Getting the Point

Getting the Point


Photo by Maurits Vermeulen, via Flickr

I met Laurie Frink just before I moved to New York in 2000. She was the last outpost on the way to an existential intersection. Either I would find a way to make my trumpet playing easier and less painful, or I needed to stop and do something else altogether. It was immediately clear to me that Laurie was more than a teacher. She was part “mom” and part Yoda, with a healthy dose of drinking buddy you can trust to “give it to you straight.” To a huge community of students, she was a one-woman hub in our musical flowchart. The proof of this is the tangible lack of center we have felt since she passed away in 2013.

I put a lot of pressure on myself to be good at playing the trumpet—to be great—always. I’m aware of how delusional that is, but I think anyone who has put an appreciable amount of time and energy into learning an instrument has a similar eccentricity at one point or another. While in this state, I was complaining about the lack of consistency in my playing to Laurie. I was frustrated with my shortcomings and was bearing down, practicing too much, and emotionally (and physically) exhausting myself. She stopped me in the middle of my tiny nervous breakdown and had me take a deep breath.

“Nate,” she said, “I’m going to tell you something very important that everyone should know about playing trumpet.”

A pause.

“Sometimes you just sound like shit.”

I made her clarify that she meant everyone sounds bad sometimes and not that every trumpet player should be aware of my personal limitations; a question she answered by calling me an idiot. I miss Laurie.

“You get the point, thought, right?”

Yeah, I did, and it’s stuck with me. And, in the broadest sense, everything I’ve written in the past month has to do with her point. It can be summed up in the following:

It’s just music.

My experience is that no one accidentally produces a masterpiece, and that there is no magical moment in time that is a distillation of all you are as a musician. The power of making music is found in the accretion of work and thought we put in over a lifetime, not single moments of inspiration. These brief periods of creation are important, of course, but don’t deserve the weight we give them as a culture.

The importance of John Coltrane is not found in Giant Steps. It’s present in decades of dedication to mastery of an instrument and exploring musical possibilities. However, because this is not easily quantifiable, more weight is put into a handful of moments like Giant Steps, either because they have become reified through writing or because they lend themselves to assessable classroom lessons. And that’s not a problem. It is an important step to understanding music. However, when our experience of a musician and her/his work stops at this level, a problematic mode of thinking occurs.

To start with, we hold ourselves to a standard that is unrealistic and, frankly, pointless to work toward. Pointless, not because no one can live up to John Coltrane, but because why would anyone want to? We can appreciate the knowledge gained from studying his music, but should only take his example as a starting point for our own. The only thing that can come from trying to live up to another artist’s work is to become paralyzed in our attempt to do so.

The concentration on what I’ll clumsily call “hero worship” leaves no room for critical thought and growth. The attachment to one particular artist, or to one period of their work, degrades potentially useful discussion into the modern equivalent of taking our ball and going home.

This is the crux of what I have been working towards, with a certain lack of elegance, for the past three weeks. I think it is crucial to remind ourselves of who we are and what we have learned by thinking critically. By being aware of our small moments of enlightenment, and expanding their lessons over a lifetime of creativity, we put our humanity into music instead of making music our lives.

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7 thoughts on “Getting the Point

  1. Brighton

    its not just music to me, it’s art. We emulate Coltrane or Monk or Mozart because quality matters. Humanity is boring compared to music. Trying to add to the legacy of classical music we have inherited is as worthy a life’s mission as I can imagine.

  2. Nate

    I agree, Brighton. It is art, and I don’t think that emulating Coltrane is bad, as I think I stated. I am simply saying that if we all stop at emulation, then it ceases to be art and becomes…emulation. If we worry so much about quality that we don’t take risks and do something new, then we stagnate.

  3. Arnold Hammerschlag

    Music is a practice. Materialistic culture is obsessed with commodifiable things. Critics, authors and the like can be a positive influence on culture through understanding the ethos of living life as a practice and an art — as well as understanding further shortcomings and subtleties of commodity culture.

    Laurie is amazing. Yes, everyone sounds like shit sometimes. That’s very real, very sobering. Maybe that’s good for all of us so we can be good human beings. If there weren’t bad days could there be good days? It’s part of the terrain we are trying to traverse. How do you traverse the terrain?

  4. Michael Robinson

    Perhaps the underlying principle here is quality. While an undergraduate, I was fortunate to have private composition lessons with Don Funes, who was a remarkably creative thinker and teacher. At the end of one lesson, Don asked me to bring a definition of quality for our next meeting. After some thought, and without consulting any existing sources, I settled upon: “Quality is epiphany illuminated by a jewel of the lotus”, with “epiphany” representing something musically eventful beyond the mundane; “illuminated” referring to one’s technical ability to express musical thought; and “jewel of the lotus” denoting the individuality of the utterer. So, if you’re talking about “hero worship” becoming an end unto itself, that might compromise quality because the element of individuality would be negated.

    Its been fascinating for me to see how the musics of various artists I’ve loved has stood the test of time or not. Giant Steps, which I have known intimately out of great admiration, is not something I return to often, perhaps, in part, because Trane repeats himself so much during his solo. On the other hand, I cannot get enough of his original recording of Invitation, which is a miraculously luminous and soulful rendition floating on an impossibly hypnotic tempo.

  5. Michael Robinson

    When aspiring musicians enter into the area of “hero worship” there is
    no guarantee they will reemerge and eventually graduate into a
    realm of their own; something like the famous concept of Nietzsche, that which doesn’t
    overwhelm us makes us better (altered). Fortunately, Bob Dylan did survive
    Woody Guthrie, Lee Konitz did survive Lennie Tristano, John Lennon did
    survive Elvis Presley, etc.

    Today, any musician is fortunate to survive the staggering weight of
    sheer multiplicity and volume of musical genius that is readily at our
    fingertips. Perhaps the best strategy is to focus on one or only a few
    “heros to worship” at a time.

    Here is Lee Konitz demonstrating how he is, among other things, an innovative composer improvising in real time.

  6. Michael Robinson

    Connecting the music examples above, in his NYC apartment, Lee Konitz once showed me the manuscript paper where he was in the process of transcribing John Coltrane’s Weaver of Dreams performance from the Cannonball and Coltrane album.

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