Saturday, June 8, 2024

The Art of Breath

    I just took a bike ride through Central Park this afternoon and stopped to listen to a jazz combo play the tune “Star Eyes”.  Took me a minute to remember the title but it was a stalwart choice at jam sessions back in the day.  And a nice tune which got stuck in my head as I tried to recall the chord changes while continuing on my ride.  Of course once I got home I had to play though it, remembering all the little nooks and crannies where one can inject clever little ideas to connect the contours of an otherwise straightforward song.  I’m going to guess it’s been a good thirty years since I’ve played it.  And now I’m getting the urge to look up the Sonny Rollins version.  

    OK, I’m back…it’s been even longer since I’d heard that.  And I wasn’t even planning on writing about this but somehow it got on the page and I had to go with it.  Now I’m thinking about those qualities that make someone’s sound recognizable, on the elemental level, down below all the stuff that we can play, and then gives all the stuff such character.  It’s really one’s delivery that does that and it’s not easy to separate the delivery from the musical content.  In fact, we shouldn’t separate these things, which is something I find myself emphasizing with students when I teach.  But I digress.

Allow me to jump to where I thought I’d begin this essay…

    About a month ago I took part in an art seminar at the zen center I go to and it’s had me thinking.  First, let me say that I am not a visual artist nor were any of the other attendees.  The point of this session was for us to experience drawing in a direct way without our thinking minds interfering in the process.  The first technique we tried our hands at was literally to draw our hand (the one we weren’t drawing with) without looking at the paper we were drawing on.  We drew a number of things that way, including portraits of our fellow artists, except this time we were told to keep our pens moving rapidly and continuously, not lifting them or stopping until a face emerged from the thicket of lines.  But the exercise that surprised me most involved drawing with a three foot stick from a tree found outside that had a small piece of charcoal attached to the end with duct tape.  A bowl of fruit was placed on the floor and we gathered around it in a circle, standing with our branches and sheets of paper placed on the floor at our feet.  The idea was to draw the bowl of fruit.  I crouched down and grabbed my branch like a big pencil before being corrected.  We were to remain standing, drawing with our extended arm.  It’s as awkward as it sounds, the charcoal wiggling around on the end of the stick while you try to make a mark on the paper.  Just when we were beginning to get comfortable we were told to exchange our branch with the person standing next to us, which is like starting all over again, each stick being differently shaped.  We also drew portraits of each other with a bottle of Elmer’s Glue on white paper.  The surprise was seeing what happens after pouring fine black sand over the page.  

    Afterwards we set all the pieces out on the floor and looked at each one.  By this time no one had any pretensions of having done “well” yet we were all impressed by the fact that there was a natural line evidenced in each work, not to mention that each person’s group of works was identifiably theirs.  That’s even more surprising given the seemingly unnatural methods we were utilizing.  We weren’t trying to be natural, personal or identifiable.  We were just concentrating (for dear life) on the movement required to make a mark on the page.  

Think about that for a moment…

    Getting back to those students, I’ve had many accomplished saxophonists come to me over the years, each with their own set of circumstances yet each asking pretty much the same question.  How do I find my own voice?  The simple answer is not to worry about it but I wouldn’t be a very good teacher if that’s all I said.  There are some serious considerations to be dealt with such as the matter of developing one’s ear, acquiring technique, understanding theory, assimilating language, not to mention learning about the cultural history that you are taking up, all of which can become quite compartmentalized especially within a university music program, which is where most young people go to study jazz.  

Here’s a question I don’t have an answer for.  Are university art departments more creative than their counterparts down the hall in the music department? 

    Perhaps I’ll look into that but a more immediate question might be, what is it about that art class that makes me think about these musical questions?  Is there a way to translate that visual experience into a musical one?  If there is an equivalent to the artistic line I suppose it would be the breath, or the bow or whatever means one employs to get something vibrating on an instrument.  The means of sustain, moving the sound in all of the ways it can move.  It implies hearing a melody or even just a sound as something complete in the way you shape it, the way you deliver it, being sensitive to the fact that every note you play is different.  No matter what you are “saying” on the instrument, this directness is essential. I believe every musician has this ability, it’s just that the great ones haven’t forgotten it while the good ones could sometimes use a reminder.  I like to remind myself of this every day.  

    I suppose I’m going to have the opportunity to look at all this more closely given that I was invited to offer a series of group sessions working with sound and listening at the Zen Center of New York City this fall.  One thing I know is that these sessions will differ from the typical improvisation workshops I do at universities in that they will not necessarily be jazz based and will likely involve a range of folks, some who have been playing for awhile and others with little to no experience on an instrument.  In any event, rather than bring too much of an agenda into it I’m going to simply let it take its own form given who shows up.  More news on that as we approach the time.

For now, I’ll leave you with a quote from photographer Diane Arbus. 

“It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognize…Nothing is ever alike. The best thing is the difference.”  

She operated in a visual medium but I imagine we will be finding ways to engage this idea of recognizing what we’ve never heard before. 

As always, if you are interested in private study please have a look at the teaching page of the web site.