Artistic Success

I’ve been on this planet long enough to notice why some people in my field develop into first-rate artists and others don’t.  My students ask me all the time if I have any secrets or tips for gaining mastery as a musician.  Spending time with the remarkable Gundecha Brothers has confirmed my thoughts on this matter.  They perfectly embody what I think are the traits needed to become a great musician, which are (in this specific order):

  1. Talent
  2. Passion
  3. Vision
  4. Work Ethic

Let’s look at each of these.  The notion of musical talent is complex and involves a lot of #2 and #3, but at its most basic level is the ability to learn music quickly and accurately, a feeling for the nuances of pitch, and good basic rhythm.  These are skills that can be developed, but a certain amount of it has to be innate, and if you don’t have it from the beginning, you’ll never get it. 

However, even the most talented people will get nowhere if they aren’t passionate about music.  You have to really want it, more than anything else.  It has to get you excited.  You’ve got to feel a burning desire to make music that is more powerful than anything else in your life.

But talent and passion still aren’t enough.  What are you going to do with that talent and that passion?  What is your vision?  You can love music more than anything else, but in order to develop to a high level you need to be able to point that talent and passion in a specific direction, otherwise you’ll just drift.

And that brings us to the last trait necessary for artistic success: work ethic.  I’ve lost count of the number of times Gurujis have arrived at the Gurukul at 10:00 a.m. to put in five hours of teaching, coming straight from the airport, where they arrived after an overnight flight following a concert.  They never stop.  They’re either performing or teaching.  When they’re in town they teach seven days a week.   Once in a while they might go for some tourist activity when they’re traveling, but that’s about it for entertainment.  Mostly they work.  And work.  And work.  I challenge you to name one great musician who is any different.  You might have a great vision of what you want to achieve as a musician, and you might be very talented and passionate, but if you’re not willing to give up your Friday nights and Sunday mornings to long, hard hours of practice you aren’t going to make it.  I’ve done pretty well for myself as a musician, but as far as talent goes, I’m somewhere in the middle.  Not the best, though certainly not the worst.  But I’m deeply passionate about music, I’ve had a vision of where I wanted to take that passion, and day after day, week after week, and year after year I work at it.  Not because I have to, but because I want to.  I just love making music.

People ask me all the time “how do you do it all?” and people also ask me why I work so much.  Well, here’s the secret: it’s not work!  Work is paying taxes or sitting on boring committees.  Music is bliss and a privilege.  I’m happiest when I’m composing or practicing, and the more challenging the project, the more satisfaction I get out of it.  I can manage a lot of things at a high level because I work on them every day, and because for a long time I’ve had a vision of how I wanted my life to turn out as a musician.  I’m also fortunate that I’ve had guidance from the best people in my field, who have all embodied the traits listed above and are always inspiring.

Why My Hindi Isn’t Getting Much Better, or, the Emotional Experience of Learning a Language

I’ve been India for almost six months; I’m two-thirds of the way through my trip.  My Hindi has gone from about 10% to 20%.  (I took a class a few years back and can read and write the basic Devanagari script, but I only speak a little bit.) Not bad, but far below what I had planned. 

“This will be my fourth trip to India,” I said to my friends back in June, before we left.  “And this time I’m going to leave speaking Hindi.”

It’s not going to happen.

Why?  Because learning a language is an emotional experience for me, and I only have the energy for one language at a time.  I thought I could learn to sing Dhrupad at a higher level and get my Hindi together simultaneously, but what I’ve discovered is that the emotional energy required learning a new musical language is equally intense to the emotional energy required to learn a written and verbal language.  My primary objective coming here was to get my singing to a much higher level.  I’m on track in that regard, but it has taken every ounce of physical, emotional, and intellectual energy that I have to stay on track.  I’ve tried working on my Hindi late at night after a full day of practicing and going to class and studying recordings, but I’m just too wiped out.  It goes in my head and then it’s gone the next morning.  It doesn’t stick.

(The other big issue is that most of the people I interact with here speak English, and most of them are fluent.  There’s no reason for them to use Hindi with me when we can communicate much quicker and better through English, and most of them want to practice their English.)

Way back in March of 2013 my friend Kaliope told me that learning a language is an emotional experience.  She teaches in a French school and is 100% fluent in English, French, and Greek, so she knows what she’s talking about.  I thought I understood what she meant at the time, but I didn’t.  Now I do.

What does that mean that learning a language is an emotional experience?  For me it means that words and phrases (spoken, written, or sung) are rooted in real-world, physical experiences that are intertwined with feelings.  I learned the Hindi words and phrases that I know well through real experiences.  The book work is useful of course, but only as a supplement.  I can’t learn a language from a book any more than I can learn a style of music from a book.

Learning Dhrupad is the same thing.  When I sing certain phrases in certain ragas I have very distinct memories of when Gurujis taught me those phrases or when I picked them up from a recording.  I also remember the feelings I had at those moments.  They are not just sequences of notes; they are definitive moments in my live, real emotional experiences.

I’m pretty hard on myself, much more than most of my friends realize because of my sunny disposition, so I’ve been beating myself up about not doing better with my Hindi (among other things), but perhaps some time in the future.  I know enough to get by with Hindi/English conversations, and I can read signs and I do reasonably well with pronouncing the text in the traditional Dhrupad compositions I’m learning (which I write in Devanagari since it’s much more precise than the English transliteration).  But that’s probably about as far as it’s going to go with this trip.  Maybe I can come back some time in the future and do a two or three-month immersion intensive.  But for now my focus is Dhrupad, and how lucky I am to be able to focus on that.  My life is vastly better now that I’m singing Dhrupad at a higher level, something I could only have achieved with nine months of intense immersion under the right teachers.  It’s an infinite journey, but I’m actually becoming a bit of a Dhrupad singer, something I’ve dreamed of for years.  I’m looking forward to sharing this amazing music with my friends and audiences back home.



 Let’s talk about this for a moment.  This is my fourth trip to India, so it’s not the first time I’ve felt the sting of inequality.  But I have more time to absorb it now since I’ll be here for a while.  The fact is that I live in a fantasy world in America: working roads, clean water, clean air, reliable electricity, public education, and above all: opportunities.

Of course, I know that not all is perfect.  Many of our public schools are a disgrace, we have serious pollution problems (e.g., the Mississippi is one of the most polluted rivers in the world), violent crime is high, the recession has been real and many people are struggling to pay the rent, etc.  But despite all those issues, the fact is that it is still POSSIBLE for someone to succeed in our country.  Even the poorest of the poor can put together a good education from public schools and libraries, and then get government loans to community colleges or institutions like William Paterson University, and from there build a successful life.  People do it; I’ve seen it at WP.  And the poor in our country still typically own at least a few pairs of clothes, a TV, a cell phone, some basic kitchen items, etc.  And we have amazing people out there like my brother-in-law Eric Bender who works with kids from poor and dysfunctional families to show them how to take advantage of the resources available to them.

Not so in India.  I’ve been complaining and grumpy about various things the last few days, but this morning I woke up and said “Dude, get some freakin perspective.”  Yeah, our roof is leaking badly.  Yeah, I’ve been sick constantly.  Yeah, we had some tough weeks getting things working.  But the fact is that we are living like royalty over here. 

What do the people in the slums have?  Virtually nothing.  Their “roofs” are pieces of scrap tin, canvas, and plastic sheets salvaged from dumpsters.  Propping them up is a hodge podge of old bricks and sticks and random metal poles or discarded rebar from construction sites.  These huts house as many as six or seven people.  Their floors are dirt of course and cooking is done over open cow-dung fires, with various scavenged detritus for utensils.  They urinate and defecate in the fields or the sides of the roads.  They own maybe one pair of clothes.  If they’re lucky they have a bicycle or a few cows.  School is out of reach.  If they are able to find work it is of the most menial sort and pays about 30 rupees a day (about 80 cents USD).  There is virtually zero chance any of them will escape this life. 

Monsoon has been hard this year.  In Bhopal there’s been over 85% more rain than usual, a record in over ten years.  Yes, our house is leaking severely, but complaining about that makes me the most cold-hearted and selfish jerk in the world.  I’ve seen the insides of the slum dwellers houses and the “roads” of their areas and at this time of year it is all a mess of running mud, excrement, and garbage.  Disease is rampant.  The water is foul.  They have nothing.  It is a living hell for them.

Okay, so here’s the crux of this post: what have I done to deserve this fantasy life of mine?  The answer: NOTHING.  I was simply born lucky.  I was born into a good family that resides in a rich, functional country.  Yes, I work hard.  80-hour weeks are nothing for me.  But it’s EASY for me to work hard.  I have the materials and infrastructure to do so, and the work is rewarding.  It was all given to me.

So how do I feel when I see these heart-breaking slums?    I feel like a scoundrel.  A cheat.  An aristocratic jerk.

But I enjoy my nice life and I believe in my life’s work as a musician.  And I want to raise my kids well so they can go out and do important things in their lives, which might include helping people in slums. 

I know I can give to the poor (which I do) and I also understand that there are much smarter people than me working to solve the issues of global poverty.  But none of that erases the fact that so much of our individual fortunes are a result of pure, dumb, blind luck.  It’s terribly unfair and brings me to tears.  If you have an answer to this difficulty I am willing to listen and learn.  (And by the way, “It is all part of God’s plan” is not a reasonable answer.  That’s just a glib justification from the rich that maintains the status quo.  I’m not ruling out a religious answer, but that isn’t it.)  If you’re reading, kindly share your thoughts.






15 years of bliss

Today Jessica and I celebrate 15 years of marriage.  I’m damn proud of that. We’re still having fun together, we still laugh a lot, cry on each other’s shoulders, and are very much in love.  She’s a remarkable woman and I’m lucky to be with her.

American culture thrives on disposibility.  Here today, gone tomorrow.  That includes junk food, junk entertainment, and of course the “hook up” culture.  I’m glad Jessica and I have stayed married.  And I’m glad I was never a part of the hook up culture.  I believe in the power of marriage as a means to personal fulfillment, but also as an anchor for a productive, healthy society.  It is relationships like ours that produce healthy kids (that grow into healthy adults), a stable economy, and intellectual and cultural innovation. 

So staying married means more to me than just a quality life on a personal level.  It’s also a powerful way for me to give a big middle finger to everything I detest about popular American culture: the greed, the disposablility, the cheap everything, the lack of commitment, the aversion to work.  And it’s a way to show that marriage can work, despite all the articles in magazines that say otherwise.  Staying married is also a way to celebrate all the things about America that I love: a strong work ethic, commitment, family values, and innovation. 

Some folks say that humans aren’t meant to be monogomous.  I’m not sure that’s true.  Maybe some humans aren’t meant to be monogomous, and maybe some cultures work better without marriage, but I find it interesting that no matter how experimental or liberal a society becomes, marriage is still viewed by the majority of the population as an important foundation for a culture.  This is true in Holland as much as it is here in America.  I’ve read numerous polls that state that although the divorce rate here is over 50%, almost 75% of people still think marriage is worth pursuing.

This all makes me sound rather Republican, but in fact my political attitudes are quite liberal.   I definitely celebrate gay marriage as much as I do straight pairings.  I don’t care about one’s religious beliefs, sexual orientation, skin color, whatever, but I do care about things like work ethic, commitment, and honesty.  A good marriage has those qualities in spades.

Having said all that, I need to qualify my statements by recognizing that I have many friends and family members who have been divorced.  I don’t hold it against them in any way.  In all cases it was for the better.  I also need to recognize that some day Jessica might get tired of my nonsense and throw me out.   Or that if I pass away early she’ll remarry and find a wonderful mate that she’s very in love with.  Indeed, I hope she does.  But none of that negates the power of a good marriage and its importance to society.  Jessica and I have been lucky in that we’re naturally compatible, but we’ve also worked hard to make this work.  I’m happy to flaunt that in public since the dominant message these days from the media seems to be that marriages don’t work and “hooking up” is the way to go.

At any rate, it’s been a great 15 years, and I’m looking forward to another 15 and more.  Jessica is a treasure.

Bro Date

Today I had the great pleasure of cycling with Eric.  Eric is married to Noe Venable, an extraordinary singer-songwriter I met a few years back who has had me play marimba on her last two recordings.  They are a perfect couple: smart, sensitive, and creative.  Eric is a filmmaker, writer, and musician.

At any rate, Eric is a passionate cyclist, as am I, and we headed out today for some urban riding along the West Side Highway.  We started at 34th street and went up to the George Washington Bridge where I snapped a few photos.

We spent a lot of time talking about our families and life in general, as well as bikes and the Tour Divide, a race we both hope to complete soon.  At any rate, it was the first time in a while I’ve been able to hang with another guy for a few hours and I really enjoyed myself.  Most of my companions in life are women, especially my wife and two little girls.  I’m very lucky to be surrounded by such smart, beautiful girls, but I still need some time to hang with my bros.  Eric is the ultimate bro.  He “gets it.”

I don’t need to say any more than that.  If you’re a woman you’re probably rolling your eyes.  If you’re a dude you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Right, bro?

What us composers are talking about

My good friend and mentor Stuart Saunders Smith and I coorespond via letters.  Letters!  He recently pointed out that I have been incorporating more vernacular elements into my music.  This was not a calculated choice, though—certainly not a calculated choice regarding money or fame or something like that.  If I wanted money I’d work on WallStreet.  If I wanted fame I’d try to act in Hollywood.  No, what I really love is experimental music.  Or avant garde or whatever term we choose to use.  Perhaps “personal” is the best term.  I like music that is unique and personal and struggles to make sense of the individual in the larger world, especially the modern one, which I find fascinating, inspiring, noisy, disturbing, and exhausting by turns.

But “personal” can come in a lot of shapes and sizes and in a lot of different genres I think.  When I was in school I remember feeling that my composition and theory professors were pushing a very subtle but real attitude that only music that is written down and ostensibly “complex” was worth anything.  While I could sort of agree with them intellectually my gut told me otherwise.  Sure, Webern’s music is inspiring and gorgeous, but so is John Coltrane, and so is Sharda Sahai, and so is Aphex Twin or Autechre or Meshuggah.  Over the years I’ve realized that I have an omnivorous appetite for music of all kinds and shapes and sizes. And I’ve become more comfortable pointing out the emperor with no clothes. Just because something has the sheen of seriousness and complexity (i.e., complex notation, on a classical concert series) does not make it so.  Some of the music I hear at new music concerts has depth and complexity, but much of it is simple-minded and only has the appearance of complexity.

Of course I can’t comment on my own work in this regard.  Many people love it, but I’m sure there are just as many who think it is terrible.  But that’s true for every living composer and most of the dead ones too!  I do know that when I compose I don’t make charts or graphs and I don’t think much about the structure of the piece.  I stopped reading music journals like Perspectives of New Music for that reason.  Those articles were polluting my mind, making me think I needed to have some sort of hidden  architecture so that down the road some poor Ph.D. student would write a dissertation about how marvelously complex my music is and I would then be handed the keys to the pantheon of Western classical music.  I could almost envision the bust of my head in the hallway at the Eastman School of Music!  How noble and sagacious I would look!  A pillar of Western culture!  I respect the intellectual rigor that goes into those articles and on the resulting “mind play” can certainly be enjoyable, but in terms of my creative process I found them destructive.

When I’m composing well I’m assimilating and processing in an organic fashion the world around me, and the “canon” I’ve built for myself in my ipod.  In my canon you won’t find Brahms because his music just doesn’t speak to me.  But you will find Evan Parker.  Tons of it.  You’ll also find Bach and Victoria and Machaut and Xenakis and Metallica and Aesop Rock and Stuart Saunders Smith and all sorts of other stuff.  (I suppose I am truly a product of the internet age . . .)  Sometimes that means I write 4-4 beats and sometimes the writing is more “classical.”  I don’t worry about it too much.  The only time I get worried is if I start making a chart or a graph.  There’s a big difference between a piece of music and a piece of music theory.  I hope I’m creating the former.

At any rate, this does bespeak of a type of apolitical attitude that pervades my generation.  The good thing about this is that the walls are truly down now.  No uptown, no downtown, just music making.  The vigorous dialectics of the past—which seemed to me mostly had to do with egos and competition of resources—have been mostly subdued. However, the problem is that it can be difficult to discern whether the omnivorous appetites of composers of my generation are genuine or a result of laziness.  Are we really assimilating all that’s going on and creating a true “maximalist” style?  (Sorry, Charles Wuorinen, I couldn’t resist, but it really does apply to us more than you.) Or are we just slapdashing things together?  Copying and pasting our way through each composition?  A little of this and a little of that and a whole lot of nothing?  Are we hiding our lack of technique and thorough training behind a façade of eclecticism?

I don’t know.  But again I don’t worry about it too much.  I’m not a historian or a politician and political music has never had much traction with me.  I’m interested in sound.  And if I can put together a few moments of genuine, personal, wonder-inducing sound—even if just once in my whole life—then I will rest easy that I’ve made a valuable contribution tohumanity.  The only way I see it possible for me to do that is to get up each morning and write music.  Get it played.  Get it recorded.  Then move on to the next piece.

Laid Up. Thinking About Life.

Four days ago on October 1, 2011 I was running about a half mile from home, finishing up a little warm-up brick before a sprint triathlon the next day, and I broke my ankle. I stepped off the pavement to avoid some traffic and ducked under a tree branch while simultaneously stepping over a hubcap and I misstepped with my left foot. My ankle twisted out and away from me and I heard a snap. In a flash I was on the ground. I knew immediately that something was wrong. I got up and tried to keep running, but that wasn’t going to happen so I hobbled back home.

Three hours later and a trip to the emergency room and I learned I had fractured my left fibia. Six to eight weeks before I can run again, at least two to four weeks before I can get in the pool or ride a bike. I obviously didn’t do the race the next day, and I also pulled out of several other races and an Alarm Will Sound gig.

There are bigger problems in the world so I’m not wallowing in self pity. I’m grateful I have access to good health care and a patient wife. I’m also grateful that the recovery rate is generally 100% for these things so I should be just fine in a few months and back to my intensely physical life.

A number of my friends have encouraged me to use the time to think about things a bit and then come out the other end with more clarity and purpose in my life. That’s a curious notion for me, as most of my best thinking comes when I’m doing. Indeed, the two are really one and the same with me. For better or for worse I’ve never been much of a deliberator. I follow my muse, saddle up, and go.

And go and go and go and go. It’s true I’ve been burning the candle at both ends for some time. After just four days of sleeping and sitting around I’m shocked at how much more rested I feel in general. Between the end of a long training season, the stress of school starting, and the pressure of various composition commission deadlines and upcoming gigs, and raising two little kids, my adrenal glands were firing on all cylinders pretty much 24/7. I’ve often gone weeks sleeping no more than five hours a night.

But the thing is that I like what I do. And now that I can see through the lens of a well-rested body and mind all I want to do is get back out there and do it more. I’m especially excited about the composing I’m doing now. I’m also excited about the endurance sports. The addition of endurance sports to my life in the past five years has been amazing, and it’s feeding into my creative work as a musician in myriad ways.

And I’ve begun to really chart my own path as an endurance athlete. My interest in racing and getting faster has waned as I’ve been drawn deeper and deeper into the woods. The long trail runs have become a staple of my life. If I go more than two or three days without getting into the woods I get anxious and uncentered. It’s made me wonder if the psychological problems so many people struggle with (especially in cities) might be a result of nature deprivation. (I increasingly see more and more articles citing scientific evidence to back that up.) The human world certainly has its wonders, but even a Beethoven symphony pales in comparison to a great mountain range or an ocean sunrise. It’s that Sense of Wonder that nature provokes. And being physically dynamic in natural environments heightens the experience for me. It is aesthetic, inspiring, and humbling.

So I dream of trail running and bike packing, and I plot my course for next year. I’m still going to do a few races, but I’m going to put much more energy into organizing my own solo events. Bike packing has opened up new vistas for me as I can go much further and much faster on my own accord, and make my own adventures, which will also include trail running and open-water swimming. (Go HERE for more information about bike packing.) Soon enough. By December I’ll be back on the bike and the trails.

In the meantime I’ll watch Warren Miller movies, read, get better at wrenching my bike, and hang out with my little girls.