A Line: Thinking Simply

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Lately, I’ve been sketching some compositions based off of a simple question: what is a line?  Of course, according to Euclid, a line is “breadthless length” and is the genetic makeup of geometric figures, whether they be two or three-dimensional.  Ironically, a line in geometry is not the same as what humans perceive as a “musical line”.  When it comes to music, a line can be described as/describe many different things.  To name a few:

- a complete or incomplete phrase of melodic material

- notating a type of glissando or graphical representation relating to manipulating pitch upward or downward through time

- a way of organizing pitches evenly on a five-lined staff

Psychology and Line

Before we delve into my thoughts on musical line, I thought it would be best to first understand what the psychological effect is of a simple line.  Visual art is teeming with lines: straight, curved, hidden and leading lines, to name a few.  These lines are artistically captured or consciously put together to create some kind of perspectival awareness from an observer.  So when we talk about line, what we are dealing with is this idea of individual perception.  In other words, one person may be able to see the lineo-genetic makeup of a visual image and interpret the experience one way, while another person may only be able to ‘sense’ it, experiencing the image in a different way.

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Greg Betza “High Line”

I am no psychologist, but I would bet that it takes practice to experience an image in multiple ways such as one can perceive music in multiple ways.  As a line can have infinitely-profound functions and interactions, so will the individual interpretations of that that single line.  With experience in actively viewing, listening and understanding this idea of line, a person’s awareness of it may drastically change, affecting how they respond to what they perceive – whether it be emotionally, spiritually or personably.  My goal in studying the basic functions of a line will be to consciously and carefully use it as an underlying psychological tool that can successfully affect how people respond emotionally, spiritually and personably.

Musical Composition of a Line

In thinking about this, I’ve realized that coming to a greater understanding of “line” – and its various implications – can bring profound depth to a contemporary composition.  One could say that music is geometry in time – which is the fourth dimension.  Since listeners attach linear significance to a piece of music, it’s possible to reverse engineer that perception and turn it into a compositional tool – that has been my aim.  Various questions have been coming up in my thinking about this issue:

“What is the most basic element within a line that could be used in music to encapsulate notions of spirituality, psychology, sociology, nature, emotionality and the interpretive experience?”

“How can a line be used to connect one person to another when listening to a piece of music, even if they have different cultural backgrounds?”

“Can a musical line be used to accurately represent the vastness of the cosmos, God, space and time though it is only a line?”

Two-Dimensional Line in Music

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Nine Inch Nails “The Warning” Spectrograph

Ultimately, how can a line be used in a musical composition?  Already, we can easily rule in sheet music.  Sheet music is comprised of geometric shapes that stem from lines, alone.  Though humans perceive things three-dimensionally, we tend to equate sheet music to a two-dimensional surface because it sits flat, and as it sits flat, we perceive it to have no z-axis; depth.  It is profound to think that something as basic as sheet music can be interpreted into four-dimensional phenomena, however it is merely one vehicle by which music can be heard through.  

Another thing about two-dimensional figures is that color has the ability support a 2D line’s function.  Color has the power to be interpreted into emotional and psychological data.  Though most sheet music is black and white, lines found within music could be composed to have different colors, affecting a performer’s psychology.

Can music be represented through a two-dimensional object? Technically, there are no physical two-dimensional objects, but in the digital age, there are ways.  A computer screen can be an active representation of a 2D plane – despite the fact that the screen, itself, can be viewed from many angles as opposed to one.  On a screen, you can have waveforms that represent music, which can be printed onto a paper – which is another representation of a 2D plane, as discussed earlier.  These spectral analysis waveforms could represent music’s pitch, dynamic, rhythmic, textural and timing aspects.

Three-Dimensional Line in Music

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Nathalie Miebach “Urban Weather Prairies -
Symphonic Studies in D”

What you see around you is perceived in a third-dimensional space.  We relate objects to each other by comparing their locations in a physical space.  Something I’ve often wondered is how music can relate to us three-dimensionally.  When it comes to attaching a meaning to music, listeners inevitably attach a geometric understanding to what they hear.  In other words, we visualize music based off of individual perceptions of a musics’ sonic results.  Is it just this psychological phenomenon that we can only interpret music into three-dimensional images?  Perhaps not.  Dance is an important aspect to active form with music.  Dance doesn’t necessarily have to have music to have form, however, can give a three-dimensional form to music via the human body.  Dancers work through body line and stage directions (which are based on lines) to create an active choreography with music.

On the flipside of things, can music be represented through three-dimensional objects?  In visual art, sculpture is usually what represents idyllic abstraction on a three-dimensional plane.  Though music would be difficult to represent on a three-dimensional plane other than that of the imagination, something that interests me is the possibility of writing 3D musical scores.  These sculptural scores could be extremely flexible ways of performers interpreting three-dimensional figures – based on many lines’ depth, height, and width, creating figures inside of figures – into a four-dimensional, sonic figure.  

Interestingly, everyday 3D objects are still subject to the effects of time; aging.  It would be interesting to purposefully create a sculptural score that decays slowly or quickly, and therefore is subject to be interpreted differently every time it were performed.

Sketches on Musical Line

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Micah Hood “Imago Dei” [click for larger view]

 

I’ll be thinking more about what line is.  Already, I’ve found myself writing a few essay pieces on how a physical line relates to the sonic results of music, and it has been a great time of study.  Cathect (2014) for thirteen (or more) trombones and Imago Dei (in process) for chorus, organ and two percussionists use similar ideas of line and how it is represented in sheet music.  Both settings of a basic line-form will be perceived differently from an audience’s perspective but are both built upon the same building blocks.

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Micah Hood “Cathect” [click for larger view]

As time progresses, I hope to come to a better understanding of the psychological effects of line and implement it into my music.  I foresee many sketches in my future, but I’m sure it will be worth it.  In all of this, I hope that I got you thinking about musical and geometric lines in different ways.  It is my hope, too, that in daily life, no one will take for granted the genetic makeup of everything they see around them and respond thoughtfully to how complex the universe truly is.

Hidden Treasure Tuesday: Getting a Handel on Things

Another edition of “Hidden Treasure Tuesday” is here!  This segment is meant to encourage readers to build their music collection from used CDs, vinyls, tapes and whatever else they can get their hands on for less than $1.  So without anymore delay, let’s see what’s out there.

Description:

Handel Messiah

ImagePerformed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chamber Chorus

Conducted by: Robert Shaw

Soloists: Kaaren Erickson, Soprano; Sylvia McNair, Soprano; Alfreda Hodgson, Mezzo-Soprano; Jon Humphrey, Tenor; Richard Stilwell, Baritone; Layton James, Harpsichord.

Copyright 1984 Telarc Digital

Found:

Hastings Books and Music
4315 Wyoming Blvd NE Albuquerque, NM 87111

Price:

>99 cents

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Review:

I have always loved this work.  When I was a kid, I was turned on to Handel’s music in sixth grade by listening to his Water Music and Fireworks.  It was only natural that his Messiah was the next work on the list that I would encounter.  Over the years I have heard many great performances of this work around Christmas time and even during the Spring season.  I’ve heard male singers singing the soprano solo parts, I’ve heard it performed with period instruments, and I’ve seen some of the best organists and harpsichordists lead the entire work.  It truly has been a journey learning the complexity and history that surrounds this work over the years through recordings and live performances.

Many people are reminded of the glorious “Hallelujah” chorus, however there’s more to this work than that climactic moment.  I’ve found that the gauge to having a good performance of Messiah lies in how the other choruses – like “For Unto Us a Child is Born”- are performed.  The Atlanta Symphony Chorus doesn’t fail to deliver in these moments of difficult melismatic passages and technicalities.  The mastermind behind their sound is the one and only, Robert Shaw – yes, the 14 Grammy-winning conductor Robert Shaw.  Shaw always had a way of bringing out the male singing in choruses.  In this particular recording, the male vocalists in the chorus are very prominent, which gives such a fresh perspective on the piece.  Usually, the female vocalists tend to overpower the males in just about every recording I’ve heard.

Another fresh set of sounds on this recording of Messiah is the orchestra, itself.  The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has long been a respected landmark in American symphonic musicianship, and it truly shows in this recording.  What caught my attention was the very first sinfonia.  It is very well-balanced dynamically, very evenly-paced and has such intricate detail in terms of staying true to a historically Baroque style.  The Baroque performance practice is pretty spot on.

Robert Shaw

Of course, there are some preferences that I have when listening to any historical piece of music.  I believe it’s important to be able to play these pieces in a historical performance practice.  For example: in this recording, the Atlanta Symphony does not play on period instruments (which is a huge feat, for sure.).  They also tune to standard pitch (A = 440), which Baroque performers would have tuned to A = 415.  The result of the recording is that standard pitch gives it a much brighter feel, while A = 415 would give a much darker, perhaps, more grounded feel.  The composers of the time wrote with the A = 415 tuning standard in mind, and it affected their choices in the orchestration of a piece.  There might be something to preferring a historical performance over a modern performance of Messiah too in that modern orchestras are just too large.  A Baroque “orchestra”- which wasn’t formalized until the Classical Period – would contain a small section of strings and the necessary brass and woodwinds (which are sometimes interchangeable because of Baroque open scoring notation).  The instruments were also quieter in the Baroque period.  Baroque performers tend to have a lot more dark and thin timbral expressions that give the music a bit more glimmer than that of the instruments designed today.  Baroque instruments were also less resonant, which contributed to the dark, thin timbre.


With all that said, I can’t imagine the amount of work that would have to go into practicing that standard for every historical performance a modern orchestra would do.  That’s why historical ensembles exist.  They stay true to not only the pitch standard of the day but the instrumental standards, ornamental practices, and timbral practices as well.  Shaw has a good handle (no word-play intended) on what would be a modernized performance in this recording of the Messiah.  It is lush and contains all of the usual modern notions of color, timbre and technique.  I would also say that this recording is probably one of the best modern renditions I’ve ever heard.

Rating:

8/10

Hidden Treasure Tuesday: An Electroacoustic Find

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Today, I would like to start implementing a new part to my blog: a weekly “Hidden Treasure Tuesday” segment that encourages readers to build their music collection from used CD stores.  My hopes of implementing this segment is that readers will be encouraged to buy used music and build a collection of music that they love for relatively cheap.

The Backstory of Hidden Treasure Tuesday

I visited a used CD/Book store during my down time.  Like any consumer I went for the advertised items first.  After shuffling through the “New” and “Barely Used” CDs, three bins in the back of the store marked “Clearance” caught my eye.  The clearance bargain was advertised as “2 CDs for 99 cents”.  All the CDs in the bin were, of course, used CDs, but they were all in perfectly good condition.  I overheard customers scoffing at the piles of CDs, saying things like “this is where CDs go to die” or “who listens to THIS music?” Despite the other customers’ opinions, I continued to look.  As I waded through the massive piles of CD cases, I found a few hidden treasures.  As a music listener, performer and appreciator, I decided to take a chance in buying these CDs.  After that moment, I was encouraged to go on a hunt for more used CDs, in hopes that I’ll find more great music to build my collection.

The Rules for Hidden Treasure Tuesday

The only rule is “what can be found for under $2?” In each segment, I’ll report on the product description, price, the place found, its condition and review its content.  

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Description:

The International Computer Music Association Commission Awards – 1992-93
CDCM Computer Music Series, Volume 

Compositions by Lippe, Mowitz, Rai and Vaggione

Copyright 1995 Centuar Records, Inc. 

Found:

Hastings Books and Music
4315 Wyoming Blvd NE Albuquerque, NM 87111

Price:

 > 99 cents

Review:

I bought this CD along with CDCM Computer Music Series Vol. 7 from the “Clearance” bins in the back of the store.  It features the following compositions:

1. Horacio Vaggione, KITAB (1992) for bass clarinet, piano, contrabass and computer processed/controlled sounds

2. Takayuki Rai, Three Inventions (1992) for saxophone, contrabass, piano, harp, and ISPW

3. Ira Mowitz, קול אהרון (Kol Aharon) (1993) for violin and computer-generated tape

4. Cort Lippe, Music for Sextet and ISPW (1993) for flute, bass clarinet, trombone, violin, violoncello, piano and ISPW

It’s not a common thing to find contemporary electro-acoustic compositions in a used CD store.  This volume caught my eye as I waded through three bins of CD cases because I have such a love for contemporary electro-acoustic music.  The genre can express many different aspects of the current human condition in light of modernism or postmodernism artistic values.

Ira Mowitz

Though all of these compositions are fantastic, my favorite composition featured on the album would have to be קול אהרון (Kol Aharon) for violin and computer-generated tape.  Ira Mowitz wrote this piece for violin and wanted to feature the voice of his 2-year old son, Aaron, on the tape.  He was struck by the musicality of his son’s speaking voice and how expressive it was.  He sought to musically combine the tape part with a violin part to create a parallel to the biblical story of Moses and Aaron – Aaron being Moses’ interpreter to Pharaoh and the Israelites because Moses was not an eloquent speaker.  The violin part may be extremely difficult and virtuosic, but it is expressive and very well-written.  The violinist, Cyrus Stevens, does Mowitz’s piece justice.

Ultimately, this music isn’t for all listeners, but one can easily learn how to listen to it if one puts in the time to learn its various components.  In all music, it is important to know and internalize its sonic vocabulary.  Without a building vocabulary, listeners would have a rough time hearing all the details in these pieces.  Edgar Varèse would be a great composer to start listening to if you would like to start learning how to listen to electroacoustic music.  I also suggest listening to Steve Reich’s early tape pieces like It’s Gonna Rain… or the early music concrète pieces by Pierre Schaeffer – such as Cinq études de bruits or Symphonie pour un homme seul - to learn more about technique and the manipulation of sounds from their natural environments.  If you’re more interested in electroacoustic music from there, you can explore more complex compositions like Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kontakte or Gesang der Jünglinge.  With technology all around us, it’s important to have an appreciation for this type of music and an understanding of its basic vocabulary.

Rating:

8.5/10

Wooten: On Musicality and Technique

It is just like with a cake. When we’re looking at a shelf for a cake, the icing gets our attention and we might even choose a cake based on the decoration. But if we were to stick our fork in it and there was only icing, we’d be very disappointed. Ninety-nine percent of it has to be cake, the boring part, but the essential part. Music is no different, life is no different. With music you have to have fundamental skills, you have to be able to play in time, groove, you have to understand dynamics, you can’t play monotone. The technical icing or how to solo over Giant Steps, by using theory and overlaying chords, that stuff is icing. You can play great music without it, but you can’t play great music with only it. You have to have the cake underneath, the substance. That’s why I talk about listening quite a bit. Listening is a skill that should be practiced, but most people are only listening for that icing.

Virtuoso Bassist Victor Wooten when asked the question “Do you ever feel that people obsess over your techniques rather than your musicality?” 

Source: electricbassland.com

Is Classical Improvisation Making a Comeback?

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I was extremely pleased to see a particular article make its way around the musical community in the past few weeks.  The article suggests that listeners may react more positively to live concerts that contain fully improvised pieces or pieces that contain improvised elements.  What’s more, is that the study is relatively new and ongoing.  It will continue to give listeners and musicians more information on this subject of improvisation in the coming months.  Knowing the importance of the classical improvised tradition, I am very glad to see researchers enter into this subject and test the effectiveness of improvisation on listeners.  What an exciting thing for the classical music community to see!

To fully appreciate the impact of this very recent study, I thought I would write a post about the history of classical improvisation, hopefully informing readers of its importance to the whole of art music.  My hope is also to get readers excited about improvised art, whether performing or practicing it.

Ancient Improvisation

It’s easy for listeners and musicians to believe that improvisation is only stemmed from one or two traditions – like Jazz or Rock music.  However, improvisation has been a long-standing tradition in many cultures throughout ancient history.  In ancient Jewish culture, musicians were mentioned among the three fundamental professions for the culture to flourish.  In services in the temple, prayer modes allowed for a Cantor (Hazzan) to improvise prayer ‘melodies’ according to the time of year, even the time of day.  In ancient Greece, many oral epic poems had both oral and musical improvised elements to them.  Greek theatre skillfully used improvisational elements as a way to communicate the current events, problems, sufferings or joys of their society to a vast entire audience.  Greek Improvisation was also viewed as a mechanical skill that had a profound impact on an orator’s rhetoric, making an effective pathos appeal to an audience.  Ancient West Africans depended on improvised call-responses, improvised polyrhythmic drum-circles and improvised dance to communicate to each other like that of a cultural language.  The examples of ancient improvisation are virtually innumerable and the extent of how improvisation was used is yet to be discovered fully. It seems, however, that ancient cultures used improvisation as an important communicatory device, whether for prayer, communicating societal ideas or for celebrating cultural events that bind a cultural community together.

Classical Improvisation Timeline

Ancient improvisation in most cultures were monophonic, meaning, only one voice sounded the improvisation.  As the European musical tradition continued to evolve through the Middle Ages, the musical practice of polyphony and counterpoint came to be.  Different voices in a chorus could sing harmoniously while still singing seemingly different musical lines from one another.  As you can imagine, improvised practices became more complex.  Even before organum (the stepping stone to polyphony), instrumentalists would improvise contrapuntal lines to high feast plainchant.  Even so, chant could be improvised in a certain fashion and allowed for bits of interpretive freedom, even though the chants were notated.  As the practice of polyphonic composition grew, so did notated music – which was a way to make stricter, concrete choices that resulted from the freedom of improvised music.

Renaissance Alta Band

Renaissance music had many complex forms that resulted from counterpoint practices, instrumental development and the sacred/secular music dichotomy.  Renaissance ornamentation allowed for instrumentalists to ornament melodies – written or unwritten – as they saw fit.  Ornamentation allowed for instrumentalists to put their own stamp on tunes or melodies that were played by many different ensembles throughout many different regions in mainland Europe and the UK.  However, there were specific keyboard instruments – such as the organ – that were capable of polyphonic improvisations.  The prelude genre was set out to allow a keyboardist to improvise simple or complex contrapuntal textures as they saw fit for the occasion.  The keyboardist was specifically trained on the contrapuntal practices of their region in order to effectively create a piece of music that an audience understands on the spot.

Baroque improvisation, though still performed in the prelude and fantasy keyboard genres of the day, became a way for composers of notated music to test theoretical musical ideas.  In other words, it became a highly personal art.  The idea of monody from Montiverdi’s seconda practica changed the way composers thought about counterpoint and harmonic rhythm.  What is most fascinating about the Baroque standard of improvisation, is the degree of harmonic complexity improvisers had to internalize.  In order to understand how to improvise effectively, a performer must have also had a great understanding of the harmonic and counterpoint practices of the day and practice them constantly.  A performer also had to skillfully balance those practices with their natural musical instincts so that improvisations didn’t sound stale or dull, but fully realized.  Baroque improvisation was expected have a certain amount of sound rhetoric with great voice leading and skillful harmonic play.  J.S. Bach would have been a great example of a composer/improviser combination.  He could skillfully work out compositional problems in his notated music via improvisations upon an idea, but could also fully realize an improvised four-part fugue using only his musical instincts and intellect.  Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, describes Bach as having the “…mind of a chessmaster.”  Indeed, Bach was only one among many examples of this complex craft of improvisation in the Baroque period.  Other examples of Baroque improvisation include the performance practice of improvising a cadenza.  Many scores of Baroque music leave entire sections of music open for a performer to improvise their own cadenza, especially in the concerto genre.

Clara Schumann

Classical and Romantic improvisation was a practice among lay musicians.  So much of the counterpoint and harmonic evolution leading up to the Classical Period resulted in people learning how to improvise their own music.  Children would learn how to play piano through improvisation.  Clara Schumann is a prime example of teaching children to improvise before they even saw a note of notated music.  She, herself, learned this practice and became one of the foremost composers of keyboard music in the Romantic Period.  When she was a young girl, she always performed improvisations for concerts and recitals.  Many keyboard teachers realized that improvisation built the ear and how it interprets the finer details of the music it hears.  In essence, the Classical and Romantic Periods found improvisation to be an important educational tool for the whole of music education, especially in understanding the complexing harmonic practices of the “new romantic school” of the contemporary music.  Audiences would have a knowledge of these complexing practices because they, themselves, would have some sort of improvisational experience prior to listening to new works.

Henri Roger, self-taught pianist and improviser

20th Century and Contemporary improvisation is a vast and complex subject because it covers many harmonic practices, artistic traditions and genres.  Modernism is one aspect of the 20th Century that made it possible to go against certain artistic principles of the past and interpret the information through the lens of an individual’s artistic aesthetic.  A musical example of this is Polytonality.  This was a musical practice introduced by the works of Charles Ives which combined seemingly opposing rhythms, keys, and textures that were never historically explored fully (at least, blatant polytonality was never documented from the experiments of other composers before the 20th Century).  Though historical improvisational methods still exist, something that changed the face of music in the 20th Century was the introduction of recorded music to the listening public.  This opened up a whole new frontier for musicians to explore and improvise within.  Complex music technology – such as synthesizers, samplers, etc – resulted from recording technology’s impact on the public and how fast the demand for music had to be met.  The most notable form of improvisation from the 20th Century is the combination of acoustic music with electronic music, called electro-acoustic improvisation.  To this day, electro-acoustic improvisation leaves musicians to choose their own path of how to speak to an audience and with what harmonic tradition or voice.  These complex textural and spatial improvisations are knowingly impossible to replicate with only acoustic instruments.  Elements of futurism and postmodernism permeate most every improvisatory art-piece into a complex – and yet to be fully realized – experience for listeners.  Every improvisatory experience is personal and expressive even if a piece done purely through technology.

Improvisation’s Comeback

Percussive improvisation with lightbulbs

At the end of this month, I will be performing my first free-improvisation on piano using bi-tonal, tri-tonal, polyrhythmic, and pseudo jazz-oriented practices – which is my improvisational style.  I’m realizing through practicing these improvisations that this is a tradition that is, yet never will be perfected.  In other words, improvisation is subjective, personal, educational, historical, and cultural.  It binds a performer and listeners together through rhetoric and story-telling, even if it is through tones, textures and sounds alone.  Improvisation communicates to listeners in a grammatical way, using vocabulary that can only be spoken through the “universal language.” My hope in performing this improvisation at the end of the month is that I can study the effects on the audience of having a fully improvised piece on a concert that will, most likely, all be notated music.

Maybe in the future, programmed concerts will contain improvisations from performers to explore the music that is inside of themselves.  There is so much potential for a reinstatement of the art of improvisation on the classical music stage that programming improvisations on large concerts doesn’t sound too farfetched.  My hope is that we will continue this old tradition and present it to a broad audience in a new way; to an audience who connects with the music as it communicates to them in the rawest form possible.

Other articles to consider:

Improvising As a Lost Art
Should My Child Learn to Improvise?

The Code: Ethics for Musicians – II. Expectations

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As far as freelance work goes, every job you get is bound to be different from the last.  For example, even if you play in the same group for years, you will still find that different venues have different rules, environments and expectations from the entertainers that they hire.  In this section of “The Code”, I’ll expand upon what is expected out of a freelance musician every time they are hired no matter how much the gig scene changes.

Expectations

Oberlin Conservatory has a great 2-page resource that lays out the expectations of their aspirant students. In an effort to have students represent the conservatory well, Oberlin has made this resource available to them as loose guidelines on conduct.  I’d like to point out some specific issues I found relevant to this discussion that are based on this guide from Oberlin:

1) In the introduction, Oberlin makes it plain and clear that freelance musicians will most likely play free gigs in order to broaden their job market. Then, the author immediately follows this anecdote up with what the individual responsibilities of the musician are.  Despite if the gig is paid or unpaid, it should not change a musician’s attitude toward playing.  …”Remember to be courteous, polite, and professional at all times.” The author of the document also makes it clear that a freelancer has the power to say “no” to free gigs, but warns that they might be missing out on potential job contacts as a result.

2) Good preparation is key for a good-flowing gig.  Freelance musicians should be prepared for any number of things such as lighting failures/dim lighting, wind, weather, the commute to the gig-site/traffic, ability to play the music multiple ways (in case the director changes his mind), music order, etc.  I find this important because, many times, many musicians aren’t mentally prepared for a performance in their frenzied last-minute hopes of correct preparation.

3) Know the details of the gig before you agree to it.  Most times, freelance work details are hashed-out over a phone call or email.  In today’s freelance market, done through technological means, freelancers always have to make sure to get every detail about the gig settled before they agree.  Many times, this results in double-booking.  Carefully check: when/ where/how many services/if music is provided or not/ the equipment needed/setup and teardown/compensation.

4) Handle yourself professionally over any mode of communication.  If you have an email address, always include a signature that contains your name, title(s), work or mobile phone, email address(es), and website(s).  If you have to leave a message for a contact, include the name of the ensemble or individual, leave a detailed message, reiterate your number, and tell them that you look forward to talking with them soon.

5) Time is of the essence.  In being courteous to the contractor, respond to them with a definitive answer within 48 hours of the initial point-of-contact.  This is one of the main reasons people lack contacts: because they play the waiting game or procrastinate calling a contact back.  Remember, this is a potential job – perhaps a livelihood.  Contractors want to depend upon reliable, responsible musicians.  The first ignored call could be your last from that contractor.  If you can’t do the gig, simply call the contractor back, respectfully decline it and offer the contractor some alternative options.  If you do this, contractors will know that you care about the hiring process they face and still may consider you in the future even if you declined the job.

6) Always take time to do a follow-up call, making sure that your gig details are correct.  A follow-up call never bothers contractors and further shows your respect for the contractor as well as the care of your own personal responsibilities.

Unreasonable Expectations

As musicians who make a living check-to-check/job-to-job many times a year, we can become pretty passionate about what we do.  There are certain accommodations we can expect from the contractors and venues that hire us for work.  However, what we shouldn’t do is have unrealistic expectations of contractors and venues.  A freelance musician is hired on the basis of musical artistry and responsibility, alone.  This creates an important component to every artist; a reputation.  Any competent musician is capable of these basic traits to create a great reputation.

With that said, freelance musicianship is not necessarily the place for personal ego or “getting to the next level.”  I feel that consistency and accuracy speaks volumes to those who hire you more than a previous performance resume or presuppositions.  In fact, isn’t that how Abbie Conant won her position in the Munich Philharmonic?  Though her audition experience wasn’t necessarily through the lens of freelance work, her consistency and accuracy spoke much more than the fact that she was a woman auditioning for a predominantly – and forcefully so – male orchestra.  The panel hired her for her ability, in essence, rejecting the rest who thought that the position was theirs more-so because of the orchestra’s gender preference.

Personally, I was – sometimes still am – a culprit of this.  I would play a gig to get recognized instead of concentrating on just doing well.  To me, it’s enough to know that the end result is me playing music for the sake of music.  Everything in the aftermath of the gig is up to how the contractors reacted to the entire performance experience.  We shouldn’t make presuppositions about who we are and how good we are.  Honestly, no contractor really cares about this unless you’re in an extremely demanding – not to mention competitive – freelance/studio market.  But you have to ask yourself: how did the ‘bigwhigs’ that we aspire to so much get a good job in the first place?

Answer: because they played consistently, acted responsibly, and did all that was asked of them and more.

The Code: Ethics for Musicians – I. Amateurism

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Definition

Amateur - Old French for “lover of” – is generally considered a person attached to a particular pursuit, study, or science in a non-professional or unpaid manner.  Amateurs often have little or no formal training in their pursuits, resulting in autodidactic learning.

Introduction

What I’ll be writing briefly about today is the notion of “amateurism” in the freelance music circuit, some problems I’ve noticed, and, perhaps, some solutions based on my observations.  First off, I’ll state what amateurism is not:

1. It is not a title for someone who is worse in skill or experience than and professional.
2. It does not mean a person cannot make significant contributions to their amateur interests.
3. It does not mean a person isn’t committed wholeheartedly to a particular hobby.

william-shakespeare-biographyFamous amateurs in history include William Shakespeare (amateur artist and autodidact in theatre), Leonardo da Vinci (amateur artist), Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, and many others.  Amateur musicians played a significant role in history, particularly in the West, by making music available to the middle and lower class.  Another example is Brass band musicians in the UK.  They generally were considered to be amateur players, but played extremely difficult music to further the technical development of brass compositions and while enjoying making music with others in community.

Professionalism vs. Amateurism

What separates an amateur from a professional is one’s purpose for doing what they do.  A professional desires to make some kind of income doing what they do, whereas an amateur seeks others in their field of interest to collaborate for pure enjoyment.  To put it simply:  professionals get paid to do what they do.  With that, we also have to remember that even professionals – at one point in time – were amateurs.  Their own raw interests that they – at one time – didn’t get paid for led them to a career within that particular subject.

The Problems

Irish Pub Jam Session

Though the historical definitions are clear, modern culture has started to blur the lines between musical amateurism and professionalism.  Partially, this is due to the fact that music equipment, instruments, and knowledge is widely available to those who can afford to take up any kind of musical endeavor.  As a result, the job market for musicians becomes stretched thin when virtually everyone has the ability to make some kind of music – whether it be good music or bad music.  Once concert venues, clubs, or bars figured out that they could be charged less money (or no money at all) to have live music, they would allow more amateur groups or DJs to play.  In my own experience, this would cause the quality of music to be a little compromised – but not always, as some amateur musicians are phenomenally gifted and well-practiced.  However, as a result of a venues decisions to “hire” amateur musicians, many professional musicians are losing their jobs or gigs to amateurs (again, not a derogatory term) who decide to seek some kind of professional experience for little to no compensation.  The implications of the term “professionalism” are clear: once an amateur steps over the threshold of unpaid to paid musicianship, they are no longer amateurs, but rather professionals in-training.

Another result of this problem is how professional musicians have compromised their professionalism in order to just continue playing for a few dollars.  Professionals have standards that they abide by – such as hourly pay rates.  Now, if amateurs play for a few dollars at a club, professionals will be held to that standard.  To a concert venue, club, or bar, professional and amateur players are held to the same pay rate because they are simply musicians looking for a gig.

Solutions

What should professional freelance artists do to help the freelance economy while still encouraging the interests of the amateur?  In speaking with music hobbyists, have found that most amateur musicians just simply need some kind of outlet for their interest.  Many community orchestras, bands, brass bands, chamber groups, and new music ensembles are great places for an amateur musician.  If one doesn’t exist, then it may be time to start one in your area!  Community ensembles hold concerts that regularly contain challenging music, or even feature soloists that are players within their group.  Community ensembles also play music for the sake of music – which is part of the amateur’s creed.  However, more community ensembles isn’t a solution in and of itself; professional musicians absolutely have to support the endeavors of their amateur music colleagues.  This means attending amateur concerts, offering them lessons, and perhaps even letting them sit in on a few gigs/jams for the experience.

Oklahoma Community Orchestra

As professional musicians, our job isn’t to create a divide between amateur musicians and professionals.  We should be able to use our talents, hard work, and abilities to bridge this gap, creating a harmonious music community that fits the need of the greater community of patrons.  What do amateurs and professionals have in common?  We make music for the sake of music, and love every minute of it, but professionals are held to a higher standard.  If we don’t meet that standard, we are failing at promoting our community’s whole music industry.