The “B” Word

All day long, I chase the same concept around my office. Sometimes I catch it, often I don’t. Then I go home and find myself spending more time looking for it. All day long, virtually every day, there’s Gordo trying to find it, or once I do, maintain it. That’s the real frustrating part, because sometimes I find it, and before you know it, I’ve lost it again. Have you figured out what I’m talking about yet? Because no doubt you spend much of your time looking for the same thing, whether you know it or not. I’m talking about balance. It’s amazing to me how the pursuit of balance permeates so many areas of our lives. It affects our professional lives, our personal relationships, our physical health, and our mental health man, almost everything. Of course we all remember being told to eat a balanced diet for optimal health, but sometimes we go to the extreme side of things and try all carb diets, or high fat diets or vegetarian diets or juice fasts or who knows what. But I seem to feel my best when I eat a balanced diet in moderation. Same thing for exercise. When I go on the treadmill everyday consistently, I keep my weight down and have good energy, but when I go too far and push too hard with exercise, there’s that sprained ankle or pulled muscle! And when I get into a busy work crunch and start skipping my morning exercise, it doesn’t take too long for things to start to fall apart!

I find that the concept of balance applies greatly in my work. When I’m writing a melody or an arrangement, striking the correct balance is the hardest thing. That’s really at the core of many of the decisions I have to make. If I am unhappy with a particular melody, it’s usually due to balance issues. Maybe it’s active for too long, or stays around the same pitch center too long. Maybe it’s too repetitive, or maybe it has too much variety. Sometimes the melody itself is cool and the harmony is dragging it down. So there are two more elements that need to be in balance. That’s the main reason much of today’s pop music sound uninteresting to me. The choruses are always in the same tonal center as the verses. The melodies are either too “sing-songy” or too random sounding. All too often they are simply based on the same pentatonic scale. The dynamics of the song (of the song’s performance) are the same, all the way through. Of course, current pop music is not the only genre to suffer from balance issues. Jazz can be just as guilty of lazy structure. Ever heard somebody with amazing technique, who could execute reams and reams of notes at blinding speed? And after a while, you get used to the trick, and blinding speed isn’t quite as interesting as it once was? You want to tell that person to slow down for a minute and play a damn melody! This is a case of an otherwise excellent musician whose playing is out of balance. Of course, it goes both ways. Many musicians have limited their ability to reach an audience due to their lack of proper technique. To me, the most interesting improvisers are those who have obtained a good balance of technique, sound, melodic, harmonic and rhythmic knowledge. And each of these elements have their own issues to master. For instance, sound. The production of a good sound in the case of a jazz saxophonist involves finding the correct reed, mouthpiece, ligature, neck, horn, embouchure, air support, and probably a bunch of other stuff I’m forgetting at the moment. Finding the right combination of the above elements will give you a start, then you have to figure out how to impose your own personality in there. Matching a player’s sound to his personality is always a funny thing. Ever hear Stan Getz? Beautiful, sensitive player, great melodocist, whose playing could make you cry. And by all accounts he was a first class jerk. I guess his heroin addiction didn’t help much, but you could make the argument that Stan balanced the ugliness in his personal life by the beautiful sounds he made on his horn. It gets a bit complicated, doesn’t it?

It’s hard to find balance in today’s world. Politically, many people feel you should either be a left-wing-tree-hugger or a right-wing-gun-nut-bible-thumper. I always felt there were good ideas and bad ideas on both sides and that we all could benefit from a little flexibility in our thinking. Why is it that when you get passionate about something, your mind closes off to other ways of looking at something? I became excited about jazz when I was in the 7th grade, and I remember, all through high school, I could never understand what my peers saw in the pop music of the day. It took me years to learn to listen to rock ‘n roll with a different set of criteria than what I used when I listened to jazz or classical music. I grew to see the balance problems in rock ‘n roll, but I found the ability to see the good aspects of that music as well. But the light bulb really came on for me when I realized that all the music that really resonated with me, all the music that truly moved me, was music in balance with itself. Without exception, there it was, BALANCE.

You know, I used that word 16 times in this essay. I’m obsessed with balance! So that means this essay is out of balance! Well, great. Now I have to start over and try to find a pseudonym for the “b” word. Ah screw it. If you’re not out of balance once in a while you’re not human, right?

Have I totally confused the issue for you? It seems an underdeveloped topic of discussion because it is so elusive. But if you get your life in balance, you can get your music in balance, and those are worthy goals.