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Tackling Tough Questions: Building a Foundation for Decision Making with Matt Coleman

Music Professor Highlights Indeterminacy and Improvisation in Musical and Life Questions at Faith + Works Lecture

Many of us go about our lives marching to the beat of our own drum. Inevitably, somewhere along our journey, we are bound to face a decision or question that seems to have no resolution. Professor Matt Coleman learned to apply the musical concepts of instrumentation and improvisation so we can learn to keep our rhythm steady — even when we are confronted with the hardest of challenges.

Matt Coleman Demonstrates Improvisation Through A Live Performance
Photo by Emma Olson/CFAC External Relations

Coleman joined the BYU School of Music faculty as a percussion professor in 2016, bringing with him over a decade of diverse experience as a clinician, music educator and freelance performer. With musical versatility spanning classical, jazz, global music, contemporary and experimental styles, his experience includes working with renowned ensembles like the Utah Symphony and Phoenix Symphony, among many others. Coleman specializes in percussion instrument design and building, making and refurbishing instruments out of many different kinds of materials.

On November 2, Matt Coleman opened the 2023- 2024 Faith + Works series with his lecture “Embracing the Vastness of Artistic Indeterminacy.” In musical terms, indeterminacy refers to areas of a musical piece that are intentionally left open to the musician's interpretation. In his presentation, Coleman discussed instrumentation and improvisation in percussion and how we can use those concepts to help navigate the unknown in all areas of our lives.

Matt Coleman Addresses Students
Photo by Emma Olson/CFAC External Relations

Opening his lecture with an introduction to decision making, Coleman said, “difficult questions often have open-ended answers.” He explained that urgent conclusions give way to fabricated solutions, granting only temporary relief to our anxiety, squashing creative solutions and setting us back in the decision making process.

Coleman insisted that with time and care, we can make well informed choices. “In taking the time to mull over tough problems, we inevitably and necessarily get more creative in how to solve them. The time that it takes is necessary,” he said.

Indeterminacy is an essential part of percussion playing. Coleman explained that in order to succeed in embracing the unknown, you should inform your decisions based on predetermined parameters. When Coleman is looking at a musical piece, he asks himself questions regarding the sound he wants to achieve, the venue he is playing and what set-up would be most beneficial for the tune.

After overviewing the preparation process, Coleman performed part of Michael Gordon’s “XY.” He used three different drum set-ups to perform the excerpt, demonstrating how different instrumentation methods all lead to a successful execution. “I often prefer pieces that have non determinative instrumentation—that means I can shape things how I want to shape them,” he said.

Coleman shared a story from the 2005 New Era article, “Wrong Roads and Revelation,” by Matthew Holland, son of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland. In the article, Holland recounts a time where he and his father faced a fork in the road after getting lost in the Southern Utah desert. After praying for guidance, they took the wrong path, quickly leading them to a dead end. Elder Holland explained that their detour helped them realize right away that the path they took was misleading, instilling the confidence that the alternative route would take them in the right direction.

The Hollands had many choices they could have made, instead of freezing in a moment of uncertainty, they used revelation to make an informed choice that led them to safety. Coleman highlighted the role of improvisation in indeterminacy. “When presented with a choice of doing something and doing nothing, do something,” he said.

Coleman then improvised a number with fellow musicians. In multiple segments, he performed and asked the audience to identify the parameter of improvisation he was disregarding. He showed how guidelines such as rhythm, tempo, style and other frameworks are important to become confident in when improvising in order to have a successful performance.

Matt Coleman Performs With BYU Student and Faculty
Photo by Emma Olson/CFAC External Relations

Coleman's parting advice to students was to apply concepts of indeterminacy to the tough questions they have in their own life. Along with prayer and fasting, he encouraged students to discover and explore the parameters that apply to their situation, tweak expectations and plans, ask for counsel and repeat the process as necessary. He recommended viewing the decision making process as a learning experience and embracing the discomfort that comes with it.

“Take a deep breath and just continue on living,” he said.