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!

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Reason I Like to Play Experimental Music

I’ve often heard musicians suggest that those who play experimental music or free jazz are either too lazy to really learn how to play, or they're charlatans faking their way through an abstract musical life. In this world, “being able to play” simply means being able to improvise over moderate to advanced harmonic structures in sync with a moderate to advanced rhythmic backdrop. Easier said than done, mind you. This is something I still practice.


And I’m only mentioning this to give you some context of the common narrative regarding this type of music. Now, before I explain why I disagree with the above assertions and why I focus more experimental concepts, I want to talk about the NASA imagination test. 

This was a test conducted by Dr. George Land and Beth Jarman. They were hired by NASA to develop an imagination test to measure the creative potential of their rocket scientists and engineers. They wanted to see who the latent game changers were. As many anticipated, the test was very successful. However, being scientists, Land and Jarman decided measure how the test faired with children, so consequently, it was given to 1,600 children between the ages 4 and 5. 


Well, here’s the stat that knocked everyone off their feet. Ninety eight percent of the children scored in the genius category of being able to come up with innovative ideas or solutions to problems. 


But it gets better.


Then they decided to make it a long-term study and test the same children five years later when they are ten-years-old. Equally as surprising, now only 30 percent of the children scored in the category of genius. The number dropped 68 percent. In other words, they became 13.6 percent less creative each year.


At fifteen, the number dropped more than half to 12 percent.


Here’s the number that’s more staggering than the first. Amongst adults, which is categorized as people over the age of 31, the number fell to a shocking two percent. Yes, two percent!


Some questions you might be asking yourselves.

  • Are we becoming less smart?  
  • Are we digressing intellectually? 

Just the opposite. 

As far as conventional methods of measuring intelligence and mental capabilities, a fifteen-year-old is by far smarter than a five-year-old.


However, while we become better at math and gain a greater command of language, we do become less imaginative, the older we become. Or as some would say, “the more educated we become.”

To give us a deeper understanding as to why it’s important to understand how we learn and how we think.


There are two main ways we learn: through divergent thinking and convergent thinking.


Divergent thinking uses the imagination to create new possibilities to take us down new or under-explored avenues. Convergent thinking uses the brain to judge, critique, evaluate, and arrive at the one correct answer. All of the skill sets needed to get a good grade. 


So back to my original statement: The reason I like to play experimental music.


Simply put, I’m trying to tap into the imaginative genius I probably had as a five-year-old. Looking to recapture that which was taught out of me through an educational system that only looked for correct answers, not the creative ones. Even though I was a lot more skilled when I left Berklee, I was probably a lot more imaginative when I was in high school. This is what happens when you move through a convergent-centered educational system.

Years ago, I was touring the West Coast with drummer Leon Parker and we gave a clinic at one of the colleges on the tour. I remember that Leon was pretty unimpressed with the students who played for us. Then this 12-year-old kid got up and played. He had limited skills on the saxophone and little knowledge of theory and harmony. But Leon was very impressed that he could hear this kid's imagination. Whereas the older students we trapped inside the left sides of their brains.

This is not uncommon. Many students will graduate from college music programs less creative than when they were in junior and high schools. Of course, they’ll be more skilled and more employable, but most will find it difficult to move out of the mode of convergent thinking. This is also one of the reasons why young jazz stars are often very linear. They were groomed in an environment where they're taught that playing it correctly is the final musical destination. 

When I teach music-appreciation classes and we're discussing jazz, one exercise I conduct with them to better explain how improvisation works, is that I have them collectively create a story on the spot. 

And I lay out a few ground rules:

  • Whatever is said must be in some way connected to what was said before.
  • Keep statements short.
  • Don't overthink it!

Much to my surprise, the college students between the ages of 18 - 21, really struggle with this. I always get the feeling it was their first time being asked to find creative a solution rather than a correct one. 

They often say things like: 

  • "I don't know what say." 
  • "Nothing is coming to me."
  • "This is too hard."
I've also conducted this experiment with much younger kids, and the overall experience is much different for them. 
  • They're having fun. 
  • They say silly things. 
  • Most importantly, they're being spontaneous. 
They see the big picture: to use their imaginations. So when I read this study by Land and Jarman, I was not at all surprised. 

Again, as far as my relationship with experimental music...I'm drawn to it because it lends itself to more divergent-centered thinking, and this keeps me inspired, young in mind and in spirit. I'm as equally inspired today as I was in junior high. Knock on wood! I've seen some of my peers with whom I moved to New York in the 1990s, struggling to keep music fun and exciting. It's certainly understandable. Many have been traveling the same path for over thirty years. It's difficult watching the same movie when you know how it's going to end.


After hearing someone play in a way that might be seen as jive or bullshitting, it would behoove you to consider what they might be trying to tap into and why. Sometimes unleashing this inner creative child takes precedence over swinging and playing correctly over chord changes. It’s not always about sounding beautiful in the conventional sense, but sounding free, being free. Or as I like to look at it, sounding optimistic and spreading sonic hope that the possibilities are endless and boundless. It’s the same feeling that I get when I look up at the sky, versus looking at the ground. Very different emotions and thoughts are conjured up. I prefer the former. I also think this is one of the reason many artists' work becomes more abstract the older they get. It allows them to make more divergent-centered connections.

Picasso articulated it best when he said that it took him four years to learn to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child. He, too, was just trying to get back to where he started: five years old and genius level. 

* A special thanks to Monika Herzig for bring the NASA study to my attention.
Before you go, please check out my most recent video from the Sudden Sound Series, curated by Jason Finkelman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My inner five-year-old is certainly coming through.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Perfect Intonation: Three Approaches to Sound Control

Most of us know that practicing long tones is our path to a great sound and great intonation. And we know how to do them. So, no need to preach to the choir here.  But the question I pose is this: how do we assess them?  


I utilize three methods. I’m sure there’s are more, but these work best me.

  1. Pitch matching
  2. Cents monitoring
  3. Parallel intervals


Pitch matching:

Pitch matching is taking an external pitch and trying to match or blend with it.

When using this method, having an outside sound source is necessary. I advise using a chromatic tuner, but certainly playing notes on a piano or keyboard instrument will do. Though not the most reliable, even having another person play a note while you try to match it can also be helpful. The effective part of this method is that you have to really hear the note. There’s no subjective rationalization, it’s either in tune or out of tune. To further make this point, I suggest wearing headphones and turning the reference note way up. It’s very humbling! When I first have players do this, they usually take off the headphones after 30 seconds. The truth can sometimes be a hard pill to swallow.


Cents monitoring:


Cents monitoring is using the light or needle on the metronome to see whether you're flat or sharp.

This method is all visual. Again, you’re taking your cue from the needle or the light. You’re either to the left of the center (flat), to the right (sharp), or dead center (in tune). Another visual component to this is that when the pitch is flat or sharp a red light appears. It's green when the note is in tune. This method is great because your eyes can see what your ears sometimes can’t hear. Which is ok, too. As long as you can hear where the issues are.


Parallel intervals:


Parallel interval practicing is when you match up intervals against each other in different keys.

I find this approach to be the least accurate but the most helpful. Sometimes it’s not so much about being in tune with the tuner but being able to play in tune with the person or persons you’re playing with. So practicing intervals does this. 




If you're not clear on what this, this is what I mean:


Take the upper register for example. Play a series of perfect fourth intervals. A to D; Bb to Eb; B to E;  C to F, etc. This method is less about matching A - 440 and more about matching the person or sound source you're playing with.


 I’ll post some exercises later, but this should get you started in thinking about long tones in different ways. Or at least having different ways to approach them.




Until next time...