Sam Newsome

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

Now available of Bandcamp!

Now available on Bandcamp!

Now available on Bandcamp!

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.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Learning to Artistically Recalibrate

The one admirable quality of the GPS system is how singular its objective is: To get you to your desired destination. And when you get off track, what does it do? It will recalibrate and find a new way to immediately get you back on track so that you can continue towards your desired destination.

I see this as a way that we should live our lives--always being ready to recalibrate. No matter how many times we make a wrong turn, or find ourselves going in an undesired direction, the GPS doesn't complain, it doesn't call you a stupid moron or try to shame you in any way. It's only focus is to get you to where you need to go.

Even though I had never thought of this issue in quite the same way, I do, however, see myself as an intuitive "plan B(er). Meaning that, I always have a plan B--an alternative way of doing things. Having spent so many years playing jazz, I've been conditioned to think this way. Recalibrating is at the core of being an improviser. We're constantly having to find an alternative route to our creative destination. Just like driving, playing an improvised solo is not a straight trajectory. Sometimes we get lost. Sometimes we end up in a place we don't want to be--rhythmically, harmonically and melodically. Sometimes we have to stop, but most times, just like the GPS, we recalibrate our creative endeavors and keep moving.

Being willing to recalibrate our creative routes can sometimes mean the difference between playing a good solo and a great solo, being a good improviser versus a great improviser, or simply being skilled musician versus a creative artist. And in these instances, recalibrating means finding a new route that takes us to where we need to go, not necessarily where we want to go. These two factors are not always working in tandem.

And this is where it requires some soul searching as well as humility. Having a geographical final destination is easy. You're basically going from point A to point B. However, having an artistic one is more complex. Sometimes it's not as tangible or may have more than one. Only we can know that. And sometimes we don't even know.

But no matter where we're headed, or even where we think we're headed, we have to be prepared for that metaphorical missed turn, that traffic detour or anything that takes us into a direction different from where we intended. And we have to be ready to instantly recalibrate, get back on track. No drama, no fuss, no sorrow. We must simply turn our artistic car around and keep our eye on the sparrow.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Let Artistic Freedom Ring!

Artistic freedom isn't just thinking outside of the box, it's being unaware that boxes even exist. I'm not a subscriber to the noble savage syndrome, but I do believe a little bit of ignorance can be healthy to one's creative process. Sometimes being overly informed--or at least not knowing how to turn off the overly analytical part of your brain--can make it too easy to rationalize yourself out of trying something new, or simply just going for it.

For example, only 1% of college basketball players go on to play professionally. If players only focused on this statistic, few would ever even try.  In some cases, you have to put logic and reason aside and just do it. Certainly had I the same understanding of the music business when I was in college that I have now, I may have been drawn to the comfort of pursuing a safer path. 

Here's an example of what would have been my ultimate safe plan: First, instead of moving to New York with my horn, a suitcase and $500 in my pocket (Yes, I was that crazy!), I would have gotten a job teaching in the Boston public school system for a couple of years until I saved up enough money to move to New York. Then, once I moved to New York, I would have gotten certified to teach in the NYC public schools. After I saved up enough money from teaching to purchase my first apartment,  I would have probably had settled down and gotten married and had a kid or two. Eventually, I would have gotten around to starting my career. You can see where I'm going. And this path certainly would have made my mother happy. But being naive and ignorant, coupled with over-ambitiousness, I was able to resist this path of normalcy and traveled one that was very risky but fruitful--thankfully! Had I been preoccupied with the statistics of success probabilities and likelihoods, I never would have bitten the bullet and just gone for it.

Some of my most creative and profound musical moments are born out of this attitude of just going for it--and occasionally, just plain ignorance. Several years ago, suffering a little bit from burn out, I had taken a couple of months off from practicing and I would just pick up my horn and attend jam sessions and play the most "out" and "weirdest" ideas that came to mind. I purposely ignored the chord changes, the form, and sometimes the rhythm, and just played whatever. And you would think that doing something like this would only yield negative responses. Just the opposite. Many expressed that they had never been more impressed. And I can understand why. It was probably one of the few times that people had heard me playing from a space of being totally uninhibited--at least during that stage of my development.

Much of my playing is certainly guided by logical thinking. So my little experiment allowed me to play from a space that others, myself included, were not used to hearing me play from. Again, I was not playing outside of the box. There was no box. 

One creativity exercise I do to put me in this mindset of musical recklessness when I practice is that I pretend that I'm not playing the saxophone and that I'm not really a musician, and I approach playing with the naive curiosity of a small child. I found that this would allow me to venture into sonic areas that would be impossible when thinking within or around the normal paradigm of saxophone playing. Again, I was not thinking outside the box, there was no box during that moment. Just by even creating a box to play outside of, you're already placing limits on yourself. Sometimes it just has to be what it is and nothing else. If it's noise, don't try to make it melodious. And if it's melodious, don't try to turn it into noise. Creativity is not a straight trajectory. Sometimes it makes absolutely no sense. Creativity is random, spontaneous, illogical, and sometimes outside of your control. In fact, part of our job as artists is to get out of the way of creative moments when they're trying to carve out their own unique niche for themselves in our universe. Let them become their own entity.

It reminds me of when we were kids and my grandmother always made us sit quietly on the couch during thunderstorms. We were not allowed to utter a single word. She said we had to "be still" and "hush up" while the lord did his work. Well, in the creative world, we have to "be still"  and "hush up" and let the Lord of Creativity do his work, too.

So the lesson learned: Don't create boxes to ignore, just create.

Blank Page Syndrome

Sydney Sheldon's poignant quote, "A blank piece of paper is God's way of showing you how hard it is to be God," deeply res...