Last Saturday I was sitting at a 2nd avenue bar called the Thirsty Scholar with my friend Jonathan. We were talking about Ashtanga Yoga, jazz jam etiquette, and his time in Brazil when we heard about the bombing in Chelsea. Despite the scare, we let the night steer us to Union square where we watched some chess matches and met a man named William Lombardy, better known as Bobby Fischer’s chess coach. Lombardy made pleasant general small talk with us for about two minutes before he embarked on a free flowing rant which included a denouncement of the NYC judicial system, a discussion of his eviction battle with his landlord, and a scathing criticism of America at large.

And these are the rich ups and downs of New York City. One minute you’re having a delightful conversation with a new friend, the next you hear of a terrorist attack, the next you meet an iconic chess master, and the next he’s telling you how terrible the world is. I’ve only been here for a few weeks (so check back with me in a few years), but my feeling is that this city is neither good nor bad— it’s just superlative. Due to the incredible density and volume of people from all backgrounds and walks of life, NYC offers you both the best and worst of the human experience, sometimes in rapid succession.

Musically (this is a music blog after all), I’m also offered a daily course of both the best and the worst. I got to school and am literally face to face with some of the best musicians in the world (e.g. improvisation class with Billy Drewes, guitar lesson with Peter Bernstein, master class with Ari Hoenig etc…), I then go to the practice room and am faced with my own mediocrity as I struggle to learn Anthropology, and finally as I’m waiting on the subway home, I’m treated to a sloppy rendition of “Hey Joe” by a drunk busker with an abrasive guitar tone (I call it a “sloppy joe”).

As I encounter such a spectrum of musical quality, it’s difficult to not get caught up in the game of comparing myself to other musicians— variably I’ll think “oh man, I’ll never be able to do that” or “he’s 7 years younger than me, how is he so good?” or “pssshhh, I’m better than that guy.” Yet these are not productive thoughts. Even though I am in school and obviously trying to use this time to improve, comparing myself to teachers, or classmates, or subway singers is not a good way to achieve that goal. For ultimately I’m not studying music because I want to be better than anyone else— I’m studying music because I love it and I want to be better capable of expressing it. If I use the desire to be as good or better than others as my motivation, practices and performances become either a chore or a competition (neither all that enjoyable). Yet if I use my love of music as my motivation, practices and performances become a joyful privilege.

Yet this motivation was reduced to an even simpler level in a masterclass with the great Peter Bernstein (no relation to Leonard). One of my classmates asked him the question “what inspires you to play?” He replied “I just try to get down to the basic fact that I like holding the thing, and I like hitting a note and feeling it vibrate. Sometimes I run into trouble if I get more complicated than that.” He explained that he doesn’t really even hope to sound good, because “well, what if I don’t sound good?” This was a revelation for me. Here was one of the most tasteful and talented guitarists in the world (a man who has performed with artists such as Sonny Rollins, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Diana Krall, and countless others) saying explaining that the only thing that he tries to let motivate him is the fact that he likes to feel a note vibrate against his chest.

Pete doesn’t play because he is trying to be great, or because he is trying to be better than anyone else— he plays because he just loves to hear and feel the notes. Musician or not, there’s a lesson here for everyone. Throughout the inevitable ups and downs of life, it is wonderful to always have an activity that you know you love to do. Whether it is music, basketball, painting, or anything else, the surest way to keep doing your favorite activity is to fall in love with the most basic elements. If you can learn to simply enjoy the sound of a note, or the feel of the ball in your hands, or the sight of a brush stroke on the canvas, or even the mere act of breathing, you’ll have learned something really important about living.

img_0967—Sunset at Coney Island, not related at all to this post, but this was my view on Sunday evening—

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: