Sam Newsome

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

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Three Tiers of Intimacy: You, Me, and the Audience

The idea of there being three tiers of intimacy during a musical performance occurred to me after a concert I played with the Willard Dyson Quartet in Prishtina, Kosovo as a part of the 2014 Prishtina Jazz Festival.  Immediately after our performance, a news station conducted interviews with everyone in the band to get our impression of Kosovo and how well the concert went. The question the reporter asked me was two-fold: "How did I find the Prishtina audience? and "Do audiences matter?"

My response went something like this:

"A jazz performance contains a series of relationships, each feeding the other. (1) There's the individual relationship that each musician has with his or her instrument, (2) there's the collective relationship between the performers on stage, and (3) there's the communal relationship between the performers on stage and the audience: three tiers of intimacy.

In order for a musical performance to be effective, these three levels of communication must be in full effect.

If the individual performer is not making a connection with his or her instrument, then he or she will not be able to effectively communicate with other members in the group. And if members of the group are not able to communicate with each other, then the performance as a whole will lack chemistry. If the performance lacks chemistry, the audience will be less excited and will be less responsive.

If the audience is less responsive, then the players will feel little energy from the audience. If there's little energy from the audience the players feel less inspired. And the downward spiral continues. So to answer your question: Yes. The audience matters."

So for all of you concertgoers, the lesson here is this: The next time you attend a concert, just remember that even though you're not
on stage, you still matter. Rest assured that your contribution extends far beyond making sure that the venue makes a profit and that the performers get paid.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

How Should Students Address Their Music Professors?

Here’s a question that I sometimes discuss with my professor colleagues: Should students address professors by their titles or should it also be acceptable for them to address professors by their first name?

This is something I'd rarely thought when I primarily taught saxophone lessons. However, when I started teaching at LIU Brooklyn as full-time faculty, back in 2006, my teaching responsibilities included lectures, masterclasses, and student advisement--which promoted me from instructor to professor. So for the first time I found myself being addressed not just as "Sam,"  but, "Professor Newsome"--which felt very strange.

Keep in mind that I was educated at a very progressive music school like The Berklee College of Music, where the professor/student relationship was pretty informal--to put it mildly. I knew plenty of professors who would hang out with students like "they were boyz." In fact, many of the students in my social circle with were pretty cocky. I don't think we had enough respect for many of our professors to actually address them as "professor. " What we usually called them was "sad ass motherfu#ker"--behind their backs, of course. Like I said, we were young and cocky. So you can imagine after I began teaching at LIU Brooklyn, how strange it must have felt to have students call me--a jazz musician--Professor Newsome.

I asked soprano saxophonist and bassist Dr. Michael Veal about the topic, who teaches ethnomusicology at Yale University, and he had this to say:
"Coming from the world of music, I was initially more comfortable dealing with people on a first-name basis when I started teaching back in the late 1990s. But being the only faculty member of color in an elite setting, I felt that consistency was preferable across the board. So, if other professors were addressed using their titles (i.e. "Professor So-And-So"), I expected to be addressed similarly. Almost twenty years later, things have started to loosen up, with professors being more frequently addressed on a first name basis. So, I have followed suit and allowed the graduate students to address me by my first name. When undergraduate students are speaking to me, however, I still expect them to use the title. Because of the wider age differential, I expect that that will take much longer to change."

Dr. Veal made a very important point: Which is that he was comfortable dealing with people on a first-name basis coming from "the world of music;"  however, the culture of academia, particularly at an "elite" university like Yale, had different expectations. So if you're a performing artist, like myself or Dr. Veal, and you find that you are all of the sudden with a tenured track faculty position, conforming to the culture of the academic world becomes necessary for your survival.

When I first started teaching at LIU Brooklyn, I was very comfortable with the music majors calling me "Sam." Frankly, it was all that I knew. Some of them actually new me from recordings and having heard me perform around New York City. So in my mind, they were just young musicians, which did not require the same hierarchical teacher/student classroom etiquette as your run-of-the-mill liberal arts student. However, I did notice that non-music majors preferred calling me professor. And I certainly understand why. Professors who teach liberal arts courses typically don't have the type of informal relationships with students that music professor have--especially ones who teach jazz. It's not uncommon for jazz music professors to socialize with music students outside of the classroom. Sometimes, that where the real learning begins.

While I was a student at Berklee,  I went to my professors' gigs, to their homes, and sometimes we even performed together. Their pedagogical methods were often  hands on. This is certainly not the type of interaction a history professor has with his or her students. And I imagine Dr. Veal did not have these informal teacher/student gatherings with his ethnomusicology students, either. It would have felt weird to address Donald Brown and Billy Pierce as Professor Brown and Professor Pierce. They probably would have laughed at me, or thought that I was making fun of them.

Dr. Andrew Raffo Dewar, who is a soprano saxophonist/composer and Associate Professor in New College and the School of Music and Co-Director of Creative Campus at the University of Alabama School of Music, expressed that how a student addresses their professor can also be regional:

"I've noticed that working in a Southern university these titles are very important down here, and are nearly always used by faculty, staff and students - I didn't notice that when I taught in NE universities. I never tell my students what to call me, and I never correct them, as it doesn't really matter to me, but they nearly always use "Dr." unless they address me as "Hey" in emails, which happens pretty regularly in this post-texting world! I think because I'm a (relatively speaking) younger prof. the title is also good, as it maintains a healthy teacher-student relationship. After they graduate I always ask them to call me 'Andrew.'"

And since Dr. Dewar also brought up the topic of age, I'd like to make another point. 

I have noticed that as the age gap widens between my students and me, having them address me as "Sam" becomes more and more uncomfortable. What most people don't realize is that students don't age, just the professors. When I first started at LIU, I was forty-one, and the average age range of my students was 18-24 years old. Today, I'm fifty, and the age of my students is still 18-24 years old. And if I'm lucky, the age gap will continue to widen.

So as you can see, having someone who's thirty years my junior than call me "Sam" feels a lot more inappropriate than having someone who's only twenty years younger. And I must say, after being in higher education for almost a decade, I am finally becoming more comfortable with the title of "Professor Newsome."   When I first started almost ten years ago,  I often told people that I wasn't a real professor, but a sax player with a day job.

But as I get used to the position, I do see the importance of setting boundaries between the students and me, or as Dr. Veal says, having"that consistency."  It does help us as professors to define our roles. I'd much rather hear an 18 year old student say, “Professor Newsome, may I talk to you?",  than "Hey, Sam, I need to holla at you, son!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Worse-Than-Average Effect: Maybe You're Too Tough on Yourself

Here’s an interesting thought: Even when you’re lacking confidence, you can still be egocentric. You might ask, how can this be? It’s a natural inclination to think that just because you’re unsure or non-boastful about your abilities that you’re ego-less. Well, that’s simply not true.

There’s a cognitive bias in psychology called the worse-than-average effect. This is when we underestimate our abilities and fail to recognize how good we are at a particular task, whether it be sports, competitive games or music. This is because, as stated by Dr. Justin Kruger, from the Department of Psychology at Cornell University,  “When people compare themselves with their peers, they focus egocentrically on their own skills and insufficiently take into account the skills of the comparison group.”

As you can see, the worse –than-average effect is not the same as an inferiority complex. This cognitive bias results from being misinformed or under-informed about one’s own skill sets and those of others. I’m sure we’ve come across those shed-heads from college who have amazing abilities; yet, the feel that they suck.

And this goes back to what I said earlier in that lacking confidence can come from being egocentric. The reason that many of these macro-shedders feel they are inadequate, even though they have more skill and knowledge than their peers, is not because of how they feel about their playing in comparison to others, but as a result of them microscopically examining everything that they do.  If they were to compare their abilities, apple to apple, orange to orange, with other players, they would realize that they are much more competent than they realize. If they would get out of their own head for just a moment, they would actually hear the shortcomings in the playing of their peers, consequently, developing a more realistic assessment of their own abilities.

People who knew me when I was eighteen and nineteen years old know that I had a reputation for throwing my instrument into my saxophone case after sitting in on just one tune, and running out of the club with my head hanging in shame because I felt I played so badly. I still shake my head in disbelief every time I remember those days. And this was a classic example of the worse-than-average effect.  I’m willing bet that in many of the settings, I was at least in the 75 percentile with regards to skill sets of the players on the bandstand. I was certainly not the best player on the stage, but I was far from the worst.  

And this is how the worse-than-average effect differs from an inferiority complex. Had I had an inferiority complex, I would have walked out of the club in shame because I felt I got  my head handed to me—which is jazz talk having been outperformed by your peers. Instead, I was viewing everything through an ego-centric-lens. I never even took into account how anyone else sounded.  

Having your own standards can be an admirable quality, and sometimes can be very necessary to one’s effort to progress at their own pace. However, to over-assess or over-critique your performance to the point where you grossly under-estimate your abilities is as detrimental as over-estimating your abilities.

While I was living in Boston during the late eighties, I heard numerous players who never left Boston because they could never get past the stage of feeling that everything that they played, sucked. And this, by the way, is the danger of the worse-than-average effect: Your perspective on your own abilities are so skewed, consequently, you can never follow a sequence of events to further your career. It’s one thing not to move to New York because you feel everyone here plays better than you. However, it’s another thing not to move here simply because you feel you are incompetent. And I’m not insinuating that musicians who don’t move to New York don’t do so out of fear. They are great players all over the world. In fact, some of the most original players I've heard live in other parts of the country and world. I'm speaking of a very specific personality type. 

But I remember walking up to some of these players after hearing them play to offer praise for their music, only to be greeted with, “No, man. That was horrible. No, you sound good. I suck.” Even though I probably had a third of their ability, they somehow convinced themselves that they sounded horrible; yet, I, the 20-year-old kid with a fraction of their skill sets was somehow “playing the shit.” It’s really ludicrous when you think about it.

However, when it comes right down to it, much of this cognitive bias is rooted in fear— a hit-myself-before-others-hit-me type of coping mechanism. What better way to protect you from experiencing feelings of failure, embarrassment, or critique from others, than by convincing yourself out of trying something altogether? If you’re constantly saying, “I suck,” than you don’t have to worry about other people saying it.
This has also been referred to as self-handicapping.

So as you can see, the worse-than-average effect is not a person being humble, but it’s a real cognitive bias.

But it’s not all so gloom. As with most cognitive biases, you can practice exercises that help you to see things more objectively.

Here are a few things that has worked for me:

  1. When you listen to someone else play, pretend it’s you who’s playing and see if you’re as forgiving. You’ll be surprised at how overly critical you become.
  2. Or when listening to a recording of yourself, pretend it’s someone else. It will teach you to hear things from another person’s perspective. And this is more difficult to do than number 1. However, it will most likely yield the opposite results. During this experiment, you’ll find yourself becoming less critical.
  3. Instead of assessing your abilities in a general sense, learn to objectively hone in on specific aspects of your playing—sound, time, technique, etc. To feel that you are incompetent in specific areas can be helpful, but to feel that you are just plain old incompetent is harmful.

As I said, the good news about the worse-than-average effect is that you can redirect your thinking, consequently, arriving at different results. Fortunately, for me, I don’t throw my horn in the case anymore and run off of the bandstand with my head down in shame.  And it’s not because I no longer play badly. I do that plenty. The difference now is that I look at things a bit more analytically and objectively. I know that in the world of creative arts, thinking about your work cerebrally is often shunned upon. In this case, however, it might be your only means of survival and progress.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Illusion of Transparency: Mistakes are not that Noticeable.

There’s a phenomenon is psychology known as the “illusion of transparency.” It’s centered on the idea that we feel our emotions are transparent to others, when studies have shown that they're are not. And this can occur while performing public tasks such as giving a speech,  a musical performance, or just interacting socially.   For example, if you’re giving a speech, you think it’s so obvious to everyone in the audience how nervous you are. When, in fact, they often have no idea how nervous you are. Unless, of course, you’re constantly stuttering and starting over, and your body is visibly shaking. This is usually not the case where we show such extremely visible signs of nervousness.

As musicians, we suffer from the illusion of transparency when they play. We think that everyone is hearing the same mistakes we’re hearing. That everyone heard that chord change we botched, the melody note that we fluffed, or that out of tune note in the higher register. Sometimes this may be the case, but usually it’s not. During live concerts, both the band members and the audience have a lot things biding for their attention. While you’re missing that chord change, the drummer might be focused on how to better lock in with the bass player. At the precise moment that you fluffed that note in the melody, the guy at the front table probably ordered a beer from the waitress. As you can see, competition is steep during the context of a performance. You might be center stage, but you’re not always the center of attention.

In studies done where people tapped out rhythms to songs they were hearing in their heads while listeners tried to guess the song, they found that the listener got it right less than 3% of the time. So imagine how few would notice if they were not listening intently. Imagine if there were three other instruments playing at the same time. 

This is important to remember because we can let this false sense of transparency get in the way of us enjoying what we do--affecting us in live and recording situations. I can’t keep track of how many times I’ve disregarded a track from a recording because of a harmonic or rhythmic fluff. Things that were obvious to me, but no one else—unless they were sitting there listening with the same critical ears with which I listened.

I understand why we want flawless recordings. Who wants to cringe every time the section with the out-of-tune notes comes around?  But one of the dangers of letting the illusion of transparency infiltrate our musical decisions is that we might cater to our paranoia rather than to the best musical moments.

There are so many classic jazz recordings where I didn’t even notice the fluffed melodies or the missed chord changes until having listened to them for several years. And I’m sure there are some mistakes on some classic records I’ve still not noticed. There’s so much great music played on those recordings, those minor fluffs seems inconsequential. In fact, those imperfections give those recordings character and beauty. Which makes my point: When you cater to one’s paranoia instead of the great musical moments, you run the risk of only including tracks from recording sessions that are perfect in terms of satisfying your illusion of transparency neurosis, however, disregarding recorded moments with real aesthetical value. In other words, going with the music that’s perfect, but sterile.

I think we’d be a lot better off if we’d realize that things aren’t always as obvious as we think. We're not as readable as an iBook. And since we’re looking at things from a psychological perspective, maybe should practice “selective amnesia.” So when we do make a mistake, we’ll just forget that it ever happened.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Cheerleader Effect: You're as Good as the Company as you Keep

The “cheerleader effect” is a phenomenon in which people seem more attractive when they are in a group than when they are alone.

According to many studies, this is because when we look at a group of people, our brains average out their facial features to an average group face. Consequently, everyone wins.  The person who has conventionally attractive features will average out the features of person who is less conventionally attractive. You might call it cosmetic socialism. 

There have been numerous experiments conducted where both male and female pictures were shown as individuals and in groups. And the people tended rate pictures higher when shown in a group.

Not to worry, this piece is not a dating post with advice on “10 Ways to Lure a Mate.” But I did want to show how the cheerleader effect is applicable to musical situations.

Hear me out.

We mentioned that one of the things that the brain does when it sees a group is that it averages out their faces. Well the brain does a similar thing aurally. If you were to listen to a saxophonist with moderate skill sets play alone, he or she would probably sound mediocre, at best. However, if you were to put this same sax player in the context of a band—especially a good band-- you’ll likely rate their abilities much higher. 

Let’s say this sax player isn’t very strong harmonically, but the piano player is. You’d be more forgiving of their inability to consistently improvise on chord changes if there was someone else taking up the slack in that area. Or let’s say this person has only an average understanding of rhythm, but the drummer’s rhythm is exceptional. Again, you’d be a little more forgiving. In fact, many of the dating sites say that you’re profile picture will be looked at more favorably if you include others in the photo whose facial features either complement yours, or compensate for yours.

I remember when I was in high school, the only time my mother thought that I sounded good was when she heard me in the context of the school band. She would usually respond with statements of surprise such as, “Sammy, I didn’t know you could blow like that.” Mind you, nothing on my end really changed. However, how I was perceived did.

I realize that it’s not that simple. In fact, one of the factors that scientists seem to overlook in analyzing the cheerleader effect is group chemistry.  When there is a collective energy, it also heightens the favorable impression of each individual who is an active participant of that collective exchange.

As musicians, this is one of the important reasons why we should always surround ourselves with not only good musicians, but musicians who help present us in the kind of light we’d like to be presented in. And this not only applies to bandleaders, but to sidemen as well. You’re as good as the company that you keep. Being selective is difficult, especially when you have few opportunities to begin with. However, time has proven that it inevitably puts you in a much better position.

There are quite of few great jazz musicians whom I feel have hurt their careers because they’ll play with anybody, regardless of level and status, as long as “the money is correct.” Or even worse, they have a history of hiring less competent players because they’re cheaper. 

I’m not here to pass judgment. We’re all just trying to play and make a little money along the way. I get that. But keeping unflattering company eventually lowers the impression of how people perceive you musically, personally, and status wise. And eventually hurts you financially.

I’ve been in numerous situations where someone heard me playing with a group of musicians who were inexperienced, and their reception afterwards would be lukewarm at best. They would give me the routine, “Yeah man, I heard you.” Or if it were really bad, they wouldn’t even mention the music. They would start asking me about my equipment. “Hey, what kind of mouthpiece do you play on?”

Then the next day they would hear me play with some more advanced players and it would be as though I had grown by leaps and bounds. Why? Because of the company I kept. Again, I understand this is an oversimplification. Better players can bring a higher level of performance out of you. So it’s not just that the first group mentioned played at lower level, the good players made me play at a higher level, which, consequently, changed the listener’s impression.

So the moral of the story is this: The next time you go out and want people to perceive you as attractive, invite three or four good-looking friends to be in your posse. And the next time you book a gig and you want to be perceived as a really good player, hire really good players.

Embracing Authentic Confidence, Beyond the Illusion of Perfection

My struggles with confidence has been a constant companion throughout my life's journey, with and without my horn. I certainly have my g...