Caroline Davis: Life as a Saxophonist and Her Degree in Music Cognition

Vandoren Artist Profile

Date Posted: June 08, 2018

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When did you decide you wanted to be a musician, and what drew you to that decision?

I started playing around age 13, when my mother and I lived in Atlanta Georgia. I chose the saxophone because I liked the sound of a horn section in these old R&B bands – Stevie Wonder, Sly & The Family Stone, Steely Dan, Michael Jackson, Chicago – my parents used to play this music a lot at home when I was a baby, so it stuck and I wanted to be a part of that. My mom got a job in Texas after a while, so shortly after starting middle school band in Atlanta, we moved there and the music programs had better funding, so my access to information improved a bit, and I started practicing more. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I started improvising, and teachers (Bill Snodgrass, Rob Rose, John Murphy) in Texas and at my college (while I was studying Psychology and Music at the University of Texas at Arlington) as well as the teachers (Kris Allen, Mike DiRubbo, Claire Daly, David Berkman, Mario Pavone) at a summer program in Litchfield Connecticut (Litchfield Jazz Camp) helped me tremendously. I’ve gone through a lot of transitions on the instrument, trying to find my sound, but when I was in Chicago, I discovered Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz, which was a big one for me, in that I started feeling more at home. I have spent a lot of time with Steve Coleman, since we met in Chicago, asking him questions and having him show me things, so I consider him one of my mentors, although I still have a lot of things to go over with him. I haven’t been able to meet Bunky in person, but his sound is certainly unique, and I love what he offers to the music and jazz world. Other saxophone players who have been super helpful to me through the years – Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Marion Brown, Roscoe Mitchell, Warne Marsh, Sonny Rollins, Vi Redd, Tim Berne, Steve Lacy, Loren Stillman. I’ll stop there but there are so many. There are others, who don’t play the instrument, who have influenced my tone and sound – Connie Crothers, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Bernard Parmegiani, Geri Allen, Milford Graves, Elmo Hope, Roswell Rudd. And these lists change from year to year for me, so this is just where I am right now.

Who have been some of the most influential people in your life?

People who have found a way to challenge the common means of expression in their field, while at the same time overcoming adversity. Folks who come to mind: Maya Angelou, Thich Nhat Hanh, Ingmar Bergman, Milford Graves, Steve Coleman, Carla Bley, Pema Chodron. To me, all these people have been able to offer a new perspective on life while assimilating what came before. Of course there are people close to me – my mother (Susanne Anson), father (Michael Anson), partner (Ben Hoffmann), mentors and friends (Von Freeman, Carmen Staaf, Jay Sawyer, Steve Coleman) – who have influenced me because of the challenges they’ve faced or our daily contact, and this changes from day to day, year to year.

What are the greatest challenges you have faced as a musician and how have you overcome them?

I’ve been lucky to not have many serious challenges, especially in the ways of health. I can think of so many musicians, today and in the past, who have experienced life-altering health conditions, and though I have had some scares, all is okay for now! Most of my challenges come from either finances or moving around a lot – I’ve lived for years in the following places: Singapore, Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago, and New York. At the initial time of these moves, my identity seemed challenged, but now I see these transitions as positive moments in my life. For the times I do experience hardship, I try to live my life from day to day, focusing on my breath and the little gifts I receive from the universe or my friends.

You have a Ph.D in Music Cognition, can you tell us a little more about that?

I moved to Chicago in 2004 to pursue the Ph.D at Northwestern straight out of my undergraduate experience (B.S. in Psychology and B.A. in Music) at University of Texas at Arlington. I found, and still do find, that the intersection of research in music and psychology brings fascinating result – how we develop schemata for music we love, how music can challenge previously developed pathways in the brain, and how the brain interprets music in general. I believe this field has pointed me towards better results than any other form of research in the arts. My work has mostly to do with the way our musical partnerships influence the way we categorize elements of music as well as musicians we listen to. In other words, being a part of a certain “scene” of musicians can not only influence how we listen to music, but how we talk about and organize it in our minds.

How has this degree influenced your performing career and what is one tip you learned you can give to musicians?

Although I played a little bit during my studies at Northwestern, I didn’t have as much time to practice and develop my own ideas/voice while trying to tackle a reading list of about 400-500 pages a week. It’s a commitment. One thing I can pass along is to give your full attention and focus to whatever it is that you’re doing, and you’ll always create in an honest way – whether that creation is a dissertation or an album, it will be there forever.

Do you have a reed break-in process?

Yes, although I change this depending on how hard the reed initially feels. I play on V16 size 3½, sometimes 4, reeds; I like a reed that presents me with a good deal of resistance. Usually I’ll play it for about 30 minutes and then put it on a flat surface for a day. If the reed feels initially soft, I won’t play it for as long, and I’ll put it away, because I believe that first contact with moisture has a lot to do with it’s longevity. Those softer reeds don’t last very long for me, unless I’m playing a gig where I need a lot more power (e.g. a pop show). Every reed is different, and I’ve certainly encountered reeds that are perfect from day one to day thirty-one.

What is your current Vandoren setup?

I play on a V16 A8M mouthpiece with a M|O ligature and V16 3½ reeds.

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