Roy Okutani's thoughts on music

Roy Okutani is a great trumpet player that taught at Berklee during the time I was a student there. He now lives, teaches and performs in Sweden. He recently ran across this blog and sent me this paper that he gives to all of his new students. Roy has quite a mystical philosophy about playing music, you might even say that music is his religion. Enjoy!

Thoughts about music, expression and discovery of one’s personal voice/individuality.

I have so many thoughts and ways of looking at the same things that it’s often difficult to summarize everything. It’s also challenging to put on paper, thoughts that aren’t meant to be concrete. Perhaps I need to search my thoughts for the reason I’m trying to put together this paper. It is to share something with you. Sharing means to give without wanting or expecting anything in return. What I could want in return for this sharing could be admiration, thanks, appreciation, respect... But, to write this paper or do this presentation or to play a gig, or to practice or to session or to teach with that agenda would hinder me from giving or passing on to you knowledge that comes from beyond my brain.

If it doesn’t come from my brain, where does it come from? I think that love/God/nature/the force/consciousness is the source of this knowledge. I have a thought that what I would like to do in music, teaching and my life is to express and communicate this force. To do this means, I think, to realize my connection to it and to also realize what hinders my realization of this connection.

Music is an expression of you. Music is an expression of your greatness. You are great because you are love. It’s not about being great because you have great lines, great time, and got Coltrane changes together… Your music is great because you are love. How do we realize this?

To realize is to Listen. What is listening though? To hear sounds? To hear chords? To hear rhythms? To hear swing? To hear lines? To hear the other instruments... Yes, to some degree, that is listening but the listening that I’m referring to isn’t so concrete. It has to do with all of the above but also about listening to feelings that you hear in the music being played and also to be aware of your feelings that are being created or inspired in you as a result of the music you are listening to. It is listening with your heart. Your heart is not about hearing concepts. It is about feelings and intuition. Grow little ears on each side of your heart and experience the listening that occurs. When listening to oneself, it is to listen with the realization that you are listening to the greatness which is you, which is love.

The Gary Valente Story:
20 years ago, I was a graduate student at New England Conservatory of Music. A few of the graduate students got a gig doing a whole day clinic with a high school music program. We were also lucky enough to have the great trombonist/musician Gary Valente with us. At that time, Gary had already been playing with Charlie Haden, Carla Bley and Steve Swallow. Anyway, we got to the high school and upon hearing the students, I thought... oh, oh... this is going to be a long day. There was very little groove, very little lines, very little understanding of form and harmony. I thought that there was very little music. We did the morning session and it felt like a long morning session. During the break, I met with Gary and he forcefully grabbed my arms, shook me and said, “wow, don’t these kids play great!! I haven’t heard this much music in a long time!!” Needless to say, I was a little dumbfounded, as I had thought exactly the opposite. But this was Gary Valente so there must have been something to it... I didn’t get it that day though and I pretty much totally forgot about it until 20 years later. For some reason, I remembered the incident like it was yesterday, but unlike 20 years ago, I understood what Gary must have heard. He heard in these beginning improvisers, music, (unhindered by conceptual good/bad, swinging/unswinging, lines/no lines) and the expression of love. He heard their excitement, their expressions, their individuality... their connection to love. Gary could and does listen with his heart. To himself and to others.

Here are more thoughts about how you could approach practicing listening with your heart:

1. What does the music make you feel? Don’t talk; express it through your playing!

2. Listen to the melody and play it how it wants to be played. Listen to it’s own expression with your heart and express it through the playing.

3. Listen to the melody being played by you and express through your playing, the feelings that are being evoked by your playing of the melody.

4. Allow the melody play you instead of you playing the melody.

5. Let the music play you instead of you playing the music.

6. Be in the music.

7. Become the melody that you are playing.

8. Realize that you (love) are the melody that you are playing.

9. Learn the text as it can help and enhance your heart’s perception.

10. Play/Sing the text. The text can enhance your heart’s perception as the text deals with feelings. Sing the text and the feelings that it inspires through the instrument

11. Play Ballads and listen to each note, realizing that your greatness (love) is being expressed by you, through you.

12. Be aware of what you are saying by listening and being aware to meaning of what you are saying.

13. Improvise with space so that you can reflect and be aware of what you are saying.

14. Sing! Singing tends to be less intellectual and more from the heart.

15. Play what you sing…. Your instrument is an extension of your heart’s (love’s) expression. Try avoiding singing what you play.

Magic Stones:
Imagine a lake with a beautiful surface that is still and silent. Under the surface of this lake are magic stones, which are scattered just under the surface. You cannot see the stones but you will use them to “walk” across the lake. You don’t know where to take your first step, as you cannot see the stones. Nevertheless, you step and you find a stone under your foot. By being totally in the moment and aware of the stone, it magically tells you where you should place your foot for the next step. While being in the moment and aware, the stones tell you where to step as you “walk” across the lake. Over a blues, you will improvise and sing half notes. By being totally in the moment and aware of every half note, every half note will tell you what note to sing next. While being in the moment and aware, you allow yourself to be played by the music. You can do the same thing with quarter notes, limited improvisation and total freedom. This exercise is about being aware and in the moment. By being aware and in the moment, you are not ignoring the love/greatness that you are. Yet another benefit of this exercise is that it takes you out of your routines, which can lessen awareness and listening.

When you listen to yourself with love, all parameters (time, lines, flow, harmony, melody, rhythm, imagination, spontaneity, creativity) work better without trying because you are aware and playing from the space of love/God/nature/force/consciousness. Instead of playing from your brain.

Living/Playing from love creates awareness and Living/Playing from fear creates separateness. Playing from separateness produces lots of parameters to be aware of: time, flow, motivic development, shape, drama, etc. Playing from love needs only awareness and all parameters take care of themselves.

When playing in an ensemble, focus on yourself. That seems contradictory to what we have been told about ensemble playing and relationships. What I mean though is to be focused lovingly on yourself. To be aware that you are an expression of your greatness which is love. To take care of and appreciate this greatness so that it is expressed. When we play and live from this space, we are open to ourselves (love), which makes us open to others, and all knowledge and skill that comes from our greatness, which is love.

This is very different from focusing on yourself because of fear. This is definitely not the kind of focusing on yourself that I’m talking about. To be into yourself trying to play good because you’re out to prove your greatness by demonstrating your knowledge, skill and expression is an example of fear based focusing. Fear is about learning to control something that doesn’t need to be controlled and/or about developing something that is already developed and/or about creating an understanding that is already understood. Fear means you should but love means you are. Realize who you are and take care of it. It is love.

Duo Exercise:
2 musicians, one “instrument”. One is the player of the instrument and the other is the receiver/instrument. The player improvises half notes with awareness. She is aware of the love that she is as the half notes are being sung. The receiver improvises with limited improvisation and expresses the feelings that the receiver feels from listening to the player’s half notes. The player, as she is open to the love that she is, is also open to the feelings expressed by the receiver. Her half notes are being played by the receiver. Both players become/are the player and the receiver because they are open and aware.

Our means to change the world or to play well in the ensemble situation is to realize the love that we are. With this realization come communication, openness and awareness, which are important elements in ensemble playing.

Express, not impress Share, not want Give, not take What’s it all about? Love Awareness of Now In the moment. Free from shoulds, what was, what ifs. Now.
Here are some thoughts about the distractions from realizing our connection to love:

Attachment to external worth things isn’t unusual in a society that promotes the measurement of worth through external measurements. Hip lines, hip rhythms, wide intervals, hip harmonic concepts, melodies, sound, hip car, money, success, power, knowledge, beauty, chops, respect, admiration, understanding.... are some of the things we attach ourselves to when we don’t realize our connection to love. If we realized our connection we wouldn’t need to attach ourselves to what we have, what we do or what we want. We would be what we are which is love. Concerning the external things, there is really nothing wrong with these things by themselves. They become problems when we attach ourselves to the concept that these things are a measure of our worth. It’s okay to have these things but to get attached to them contributes to the problem of not realizing our connection to love.

When I don’t feel self worth, I can work towards the collection of external worth things such as knowledge, hip lines, complicated rhythms, rhythmic feel, money, fame, respect, admiration, nice car, nice house, beauty, clothes.... or I can work towards realizing my self worth because I am connected to love.... because I am love. It’s strange with external worth things. No matter how much I might accumulate, I always fear that it’s not enough, as I always fear that I might lose them. My connection to love is what I already have and it is impossible to lose.

Conceptualizing and trying to understand the concepts surrounding the realization of love is yet another hindrance. I am often... very often tempted to conceptually understand the truth of love. Partly because it has become my existence to communicate with others but I also desire to understand because I’m afraid that if I don’t understand something, I won’t have it. The problem with this stuff is that one can’t hope to have the realization of one’s connection to love as a tangible entity to have. It exists outside of the conceptual realm. In fact, the conceptualization only takes one further away from the direct experience of love. Direct experience is now without the distractions of conceptual thinking. Being in the music is now. Being in the now is being in the music.

When external worth things start to matter to me. For example, when I am afraid of not being respected or not admired or not important or when I feel I need hipper lines and hipper rhythmic concepts, these are signals that I am not realizing my connection to love. These signals are to be appreciated as they point to the fundamental problem of not realizing my connection to love. From these signals, what I do and what I am proposing is to just be aware that I’m not realizing my connection. Just awareness, nothing more. No self-degrading, no happiness, no nothing, just awareness and back to realizing my connection.

When I start to get bored with music, or music is not fun, practice is not fun; these are also signals that I am not realizing my connection to love. Again, it’s just awareness that I’m not realizing my connection and then back to awareness of my connection. Awareness with music is about listening.

Creativity and Creative Musicianship
When we moved to Sweden 8 years ago, I had an idea for a course that dealt with how I worked with music. Learning tunes by ear and singing, working with the metronome, working with rhythms, piano, rytmik, improvisation were some of the topics covered with the idea of using these activities as a way towards awareness and connection to love. I needed a name for the class and since people tend to get attached to and limited by names, I searched for a name that wasn’t so specific. Creative Musicianship became the name for this class. The name wasn’t so specific and it implied that music would be dealt with in a creative way. It was a good name then but I’ve now realized that it’s actually even hipper than I thought. Meaning that creativity is about creating from the space of love/God/consciousness/the force/nature... the “real” creative force. What I’ve been proposing is that we learn about music and life from this force and in turn, it creates through us.

Why are these thoughts important to me? We live in a world of fear and through my music, my teaching and living; I hope to inspire a loving outlook. It is all too easy to live in fear but I am experiencing more and more the awareness of living in love. This awareness is what I want to share.

Final Thoughts:
These thoughts are about discovering your personal voice, your individuality (Although it really isn’t you that you are discovering and expressing. It is love.). There are thousands of very skilled and good musicians who communicate their craft but are lacking in communicating love. While they are good, they aren’t fully expressing their specialness. When you fully express your specialness, you are an artist. An artist expresses Love. An artist, by the way doesn’t have to play and instrument, hold a paintbrush or spin a ceramics wheel. An artist is simply one who fully expresses love. We have artists who clean the floor, install fireplaces and straighten teeth. It’s not what we do that separates the artist from a non-artist. It is the non-ignoring of the love that we already are that makes us an artist. If the world were full of artists, there would be no fear. Without fear, we have peace. We as artists have the power to inspire the world to live in Love. Through our expression of love, others will be inspired to not ignore our greatness. While we are blessed with an opportunity to share our greatness however, it is important that we realize that these thoughts be not used for personal or egotistic gain. For, the use of these thoughts for gain only increases the suffering that we seek to escape.

Everything in this paper can be debated and everything can be misunderstood. The truth though is not debatable and not misunderstood. It does not however exist in this paper. The truth exists in you and I... love.

These thoughts are not my thoughts. They come from all of us.... love. Sometimes, I say that I don’t really know what I’m talking about and it is true because what I talk about comes from beyond my brain... it’s from love.

Roy Okutani
02 11 27
Åkarp, Sweden
Copyright © 2003 OkutaniMusik

Roy Okutani was born and raised in Hilo, Hawaii but currently, he finds himself in Östersund, Sweden. At Birka, Roy teaches Creative Musicianship, Ensembles, Improvisation, Reflections and is the leader of the jazz department. Roy has been very active as a teacher and musician since arriving to Sweden in 1994. He has taught at the music university in Trondheim, Norway, Skurups Folkhögskolo, Fridhems Folkhhögskola and at the music academy in Malmö. In addition, he was a key element which created and developed the jazzprofil at Birka. Before coming to Sweden, Roy was a professor at Berklee College of Music from 1983-1994. Roy´s performing experience includes playing and recording with Orange Then Blue, Gunther Schuller, George Garzone, Tim Hagans and many others. Roy´s teaching focuses on developing and encouraging the artist´s relationship with music and their true selves. He encourages students to experience the music, instead of a mental identification of the music. By encouraging students to experience their true selves, Roy hopes that musicians can inspire listeners and other musicians to realize their true selves.

Roy Okutani's MySpace page


Free Jazz lessons: Matt Otto's new web site

Matt Otto has a new web site and he's posted some very good lessons on there.

He has lessons on topics like: reverse 13th arpeggios, augmented scales over dominant chords, spread triads, minor ii-V7s, and rhythm changes.

Nice stuff Otto.

Matt Otto.org


Joe Henderson talks with Charlie Rose

A conversation with jazz musician Joe Henderson

Reply to Josh from the comments of the previous post

I started to reply to Jazz pianist/educator Josh Rager comment from the previous post and I just got kind of carried away. He does make some good points and my reply is wildly rambling and not even totally directed in response to his comment. I think this deserves a post of it's own though.

Josh Rager said...
"I totally agree with your advice on juicing the "city" for its inspiration. However I disagree with your prediction that the music business is on the verge of collapse based on a gluttony of young jazz school graduates. Personally I have only observed that institutionalized jazz education has served more to train teachers and audience members than jazz musicians. Degrees are a pretty poor indicator of career success in this field. Jazz education and being a jazz musician will always be separate (but perhaps slightly overlapping) fields."

My reply:

I don't know what city you live in Josh, but in all the major cities that I've spent time in over the last two decades I can say with utter certainty that there are a lot less Jazz rooms today than twenty years ago. Even up here in PDX in the last 10 years since I've been here there has only been a steady decline, no 'cycles' as half-full types like to say. Just a downward trend, it must be a good 75% decline in the last ten years here.

The schools keep churning these kids out every year. Now, I'm not saying that Jazz education is a bad thing, in theory at least, but are the school really preparing these newly minted graduates for the economic realities that they're going to find waiting for them? How about a double major in Jazz performance and catering, or maybe a Jazz comp/barista degree? That would be a bit more realistic.

Since you seem to have found teaching gigs at some of these Jazz schools you probably have a different perspective about the scene than the kids who you are graduating. What would your life be like if you had to survive solely on gigs? It used to be possible to raise a family playing music, not so much these days.

Maybe being a Jazz professor is the only stable Jazz career that there is right now? Just look back thirty years ago. There were tons of touring band gigs out on the road all year long for young players to cut their teeth on. There were house bands in hotels and clubs all across the country that had steady incomes, sometimes for many years at a time.

Who's the biggest employer of musicians in the country (or at least in Las Vegas) now? Probably Circ Soleil! Even Cruise ship musicians are getting the axe right and left.

How much were musicians making for gigs thirty years ago? Same as they do today! Things have changed in a big way over time, and not for the better.

Personally, I am having a great time playing exciting gigs and feel that my teaching is highly rewarding. I'm making more bread with music than I ever did in the past and I haven't had a day gig in years. It is possible to be a professional musician/teacher, but it also doesn't hurt to marry a white-collar wife. :-)

So kids, don't marry a painter, dancer, writer, actor or another musician- unless they also happen to have a teaching gig at a nice Jazz conservatory. Then you just might be able to actually afford to go to a doctor when you need to.

I think that Greg Sinibaldi is right on when he notes that Jazz schools don't teach students to become artists. Shedding won't get you there. You need to actually be able to play and listen to true masters of the art of Jazz night after night in order to learn the ART of Jazz. Those are the opportunities that are getting scarcer as each year passes. Some schools are lucky enough to have masters teaching at them, but players still need a chance to play with bands that are on a high level. Chops are easy to come by these days, but profound musical ideas are usually not nurtured in the woodshed.

The most difficult thing for me about the current situation in my city is that ever though there are some world-class players around, it is really hard to develop a project and keep a band together in order to really work out material over time. I can get younger players to commit to putting in time to rehearse enough to work out difficult shit, but the final result is never as good as using seasoned pros. The guys that I want to work with are too busy hustling their asses off to support families. I can't ask them to rehearse a bunch without some nice paying gigs on the horizon, and even then...

Back in the 70's in a place like NYC you could make your rent by playing just one gig a month. This gave cats the luxury of playing sessions all the time in the thriving loft scene. Now, if you're paying $1,000 for a share in NYC it'll take you 20 gigs at $50 a pop.

All that I ask is that we just be frank with our young students about how much the financial realities of a Jazz career have changed, and are changing. I just don't think that these kids are getting much straight advice about what they're getting themselves into by majoring in Jazz performance and taking on a massive amount of debt to pay for it.

Berklee now costs as much as Harvard. Holy shit! How do you think a Harvard grad's earning power compares to a Berklee grad? WTF is that about?! $40k a year and four years later you can play Countdown changes like a champ, but you now make about $12k a year (if you're lucky). Hey, if you go on and get a doctorate in Jazz (at a good school) to the tune of about $220k all told, then you can make a fairly decent salary and think about maybe retiring one day.

OR...You can go to a two year community college to study nursing and as soon as you graduate get a gig starting at $45k/year and never worry about being out of work again for the rest of your life…AND in two or three years you'll be bumped up to$6k!

I know that if I had kids I would think twice about putting out $160k to send my artistic brat to Berklee.

"You get a FULL RIDE to Berklee like I did or else you're going to be learning to check blood pressure and empty bed pans at the local community college. On your off nights you can play your $50 Ska gigs and try to sneak in some bop licks on your solos."

If I had kids, oh, how they would hate me.

Josh, I don’t think that a glut of Jazz grads are the sole reason for the bleak situation we’re all in right now, but it can’t be helping things much. It's simple supply and demand, the kids are messing up the supply and the old Jazz fans who are taking their dirt naps are messing with the demand. The Jazz audience is aging too fast and even the legions of failed Jazz saxophonist turned Bop loving file clerks can’t replace the old fans fast enough. If degrees are poor indicators of career success then those students in Jazz schools are sure wasting a shitload of cash getting degrees. Even if these failed careers never get off the ground, the graduates certainly still flood the labor pool of working Jazz musicians for a few years (which helps to keep wages low) until the time comes that they have to get real jobs in order to pay off their mountain of debt.

When Jazz schools fail to inform students about the quickly changing realities of the music bussiness it is called Strategic misrepresentation, or good old fashioned lying. Would you pay $120k to get a four year degree in typesetting? How would you feel when you graduated and then realized that typesetting is obsolete? More realistically- if you could only made $50-$75 a night and you could work two or three nights a week as a typesetter if you were lucky? Hey, but you get a couple of free drinks on the job and 20% off the happy hour menu. Am I starting to sound jaded now?

You know that it’s a bad situation if Eastern Europe is starting to look like a better place to make a living as a Jazz musician than here in the States. Kids, you’d better start appreciating goulash and peirogis!

I wouldn't trade careers with anyone though. I still love being a Jazz musician and I have a better attitude and outlook than I ever did when I was younger (though you wouldn't know it from reading this post).

Josh, please just encourage your students to switch majors....to something in the medical field maybe?

Now I just sit back wait for the blogosphere to erupt and look forward to the deluge of comments .