Heritage and Innovation

While on a recent road trip through Massachusetts, my wife and I had the opportunity to do a bit of site seeing though this gorgeous area of our country. I'm always struck by the beauty of the foliage and the wildlife that we get to see as we go since there is really not that many trees or wild animals where I grew up in Southern California.

Massachusetts Countryside  Picture via Pixabay.com

Massachusetts Countryside

Picture via Pixabay.com

Southern California Desert  Picture via Pixabay.com

Southern California Desert

Picture via Pixabay.com

We luckily got to meet one of the local farmers who runs Diemand Farms while we had stopped for some lunch. He was so excited to tell us about his family farm and how it was started by his Grandfather back in the 1930's and has been family run ever since. He also wanted to share all of the new things that he was trying to do in order to expand his business while still keeping the tradition of what his Grandfather and Father did before him.

Christoph Caskel Performing "Zyklus" by Karlheinz Stockhausen

Christoph Caskel Performing "Zyklus" by Karlheinz Stockhausen

Jan Williams rehearsing Morton Feldman's "For Philip Guston" at the Berlinische Galerie 1996 - 2001. (picture from the Jan Williams collection of images at SUNY Buffalo)

Jan Williams rehearsing Morton Feldman's "For Philip Guston" at the Berlinische Galerie 1996 - 2001. (picture from the Jan Williams collection of images at SUNY Buffalo)

The history of percussion as a solo instrument is not much older than the history of this particular farmer. Each one of us is responsible for understanding and appreciating the art form we have inherited from our forebears like Jan Williams, Ray Deroche, William Cahn and Christoph Caskel. When they were developing percussion in solo performances, there was no one who came before them, therefore they could do with it what they wanted. But, like all great innovators, they were also aware of the responsibility they had to the art form.

With the advent of social media and digital archiving, we now have have the tools to see and hear the musical choices of sound, instrument choice, and timbre that other great percussionists have achieved through their work. We do not get to hear them explain their decision making process or what led them to make their artistic choices. We must be cautious not to blindly follow the musical choices of others and remain connected to our own musicality so that we are able to back up our artistic choices based on our own experiences.

Like the Farmer who was building and expanding upon his heritage, we need to continue to be adventurous with our musical experimentations because we will never know when your experimentations will lead to something exciting. While it may be ultimately easier to use an instrument or technique that you saw another artist utilize, you may never know if it is the best solution unless you have tried them all.

How Wine Tasting Made Me a Better Musician

Something that is assumed when you begin a career as a musician is that you will spend a large amount of your life in a practice room working to become an expert on your instrument. If I were to calculate the amount of time that I have spent working at perfecting my craft, I would imagine the amount might be a bit staggering to someone else especially since I have been doing this since I was very young. I have spent these countless hours working on technique, repertoire, as well as music theory and history all in order to develop a musical pallet and to make myself the best musician that I could be. I feel that I have picked the perfect instrument for my personality as well because, as a percussionist, I always feel like I have something new to work on in my playing. This time practicing is such an important part of my life because I will always strive to be better at performing, but I have started to realize that practicing alone will never make me a true artist because in order to truly be an artist, you need experience the world around you.

I began my studies as a Doctor of Musical Arts at Stony Brook University several years ago and around the same time, quite coincidentally, my wife decided to join one of our local wine clubs following a weekend of tasting with her friends. I have never really considered myself to be a wine drinker by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, my main wine experience came from Sunday Mass, and let me tell you just in case there is any debate, this is NOT GOOD WINE.

One weekend I decided to go with her on a tasting tour in the Temecula Valley in Southern California while visiting my parents. As we drove through the countryside, going from vineyard to vineyard, I was struck by beauty of the planted rows as well as the process that goes into putting a finished product into each bottle of wine. Luckily the first winery we visited wasn't too busy so my wife and I could take the time and really listen to the folks from each winery guide us though the tasting. 

They described the methods they use to taste the wine, something like...


Take a sip of wine and let it linger in your mouth. ...

Aspirate the wine after your first taste. ...

Take another sip of wine, this time with air with it. ...

Look for balance in a good wine. ...

Note the aftertaste of the wine. ...
Write down what you think about the wine.


All while discussing growing techniques, tasting methods, and the character of the wine in terms of color, thickness, and acidity.   

Artists and poets still find life’s meaning in a glass of wine.
— Joy Sterling

After this weekend, I was hooked. I was fascinated by the different types of wine grapes and the places they are grown. I also wanted to know more about how to pair wine with food and the things I could taste from every sip.  In essence I wanted to know about what I was drinking and to be able to express in words what I was experiencing with each sip.

Now to be clear, I have no interest in giving up my music to pursue becoming a Master Sommelier. But I do get excited at the chance to take a class on wines from different regions, or go to wine tasting in order to try something new that I hadn't had before. I think another reason I'm excited about these things is because this new hobby of mine has little to do with percussion whatsoever. and because of this lack of "percussiveness" I am getting to experience something that I never would have been able to if I was focused on music all the time.

OK, I do occasionally use the bottles as instruments because, lets face it, they sound really cool when struck with a mallet. 


By opening myself up to trying something new that was outside of my usual interests, I have allowed myself to try something I was not comfortable with and these days at wineries have made me a better musician because they have forced me to leave the practice room and live away from my music. That's what a good hobby does for us as musicians and why I now feel that it is important to allow yourself to pursue other interests outside of your main focus without feeling as if you are a bad person for neglecting your instrument.  My hobby has let me experience the world in an different way has helped me notice things both away from music as well as in my playing, that I may not have noticed before. It is an odd thing to admit because we are always told that we must practice our instrument to play better, but we must practice experiencing life in order to become better musicians.

Christmas Time / Perform with Imagination

Image via Pixbay

Image via Pixbay

Christmas eve is upon us now. There is an unique excitement that is exists within the hearts of children during this time as they imagine what might await them underneath the christmas tree. Likewise, there can be quite a lot of excitement for adults during this time, but it is a different type of excitement. The excitement and joy of adults is looking forward to witnessing their children open presents and express sheer elation for receiving that one special gift. I can think of a few special gifts that I received when I was younger that will always have a special meaning to me. 

Image via nypl.org

Image via nypl.org

Much like the young man in the movie "A Christmas Story" Coveting a "Red Rider BB Gun", I can still remember playing with my "He-Man" Power Sword for hours and hours. To be honest however, it is not really the toy that I remember playing with, but the great stories I would concoct from my imagination. Much like props in stage play, the toy was never the main focal point of any story, but merely an item that was used to accentuate an already rich and deep storyline...or as rich and deep as I could muster at 6 years old.

I still love playing with toys, but I do wonder if I could really play with toys with as much imagination as a child anymore, simply because it isn't something I get to do everyday. Imagination is not something you can turn on and off when you feel like it, but it is a skill that must be practiced as vigilantly as one practices their scales or solo repertoire. 

Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.
— George Bernard Shaw
Photo by Daniel Pate

Photo by Daniel Pate

Percussionists are lucky in that we still get to play with our toys and, much to my wife's dismay, we have quite a few of them to choose from. With all these instruments, however, there is the danger for me as a performer to focus on the physical instrument and the perceived qualities as the focal point of my art rather than using my imagination to discover what I can do with these instruments. It is easy to fixate on how pretty your new snare drum looks in your stage setup or how cool all your woodblocks look lined up on a trap table, but visual ascetics aside, these instruments mean nothing if you can't imagine the sounds you want to make with them.  If we are able to focus on our artistry and what we can do with our instruments, rather than the instrument itself, we can truly begin to make music. 

Artists that have managed to captured a level of imagination and curiosity for experimentation using their instruments as the vessel for expression have helped propel our art form by giving performances that are thought provoking and inspirational. They may or may not be conscience of their imagination, but by giving themselves permission to play with their instruments, they can try new and interesting things without the care for what is correct or proper. Most audience members are usually excited to see this level of playfulness, even if they may not enjoy the work itself, because, much like adults on Christmas morning, it's fascinating to watch an imagination at work.  Remember that the audience comes to a concert to see you perform and not your instrument. Therefore an instrument is only as good as our imagination.

I wanted to share a quick video of a very special artist, Laurie Anderson, whom I think exemplifies this sense of playfulness and imagination because she has allowed herself to have fun and try things with out worry of whether they work or not. This video was taken at the New York Public Library and is entitled "The Singing Violin". In this video, Laurie Anderson places a pillow speaker in her mouth in order to mimic the sound of a violin as she sings just because she wanted to see what would happen.   

Musical Photo Albums / Another Reason to Revisit Repertiore

Something that occurs in my household during the holidays, and I'm sure I'm not the only one, is when the family pulls out the photo albums to reminisce about years passed. I don't think I really understood the reason my family did this when I was younger, but I have begun to realize that the purpose of doing this wasn't looking at the physical photos themselves, but the wish to relive those moments of happiness, humor, and joy in our lives that were depicted in these images. Photos have the ability to transport our memory back to moments in time and have it be as clear as if we were presently there.

image via   gallery leather.com

image via gallery leather.com

You don’t take a photograph, you make it.
— Ansel Adams
Iannis Xenakis (1922 - 2001)

Iannis Xenakis (1922 - 2001)

John Cage (1912 - 1992)

John Cage (1912 - 1992)

Perhaps as I get older and begin to revisit old repertoire at a different point in my life, I have noticed that, for me, moments and people I first learned these works with have become undeniably linked. These works, in essence, have become a "Photograph" that I can revisit, from time to time, in order to vividly remember what my life was like. This year in particular I have had the chance to revisit and perform two pieces in particular, “ Third Construction” by John Cage and “Ohko" by Iannis Xenakis that, ten years ago, were a big part of my life in terms of time spent in the practice, rehearsal and performances with a group of friends. I suppose that it is fitting to perform them on what would be the 10th year anniversary of my receiving my Masters Degree from The University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Much like going back to a high school reunion and reminiscing about "the good ole' days" I find myself enjoying performing my old repertoire in a deeper way, because it brings me back to times with friends that I don't see nearly enough in real life. Because we performed those pieces together so much, I feel as if their presences and emotional energy are with me in the hall ready to perform.

Pictured left to right: James Smith, Ian Hale, Daniel Pate   

Pictured left to right: James Smith, Ian Hale, Daniel Pate


 These moments of clarity that have come from performing old repertoire has got me thinking about other pieces that I have performed and taught and how each is tied to a particular moment in my life and a particular group of people. In that sense, performances have a deeper meaning because we are focused on the present, but a bit of our hearts are in the past with the people we care for. For everyone that I have ever performed with, you will always be on stage with me and I thank you for being there with me.

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