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On Back To The Basics

I am lucky to have many talented musician friends, world-class performers at the peak of their game who can perform music at the highest level. Sometimes I’ll ask them what they’re working on. The answer I get is frequently the same: fundamentals— getting a good tone, playing with good rhythmic time, you know, the basics.

So why would high-caliber professional musicians need to work on the basics? I mean, don’t they already have the basics mastered? Don’t they teach you this stuff in fifth grade, how to produce a good tone and play rhythms correctly?

To answer in reverse order:

Yes, they do teach you this stuff in fifth grade.

Yes, professional musicians should have the basics mastered.

Because if high-caliber professional musicians don’t work on the basics, they will eventually lose their grasp on them and be unable to perform the more complex literature.

Let me illustrate. Years ago, when I was an undergraduate student, the great tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano did a masterclass at my school. At the time, Joe was widely regarded as the premier improvising saxophonist in the world. I remember Joe’s record label, Blue Note, in one of their promotional campaigns terming him “The Sax Player of the 90’s” And that was probably true. So when we learned that Joe was coming to our school, there was quite the buzz in the halls. When Joe arrived, the masterclass was held in one of our small performance halls. I vividly remember him standing on this tiny stage, larger-than-life, tenor saxophone in hand, as I waited with baited breath for him to lay on us the mind-boggling advanced improvisational techniques he was working on at the time.

Instead, what he said was this: “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about quarter notes and half notes.” And through several examples, Joe proceeded to demonstrate how his conceptualization of quarter notes and half notes was impacting his improvisations.

Now, for those who may not know, quarter notes and half notes are among the simplest, most basic rhythms known to western music. Think of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” It’s all quarter notes and half notes. Child’s play. So, Joe Lovano, The Sax Player of The 90’s, was thinking about nursery-rhyme-level musicianship.


At the time, I didn’t understand where he was going with this. Quarter notes and half notes? To me, it didn’t make sense. Why would Joe Lovano of all people be thinking about such simplistic concepts? And therein was the paradox—I wanted complexity, but when I instead received simplicity, it eluded me. I walked out of the masterclass confused and, frankly, a little disappointed.

Now, all these many years later, with more experience, I appreciate *exactly* what Joe Lovano was saying: homing in on the basics anchors everything you do. It’s like the old Biblical parable: the wise man built his house upon the rock, and when the floods came, it stood strong; but the foolish man built his house on the sand, and when the floods came, it washed away. If your foundation is strong, then you can build on it; if it’s weak, then any superstructure you build onto it is likely to crumble.

So why do I mention any of this at all?

Because many of us forget to work on the basics.

We may unintentionally become hyper-focused on more complex concepts, thinking that the basics have already been mastered and will thus take care of themselves. The outcome of this approach tends to produce work that feels hollow and is missing its core.

As an example, I may have a student working on a piece of music with intricate rhythms and complex harmony. The student, however, might become so riveted to the complexities of the music, that she forgets to play with good tone. As a result, even though all the intricacies come through, the sound is so unpleasant that it's hard to get past it to appreciate the piece’s finer points. In short, a basic component— good tone, in this case— of the music has been abandoned, resulting in music no one wants to hear.

This concept can apply broadly to any field. Every discipline has basic principles that ground it, and people in all fields can benefit from nurturing the foundations of their work. For example, I recently had a conversation with an influential arts organizer in my community. She was familiar with Millikin University and was aware that I teach in the school of music, praising our bright and talented students. In turn, she had some counsel she wished for me to pass on to my students. Of all the many things she could have pointed out, this is what she said: “Tell your students to learn how to write an email. Some of the emails I get from students make me not want to hire them.”

Her comment underscores an important point: music students as a unique population may lack training in non-musical areas— like social skills— because they spend so much time in isolation in a practice room.

Therefore, as an educator, I probably should not assume that students know how to craft a proper business email, which is something I would consider a basic communication skill. Rather, they may need to be taught. But because students can become focused on the more complex part of sending an email— getting a gig, for example— they may, in the process, forget (or maybe even not consider) basic courtesies. And their emails may lack the formal and deferential tone due a potential employer. Instead, they sound and look more like a text to their buddies.

So what should look like this:

Dear Ms. Jones,

My name is John Smith. I am a performing artist in the central Illinois region. Recently, I became aware of your performing arts series, and I believe my group would be a good fit for it.

Is there a time we could talk to discuss the possibility of booking my group sometime in the next few months?

Thank you kindly for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.


John Smith


turns into this:


Yeh, so my band is interested in getting a gig at ur place.

Can we book it?

Gimme a call.



If you think this is an exaggeration, I assure you it’s not. I have received similar emails from inexperienced musicians early in their careers.

No surprise that the author of the second email is probably not going to get that gig. Not because his band is untalented, because it may be; but because the entertainment manager can’t get past that email and is rightfully reluctant to hire anyone so obliviously unprofessional. The email’s author ignored the basic tenets of professional communication in pursuit of the more complex goal of getting the gig, and, in doing so, ironically, cost his band the gig.

The point of these stories are not about musical fundamentals or email communication, though performing artists in pursuit of employment opportunities would do well to take note of these points. On the contrary, they’re about the unfavorable results that can ensue when bypassing attention to the basics in favor of more “complex” priorities. Thus, for entrepreneurial artists of any type, getting back to the basics can be a critical piece of a professional identify, a make-or-break characteristic.

Consider what the basics are for your field. Are you nurturing them? What do you need to do to get back to them? For me, I stay musically connected to the basics by beginning my practice sessions with a slow warm-up, which allows me to focus on fundamentals. For writing, I return to the basics by reading Strunk & White’s The Elements Of Style, quite possibly the best book on writing ever written, which reminds me to write clearly and concisely.

I suspect for all of us that getting back to the basics will ignite a renewed sense of grounding that strengthens everything we are working on.

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