Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Social Anxiety, the Serenity Prayer and Creativity

I haven’t told many this, but I’ve always struggled with social anxiety for most of my life.  I’m happy to say that it has become less of an issue the older I've gotten. This is a good thing. Because when you’re five years old, people think that social awkwardness is cute. However, when you’re 50, people think that you’re creepy. Let’s just say I’ve come a long way from my early childhood when I battled selective mutism

It’s funny how during high school people used to always think that I was happy because I was always smiling. When actually, incessant smiling is a common symptom of social anxiety. Smiling in the face of misery. I call it the SITFOM effect.

To help conquer this issue, my mother did two things: One, she put me in as many social situations as possible. If your kid is afraid of the water, solution: Throw him or her in the pool, face first. I was fortunate in that she signed me up for a lot of music and art classes. The art classes enabled me to explore my creativity, and the music classes allowed me to be social while having a musical instrument to hide behind. A crutch that's still used to this day.  Secondly, to help ease my mind when feeling stressful she'd have me recite the “Serenity Prayer.”

If you're not familiar with it, this is the abridged version my mom would have me say:

“Dear Lord, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.


I’m mentioning this because this prayer has served as a foundation for how I now navigate life and creativity.

My advice to students and friends is usually to "focus on you can control, not on what you can’t."

If I get too focused on my career, my music, or life, in general, I ask myself: Are you eating enough healthy food? Is your living environment clean and organized? Are you drinking enough water every day? Or, what can you do to help others? I really focus on the basics—things that I am sure are within my control.

I’m a firm believer that directing one's energy towards these kinds of things creates good karma that will, in turn, put one in the mindset to make their more lofty goals more attainable.

And besides, focusing on these basic, less self-centered things gives me a stronger sense of satisfaction. I see myself as being in control of my life, rather than being a victim of circumstance. 

From a creative perspective, I try not to spend energy on what I can’t do, but instead, try to focus on what I can do very easily, something I've come to identify as my natural genius: doing that which you might see as being too easy. 

I love this quote credited to Albert Einstein:

 “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

I'm sure we've all been fish trying desperately to climb trees. Society has conditioned us to believe that we need to be good at everything--especially music education. Which goes against the grain of tapping into your natural genius.

The hardest thing about embracing your natural genius is giving yourself permission to do so. We've convinced ourselves that if struggling is not built into what we do, that it’s not valid. It’s as though we need to feel like victims of creative circumstance.

Is a meal that takes five minutes to prepare less delicious or healthy than one that takes five hours to prepare? I think not. 

Surrender. Relinquish control. Leave it to fate. Put it into the hands of the Lord. Take the path of least resistance. However you choose to look at it, remember that the clearer the mind, the clearer you’ll be able to see things, consequently, making better decisions. 

As far as my social anxiety issues. They still exist. But I try to focus more on what others might be feeling and their needs, rather than thinking that everybody is watching me and is out to get me. Seems to work. Oh...and if you are a fish, stay out of trees, and if you're a monkey, don't try to make your home in the deep sea. Life can be difficult enough being where we're supposed to be, no need living your life of as a primate swimming with the dolphins.

* Regarding the Einstein quote, there's no concrete proof that he actually said it.  But it is a wise quote, nonetheless.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Private Keep Out: Making Your Club Exclusive

Being in the music business, we’re often taught to focus on growing our audience. Court as many folks as you can. I propose this: How about we purposely keep our core audience as small as possible—an exclusive club if you will. Why? Because sometimes we have to be willing to say, “Take it or leave it. This is what I do.”

I’m a firm believer that if you’re making music for everyone, then you’re not making music for anyone.

Try this: The next time you go into a Starbucks, ask for a two-piece with a biscuit and mashed potatoes. They’ll probably send you to the nearest KFC. (Keeping the food analogy.) If someone came to my gig expecting to hear jazz saxophone playing correctly over the chord changes, I’d probably recommend Smoke Jazz Club, or perhaps Small’s on West 10th, and respectfully explain that what they’re looking for is not on my musical menu.
 As artists, just trying to survive doing what we do, we can be too willing to alter what we do to fit in. The flip side of earning permission to join Club Popularity, is you’ve now given people permission to ignore you. I guess the grass is greener on the other side.

I’m reminded of a micro short story I wrote called “The Invisible Man.”

Young boy: Were you always invisible?

Invisible man: No. At one time I was prominently seen by all.

Young man: What happened?

Invisible man: I tried to become like everybody else, and succeeded.

There are a few benefits to excluding certain people and catering to a select membership.

  • We have people in our circle who really want to be there.
  • Not having naysayers and skeptics in our inner circle, allows us to maintain our artistic focus.
  • We’re more likely to have folks around us who will help spread the word about what we do.

Instead of casting a wide net, I suggest casting a purposeful one. Keep those unwanted fish at bay. Invite only those whom you wish to devour to your musical plate.

I was inspired to write this piece after a recent performance at the Hartford Public Library as a part of their Baby Grand Jazz Series. I played there with Cooper Moore on piano, Hilliard Greene on bass, and Reggie Nicholson on drums.

It’s difficult to see on the video, but the crowd was really into it. They even gave us a standing ovation. But then there were several people not into it. Many saw fit to get up and leave, very early into our set. Probably not the brand of jazz they were looking to consume. And I’m glad they did. (Another food analogy.) If we’re grilling burgers, I don’t want folks hanging out, getting pouty because they’re no hot dogs. “Nathan’s is down the street,” I say to those folks.

 Enjoy our set!

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Teacher and Student: Then What?

Student: I really want to have a more significant social media presence.

Teacher: Then what?

Student: I can let more folks know what I’m up to.

Teacher: Then what?

Student: If I have a gig, I can inform more people 

Teacher: Then what?

Student: If more people know about my gig, more will show up.

Teacher: Then what?

Student: If the club is packed, I can get another gig.

Teacher: Then what?

Student: If the word gets out that I can pack a club, more places will want to book me.

Teacher: Then what?

Student: If I’m playing all over the place, then I can start playing festivals.

Teacher: Then what?

Student: Playing festivals will get me a high ranking in the critic's polls.

Teacher: Then what?

Student: If I do it long enough I can become number one.

Teacher: Then what?

Student: What else is there?

Teacher: How about family, friends, physical and mental health?

Student. I forgot to consider those things.

Teacher: Now what?

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Self-Promotion: Another Point of View

When promoting your music to others, remember that people rarely follow you because of what you do. It’s because of the story they tell themselves about what you do.

Our work is not always recognized as a commodity but sometimes as a conduit through which others understand their own stories. This is one of the reasons why as artists we should see music not so much as a business but as a means to build a community. Fundamentally, they’re very different. The purpose of a business is to produce a product and make money from it. The goal of a community is to create a platform for shared values and to make a difference. One is about receiving, the other is about giving. 

Another point to remember is that folks rarely follow you directly; they follow others who support you. I can stand up and say "I AM GREAT" until I’m blue in the face (like this guy in the photo), but it’s nowhere near as effective as having others say it. Some call it "creating a buzz."

This is one of the reasons why many are willing to spend sizable amounts on publicists. The idea is that if Downbeat says nice things about your CD, maybe JazzTimes will do the same, joined by a few well-known bloggers, followed by various members of the jazz community. This, of course, is a financially manufactured buzz. Something I'm guilty of being a part of, numerous times. Again, I realize this is a simplistic way of viewing it. Ultimately, you have to have something on the ball for those as mentioned above to talk about you, even if you pay them.

The most effective and long lasting buzz happens when word spreads about your work throughout members of your tribe. And by tribe, I’m referring to individuals with shared interests, taste, and values who are emotionally invested in your work.

A little note about tribes: The benefit of a tribe is that they will often spread the word about your work for you. All you have to do is to keep producing work that gives them a reason to talk. Not a bad deal. This is also one of the reasons you should be very targeted with whom you choose to focus as your core audience--or how I think of it: my musical family.  Make your scope narrow, and the more likely you are to reach people who actually want to hear from you.

There's a big difference between saying "Hey, I made this. Buy it from me." And "Remember that thing we've been talking about? Well, here it is. I'd like to share it with you."

One sounds like financial coercion, the other sounds like an act of generosity. This goes against the grain on how we're taught marketing is supposed to work--also the problem I have with the publicists. They waste tons of CDs and time sending product to folks who have absolutely no interest in the artists they're promoting--only to justify their inflated fees. I call this template-publicity. Something I'll elaborate on in a later post.

To wrap it up: When promoting your work, It’s not just about being great, or having a great look, or having a great story. Successfully spreading the word about what you do is contingent upon how well you make human connections, not just musical ones. Don’t just aim to reach folks through your horn. Sometimes you have to aim to reach them through your heart.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Groan Tube Improvisations with Balloons

Some of you may be aware of my experimentations with the Groan Tube noisemaker and balloons. If you're not familiar with the groan tube, it's a narrow cylinder tube that makes a "groan" sound when turned on one end--hence, the name. The groan tube has been around since the 1960s and was made by the Japanese toy manufacturer Kureo.

How does a groan tube noisemaker and balloons fit in with improvisation? 

Obviously, as shown in the pic, the groan tube too large to fit inside the soprano. So, as stated I removed the noisemaker inside the tube and placed inside the bell of the soprano.

Balloons: As you know, unless they pop, balloons function primarily as a visual. However, if you place small objects such as uncooked rice or uncooked beans, the balloons then become a percussive rattle. In this video, the rattling sound is created using rice.

As heard in the video, I do have note limitations, but what I like is that it forces me to think of other aspects improvisation such as rhythm and motivic development, which are not always our default devices when we improvise.

This performance took place in Kingston, New York at a performance space run by Álvaro Domene, a wonderful guitarist and improviser who's creating quite a scene in the area. Please check out some of the later clips where we are playing together in trio with drummer Mike Caratti.

Stay tuned for more!

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Top Ten (10) Prepared Saxophone Discoveries

Over the past year or so, I've made numerous prepared saxophone discoveries. The most fascinating has been the external-preparation, internal-manipulation hybrids that have allowed me to create even more unusual sonic concoctions.

Below are ten such discoveries. I can't remember exactly how many videos I've uploaded demonstrating these techniques, but these seem to be the ten that stick out most in my mind.

Enjoy! And more to come.

1. Double-Prepared Saxophone with Aluminum Foil and Plastic Tube Extension

2. Prepared Saxophone with Balloons 

3. Ostinato in 23/8 with Tube Extensions

4. Tube Extension with Plastic Water Bottle

5. SaxDrum - Soprano with Deflated Balloon on the Bell

6. Soprano with Groan Tube Noise Maker

7.  Soprano with Deflated Balloon on the Bell Played Like a Bata Drum

8. Soprano with Flugelhorn Bubble Mute and Plastic Tube Extension

9. Soprano with Three-Inch Tube Extension

10. Duo Concert with Sandy Ewen on Prepared Guitar @ Downtown Music Gallery

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Three (3) Tiers of Practicing

Often when I do masterclasses I’m asked by aspiring musicians questions about practicing, which is understandable. They figured I’ve gotten enough together to be invited to give a masterclass, then I MUST know what I doing—at least I’d like to think so. 

Practicing, as I explain, means different things depending on where you are in your level of development. In fact, I’ve identified the process as having three tiers.

Tier 1: Practicing to ACQUIRE knowledge and skill sets that enable you to improvise.

Tier 2: Practicing to PLAY great improvisations.

Tier 3: Practicing to GET OUT OF THE WAY OF great improvisations.

Tier 1 is what I refer to as the building blocks stage. This when you’re working out your scales and harmony, vocabulary building, as well as building a repertoire of tunes that will enable you to do a gig. Students at this sometimes sound mechanical and are often without an original approach. This is fine. I’ve often argued that this is where they should be. That stuff is part of the macro. Right now they should be focused on the micro.

Tier 2...this is what I call the practicum. The stage in which you’re taking all that you have an accumulated during Tier 1 and are now trying to weave it together into a comprehensible, perhaps personal form of expression. This is accomplished through both playing and practicing. In some ways, the former is more important than the later. Playing forces you assess in real time, giving you a clearer sense of your strengths and weaknesses, which will, in turn, give more focus to your individual practice. Players during this stage are starting to come into their own and are not just honing skills, but an improvisatory concept. You might say that they’re moving from the micro to the macro.

Tier, we’re assuming you’ve done your homework, and that all the ducks are in a row for Tiers 1 & 2. This level is more difficult to assess since your now trying to align yourself with the forces of nature rather than forcing your agenda. This level is more about openness, acceptance, and transcendence. It can be more about your state of mind that the state of your chops—not that the latter is not important.

How do you get there? Well, that is the $64,000 Question. The irony is that you get there by not worrying about how to get there. But by being ok with getting there and not getting there. It’s about being beyond getting there, and just being. 

The truth of the matter is that the lines between Tier 3, living a spiritually sound life, and getting in touch with the essence of your being become blurred. Sometimes they’re one and the same. 

My feeling is that when you do arrive, everyone will notice but you.

Search This Blog

Blog Archive