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.

Interesting Week of Thoughts

When I share something that is linked somehow to popular culture, it’s often because “I am late to the party”, but still want to participate. In this case I may still be late to this party, however, I can’t shake how I felt after watching Black Panther.

My insights won’t offer anything new to the conversation, but I am very appreciative of having another platform to jump from when discussing certain topics with my students. We talked about the music and the imagery of the film. We talked about the significance of the cast and why representation is important. We even got to discuss (or at least I mentioned) they ways in which we view our parents and our roles with them as we get older and start to understand the world differently.

Ideas around representation and imagery of people of color were front and centered in my thoughts as students, a colleague and I watched parts of JAZZ by Ken Burns. Some of the images and ideas were shocking or disturbing to students, however, the discussions were honest and informative. Making sense of these connections in my own mind has been fun. I like being a teacher during weeks like this.

Quotes and New Starts

Starting a new school year at a new school. I find myself thinking about all the lesson plans and units of study I put together over the past decade. Eventually, I get to a place in my thoughts where I think about “change” being the only thing that is constant in life. I think that is a quote or a thought attributed to Heraclius. 

Other quotes that come to mind relate to the kind of teacher or musician I’d like to be…or at least the methods. Stravinsky chief among them has helped me with:

  • What gives the artist real prestige is his imitators.
  • Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.
  • A good composer does not imitate; he steals.

Finally, I land on my favorite Einstein quote.

Small Neighborhood Music School

The Bloomingdale School Of Music is the place whimg_2092ere I took private trumpet lessons, started loving chamber music and starting learning about music composition. It was one of the most important paths set before me.

hall4I had my first moments of personal success at this small neighborhood community music school. Perhaps this is the place that has given me my first opportunities to succeed and fail in a safe place.

Safe places for me

My kid has anxiety, and I had anxiety as a kid until I started doing music. 4th and 5th Grade I was in Mr. Osborn’s boys choir. I took a few ass kicking those years. In the 6th grade I did my best (with a great deal of success) to not be seen at all. I was robbed a few times that year. During my 7th grade year I was transferred into a class that did music, then I joined the marching band. That’s when things started to change.

jhs_22_jordan_l_mott_157_st_morris_av_jehMost people who we recognize as important, carve their own path. Me, well… I’m just lucky the path set before me was the right path for me. If not for one thing in my life, I would be a totally different person. What is that thing you ask? Fear…yes fear has shaped me and molded me into the man you see today.

I’m not going to advocate living your life full of fear and hesitation, however my case it worked for me. Fear and safe places to practice being a person. Where ever I played music felt like a safe place.

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.

Great Find, Funny Path

It’s funny how one comes into contact with new music. I was recently listening to the New York Times Popcast titled “The Return of New York Rap” , which offered a unique discussion about the lack of rap music coming out of NYC the past decade. As I am a native New Yorker and still feel a certain connection to the music coming from there. So to listen to

Jon Carmanica pictured at "The Hip-Hop Renaissance: A Culture Rebirth?" Press Conference during the 2008 CMJ Music Festival at the NYU Kimmel Center in New York City on October 21, 2008. © RD / Dziekan / Retna Digital
Jon Carmanica pictured at “The Hip-Hop Renaissance: A Culture Rebirth?” Press Conference during the 2008 CMJ Music Festival at the NYU Kimmel Center in New York City on October 21, 2008. © RD / Dziekan / Retna Digital

Jon Caramanica and his guest talk about the artist coming out of there and the specific impact the New York radio stations play in getting music out to the masses was very enlightening. Not to mention, the Caribbean and island talk reminded me of home. When I hear topics likes these about my hometown, I feel comforted.

The podcast was so interesting to me that I wanted to read up on some of the artist mentioned in the talk directly from the NYT website. Well, somehow I meandered toward the bottom of the page and saw a trumpeter. His name is Ibrahim Maalouf and I am glad I got the chance to discover his music as well.

Funny, the twist and turns we make towards discovery. From Young M.A.’s “OOOUUU” and Fat Joe and Remy Ma’s “All The Way Up” to Ibrahim Maalouf Live in Beirut.