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Bill Stevens: Jazz, Spirituality and Color

Bill Stevens is a professor of music at Santa Clara, where he focuses on jazz piano. Bill has been blind since the age of 14, and he pursued music at the Oberlin Conservatory. Bill has done work around Deep Listening, Somatic Experiencing and the link between music and spirituality.   


Bill recently came out with a new album called “A Blues by Any Other Name” available on iTunes and Amazon. On April 5, 2019, Bill will be playing a recital. Tickets are available here


Here's a message from Bill: "There's a place in the music department for everyone at SCU. We have lots of great concerts: check out our Laptop Orchestra and our New Music Ensemble. Come sing in our Concert Choir or play in our Wind Ensemble, Jazz Combo, Orchestra, or World Music Ensemble. Buying an Arts Card gets you into all of our events for four years - that's a really great deal - and our Wednesday Music at Noon concert series is free with or without the Arts Card."


In this conversation, we discuss seeing music, spirituality, healing and Bill’s journey through childhood becoming a composer, scholar and learning to be human in the present moment.

Bill Stevens website header photo

Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: How did you get interested in music as a child?

Bill Stevens: We had a beat-up piano in the corner of the dining room. When I was four years old, my mother won a month of piano lessons at an auction, but I was completely uninterested. My brother took the lessons and came back and played a little tune. Then our babysitter showed us how to play the Star Wars theme, and that was pretty cool. I became curious.


There was one day in the fourth grade when I had a tune in my head, and the tune wasn’t in any of my books. I wasn’t sure how to write it down, so I just wrote down the letter names, “G A B G G A B.” The band director got interested and arranged it for the band.

I lost most of my vision when I was 14 fairly suddenly. That’s when I started to get serious. I started to have some fairly profound spiritual experiences through music.


GC: Did becoming blind change your relationship to music?


BS: I’m sure it did, but largely through changing my relationship with so many other things. Music was one of those things that it didn’t have to change. In some ways there was a process of elimination going on. I was really interested in mathematics and computers.

At the time I lost my vision, we were doing some basic trigonometry, and doing that when you can’t look at the page is a little challenging. My mom and I would spend hours a day describing the graphs. My mother would say, “Imagine a snake wrapped around a stick.” And I would ask where it starts, crosses the y-axis… I was memorizing all my work. I got through Calculus 3 by the end of high school, and that was really fun.


Ironically, I’m primarily a visual learner and thinker. I hear notes and see a color association.


GC: What is it like to see a note? Listen at 6:50 to find out.


GC: We throw around the term “listening” a lot in society, but what is deep listening?


BS: Deep Listening comes from the work from composer Pauline Olivero who did a lot of work on being curious on all sounds. So often in music, we’re focusing on a foreground. We often ask, “What’s the sound of piano or violin?” Deep listening tries to listen to the sounds in the environment with just as much attention as I’m bringing to the musical sounds. The sound of my voice in this room is much different than my voice in the recital hall, or if we were outside in the cold.


In elementary school, they would take me out of class to do what’s known as orientation mobility training. One of the things my teacher was showing me was how sound reflects in different ways. If you run your hand close to your ear, you can almost feel it because the it changes the way in which all the other sounds you’re hearing reach your ear. Deep listening is making a practice of walking into a space and hearing the size of the room based on the ambient sounds and echoes.


GC: What is the link between music and spirituality?


BS: I see spirituality as the experience of creativity, creation, creator, all interlinked. And the experience of connection to the world outside oneself through creativity. Some of the most profound spiritual experiences for me have been when I’m in a community that’s going deep with creativity. Sometimes that’s been as a part of music programs where I’ve been a student or taught. Also dance, I studied dance improvisation in college. I’ve done retreats in some of those areas, and it helps me get out of my own head and into the present moment.


GC: How can we be more present?

BS: One of the themes in mindfulness is practice. The brain is so amazingly flexible; it’s such a gift. If there’s something I want more of in my life, can I practice that? I’d like to be more present, so I’ll try to spend more time paying attention to what’s going on. The Deep Listening philosophy is to just hear your thoughts the way you would hear sounds.


It’s a practice, so the willingness to be spectacularly bad at it is a prerequisite to being a little bit better.


GC: What are some of your personal practices around being present? Listen at 21:30


GC: You’ve done some work on how music can aid in healing from traumatic experiences.


BS: I think you’re referring to Somatic Experiencing. I had a lot of emotional experiences growing up that I didn’t know how to digest in the moment. My way of coping was to bury them away and pretend everything was fine. The weight just builds until sooner or later you deal with them. In my mid-twenties, it was clear I needed skills in processing experiences.


I connected with a fantastic program in New York City called Helix which tried to bring together teachings from psychological and spiritual healing from western and non-western cultures. It was designed as a self-transformational program. A lot of my people skills that come into my teaching comes form that work. Part of what I do is coach students through performance anxiety.


The principles are to take the big overwhelming energy and break it up into small digestible pieces. It’s very much like teaching. I can’t teach the whole subject at once, so we’ll start with one little piece. The other principle is pendulation. We have waves of more and less intense. I used to think that the way to get better was to work all the time. That’s a very inefficient way to learn and unpleasant way to learn. Learning happens best when we have sprints and rests.


GC: What message would you want to give to people?


BS: One of the themes I hope comes through in my teaching is that I am giving students an experience of their own competence. This doesn’t come from telling students how smart they are. It comes from guiding students through a journey of helping them realize they are capable of more than they thought. We use these principles of showing up every day, practicing and trusting the process. 

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