This is an interview I did with Matt Owen, a great tuba player who is helping to pioneer the first ever ElectroBrass Conference this summer. It will be happening June 4-6 at the University of Alabama. It is going to be a great time. In preparation for the conference he is doing interviews with some of the artists presenting at the conference. Below is the interview I did with him. It is also posted at the ElectroBrass Conference website (www.electrobrass.com). Be sure to check out the website and see what all will be going on that weekend in June…
Tell us a bit about yourself – How did you become involved in music, and at what point did you decided that it was going to be your career choice?
I have been involved with music since as early as I can remember. The story my mother always tells is when I was just a couple years old. I was banging pots and pans in the kitchen while my parents watched TV in the other room. A commercial came on with some Mozart as the background music, at which point I hollered from the other room, “Mommy, that’s Mozart!” (Or something like that.)
I guess there never really was a point when I didn’t see myself being a musician. Sure, I had little kid dreams of being a firefighter or something like that, but I could never imagine a life for myself that didn’t revolve around music in some way. I played piano primarily from about six years old until I got to high school. That’s when I was introduced to the tuba. I didn’t really wanna play it at first. The tuba has a kind of “negative” stigma associated with it, ya know. But once my band director convinced me to play it I really threw my whole musical being into it. My band director also gave me the advice that propelled me into college. He told me that if I could see myself doing anything other than music then I should do that instead. I think he was trying to scare me out of it (which I still do to this day when others ask me about being a musician), but the whole conversation made me realize there really was nothing else I could see myself doing and it pushed me even stronger into music.
What school(s) have you attended? What degrees have you earned?
I was lucky to have an amazing school pretty much in my back yard, Tennessee Tech University. One of the truly legendary players and teachers is there, R. Winston Morris. I honestly can’t say enough great things about my time at TTU. Mr. Morris has been a teacher, mentor, and a role model for my life. I received a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education. Mr. Morris doesn’t let you get anything else (not that I would’ve wanted to).
After finishing at Tech, I realized I was really passionate about chamber music. So I wanted to study with someone who had really excelled in that area. I think that’s important, to study with those who have had success in the realms you hope to be successful in. Anyway, that led me to study with Sam Pilafian at Arizona State University. This was another truly life changing time for me. Sam really helped open my eyes to new ways of thinking about music as a player and teacher. I was there to study Music Performance as Master’s student.
How do you balance your music with other “life obligations?”
That is the challenge, isn’t it? There will always be part of you given up to the music. Thinking back to that advice that my band director gave me, the idea is that to make music your career is really to make it your life. You have to be prepared for everything that means. I certainly didn’t appreciate everything that meant at the time, but I thought long and hard about if I could see myself doing anything else. Luckily (or not, depending on how you look at it) I’ve yet to find that other thing, so I’m still here doing my music.
So the key I think is making sure that your “life obligations” add to your musical life, not take away from it. That means finding the right balance for you, which may not be the right balance for anyone else. Maybe you find a day job. Maybe you teach forty-something private lessons like a friend of mine. Maybe you do something else that wouldn’t even occur to me! People may not get it. Haha! You will never have the life that your neighbor, who is a businessman or real estate agent, has so don’t try! All that will lead you to is being jaded and unhappy with your life. And who wants that? There’s no point in being the starving artist if all your gonna do is complain about how hungry you are.
What was the first tune you learned?
The first tune ever? Well… The first tune I remember learning on the piano was a simple, cheesy piece called “Jazz Cat.” Ha! I could probably still plink out the first couple bars of that. After that, I learned a lot of the standard stuff for piano. My main teacher growing up eventually started refusing to play the pieces for me before we began working on them. He said if he played it I would just remember what it sounded like and not really read the music, so I would often play things “wrong” since I wasn’t really learning the piece. In hindsight, that is what I did. I feel bad for my teacher back then, but that was probably one of the best skills that I began working on at an early age: playing by ear.
Too many “legit” players look down on the play-by-ear musicians. I agree that to really have a full understanding of what you can do requires you to learn the notes and scales and everything else. But the truth of the matter is that not enough of the players who scoff and roll their eyes can even play a simple tune by ear! I mean, when you can’t pick out some simple pop tune by ear, then you’re the one with the problem. And the more opportunities I’ve had to play with really great players, the more I see that having a strong ear is integral to truly musical playing. How are you supposed to react to what another musician plays – play the same phrase, with the same inflection, create a real dialogue – if you can’t hear what the other player is doing? That’s chamber music! That’s Haydn and Brahms and Schubert! That’s jazz! That’s everything, really.
Sorry, I got off topic there. Yeah, that Jazz Cat piece though. That was a fun little piece.
Do you run a blog? If so, what keeps you motivated to update it? And what subjects does the blog try to stick to?
I have been working on a blog. Honestly, I have not kept up with it in the last year as well as I’d wanted to, mostly because the demands of my job were such that I wasn’t finding the time to write posts. But getting involved with the conference actually has me inspired to get back to it, so hopefully you will see some new posts from me coming out soon.
The blog is called “Long Tones: The Pursuit of a Life in Music.” It is broken down into several categories that all try to examine what it means to be a musician in the world today, and the goal is to show people how varied a “life in music” can and must be nowadays to survive. All the posts tend to break down into talking about at least one of three main ideas: performance, practice, and teaching. I also have posts that may speak generally about various musical topics, which get put in “The Music Life” category. I also tried to keep up with various interesting things that happened in history and interesting quotes that I hear or find from various musicians or other people. There are a few other categories – one or two that are videos that I find to be particularly interesting at highlighting something I may have talked about, or just someone who is really badass at being a musician (you know you’re on there, Matt) – but again the main thrust of all the articles are meant to help any musician take a broader look at what it means to be a musician in today’s world, not the world of our college professors.
As for motivation, that is the hard part for anyone. The key is to set aside time to write. No major blogger just randomly sits down at their computer and says, “I think I’ll just whip out some insightful, witty, and/or poignant 300-word blog right now…on the spot.” That just doesn’t happen. The best blog posts are ones that you take some care in crafting. It’s like giving a speech. Other than that, the key is to get ahead. It’s best to schedule a day and time to post weekly (you can always post more than that, but once a week is a good goal to start with). But if you are trying to have that inspiring and witty idea week after week, eventually you’ll get behind. So, try to have at least one month worth of posts ready to go at all times. The more the better – shoot for three months if you can. That way you have a cushion when you’re not feeling so inspired. Because, as I found for myself, once you get behind it can be so easy to just put it aside. But I’m correcting that now!
What kind of things have you learned along the way that you would warn or advise students to avoid or to be aware?
Oh man! There are so many things I could say here. But I’ll keep it simple.
I would say this: being a “pro” and being a student are two totally different things. What I mean is you’ve got to have the highest standards possible for yourself. This really hit me when I first started playing and touring with Synergy Brass back in 2007. It was probably one of our first concerts of that tour. We played everything from memory and we had basically just spent several weeks learning and memorizing multiple hours worth of music. It was old hat for the other guys, but I was the new kid. I had never memorized a whole program before. And I remember at this concert (somewhere in New Jersey, I think) we were getting ready before the show and there was very much this “don’t screw this up” vibe coming in my direction. Not that anyone was being mean or rude, but there was money on the line. I had to deliver. I had to stand up, on stage, in front of hundreds of people and play music from memory. And it couldn’t suck. I had to take this really difficult and scary (at the moment) experience and make it seem like fun and games to the audience.
So, that’s the difference, really. When you are a student and you give a recital and…eh, maybe it doesn’t go so well you’re friends still come up and congratulate you. You’re professor still says you did pretty well. You’re girlfriend still brings you flowers. You don’t lose your scholarship or get kicked out of school. But when you’re a professional and someone has paid money (sometimes lots of money), the option of it not going so well doesn’t exist. You either do it right, or you lose the gig. Even if you’re having an off night. It’s gotta be up to the audience’s standards or you don’t get called back to play that gig again. So we need to hold ourselves to standards that are high enough that even when it doesn’t go so well it’s still better than what anyone else is doing.
What is your favorite moment of your career to date?
I’m always so bad with these “what is your favorite…” questions. How about I rattle off a few of the highlights and a quick note about why it’s on the list… (in no particular order)
- I got to play on stage as a guest soloist (part of Synergy Brass) with the Boston Pops Orchestra in front of something like ten-thousand people on Nantucket Island. I feel like that has to be on the list.
- I played on a floating stage in a lake that was in the Swiss Alps.
- Playing “Colonial Song No. 1” by Percy Grainger with my band in college was a really moving musical experience, it has really stuck with me.
- I was lucky to get to play at Carnegie Hall with the Tennessee Tech Tuba Ensemble and then immediately go and record all that music in Buffalo, NY for the next week. Intense!
- A three-city tour of Japan is always gonna make this list, especially when someone else was always picking up the tab!
Who are your musical influences?
Again, here I try to take it all in. I try to learn something from every musical experience I have, both good and bad. That’s something I tell my students all the time. Don’t just listen to great performers of your instrument. Listen to all great performers. I learn more about playing tuba by listening to cello and string bass players than I do listening to tuba players. Really love the way a bass line sounds in some pop song? Well, try and recreate that. Every musical experience we have is another tool in our bag of tricks. And if you hear a performance (of any kind) that you don’t like it don’t just turn your nose up and walk away. Be critical, figure out why you didn’t like it, and then work at making sure you never do that in your own playing.
As for actual players and groups who influence me, here’s another list: First of course, my main teachers Winston Morris and Sam Pilafian. Mstislav Rostropovich. The Emerson String Quartet. The Youngblood Brass Band. Harvey Philips. Stan Kenton’s Orchestra. John Lee Hooker. Ella Fitzgerald. The Empire Brass Quintet. Andras Schiff.
Okay, now go google those names. Haha!
Who was your first teacher? Who was your favorite teacher?
My first real tuba teacher was a man named Marcus Arnold. He was a great teacher. Really pushed me and never put limits on what I could do; he never told me something was “hard.”
Certainly my favorite teacher would have to be Winston Morris at Tennessee Tech. Heck, I like him so much I’m getting ready to go back and be his Graduate Assistant! You could not ask for a better musical mentor and example of what a truly good human being should be. He has been breaking ground musically for decades, and on top of that has molded some of the best tuba players around. Many of which have gone on to be esteemed players and teachers in every realm of the musical world. And on top of all that, he never stopped being a good person, always treating every person with every ounce of respect they deserved. If you stepped out of line or didn’t live up to his expectation (and your potential) he would let you know in no uncertain terms, but there was never a doubt in any of his student’s minds that he would do everything within his power to make sure you reached that potential. And I’ve never seen a more dedicated husband than him, even after his wife had serious health problems. I won’t talk about that much, mostly cause I can’t talk about it without getting at least a little choked up. But truly, no single person has influenced what I think it means to be both a great musician and great person than Winston Morris.
Do you regularly perform in public?
I do, in varying capacities. When I toured with Synergy Brass, we were performing roughly 300 concerts a year, give or take. After that I moved toArizona and continued to play with my own group called the Phoenix Chamber Brass. I also perform with a jazz combo, the Greg Lloyd Quartet, and as the principal (I use that term loosely) Eb tuba player in the Salt River Brass Band.
Do you get nervous before a performance or a competition? How do you handle making mistakes during a performance?
There really is nothing like performing. The only way to prep for it is to actually do it. Honestly, I don’t get nervous. Not anymore at least. Back when I was still in elementary school I was performing on piano, so I’ve had a long time to get used to performing. I think the key is to recognize that you are having a very different experience than the audience. You may be worried about this lick or this high note coming up, but they aren’t. And they sure as hell don’t want to hear you miss the next seven notes after it because you cracked it a little bit. They probably didn’t even notice!
There is a really great book that I would recommend all musicians read. It’s called “The Inner Game of Tennis.” Yes, it’s a tennis book. They came out with a music version, but honestly (in my most humble opinion) it just dilutes and muddles up what is said perfectly in the original book. There’s only one chapter that is about tennis. The rest is all about the mental side of performance. The main point to the book is that all performers (athletes and musicians alike) have two “Selves” inside their head. Self 1 is the one that is always telling you that you’re gonna miss that note or the part of you that criticizes everything you play. Self 2 is the part of you that is “subconscious.” If you can learn to quiet the Self 1 that is always in your head, then you have an opportunity to just let your brain (and by extension your body) do what it knows how to do.
So, when I go out to play I try to only live in the current musical moment. Did I miss that high F? Oh well, too late now. I can’t go back and fix it. I try to never think about technique, especially in a performance setting. I have a stand that I keep at home that has “MAKE MUSIC” written in big letters across it. It reminds me that if all I ever do is think about technique, then that’s all I’ll ever do. But if I think about making music, then all the technique will take care of itself. So when I’m performing all I hear is the music. Technique is for the practice room. Live above the technique when you’re on stage and things will start to get better.
What advice would you give to beginners?
Play all the time. Play anything you want. Play Star Wars music. Play in a crappy ska band if you can. But also play your scales. Play all the things that are no fun, because eventually they will be. In the early stages of development the most important thing is to spend as much time as you can making sounds on your instrument. After having taught my fair share of beginning brass players, I think there is just some prerequisite number of hours that every one must play before they start to sound good. It’s not the same number of hours for everyone. I’m not really talking about that “10,000-hour rule” business. That comes later. But every beginning trumpet or trombone student is gonna have a nasal, pinched sound until they don’t. That sounds obvious, but you can’t really talk them into sounding better. They have to play their way to sounding better.
Why do you believe in the merging of Brass and Electronics, and how do you envision the future of American Brass Music?
I was never one of those guys that performed those weird pieces in college. “’A Stormy Night with Aliens and Other Weird Stuff,’ a composition for tuba and tape by Some Guy No One Knows.” I never saw the allure because it never seemed to enhance the actual music making. It felt gimmicky. Like the only reason it was there was so people could admire how unusual it was, despite the fact that no one in the audience even remotely enjoyed listening to the piece. And I think a lot of that stems from the forced separation in academia between “art music” and everything else. I think college music programs have killed more musical creativity than they have helped. I know it did for me. It took me years to start writing music again after being in school, despite having written multiple pieces for piano and tuba before getting to college (not that they were good, just that I had written them). There is this false idea that any music that normal people might actually want to listen to is somehow “beneath” a real musician. And that’s total crap. But anyway, I think I’m starting to take your question in a slightly different direction. So let me digress…
For me, I’ve seen a lot of growth in this realm with people really trying to meld their music making with the electronics, rather than having the two happening simultaneously but not really working together. For me, I really got into Zoe Keating’s stuff with cello. It was a very organic blending of the acoustic instrument with electronics that really enhanced what was happening – it made the music possible. Those pieces couldn’t have been done without the electronics unless you wanted to put together a mass ensemble of cellos. And even then it still wouldn’t be the same.
And so this idea that the electronics can be fundamentally a part of the music is what excites me about the future of art music, but especially brass music. I’ve always thought the big drawback of brass instruments is their mono-tonality. I mean, think of a string quartet or just any of the string instruments. They can produce such a huge variety of sounds naturally. Brass instruments basically have a few sounds and variations, which are basically just louder or softer versions of the same thing. But electronics blow the sonic landscape wide open. There are basically infinite ways to manipulate a sound electronically, some more processed than others. I mean, sure you can run that tuba through a distortion pedal and get some wild sounds, and I love that. But it doesn’t have to be distorted tuba. Some really subtle work with a filter or a phaser pedal can make things sound entirely new yet still keep a lot of the acoustic properties of the sound. The greatest thing is seeing how many different voices people will find in this new medium. Just as in traditional art music every one has their voice, their style. And so it will be with this. Some people are gonna take it to the weirdest extremes and that will be great. And some people will take very different approach, and that will be great too. That has been the most fun part of this for me; trying on different sonic hats, so to speak. It’s like getting to take all the restraints off the music and get down to the real creative heart of what it means to be a musician.