Allow Mistakes to Happen: An Interview with Timothy Simmons

I’ve been friends with Timothy Simmons for years. We met in high school and then went to the same college, which was when we started making music together. At the time, he was a drummer and percussionist, but over the years he’s developed into a talented multi-instrumentalist, not to mention a dedicated music teacher. His first solo album, Serafine, was written and recorded as the soundtrack for the children’s book Serafine Learns to Sing and an accompanying series of lessons on the building blocks of music. His second album, Transforma: Light Returning built on the themes he developed in Serafine and offered hypnotic meditations on the wonder of nature. Somewhere along the line, he found time to record an album of instrumentals with me, and now he’s back with a third solo album titled Climbing the Spiral Stairs.

You started your musical life as a drummer, and now you’re a multi-instrumentalist. What did your journey look like?

I’ve always thought it would be cool to know how to play many different instruments. Then I literally fell into a job teaching music. I had been teaching high school English, but found myself in a position where I was invited to create a music program for young people who learn differently. That meant that I needed to learn to play a variety of instruments in order to teach effectively. At the same time, I had reached an age and time in my life where I just didn’t have the time to be in a band anymore. So, I decided to just be my own band. I started writing some songs, and eventually got to where I am now, creating music and playing all the instruments on my recordings myself. It has taken many years to get to this point, and it has also meant writing a TON of bad songs, but that is all part of growing, right?

I know you’ve been involved with an organization called Music for People. What’s their philosophy or mission, and how has it influenced you?

Music for People (MFP) is an amazing, thriving, supportive community of musicians, teachers, therapists, and artists who guided me in those early years of learning to play many different instruments, and also taught me a methodology for using improvisation with my students that became the foundation for the curriculum that I created to teach music to adolescents with learning differences. Over the years, I’ve remained connected with MFP and continue to play music with my MFP friends and mentors. MFP teaches that all of us have the right to make music, and that music is accessible to everyone, not just a small minority with years of training. If you can speak, you can make music. Start with one authentic sound and build from there. Through improvisation, MFP helps musicians really attune to the music that is happening inside themselves, and provides supportive, intuitive structures for bringing that music out. Simply put, I wouldn’t be the music teacher or musician that I am today without MFP.

What about teaching? How does being an educator influence your ideas about music? Or, to look at it from a different angle, how does making music influence your teaching? Are the two pursuits in dialog with each other?

My journey to becoming a multi-instrumentalist started when I began teaching music. So, you could say that my teaching and my personal playing are intimately connected. I practice every day so that I can be a better musician and teacher. At the same time, I mine my practice sessions for song ideas and inspiration for new music. It’s all part of one continuum of creativity.

The new album is called Climbing the Spiral Stairs. How does it build on your previous albums? What are you doing differently?

Unlike my other albums, this one was completely improvised, and it is an entirely solo-guitar album. Each song was recorded in one improvised take. Then, each piece was edited and mixed. Typically, I like to add a lot of extra instrumentation. However, this album is incredibly simple – eight solo guitar pieces created completely in the moment. All of my music begins in the process of improvisation. Improvising is part of my teaching approach, and also part of my daily practice. But what typically happens is that I tend to return to a particular melody or chord structure again and again, and when that happens, I know I’ve got a song brewing. Then I spiral back to it and work on it in finer detail.

For Climbing the Spiral Stairs, I sat down and recorded the entire thing in one take in only an hour or two. When I did it, I truthfully had no idea that this would end up being my next release, but when I listened to what I had recorded, I realized that all of the music I laid down could be sequenced and mixed in a meaningful way. So, rather than picking through the recordings and composing pieces out of recorded improvisations, I decided to just allow the in-the-moment creations stand on their own. It’s incredibly simplistic, and that is really exciting to me!

Also, Marc, you engineered the recording, and I’m grateful to you for your help. I think one of the reasons that it came out so nicely is because of your positive spirit and help.

Ah, you’re making me blush! The titles of your compositions often reference nature. For example, you have a piece on the new album called “Leaves Underfoot” and another called “First Snow.” Do you start with a title and try to write a piece that evokes, for example, leaves crunching underfoot, or do you compose a piece, realize it sounds like a particular natural phenomenon, and then name it accordingly?

I compose a piece and name it based on what it reminds me of, but in the case of the two songs you mention, they came from a list of possible song titles that I keep in my songwriting journal. I have a list of several hundred possible song titles. Sometimes I write based on the title and whatever it inspires, sometimes I choose titles for pieces that need one. Still, there are lots and lots of titles that don’t have songs! I have some favorites that still need songs, maybe you can help, Marc! Here’s one: “The Librarian’s Wicked Bible.”

I like that!

As far as referencing nature is concerned, I know I do that a lot, and I guess I’m just inspired by nature. It’s not like I’m this outdoorsy kind of guy. I’m not rugged at all. But I do feel like the music I make fits well in an imagined natural setting. So, when I choose titles based on what the music feels like, I tend to lean on natural phenomena.

You also tend to gravitate toward instrumental music. Is there an overriding philosophy in your approach to composition?

When I first set out to expand my musicianship beyond just being a drummer, I fancied myself a “Singer-Songwriter.” But the truth is I just don’t like my voice! But I don’t think I’ll never write a song with vocals again; in fact, I’ve been quietly working on a sequence of songs based on ghost stories that include lyrics and vocals.

It’s funny, I teach my students that our voices are the most natural and beautiful instruments we have, and we use our voices to express what’s really inside our souls. I spend my teaching day encouraging young people to sing and to open themselves up to what their voices sound like; to explore their voices without judgment. And still, I struggle with my own voice. It’s a work in progress, I guess.

However, I will say that when I decided to give up being a “Singer-Songwriter” many years ago, my creativity and songwriting inspiration blew wide open. It was like I had let go of some expectation that I would work in a particular structure or style, and when I did that, I feel like my abilities as a composer really blossomed.

So now when I write, I allow my mind to wander, and to follow whatever path a melody leads me down. Sometimes, this means I end up with these long, drawn-out suites that involve recurring themes and rhythmic changes. But it’s just because I’m not allowing my music to be restricted within one genre or structure. I just let the music tell me what it wants to be. If my music ends up being complicated, it’s only that way because I followed a melody to see where it would lead. I’m not sure if that makes complete sense, but when I’m playing it does!

On the surface, your music sounds fairly straightforward, but it’s actually pretty complex, especially in terms of time signature. And you also play around with different non-standard guitar tunings. Are those conscious decisions?

Well, it’s like I said: I just try to see where a melody will lead me. The open guitar tunings are a way to follow melodies a little more easily. They started out as a way to create more engaging chords when I was first learning to play guitar. It was kind of like cheating! And then I just fell in love with their sound. So now when I sit down to improvise, I do what I teach my students to do. Play one authentic sound, then another and another until you find something that feels right. Then repeat that until you need to make a change. When that need to change comes along, follow it to see where it leads you.

Allow mistakes to happen and listen to them carefully. Don’t be too quick to correct yourself. Allow the mistake to open you up to new rhythmic or melodic possibilities. Most of my coolest ideas were mistakes! I also practice a lot. I like to return to old improvisations as much as possible to see if a song is in there somewhere. It can take me months, sometimes, before I realize that I’ve got a new song. That is why I’m so excited by Climbing the Spiral Stairs – it was so spontaneous and free, and I think each song still has a nice central melody. There are lots of hooks on the record, even though they were all completely improvised.

I also sense a bit of a prog-rock influence in your music, or am I just imagining that?

Yes! I’m a total prog geek! I admit it.

All kidding aside, what I look for in any music I listen to, and what really inspires me is when artists combine ideas in interesting or unique ways. That’s what I love about Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Banjo jazz – it’s not supposed to work, but it really does. It works because the artist is open to what the music tells them. A lot of what we might consider “Prog Rock” does not do that at all. These are artists who restrict themselves to rules or structures that are whatever “Prog” is supposed to be. That’s not progressive. But some artists look for ways to move their music into new territory, and that is really exciting and inspiring to me.

I’m most inspired by artists who make me uncomfortable. When I think I don’t understand what I’m hearing or when I feel uncomfortable by the sound I’m hearing, that’s when I get inspired to go back and listen again and again. And that process of listening to something new and weird and of slowly coming to an understanding of what I’m hearing is how I fall in love with certain pieces of music.

At the same time, I’m also just inspired by good songs. Prog Rock, Metal, Jazz. Whatever – if there’s a good song in there, I’m into it. So, I try to do the same thing. I look for ways to combine instruments in interesting combinations. And I try to just write beautiful songs, too.

You can hear some of that on Serafine – where I play an African balafon and mix it with Brazilian berimbau. Or on Transforma: Light Returning, I combine open D guitar with droney synths. Making these weird combinations is exciting to me. It’s also what makes this new album, Climbing the Spiral Stairs, a little different, because it’s just guitar and that’s it. So that’s new for me as well!

You also do a lot with loops, especially when you play live. What are the challenges of working with loops, and how do you overcome them?

Every time I think I’ve figured out how to be a good live looper, I find new ways to make it sound messy! The only trick is to practice, practice, practice! When I play live, I like to use loops because they help me re-create some of the weird instrument combinations and layers I create on my recordings. Also, it makes for an engaging live performance, especially because I’m not up there singing.

I think there are two main lessons I’ve learned from my years of live looping in front of an audience. The first is to keep it simple. Fewer loops actually create more depth. Too many loops and you can’t hear the layers anymore. The second thing that has helped me get better at it is to try make a mental map of where I want a song to go. I go into each looped song with at least a plan of what layers I want to use and when I want to use them.

Recently, I’ve been collaborating with my good friend Khalil Munir on his one-man play One Pound, Four Ounces. Khalil is an incredibly dynamic dancer and actor, and I back him up using live loops. We make a plan for how the show is supposed to play out, but it’s really different every time. However, having a mental map of where I want to go and keeping it as simple as possible really helps. I’m really excited about this project. The pandemic made it so we’ve had to wait before taking it to the stage, but look for it in the coming months here in Philly, and hopefully New York as well!

Is your live set improvised, or do you plan it out in advance?

It used to be completely improvised, but in recent years, I’ve amassed so many songs that most of my current live set is planned out. That being said, each piece still involves a good deal of improvisation. I’m calling audibles all the time, and as a result, I never really play the same song twice. Sometimes, I get a performance that is really unique and makes me want to re-write the entire song. Other times, I get a performance that is too fast or slow, and I have to push through and just hope I get to the end of the song without too many mistakes. I’ve learned to correct mistakes quickly!

Any plans for a follow-up album? What’s next?

Yes! This is a really busy year, musically, for me! I have already started recording a follow up to Climbing the Spiral Stairs. It’s called Periodicities and for this album I’ve taken each individual guitar improvisation from Climbing the Spiral Stairs and sent them out to friends all over the country, inviting them to add whatever they want. You’re on it, Marc! I’m working on editing and mixing those songs as they come back to me. I have four already in the works, and four more in process in the next few months. I’m hoping to release that this Spring or early Summer.

In addition, I’ve written all the music for a new instrumental album in the same style as Transforma: Light Returning. I plan to record it this Spring and Summer and aim for a Fall release. That album will be called Spirit is the Traveler. And I’m hoping to make another album of improvisations with you, Marc. Our last album, Simmons and Schuster was a thrill to be a part of, so hopefully, we’ll be getting together to record a follow up soon.

Yeah! Definitely!

I’ve just agreed to be part of a new project through Music for People called The Sound Travelers, where musicians from all over the country collaborate on music and lyrics, and I’m really excited about that, too. So, look out for a ton of new music coming soon! Plus, as I mentioned earlier, I hope to be on stage with Khalil Munir this Spring or Summer performing One Pound, Four Ounces. And finally, I have completed the manuscript for my first book. It’s called Serafine Finds a Song: A Storybook Guide to Musical Improvisation, Volume 1 and I hope to get that out to the world within the next year or so.

Wow, you’re a busy guy! Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Tim!

Thanks so much for inviting me to talk about my music, Marc! Your music is really inspiring to me, and your artwork elevates my albums. I’m so excited to be able to collaborate with you!

That makes two of us!

Where I Work

Big thanks to Matt Porter, Senior Producer and Technical Services Manager at Montgomery County Community College, for filming and editing this short video about my experience as a student in the college’s Sound Recording and Music Technology Program.

It’s an excellent program for anyone interested in learning the art of music production or who is curious about the ins and outs of the music business. Here’s a link if you’d like to learn more: Sound Recording and Music Technology at Montgomery County Community College.