Planning For Change In Life And In Music

Green Lakes State Park
I like change, I look forward to life changing. To new opportunities, new adventures. I grow through the experience of my life constantly colliding with change. Yea, change!

But I also hate change. Fond memories of people and places now relegated to the past when I thought they would be doorways into the future. Losing people I care about because their life changed, too, and now geography, vocation, interests take new trajectories.

I like change when it happens at a pace I can readily absorb and adapt to. When my morning coffee cools just enough, or when most of the colorful leaves are still on the trees in mid-October. I know they’ll fall, but I’m happy to have them take their time this year.

I hate change when it is thrust upon me without my permission, like my ice cream cone melting too fast, or walking into the boss’ office with my job intact one minute, and an hour later, walking out without one.

I like changes in music, because I am easily bored. The refreshment that comes from a new sound, an unusual rhythm, a clever lyric all breathe life into my passion for it.

I hate changes in music when I don’t emotionally agree with them. When the artist seems to have changed something I looked forward to, even emotionally depended on, just so they could do it differently, putting their own stamp of artistry on it.

When it comes down to it, I like change when it results from my exercising free will, when it’s my idea. I hate change when it results from someone else exercising theirs and it doesn’t fit with mine.

Change is inevitable, yet change itself changes. It will happen in all areas of life and takes many forms. And just when you get used the idea of one facet of life changing, get ready to duck for cover. Another change is on its heels.

So how should I navigate the turbulence of change?

With a plan.

Learning To Plan Out The Changes

I was challenged back in my Army Band days by my good friend, Don. He was a kind of spark plug in my life, coming up with crazy ideas, smiling and laughing. He would bring a lighter side of me out, and it was a good thing. He could also scream on his trumpet.

It was 1979, and we were in our jazz band rehearsal for some concert or tour. We starting playing a blues piece, and somehow it came up that Don thought he could write a better one than that. The conversation quickly deteriorated to the point where Don challenged me to write a jazz band piece myself.

Not to let the gauntlet lie on the ground unattended, I picked it up.

from page 1 of my score
from page 1 of my score

For the next couple of weeks, I wrote and wrote. I remember pulling at least one all-nighter.

But what came out was cool.

I had never written anything as ambitious as this before, a 4-minute barn-burner that sang, that grooved, that gave Donny a chance to scream up high again. I had a riot.

The piece changes structure and form several times in those 4 minutes. Yet there seems to be a cohesion that, for me at least, works. And so, in writing it, just going with my stream of consciousness wasn’t enough. I needed a plan.

The Map

I took time to ruminate on it, to play with chords and melodies in my head. Then I created a map. I would list it something like this:

Intro- 6 beats soli / 2 measures drum fill / 6 beats soli / 2 bars drum fill / 3 bars harmonized soli / 2 bars drum fill crescendo uptempo

Section A- 8 bars bass trombone lead / 1 bar drum fill / repeat lead melody in all sections, harmonized /

Section B-

And so on. I had dreamed up the whole thing before I wrote a note.

Next, I grabbed a jazz band manuscript score from a local music store, and started to write. But I had never written for trombones and saxes before. So I would write whatever lead line in each section first, then I added scale degree numbers in a vertical line across all instruments, indicating what voice in the chord they should be playing.

The last step was to actually fill in the notes, transposed for each instrument.

It took some work with each section in the band to make sure what I had written was 1) actually playable, and 2) good. But we did it. The band master subsequently included my piece as part of our songbook, and we performed it several times in concerts and on tour.

The Song

Here is part of the recording, done on a boom-box (so you know the quality will be top notch). I titled it, appropriately enough, In Pursuit Of The Storm.


The plan is what kept me on track and sane with all the possibilities spinning around me. Next-step musicians are the ones with a plan. They don’t just spin in place, and they aren’t satisfied with status quo. Next-step musicians look for the new twist, the next level, the air that becomes even more refreshing as your reach the summit.

Expecting Change

Even with my love/hate attitude toward change, I know more is coming. Time to plan for another step or two.

And after all these years, I’m glad I answered Don’s challenge. It gave me great confidence to complete such a huge project and have it come out so well. Gave me the confidence to keep writing and to keep taking risks.

And I think he bought me lunch.

Are you a planner or someone who shoots from the hip? How has planning helped you in your music? Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, theory or next-step musicianship to [email protected].

(c) 2014 Steve Case