Me Playing With Awesome Hotcakes


Your Own Thing

Lately I’ve played a few gigs with a band called Awesome Hotcakes. Spike Sikes is the leader, and there are men on bass, drums, and trumpet. I’m the only woman, but it’s been a 100% great experience. (The people, at least. I’m never 100% satisfied with my improv.)

Last week we played at a cool live music venue, and when we were done, a woman came up to me. I’m guessing by the age of her children that she was about 50.

“Are you related to Sean by any chance?” she asked.

I told her that yes, he was my husband. My husband is well known in town for teaching music. He has taught thousands of kids band and choir in town, and everybody knows him. The woman told me who her kids were.

And then she said, “It’s nice that you have your own thing.”

“Yes,” I thought. “It darned well is.”

But later, I thought, “How sad is it to think that those words would never be said to a man?” Can you imagine a popular female elementary school teacher’s husband being told “How nice that you have your own thing?” It’s absurd to even think about, and yet it seemed like a perfectly normal thing for her to say to me at the time, and most women know the feeling of either not having our own thing or feeling exceptional, bold, or lucky because we have our own thing.

There was nothing wrong with what she said. There’s also nothing wrong with women who want “their own thing” to be raising kids or being a good wife. I just think it’s a little sad that it’s something we women have to say to each other. And make no mistake, we do say it to each other all the time in a hundred different variations of “good for you having your own thing,” or “make sure you have your own thing.”

When I got married and moved to my husband’s hometown twenty years ago, it was not easy. I was the woman standing and smiling while her husband chatted with an old friend or a grateful band parent. Then I was the woman entertaining her baby while her husband chatted with an old friend or a grateful band parent. I really didn’t feel like I had my own thing for a while.

I don’t mean to say I’ve had no opportunities. The Sonoma County Philharmonic seemed perfectly happy to have a woman on trombone. When I played with the ska band The Hoovers, they didn’t balk at my being a woman either.

But it’s still seen as special to have your own thing after getting married. Why? This question might seem like no big deal to many people, but I think it gets at something deep in our culture. I’m quite sure I haven’t gotten to my deepest thoughts about it yet. The statement is still simmering in my brain. It’s nice that you have your own thing. It’s nice that you have your own thing.

Women, have you heard this statement? I’d like to hear your thoughts and experiences.


Calling All Female Musicians in Sonoma County

When I started Sonoma Jazz Girlz last spring, my goal was to get the group to big band size in two years. The group grew to six within six months, and I thought I was on my way! Unfortunately, it went back down to four, then up to six again, and now it’s back down to four.

My main musical goal was to teach improv through chord spelling, voice leading, and just plain experience, and that’s going GREAT. However, I’d also like the class to sightread big band charts.

That’s where you come in, female jazz musicians of Sonoma County! I’m looking for women who can commit to volunteering every FIRST THURSDAY night of every month from 7-8 to help us fill out a big band. I especially need saxophones, trumpets, and a drummer. (We have a drum set.) The other Thursday nights we’ll continue our improv work.

If you can help, please call Music To My Ears in Cotati at (707)664-0123 and they’ll pass the message on to me. Thank you! 

*Note: Remember my blog about only one girl in the CA state honor jazz band for high schoolers? This year? ZERO GIRLS.


Honor Band Audition Tips

These honor band tips apply whether you’re auditioning for jazz band, concert band, or orchestra. I’ve made this list based on my own honor band successes years ago and my students’ more recent successes and failures, er, successful learning experiences.

1. Sign up for more than one private lesson

Many students come to me for temporary lessons in preparation for an audition. That’s fine! But I’m always disheartened when they sign up for one lesson a week before their audition. One week is not long enough to practice what I help them with. The most cost-effective option that would still give you considerable help would be to sign up for one lesson a month before auditions and another lesson two weeks before. Practice your pieces and scales before your first visit, go to a lesson, and spend the next two weeks trying to implement what your private teacher taught you. Go back to your teacher and see if you’ve been successful at the things they helped you with. Even if you have, they may have more to tell you. They probably wanted to give you an achievable list the first time. They may have only told you the biggest problems, and on the second visit, they can fine tune. The more lessons, the better, but make sure you get at least two, and with plenty of time before the audition if possible.

2. Work on tone and other basics

Everyone who auditions will have practiced their audition piece. Most of them will play the right notes. Many of them will play the right notes and dynamics. The difference may be your tone and general technique. Developing good tone and basic technique takes time, and it’s something you can be working on even before you know what your audition piece is, or even before you know you have an audition coming up. Plus, it will help you perform better if you DO get into the group you’re auditioning for.

3. Practice tiny chunks

Time-efficient practicing means taking that note you missed and practicing only that note and the note before it. Over and over.

4. Be confident

Don’t you envy those players who have confidence? I do! Some of them aren’t as good as me, but they play their best in stressful situations because they’re not worriers like me. For people who aren’t naturally confident, the sad truth is that caring too much about whether you perform well can be the very thing that takes you down. If you’re not naturally confident, you have to practice so much that you can play your piece in the midst of total mental collapse! Remind yourself that negative self talk is not helpful and tell yourself you can only do your best. You can speak humbly without trashing yourself. Believing that you might have something to offer the band is not conceit, it is hope.

5. Do it

Can’t get in if you don’t audition. Good luck! Even if you don’t get in, you’ll be practicing your auditioning skills, and that’s very valuable. But I have a feeling you’ll get in if you’re preparing by reading blogs. Now go practice, and do it!

Marie Millard teaches trombone at Music To My Ears in Cotati, CA. She played in the California All State Honor Band and Jazz Band back in the day when they weren’t on the same weekend. 

Anger and Monk

The Sonoma Jazz Girlz have been meeting for nearly five months, and they have a good grasp of chord extentions and following chord changes. It didn’t really hit me until tonight, but they do.

What happened was that my daughter had a writing catastrophe right before class. Wattpad, where she writes her fiction, changed its layout and she accidentally deleted an entire prologue. This put her in a very bad mood.

We joked about taking it out on the music, and then, and I’m not kidding you, her solo went from her usual clean, inside, proper little melody to freaking Thelonius Monk. With her perfect pitch, she doesn’t realize that it’s not easy for everyone to play the melody in one hand and the melody in a different key in the other hand. She was playing trills as fast as her little fingers could go and waiting patiently and then striking a chord to scare the bejeezus out of you. I walked over to her during the next person’s solo and said “That was the most professional sounding solo you’ve ever played.” The funny thing is, she had no idea. I think she thought she was being downright disrespectful!

This led to my changing our listening time from what I had planned to an introduction to Thelonius Monk. Thanks to Youtube, I was able to pick Straight No Chaser so that they’d be able to hear familiar chords and know that the solo did not always stay within them. We talked about playing “outside” and how maybe they were good enough at “inside” to purposefully branch out. Some people might not take this route in jazz teaching, but that’s how I’ve gone about it. You have to know the rules before you break the rules. I just didn’t expect to make such a big leap yet. One of the trombone players, who usually sticks with the root or the melody, said she was going to try an E natural over a B flat chord, and I said “Go for it! See what you think.”

I didn’t ask her what she thought of the E natural, but I know she learned something tonight. And I hope my daughter learned that sometimes it’s not disrespect, it’s just jazz.

Sonoma Jazz Girlz Update #2

Well, our first summer is over, and although two of the four girls dropped out when their schedule filled up, two more joined, and our current four have four more they want to invite! Most importantly, members old and new have, well, progressed in following chord progressions and listened to a lot of great famous musicians during our chops break.

And we had our FIRST GIG! Music To My Ears had a 10th anniversary party, and we were part of the live music lineup. We played Mercy, Mercy, Mercy and I Got Rhythm, and everyone soloed. I was so proud! Although I never pictured this class to be a performing group, I think the girls really like it and want to get out and PLAY. With our group growing, I’m starting to think about procuring some big band charts.

CONFESSION TIME! Even I, who started this group because of the difficulties faced by women in jazz, and who made sure to introduce my students to female players during listening time, took TWO months to think, “Gee, I wonder if any of the jazz standards on irealpro were written by women.” Enter Willow Weep For Me. Thank you Ann Ronell for your beautiful melody. I’ll be writing more about Ann and my personal history with Willow Weep For Me another day.

I have to admit I worried when we got down to two students, but it appears word has gotten out, and I think the future of Sonoma Jazz Girlz is secure.


I Feel Sorry for the Boys

This week at Sonoma Jazz Girlz (yes, tee shirts have been ordered with a “z” in girlz, so Sonoma Jazz GirlZ we are now) one of the members told me about a boy who regularly tells her that she’s not a good player. She’s not good at this, she’s not good at that. Then she mentioned that he also insulted her about a sport they both play, and that she was seated higher than him in band, and it hit me.

“Oh! He’s threatened!” I told her.

Normally, I have an instant irritation with boys who seem to feel threatened. After all, why on earth would a boy think that girls are so weak and brainless that he’d rather meet just about any other fate than losing to a girl? So insulting! But this time, I had an epiphany.

Threatened. What a terrible feeling. And it doesn’t come from nowhere. Someone has told this boy that girls are less capable, and he’s living in the constant fear that if he loses to one, he is less, too. What a terrible curse!

Who is telling him this? My first thought is a macho, sexist dad, but the sad truth is that the message is everywhere. If this boy has latched on to a few movie one-liners and a few things his friends have said, not to mention noticing that there haven’t been any women presidents and whatnot, well I know from experience that it’s easy to latch on to those messages and live accordingly, ignoring the mountains of evidence that women are indeed equally capable.

If they are less capable, then what if they beat me?

Well I have good news for you, young man! IQ researcher James Flynn recently conducted a test in several different countries and found women’s intelligence to be either equal to or slightly higher than men’s. In the world of music, when orchestras have switched to blind auditions (this means the judges don’t know the race/gender of the auditioner) their percentage of women has drastically increased. So all those musical groups that have been telling you with their male/female ratio that men are better musicians have been wrong. The good news, Sir, is that if a girl beats you, it is just the same as a boy beating you. Sometimes you’re first chair, and sometimes you’re not.

So I don’t feel sorry for men, who have had a few more years to work this out, but I do feel a little sorry for the boys. And I’m so glad that the Jazz Girlz have our little group, where when a student tells me that a boy insulted her playing I can say, “Well no one’s going to tell you that here.” And that boy better start practicing.

Teaching Basic Jazz Improv

Band teachers, as soon as your students know a major scale, you can teach them to read simple chord changes. By showing them how to put a melody over chord changes instead of just giving them a B flat blues scale and letting them have at it regardless of the changes, you can change their future! Yes, it’s easier to just teach them a blues scale, but they’ll plateau. Give them a good foundation now!

I did this with my beginning bands at the end of their first year. I would even walk around to each student and point at the measures as they went by. Below is a video demonstration using the first few bars of Freddie Freeloader. Beyond just switching to E flat 7 after four measures of B flat 7, I have the student choose which two notes they’re going to play as the chord changes. It’s imperative that they experiment with melodies as they move from chord to chord instead of thinking of each chord as a separate entity on which to improvise in that key.

Jazz Improv – Your Very First Lesson

Sonoma Jazz Girls Update #1

During our first four jazz classes, four moments have made this whole endeavor worthwhile. Even if it all ended today, I’d be glad I did it.

I started by going to four high schools and speaking to their band classes. I didn’t see a lot of interest, and indeed, no one has signed up based on those visits yet. The local paper did a story on the class, and we haven’t received any calls from that, either. Three of our four students who have signed up were already taking private lessons at Music To My Ears, and their private teachers recommended them. The other student is my daughter. Two more plan to join us when the school year starts, and I’m hoping for even more!

One of the moments that has made this worthwhile was the first time I heard my daughter improvise a solo. She’d never showed an interest in jazz, and it was clear that she was hooked. My heart was full.

Another moment I loved was when one of the girls left class telling her mom how well she’d played. I wish I’d said that about myself at her age! Go girl!

The other two moments were both statements that one of the pianists made. The first night, our first activity was to name all the notes in all the chords of Freddie Freeloader. Then we started our irealpro app* Freddie Freeloader background. The girls each had to tell me what note they were going to play at the end of the measures of B flat and what note they were going to play first in the E flat measure. Otherwise they could play whatever they wanted. The pianist had played in high school jazz but had only played written parts. After all the girls had completed their task, she said quietly, “I’ve never done that before.”

Really, even after that moment I felt the class was a success. That one little instruction set her up to be able to learn just about anything.

Over the next couple weeks we worked on soloing on Freddie Freeloader and I Got Rhythm, and we worked on sightreading on Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Things Ain’t What They Used to Be. We even did a little transcribing of Bugle Call Rag. We watched clips of famous jazzers on Youtube.

I told the girls on the very first night that I wanted the group to not only be a place to learn, but a network for them to keep forever. When they graduate from college and one of them gets a gig from someone who says, “Hey, do you know a trumpet player?” They can get another Sonoma Jazz Girl a gig.

But I didn’t want to lecture them too much about how few women there are in jazz. I didn’t know if my students were there for the jazz part but not the girl power part. I didn’t want to turn them off. So while I did tell them that a network of women would be important because some men won’t think of women and some men will consciously not hire them, and I did challenge them to find a few women on Youtube, I didn’t say much beyond that.

Here’s the fourth moment that has made it all worth while. This week I was telling the pianist that I’d gone to a jam session twice recently, and she, this girl who had seemed so shy, said, “I should do that.” “Yes!” I exclaimed. “You should!” My daughter told her that I’d been the only woman and the pianist’s eyes grew wide. “Really?” She said indignantly. “That’s not right!”

No, it’s not. And now I know there’s definitely some interest in girl power within the group.”Next time, you’re coming with me,” I said. “Then I won’t be the only girl.”

It. Is. On.



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