Tuesday, March 31, 2020


What does that mean?  I see the word being used a lot.  It seems to have as many meanings as there are forms of engagement.  In the simplest of terms it may mean saying yes.  It may just as easily mean saying no, depending on the circumstance.  When you say yes to something, consider that you’re also saying no to something.  And when you say no to something you’re also saying yes to something.

That may sound silly but I ask myself, what is it?  In specific terms, in each seemingly solitary choice made, what are the multiple choices being made?  I’m not trying to complicate the situation, I’m actually looking at how this really functions on an elemental level.  Are choices a set of fixed options, as in right or wrong?  Why do too many choices lead to indecision?  What is it about a questionable decision made in the past that feels irrevocable?  Or a looming decision in the future, is that a barrier?  There are certainly challenges and regrets involved in making choices.   Dealing with these challenges and regrets becomes the means towards our survival.  I think that’s very keenly felt right now.  But current events are forcing simplification and clarity.  Combine that simplicity with life and death implications and you can’t help but feel a sense of connectedness.  Each simple common sense act becomes a form of engagement.

As musicians we intuitively recognize this dynamic, ongoing and ever changing process for what it is.  Music falls away as soon as you make it.   Putting frames around the process is a means to differentiate and communicate, in order to function.  But we know the frames are fluid, temporary.   To experience the movement of this framing is perception, of life.   As perspective changes, thoughts and actions change.  Perception of life includes awareness of death although we tend not to speak too much about that.  When you hear Albert Ayler, he’s playing as if his life depends on it.  I think any serious musician of any kind of music knows this.  I feel it when I pick up the horn but when writing about it I don’t know what to say.  We generally live in a world of ideas but I don’t think life or death are ideas.  Ideas are ideas, regardless of their content.  I might say that the breath that we take in, the life force that breathing is, knows life and death, is life and death, every moment.   I don’t want to be overly heavy, but rather to alleviate some of the apprehension around what we are doing and how we are doing it.  Especially now, when the stakes are high and many folks are enduring great hardship.  There can be clarity.

I think we actually do know many of the things we “think” we don’t know.  Across the street from our apartment building a neighbor has a large sign in the window saying “You Got This”.  I think that’s true.  

Having said all that, I want to bring up a specific and practical issue concerning artists and musicians…

I’ve been asked occasionally whether I offer on-line lessons by skype.  The short answer is no, I don’t.  I don’t think it’s possible actually, at least for me.

My thoughts and feelings about the use of technology have been expressed in this blog and elsewhere.  In short, I regret that so much of our activity and experience in and of the world has been replaced by the use of screens and speakers.  The words effort and resistance come to mind as I write this.  Do those words have a negative connotation for you?  They might, since so much of our culture seems to appeal to the idea that we might apply less effort in our lives and experience less resistance in getting what we want.  It’s pervasive actually.  Saxophone players know very well the appeals made by mouthpiece manufacturers, more (sound, power) with less (effort, energy).  But that does not actually work.  The saxophone is all about resistance.  Too much and you can barely get a sound out.  Too little and the sound is thin and wildly out of control.  We need something to work with, some resistance.  The resistance requires effort to counteract.  It’s that dynamic that we use to shape our sound.  It’s the reason the sound of a saxophone is so personal and vocal.

I remember well the yearning and angst I felt around getting the information and opportunities I needed when I was coming up.  It took some effort to buy records or books or to get a music lesson.  I wanted to come to New York but it took much time and effort to make that happen.  There was a lot that felt like resistance, even insurmountable resistance.  But the beautiful, simple and sometimes painful reality was that I could only do things one at a time, one day at a time.  There was simply no alternative.  Fast forward to today…you want a book?  Takes a few minutes and it’s on the way.  You want to find a recording?  Mere seconds are all that is required.  You want to take a lesson?  Take your pick…everyone is offering…

This morning I was asked by a fellow saxophonist if I would be willing to give them an on-line lesson.  Under the current circumstances it’s difficult to say no.  When someone reaches out I don’t want to come up short.  

Going back to the first paragraph, when I say “no, I don’t teach on line”, what might I be saying yes to?  Perhaps I’m letting you know that this is not what it seems.  Perhaps I’m saying dig a little deeper, feel your desire a bit more acutely and think about what it may take to get yourself to someone who can help you.  Perhaps this takes a different form than you expected it to.  Dare I say that back in the day, when we got motivated enough either from boredom or urgency, we got out of the house and found other people to live our lives with.  This is the essence of community and community engagement.  Of course that’s not at all possible at the present time.

So I am proposing something a bit more…engaging…

Let’s start by recognizing what the technology is and what it is not.  An on-line exchange in any form is not and will never be a replacement for a music lesson.  The aspects of music-making that I most emphasize require our physical presence, full senses and ability to respond spontaneously to the smallest detail.  Otherwise there is a risk that the lesson is reduced to information rather than being an experience.  Even in my day to day teaching I often feel that students have the tendency to present their idea of what a musician is, rather than being the musician that they are.  I can work with that very easily in person but not so well on a computer screen.

But the technology does have certain strengths for a different way of working.  Rather than trying to figure out how to do a music lesson in real-time at a distance I propose working together over a longer period of time, some days or weeks.  Using that time as a positive element you can go a little deeper and put in the effort involved in articulating in words what your questions may be, what your experience of certain issues in music making are.  My role will be to listen, guide and challenge you as part of a process that unfolds more slowly.  We would rely upon writing, sharing audio files and at certain key moments utilizing a phone or video call as a means of checking in and expediting the process.  This is asking a bit more of you.  But it affords the opportunity within a certain amount of time to be a bit more thoughtful and bring out greater clarity of intention, to better know what you want to do, why you want to do it and how you might proceed.

I’ve always emphasized process in teaching.  Content is not some external element to be plugged into your practice sessions.  Your practice sessions are part of a process in which content is revealed, experientially.  Even when we are practicing a given, tried and true set of materials, something is revealed, assuming you are paying attention.  It’s never the case that certain elements of practice are “creative” while other aspects of practice are not.  To think this way is to put yourself at a distance from what you’re doing.  Let’s close that gap…

As to the practicalities and specific shape this may take for you, please contact me via e-mail at ellery.eskelin@gmail.com

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