Four Prayers: #1

If I spend enough time with the empty blue sky in front of me, will I stop dwelling in the darkest corners of my dreams?


January 15, 2015.  2 PM. I found myself staring at the Ohio River from the balcony of a room in the Lafayette Hotel in Marietta, Ohio.  The Lafayette, as the writer Jim Harrison would have it, is one of my “panic holes,” a place to hide for a good head clearing, purging, to hell with it all day or two.  Since I’ve already revealed one of my secret hiding spots, I might as well mention that there are two rooms with covered balconies and panoramic views of the river.  It has free parking, decent restaurants nearby-basically, all the anti-social comfort of deep woods off the grid anonymity, but with the trappings of an historic hotel with a friendly staff. As long as you don’t let the idea that you are sitting in the gateway to European expansion across the west and the ensuing genocide bother you, Marietta is a nice quiet spot.


I had a bottle of scotch on hand, an empty legal pad in case a coherent thought or two should drift into my head, and one goal.  I wanted to watch barges go by.


 How did I end up in such a place on a Thursday afternoon? The day before, Schall (the badass engineer) sent me the huge file of recording session raw material from the previous week. After I helped get the kids in bed, I opened it and had a listen. 


I did not make it past the first ten seconds of the first take.  The first note of the Gaubert Sonata was slightly flat. Tight. The vibrato lacked the exact color I wanted. The rest of the phrase lacked warmth, shape, and direction. I completely flipped out, convinced that I had torpedoed months of preparation, wasted thousands of dollars, and potentially ruined a defining moment in my artistic career. 


So I ran away to go watch barges.


Now it is ten months later, and you know the obvious punchline.  I came home from the panic hole, listened to more, and found plenty of much better material for the record. We released it in August, a handful of people have purchased it, and quite a few of those tell me they like it. 


But the January jaunt to the river still haunts me. On the surface, of course, it is nothing more than the behavior of a self-centered asshole with disposable income and a propensity for taking himself far too seriously. Like most moments in my life where I lose control, I look on it now with a deep sense of embarrassment. Yes- I over-reacted, high standards and high strung don’t mix, it all worked out in the end, that sort of thing. 


What lingers is simple: doubt. Not the concern that I could do better-of course that will always be true, and I have made my peace with that.  As I tell my students, to be an artist you have to strive for perfection, but you have to acknowledge that you will never be perfect.  Reconciling that koan-like riddle is your life long struggle. It is a different kind of doubt- a nagging thought that despite all the hard work, despite the deep sense of pride when seeing the completed project, despite the warm reception, there is something missing. 


When I listen to it now- never complete, just a track here and there- I still have little moments of cringing, but many moments of satisfaction.  I wonder, however, if my initial reaction was about more than a flat note.  We make music with our entire being. Maybe I wanted to hear an idealized vision of myself as an artist, not the one I really am.   I am at my best when I crawl into the music itself and inhabit different places- e.g. the opening phrases of Rorem take me to a painfully lonely young version of myself walking alone on a snowy day in Northern Michigan.  Gaubert makes me embrace the joyful part of me, the one that cried when eating a simple lavender sorbet in a restaurant in Metz, France as I realized that there are moments of profound beauty in this world.  And so on.


I am still trying to decide if that artist is the one you hear on Four Prayers, or if I fell short. Incidentally, I only saw one barge in Marietta. It did not have the calming effect I was seeking.  The empty blue sky on my walk today did not either. 


Nothing erases doubt. Maybe it is time for a new koan-  “Your Doubts and your Light are the same.”  Or something.  Suggestions welcome…

Show The Work

I often think about a conversation I once had with my father. It was after one of many concerts of mine he's attended over the past 15 years or so. He said, "when I see you up there, and you're playing without music, it seems like magic, because I can't imagine how you do that." And to my not-a-musician as there ever was not-a-musician as my dad is, it must seem that way, much the same way it does to me when I see a great dancer or a Cirque du Soleil acrobat - my body does not do any of these things. In fact, most of the time I feel like I'm pretty much strapped to the earth.

But it's not magic. Those performers, like myself, have spent countless hours - really long, hard, repetitive hours refining their craft until they appear almost superhuman. Just last month at the Big Apple Circus here at Lincoln Center I watched two women fold themselves into a glass box about 3 feet cubed. My brain told me that wasn't possible, but I watched it happen and I immediately wondered how long it took to learn how to do that.  The same carries for any number of endeavors: professional sports, Olympic-level ice skating or gymnastics, almost anything where talented people are doing things for other people. At the heart of it is the work, and we almost never see it. The outcome often almost appears as if out of thin air.

But it didn't. Whether it's Lebron James, Tiger Woods (in his prime), Joshua Bell, or anyone who excels under public pressure, every person who is consistently on top of their game is working hard to make that happen. I'm fascinated by how people achieve high-level performance and try to emulate that at every opportunity. I just wish more people would show their work. I get that in situations where big money is on the line i.e professional sports (I'm a fan, can you tell?) you don't want to give away your secrets. In other lines of work, I hope the trend continues toward more exposure of the "process". I can see it happening in fields like cooking and fashion (obviously reality television helps - I for sure would not have known about what "sous-vide" or "empire waist" was if not for Top Chef and Project Runway, respectively). I'd like to see more of it in my business as well.

To that end, I've been showing my work for a while and will continue to do so. You can find me at this link right here. Every time I practice I turn on the livestream. It's completely un-glamorous - in the morning I'm often clearly unshowered (don't judge - I have a two-year-old. You have to take it where you can get it) and I'm usually working on scales or doing reps on whatever literature I have coming up. When the stream is not live, you'll be able to watch the most recent podcast from Open G Records, or you might catch me gaming as I stream my play from my Playstation 4. It might not be much, but it's my small effort to say: this is the life of a working artist. Come check it out sometime. It's totally boring, but it's totally interesting.

Open Season Excerpt: Requiem for Mike Brown

In this excerpt from our full podcast, St. Louis Symphony first clarinetist and Open G Records artist Scott Andrews calls in to the podcast to talk about what it was like being onstage during the recent Requiem for Mike Brown protest. His thoughtful first-person account is an illuminating example of how protest can (and did in this case) use art for peaceful social comment. An interesting listen.

Open Season: Episode 2

In this episode, first clarinetist of the St. Louis Symphony (and Open G artist) Scott Andrews calls in to talk about what it was like being onstage during the recent Michael Brown protest. Chris and Will also talk about the artist as activist, making classical music concerts more enjoyable, and break down the NPR Classical top 50.

Open Season: Episode 1

Here's a new podcast idea from Open G Records! In these "Open Season" episodes, Open G founding team Chris Grymes and William Carrigan sit down to talk about the label, music, sports, and pop culture. In this first episode, Chris and Will talk about dealing with depression and doubt, practicing, excessive celebration penalties in football, and much more. If you have a topic you'd like discussed on a future Open Season, leave a comment below or tweet at us @opengrecords.

Explicit language advisory! (Sorry - Chris)

Chris Chaffee makes a record

 It Begins.


            It seems so simple.  Set some goals, make a plan, apply yourself, and then you are done.  Of course there are setbacks, failures, some unexpected twists and turns, that week where you just “weren’t feeling it,” a “life event” that derails you for awhile, and so on, but you made it happen, right?  You said that starting January 1st you would lose 20 pounds in one month, starting this summer, you would finally learn Mandarin, starting tomorrow you would tell your wife you love her once a day, by the end of the year you will finally send that novel to the publisher, etc. Yeah, bullshit.  It is not that easy, and it does not happen that way a majority of the time. I know- I am a slowly recovering overachieving goal setting high-strung musician.  In my student days, the start of every academic year was that big salient date that was supposed to be the start of all the grandiose plans.  This goes all the way back to High School, and for full context, I was a four year student at the Interlochen Arts Academy, a wonderful pressure-cooker of high artistic and academic standards where we used to make fun of the “B” students for not keeping up, the exact opposite of peer pressure in the real world.  Before my senior year, I remember telling myself the week before school was “the calm before the storm,” and making lists of all the goals- competitions, school auditions, personal achievements that I was sure were in my grasp with just the right amount of focus and discipline. The list was insane and impossible.  And, every subsequent year well into doctoral study? Repeat.  “This is going to be the year that I….” 

            Crash.  I did not meet my own expectations. Yes, I turned out just fine- I have a stable career, I have been a productive member of the music performance and education community for quite a while, and even at my worst, I can still function as a member of normal, everyday society. Mostly. Thankfully, somewhere around the end of my time as a student, I started to realize that things would come to me one day at a time, one small step at a time, and once I stopped looking, I’d find what I was looking for.  Before I had this epiphany, I had many unhappy years. 

            Why the hell do we do this to ourselves?  Why do we think that we can simply flip a switch on a given day and everything will start moving in one direction? What’s worse, why do we fall for the “quick fix?”  This holds true in music as well- I am always equal parts amused and annoyed when I see my professional colleagues offering clinics that promise a “complete flute makeover” or “30 days to your best tone” or “unleashing your inner artist in 3 steps” Again, Bullshit.  Face it; just because today is some random day on the calendar, say, 1 January, or you gained some fresh new wisdom from an “expert” in a masterclass or whatnot, you are not a brand new person.  You are still the same person tied in the same knots, with the same strengths and weaknesses you had the day before. You are still the person who sneaks down to the fridge at midnight to sneak a few pieces of cheese, still the person who cuts corners when you practice your scales. Change, for better or worse, is part of life.   Make your choice – decide which way you want to go, and enjoy the daily ride.  Recognize that change will occur with time and effort and learn to be content with small accomplishments.  I often joke with my students that I am still learning to play three notes in a row in tune with a good tone.  It’s really not a joke.  To do it the way I want to, i.e. on a high level that very few others can achieve, with a sound and a way of phrasing that makes me stand out from all the other musicians vying for attention in my incredibly competitive yet tiny world- it’s much harder than it sounds. 

            What does this have to do with making a record?  Simple.  I have an opportunity ahead of me that is rare, wonderful, and challenging. For the 2014-15 academic year, I have earned a Professional Development Leave, also known as a sabbatical, from my university. I started planning for this more than a year ago, and I am proud that my competitive bid for this opportunity was successful. Better still- I have a grant to make a record while I am on leave, so I get to combine a period of professional improvement with an important musical milestone- my “debut” recording.

            I have to remind myself on a daily basis not to set unreasonable and stupid goals for this project. I have more free time than usual, and I intend to use it. Along the way, I am exposing the entire process to the public- I live-stream my practice sessions online, we will live-stream portions of the recording process, and I will continue blogging as the process unfolds.  I could go into hiding, go thru all the ups and downs behind closed doors, make a really nice (highly edited) record, and then emerge and hand it to you and say “look what I did!”  Nope.  I want everyone to see the process, start to finish, warts, swear words and all.  Yes, I expect it to be on the highest possible level, but I have a much better idea of how to get there than I ever have before.  I have denied myself all thinking that “today I will start my new practice regimen and in 6 months I will be better at this, better at that, etc.”  I have a plan, I will stick to it, but I do not expect that I will be new and better than ever, I will just be a more polished, and content version of the artist I already am. 

            Recently, I told a student that she needed to “spend time everyday looking at clouds until you stop using words to describe them.”  In my journey ahead, I want to be able to practice what I preach.  I want to find the clarity of vision it takes to be the artist I believe I can be. 





Open G Podcast #6: Paola Prestini

Paola Prestini is a composer, artist, activist, and entrepreneur. Co-founder of Vision into Art, a multi-disciplinary production company; founder of the River to River Festival; and Artistic Director of the Original Music Workshop, Paola is a vital part of the New York City music scene. In this interview, Paola talks with Chris Grymes about her life, music, process, and about the importance of making serious art while still in school.

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Open G Podcast #5: Jeremy Gill


Jeremy Gill is a composer, pianist, and conductor. Now living and working in Boston, Jeremy wrote a clarinet concerto that will be premiered in November by Open G founder Chris Grymes. In this episode, Jeremy talks with Chris about his life, his music, and his new concerto. Jeremy has a very hot career right now and is a smart, thoughtful musician, and this podcast definitely allows that to come through.