Sam Newsome

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

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. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Four Ways to Prepare the Saxophone

Before the release of my new CD, I wrote a post about the four ways I prepared the soprano on the recording. At the time, I didn't have the sound files available, so now,  I'm re-submitting a revised version of that post with sound files so that you can get a better idea of what these prepared concepts sound like, as well as how they can be used in musical context.

I know that typically preparing a musical instrument is associated with the piano, but this concept can also be applied to the soprano. 

First, here's my working definition of prepared soprano, one that provided much of the inspiration behind the creation of these pieces: 
"The process through which alterations are made to the soprano that distorts how air enters the instrument, how it exists, and by attaching external vibrating sources to the soprano that are set in motion by the movement or sound of the instrument."

Now, below are four methods of prepared soprano that I have employed on this recording.

Prepared Soprano #1 (Scotch tape): Here, the sound was altered by me placing Scotch tape over the neck opening and then puncturing small holes in it so that air can pass through when you blow through the mouthpiece. Due to the air obstructions, instead of producing a steady stream of air, random bursts of air traveled through the instrument, creating a jagged column of air that allowed me to present a fresher perspective to familiar ideas. 

Prepared Soprano # 2 (aluminum foil): Here, I prepared the soprano by placing aluminum foil at the end of the bell. And by blowing through the instrument, most effectively in the lower register, I was able to create rattling-effects that sound similar to a trumpet Harmon mute. On this track,  there are three sopranos heard prepared with aluminum foil.

Prepared Soprano #3 (reed straw): Here, I made a reed out of a plastic straw by cutting the corners into a triangular shape which allowed me to create a double reed like vibrating mechanism. I then blew through this reed in place of my regular mouthpiece. In doing so, I was able to create a sound comparable to double-reed folk instruments, such as the shehnai and the Chinese musette. Here, there are three sopranos heard using the reed straw. 

Prepared Soprano #4 (sax with a dangling sound source): Here, I hung a dangling sound source (typically a set of chimes) from the neck strap holder and I responded musically to the random melodic and rhythmic occurrences set in motion by the movement of the soprano.

I realize this is not for everyone--not that anything should be. But the point here to open ourselves up to non-linear approaches to sound production. Much of my creative endeavors are governed by the notion that if you want to arrive at conventional outcomes, the process through which you create must also be unconventional.

I'll be holding some workshops over the summer discussing some of these ideas and approaches, so please stay tuned!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Creative Box Principle: The Possibilities within Restraint

The Creative Box Principle is the belief that thinking inside the box spawns more creative ideas than thinking outside of one. The idea is that having limitations, or a very measured parameter through which to create,  prevents us from arriving at typical outcomes. This goes against the grain of what we are commonly taught. Most believe that freedom and inhibition are the active agents generating creative fluidity. In many cases, this is not true.

Whenever I ask students, or even professionals for that matter, who typically plays more traditional forms of jazz, to all of the sudden to start playing free, their improvisation usually becomes more restrictive, not free flowing. I’ve heard many give up mid-solo, exclaiming that they don’t know what to play. The endless possibilities become too much to negotiate. They would feel much freer being directed in which time signature to play in, which chords to play on, and which form to follow. And think about the writers who sit down to write that 300-page New York Times best-seller only to end up with writer's block. However, I’ve never heard anyone getting writer's block from composing a tweet. In fact, only having 140 characters to work with, many find that they now have too many ideas. And this goes back to my theory that people think more creatively and divergently when forced to create inside of a box.

It has been said that what made many of Miles Davis's groups unique and original sounding, wasn’t so much what they played, but what they didn’t play. And this is the best-kept secret among most great artists. Their originality and seemingly endless flow of new and under-explored emerge from limitations, not freedom. Take the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollack. Many see him as the embodiment of unrestraint. Not true. Pollack’s work is filled with restraint. He restrained himself from using conventional shapes and colors. He restrained himself from applying paint to the canvas using conventional methods. And typically restrained he from painting onto a canvas sitting upright onto an easel.

Now you can begin to see my point of how creating within a box forces us to be even more creative.

Me making the conscious decision to only play the soprano saxophone is another prime example. For me, much of the tenor and alto saxophone vocabulary I had acquired did not translate over smoothly to the soprano. Consequently, I had to go deeper into the sonic sphere at hand. Because of my lower range limitations, I was forced to extend my upper range. Because of the few number of soprano players in jazz at the time, I was forced to seek out improvisatory styles in non-jazz genres, played on instruments with a similar timbre likeness. I could list numerous examples, and they all would prove my point that I was not thinking outside of the box, but inside of one. My box was to play the soprano exclusively. 

I spoke earlier of players who have trouble playing free music because they are unable to negotiate the innumerable possibilities. My advice to them is usually to apply the creative box principle.  And stress that they should not see free playing as a sea of endless possibilities, but a small lagoon from which they can negotiate a limited set of ideas effortlessly. One might even call it the Twitter method. Limiting themselves to the metaphorical 140 characters would often leave their creative appetites hungry for more. Many of the greatest free players had this. Dewey Redman, Don Cherry, Steve Lacy, and Albert Ayler,  all improvised in the free context with great clarity. It was pretty apparent that they were not creating in the metaphorical vastness of the sea. Their solos are often melodic, musical, and easy to follow—beautiful lagoons if you will.

I will continue to write about this because it's an interesting perspective that I feel warrants much deeper exploration. But in closing, I'd like to stress that when applying the creative box principle as a means to unconventional outcomes, you have to remember to be patient. It sort of like when you walk into a dark room, you have to give your senses a chance to adapt to the lack thereof.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

10 Rules for Success as an Artist

The following is a list of guiding principles that have kept me continually inspired, and have given me the courage and tenacity to stay focused over the years. And for the record, I hardly consider myself a success. I and my work will always be a work in progress--this is the path I have chosen. Now all of these rules are not for everybody, but I'm sure there's a little something in here for everyone. 

1. Learn to see yourself as a business of which you are the CEO.
When we see ourselves as part of a business, instead of as a business, we spend all of our time competing as metaphorical employees, rather than claiming our own artistic turf as CEOs. Originality is the surest way to hover above our competitors. 

2. Do one thing uniquely well.
In order to stand out from the crowd, your artistic vision should be narrowly focused. Being jacks-of-all-trades certainly increases our work opportunities, but these are not the kinds of opportunities that lead to us becoming stand alone entities.

3. Aim for an artistic monopoly.
We have our whole lives to branch out. The first thing we should focus on is establishing ourselves as experts in a particular area, and then branch out. Whatever we do, we have to first own it, and then build on that foundation. Take Google and Amazon for example.

4. Have a plan, but be willing to revise it.
Planning and being creative are not linear processes. You have to start with a plan, but realize that it’s just the first draft. Like any book, it will never be great without serious editing and revise. And even then, it's hit or miss.

5. We must be narcissistic, yet humble.
Narcissism gives us the courage and confidence to go against the grain of popular opinions. Humility enables us to hear the opinions that really matter.

6. Embrace failure.
Failure is absolutely necessary for growth. A willingness to fail keeps us adventurous and unafraid to try new things. Many failures are just unexpected outcomes. Sometimes the unexpected is even better than the expected.

7. Be selfish as an artist, and altruistic with what you create.
As artists, we must be selfish. Otherwise, we spend all of our efforts trying to satisfy others, rather than pursuing that which is inspiring us. Then of course, once we bring that which is inspiring us to fruition, then my advice is to give, give, give; and share, share, share.

8. Believe that anything is possible, but then know your limitations.
As artists, we cannot be afraid to dream. The world needs to be our canvass. However, knowing our limitations keeps us from pursuing paths that will yield few positive outcomes.

9. Be willing to lose those who are close to you.
Not everyone in our inner circle is going to follow us. When we are pursuing change and people who are close to us are not, we might have to leave them behind. And in some instances, they eventually come around.

10. Treat your art and career like a flower: plant the seeds in healthy soil, nurture them over time, and wait patiently for them to bloom.
Anything of substance, especially the new and underexplored, is going to take time. So as long as your vision is unwavering, and your foundation is solid, all you have to do is to keep watering it, and watch it grow.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Frida Khalo Effect: Redefining the Artistic Selfie

The Frida Khalo Effect is a term I‘ve coined that speaks to creative works in which the subject appears in numerous representations. Examples of this can be seen in movies, paintings, cartoons, and music. The Mexican-born surrealist painter Frida Khalo personified this to the most extreme degree. It's not uncommon for Khalo to appear in one of her paintings in numerous representations. She is the sole subject--the protagonist, the antagonist, and all the players in between. Self-exploitation is her brand. Mind you, much of her fascination with this idea results from her having had to spend time in isolation, first from having contracted polio as a child and then having to be bedridden, months at a time due to back and hip injuries that resulted when a wooden bus that she was riding in was hit by a train--injuries that plagued her most of her life. As Khalo put it, she painted what was around her, and mostly what she saw was herself.

On my new recording, I've also experimented with this idea of self-exploitation, the aural selfie, if you will, through the use of over-dubbing. On Sopranoville, the soprano appears in a wide range of configurations from duos to quindectets, as well as textures: flutter tonguing, squawks, multi-phonics, Doppler Effects, you name it.

In the world of painting, self-portraits are considered one of the most difficult to paint. Similarly, in jazz, solo recordings are the most difficult--particularly for wind players. And this is how I've used the work of Frida Khalo as a source of inspiration. She not only created self-portraits, she redefined the idea by creating portraits with multiple selves. And my approach to Sopranoville was similar in that I not only took on the challenge but I also heavily explored the idea of multiple selves, along with redefining the roles of those multiple selves.

I'm a huge fan of taking that which is a novelty and making it into an art form. Jackson Pollack did something similarly with his drip style. He was not the first experiment with these alternative methods of applying paint to canvasses, but he was the first to go as deeply into it as he did.

The uniqueness of the music sample I'm using is three-fold: One, its "Giant Steps" stripped of its rhythmic framework. So the rhythm that you hear is the natural rhythm that is heard when all of the notes of the melody are played in succession with no rhythmic specificity. Two, this piece features the interplay between three sopranos, thus creating what I call the Frida Khalo Effect. Third, the soprano sound is being filtered through an acoustic sound altering phenomenon known as sympathetic resonance, which explains the lush reverb heard.

It's not apparent to everyone that this is "Giant Steps," but it is.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the track and feel free to listen to the entire CD if you get a chance. There are a lot of interesting things going on.


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