Sam Newsome

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

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Do You Think You're Better Than You Really Are?

Have you ever met a musician who thinks that he or she is much better than they really are? Even when they're low-skilled players, they’re still able to exude a confidence of someone with three times their abilities. Believe it or not, there’s actually a name for this inflated sense of competence: It’s a phenomenon in psychology known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This theory, which was developed in 1999 by Dr. David Dunning and Dr. Justin Kruger, two Cornell University psychology professors, is defined as "a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability to recognize their [own] ineptitude."

When one suffers from this type of cognitive bias, it’s really difficult for them to learn from their mistakes. So consequently, they rarely experience significant growth. As someone in higher education, I frequently encounter students who show symptoms of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and sometimes they will even enter college with full-blown cases. In accessing my own abilities, I probably lean more in the direction of being too critical. When I was a young student in my late teens and early twenties, I was critical to the point where I didn’t even enjoy playing music. I was convinced that everyone else was judging me with the same harsh and critical ears with which I was judging myself—which I later discovered was certainly not the case. However, the upside of being overly critical was that did I address my weaknesses and, consequently, got better. And as far as me learning to enjoy playing, despite my flaws: eventually I did. Especially when my strengths started to significantly outnumber my flaws.

Individuals with the Dunning-Kruger effect don’t have these kinds of internal struggles. Their sense of self-worth does not change no matter how horribly they play. And there’s something very admirable about this quality. I think we all can benefit having a little bit of this quality. I wish that when I was a young student at Berklee that I would have been able to enjoy a nice morning walk along the Boston Common after playing badly at Wally’s Jazz Club the night before. My collegiate life would have been a lot less tortuous.  But then I wouldn’t have improved as much as I did during the fours that I was there. The fact that I felt like I sounded badly made me wake up early the morning and address the issues I was having trouble with.

And here's an important point: It’s not that people affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect don’t receive feedback from teachers and friends throughout their lives. Many actually do. It just doesn’t mean anything--at least not enough for them to change how the feel about their abilities.  In fact, many of my classmates who suffered from the Dunning-Kruger effect received the same kind of feedback that I did from my teachers. There were saxophone students who studied with Joe Viola, Bill Pierce, George Garzone, and Andy McGhee—the A Team of saxophone studies--and came away with absolutely nothing. The difference is that when they received suggestions of things to work on from these great teachers, they didn’t address their issues with any sense of urgency, if at all; whereas, I would deal with those issues right away. In fact, many of these teachers were constantly telling me that I didn’t sound as horrible as I believed I did.

There were a few teachers at Berklee who were affected by the Dunning-Kruger effect, too. There was one saxophone teacher in particular who used to say that Coltrane sounded too mechanical and didn’t have any soul. And that Sonny Rollins just played a lot of patterns. Of course, no one could make such bad assessments without having a disproportionately healthy ego in relation to others. And, of course, he played horribly. Surprise, surprise! No one with such inabilities to assess could ever get their act together musically.

And I must say, you’ll certainly find a lot of these types in jazz academia. People with Ph.Ds in jazz studies tend to be a lot cockier than those who make their living playing it. There’s a tendency to believe that being able to talk or write about jazz gives you some merit in being able to play it. Also, there’s a humbling factor that accompanies playing. Live performances are constant reminders that you have a lot to work on and that you are lacking in many areas. If you’re in the classroom and not on the bandstand, you’re not getting those reminders.

But when if comes down to it, the lifeline for the Dunning-Kruger effect is ignorance. The fewer people know, the more they are convinced that they do know--whereas, people who are knowledgeable and competent tend to focus on what they don’t know. They have two completely different ways of framing knowledge. An incompetent jazz musician will boast about knowing ten standard tunes. Whereas, a really good jazz musician would be self-critical that there are ten standard tunes that he or she doesn’t know.

Or here’s another example: How many times have attended a jam session and listened to some drummer totally destroy the tune and come away feeling elated for having gotten through it--being totally oblivious to the fact that he annoyed everyone, the tempo was dragging, and the beat was constantly getting turned around. Then you would have another (competent) drummer get up a play and totally nail it; yet, he would only be focused on the things that he did incorrectly. He might say: “It was OK. I let the tempo rush a bit.” As the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell put it: "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt."

However, there is an antidote to the Kruger-Dunning effect: knowledge. It’s the ignoramus’ kryptonite. Commit yourself to serious study and learning and you’ll chip away at this cognitive bias with each page turn of a book, each practice session with your instrument, or each rotation of a great CD.  The good news is that it’s not fatal. Only if you let it be.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Is There Soprano Sax Discrimination in Higher Ed?

Recently I was asked if I felt that university music programs discriminate against soprano players. In my experience, I haven’t found universities to be overtly discriminating, nor have I found them to be particularly accommodating, either. Okay, they're not out there perpetuating Jim Crow like prejudice against soprano players. Thank goodness we don't have to sit in the back of the section. But they're hardly creating a soprano-friendly environment by any stretch of the imagination.

When I went to grad school back in 2006, one of the reasons I chose
Purchase College was because they didn't have a problem with me only playing the soprano. Students had the option of playing in the big band or a small ensemble. And fortunately the ensembles were not instrument-specific, so the situation was friendlier towards an oddity like myself--which is not always the case.

One of the first schools I considered, which shall remain nameless, was one of those typical “un-accommodating” type of schools that I mentioned earlier.  In fact, during the early stages of trying to find the right school at which to get my degree—which I knew was not going to be easy since I had recently acquired a full-time teaching position--I was having a conversation with one of the key faculty members at this school about their program and at one point I began inquiring about their ensembles. And when I asked about me playing only the soprano saxophone in the ensemble he became somewhat annoyed and said to me in a very condescending voice, "I hope you don't that we're going to let you come in here and just play the soprano." Insinuating that in doing so, I would in some way be "getting over," or even worse, jeopardizing the integrity of their program. Realizing the hopelessness of the situation, I politely ended the conversation and never spoke to him nor inquired about his program again.

What I learned from the conversation is that there is a lack of understanding and compassion for the uniqueness of the soprano and those who play it.  Most fail to realize that its depth lies far beyond just being difficult to play in tune. There are layers to the soprano that only a specialist can understand. The soprano is like a sonic onion whose layers can only be peeled away through hard work, time and devotion. And what lies beneath can be fully enjoyed by all if we are allowed to just do what we are meant to do--play the soprano.

When I asked Toronto-based soprano saxophonist Kayla Milmine, who got her master's degree from a university in Montreal, not long ago, if she faced any type of discrimination because she only plays the soprano. She had this to say:

"I think about that often - why alto and tenor are so much more popular than soprano and baritone. In school, playing in big band, you pretty much have to double, so I did for a couple years. I was lucky that there were also other ensembles available to me that were more open to having me just play soprano. By my last two years I just refused to play the alto and tenor because it just didn't make sense anymore. By then teachers and students knew me as a soprano player, and knew I wouldn't play the others, and respected that enough. I think if a student wants to focus on soprano, they should stand their ground. I think if you're serious then people will respect that. It is unfortunate that the soprano isn't seen as a primary instrument in the saxophone world. We almost have to see it as an instrument separate from the other saxes."

Kayla brought up a very interesting point, which is that we have to see the soprano as "an instrument separate from the other saxes." This is something I've pondered often. In fact, when I see someone on the subway with a tenor sax gig bag, I don't feel I have anymore in common with him or her than I would someone carrying a trumpet. And a lot of that stems from my approach having little to do
with playing the saxophone in the traditional sense. In a recent tweet, I said this: "Even though I only play the soprano, little of what I do has anything to do with the soprano." That tweet might sound somewhat esoteric on the surface, but beneath its meaning is an underlying truth that rings true with me and many other soprano saxophone specialists. Soprano players tend to be artistic to a fault. They are more concerned with creating a box than existing within one. Steve Lacy was the father of this paradigm.

Regarding pursuing a music degree in higher education as a soprano player, Kayla had this to say:

"I did have teachers tell me that if I focused as much on tenor I would get more gigs, etc. I thought about it a bit, but by that point I was too committed to soprano. Also, I am not interested in the types of gigs they were talking about; cruise ships, overseas hotels, etc."

I certainly can relate to this sentiment.  When I first switched to the soprano, someone once told me I would never be able to play in the Village Vanguard Orchestra—as though this would be a career changer. People often don't realize that soprano players do what they do because they aren't looking to travel the same path as the other members of the saxophone family, only up an octave.

In our Facebook exchange,  Kayla brought up a third important point:

"The average non music educated person I meet at gigs usually don't even know what my instrument is! So if students were more encouraged to play soprano, in the real world, most people wouldn't even know the difference."

And this puts it all in perspective. Because at the end of the day, the instrument doesn't even matter. It's all about one's musical vision. It's what you do with it. I think I summed it pretty well with the title of a tune I recorded with my band Global Unity. "It's Not the Size of the Horn, It's How You Swing It!" Unfortunately, people mistook this title as being about everything but the soprano. And as Kayla pointed out, in the real world, most people can't tell the difference between a soprano and a clarinet or between an alto and a tenor. The bottom line is that you're either saying something or you're not. You're either reaching people or you're not. This is something that institutions need to understand: Which is that they need to nurture musical voices, not musical instruments.

Now the whole reason I even started thinking about these things is because I got an e-mail from a young, up and coming soprano player who was upset because he auditioned for a university music program in Denmark and received really low
marks. And when he inquired why his marks were so low, he was told that he would have had a better grade had he played the same thing on either alto or tenor.

I wasn't there, so I don't know how the audition actually went. But I've never
heard of anyone being so openly biased against someone's instrument--especially
an instrument that is such an important part of jazz history. The soprano was at the
forefront of the New Orleans jazz era with Sidney Bechet; the cool jazz era with Steve Lacy and Lucky Thompson; the free jazz era with John Coltrane; the fusion jazz with Wayne Shorter; and the smooth jazz era with Grover Washington Jr. This is an instrument that's been around. It's not like the musical faculty was listening to an instrument rarely heard in jazz, like the bagpipes.

Typically when students ask why they received low marks, they're giving tangible reasons such as "you had difficulty navigating the chord changes," or "you had pitch problems," or "bad rhythm"--things that one could work on and invariably improve upon. But when you get into the area of judging someone's instrumental identity, then it starts to sound personal, or just plain old misinformed. And to add insult to injury, when this soprano player asked his teacher why this happened to him, the teacher responded with, "No one respects you if you only play the soprano." Talking about a one-two combination to the right jaw!

When he asked me for advice about this situation,  I said this to him in an email:

 "I'm sorry that you had to go through this. There is certainly discrimination against the soprano and soprano players.  It's often looked at a doubler's instrument. But it's up to us as soprano players to prove the instrument's validity. And the only way to do that is through great work. This is something that cannot be disputed. We're held to a different standard and consequently, we have to hold ourselves to a different standard. Meaning, we have to create our own path. We can blend in to a certain extent, but ultimately, we have to do our own thing, our way."

Being the optimist that I am, I don't imagine that incidents such as this are widespread. But they do exist. I've experienced them first hand. And in all honesty, since universities are the training ground for many young players before being set loose into the workforce, I think that they need to recognize that soprano specialists are a growing minority, and it would be irresponsible of them as institutions of higher learning not recognize and accommodate them. I'm pretty confident that if universities take the first step in recognizing us as a growing demographic, the general jazz public will soon follow suit. As I said before, I am an optimist.

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