Sam Newsome

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

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Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Are You Trying to be Human or Perfect?

I’ve often written about why some players inspire us and others leave us shaking in our improvisatory boots. Or worse, leave us harboring feelings of resentment towards their musical existence.

Rather than rehash previous thoughts from earlier posts, I’ll just delve into new revelations.

“Intimidating players demonstrate what it’s like to be perfect. Inspiring players reveal to us what it’s like to be human.”

Let’s unpack this.

We’ve all heard that player with unlimited technical skills, the ability to play in any key, in any time signature, at any tempo. They are seemingly the perfect player. They never have bad nights, only great nights. On occasion, even better nights. Perfect! So much so, that young players from universities around the globe, follow this path because it’s the surest way to peer acceptance, and the surest way to get employment. I get it.

Here’s the problem.

With so many players aiming for machine-like perfection, the music starts to sound like an aesthetic race to the bottom. I’ve always felt that musicians should strive to play in a fashion that would be impossible to recreate via a machine. You can transcribe a solo by any number of revered players today, type those notes in Finale, press PLAY, and hear a very close replica. Try doing that with Ornettre Coleman or Albert Ayker. It would be nearly impossible. This is how it should be be.

Why have we ended up in this place? Easy. We’re only exploring perfect outcomes, and are failing to address human ones.

Let’s take this out of the musical realm for one moment. In fiction writing, budding authors are instructed to never write characters that are perfect. For a few reasons:

  1. They are one-dimensional. Or flat. 
  2. They are uninteresting.
  3. And the reader can’t relate to them.

Again, why?

Because human beings are flawed. It’s what makes us human. It’s what makes each and every one of us unique and interesting. It makes us likable. This is why politicians have such a difficult time. They have to pretend to be perfect and usually end up failing in a big way.

So why do imperfect people appeal to us? Look at any reality show. Basketball Wives, The Housewives of Atlanta, Hanging with the Kardashians. It’s because we, too, are imperfect. We find comfort in knowing that others are like us, even those who seemingly have everything. We feel less lonely. Our quirks in the realm of humanness are not abnormalities, but things which make us as we were meant to be. 

Quick story: Years ago, I used to live in this huge house in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Many musicians resided there over the years. Whenever I invited friends over, I was known for always making them wait in the living room, the common area, while I went up stairs and made sure my room was tidied up  perfectly and was suited entertaining. One day, following my usual modus operandi, one of friends stop me before I headed up the stairs to do my usual pre-entertaining clean up. They said I didn't have to clean up. for them. That it was OK for me to show them my mess. They said it made me seem more human. This really resonated with me and certainly had some influence on this piece.

Let’s go back to music. The imperfections we’re taught to correct, can give our playing character. There are a lot of alto players who had better intonation than Jackie McClean, but they’re much less interesting. There were plenty of trumpet players who could play faster, louder, and higher than Don Cherry. But many of them were no where near as charismatic nor with the ability to move all of those within ear reach. Thank goodness they never settled for perfection. At least machine-like perfection.

There are numerous examples like this. Even looking at my own playing. I am so flawed. Sometimes I’m amazed that I have any career at all. By then again, I’m proof that it’s not about checking all of the boxes. Sometimes it’s about thinking outside of the box. 

The reality is this. All that we so desperately try to sweep under the rug, sometimes needs to be put on a silver platter and set at the center of our musical table. The world needs that which makes you imperfect. The world needs what which makes you human.

My tweet from a few years ago sums this up perfectly.

Please check out my new book: Be Inspired, Stay Focused: Creativity, Learning, and the Business of Music

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