25 years of learning

Next week I turn twenty-five. Having 1/4 of a century behind me is significant, so I take a brief moment to reflect on what I have learned up to this point.

1. Think before you speak

2. Practice active listening

3. Don’t expect to master something overnight

4. Sleeping is essential, eating even more so

5. Fear of failure causes paralysis of the mind

6. There is no social unit like the family

7. Respect different cultures and strive to understand them

8. Inspiring people are outward-focused, not inward-focused

9. College degrees are worthless beyond what you make of them

10. The man who learns to hate his physical wealth will be loved by many

11. An artist is someone who finds a gift and uses it to connect with people

12. Sadly, wars still solve problems

13. Strong character should trump a phat resumé

14. Silence and reflection are close cousins to contentment and peace

15. Believing in your own dreams is completely different than having dreams

16. A smile can change everything

17. A thoughtful apology can mend many wrongs

18. Asking for directions is overrated as opposed to planning where you’re going ahead of time

19. You are the problem and you are the solution

20. If you can learn to love yourself, it will be much easier for others to love you

21. Old people almost always know more than you do, being old is a gift worth celebrating

22. Time moves much faster now

23. True love is supporting others, not leaning on others

24. The little things are more important than the big things

25. There’s no place like home

Kenny Garrett and Christian Lauba

Last week I had the immense pleasure of meeting two of the most influential musicians of our generation, Kenny Garrett and Christian Lauba. Kenny Garrett was here in town playing at Teatro Fernan Goméz in la Plaza de Colón for the Madrid Jazz Festival. Through a mutual friend, I got to meet and speak with him backstage. Christian Lauba hunted me down on facebook after hearing one of my recordings of his work on the internet. Thanks to skype, we had a lovely conversation about the current state of classical saxophone music. These two distinguished men come from contrasting backgrounds: Kenny is a Grammy-award winning American saxophonist born in Detroit. Today he travels the world playing critically-acclaimed feature concerts. Christian Lauba is director of the Bordeaux Orchestra in France and a successful composer in his own right. His compositions for saxophone are reshaping the window of possibilities for the instrument and creating a kind of repertory that is immensely challenging yet also satisfying for a critical audience.

Talking with the two of them has reinforced a number of conclusions I would like to share with you.

—Music is a product. There is a sophistication to it that takes years of training and preparation to express/market effectively. When someone is young, all they can see are the exercises and lessons that come along the way to the point where these two great musicians are. When I see Kenny Garrett play, it is obvious he is not worried about hitting the right notes as much as he is interested about connecting with a group of people and getting a sound in their ears. It’s apparent when he is concerned enough to ask me down to the minute details of how his mouthpiece sounds. It’s apparent when he demands that the sound engineers turn on the lights so he can see the people/audience he is playing for. This process of making music and connecting with people is special because it is there for a single moment and then it is gone. The product is touching the lives of people in a creative way impossible through other more conventional means.

—All of us stand on the shoulders of our predecessors. There are three types of musicians in this world: refiners, those who take the music of others and turbocharge it to its most polished level (think Paul Desmond playing with Dave Brubeck); re-creators, those who take someone else’s product and turn it into something distinct and unusual (think Igor Stravinsky morphing Russian peasant folk music into the Rite of Spring); and popularizers, those who take a genre of music and supercharge it through their charisma to the masses (obviously, Elvis Presley and rock’n roll). The musicians we remember the most have some element of all three of these characteristics. All of them require an understanding and perspective of what came before. When Christian Lauba tells me that he is inspired to write saxophone music through listening to Michael Jackson, I am reminded that we must look to what came before us if we desire any chance to succeed in what is yet to come.

—No Plan B allowed. When I read the biographies of these men, the shared thread is contained in a singular pursuit towards a specific goal. There is no hint of second-guessing at this point of course, at some level they have already arrived. More importantly, they have a clear concept of exactly what they are trying to do with their gifts. They are living life at a level where they found something they are good at and are now pursuing it with an attitude not of dogmatic perfectionism but of whole-hearted excellence.

Furthermore, I would argue that all three of these points extend beyond the world of music. What would you do differently if you woke up saying to yourself, “I’m going to make myself the best version of me I can be today,”?

How would you live your life if you decided you wanted to refine the world of nursing to the highest possible quality by your example? How about if you came up with a plan for inventing a new way for people to share resumés and business information on the internet? Or what if you decided you wanted to make math cool again for your high school students?

What if you decided there was no Plan B?

Marruecos, first-hand account

Tangier, Morocco catches me off guard because it is merely an hours flight away from Madrid. If I get on a plane in Kansas City and fly for an hour, I’m going to see something pretty similar to what’s in Kansas City. Similar people, same language, same food (but inferior barbecue), slightly different terrain. Madrid and Tangier are a world apart. Best for visiting in the summer, Morocco is to Spain what Mexico is to the US: a hot, slightly exotic getaway to a land where you can barter with merchants, the currency exchange is around 10:1, and you stick out (badly) like a foreigner if you have blonde hair.

A dynasty of thousands of years, Morocco is the worlds largest exporter of phosphorus and is known around the world for its excellent cuisine. Phosphorus is a homeopathic mineral used to treat circulation problems, hypertension, insomnia, and exhaustion. The herb stores in the Medina marketplace are high in variety and quality, certainly an exciting moment for anyone who pays careful attention to an organic lifestyle or enjoys cooking in general. The Taijín plate is a meat dish cooked in a clay pot. You have the option of chicken, meatballs with cheese, beef, or lamb. The pot is the key because it cooks very hot without allowing the juices from the meat to escape. The result is a rich, highly flavorful package that will burn your tongue quickly if you aren’t patient. The green tea they serve is the best I have ever had, bar none. They put mint leaves about 1/3 full in a teapot and heat. And serve. And delicious. And I should mention you can eat like a king in Tangier for 8 or 9 dollars.

The highlights of Tangier are the beach next to the port, the countryside along the coast, and the Medina. On the north coast, there is a hole where the surf has cut a massive opening which you can check out thanks to YouTube: http://wn.com/Tanger_Gruta_de_Hércules. Legend has it that Hercules slept there before completing his twelve legendary feats, and now the Moroccan coastline will never be the same. This area of the African coast is especially noteworthy because lies in the area where the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean meet. The highway along the coast reminds me of the NW coastline at Washington Slagbai National Park in Bonaire for its height above the coastline (120 feet on average), it’s busy hills, and sheer beauty. Obviously, the Moroccan coastline is a significant area of the world to control for its gateway to the rest of the Mediterranean. The Medina is an open air market filled with all sorts of living room antiquities, shoes, purses, jackets, pirated pop music and Hollywood movies, and pesky wanna-be tour guides. The market is an oddity because it doesn’t distinguish in the street style (most only large enough for pedestrians and the occasional motorbike) between the market area and the residential area. You quickly get the feeling that you are in an ancient urban labyrinth.

Many of the restaurants along the main drives have a single row of tables facing the street filled with men drinking tea and watching all the people who walk by. No women do this at all. In fact, there weren’t very many women in the streets in general. I realized I was definitely not in Kansas anymore when I slightly interrupted a Muslim convenience store clerk who was praying to Allah between sales. This is a socially conservative culture like many Middle Eastern countries. Unlike Spain and other Latin American countries, public displays of affection are frowned on too. Often I found myself approached by people wanting me to buy their package of chewing gum or anything else they thought I needed (apparently chocolate means drugs too).

What can I say about Morocco? I never felt like I was in danger as much as I felt like I was checking out a world completely alien to anywhere else I have been, much less the US. I barely got a glimpse of a millennial country in a few days but I will say they are people who deeply value their faith, want to have a place in the world market, have a thinly developed middle class, and know how to cook like nobody’s business.

Practice, practice, practice. oh yeah, patience too.

Some of you are already aware of practicing situations at conservatories in Europe. Not exactly ideal. Many conservatories do not even have practice rooms instead using conservatories exclusively to give lessons. I get the impression that administrative personnel decide to make it difficult for students to study on purpose so they can weed out the chaff. The fact that the Teresa Berganza Conservatory has such limited hours and availability, especially on the weekends, sends me to the park at the the corner of c/ Francisco José Jiménez and c/ Alhambra. Check it out on google maps with satellite imagery using those street names if you like.

Practicing in a park is a bit distracting compared to a cubicle or any room for that matter. Obviously, you’re outside so you get to deal with the environment if it’s sunny or cold or thinking about raining. It reminds me a time I was playing in Argentina a couple years ago for a church service outside, in the cold as the sun was setting. For a few moments, I thought my fingers were going to fall off. Playing outside brings a whole host of different factors into play such as intonation depending on the temperature and consistency of sound.

Music carries much differently when there are no walls to create an acoustic environment. It helps me appreciate the kind of work people like Ezra Hallman work towards, i.e. Architectural Acoustics. The thought that goes into designing a concert hall with good acoustics is an incredible process that takes years of training. Two of the best music halls I know of are in Springfield, Missouri at Evangel University, Barnett Recital Hall and in Athens, Georgia at the University of Georgia Hugh Hodgson School of Music, Hugh Hodgson Hall. Simply stated, they are world class.

Practicing outside has the added element that people are going to hear what you play. Inevitably people approach you, perhaps to stare for a moment and pass on, sometimes to throw things at you if they are not very nice. One time, I was working on the changes to “Inner Urge” by Joe Henderson (youtube it!) when an 75-year old man named Justo approached me. When it became apparent he wasn’t going to leave, I said hello and  introduced myself. He told me he used to play trumpet for a professional wind band in Ciudad Real. Naturally enough, he had no lack of opinions out my playing. Turns out Justo was a neighbor who had already heard my playing when I had tried unsuccessfully to get away with practicing in my apartment. He didn’t like my sound very much because it didn’t fit his perspective of a good wind band mix. Having done most of his playing in the 50’s, he seemed to prefer the jazz style of Stan Kenton, Fletcher Henderson and other early swing greats—unfortunately for him not a style I have worked towards emulating. However, I had to give him credit for his ear for melody. He called me out on my practice habit of playing a myriad of scales with no focus to practicing melody, the most essential part of nearly every piece of music. He noticed I yelled a lot too when something didn’t sound out the way I wanted it. A bit of an unsolicited teaching session I soon won’t forget.

If you’re the only person who appreciates what you do, there will eventually come a point where you have to invent a position for yourself or figure out something else do.

The Parade In Spain

Today is the National Day of Spain. It culminates what has been a four day weekend celebrating people and different cultures with an overarching emphasis the contributions of Spain in the world. On Sunday they had a grand parade where each Central and South American country had a chance to bear their flags, play their traditional music, and celebrate their heritage. Naturally as an American, I think Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or the Rose Bowl Parade. Take a moment to reconsider with me how parades are presented.

The obvious difference is there were no floats. Not even one. The closest thing to a float would have been the cart they rolled along with each country group that contained a couple stacks of loudspeakers and maybe a DJ with a laptop. Surrounding this sound cart were dancers dressed in traditional clothing. Each group would come by with a white banner announcing their country and at least two flag bearers. The Uruguay group got a little excited with their flags and brought a third enormous flag that would hit you if you got too close, just to make sure we didn’t forget them after their stellar 4th-place World Cup showing. The Cubans were the most exciting. They had enthusiastic and talented dancers who knew how to get the crowd going. The Dominican Republic were well color-coordinated to fit the red, white, and blue of their flag. The Peruvian girls walked around with unopened wine bottles on top of their heads; some stacked two on top as if to say, “Hey look at me, I’m young, beautiful, AND graceful.” Beauty definitely has some different aesthetic between cultures. The Ecuadorian dancers had what looked like mini tents on top of them with bananas and meat and maybe some onions draped down the sides of the tent. I think they were supposed to be animals. My Ecuadorian friends were not impressed. They said that the group only represented the traditions of the sierra in Ecuador and not that of the coastal people.

Which, of course made me think about American Democrats and Republicans, Spain and the Basque Country, Canada and Quebec, Israelis and Palestinians. Seems to me like national boundaries often are like awkward marriages where it’s too expensive to divorce so the couple decides to live together, but in different bedrooms (thank you Brian Snyder for that brilliant analogy).

Anyway, it has been a four day weekend. I’m very ready to get back to the conservatory and started my regimen of practicing again. Lately, it has been two hours in the park just trying to maintain—time to get back to work!

A Time to Remember

The life you are living today will never come again. It is distinct, unique, and will certainly pass just like the sun will set tonight. One of my college buddies, Luke Ausdemore, died on Tuesday night while free diving for lobster in Mission Bay, San Diego. He was a academic year older than me at Oral Roberts U. and loved smooth jazz. We definitely connected on that level. He was always trying to get me to check out the latest Boney James album; we had numerous impromptu jam sessions in his dorm room- always groovy conversations between sax and djembe. I will remember Luke as an encourager, someone who always had a smile and never missed an opportunity to pick you up if you needed it. It’s to his credit that I am where I am today as a musician; he encouraged me to continue pursuing my dreams when I needed it most.

The loss of Luke reminds me to think of  two big themes.

#1- How do I want to be remembered when I’m gone

#2- Who do I have to be thankful to for helping me get to where I am today

It isn’t always easy to think in such broad terms. After all, life moves fast. Christmas is coming. The Chiefs are winning for once. Studies aren’t slowing down. Here, life in Spain is a daily discovery. Sometimes when we take a step back to consider the big puzzle pieces that define our lives it brings the color back into the grayscale moments of the present day. So while the sun is still up, why not take the time to remember someone who was an encouragement to you? Feel free to post on the wall here at my blog if you like, I’m eager to read about your diverse influences. Then consider how you want others to remember  you. As I pause to remember Luke’s full life this week, I remember each day is gift. He lived his 25 fast years to the full. Now that’s some encouragement to live on!

Madrid Music Mizzou

The rain is on the plain in Spain. Lame. It finally got cold today. I keep seeing all of these facebook posts about people being happy fall is here. I’ll take that J month, July to be precise. Next to a large body of water if possible. There is a park two blocks from where I live that I like to run at. Plenty of track space and I feel safe enough to run at night. It has a beautiful view of Madrid from the top of a hill that I see 4x each time I run my laps. You can see the financial sector (the only part of Madrid that really has skyscrapers) and into the southwest corner of the city. If you turn your back to the city, you can see about 10 miles out onto the plains of the country surrounding Madrid. One of the beautiful things about Madrid is the variety of architecture. You have red clay colored buildings, historic churches and mosques with their elaborate spires sticking up here and there. There are yellow creme colored residential flats in the La Latina district with beautiful terraces. Upper-scale clubs and hotels will often use decorative lighting on their buildings to draw attention. There is no lack of construction either, often in busy places remodeling a part of the metro or knocking down a building to make something better.

My unique musical experience since the last time I posted happened at a club I checked along the Calle del Prado. It had the anticipated techno dj setup going on. Heart-pounding beats, simple melodies. But there was a sax player. He would hook his microphone onto the bell of his horn and rip out these enormous riffs, piercing the room and snatching the attention of everyone on the dance floor. A fantastic player, he certainly wasn’t above pausing to take a picture with some of the people dancing. He even played a European techno version of the blues. I was amazed because I had never heard someone use a saxophone like that before and jealous because I wasn’t the one up there.

One thing that draws me to the saxophone lies partially in what I saw last night. From a dance club in Madrid to a polka band for a wedding in Kansas to a jazz club on Peoria St. in Tulsa to the concert stage with an orchestra in Atlanta, I have seen the saxophone used in so many different contexts. Certainly, it is one of the most versatile of instruments.

Arthur White, director of jazz studies at Mizzou, just released an album called Vertigo. He brought out vibraphonist Mike Mainieri to help him record it with the jazz band (which I was in at the time). Mainieri is certainly one of the true legends from the New York City scene. He is a short man with greying hair and an easygoing disposition (a rarity for anyone from New York as far as I’m concerned). Never lacking the time to smile and make a catchy joke, he is pushing 76. A true icon. I encourage you to check out the album, there is a nice review of it in the Columbia Missourian that you can find here:

http://www.columbiatribune.com/news/2010/oct/03/mu-jazz-bands-debut-album-boils-over-with-power/

If you want to buy or listen to clips from the album you can go here:

http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/universityofmissouriconc

I have solos on Tee Bag (track 1) and Bullett Train (track 3).

If you don’t know who Kenny Garrett is from the last post and want to hear someone I highly respect, here is an example of his work: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K060F3bRXKg