Blog: Thinking and Intuition (Mike Sturgis: Head of Education)

One of the things that constantly inspires me as I work in the UK Higher Education sector is remembering my own student experience at the University of Miami, which is now unbelievably (to me, anyway) over 30 years ago. Even though so many years have passed, I still feel the benefits of my time there. This is due not only to the things I experienced and learned while I was a student but also in the rich friendships I have been able to maintain with former classmates and teachers over the years. It’s great to see how many of them have carved out incredible careers in the music industry and it’s a privilege to be part of this very special community.

Four years at UM taught me a lot and provided me with some essential tools to follow my dreams and ambitions.  And while sometimes it’s hard to remember some of the specifics of all of the information I took in, there are two seemingly contradictory pithy maxims that have been virtually tattooed in my grey matter. They have helped me through many different personal and professional scenarios when I’ve had the wisdom to apply them as the situation demands. And because you’re taking the time to read this, I would like to share them with you now in the hopes that they will enrich your life.

Are you ready? Drum roll, please - here’s the distillation of my four years of degree studies:

Pithy maxim #1 – THINK, DON’T STINK!

Pithy maxim #2 – JUST PLAY, MAN!

N.B. Despite the use of ‘man’ this phrase is meant to be gender-neutral!

I’ll explain more about these one by one:

Think, Don’t Stink (TDS) was a mantra I heard countless times in my rehearsals with UM’s Concert Jazz Band by director Whit Sidener. Whit was an inspirational and formidable band leader who made the guy in the movie Whiplash look wimpish in comparison! His main reason for invoking TDS was usually for anyone who was making errors in their chart reading. Bear in mind that these charts were usually 3-4 page handwritten epics that might contain a wide range of dynamics, rhythmic figures, styles, time signature changes and a fairly complicated ‘road map’. Whit knew that just being creative and technically proficient on your instrument wasn’t enough; you needed to be fully focused on the notation at all times and not let your concentration wander. Otherwise, no matter how good of a player you were, mistakes would happen in these complex arrangements. Therefore, thinking (and the ability to bring your concentration back to the task at hand) in this context was critical.

Conversely, Just Play, Man (JPM) was an additional theme in CJB rehearsals and also an admonition that I heard more frequently from other great teachers at UM including Steve Rucker, Dan Bonsanti and Ron Miller to name just a few. JPM encouraged you to not overthink music but to become totally immersed in it and trust your intuition. For example, if you become too fixated on the minutiae of your technique during a performance, this ‘overthinking’ might make the overall quality of the music suffer. Sometimes in music or sport you might hear an outstanding performance described as someone playing ‘out of their mind’. In other words, there were aspects of the performance that went beyond thought; the activity itself became one that flowed intuitively and was not limited by mechanistic cognition. And so that was the goal; to play and communicate music in an almost Zen-like state that was on another level of consciousness.

I believe TDS and JPM are parallel truths that must be applied in equal measure in a performance and the best musicians are able to do this. Without question, a good musical performance requires focus and concentration; equally, it’s often when we are able to go beyond mere thinking and channel our intuitive creative energy into a ‘flow’ activity that the moments of magic occur. I wish you well with discovering and maintaining the balance between these two mindsets in your music and in other areas of your life where they might apply – the possibilities are endless.

Mike Sturgis

May 27th, 2019