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You Are Your Instrument

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“Blow your life through your horn.” —Arturo Sandoval

We musicians have a special relationship with our instruments. Some of us have spent a lifetime searching for that one special horn, or mouthpiece, or set of strings that helps bring life to our music. Cuban jazz trumpeter, Arturo Sandoval expresses it perfectly. We need to put the breath of our spirit into our instrument if our music rings with authenticity. And, of course, we need a horn/instrument that resonates with our spirit. And when we find just the right “friend” our music soars to a higher level.

Recently, I was reviewing some of my old journals and I came across the following entry of a few years back – a perfect illustration of how important our instruments are for our creativity, and for some of us, our ministry. Here’s what happened . . .

It was a whirlwind weekend. Arianna (my daughter and vocalist of our group, Oîkos) and I arrived in Denver during a severe snowstorm. We drove to our hotel in a rental car that had non-functioning windshield wipers. Later that day we traveled back to the airport, to exchange the car for one safe to drive in the snow, then pick up our pianist, Chris, whose flight had been delayed due to the storm. The next day the fun began—a creativity playshop, three concerts and two worship services . . . all in three days. Fun, but tiring.

In the middle of it all Chris and I had a few free hours and went to the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music for a little practice. After exploring some new compositions I put my soprano sax in the case. As we went to leave the case popped open and my new sax crashed to the floor.

I’ve never had this happen before. I distinctly remember latching the case, but evidently not securely. The tumble to the hard floor had bent a rod and some keys—disaster! Staff at the school directed us to a music store a couple of miles away where the repair person, Matt, looked at the instrument carefully and said he could fix it but that he was already booked up for the day. I explained we had a series of gigs and had to leave for Fort Collins (70 miles away) in three hours. After some negotiation, “Well, maybe I could get it done,” became “give me a call in two hours.” And, indeed, Matt was true to his word—the horn was ready, and after some additional fine-tuning my sax and I were reunited.

The concert that evening at Plymouth United Church of Christ was a fundraiser for a local agency that works with homeless folks. Pastor Steve hosted an interfaith gathering of more than 200 folks—half of whom were teenagers getting ready to spend the night sleeping outside in cardboard boxes in sub-freezing temperatures to experience first-hand what it’s like to be without a roof overhead. Since Oîkos literally means “home” in Greek we were able to add depth to the meaning through music and storytelling. Every time I played my soprano I gave thanks to Matt for his willingness to go the extra mile to fix my horn . . . and thanks for Oîkos, my musical home, that provides an abode for creative exploration and an opportunity to make a difference in the world, if only in a small way.

Violinist Julie Lyonn Lieberman maintains that, “you are your instrument.” The Apostle Paul said, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” Think about it.

Wild blessings,
Cliff

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The Mystery of Improvisation

“Improvisation, it is NY conf 01a mystery. You can write a book about it, but by the end no one still knows what it is. When I improvise and I’m in good form, I’m like somebody half sleeping. I even forget there are people in front of me. Great improvisers are like priests; they are thinking only of their god.”
—Stephane Grappelli

 

It’s a question I’ve been asked so frequently that I’ve lost track of the who, what, when and where of its many inquiries. It’s usually asked after a jazz worship service or concert. Someone comes up to me to express their appreciation for the music and the skill of the musicians performing. “How do you do that?” asks the questioner. How did you start out with a familiar song and then, each musician in turn, weave the melody, harmony and rhythm into “that?” The “that” referred to is—improvisation.

As the great jazz violinist, Stephane Grappelli once said, “Improvisation, it is a mystery.” And, indeed it is. But like any mystery there is a back-story, a foundation, a source from which it springs. The mysteriously wonderful outpouring of a jazz musician is the culmination of hard work:

  • Years of learning scales, chords, modes, all of the harmonic fundamentals that create the essential framework of improvisatory music;
  • Through persistent practice—wood-shedding hour after hour to improve one’s technical craft to develop his/her musicianship;
  • Honing the ensemble nature of jazz by performing with other experienced and dedicated jazz musicians before appreciative audiences;
  • Listening to the voice of the Muse—the inner source of inspiration that moves the artist into the soulful depths of creativity.

The first three aspects are based on doing—the disciplined, focused attempt to master a craft. The scales and chords learned are solidified into second-nature by the tenacity of practice and then strengthening those skills within a supportive ensemble environment. It’s only after repeated attempts that one’s improvisatory creations begin to make sense. Even longer before the developing improviser begins to realize that there is a whole other dimension to what he/she is trying to create. The effort of doing leads to effortless being. The Greek’s called this inner spark the Muse, and believed that every artistic discipline had its own Muse that inspired greatness and genius.

Without going into a lengthy dissertation, let me just say that this creative inner voice of inspiration has deep resonance for those of us who are also people of faith. We in the Christian tradition might understand this best as the movement/call of the Spirit—the Divine source of possibility that inspires us on our creative journey. Grappelli embraces this when he states that great improvisers are like priests, and once in the flow of creative improvisational expression, they are so focused on bearing their soul that they are one with their god. As a Christian jazz musician, I call this an act of transcendent communion with the Holy—prayer!

I’ll share further thoughts in upcoming blogs, but I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Wild improvisatory blessings,
Cliff