Yet more Jeff Schmidt, and observations on the resistance to inlays

Until You Don’t by Jeff Schmidt, another one, like Keating, I can’t keep from talking about

This particular musician’s work is a big part of why I can’t accept the validity of classical string players not putting inlays on their fingerboards. Clearly, he doesn’t place his fingers dead-center on the inlays while he plays this, he shouldn’t, and he is not rule-bound to do so. Equally clearly, his inlays don’t have little pink circles on them that say “F#.” They can’t. He uses scordatura on almost every piece, differently for each one. Kindergarten pink and blue circles would do him no good.

But — and this is such a fundamental truth that I think it escapes people a lot — one does not have to put one’s fingers down exactly on the inlays. They are suggestions, not rules. They are not frets, nor are they tapes.

Part of the reason why inlays are (barely) acceptable in his world I think is actually the predominance of scordatura, and that he works in a genre that doesn’t rely on sheet. Sheet and notation frequently become fraught when one uses cross-tuning as a matter of course.

Nevertheless, it is still so crystal-clear that inlays are not equivalent to pink and blue circles with notes written in them, and are not going to prevent one from using one’s ear unless one has no free will whatsoever. They don’t suck your free will out through your eyeballs, and they don’t demand that one put one’s finger directly on top of the inlay, even though one’s ear says, “Hm, better move that E down a titch, you just modulated.”

A big advantage of pianos in general is that they were deliberately created to be easier to play at any level and much more ergonomically friendly. They are and always have been unashamed children of the industrial revolution, constantly being upgraded and changed in ways that made them smaller, easier to handle, and friendlier to users, as well as constantly being upgraded for superior sound. The fact that it is relatively idiot-proof at beginner levels has only pushed the standards of advanced play much higher; if you can play three notes in tune without thinking, composers simply give you 16 of the damned things to play at once, and you wind up back in low Earth orbit in terms of technique anyhow.

But an awful lot of instruments, and strings are the worst offenders, seem deliberately to be held back in a less evolved state. Bowed strings are maximized for sound yet kept in their least playable, most ergonomically damaging states, to enable as few people as possible to play them because of some “many are called but few are chosen, and we’ll do everything we can to keep it that way” attitude.

They will always be hard to play. It will never be easy to get a good sound out of any instrument, pianos included once you advance past a certain level. One will always struggle to keep an instrument from sounding bad, at times expending the majority of one’s effort in that direction before musicality can even come into play.

But what is wrong with making a device more user-friendly? Is there really a difference between resisting inlays on string instruments, and deliberately putting 58 buttons on a TV/cable remote control because the techno-weenies that design these things get off on making it harder to use them?

All of these devices are machines. They should be designed to make them user-friendly. Getting good sound out of them, learning music, and figuring out what one wants to say on them is already extremely difficult. Electric basses already make people’s fingertips crack, bleed, and go rock-hard. Why not develop instruments, as pianos have been developed, to keep physical damage to a minimum and maximize ease of play? My viola teacher used to tell me to use my eyes and look at the fingerboard anyway. And as I stated above, just because the inlay is there doesn’t mean you’ve gone deaf and have to put your finger right there. If your free will is so fragile that an inlay will suck your fingertip to it like a magnet despite your ear telling you that that E sounds sharp in its present context, you have a bigger problem on your hands.

It’s interesting that three of my favorite musicians, linked to the right, are all either content to use updated instruments that make playing easier (Jeff Schmidt), or else are outright evangelists on the topic (Mark Wood, Cameron Carpenter). Carpenter in particular can be more in-your-face about this than a Jehovah’s Witness on speed; he is happy to bang on for hours, and with justification, about how sick he is of playing devices that can’t be kept in tune and, with tens of thousands of moving parts under the hood, do nothing better than to break, and at the worst possible moment. Wood has single-handedly revolutionized bowed string instruments and encountered no small amount of resistance.


That bass piece I’m arranging

I’m not used to working on stuff where the composer is um … alive and well. If Haendel doesn’t like what I’m doing with his music, it’s not like he’s going to come up to me and tell me.

But it’s a little more nerve-wracking when the composer can say, “Sorry, but that sucks.” Especially since the piece is making me go in a direction I haven’t been in before, a more watery, impressionist direction.

Oh, well. Onward.

The development of musical ideas and uterus-bearing pragmatism

Surrounding something I read in this interview with, yet again, bass player Jeff Schmidt. Quote:

” … I hear a lot of 4 minute plus solo bass pieces, which to my ears anyway, are really 90 seconds of compositional ideas stretched out to fill 4 minutes.”

This is what I previously called “a great idea in a big box full of foam peanuts,” and I think it’s a symptom of musical impatience, and a failure to appreciate the level of difficulty involved in developing a piece.

Basically, that first wash of inspiration — which I’ve had happen to me in almost every piece I’ve ever written, and which results in that initial 90-second burst of brilliance — is probably the best part of the creative process. You’re sitting there noodling, and *whammo* a fantastic idea bursts into your brain almost completely formed like, say …

32 stinking measures of gorgeousness that pour out of youme in one night …

That will then psyche youme clean out and take months of vicious work to develop …

Until youI are left at the end thinking, “Cream of Jesus on toast, I’m not even a musician, am I?”

I think that a lot of musicians think that if that first-burst idea came quickly and pleasantly, that hell, the rest of the process can’t be too hard, right? I mean, I got most of the hard work 🙂 done in one night! Maybe two weeks, and I’ll have a finished piece. I just have to keep at it until Inspiration Strikes Again!


And I do think that, whether one has had children or been pregnant or not, there may be an expectation among musicians who have certain body parts dedicated to the long, slow process of manufacturing more of their kind, that the entire process of creation is not over with the first burst of fun, to be blunt. If you are even potentially in that position, I think you are aware of the fact that after that first night of hooray, there are going to be several seriously painful months of sore feet, sore back, headaches, cramps, cravings, and stretch marks followed by a final painful push resulting in blood, stitches, and you lying there half-dead thinking, “I AM NEVER GOING THROUGH THAT AGAIN.”

And let me now say what I am not saying, because I know how this will be taken. I am not saying that men can’t do this. Obviously, they are more than capable, given the ability of people like Beethoven, Haendel, Brahms, Mozart, etc. etc. etc. to develop long, complex ideas. But I think there is a possibility that they need to bang their foreheads against it a few times before they recognize it. Whereas with others, they probably just take it for granted that that one glorious moment of yeah! is going to be paid for with several months of pain and discomfort.

And there you will be (on your knees in Vladivostok) thinking NEVER AGAIN, and you’ll hold to it … right until the next great idea comes along with great hair, a sweet smile, and a fabulous butt, and there you are in bed with it again … Now that I think about it, it’s actually the reverse of the old canard about walking from Vladivostok to Paris on your knees, isn’t it? You start out at the champagne celebration dinner in Paris, and by the time you’re done, you’re in Vladivostok in rags with bloody knees. And all you want to do is get the hell back to Paris where there’s champagne.

So I guess every creative endeavor starts out with the fun part, and by the time you’re done, you’re bloody and exhausted one way or another. And if you don’t acknowledge that from the outset, you’re not going to put out all that much that’s good. Even your best ideas will be underdeveloped. If musicians understood this, we’d have fewer and better developed pieces in the world instead of what amounts to shedloads of musical preemies that weren’t kept in the incubator long enough, because someone expected the gestation and birth to be as much fun and take about as long as the conception did.

Getting out of the Beltway

I’d love to be part of this conversation, but his goddamned comments are broken. Again.

So I’ll just opine here, and maybe he’ll get a pingback. I imagine what I have to say would make him rip his hair out anyway.

Part of his statement here is that, given that he is — to his own ears — redolent of his idols anyway, he experienced a significant amount of why-bother angst. He has settled some of this, if the post is any indication, but I think there’s something else at work here that reminds me of the phenomenon of Beltway Thinking.

That tendency to imagine that the rest of the world is locked in the bit of it that you inhabit, where everyone is soaked in the minutiae of whatever your passion is.

They aren’t.

When he says — paraphrased, “Why should I bother? I sound just like Famous Bassist X anyway,” I want to yell back:

“I’m not a bassist! I don’t even know who that other chucklehead is! When I hear a fretless bass, I think ‘hey, that’s like Jeff Schmidt!'”

It’s not just a matter of feeling free to be inspired by someone else. It’s also recognizing that just because you eat, sleep, and breathe your own inspirations doesn’t mean the rest of the world even knows who the hell those people are. (Although I must say that I was thrilled by his mention of my own personal font of inspiration, Gabriela Montero.)

As a pianist, I have no idea who this Jaco dude even is. Schmidt might scream like a little girl if he heard me say that, but it’s true. Meanwhile, I’m fearful of sounding too like the composer Mikhail Glinka, who lots of other people wouldn’t recognize but who is a major inspiration of mine. (George Winston, too — but most people do know who he is.)

At any rate, I found Schmidt’s music by going to YouTube, searching on “Bach prelude,” and clicking through the many and varied instruments on which the famous cello prelude was played. One was a fretless bass, which had a soft, cottony sound that entranced me. That caused me to search on “fretless bass,” and I clicked on Schmidt’s videos for one reason only: he’s left-handed, and I’d just come off of having been hung up on by some idiot chippie who advertised viola lessons because I told her I would play mirrored and she practically peed herself in fear over the phone.

And the first thing I clicked on was his jaw-dropping “Apotheosis.” I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve sent that link to. It still strikes me as one of the great genius-level pieces of music I’ve ever heard. I really could not believe what I was hearing the first time I listened to it.

Michael Manring? Other than the fact that Schmidt plainly idolizes him and in fact dedicated the piece to him (I believe, anyway), I’ve never heard of him. I’ve never heard him, either. Nor whoever this Jaco person is. Like I said, it might make him cringe to hear me go, “Whoozat?” in response to a comment about someone he thinks walks on water, but there you go.

I’m outside the Bass Beltway. Bass weenies are not the only person Schmidt appeals to, but he still seems to feel that the majority of his appeal lies there. There’s a distinct possibility that music weenies in general are his home habitat, but that’s a much bigger space than just bass weenies. I’m not sure he realizes that some classically trained pianist who listens to Journey and Styx, arranges operatic arias meant for guys with no balls for piano, and who has never touched a bass could possibly be enamored of his music, or could even have found it.

I mean, the path by which I found his stuff was random and completely unrelated to the geeked-out details of bass guitars. I simply liked the sound, searched on it, and clicked on his video for reasons that had nothing whatsoever to do with bass guitars.

I still haven’t searched on Michael Manring, mind you. Again, while I am a music weenie, I’m not a bass weenie.

But I’m still a Jeff Schmidt fan.

And that’s what happens with inspiration. These other people’s inspirations have gone into the past, and they are here in the present. Schmidt found inspiration from them, someone will find it from him, and so on. There’s no single root inspiration from whom we all spring — it’s just a constant wave that absorbs people as it move forward, and then lets them go when it’s finished, and it heads in all directions, and everyone sees it from a different vantage point.

Anyway. I wish his goddamned comments would get straightened out. I got thinky on something else he said a while back, too. That’ll be a post for tomorrow, maybe.

One note at a time.

That’s how this is happening. One. Note. At.



As I get something down, I will at least have something to edit and chew on. But it’s just slow and painful. It amazes me how I can barf out 32 measures of something truly wonderful in one stinking night, with no indication when I sat down at the piano that anything was even percolating, and then months and months later, I’m still working on the rest of it. I have to remember to just play the left hand by itself, and make sure it stands on its own as pretty and fun to play. (This particular piece has a lot of melody in the left hand, and a lot of ping-pong between the hands as well. I didn’t plan that, but I’m very happy with it.)

I recall Jeff Schmidt, a favorite musician of mine, remarking that a lot of musical ideas were better off as shorts rather than people trying to pad them up into larger ideas. I’m not sure I agree with him — most things can be expanded nicely into larger ideas, and few truly great pieces of music are 32 measures long. It’s just that expanding an idea takes a hell of a lot more work than people want to admit. They came up with that great kernel of an idea quickly, and they want to rush through to the end in two weeks. Of course it ends up sounding like a great idea in a big box full of foam peanuts. Truly doing it justice would have taken possibly the better part of a year, which no one has the patience for.

I think of writing music as hunting up pretty shells and stones at the shore. You can find one gorgeous thing very quickly — and it’s fabulous. Wonderful. Prettiest thing you’ve ever seen. Now, you have to dig up a few things that go with it … and that’s when it slows way down. Because now, you’re not just looking for something pretty. It’s got to be pretty, and it’s got to go with what you found first. Suddenly, you have a filter in place — stuff that you dig up that would have been fantastic had you found it first now gets tossed because it doesn’t go with what you did find first.

Of course it slows down at that point! You are no longer looking for anything — you’re looking for something in particular. You just have to keep going. Maybe write down the other stuff you dig up in the meantime, because it might be a nice kernel for something else in the future. But for now … just keep digging.

And it can be scary, because — which I’m feeling right now — sometimes you dig up something that’s so jaw-droppingly stunning that you haven’t a clue how some chucklehead like you me can do it justice. Then, you I freak out and psyche yourmyself out. Very annoying.

This is a big part of why I’m happy to do this as a hobby and not a day job. I cannot imagine doing this full time. I love having the ability to take my time and get it just right, allowing just my own native obsessiveness to motivate me instead of a fear of not making rent. Not only is my own bullheadedness fairly powerful compared to most other people’s fear, but fear tends to destroy any creativity I have. When I fear for my financial stability, I accomplish nothing whatsoever except the production of sweat and bad dreams. I’d encourage just about any musician or composer anywhere — any artist actually — to do something else for a living. Maybe it can be related to what you do creatively — no reason for it not to be. If you’re a painter, go ahead and design websites for a living or work in advertising. You’re still doing bright, colorful stuff related to your creative love, plus you have health insurance and can make rent. And you have the rest of your day and weekends to do what you love, and the time and security to really get it right.

Marketability and its severe lack

I’m reminded of a comment the wonderful Jeff Schmidt made in an interview about selling oneself as well as one’s music, when he said that despite the success of a lot of information-age musicians like Zoe Keating and others, that paradigm posed a problem for him: “It’s hard enough finding people that like my music. But if my livelihood depends on all those people ALSO liking ME personally? Oh boy.”

I feel the same. As much as I think my music might be sellable, I am a smartassed, unpleasant, middle-aged hermit with a very unforgiving outlook on life and a real short path from brain to mouth writing something that is close enough to New Age piano to at least bump up against the rainbows-and-dolphins crowd. That’s not a marketing match made in heaven.