Today we’re talking with Josh Plotner, a man who plays seemingly pretty much every woodwind instrument, from saxophones to flutes to recorders to clarinets – and a ton of world instruments you may never have heard of.
Josh works on Broadway and also provides recording and arranging services both in person and online, drawing on his amazingly broad wind skills. And he came across our radar because he also produces two fantastic kinds of YouTube video, one in which he very punchily explains the must-know rules for arranging for particular instruments in a sensible way, and the other in which he arranges popular music such as TV themes for a variety of instruments – and then plays every part himself!
We wanted to know what had gone into the music education of a person who could do all this, and the conversation was truly enlightening. You’re going to hear about:
- Josh’s early days and the surprising attitude that let him quickly learn more instruments than most of us have dreamed of ever playing
- The one critical thing Josh says is the essence of his attitude to learning and which is simple – though perhaps not easy.
- And the amount of daily practice it took to juggle an endless array of ensembles and groups during his high school years, as well as the way he thinks about practicing now that lets him stay in shape on all those instruments.
We know you’re gonna enjoy this episode and we think it might provoke you to think differently about your own route in learning music – or to better understand the route you have chosen. And we must insist that you go immediately after finishing listening, and check out some of Josh’s YouTube videos. We’ll have a few recommended favourites in the shownotes for this episode.
Listen to the episode:
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Josh. Thanks for joining us today.
Josh: Thanks, glad to be here.
Christopher: You are a quite remarkable musician for a number of reasons, and I would love to understand a bit more about where that came from, and in particular how you became such a versatile multi-instrumentalist and arranger. If you wouldn’t mind, could you take us right back to the beginning? What was the early music education like for you?
Josh: Well, I guess the very beginning is, unfortunately, terribly cheesy. I wanted to play saxophone since I was three years old, which is just one of those super cheesy stories. I don’t know, at three I was really into the idea. I thought it was the coolest thing, and my Mom was like, “Uh, it’s a phase.” My school system lets you start picking up an instrument at 10. My Mom, it was funny, I still call her out for this, she took piano lessons as a kid and hated it, and she was like, “If he’s interested in music, maybe I should make him take piano lessons, but I don’t want to force him because I hated it and I had an old, angry piano teacher,” so I never took piano.
Still am terrible at piano, still angry at my Mom for that, but I started saxophone at 10. Then I ended up really getting into it, because I really wanted to play it. I picked up clarinet right before high school and then I dropped it, came back to it a little later, picked up the flute, I think freshman year in high school. Actually I pretty much picked up clarinet and flute in high school because saxophone parts in concert band are terrible.
They’re usually just doubling the French horn part. It’s like being the alto voice in a section. There are moments that are nice for saxophone, but not nearly as cool as flute or clarinet. No one’s writing as good for saxophone in concert band as they are flute and clarinet. I guess I have enough of an ego that I was like, “No, I want to do the cool parts.” I convinced my band director. I auditioned and they started letting me play flute.
Then I got serious about flute and I did orchestra. Obviously there’s the four-piece orchestral pieces for saxophone, so I started playing clarinet in orchestra and flute in concert band. Then by senior year I had a bunch of my friends be angry at me because I was first chair and the saxophone players stole their first chair seat. Sorry, guys, if you’re listening. Yeah, I got serious about it and I continued into college. In college, I ended up at the end of college finally picking up oboe a little bit reluctantly.
Christopher: Let me interrupt there for a second if I may and ask, because you casually mentioned, “I picked this up, I picked that up,” which I’m sure to a lot of our listeners is surprising. That sounds difficult. Learning one instrument is difficult, learning two or three must be really difficult. What were you doing to learn those instruments? Were you self-taught? Was it playing by ear? Were you reading from sheet music? Did you have a teacher?
Josh: I did have a teacher. My Mom was actually pretty great about helping me find teachers. First there was one teacher who taught me everything. Then I ended up, my high school life was a little crazy because I was taking lessons on all of those instruments. Actually I was taking lessons on all of those instruments and a jazz saxophone lesson and a classical saxophone lesson. I was very nearly actually, almost a professional classical saxophonist, but that’s actually an oxymoron.
Christopher: It’s the “professional” bit that makes it tricky, huh?
Josh: Sorry to classical saxophonists listening, but you know you guys laughed a little bit at that. No, but I didn’t want to do the education thing as much. I really wanted to perform, but I was taking lessons on all of those instruments and trying to really pretend … There’s a great quote by, oh, I can’t think who it was, a great clarinet player and doubler. Anyway, he was like, “Being a doubler is like having four girlfriends and none of them know about each other.” That’s what being a good doubler is about.
Christopher: Explain for the audience who aren’t familiar with the term, what’s a doubler?
Josh: Ah, a doubler is just someone who plays more than one instrument. The verb is always doubling. One of my pet peeves is people are like, “You’re like a tripler, a quadrupler.” No, no, no, no, no, it’s just like you’re doubling as another thing. There’s no math involved in that term.
Christopher: Got you. We’ve talked a few times here on the podcast about playing multiple instruments, and in our canonical blog post about musicality, we list that as one of the things it means to be musical, to be able to play more than one instrument. That does often take people by surprise, because I think we have this cultural assumption that if you want to get to the highest level, you really need to focus in and just master one instrument, and maybe when you’re a total virtuoso you can think about something else for pleasure.
I think that idea of the concert pianist who plays nothing but piano from the age of three to 30, has us all thinking like that is the proper way to do it. I know that for me I had a similar if smaller story to yours, in the sense that I played several instruments in high school and always felt very guilty about it. I felt like serious musicians were doing their grade eight when I was still doing grade five, and it’s because I played three instruments instead of one.
I’d love to hear what you think sent you in that direction and do you think there were any obvious benefits to you, in terms of who you became as a musician, apart from the practicality of being able to play in this band or get the more interesting part?
Josh: Sure, sure. I mean, well, I think to that point about focusing on one thing and becoming perfect at it before you move on, it really depends on what your goals are. I can’t think of a nicer way to phrase it, but if you have a blind passion, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but if you’re like, “I want to play concert piano. I don’t care about anything else,” that’s amazing, because actually your life is very simple and you have a very clear direction.
Most people unfortunately don’t have as clear of a passion and enjoy lots of things. In doing that you’re going to … How do I phrase this? You want to explore other things. There is something so educational about understanding the different perspectives of different cultures, different things, so I’ve always been really interested, since I was a kid, in other cultures. I think it started out, I really liked taking French in school. Then that ended up broadening into a passion about languages, but yeah, I was always interested in different cultures.
From my experience, while if you focus on one thing, you become amazing at it, but it becomes a bit of a brittle skill. If you’re an amazing classical musician, I’ve worked with amazing violin players and it’s like, “Please swing. Please play jazz,” and it goes “dah dadah dadah dadah” and everyone’s like “Urrrggh. Noooo….” It’s because if you focus on only one thing you should be prepared to become a very brittle kind of musician.
Again, if that’s what you want, if that’s what makes you happy, that’s awesome and again, a much more clear way to live one’s life than the complexity of having a bunch of interests. I’m 3% interested in this, I’m 67% and 15. I mean, that’s a bit of a mess, but that’s a little more common than the pure passion. There’s nothing wrong with either of those. Yeah, but I’ve always loved being able to look at things from different perspectives.
I found things like … This is always better as a visual demonstration, but the way that one lays back, especially in a big band swing thing, is found in orchestral music in the way that … I find just from having played at serious levels in both, the way that the ichthys is usually not at the bottom, the conductor will throw down the baton and then it comes up a little bit and that’s where the beat is, that feeling of the beat, and even though most orchestral music doesn’t really groove, you’re still feeling the beat in a way.
That’s a very similar emotion to when in a big band they’re going dah, dah, dah, dah, ahhh. It’s like da da da da da da. It’s a very similar just pulling the music. Same emotion, different context. I feel like it strengthened me and because I studied jazz pretty seriously, it gave me a bit of a head start when I started doing orchestral things, because syncopated rhythms come a little bit later in a classical education and they’re like, “Jazz, let’s go. What are you doing?” All we’re doing is syncopated rhythms. I very quickly was able to find the similarities.
I mean, to me there’s nothing about them that’s like oil and water. You can really mix them, not mix them in a Gershwin way, but just the passion and the mindset, it’s really like saying the same thing but switching the language, I guess.
Christopher: That’s super interesting. I think it would be easy for people to assume, and this was definitely my fear when I was a teenager, that if you do spread yourself a bit thinner like that, you’re never going to get to a good level on any of the instruments. You obviously went on to study at Berkeley. Were you practicing each of those instruments seven hours a day to get to that standard? How did you manage to fit all that in?
Josh: I mean, the way that it ended up working really, because I’m actually terrible at self-motivation, honestly. I’m pretty bad at it. I’m pretty bad at regular, disciplined practice schedules, but what I am good at is throwing myself into situations where people are going to expect me to be good, and I really don’t like the feeling of other people being disappointed in me. That’s my form of internal/external motivation. Playing with ensembles, I would just be like, “Yeah, I can play a flute and do that thing,” and then I’d be there and I’d be expected to and so I did, whereas when I first started learning oboe I had no right to…
I told them that I could play… There was this amazing singer coming to Berkeley for this concert. Her name is Susana Baca. She’s a really famous, Peruvian traditional singer. She’s incredible and they’re like, “Do you want an oboe solo?” like an improvised oboe solo? I was like, “Yeah, I can do that,” after having played oboe for four months.
Oboe is not an instrument you can be even a little bit good at in four months, but it’s not the worst, because there was just so much pressure that it made it happen for me. The spreading yourself thin, it’s a tricky thing, because some people use it as an excuse. It’s a personality thing, because for some people there is a fear and everyone has this fear, a fear of seeing how good you can ever get, and a fear of knowing what your best is, because what if it’s not good enough?
You’re like, “What if I …” You don’t do this really consciously, but it’s just under consciously, really, like if I just do a bunch of things I can always have that excuse. Then it’s like, “Oh, well I never fully put myself in it so I would be that good,” and it’s like this very convenient excuse that, “Really everyone does this. I would be that good, it’s just that it didn’t work out that way.” Some people use doing a bunch of things as a crutch and that’s not a good way to do it, because that leads to just unfortunate, people who do everything, they’re bad at everything and I don’t know.
Christopher: How do you avoid that?
Josh: I mean, it’s really a personality thing. It’s not a universal thing. The problem with it, if you have a personality that tends towards excuses and giving yourself an excuse and letting yourself get away with stuff, it’s a very dangerous road to go down, or just really, I mean, in that case you can still do a bunch of things, but getting really amazing at one thing helps so much, because at some point you have to have an understanding of what excellence is.
You have to have an understanding of what being elite is, and if you have that in something it really doesn’t even have to be musical, just an understanding of the feeling of that elite focus and drive, then you can go into other things knowing that’s a standard and that’s what it feels like to actually be there, but if you never get there with anything, that can be a huge hindrance, because then you’re like, “Oh, I’m fine.”
The perfect explanation is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is this psychological phenomenon that … The short version is that people who are untalented think they’re talented because they don’t understand the scope of talent, and a lot of people who are talented don’t think they’re talented because they understand the scope of talent. Look up Dunning-Kruger effect. That’s the easiest way –
Christopher: Yeah, we’ll definitely have a link in the show notes. I think I’ve heard it described as expertise more than talent, so people who … it’s kind of “you don’t know what you don’t know” and a lot of people think they’re better than they are because they’ve never really been exposed to what it means to know that thing in detail.
Josh: It’s always – but the opposite is true, too, because people who are really talented know how much they suck, because if you’re really good … I honestly think I’m pretty terrible at what I do, but other people haven’t seemed to figure that out yet, so I just go with it. I can go on and on and tell you why I’m terrible at every instrument I play and all the things I do and all my flaws, and they might be as legitimate or illegitimate as you think, but I guess that might be a sign that I have an understanding because I can go on and on about how terrible I am.
Christopher: Got you. I think sticking in the world of psychology, they call that the “imposter syndrome” and it’s one we’ve all suffered from.
Josh: Oh, yeah. I don’t know any professional musicians who don’t have imposter syndrome.
Christopher: You talked there about getting to the elite level and getting to the point where you can really understand what it means to be top tier in something, and for you I guess one place that came out was at Berkeley. Were there any key musical experiences before that point? I think you told your story up until high school time. From there to Berkeley, was it a matter of taking those lessons every week, studying those instruments? Was there anything else that helped you get to that elite level?
Josh: Yeah, I studied outside of school, like this weekend music school called Midwest Young Artists, which I feel like I owe most of my talent to, honestly. It’s such an amazing school. Shout out to Midwest Young Artists. I was in so many ensembles. I think what it really was that I spread myself thin and was expected to perform well and it didn’t crush me. I was able to do it. In high school, in my high school band, which wasn’t the most amazing high school, but I was in the concert band and the jazz band.
I was in the marching band for a minute and I was in a saxophone quartet. That was just at school in this other music school, which was the weekends and it also became Wednesday and Tuesday evenings, I think. There I was in their orchestra, I was in the big band, I was in a chamber ensemble that played the music of Eighth Blackbird, which is this really cool, modern, chamber ensemble.
I was playing clarinet in that and I was playing in a competitive saxophone quartet. The high school one was just fun, but the one at Midwest Young Artists, we qualified for the Fischoff … My claim to fame is that we were the first saxophone quartet to qualify for the junior version of the Fischoff Competition, which is this huge American … No, it might be international.
This was a chamber music competition and saxophone quartets are usually snubbed, but now more and more they’re not being snubbed. Yeah, I was in … I have to count. I think it was somewhere between seven and 10 ensembles simultaneously, so honestly, the skill I developed a lot, because I didn’t practice for everything, I didn’t prepare every piece of music for everything but I got really good at [bleep] in high school because I was doing all those things. Honestly, I think that is one of the most important skills going through life, is being able to not quite know what you’re doing but seem like you know what you’re doing, because it’s a very fake it till you make it. The first step at getting good at something is just convincing other people. There are different journeys, but convincing other people that you’re good at something, because once they believe it, maybe you can start to believe it. For someone like me at least, that’s my only hope, is that other people believe it and then they convince me, so I pretend.
Christopher: Do you have to phrase “blag it” in the US? Would you say to blag it?
Christopher: No, so in the UK or in Ireland we would describe that as blagging it. You just show up and you blag your way through. I think that’s a valid skill to have and I definitely, I’m a believer.
Josh: I mean, it is a real skill, because that’s what sight reading is. Being a good sight reader is an honorable and important thing as a musician, but blagging, faking it, that’s cheating. Sight reading is entirely pretending you already knew the music that you’ve seen for the first time, that’s all it is. It’s just we have a word that makes it sound a lot nicer in the context of music.
Christopher: Yeah, I think one of my big life lessons as a teenager was the idea that the way to be competent is to act competent and genuinely that is what it takes. You just pretend like you are competent and over time you realize that works and you can just become a competent person.
Josh: I wish someone had told me earlier that it turns out really no one has any clue what they’re doing at all. You find out, well, your parents didn’t really know what they were doing, the President … That’s a whole other conversation. The President doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Christopher: Let’s not go there on this podcast.
Josh: No, no, no.
Christopher: Yeah, that skill of blagging it is crazy important. At the same time, I’m sure a lot of our listeners are like, “Really? This guy has graduated from Berkeley and does all of these amazing jobs in session music for TV and playing on Broadway. Really? Does he really not study seven hours a day on each of these instruments and really master each of them?”
Josh: No, it can be about that, but for me it’s about having high expectations for myself and trying not to let myself and others down. It becomes very easy to do what I do, not out of a theoretical concept of practicing but out of a practical, real world, “This is what I want to happen, and this is what I like,” clear goals. I mean, when I think about it, I say I don’t practice a lot, but it’s because I don’t do a lot of structured sitting down and playing scales and doing études, although I did at some point.
That’s definitely important, scales and études, especially when you’re starting out, very important, but at this point it doesn’t feel like practicing, even though I’ll be learning something, but it’s more like playing. This is where the English language has a bit of an unfortunate homonym here, because it’s not playing music, but playing as in approaching music with a sense of play. I’m just like, “Oh, yeah, I just want to figure this out and make this thing work and be able to do this,” but for me there’s a little bit less structure and a little bit more of a natural thing.
I was watching an interview with Jacob Collier that really resonated with me where he’s like, “Yeah, I’ve never practiced,” but he’ll sit at his computer, whatever for seven hours and be doing music but it’s not practicing. Again, it all depends on goals. If you’re trying to be a concert pianist and you’re trying to be able to play chromatic scales at blazing tempos, that requires practice. Practice can be a few different things. One of the things that practice does is build muscles for just about every instrument.
You literally need to make your muscles work better and you need to develop those. If the brain of an amazing musician got transported into the body of a non-musician, they’d be able to kind of make it work, but they wouldn’t have any technique because you just need the physical muscles. Practice is perfect for the structured thing of just … Yeah, because that’s really how your body works.
The brain is a little bit more of a wishy-washy … or it can be. Again, it’s very much a personality thing. Trying to be universal about it I think, ends up leaving a lot of people out if you’re trying to make universal rules about how to practice and how to blah blah blah. That was just a long tangent, wasn’t it?
Christopher: No, it was fantastic, but what I was interested to ask you next was, you’ve been playing all of these different styles, different instruments, and I think we’ve got a sense of how you’re approaching that. You got into Berkeley. Presumably at that point you’re like, “Right, now it’s just jazz saxophone forever more.” Were you?
Josh: Yeah. Actually I went to Northwestern University in Chicago for a year and I didn’t resonate very strongly with the jazz program, so I ended up transferring to Berkeley. I was like, “Cool, jazz, jazz, jazz. Find a good jazz school.” Then at Berkeley, I should have done more research, I guess. I mean, Berkeley has a great jazz program but the cool thing to me about Berkeley ended up being that it’s the school with the highest percentage of international students in the country.
I mean it’s only a school with 4,000 people, but by percentage it’s the highest amount of international students. Half of my friends ended up being from South America, the Middle East, friends from really all over. After two or three years at Berkeley I’d be like, “Wow, I could stay in most places in Europe, South America, a couple places in Asia.” There were a few African students at Berkeley, not too many, but Berkeley is pretty amazingly international, so I got really into Latin music.
It was really interesting, too, because I mean, Latin music is a huge umbrella. I got my mind blown by things like … Oh, man, I was so young. In Argentina, they have a rhythm called chacarera and it sounds like a waltz. I mean the waltz is also an Argentina thing, but the bass plays one two three, two three, two three, one two three, and she’s like, “It’s in three.” The rhythm goes [speaks rhythm pattern] and they all feel it in 6/8.
When the bass is going, what would be two three and three four becomes three five out of six eigths. All of a sudden it’s really hip because the bass isn’t playing one and the bass isn’t playing four, and it’s in six eight. Will these claps work on this mic? [speaks and claps example] It’s just really cool.
Christopher: It’s kind of lurching.
Josh: I might have done that wrong. We’ll fix it in post. No, no, no.
I was trying to explain it and I was like, “No, no, no, I studied a bunch of Western classical music and clearly if the bass is going two three, two three, we’re in three, and they’re also not playing one. That’s a bit of a strange … Why aren’t you playing one? I realized that I just got so excited when I got my mind blown, we’re like, “No, it’s in six. Here’s the beat.” Then especially the world, I think, of South American music really opened me up to the rest of music because while typically traditional music from South America is often harmonically fairly simple, the rhythm is so deep.
I mean, there are a lot of, for all practical purposes, un-note-takeable rhythms where it’s just like to really get exactly what they’re playing you’d have to use crazy tuplets that are unreadable and at that point, pointless, because it’s about a feeling thing. Yeah, feeling bigger beats. It was crazy, too, when I ended up doing that. That concert with Susana Baca, a Peruvian music is an even more complicated concept than Argentina, because they take that concept to six eight and three four and do it in nine a lot of the time.
There was an audience of people all clapping, non-musicians, and they were all clapping. I was like, “I don’t know what they’re clapping. I am a trained musician and I don’t know what all these people are hearing.” I was like, “What?” I could imitate them by watching their hands and trying to time my hands with their hands, but how does this relate to the music and how is the whole audience doing this and why don’t I, as a trained musician, understand a simple clapping along to this music?
That was really exciting for me to just really get my mind blown that there’s so much more out there than … There is a bit of a hubris to the Western side of music, the classical and the jazz, it’s like “We have the deepest y’know” I hate saying that. It’s like the tradition is like we’ve gotten to the base of music theory and the undercurrent and there’s a lot we’re missing. I mean, my mind is always blown by … More and more I’m getting into Hindustani stuff from India.
That stuff, harmonically there’s not that much to talk about, although the scales are interesting and people talk about the microtones. At least my understanding is, they actually essentially use a chromatic scale with microtonal ornaments that are used in a specific way. It’s not just you’re jumping from do to fa flat or something. It’s really to get to that note you’re playing another note and it’s like that systemised, but the rhythmic thing.
Again, especially in Hindustan, they have half hour forms that you memorize and crazy counting systems that if you just threw in a Western musician, even if you tried to explain it to them, they’d have to shed for years. Yeah, Berkeley being so international, it was so nice to be stripped of my concepts. I was like, “Yeah, jazz and classical music are really deep art forms,” because there really is so much more.
Also, just finding the empathy and enjoying other art forms. Eventually, I came the long way around to appreciating pop music because I was always a jazz musician, jazz musician first, classical music close second and pop was pop. I’m going to sound so pretentious, but it almost became an exercise in empathy. I found a way to enjoy pop and I was like, “Okay, what are all these people hearing?” and try to hear it like them.
I mean, you can really do that. There’s cool stuff in pop, too, but pop’s not about the harmony, it’s not really about the rhythm. It’s got this other feeling to it, but I mean, also pop’s really cool if you get into the world of production. Oh, my God, some of the best producers and engineers are pop ones and the things they can do, which is also why I have a bit of a theory. I think I probably stole this from someone, but the reason jazz and classical music aren’t that popular is because the engineers that usually do the work on them is not great.
If you spent 10 years working on how to figure out negative harmony, you’re going to lose the guy who spent 10 years making a good snare sound, because at the end of the day, if you’re talking about appealing to a large audience, presentation is the first barrier. If you don’t have the empathy to get through having a good presentation to give whatever the meat of your subject is to your audience, you’re screwed.
The problem with pop is that, for me at least, I get stuck in presentation. It’s all presentation and no substance, but the problem with a lot of modern jazz or especially the direction modern classical music is going, or neo-classical music, it’s all substance and no presentation. While it works for those who enjoy it, it displays a lack of empathy that I think is … I don’t know. For me, I like the balance of just understanding a little bit where everyone’s coming from, trying to get your message understood in a more … You don’t have to corrupt your message to make it presentable. You just have to have a little bit more empathy.
Berkeley gave me a lot just by meeting people from other countries with other languages, other perspectives, and finding out that everyone is very similar. One thing that ended up being really cool, I got into world music, which started getting me into world flutes. Then I ended up really getting into it when I moved to New York. My story of really getting into world flutes is that I moved to New York and wanted to sub on Broadway as a young musician with not a lot of connections that’s a woodwind player.
The woodwind world is really hard to break into when you’re young. You really need connections or teachers. Every instrument on Broadway at least has its own rules. Drummers and music directors, a lot of cool young people. Woodwinds is just an older group of people. They’ve already got it figured out a little bit more. I wanted to sub on Broadway and I was like, “What if I try for The Lion King, which has all these crazy flutes?”
I was already interested in world flutes, so I learned all these flutes and I got really deep into it. Back to my original point, the cool thing about world flutes that really unifies humanity is that all these cultures across the world, hundreds of years ago, invented kind of the same thing. It’s very impressive if you look at my website or something, and you’re like, “Wow, this guy plays 40, no, it’s probably not 40.
It depends really how you count with the instruments because I play bansuri in C and bansuri in F. Are those the same instruments? Is alto and tenor sax the same instrument? Is piccolo clarinet and base clarinet the same instrument? You can’t just pick those up and play them. It gets gray. I play a couple dozen instruments probably at least, but they’re kind of the same, actually. It’s really cool that for instance, there’s a technique that you find in Irish flute and tin whistle, where you’re playing a note, and to re-articulate the note, you don’t tongue it.
You very quickly hit your finger on the note below so it’s something like [sings demonstration] It’s a very Irish technique. The Japanese use the exact same technique on shakuhachi. They think of it differently, but as someone from my perspective who’s not so entrenched in the culture, I just have an outsider perspective on all these things a little bit and then trying to always have a deeper insider perspective, it’s the exact same technique.
Irish people and Japanese people 300 years ago definitely weren’t trading musical concepts and it’s cool, too, because they use those techniques. Sounds way different when you play it on ‘kuhachi versus tin whistle. Also, the Japanese shakuhachi again, it’s a really, very hard instrument to make noise out of. I can’t imagine how people … Japanese is also based off the Chinese xiao.
Either way that instrument, the way you make sound out of it, it takes a week to make noise. It’s a fun thing I do. If I ever meet a professional flute player, I’m like, “This is a flute. Make a noise.” It takes a week to be able to make a … It’s just a very, very strange embouchure. I can’t imagine how anyone invented that, but they also did the same thing in the Andes with the quena.
It’s this Andean flute in Peru and it’s almost identical the way you play it, and there’s no way that people in South America hundreds of years ago were working with Chinese and Japanese musicians on flutes. I’d highly encourage you, if you’re ever around, you’ll see quenas probably more often, because there always seem to be Peruvian bands playing in town squares somewhere.
There’s a vertically blown flute, and if you look at it, it’s just a cylinder with a hole and a tiny divot in it. To make noise on that is such a weird thing to do with your face. World flutes for me really created this unified thing. I was like, “Wow! People are all really the same.” I mean, physics demands it, but it’s always the same. The fingerings are almost very much the same. Just two weeks ago I bought a native American flute and in about 15 minutes I was like, “I could play a gig on this.”
I’ve played this instrument for 15 minutes and I’m like, “Yeah, I get it,” because it’s kind of the same. To be clear, I don’t get native American traditional music. I don’t have that depth, but I listen to it, I heard the general things that they do with it and I’m like, “Oh, I know how to do that already,” because I’ve played other instruments and it’s like a little bit of this, a little bit of this. It is really cool how amazingly similar all music … There is a unifying thread that is just like, humans are humans at the end of the day.
Christopher: That touches on something I was really keen to ask you about, which is not just different instruments but different styles of music. Part of your work is as an arranger, and I know you arrange in partly Latin styles, also rock or classical. I’d love to understand what your approach is in the sense of balance between intellectual music theory understanding and this is how a fugue works in classical music or this is what a bachata sounds like in terms of rhythms, versus just tuning your ear in and having that instinct for each of the styles. How much is it a conscious process if you were to sit down and try and write or arrange something in one of those styles?
Josh: What I do is I know a lot of music theory. It’s something that resonates pretty strongly with me, because it’s like solving math problems that are really easy. If you ever remember in school, you were doing addition at a very young age and you had it down. You had homework and it was just filling in the boxes. It felt good because you were just check, check, like “I can do this. It’s easy and it’s fun.” That’s what music theory feels like for me, so I’m very deep in it and I use almost none of it when I’m arranging.
I use it as a tool to help me fix things. I don’t use it at all, really, as a creative tool. If I’m arranging and I’m trying to arrange in a style, if sometimes I’m not feeling 100% confident, I’ll just check out some recordings I know are good, and just actually get into the mindset of “Okay, right now I’m a Latin musician, I am an Argentinian musician.” Again, I’m not, but the pretending makes it so much more than coming from a place of the outside.
Just pretend you’re an insider, do something, and then also be ready to accept criticism, obviously at the end of the day. I really just use my ear and go with my instincts. The music theory comes in, in that it’s a helpful tool for whenever I get stuck. That’s where the music theory comes in. I’m like, “Why isn’t this …? Oh, it’s a minor 9th.” You can’t write a minor 9th. They almost always sound bad unless it’s a dominant 7th flat nine chord and the root in the flat nine.
But besides that they usually don’t… but there are also exceptions that I could talk all day about theory, but for me it’s a bit of a hindrance because it creates robotic music. One thing I always hated. I actually just try to pick fights with this. I hate in most college education when they’re doing counterpoint. I think counterpoint is a huge waste of time. I think it’s a waste of everyone’s time.
It’s an interesting game to play but I don’t think it’s useful because it’s based off of the work of famous classical composers and none of the famous classical composers actually followed those guidelines. If anyone wants to send me messages and pick fights about whether or not counterpoint should be part of music education, I will gladly do that. The theory helps, it’s just a tool for analysis, and in reflection and editing, but it’s not that useful for creative.
Actually the biggest thing that theory does that I appreciate is that it gives you names for things. If anyone has read the book 1984, the evil government, one of their big things is Big Brother is trying to get rid of words to control the population. If you flip that on its head, the more words you have, the more power you have. What theory does is, it gives you names for the sounds that you’re hearing. When you have names you can think of them better and you can use them better.
When you don’t have names it’s harder to work with them, so the more words the better. The fact that when you say, “Oh, that’s a major 10th,” I’m like, “I know, it has that beautiful, nice, resonant sound that makes me feel like this.” I have feelings attached to that name and it’s so much, because without that name you’d have to play me a 10th. Also you essentially can’t speak music if you can’t speak music theory, so if you don’t want to learn music theory, collaborations will be terrible because it’ll be like yelling at someone who doesn’t speak your language and just waving your hands around trying to get them to understand something.
It’s like, “Why can’t you understand?” Because he can’t speak music. Yeah, it’s easily the most useful skill. For me, one thing I’ve actually found in my professional … especially with my studio things, a skill I’ve had to develop that I’m glad I have is that I’ve been able to learn to speak non-musician, because in my home studio business I do a lot of professional work for people all over the world.
Not all of them are highly trained musicians, so sometimes someone will be like, “Yeah, I want you to play it softly and sweetly with good frequencies, like this.” It’s like that means nothing, and especially it’ll be a thing that’s not like a lullaby. It’s just a saxophone line. It’s not a screaming solo, and I’m like, “Oh, he means play it well.” I’ve had to learn how to translate that, but that’s because I do this as a professional career, translating people not understanding music into something that I’m like, “This is what they want.”
If you’re collaborating with someone that’s a very dangerous way to do it, because a lot of people don’t speak non-musician, if you will. That’s also a language that you can never master. You can just get less bad at it.
Christopher: On that note, one of the other remarkable things about you is that, as well as finding time to acquire all of these instrument skills, you also speak several languages. I think there’s been various research done on the similarities between language and music in terms of brain development. Often we do find that people who are good at learning languages are good at learning instruments, but I’d love to hear your perspective on that and whether one influenced the other in terms of you being willing or keen or able to pick up multiple languages.
Josh: I don’t know if they necessarily influenced each other in such a direct correlation like your question suggested, but what is really useful to me about just knowing languages is that I think the most important thing one can do just as a person is constantly be learning. Pseudo-science alert, but keeping your brain … Neuroplasticity to me is just very important. The more you learn, the better you get at learning and the easier learning is.
Languages, I mean, besides the fact it’s just a cool skill to have, languages are just like an infinite pool of things to learn. You can pretty quickly learn all the capitals of the countries. Languages specifically, there’s nothing quite like it where it just creates these interconnections in your brain, different ways to express things. It keeps your brain so much more flexible in such a quick, direct way.
Even learning facts and figures, there’s no elasticity to it. It’s like a very simple thing that your brain is doing, but when you’re learning Japanese and you’re trying to be like, “Oh, the verb always is at the end of the sentence, and I have to conjugate for politeness but not for pronouns.” Something like that, it’s just so good for your brain and that I feel like allows me, yeah, just keeping flexible.
It makes picking things up easier because I have found I get into this learning mode where I pick things up more quickly the more I’m learning. There are times where I like, “Oh, I haven’t been learning a language for four months or something,” I haven’t been studying anything. Things feel a little bit slower. Learning is a skill. If there’s one thing to take from this whole interview from my perspective, learning is a skill and it’s a thing you can get better at and it’s a thing where there are techniques.
The fact that every school system in the world doesn’t have classes on learning is just a waste of everyone’s time. Knowing how to learn and being good at learning changes the game because it allows you to play a ton of instruments in a ton of styles and it not to be hard, because also any situation I’m in where there’s something I don’t know, I sometimes make mistakes twice but it’s rare because it’s really easy for me.
I make a mistake, I’m like, “Oh, that, don’t do it any more. Done.” That’s only easy because I’m always making mistakes because I’m always learning. Learning is just making mistakes, right? If you don’t know something, you’re failing at it, and then once you’ve learned it you stop failing at it, if you just are always failing at things and you get good at failing less often and less consistently. I mean, I feel like language is just the easiest thing. It doesn’t even have to be about learning the language itself. It’s more about just brain gymnastics. It’s the best kind of brain gymnastics that I’m aware of.
Christopher: I think we’ve definitely picked up a few insights about how you have learned to learn. For example, it’s clear you are not someone who shies away from a challenge or sees that there’s a whole new opportunity to learn and just stays in what you’re comfortable with. We’ve also talked a bit about how sometimes spreading yourself thin and having external accountability has helped you to really follow through. You’ve talked about how, for you it’s not so much practicing as maybe preparing is a suitable word. You’ll put in the time. It’s not drills and exercises.
I think given what you just said about the centrality of learning to learn, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least ask, were there any particular teachings or mentors or observations that helped you become a good learner?
Josh: I think it comes down to specifically I have this philosophy of, I just really don’t like being wrong. No, no, I’m sorry. Let me start over. I want to be right all the time, just like everyone else does. In pursuit of that, I try so hard to fail and I try so hard to be wrong, because whenever you find out that you’re wrong, that gives you the opportunity to be right forever. In any debate, it’s a very emotional thing. A debate’s a better example than music, but the same principle applies.
You’re arguing with someone and you get that inkling that you’re wrong and you fight it. You’re like, “Let me just hold on to my thing and prove that I’m right even though I’m not feeling so good about this.” I’ve learned to force myself to just embrace being wrong because then I get to be right. Then I get to be more right than I used to be. I love being wrong and I love failing because then I get to suck less than I did before.
Yeah, that’s my biggest flaw. It’s seeking out failure and incorrectness so that you’re not that anymore, in pursuit of being right. Especially the easy things, whenever I’m in an argument, it’s sometimes jarring for people. They’ll be like, “Yeah dah dah dah” and I’m like “Oh. No. You’re right. Never mind. Okay, sorry. No, yeah.” It’s really more satisfying to be right at the end of the day because it’s too much work to hold on to being wrong, but it’s a very human thing.
It’s a very emotional thing to do and it feels right but it’s so much more satisfying to just … Yeah, just always thinking out … That’s what putting myself in all those situations that I don’t necessarily belong in, holding other people accountable to me because I’m going to fail, and when I fail I get the opportunity to not fail again, or at least not fail again in the same way. Just onwards and upwards.
Christopher: Fantastic, I love that. Well, I think if there’s a downside to being as versatile as you are, it’s that my job as an interviewer is incredibly hard. I have several more things I would love to ask you about, but I think we’re going to have to save it for [crosstalk 00:53:05] and maybe invite you back onto the show another time. I do want to just briefly touch on each of your current projects, because you’re doing several really interesting things.
The one that jumped out to me and that we’ll definitely link up to the show notes for everyone to go dive into is your arranging tutorials on YouTube. For example, I just watched one today on how to arrange for clarinet in two minutes and this is not to be missed. Fantastic. You’re also offering private lessons on some or all of the instruments you play, and you do session work as we’ve mentioned both in person and remotely. I’d love if you could just talk a little bit more about those projects and if anyone’s interested in connecting with you regarding those, where they can find you.
Josh: Sure. First if you want to reach out to me on my website, joshplotnermusic.com or joshplotnermusic.com/contact is my contact page. Feel free to send me a message and I’ll get back to you as quick as I can. The YouTube thing, I have a bunch of videos on how to arrange for a series of woodwinds. I’ve been away from my YouTube channel. I’m about to restart it, but the series on arranging for woodwinds came from a bit of a frustration that for each instrument there are 10 things you need to know.
I can tell you them in two minutes-ish, and it’s just there are so many common mistakes that everyone makes, like you can’t write a forte on a low note for flute. That’s not the way flutes are. You’re writing an impossible thing and you’re kind of like wasting everyone’s time. It’s things like, “Just don’t do that. And then we’re done.” So I have that. I do offer private lessons, and then I do a lot of home studio work professionally. I can record any instrument for any sort of project, yeah. On my YouTube channel I also do sometimes multi-track woodwind covers, just showing off.
Christopher: Yeah, fantastic. I think if anyone’s thinking, “Can he really record any instrument for me?” you’ve got to check out the YouTube videos. You may have seen this kind of video where you have multiple versions of the same person contributing to a musical track, but these with Josh are fantastic. He does the Game of Thrones theme and my favorite was The Nightmare Before Christmas. What’s the goal there? This is Hallowe’en? Fantastic. We’ll definitely have links to those in the show notes, so if you want to be inspired and impressed and see Josh in action, I’d say that is where to start.
Fantastic. Thank you again so much, Josh. It’s been such a pleasure talking with you.
Josh: Happy to be here.
Christopher: There was a ton of insight there, I think, for anyone who’s wondered about playing multiple instruments, anyone who thought about arranging, or really just this big picture of learning to learn. I know they’re going to be going away with lots of new ideas, so thank you very much.
Josh: Great. It was a pleasure, thank you.
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