On being emotionally present

I had a gig recently that really made me aware of the effect that emotional interaction has on Jazz performance. I felt like one of the musicians on the gig wasn't emotionally available. I know that this sounds like a talk that your needy girlfriend might want have with you but hear me out. A musician may physically be playing appropriately or mentally be thinking about what he/she is playing. If you're focusing more on the hot cocktail waitress than you are the music, then mental distraction is the result, this is musically crippling.

If a musician that you are playing with is emotionally withdrawn or depressed, you won't be able to converse on an emotional level with them. I don't just want the rhythm section to react to the musical ideas that I'm playing, I need them to project and respond to strong emotions. You might even call what I'm talking about emotional comping. They have to be willing and able to contribute vital feelings to the mix.

A musician depressive musician will have a hard time expressing joy and optimism in his playing. He might not be able to feel excited if the crowd isn't clapping or paying attention, if at all. I really want to feel palpable feelings of joy, sorrow and excitement emanating from the musicians I'm playing with, or else the gig feels like I'm screwing with a condom on (sorry kids). Give me something to work with please. Wake up and feel MUTHERF*#@%s+!!

You have to be willing to play like your life depended on it, like it's your last day alive, like your balls are on fire. Otherwise go get a job as a parking lot attendant or an accountant (sorry all you accountants out there). Being a Jazz musician requires intense emotional exertion. What if a pro football player didn't bother to run at full speed when he got the ball? Or a brain surgeon who didn't bother to really concentrate all his attention to the job on hand. Playing Jazz should feel like a matter of life and death! If everyone doesn't give 200% then the music will die on the operating table. If you never sweat or feel wiped out after a gig ,then I'd say you're trying hard enough. Even if your life totally sucks ass the time you spend playing Jazz needs to scream," I LOVE MY LIFE!!!!". Some band-leaders won't notice if you're phoning it in and are just trying to get through the gig, I do though.

The thing that separates the truly great players from to mediocre players is the ability to attain non-ordinary physical, mental and emotional states. When I go to a gig I know that I should be prepared to enter a higher mode of being from my everyday state. I try to be open to experiencing a level of emotional intensity that rarely happens when I'm not playing. Even if the gig is in a Yuppy bar in a Yuppy shopping center.

I don't think of myself as a particularly moody person, but I want to be as moody as an expectant mother or a rapid cycle bi-polar hypoglycemic. You must be willing to radiate waves of joy and then the deepest blackest sorrow in a split second. Clinging stubbornly to the mask of your ordinary persona will make you emotionally impotent and boring as hell to listen to. Hey, would the audience clap and hoot while you load the dishwasher or scoop the dog poop in the back yard. NO. No one is impressed with mundane personal chores, so don't make playing music one.

I sometimes refer to emotions with terms like radiate and emanate because when you strongly project feeling and emotion with your music it should make the listener feel as if they were a McChicken sandwich under a heat lamp keeping warm at McDonalds. If no emotional intensity is achieved then it feels like you're trying to catch a tan from a 50 watt light bulb. Chinese medicine sees all types of human experience as different manifestations of a life energy called Qi. This energy needs to circulate freely throughout the different energy bodies in order to maintain good health; emotionally, mentally and physically. Qi energy can become stagnant or blocked and all types of ailments start to set in.

  • According to Chinese medicine there are seven emotions that a person can experience: joy, anger, worry, pensiveness, sadness, fear, and fright. These are normal emotions that are reactions to various life circumstances. Only when they come on suddenly and intensely, or continue for a protracted period do they lead to pathological consequences. It should be remembered that diseases caused by the emotions arise from the interior and directly affect the corresponding organs. This is different from, for example, the Six Excesses, which cause disease by entering the body from the exterior. Thus, symptoms caused by emotional disturbances often manifest very soon after onset. Furthermore, the immediate result is a disturbance of the Qi mechanism, which if untreated causes further disharmonies depending on the affected organ(s).
  • "In this [western] culture, there’s this idea that if you suffer from depression, you should not talk about it. That makes it even worse. You’re suppressing emotions, and this causes energy to block.…If it’s blocked, you start to see symptoms, either physical or emotional. These are all manifestations of an imbalance of qi.…the key thing is to eliminate that blockage and promote the energy flow in the body, to help the energy flow smoothly.

In some cases one acupuncture session or just a good lay can help a musician more than a week of shedding. Others who are more seriously emotionally impaired may need to see a shrink for a script of mood stabilizers or elevators in order to regain emotional dynamics in their music.

You can't always just woodshed your way to the next level musically.
Many young players make this mistake. Spending 12 hours a day in the practice room will not bring emotional balance and vitality to your playing. Only truly experiencing life's tribulation and victories can make you more emotionally mature.

From now on I don't hire players who don't put out emotionally. They had also better have their Qi flowing freely.......


Anonymous said...

David, this is a great post. The community band jazz ensemble I play with have a gig tomorrow and key people won't be there. So there as been a kind petite malase effecting our practices. I quoted from your blog hoping to get these great players to step up to the plate and deliver a homerun performance.

David Carlos Valdez said...

That's right, always swing for the bleachers!

Dr. Paul Shemp said...


Great post and I've been having some similar thoughts lately. I'm not the greatest jazz player, but what I do is more in the vein of the old guard - Illinois, Arnett Cobb, Ben Webster, Lockjaw, etc. But it's gotta be more than honking in Bb to get me going, you know? There are certain moments in tunes where an emotional charge needs to be reciprocated by the rhythm section. It might be a shout chorus or doing a Red Prysock false fingering ad infinitum, but if the rhythm section isn't hearing, or, worse yet they hear but don't respond, I look like a fool.

On the flip side, I just went through a bad breakup with a woman that was very important to me. I pushed myself into my practicing and what's coming out of the horn now is not solely a result of the time spent shedding. I feel like I've tapped into something more direct in what I'm playing, but it doesn't take long for a tired rhythm section to bring the whole thing down.

Your blog is great - thanks for posting your insights and exercises for the rest of us!

Anonymous said...

Amazing post. I wish more musicians I knew felt this way. I am still young and am sure that I have a long way to go to get the emotional maturity you are talking about, but I have had gigs where I know my band mates are there, and ones where they are not. Certainly I have gone through the motions of playing many times and I hope I can keep aware of that and start to inject myself into the music.

One leader I play with is a complete douche bag, who in between songs feels the need to recount various lewd stories, park-sex escapades and hot women he has "banged." This guy drives me fucking nuts and I always thought he was just an eccentric, I figured he must be a great player (he gets lots of gigs), and technically I think he is, but I just can't be myself or be vulnerable emotionally at all in my playing with this guy. I called Nardis one time, and just before the downbeat he said - "Don't blow your nards on this one." Great beginning to beautiful music right?

I think the other thing that bugs me is that my first intense jazz guitar teacher was like this too. He taught me a Bossa Nova comp and then told me to imagine Brazilian ladies with big tits dancing in front of me. He also told me to hold down the strings no more than a "cunt hair." Now I understand lewd humor and can be generally lewd myself, but when it comes to music, for me it's not about humor, it is about serious (hopefully)artistic expression (as often I can make it that). When I play Black Orpheus or Gentle Rain, I don't want the bass player to say Black Orifice or Genitle Pain. It seems to destroy any mood, or atmosphere those songs have.

Now I think it is one thing to be eccentric (say like many famous jazz musicians) but it seems like these guys use that as an emotional detachment from their playing. I'd like to meet more musicians who have the ability to talk about Lester Young's (for example) playing and how amazingly beautiful it is, not just say -"Old Lester's got a hard on this time...."

Am I wrong to think that these guys are in music for unexplainable reasons? I guess I just feel differently......

Lastly, I play with a bunch of guys whose playing I dig, but they don't seem to have any emotional attachment to the music. They play because it is fun or, because it is cool to do so. One guy only owns like two jazz albums, and swears that the nighttime npr dj plays enough jazz for him. I find that perplexing, being that I listen to jazz or any other music nearly all day......

Another guy I know though, who is an amazing person and a great friend, listens mostly to pop, at least more than jazz. However, when we play together I can connect to him, it seems that we both have the same philosophy, about music - it is our calling in this life, it is necessary for us to live. There have been gigs with him where I felt like I was going to pass out afterwards, but during I really felt like I could die for the music......

Its so much a philosophical question.....I'd love to hear your feedback. Thanks


MonksDream said...

Wait a second Devan, you don't like playing tunes like "Blue 7 different times by 7 different women," or "Giant Steps Between Her Legs," or the best one yet, "Better Git Hit in Your ______"

David Carlos Valdez said...

"Strangers in the night, exchanging rubbers, this one is too tight....."

Well I've got to admit that I've called Black Orifice more than a few times myself. :-) That doesn't stop me from trying to play it with
intense emotion though. I don't really care how crude someone on the bandstand is, as long as they put everything they have into the music.

I would rather play with a musician who was playing with intense lust for the barmaid than a guy (or girl) who had no balls (passion).

It is wonderful however when you find players to play with who share your emotional and spiritual temperament. This can lead to some memorable musical interaction.

Sometimes players click right away , but sometimes it takes years to develop a strong musical communication.

When I hear a someone sing 'The Girl from Ipanema' I can't help think of hot large breasted, big bootayed Brazilian women dancing on the beach!

I just can't help myself!

Kontakt said...

Great post!!!

Just a few remarks:
Last year I joined a rock band (which in fact combines rock with world music and allows you to play some burning solos with usage of fifth mode of melodic minor etc.), consisting of great characters and fantastic (although sometimes self-educated) musicians. We played three concerts in row, then I came back to the city to play a club gig with a blues band. During the second set of that blues gig I caught myself thinking: "When are we going to BEGIN PLAYING finally?" That moment was very important for me - guys from that rock band play loud and drink much, but they would die on stage. And I think that people in audience (if listening) can feel "emotional energy" (or how should I call it) of the band.

Hope my english is getting better...

Me Me said...

OMG! David, since turning on the ads have you decided to raunch up the blog? Perhaps I haven't been paying close enough attention, but I hadn't noticed quite this much tension in any previous posts. Anyway, I realize I may be the only (?) girl reading your blog, and frankly while I enjoy a few dirty jokes before or after the gig, reading some of these comments makes me realize that the guys do tone it down a hair (not that kind of hair) when I'm around. And here I thought chivalry was dead...

No, but to your point, man do I agree. Brilliant post. I get so incredibly tired of playing with people who do not "bring it" at some point during the show.

I guess I'm going to get raunchy myself here, but I recently found myself thinking that performing is like sex, where you're striving for that orgasmic moment of pure musical communication, and sometimes, unfortunately, it's always just out of reach, or it only lasts a second. But ideally, yes, we want that feeling to go on for more than a few bars, or a single note! Yes! Yes! Yes!

David Carlos Valdez said...

Watch out Alexa, you're making me hot! :-)

Next week I'm adding ads to some MILF sites, then I'll start making some serious dinero.

Yes, there are many similarities between music and making love. Like the fact that you can instantly tell if your partner isn't totally into what's they're doing.

MonksDream said...

I wasn't really trying to raunch it up, just lighten up what seemed like some "taking ourselves a little too seriously."

I have to comment that usually a little humor between musicians on the bandstand can go a long way towards both lightening the mood to make the players more open to sound and also help create some bonds between the musicians.

I've lived in Portland, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Maui, all bastions of liberal thought and I have to say that sometimes the overly PC policing of language and behaviour can cause people to get seriously uptight which definitely gets in the way of any type of creative expression.

Just my two cents.

Me Me said...

Chivalry and political correctness are not the same thing. I was joking about the "raunchiness." It didn't bother me! But unless you put a "no girls allowed" sign up I think it's valid for me to express what most women would feel upon reading some of Devan's teacher's comments.

David was talking about players being emotionally available, and made some sexual comments himself (not a bad thing). I thought it was interesting that Devan (I assume a man) finds the sex-obsessed leader he plays with annoying. That's his prerogative, it's not a case of being PC.

Bottom line, we all have our own emotional triggers. Sometimes there's bravado up front to counteract the vulnerability that comes out in our playing. But sometimes all there is is bravado and cynicism. That's what is annoying.

When you find that time after time a certain player has no genuine emotional exchange with his fellow musicians (meaning mutual satisfaction obtained), it's time to stop calling that person for gigs.

Anonymous said...

I recently played Girl from Ipanema on a latin gig (Cuban leader). Afterward he says in severely mangled English, which was a big component of the humor and took it into the realm of the surreal, "I saw some Brazilian girls on the internet last week, and man you wouldn't believe...."

MonksDream said...

Good distinction. I guess that I've never had to really listen to too much sexually obsessed crap on the bandstand, and I bet it can be worse if you're female, in terms of what might be said, although by and large the guys I've played with are usually better behaved when there's a female musician in the band.

I do remember playing a fairly heinous 5 hour long blues gig in which the tenor player I was subbing for showed up with a soprano and kept playing these really obnoxious unison crescendos with the female singer and then pointed at us two other sax players whenever she looked over.

Talking about emotionally unavailable. Pheeeewwwww!

markfretless said...

No drugs for emotional problems; they don't address the cause and poison the body and dull one's awareness.
Read "Psyched Out" by Kelly O'Meara
or "Psychiatry: The Ultimate Betrayal" by Bruce Wiseman. Check out any of Ivan Illich's books or Thomas Szaz's books on the subject of psychiatric drugging as well.

Just as important as feeling your emotions(and not numbing or dumbing down with drugs)is surrounding yourself with people who are vital, alive,aware,and communicative ...and who can have/experience/accept a wide range of emotions...

David Carlos Valdez said...

I was only half serious about taking Prozac to help you play better, though I did want the emotionally dead musician I was playing with to do something drastic.

These days I'm a big advocate of living as clean as possible. Not always the most exciting way to go, but then your music will be based in reality instead of a chemical induced reaction.

Many mood stabilizers will take away your emotional highs and lows, which is exactly what you don't need to play music.

It seems to me that emotional sensitivity is just as important, if not more so, as emotional intensity. A drunk, baked, tweaking, tripping, or tranquilized
musician is less likely to be emotionally sensitive.
emotional intensity.

MonksDream said...

Now you're dealing with another interesting issue here. You could probably start another posting about the influence of drugs/alcohol both negative and positive on musicians' extemperaneous endeavours.

Eric Dolphy stayed "straight" and listen to what he sounded like! It takes about 2 seconds to recognize his sound. Also, Trane, after 1957, you can hear the marked change in his playing. Brighter tone, with a remarked acceleration in harmonic and modal innovations, etc. etc.

I would argue, that Dexter Gordon, who has probably some of the most interesting and almost impossible to duplicate drunken swing, might have not gotten there without the pints of vodka that he liked to swill (please everyone go easy on me, as I'm an advocate of clean living and am not suggesting that anyone run out and start swilling vodka to swing harder.)

I think that the relationship between drug/alcohol use and "emotional availability" might be pretty non-linear and so variable as to be impossible to really analyze in a useful way, although, I guess I kind of rolled with that ball.

Anonymous said...

Great post. In fact there are 5 emotions in the Chinese system, dude, corresponding to the 5 elements. But that doesn't detract from your essential premise....

David Carlos Valdez said...

Shows you what happens when you trust Google. Those little guys aren't as moody as I thought then. ;-)