Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Interview with Paul Contos, director of the SFJAZZ All-Star Jazz Orchestra

Paul Contos is a Bay Area treasure.  I am thrilled to present his interview for The Lead Sheet.  Beyond his musical expertise, he has this 'way of being' that we could all benefit from emulating.  As director of the SFJAZZ All-Star Jazz Orchestra, he holds court over 20 high-school musicians with the finesse and ease of a yogi.  He is able to reach these kids on their own level, or does he bring them up to his?  He is super cool, in more ways than one.  Laid back and relaxed with his 'cats', he continues to use (and introduce the students to) the colorful language of jazz, while also incorporating some of their language.  He is super chill and they love it.  Teachers out there reading will appreciate how difficult it is to keep control over a large group of teenagers - now imagine them all armed with instruments, some of them quite loud.  Somehow, he makes beautiful order from chaos at each weekly rehearsal in the recently opened SFJAZZ Center in the Civic Center area of San Francisco.


Paul starts the interview himself with a governmental metaphor about the rhythm section of a classic jazz orchestra (at minimum, string bass, drums and piano).  He says the bass is like the Supreme Court, the piano is Congress and the drumset is the President.  The piano will try to introduce certain things, perhaps get overridden, but is mainly responsible for the variety of options that are floated within the fluid style of a lead sheet - a mini-orchestra within an orchestra.  The drummer, as executive branch, sets the tone and spirit of the thing and has final say,  all in real time.  This makes alot of sense when you learn, as I just did, that the earliest jazz bands didn't even have music.  If you've ever seen a lead sheet, you may appreciate some of the challenges these musicians face in terms of bringing a composition to life with precious little notation (if you haven't seen a lead sheet you can read about it here in a previous post entitled YOUR BRAIN ON JAZZ).  It took me awhile to appreciate that with this type of structure, every jazz performance is unique, each solo building upon itself and the other instruments' musical suggestions.  This is true even in practice.  The true jazz musician never repeats a solo, never writes them down.  But, they do pay homage to their forebears by introducing 'quotes'*, short, well-known, rift-based musical sentences from famous songs or performances.  Often there's an element of humor.  During a solo, I once heard a segment of Three Blind Mice.  It catches you so off guard because musically it fits, then you make the connection and have a laugh.  It's an experience you can't predict.

At the beginning of the season, Paul mentioned he had a feeling about this year's band, 2012-2013, that is was going to be great.  Based on the fact that the SFJAZZ All-Star Jazz Orchestra came back from the Mingus Jazz Festival in New York City in January 2013 with a 1st place trophy and a pair of Outstanding Soloist Awards, then came back from The Next Generation Jazz Festival in Monterey, California in April with a 1st place trophy and another Best Soloist Award, and then won a coveted Downbeat Award (for a series of three recordings they did at the beginning of the season in November 2012), I'd say his intuition is strong.  His first clue was the rhythm section, they have to gel and get along well:  "the rhythm section sounded and felt good, like we know what it's supposed to be, we're swingin'."  He knew he had a very strong saxophone section (his own instrument), and horns with serious skills.  He tells them that he is always learning, from everyone and everything, including them.  The more they listen to more and more music, the more they play and absorb the new concepts, the more they learn and improve their own deficiencies for necessary skills such as sight-reading.  SFJAZZ offers frequent Master Classes, where they invite current professionals to come work with the group.  He relays a memory where a trumpet player, having just attended a brass-focused Master Class, came back from winter vacation and had noticeably improved.  When I hear that, I imagine the new connections being made in the brain, neurotransmitters firing, new space being allocated and written just for this new skill.  There is a strong aspect of family about the group, bonding over learning, improving and then impressing!  They have to be able to talk about strengths and weaknesses comfortably.  "I expect them to know their material.  I want to treat them as much as possible like professionals."  Giving a compliment to the principal bass player, he says, "in two years, I can't remember him not knowing his material.  I know I can count on his musicianship."

EDUCATOR Qs for Paul Contos

1.  How do you find a balance between imposing your own ideas over the student's creativity?

"I think musically, the farther along a student is, the more I can offer.  I can give our bass player, for example, a piece of music, but I won't tell him it's really hard.  But, he'll play it and we can go off from there.  I'll say, 'my heart responded this way when I got to the bridge**, but I don't know if that works for you, but you can think about this.'  I tell him stories about things that made me think - why wouldn't that cause a sharp, talented student to think?  I don't want you to sound like me, I want you to sound like you.  And, that's easy to say, but there's truth in that.  I don't want you to copy, I want you to explore.  For me, it's always been, here are these little things that work for me, now do it in 12 keys."  I ask if it's possible to really affect a student's inate style and he replies, "Oh yeah, it can happen.  Especially, physically."  New techniques, especially with trumpet, can really derail you. "That can happen with jazz mentoring, with heavy influence, maybe your teacher is very charismatic and has a very strong personality and then it just kind of completely closes down a student's individuality.  I don't want to do that, I try not to do that.  I want to give them the tools and I want them to find their own place."

2.  A recent book about music education written by a neuroscientist, claims the following:

Practice + Parent Support = Musical Achievement  
Assuming parent support includes lessons or school classes,  do you see this statement as accurate?

Paul makes the analogy that parents who wish their children to love and benefit from the study of music plant the seed and care for that seed while it sprouts and flowers, being careful not to crush the flower.  "It's a natural thing for parents to support their children.  But, then you get into the question, 'does my child have talent?' and how do you measure that?"  He continues, "and how do you teach such things?  Much of what we're doing is teachable.  But, there is that aspect of ''re gonna take these lessons...'", he says in a mock-forceful voice, "and the kid says, 'I quit, I can't take this!'  I didn't have that experience, I was fortunate, but some people did.  Some people had a horrible teacher.  I think supportive parents are important, but it also takes a supportive teacher, a teacher who speaks the truth, but speaks the truth in love, to draw that out of a student.  There are jazz musicians who didn't have parent support, but who succeeded in spite of it."  He continues on a personal note, "my parents weren't musicians, but there was always music in the house and they just loved music: the shows, musical theater.  And, one of the things I remember from when I was really young, they took us to see Count Basie and Tony Bennett.  I had started [playing saxophone] in 4th grade, my brother who was a couple years older started trumpet.  We were like, 'I don't know what this is, but this is really cool!'  I even remember when I was younger, crawling over to the old phonograph which was on the floor, and my dad was always playing Gershwin.  Rhapsody in Blue, I remember, I heard that.  That's been with me my whole life, so you know, I'm fortunate.  We didn't listen to tons of Beethoven, but singers, caberet, jazz and as my brother got into it more...Miles Davis.  When you find something really intriguing, you know.  I think it's important for students to be intrigued with things, especially music they don't understand.  If they have the drive, they can go out and seek it.  Because of the rapidity of the learning process now, with all the YouTube videos and performances recorded, we can move faster.  We were always searching for vinyl and that special recording....  It's marvelous.  The world is their oyster.  That's why these kids keep getting better and better.  It'll be interesting in 10 years to see what these kids will do."     

3.  What is your approach to teaching a student a process as intangible and personal as improvisation?

"That mechanism has changed over time, it's morphed.  I used to just teach the nuts and bolts of it: you gotta understand the basics of harmony, the chord is made up of these scales tones, this chord goes with this scale...  I still do that and other teachers still do that, but I think over time, students have gained a quicker understanding of that than maybe in past times, but I think more for me, it's about the jazz language.  Conversational jazz, it's about certain phrases, musical sentences (he sings a riff).  I think I'm more concerned with rhythm and melody, not so much harmony.  Hearing intervals between notes is more important than perfect pitch.   You can recognize chord quality then, in terms of the jazz language.  I play something and get students to play it back to me, call and response.  It's still rote and mechanical but if the student is ready, we get to issues of the heart.  What does that mean?  It means different things to different people.  Some don't want to expose their heart, but I do try to get to them there and get them used to doing the work.  Just like language, we can recall.  If you've listened enough and played enough, done the work, you can pull this out of a collection what I think of a a big cauldron.   John Coltrane used to say we, all of us musicians share a big pool.  Given the moment, and what the heart is feeling, and the mind, it's a wonderful symbiotic thing.  The manual dexterity part and the physiology and the emotional part, it's just a wonderful activity."  

4.  What qualities have you seen in students that seem to predict future success in music?

Using the flutist/vocalist as an example, he says, "Star quality, great musicianship, so much already taken care of, she has a great feeling for jazz, she's an outstanding person, confident and cool."  Another example with a lead sax player, "I can always count on him, I can count on him being balanced.  He'll go with the way of the wind but won't bend to the point where I can't count on him.  I can totally count on his musicianship.  When I see that in a student of 16 or 17, it's just so wonderful.   So wonderful, and it makes what I'm doing so fun and really enriching."  He then turns to the lead bass player, "All I have to do is say, hey, I need you to do this...turn this groove upside-down and turn it around and right-side up and, it's like...oh, yeah, Paul, no problem.  He's polite, respectful without being jive.  I don't detect any phoniness in these kids."  He continues his list, in addition to superior musicianship, confidence and balance, "It's about how you deal with everybody, you gotta have alot of empathy, be someone who embraces people, and someone ultimately who really enjoys music."        

* Quote: A fragment of some other well-known tune thrown into a solo.  A good quote is unexpected, incongruous and yet seems to fit perfectly.

** Bridge: The contrasting middle section of a tune, especially the 'B' section of a AABA song form.  Traditionally, the bridge goes into a different key, often a remote key.  Thelonious Monk once remarked that the function of a bridge is 'to make the outside sound good'.  

Marcus, Gary F. Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012.

Mauleon, Rebecca.  SFJAZZ Discover Jazz Course 2, Musica Cubana: Jazz in Cuba and Beyond.  San Francisco: SFJAZZ, 2012.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"CREATIVITY is the residue of time wasted"

"Creativity is the residue of time wasted."
                                  ~Louis Pasteur

Creativity is the backbone of most musical enterprise.  From the earliest instruments discovered in caves* to the shockwaves jazz blew around the globe to today's myriad of offerings in a myriad of formats, creativity is the seed planted.  The brain is the source of this creativity, 3 pounds of flesh inside the skull.  In the introduction to Dante's Inferno, T.S. Eliot wrote that "hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing."  So, connectivity, another brain thing.  In the California public schools, we've recently heard alot about making connections, about growing our schema.  It turns out, this is precisely what the brain does best: literally.  We all know that the right side of the brain differs from the left side of the brain.  One of the best descriptions I have read of this in the new book by Jonah Lehrer, called Imagine: How Creativity Works, is that the right brain is concerned with connotation, while the left brain is concerned with dennotation.  For the first time, scientists have been able to measure the imagination, by charting all those neurotransmitters, their beginnings, the new connections made and to what ends.  Thinking about the brain existing in a time and place, or a context and culture, as Mr. Lehrer states, we start to think about blending sociology (the outside world) with psychology (the inside world).

Mark Beeman, a young scientist at the National Institute of Health is researching insight.  Most of the time, when people experience insight, they have no idea where it came from.  It is that familiar feeling of something "popping into your head, " an unconscious happening.  Beeman wanted to extend the research on the phenomenon by scanning the brain as people had insights and to locate the source of these epiphanies, by using the latest scientific tools: PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans and fMRI (functional MRI) machines.  Solving a puzzle while inside an fMRI machine, will show that active brain cells consume more energy and more oxygen and this triggers increased blood flow in the area.  Discovering that insight happens just too fast for fMRI to truly capture, with the help of colleague John Kounios, he moved on to EEG (electroencelphalography), which measures electrical waves produced by the brain.  Unfortunately, that couldn't pinpoint the location of the electrical source.  Combining the two techniques allowed the deconstruction of the epiphany.  It turns out that despite the feeling that the idea 'came out of the blue,' the left side of the brain had already completed a systemwide search in all the right places.  But, if that didn't dredge up the correct answer, subjects entered the second so-called "stumped" phase.  Not fun, and quite frustrating, this negative feeling of impasse turns out to be very important to insight, because it signals the importance of beginning a new method of search, perhaps on the right side of the brain.  This new perspective often works, quickly.  "The suddenness of the insight is preceded by an equally sudden burst of brain activity.  Thirty milliseconds before the answer erupts into consciousness, there's a spike of gamma-wave rhythm, which is the highest electrical frequency generated by the brain.  Gamma rhythm is believed to come from the binding of neurons: cells distributed across the cortex draw themselves together into a new network that is then able to enter consciousness."  Analysis of the data produced the 'neural correlate of insight': the aSTG (anterior superior temporal gyrus) is a small fold of tissue in the right hemisphere, located above the ear on the surface of the brain.  The scientists noticed that the aSTG became unusually active in the seconds preceding the insight.  They also noted that this area of the brain remained silent during the initial search or analysis phase.  Have you ever tapped your right temple with your right forefinger, when you are about to vocalize a sudden idea?  Perhaps you even say "Aha!"?    Well, there's a physical reason for that - it's precisely where the insight is taking place.  Amazing, yes?  To me, YES!

3M is a Fortune 500 company that has been inventing things for over 75 years.  They have no particular focus, but they take insight seriously.  The first feature of of their corporate history of invention is their flexible attention policy, wherin instead of constant concentration, the company encourages regular breaks.  These breaks are different from the ordinary coffee-break idea in that they have employees schedule in activities that may seem unproductive to some.  Incidences of struggle and challenge are met by long walks on campus, daydreaming or game-play.  The invention of their so-called 15% rule, which has all researchers spending 15% of their workday on speculation. They call this Bootlegging Hour and they are required to share their ideas with co-workers. Google has copied this idea because it works and science supports it.

Joydeep Bhattacharya, a University of London psychologist has used EEG to explain why interrupting focus can be productive.  Interestingly, he has shown that it is possible to predict when an insight will take place.  It turns out that a steady rhythm of alpha-waves radiating from the right hemisphere will preceed insight by 8 seconds.  This becomes very interesting when you learn a little about alpha-waves.  While their precise function is still a mystery, they are associated with activities primarily associated with relaxation: a warm shower, a walk, a game of cards are all alpha-wave producing activities.  Even more interestingly, the absence of such waveforms actually stunt progress. Bhattacharya found that subjects who were not producing sufficient alpha-waves were unable to use hints given for the puzzles they were attempting to solve, even really obvious clues.  Amazing, yes?  YES!  You must relax in order to achieve new ground.

When we are in a relaxed  state-of-mind,  our brain will start producing alpha-waves, and our attention begins to be focused inward.  The inward attention scans the remote association areas of the right hemisphere (what happens after the "stumped" phase).    On the other hand, or on the other side of the brain, the left hemisphere, we are tending to direct our attention outward, toward details and connections the left hemisphere encompasses.  "That's why so many insights happen during warm showers," Bhattacharya says.  "For many people, it's the most relaxing part of the day."

German researchers have also determined that when people are happy, they are much better at guessing an answer, even the possibility of an answer.  Those in gloomy moods were shown to perform slightly lower than random chance.  Beeman has shown that even temporary feelings of pure happiness or delight can lead to increased creativity, sometimes dramatically increased.  He showed some subjects a stand-up comedy video and some subjects a boring or scary video.   Those who were in a positive mood were allowed to relax and therefore had more access to the remote associations of the right hemisphere and were enjoying those alpha-waves.  "Because positive moods allow us to relax, we focus less on the troubling world and more on these remote associations."  Early morning is also another time for insights, shortly after waking.  "The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas.  The right hemisphere is also unusually active.  The probem with the morning though", John Kounios says, " is that we're always so rushed."  If you're stuck on a difficult problem,  Kounios recommends setting your alarm a few minutes early so you'll have time to lie in bed.  "We do some of our best thinking when we're half asleep." **   
Don't force it though!  Relentless, continuous focus actually deters you from making those purely creative connections you need for an insight.  Even the use of stimulants like caffiene, Adderall and Ritalin, that increase focus seem to decrease breakthroughs. ***   

Jensen/University of Tubingen
LOST AND FOUND Scientists say that this bone flute, found at Hohle Fels Cave in Germany, is at least 42,000 years old.

** "There's one additional cortical signal that predicts epiphanies.  Looking at the data, Beeman and Kounios saw a sharp drop in activity in the visual cortex just before the insight appeared, as if the sensory area were turning itself off.  At first, the scientists couldnt figure out what was going on.  But as they were struggling to decipher the data, Beeman watched Kounios cover his eyes with his hand.  That's when it occurred to him: the visual cortex was going quiet so that the brain could better focus on its own obscure associations.  "The cortex does this for the same reason we close or cover our eyes when we're trying to think," Beeman says.  When the outside world becomes distracting, the brain automatically blocks it out."

*** "Marijuana, by contrast, seems to make insight more likely.  It not only leads to states of relaxation but also increases brain activity in the right hemisphere.  A recent paper by scientists at University College, London, looked at a phenomenon called semantic priming.  This occurs when the activation of one word allows an individual to react more quickly to related words.  For instance, the word dog might lead to faster reaction times for wolfpet, and Lassie, but it won't alter how quickly a person reacts to chair.  Interestingly, the scientists found that marijuana seems to induce a state of hyper-priming, meaning that it extends the reach of semantic priming to distantly related concepts.  As a result, one hears dog and thinks of nouns that in more sober circumstances woul seem completely disconnected.  This state of hyper-priming helps explain why canabis has so often been used as a creative fuel: it seems to make the brain better at detecting the remote associations that define the insight process."    

Lehrer, Jonah. IMAGINE: How Creativity Works. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Interview with Mr. Mark Aubel of Amador Valley High School

My Dad,  my greatest mentor in business, used to say "if you hear the same thing three times from different people, it's probably true."  Until then, it was just one opinion.  I am fondly remembering his lesson as I read this interview.  I have a set of 4 questions I'm calling Educator Qs and Mr. Mark Aubel has kindly responded in writing.  So much of what he says was touched on in a previous post called Practice Makes Perfect, but if No One's Perfect, Why Practice?  His expertise and experience teaching many students of music at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, Calfornia is undeniable.  My family and friends have been the happy receipients of his careful tutelage and enjoy his unfailingly easy-going, supportive manor, so important in regards to performance.  We are all grateful and better for the experience.  We look forward to Aubel concerts, always a varietal tour de force.  You will hear everything from Beethoven and opera to 70's pop songs or a current movie soundtrack and male choral groups singing showtunes, and you will fully enjoy the ride.  His signature sign-off gives a clue to the positive vibes he always projects:  "On the Upbeat" ~ Greatest Gratitudes, Mr. Aubel! 

Mark Aubel, PUSD 1996-97 Teacher of the Year

EDUCATOR Qs for Mr. Aubel

1.  How do you find a balance between imposing your own ideas over the student's creativity?

My job is to help the students be creative and become invested in the process of making music.  I sometimes let them choose one or two of the pieces that we rehearse and even perform.  The more we collaborate, the harder they work.  Certain groups like a jazz combo I will give a great deal of freedom to.  Other groups, like my large orchestra, I has a much more formal structure.

2. A recent book about music education written by a neuroscientist claims: 
Practice + Parent Support = Musical Achievement.  Assuming parent support includes lessons or school classes,  do you see this statement as accurate?

Yes, private lessons can help a student get to that next level.  I have students whose parents pay for expensive lessons and the student doesn't practice.  Without practice, you are just wasting money and time.   Of the two, practice is more important.

 3.  What is your approach to teaching a student a process as intangible and personal as improvisation?

Improvisation is one of the most difficult things to teach.  I try to give the students tools with which they can be successful improvisors.  The tools include: theory, scales, and patterns.  And, of course, the most important thing, is to listen to jazz as much as you can. 

4. What qualities have you seen in students that seem to predict future success in music?

Future success in music can be defined as someone who can gig.  It can also be defined by someone who just continues to play his instrument.  The qualities that help someone achieve either of these would be:
1. a love of music
2. discipline
3. patience - the ability to play something over and over again until you get it right

The person who eventually cures cancer will be a musician. Why?  Because when he doesn't get it right the first 100 times, he is going to try the experiment again.... until he finds the answer. 

4. hard work
5. a love of music... oh yeah, already said that

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

5 Q's for Benjamin

Benjamin Ring is a gifted young percussionist.  He plays jazz in the SFJAZZ All-Star Jazz Orchestra under Paul Contos, and he also plays classical music in the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, under Donato Cabrera, both incredibly difficult and competitive auditions.  He seems to be completely comfortable in both realms and that makes him versatile and well-balanced, among other things, as these two worlds are quite different.  He also does some composing.  Add to that, Benjamin once told me he would love to start an alternative/electronic band - I hope you do!  


Primary Instrument: Drumset and Orchestral percussion
Secondary Instrument: Marimba
Music I play: Classical, Jazz, Percussion Ensemble
Music I listen to: Classical, Jazz, Classic Rock, Electronic, and everything in between.
Private Lessons: Yes, 2 teachers: 1 for orchestral, 1 for drumset
Year I graduate HS: 2016

1. How do you approach improvisation?

Although I am a drummer and play a primarily rhythmic instrument, I try as much as I can to approach improvisation like a melodic instrument would. I always try to find the interesting rhythms in the melody of the song I am playing, and transfer those to my solos while creating a sort of "theme and variation" game. For every rhythm that appears in the music, there are 100 ways one can twist and play with that rhythm, by putting it in a different place, changing note lengths, until it becomes a "different" rhythm - although it still is true to the nature and style of the song. For example, if I am playing a Louis Armstrong tune, I am not going to use quintuplets in my soloing, as that is not fitting for the style of the drumming at that time period - I may use simple drumming elements, like the basic rudiments, that were being pioneered at the time. On the other hand, if I play a Vijay Iyer tune in 21/8, I may take a more modern, minimalistic approach to my improvisation, using complicated rhythms and displacing things more often.

Because I like to act as a melodic player would, I always have the melody of the tune in my head. One of my favorite things to do is play the melody on the drums. The creativity of doing this comes from the limitations of the drums, as there are only 7 or so instruments that one can use at a time. However, like rhythms, each of these separate parts of the drum set can be manipulated 100 different ways to produce different types of sound, tone, and volume. Playing the melody of the song is a great tool to use while improvising, but having the melody in my head allows me to do so much more than just playing the tune; I can play the spaces in the song, play the melody at half-speed, play it twice as fast, heck, play it backwards - knowing the tune inside-out only furthers my creativity stemming from the melody.

2. What makes you play the way you play? (Influences? Where do you find inspiration? Group vs. solo?)

Dave Weckl, Steve Gadd, John Bonham, Ginger Baker, Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, Zev Shearn-Neance, Gustav Mahler, Beethoven, Jack Van Geem, Logan Kane  - they are only a tiny amount of the number of people that influence me musically in this world. For me, playing classical music and jazz provides me with a multitude of opportunities from which I can take ideas and concepts and apply them to my playing. Classical influences cross over to my drum set playing, and vice versa; that's what I love about having a pretty diverse musical life.

I think it's important to distinguish between being influenced by something and trying to sound like an artist or group. It's always important for one to develop their own musical style at an early stage in their music career, and influences can be a great way to create one's own "sound". However, I try not to sound particularly like one artist for too long - it is cool to imitate someone for a week or two, but longer than that, their style of playing will trample on my style of playing, and I will lose the originality of my sound. That's why it is important to take influences, but not try to imitate too much. Developing one's sound is key to playing an instrument.

3. When you're frustrated & want to quit, what makes you come back to your instrument?

We all have this feeling, and I have it pretty often lately - Why am I doing this? Isn't it impossible to make a living playing music? Why does the world need my playing when there are a million other drummers out there who can kick my butt? These questions can be degrading of one's personality, and can overall make one feel like crap. I've definitely had times where I throw down my drumsticks in frustration and tell myself I'm done, and sometimes the negative energy just needs to be released. However, the idea of inspiration comes into play again in these situations - yes, maybe Cameron MacIntosh can play way better than I can, but this is only an opportunity for inspiration, and I can learn from him just as much as I can learn from Buddy Rich; they each have their own great sound. Granted, the last thing I want to think is the number of people that are better than me - because I will never finish counting; but this is just inspiration waiting to help me develop my sound on the drums.

There is always a song or a tune out there waiting to be listened to, and although it may not be complex, it can make me appreciate music for the way it affects us mentally and emotionally. That is what brings me back.

4. How does pressure ('good' or 'bad') affect your performance?

I think everyone experiences pressure while playing their instrument, whether it is performing for others or just practicing in the basement. There is pressure to play well, to be musical, to be presented well, etc. For me, pressure has built character and allowed me to be less stressed for performances and auditions. Yes, the first few performances I ever played were absolute nightmares, but even after my first year of being in a youth orchestra (BYO), I felt more comfortable with performing on stage.

I consider myself pretty shy, especially when playing my instrument for people I don't know. When clinicians come in to work with the SFJAZZ band, I get super nervous and self-conscious, and this in turn negatively affects my performance. I know that they are there to help me and give me advice on my playing, so there is nothing to worry about, but the aspect of human-to-human pressure is always present. Because the drummer basically drives a big band, the mistakes that I make while playing can throw people off, and this makes me feel accountable for everyone else's mistakes. I eventually spiral downwards with these negative thoughts to the point where I want to quit playing.

The important thing is not to let pressure overcome you. Obviously, respecting people who have authority is key to success in music, but professionals always appreciate it when you treat them as one of your band members, because it creates a more relaxed environment. As for performing, all I want to do is make people connect with the music (and maybe even dance a little).

5. Parent support directly affects musical achievement. How does parent support look in your family? How does it affect your ability to succeed?

I consider myself EXTREMELY lucky to have the support that my parents provide musically. My father, a french horn player in the San Francisco Symphony, really made it his goal to educate his children with music from an early age. I would always go see him at Family Concerts, and these were the first times that I really experienced music. Because he "made it" in the music field means that there is no doubt in my family about the ability to make a living playing music. Without him, I would never have started playing.

My mother, an amateur flute player, helps me discover musical appreciation and the ability to connect with it. She always pushes me to try new things and do new groups, and was the one to introduce me to both SFJAZZ and the SFSYO. I think that a large part of my musical career stems from her support (as well as her car driving - she shuttles me practically everywhere).

Yes, parental support has directly affected the way my musical life has shaped itself, if not started it in the first place. I would definitely not be anywhere close to where I am today if it hadn't been for my parents. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

5 Qs for Miles

Miles Burnham is a high school junior.  He played his first year in the audition-only Jazz Band A at his high school, which is quite competitive.  He recently joined The Anchormen, which is a ska/punk band he formed with a couple of his friends. He is not sure yet if he will pursue a career in music: "I don't actually know what I want to study after High School yet."  Take your time, Miles.


Primary Instrument: Trumpet
Secondary Instrument: none

MUSIC I PLAY:  Classical, Jazz, Pop, Ska
MUSIC I LISTSEN TO: Classical, Jazz, Pop, Ska

Private Lessons: No
Year I will Graduate HS: 2014

1. How do you approach improvisation? Answer: The best way that I try to approach improvisation is, if your music allows for a couple seconds, to just close my eyes and start to really feel the vibes and the rhythm of the song. This sets me up for a laidback and hip solo in most cases.

2. What makes you play the way you play? (Influences? Where do you find inspiration? Group vs. solo?) Answer: My main influences when I listen to Trumpet players (I play Trumpet) are Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Roy Hargrove, and lately I have been jamming to Wynton Marsalis and even Louis Armstrong. Armstrong and Marsalis play the old 1920's jazz and i really like the way they solo because they are in my opinion the best at playing with the key changes and sounding fantastic. I would definitely prefer they played with a great band, as every great house needs a great foundation.

3. When you're frustrated & want to quit, what makes you come back to your instrument? Answer: The one thing that makes me come back to my intrument whenever i feel frustrated is listening to classical music. The intensity and beauty of these peices always make me go "Hey, look how good this peice is. I'm pretty sure you can try a little harder at just playing your instrument if these geniuses can make such magnificent peices of music".

4. How does pressure ('good' or 'bad') affect your performance? Answer: Whenever I am pressured I play worst. That is a true fact. I am always sucked down by pressure, whether it is playing in front an audience, Mr. Aubel (Band Teacher), or even just to audition to get into the band! It definitely negatively affects my playing.

5. Parent support directly affects musical achievement. How does parent support look in your family? How does it affect your ability to succeed? Answer: My mom always pushes me to practice my trumpet more because she claims i have talent and that i waste it by not playing. My mom always being in the croud at a gig definitely helps me out and reminds me how much she cares. It absolutely affects my ability to keep going with my instrument.