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Pat Donaher Balances Life as a Musician, Teacher, and Yogi

Learn about the saxophonist's new album and how he wears so many hats

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Pat Donaher

While it’s true that Donaher’s teaching and playing reinforce each other, there’s a third element that influences everything. Since he was in college, he has been a serious yoga practitioner, and he often teaches the discipline to others. He claims it has helped him both physically and mentally—not only in terms of standing during a long club set and blowing air through a horn but also in terms of staying focused on the music and pushing away distractions. Donaher was introduced to the practice by his Eastman teacher Cain.

“He was just getting into yoga himself,” Donaher recalls, “and he thought it might be useful for me. When I was younger, I had a command of my instrument, but I often sounded like a wounded duck. After years of yoga, my tone is now a lot warmer. Yoga has understood for centuries that breath can either up-regulate or down-regulate the nervous system. You can breathe in certain ways to get your nerves more excited and other ways to calm the nerves down. That made me less of a stressball, which also helped my playing.”

Early on in the pandemic, Donaher posted a series of essays under the heading “Visionsong” on his website. The one titled “Practicing: Single-Pointed Awareness” suggested that how a musician practices is every bit as important as how much a musician practices. “You can practice well for 15 minutes,” he writes, “and make real gains; you can also practice for an hour and not get much done.” 

Practicing well, he explains, means practicing with an intense focus on the music, shutting out all other distractions. This is a lot harder than it used to be, he admits; the temptations to check our messages, our email, and our news feeds are stronger than ever. Even a professional musician like himself, he admits, has to struggle against looking at his phone, grabbing a bite to eat, or thinking about tomorrow. When that happens, he writes, he turns to yoga.

“If you get serious about yoga as I did (I’ve been a practitioner for more than 20 years, and a teacher for 15),” he writes, “you can’t avoid meditation—it’s part of the package. Now meditation is in schools and on talk shows, but when I started it still felt a little weird, and sometimes it still does. But at its most basic, least ‘wu-wu’ level, meditation is simple: It’s one or more techniques of stilling the mind, and bringing our awareness entirely to where we are, and what we are doing.”

How does the saxophonist navigate these three spheres in his life? He tries to balance out the time he spends on each, he says, and then make the most of each block of time by following his own advice, outlined above. He also draws boundaries. “I don’t teach music to adults,” he says, “and I don’t teach yoga to kids.” 

“Another thing I admire about Pat is his commitment to education,” says Palmer, who himself teaches at Berklee and the New England Conservatory, even as he’s promoting his new album, The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella. “It’s not easy to maintain a high level of performance and be committed to education. You have to find a balance in time by being productive when you work on either one, by always having an intent when you do sit down. Teaching is an art too, so it requires study and growth, just staying open to new ways of doing things.” 

“I’d rather be memorable than impressive. Playing like Michael Brecker is impressive. Writing like Brecker is memorable.”

Donaher grew up in the Boston suburb of Quincy, in love with funk and go-go records but eventually captivated by jazz and such local bands as the Either/Orchestra and Orange Then Blue. He had started on piano at six but switched to alto sax after hearing Charlie Parker’s “Lover Man.” While an undergrad at Eastman, he released his first album, On Any Given Day, largely devoted to duets with pianist Bill Kibbey.

Two years after graduating, he moved to New York City in 1999 and became a fixture on the downtown scene. One of the key tracks on the new album is “Whoosh/Oomph (for Detour),” named after his New York band Oomph, the Lower East Side venue Detour where the group often played, and the tune “Oomph” that usually opened their sets. With its snappy, swinging funk groove, it grabbed the room’s attention, which was the whole idea. On the new record, however, it’s preceded by a heavily echoed ballad, “Whoosh,” which showcases Donaher’s growth as a melodicist. 

After two years in Manhattan, Donaher returned to Boston to study large-scale composition at NEC with one of his heroes, Bob Brookmeyer. His settings of e.e. cummings poems for strings and vocalists were featured at a cummings festival in the poet’s hometown of Cambridge. During his grad-student days, he released his second album, Nu Currency, featuring DJ Industrial Average and violinist Jenny Scheinman. After school, he kicked around the Boston scene and released his third album, Who We Are Together, featuring pianists Camille Jentgen and Hwaen Ch’uqi.

“By 2014, I was part-time teaching music, part-time teaching yoga, and not playing very much,” he remembers. “I felt like I’d hit a wall in what I could accomplish in Boston. I was thinking about moving to Chicago when I got a call from my old high-school music teacher that the job in Lexington had just opened up and I should hurry to get my résumé in. I did, and I got the job. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t.”

He inherited a program in great shape. The students were regularly entering the Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival and the New School’s Charles Mingus Festival—and often placing high in the results. 

“At a good competition,” Donaher says, “the feedback you get is really useful. Kids need target points, and a competition provides that. When students travel to New York, visit the clubs, and meet famous musicians, it’s a connection to real-world playing. It humanizes these jazz legends and makes their jobs seem more attainable. The danger, of course, is the Whiplash syndrome, the push to play higher, faster, louder to impress the judges, as if the trophy were the point rather than the experience. 

“These kids are more stressed than I ever was, and I was a high-strung kid. They lose the knack for relaxing and daydreaming, which are so important for creativity. You can’t teach creativity; you can’t say, ‘Now go be creative.’ But you can foster creativity. You can give them the tools and information they need, and then you can encourage them to get out of their comfortable box and find their own voice.”

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.