Category Archives: Education

“Making It” Up

A running thread through the last few posts (here, here, here), and occasional others throughout this blog (here, here, here, here), is that of the landscape and environment those of my generation(ish) and younger are facing. Gone – or at least fading away – are the “paths” (career or otherwise) that were supposedly ahead of us as we were coming up. It seems so, anyway. (And it was never going to be easy to begin with.) To echo author Bret Easton Ellis, as he put it so well: we’re moving from an age of Empire to Post-Empire. Now, there are certainly pros and cons to each, and I don’t even know if I fully believe that one is better than the other, but it can’t be denied that those big, shiny institutions (i.e., Empire, or, as discussed in my last post, the “real world”) are crumbling and we’re rebuilding a more fragmented cultural environment. Yeah, you can be a college professor (Empire), but you’ll likely be cobbling together adjunct or Visiting-Assistant-Instructor-Fellow-Lacking-Benefits work (Post-Empire). Gone are Mr. Big’s Six Album (and six figure) Deal record contracts given to only a select few (Empire), and everywhere are musicians with GoPros and MacBooks with a worldwide reach (post-Empire). You can ostensibly get your music to everyone right now, but do you actually expect to get compensated? Sure, there’s live performance, but that can also be a financial killer. And if not a killer, you won’t be saving for retirement. Speaking of which, I think we could put retirement in the Empire column…

Matt Borghi, my close friend and musical accomplice, happened to send me this article from The Atlantic on Monday, not knowing I had just posted a somewhat parallel (in parts) screed. Deresiewicz makes some good points, though I must admit that I didn’t walk away from it knowing what the overall thrust of the article was, if there was one. (Though, sometimes all you need is mention of entrepreneurship and declining superpowers.) Some of the thoughts were a bit bizarre – we’re beyond the age of the “great work”? I don’t buy that. Just because we don’t have as many powerful gatekeepers and curators as we once did doesn’t mean that the works aren’t being made. I would argue that it’s more of a problem of not being able to easily sift them out from all the others. Also, the author talks about the devaluing of the 10,000 hours concept. I don’t know about that. While he does have a point – and I’ve seen it firsthand – that connections can help one more than his or her work, most of the cream eventually rises to the top. (Even if eventually = after death.) The deep, substantial works are being made amongst the noise of the novelties surrounding them. And eventually the fluff will die away. And as far as depth vs. breadth, why are they mutually exclusive? As someone who has many disparate musical influences, I would like to think that such breadth is an asset in my hopefully one day making something with depth. Though, related to the 10,000 hours, I did ask on this blog over five years ago: For those with disparate influences (i.e., learning and become proficient in various and/or competing styles), is 15,000 the new 10,000?

Admittedly, this quick post may not have a point, other than to tie recent posts together and point to that Atlantic article. Ellis’s article on The Daily Beast is worth a read also. On a related note, I recommend this piece by Matt.

To close, the end of the first paragraph reminds me of a song by the long-defunct group in which I met Matt, The Elevator Conspiracy. Written shortly after the 2008 economic crash, we wrote and often played a sometimes-wailing-sometimes-spoken-word song in rehearsal titled “Retire the Empire.” We all really enjoyed it but I don’t believe we ever played it live. As much as we dug it, we just couldn’t get it to “click.” I have some scratchy recordings somewhere that I’m sure will never see the light of day beyond the band members. Though it was originally concerned primarily with the economy, it’s funny to think of how broadly accurate it was.

Making Up “Making It”

In most professions, but particularly artistic endeavors, the concept of “making it” looms large. However, what makes “making it” an especially frustrating goal in the arts is that the meaning is so vague and often almost completely subjective. So-called career paths in the arts are extraordinarily varied – there are as many options as there are practitioners. One person’s success is another’s stumbling block. My dear friend and kindred musical spirit Pat Harris writes well on this topic in his 12.20.14 blog post.

“Making it” has, for me, become more mythological than tangible over the last few years, much more of an abstraction than something measurable. Often you’ll hear or read in interviews artists saying something to the effect of, “At least I don’t have to have a[n office] job,” and that’s generally the accepted barometer. But I think it’s far more complicated.

The quick go-to answer, I suppose, is that if you “do music full time” then you’ve made it. But that can be very misleading, and ultimately it’s reserved, in the purest sense, for a fortunate few. On the surface, one can make all of their money from the saxophone, but there’s a wide gulf between making an living from playing your own music (or, rather, music of your preference) and paying your bills by freelancing, teaching lessons and/or classes, arranging, and occasionally performing and recording your own music (the latter at a loss, as you’ll finance it yourself). Add to that an anemic economy overall and a culture that continues to financially devalue music at an exponential rate and you have a recipe for disaster.

Enter academia. If one wants a life in the arts but the stability of income and benefits, then simply get a teaching job. More importantly, teach college. And make sure it’s a tenure-track position. The only problem there is that stable tenure-track positions are, at best, holding steady in the arts and, at worst, becoming an endangered species, a relic of the past much akin to VHS cassettes and rotary dial phones. More concerned with the bottom line, universities have (and continue to) become increasingly reliant on temporary (non-tenure), part-time (adjunct and fixed-term), and/or student (be it graduate or, in some case, undergraduate [!]) workers to fill the space once occupied by full-time faculty. All of this occurs against a backdrop of terminal fundraising campaigns, campus construction and beautification, and increasing entertainment and activities budgets. (And yet, all the while, the university has also transitioned away from a bastion of free speech and free thought and exchange of ideas into a stifling kid-gloves-only safe zone hesitant to push anyone’s buttons or challenge the status quo. But that’s a topic for another day and blog…)

That’s not to say that college positions don’t exist; far from it. I have friends and colleagues who have secured good jobs in the last couple years, but they’re definitely in the minority. And, for some of them, they’re so busy with their teaching, committee, and recruiting duties that they find little (if any) time for their instrument, manuscript paper, or research beyond keeping the rust off. As for the majority of those with advanced and even terminal degrees in the arts, they work in directly- or tangentially-related positions; some of them have gone into completely different fields altogether. Directly related positions would often be cobbling together enough adjunct work and private lessons to amount to a somewhat full-time income (without security or benefits — there’s no such thing as a paid sick day when running a private studio) via myriad part-time jobs. And adjunct work mostly pays a pittance, particularly considering the amount of work that goes into it.

I’ve worked (for separate institutions) both as an adjunct professor since 2009 and as annual fixed-term faculty since 2011. If I purely got paid for the actual hours I’ve put into both jobs over the past several years, then I could probably pay off a great deal of my mortgage lickety-split. Instead what matters is the credit hour, or how often I see the students face-to-face in the classroom. Small details such as lesson plans, continually creating and revising assignments, handling student and department email (with atrocious etiquette, by the way), grading (or, for you European readers, “marking”), and meeting with students outside of class are beyond compensatory concerns. Of course, I probably sound ungrateful in this context. That’s not the case, as I do very much enjoy teaching. At this point, I do it more because I get something worthwhile out of it than just a paycheck.

One possible side effect of teaching as one’s backup profession is that actually teaching can be seen as a hindrance to one’s own artistic endeavors or research. I know a few professors (both full-time and adjunct) who, at best, find teaching to be okay, and at worst despise it. Students can tell when a teacher doesn’t want to be there. It certainly makes a (detrimental) impact. So why make everyone else suffer along in your own personal drama?

Aside from teaching, aforementioned related positions could include those in arts administration, officially or otherwise. I know folks who do and don’t have degrees in Arts Administration, and sometimes it’s hard to tell who has (or hasn’t) which degree and how it’s helped. (No offense to AA-degree holders. Part of it is my own ignorance.) That aside, it could involve the dreaded “office job” related to an arts organization (i.e., concert presenter, symphony, etc.) or college or university arts department. On the one hand, one still has a job “in music.” On the other, they’re likely spending more time in Microsoft Office (Enterprise Edition, of course) than Finale. Having said that, it’s important to note that not everyone wants to actually perform. Many want to just be involved without being on stage, and this is a great way to do so. For what it’s worth, many of the people I know in this field enjoy their jobs.

Then there’s the dreaded nuclear option: selling out and “getting a [non-arts] job.” Welcome to the cubicle farm, please leave your soul at the door. Right? Eh, not really. Some jobs (and careers) definitely fit that description. Others don’t. For some, a 9-5 job (or the modern equivalent, since that notion is almost quaint now) is a way to have a stable income and security, allowing one to focus on their art in their own time. For others, it can be a death sentence. It’s all what you make of it.

Speaking for myself, I’m a bit of a hybrid. I do have a full-time non-arts job with salary and benefits. I’m fortunate that I telecommute and pretty much stick to my own schedule (within reason, of course). On top of that, I also teach (as is obvious throughout this post and the blog as a whole), both university courses and private lessons. And I perform and record regularly, and the music does well. The best part about it artistically, for me, is that I pretty much only accept the gigs that I consider are worth my time (i.e., I either want to do them or the price is right — fortunately both boxes are checked more often than not). I’m very busy, but I’m not the artsy albatross financially weighing down my marriage, as often seems to be the case. I’m artistically active and satisfied, and my wife and I are financially secure. Occasionally I briefly consider taking on substantially more private students, try to teach additional classes, and freelance more to “only do music.” But then I quickly realize that I’d likely be far busier, have much less income, be artistically deprived, and lack any security for me and my family should something happen to me. Other times I consider going back to school for my doctorate, which I may still do when I’m completely ready, but I won’t be doing with the sole purpose of landing a teaching job afterwards. The chances of that working out are quite small, and if it even worked out, it’d likely be at great financial cost. I feel like I know as many people with terminal degrees who have seemingly abandoned their field altogether as those who’ve been “hired in.”

[Even though it’s no secret, I can sense that my explicitly “outing” my work/life balance has caused a couple readers to condescendingly think poor guy, I hope he makes it someday. I hope the weather’s nice up there on Mt. Pious.]

We don’t lead an ascetic life, but my wife and I are far from extravagant. We are happy, have a house in a great neighborhood and community, and are preparing for an imminent addition to the family. These are choices I’ve made and am both happy with and proud of. How selfish would it be of me to take myself out of the income column to “chase my dream” when I’m actually living a version of it right now anyway? How would that be fair to the family? Some are find with a vagabond-like existence, but that’s not for me.

On a related note, I occasionally see colleagues my age or older picking up part-time temp jobs here and there to fill in the gaps when artistic work is light. That’s perfectly fine, but I don’t know how that’s any more noble than having a full-time gig somewhere. Apples and oranges. If anything, they’re equal.

Tangent 1: This is getting into territory that’s fodder for another post entirely, and that’s the concept of work. Artistic types (in my case, musicians) constantly pride themselves on the work ethic involved in studying a craft and the intellectual benefits of the arts. My social media news feeds are a steady stream of that and how today’s artists are so entrepreneurial. And yet, when asked about working a “real job,” one boilerplate answer is, “I could never do that [work an office/desk job]” or “I have no skills other than [art].” Well, which is it? Are you smart and take-charge, or are you incompetent and lack life skills or work ethic? Pick one. And then there are the folks who’ve never actually worked a minimum wage job (even in high school or college)… But I digress. Again: another post for another day.

Tangent 2: Part of my focus on this topic in my own thinking the last several months is that producing art requires MONEY, something that I don’t think really gets adequately addressed. In order to finance your composition, recording, show, painting, sculpture, novel, or film, you need some sort of income. Back to work: where does that money come from? A job? Selling your art? Contributions? A wealthy family or relatives? A sugar-momma/daddy? Yet another topic for another day. (I touch upon it here but hope to dig deeper down the road.)

Before veering too far off course, let’s get back to “making it.” So, on the one hand I’ve raised the soulless white flag of getting jobs and property. However, I’m artistically active both in my own community as well as regionally and nationally, I teach, and my recordings sell some and get airplay. (One feather in my cap is when I heard Jan Garbarek sandwiched between a couple Borghi | Teager tracks on the nationally-syndicated Hearts of Space, the program’s first episode in its over 1,000 dedicated the saxophone…) And, as I wrote here, Matt and I recently embarked on a brief but packed East Coast tour that resulted in a net profit. I don’t write it this way to toot my own horn, but rather to say that I’m “making it” in my own way. Just like those who only wield their instruments or paintbrushes, and those who teach. The question shouldn’t be “Will I make it?” but rather “Am I making it?” It’s of course a long game, and one should never rest on their laurels. But it’s important to realize that success comes in many forms, and to say that there’s only one way is almost like saying there’s no way at all.



Stand-up comedian Marc Maron describes well the environment which he refers to as “trench comedy.” This includes:
• Performing at small venues for small crowds, most of whom don’t know the performer
• Performing a specific brand or type of comedy – often alternative in nature – for an audience who largely went to the club just to “see a (generic) comedian”
• Hecklers
• Hecklers
• Hecklers
• Performing for a crowd in which your active fan base comprises ~10% of the audience
• Hecklers
• Scraping by financially because your pay partly relies on the size of your draw
• Hecklers

I mention this because it’s a far cry from what most people think of stand-up comedy: George Carlin at Carnegie Hall, The Original Kings of Comedy, Dane Cook’s Vicious Circle – comedians performing for thousands or tens of thousands of enthusiastic fans. But for every special of the fourteen Carlin taped in front of thousands of fans, there are countless performances throughout the country (and the world, for that matter) by “road comics” – comedians who tour the club circuit and largely lack the television and media presence of the A-listers, slogging through the trenches described above. Marc Maron has become a popular comedian over the last couple years thanks to his top-notch podcast, but he’s been at it since the 80s. Hence his authority on trench comedy. Only now, over 25 years in, does he get to headline theaters.

I know, I know – I probably discuss comedy too much on this blog. But it’s relevant, as it often provides good analogies to music. And the above is no exception.

A few months back, after my ranting about a particular textbook (and academic writing at large), I enjoyed a very thoughtful email discussion with my friend and former classmate David McCarthy, a musicologist and saxophonist teaching in Brooklyn. He’s one that I always enjoy talking to about any topic. Always have, and always will. But without getting into our nerding out, one thing he mentioned is that he was glad to have me in the trenches with him, teaching as we do at the college level. The trenches. So very accurate.

Like the comedic triptych mentioned above, “professorhood” has its often-misleading perceptions, especially considering the nationwide attacks on K-12 public education – talk about working in the trenches! Some of these misconceptions are:
• Teaching a couple classes a week, with the rest of the time devoted to one’s research and/or art/vocation
• Cushy salary and benefits
• Tweed jackets abound
• Teaching highly engaged students, most of whom want to study specifically with you
• Office hours = Happy hour
• Grading? Leave that to the T.A.
• You just walk into class, talk for fifty minutes with little preparation, then leave
• Many high-level discussions with students; everyone “finds themselves” all the while

While some of those, and more, can happen for a select few, most don’t experience this. Sure, some on the list are a little over-the-top and/or tongue-in-cheek, but it gets the point across. As for me, I’m not upset about it, but I do try to be realistic. This is no “woe is me” post. I rarely complain about teaching. At all. If I didn’t think it was worth it, I wouldn’t put in all the work. I really enjoy it and my time with my students. It’s just worth noting that a majority of the adjunct/associate/instructors you know grinding away, often happily. But grinding nonetheless. (Similarly, why else would Marc Maron have stuck with comedy after two decades of “arguable” success?)

Even though my friend David and I have never taught together, and currently teach in different states, we’re nevertheless in the trenches together. Along with a number of my other friends and colleagues.
• Many hours are put into research and lesson planning for pennies on the dollar
• We’re often teaching students who have to take and pass our courses, as opposed to students wanting to study with any of us specifically
• Almost no one comes to our office hours if there’s no exam or paper due within a week, so we grade or plan
• Grading. Grading. Grading.
• Occasionally having to teach a music class in a room with no piano, no functioning sound system, or both
• Occasionally being assigned a new/different textbook – sometimes a whole course – at the last minute

Every job has its ups and downs, and is suited for a particular temperament(s). Most jobs also have odd misconceptions of glory associated with them. Almost no one I know is doing it for the glory. They’re doing it for the work itself. Because, trenches or no, that’s often enough.

Complex, Muddled, Indirect Jargon

The above title is a response to one of my favorite phrases and concepts of George Carlin: “Simple, honest, direct language.” (Taken from 1990’s Doin’ It Again‘s closing segment on “soft language” and euphemisms, one of my favorite essays/monologues.)

As both a student and now a professor, I’ve long disliked dense, jargon-laced writing. Learning new concepts, both in graduate school and beyond, can be difficult enough, but it’s compounded when hidden behind opaque prose. Of course what I’m discussing here is simply writing itself, not the concepts and hypotheses it may (attempt to) describe. So imagine my delight when I stumbled upon this article by Barton Swaim on The Weekly Standard‘s website (yes, that’s right…ignore the overall source as I did) via The Dish. Key quotes:

• “Modern academics are not celebrated for the clarity and felicity of their writing… Typically, the only people who actually read academic books and articles are other academics, who only read them to know what they need to reference in their own books and articles. And that’s not reading; that’s trawling.”
• “…Many academic writers, even in the humanities, have legitimate and important insights to convey. Yet they genuinely believe…that it doesn’t serve their interests to write straightforward English sentences.”
• “Bad writing is institutionalized.” (Then paraphrasing the author whom he’s reviewing:) “…Academics learn how to write from three principal sources: their doctoral supervisors, their academic peers, and the academic journals in which they wish to be published.”

Such truth! (Yes, I’m aware that I occasionally ramble on and on here at MT-Headed, but thus is the nature of blogging. Like Stephen King, I tend to have “diarrhea of the word processor.”)

Given all this, I found it odd that the above article was published shortly after I began reading, the brand-spankin’-new Oxford History of Western Music, College Edition (2012) by Richard Taruskin and Christopher H. Gibbs, as SAU decided to make the switch from Peter J. Burkholder‘s A History of Western Music, 7th ed. (Burkholder had revised the infamous sixth edition by Donald J. Grout and Claude V. Palisca.) Consider this – Taruskin/Gibbs, Burkholder, and Grout/Palisca – the newly-complete trinity of music history texts for music majors. I mention this lineage because I have experience with all three:

• I learned from the Grout/Palisca sixth edition as an undergraduate student
• I taught from Burkholder’s seventh edition as a graduate assistant and beginning professor
• I now use Taruskin/Gibbs in my current music history course

Burkholder’s seventh edition was supposed to clear the air that was polluted by earlier editions’ dense writing. It’s user-friendly and doesn’t get too lost in the weeds. This is obviously good for music history students being introduced to the material for the first time. While the new Oxford History… may also attempt to be user-friendly and engaging, it ultimately comes off, to me, as being written as much (if not more) for Gibbs himself and other professors as (than) for new students. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing for me, it presents a problem when dealing with my students. Music history students are generally undergraduate music majors in their sophomore year, meaning that they have a basic musical foundation – music theory, aural skills, instrumental/vocal skills – on which to build a historical context and understanding. Consequently, a lot of the information is new to students. Instead of making the terms and concepts easy to digest, Gibbs at times obscures the main points by telling his “story.” It’s as if he’s going for the musicological non-fiction novel, but it’s important to remember that facts are more important than plot points.

Like the Burkholder – a major revision of an existing work – Gibbs’s book is a major revision, condensing Richard Taruskin’s multi-volume Oxford History of Western Music into a single 1248-page text. There’s of course nothing wrong with wanting to take great content and distill it for new students. Yet Gibbs intended more, as he ultimately had “the desire to tell a story,” writing in the introduction (p. xxvii). That’s fine and dandy, but what eventually occurs are prosaic flights of fancy instead of straightforward, lucid presentations of the material. Consequently, I spend a decent amount of my in-class time re-explaining the text to my students, or simply pointing out which paragraphs and/or passages to ignore outright. Gibbs occasionally goes on an editorial jag or makes his explanations via the scenic route. A couple noteworthy examples (buckle in, fellow music students), specifically about Medieval music (my bold):

• Regarding Notre Dame organum (p.71):
“The music of Notre Dame exemplified St. Augustine’s metaphor of ‘a mind poured forth in joy,’ but it also accorded with the size of the reverberant spaces it had to fill and with a message of institutional triumph at a time notable for its triumphant institutionalism.”

• Regarding Guillaume de Machaut’s motets (p. 101):
“In such an extremely formalized motet, architectural analogies are virtually inescapable, for the elaborate structure were probably planned in advance. The fourteenth-century isorhythmic motet, perhaps the most hierarchically conceived and rigorously ordered genre in the history of European music, was more concerned than any other to incorporate a representation of the higher ‘intellectual’ elements and their controlling influence, which, being hidden from the senses, were in the most literal and etymological way occult. That is another way of interpreting the enormous value and emphasis that was placed on the structure architecture of the motet.”

• Regarding form, formal training, elitism, and patronage (p. 121):
Composers trained in the techniques of monumental musical architecture and who could produce works of grandiose design could put on particularly impressive legitimizing political shows for their patrons, and they found a rich market for their skills.”

Each of these passages could easily be nominated for The Dish‘s The Poseur Alert award given “for passages of prose that stand out for pretension, vanity and really bad writing designed to look like profundity.” For a side-by-side taste test, compare Burkholder’s and Gibbs’s explanation of the Squarcialupi Codex (if you don’t know what that is, even better):

Burkholder (his italics):
“Very few examples of Italian secular polyphony from before 1330 have survived, but after that date there are several manuscripts. The most copious source, unforutnately late and not altogether reliable, is the richly decorated Squarcialupi Codex, named for its former owner, the Florentine organist Antonio Squarcialupi (1416-1480). This collection, probably copied about 1410-15, contains 354 pieces, mostly for two or three voices, by twelve composers of the Trecento and early Quattrocento (1400s). A miniature portrait of each composer appears at the beginning of the section containing his works… Three types of secular Italian pieces appear in this and other manuscripts: madrigal, caccia, and ballata.” (p. 136)

Gibbs (my bold):
“The sources of trecento polyphony often look like the big presentation chansonniers that retrospectively preserved the music of the troubadours. This is particularly true of the so-called Squarcialupi Codex (named after an organist who was one of its early owners), a magnificent compendium put together around 1415 as a memorial to the art of the trecento when that art had already faded. Its expensive materials and lavish illuminations make this codex literally priceless. It is priceless in another sense as well: It preserves dozens of compositions that would otherwise have been entirely lost. The contents of the Squarcialupi Codex are organized by author, each section introduced by a portrait of the composer. Nowhere do we get a more vivid sense of how consciously the poet-musicians of the trecento thought of themselves as the inheritors and reanimators of the lost art of Aquitaine.” (p. 115)

Whew. There’s a lot of information in each paragraph. Burkholder provides the information without too much colorful editorializing. Gibbs, on the other hand, is telling his story – you get the information along with his flowery discussion. As for the final, bolded sentence, I just don’t see the need for it. At least, I don’t know what it had to be written in that manner. Burkholder is more data-driven, whereas Gibbs strives for narrative. Pedagogically, I prefer the former, at least when using a textbook.

I should make it clear that I don’t think Gibbs’s book is bad. There are some wonderful aspects:
• The actual content is great: he not only discusses the relevant musical works, terminology, and figures, but he also provides a lot of cultural and historical context. For example, his discussion of the near-fallacy of “periodization” (pp. 124-7), particularly regarding Medieval and Renaissance music, is very insightful, and great advice for the student.
• Along with the textbook, there is a really nice anthology of scores (edited by separate authors) and recordings – better than the Burkholder/Palisca, in my opinion.
• As a reader, I enjoy the additional historical and cultural context he’s provided.

However, regarding the final point, I have to keep in mind that I’m not reading about the music for the first time. Gibbs’s intermittent editorializing and penchant for using “seven words when four will do” can obfuscate the core material for newbies. Students often have to dig farther than necessary for the actual content. And the digging often isn’t a result of theoretical, abstract concepts, but rather the author’s prose. I’m hoping a second edition will address this.

Of course, this is an issue that extends far beyond The Oxford History of Western Music, College Edition. It may seem like my overall complaint lies with Gibbs, but he’s simply a convenient case study. This is an issue about which I’ve long been concerned, and it just so happened that Swaim’s article coincided with my beginning to teach with this new textbook. While I don’t think that music majors should be taught out of a Dummies book, I would like to see user experience become a more widespread concern.

Style & Canon

Style is much larger than a happy mix of canon and jargon. In fact, it can be downright incendiary.

(Photography by Jillian Hakala)

The week before last, my partner Matt Borghi and I – together known as Teag & PK – had a couple local radio spots. The first was a part of 89.7’s Coffee Break and featured a brief interview, during which we were asked the dreaded question: what type of music do you play? We offered a lengthier-than-necessary non-answer (telling the host what styles we don’t play as opposed to those we do), hopefully hiding our annoyance – not with the host, but with the question. We abhor discussing it. As I touched upon in this post, our collaboration features many different musical avenues: one night we’ll feature electronic ambience and improvisation, the next it’ll be completely acoustic and Matt will improvise vocal blues a la Son House (and well, might I add). Simply saying “folk” does more to exclude a large chunk of what we do than cast a wide net. We’re not bluesy enough for the blues-ers, not folky enough for the folkies, and not jazz enough for the jazzers. Instead we are what we are and quite happy with that. (Although it does present an ongoing PR problem.)

I mention this because “style” in general has been a personal nuisance for many years. A label, on paper, may just be a single word – folk – or handful of words (post-hardcore [huh?]), but in context it presents a multitude of problems. If something is “folk,” then what kind? Appalachian? Woody Guthrie? Hungarian? Ani DiFranco? If none of those, does the label then somehow do a disservice to those disparate forbears? If it’s completely different, why use the label at all? Simply because it’s acoustic and not on commercial radio?

A few weeks ago I finally watched Jazz In The Present Tense: Icons Among Us, the 2009 documentary that “answered” (to put it lightly) Ken Burns‘s Jazz. Now, I know that people love to complain about the Ken Burns behemoth, and I’ll be the first to jump all over it. After all, it spent ~19 hours exhaustively discussing everything jazz from 19th-century roots music through hard bop, but then gave ~45 minutes of lip service to the 1960s avant-garde and highlighting Young Lions of whom Wynton Marsalis approves. Cute. But for all its sins, Burns admittedly did a lot of good – the archival material alone is worth the time and money. And it does a wonderful job of presenting jazz and its beginnings as a product of African American culture, and (rightly) how the music fits into the context of US race relations. However, perhaps the biggest fault (or virtue, depending on your viewpoint) is that the whole documentary is based upon a particular canonical view of jazz and its stylistic definition. It really is pretty solid for the first 5 or 6 episodes, but becomes exponentially narrower as the series progresses. It goes from being all-inclusive  to a museum exhibit, allowing access only to those musicians (curators) who once associated with those now-or-soon-to-be-dead icons. (Wynton played with Art Blakey and therefore is the designated torch-bearer, right?) As one of my favorite professors in graduate school said, “Classical music is now mainly an amusement park for old people.” (This coming from a harpsichordist.)

Enter Jazz In The Present Tense. While the documentary of course features many contemporary musicians from the broader jazz spectrum, it’s thesis has to do with the word “jazz” itself. Whereas Burns (and Wynton, or rather Wynton via Burns) stated This is jazz, JITP asks What is jazz today?. The answers come from all sides – Terence Blanchard, John Medeski, Bill Frisell, Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Robert Glasper (his newly-released Black Radio is getting much press), Donald Harrison Jr., Marco Benevento, and more – and it’s quickly evident that these disagreements aren’t  slight. For example, Harrison’s obsession with both hard bop and his association with Art Blakey would even make Wynton blush. The divide between the more traditional jazz-is-anything-up-through-hard-bop and jazz-needs-to-keep-changing-to-stay-alive camps is quite evident. The filmmakers also take some time to focus on the word jazz‘s parallel in rock: jam band. I was very refreshed to see that, as “jam band” is more of a bad word than anything according to many musicians. After the Grateful Dead, most bands who featured improvisation wanted to be called anything but a jam band, a problem that continues to this day. Of course, Herbie was the one to perhaps best state the problem, saying, “The term jazz, in a sense perhaps, is its own worst enemy.” Herbie, one of the last remaining living legends – literally – is still light years beyond not only many of his peers but also the younger generations, both artistically and intellectually. (One of the many reasons I hold him on such a pedestal.)

[Side note: I couldn’t help but literally laugh out loud when Nicholas Payton appeared on my television as the first interviewee, spouting his nonsense. For those at least peripherally aware of online jazz “debates,” he’s heated up the blogosphere the last few months with self-righteous, incoherent rants, stating that jazz is now dead and that we should call what we think of as jazz “Black American Music” instead. Payton’s new term isn’t the problem – it’s his schizophrenic non-explanations of it. He does make compelling points now and again in his various blog entries, but the ongoing argument as a whole is…something. NPR’s perennially-disappointing A Blog Supreme has given Payton’s tripe far more attention than it’s due. If you’ve seen #BAM on Twitter, that’s probably why…]

Of course, this isn’t a film review. My viewing the documentary, coupled with the recent radio spot, are simply two instances out of countless similar experiences I’ve had. But the whole dilemma of style isn’t just an matter of definition, but one of context, as it’s reliant on many factors. One such factor is canon. Every style has its major works that serve as hallmarks. However, once you scratch the surface, you become aware of just how deep the rabbit hole can go, as not everyone will agree on everything. As with the two jazz documentaries, Burns was comfy with most styles through Hard Bop (except for Cool/West Coast), and Icons found almost no consensus on anything.

The classical canon, and expectations of students’ familiarity with it, has stuck in my craw for many years. Going to college and graduate school for (mostly) classical performance is interesting for a saxophonist, considering the instrument is only ~165 years old. Consequently the instrument’s repertoire is only a fraction of the size of the flute’s, violin’s, or piano’s. This causes two issues: 1) saxophonists, unlike most other classically-oriented instruments, are immersed in contemporary music, but 2) this also causes a deficit in performing and knowing older (Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, early Romantic) literature. While most classical saxophonists probably couldn’t pick out the second movement of one of Beethoven’s string quartets, we also can pick out and understand the sequenzas of Luciano Berio better than most other classical musicians. Does that mean that classical saxophonists are somehow “less than”? No, it’s just a different animal. Speaking for myself, I have an interest in many of the older/other styles and genres, specifically Renaissance and Baroque music and Wagner. (The latter goes deep.) And my personal (not just academic) interest in orchestral music has really deepened these last couple years. But of course home base, classically speaking, is still contemporary music. (To reference another recent internet meme, I’ve been correcting a musical blind spot. With much enthusiasm.)

I definitely agree that in order to learn a particular style of music (be it a broad category such as classical or jazz, or perhaps narrower like heavy metal), one should be intimately familiar with both the style’s history and the details of its evolution and various iterations. But I don’t believe that it ends there. Not at all. Those who’ve forged ahead to create something new – large or small – have almost always included some sort of outside source or influence. Besides, regarding the above jazz discussion, the biggest argument against the jazz-must-continually-evolve-and-include-outside-styles crowd is that it overlooks or even disregards earlier styles. Following that logic, however, why is it that pre-Hard Bop purists are allowed to do the same for later styles without similar condemnation?

As regular readers know, I’m equal parts classical, jazz, and pop. (Only in that order for alphabetical reasons.) I cringe each time I write, say, or type “classical and jazz saxophonist,” or anything else to that effect. Honestly, I just consider myself, plainly, a “saxophonist” or “musician.” And frankly, at the end of the day, the only canon I’m really concerned with is my own – the canon that has shaped me. As a musician, I’ve worked for years on developing my own personal style and aesthetic. Much work indeed remains to be done, and I’ll arguably never be complete. If someone were to assemble the canon of Michael Teager’s musical education, there would of course be saxophonic references – Coltrane, Liebman, John Harle, James Carter, etc. – throughout, but it would also include the music of the Top 5, Elton John, Richard Wagner, nineties rock, and ECM, just to name a few. Yes, I know A Love Supreme forwards and backwards. (And rightly place it above most other works of art, where it belongs.) But I’m just as familiar with CrashMellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and Aenima (to focus on ’95-’96). And they’re just as important to the musician I am and continue to become as any other “major work.” I discussed this latter point slightly over a year ago here.

It’s not that I think standard repertoire need be diminished or negated, but room must also be made on the pedestal for other, more individualized preferences. In fact, such personalization should be encouraged. While younger generations are becoming more open-minded, it seems that the old guard, especially in classical music, jazz, and other academically-associated musics, remain set in their ways. Slowly but surely, the boundaries are eroding.

This topic has many tributaries, and if I go any further you’ll need breadcrumbs to find your way back. But it does tie together. Style – jazz, classical, folk, blues, rock, etc. – is more than just a word, like it or not. It implicitly suggests and entire tradition and repertoire. Even slight deviations from a stated style can jar the listener, promoter, booker, and/or critic, taking me back to the introductory anecdote about Teag & PK‘s “style.” What do Matt and I call our project? Does it matter? It seems to be in our interest to avoid  such categorizations, or simply make one up just to end the discussion. Common problems we’ve encountered are:
• We’re not “folk” because of the sax (and occasional electronics)
• We’re not “jazz” because of all the verse-chorus songs
• We’re not “blues” because it’s too folky
• We’re not “rock” because it’s guitar and sax
• We’re not “indie” because…we’re not hipsters? 🙂 (We still haven’t figured that one out.)
• Those ambient improvisations? What the hell are those?!?

And to top it off, we really don’t care what it’s called. We’ve considered calling it “acid folk” – not to be confused with “psych folk” – just to have something consistent. And it doesn’t offend any purists we may encounter along the way. When Matt’s canon – ambient, rock, Flight of the Conchords, and blues that Alan Lomax would approve of – meets mine the result is something beyond either of us. It’s also beyond simply picking one style and sticking to it.

The result is what matters. Not what we call it.