About GuitArchitecture

GuitArchitect and Sonic Hooligan: Having received his undergraduate degree in composition from the Berklee College of Music and a graduate degree in guitar performance from CalArts, Scott Collins is a guitarist who performs a wide range of improvised western and non-western music on fretted and fretless instruments, he is a featured baglama (Turkish lute) performer on the Sony Playstation, God of War 2 video game and a soloist on the track “Come Alive” from the RedLynx Trials Evolution game. In addition to numerous live performances, he has toured in both the U.S. and Germany, performed in the world premier of composer Glenn Branca’s “Hallucination City”, the U.S. premier of Composer Tim Brady’s, “Twenty Quarter Inch Jacks” and co-composed and performed the thematically improvised score for the About Productions stage adaptation of Norman Klein’s “Bleeding Through” with Vinny Golia. Scott is committed to an art of real time composition he calls GuitArchitecture. When not performing improvised loop based solo guitar performances, he can also be found collaborating with several projects including Duodenum, an improvising duo with Carmina Escobar that specializes in silent film accompaniment, OniBaba (with Daren Burns, Vinny Golia, George McMullin, Craig Bunch and visualist Kio Griffith), Rough Hewn Trio (with Warr Guitarist Chris Lavender and Craig Bunch) and Dumb and Drummer a guitar-drum duo with an ever changing line-up… Other highlights include performances with John French (“Drumbo” of Captain Beefheart), Vinny Golia, Wadada Leo Smith, Mia Mikela (Solu), (Butoh dancer) Don McLeod, Butch Morris, Sahba Motallebi, Ulrich Krieger, Susie Allen, Mike Reagan, Melissa Kaplan (Universal Hall Pass), Jeff Kaiser, The Bentmen, One of Us, Annette Farrington, Tubtime, Sleep Chamber and many more. He has performed and co-lead workshops on improvisation as part of the Imagniary Borders/Imaginarias Fronteras project at the Centro Nacional de las Artes in Mexicali, Mexico and performed/lead a workshop on “Structured Improvisation in Film Accompaniment” as part of the Cha’ak’ab Paaxil Festival at the Edificio de Artes Visuales – Escuela Superior de Artes de Yucatán in Mérida, Mexico. An active guitar teacher and performance coach, Scott is the author of Symmetrical Twelve-Tone Patterns for Improvisation and The GuitArchitect’s Guide: series which includes: The GuitArchitect’s Guide to Modes: Melodic Patterns The GuitArchitect’s Guide to Modes: Harmonic Combinatorics The GuitArchitect’s Positional Exploration and The GuitArchitect’s Guide to Chord Scales and is currently working on additional books in the GuitArchitecture series to be released over 2012-2013. Scott is endorsed by FnH Guitars. He uses D’Addario strings, Planet Waves accessories, Scuffham Amps and Line 6 gear. In addition to his posts on GuitArchitecture, he had a quick lick lesson in the 2010 Holiday issue of Guitar Player Magazine, and has also had articles posted on Guitar Salon International, Live4Guitar and has a regular interview series on Guitar-Muse.com.

Invoking The Power Of Asking

Questions can open doors.

Every gig I ever got was the result of someone asking a question.

 

These are either gigs I got because:

  • someone asked, “Is there a guitarist who can play this stuff?” and they were directed towards me (for example the video game soundtracks I played on, John French, Glenn Branca, The Bentmen and gigs I had to turn down (like the Grandemothers of Invention.))
  • OR gigs I created (asking people to play and creating gig opportunities with people like Don McLeod, Butch Morris or Sahba Motallebi)

This second category is one that bears more investigation.


In retrospect, one HUGE advantage to growing up pre-internet in a small town is that the responsibility of discovery was put squarely on you. There were no venues to play shows – so if you wanted to play shows you had to create your own opportunities. 

As I’ve mentioned in prior stories, we’d organize our own battle of the bands (which got other people to organize their own battle of the bands) and talent shows to have the opportunity to play.  This didn’t mean much at the time but proved invaluable years later when I’d have to hustle to make things happen.

When I tell people that when I was growing up that buying ANY kind of music beyond top-40 (which I could usually find at Ames department store) required a minimum 45 minute drive each way, they typically don’t believe me – but it was true.  There were a handful of specialty music shops and going there to get music became an event.  It also gave each music acquisition it’s own tale and solidified my attachment to it.

It’s easy to loose that ability to ask as a call to action as you continue to play.

You get comfortable.  You find players you like and use them on every project.

Another secret advantage I have, is that I moved – A LOT – as an adult.  This eliminated the ability to play with the same people consistently and forced me out of anything resembling a comfort zone.

I realized the other day that I had approximately 20 different residences in Boston.  Then I moved to LA and had 3 different residences there followed by a move to New York City (1 residence there) and then a move to upstate New York.

When I left Boston to go to CalArts – all the people I played with in Boston were either gone themselves or still there entrenched in their own projects there and not able to work on something via email.  This meant I had to find all new people to play with.

When no one knows who you are – that (typically) means you need to be the one asking to create playing situations for yourself (unless its a Craigslist ad for a cover band or something similar). 

When I got upstate, I was looking for people to play with.  I had advertised for a percussion player but didn’t get any responses.  I went to a Persian Film festival in The Electric City – Schenectady, NY (that I’m now an artistic director for) and saw Farzad Golpayegani playing and saw enough of a thread in what he was doing that I thought we could work together.  I asked him if he wanted to do something and I think initially he wasn’t that interested but then he saw some videos of me playing and got interested.

We played as a duo for a while and I found a business card for a tabla teacher in a local Persian Restaurant and the player turned out to be the same town as me (it turned out that he lived 4 blocks away from me! 2 years of looking and there was a guy in walking distance!).  I lost the card and then found it again and finally contacted Dino Mirabito and asked if he wanted to play with us.  He checked out a show and was playing a gig with us a month later.

Had I not asked those 2 questions – KoriSoron never would have happened.

80 – 90% of the gigs in my life came from opportunities that I created by asking a question.  I think that unless you’re a successful sideman that goes on the road with different acts all the time this will generally be the case (and even in those cases those players hustle A LOT to create opportunities for them to play).

For example, the gig Carmina Escobar and I did with Mia Mikela (Solu) at USC’s Vision and Voices lecture/concert series.  For those of you who are not familiar with her work, one of Mia’s many art endeavors  invokes film editing as ritual and edits short films in real time in front of an audience (See some of her amazing work here!).

Some live audio captured on a ZOOM H4 for posterity’s sake:

How did I get us on that bill? 

I asked her.

I saw she was playing a show and was familiar with her work.  I did some research and saw that she was doing student workshops at USC and that a performance was part of her her overall event there.  I sent her an email and asked if she needed any music to accompany of the student films.  I explained that Carmina and I did live improvised music and that that style of accompaniment might be engaging for the audience and for the films.  I sent her some links and she really liked the music and suggested that we do something together live.


So asking questions can help but there are a few “hidden” rules to asking the questions  that can help create you own opportunities.

  • You have to know that asking a question is an option.  This was my single biggest failure at Berklee.  I didn’t know I could ask for things and I didn’t know I could ask for help when I really needed it.  It turned out that there were resources for me that I could never utilize because I didn’t know they were there (or then how to ask for them – Shades of Kafka’s “Before The Law”!).
  • Asking is location based.  You have to be in a situation where you can ask.  This is a BIG lesson for me that I’m still learning with regards to booking.  Up here – people need to know who you are to book shows.  That means they need to put a name to a face and most of those deals are worked out in person.  I sent a lot of feelers out to people via email and never heard back from anyone.  To get a gig up here people have to know you.  That means going to shows and events.  The catalyst for KoriSoron thing only happened because I went to the Festival Cinema Invisible (FCI) event and saw Farzad playing.  If I just sat at home, that never would have happened.  This is a difficult one for me because I spend a fair amount of evenings teaching or practicing which makes getting to shows difficult – but that’s MY thing to continue working on.
  • Before you ask ANY question – you must ask the question from the stand point of, “What’s in it for them?”  That’s not a Robert Green / Machiavellian angle of deliberate sleight of hand (As in “appear to address their interests but serve yours”) you need to REALLY be looking for how what you’re asking can benefit other people.  (Check out this old post on altrustic action and selfish motivation!)  With Mia, I was fully willing to go to USC and accompany films for free.  I figured that if nothing else, I might find someone who liked what we did and was willing to work together in the future.  That was what was in it for me.  It turned out that there was something in it for her as well. (some past articles of mine (see this or this ) address this topic more specifically from the standpoint of networking).
  • Never ask something that you are reluctant or not willing to do.  See the previous point.  Don’t offer something if you aren’t willing to do it gladly with a smile on your face. If you feel like you’re being put-upon that will show in every interaction you have with other people and spoil whatever good will you are building.
  • You have to have a skill set to provide something valuable to other people and provide that thing without drama or inconvenience to others. 

This is a BIG deal. 

You can get the gig by asking but you will only keep the gig if you can follow through.   

  1. Do NOT oversell what you can do. 
  2. Eliminate any barriers that people may have to work with you. 
  3. The indispensable player who adds more to the show than is needed is the last one to get let go (and usually the first one on retainer).
  • Get to the point in a sincere way.  It’s good to build a little rapport (“I got your name from so and so”, “I’ve been following what you’ve been doing with x”) before your ask but don’t go into some ten minute “this is all the awesome sh*t I do” rant.  Make a polite and concise introduction, ask for what you want, explain how it can help both of you and what you can bring to the table.  Be clear on what you want, what you are asking for and what they can expect from you.
  • You have to let people know that you are looking.  I had a conversation with a friend of mine the other day who said (about himself and paraphrased here),  “If you don’t let people know that you are looking to gig and available to gig you can’t complain about not having the gig.”

People will only refer gigs to you if:

  1. they know that you’re available
  2. if they know your playing will fit in what other people will work for
  3. if they know that you are easy to work with.
  • You have to be willing to have people say no to you and not be bitter.  I have seen people ask for things not get a response (or get a no response) and then fly off the handle.  (“F@ck that guy!  He’s dead to me!”)  If he wasn’t before – he certainly is now.   Bridges are easily burned.  Don’t make it easy for other people to do so.
  • You have to be willing to follow up.  People are busy.  If this opportunity doesn’t work out – keep moving forward and present them with other opportunities in the future.  Sometimes you just need to be in a better position for people to realize that they want to work with you on something.

So don’t be afraid to ask other people to create opportunities – just make sure to make it a win-win for both of you before doing so.

Okay!  That’s it for now.   I hope this helps and, as always, thanks for reading!

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“New” Recordings Announced for 2016

Hi Everyone!

Hapy pre-4th of July for those of you who live in the states.  This is just a quick update of recent developments for projects I’m working on.  I should have a new post up within the week.

Rough Hewn Trio (!!)

File deeply under “The power of perseverance” following an intensive several days of digital intervention with Craig Bunch – the Rough Hewn trio tracks recorded at Chez Bunch’s with Stick / Warr guitar player Chris Lavender and myself back in 2011 will FINALLY see the light of day.

The 3-song ep will include a new Malian guitar inspired re-working of Bloodsucker, Chris Lavender’s 232 and a Zappa-inspired original I penned, Jerry goes to Frankiewood, aka When Hollywood went to Frankie. 

We had a version of Carl Stalling’s Powerhouse that we tracked but the file got corrupted (along with some of the other tracks we revisited).  I MAY have a demo version that we can put up online as a hidden track (the danger of not finishing something immediately is that it takes FOREVER to get done) – but nevertheless – man am I psyched for some of this stuff to get out into the world.

In the meantime, here’s a video of the Rough Hewn Trio playing Bloodsucker live (it is unbelievable to me just how much footage of us exists ALL with Craig Bunch front and center and no one else in camera shot!)

I’ll have ordering information up once this is released (Initial mixing is done.  We have another revision and then mastering and duplication – I expect it’ll be out in August or September 2016).


Onibaba

Bassist and Composer Daren Burns released the first part of this session (Consisting of several short individual pieces) several years ago but the second half of the session (one continuous take of several different pieces) just got mastered and will get released this Fall.

From Daren Burns’ description on Vimeo:

“Onibaba exists between composition and improvisation and is described as being somewhere between the light and the dark, the ethereal and the earthly – Creative Music. Created by Daren Burns in 2006, the band synthesizes its sound by using elements of the Chicago avant-garde, jazz, rock, world, techno, noise, and classical, to create a new type of fusion that is definitely not the smooth, funky jazz of the 80’s and 90’s, but a new living music.

Here are some videos from a performance in 2010


Onibaba is:

Daren Burns – bass

Craig Bunch – drums (in the videos Joe Berardi – drums)

Scott Collins – guitar

Vinny Golia – woodwinds

Kio Griffith – live video

Geroge McMullen – trombone

© Urban Nerds 2010″


KoriSoron

We’ve completed initial tracking for Five tunes for our second EP with John Chiara recording.  Our first Ep was a live EP but for this one we wanted to incorporate more production (while still maintaining live energy).  The most intensive material in our set will be on this one!  We’ll be continuing to record and mix this summer.  We hope to have the EP out by September / October of this year.

We have shows booked for September (including a TEDx Schenectady event) and October and expect to have additional shows booked soon for later this fall.


Solo Acoustic

“Eel-Ech!-trick-a-coup-stick” – is the tentative title of a solo acoustic instrumental recording I’ve been working on.  Tracking in August and released this Fall.  Right now there’s a Celtic / Bluegrass flatpicking piece, a Mali-inspired fingerstyle piece, a 2-handed piece, a loop / improv based work and possibly – an obscure instrumental cover.


Mas!

There are some other REALLY COOL things in the pipeline!  I’ll fill you in as soon as I can.

Thanks for your patience and thanks for reading  I’m really excited about all of the things coming out this year and I look forward to sharing it with you!

-SC

An Update And A Lesson On Technical Recycling

“It’s been a long…long…time”

I just realized that it’s been a while since I posted anything here.  Life has a habit of getting in the way of well laid plans.  So here’s a bullet point list to create a quick update.

  • Korisoron – We are currently working on a new KoriSoron recording and our most intensive material will be on this one!  Initial tracking is in progress and we expect to have the recording out in September.  I’m also writing new material for the project and-  Booking new gigs for the fall.
  • TEDx – Korisoron has been asked to perform at TEDx Schenectady this fall and I’ll be delivering a related talk.
  • Old Project  – I don’t want to jinx anything but I should be getting together with some former band mates of mine and putting some finishing touches on a project that was very near and dear to my heart (and that I’ve mentioned in prior posts).   Fingers crossed – that will be another EP out this fall.
  • “Eel-Ech!-trick-a-coup-stick” – is the tentative title of a solo acoustic recording I’ve been working on.  I had previously recorded some tracks but wasn’t happy with them so I’ve been cleaning some things up and moving forward with getting that out the door by the end of the year.
  • The new pedagogy approach I mentioned a while back – I’ve been working on this but, quite honestly, I seriously underestimated the amount of prep I’d need to do to make this work so I’m just rolling up my sleeves and trying to pull ahead.  I took some notes back from the presentation I did at the HVCC Guitar Festival and have been pulling the material together – but I’ve learned more in the last 6 months about how to deliver everything (and what to deliver) than I learned in all my previous years.  I’m super excited about what this is becoming.
  • The other things – I have a few other musical things in the works that are too tentative to discuss, but, well, let’s just say that it’s a lot of electric guitar in various fashions that will be disruptive.  Other things also include a lot of revision plans for this site as well.

A lesson while you’re waiting

One of the things that hold up posts are the fact that I don’t write them in an organized way.  I write them in real time based on a theme in my head because it makes the writing more immediate and (hopefully) engaging for the reader.  Good for the reader – bad for productivity.  A post with any kind of lesson content typically takes 3-5 hours but some of the mode ones took 10-12 hours in editing, layout etc. so that’s why the posts get a bit sporadic for actual lesson material.

The value of recycling

One trap I still find myself falling into is the trap of “short attention span theater” or playing an idea, discarding it like a child’s toy and then picking up another idea and doing the same.  Maybe it’s a little cultural ADHD kicking it – but it’s very easy to loose site of taking a theme and really developing it into something.  (A great example of this for me is Bill Frissell’s Nashville where you can really hear each of the players take care in developing musical solos based on the melody).

From a technical standpoint, this approach can also be really useful.  It can take a long time to really master technical aspects of performance (particularly at the early stages).  Finding new ways to utilize the approaches you’ve been practicing will dramatically reduce the time it takes to learn new things.  For example, alternate picking takes a long time to develop at the early stages of playing, but once you have it down it makes everything  you have to lean to play with alternate picking easier to perform.

Optimize

Let’s take an A minor pentatonic lick.

Pentatonic Lick 1

Let’s say that you’re using hammer ons and pull offs to create a more legato feel.

For me, the most legato part of this passage is the last three notes.  I’ll move the E on the B string to the 9th fret of the G string to put 3 notes to that string and make the pattern more fluid.

(Note the change in fingering)

Pentatonic Lick 1a

This is more of how I approach pentatonic fingerings so I adapted the first fingering for one that works better for me.  Here’s the first part of the lesson – assuming that you have a base level of technique acquired – find fingerings that make sense for you!

If this fingering isn’t one that’s common for you and you want to practice the approach.  Here’s how I would do it.

 1.  Isolate. There are two technical hurdles in this lick. Combining the 1 note per string and 3-note per string notes with picking

 Lick 1CAnd this:

Lick 1D

And the transition between the two:
Lick 1E
2.  Practice

The first step is to just get the initial fingering and picking down.

  • Set a metronome for 5-10 minutes.
  • Slow it down! Playing fast before you’re ready just adds tension and makes the lick sloppier and harder to play.  The goal is to take something you can play perfectly and effortlessly and then systematically develop it so you can play it perfectly and effortlessly faster.

Lick 1 Slow

  • Pay attention to the 3 T’s (Timing, Tone and hand Tension).  If you find your attention wandering this will get it back.  Are there any biffed notes? (Watch that pinky!)  Is any part of the hammer-on/pull-off uneven? (Bonus credit – make a video recording and listen back.  Pay attention to what both hands are doing.  Be critical but not judgemental.  Imagine you are watching a friend play this.  What constructive criticism could you add to help him or her play it better?)
  • Write down what you just did.
  • Adapt this to the second lick and the transitional lick if need be.  Get it to the point that the entire lick can be played without mistakes.
  • Repeat as long as time allows.  Do daily (and if possible, multiple sessions daily).
  • Typically with something like this, I’ll also practice it as sextuplets and a few other rhythmic variations to have those at my disposal if need be.

3.  Extrapolate.

This is something I improvised over a C minor-ish feel that uses the same technical approach that I used on the previous lick with a C Blues scale.

Cmin Lick

Click on image to see a larger version

From a technical standpoint – this is the same basic idea as the first 6 notes from the previous A minor example.

C min lick 1
(Ah – the fingering is missing here – I’m using 2-1-2-3 for each of these)

Sequenced here from the b7:
C Min Lick 2
And from the 5th here:
C Minor Lick 3

In fact the only new thing is the string skipping at the end:

(I got lazy here – I’m using the tritone F#/Gb interchangeably).

Cm String Skip
If the string skipping is unfamiliar to you you can just use the same approach to get it down outlined above.

(Yet another) Shawn Lane Observation

I was watching some footage of Shawn Lane that someone posted the other day and this technical recycling was VERY apparent to me in the footage.  From a technical standpoint, it appears to me that he took six or seven technical approaches beyond the realm that anyone else was willing to develop them to (fretting hand taps as opposed to hammer-ons, rhythmic groupings variations (5,6,7,9, etc), wide interval string skipping, Hindustani / Carnatic slide playing and blues phrasing) and adapted those to all of the different music he was engaged in.

In Karate, it always comes back to the Kata.  In boxing – the basics, the jab, the hook, cross, the uppercut.  You can practice fundamentals your whole life and STILL find things to improve.  New techniques take a long time to get down.  Invest the time wisely to get the one’s you need REALLY down to help realize what you want to express and then explore your sonic world with the tools you’ve developed.  (and if you’re not sure which techniques those are – a good teacher can help!  You can email me at guitar (dot) blueprint at gmail if you’re interested in setting up skype lessons to help realize your goals.)

As always, I hope this helps!

Thanks for reading,

SC

 

 

Ask First “Why?” Then “How?”

HVCC Guitar Festival Recap

Recently, I did an hour long presentation on applying world music for guitar at the 2016 Hudson Valley guitar festival.

It’s a large and potentially overwhelming topic that would have (to me) painful omissions if taught over the course of a 15 week college term.  In an hour its more like Campbells Pepper Pot soup.  You dump the condensed mass of ingredients in the form of the can it came out of into a pot and you can’t make out the individual components right away.  You think, “Wow that cant be good” but after adding some water and heat and stirring you get a soup with surprising flavor out of it.  (The last I knew Campbells hadn’t made Pepper Pot soup in years.   Perhaps the main ingredient that added flavor, tripe, was off putting to some people.  My grandfather said it was the only good soup they made and when it was announced that they weren’t making it anymore I remember that he went to all the local stores and bought whatever they had of it in stock.  Strange that now in a celebrity chef culture people would probably seek that ingredient out .  As usual I digress…).

So in a best case you make something that people can digest.  In a worse case they get a mouthful of concentrate and spit it out or – if watered down too much they get something that has no content whatsoever.  The challenge becomes –  what’s the minimum amount of data I have to have present to fully represent the idea later?

Revise and shine

With a few of these more formal presentations under my belt I have developed a pretty consistent way of approaching them.  I’ll outline the topic and pull all the material together and edit and revise ruthlessly until I feel like I can move forward.  I’ll run multiple versions by trusted people and work on the cusp of a complete presentation and an improvised talk to keep it engaging.

For this specific presentation I ended up removing a lot of material in the interest of time.  This was unfortunate as one of the excised elements (the perspective / motivational aspect of practicing) is one that bears more discussion in general.

I’ve adapted some of that material for a post here.  You can read it in a TED talk voice if that helps but it into context.  In any capacity – I hope it helps!

Before continuing to the post I need to first thank Maria Zemantauski for having me present and play at the guitar Festival and thank the long suffering John Harper for his wisdom, guidance and editing chops.  Much of what is written below is a direct outcome of their involvement – so thank you!

Ask How AND Why

As a teacher, the most common question I get – by far – is some variation of the following:

  • I bought a book….
  • I watched some videos….
  • I took some lessons…

How come I don’t get better at playing the guitar?

Which is kind of like asking:

  • I bought a gym membership
  • I bought some muscle gainer
  • I bought a work out DVD

How come I’m not more fit?

My first question in response to this is always:

Are you putting the work in?

and the answer is always, “of course!”

My second question is then:

Are you REALLY putting the work in a focused and consistent way?

and the answer is usually, “well what do you mean by that?”

Are you REALLY putting the work in a focused and consistent way using proper technique AND monitoring and assessing your progress? i.e. are you working on this every day, writing down what you’re doing and actually monitoring your progress by keeping a log of what you’re doing and reviewing said log?

– that answer is always no.

We get better at things

  • by being clear about what we’re doing and
  • by doing them in a consistent and focused way.

Doing anything consistently (i.e. doing it day in and day out and making it part of the long haul) requires having a “why”.

Essentially you’re developing a new habit and you need to have a clear motivation to develop a new habit.

Often we don’t have a WHY for what we want to do.  Or we have the wrong why!

How not to learn Italian

Do any of you speak Italian?  I don’t – but I’ll share with you a brief story about my attempt to learn Italian.

In college I was madly smitten with an Italian goddess named Ada. She was smart and funny and beautiful and incredibly talented.

When I say she was Italian I mean that she came from from Italy versus she’s Italian from Utica, NY.

Now I am not a beautiful guy so since I didn’t have the looks to try to approach this woman  I tried to use my brains to get her attention. I asked another friend of mine who was from Italy, to translate a phrase for me:

It is a pleasure to bask in the beauty of your smile.

He asked me to write it down.

Admittedly, the word bask  (“To lie exposed to warmth and light, typically from the sun, for relaxation and pleasure or to revel in and make the most of (something pleasing).”) is a difficult word to translate. But he translated it for me. “E une piacare, bagnarmi nella belleza del tuo sorriso”.  I am NOT a natural language learner so I repeated it endlessly like a mantra and tweaked my pronunciation for a day or two.

My friend Linda formally introduced us. I said hello and as I shook her hand with both of my hands I looked her in the eye and said:

“E une piacare, bagnarmi nella belleza del tuo sorriso”. Which translates into:

It is a pleasure to bathe in the beauty of your smile.

While the sentiment may have been headed in a similar direction for intent it’s totally different in execution.

She blushed and then introduced me to the guy who (out of nowhere) suddenly came up behind her as her boyfriend.

Awkward pleasantries were exchanged and I made a quick exit.

The non-obvious question here is:

Why didn’t I get better at Italian?

The answer is I didn’t really want to learn Italian. I wanted to impress a girl.

I had a why for learning a phrase but I had the wrong “why” for actually learning the language.  So I never got any further with my Italian studies.

Here’s something that is also not obvious

Your success in an area will rarely be achieved by just mindlessly doing work. But it generally involves focused work in service to your goals.

  • WHAT you want to do will inspire you.
  • WHY you want to do it will keep you going.

This is a critical component to learning anything. To really learn something you have to have a strong reason why and that has to align with your goals.

If, for example, you want to be a great lead guitarist and you decide to work on adding some world music to your playing because you think it’s going to make you a better player – you now have a reason to practice that material and the time you spend practicing that material will be viewed as being in service to you goal rather than detracting from it.

This is why people start working on something like a melodic minor scale and stop – because (typically unconsciously) they haven’t figured out how this is going to serve them.

So going back to the beginning.  If

  • you bought a book….
  • you watched some videos….
  • you took some lessons…

and you understand how those things relate to your goals – you are more likely to put the time into working on them.

If you REALLY put the work in a focused and consistent way using proper technique AND monitoring and assessing your progress (i.e. working on this every day, writing down what you’re doing and actually monitoring your progress by keeping a log of what you’re doing and reviewing said log and adjusting when necessary based on that assessment of data)

you will get better at guitar. (Or whatever else you do!)

That’s it for now!  Hopefully this helps you with your own goal setting!

As always, thanks for reading!

-SC

The Accidental Author Part III

First a recap from Part One and Part Two of this post.

A Facebook Memory that came up from 2011:

Facebook Memory

 

prompted a question from a friend of mine.

“Is there any part of you that misses doing all that writing? Are you happy to have (seemingly) traded that out for a ton of playing and gigging lately? Do you seek a middle ground between the two?”

This prompted a 500-ish word response that he requested I expand upon which has become this serialized novella.

In Part I, I talked about learning guitar in the cultural tiaga of 1980’s upstate New York.

In Part II, I talked about what it was like to be at Berklee in the early 90’s.

Here in Part III – I talk about the weird road to grad school, music business observations and realizations with regards to live music, accidental authorship and trading writing for playing (for now).

 

Boston Calling

Having gotten out of Berklee and having a piece of paper in my hand with their name, my name and bachelors of music written on it and finally having some money saved up – I took the longest break I ever had from anything  and went to Europe with the singer of the band I was in for part of the summer.  Up until that moment, that was the best time of my life.

When I got back, everything fell apart.

The band I was in imploded.  I had to move out of my apartment and with loans kicking in, I had to find a way to make real money to pay those things off.

I moved out to the burbs and tried to make a go of it.  The relationship died a slow and profoundly painful death.  The band was on hiatus.  The place I was in flooded and I lost about 10 years of writing I was doing.  I got in a pattern where I woke up and dreaded going to work and then dreaded going home.  It sucked.

Then one day, skimming rock bottom again, I came to the realization that if I was miserable, then that was my responsibility.

Taking active and conscious responsibility for my own happiness is one of the most significant events of my life.  Everything began to change almost instantly once I did that.  I moved out.  I quit my day job (I was working a day job and 2 part time jobs at the time) and picked up temp work.  Eventually I got hired in a low level staff position at Berklee and moved back into Boston.

The job I had was universally derided at the school but it did some great things for me.  It got me plugged into a whole network of players.  This launched a series of bands I played in.  Domestic tours.  International tours.  Label showcases.  EP releases. Beaucoup ups and downs.    It was all fun but as the years rolled on, none of it was gaining any traction.  There would be endless rehearsals and gigs and no recordings.  The largest gig I played in Boston was with the Bentmen opening for George Romero who was on hand to screen night of the living dead.  We got to meet and talk a bit and the show was fun but the theater wasn’t even full and the promoter stiffed us on the money.

We blinded we with science

During all of this I noticed a series of shifts.

  • When I lived in Boston I was amassing a HUGE library of bizarre books and videos.  I remember having a conversation with a guy about an emerging technology called DVD that was going to be able to put a movie on something the shape and size of a compact disc.  I unloaded my VHS collection about 6 months before those tapes were obsolete.
  • I read an article in Rolling Stone about some distant point in the future where people won’t have to go to stores to buy compact discs anymore (this was at the earliest stage of mp3s, pre-Apple Store and pre-Amazon).  Where they would be able to download a song to their computer and download the artwork and print it on their own computer.  EVERYONE I talked to about that article said it would never happen.  When the first iPod came out (the one that was the size of a pack of playing cards) I bought one.  Realizing I could fit my entire CD collection on this – I digitized my collection and sold all my cds.  People thought I was nuts.  A few years later the record stores started quietly closing.
  • The shows I was playing kept getting smaller.  I already mentioned the Bentmen show, but there were other tells at work as well.  At the time the conversations I was having with people trying to get them to shows was eventually came back to a central point.

“Well…I could drive out to whatever crappy bar you’re playing.  Pay for parking.  Pay a cover fee.  Sit through 2-3 awful bands at ear splitting volume and buy an overpriced beer OR I could go to blockbuster rent a video for $5 and sit at home and drink a beer on my couch in my underwear.”

Again, this is pre-streaming video.  Pre-Amazon etc.

I came to the realization that the live entertainment scene was an anachronism.

When I first moved to Boston the drinking age had shifted, fairly recently, from 18 to 21.  EVERY musician who had been in the scene for any length of time lamented this.  Back in the day when you’re in a college town where everyone could go to a bar – THERE WAS NO OTHER ENTERTAINMENT.  You could stay at home and watch a few channels of tv or you could go out.  When you went out – there was no streaming audio.  You had the radio – playing whatever a DJ wanted to play, you had a jukebox or you had a live band.  The draw for bars was selling alcohol and having a live band.  So if you had any kind of skill and professionalism, you could get in with a band, find a club to play and make actual money doing it.

But then a series of small (and not so small) shifts happened.  The drinking age changed.  Home game systems like Atari came out which lead to progressively better systems.  Home video rental.  Personal computers.  All of which gave people a reason to stay home.  They no longer had to go out to find entertainment.  And this was only as of the late 1990s early 2000s.  Everything post 2000 only exacerbated this situation exponentially.

The problem is the clubs (and most of the bands) never adapted to a changing market.  They kept doing the same thing.  Eventually, the major labels imploded for the same reason.  In the face of a completely different landscape, they kept using the same dinosaur tactics that they had always used and didn’t adapt in time to survive.

I can point to one exact moment when I knew I was going to have a real problem trying to transition into making a living as a live musician in Boston.

I remember walking to see a band on Landsdowne street in Boston on a Friday night.  I haven’t been to this street in years so I don’t know what it looks like now – but back in the day – it was a street that had a high concentration of clubs to go see live music.  I was going to see a band on that block where maybe 50 other people would be there.  On the way there, I passed a venue that had a celebrity DJ playing and there were hundreds of people in line waiting to get in.  My thought was  – oh wow – I’m screwed.

The reason for this is that from a club’s standpoint – they could either have 3-4 bands play which meant dealing with 20-30 different people’s issues depending on the size of the bands – or they could deal with (and pay) 1 person.

But all of it together and I knew it was time for plan B.

Grad School

So in 2004, when I saw the writing on the wall and said, “Wow the live music scene is going to implode and I’m not going to be able to transition into making a living playing music full time.” I started exploring my options.  If I wasn’t going to be able to play full time – what could I do that I’d enjoy.  That was teaching.

Through all of this, I was teaching guitar on the side.  I didn’t have a formalized studio so I wasn’t aware of how to really run a lesson studio.  But I was teaching pretty consistently and it was something that I enjoyed.  Through a lot of trial and error, I stated figuring out how to connect with students and convey things in ways that reached them.

I realized that if I could get a teaching gig at a college that I would have access to facilities (and things like paid vacation and health insurance) that would allow me to keep working on my music.  It was a win-win.  And it seemed strangely viable.

I knew I’d have to go to grad school to even have a chance of teaching at the college level. So I started researching options.  My wife recommended CalArts – which being on the East coast I knew nothing about but once I found out that Miroslav Tadic was there, I was very interested.  I knew his Krushevo cd and at the time Joe Gore was heading up Guitar Player and doing REALLY cool things with regards to articles and gear reviews.  One of the players they were pushing a lot was Miroslav Tadic.  The other option was the NEC Third Stream track with Ran Blake.  There was a lot of back and forth.  When I was in Vegas I took a trip out to see the school and meet Miroslav.  Within a minute of meeting the guy I knew that this was the person I needed to study with.

You forget things in life.

At this point it was a LONG time since I had been at Berklee.  I had played music with a lot of people since then.  I got a copy of my transcipt and was stunned to see just how bad my undergrad grades were.

Everyone want’s to remember the past but no one wants to confront it.

It was a huge kick to the balls.  But sometimes you just have to dust yourself off and move on.

My undergrad grades were terrible.  There wasn’t much I could do to change that.

I realized a few things.

1.  Having worked in a college admissions office – I discovered that unless you’re an IVY league school – that every college on the planet needs students to go there.  They need the revenue.  It seems like you have to prove to them that you are worthy but many times you have to prove to them that you’re not a viable candidate to get in.

2. The best option I had to get into grad school with my grades was to make the best recording I could for my audition tape and to completely overtop the requirements of the program.

(Finally, 6,000 words later – something about writing)

I decided to take an area of interest to me (12-tone improvisation) and basically write a master level thesis as my entry material to grad school. I knew that no one else would have that in their application materials and it would make me stand out.

I did the research for that book Thomas Edison style – manually testing every possibility with a pen and paper until I found the combinations that yielded all of the 12-tone patterns. That was about a year’s worth of research that could now be done in a 1/2 hour writing an app from scratch. Anyways, it worked.  I organized the material and went to Lulu (a print on demand publisher) and self published it.  I recorded an audition tape.  Included the book and a copy of the TUBTIME live cd and sent it off.

It worked.  I got into CalArts with a scholarship and a student teaching stipend.

CalArts

First and foremost CalArts was a great place to study.  Miroslav Tadic remains a huge figure in my life and much of what I do can be tied to pre-and post Miro.

I loved a lot about CalArts – but one thing I struggled with was how cliquey it was there. This isn’t unique to CalArts.  It’s very common with a lot of art schools.  There was a lot of passive-agressive dickishness that was further exacerbated by being 10 years older (or more) than everyone around me and understanding the reality of the gigging scene and what job prospects faced them.  I also say what I think, so that didn’t win me a lot of friends either.

I made some lifelong friends there, but in many ways I alienated myself as well. There were definite groups there and I seemed to be outside of all of them.  Again that’s not a CalArts issue – the problems were mine and I recognize that if I had problems at two schools that I must be at least part of the problem.  Ultimately, it taught me how to navigate those waters and not get attached to other people’s perception of who I am or what I do.  That lesson alone was a critical one for me.

…doomed to repeat it

Here’s where I made a critical mistake at CalArts.

Because I was so focused on the outcome of becoming a faculty member somewhere post-CalArts – I put all my efforts on things I couldn’t do to try to expand my range as a generalist.

In retrospect – this was dumb. Rather than just building on the things I did well I went after everything I didn’t do well and just sounded bad for the duration of my time there.

I missed the once in a lifetime opportunity to study with people like Vinny Golia, Randy Gloss, Houman Pourmehdi, Larry Koonse… because I was too fixated on my goal.

So it’s funny because in being determined to not make the same mistakes I made at Berklee I managed to make equally large mistakes at CalArts.

(The good news is that grade wise, it was completely different. I got the highest grades in everything except Tai Chi, where I missed too many classes to get the high pass grade there as well.  I don’t know what my GPA calculated to but it would be something like a 3.92-3.95.)

There’s a lot more I could write about this.  I went to CalArts because I wanted to study with Miroslav, I wanted to work in cross disciplines and I wanted to teach at a collegiate level post CalArts.  2 out of 3 ain’t bad.  To this day, I remain grateful I went there. Miroslav Tadic, Vinny Golia, Jack Sanders, Susie Allen and a number of other faculty and students there completely changed my path in the long run.

Side bar – The Doctorate Exploration

When I was at CalArts, one faculty member really encouraged me to get my doctorate.  “You’re really going to need it to teach anywhere.”    The closest area I could think of was ethno-musicology.  She made an introduction and I went up to UCSB to see Scott Marcus.  Really great guy.  Amazing musician.  He explained to me that if I REALLY had my shit together, that I might be able to get my doctorate in 7 years.  At that point I had a lot of my life on hold anyways – so I made a decision to stop at my Masters.  I had already put a lot of my life on hold and at that point didn’t want to put in on hold any longer.

So Where did the writing come in?

Even with a partial scholarship – I still had to take out a substantial amount of money to go to grad school.  In 2008 when I got out of school – the market crashed.  I couldn’t find a teaching gig ANYWHERE.  That part was grim.  I was playing in some groups but they weren’t making money.  I needed to pay back my loans – so I didn’t have the option of just picking up some gigs and a handful of students and seeing what happened. The piper had to be paid, so I went back into higher-ed administration.  I figured that if I could get my finances in order that I could gain some footing and attack the faculty job listings on multiple frontiers.

Without a doctorate degree, I decided to try to go through the back door and publish books. It worked to get me INTO CalArts – it might help POST CalArts.

I started writing only to find that while self publishing was the ONLY option that made sense for authors financially, that academics only recognized peer-reviewed works published through traditional publishing houses (preferably academic presses). The idea, as I understand it,  is that it looks better if I publish one 200-page peer reviewed work in a 10-year period on a university press that sells 100 copies, is read by no one and never makes me so much as a dime than to self publish 6 books within 2 years where I keep all post-expense profits.

Remember the club / musician / music label anachronism?  It’s just as bad with academic publishing.

In the meantime, I learned about the Adjunct ghetto.

There’s been a lot more written about it in the last 5-7 years but basically many universities keep moving to utilizing as many adjuncts as possible to cut down on expenses.  The pay for these positions is typically low – so you’d need to have multiple adjunct jobs to keep afloat.  I know adjuncts who teach at 5 different universities.  I know adjuncts who teach at universities more than full-time faculty who will never teach at that university in a full-time capacity.  It’s a strange thing.

There came a certain point – about 5 years post CalArts – that I regrouped again.  I wasn’t going to kill myself making a square peg fit a round hole.  I was going to do the best work I could do consistently and make the most of the opportunities I created and found.

So the books didn’t do what I initially intended them to do.  They continue to sell – but it’s a small niche market. The entire process taught me a lot. About writing. About pedagogy. About myself – so I have no regrets about doing it. I understand what I did right and what I did wrong and it gave me a better focus to what I’m doing.

I have another book that could have been edited and released 2 years ago and I decided to hold off on it, because at a certain point the inertia of writing was easier than playing – and playing is an important part of what I want to do. The more I was writing, the less time I had to actually play and increasing amounts of time was passing that I wasn’t releasing any music.

I’m still planning new written material. The secret is that if you’re clear on your  long term goals, the writing takes care of itself in the long run. I’ll always be teaching. I’ll always be trying to do something new. The balance was found when I realized how to align short and long term goals.  Writing is a solo endeavor and right noe I feel I work best in collaboration so playing is more rewarding at the moment. But who knows? Maybe 10 years from now this feels all out of whack and I go back to writing exclusively. For now, I’m just happy doing what I’m doing.

Lessons?  We’ll here are a few:

If you can’t be happy where you are now – you’re not likely to be happy where ever you are trying to go.  Look at miserable people who become lottery winners who then buy bunches of crap, become momentarily distracted,  run out of money, remain haunted by the fact that they’re still miserable and lose everything.  Money solves a lot of things – but many of the things that make people miserable are internal and not external.

Have long term goals but be flexible enough to adapt.  You might not get the outcome you wanted from things that you do – but take stock of what you did get from it and build on that if possible.

Find the things that bring you joy and serve other people.  Just playing guitar isn’t enough. I play guitar and people go see it because it moves them.  They come back because they experienced something.   That’s how you start to build a career.

I hope this helps!

As always, thanks for reading.

-SC

GuitArchitecture Clinic & KoriSoron Concert HVCC Saturday April 23rd

For those of you who live in update NY – Hudson Valley Community College is putting on a really cool day and a half guitar event on April 22nd and 23rd.

I’ll be doing a one hour clinic on Saturday, April 23rd on “Adaptive guitar – applying World music to guitar” and helping close out the day with a concert by KoriSoron.  I’m really excited by this clinic as I’ll be essentially hacking the presentation and demonstrating a number of approaches that can help with rapid skill acquisition in any area (but especially guitar).

Tickets are $20 – which gets you access to all events for both days (or free for Hudson Valley Community College students, faculty and staff with ID (ticket required)).

Tickets available online at Brown Paper Tickets or call (518) 629-8071 for tickets and information.

There are a lot of great workshops and performances planned – and honestly the $20 price tag is a fraction of what a private lesson with any of these people would cost you – so it’s a steal.

Here’s a schedule of the two days events from the HVCC website:

Guitar Festival
Friday, April 22, 2016

The Hudson Valley Community College Guitar Festival is a celebration of electric, steel, and nylon string guitar styles and bass guitar with acclaimed workshop facilitators, guitarists and luthiers from the Capital Region. Events include workshops, jam sessions and concerts featuring blues, bluegrass, classical, flamenco, gypsy jazz, rock and roll, and roots styles.
Madison Peruzzi “Guitar Set-up & Maintenance”
10 – 11 a.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Meeting Room 1

Morning Blues Jam with Super 400
10 – 11:30 a.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Auditorium
Don’t miss this special opportunity to jam with Lori Friday, Kenny Hohman and Joe Daley – or just come by to listen!

Monica Roach “Intro to Jazz Bass”
10:30 – 11:30 a.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Viking Video Studio B
During this workshop we will discuss the different styles of electric bass performance. We also will explore “playing in the pocket” and its versatility.

Madison Peruzzi “Guitar Effects & Pedals”
11 a.m. – Noon

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Meeting Room 1

Lori Friday “Electric Bass for Beginners: Let’s Get Rockin’!”
Noon – 1 p.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Viking Video Studio B
Build a solid foundation on the bass with Lori Friday of Super 400. We’ll introduce the tools every electric bassist needs: hand positioning, fingers vs picking, riffs, locking with the drums, and more. We’ll end the session by playing the Cream classic, Sunshine of Your Love,” with varying levels of technique to suit intermediate players as well.

Kenny Hohman of Super 400 “Get Started on Slide Guitar”
Noon – 1 p.m.
Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Meeting Room 3
This workshop will be geared toward guitarists looking to add slide playing to their trick bag. It will cover the required gear, basic right and left hand techniques, and how to use open tunings as well as standard tuning in an effective way, with examples of classic slide parts to get you on your way.

Thomasina Winslow “Acoustic Blues”
12:30 – 1:30 p.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Meeting Room 1

Bernie Mulleda “Intro to Gypsy Jazz”
1:30 – 2:30 p.m.
Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Meeting Room 3
Bernie Mulleda will cover the basics of Gypsy Jazz rhythm and lead guitar styles.

Joe Lowry “Pentatonic and the Blues”
1:30 – 2:30 p.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Viking Video Studio B
A look into Major and Minor Pentatonic scales in blues. “Its all about the feeling.”

Chris Chapman “Metal”
2 – 3 p.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Meeting Room 1

Open Mic hosted by Caroline Motherjudge
2 – 5 p.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Auditorium
All musical acts welcome – solo, duo or band. Be part of the show that features YOU! Sign up in advance to secure your spot or join us on the day of the event.
To sign up for Open Mic, go to www.facebook.com/hvccguitarfest.

Chuck D’Aloia “Blues With Brains & Beyond: Shortcuts Into More Complex Harmony”
3 – 4 p.m.
Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Meeting Room 3

Graham Tichy “American Roots Electric Guitar”
3:30 – 4:30 p.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Viking Video Studio B
Graham Tichy will cover the techniques and music theory to jump start an exploration into the mid-century music styles of Rockabilly, Western Swing, Jump Blues, Swing, Honky Tonk, Rhythm and Blues, and Rock and Roll. Workshop participants will learn how to get an authentic tone from any instrument, and gain useful advice on how to approach practice and study for a lifetime of progress.

Guitar Festival
Saturday, April 23, 2016

Madison Peruzzi “Guitar Set-up & Maintenance”
10 – 11 a.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Meeting Room 1

Mike Collins/Eric Marczak “More Than Just Wire & Wood”
10:30 – 11:30 a.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Auditorium
Luthiers Collins and Marczak discuss the fine art of guitar building.

Maria Zemantauski “Intro to Flamenco Guitar”
10:30 – 11:30 a.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Meeting Room 3
This class will focus on rasqueado, the rhythmically precise chord strumming style specific to Flamenco guitar. Maria will introduce basic rasqueado patterns within the compas (rhythmic structure) of farruca and rumba.

Mark Gamsjager “Rockabilly Guitar”
10:30 – 11:30 a.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Viking Video Studio B

Madison Peruzzi “Guitar Effects & Pedals”
11 a.m. – Noon

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Meeting Room 1

David LaPlante “A History of the Spanish Guitar” with performance demonstrations by Christopher Gotzenberg
Noon – 1 p.m.
Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Auditorium

Chris Chapman & Jamie Juron “Metal: Putting It Together”
Noon – 1 p.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Viking Video Studio B
Assault On The Living guitarists demonstrate their approach to collaborating.

Bernie Mulleda “Intro to Gypsy Jazz”
Noon – 1 p.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Meeting Room 3
Bernie Mulleda will cover the basics of Gypsy Jazz rhythm and lead guitar styles.

Sten Isachsen “Brazilian Guitar Styles”
12:30 – 1:30 p.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Meeting Room 1
Sten Isachsen explores chord progressions, rhythms and arrangements for solo guitar.

Harry George Pellegrin “Is Ferdinando Carulli Your Right Hand Man?”
1:30 – 2:30 p.m.
Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Auditorium
Harry George Pellegrin compares the pedagogical works of Carulli’s Opus 114 to Giuliani’s 120 and Carlevaro’s Cuaderno No. 2

Mike Dimin “The Art of Solo Bass”
1:30 – 2:30 p.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Viking Video Studio B
It is so much more than the sight of a lone bassist on stage. It’s an exploration into the interconnectedness of the melody, harmony and rhythm, through our instrument – the bass. Be a complete musician, not “just the bass player.”

Scott Collins “Adaptive Guitar: Applying World Music to the Guitar”
1:30 – 2:30 p.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Meeting Room 3
In this hands-on session, Scott Collins will guide you through the process of how to take music from other cultures and adapt it into your own songs and/or solos.

Gary Cellucci “Rock Guitar: Soloing and Improvisation Techniques”
2 – 3 p.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Meeting Room 1
This workshop will help guitarists explore pentatonic scales, arpeggios, and modes over various types of chord progressions in a rock context. Learn how to develop solos with tone, phrasing, theme, variation, and other improvisational techniques. All experience levels are welcome and participation is strongly encouraged.

Mike McMann “Bluegrass Breakdown”
3 – 4 p.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Meeting Room 3
Explore Bluegrass guitar techniques,including rhythm playing, solos, melodies, scales, cross-picking, and flatpicking in the styles of Doc Watson and Tony Rice. Hands-on; bring your guitar.

Chuck D’Aloia “Blues With Brains & Beyond: Shortcuts Into More Complex Harmony”
3 – 4 p.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Viking Video Studio B

GX3+ in concert
3:30 – 4:30 p.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Auditorium
Ray Andrews, Sten Isachsen & Maria Zemantauski collaborate to create something totally unique: GX3+. The name GX3+ refers to the the fact that they play (at least) three very different guitars – flamenco, classical and Baroque – plus mandolin, charango, guilele, cajons (percussion boxes), banjo, and mountain dulcimer. The result is innovative arrangements of the traditional, classical and Latin repertoire, plus stunning, original compositions by Maria Z, arranged for the trio.

Christopher Gotzenberg “Classical Guitar: It’s not just music from old dead guys!”
3:30 – 4:30 p.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Meeting Room 1
The classical guitar has a large repertoire, with music from the Medieval era all the way to current day. Most people associate “Classical” music by composers from days gone by, but some of the most interesting music we have is being composed today. This lecture-recital features music by living composers; Moller, Brouwer, Assad, and Pasieczny. Oh, and it’s not atonal, so don’t be afraid!

Korisoron in concert
5 – 6 p.m.

Bulmer Telecommunications Center, Auditorium
An instrumental acoustic trio combining rock and progressive influences with musical traditions from across the globe. Guitarists Scott Collins and Farzad Golpayegani along with percussionist Dean Mirabito take the stage.

The Accidental Path To Authorship – PT II – More Anger – More Rage

Recap from Part One of this post.

A Facebook Memory that came up from 2011:

 Facebook Memory

 

prompted a question from a friend of mine.

“Is there any part of you that misses doing all that writing? Are you happy to have (seemingly) traded that out for a ton of playing and gigging lately? Do you seek a middle ground between the two?”

This prompted a long reply.

In Part I, I talked about learning guitar in the cultural tiaga of 1980’s upstate New York.

Here in Part II, I’ll talk about what it was like to be at Berklee in the early 90’s.

(Important disclaimer – the following relates to my experiences being at the school and my general state of being during that time in my life.  Anything written here is a matter of opinion.)

Ultimately I’ll get to playing in bands in Boston, seeing the writing on the wall, facing your past applying to grad school, what it was like to be at CalArts as a non-traditional student and why you always have a backup plan.

So why drudge all this up?  Well for a couple of reasons.

  1.  A lot of people wonder what it is like to engage in formal study of an instrument in an institutional setting.
  2.  You’re reading the words of a guy who managed to almost fail out of a major musical institution and still make progress after the fact despite himself.
  3. Because, I can see now how sick I became when I was there.  There are many times when people dive in deeply and get caught in the undertow.  These things are often glossed over (or worse – romanticized) but I think it’s important to acknowledge how insidious the destructive forces in our lives can be in order to transcend them.

Finally- this excerpt is probably 4,000 words.  I debated putting it up for a while – but decided to just keep writing and get as much down as I could.  (Honestly – I have a thousand light hearted stories from my time there including the time a pimp broke into the dorm determined to kick the ass of the student who threw a roll of wet toilet paper and hit him in the ass as he was enagaged in the reproductive act in the alleyway outside our building.  It would take 20-50,000 words to get into this in real depth but this overview will likely be uncomfortable enough for many people.  It’s highly personal and more than a little raw.  Some people get pissed at real writing about things that don’t relate to gear or shredding.  If you’re one of those people – it’s probably best to stop now.

Berklee

Berklee College of Music was originally a Schillinger School in that Lawrence Berk was trained in the methods of composer Joseph Schillinger.  (You can find out more about his compositional process here or here.)

The story related to me when I went to Chas. Colin music in New York years ago was:

Schillinger’s widow was a pain in the ass.  She wanted too much money for Berk to call the school a “Schillinger” school and so Lawerence just reversed his son’s name, Lee Berk and that’s how you got Berklee.

How hard can it be?

Everything you need to know about Berklee at that I can tell you in my first day at Berklee.

When I got to Berklee, I was in a dormitory at 98 Hemenway Street.  It was about 6 blocks away from the rest of the school.  All of the surrounding buildings seemed to have jocks from NorthEastern living in them, and Boston Conservatory was up the street.  At the time the dorm was all male.  So you take 18-year old musicians (who have sacrificed social skills for musical chops) and put them in a all male dorm and you basically have Animal House / Revenge of the nerds.  A classmate of mine met me at the dorm once to go over some material and she was hit on 5-6 times in the few minutes it took me to get downstairs to meet her.

So my parents have dropped me off and I’m in Boston and I am freaked out because Fort Plain has 2,000 people and Boston just seems HUGE and overwhelming to me.  I’m sitting in my room waiting for my roommates to show up and playing guitar and I hear someone playing a Tony MacApline cd.  So I walk downstairs with a black Aria Pro II Knight Warrior guitar strapped around me and knocked on the door of the room directly below me.  A guy swings the door open violently and says something to the effect of “What’s up?”.  He is also playing a black Aria Pro II Knight Warrior.  His name is also Scott.  It’s a weird moment.  He lets me in and I meet Drew, the guy who was playing the Tony MacAlpine cd.  Drew was a strange cat.  He was in a coven and knew a lot of people in LA but he had one thing that had everyone’s immediate attention.  He had learned like the first 10 licks of the Michael Angelo (now Batio) instructional DVD and could play them even faster than Michael Angelo and just as cleanly.  I’d never seen anything like it in my life.  It might be a false memory but it’s still one of the more impressive things I’d seen technically.  In the meantime Scott (at the time Gealy now Crosby), was siting on his bed doing some insane two handed tapping and shredding thing.  There was a guy named Ted Tuck living there who could play the Hell out of the guitar, Tony Savarino and an unknown guitar player from Canada (eventually to be a VERY well know guitar player) named Dave Martone.

I didn’t know it – but I was in a dorm with some of the best guitar players in the school.  I just thought this was a random cross selection of players and I was already having an “oh shit –  what did I just get myself into?” moment.

One of the other guys in the dorm came to me and said, “Hey some guys are going to be playing some real book tunes in the basement later.”  I was so green I had no idea what a real book was, “What the Hell do you mean ‘Real Book?’ (holding up a book about a serial killer).  “I have a hundred books here and all of them are real!”

So I went to the basement.  Here were the guys playing:

Freshman Roy Hargrove (now 2 time grammy winner)

Freshman Geoff Keezer(now 2 time grammy winner)

Freshman Seamus Blake

Freshman Dwayne Burno

and two upper classmen Pat Loomis and Al Giles (I hope I’m spelling your name right Al) on drums.

They did the classic head cutting thing.  It was cutting and it was INTENSE.

Again, I didn’t know it – but I was in a dorm with some of the best players in the school.  These guys all had major scholarships and got in late so they ended up in the dorm I was in.  Again, I just thought this was a random cross selection of players and I was now having a full-on “oh shit –  what did I just get myself into?” moment.

So that was day one.

About two weeks later, I was walking through a practice room row and listening to 30 guitar players all working on the same Eric Johnson lick at different tempos that was printed in one of the popular guitar magazines at the time and then realized that not all players were at the level of the players I had seen.

Lesson – Things are often not what they seem at first.

People think that music school is a lot of playing and easy nonsense.  “Oh you went to music school?  Must be nice to just sit around and play all day.” Yeah…not exactly.  My first semester was 18 credits.  It was a TOUGH load.  Most of it was Ear Training, Theory, Music Notation, English, Lesson, Labs and a few other things.  ALL of which was put through a Jazz filter.  My proficiencies at the time had things like voiceleading I-IV-V’s in position in all Major, minor, Melodic minor and Hamonic minor modes.  I kept asking where I was going to use thing and no one could tell me.

So I was working all the time on material that I didn’t like and wasn’t engaged in with the only motivation being an ill defined generic goal that SOMEHOW all of this was going to prepare me for a career in music.  To be fair the skills WERE profoundly useful (sight reading, theory, ear training, etc.).   The problem was that it was up to ME to figure out how to tie it in to what I wanted to do and I just didn’t have that understanding.  Ear (s)training and theory turned out to be REALLY useful in the real world but honestly it wasn’t until about 5-10 years after Berklee that I was able to assimilate it on my own.

One of the real substantial problems I faced was since I spent most of my life listening to classic rock I had NO EAR for extended harmony.  I didn’t like the sound of 7ths or 9ths because I just wasn’t used to the sound of them and people poo-pooing triads.  “You don’t want to play some lame ass traid there do you?”   “What the hell is wrong with a triad?” seemed to be my perpetual response.  I wasn’t ready and as the school was based on the concept of already having buy in for a JAZZ curriculum it was hard to move forward.  Ultimately, my composition classes did just that.

The faculty had people who were truly awesome and a few who were truly awful.  Some things I saw at my time there:

 

  • On the plus side – I saw faculty members literally save students lives on more than one occasion.  I saw people so completely and totally committed to what they were doing and helping students that in other fields they would be nominated for humanitarian awards.  There were teachers there that REALLY knew how to reach students and you could find people that had life changing revelations because of the education they got there.  It was an awesome and inspiring thing to witness and experience.
  • On the minus side – seeing a teacher hand out applications to Burger King after an exam and telling students that if they couldn’t pass this that they should leave now was not uncommon of the attitude of a few of the staff at the time.  I knew of one faculty member that was so brutal to a friend of mine that my friend stopped playing music for more than a decade.  I could also talk about the time I watched a faculty member walk on stage and take an instrument out of a student’s hand and berate them in a recital.  When I saw the film “Whiplash” – I thought – “No one would ever be dumb enough to lay a hand on a student” but the reality is the psychological slap of moments like these were very real and VERY common when I went there and those slaps lasted a lot longer.

In all honesty this is not unique to this school and is the case at a lot of colleges.  The divide just seemed more extreme there and I think the divide was so strong when I was there because the people just cared that much about what they were doing.  Paraphrasing one faculty member’s introduction to a class, “Just to let you know.  Music is my religion.  Don’t EVER f*ck with my religion.”  It was a kool-aid moment for sure and most of us took BIG gulps.

The Fateful day I stopped being a Guitar Major

My first guitar teacher was a guy named Doug.  Really good player and teacher, but made me start all over again.  Picking starting from square one.  Changing my action, etc.  Dude was 100% Jazz.  And man, the news that I had learned everything wrong and would have to start all over was a bitter pill to swallow.

This becomes one of those moments that define you.  You either decide “To hell with this.” and go do your own thing or you buckle down suck it up and dig in deeper.

I dug in deeper.

It didn’t get me much at the time – but that hunger – that fire to do absolutely whatever was necessary to get “better” fueled me for much of my life.

In my first guitar proficiency with Doug, another (now deceased) teacher sat in and while he was a great player, the dude could be an asshole.  As I was playing through the scales and chords when I made a mistake he would announce to me that he was deducting points from my score. I worked my ass off for my proficiency and got especially nervous during the classical piece I had to play.  I started playing and he started pounding the table, “TEMPO”, he screamed “KEEP IT IN TEMPO”.  I got furious and stopped playing.  “Well that’s a fail.”, he said.  “I don’t give a shit.”, I said. “I’m not going to try to play this with you pounding on a table like a fucking caveman.”

Man, I thought he was pissed BEFORE.  He wanted to strangle me.  “I don’t care how many points you take away.  I’m just going to play this to the end like a normal human being trying to play a normal piece of music.”  I played the piece again.  Doug told me I could go.  Once the adrenaline wore off I was shitting myself.  I knew I was in trouble.  Apparently the other teacher was just pushing me.  I got a C (which as an A student in high school was pretty crushing).  “You did really well” Doug said, “a lot of my students failed that proficiency.”  I didn’t wonder why.  I was more confused at what the point was of setting up a proficiency in a way to try to make people fail?  Thinning the herd? Tough love?

There were like 800 people in the guitar program so the upper level students got to study with who they wanted to.  My friend Scott (he of the Aria Pro II guitar) recommended that I talk with Cliff.  He really liked his lessons with him.  I signed up with him.  And I was really happy.  I had a really clear goal. I wanted to be able to play like Yngwie but bring in all of the energy of the Bad Brains and understand some of the dissonances I was drawn to.

I’d ask Cliff about Japanese modes and he’d help me.  He’d show me really cool things to work on and approaches.  One day I said, “Hey man.  This stuff is great.  It’s really helping me.  Is there a way we can keep working on this stuff instead of the proficiency stuff?  Bill Leavitt seems like a pretty cool guy but I can’t imagine ever wanting to play a re-harmed chord solo verion of ‘And I love her.’

He said to go to talk to the guitar department chair.  If I could work it out with him he was fine with it.  I made an appointment.

The guitar department chair was new and overwhelmed.  Bill Leavitt who basically built the program and literally wrote the book on guitar pedagogy for “popular” guitar, “Modern Method for Guitar” (a landmark book in the guitar canon) had recently passed away and all of us were stunned.  I get that he did not want to meet.  I outlined what I wanted to do and he interrupted me.

“Yeah.  That’s not what we do here.  Okay.  We teach you the BERKLEE sound and then you have the rest of your career to get YOUR sound together.”

I was confused.  The substance of music is (arguably) 12 notes.  EVERYTHING else is style.  I didn’t get it.  What was the possible advantage of molding 800 guitar players into 800 indistinguishable players?  I asked the questions and was told I could take it or leave it.  I thanked him for his time.  Went to the stairwell and put in a change of major for Music Composition.  I didn’t have a goal to become Beethoven or anything, I just thought that if I understood arranging that I could, at a minimum keep some money coming in making music while I played guitar.

Using the binoculars of retrospect, I was not a good student at Berklee. I had glossed over a lot of the experience because people around me knew me as a player but when I applied to CalArts I was stunned at how bad my transcript was.  I really had no memory of how much I struggled in school.

It was an amazing school and a once in a lifetime experience – but it wasn’t a good fit and I wasn’t in the right frame of mind or level of emotional maturity to make heads or tales of what was going on. There was a lot of pressure from the people around me to become a jazzer and I felt like it was just something that a.) I had no interest in and b.) had no capacity to learn (remember that “Spain” moment in high school from Part I of this series? Amplify that by 1000).

In response to a endless barrage of “your music is garbage, your playing is garbage.”  I went with what I knew.  I got angry.  I became a giant middle finger and went full bore into Chris Impelliteri mode (“I promise to all my fans that my solos will only get faster.”  – strange aside – for years a lot of people bagged on Chris and while I respected his speed I thought it was a strange thing to focus on.  I found out years later when he was 9, both his parents committed suicide and guitar became his way out of that black hole.  Another lesson on compassion – you never know what other people are battling at any point in their lives.  And also a lesson in determination as Chris Impelliteri is one of the few people from that era still releasing new music. )

Lesson – when you don’t have perspective or understanding where you want to go, you’ll revert back to familiar modes of thinking and action, regardless of how uncomfortable they are because no matter how uncomfortable they are it’s more comfortable than facing fear and going into the unknown.

The Part Where I Found Out That I’m A TERRIBLE Composition Student

Ok so imagine this scenario.

You got through a basic composition class and squeek through with a mediocre grade.  You pass, but you didn’t really master the material.  So what happens?  Now you need to go to part II and as LOST as you were in part ONE  – you are even more lost in Part II.

Ultimately, you get to a point where you just keep working as hard as you can to keep your head above water.

Lesson  – if your foundation is bad – no amount of window dressing will make your house more stable.

On one hand – it was an incredible moment of good fortune because I got exposed to SO MUCH amazing music I never knew existed.  It gave me all new ways to think about writing music and doing things.

On the other hand – it got bad.  If I thought I was lost before – I was in the utter wilderness now.  There’s a phrase, “Dancing with the devil” it’s what happens when you see that things are not right but you ignore what’s going on and buy into the fantasy that somehow it’s all going to work out.  I got caught up in a trap of maintaining an image of what I thought was expected of me while trying to create a new version of me.

It literally tore me apart.  I hit rock bottom.  I didn’t realize that I had put myself into an impossible situation that I couldn’t get out of and didn’t realize I was in.

To be 100% clear.  I don’t blame anyone for this but myself.  This is certainly not something I put on the college.  I’m simply trying to look at where my life was objectively at the time.

There’s a theory I developed years later thinking back to this.  The college did not have a lot of resources – but they definitively DID have help available.  I just never took advantage of it.  I think part of that was coming from a middle class background in upstate New York.  We were taught that you needed to figure things out for yourself.  No one was going to help you and if you want, you could cry like a little kid or you could suck it up and pull yourself up by your bootstraps and figure it out.  I didn’t need help – was what I thought – when I needed it more desperately than I could have imagined.  I didn’t drink or do drugs but my brain was chemically unbalanced.  I was fighting a biological demand to end my life.   It’s a fight I lost on more than one occasion.

I hit rock bottom.  I got incomplete grades in almost all of my courses that term and never made up the courses in the following term – thus failing them.

I got some help.  I hurt a lot of people around me badly.  A friend of mine wrote me a note that helped a lot.  I didn’t want to use the college counselor because I was paranoid that someone would find out my dirty secret so I saw someone privately.  It didn’t help.  I had to figure out what was wrong on my own.  I did a lot of research.  If only a fool represents himself in a court of law the same can probably be said for someone who tries to use logic to cure a physiological imbalance.  But somehow – through sheer intellect and determination – I reached an equilibrium.

This is NOT recommended as a course of action.  I was simply too vain / naive to keep seeking out the proper treatment I should have had. Even now – years later knowing what I now know – I have to remain constantly vigil about what my brain is telling me.  There are moments I feel myself slide into a deep depression and I need to be aware enough to catch myself and ask as an objective observer, “You understand what’s happening right now – yes?”  I’m not always successful but having lived with depression for probably close to 40 years I can see that the slides are momentary rather than the full on manic cycles I’d engage in before.

Always Have an Exit Plan

I was determined to get the degree and in doing so I simultaneously saved my life by giving myself an intense short term goal and became that problem student that all the faculty knew by name and wondered whether I was going to pull it together or become a serial killer.

I don’t think anyone thought I had any potential (well Henry Tate did – but he wasn’t a member of the music faculty he taught art there.) I remember getting called into a meeting with an advisor and her telling me (“I’m confused.  You’re obviously bright.  You have like a 3.95 in all your academic classes and a 2.3 in your music classes.  Are you sure that this is the right place for you to be?”)  And again, there went that middle finger.

I took the ideas I was exposing myself to and kept writing music.  I pulled a band of my talented friends together for what was going to be a one-off show in the Berklee Cafeteria and ended up performing around the Boston area.  We recorded a demo that I sent out for review and was getting calls from major labels wanting to hear our stuff.  I kept telling them they wouldn’t be interested and they thought it was some kind of negotiation strategy.  Ultimately it was too weird for them.  Here’s one of the tunes I wrote that we played.

I’m guessing this was 1991?  To give you an idea of context C&C Music factory had not one but TWO top 100 hits in the Billboard chart that year.

So scholastically- I just kept showing up and trying to dig myself out of the hole I dug myself in.  I remember being 1/2 way in the process for my directed study for orchestra and my teacher said, “Boy you got some real balls to turn something like this in.”  Hardly encouraging but I loved his honesty.  I may have had balls – but I didn’t have much in the way of brains.

So the end of the semester came.   I went to my mailbox for the first time that semester.  It turned out I had a lot of mail.  It turned out that I had a lot of IMPORTANT mail – including notices for the mandatory composition meetings I had missed and the portfolio submissions that I needed to put in.  I was so clueless that I didn’t even know what I needed to do to graduate.  So I bought a ream of manuscript paper, sat down at a table and spent 2 1/2 days – STRAIGHT – hand copying scores to submit for my portfolio.  As I didn’t have a computer at the time, I just re-wrote everything by hand, photocopied it.  Had it bound at Kinkos and turned it in.

The committee was not amused.  In fact, one committee member in particular was determined that I wasn’t going to graduate.  He vetoed every score I submitted.  (Again – in retrospect – I totally get this he was well within his right to do so).

Since I refused to go away – it became a “What do we have to do to get rid of this guy?” scenario. Eventually I had to work with the (newly acting) chair (I did NOT envy that guy – but he was a very decent human being) and resubmit every change demanded of the scores.  It took another two months of meetings.  I passed.  Probably with the lowest GPA of any student in the history of the program.

I was a Berklee grad.  I was playing in a really good band in Boston.  I was working at a cool music store having the time of my life.  I was in love and post-graduation traveling across Europe.  For the first time – ever maybe – things were going my way.

The Biggest Lesson

Here’s the real take-away from this part of the story.  I have no regrets about going to music school and Berklee in particular.  None.  Zero.  It is a remarkable school and I got an incredible education while going there.

And that’s not only because of the education I got from the faculty.  My biggest gains came from the education I got from the people around me.

In going through that process – I made lifelong friends.  Among them are people I can call any time day or night who will be there for me.  You’re lucky if you have ONE of those people in your life – I have a several of them and I love them all like they were the biological brothers and sisters that I know that they are.

That environment is one that had some adverse effects on me, but can’t be replicated.  That excitement of everyone around you being as driven as you are…. it’s very difficult to find that in the real world.

To be exposed to players at that level pushed me more than any recording ever could.  I learned so much by just watching people play so well.  That’s a debt I can never repay.

Neitzsche was right on this point –  That which doesn’t kill you CAN make you stronger.  That force of will needed to move on carried through to everything else I did.  Lesson – people often give up too easily.  Sometimes all you need is endurance.  All you need is the ability to keep pushing yourself and a goal of where you want to go and that act of putting the work in consistently can be enough to get you there.

Alright!  Believe it or not – this all played a factor into HOW I got into writing!  Now that the foundation is set – Part III will be a much easier ride.  If for whatever reason, you still want more these two posts:

Guit-A-Grip Episode #7 – Confessions Of A Former Music School “Failure”

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world”

have some more information.

As always, I hope this helps in some way even if it just gives you some perspective with dealing with your own adversities.

Thanks for reading.

SC