Sam Newsome

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

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Cup of Tea: A Parable about the Dangers of the Ego

A Zen Parable: A Cup of Tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” 

I think the lesson to be learned from this is pretty simple. To get the most out of life and our daily encounters, on and off the bandstand, we must approach life with an open mind and an open heart. 

Musically speaking, if you go into playing situations with a pre-fixed musical agenda, other than to get out of the way of the music, you’ll probably be oblivious to all of the music that's being created in real time--more important, all of the music that wants to be created. In fact, I remember attending a Dave Liebman clinic a few years back, where he was discussing the importance of listening to all of the members of the band. As an example of the antithesis to this idea, he mentioned a young tenor player who already knew what licks he was going to play, on which tunes, before he even got to the gig. 

I still laugh when I think about it. 

But the point that Liebman was making speaks exactly to the lesson of the parable. Like the professor who was “full of his own opinions and speculations,” the young tenor player also came with a full musical cup and was not able to make room for any new music that transpired during the performance. 

Approaching music this way is harmful for a few reasons:
  1. You end up only listening to yourself, and not the members of the band.
  2. The band never gets a chance to create the chemistry that makes jazz magical.
  3. You as the improviser, never really learn the true art of improvisation. 
  4. And most tragically, you will always be an ego-centered player, and will never experience enlightenment through music.
The story of the professor is very telling about the destructiveness of the ego. It’s sort of like a drug. It gives us short term satisfaction, but long term it makes us very miserable, and could possibly destroy us. And musically speaking, it stunts our growth, our careers, and ultimately our happiness. 

So as Nan-in tried to teach the professor:  In life, we must empty our cups. This is the only way to make room for the knowledge and wisdom that makes us better musicians, better people, and better spirits.

As Bruce Lee so eloquently put it:  "The usefulness of the cup, is its emptiness."

Monday, May 15, 2017

Working Very Hard: The Pitfalls of Shortcuts

Working Very Hard (Zen parable)

A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, “I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it.”

The teacher’s reply was casual, “Ten years.” Impatiently, the student answered, “But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice every day, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?”

The teacher thought for a moment, “20 years.”

For many, the lesson to be learned from this story is obvious. But to those who may not quite see it, let’s unpack it a bit.  The teacher informed the student that if he did what he was supposed to do, which was to follow and absorb his teachings to the fullest extent, or in a modern educational context, master his curriculum, “Ten years” would be how long it would take the student to move through his program, receiving his metaphorical degree in this martial system, along with accompanying skill sets. However, the student did not have the patience to devote this amount of time to learning the system, so he began to inquire about shortcuts, which the teacher explained would end up taking him twice as long.

This story really struck a chord with me, because while I was a student at Berklee, back in the eighties, I encountered many students such as the one in this story. I knew many who spent more time trying to figure out how to keep from practicing than it would have taken them to practice the material at hand.

I once had a roommate named Mark who was impressed with how fast I grew in one semester, so I explained to him that I accomplished this by practicing vocabulary building. I would take one lick or ii-V pattern and practice that one idea through all 12 keys for an entire week until I had thoroughly absorbed it.  Then, after I felt like I really had full command of it, I would practice playing it on different tunes. Once I felt comfortable with this, I would start the process over the next week with a different pattern.

After hearing my story, he became inspired to do the same thing. However, my process sounded too slow for him, so he decided to speed up things up a bit,  and work on two to three pages of licks at a time. He was also playing catch up because now that he was competing with me, he felt like he was behind. At one point, his obsession with speeding up the process became almost comical. He would sometimes show up at jam sessions with his folder of ii-V patterns and would read them as a part of his improvisation. I wish I was joking!

Long story short: He did not improve. He did not “catch up” with me. He eventually dropped out and stopped playing music altogether.

But Mark’s story is a similar one. I’ve seen it in musicians on a macro-level from trying to rush their careers, to micro-levels in rushing the learning process of material they are trying to absorb. And it always ends up with them having to go back to the drawing board to start over again. I call it the groundhogs day effect. Where every day is like starting from scratch.

The lesson of the “Working Very Hard” parable is one that most of us struggle with over a lifetime. There’s really only one remedy: Enjoy the process. Focus on the here and now, not the end result. Approach it as though there is no end, only the journey. And you’ll be amazed at how fast you get there.

Lesson Learned:

There are no short cuts when comes to learning how to play. Be patient with the learning process. Develop a passion for the process, not the result.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Chasing Two Rabbits: A Story of Commitment

Chasing two rabbits: (Zen parable)

A martial arts student approached his teacher with a question. “I’d like to improve my knowledge of the martial arts. In addition to learning from you, I’d like to study with another teacher in order to learn another style. What do you think of this idea?”
“The hunter who chases two rabbits,” answered the master, “catches neither one.”
Now, to truly understand this story, you have to first imagine what chasing two rabbits would actually entail. For starters, you would have to be in two places at once—unless, of course, the rabbits were tied to each other. So to even attempt to do this, you have to first run right, and then left; north, then south; east, then west. Never able to commit to any action fully—not exactly what one would call productive efforts.
It is for this reason I have always been a proponent of narrowing one's artistic focus to a single area. Like the martial arts student chasing the two rabbits, efforts in multiple directions seemed to negate each other. In economics, they call this opportunity costs—which is the value of what must be given up to acquire or achieve something else. In this case, the opportunity cost of trying to catch two rabbits is catching zero rabbits.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture of multi-tasking. Most can’t even walk down the street without talking on the phone or texting. Not only do we not smell the roses, we don’t even know that they exist.
As artists, we must eventually let the second rabbit of life go, and make an unwavering commitment to the one rabbit at hand—our work. It’s not easy. It goes against the grain of societal norm. But it’s only once we make the real commitment to our art, to our vision, to our music, that we find it’s depth, its real beauty, the pearl at the center of its oyster. And with hard work and dedication, we can also pave the way for others to see it, too.

 Lesson Learned

If you have something you’re passionate about, stick to it.  Jumping around from one thing to the next only slows down your growth.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Twitter Strategy

We all know Twitter as the social media platform through which we can communicate with our followers using 140 characters are less--devising what is affectionately known as a tweet. 

I'm not what one would call a habitual tweeter, but when I do compose one, I am amazed at how I never run out of ideas. In fact, you rarely hear of anyone getting tweeter's block--especially Donald Trump.

Twitter is a classic example of how limitations free you up creatively. And I've found it to be creatively liberating for these two reasons: 

(1) Due to being limited to 140 characters, there is no room to get so emotionally invested in what we're creating; 

(2) We don't see our tweets as something that would hurt us if they don't resonate with our followers. You always get another chance.

If we get few likes or if no one retweets what we write, we can just simply compose another one. No big deal. And we can tweet once per day, or 10 times per day. No one is going to yell at you.

When we perform live or release CD recordings, we can experience the same freedom felt when tweeting. The key is not putting so much emphasis on their importance. If one gig doesn't go well, book another one. Or better yet, organize a jam session at your home. Having your peers hear you sound good during a private session can lead to just as many opportunities as playing at a sold out New York City jazz club--maybe even more. Many of the folks at the jazz club won't be musicians looking to hire other musicians. 

And we all know how easy it is to make recordings nowadays. If you release something that does not yield positive feedback and you want another chance, but are low on funds, release a digital download-only recording. Record it on your phone, get it mastered, and put together some low budget artwork. You could release one per month if you wanted. It's just a matter of getting past the old paradigm where major labels had the monopoly. 

Nowadays, the monopoly belongs to the person with the most compelling ideas. 

And let me be clear: I'm not advocating quantity over quality. I'm only stressing that we try to create as many opportunities as possible. I've never met anyone who was penalized for trying too hard. 

There is no shortage of opportunities; they only exist when we refused to recognize them. And they may not always be the ideal performance and recording situations, but they all serve a similar purpose: to help us become better communicators. 

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...