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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Perspectives on Time III

Here are some questions that I've asked myself over the last 2 years.

Will there ever be a point at which you will say to yourself "this is it, the arrival point. I have reached my goals with my abilities as a musician." ?

What would you do if you weren't on Face book? Could this activity potentially be conflicting with an activity that would give you greater happiness?

How would you practice if you didn't have the mind that this (whatever it is you're working on) needed to get done by yesterday? Would you be more relaxed? Could this relaxed state be more productive?

How much can you accomplish in an hour, a day, a month, a year? Is your assessment really accurate?

do you set too many goals to be achieved in the short term with unrealistic expectations? As a result of this, do you then have unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved in the long term considering so many short term goals are being glossed over?

Do the things you achieve in a longer time span mean more or are more beneficial to you than the things you achieve in a shorter time span?

Perspectives on Time Part II

Going back to the initial idea of my last post which was that our experience of time changes proportionally to our age I'd like to continue to expand on my beleaguered philosophical position of "life=music". If the experience of time changes as we get older it has been my own personal experience that time seems to speed up. It's not that I sleep more, or that I'm that much busier than I was 10 years ago (Sure I wasn't changing poopy diapers but I was wasting my time with the tv or Myspace or wondering if my girlfriend was really that into me, all equally intense to a younger person). It's that my interpretation of a minute, an hour, a day, a year has shifted such that the delineations of units of time themselves, whose numbers I'm beginning to grow tired of counting, are becoming more or less insignificant to the quality of the activities I'm doing during those delineations of time. For example I don't care anymore how long it takes me to do things that are important to me. Conversely I have no desire anymore to waste a second of my life on things that are of no importance to me (I still do though, like when I'm in my car yelling at my gps for giving me bad directions). The net result is that I feel that I just have less time because as I get older it seems more challenging to achieve a quality use of the smaller units of time since they go by so much more quickly.

Time feels linear which is why it seems plausible
that we could travel through it in a vehicle. Just get out
your sled and strap a clock to it!
For sure when I was younger time was not only plentiful but existed in large quantities that were almost intoxicating. My boredom could cause me, with droopy eyelids, to bump into people on the street. I could sit at my desk "studying" for my history exam and count the number of patterns in my 1986 styled wall paper on my bedroom walls with the observant fascination of someone on acid. Maybe it was just hormones. The thing is that I can remember vividly that I almost didn't care what I was doing from one moment to the next as long as it was fun. I resisted, as do most kids, doing things that didn't give me immediate gratification. The whole experience of time itself was slower.

Unfortunately, that particular life skills model had to end when I grew up. Maybe it's one of the things that make us a little nostalgic about our childhoods, the time in our lives when it was all about "fun".  I think now it's still about "fun" but much to my chagrin that "fun" has widened to include the things I care deeply about. I think once we get the taste of things greater than an all afternoon pac-man session fueled by pop-tarts then there is no turning back. For me that taste came when my parents got a piano. I couldn't any longer sit in front of the tv without thinking to myself that there was this piano upstairs, this thing that represented infinite exploration and creativity. I could no longer really get into the "Dukes of Hazard" without wondering what I might be able to experience fooling around (pracitsing?) at the keyboard.

But the problem was that the piano, after a certain point, was time consuming and not always easy. I was blessed with certain natural instincts in so far as my technique was concerned since I was able to, with enough time, accomplish any of the pieces that my teacher would give me. Eventually I completed my grade 10 certificate from the Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto with first-class honors. Whoopdy-doo. But inevitably as I advanced into more personal and creative musical endeavors my fooling around needed to become full-on practicing or I was simply not going to move ahead. And then I tasted something else. Something new and terrible. I had to do things, and face things in my self, scary things, in order to get that new found taste. Now there was really no turning back because what was once purely play had become both pain and ecstasy in an inseparable tangle of emotions. Time started to pinch me a bit.

Then time took on a whole new dimension. How long would I need to endure the discomfort of practicing, the discipline required to accomplish a goal oriented task, until the point of achievement? How could I cultivate time to reap certain rewards from it? Once something musical had been achieved could I really be happy knowing that there was something else to start on?

Today in my teaching I find questions of this nature to be on the forefront of the minds of almost every serious music student I encounter.  Because in the process of self actualization, the increments are often brutally tiny and sometimes even the smallest incremental growths extracts an enormous price.  Developing as a musician can sometimes feel a lot like trying to fill a whole beach with sand using only a teaspoon. The most common manifestation of this kind of grappling with time for a student is when they indicate to me that they don't want to do something (practicing a transcription for example) for fear of wasting their time. On the one hand they usually feel quite overwhelmed by the enormity of trying to become a jazz musician and yet they also seem to find comfort in that head-space. Somehow the immobilizing fear, the confusion about how to proceed, is a great place to hang-out in because it requires very little effort while at the same time offering certain rewards to the ego (as in the thought "I don't want to transcribe anyone because I want to sound like myself") It also doesn't require the student to take any chances. They don't force themselves to prove that they won't fail at something difficult. Of course it doesn't prove that they can achieve something important either. So it becomes a sort of a state of limbo. The perceived preciousness of time can actually prevent important growth.

The concept of time as it applies to the achieving of goal oriented tasks is slippery. It is slippery because our experience of time seems to indicate that it is something both linear and moving in one direction forward. The fact is that almost nothing about our own internal realities as human beings is linear, all of our thoughts, minds, emotions, hearts, souls whatever your own personal definitions of your internal self is. Music is a result of us using instruments to reflect those internal realities. As such you cannot "achieve" music any more than you can achieve happiness, or love, or concentration. These states are constantly in flux and the most we can do is to let go and flow with them.  For us to feel love we have to allow it into our lives. In order to swing we need to relax and feel it inside our bodies. The mental state of concentration is only achieved when we learn not to be drawn into distracting thoughts. Much of what we're practicing (like technique, vocabulary) will be achieved "with time" or "in time" as the expressions go. But music to me always has a kind of timelessness even if the skills required to play it can be taught and learned in a linear fashion.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Perspectives on Time

What bigger topic in jazz is there but "time"? In many ways it's a prevalent theme in everyone's life because it has such deep implications for our consciousness both in the sense that we experience time passing at different rates of speed depending on the number of years we've been alive and also we experience variances of the quality of time that has passed and that we anticipate to pass in the future. We may, for example, look back on our experience in high school and remember how it seemed it would never end and that we'd always be trapped in an awkward sophomoric existence. And yet now, after years have passed, it really seems that those days actually came and went quite quickly and perhaps we might even have developed a longing to recapture some of the simplicity of that youthful life (although in my own case I believe I had a penchant to create complexity for myself as a youth by confounding with my behavior those who had taken on the chore of raising me!)

"The Persistence of Memory"... Time feels malleable
In jazz music time refers usually to the style of articulation given to the pulse in the music. Usually we discuss a time "feel" because time determines how the music creates the illusory sense of "pulse". It's the spirit and energy that is behind the notes, that make them seem to dance. This is the stuff of dialects and accents and other linguistic conventions that can't be notated but must be experienced. In a sense to "know" the German culture one must inevitably converse with a German and study the language to understand the mind of a German. In the very same way to "know" a swing feel one must study the language of "swing" and converse (or transcribe the masters) with other musicians.  My favorite musicians to study have been Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. I can't think of a better example of what it means to swing than listening to those guys. And the thing about it is that after having studied them a bit I hear that same swing feel in other more modern groups and musicians. It's like we all experience a strong connection to the past through the "time".

Sure this is a misplaced (and yet very poetic don't you think?) metaphor. That somehow time feel in jazz is linked to the passing of time in external life. Somehow to me what makes sense about it is that I feel close to those musicians who've come before and who exist today and (excuse me while I take another toke...) those who will come after. What is timeless about music links us all. Studying music is a way into the past, present, and future. And in the same way what is timeless about living and being alive also links us together as well. Our families, our ancestors, our children, eating well, living well, being happy, mourning loss...these are all things that have existed since the beginning of our species and perhaps even beyond.

Think back to the era when there was barely any language, everyone was called "Grog" and we basically groped through the forest looking for food, fucking, then sleeping. One day this guy named "Grog" picked up a stick and hit a rotted out old log on the forest floor. It made him feel something different that he had never felt before so he hit it again. And then again. Pretty soon other "Grogs" came over and asked "What you do that, Grog?" So his response what to hit the log again, and again. There was nothing he could say to explain that feeling.  The sound and the pulse generated from repeatedly hitting this low pitched log said everything he couldn't and in that moment music was born.  It has recently become more evident through the archeological discoveries of painting, jewelry, and crafted stone carving that 100,000 years ago we had artists. My guess is that what captivated the evolutionarily young homo sapien's minds and hearts would be exactly the same as what draws us to art today.

All this is to say that "time" as it applies to music and life, for me, is a powerful metaphor, weaving together both of those things. It might even be the source of the "religious epiphany". When I think of my connection to the past through my ancestors it gives me the same heavy feeling as when I hear a group swing like the Wynton Kelly trio or when I hear Mehldau's trio. I don't want to downplay the exceptional nuances that distinguish these great groups from each other but rather I'd like to suggest that the depth of the music we create, just as the depth of life we live has a lot to do with how we see, feel, and hear ourselves in time.