Category Archives: Music Thoughts

Beethoven’s Gift

Here is a quote from Ludwig Van Beethoven as interpreted into English by Corinne Heline in her book ‘Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies – Correlated with the Nine Spiritual Mysteries’.

“I have no friend. I must live alone; but I know that in my heart God is nearer to me than in others. I approach him without fear, I have always known him. Neither am I anxious of my music, which no adverse fate can overtake, and which will free him who understands it from the misery which afflicts others.”

My interpretation from English into my own inner language is that Beethoven was willing to access the terrifying wonders of the universe and bring them to any earthbound person willing to listen and be healed. Very Christlike of him.

So what is required of any of us to attain these heights and spread the love? Do we need to be musical geniuses or we can we just keep it simple and true?

I’m willing to see what happens with anyone who’s willing to try.

Everybody’s a Performer and What I Learned About That

You might know that performing has always been my greatest teacher. Performing is kind of like looking at yourself inside a jeweler’s loupe, the audience being the loupe.  Last January 15, three of us comMUSIKats went up to Flagstaff to present our idea for a workshop called “Everybody’s a Performer” where I had the chance to see details of myself I never knew existed.

And the funny thing is that THAT was the point of our presentation, learning about ourselves through performance. I learned that I don’t follow a script too well, particularly if it needs to finish as I watch the timer count down from 6 minutes to zero. I learned that I am truly an improvisor who needs to connect with the audience. The three of us learned of many nuts and bolts that could have made the presentation get across our idea in a very compelling way. But the main thing I learned for myself is that it’s OK to bomb. In fact it might be the best way to learn.

Here is the script that we crafted, which had I delivered as well as I pictured, would have, I believe, garnered ourselves a healthy grant.

(call and response) comMUSIKey… Music is the Key… To community

Hi I’m Jonathan Best, although when I first went to Kenya to work with the Maasai communities I discovered that they didn’t have a word for best in their language so they changed my last name to Sidai Pii which means Completely Good. And because I see music in everybody, maybe we should all change our last names to Osingolio Pii which means Completely Musical.

That would be a dream come true because the mission of comMUSIKey is to build community through all inclusive music making. And that begs the question, what is the community we want to build. I want an all inclusive community where every culture and every person has a voice. where we all listen to each other across whatever divide we have in our minds.

I consider listening to be the most important skill in building community AND making music.

What if, by fostering life skills within a musical group we are actually building community? What if all the skills we develop in our life contribute to our musicality and vice versa? And finally, were we all born musical? When you walk you got rhythm, when you talk you got singin’. Try extending some of your words the next time you talk. (singing)You’ll hear yourself singing. Close your eyes and imagine that your entire body is made of musical vibrations. If it was quiet enough in this room you could hear your blood pumping through your arteries in rhythm.

Our vision for this project is to invite as many people as we can from as many divergent populations as we can into a special room where there is no judgment. No auditions. Everyone is welcome. We want all cultures, including all musical cultures. We want classical music lovers playing with beatboxers. And we will collaborate using techniques in singing, songwriting, improvisation, and everything musical. We will then break into smaller groups to workshop these techniques over an 8 week period culminating in a performance to the general public. We will videotape select pieces of the workshop and make a video to promote comMUSIKey, gain funding for future projects, but most of all, inspire the entire world to make all inclusive music.

On my first trip to Maasailand, I was greeted by an entire village in what may be the most memorable performance of my life. They paraded around us with dance and song until we were completely enveloped in polyrhythmic harmonies coming from every angle. And not a single one of them was a professional musician. They were just singing their lives. And then they invited us to join in. And we sang into the night. That’s what I want to do in this country.

On my return from that trip I went straight into a four year program called Music for People where I learned how to facilitate music with diverse groups of people. What I discovered is that we in the US have just as much music inside us as the Maasai. It just needs to be encouraged. And this is what our project is all about.

I want to thank the Arizona Commission on the Arts for planting the seed of thinking outrageously. It enabled us to think beyond our normal boundaries to what we really believe in. This is what art is all about. It creates quantum leaps to places we’ve never been before.

We will do this project no matter what funding we get. And then we will broadcast it to the world. And we will keep broadcasting until everybody is making music at every gathering, whether it be in the kitchen or at a barn raising.

So I invite you in creating a 79 note chord in celebration of inclusive art in all its forms. Open your mouth and let the air fill your body, and on my cue let out whatever ooh sound your body wants to make. Take a breath whenever you want and let your sound evolve as you look around and listen. Every one of your voices is creating community. Now let that sound be outrageous, move your body and now we have to STOP(cue). Thank you for that little taste of community music and for listening.

Everybody’s a Performer Performance at Art Tank

On January 15th at 6:30 comMUSIkey will be presenting our proposal to Arizona Art Tank called “Everybody’s a Performer: An extended workshop to develop performance skills for anyone who is willing to make the leap into the musical unknown.” There will be six presenters and three of them will receive $5000 to $10,000 to implement their vision. The presentation will take place at Coconino Center for the Arts, 2300 N. Fort Valley Rd., Flagstaff, AZ

The award will be determined by a panel of judges. There will also be another $1000 awarded by the audience. We encourage all people who believe in our vision of everyone making music together to support us in making this pitch to the panel. The audience reaction will affect the judges and can also award us another 1000 bucks.

Here is an abridged version of the narrative that got us a shot at receiving this grant:

Venture Title:

Everybody’s a Performer: An extended workshop to develop performance skills for anyone who is willing to make the leap into the musical unknown.

What is your Venture?

Our venture will provide an opportunity for anyone to be in a musical performance group. Bundled within our mission is the radical belief that we are all, as human beings inherently musical. Each person has their own unique way to express themselves through music. Just as a community has a diverse pool of skill sets that are all necessary for the community to function, a musical group needs many qualities within it to succeed.

We will invite up to 42 people to take part in an initial one day workshop where we will explore collaborative techniques in composition, songwriting, arranging, and performing. Then we will divide the group into six smaller groups of up to seven people each to develop six fifteen minute performances which will be publicly performed.

The groups will be divided based on the instruments the participants currently play, what new instrument they would like to explore, what musical styles they are interested in, what areas of music they are comfortable with and what areas they want to develop.

The six groups will meet once a week for two hours each week for eight weeks in our own studio. They will be given homework between each class. We will record a CD as part of the process. (we are fully equipped for recording) The workshop will culminate in a final performance on a stage to a public audience.

We will videotape select pieces of the workshop including, of course, the final performance. This will be made into a documentary to be shown on public access TV and the internet.

How does your Venture address the criterion Innovation?

There are many musical groups for people to join, but they usually require an audition to determine the applicant’s level of musicianship. There are open choral groups but we are not aware of any instrumental groups where the only prerequisite is enthusiasm to be collaborative.

There is a public perception that the only way to present a valuable performance is through years of study. While our mission states that we are all able to be musical together and be bonded by it, we are not aware of a musical group, open to anyone, that is able to present a compelling and moving performance to the public. We believe it is not only possible but inevitable IF the participants are guided in creating a cohesive creation filled with their hearts and souls. Whether we know it or not, when we witness a meaningful performance, what we are really experiencing is the journey of the performers. What moves us is our connection to that journey.

This is also a departure for our organization in that while we have always provided a safe place for people to get in touch with their musicality, we have never tried to take this safety into the public eye. With this entirely new methodology, we feel that the process of facing fears will be integral to the learning experience.

How does your Venture address the criterion Responsiveness?

The market we are appealing to is all people, young and old, of all ethnicities within the greater Prescott community and also our society at large. We live in a society where the belief is that we have to pay big ticket prices or hide inside our headphones to experience a quality performance. We have lost the ability to create our own music for each other. As comMUSIKey reaches out to our community with our offerings, we find that most people are afraid to take a chance in making their own music. Whenever people do take a chance and come to our events they invariably heave a sigh of relief to find that they really can connect and engage through music. We also believe that collaborative music joins people of all socioeconomic, political and cultural backgrounds in ways that words can never achieve. In short, we believe people of all walks of life are crying out to connect through music whether they know it or not.

We have also found that many teenagers in our communities don’t have many opportunities where they can be part of a group based project through which they can experience a tangible outcome and be proud of their involvement. We would like to include age diversity as an important element to our performance groups.

How does your Venture address the criterion Impact?

The community will be able to experience the true nature of our collective musicality through the public performance and the documentary which will be shown on public access TV and will be freely available on the internet. We also hope that the live performance and documentary will inspire others to initiate their own collaborative musical experiences. We would like to show the world that anyone can give a compelling performance if they are willing to commit to the creative process and be conscious of what they are giving to their audience.

We also hope to create opportunities for diverse ethnic populations to find common ground through music.

The Rhythm of Nature

Here is an example of nature creating a groove. These are two different raindrop streams falling from a gutter, one playing three beats against the other’s four. They are slightly different tempos so they go in and out of phase with other, similar to Steve Reich’s Phasing Music.  They cycle back and forth between a strong three against four – which is often found in West African rhythms – to where they are almost, but not completely in lockstep. This creates an effect that drummers call flamming.

There’s a Christmas song that has this rhythm. What’s it called?

Is this music?  It is to me.  Music is in the listening I think.

Who’s Musical?

Who’s musical? Hint: Everyone

Originally published in 5enses Magazine MAY 30, 2014 • 


Photo by Ramona Smith.

By Jonathan Best

Go outside and listen to the musical terrain. Start walking and listen to it change as you take part in its rhythm.

The terrain is vast. It extends as far as the ear can hear. Listen to the distant reaches. Maybe there’s a chainsaw barely audible in the mountains trading riffs with a cocker spaniel in the second floor apartment to your left. Keep walking and notice the rhythm in your step. Listen to its relationship to the sounds around you. Now listen to the music in your head. To hear it you might have to quiet your mind, which can be pretty loud and overpowering. This can take some practice to hear the music in your head. The first step is to trust that it’s there.

Where does that music come from?

My belief is that it’s built in. It’s part of the design. Our bodies are designed to make music. We depend on rhythm to stay alive. Our hearts beat a rhythm to get the blood circulated throughout our bodies. Our lungs need to be in sync with our hearts. And there is a melody to our breath. Walking and running rely on rhythm. So does eating. Our bodies compose music day and night whether we know it or not.

We also rely on music to stay connected with one another.

Once you start paying attention to the music of our bodies it becomes hard to ignore. And why ignore it? Why not sing along?

When I first meet someone I often ask them if they play music. The responses are quite diverse but they usually contain some kind of caveat about their lack of musicianship. They’ll say things like, “I haven’t got a musical bone in my body” or “I can’t carry a tune in a hand basket.” Sometimes it’s more benign such as, “I played the piano when I was a kid, but then I got a job” or “I play the guitar, but I just strum.”

Professional musicians aren’t supposed to make these caveats because if they show vulnerability they might lose work. But buried deep within them is their own list of shortcomings such as “I can’t read too well” or “I can’t play Latin Jazz” or “I can only play what’s on the music stand.”

So what denotes a musical person? Is it how many notes per minute they can play? Is it how high they can sing? Is it about whether they can sing perfectly in tune? How about reading skills?

My set of criteria is very different.

Let’s start with listening because that may be the most important. And it’s one that everyone develops throughout their life. It’s an important part of conversation. Music is a conversation.

Loving your sound may be just as important, though. And it’s not easy to do. If there is one quality that all of our favorite singers share it’s a love of their own voice. You can hear that love in every note. One way to develop that love in your own voice is to sing with groups. This way you don’t have to be singled out. You can be part of the greater whole and just experience the sympathetic vibrations between everyone’s vocal cords. Loving the sounds of the people singing with you is also important. And it’s easier to do.

Creativity is imperative to any artistic endeavor. But what if creativity is nothing more than a willingness to make mistakes? Maybe creativity is the making of mistakes. So how about we add mistake making to the list of useful skills for making music?

Any musical group needs a leader. A leader can be the conductor, but it can also be the person who incites everyone to go for it. It can be the person who is paying close attention to the group’s dynamics. Maybe it’s the one who can see the hidden potential of a shy person, or the one whom people follow when she gets quiet or slows down. People sometimes don’t even know who the real leader is. It’s often the bass player.

The last and certainly not least important musical skill to add is confidence in your musicality. This allows you to freely make music whenever you please and with whomever you’d like. We need more people like this in our world.

You may comment that these aren’t really musical skills. But when you see the universe as something made of music, as I do, then you’ll see these attributes as more intrinsic to music making than traditional skills such as sight reading, music theory, keyboard technique, and everything else taught in music school.

I used to say that a musician is a person who hustles for gigs. Now I say that just like a Christian who worships Christ, a Musician is one who worships Music. We all make music, and anyone can choose to worship music and be a musician if they want to.

Who is musical? Everyone.

Our Musical Terrain

Go outside a listen to the musical terrain.  Start walking and listen to it change as you take part in its rhythm.  This is collaboration at its finest. The  terrain is vast. It extends as far as the ear can hear. Listen to the distant reaches. Maybe there’s a chain saw barely audible in the mountains trading riffs with a cocker spaniel in the 2nd floor apartment to your left. Keep walking as you start to feel one with the music. Listen to the voices in your head. Maybe they are scolding voices or voices full of praise. They are part of the terrain. Usually they are from far off in the distant past.

What if the universe is composed of music? (pun intended) What if by simply listening we are taking part in the universal symphony?  What if through practicing we are not getting better, just going deeper?

Listen then sing, listen then sing. Listen to how you blend and become one with the universal music.

Maybe making music is taking part in our musical terrain.

How Can There Be Wrong Notes When There Aren’t Any Notes At All?

In my studies at MUSIC FOR PEOPLE I learned that there are no wrong notes.  My favorite Thelonius Monk quote is “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.”  Well I’m here to tell you that the piano ain’t got any notes at all.  Read on.

I’m always on the lookout for things that get in the way of us all being our complete musical selves.  I feel that if we identify these blocks we can learn to step around them or dance around them.  And we can sing while we dance.

I think that one of the global blocks is notation.  It affects everyone even if you don’t read or try to read music.  The reason for this is that it affects the way our culture perceives music.  We think of music as more complex than it is.  It can be complex if we want it to be but so can conversation but that doesn’t stop most of us from speaking.

Music notation and music complexity evolved together.  The first notes were simply reminders which is why they were called notes.  Notes took many forms over the centuries from places like Mesopotamia to ancient Greece but the trajectory that led to modern western notation started in the middle of the 9th century.  People would write diagonal lines called neumes above the words of poems to indicate whether the melody went up or down.

It took another fifty years to place the neumes at varying heights above the words to suggest the shape of the melody.  Then they started drawing horizontal lines to really zero in on the pitch.  They started with a red line then added a yellow line and by the 11th century they had four lines.

The 5th line took another two hundred years.  Rhythm was another matter.  The notation of rhythm started with rhythmic modes.  There were six of them in the eleventh century and they were based on the cadences of poetic verse that people of that time were already familiar with.  I am not familiar with those verses so I don’t even try to comprehend.

In the next century they started to dissect the rhythms into discreet parts using different note heads with names like long, double long, breve (for brief I’m guessing), and semibreve which would be subdivided into twos and threes as the imperfect and the imperfect respectively.  These would all be interpreted based on their relationships to each other, again way too complicated for me.  Time signatures and bar lines weren’t invented until well into the fourteenth century.

Why was it so difficult to nail this stuff down?  They’d been doing it with words for hundreds of years.

My theory is that in the beginning individual notes didn’t exist as separate from the words and melody and all the indescribable nuances of the song.  The concept of individual notes had to be created right along with the notation that was being invented. To parcel everything out was a technological feat on par with extracting iron from ore.  The music they had could not be written down so they had to create music that could.

There was a time when you could sing a song to someone and they could sing it to someone else and other people could join in just like in any conversation.  And when the singing stopped the song would only exist in memory ready to be sung again as a different piece of music whenever it was desired.

I believe that speaking and music developed concurrently in our evolution.  To me they are inseparable.  When words are spoken it’s pretty darn difficult to keep the music out of them.  Words and music are quite the package.  Words convey thoughts and music conveys everything else.  That’s why jingles are so effective. Like salt and water, once you combine them it’s very difficult to separate them.  The truth of the music becomes part of the words to the point where people believe that the words are true.  Maybe Gregorian Chants were some kind of early form of jingle.

Like I said at the beginning, this block called notation effects us all.  Whether we can effortlessly read whatever “music” is put in front of us or if we have managed to keep written music out of our lives completely it’s hard to escape from the paradigm that music can be broken down into individual parts and that it doesn’t simply flow through us a like a river.

You can put your bucket in the river and attempt to distill it down to its essentials or you can jump in and swim.  And the next time you tackle a “piece” of Mozart remember to make it your own.  Mozart has long ago let it go so you are free to do with it what you will.  And the next time you have a musical inspiration and you want to write it down remember that the notes you write are just notes to remind you of where to look knowing that when you find it the music will be completely different from what it was.

Music is who we are.  Let us be who we are.  Let us not be notes.

What Makes Great Music

Only one person showed up to my playshop today.  So we had a chance to focus in.  We started with what Music for People calls “One Quality Sound” where everybody just sings whatever note happens to come out of their mouth and we listen to the quality of that spontaneous chord.  In our case it was just a two note chord and of course it was beautiful so we did it again with different notes and it was even better because whatever happens in the moment is the best there is.  Then we picked out a couple of nice Djembes and got into some very flexible grooves that were able to meander freely because we were listening so intently to each other.  We added conversational singing which is just like talking but the attention is on melody.  She would sing a phrase then I would respond and we’d go back and forth until we found ourselves weaving our melodies together much like people do when they’re talking about something very exciting.  They’ll talk over each other but not in an interrupting kind of way but more like a duet.  Then we did some mirroring whereby one of us would sing slow enough that the other could follow all the nuances of pitch, timber, and volume exactly.

Basically what we were doing was honing our listening with each exercise.  And now we were ready to just play some duets with whatever instruments struck our fancy.  She played an mbera and I played ukulele.  We both sang.  And then we looked at each other when we both felt it was time to end and we made the ending extra special.  We did it again with me on guitar and lo and behold it was even better of course.  To me it was just as beautiful as anything I have ever heard even from my musical heros.

Then we talked about what makes great music.  We decided that it’s all about intention.  If you intend to go deep with each note and not spiral with judgment after it is played how can it not be beautiful?  She said that sounds like a spiritual practice.  I had to agree.