This is a concept which I have
come to understand, only after several years of searching for excellence
in my playing. It has to do with confidence and self worth. It has to do
with absolute determination. In a small way, my "expression of
grace" concept came to me as my reaction to Kenny Werner's book,
"Effortless Mastery". But my reading of this book came after
almost two years of ponderings and musings which lead me to different
solutions from Kenny Werner's. That is exactly why I say that my
"expression of grace" concept is part of my REACTION to his book
- simply because I had already done much of the pondering before I even
read his book.
In this essay, I'll tell you
about the events which lead to the moment when I read Werner's book. I'll
follow that with my reaction to his book and I'll conclude with a detailed
explanation of "An Expression of Grace".
Recording With David Caceres
The beginning of this story
goes back to August of 1998, when I recorded a CD project with the Tom
Borling BeBop Band. This is a band that was playing together, weekly, for
over five years and wanted to do a CD to show for it. David Caceres is the
sax player in this band.
Before this session, I had
flirted with the idea of achieving true excellence in my playing. I do
remember telling Gilbert Sedeño that I was trying to increase the quality
of my performances. I wanted to stop making stupid mistakes, to have far
fewer reading mistakes and to have better solos. The problem was, when I
thought about playing better, I always played worst. Go figure.
But when we did this recording
session with Tom Borling, I saw, more clearly than I ever had before, what
excellence was like, through David's playing. I was so amazed by David's
ability to play great on every take that it made me thirst for that
I guess I should clarify a
little about this session. I had done quite a few sessions with David in
the past. We were part of a four horn section that actually did
several important sessions in the space of about two years. We did a CD
project for Mango Punch, a movie sound track and various other sessions,
ranging from jingles to demo tapes. But none of these sessions required
much in the way of skill. Not really. Not in comparison to trying to lay
down tracks on a real jazz recording.
And not only was the Tom
Borling thing a "Real" jazz recording, we were also recording
some very difficult tunes. They were mostly my compositions, tunes which I
specifically wrote to be challenging. Not only that, David is primarily an
alto player but several of the tunes we played on that session were tunes
I wrote for my group, which uses tenor, not alto.
But none of this set David
back. I know it makes David sound sort of like a mythical figure and I
don't want to give you that impression. It was just amazing to see that he
didn't have any hang-ups on this session. I mean, don't most people at
least get a little apprehencious when they record? Don't most people
really want to do there best when they record, simply because recordings
live longer than we do? People will be listening to that CD long after I'm
dead and buried. The problem is, it's human nature to not play as well as
we are capable of playing when we really want to do well.
I know that this "human
nature" was showing in my playing during that session. I was not
having a good time. Even though it was the best jazz playing I had ever
recorded, it was a far cry from my capabilities at that time. I let my
desires to play well on this session affect my performance. And for those
of you who have been there, you know that, once you cross that line,
performing becomes one huge mind game. I kept thinking to myself,
"don't think about how well I'm playing, just play!!!". But even
thinking about that distracted my thoughts from my music. It was not a
good scene, not for me. I was under a lot stress as the result of heap
loads of inner turmoil.
And yet, there was David - The
We recorded at Sugar Hill
Studios and our engineer was Andy Bradly. Andy has recorded a lot of big
names in the jazz world which is part of the reason we went to him. He
knows his stuff. But even Andy mentioned that David has more keepers than
anyone he had ever recorded before. That's what kind of musical charisma
David has and it's difficult to not let that influence your own playing.
How could anyone see this with their own two eyes and not want to be able
to do that themselves?
So that is what caused me to
begin seriously searching for this kind of excellence in my own playing.
This began about a eighteen month journey which led me to finally
discovering my "expression of grace concept".
Working With the Rock
Fortunately for me, shortly
after this recording session, David asked me to be his regular trumpet
player in his group. I knew David had his own band but I didn't know he
used trumpet players, nor did I know how much work he got. To this day,
David's band is the best that I've ever worked with, in many ways. But one
of the best aspects of it is the fact that he demands such a high level of
quality from his band. In that environment, I'm able to try different
things in an effort to increase the quality of my playing.
Working with David, I've been
able to hear my playing next to his, within a "high quality
performance" context. This opportunity has created a sort of
laboratory environment where I can try different solutions to this problem
of excellence. One thing that's really good about it is that David will
let me know if I'm not cutting it - even in the middle of a solo. He wants
excellence from me, just as much as I do. So even the most typical of gigs
ends up being a quality performance.
At this point, I need to
clarify exactly what was keeping me from "being all that I could
be". The number one obstacle keeping me from excellence was my mind.
I knew it but I felt powerless to do anything about it. The harder you try
to NOT let your thoughts hinder your performances, the more
hindering they do. It's a weird problem to cope with. It's a very
unfair problem. The people who care the least about how well they play end
up being the people who have the least trouble with this particular
problem. Those of us who really care, it's difficult because it's exactly
that concern which causes all of our problems. It's a catch twenty-two
situation - a paradox.
In this laboratory
environment, working with David's band, I did find some things which
worked. For example, anger worked. If I could get myself all pissed off at
someone and channel that energy into my playing, then my thoughts wouldn't
hinder my performance. But this solution was not a desirable one for me.
Not only do I not like being angry, I also believe it's a health hazard -
enough so that if I always needed to be pissed off to play well, I think
it would eventually give me some kind of disease or cancer or something.
So that really isn't an option for me.
Another attitude which worked
was one of contempt or disinterest. If I was playing a gig that I really
didn't care about, I played better because I really didn't care if I made
any mistakes. The problem with this solution is that, no matter what I do
to convince myself that I don't care about a performance, I still know,
deep down, that I really do care. So living a lie just isn't going to work
for me. I need something more reliable than that.
I also tried reading before
the gig and reading during the breaks. When I did this, I read novels -
anything which would grab my attention and take my mind away from my
concerns. Usually, when I play after reading an entertaining novel, I play
better because my mind is clear of all those thoughts of excellence.
But this solution has it's
logistical problems. Doing what I do for a living, doing the kind of
playing I do, I cannot realistically rely on the time to read a book
before or during a gig. Also, for me to read a book, I cannot be
distracted by what's going on around me. If the book is not that
interesting, it doesn't do much good. I'll be easily distracted. So this
solution works for me when I can do it, but I know I cannot rely on it.
Here's an interesting one.
Now, my primary reason for wearing earplugs is to protect my hearing (what
little I have left). However, wearing these ear plugs has another side
effect. When I wear these earplugs, I can hear the notes inside my head,
so I know what notes and rhythms I'm playing, but I don't know how it
sounds, out front. I don't even have a clue. As far as I know, I could be
playing louder or softer than everyone else, or I could be very out of
tune and I would never know it.
Consider this; what good does
it do to concern yourself with how well you play when you can't even hear
it for yourself. By accident, I discovered that wearing earplugs makes me
- forces me - to give up that concern and to "Just Do It". Since
I cannot hear my own playing, the earplugs eliminates any of the reactions
I might have to my own playing. If I play a sour note, I don't react to it
because I can't even hear it.
However, as important of a
learning tool the earplugs have become, I would certainly never use them
as my permanent solution to my excellence problem. There are too many
reasons why I don't like to wear earplugs to use them all the time
(for purposes other than hearing protection). To read more about these
reasons, click here.
In the process of working this
whole excellence thing out, I spoke with lots of different people and got
all kinds of recommendations and ideas. One recommendation was to read the
book called "Zen in the Art of Archery". This is when I began to
see performance in conjunction with religion, because, to me, this book
was about religion. It wasn't about archery. It wasn't about performance
or trumpet playing. It was about religion.
But I already had a religion
and it didn't seem right to me to change religions just to make my trumpet
playing better. If you'd like to read more about my reactions to this
book, "Zen in the Art of Archery", click here.
Another book that was
recommended to me was Kenny Werner's book called, "Effortless
Mastery". The way I see it, EM is structured in two parts. The first
part is basically an analysis of this condition which I'm writing about.
The second part of the book focuses on his personal solutions to this
I really liked the first part
of Effortless Mastery. Even though I had spent so much time analyzing this
whole thing, Werner had insight into it which I had never considered
However, the solutions he
offers, in the second part of the book would never work for me, mainly for
religious reasons. Werner's solution deals with the concept that we
already are masters. We already are perfect. He uses meditations,
affirmations and visualizations to reinforce this conception.
It's important for me to
clarify that I am NOT saying that Werner's solutions are wrong. I'm not
saying that at all. What I am saying is that they would never work for me
the same way that they work for him, and others, because I do not and will
not believe that I am perfect. If I were to use Werner's meditations,
affirmations and visualizations, I would be lying to myself. And knowing
how I am, that lie would eventually catch up to me and I would be worst
off then I was before I did those things.
But I have to give Werner's
book credit for getting my creative juices to flow. In the few weeks which
followed reading "Effortless Mastery", I was able to arrive at
my own solutions to the excellence problem.
My Religious Beliefs
I'm a Christian. Many people
who know me may think that's odd because I probably don't look like a
Christian. I don't talk like a Christian. I don't have the mannerisms of a
Christian. I don't even go to church. But those are not the things which
count. What really counts are my beliefs. I live my life according to
those beliefs. My morals, my principles, my ideals, all of these find
their roots in my beliefs as a Christian.
For years I've been trying to
keep my trumpet work separate from my religion. The reason for this is a
good one, a justifiable reason. I'm a firm advocate of the separation of
church and state. I believe that it is our freedom of religion which
allows me to continue to conduct my life in a Christian manner. Without
that freedom, who knows which religion would have aligned itself with the
majority? Who knows which religion we would all be forced to practice? But
the other side of freedom is acceptance. In order for me to enjoy this
religious freedom, I must also accept the religious freedom of others. For
that reason, I believe in the separation of church and state. For that
reason, I have always made my trumpet work separate from my religious
See, most of my work as a
student and as a teacher has been through the public schools and public
universities. I considered it to be a conflict of my moral and ethical
values to attach my religious beliefs to my music and my trumpet playing.
So, in that environment, coming from that background, I had suspended my
religious beliefs in the context of my music.
But what many people don't
realize, those who know me, is that I sort of made a deal with God, back
when I was in seventh grade, that as long as I use my music for his
purposes, he would take care of me, take care of my material needs. So,
you see, my musical roots and musical purposes are rooted in my faith. I
only suspended that connection out of respect for the freedom that we have
as Americans to worship in our own ways.
Since may of last year (1999),
I have completely separated from the public schools and no longer have a
reason to continue this separation. After reading "Effortless
Mastery", this connection between my music and my faith was
revitalized. It was this process of reconnecting which brought me to the
"Expression of Grace" concept.
An Expression of Grace
So here it is:
I finished reading
"Effortless Mastery" while I was on vacation in El Paso and
Phoenix. But this was a slightly different kind of vacation because, at
the end of the two weeks, I was to perform as a guest soloist with the
UTEP Jazz Lab Band and the El Paso Jazz Orchestra. El Paso is my home town
and it was a thrill for me, working with so many friends of days gone by.
Naturally, I wanted to do well. I wanted excellence. And I knew darn well
that dwelling on the whole excellence thing was going to cause me to play
far below my capabilities, just when I needed excellence the most.
As I said before, reading
Effortless Mastery caused my creative juices to flow and that flow was at
it's peak just prior to the UTEP performance. We were staying with my
mother-in-law and we discussed the Werner book. She commented that
affirmations were powerful. I agreed with her and said that, if I was
going to use affirmations, in the context of my playing, I would not say
"I am a master. I am perfect." Instead, my affirmations would
sound more like, "It's okay if I'm not a master. It's okay if I'm not
You see, both attitudes
eliminate fear. By convincing yourself you are indeed a master, you
eliminate the fear through confidence. By convincing yourself that it's
okay to not be perfect, you eliminate the fear through grace.
Thanks to these same thoughts,
by the time the UTEP concert came, I was totally reconnected to my faith
through my music. I remember, when it came time for me to get dressed for
the performance, I made two unfortunate discoveries about my clothes. The
first was that I had never taken my coat and slacks out of my garment bag.
They were terribly wrinkled. Then I also discovered that all I had were
white socks, no dress socks. I had to decide what to do. Do I frantically
run to the store to buy new socks, then rush back with enough time to iron
my coat and slack? Or should I just accept my imperfections?
I chose the latter. I went on
stage with what I considered totally unprofessional attire. But I embraced
these imperfections and walked out onto stage knowing in my heart that it
was okay to be imperfect.
And my acceptance of my own
imperfections was put to the test by the very first note I played. I
totally missed the first four bars of my entrance. I don't how visible it
was, but I actually chuckled to myself before I began playing again. I
just thought it was fitting that, on the dawn of my newly acquired
attitude, I was blatantly imperfect. In the brief moment between my
chuckle and my next real notes, I thought to myself, "okay, we got
that out of the way. Let's get down to business." What I meant was,
in that blatant mistake, my newfound attitude of embracing imperfection
was made complete. It was confirmed and justified. I knew in that moment
that I was on the right track.
Interestingly, Marty Olivas
(who was the other guest soloist that night) made the comment that I
looked different to him. He said that I look like I was at peace with
myself. He said that I used to always look like I was mad at the world. On
that night, he was seeing my new found attitude of embracing imperfection.
But even then, the actual
concept of "An Expression of Grace" was not completed yet. That
didn't come until later, when I was discussing this whole story with my
good friend and sister-in-law, Linda. Up until then, I hadn't even
considered the word "grace" in this context. But it makes sense.
I mentioned to Linda that,
when I went out on stage with a wrinkled suit and white socks, you could
almost say that my entire presence on stage was an expression of
imperfection. When I embrace my imperfections as a player, then my playing
becomes an expression of imperfection. This makes sense to me because I am
imperfect!!! I've always been imperfect and I always will be imperfect.
Why should my music not reflect the real essence of who I am?
Then I recognized the parallel
between this and normal, everyday life. As a person, I am anything but
perfect. If I was some kind of control freak, I would be miserable because
I'm always conscious of my imperfections and the lack of control I have to
do anything about them. The only way I am able to continue with my life is
through God's grace. I know that God accepts me the way I am,
imperfections and all.
So I followed through with
these thoughts to the next logical conclusion. The way I see it, my life,
with all of it's imperfections, is an expression of God's grace. The very
fact that I am able to continue living my life with an optimistic attitude
is an expression that says it's okay for me to be the way I am. If it
wasn't okay, I wouldn't be so optimistic.
So now my thoughts have come
full circle. If my imperfect life is an expression of God's grace, then
certainly, my musical expression of imperfection is also and therefore a
musical expression of God's grace. It's an expression which is parallel to
my everyday life as a Christian.
So, when I perform, I not only
accept my mistakes and my imperfections, but I also embrace them. I see
them as an expression of God's grace. With this concept, there is no fear.
There is no apprehension. When I think of my performances as "An
Expression of Grace", everything feels right and completed.