Identity and Representation

Little over a month ago I ran into a former student at a performance. As we caught up with one another, he mentioned conversations or topics we had explored a few times years ago. We discussed the idea of what it feels like when you feel like you don’t really, fully, belong where you are. Certain interests, that make us unique, can make us stand out, and sometimes, feel alone.  These interests may authentically line up with who you are as a person in the present, but at the same time, the expectation of who you are or should be professionally, or as a representation of a gender, culture, or race, is in conflict with your authentic self.

The example of this mix match in identity for me is being a Dominican man from the Bronx, who plays the trumpet, and specifically specializes in classical music. When I’m in NYC, I’m Dominican. When I’m in the DR, I’m American. Everywhere else in America, I’m African American, or for short, black (I’m also bald :)). The good news is that I am okay with all of these labels. In fact, I hold them as badges of honor. I can be all of these things at once while being a musician, and more importantly, being myself. Of course, there are expectations and responsibilities that come with these labels. Being a musician, who looks like me, comes with its own set of assumptions; for example, I hear, “you must play jazz or meringue, or salsa music” or, “you have a Doctorate in music?”, or, “really, you went to Yale?  Oh, for music.”  I love jazz, blues, and Latin music, but lately, if you were to pull the Bose headphones off of my ears, you’d find me listening to South African house music, rap, and John Dowland.  Not quite what one typically would expect.  Okay, maybe the rap music.

My former student, now my friend and colleague, teaches in a place where few people look like him; I can relate. He doesn’t see many folks who have the same intense love for music that he does, but yet he continues to find ways of connecting people, and helping his community see past typical stereotypes. He’s young, so I hope he keeps a positive attitude and stays resilient.  More than ever, we need teachers like him to teach in places where the teacher stands out from the typical normal.  That’s how we learn.

The Westerlies Tiny Desk Concert

I love having time to just listen to something new to me. I also love checking out familiar groups with new projects. One of the groups I like to follow is The Westerlies. I came across their NPR Tiny Desk Concerts performance from 2016. And I loved it! It’s a refreshing and inventive program, with great brass playing. Hope you agree.

The Westerlies have a bunch of other video’s to check out, just look them up

Singing President

Recently I listened to another installment of the New York Times Popcast and became even more impressed with the level of discussion about America and in particular it’s relationship with President Obama. This is as close as I ever hope to get in communicating anything political in this forum, however there were a lot of good things mentioned about Obama in this podcast and I feel the need to share.

In my opinion, his most powerful moment was his performance of Amazing Grace at the funeral for victims of the Charleston church shooting. I still get chills when ever I hear or watch this moment unfold.

Talking

This time of year has traditionally been a time of reflection on the year which had just passed. Sometimes I even look through some old journals just to see what I was on my mind previous years. Recently I had opportunity to participate, prepared and give a TEDx talk. The process of putting it all together offered a level of self-reflection which I was not really ready for. However by the end of this undertaking I felt the message in the talk represented some of my journey as an artist. The self-doubt, the persistence, the tension, and the development.

In the end, I would not have done this with out the help and encouragement of the TEDx coaches, my wife, my family, the other TEDx participants and ultimately the my friends.

Color and Classical Music In December

theatre-audience_3133209b-800x305Sometimes I look out into the audience when I perform music. I don’t mean to take an subconscious pole of the demographics of the audience, but it’s hard not to notice. The picture above isn’t what I usually see, in fact the picture below is more of the reality of I tend to notice. Often I am the only person of color in the room, and after 20 years of holiday performances I started to wonder about those numbers.

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I didn’t grow up going to classical music concerts, especially not during the holidays. So why and how I came to the place where I love classical music and am a performer of this music is a mystery to me. Either way this is the common ground under which the audience and I share community.

Picking a high school in New York City

Many of my middle school students already know where they will be attending high school. When I was their age I had no ideas where I’d be spending the bulk of my teen age years.

There were only 3 real choices for me at the time. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, mainly because it’s one of 5 specialized public high school in New York City. LaGuardia was the only one of those schools who featured the performing arts as it’s identity. The others were all about science, engineering or math.

Stevenson High School was an obvious choice for me, hqdefaultpartly because a lot of the people that march in the drum and bugle corps I was a member of went there. I knew they had a marching band and that was a big factor in my appreciation of that school.

Finally my other choice was Julia Richman – Talent Unlimited High School. They have a great performing arts department and were competitive with LaGuardia. I also knew a few of the students from my drum and bugle corps went there as well

The main reason for picking any of these schools was because they had music programs and members of the New York Lancers went to those schools. I guess the arts and like minded people to attend school with was important to me. In many ways that is still true today.

fiorello-470x240I was accepted to LaGuardia and I was very relieved to be going to a specialized HS in NYC. The movie FAME was about that school, so I was secretly humming that tune to myself when I got the news.

I was not a very good student, but I devoted myself to all my music performance classes. Music history and theory seemed like math, science and humanities. Not a good fit for me at the time. I had trouble putting into context why they weren’t as stimulating at the time, they were more of a hurdle I had to jump to graduate.

Eventually I got my act together as a student, and now I’m a teacher!

Composition out of imitation

“What gives the artist real prestige is his imitators.” Igor StravinskyIgor Stravinsky

I deal with insomnia often. When this happens I try to do something productive. I’m a teacher, so I try to use this time to think about teaching or projects for my students. But before I was a music teacher I was a freelance musician. As a freelance musician you tend to give yourself project to match your thirst for creativity. At one point I decided to arrange a few pieces of music for a brass quintet. I did this often because I happen to be a member of a few brass quintets and thought, I might get some good traction if this arrangement becomes part of our normal repertoire. However the piece I choose was not working out in the way that I wanted it to work. The version I wanted to use as a scaffold was written for a large ensemble and a vocalist. The piece is by Kenny Wheeler and it’s called “Gentle Piece”.p03kc96g

After several attempts, over a few days, I totally hit the wall. At the time, I was also working on a graduate degree and preparing for a recital. So I had a lot on my plate. However, these sounds which I thought would work so well for the brass quintet and didn’t, felt great coming out of my out of tune piano. In fact when I tried the improvised section of Kenny Wheeler’s piece, I stumbled on to the opening ideas to my piece for trumpet and piano call “Fractured Trance”.33010

The opening idea lead me to explore more ideas around rhythm and space within that movement. That idea lead to a two more movements and later this became my first piece for trumpet and piano. I followed the same process with the second piece I wrote for trumpet and piano, which were both recorded by a Brian Chin. Finally I used this same process to compose a piece for my middle school students.

Out of that experience I figured out that I can use another source for inspiration, with the full intent on trying to recreate an idea, a vibe or a feeling offer to us by another person. It’s okay to imitate. This kind of imitation can lead to personal breakthroughs.