Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Interview with Ryan Ayres ~ Music Brainiac

I had the privilege of carpooling to SFJAZZ rehearsals with Ryan Ayres, so I can speak to knowing his mind a little bit.  He is a fan of the same geeky, high-brow humor as I,* and he is drastically well-informed on...well, everything.  I learned a few things on those rides, listening to him and my son talk and laugh.  I can also tell you that along with his eloquence, he is as school-smart as he is music-wise: many AP classes were on his transcript, along with several extra-curricular bands and talent awards (by the time you get to the list of annotations at the end of his interview, you'll understand not only what he wishes to convey, but that he is eloquent, meticulous and multi-talented).  He appears to be thriving at college with his choice of major, Music Composition.  Listen up, people!  Remember his name, you'll be hearing it again.   



Primary Instruments: Baritone saxophone, bassoon, composition
Secondary Instruments: Clarinet, bass clarinet, alto and soprano saxes, flute, piano... it's complicated!
Music I playMinimalism, classical, jazz
Music I listen to: Minimalism, orchestral, band, and chamber classical, renaissance, jazz big band, rock, electronica- a whole bunch of stuff!
Private lessons: 5 years jazz saxophone (alto/bari), currently 2 years deep in bassoon and composition lessons
Graduated HS: 2012
College: University of North Texas ~ Denton, Texas

5 Q's for Ryan

1. How do you approach improvisation?

As a composer, I tend to see improvisation as composition in the moment. When I compose, it takes countless hours to consider all of the factors that go into making a great piece - melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, and so on. In an improvisatory setting, these decisions are made much faster, and are inevitably crafted with (at the very least) less foresight and planning. Each note I choose to play next is chosen in the context of what just happened before it and in what general direction I want to take the phrase as a whole. I might start with a very rough idea of what I want to play based on what tune I'm playing or what I've been listening to recently that I want to emulate (or even steal!), but that rough idea changes as I being to play and interact with the other musicians I'm playing with.  Whereas composing is a very calculated, distant, logical process, improvising is the exact opposite - a fully spontaneous, interactive, emotional experience. It won't always go exactly the way you intend, but the beautiful thing about it is that it's in the moment - you adapt as time passes.

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

For most of my musical career, I've been influenced by the two very distinct worlds of classical music and jazz. As I've learned how to play both, my knowledge of one genre has blended with the way I play the other, and I consider this a strength. I'm as much influenced by Steve Reich1 and Stravinskii2** in my jazz playing as I am by Maria Schneider3 and Pat Metheny4 in my classical studies. It's all music - you can always learn something useful on whatever instrument you're playing. My other influences range from Charlie Parker5 to Frank6 Zappa7 (did you know that he released a classical album? Great stuff!), Josquin de Près8 to John Coltrane9, Bill Evans10 to Aaron Copland.11
As far as style preference goes, I've always appreciated simplicity and structure. I can listen to Philip Glass12 for hours without getting bored; my attention never fades in Coltrane's Africa Brass13Count Basie14 manages to keep me on the edge of my seat with his piano playing and compositions despite them being very simple and sparse. For me, the simplest way to play or write something is the most musically gratifying. You'd think my preference for simplicity would mean that I like solo playing15 more than group16 performance17, which tends to be more involved and complicated. Despite that, I still prefer playing in larger groups- I love the feeling that comes from cooperating with a group to produce something larger than ourselves. Nothing else comes close!

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

Especially now that I've been at the University of North Texas for over a year, the prospect of being able to play with incredibly talented musicians on a daily basis keeps me motivated. Whether it's saxophone in a jazz big band or a bassoon duet with piano, the thought of working together to create awesome music always brings me back, no matter how frustrated I become. It works the same way with composition, too. If I'm ever frustrated with the way I write, I can always listen to the great music of those I admire and become motivated to rise to that level - not to mention the fact that creating new music for performers and audience members to enjoy is the most gratifying part of my musical life.


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

I'm always working to be the best possible composer and performer I can be. If I feel the negative pressure getting to me, I remind myself that all I can do is present the best possible version of my musical self to an audience. As long as I am trying my hardest to present a good, polished performance for my audience there's nothing else I can ask of myself. I don't beat myself up over mistakes before they happen; it does no good to let any kind of criticism (worst of all, self-criticism) get in the way of playing well. In my book, play as well as you can, and let the dice fall where they may. If you make a mistake, so what? That's just another thing to improve in the future!

5. Parent support directly affects musical achievement. How does parent support look in your family?
         I'm extremely lucky to have parents that didn't gulp nervously and recommend I go to medical school when I said I wanted to compose and perform for a living, and that I had no backup plan. They've always encouraged me to develop my talents and do what makes me happy - and if I can manage to make money doing what I love the most, they've always wanted to be there in any way they can to make that possible. I would not be where I am today without my parents' support!


Shameless self-promotion:


 *   An original joke, simultaneously co-written by Ryan & Shamera ~
      Q: What do you call a person obsessed with math homework? 
            (or someone who willingly chooses to study Applied Mathematics in college? :)) 
      A:  A 'Mathochist'

**  Ryan informs me that Igor Stravinsky's birthname was originally spelled with the 'ii' ending.  

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Leading Latin Lady ~ Rebeca Mauleón

Rebeca Mauleón & band at Stanford University, summer 2013.  Photo by Scott Chernis.

Rebeca Mauleón is a tour de force.  She has leveled the playing field with her piano prowess and rythmic rule.  She has proven that ladies in jazz are center stage as an acclaimed pianist, composer, arranger, author, educator and producer.  Her composing credits include music for television, film, software and symphony orchestra.  She is a Grammy-nominated producer, a tenured professor of music history, performance and composition, a contributing writer to National Geographic and JazzTimes Magazine, and is Director of Education for SFJAZZ.

Her Wikipedia entry begins: "Rebeca Mauleón is an American pianist, composer, arranger, and writer, specializing in salsa and other Latin American and Afro-Caribbean music...Since her early twenties, she has performed and recorded with celebrities in the Latin and jazz music scenes, including Tito Puente, Carlos Santana, Cachao, the celebrated conguero Carlos "Patato" Valdes, Armando Peraza, Giovanni Hidalgo, Joe Henderson, Sheila E, Steve Winwood, Michael Nesmith and others, and has made a name for herself as one of very few female band-leaders in Afro-Caribbean jazz."  Just as her band list is a Who's Who of Latin American & Afro-Cuban Jazz, so is her list of revered performance forums:  'Woman in Jazz' at The Kennedy Center, the Monterey Jazz Festival, the San Francisco Jazz Festival, SFJAZZ Center, Sundance (as a Composers fellow), Woodstock, and the Conan O'Brien and Regis & Kathy Lee television shows, to name a few.  She was also nominated for a Latin Grammy for Best Traditional Tropical Album.  How could I know that our paths would eventually cross when we were buying up her salsa primer for drum lessons?  This primer she has written is widely regarded as the "bible" of salsa, outlining the complicated rhythmic patterns therein.  In addition to several books with play-along CDs and original sheet music for big band & combos, she has also authored MIDI-based instructional music software, invaluable to any student looking to immerse themselves in the nuances of traditional Latin phrasing.  In 2011, she was named  Educational Director of SFJAZZ, and we have benefitted from her support and expertise ever since.  In addition to overseeing the SFJAZZ All-Stars programs, she also authors and directs the popular Discover Jazz series, where lay people can study music.  I carry her Cuban class book as reference for this blog and now understand the 'Latin' music misnomer.  But, it was the experience of attending her 2013 sold-out SFJAZZ Center show, that really got my attention.  A typical Afro-Cuban rhythm section is very different from the standard: in addition to piano, bass and drum-set, you'll see timbales, congas, bongos, and claves.  And, more.  The combination of all these beautiful instruments, with their interwoven rhythms and textures is awesome to behold, individually complicated but comprising a beautiful whole.  Watching her leading this all-male band, bringing down the house, reducing it to the joy of music and dancing, is when I truly understood the comment of one of her SFJAZZ comrades:  "She's bad ass!"

I am privileged to offer Rebeca's answers to the 4 Educator Questions, in her own words.

Educator Questions

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

The trick is allowing the student to realize that his/her creativity is inevitably limited by their skill-set. I had a dance instructor who once said, "I can only teach you the steps; I can't teach you how to dance!" Ultimately the only thing a teacher can really do is present an idea that you hope will have the most positive results for that particular student, while allowing the student to fully incorporate the concept into their playing on their terms. It's more than just saying, "Do it because it's good for you" of course, and I have always found the best results are achieved when you find the path of least resistance. If the student feels invested in the process they are less likely to resist what you are "imposing" upon them. As I said, it's tricky!

2. Practice + Parent Support = Musical Achievement

Assuming parent support includes lessons or school classes,  do you see this statement as accurate?

Yes and no. First there has to be student-initiated drive, and often too much parental involvement can result in a student who doesn't cultivate the work ethic necessary to achieve their goals. So practice, yes - practice makes you better (there is no "perfect" here). Parental support should combine equal doses of gentle nagging ("Hey, if you've got a free hour maybe you can work on that cool groove I heard you play the other day...") with positive reinforcement ("Wow, I didn't know you knew how to transpose that song into different keys - that's amazing!"). Musical "achievement," on the other hand, can be measured in multiple ways. In my book any young musician who genuinely WANTS to play well knows how competitive the music scene can be, and the mere fact that they have chosen this path will have a long-lasting impact on their life skills. A life in music, no matter what the end result, will always strike a high note on those college apps!

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

The first thing every student must do is LISTEN to as much as they can, then listen some more! I tell them they must first be INSPIRED by what they hear, then MOTIVATED to imitate what they love, which entails multiple processes including analysis, transcription, memorization and other steps. Kenny Barron commented that he challenges his students to MOVE him - make him cry, give him goosebumps. No small order of course, but my philosophy is that anyone can memorize a bunch of licks; it takes passion and commitment to command an audience during a solo. While improvisation has many intangible elements, the sheer act of putting yourself out there and literally abandoning your control impulses is perhaps the best lesson a teacher can impart on a student. Let them know you've been there, that it's scary and wonderful, and that the outcome is completely unknown yet completely fulfilling. Plus I always remind them to finish up with a bang: no matter the beginning, a strong ending is often the best redemption.

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

Personal drive and commitment, no wishy-washiness, professional conduct at all times, self-advocacy without arrogance (a tricky one), confidence and humility (also tricky), punctuality, empathy, curiosity and continual thirst for knowledge and self-improvement. I could go on...:-)

Rebeca Mauleón.  Wikipedia, 20 August 2013.  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebeca_Mauleon>

Rebeca Mauleón Publications.  15 October 2013.  <http://www.rebecamauleon.com/pub.html>

Afro-Cuban Jazz.  Wikipedia, 8 October 2013.  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afro-Cuban_jazz>

Sunday, October 6, 2013


"Music in the soul can be heard by the universe."
                                       ~ Lao Tzu

Continuing my exploration of creativity and how it is handled by the brain, I'm setting my sights, my ears on improvisation, the musical version of innovation.  At the end of the last post on the subject (He Sways While He Plays), Yo-Yo Ma expressed a feeling that the less conscious he was of his playing, the more emotion was expressed in his performance.  Paraphrased by Jonah Lehrer in IMAGINE: How Creativity Works, as 'The Letting Go,' this aspect of performance can be truly scary. It means relinquishing the possibility of perfection and possibly expressing something we did not mean to, the essence of losing control.  This loss of control opens the door for spontaneity, an important part of creativity.  Indeed, many modern compositions would not be in existance without this vital and valuable source of creation.  "[From] John Coltrane's saxophone solos to Jackson Pollock's drip paintings.  It's Miles Davis playing his trumpet on Kind of Blue - most of the album was recorded on the very first take - and Lenny Bruce inventing jokes at Carnegie Hall."

There is a Nepalese word that to me, perfectly describes a jazz band in full improvisational glory.  Rungi-chungi jilli-milli means total bombardment on every level, multi-layered chaos, congestion & pandemonius beauty.  What an expressive word (or words).

How does this happen?  By letting go?  By doing essentially nothing?  It does not compute.   These questions are exactly the ones that inspired this blog.  Asking jazz students how they approach improvisation turned out to be a creative free-for-all, with answers all over the board.  Charles Limb, a neuroscientist and self-described music addict, at Johns Hopkins University, has also asked those questions.  In his own words, "How did Coltrane do it?  How did he get up there onstage and improvise his music for an hour or sometimes more?  Sure, a lot of musicians can throw out a creative little ditty here and there, but to continually produce masterpiece after masterpiece is nothing short of remarkable.  I wanted to know how that happened."   Me too.

Limb organized a simple experiment: he was going to watch jazz pianists improvise new tunes while in a fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scanner.*   Each musician began the experiment by playing passages they knew and required no imagination, a C-major scale, a standard previously-memorized blues tune.  This created the baseline reading for a brain reproducing material it had mastered.  The so-called Creativity Condition was introduced by asking the subject to improvise a new tune, a melody, as they played along with a recording of a jazz quartet.  While they were improvising, the scanner was looking for minor shifts in brain activity.  "The scientists found that jazz improv relied on a carefully choreographed set of mental events.  The process started with a surge of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area at the front of the brain that is closely associated with self-expression (Limb refers to it as the "center of autobiography" in the brain).  This suggests that the musician was engaged in a kind of storytelling, searching for the notes that reflected her personal style."  I find that truly interesting.  But it gets better.   "At the same time, the scientists observed, there was a dramatic shift in a nearby circuit, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).  While the DLPFC has many talents, it's most closely associated with impulse control.  This is the bit of neural matter that keeps each of us from making embarrassing confessions, or grabbing at food, or stealing from a store.  In other words, it's a neural restraint system, a set of handcuffs that the mind uses on itself."  Self-control and improvisation: what is the correlation?  Would it make sense to you that during times of experimentation, your brain is eliciting as much control as it can while venturing into new terrain?  Well here's what happened...

"Before a single note was played in the improv condition, each of the pianists exhibited a 'deactivation' of the DLPFC, as the brain instantly silenced the circuit.  In contrast, this area remained active when the pianist played a memorized tune.  The musicians were inhibiting their inhibitions, slipping off those mental handcuffs."  According to Limb, this allowed them to create new music without worrying about what they were creating.  They were letting themselves go.  Wow.  That is a risky and very bold thing to do, especially on stage.  I believe for those that understand the dynamics of jazz, that is a large part of why people are so drawn to live jazz performance.  

It turns out that this is merely the beginning of a particular series of brain events that must occur for successful improvisation.  After the deactivation of the DLPFC, the brain must contrive something interesting to output.  The generation phase of the improvisation process begins with a flood of material, general in the beginning.  But, there are important constraints on the execution of this material, all related to the format of the jazz chart.  As explained in YOUR BRAIN ON JAZZ, the subjects needed to improvise in the right key, the right tempo and the right style (and, if they were playing in a band, to improvise while also incorporating aspects of their bandmates' solos).    

There is another fMRI study conducted at Harvard, where twelve classically-trained pianists were asked to compose original melodies.  While the Limb study compared brain activity during performance of memorized pieces and improvised pieces, this experiment compared activity in the brain during different kinds of improvisation.  "This would allow the scientists to detect the neural substrate shared by every form of spontaneous creativity, not just those bits of brain associated with particular types of music."  They expected the various improv conditions, independent of musical genre,  to lead to a surge in the premotor cortex (musical patterns translated into bodily movements).  But, the surge in the inferior frontal gyrus, most closely associated with language and the production of speech, was a bit of a surprise.  The metaphor of a musical phrase as sentence, where every note is a word, is argued by scientists as using the same mental muscles.  "Those bebop players play what sounds like seventy notes within a few seconds," says Aaron Berkowitz, the lead author on the Harvard study.  "There's no time to think of each individual note.  They have to have some patterns in their toolbox."  This is reminiscent of Dann Zinn's step-by-step instruction process beginning with 2-5-1 Licks (explained in The SINGULAR Dann Zinn) and nearly exactly the "conversational jazz" of Paul Contos (Interview with Paul Contos, director of SFJAZZ).  Berkowitz continues by likening improvisation to learning a second language.  Immersion in jazz, like memorizing vocabulary, nouns, adjectives and verb conjugations, causes a student to internalize "the intricacies of Shostakovich or Coltaine or Hendrix."  After years of this exposure, the process of articulating these musical phrases becomes automatic.  Gone are the worries of consulting scale charts and paying close attention to the proper technical movement of fingers, hands and arms.  It is only after this expertise has been gained that true improvisation can be performed.  Hard work belies the ease they present.   Jonah Lehrer, speaking for 'we' humans, says it best: "This is what we sound like when nothing is holding us back."

* "The giant superconducting magnets in fMRI machines require absolute stillness of the body part being studied, which meant that Limb needed to design a custom keyboard that could be played while the pianists were lying down.  (The setup involved an intricate system of angled mirrors, so the subjects could see their hands.)"

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

Limb, Charles.  "Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation."  PLOS ONE: e1679.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001679: 2008.

Berkowitz, Aaron & Ansari, Daniel.  "Generation of Novel Motor Sequences: The Neural Correlates of Musical Improvisation."  Neuroimage 41: 2008, page 535-543.

Play It Again

The idea behind this new book, appropriately entitled, Play It Again, reminds me of the premise of Guitar Zero, by neurologist Gary Marcus, in that a professional non-musician, in this case a newspaper editor, declares a musical goal and documents the journey.  It made #4 on O Magazine's "The WOW List: a rousing roundup of awe-inspiring innovations, people and phenomena..."

"British newspaper editor Alan Rusbridger learned - "over 16 months of snatched private moments" - Chopin's nearly ten-minute-long Ballade No. 1 in G minor, one of the most difficult piano pieces ever written.  Read about Rusbridger's obsession in his inspiring, diary-like new book, Play It Again."

Excerpt #4 in "The WOW List." O Magazine, August 2013: Page 91.

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