’t a career, it is an expression of their heritage on one end of the spectrum or an expression of their cause on the other end.

Mixing the two types of musicians does not always produce satisfaction and misunderstandings abound. A good example of this is when a professional freelance musician takes a gig with a salsa band. Almost all of the salsa bands I ever played with were more cultural than they were professional. I’m sure they didn’t see it that way, but conflict always resulted when assumptions were tested in the course of working together. In my experience, most salsa bands assume if you take a gig then you have also agreed to make every rehearsal. A professional freelance musician expects these types of assumptions to be clearly communicated before the deal is made. When the salsa band calls a third and fourth rehearsal for a performance that only pays $150, the professional players feel like they have been cheated because it wasn’t clearly stated at the beginning.

But salsa bands are not the only bands that operate that way. I just recently had to turn a gig down after I had already excepted it because there was no mention of rehearsals before I took the gig. And that was a top forty cover band. Fortunately the leader was very understanding, perhaps because I stressed the fact that I wasn’t told about the rehearsals when I originally accepted it.

It’s not just rehearsals either. This lack of communication during the negotiation stage of booking a gig translates into a variety of misunderstandings ranging from whether or not the band gets fed to what time the gig starts and ends. Far too often I have accepted gigs that the leader failed to mention it was in Dallas or in San Antonio. Imagine my surprise, weeks after I had taken the gig, when I learned that the gig required four hours of driving time.

Email Is Better

Things haven’t been as bad (in this respect) in the past few years of my career and I think it’s because most leaders are using email to negotiate and communicate gig information. I often take a printed copy of the emails with me to a gig if I think there may be a problem, but generally speaking, once something is in writing, there isn’t as much of a problem.

Email not only forces the band leaders to be more clear about the details of a gig, it also increases the accuracy of those details. A band leader can send one email with all the correct details and everyone will be on the same page, automatically. Between that and google maps, gone are the days of taking a left turn when the leader meant right. So much of the stress that used to be associated with getting to the gig has been eliminated by the internet this way.

Falling Through the Cracks

But every once in a while something falls through the cracks. This last misunderstanding was because all of the business was handled via text messages. Not good! It’s kind of difficult to communicate at the same level of accuracy with a text as you can with an email. Also, texts are not readily printable.

Other exceptions to the “email is better” era of gig negotiations is when we work with leaders who, for whatever reason, refuse to rely on electronic media. There are still leaders out there who prefer the phone. I was horrible on the phone before (because of my hearing loss). I’m far worse at it now that I rarely talk on the phone anymore.

Renegotiate Fearlessly

I think it’s important to be able to renegotiate without hesitation when conflicts arise. As far as I’m concerned, when an undisclosed detail is revealed, after you have already taken the gig, then they have broken the verbal contract and you are no longer bound by the previous agreement. They will complain, but you have every right to back out of the gig or demand more pay.

They do complain. That’s why I say you should be fearless when you communicate. They will believe that you accepted the gig so you are committed to everything they add to that commitment after the fact. Remember that these gigs are mostly cultural for them, not professional. Some of them can’t begin to understand that you do this for a living and that you need to make a profit. They will behave as if you have betrayed them and make it seem as if you have selfish motivations (Everyone who works for money is selfish, right? – oh wait – that’s only true in music – I forgot!). But it is important for you to stand up for what is right. Stand on the confidence of knowing you are a professional and don’t let their complaints move you from your position.

Yes, it may mean that they won’t call you anymore, but this is how great music scenes are created. When enough people stand up for what is right, then the leaders are forced to behave professionally when they hire pros (duh). But for as long as the musicians cave in to the whims of those who do not have professional motivations, the musicians will always be treated poorly with low wages and miserable work conditions.

Your Responsibility To Clarify

On those occasions when you are the only professional in the business relationship, all of the responsibility to clarify details falls on your shoulders. If you want to be a genuine pro, you cannot afford to just wait for these conflicts to arise and then blame them on the more culturally centric leaders. It is best for your business to avoid these conflicts from the start. If the leaders you work with are not pros, then you need to take up the slack and ask all the right questions, even the questions that seem so obvious to you that you would never typically ask them.

For me, 99% of my gigs never require rehearsals. It’s easy for me to assume that anyone who calls will tell me if there will be rehearsals, but that is not a safe assumption. I would have avoided frustration for both myself and the leader if I had asked about rehearsals in the first place. But I recognize this as a mistake on my part, not on the part of the leader.

When I say that those leaders are not professional, I do not mean it as an insult. I am not putting them down because I know each one of them prides themselves on being professional bands (in other words – playing paid gigs with professional quality music). They are not the problem in this scenario! It is very important that you understand this because they are your source of income. It’s not really them who is screwing up, it’s us. If we are the pros, then it falls upon us to behave professionally.

You don’t think that you could bite half of your McDonald’s burger, change your mind and take it back in exchange for chicken nuggets, do you? No! Because McDonald’s isn’t going to let that happen. We are not professional consumers of hamburgers just like band leaders are not always professional consumers of musicians.

In the same way, it is our responsibility to make sure we have all the details before we accept the gig, not the band leader’s.

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Auld Lang Syne

I used to have a tradition each year that was previously interrupted over the past several years because my New Year’s Eve gig was in Las Vegas. That tradition involved looking back at the previous year, writing about it, thinking about it, and making decisions for the new year based on the successes and failures of the previous year. Since this year is my first year staying home, I feel as if three years have slipped by and it’s almost depressing. It makes it feel like I haven’t accomplished anything in years.

But this kind of self pity is destructive and I’ve been searching my memory for the milestones of this past year so I can re-initiate that tradition. In the past I used to list how many compositions I had written or how many new books were released. This year I think I wrote one composition and there were no new book releases. I also used to list major performances and once again, there’s nothing from this past year I can put on that list either.

I was beginning to get pretty down on myself when I realized that the emphasis this year was a lot different from previous years. No, I didn’t do very many of the wonderful things I’ve done in the past. On a superficial level, last year was a lot more boring than previous years. But that’s because we changed our business focus a few years ago and I can no longer measure our progress based on the old standard. Instead of looking at what I’ve done as a performer or a composer, I should be looking at what I’ve done as a teacher.

Teaching Accomplishments for 2011

When I change my focus and review the year’s accomplishments from the perspective of a teacher, I see that we have actually accomplished more than most other years. It’s just not the kind of stuff that can be bragged about like a high profile performance or a new major composition (I am actually on an indefinite composition hiatus). Some of those accomplishments include (in no specific order):

1) The Completion of Our Tyro Book (content only)

This book will not be publicly released for at least a couple of years, but the content is finished and we are already using it with the students. There are two comments worth noting that are relative to this book.

First is that this is our new strategy with the books. We will be per-releasing each book to our students long before we make the books available to the public. Some would say that we should have been doing that all along. In a way we were except that in the past is was only the content that was used with the students, not the finished product. The difference now is that we want to use the finished products with the students for a while before we release them to the public.

Secondly, we have a new system in place for the different “levels”. We used to refer to the different levels as “groups” because of the wording in the Daily Routines book. We refer to each level in that book as a group; groups one through seven. The Groups have now been replaced with level names as follows:

Group 1 is the Pioneer Level
Group 2 is the Tyro Level
Group 3 is the Player Level
Group 4 is the Apprentice Level
Group 5 is the Pro Level
Group 6 is the Master Level
Group 7 is the Virtuoso Level

2) Motif Catalogue

The most important accomplishment in 2011 was the development and implementation of what I call a Motif Catalogue for my jazz improvisation students. This catalogue gives intermediate jazz students the ability to craft their own jazz etudes and ii-V-I licks in a way that is unique to their own personalities yet rooted in the jazz language. On the jazz side of my teaching, this is by far the most important development since I started teaching the five areas of study for jazz improv.

Does it work?

Yes it does! I have used a rough draft version of the Motif Catalogue with four different students. All four of those students went from playing only notes and scales in their improvised solos to playing genuine jazz solos in the space of a few weeks! It is precisely the tool I have been looking to use with my students for over twenty years.

3) Herald Lesson Program

Another major accomplishment was the creation of our new lesson program called Herald Lessons. As our prices climb each year, more and more people have asked for less costly alternatives to our regular student packages. In response to this need, we created a program that sends invitations to open spots in our schedule that will go unfilled otherwise. I spent several months writing the code for this program in PHP, a seemingly wasteful way to spend so many hours, but it is important to us that those who desire private lessons but cannot afford our regular packages still have a way to access the lessons this way.

4) All-State Jazz Judging

I do not typically judge competitions anymore because they don’t pay and I cannot afford to give up a day of teaching to judge. But this year I judged the Texas All-State Jazz Trumpet auditions, which gave me insight into the process that I hadn’t known before. One of the things that I think makes me a valuable teacher for the high school students is that I have judged in a variety of contexts from All-Region to Solo and Ensemble contest. With this experience I am better able to help the students implement strategies for their competitions. Jazz State is a different beast from the others because the auditions are taped, not live. So judging gave me more ideas that will help the students in the future.

5) All-State Jazz Etude

Not as big of a deal as the judging, but still worth mentioning is that one of my etudes was chosen again this year as audition material for the All-State Jazz trumpet auditions.

6) Practice Tests

I have long believed in practicing with the students in their lessons. I believe that to be part of my job, to teach the students how to practice.  This is not possible if we do not practice together in the lessons. Unfortunately, I was guilty of assuming that this knowledge and experience was transferring correctly to their own practice times at home. When I had suspicions that it was not, I created what I call practice tests where I ask the students to practice in the lesson while I write critique about the way they practiced. With these tests, I was able to reveal all of the students’ flaws in their approaches to practicing.

The fringe benefit of these tests is that they have given me more information to work with for another book I am currently working on. While I write comments about their practicing, I am also creating data for that new project.

7) Student CD Project “Trumpet Travels”

This was our first year to create a CD of recordings made by our students. This CD was an alternative to trying to host a collective concert, which had become too difficult to organize because our students live great distances away from here. We have students who live as far north as Lufkin, as far south as Galveston, as far east as Beaumont and as far west as Victoria. Rehearsing and performing with all of these students at the same time is practically impossible.

The most important benefit the students received from doing the CD was in becoming more aware of what they sound like and how much effort must be invested to create a quality performance. It is not a coincidence that all of the students had better sounds within  weeks of when the CD was finished. It is not a coincidence that they all have a much better rhythmic concept. All of the students who recorded made more progress this year than any other year since they first began lessons with me.

8) This Blog

The purpose of this blog is to provide as much information to my students as possible in the most efficient manner. That said, I am very careful not to write anything here  that would essentially give away for free what our students are paying for. That makes my job as a blogger more challenging than just spewing stuff all the time.

For the first four months I have been diligent about posting at least once every weekday in an effort to establish the site. I wanted people to know, straight out of the starting gate, that this site is not one of those with one or two posts a year, later to be abandoned. However, as of today (1/2/2012), I will no longer invest as much effort into posting every weekday. The posts will continue to be regular, but now that the site is established, I don’t feel a need to make daily posts anymore.

Summary

All of these points (and many more actually) are things that we accomplished with our students best interests in mind. All of it was for their benefit and I expect that any reward we gain from our efforts will be only as a result of their own successes. This has actually been our “business model” for several years now. We have been trying to grow our business through meeting the needs of our current students. I just didn’t see it that way at the end of the year over the past few years because I was distracted by the Las Vegas gigs. Now that I’ve had time to reflect on the year before it passes, I see that much has been done for the current students. The good news is that all of it will help those students who sign up in the future.

 

 

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