Billy Drewes can levitate. The jovial saxophonist/composer who has collaborated with Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, Tony Bennett, Herbie Hancock, John Scofield and countless others, incredibly is teaching my improvisation class at NYU. He used the first day of class to get to know us, the ten bright eyed graduate students in his class, and tell about his background. He included in his rich backstory the fact that on at least three occasions he thought he was levitating: once after being administered a generous dose of codeine at a hospital, once after being put in a euphoric state via acupuncture, and once during a powerful improvisation at a concert with Eddie Palmieri. Each time he had to physically check to see that he was still on the ground, and each time that act of checking broke the spell. After spending a couple hours with him, it’s no surprise to me that he’s accidentally dabbled in levitation. Despite his undeniable status as a heavy-hitter in the music world, Drewes is incredibly light-hearted and easily swept up in his surrounding experience.
Yet it takes much more than happy thoughts to get off the ground in music. After a week of being surrounded by incredibly talented and accomplished students and teachers, it is clear to me that I’m just beginning to crawl. Frankly I’m not used to feeling so far behind my musical peers. In Little Rock I was sometimes told that I was the “best guitarist in town”— that was certainly a gross overstatement yet I enjoyed the ego boost of feeling like I was among the cream of the crop. Here no one is going to accuse me of being the best, nor of being particularly creamy at all. Yet I didn’t come here to prove myself as “the best” (a generally bogus pursuit if you ask me), I came here to learn. And in a mere hour and forty minute class with Billy Drewes I learned several musical tricks of the trade.
“I’d get the most done when I didn’t have my instrument… just singing,” he said, talking about how he would practice. In other words, any instrument has its physical strengths and weaknesses. You’ll be compelled to play or not play certain things depending on which instrument you play. Yet if you are singing or even just thinking music, you have no limitations other than your musical imagination. It doesn’t matter if (like me) you are not the most talented or natural singer— if you start with your mind and voice and then transfer those ideas to your instrument, you’ll often come up with new and more natural ideas, ideas that truly come from inside of you rather than merely existing on the surface of your instrument.
Later in class he asked us “does everybody read pretty well?” and the room fell silent. If its not obvious, he was talking about reading music (let’s safely assume everyone in my graduate program knows how to read words). “That’s an important thing,” he went on “if you don’t have that, you kinda cut yourself off from things.” Drewes was a strong reader when he was at Berklee College of Music in the 1970s, and as a result he was able to get plenty of gigs. He explained why: “It’s a time thing. It makes rehearsals go faster.” If you can read, you can work all the time.
A large part of our class was also devoted to talking about composition. He was curious if any of us composed music, and everyone did except for one. Drewes himself recently embarked on a composition project called “first ideas” in which he wrote 24 pieces of various lengths, styles and textures which were all simply his fist ideas, with no editing or rewriting. He told us when composing to “keep every idea,” a suggestion that was repeated to me later in the week by my Film Scoring instructor Irwin Fisch. For musical content that does not quite fit in with a current piece often proves perfect for a different piece days, months, or even years down the road.
The ideas above seem obvious to me now—perhaps I should have come up with them on my own. Yet ideas like these are easier to trust when they’re coming straight from the horse’s mouth (especially a horse who has made a living since the 1970s performing and composing music, who has collaborated with a laundry list of jazz masters, and who currently plays saxophone, clarinet, and flute for the Village Vanguard Orchestra). Every day at NYU, I’m being inundated with great ideas. Earlier I described this as “learning the tricks of the trade,” but the truth is, I haven’t really learned anything yet. Musical knowledge is not transferred verbally. The only way I can learn these lessons is to sit down and apply them. I confess I am not the best reader, I rarely practice without having my instrument in my hand, and I don’t keep every musical moment that I compose. I’m still crawling. Yet I firmly believe that if I work hard to incorporate the musical wisdom provided by my brilliant instructors here, I too will be able to levitate someday.
By the way, here’s what I’ve been listening to this week: