Sam Newsome

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

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Four Stages of Artistic Evolution (Do We Judge College Music Students too Harshly?)

I've written in earlier posts on how many of us critique college music students for sounding alike or being too technical. 

But do we actually judge college music students too harshly?

I've been in numerous master class settings where fellow instructors would form opinions about many of the students as though they were seasoned veterans who have been on the scene for 30 years. Often concluding that they don't swing, they're unmusical, they don't know any music, or that they have no apparent history in their playing. And these are all legitimate criticisms that should be taken seriously. But my issue is that the students aren't looked at as evolving artistic beings, but as green bananas to be immediately picked from the tree and consumed by the jazz world at large--unsweetened and not tasty.

I'd like to challenge the premise of these assertions. If we look at our artistic evolution, there are four stages of development. The argument that I'd like to put forth is that in many instances these students are exactly where they should be.

When I think of the four stages of artistic evolution, it looks something like this:

Stage 1: Acquisition
Stage 2: Practicum
Stage 3: Artistry
Stage 4: Mastery

Most college students are at Stage 1, which is where they're taking all of the knowledge and skills acquired and are trying to make sense of it all. This includes transcribing, learning harmony, rhythm, the jazz repertoire and familiarizing themselves with many different styles and players. When I was at Berklee, I was often told that I "played too many patterns,"  that I was "thinking too much," that I "didn't leave enough space," or that I "didn't swing." And all of these things were probably accurate assessments. However, as I understood things, I needed to go through this stage in order to make sense of what I was learning. Consequently, if what I was playing sounded forced or mechanical, then so be it. This was a part of my growth process. And I was not going to let anyone rush me through it.

It was when I moved to New York that I evolved to Stage 2 (Practicum). This is where I began to develop my craft more through playing and listening and not just from practicing and transcribing. My ideas and playing developed more organically, rather than from playing solos comprised mostly of patterns and sequences.

This can be a frustrating stage because you're not doing as much individual practicing as you were once accustomed, but you're learning and developing in a different way. This stage of refinement is not linear, so it's not always clear-cut when you're actually growing. I was so extreme that I would be in a situation where I was playing a lot but would be unhappy that I was not able to do any individual practicing. Which is comparable to enjoying ordering from the menu more than having the meal. 

Years later, when I switch to the soprano, this is when I moved to Stage 3 (Artistry). This was an interesting period in that I didn't have more skill sets. In fact, I believe I had fewer. But what I did have was a vision, which is the main component that separates musicians in Stage 3 (Artistry) from Stage 2 (Practicum). The practicum stage is what I also refer to as the "stuff" stage. This is where we're more preoccupied with showcasing our vast (or sometimes limited) vocabulary than making a personal statement. Most become trapped in this stage and, consequently, never really move to Stage 3. One just becomes more skilled at playing "stuff."

Stage 3 was very difficult for me because I had to essentially reinvent myself. Which can often be the case when one begins to come into their own. All of my practiced-vocabularies seem to have little relevance as disposable ideas, but certainly served as a melodic, harmonic and conceptual framework from which to create my own vocabulary.

Stage 4 (Mastery), on the other hand, is a complicated one. Even when you reach it, you probably won't even realize you're there. With Stage 4 comes great humility. Not just about music and your ability to play it, but about life itself. This is a stage of musical, spiritual and intellectual evolution. Unfortunately, I have not reached that stage, but I do feel hopeful that it is attainable.

So in conclusion: As I mentioned in the beginning of this piece, I think many college students are exactly where they should be--learning and searching trying to figure it all out. And as long as they realize that there are three more stages to go, they'll probably be alright. And if they don't, they'll have plenty of company, unlike those in Stage 4.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a very insightful piece. As a student of music myself (very much stuck in Phase 1!), I found a lot to meditate and ponder within it.


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