Anonymous yet personal, this Blog chronicles
the daily events and musings of Jim.
It provides an easy way for his friends and family to check in on him,
and serves as a online repository for his random
thoughts, kaleidoscopic flashbacks, and writings on an array of diverse topics.
“Deconstructing Jim” is simply here to
entertain you, but not intended for college credit.

A little about me

My photo
Chapel Hill, NC, United States

Blog Archive


Art (27) Birthday (3) Book Review (4) Boston (39) CD Review (2) Celebrations (10) Concert Review (39) Dreams (4) Education (5) Employment (11) Factoid (26) Family (28) Flashback (40) Flying (6) Food (22) Friends (8) Fun (14) Health (3) Holland (5) Movies (9) Music (261) Nature (12) NY (8) Obit (8) Poetry (6) Random thoughts (99) Science (12) Sports (6) Tech (34) Travel (27) Weird stuff (28) Woodwind Quintet (1)

Friday, July 31, 2009


For some reason I woke up today thinking about "chops"

- not the meaty variety that we might throw on the summer grill, but musical chops.

One of the highest compliments that we can pay to a musician is to say they have "great chops."

Great chops is not limited to any particular style or genre of music. It is a generalized measure of a musicians' technical prowess and intellectual accomplishment in their particular area of musical specialization.

Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, and Bill Evans all come to mind as prime examples in the jazz arena. They all had an exceptional command of their instruments and of the musical system in which they could spontaneously create music. Although Bill Evans was not known for destroying pianos with his powerful hands, his formative technique was of the intellectual sort.

Jazz musicians invent and perform a lot of their music in the moment, yet the amount of time they invest in meticulous study is what sets them apart from the ordinary. No one is born with the innate ability to play music at their level without the hard work and years of intense practice that prepares them for the task. Great chops aren't automatic or easily acquired. It takes commitment, dedication, personal sacrifice, and a human investment that few people willing to make.

Classical musicians are also known for their chops. From Chopin to Liszt to Rachmaninoff, we have numerous historical examples of amazing accomplishments in musical technique and ability. But even in this musical genre, technique alone is hollow and impotent if there isn't genuine wisdom behind the musical impulse. The acquisition of chops includes not only a physical ability to manipulate the keys of an instrument with dexterity and proficiency, but the ability to make the resultant music resonate with the listener in a meaningful and coherent way. Playing lots of fast flourishes is one thing, but finding the right articulation, phrasing, expressive arch, and musical intent is also a highly challenging musical feat.

Where do composers fit into this discussion? Were are their chops?

Usually the first question that comes after I explain that I am a composer is: "What instrument do you play?" Personally, I find this a difficult question to answer, and to some extent it relates to the subject of chops. I've played a variety of instruments, but have mastered none of them.

While there are many accomplished composers who are also accomplished performers on one (or more) musical instruments, I would estimate that they are in a minority. Playing an instrument (or singing) at a professional level while at the same time practicing the art of musical composition with the intensity and dedication that it requires is a daunting proposition. It can be done, but not everyone has been successful in doing it.

Composer-performers and composer-conductors have a distinct advantage in the cultural milieu. There are many clear examples of this symbiosis and synergy: conductor-composer Pierre Boulez comes to mind. One would assume that his career as a composer received an enormous boost from the fact that he is also one of the world's leading "Maestros." Perhaps the general public is more willing to take a chance on his modernist musical works because they are familiar with his interpretation of the orchestral classics. And of course there is the practical benefit that someone in that position assumes by being strategically placed to program their own works and generally promote their parallel careers as composers.

But it is extremely difficult to be the master of two professions. Boulez resigned as Music Director of the NY Philharmonic to go to Paris to be a composer again. In more recent times, the Music Director of the LA Philharmonic - Esa-Pekka Salonen - resigned his post with that great orchestra to devote more time to composing.

It's hard enough to acquire the chops needed to function as a musician, conductor, or composer. It's another thing to find the time to continually study and actively maintain those chops.

For this reason, I would say that most composers let their instrumental technique play second fiddle to their primary objective, which is dedicating their energy and thoughts to the process of creating new musical works. The act of composing is not an insignificant or easy task, and it requires a skill set and frame of mind that is equivalent to a practice routine that any accomplished instrumentalist would religiously follow. Pianists practice scales and arpeggios. Composers manipulate notes according to rules of harmony, rhythm, and counterpoint. It's mental gymnastics and requires years of preparation and persistent regular practice. In this sense, composers have chops too, and like their instrumentalist colleagues, need to regularly practice their craft otherwise their technique will decline and grow stale.

As the world of technology has invaded our lives, professional musicians are rethinking the traditional meaning of chops. What does it mean to play accurately and quickly when computers can manipulate, correct, and control every minute detail of a live or recorded performance in real time or retroactively? Why should an electronic musician spend decades practicing traditional scales and arpeggios when it can be easily programmed on a digital sequencer?

To their defense I will say that electronic instruments - from the Theremin to the Synthesizer - are instruments that require different skills sets and new abilities. For example, I believe that anyone who is deep into computer music would benefit from programming skills and a general knowledge of acoustics and computer science. Digital instruments are perhaps even more demanding and challenging for the instrumentalist than those of the brick-and-motor variety sort. With the new electronic instruments there is less of a tradition and history to base a performance practice on. Today's musicians have to invent themselves anew.

On the other hand, the infusion of technology has made some aspects of music creation too easy. By pushing a few buttons, something vaguely resembling music can be extracted from a commercial electronic keyboard. Complete amateurs are bolstered by mass-produced solid state technology, and this works to the detriment of professional musicians who dedicate their lives to it and take their craft far more seriously.

It's also unfair to say that unless someone has slaved in a steamy practice room for 10-12 hours a day for 30+ years that they have not earned the right to express themselves musically. The introduction of electronic instruments has simplified performance and lowered the barrier of entry for the general public. It has democratized the playing field. The field of musical performance (and musical composition) is no longer restricted to a small group of guild members who acquired their chops the hard way and can prove it by exam. Like it or not, for better or worse, there are some individuals who took a shortcut and avoided the hardship of learning the fundamentals of traditional music.

I will always respect musical chops that were acquired the old fashioned way. The musicians mentioned above all worked like dogs and made great sacrifices to develop their style and musical expression. For them, there were no short cuts or easy buttons to press.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge and embrace technology in the field of music. Technology not only gives us more options, but it can amplify and expand the abilities, talents, and ideas already present in a fully-trained and experienced musician or composer. It can transform not only the way we hear music, but the way we think about it.