On Fear, Forgiveness, Inaction and Self-Expression:

I'm about to share some thoughts that I consider very important. If my word on music or life is something that you tend to trust or find interesting, then I would very much like for you to read it. It's something that I have been becoming more and more aware of over the past couple of years, that I realise now has been important to me from the very beginning.

Many of us, I'm sure, are aware that fear is... negative. It's a bad place to start, a bad place to come from, a bad reason to act AND a bad reason to NOT act. One source of fear that I notice among many musicians, including myself, is the inability, unwillingness or lack of awareness of the need to forgive ourselves, especially in a high-performance environment of a music school. Any high-performing individual must have high standards, I absolutely believe this. However, the line between setting high standards and having high expectations is thin, and it is blurry.

Failing to meet our own high standards is not a 'mistake', it is a necessary step towards eventually meeting them. Failing to meet expectations, however, is generally what most people consider a 'mistake'. (I took this action, and it was SUPPOSED to have this result, but it DIDN'T – I made a mistake).

It's not that expectations are necessarily a bad thing, and I'm not saying 'there is no such thing as a mistake'. Personally, I do believe that, but there's a reason why you don't want to play a B when a composer writes a C, and it's not because you can't. The secret, though, is that we have control over our own standards, we have control over our own expectations, and though we may choose not to exercise control over what we consider a mistake, we have control over what we consider a failure.

When we make mistakes, or find ourselves in a situation that we consider a failure, we absolutely NEED to forgive ourselves. Even if a mistake is made, at least there is something to fix, and both of those events move things forward.

When I hear someone I am performing with make a mistake (either by my expectations or what I believe theirs are), I try my best to think – how do I make their mistake sound good? In order to do this effectively, I have to forgive them -immediately-, without a second thought. I also try to do this for myself – 'how do I make my mistake sound good?'. In order to do so, I have to take responsibility for what I choose to consider a mistake, but I also have to forgive myself immediately and move things forward.

If we want to play good music, we have to be ALIVE. We have to share the feeling of living, and we have to encourage it in others. It's also important that we allow others to make US feel alive. That's how, collectively and discretely, musicians literally move the WHOLE WORLD forward.

If we are not able to bring ourselves to self-forgiveness, we will feel afraid of making another mistake, and we will put pressure on ourselves to not end up in another situation that we consider a failure. This insidious form of fear paralyses us into inaction.

Inaction is literally the ANTITHESIS of living – the day that every cell in our bodies is no longer able to act, is the day that we are no longer alive. And that alone, I hope, is enough to conclude that we DO have it in us to overcome fear and to develop mindsets that will consistently set our fears to rest – and we always will. Until we are DEAD.

Now go back to the beginning and read everything I wrote one more time, but this time, ignore every reference to music. For me, at least, it still holds true. And for me, it is every situation I find myself in OUTSIDE of music in which I really have to make an effort to live by my own word, which is part of the reason I am sharing these thoughts publicly.

A few days ago I decided to write out my personal philosophy of performance. It's several pages, and it will take some time to get it right. When it's done, I'll share it with you if you want to read it. But more importantly, writing this document has had a hugely positive effect on me. In the days since I began writing it, I have been a more consistent and imaginative musician, and this has extended even to my piano playing and (gulp) singing. I haven't really explored this enough to tell you for sure that it's going to help. But you may want to give it a try, even if it's only a couple lines long. At least those two lines are something that by now you have decided, and are something that you can hold yourself accountable for.

Whether or not you believe in determinacy or fate (mostly I don't), we eventually BECOME the reason why we are here. If we do not act, it does not make a difference whether we are here or not – in which case there is no difference between us being here and not being here. I'm saying there NEEDS to be a difference, because the world needs us in order to be what it is, and we need each other in order to be what we are, and in order to achieve this, we have to EXPRESS OURSELVES.

For a long time I was confused and unsure about what this phrase meant. But let me now be very clear what I believe it means. To express yourself, is to make yourself exist. To express yourself, is to prove that you are alive. If your heart is beating, you are expressing yourself. Basically, if you DO ANYTHING, you are expressing yourself. Therefore, anytime you DO NOTHING, you are not expressing yourself, you are not making yourself exist, you are not proving that you are alive. The activity of individual cells is the minimum extent of living, but music DEMANDS the maximum extent of being alive.

If you have ever laughed at anything I've said, that's nice and I do appreciate it. But that's not why I said it. I said it because that really was what I was thinking, and there is absolutely a reason why I was thinking it. That reason is ME. And I must make myself real, because you need me to be what I am, in order to be what you are. Conversely, I need you to be what you are, in order to be what I am. In other words, please express yourself. Please make yourself real. Please make yourself exist, and prove that you are fully alive.

It's important to figure out how to do this in a way that is honest, healthy and free. The secret is that freedom is balance – but when you have, or do, very little, balance is so far away that it appears similar to excess. On the way to freedom, you may cross the line of balance into excess. You'll know when you're doing it – so you must bring yourself back to balance. And in so doing, you ACT. You choose not to succumb to the fear of NOT being free, the fear of a return to having, or doing, very little.

That balance is what allows us to all be honest, healthy, and free TOGETHER.

That's all I've got for now. Thanks for reading. Sincerely, I wish us all the best.

'The Mobilised Musician' 2016 Project

Introduction

In December 2015, I was randomly surfing the internet when I came across a couple of unsettling articles about mental health in my hometown of Christchurch. At that time, I had already begun to work out the concepts of The Mobilised Musician based on lessons from past successes and failures alike. Here, I realised, was the perfect opportunity to put my ideas to the test. I went through piles and piles of paper writing down ideas - good and bad, big and small - and after a few weeks of concentrated imagination, I came up with the idea for the Mobilised Musician 2016 project.

This project is a way of using the skills and experience that I have, to contribute to the growth of my hometown by encouraging conversation and equipping young musicians with the mindset and tools to act on their concerns with their own unique skills and experience. Through musical and educational work, I am trying to invest in the young people of Christchurch in the hope that we will together be able to create a better future for our home.

WHAT IS 'THE MOBILISED MUSICIAN'?

The mobilised musician finds purpose.

The mobilised musician creates relevance.

The mobilised musician connects.

'The Mobilised Musician' is a set of concepts that I have developed to help musicians with creating experiences that are meaningful to themselves as well as their audience. The three main concepts are purpose, relevance and connection. The aim is for musical
engagement to bring musicians and audiences together through a shared interest in the
ideas, stories and experiences presented.

WHAT IS THE 2016 PROJECT?

The purpose of the project is both as a demonstration of the Mobilised Musician concepts and an experiment in applying those concepts at a high level, so that they can be improved for future projects undertaken by myself or others.

The frame of relevance used in this project is the city of Christchurch, its experience of
seismic activity and its recovery from the damage sustained in those events. Through the experiences of composition, performance and educational workshops, a diverse group of participants connect to my work as a musician. My hope is that through this work, they are also able to connect to each other.

STAGES

'The Mobilised Musician' 2016 Project is made up of 4 parts - a composition stage, an education stage, a performance stage and an evaluation/documentation stage. Each of these stages puts in practice the basic concepts of the Mobilised Musician - purpose, relevance and connection. 

In Stage 1, I compose a new work to be performed as part of the project, as my own artistic response to the city's mental and emotional recovery. First, I wrote 5 questions that would reveal something about a musician's experiences of the Christchurch earthquakes:

1. "How did you first experience earthquakes in Christchurch?"
2. "How is the life that you are currently living affected by these events?"
3. "How is your art affected by your experience of these events?"
4. "Do you have a response to the current mental health situation in Christchurch?"
5. "What part do you imagine music could play in the earthquake recovery effort?"

7 musicians from Christchurch, who are now based elsewhere, agreed to record their responses to those questions, which I edited into a tape. The piece, titled 'Our Letters Home', is a cycle of 5 movements, each based on one of the questions posed, which my band will use to improvise their personal response against the tape.

In Stage 2, the education stage, I will be delivering workshops on 'The Mobilised Musician' to high school music classes. The University of Canterbury's School of Music have agreed to support and get involved with this endeavour, and I'm really looking forward to working with them. My aim is for students who are inclined to pursue music to see that their passion is also a way that they can be a part of Christchurch's recovery, the advancement of NZ's society and the future of the planet - or anything else they dare to imagine. 

Stage 3 is the performance of 'Our Letters Home' at Orange Studio. We'll be doing a live recording there to document the piece and I'm hoping that this will help me to get it played at other festivals and venues across the world, which will help to spread the story of Christchurch and perhaps even connect other travelers to their hometown. I'll be playing with Myele Manzanza and Steve Barry, two of my favourite musical voices from New Zealand.

The entire project has been planned as a demonstration, documentation and evaluation of the 'Mobilised Musician' concepts. In Stage 4, I'll be seeking feedback on every stage of the project and documenting it. This will allow me to critically develop my concepts further. In this stage, my findings will be documented in a report, which will be available from this website. 

The documentation will allow other artists who are interested in similar work, whether it is specifically in response to Christchurch or in a different context, to learn from my mistakes as well as my successes. My aim is to make this conversation as public and accessible as possible so that musicians around the world will feel empowered to contribute to the world around them.

'The Mobilised Musician' is a tool for connecting musical work to the things that we care about. Christchurch, my home town, is something that I personally care about. I hope that through this project, I will be able to make a meaningful contribution to the lives of Christchurch's people, as well as the city's overall progress.

What To Expect After Graduation

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MAY 2016 - This was an article written for The Penguin, the student newspaper of the New England Conservatory, to which I owe much of the confidence that I have in my own writing. I was honored to discover that this article was quoted by Tom Novak in the 2016 NEC graduation ceremony.

I have a Bachelor of Music degree from the New Zealand School of Music. It was a three-year degree program, the third year of which I spent as an exchange student at the University of North Texas. I arrived home literally the day before my graduation ceremony, having watched all of the movies I had ever missed over 25 hours of flying. After a short rest, I went to a department store called ‘Farmers’ to buy a nice purple shirt and received my degree in hand the very next day.

What happens next? You’re probably more than aware that graduation is not the end of the story. It isn’t even the beginning of the story - if you’re trying to go to grad school like I was, then months of preparation and emotional ups-and-downs have already taken place.

In my last semester at North Texas, I had auditions at Juilliard, Eastman and Manhattan schools of music, as well as the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. I missed my UM audition because my plane was frozen over, and I had to stay in the airport overnight (thank goodness for 24-hour Mexican food). The next day, I had no choice but to spend every last cent in my bank account on a towncar service that would take me across a couple of different towns to get to my Michigan State audition on time. When I finally arrived, the school bass they provided was absolutely awful. My performance of the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 was not a success by any measure, and with my depleted wallet, neither was my dinner that night.

The rest of my auditions did not pan out so well either. I was waitlisted for Eastman, did not pass the first round at Juilliard and, fed by equal amounts of frustration and determination, played my best audition ever at the Manhattan School of Music - only to receive admission with zero scholarship.

In my mind, I had convinced myself that the next few months was going to be my breakthrough story, a saga of struggle and success for Umar Zakaria. I was going to raise $25,000 in less than a year, in a currency that far overpowered my own country’s - probably more money than I have ever seen in my life - then arrive at MSM and prove them wrong.

During those next few months, I was able to save less than a thousand dollars in New Zealand currency. My level of success was effectively zero.

However, what actually did happen turned out to become a different kind of breakthrough story. I was living at home, and sometimes went weeks without any gigs. I applied for every scholarship I could find, even though most support for music students in New Zealand is basically reserved for classical musicians. I did not feel like going back to school in New Zealand would be a step forward, but I ended up giving in because having an extra letter next to my name would look good on those scholarship applications.

I literally felt like I was going nowhere, not noticing that inside my mind, things were actually beginning to take shape. All of these scholarship essays and nights of feeling stuck and pushing ahead anyway had forced me to think a lot about myself and my relationship with music. You can see the results of this in the articles I’ve written and the projects you may have seen me undertake.

Eventually, an opportunity came by out of nowhere to apply to NEC, and I just did it because I could. I was so accustomed to just applying to things even when I was 99% sure I probably wouldn’t get it. Now I’m at a school that has changed my life in ways that I could never have seen coming - a school that I didn’t even apply to originally. I’m really glad that things turned out the way they did, because I would not be the same person I am now without experiencing the traditions, ideas and especially the incredible people of the New England Conservatory. And I love it.

So back to that tantalising headline - what can you expect after graduation? The truth, for better or for worse, is that you can’t really expect anything. Even if things seem to be going exactly to plan, it’s hard to tell what surprises await us around the corner - in fact, the more things seem to go well, the more disappointment we will feel when a tragedy occurs and our expectations are not met.

Having the courage to pursue lofty dreams can really be a big part of the journey to success. But if we do have to face disappointment, it’s important to understand how much of it comes from our expectations of ourselves, because that is how much we have control over - and often, it’s quite a lot! The last thing you need to be getting in your way is yourself, and understanding this can really help us to recover from our mistakes, our missteps and our mishaps so that we can move forward. The path to success is a long and winding one that might not take you where you were hoping, but success is a direction, not a destination.

I am not writing this to tell you to prepare for everything to fail miserably. It might, or it might not. All I’m trying to say is, don’t let your expectations get in the way of having fun, taking chances, and picking yourself up if things do turn out unexpectedly. I believe in all of you and I know that each one of you has an incredible contribution to offer the world - so if you come upon a chance to make that contribution, go ahead and make it! There is always a way forward, even if it takes longer than you thought it might, or takes place in a location you didn’t expect, with people you never imagined you would meet.

If there is one thing that you can expect after graduation, it’s this: you will find out that you are stronger and more beautiful than you ever imagined you could be. It might take a while, though. I’m still working on it - but I’m looking forward to seeing you on the other side.

All the best.


Umar

A Story About Relevance

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN FEBRUARY 2016 - This was an article written for The Penguin, the student newspaper of the New England Conservatory, to which I owe much of the confidence that I have in my own writing.

Not long ago I played a concert with the New Zealand National Youth Orchestra, and my family came to watch the performance. I asked my dad what his favourite piece in the program was, and I was surprised to hear him mention first the contemporary composition written by our composer-in-residence, Sarah Ballard. I thought about this for a long time - it seemed odd that a piece with such an unusual musical language would touch my dad deeply when he knew very little about music at all.

Eventually I had a thought: what if it was because he was a computer programmer? His eyes were always on the details - one small syntax error could make a huge difference in his world. It would make sense, then, if his ears were on the details too; and in a contemporary piece like this, there were plenty of them. Being a musician really changes the way you hear music, so I wondered - could being a computer programmer change the way you hear music too? If I was right about this, what else could affect the way you heard music?

Nowadays, I believe the answer to that question is: a lot. We spend a long time at school thinking about what our relationship is to our performances and the music we play, because that’s incredibly important - but equally important is the relationship that our audiences have to our performances and the music we play. How does the music affect them?

When we’re scrolling through newsfeeds and walking past advertisements in our daily lives, we decide what to read based on what we find relevant. There is something about it that we have a connection to. We live in America, so we care about American politics, whether we are citizens or not. We all have to eat, so we pay attention to what food is available around the spaces we live and work. We like to laugh, so we remember ads that are funny and perhaps talk about them too.

Being a musician affects the way that we hear music because it gives us a set of experiences that allow us to connect to the composer, the performers and the musical material that we are hearing, but that’s surely not the end of the story. Each of us has individual reasons why we find a certain kind of music appealing regardless of whether we are musicians or not. Everyone who is not a musician has reasons of their own, too. This is how, in my opinion, we decide whether or not we find a musical performance relevant - these reasons help us decide what to listen to.

Before I could ever improvise, I found it fascinating to watch musicians improvising because I could see in their eyes - or their eyelids - a combination of freedom and struggle. The freedom that I wanted, and the struggle I wanted to escape. I went to watch people improvise whenever I could; not because I knew anything about what they were playing, but because I could connect to the reasons why they were playing - in other words, their purpose.

As musicians, I would describe our relevance as any kind of relationship that can be formed between our audience and our purpose. When we’re singing songs of unrequited love, most people will be able to connect to that, because most people have experienced unrequited love. On the other hand, there’s a reason why such songs are not the mainstay of children’s television.

Your audience is a huge part of your performance. Personally, I would like for my audiences to enjoy my performances even more than I do - which is a lot! When we take a moment to think about who our audience is, what experiences they might have had, what ideas they have been exposed to, and what might lead them to attend our performances, it can really give us a lot of ideas on how to improve our performances so that they are more engaging for ourselves as well as those listening to us.

Caring about our audience is what makes them care about us. That’s what makes them want to hear us play again. That’s what makes them want to tell their friends about us. That’s what makes them want to support us and help us build a sustainable career - and that, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is something most musicians will probably find relevant.

Perhaps they’re computer programmers. Perhaps they’re teenagers. Perhaps they’re NEC students. Perhaps they’re not. Every detail that makes us who we are affects the way we hear music. As someone who cares about my audiences, I have found that being interested in who they are helps to make our performances more meaningful and enjoyable, enriching the relationships formed when others hear us.

A Story About Purpose

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN NOVEMBER 2015 - This was an article written for The Penguin, the student newspaper of the New England Conservatory, to which I owe much of the confidence that I have in my own writing.

This past Thanksgiving, I prepared five traditional Malay dishes for my friends. I began cooking at 10pm on wednesday night and slept at 4am; then continued from 10am until the guests arrived at about 5pm. Before the cooking started, I had traveled to four different shops to get all the right ingredients and schlepp them home. I was honestly at the edge of my rope before we began.

No matter how much you love your roommates, people you live with are always going to get on your nerves once in a while - and that is exactly what happened in the first hour of cooking. I found myself incredibly strained and stressed. I took a shower and tried to rest for a moment, but it was not enough. So finally, I reached for some music on my computer, and of all the music I could have listened to, something drew me towards a recording of my own.

 

It was a composition of a friend of mine in New Zealand, which I had arranged to be performed by 9 players, all of whom were also my close friends. I could feel their presence as I listened to the track. There was a guitar solo by a friend of mine who was a young father - a great one - and I could feel the warmth and acceptance that I always felt from being with him in person. Then came my bass solo; I couldn’t help but laugh a little as I felt my own presence and was comforted by it - it was like me comforting myself with the sound of my own voice.

I walked away from the music refreshed, and ready to cook for the next 6 hours.

This was not the first time that I had reached for music’s healing qualities, but it was the first time I had experienced an urgent need whose immediate treatment absolutely had to be music. It was the first time I acknowledged that such a thing could exist. Just the week before, my teacher had commented on my ability to heal people and make their souls feel refreshed when I play. It was a very heavy comment, but I finally began to truly believe that music could be for healing people.

I’ve often thought about this strange need that people sometimes have to decide what music is ‘for’, as if that knowledge would legitimise our position in society. The reality is that music is used for a lot of things depending on where you go in the world. You will find music used for healing people, but also for purposes such as divine exultation, literal communication and organising the daily life of the community. Furthermore, the power of music can be exploited for purposes of monetary profit, social conditioning, interrogation and torture.

My personal belief is that music does not have an intrinsic purpose, nor does it need one. If it’s anything, it’s just a concentrated human experience - anything that can be done with music can be done without music, but it is a lot more powerful in musical form.

The role that musicians play in society today - certainly western and westernised societies - is often the role that society remembers us in from a past age. It tends to be a role that is not very relevant in the everyday lives of people, especially those who don’t already have a personal connection to musicians. The role that we see ourselves in is also often what we are told that we once should have been. We are living off the bones of our ancestors, and this is what needs to change first, in my opinion.

In this age of independence and internet access, we have an opportunity to drastically redefine our relationship to the audience that is society. The ball is in our court - it really depends on what we want out of the relationship so that’s what we need to decide, first for ourselves and then for our communities.

What I discovered from my Thanksgiving experience is that we really can allow the things we believe in and feel strongly about to become part of our music-making. Religious musicians around the world do this; pop musicians around the world do this and so do all of the composers whose music we continue to play. I’m not saying we shouldn’t play their music, but their beliefs and concerns were expressed in a way that was relevant to society during the time that they were alive. Our challenge is to express it in a way that is relevant to society in 2015, and continue to reexamine and reinvent that as society moves forward and evolves.

In my case, it’s very clear to me that there is a lot of pain in the world right now. And a lot of my music is about feeling pain, going through and coming out of it. What I want out of my musical relationship to the world and its people, is to be a comforting voice that accepts their pain, lets them know that they are not alone in their pain, and gives them the strength to continue fighting. There are other musicians with different purposes in mind, and I have met a few - for example, one whose desire is to inspire the misfits, and one whose aim is to change the fearful status quo. These are three very different purposes, but all are very needed and very relevant to society today.

Not everybody’s purpose has to be so grand and world-changing. The important thing for us is that we find some kind of reason for doing what it is that we are doing, and make that reason a part of the way we live our lives; make it part of everything we do, everything we say and everything we choose. I would even say that personally, my connection to my purpose is stronger than my connection to music itself. I’m not saying yours has to be - but I am saying that it’s totally okay if it is.

Step One is ‘Purpose’. It’s about finding the reason for what we are doing that is the most relevant to ourselves. Step Two is ‘Relevance’. It’s about showing people that our purpose is relevant to them, too. It’s not as hard as you might think - I’ll show you next time.


If you’re interested in taking this first step, I recommend you read Karl Paulnack’s Boston Conservatory welcome address. Just google ‘Karl Paulnack Speech’. Also, if you see me around school, I’d love to talk to you - look for the guy with the shiny pants ;)

Greetings From New Zealand!

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MAY 2015 - This was an article written for The Penguin, the student newspaper of the New England Conservatory, to which I owe much of the confidence that I have in my own writing. I was honored to discover that this article was quoted by Tom Novak in the 2015 NEC convocation ceremony.

It's well known that New Zealand is a beautiful country. You've heard of Lord of the Rings, Flight of the Conchords, and if you've ever eaten lamb and liked it, it's probably from New Zealand. It's not a perfect country by any means, but it is certainly one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Perhaps I should also mention the scenery?

When you run into people you know in New Zealand, you never ignore them. You always say hi, at least. When I arrived in Boston I soon found that this was not the norm. At first, I thought that people disliked me, and I also felt like an incredibly rude person when I found myself doing it to others. I'm used to it now but even then, I feel a certain sense of guilt for realising that.

My Bachelor's degree is from the New Zealand School of Music. They had a jazz program as well as a classical program, but the campuses were in different places. To make up for this, the school organised combined performance workshops, which all performance students had to attend regardless of major. These were basically concerts, that included both jazz and classical performances. As a result, we now have a really great open attitude and dialogue happening between young jazz and classical musicians in Wellington who are or recently were in university.

At the organisational level, more work still needs to be done. There are countless more scholarships reserved for New Zealand's classical performers and students of composition rather than jazz performers. Although some jazz projects get funded, funding from arts funding bodies generally goes to established classical projects. There is a certain feeling of reluctance to accept jazz as a 'serious' music, or at least there was during my undergrad. In some ways, that's actually a good thing, but not financially.

It showed in the difference in facilities we had. The classical school did not have amazing facilities, and they had fewer practice rooms than we did, but at least their school was more than a square corridor of white washed walls. Ours seemed to be re-fashioned out of what was formerly a mechanic's school. In one room, there was even a leftover garage door made of corrugated iron that lead outside. It looked like a prison, and it felt like one too.

For a long time, I felt that I had to measure up to classical musicians, that I had to prove that I was just as deserving of respect. I certainly felt this when it came to funding, but I also had a feeling of low self esteem whenever I participated in the National Youth Orchestra in New Zealand, even though there was no real reason for that and I don't think any of the orchestra members thought any less of me. In fact, looking back, some people thought that my involvement in jazz was something really cool and yet, at least for as long as I was wearing a bow tie, I would not allow myself to believe that.

My own personal insecurities aside, another result of this environment is that a lot of jazz projects are constructed that incorporate elements of classical music, or involve classical musicians in performance. One example is “Mantis: The Music of Drew Menzies”, which is a CD by NZ drummer Reuben Bradley released in 2013.

It features the New Zealand String Quartet playing arrangements by John Psathas who, among other things, wrote music for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Drew Menzies was a jazz bassist and a good friend of Reuben's who unfornately lost his life too soon, but he was also a great classical bassist and a member of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. You can imagine how that might have made a pretty strong funding application for a jazz project. This year, I'm looking forward to attending a concert featuring the Wellington Jazz Orchestra with soloist Michael Houstoun, one of New Zealand's leading (classical) concert pianists.

I don't think this is a bad outcome. I think it is actually quite beautiful that such a conversation has arisen in Wellington, even though the circumstances that shaped it are less than ideal and still something I will try to change. It has certainly shaped who I am and what I do as a musician.

The piece I put forward for the UNESCO International Jazz Day concert has its roots in this conversation – it is a piece I wrote to open the first combined performance workshop in 2012, that would show everybody the possibility of jazz students and classical students playing together. It is certainly not the first piece of its kind, even in New Zealand, but I think it was important for us at the NZSM to see that performance and finally realize that connection that had been the whole point of those combined events, however briefly.

For me personally, there have been two great takeaways from this experience. The first of these is that I began a wonderful journey of collaboration across musical traditions. I think the fact that two groups of people from different backgrounds, different historical contexts and with different understandings of the worlds within and outside of themselves, are able to come together and make beautiful music can teach us something about how we might learn to create an environment of communication and cooperation across ideological boundaries, of which have always been many.

The second is that, in order to continue being a musician, both in financial and spiritual terms, I had to really think about why music is important, and what musicians have to offer the world. Hopefully, you'll be hearing a lot more from me about this topic in the coming semesters.

I come to the New England Conservatory with my ears and eyes open. I am here to learn as much as I can, from as many people as I can. So far, each person that I have met at this school has left an outstanding impression on me. You are all very special.

Sometimes I wonder if we hear this word so often that we forget what it means. What I mean is this: each of us has beautiful and important things to say, and I really believe that we have a responsibility to share those things with each other. I am looking forward to sharing with all of you the perspectives that have been shaped by my unique circumstances and life experiences, and I especially look forward to hearing about yours. I hope you'll come say hi to me, and let me know what you thought of this piece.

Umar