Music Collective

Don’t Keep Up With the Joneses

Posted by: bwalters on: January 24, 2012

Everyone’s “favorite” encyclopedia provides the following definition for “Keeping up with the Joneses” : “an idiom in many parts of the English-speaking world referring to the comparison to one’s neighbor as a benchmark for social caste or the accumulation of material goods. To fail to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ is perceived as demonstrating socio-economic or cultural inferiority.” So what does this have to do with music? and why should I not try to keep up?

In a musical sense, “keeping up with the Joneses” often involves playing the “latest and greatest” piece to come along. Often these pieces are filled with musical pyrotechnics, the newest cutting edge extended techniques, and difficult (bordering on unplayable) accompaniment parts (ensemble or piano). Because of these factors these works are often viewed as being “important” or significant additions to the repertoire. And referring back to the above definition, many feel that if you are not playing these works you are somehow not as culturally refined. However, in recent months (and maybe years, if I really think back) I have decided that for me to “keep up with the Joneses” (musically) is often counterproductive and many times uninspiring.

Now, please do not infer from the preceding statement that I am against contemporary classical music. Nothing could be further from the truth! I am an advocate of contemporary (or new) music and currently involved in the commissioning of three new works for saxophone. Moreover, for the saxophone whose repertoire is still in its infancy (with the vast majority having been composed within the previous century), new music is the only way to expand upon a relatively small body of truly significant and artistic creations. Don’t ask me to list them, to quote Alton Brown, that’s another show and a huge can of worms! I am, however, very diligent about the projects and composers I involve myself with. Until the pieces are finished, each project is ultimately a journey of faith that may or may not have a “happy ending.” By this I mean that I have no preconceived ideas or assumptions that the music I have commissioned will be the next “it” piece. Frankly, I don’t care. I want to pursue projects with composers and other musicians that will feed my musical soul.

Therefore, instead of chasing the myriad of other performers playing the “must play” piece each year, my advice is to create projects that have meaning to you as an artist and strive to offer inspiring musical interactions with your audiences.  This approach has been taken up by a colleague of mine, saxophonist Hart Linker, who has, in recent months, decided to pursue projects involving music composed in this century, with a focus on minimalist composers. While some might believe this approach to be limiting, I, like Hart believe that this will lead to a greater audience connection as this is music that he is passionate about, and not just playing because everyone else is! He has found his niche!

I have also found that there is an almost opposite problem in many other instrumental disciplines. Meaning, that instead of pursuing the next great cupcake recipe or perfecting bacon ice cream (sorry for the food analogies), many musicians are stuck performing the same over-performed and over-recorded masterworks of their instrument. Here is a quick read on this very subject (WARNING: contains strong language – I’m not responsible if you get offended easily).

I am still working on my particular niche – I prefer mid-century French saxophone music of a few lessor known composers. However, I am continual searching and refining my concert selections for the right balance. One of my mentors, the late Kenneth Fischer, gave me some advice once about music selection – Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. I think you can make the connection, however the “blue” does not necessarily have to be a blues, it could be anything from outside the classical realm. He did not claim this as his original idea, he stated that it came from Larry Teal, the first saxophone professor at the University of Michigan.  Not bad company to be in.

So, what music speaks to your soul? Why? What is your niche?

UPDATE: Here is an article that says some of the same ideas especially item #4.

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