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Life Lessons from the Horn: Essays On Jazz, Originality and Being a Working Musician

Life Lessons from the Horn: Essays On Jazz, Originality and Being a Working Musician

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Life Lessons from the Horn: Essays On Jazz, Originality and Being a Working Musician

138 pages
1 hour
Sep 1, 2015


Life Lessons from the Horn is collection of compelling essays revealing saxophonist Sam Newsome’s unique insights as an artist, educator, and jazz musician of the 21st Century.
Sep 1, 2015

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Life Lessons from the Horn - Sam Newsome



Jazz musicians and other artists alike often find it’s impossible to stay inspired and focused while developing their crafts. Sometimes cats need insightful words and inspirational stories in plain English to help them feel better about their music or motivate them to compose that great new tune or take that killing solo or just plain find the courage to break out of their comfort zone and embrace that new artistic direction their hearts are guiding them towards. It may be comforting to know that someone has already walked the path you’re walking, thinking about things you’re thinking about.

Formal education can be useful, but theory after all is still just theory. Learning about what scale to play on what chord can get old fast. True insights, however, can help you both in artistic terms and every other aspect of your life. A concise aphorism about music might help you better understand love, relationships and how to maintain healthy spiritual well-being.

Since making the soprano saxophone my main instrument almost 20 years ago, I’ve ventured into many unexpected places -- spiritually, financially and of course musically -- learning life-lessons along the way. Ironically, people believe I’m just one thing: all about the soprano sax. And yes, my five solo soprano saxophone recordings released since 2007 might lend credence to that assumption. But I beg to differ. What I’ve been doing over the past 20 years is use the soprano saxophone as a means to an end.

So what I’ve written here in Life Lessons from the Horn is based on my 20 years’ experience as a soprano saxophonist specialist and even longer experience as a touring jazz musician, teacher and artist. These life lessons have helped me make sense out of this crazy music called jazz that I -- and I hope you -- love to play.

My explorations on my horn have followed from what I was seeking about myself. That’s sort of the reverse of the therapeutic results of after-hours practice sessions with a cooking rhythm section, but either direction arrives at the same end. My discoveries haven’t just been about getting to my real self, but also accepting who I am and who I have the potential to become. The essays in this book reflect my findings. They contain personal and musical discoveries that have shaped my artistic identity and ideology to become principles guiding my playing, teaching and life.

I’ve never been driven by the sheer desire for career advancement, which some people may consider a flaw. I understand, of course, why shaking the right hands and kissing up to the right people are viewed as necessary steps for climbing the ladder of success. Connections equal opportunities and opportunities equal employment -- these are the truisms artists pursuing success are forced to face all too often. But I’ve always felt playing music must be about more than chasing opportunities to make money and being famous. That seems axiomatic if you play music like mine, with intrinsic goals of artistic rather than commercial success.

Anyway, what does it mean to be famous? Fame only means that people you don’t know know you. Fame can have many faces: historical fame, international fame, national fame, Internet fame (i.e., on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook), regional fame and fame within one’s own tight-knit community, to name a few. But being famous does not help you to swing, doesn’t improve your intonation and doesn’t make you a more prolific composer. In fact, if you do achieve fame in some form or fashion, it will quickly dissolve into being just one less thing you have to worry about. Or worse, another façade you have to spend time maintaining. Since gaining the adulation of strangers has never been high among my desires and none of these different kinds of fame provide anything extra to our music, I’ve concluded that my creative production is in itself more important. Understanding this has helped me to stay focused on what I can control and what’s truly important: growth as an artist and commitment to my vision. That’s the core personal truth I explore and share with you in these essays.

As an educator at Long Island University since the fall of 2006, I’ve spent quite a bit of time mentoring younger musicians. I’ve noticed that up-and-coming students are increasingly less interested in learning about such technical matters as what scale to play on which chord, how to play the latest hip patterns or how to get weird sounds (something that’s considered my specialty) out of their instruments. They’re curious about things that are beyond theory and playing fast and furious. They seem to be more interested in hardcore real-life issues, such as how to make a living playing jazz; how to balance family and music; how to practice correctly and how to find their own sounds.

This shouldn’t be surprising: We live in an Information Age where it’s easy to Google the 15 different ways to play a diminished scale, or better yet watch someone explain it on YouTube. Which is great for me, because then I don’t have to talk about those things that, frankly, I find boring to teach.

Learning shouldn’t be boring. One goal I had for this book was to make it a succinct and entertaining read. It’s organized with bullet-like informative sections that I hope are provocative enough that you will refer to them again and again, the way we revisit great recordings. With so much competition for our time, a 500-page book to read does not make life any easier. Don’t misunderstand -- I realize that 500-page books can be good things. I simply want to offer a less time-consuming alternative.

Thank you in advance for taking this time to let me share my ideas, experiences and life lessons from the horn with you. I hope you get as much enrichment from reading this book as I have gotten writing it.


Some of my fondest memories are of late nights in the practice rooms, trying to figure out life and music, while I was a student at Berklee College of Music in the 1980s. I was among a group of over-ambitious saxophone students (including Mark Turner, Antonio Hart, Javon Jackson and Donny McCaslin) who were very diligent and intense, sometimes fanatical, about practicing.

We all obsessed about getting better. Sometimes I feared that I wouldn’t be burning by the time I graduated and would end up like those starving musicians about whom I’d heard horror stories. In fact, if any one of us decided to skip practicing for a few days, we’d be ribbed with comments like, Somebody’s going to be living on the streets after graduation, or You’re gonna look great in that McDonald’s uniform.

It seemed simple: practice + skills = employment. Of course, that equation was too naïve and idealistic. Once I moved to New York, I realized that the more realistic equation was practice + skills + political savvy + being in the right place at the right time + knowing the right people + having the right look + being of the right race + having the right last name + being extremely lucky = employment, maybe.

Back then, worried and competitive, I couldn’t even fathom putting in less than four hours a day. I was what one might call a chronic macro-shedder. If my lips didn’t hurt or if my fingers weren’t strained at the end of a practice session, I felt like I was bs-ing. Yes, I know: That’s totally insane! But tales of Coltrane falling asleep with his saxophone strapped around his neck were sources of inspiration throughout my entire college attendance.

Now those days are gone. Don’t get me wrong: I still work very hard at my music. I’m just as focused, serious and inspired in my 40s as I was in my early 20s. I’m just not pulling all-nighters anymore -- in any area of my life. Having a full-time teaching position, a small child and a lot of other people who depend on me for time and attention means the only thing I now do consistently in a four-hour stretch is sleep. Even that can be rare at times.

So how does one continue to perfect and hone craft given time pressures? The answer is micro-practicing. Practice for short periods.

Few musicians in mid-career can devote four to six hours to practice every day, but everybody can spare 20 to 30 minutes. During days, weeks, months when things are really hectic -- like Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hannukah, or prior to a big production or while on tour -- you may only have 15 or 20 minutes. Whatever the case may be, practicing several times a day briefly can be just as effective, if not more so, than sitting down for a long stretch. It may not be wise or effective to try to address all necessary practice chores during one big monster practice session. Who do you think is in better physical condition, the person who walks for 30 minutes a day, or the person who walks for three and half hours every Saturday?

Now that you know understand my position, here are three ways I’ve discovered to benefit from micro-practicing. You might discover a few of your own.

1. You force yourself to work on fewer things: We’ve all heard the phrase less is more. In the context of practicing, less is not more, it’s just better. If you only have 10 minutes to practice, you can’t address all 10 items on your to-do list. Pick one. This is really great for your focus. Since you’re not preoccupied with the next thing you want to practice, you can concentrate on the task at hand on a deeper level. I’ve definitely been guilty of trying to do so much that I end up not doing proper justice to anything. This lesson from micro-practicing is applicable to many time-demanding activities or circumstances.

When I first started playing jazz -- and I mean playing in the loosest sense, considering I was 16 or 17 years old and had only discovered jazz a few years earlier -- my practice sessions were always very efficient, mainly by default. I didn’t have that much to work on. I had one lick, one scale or one tune I’d practice for the entire week … and that was it. And guess what? By the end of the week I really knew it. It

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