Category Archives: Creativity

Defeating Distractions

I find that I have become an incredibly distracted person. Everything is at our fingertips these days and we are led to believe that if we want something we should be able to get it instantly. I want to watch “Forest Gump”, jump on Netflix and watch it instantly. I want to buy a new pair of jeans, jump online and buy a pair. I want to eat pizza, have it ready in 30 minutes or your money back. If we somehow are not able to get what we want as soon (or very soon) after we want it, we are then led to believe that something is wrong or broken either with the system or ourselves. That’s a pretty dark thought but I find myself having these reactions without realizing they are happening. I get frustrated or anxious at times for any number of ridiculous reasons; my browser froze up for 10 seconds, the order I placed online had to be resubmitted, the game I was streaming was slow and the picture was terrible.

I decided to give up any and all “screens” used for entertainment for Lent. Anything that does not have a constructive, direct purpose for being online is gone. No Netflix. No movies on TV. No Carolina basketball games. No news feeds. No Facebook. No YouTube surfing.  No mindless web browsing whose only purpose is to be distracted! Anything that is necessary for my work is still fair game (Gmail, bank accounts, Sibelius, etc.) and any research for a particular project, either around the house or for work is acceptable. It’s only the hours that I could spend distracting myself that I am trying to eliminate. I still probably spend too much time on the computer even without the distractions. But I will say, the last two weeks have been some of the most productive weeks I’ve had in a very long time.

I’ve probably done 20 house projects over the last two weeks. Many of them small things like patching a wall or installing a new thermostat. Many of them are the beginnings of huge undertakings like insulating the attic and crawlspace or installing a French drain system. At first I would find myself sitting around a little bummed that I had assigned this lack-of-screens punishment to myself. I would literally be sitting in my living room staring out of the window wondering what the hell I was going to do. But then I realized, it was the “wondering” that I had been distracting myself from when I would jump on the computer. It was the “how do I make this happen?” that ceased to exist the second Netflix was opened. I didn’t have the “what project can I do today?” anymore because I didn’t have any space for my mind to think. I had forgotten how invaluable it is to have time for your mind to just wander and wonder.

I just read “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert and she talks about creativity and inspiration as living forces that seek out minds that are open and willing to take a chance. The big ideas that we have are like little magical friends that are looking for someone to grab onto them and give them life. If we turn ourselves off or decide we don’t have the time for them, they sadly end up leaving in an effort to find someone else that will give them a voice and presence. The distractions that we are bombarded with everyday are like kryptonite for these little dudes. It saps our energy and gives us less time to nurture our magical inspiration friends so they can grow up and turn into something new and wonderful and they end up leaving. Over the last few weeks, I think word may have gotten out to them that I am working on being a more responsible parent and I’ve been pleased that these days I have a lot of little inspiration buddies to take care of and help grow up into strong, independent, well-formed projects.

Blooming Where You Are


Photo credit: Rhonda Kennedy
Photo credit: Rhonda Kennedy

While in graduate school, I had the pleasure of taking a class entitled “Jazz Historiography” with Dr. Lewis Porter. As part of the final paper for the class we were required to interview at least one notable jazz musician in regards to our chosen topic. After considerable deliberation over a few weeks, I decided to write about two of my favorite things, Jazz and food. Since thinking about food always takes me home to Durham, I decided to interview Nnenna Freelon who also happens to live in my hometown. It was during this interview that she told me about a saying her grandmother told her that she holds very close to her heart. It would have a tremendously positive impact on me and I want to share it with you. The saying goes, “Bloom where you are planted.”

I recall walking down the hallway at C.E. Jordan High School and being approached by the band director, David Robinson, towards whom I have nothing but gratitude and appreciation. I had decided earlier in the day that I couldn’t be a part of the jazz big band because I didn’t think that my schedule would  allow it. It was a bummer and I had been feeling bad about it all day. In a moment that literally changed my life, he found me and told me that I absolutely should be a part of the group and that we would make it work. At the first rehearsal I remember being so excited by the energy coming out of the music and filling our band room. It was raucous. It was sultry. It was great. The seed had been planted. I was falling in love with one of the greatest things to ever be created, Jazz.

The following year, once again, my life was changed. Friends in the band, who continue to be some of the most important people in my life to this day, encouraged me to be a part of the jazz combo program. Soon, I found myself buried in headphones listening to Lee Morgan records. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Joe Henderson became artists-in-residency in my car stereo, and “Chick Corea” and “Return to Forever” became loaded terms signaling extreme badassness  and excitement between friends and me. I found myself constantly listening and becoming completely absorbed in the music.

As a young jazz musician learning about the history of the music, New York became a sort of Mecca and visions of pilgrimages to this hallowed musical ground began to emerge. But it wasn’t until deciding to attend graduate school at Rutgers that I finally made it to the big city (well, close to it at least).  If I was going to be a jazz musician I had to be in New York, right? Everybody knows that. You want to play jazz, you go to New York and live in a tiny studio apartment with about four other guys, wash your clothes in the sink, eat Ramen noodles for a couple of years, and play with some of the greatest musicians on earth. But how could I leave my family back home in North Carolina? I had already been apart from my girlfriend (now fiancée) for 2 years and the distance between the big apple and the old north state wasn’t getting any shorter. It was a problem with no good solution. It wasn’t until my conversation with Mrs. Freelon that I was introduced to another way of thinking about my path.

I love North Carolina. I love it! Sure it has its problems like a legislature that’s taking us to hell in a hand basket, a power company that’s poisoning the water, and support for teachers on par with a soggy paper towel, not to mention the soul-crushing summer humidity.  But I’ve never had ice cream as good as at Maple View Farms. I’ve never had barbeque as good as at any one of the dozens of restaurants dotting the Triangle. I’ve never seen as many fireflies at dusk as I have on a misty evening in Chapel Hill. I’ve never felt so nostalgic as I have after walking to the car after an old school Durham Bulls game at the DAP. And I’ve never met so many musicians who are full of energy, passion, and love for each other and for the music as I have in North Carolina.

“Bloom where you are planted”. These words echoed in my head as I pondered my life path. It was so encouraging to hear someone who is so successful and full of love assert that it was possible to grow and bloom and flourish to your full potential where you have roots. Living away from home I realized that my heart lives in the south and my roots are deep. New York is an amazing place and I look forward to visiting often and playing as much as possible there but I know that there is so much room to grow here in my hometown. I can bloom and be a part of this wonderful garden planted right here.

Back to the shed…

The Craft & The Creative

GarDel rehearsal

It’s hard to remember a lot of things about being a kid but one thing I do know is that I loved (and still love) Legos. Saturday morning was celebrated with a bowl of corn pops, a full helping of “Duck Tales” (woo-oo!), and then hours of imagining sieges by invading forces or bloody battles on the high seas with Lego pirate ships and castles. Oh, how many little men in blue tumbled helplessly down the stairs of their seaside fort under the swords of those swashbuckling pirates only to come back to life a moment later to turn the tables and drive the attacking ships away. I could have sworn I had a medieval fortress set complete with catapults, drawbridges, and the like but I can’t for the life of me find it.

Of course, first thing was first, you had to build the damn thing, which if you can recall the “War and Peace”-sized blueprints they gave you, was no small task. It became all the more frustrating with the search for that one tiny keystone piece in a haystack of identical looking pieces. Where the hell was it?! The sugar buzz from the corn pops was wearing off and elation was quickly turning exasperation as the contents of the entire box were examined over and over again but to no avail. The morning had started off so well but the dread of having to find some alternate source of entertainment was growing as the piece remained unaccounted for. Until…YES! the missing piece was found (it had disguised itself with some nearby furniture). The morning proceedings would continue as planned (after another bowl of corn pops)!

While these mega construction projects provided no shortage of entertainment, I also had a big red plastic box with the word “Legos” indented in the top that was full of a different kind of potential. When you opened it up there was no blueprint or guide, just random Legos of all shapes sizes and colors. Mind you, It wasn’t a collection of spare parts or discarded pieces, not a Lego graveyard, but rather a box of raw materials urging you to make something with them. It was a warehouse you could visit that held all of the building supplies needed to construct an array of towers, a strange martian city, a bridge out of some Dr. Seuss book, a house with wheels on it (yes, there were wheels you could attach!), or whatever else the imagination could hold. Most of the time I had no idea what was going to come out until I started building and then it would often morph and change as the hours passed.

Of course, as a little kid you don’t think about the activities that you are engaged in as being particularly useful or even essential for the development of your professional life. That’s the whole point of playing! You aren’t focusing on anything except the world you’ve created and the tasks necessary to survive and thrive in your imaginary realm. But reflecting back on it as someone who has dedicated the last two decades to the study of the sound, composition, and improvisation, I am struck by how formative these Saturday morning adventures were and how they may have provided some foretelling as to what I would do with my life. After all, as an improvising musician, I’m really just playing with Legos all over again, building ships of sound and towers of tone.

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to visit two middle schools, Culbreth and A.L. Stanback, to talk with students about a variety of subjects and concepts related to music that I labeled “The Craft and the Creative”. First, I’d like to take a minute to tell you a little bit about Sam Berryhill, the man  who runs the band program at Culbreth and has been a good friend for many years now. Even on my busiest days where I’m teaching lessons all over town and then playing a gig in the evening while also writing a thousand emails and trying to practice, I don’t think that I come close to the amount of energy, focus, and enthusiasm that Sam exudes day in and day out. I watched in awe as he pulled every last drop of focus that was possible out of his kids for hours on end. His is someone who has mastered the craft of teaching and has turned it into an art. I am truly grateful that he is teaching our future musicians!

“What is a craft?” I would ask each class.

“An art project!” said one girl

“A macaroni necklace!” said another boy

“Witchcraft!” said another

“Exactly right!” I said. A craft is something that you make or do requiring specific skills and tools to do the job. “You” I said, “are going to be master-craftsmen of sound. Your tools are your instrument, your ears, and your imagination and with them you can create something beautiful.”

I think it can be hard for young kids to really grasp that they can become a master at something. I mean, it makes sense. You’ve only been around in this world for like 11 or 12 years. You’ve only been reading and doing math for like half of that time. Everything is still pretty new…especially playing an instrument. It’s hard to keep in mind that when you first pick up the horn, you are an infant musician. I have two crazy-cute nieces who are both toddlers and like all of us they couldn’t do much of anything when they were infants except eat, sleep, and…you know. I’d say that even that is more than we can do when we first pick up a trombone and try to buzz into the mouthpiece to create a sound. It comes out sounding like…poop! But that’s okay! You have to start somewhere. I’m sure Mozart sounded like garbage when he first played the violin. I bet the neighbors thought a cat was dying somewhere nearby. However, aside from his natural talent, he spent more time playing music, thinking about music, and writing music than most of us spent on anything by the time he was 6 years old. He was a grown-up musician before he was an actual grown-up. More than anyone during his time, he became a master-craftsman of sound. The craft is essential but the creative is the goal. “I want you to get so good at playing your instruments” I told the classes, “that you don’t ever have to think about how to play. You can just play!”

That’s one thing I’m not sure kids do much of these days. Just play! Just open the box, pick out some pieces, and let your imagination and curiosity be your map and compass. As a kid these days it would not surprise me if there was constant fear of doing something the wrong way. With so much testing and so much at stake for teachers in the scores there seems to be an emphasis on doing things the right way. Fill in the right bubble. Remember the right way to solve the problem. Make sure you write an essay that has the right composition. With all of that, I would never want to pick up a pen and paper and just write a story or pick up my instrument and play spontaneously. I’d never want to let my imagination take me anywhere because I’d be afraid it would take me to the “wrong” place.

The great thing about kids is that while they are still young they have no problem letting go of their inhibitions and taking a trip with you to some imaginary place. I love spending twenty minutes running around with my little 3-year old niece pretending that we found a leaf with special magic powers that turns us into dragons that fly around the big rock city on top of the hill. When I play improvised music, I want to have all of the skills to run, jump, hide, crawl, scream, shout, and whisper so that I can pretend and imagine without inhibition. I want to be a master-craftsman of sound building ships of sound and towers of tone.


Point and Counterpoint


It is such a simple concept. First you begin with a seed, a thought or intuitive sense extracted from somewhere inside of yourself, whether deep down in the depths of the subconscious hidden from view or floating lightly on the surface newly tilled and expectant of attention.  With time, you allow the seed to grow and change until it has developed into an entity with it’s own unique shape and character. Upon reflecting on the thing which you created, you allow your curiosity to take hold and the engine of elaboration grinds into gear turning that which you had into something not dissimilar from the first but with a distinctly different character. The beauty of creation.

It is a wonder that this process happens a billion times over in every moment that our world exists. Life is curious and adaptive, always surveying the landscape while trying to figure out how to fit in to whatever tiny niche may be available. It is also wonderful how we have been able to harness this natural creative impulse to create fantastic art. What begins as a simple melody twists and turns and develops into an entire symphony before our eyes (and ears). Part of the joy of playing music for me, in particular improvised music, is searching for new melodies. There is so much melodic possibility in a simple triad turned upside down, inside out, stretched or compressed. Inversions, retrogrades, ascending or descending, octave displacement, pattern movement by various intervals, and jumbling of notes in a sequence provide endless hours of variation on a particular theme. Applying this process to the creation of meaningful melodies is the ultimate goal but there is still so much fun in seeing what new sound is just around the corner.

Back to the shed…