Perspective-Altering Things Musicians Have Taught Me (or why I eat avocados)

August 22, 2008

In the course of my lifelong musical education, there are a few people who have said really perspective-altering things to me, and those little gems have changed the way I think about music. The same thing happens in the real world, too, like when you spend your whole life avoiding avocados because they’re so high in fat and then someone tells you it’s the “good” fat and actually they’re okay to eat. Perspective-altering. Life-changing. Anyway, one of those concepts popped into my head last week and I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I will share it with you here, along with some of the other nuggets of wisdom various musicians have shared with me along the way.

One of the composition professors I had in college talked about using the concept of “gesture” as a writing tool. To this day I think it’s the most important thing I learned in music school: the idea that everything you write has to have gesture. Is your musical idea sweeping and lyrical, with overlapping phrases like the sight of a swimmer’s cascading arms? Is it pointillistic and choppy, like Sondheim’s music for George Seurat’s character in “Sunday In The Park With George”? What is the shape of the sound? I wish I could hear his lecture again, because I find it’s hard to explain the ideas. But I remember bringing music into my composition lessons and he would circle musical ideas on my scores and say, “Ah, this is a great gesture here,” and my assignment would be to sustain that musical idea for a page and a half before moving on to the next one. A gesture is small, like the three notes that sit on the lyrics “Bali H’ai” or the lilting beginning of the chorus of “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Those melodies have gesture. Shape. I think about it all the time.

For about the first 22 years of my life I was a solo pianist. I played classical music, tons of it, and many of the hours of my day were spent alone at my piano, practicing. My piano playing was a lone thing or, at most, an instrument to accompany a singer or another instrumentalist. It really wasn’t until I started playing piano in orchestra pits that anyone ever talked to me about the concept of TIME.

In music, “to have good time” means that you are a steady player, that all the beats of the music fall exactly where they are supposed to fall. Especially in jazz and swing music, and I suppose pop music, too, it means that you can play with a groove, that you can hold your own in a rhythm section (with a bass and drums, for example) without rushing or dragging the tempo. When you’re sitting alone in your living room playing the piano by yourself, you are allowed certain nuances to the “timing” of the music you play. Flexibility. Breath. Rubato. Even if you’re playing Bach, the strictest of the classical composers (and one of my favorites), you’re allowed to stretch a phrase here and there, to push and pull the tempo as you follow the musical line. When you’re playing with a swing band or jazz combo or, I don’t know, a Broadway pit orchestra, you are not. (Well, not unless you’re the conductor, but that’s another story.) In my first few years in New York I had a hard time knowing when I was supposed to be strict with my time and when I was allowed to be flexible. A music director told me once that in order to think about time, you have to acknowledge that all the beats are the same, whether you’re playing them or not. If you’re in 4/4, then every measure has eight eighth notes, and they all have to be exactly the same length. That’s easy to do if you’re playing all the eighth notes, but if the measure is half notes or whole notes, it’s awfully tempting to rush right through them. And if you did that, you would have horrible time. Aside from the professionals working in the industry, most of the pianists I hear playing Broadway music have bad time. It is one of the first things I notice, and if it’s not good, I will cringe through the entire performance. Now that you know about it, I bet you will, too.

When I was first starting out as a music director in New York, I remember a fellow music director asked me that awful question, “So what are you up to these days?” It’s an awful question because you’re compelled to say something impressive since the alternative answer, the TRUTH, is “I’m trying to figure out how to pay my rent so I can keep doing this thing for a living.” I don’t even remember what I really had going on, but what I told her was that I had been offered work music directing a few things for free but that I was going to turn them down because I was too far along in my career to be working for nothing. And she raised an eyebrow and pointed out that some of the most valuable experiences she had had were on projects where she was working for free.

Of course she’s right. There are two adages that come to mind on this point. The first is “Work leads to work.” Invariably, some person involved with the project you’re doing for free will think you did a great job and recommend you for the next thing, which will actually be a paying job. Sometimes it’s even a GREAT-paying job. Having a presence in the industry is so important. Also, sometimes there are just things you believe in. There are benefits for causes you support. Showcases for projects you think are brilliant. Cabarets for actors you think are talented and unheard. And you just want to be a part of them. So you do them. I recognize that we can’t always afford to work for free, and I really, really try to make sure everyone who is working for me is getting paid SOMETHING, even if it’s a fraction of what he or she is worth. But since that conversation, I have thought twice about the “I’m-too-important-to-work-for-free” argument, for sure. The second adage is that you have to do a job because it makes you “rich, famous, or happy.” It’s really, really rare that one job will do all three. There are the money jobs that you take because the paycheck is too good to say no. Those are the “rich” jobs. Then there are the jobs you take because of the exposure you’ll get. The interviews. The time in the spotlight. The name-recognition. Those are the “famous” jobs. And then there are the jobs you take because you just want to be a part of the making of something exceptional. Those are the “happy” jobs. If we’re lucky, our careers are balanced with experiences from all three categories.

I have a love/hate relationship with jazz music. The way real jazz musicians think about music is so different from the way I think about music. When I was working on my first jazz-based musical theater score, right after college, I asked a big band leader if he would be willing to teach me jazz piano lessons. He declined, but he told me that all I had to do was listen.

I harumphed for a while, thinking what he meant was that I should listen to a lot of famous jazz recordings and just imitate what I heard. Ha. Easy for him to say. It is possible that he meant exactly that, but over the years I’ve come to think that maybe he meant I should listen more closely to the other musicians I’m playing with. Whenever I’m having trouble hearing myself in an ensemble or locking into the groove with the rest of the band, I play less. I guess for me anxiety leads to me feeling the need to POUND on the piano and make myself heard, and that’s usually disastrous. But if I play more softly, or more sparsely, or with more precision and less grip, the music falls right into place. Always. Unless the drummer has bad time, and then we’re all screwed.

In college I wrote for the school newspaper. Usually I wrote about musical things for the arts section — interviews with Joan Tower, John Cage and George Crumb, reviews of cast albums and at least one generally scathing essay about Andrew Lloyd Weber. In those days, we were responsible for making sure our articles fit exactly into the space they were allotted, and I learned a number of tricks about how to edit down an article without losing any of its content. (For example, in the sentence above I could easily have cut out the words “exactly” and “a number of” and “down” and “any of” and probably made this entire blog posting a line shorter.) Even if I’m not publishing an essay into a certain number of printed inches, I still think about those editing techniques, and I find they have made their way into my compositions, too. Knowing how to edit your work is just as important as knowing how to write it.

All right, that’s enough bloviating for one night. But I will share with you this fascinating article I found while googling “musical gesture” in hopes of finding a more illuminting definition than the one I wrote above. It has little to do with anything I wrote above, but you music geeks who made it to the end of this posting will really appreciate it.

“The Geometry of Music”
Time Magazine, January 26, 2007

PS Thanks to Michael Kurek, Ted Sperling, Kimberly Grigsby, Barry Levitt, and Andy Grogan.

4 thoughts on “Perspective-Altering Things Musicians Have Taught Me (or why I eat avocados)”

  1. kristenaz on said:

    you are so ridiculously cool! I cannot wait to one day have coffee with you and for the love of it… SING WITH YOU! 🙂
    Happy Friday!
    Kristen from AZ

  2. Andrea Slominski on said:

    Hi Georgia,
    wow, well your musings leave me pondering the source of time and gesture and expression through music and all art. In fact one could say that each painter’s individual brush stroke has it’s own rhythm ( thus time) and gesture too!
    The idea of gesture itself hmmm… each gesture that we make with our bodies has an innate meaning and is tied to our archetypal “Humanness” (thinking of Chekhov Acting Method)if you think of it in terms of Jung- a musical gesture, as it is experienced by the writer or the listener is experienced similarly and yet individually by each participant on a deeper level. Add the layering of visual, as in theatre and you can see why live performance is so engaging. The musical getsure is understood spiritually on the level of…. for instance “a sweeping arc”… the sound and notes as they move take our mind, our emotions and our souls right along for the ride…the experiences can be catagorized similarly to states of mind or being… calm, energizing, sharp/irritating, sweeping/grand..
    …you are onto something very interesting in terms of how “Time”-
    (humans love to count consciously or unconsciously)-being a basic sub unit of musical creative expression links our ability to understand and logically experience music and its gestures as something that transports us beyond the ordinary.

    AS to avaocados… I’t’s time for this mommy to make dinner..
    Andrea Slominski

  3. Reed Prescott on said:

    Great article you wrote.

    Jeff Calhoun passed me down some advice that has helped me.. which is very similar to your #3.

    When you take a job, you have to know WHY you’re taking it. If it’s for the money, you can’t complain if it isn’t artistically fulfilling. If you take it to work with someone, you can’t complain about the money.. etc.

    This has helped me tremendously – because I think we all have this ideal about our line of work. And it’s very rare that all those stars align. But when they do – and sometimes it’s only once in a career – it’s magical.

    The job I just got back from was a “rich” job (although there were complications in that respect).. but I knew when I took the job that it was for the paycheck… and therefore, when the artistic quality did not meet my needs, I had a healthy perspective from which to sit back, take a breath, and continue on with the job… because I knew exactly WHY I had accepted it.

    And I think the key word there, is “Acceptance.”

  4. Anonymous on said:

    Quite insightful. As regards the money issue, my wife’s Uncle Stanley says we
    should only do things for “fun, money or marbles.” But as your professor said,
    jazz is about listening. Or, as one really good sax player said, “Tell me a
    story.” Musicians have a slightly different vocabulary than lyricists. But
    they’re all telling you something. But “gesture;” man, that’s hip. Get a lot of
    gestures from JRB on “I Could Be in Love with Someone Like You,” don’t we?
    Thanks for that. Oh, and ask Simon Cowell why, if he’s even paritially
    responsible for the deplorable state of American pop, why anyone at all should
    consider his opinions. Here’s hoping the lucky number is 13!

    Don Stitt

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