To say I’m going through a period of transition would be an understatement. After a series of crises, two moves in as many months (plus preparing for a third, cross-country move), and launching an overhaul of my professional life I’m shocked and overwhelmed, but also delighted and excited.
In the last few weeks, I was under a lot of stress and turned to William Bridges’ fantastic book, Transitions. I stumbled upon the book – for reasons I don’t remember – several years ago while I was finishing my dissertation. Even just reading the Google Book preview gave me enough wisdom to navigate that period of transition. Bridges talks about three stages to transition:
All transitions are composed of (1) an ending, (2) a neutral zone, and (3) a new beginning.
Having been raised Catholic, I understand how Easter celebrations represent this cycle in terms of death, stasis, and rebirth. But being the pop music aficionado that I am, I also thought of Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” with the line I found so profound at age 13, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
My understanding is the song is about preparing for the birth of a child. In Transitions, Bridges talks about how a lot of new parents have to mourn the loss of their old, independent life. When “Closing Time” was released, my parents were getting ready to close on their house in St. Louis (where I’d lived my entire childhood) and getting ready to move to Chicago. The move ultimately launched my musical career and other facets of adulthood, but at the time, I really mourned the loss of “some other beginning’s end.” Having had a pretty happy childhood, especially while being unschooled, I expected and hoped that my adolescence and adult life would be pretty similar. For better or worse, that was not the case.
Right now, I’m staying with amazing friends in their new house that is luxurious, private, and surrounded by nature – the perfect retreat for a career reset! But it’s also been important for me to help them get their old house on the market and ready for “closing time” – just like I helped my parents do the same thing 20 years ago (and trust me, hard labor was a lot easier at 13 than it is now at 33…) When I ran to a hardware store a day before Easter to pick up an outlet cover, I was amused to walk in and hear “Closing Time” playing over the store radio. While I was in there for less than 2 minutes, I was curious to hear the next song up. It turned out to be David Bowie’s “Changes,” prompting me to think, “Huh, this must be the ‘Death and Rebirth’ Pandora station…”
Almost as soon as I finished my first Practice Deck for Jazz Bass, I wanted to switch gears to writing a general guide to “versatile practice.” Before I do that, I need to first define versatility through an unlikely source – throwback Kanye West music videos.
Recently, I was talking with my mom about the contrast between my dad’s working-class Chicago roots and his Ivory Tower achievements. The former, we decided, is all about loyalty (maintaining connection to your original peer group), while the latter is all about royalty (achieving elite status by acquiring more competency than your peers). The problem with loyalty is that you tend to get stuck, which leads to financial insecurity. With royalty, you tend to become socially isolated, which leads to personal insecurity.
As I started drafting an outline for a book on versatile practice, I realized that versatility was the happy medium between the two. By practicing establishing connection (to both old and new peers) and developing competency (in various domains), you develop financial and personal security.
Below, I’ll illustrate the differences between loyalty, royalty, and versatility by dividing West’s early to mid-career into five stages.
Part I: Royalty and Loyalty (“Through the Wire”)
West recorded “Through the Wire” weeks after a near-fatal car accident while his jaw was still wired shut (I joke that it makes his Chicago accent even more pronounced). Facing death made him a more competent artist, because he was more fearless and authentic, which in turn propelled him to royalty (culminating with his initiation into the Roc-A-Fella label). On the other hand, the video emphasizes that he couldn’t have survived his accident without personal connections (to his neighborhood, mother, girlfriend, and icons like Chaka Khan) based in loyalty.
Part II: Fragile Versatility (“Slow Jamz” and “All Falls Down”)
“Slow Jamz” represents an almost perfect balance of competency (West showcasing his ability to sample “slow jamz” and create witty verses) and connection (West collaborating with Jamie Foxx and fellow Chicagoan Twista) that characterizes versatility and security. Toward the middle of the song, West recognizes the limitations of his competency and outsources work to a more qualified Twista – a process TribalLeadership describes as “triading.”
“All Falls Down” represents the fragility of versatility and the unfortunate fact that society encourages financial insecurity among Black people and other marginalized groups by promoting mindless consumerism. Even the album, The College Dropout (2004), refers to a more personal form of insecurity. West’s mother, an academician, disapproved of his choice to drop out of college and pursue a career as a musical artist.
Part III: Another Path to Competency (“Good Life”)
“Good Life,” off West’s follow-up album Graduation (2007), is a reference to a quote from West’s mother, who said “It was drummed into my head that college is the ticket to a good life… some career goals don’t require college.” In other words, she acknowledged that there was more than one path to competency and financial security. The (visually stunning) video also demonstrates connection and personal security via West and T-Pain’s bromantic take on “Take on Me.”
That said, the song also shows signs of the mindless consumerism warned against in “All Falls Down.”
Part IV: Heartbreak of Royalty (“Welcome to Heartbreak” and “Heartless”)
“Welcome to Heartbreak,” off 808s & Heartbreak (2008) is the lyrical follow-up to “[Welcome to the] Good Life.” The album was a response to the death of West’s mother and the breakup of his long-term relationship. In the song, he grapples with how his relentless pursuit of success (i.e. royalty) has cost him all meaningful relationships (i.e. loyalty).
“Heartless” is the visual follow-up to “Good Life.” It shows how even the most luscious, creative world (the product of competency) can turn cold and dark without loving relationships (the product of connection).
Part V: (Partial) Return to Loyalty (“All of the Lights”)
While West’s career continues to be fraught with insecurity and controversy, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) offers a fitting resolution to his versatility Hero’s Quest because it shows the (partial) return of something previously lost – loyalty. “All of the Lights,” in particular, demonstrates connection through the storyline of about a flawed father trying to rescue his daughter from poverty, the mourning of Michael Jackson (an icon of royalty who was referenced or sampled in almost all of the previous songs), and the numerous guest artists (Rihanna, Kid Kudi, and many others listed at the end of the video). While it lacks the security of West’s “Slow Jamz” days, it represents wounded triumph over a trauma much greater than his car accident.
While Kanye West has been rightly criticized for a lot of his behavior, I have and will continue to defend him as an artist because his music provided my musician/artist right-brain a roadmap for navigating early adulthood long before my academic left-brain could make sense of it. As a prepare to reinvent myself as a Jazz(ish) Teaching Artist, I want to avoid the traps of musical loyalty (languishing in mediocrity and amateur status) and royalty (trying to gain acceptance in “the club” that will never have me). Instead, I now aim to practice and teach versatility – and finally have the connections and competency to do so. Stay tuned for the e-book guide to Versatile Practice.
I spent years writing a dissertation on authenticity in jazz, then promptly discarded the concept of “authenticity” because it seemed impossible to define. Recent personal crises and professional transitions have provided the definition: authenticity is the practice of balancing fear and love.
The past few months have been a crash-course in fear. I finally understand the continual feeling of “I’m going to die!” that characterizes extreme trauma (something that, for better or worse, my sheltered, White-girl existence has mostly protected me from). The only way to truly move past it is to at least partially accept that, yes, you and everyone you love are going to die (and that when and how remains an unknown).
As overwhelming as fear can be, it is crucial for survival and success. It’s an ancient mechanism that guides you to safety. The trick is to avoid staying stuck in overdrive (anger, trauma, aggression, etc.) or attempting to suppress it (numbness, addiction, passive-aggression, etc.)
If fear is the desire to escape death, love is the desire to transcend it. These are the relationships, passions, and dreams that contribute to something bigger than our own mortal lives. But to pursue love without confronting and accepting fear inevitably leads to heartbreak.
Musical practice (like yoga and other forms of meditation) works best when it allows your fear and love sides to communicate with each other. As you learn to understand your own languages of fear and love, you start to better understand other people’s languages in rehearsal and performance (inability to understand these languages in yourself and others is the root of most conflicts and failures).
This is how I went from writing a 200-page academic dissertation on musical authenticity to creating a 52-card set (Practice Deck I for Jazz Bass) to teach people how to practice musical authenticity step-by-step. In many ways, the latter was much, much harder (and just as time-consuming) because it required me to step outside of academia and experience the best and worst of an authentic life.
At long last, I’ve launched Practice Deck I for Jazz Bass (12-Bar C Blues): 52 Skill Cards for Building Effective Practice Routines, available now on Gumroad for $26! See below for cover and sample cards.
Practice Deck I for Jazz Bass helps you learn how to improvise basslines for the 12-Bar C Blues progression in small group jazz ensembles. Adapting principles of fitness training (isolate, sustain, and increase difficulty), the 52 skill cards empower you to create customized practice routines that are efficient, effective, and enjoyable!
Stay tuned for additional Practice Decks for Jazz Bass and other instruments!
A few months ago, my friend and I coined the term “hot-sponsible” to describe the sweet spot between “hot mess” and “responsible adult.” Since then, I’ve found some unlikely sources of “hot-sponsibility studies.”
Source #1: “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.
Shortly before I came up with the term, another friend told me to check out this book to inform my musicianship and teaching. While my reading of the book got interrupted by what I call my “practicum in trauma,” here are my three main takeaways or connections:
Trauma is less about the severity of stressful event(s) (although that certainly factors in) and more about whether you receive healthy support from loved ones (this is especially critical for young children)
People who go through highly competitive programs (such as in music) tend to emerge with some form of PTSD because competition discourages consistent, supportive relationships (and places you under constant threat of social rejection, which we’ve evolved to view as a death sentence)
Trauma disrupts your brain and body in ways that make it impossible to know yourself and your desires (the hot of hot mess) or to self-regulate (responsibility)
Source #2: “Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad – and Surprising Good – About Feeling Special” by Dr. Craig Malkin
After I started reading “The Body Keeps the Score,” yet another friend told invited me to see Van Der Kolk at a 2-day workshop in Portland. The workshop was life-changing itself, but one unlikely benefit was tangentially learning about “covert narcissism” – which lead me to this book. My takeaways/connections:
Narcissism exists on a spectrum of deficient (low self-esteem and sense of self) to healthy (high self-esteem and self-discipline) to extreme (prone to entitlement and exploitation)
People in competitive fields tend to develop covert narcissism (ricocheting between narcissism deficit and extremity) because we’re told to pursue our passions at all costs (extreme) and constantly given the message that we’re not good enough (deficient)
The key to parenting children with healthy narcissism is to balance warmth (the fun and openness of hot mess) with discipline (the consistency and respect of responsibility)
Source #3: “Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships” by John Amodeo, PhD
“Rethinking Narcissism” led me to this book. While I’ve just started reading this book, it’s already had huge effects. The author opens by telling a story about him and a friend sneaking out for pizza at a meditation retreat – which is an uncannily apt metaphor for most of my life. My takeaways/conections:
People suffer because they feel like they must choose between spiritual practice (self-discipline) and loving relationships (pursuing longings for intimacy) – when in fact the two complement each other
People in competitive fields suffer because they’re told to forsake relationships for self-discipline and to stoke their “fires” (passions and longings) through substance abuse and other high-risk activities
“Dancing with fire” (the process of developing self-intimacy and disciplined pursuit of longings) is basically the same thing as becoming hot-sponsible