Sam Newsome

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

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Uncovering the Hidden Musical Treasures: The Power of Observation

One valuable lesson I try to instill in aspiring students is the importance of exploring their music far beyond it's surface--almost to the point where it feels extreme. Then when it feels like you can't go any further, go a little deeper. And if you're lucky, you might scratch the surface of what you're capable of.

When I first began exploring extended techniques on the soprano almost 15 years ago, I never imagined the possibilities existed that I've now discovered. I hope that I will look back 15 years from now and feel the same way. In fact, last fall when writer Phil Lutz interviewed me for my feature in DownBeat in March of 2015, he asked me where else is there to go musically after my CD, The Straight Horn of Africa: A Path to Liberation. At the time, I told him I had no idea, but I knew that if I kept digging I would discover many more sonic treasures.

I sometimes conduct this one experiment with students that teaches them to see beyond the obvious--which is basically what we do as artists. During this experiment, they are to look at the picture on the left and tell me how many faces they see.

At first glance, most see the head of the man with the white beard in the center looking to the left (face #1).

After a few more minutes they'll notice the man in the center carrying the walking stick, whose head is the eye of the first man (face #2).

Minutes later,  they'll notice the lady (face #3) and the baby (face #4) to the right of the man carrying the walking stick.

Then this is where it gets tricky.

I then tell them there are actually nine faces in the picture and they've only discovered four. This is when I really start to see the powers of observation go into over-drive.

After five minutes or so, many still don't see the other five faces and begin questioning whether or not I'm being deceitful. Assuring them that five additional faces do exist, they begin focusing harder trying to discover them.

A few minutes later they'll discover the profile of the woman facing to the right just above the right hand column (face #5). Then they'll notice the woman just above the woman of the left hand column (face #6). Then another face in profile directly above her, in which the bird forms the nose and forehead (face #7). And below her is a sideview of a woman looking to the right (face #8), and she is connected to a face looking directly at you, located on the far left (face #9).

Of course after discovering the mystery faces, they all seem so obvious, which is usually the case. 

"This is how you should deal with your music," I then explain. Music may not have nine faces, but it does have many layers. Like this picture, only a few are apparent at first glance. But if you stay committed to what you're doing long enough and truly believe that deeper aspects really exist, eventually they will reveal themselves, as they did in this experiment.  In fact, my first experience with multi-phonics began as mere split tones and cracked notes, but I kept exploring those typically- regarded-as-wrong notes until I was able to understand them on a much deeper level. And you can take this approach with any musical material that you're working on: composing tunes, big band arrangements, shedding ii-V-1s, practicing long tones, practicing technical etudes, learning tunes, you name it.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, when you feel you can't dig any deeper when working on any of these aforementioned things, go a little deeper, and that's where the fun begins. And most of all, have patience and never lose your faith.

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