The topic of purchasing music gear is one that merits serious discussion in the world of pro musicians. If you're a musician, there is a good chance you may have experienced what many call "Gear Acquisition Syndrome." This quirky nickname is basically a humorous way of saying that you really want to buy more stuff with which to make music with.
Of course, if music is truly your profession, there is an absolutely legitimate need for high-quality gear. Playing on student-level instruments results in a noticeable quality dip. Playing on well-made, top of the line gear results in ease of playing and generally more consistency of performance.
In the music business, there are those who insist on getting the absolute best gear, and there are those who insist that gear doesn't really matter all that much in the end. This post is not intended to declare which side I think is right, but to seriously pose the question of how gear does affect our performance. More importantly, I want to pose the question to every musician out there: where do you stand on the issue and why?
We all know the faux-pas where a big name artist has a Q&A session and someone inevitably asks, "what mouthpiece do you play?" While that situation may not be the time to ask, I think it would be naive to say that the question is irrelevant. To say that gear doesn't matter at all would be the equivalent of saying that it doesn't matter what kind of engine your car has. My car would have no shot at competing in a professional racing environment, just like a student-level saxophone does not have the capabilities of singing at a professional level.
My personal stance on this issue is that professional musicians need professional gear, but that once you find the gear you like, the effort is mainly done through practicing and honing the craft. As a composer, I often find myself looking around at different MIDI sample libraries. I currently have a solid collection of MIDI sampling instruments, but there are collections out there that trump mine in sound quality. However, those collections happen to cost a lot of money, and the ones that I have are more than enough for the purposes I am using them for. Unless a gig comes my way that pays a lot of money, I can't justify upgrading just yet. I can get great sounds with what I have. To upgrade would be fun, but not really necessary.
The same goes with saxophone gear. I have professional quality gear that suits my needs very well. If I want to improve as a saxophonist, that work is done through practicing. However, if I wanted a bigger or brighter tone, experimenting with mouthpieces and reeds would help me to find the sound I want. In some ways, a setup can limit or help a musician. But if I'm not being too picky, I can get a professional sound on the gear I have.
And I certainly wouldn't want to imply that my opinion is the correct opinion. In this post, my intention is to spark some thought about how far to go with this topic of gear. My hope is that the quest of great gear doesn't get in the way of our overall goal of achieving good music, and that bad gear doesn't limit that goal, either.
As summer comes to a close, I've decided to post a reflection of things that have been helping me move forward as a musician. The following 5 statements are things that I find helpful as I try to continuously challenge myself to learn.
Remember back to the moment you decided to become a musician. Maybe there were several. What was it and how did you feel? What inspired you to pursue this field?
For me, it was hearing Charlie Parker for the first time. I just remember being obsessed, fascinated with his playing. I had the CD on repeat for months. Gershwin was another one-- I would listen to Rhapsody in Blue, An American In Paris, Piano Concerto in F, and Cuban Overture over, and over, and over again!
It made me feel so inspired! So creative!
So now, having been through the tests and trials of time, years of rigorous schooling, late night drives from gigs, frustrations, and so on, I'm still here, still playing, still writing music. More than ever before. And I find that the thing that helps me stay inspired is getting back into that creative space that I used to feel as a kid. So I try to get creative with my practice time. I try to hear the phrasing in my head, try to connect with my instrument and get beyond that hurdle of frustration.
Here are some examples of ways you can nurture your creativity:
Explore different sounds, sketch out tunes, just hear how random ideas sound. I try to find new pieces that I can learn from. Pull out old classical pieces I haven't looked at in years. Pick a lick and invert it, mess with it, change the mode. Play a tune in all 12 keys. Play it slow, then play it fast. Play it in 7/4. Play it in 13/8. Write a contrafact on a tune. Find a painting you like and try to convey it in sound. Transcribe a rock song, or a classical piece. Learn some extended techniques. Jump around while you try to hold long tones still. Practice out of books. Practice away from books. Practice in the woods. Practice in the dark. Practice standing and then sitting. Take a break to walk outside. Do some stretches. Shoot some hoops. Cook while you listen to a new record. Sing an improvised solo over some changes. Pick up a guitar. Tinker on a piano. Stomp and clap. Invent exercises. Write a song with lyrics. Write a song based on poetry. Come up with something programmatic. Sightread pieces written for a different instrument. Take a lesson with a peer. Try different scales. Practice improvising using a 12-tone row.
In short, be free. Don't feel like you can't be creative in your practice.
And if you don't feel like practicing, sometimes it's ok to pack it up and just take a step back. Even the greatest of the great take time off.
There are thousands more ways to be creative in your practice time. These are just a few. You have permission to practice in creative ways.
If you have a fun way you like to practice, leave a comment below. I'd love to hear about it.
Dear uptempo jazz,
Thanks for being one of the most frustrating aspects of the jazz tradition. In the following video, I will do my best to tackle your difficult ways. Your days are numbered.
I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about how to best structure my time as a freelance professional musician. Have you ever thought about that? One approach would be to just do things as they come, stay up late finishing projects, and scrambling towards the deadline for projects coming up. Believe me, I know what that's like, and I've been there.
But let's be honest... that's not a very healthy way to work. My arranging professor, Rich DeRosa, encourages all of his students to "get started as soon as possible" on each project that comes our way, because we never know what things will look like in a week or a month. Maybe the deadline approaches and another great gig comes up, and you have to turn it down because you waited until the last minute to finish something. And that's no fun.
Not to mention the fact that routinely pulling all-nighters to scramble towards a deadline usually produces sub-par work, and is an unhealthy way to live. I've done it, and I always feel kind of lousy doing it.
So I try to spend regular time organizing my time and schedule to better accomplish the tasks that I need to. I'm married, so if I start getting off-track with my work habits, Alyssa's schedule and my schedule start to go out of sync and then I don't get to spend as much time with her. Then, throw in tasks like cleaning the house, going to the bank, cooking meals, exercise, budgeting and everything else, and all of a sudden, where did the time go?
There has to be a better way. What I'm discovering is that if I can get into a steady, routine workflow, I am much more effective in all phases of life. For me, this means using my days more efficiently and getting focused work done during the 9-5 workday. This can be tough, because musicians often work late. For me, I try to limit my late-night gigs so that I can maintain a routine schedule. Some of you may not have that option, or maybe you enjoy those late night gigs and want to sleep in. I'm not saying that my workflow has to be the same as yours; adapt it to your personal schedule and needs.
It is helpful also to write things down. If I have a lot to get done, I'll just pull out a piece of paper and make a "To-Do" list. Sometimes I'll write out which task needs to get done first. I'm still working on it. It's a challenge. Being your own boss is hard sometimes. Here's a list of things that you will need to include in your list of regular tasks:
I am not a type-A kind of guy... I'm an artistic-minded guy who loses focus easily. But I will say that this can be improved by being intentional. It will take time to build habits... be patient. Don't give up after a day or a week. Don't quit when you fail at it. Just keep going.
I promise you that if you sink some effort and time into getting into a steady workflow, it will improve your overall effectiveness to get quality work done on time, which is the name of the game. It's not the romantic artist lifestyle we all dreamed of as a kid... it's work, just like everything else. Some days it's not fun to fire up Sibelius and edit parts. Sometimes I don't feel like sending e-mails for an hour. I don't always enjoy entering expenses and income into an Excel spreadsheet. But I have to. It's part of my job. And my job of providing music services contributes to society just like a baker, an accountant, or a janitor.
And when you can find a healthy work balance, you can take a weekend off to go hiking, swimming, play some video games, go on a trip, just have some fun. You can get done with your practicing, writing, e-mails and eat dinner, enjoy some time with your loved ones. This music thing doesn't have to consume every fiber of our being just for us to be successful at it.
Food for thought. Speaking of food, I think I'm going to make some lunch.
Most of us know that it's important to practice licks in all 12 keys, because it gives you A) facility to play in all the keys B) the ear to hear intervals and scale degrees and C) jazz vocabulary.
But there comes a point where you're tied down by the rigidity of those patterns. Here's a way that I've found useful for working on being spontaneous but still harmonically sound.
The final installment of the Studio Album Feature series features a woman that is very near and dear to me... because she is my wife! Alyssa Hedenstrom is an accomplished musician, photographer, and educator. Alyssa is a multi-instrumentalist who mainly focuses on vocals and songwriting, but has performed on piano, guitar, saxophone, flute, and other instruments throughout the years. As an educator, she is getting her masters in ESL teaching and is bilingual, speaking Spanish and English fluently. She is also an accomplished photographer, being in-demand in the Dallas area snapping pictures for a large client list.
Alyssa's musical voice is very representative of her personality, which is how all musical voices should be. Alyssa loves melodic integrity, beautiful lyrics, heartfelt songwriting, and music that comes from a genuine place. Her voice is beautiful and smooth, soulful and refined, expressive and tasteful. She is equally at home singing unison horn lines and lead melodies with lyrics. Versatile but distinct.
As a singer, arranger, and songwriter, Alyssa recently recorded and released her debut album, "Merry Little Christmas," where she recorded a handful of traditional Christmas hymns and an original called "Christmas, To Me."
So, being the incredibly inspiring and hardworking person she is, I obviously love her for who she is beyond that, because I married her! Alyssa is one of the funniest, most delightful people I've ever met and I am so excited to have her wonderful voice featured on the upcoming studio album.
To find out more, go to Alyssa's MUSIC WEBSITE
If you'd like to contribute to the Kickstarter for my upcoming Studio Album, CLICK HERE
Connor Kent is an extraordinary drummer who is already tremendously experienced for a guy his age. Connor has played many a gig in both the Los Angeles and Dallas areas, and is an in-demand drummer for jazz, pop, funk, hip hop, and really whatever style the music calls for. Add to that the fact that Connor was the resident drummer for the All American College Band at Disney in California and you can see how talented and hard-working this guy is. Connor is also one of the drummers in the Dallas-based band Funkle Sam and plays regularly in a variety of venues.
Connor is a really fun guy to play with because he has his ears open at all times and lets his drum chops do the heavy lifting. I always know that Connor is willing to do whatever it takes to make the music as good as possible. Not only that, but I would describe Connor's drumming as fiery and passionate when the moment calls for it, but also delicate and sensitive when the time is right for that.
Connor is not only a great musician, however... he is a great friend of mine with a hilarious sense of humor. Connor is consistently witty and sarcastic in a way that makes me laugh. He's also just a really genuine person who cares about the people in his life. Stay tunes for more of Connor in the future!
If you'd like to contribute to the Studio Album, CLICK HERE
Drummer Justin Heaverin is a guy that I love to play with, because this guy loves to play. Even at his relatively young age, Justin has already had a wonderful career as an international performing artist and educator. Whether he's playing with country artists in Texas, heavy metal bands, avant garde jazz groups, or traveling to Peru, Argentina, or Columbia to perform and teach masterclasses, Justin is the complete package as a drummer and musician. Justin has been a staple in the Denton and DFW music scene since coming here to study at University of North Texas and is an in-demand player. Justin's playing is historically informed, coming from a place of strong jazz tradition, and yet Justin has the ability, conception, and (most importantly) the EARS to play in whatever style you put in front of him. Justin demonstrates a fluid feel, and even though he has phenomenal chops, I never feel like he's exercising those chops in a flashy, unmusical way. Justin's always listening, always interacting, always singing through his drums. Don't believe me? Listen to Justin play the melody of "Moanin':"
But let's put aside Justin Heaverin's musical excellence for a moment and talk about his genuine personality, serving attitude, and wonderful sense of humor. Justin is a guy that makes you smile and I'm so excited to see what he can add to this album.
To find out more about Justin, visit HIS WEBSITE
To contribute financially to the making of Aaron Hedenstrom's studio album, please CLICK HERE
One of the things that I look for in my musicians is the ability to take basic musical material and make it their own. Matt Young, the drummer for the upcoming album, is an expert at putting his own unique stamp on whatever he plays. That's why I love playing with him, and I love hearing him play. Matt is right there with you in the each moment, never going on autopilot. Matt's playing is hyper-creative in the best sort of way; and yet, it always feels effortless, smooth, natural. To me, it seems that the drums are a natural extension of Matt's personality, a way for him to communicate with his fellow musicians and create beautiful, artistic music. Simply put, Matt will blow your mind with the crazy polyrhythmic patterns he uses and is a total beast of a drummer, and at the same time, it always FEELS good.
Matt is also a skilled writer and performs and writes with the AMP Trio. He has toured with Bob Belden and performed internationally with a wide variety of artists.
But, ridiculous as he is, the thing that I appreciate the most about Matt is that he is a humble guy with a great attitude. He is always in it for the group, and I've never so much as sensed any entitlement from him to get more attention or recognition, although his musicianship certainly merits it! I'm excited about the beautiful sounds that Matt will bring to this album.
To check out the upcoming studio album and consider making a financial contribution, please CLICK HERE
is a saxophonist/composer residing in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex.