On finding your personal style

This month, the Applause blog will feature Associate Professor of music Ryan Nielsen, whose work as a musician and music instructor has been instrumental in the department.

“Why Not Play What You Hear?”

My first rehearsal as a student of Ra Kalam Bob Moses was, quite literally, life–changing. It wasn’t just my first rehearsal with a new professor; it was also my first rehearsal with new peers in my first year of doctoral studies at the New England Conservatory of Music. I was 31 years old, surrounded by students significantly younger than me who were also playing a lot more than me. I wanted, so badly, to show them that I belonged there. I wasn’t sure if I did.  

As we read through the first tune (a composition of Ra Kalam’s), each student played a solo. When it got to my solo, I felt so nervous! I did my very best to play the “right” licks at the “right” time, plugging in a Clifford Brown lick here, and a Miles Davis lick there, just as I had been taught. I felt like things went pretty well. But the minute my solo ended, Ra Kalam stopped the whole band. This was not the end of the song, mind you! It was just the end of my solo. He stopped everything before the song was even over. I froze. I still remember that sinking feeling. “Oh no,” I thought to myself, “What did I do wrong?”

Ra Kalam looked up at me from his drum set and said, “Everything you played sounded good . . . But . . . why not play what you hear?”

When he said that, it went through me. I stood there, and didn’t say a word; just felt tears come to my eyes and a lump in my throat. I had no idea why this struck such an emotional chord with me. Then I realized: It Had Never Entered My Mind that something inside me could be worth playing; that what I hear could be valid. I had never once dared consider that possibility. The sheer thought of it cracked me open. It terrified me. And yet, something about the way that he asked that question allowed me to hope that, maybe, he was right. Maybe there was something inside me that was worth trusting, worth discovering, worth sharing.

What still moves me as I look back at this is how Ra Kalam knew that I had taken what I played from someone else. My lack of musical sincerity (i.e. playing what other people heard rather than playing what I heard) showed up in my sound. Later he taught me that, in his view, taking what other musicians played wasn’t just creatively toxic, it was also ethically wrong: the colonial impulse made manifest in learning music. “Just because you like something, doesn’t mean you can take it,” he told me.

Two years later, I found myself listening back to my final doctoral recital. My first time listening to it, I got bummed out. “Man,” I thought, “I don’t sound like anybody.” (There was that old familiar voice again.) Then, it dawned on me, “Wait a minute! I don’t sound like anybody!” I had started to sound like me.

Dr. Ryan Nielsen 

You can hear Dr. Nielsen’s playing with Ra Kalam Bob Moses on their duo album, Gift of Breath, a 2017 Recommended New Release by the New York City Jazz Record.