Monday, September 22, 2008

Trouble with Mottos

If you've ever seen Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby then you know where this first motto comes from. Will Farrell's character is a race car driver that lives by the motto below, which was spouted off by his deadbeat dad after he got kicked out of school for giving some advice during career day. At least, he lived by this motto until after his dad gets kicked out of Applebee's years later and confesses to being stoned when he gave that advice.Of course, that's just a fictional character in a comedy about a reckless race car driver with two first names. Nobody would ever really adopt that as their mantra, right? Ever been to Texas?

What's slightly more frightening is the picture below. This is from the bulletin board at the University at North Texas, where I studied jazz as an undergrad. This was the board that posted everyone's ensemble placement. It was a very competitive school, and the point was to prepare us for the real world, at least as far as the quality of our playing. While I believe the intentions were meant to keep us focused and weed out the people that weren't willing to put in the work, "Every Day is an Audition" couldn't be further from the truth once you're in the real world.

The world is full of talented musicians that are better than me or you. It's also full of not very talented musicians that are simply bright people with interesting things to express and use music as their platform. More importantly, it's full of a wide range of people with different tastes and large appetites for music.

At North Texas, the goal was to be in the One O'Clock jazz band. That ensemble is arguably one of the best college jazz bands in the world. Without a doubt, they blew me away every time I saw them perform or even rehearse. But after college, where are they? Many of the guys I knew in that band aren't even playing jazz now. If they're still doing music, they've exchanged their horns for a guitar and started doing the singer/songwriter thing. Why is that? What changed?

Well, it turns out the real world, for musicians at least, is more about survival and less about competition. It's much easier to get by if you're getting along with other musicians and bands, and using the leverage of the greater community to build a sustainable music scene. The key to a great music scene is variety.

Think about your favorite bands for a minute. What do you like about each? I love Ella Fitzgerald because she can sing. Her voice is a whole other class of instrument. Nobody can touch Ella's voice. I also love Nina Simone. Her voice is haunting. Not always in tune, but it hypnotizes the listener. I love Bob Dylan too, but it's because of the imperfections in his voice and what he's singing, not whether or not he's in tune. But I'm not going to go buy all of Ella's albums and none of the others. I want to listen to all of it, and as much as I possibly can.

Similarly, as a band leader, I have a list of musicians I've worked with. When I have a gig that calls for a trumpet player, I don't simply think about the last time I heard all the trumpet players in my list, I'm considering each player's strengths, personality, and who else is on the gig. I want everyone to function well as a band. We don't all have to be best friends, but can't we all just get along?

Finally, on a personal level, I've realized the key to artistic development is not to try and outdo the next guy, but instead just do what I do best. I'm not John Scofield or Pat Metheny or Grant Green or Wes Montgomery. I'll never play like those guys because I don't have their brain. I haven't had the same experiences as them, and I hear music differently. What I love about them is their individuality. The most important lessons I take away from studying a great musician's playing are the characteristics that make them unique. Then I reflect on my own approach to music, and strive to strengthen my own individuality.

Anyone who has had to follow up a great performance can understand where I'm coming from. There's nothing quite as nerve racking as watching from the wing as your predecessor brings the house down, figuratively speaking of course. The best approach is to take a deep breath, take the stage and play for yourself. You'll never be as good at being the last guy as the last guy was at being himself.

Life isn't a competition, every day is not an audition. Instead of trying to be better than everyone else, just focus on being better than yourself and success will usually find you, or at least you'll get calls for more gigs. Mottos help simplify life and motivate you from time to time, but they can also act as blinders, distracting you from developing your individuality.


John Murphy said...

Cameron, I appreciate your thoughts on this sign that was posted on the bulletin board at UNT for a while. I agree that building a community is more important than constantly competing. What I would like everyone to know about the UNT jazz program is that it is constantly changing. There are changes in the faculty, changes in the students, and changes in the curriculum. We're planning to add music business courses to the degree, for example. Just as students continue to develop after they leave UNT, UNT's jazz program continues to develop. I would encourage anyone who has a fixed idea of what the program is or was like to follow the news that I regularly post at (there's an RSS feed).
John Murphy
interim chair
Division of Jazz Studies
University of North Texas College of Music

Dave said...

I feel the same way about it. My jazz school at Northern Illinois U. was also a competitive atmosphere that was out of touch with the real world of a music career. I've been working full time as a musician for years now and I've only had one audition. Getting gigs is based on reputation and recommendations. Play well and play nice.

John Murphy said...

If I were the chair of the department, my motto would be "Every day is a chance to grow in musicality, awareness, and compassion." Wait a minute, I am the chair...

Cameron Mizell said...

John, thanks for stopping by. You're absolutely right, and I should put my thoughts in perspective by saying this sign was on the board when I came to UNT in 1999. During my time there, I relearned how to play guitar and developed an incredibly solid foundation as a musician, which has allowed me to play professionally today. I liked all of my teachers and owe a lot to many of them. I even had your jazz history class your first year on faculty. I remember because we had class at 8am on 9/11. I made great relationships at UNT as well, and work with several musicians I met in Denton on a regular basis. And I'd always recommend UNT's jazz program to anybody that is serious about learning to play. It's not a mistake that so many great players come out of that school.

However, while I was there the elitist, competitive attitude definitely existed in a small but very present and outspoken clique. It was mostly among the students who had been at the school the longest, and it trickled down to the new students who looked up to these guys as great players. But after college, I learned that attitude doesn't get you anywhere.

I also see this sort of attitude in some of the players I meet or work with that are fresh out of other college programs. This is more of a widespread issue, not isolated to UNT. These newbies are great players, but have misconceived notions on how to act. They might play their ass off, but they also act like an ass to the rest of the band. I usually don't see them on the next gig or rehearsal.

In short, I don't live in fear of better guitarists stealing my gig. Instead I worry about what is happening to the world of jazz, how to keep a demand for live musicians in clubs and Broadway orchestra pits, whether or not people will come to my next gig, and more importantly, how to make some kind of living doing what I love. I think these are the kinds of issues faced by musicians everywhere, and we're all better off sticking together to fight the good fight.