Wrong Notes

The following was originally divided between eight posts.  I’ve combined them for better fluency.

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The Incident

The next few posts revolve around an incident I had with a person named Joe.  Joe is about twenty years older than me; a generation older.  We’ve never met.  He’s respected.  I know who he is, and respect him.  He doesn’t know who I am.

As I’m sound checking for a performance, Joe is hearing my Donna Lee Variations for the first time.  As I finish the first variation, Joe yells out, “Watch that second-last note buddy….”

I ignore the comment and continue with the second variation. When I finish, Joe yells out again: “Hey buddy, you’re playing that last phrase wrong!  Check out the recording. The last notes go like this: [singing].  Not: [singing]. You gotta check out Bird’s recording and fix that note!”

It’s difficult to describe the context here.  Joe had no humour or kindness in his voice.  Nor was he trying to politely educate me by generously sharing his knowledge. This was a put-down in the strictest sense.  If we were in the animal kingdom, this was one beast trying to attain dominance over another. He was marking territory.  He was making a division.  He was being inappropriate.

I wanted to respond, but was frozen and speechless.  An internal battle ensued as to how to appropriately resolve this.  I felt I needed to defend myself without compromising the relationship.  It was an awkward situation. A friend who is very well-respected in the jazz community was nearby.  He was listening and was familiar was my arrangement.  He said to me in good humour, but loud enough for Joe to hear: “Don’t worry, he doesn’t know.”  I continued and finished my sound-check.  There were no more words from Joe for the rest of the night…Only vibes.

I’m happy to be writing about this. I don’t know why Joe did what he did.  But I’d like to identify some issues that emerge because of instances like this.

The Wrong Note

First of all, what makes it  ‘wrong?’  Joe thought it was wrong because I played it differently from Parker’s recording.  But I played it that way on purpose.  Is it still a wrong note?  Of course not! I played it exactly how it was meant to be played. I won’t mention the countless examples of respected artists performing standards with ‘wrong’ notes over ‘wrong’ chords in the ‘wrong’ key in the ‘wrong’ time signature with the ‘wrong’ phrasing and the ‘wrong’ instrumentation (‘wrong’ means: different from the original version/recording)

Side note: Some interesting questions you might consider: Would Charlie Parker (or Miles) have cared that I changed their notes?  Generally speaking, how has the tradition accepted ‘wrong’ notes?  Does that matter to you?

I might as well reveal the real absurdity, which is that Joe plays ‘wrong’ notes all the time with the rest of us.  It’s safe to say that there are too many contradictions and inconsistencies to assume that one silly note is at the heart of this situation.

So why did Joe care about my ‘wrong’ note?

Here’s a likely possibility:  Joe didn’t really care about the note.  But he used my ‘wrong’ note as an opportunity to publicly expose what he thought was ignorance and inexperience.  Yikes!

The Risk

Think about what happens when you suspect ignorance and inexperience.  Immediately, you’ve drawn a line and made a division:  You have more experience, and they have less.  In a manner of speaking, you have set yourself as the teacher, and he/she the student.  How do you handle this?

It’s natural to listen for an artist’s experience and compare it to your own, but the lesson here is how you deal with it.

First, you have to know that when listening to music, it’s impossible to know the exact nature of an artist’s diligence and experience.  What if I told you I’ve never heard a recording of Donna Lee, and that I wrote some variations on a melody I randomly pulled from a fakebook?  On the other hand, what if I was a Donna Lee scholar?  When listening to any performance, you may have your suspicions, but you can never know, especially when an artist’s technical skills are well developed. It’s impossible.

Second, because knowing is impossible, publicly expressing your suspicions is extremely risky.There’s a chance you’re dead wrong. There’s a chance that people will disagree with you.  Also, because you’re assuming an authoritative position, you run the risk of compromising a relationship.  This is especially true if you’re not the fellow musician’s teacher or he/she didn’t ask for your feedback.

To clarify, I’m not saying publicly expressing your suspicions is a bad thing; you just have to be careful.  I know that you want to keep artists honest, but you don’t want to put your foot in your mouth, and you definitely don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot.  Make sure you have enough ammunition and good tact to back yourself up.  This means you have to be extremely knowledgeable of the artist, his/her music and the context.

In my opinion, Joe made three mistakes.  First, he didn’t give himself the opportunity to make a well-informed opinion (he only heard one of ten variations).  Second, he assumed an authoritative position when it was most inappropriate and third, he did nothing to mend an awful first impression.  He misread me, my music and the context.

Not sure if it’s worth the risk?  Here’s some advice that will work 100% of the time: Keep your opinions to yourself.  Read this post on unsolicited opinions.

The Relationship

When is it advisable to compromise a relationship?  Unless there is a serious conflict of interest or ethical issues involved, I would say: Never!  Respect everybody, develop your people-skills and know how other people are responding to you on a personal level.  Knowing how to nurture relationships is very important, especially for young artists.

Why would Joe risk compromising our relationship?  Actually, it’s most likely that he either doesn’t care about nurturing relationships, or he doesn’t realize that he’s compromising them.  The first instance is admirable only because (I’m assuming) he’s only interested in nurturing ‘musical relationships.’  He seeks people he can connect with strictly on a musical level.  This is only admirable to a point, which is when you realize that a person’s reputation isn’t enough to justify being an asshole.

The second instance tells that he is unaware of how people respond to his personality.  It’s social awkwardness.  If you’re an asshole, you’d better figure it out fast and start mending bridges.  Your success depends on it!

The Cut

The tradition has been known to encourage cutting. Was this Joe’s purpose?

Doubtful.  Cutting isn’t practiced much anymore.  Also, doesn’t cutting involve having instruments in hand and letting the music do the talking? I’m not (necessarily) talking about stride pianists trying to outplay each other.  I’m talking about general improv battles and on-stage competitiveness. May the best player win!

No, this isn’t what Joe was doing. Otherwise he would have kept silent and waited until the concert to show how Donna Lee really should be played.  Let the listeners decide!  But maybe the tradition has since morphed into something different. You don’t cut on-stage, you cut off-stage.  You don’t use your instrument, you use your mouth.  It’s not about the music; it’s about your reputation.  You don’t need mutual respect, just the best put-down.

So maybe Joe wanted to keep me on my toes; he wanted to throw me off my game! I hope this isn’t a growing trend.  It would grossly ruin an honorable tradition.

The Division

If I were sixty years old, playing my Donna Lee Variations, things would have been very different. Joe may have dug it, he may have hated it, but I’m sure he wouldn’t have said anything, especially if I had a respectable reputation. That’s why this is an issue.

There’s often a division created between experienced, reputable musicians and the unknown and less experienced ones.  It’s most apparent within a student-teacher relationship where both parties have accepted that a division is needed and should be respected.  Although it is not exclusive to the older, reputable and more experienced; Problems arise when someone assumes a teacher role without the consent of his/her (assumed) student.  It becomes more problematic when those ‘teachers’ feel they are entitled to a division and think their ‘students’ are obligated to accept and respect it.

Here’s the issue: Age and reputation can create the illusion of a proper division between teachers and students.  From his perspective, Joe may have acted out because he thinks his age and reputation are enough to justify a proper student-teacher relationship. (What’s worse is that he’s prepared to act on this presumption in front of friends and colleges!)  From my perspective, if Joe was playing Donna Lee Variations and I was listening, it would have been improper (and social suicide) to even suggest that he played a wrong note and engage in any public critique.  For the same reason, after Joe’s ‘wrong-note’ comments, defending myself was complicated and almost impossible; “Who does Chris think he is defending himself from Joe, an older, respectable and more experienced musician?!”

If Joe’s intention was to create this division, his mistake was in overlooking a fundamental characteristic of proper student-teacher relationships: Mutuality.  With Joe’s forced division and my unwillingness to accept it (especially when it comes to Donna Lee), there’s a conflict.

This issue deserves much attention; it runs deep.  I’ve identified mutuality as a discussion topic, but I realize that it’s only part of the picture.  There are more educational, historical, social and cultural perspectives that are important and should be discussed as well.  For the sake of keeping the focus on Joe, I’ll be sure to revisit this issue in the near future!

The Vibe

To vibe someone is to give attitude (either actively or passively).    It can be as obvious as mouthing off, or as subtle as giving the cold shoulder.  Why do people vibe one another?  You may think that vibe-ing is similar to what I discussed in the previous section.  But I think vibe-ing is different.  It’s not meant to create a student-teacher division.  Instead, it’s used as an attempt to tip the ‘social-status’ scales because for some reason, the viber has a need to express dominance. The fact that Joe vibed me publicly is telling of this.

Nobody likes being vibed, but there are always people who do it. It’s always inappropriate and uncalled for.  I’m sure it has become habitual for some.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if vibe-ing is most prevalent in the performing arts where artists are constantly putting their egos/souls on the line!

How do you deal with being vibed?  It’s quite simple.  In my experience, you’re best option is to blow it off.  If you’re being vibed, chances are there’s something happening in the mind of the viber that runs deeper than a personal conflict with you; it’s not you, it’s them.  Once you’ve blown it off, then you can decide if you want to pursue a relationship. Good luck!  Whatever happens, don’t vibe back.

Nothing positive comes from vibe-ing.  Bottom line:  Don’t do it.  Ever.  Tell your ego to bite the bullet for the moment and expose itself.  You’ll be amazed at how much more satisfying it is and the return can be even greater!

The Future

Joe doesn’t seem to want to correct an awful first impression. And I have no interest in pursuing a relationship; not even a musical relationship. What’s the point? If two musicians have a bad personal relationship, can they still have a good musical relationship?  Can you separate the two?  I don’t think so, and I would never put myself in a position to find out!  If I don’t like you, why would I want to make musicwith you?  Down the road, I’m sure Joe will make good music, just not with me. The ball is in Joe’s court.

It’s amazing how just a few of Joe’s words can bring forward so many issues.  Some of these issues deserve more discussion, but they alldeserve consideration.  I fear they have found their way into the jazz/music culture and we’re taking them for granted.

Thanks for reading!

(Chris’ posts appear every other day at www.chrisdonnellymusic.com. If you enjoyed this post, please share using the buttons below! Sign up for free email updates or RSS updates.  Thanks!)

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