This weekend: The Calvosa Sullivan Project returns!!!

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Kat Calvosa, vocals

I’m pleased to announce that the pop/jazz collaboration “The Calvosa Sullivan Project” will be performing after a hiatus of over an entire year.  Yes…I know you missed us! I co-lead this project with fellow Manhattan School of Music alumnus – vocalist Kat Calvosa, and our collaboration over the past two years has resulted in a set of gorgeous original pop/jazz tunes. Here’s one of them!


For this performance we’ve also enlisted our extraordinary musician friends Perry Smith on guitar, Sam Minaie on bass, and Brian Fishler on drums.  This performance is also a rare opportunity to hear me perform on piano! So hope you can make it!!!


Liberace, piano


Principles of Ensemble Leadership: Part 1


I’ve decided to finally write a little bit more than usual.  January has been sort of a slow month, and I’ve had the idea for a while now to write a series of blogs about leading bands, so I figure I’ll give it a shot!

I’ve been leading an 18 piece big band for 6 years, and have been the leader of several other 3-6 piece ensembles as well (I currently lead three different projects and co-lead one.  I’ve also been a sideman in bands too numerous to mention.   These experiences have all contributed to developing some specific skill sets that have enabled me  to successfully lead my own projects. By “successfully” I don’t necessarily mean my musical endeavors have always been profitable. Instead, I mean that I’ve been able to  have my music performed on a fairly consistent basis, by excellent musicians, for audiences around the world.

This discussion is going to cover some of the fundamentals of leading ensembles and how to efficiently and smoothly get your musical message “out there” as a band leader.   I’m going to focus on the creative, interpersonal, and administrative aspects of leading a band.   I hope it will start some interesting discussion/comment threads!

So…let’s start from the beginning.

Music Preparation

Unless you’re planning on starting an all-improvisational group or a jam band, obviously without at least some written music there’s going to be no way to get your music played by other musicians, unless they’re all telepathic or willing to take the time to figure out lines that you sing/play to them.  Many of the groups that I play in, lead, or encounter in the jazz world in New York City are dealing with fairly complex and challenging music for several musicians, which further increases the necessity for written parts and scores.
Knowledge of composition, arranging, songwriting, etc. are all important factors being able to commit your musical ideas to the page, and of course these areas of study represent a lifetime of learning , but for the purpose of this discussion, let’s assume  that you already have a set of songs/compositions that you’re ready to share and be played by other musicians in either a session or rehearsal.

The goal  for effective music preparation is to be able to have your music and ideas presented as clearly as possible for performance and interpretation by other musicians.  This doesn’t mean that what you’re presenting is the final draft, or that there can’t be mistakes here and there,, but there must be an intention for clarity.   If this isn’t taken into consideration, it can make for a very frustrating situation for the performers, since valuable time and energy will be wasted in attempting to decipher what is written, and you’ll be frustrated as well because you won’t get to hear your composition played properly.

Here are a few suggestions that can add clarity to the presentation of your notated music:

Learn to use a music notation program: If you’re hand written manuscript looks like that of a professional-level copyist, then you don’t have to worry about this.  Otherwise, if  you don’t have experience using a music notation program such as Finale or Sibelius (there’s a few others, but these two are the kings), then I’d strongly suggest taking the plunge and acquire an up-to-date copy of one of those programs.  There is a pretty steep learning curve for effectively using these, particularly with Finale, but in the end it’s totally worth it.  A great place to start is to create a simple lead sheet from a hand written tune.  It might take a while to do at first, but when you’re finished you will marvel at how much better your music looks, and it will be way more easy to read.   If you’re writing for larger ensembles, these programs are even more of a time saving tool because when you’re creating a score, the program also creates the individual parts.  Finale and Sibelius also have MIDI playback capabilities so you can preview your work, which also helps avoid mistakes such as wrong accidentals, rhythms, etc.  There are definitely some challenges that arise from using these programs – music notation is a slippery slope, but I think the benefits ultimately outweigh the drawbacks and limitations.

Working with scores and parts: When I was at Manhattan School of Music, one day in big band we had to play through several arrangements that were written by students in the composition & arranging class, taught by legendary big band arranger Manny Albam.  Manny was conducting the band, and by the third or fourth arrangement he was completely fuming because almost every arrangement had a single problem in common: the rehearsal letters in the score didn’t match the rehearsal letters in the parts.  It made it virtually impossible to rehearse the music.  So basically, what’s in the score should be in the parts, and the fundamental measure to measure layout and road map of the individual parts have to match each other as well.  Sometimes I find it necessary to simplify and condense rhythm section parts, and when I do that, I double and triple check to make sure that the parts correspond exactly to the score.

Music layout: In my experience, Finale is horrible with this…I think Sibelius might be a little bit more intuitive on this front, but anyway it’s a good idea with music that has even phrase structures (e.g. 2, 4, 8 bar phrases) that you try to have four bars to the system.  If there’s measures that are full of triplets and/or 16th notes, it may be necessary to have only two or three bars in the system.  If you want to learn more about music layout etiquette and notation in general, check out this book.  Also, make sure to thoroughly proofread a piece before you print it out to ensure that individual notes are not crashing into each other and that text, expression marks, rehearsal letters, and articulations are all in their proper position on the page.

Transpositions: It’s always a good idea to have all of your parts transposed properly. Here’s a chart of instrument transpositions.    In NYC,  I’ve found most professional musicians are very good at sight reading, and a great deal of them are just as good at sight transposing.  I’ve developed a fairly high level of skill myself transposing from concert pitch to E flat, as well as from B flat to E flat, as long as the music isn’t too crazy…but lately I’ve been wanting to read only music that is transposed for my instrument, particularly if there is improvisation with chord changes.  I think that there is a slight barrier to optimal interpretation of a piece that’s created when having to transpose…and of course, not everyone can do it in the first place.

Taping parts: As I write some of this stuff I’m feeling like I’m being too basic and obvious, but then I think of all the times that I’ve gone into a rehearsal or performance and there are these basic things that are overlooked in terms of music preparation, and they create problems.  Not having pages taped  is one of those things.  Taping parts is boring to do, but completely necessary, especially because most of the time musicians have crappy wire stands (like mine) that seem to be designed to have music fall off of them.  Also, if there are parts with three or more pages, it makes it much easier to turn pages and no one has to worry about the music getting out of order.  Scotch (tape, that is) is your friend!

Phew! So that’s some of the real basics out of the way.  Hope it was enlightening to you all!

In the next installment I’m going to talk about scheduling musicians for rehearsals and performances.  Stay tuned…

My new goal…Classical Piano Recital in 2011 (maybe 2012)

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I’ve decided to go public with this so that I can be held accountable!

I started playing the saxophone when I was 10, and my first teacher had a piano in his studio.  He would occasionally play songs for me on the piano and I thought it was such an awesome, mysterious instrument.  When I was was 12, I started splitting the lessons – 30 minutes piano and 30 minutes saxophone, and after about a year or so of steady piano practicing I got seriously addicted.

I could already read music from my saxophone studies, so I developed pretty quickly as a pianist and started playing Chopin Nocturne’s around age 15, and until age 26 I always had a classical piano teacher.  In college I played a couple of short piano recitals, and was an active chamber music accompanist for several student recitals as well.  When I got to Manhattan School of Music to get an M.M. in Jazz Performance, I continued my studies with a great pianist and teacher – Jeffrey Cohen, which lasted for a semester.

At MSM I was surrounded by classical pianists who had been playing since they were 5 or 6 and practiced 6 to 8 hours a day.  It was intimidating for a hobbyist like me, and besides I was at MSM to study jazz saxophone! I can remember when I was in a practice room struggling with a piano piece (Berg’s Sonata No. 1 to be exact!) and hearing another pianist working on some Rachmaninoff Concerto next door.   A switch flipped in my head and in that moment I decided to put the piano on the back burner.  I quit my piano lessons and ever since the piano has been a tool for my arranging, jazz studies, and earning some money playing the occasional piano gig.

2 years ago, I bought a used piano…a semi decent Kranich & Bach console piano.  I’ve started delving back into the classical world a little bit: I learned and memorized the first movement of the Beethoven Waldstein Sonata, and a prelude and fugue from the Well Tempered Clavier.  When I was first studying piano,  I didn’t really understand the depth of the classical music tradition…I thought that this music was just notes on a page that was put there by someone 200-300 years just to challenge and frustrate me! Throughout my years of study of music and composition, as well as some classes at MSM (like 20th Century Music taught by Nils Vigeland, one of the best classes I’ve ever taken!) I’ve gained a new perspective on classical music and with it, a strong desire to return to my classical piano studies.

So here’s the goal: To perform a one hour classical piano recital by 2012.  Nothing fancy.  I’m not shooting for Carnegie Hall.  Maybe a small recital hall in one of the piano retailers on 58th St. and for friends and family.  You heard it here first.  Wish me luck!


Week 2 at IAR: Recording with the Calvosa Sullivan Project

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I’ve been co-writing songs with my good friend and former Manhattan School of Music classmate Kat Calvosa for the past 2 years.   This has been an incredibly educational experience for me as a composer, because before we started working together, I had never collaborated with another composer.  Also, she writes lyrics, I don’t (at least not comfortably)! The result is about 10 really cool songs that were written with 3 different approaches: writing music and lyrics together, me writing music to her lyrics, and her writing music to my music.

Last year we started performing these songs around NYC with a band, which we call the Calvosa Sullivan Project (or CSP).  We also recorded a demo back in December 2009, and I think I posted some of those tracks on this very blog (yay!). It’s been a while since we performed live though, so I jumped at the opportunity to bring this group into the studio to record a few more tracks.  It was, once again, a lot of fun to record, and everyone did a great job: Kat on vocals, me on piano and sax, Paul Orbell on guitar, Brian Ladd on electric bass, and Brian Fishler on drums.  An awesome band!

Here are a couple of rough mixes:

Let Me Pretend – Our newest tune…Kat wrote the lyrics first and I wrote the music for this one.

Left Alone – This one was created entirely from putting ideas together in real time, so it’s really got elements of both of our musical approaches in there.

Next week I bring The Casual Sextet into the studio! Looking forward to recording the challenging music I’ve written for this band.

Excellent article about musicians developing business skills

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A quick note about this article I just came across: “Musicians add business skills to repertoire” It’s very cool, and a sign o’ the times, that artists developing entrepreneurial skills is such a hot topic.  I also left a reply on the page, which might provide some food for thought, and I’ll also include here:

“Thanks for this article! I am an NYC based saxophonist, pianist, and composer that received an M.M in Jazz Performance from Manhattan School of Music in 1998. I’m thrilled to hear that my alma mater is providing its students with essential business skills for artistic entrepreneurship, which wasn’t the case when I was attending.
I believe that social networking is one of the most important skills one can develop in the twenty first century marketplace. Most of the artists I know already have a website and/or Facebook/Myspace accounts, but many still do not have Twitter account, have a blog, utilize podcasts, or have a YouTube channel, not to mention all the other sites like LinkedIn and LastFM. These are all extremely potent tools for getting your work “out there,” and not just merely for shameless self promotion either – they provide opportunities to discover the work of other artists, interact on a personal level with your fan base, and to engage the worldwide artistic community overall.
I’ve found, somewhat surprisingly, that artists can sometimes have resistance to using these tools.. For example, I recently started a side business as a social media consultant for musicians, and my first client is a highly accomplished classical musician who was making his first foray into the world of digital social networking. Although he was intrigued with the idea of social media, it took many conversations to convince him that having a Facebook Fan Page was not going to make him look unprofessional amongst his fans, or that he was being too much like an “Amway salesman.” Once I finally got the ball rolling on his Facebook Page and he started getting “fans” and they were commenting on his posts, he began to see that this was a fun and easy way to engage his audience.
As far as where I’ve learned many of my business skills…a lot of it has come by trial and error (unfortunately!). I lead a jazz orchestra that got signed to an “indie-major” label a few years ago, and I’ve had management, and I have an agent, and I’m sure that if I had more of a solid background in business I could optimize my career and several levels. However, I recently completed an excellent course that was provided by the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) called the Artists as Entrepreneurs Boot Camp. It was an informative and inspiring five session intensive seminar that covered several aspects of artistic entrepreneurship such as goal setting, budgeting, grant writing, intellectual property, social networking (there it is again!), and small business organization. It really filled in a lot of the gaps in my business knowledge, and stimulated a lot of out-of-the-box thinking in terms of my artistic career.
So overall my advice for all artists seeking to enhance their business skills – diligently seek this information, it’s not too hard to find anyway. Take a business course, read a book about some aspect of the business that interests you, subscribe to arts-related industry blogs, It certainly doesn’t hurt to shift one’s focus onto the business aspects of one’s career every once in a while!”

The Triumphant Return of the Identity Crisis!

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Gearing up for a couple of shows this week at The Shrine in Harlem.  Playing there from 6pm-8pm on Wednesday with the Matt Panayides Group, and on Friday at 8pm with the Identity Crisis. 

Matt Panayides is a great guitarist and an old friend from my Manhattan School of Music days.  We played an art gallery opening out in North Jersey this past weekend, and the band was hot hot hot! So please come and check out this free show. 

The Identity Crisis is a hip-hop jazz project that I co-lead with my friend and amazing drummer Joe Abbatantuono (Joe

Trav and Joe getting down yo.

Abba for short).  We’ve been on a little bit of a hiatus recently, and this is out first show in a couple of months.  We played at The Shrine this past fall and had a very fun show there.  This time the lineup is a little different than the usual cohorts: Mike Kammers on tenor sax, Natalie John on vocals, Adam Klipple on keys, and Chris Tarry on bass.  It’s going to be an awesome show – performing many of my originals and a cover or two.  Make the trip out to Harlem if you can.  The Shrine is a great bar/listening room!