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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Friday, January 21, 2011

Respect yo

For the past 2 days John Patitucci has been a resident clinitian at McGill University. I, like most students, found him to be equally enlightening as a speaker as he is a player. Patitucci was really candid and warm with the students but he also called them on a few things relating to respect which I found had a profound teaching for us.

 All the clinics started early and he seemed absolutely raring to get going. However, as with many university events, the steady stream of latecomers would trickle in for the next 15 minutes or so after the designated start times.  It was clear by the second clinic yesterday that this didn't sit well with Patitucci who actually stopped speaking everytime someone walked in and took the time to tell that person that it was disrespectful for them to show up late. He didn't push it further and he also didn't seem to be angry or distressed. He was just as straight-up about talking about respect as he was about talking about time or chord changes. It was just disrespectful and that was it. Teaching given.

On another occasion the student bass players were invited to play duo with Montreal's veteran pianist Steve Amirault and then receive criticism.  Every bass player quickly found a tune to play with Steve and then got about their business. Some with more or less trouble due in part to the lack of drums. I don't think there wasn't a person in the room who wasn't sympathetic to the challenges of 2 musicians playing together without a drummer. As any of you who have already tried playing duo, this playing situation quickly exposes weeknesses and gaps. Only one student called a tune that Steve didn't know. It was a standard. However instead of finding another tune he kicked Steve off the piano only to replace him with a student pianist. Needless to say if there is only one standard out there which is going to make or break you it is a pretty sure sign that you're going to be in trouble in a duo situation. And of course they quickly train wrecked.  In fact Patitucci quickly stopped them and laid it out bare for them to learn from their mistake.

"If you call a tune with an older player and he doesn't know it... you call another tune!"

Now maybe the first year bassist was put off by Steve and was nervous to play with him. Or perhaps that one tune was the one and only standard he knew by heart and had never tried playing tunes from memory before or sat in at a jam session. Either way it didn't seem interesting to try to play with an older more experienced player. It was somehow only important that that particular tune be played. I also noticed that both the student bass player and the student pianist left the clinic before the end when Patitucci played duo with Amirault for about 20 minutes. That was an education in playing duo and really a great chance to listen and learn given the context of the workshop.

I guess this gets to the heart of what learning is all about. There aren't a lot of situations these days when character traits such as humility and respect will actually translate into direct gains for a person. It seems to me that in most situations we are constantly trying to figure out what we can get out of it. If we do something, anything from watching tv to having a relationship, everything is done with the implicit econonmic directive: "What's in it for me?". I must admit as a tax payer I'm often yelling that question at my bills. What is problematic about this modus operandi is that it doesn't take into consideration what we need to give sometimes in order to really make growth happen. As human beings who are also jazz musicians we all want to be bad-asses. And sometimes we don't want to peer over the precipice for fear of falling. Our egos don't want us to fall because that would mean we would need to change our self-identity from "bad-ass" to "ass-bad!"

Is this an attitude that will help one learn and develop musically? Isn't playing at a really high level the surest way of insuring one's own "badassness"?

And this is another things that's great about jazz music: sometimes when we least expect it music, as it uniquly has the capacity to do, can teach us the value of humility and respect.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Setting goals Part I

Goals are a huge part of our Western culture. I must admit that I am myself an avid goal setter. At least I've used goal setting as a technique to accomplish lots and lots of stuff. Recently though, in the last 3 years or so, I think my goal addiction has been subdued into making lists. I have lists now... lots and lots of lists.

Goals are the focus of every credible self-help program. Stephen R. Covey's seminal book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People devotes habits 2 and 3 to goal setting:

  • Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind
Synopsis: Self-discover and clarify your deeply important character values and life goals. Envision the ideal characteristics for each of your various roles and relationships in life.
  • Habit 3: Put First Things First
Synopsis: Planning, prioritizing, and executing your week's tasks based on importance rather than urgency. Evaluating if your efforts exemplify your desired character values, propel you towards goals, and enrich the roles and relationships elaborated in Habit 2.

Goals are an enormous part of just about every useful bit of self-help technology out there. Consider this interesting presentation at a recent TED conference:

Both of the above examples of goal setting techniques have the effect of completely jazzing me up. My heart races with the thoughts of what I could accomplish with my life and how happy and fulfilled my accomplishments would make me feel. My palms start sweating when I hear "don't tell anyone your goals" and I think to myself : "that's it! The key to my success! I need a coffee. This is amazing. I need a coffee!...

Oh yeah, that's the stuff.

I love Covey's book. I'd really love the chance to go to a TED conference. However my own personal experience leads me to question the simplistic assertion that goals are what life is all about. My own dabblings in Shambahla Buddhist training makes me ask the question:  Are ACCOMPLISHED people are always HAPPY people?

To be fair Covey's book also makes it a habit to be constantly tweaking your goals so that they reflect the person you are as you grow and develop. As such his idea of goals are pretty malleable. His goals are oriented towards relationships just as much as they are task accomplishment. Yet it seems to me very culturally reinforced that the achievement of tasks are what we admire the most in the west. We admire the accomplishment and loath the failure associated with career success much more publicly than, say, our accomplishments in raising children.
All I'm saying is that sometimes the harder we try to do some things the worse they get. Like when I try to play really swinging jazz or a really great solo I usually don't. But when I back off and let whatever might happen to happen that's usually when something interesting takes place. In a sense that's when my goals in music making seem the most fulfilled. Because while on the one hand my ego has a vested interest in playing great and being successful, my creative mind feels the most suppressed by my ego's desires. They are desires not based in the fulfillment of creativity but in the fulfillment of goals.

Imagine going to a party with friends and having goals for how the party will go. Having a goal for the discussions you will have. Having a goal for the success of having fun. Even if each of your goals were met wouldn't you say that you missed out on an import aspect of that experience of human interaction and co-existence due to the imposition of your agenda? How much of our lives really exists on a plane of this nature. What if the the paradigm for our existence involved letting go more of our agendas and not holding so tightly to what we want to happen and trying instead to dance with the flow of energy that surrounds us. Would we still be able to accomplish things?

I'm not saying that we shouldn't set goals for ourselves and try to accomplish success in our careers. I will always have my lists of what I'm doing on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis. I just question if whether or not most of the goals we set for ourselves are to somehow create a sense of meaning for our lives. And on a greater scale we only end up cyclically repeating patterns that ultimately cause our own suffering. This is a poignant aspect of Buddhism and one which many in the west find it difficult to reconcile. And yet at the same time we see the truth in it.  Perhaps it could be my next goal to have no goals....yikes!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The low cost of music...Priceless!

I'd say this video pretty much describes a major reason why musicians are struggling. It's not that we want to have lots and lots of money it's that you just can't put a price on invisible sound waves stimulating the eardrum....Enjoy!

And above all.....
Happy New Year!