The following is an article I originally posted on JazzHouston.com. I’m posting it here again because I think it’s one of my best articles.
The Life Cycle of a Plant
Too often, we as musicians fail to see performances in context. We get caught up with the music that is right in front of us, the notes or individual songs, instead of seeing how the different aspects of our performances fit together. To help us step back and look at things from a broader perspective, I would like to present the metaphor of The Life Cycle of a Plant.
Have you ever seen time lapse video of a growing plant? I was on a gig one night when that image flashed in my mind. I immediately equated it with music performances, especially in the context of jazz improvisation. The seeds grow into plants in much the same way as our individual performances grow.
It all starts with the seed. In each performance, I think of my own personality or my own character as the seed.
Since the plant and the seed are the same living organism, then so are my personality and my performance. What distinguishes the seed from the plant is the development. If the plant is the performance, then the seed is that part of me which exists independently of music. They are both parts of my character, but my musical performance is the development of my character just as the plant is the development of the seed.
A plant is not dirt! It lives in the dirt. Its roots are anchored to the dirt. It gets its nutrients from the dirt.
But the plant itself is not made out of dirt. In the same way, practicing technical studies is the dirt of performance. I love this part of the analogy because so many hard core “expressionists” believe that practicing technique is something that works against their abilities to express themselves. And this is not just something which is limited to music either. I’ve heard of all sorts of artists of many different persuasions who felt this way. They think that technical studies limit their growth as an artist.
In that way, you really could say that technical practice is the dirt of performance. When you look at a beautiful flower or a towering tree, do you ever notice the ground it grows in? No! And if someone ever gave you a pot of dirt as a gift, would you think it to be as beautiful as a flower? No! We associate dirt with filth. It’s something people don’t want to see just as technique is something people don’t want to hear.
I’ll never forget working on the Carnival of Venice by Jean Baptist Arban, which is a very technical piece from the traditional cornet repertoire. I practiced this song for a long time. When I felt I was ready to begin practicing along with a CD, I plopped the Gerard Schwarz recording into the CD player and began playing along. I had been listening to that recording for years and never realized just how fast he was playing this solo. Even when I had prepared the piece to the best of my ability, it still wasn’t even in the same ball park as Schwarz. I had a long way to go.
How could this be? How could I listen to a recording for so many years and never notice how fast it was? The answer to that question is simple. Schwarz doesn’t make it sound fast. He performs it effortlessly and gives the impression that the Carnival of Venice is actually easy to play.
The object of technical practice is to take the technique out of the performance. By saying so, I am also saying that those who are so adamantly opposed to technical studies are wrong. By avoiding the technical studies, they are forcing that dirt into their performances. They themselves are making technique obvious to the listeners by making everything they play seem more difficult.
That’s the dirt on dirt. Technique is the earth where the performance grows its roots. Without it, the performance has nothing to grab on to. The musical development of character and personality grows out of technique the same way a plant grows out of the dirt of the ground.
Oh, I’m sorry, I meant “The Manure”.
Manure is used to fertilize plants. It provides some of the nutrients the plant needs to grow.
How far do you have to look to find crap – I mean – “manure” in a musical performance? Everyone knows that being a professional musician is all fun and games, right?
Ha, ha, very funny.
It’s not a walk in the park. Just like every other profession, being a musician comes with its own crap (manure). Income (or lack of) is probably highest on the list. One of the most difficult things a musician has to do to survive is to learn how to live with less. We work on our own cars. We live in cheap apartments. We put the ‘starving’ into the term “starving artist”.
But hey, let’s not stop there. There is a lot of crap in this business. There is the politics for example. I recently learned that not only is it impossible to please everyone in this business, it is equally impossible to please anyone! No matter how straight you conduct your business, you’re going to upset someone. There’s no stopping it.
Then there is the day to day crap (manure) of canceled gigs and short pay. There are the back stabbing band members and hopeful opportunists. There are the panicky brides (affectionately referred to as bridezilla by the wedding industry) and their mothers and the high level CEOs who want your trumpet part in their commercial to sound more like Carlos Santana (who plays guitar, not trumpet). There is lame sheet music and the band leaders who jump on your case when you can’t read through the water splotches on the paper. There are so many negatives that go along with this business that most pros who end up leaving this line of work say that it simply isn’t worth it.
And yet, this is the crap that nourishes the performances. I think it’s commonly referred to as “Paying Dues”.
I’ve heard people who compare the jazz greats of the past to the high profile players of today. The common criticism of today’s players is that they lack a certain something that the greats used to have. I believe that this “something” is the “Crap”.
All of the jazz greats, who we hold in such high regard, made their livings more the way I do today. They were gigging players who played anything they got called for. In contrast, today’s top jazz players often go straight from school to the record labels and concert tours. They never have to play real salsa gigs, polkas, top forty bands, or weddings. All they’ve ever performed in their careers is concert styled jazz.
I believe that this is what we hear that is different with the new players. In a sense, they have achieved superficial success without ever having paid their dues. I’m not saying that what they do is easy or that there’s no crap in their lives. But it’s not the same. When you look at them and compare their careers to people like Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, you could almost say that todays jazz players were born with silver spoons in their mouths by comparison.
Looking at it this way, you can see how the crap that goes along with a career in music also becomes a part of the performance. It feeds the performance and isn’t necessarily a negative thing. Sure, I know that a lot of people take that negativity and turn it back around towards the audience. But most people take that adversity and use it to mature. They turn it around and create something positive with it. If you want to get philosophical about it, you might even say that true maturity is impossible without the crap. Someone who’s never been crapped on doesn’t know how he will react when it happens to him. But someone who has paid his dues has been crapped on often enough to know exactly what works and what doesn’t.
When you look at the time lapsed films of plants, you see that they bend towards the sun, moving from east to west as the day progresses (This is called phototropism). In a musical performance, we lean towards our audiences in much the same way. Whether it is out of professional duty or out of the joy of entertaining, musicians aim to connect with their audiences in some meaningful way.
Many of the artistic martyrs of our times claim they dont care what people think about their art. I think this is simply part of the artistic package and that, deep down, they cant help but care. They may not realize it, but artists are encouraged to play the part or their work will not be accepted. Their outward contempt makes them popular with the very same people who they seemingly despise. Their attitudes and personalities contribute to the message of their work.
This is especially evident with musicians because music is an art form with no visuals. The only thing for us to observe with our eyes during a performance is the musicians themselves. We love those musicians who are so forward thinking that they have no spot in their hearts for us ignorant fools. And we follow them for as long as they hate us.
Its all an act. Watch how quickly they complain if no one shows up to their performances. Whether it is because of the money, their popularity or just the feeding of their own egos, the musicians are lost without an audience.
Ive been working with wedding bands for almost three decades. The best wedding bands are the ones who can read the audience. They know which songs will get the guests on the dance floor and which will make them sit down.
Although this is good business (the bands who can work an audience this way are the ones who get hired most and can charge the highest prices), this kind of communication with the audience is not limited to wedding bands. Every kind of music performance is like this.
An example of this truth is found when we look at the better studio musicians. Heres the trick; how do you deliver a quality performance while sitting in a silent room by yourself? The most difficult part of recording is convincing the listener that its live. Very few recordings are live, but the listener should never know it. The way we pull this off is to put ourselves in a live performance situation, even if it is only in our minds.
The audience is a key part of every performance and as musicians we all play to them in one way or another. We follow the audience through the performance in the same way a plant follows the sun through the day.
Each performance goes through this same cycle. The seed lies beneath the earth before it sprouts, preparing the same way we do before the performance. When it sprouts it looks much like any other sprout and this is like the performer entering the stage. Then the performance begins. The plant grows in much the same way as the performance does. It could be the same musicians, and the same songs, but each performance is different in exactly the same way that each plant is different.
Thinking of a performance like this is a fun way to see performances from a broader perspective. As musicians, we get caught up in the mechanics of it all. We see each song as a separate entity when it never really works like that. Its good to take a step back and see how everything works together. This kind of insight leads to better performances.