28 November 2008


When a work of mine is deemed by conservatives to be too far out, and also deemed by radicals as not far enough out, I'll know I've succeeded.

24 November 2008

Good/Bad Vibes

Today, I finally feel up to confronting the fact that this space is by and large a place for the airing of negative feelings rather than positive ones. I'm well aware that most of what I write takes issue with some other position, often aggressively, and rarely if ever issues compliments to other musicians and bloggers. This is because I've found that the best way to figure out what I really think about something is to try to write persuasively about it; this was what initially pushed me towards writing about music, and it continues to be my primary attraction to this activity. The desire to "go public" with these documents is, admittedly, somewhat self-indulgent, but it enables others to comment on them, which I often find just as useful as the act of writing itself (and an event which I wish I could say happened more often).

If I've carved out a niche as something of a spoilsport/buzzkiller/mudslinger always off pouting in the corner, I would defend this sort of behavior by citing the need for something to offset the torrents of quid pro quo backslapping that dominate most of the rest of the music world. A well-known problem with musicians writing about music is that you can't expect them to bite the hand that feeds them by saying something negative about someone whose support they need, even if that's how they really feel. On that note, I'll put my money where my mouth is and say that the first example that comes to my mind here is the ITEA Journal, in which I'm not sure I've ever read a negative thing about anybody, at least not since I've been a member and paying attention.

Grateful as I am for the occasional exposure I myself have had in their pages, a glowing review from a source that issues nothing but glowing reviews doesn't mean much. Though there's no reason to get unduly vicious purely for its own sake, it sure would be refreshing to see a drubbing or two every so often, as this would at least make it seem like they mean all the nice things they say about each other. The reviews of new materials (i.e. scores in particular) have their own way of dancing around making judgments, namely by focusing on information about the piece (range, difficulty, style, etc.) rather than the reviewer's opinion of it. Useful as this is in some cases, I again have to wonder if the social dynamics at work aren't to blame for inhibiting "real" criticism, which would not only be more useful to the readership, but would further the ultimate goal of getting people to take the tuba and euphonium seriously by proving that the people who play it do, too.

Incongruously, then, I'll close with a compliment. Daniel Wolf, whose blog is among my favorites, put it well in a post from last year on a topic on which he has been an articulate and accurate observer:

...on the topic of boycotting competitions (in particular, those with high entry fees and low prizes), I have received 22 emails in support of my position and none against, and as gratifying as the echo was, it was a bit disturbing that not one of the 22 was willing to go public. While I might understand it if the emailer doesn't want to be associated in public with me...I dislike the idea that he or she doesn't want to upset the competition applecart by speaking out, and profoundly dislike the idea that she or he has chosen anonymity in order to preserve their own competition chances.

Well said.

19 November 2008

A Tuba in the Jazz Band?

One of my tuba students recently came to me for advice on how to convince his high school band director to let him play in the jazz band. Among other things, I offered to write a letter for him, which I've now turned into an "open letter" to all K-12 band directors who favor strict adherence to the "standard" big band instrumentation of saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and rhythm. My naively optimistic hope is that this document could be used by any student who wants to play a "non-standard" instrument in their school's jazz band, but whose band teacher won't allow it. I've posted the letter on my website as a PDF file:

A Tuba in the Jazz Band?

I'll refrain from rehashing the whole letter point by point in hopes that you, the reader, will click on the link and read it in its entirety. There are, however, a couple of additional thoughts I've had since I finished it.

First, I mention in the letter that this situation never arises at schools with small/weak music programs. That's because in those cases, there aren't enough (or good enough) students available to cover the parts in the first place, and hence, regardless of their feelings about jazz band instrumentation, the teacher is typically in no position to turn down interested students on any instrument. I suspect this accounts for the fact that the majority of my K-12 tuba students were already playing in jazz band when they came to me for lessons (a point which I was sure to emphasize in the letter). This makes it all the more frustrating that one who attends a school with a larger program would be the one to find himself potentially trespassed from jazz band because of his instrument, yet if you think about it, it makes perfect sense, since there apparently are more trumpet, trombone and saxophone players at his school than there are spots available, making the admission of other instrumentalists quite the slippery slope for his band teacher.

In hindsight, I realize now that as someone who came up through bare bones jazz programs rather than sprawling, competitive ones, I benefitted greatly from this very dynamic, even if it didn't seem like it much of the time. My high school band teacher, who was overworked generally (aren't they all?) and particularly inexperienced in the jazz realm, went looking for help and stumbled on Jim Torok and Kerry Ashmore, two traditional jazz musicians who had been working with school jazz bands on a volunteer basis for many years. She turned the reins over to them, and suddenly not only were we afforded the opportunity to work with two highly experienced professional musicians, but two highly experienced professional musicians who, I was soon to learn, often hire their best students. They ultimately gave me my first paying gigs while I was still in high school, not to mention instilling a love and understanding of early jazz that I may not have otherwise developed. To this day, I still play with both of them several times a year.

I lucked out again in college at the University of Minnesota, where Jazz Studies Director Dean Sorenson spearheaded a collaboration with the dance department that entailed commissioning many new works from local composers. When he offered to include tuba in the instrumentation, I jumped at the opportunity to be a full-time member of a big band for the first time, as well as write a piece of my own for the project. While at The U, I was also lucky enough to have drummer Phil Hey as a jazz combo instructor. Phil, who is ubiquitous on the local scene and is the first call drummer for many big names passing through from out of town, has been a valuable teacher, mentor, and friend over the years, but, oddly enough, one of a type which I may not have had if I had gone to a big name jazz school where TA's run all of the combos, as was the case at the University of Northern Colorado, where I spent a year as an exchange student. This is not to diminish the generosity of Dana Landry, the Director of Jazz Studies at UNC, who graciously agreed to do 1-on-1 lessons with me during my second semester, and also had me play a couple of tunes with the Lab Band I. (Did you get that last part, high school band directors?) Nonetheless, since all of the combos and most of the big bands were directed by TA's, this was my only direct contact with jazz faculty members while I was there.

Certainly, there were ups and downs to all of my academic jazz experiences, and I definitely did not feel lucky to be part of small programs at the time. Nonetheless, it has been difficult watching a student of my own be offered less (nothing, actually) by a program that has more to give, and it has also made me more grateful for what I did get to be a part of as a student.

Secondly, I mention in the letter that, in hindsight, the academic world in general seemed less receptive to me as a tuba player playing jazz than the "real world" of living, breathing musicians has been since I left school. I'll refrain from naming names here, although it should be obvious that the one's I've mentioned in a positive light above certainly aren't who I'm talking about. With this idea still fresh in my mind from writing the letter, I just happened to stumble on a recent New York Times article about the guitarist Mary Halvorson, from which this excerpt particularly jumped out at me:

In high school she enrolled in summer programs at the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music, learning to shrug off chauvinistic appraisals of her talent.“Nobody would take me seriously,” she said. “They would take one look at me and say, ‘O.K., folk singer.’ That was really hard for me, and I was angry a lot of the time. I did all these summer programs, and I never encountered another female playing jazz guitar. Ever.” The experience taught her to be comfortable as the only woman on a bandstand, she said, adding that the issue rarely comes up anymore.

Let me preface my reaction to that very last passage by saying that I have no illusions that anything I've experienced as a tuba player in a saxophone player's world compares to the pervasiveness or hurtfulness of sexism or racism. Nonetheless, both of our stories point toward an indictment of musical academia as unduly resistant to diversity, the road less travelled, "the world as it might be" as opposed to "the world as it is," or whatever else you want to call it. Maybe we knew that already, but if nothing else, this is more fuel for the fire.


I'll close this post the way I began my "open letter," which is to say that the very notion of "standard" and "non-standard" instruments is more representative of where the music publishing industry has thrown in their lot than it is of the whole of jazz history and the attitudes of its practitioners. It's never been about what you play, but how you play. Though I am a tuba player, this is about much more than just the tuba. It's too bad that so many schools have hitched their wagons to a jazz band instrumentation that automatically excludes more than half of the wind band, virtually all of the string orchestra, and everyone in the choir. In the face of this, creative band directors have always found the flexibility necessary to involve all of their interested students in jazz, regardless of the instruments they play. As much as we appreciate these extra efforts, they really ought to be par for the course, and we ought not accept anything less.