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.

“Guest Lesson” With Jack Sanders

Jack Sanders

Years ago when I was at CalArts.  I studied with Miroslav Tadic and he had me play something for him and immediately came up with this analysis.

“Your left hand is completely compromising your playing.  You have to address your fingers and your pinky or you’re never going to get to where you want to go.”

Correcting that was a lot harder than I thought it would be.  It turns out that I had YEARS of bad habits ingrained in my muscle memory and adapting to proper technique was a real struggle.

Enter Jack Sanders.

Jack is a brilliant luthier (check out this video and this interview I did with him on his builds) and also an incredible teacher.  He happened to be teaching at CalArts my last semester and so I took lessons with him that completely changed how I approach guitar.  So much of the things that I assist students with in terms of hand tension, positioning, posture and attack now came directly from things Jack and Miro and I worked on.

Guitar Salon (a cool blog that has been kind enough to repost several of my rantings) has uploaded several mini lessons that Jack did for them that use scales as a diagnostic for left and right hand technical issues.

The advice he gives is gold, and well worth your time.

KoriSoron comes to Boston

In other news – KoriSoron is making its Boston debut at Johnny D’s on Wednesday October 21st on a VERY early show (we go on at 7pm) opening for Bob Forrest (Thelonius Monster / Dr. Drew).  Ticket info here.  Facebook here.

We’re really excited to be playing this show.  As a preview, you can see some Al DiMeola / Vlatko Stefanovski inspired improvised soloing on “Drowsy Maggie” here.

And we hope to see you there!

Asking The Right Questions And Being Clear On What We Do

Asking the Right Questions

I read a lot of different material.  I believe that reading is, at least, as important to what I play as what I listen to – just as I would also say that what films, and television I engage in is equally important.  This goes back to some of the statments echoed in Swami Childvilasanda’s The Yoga of Discipline (yes I had to go to my book shelf and pull down my copy to get the spelling of the name correct, which talks about how important it is to be vigilant about what we expose ourselves to because it all influences (and ultimately becomes) a pat of us in some way.  The book is a collection of essays on discipline (discipline in Seeing, Listening, Eating, Speaking, Silence and Thinking) as a path towards spiritual liberation. It’s a very interesting book and one that had me take several lessons to heart.

With that in mind, I tend to do a lot of reading on a lot of different topics because I find that I’m able to implement ideas or strategies from a business book in a different way than, say learning a melodic minor lick to play over a chord progression.  In this case I was reading a 99U book, Make Your Mark The Creative’s guide to building a business with impact and came across a Tim O’Reily quote that engaged me.  I’m going to hijack that quote, bracket one term that can be replaced with practically anything and add bolded emphasis for what I think are the two critical takeways:

“I was in a brainstorm about the future of the US economy recently , and it was all about the decline of the middle class.  It reminded me of so many  conversations that I have had with [*major labels].  They ask, ‘How are we going to preserve our place in the ecosystem?’ and I say, ‘Nobody cares about that.  That’s the wrong question.’  The right question is, ‘What does the world need?  What do my customers need?  What can I do?’….So you have to clarify: Who is your actual target?  What are you trying to accomplish in the world?  Everything else should flow from that.”

* This was originally [publishers], but could also be [live music venues], [musicians], [artists] etc. etc.

(For what it’s worth, here’s a related quote from the same interview that you may find interesting:

“Aaron Levie of Box tweeted something great about Uber recently.  He said, ‘Uber is a $3.5 Billion lesson in building for how the world should work instead of optimizing for how the world does work.'”)

This is something that so many artists, including myself, frequently get wrong.

We make it about us.

When asked the question, “why” we (as in we musicians and artists) often focus on what we do. We set up a scenario that works on the idea that because we are doing good work that the nature of that good work will attract other people – like bees to a flower.

That’s nonsense and I’m occasionally guilty of that thinking as well. “Nobody cares about that.”  That’s what people don’t realize about getting internet traction.  People don’t care about what you’re doing until you give them a reason to care. That means engaging them and making it something they care about.

If you’re a musician – it’s not all about you.

“The right question is, ‘What does the world need?  What do my customers need?  What can I do?”

I don’t engage people because I play guitar.  I engage people because I have something to say that they want to hear.  What we do as musicians is tell stories.  We move people.

People come to see us because of how we help make them feel before, during and after a show.  That’s what our customers need.  That’s how they become fans and come back to our shows.

What I work on technically is in service to that goal.  I work on those things so that I can express myself in the most honest and direct way possible and not have that engagement with the audience interrupted with mistakes or other issues.

I was reminded of this because I played a show with KoriSoron on Friday and it took me about four songs to get into the groove.  The volume levels were mismatched and I was distracted and it took a while to get into the zone (and even then it was hard to stay in the zone – realizing that I had counted off one tune too fast and was not going to be able to execute the ending figure cleanly at that tempo I had to re adjust the form to make it work).  Part of me was really disappointed with my performance that evening but the audience liked the show and will be bringing even more people with them next time.

Is it about me or my perception of the show?

“I can’t believe I wasn’t playing better!!  The audience will tear apart my performance (assumes Piper Laurie voice from Carrie, “THEY’RE ALL GONNA LAUGH AT YOU!”)!

Or is it about communicating something honest with the audience, being genuine in the moment and giving them an experience that they can take with them?  The audience liked the show, warts and all.  That doesn’t mean that I can stop and sit on my laurels and just slide – it means that I should keep working to the best of my ability but rather than getting hung up on one particular aspect that it would behoove me to remember why I’m practicing the things I’m working on (to make an optimum performance for the audience and not stroke my ego and say, “look what I can do!” to no one in particular.)

If you’re not getting the results you want from what you’re doing you may not be answering the right questions.  Once thing you can do is to harness the voice of your inner 2 year old niece or nephew (the one who always asks “why” after everything you say.)  When you state something, ask “why?”  and when you answer it, again ask “why?” and keep challenging your beliefs and assumptions until you get down to the core of what it is you’re doing.

A quick note and a quick plug:

For those of you who are in a rut and/or interested in developing your lead and rhythm playing I’m developing an exciting new group program that will help take you to the next level in the shortest amount of time.  I’m pulling the material together now and looking to launch later this year or the beginning of next year.

Please be aware that about the only thing in the world i hate is hype.  This is no hype or no miracle cure that “works” on osmossis or some other ridiculous claim.  This is a hyper-focused, results driven process that combines effort and efficiency to get players who are willing to put the work, time and dedication in to get where they want to go.

I’ve been doing a lot of research and I haven’t been able to find anyone that’s using even a remotely similar pedagogical system.

I’ll have more information about this in the months ahead, but if you’re interested in the meantime – send me at email at guitarblueprint at gmail [dot] com.

A quick plug (for those of you in the capital region of New York)

KoriSoron frequently collaborates with FCI (Festival Cinema Invisible) on their film series (Korisoron’s Farzad Golpayegani does the poster designs and I help with the press releases and event planning).

FCI is kicking off a cool new bi-monthly series “Pathways to Iran” that explores Persian culture through film and dialog with “Food Stories – Uncommon Recipes, Common Humanity” a film screening and recipe tasting at Proctors GE Theatre on Sunday, September 13th at 4pm.

This cultural event features a rare screening of two films from Iran; “Five Pieces on Iranian Dishes” (a documentary directed by Sepideh Abtahi, 54 mins.), which looks at Iranian society of the past century through food, and “A Perfect Meal” (a short directed by Pooria Jahanshad, 8 mins.) which uses a formal meal setting to examine food and culture.

After the screening there will be a panel discussion on the role of food in Iranian culture with audience Q&A and a recipe demonstration and tasting of various dishes from Iran.

1. Abgoosht: A meat based traditional, middle/working class food that now is turned into an adventurous favorite. There will be a demo of the food on one of the films, and the panel will talk about its cultural connection. There will be a tasting of Goshte Koobideh, a part of this food that tastes good even cold.

2. Borani (vegetarian): a mixture of yogurt and spinach with variety of nuts, was used as food, but today it is mostly served as dip.

3. Salad Shirazi (vegan): A uniquely Iranian salad which is also claimed by Israelis and Arabs. The organizer calls it the “Peace Salad” because of the stories he will share about his travels to Israel and Palestine.

Additionally, there will be handouts with the recipes for guests to take home: Persian style tea is also included in the $10 admission. Tickets are available at the Proctors box office or online at proctors.org/events.

(The next event will be on Sunday November 22 and will feature a performance by KoriSoron (!!), two very cool documentaries on music in Iran and a panel discussion with some special guests! Future events include the topics of Women in Iran and Outsiders in Iran.)

That’s it for now!  As always I hope this helps and thanks for reading!

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KoriSoron (me), Feedback Analysis (and You)

KoriSoron

Last year on this day, I wrote a post called Due Versus Do.  The post talked about the need to put the work in and pay dues in building your craft and building an audience and outlined a plan for building a regional audience (If you’re playing live music – you might find it to be an interesting read).  It’s also a good example of setting up a parameter for feedback analysis.

Feedback Analysis

I first read about this term in a book called Heart, Smarts, Goals And Luck which was a book that talked about self assessing those areas on a HSGL scale to determine where the reader’s strengths were as an entrepreneur.  The quote below is from notes I made from the book – so I believe that it’s paraphrased from Peter Drucker.

Whenever you make a key decision or take a key action, write down what you expect will happen.  9-12 months later compare expectations (with outcomes).  Otherwise it’s too easy to rationalize a decision Ex Post Facto.

This is something I happened to be doing in goal setting – but was remiss in going back to see how well those things actually worked!

What This Means for You

Feedback analysis is a great way to look at how your goal setting is actually working.  It’s not enough to just write down goals.  In reviewing them you can also see what’s working, what’s not working and how to best steer your ship from here.  It requires looking at what you did, warts and all, and coming up with an honest assessment.

As an example of this process using the web post from a year ago – how did KoriSoron do with feedback analysis? (again the initial post is linked here in case you’d like to compare Due Versus Do).

1 / 2.  Open Mics (play in front of people) / play traditional non traditional venues.  We didn’t explore this a lot.  Largely because we put our focus on working on new material and playing new venues.  It’s something I’ll probably explore solo to try to open some doors – but the yield of getting people from an open mic to a show was non-existant and the open mics didn’t yield gigs in and of themselves.  It IS a good way to network (in a legitimate way like making friends instead of a slimy way of using people), but it requires showing up every week to do so.  Typically it’s a 3 hour investment in an evening to play for 5-10 minutes but probably worth it if you’re trying to break into a new market / venue.

We played a number of different venues, and that coupled with the monthly gig at Arthur’s has been REALLY useful for us in terms of feedback for what works and what doesn’t work for the show.

For me, it’s interesting to see the yield of what I practice that I think will work versus what works in a live setting.  No matter what methods I use, it always tells me something different and I can only get that information playing live.

3 /5   Developing Marketing material / Social Media / Get Visible and Record material.  We made some strides here.  Farzad pulled together a strong website and we did a lot via Facebook.  We wrote a lot of new material and got Dean Mirabito to play percussion with us (which added a whole other dimension to what we do) and  started digging deep to get into the nuances of the tunes to improve our performances and live shows.  This also involved a lot of experiments with arrangements and live sound options and involved a lot of trial and error.

We also started recording every show (and using a standalone recorder for a live mixer as well) and that’s been great pre-production for going into the studio.  But recording is the next thing that we’re targeting in a big way.

4.  Network.  This is something that needs improvement.  Our tunes are very difficult to play and require a lot of practicing.  It’s only now (a year later) that I’m starting to get a sense of what the tunes are and what our sound is enough to start going back out to shows in a consistent way.  Everything is this business is based on what you can do and who knows what you can do.  Again – I’m not into spammy networking, you have to have legitimate relationships with people – but if you don’t network you’re going to play in your room forever.

6.  Build bigger.  Here’s a GREAT strategy from Heart, Smarts, Guts and Luck that encapsulates this –

Think Big – Start Small – (Scale Fast)

I put scale fast in parenthesis because in business you need to scale quickly.  In art, you need to scale at the rate you can scale.  You’re developing a foundation that you need to build on.  To modify the suggestion strategy:

Think Big – Start Small – Output Constantly – Review – Revise – Repeat

I hope this helps!

As always, thanks for reading!

(and hope to see you at a KoriSoron show soon!)

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Some Lessons From A Boxing Match

Let’s start with the sweet science

My last post used a quote from boxing, and this post uses some lessons a friend of mine taught me about boxing.  The reason for this is that, in my head, there are a number of parallels between sports and guitar playing, the biggest one being that both require a seemingly endless amount of training and preparation to be able to pull of a performance at the best of your ability in front of an audience.

As I write this, UFC champion “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey just took her 12 straight win to remain undefeated with a knock out in 34 seconds.  This means that the sum total of her last three fights is under a minute.  Her detractors say this doesn’t mean anything.  They want to see her go the distance in a fight.  I disagree with them.  The fact that she can finish those fights so quickly says EVERYTHING about how much work and preparation she put into those fights.

I read Ronda’s biography and the thing that resonated with me (other than the endless grueling training – I thought back to a LOT of 12-hour days at Berklee while reading this) is how much she got up and kept going when she was knocked down in her life.  When she was back in the states after getting a bronze in the Olympics for judo with no gainful employment she tended bar, worked at an animal shelter and worked as a gym receptionist while living in a car, and managed to get her head in the game and turn herself around from that situation to become the most dominant athlete (male or female IMHO) on the planet.  (You have to have the mental and the physical skills to get to the top of your game.)

Back to the boxing

A good friend of mine (who just happens to be an unbelievable guitar player, musician, songwriter and guitar builder ) Chris Fitzpatrick, recently “celebrated” a milestone birthday in an unconventional way when he signed up to raise money by fighting in a Haymakers For Hope event.  (Haymakers for Hope is an organization that sponsors fights to raise money for cancer research).

It is impossible to understand the physical and mental demands that are required to walk into (and out of) a boxing match if you’ve never stepped foot in a ring.  Some people take a 1/2 hour boxing cardio class and think, “that’s not so hard – I could do 3 minute rounds” not understanding that it’s a whole other thing to try to throw punches when there’s another person there determined to knock you out.  If you haven’t prepped, even if you can avoid getting hit – you’re likely not going to make it out of the first round.

(Some language NSFW.  This excerpt is from the film Heckler, but I’d also recommend Raging Boll which shows more footage from this fight.)

My friend Fitz trained for months to get ready for his fight which required intensive diet and training, getting up at ungodly early hours and pushing his body to the absolute limit.  This was more remarkable given that this fight is something sane people 20-30 years younger might do on a dare.  He won the fight which you can see here.

While he was training, we talked a lot about the similarities between learning how to fight  and learning how to play guitar.  After the fight, there’s a whole post-fight period of introspection – kind of like a post gig introspection, and during that I asked him what lessons he learned.  The lessons he learned are a great guide for guitar playing, or any other venture you want to engage in.

With that – here’s a short sweet list of lessons courtesy of Chris Fitzpatrick.  Remember that the difference between thinking something and knowing something is that knowledge is experiential – so I hope you’ll learn these hard fought lessons of knowledge easier than Fitz had to learn them!   (Also, make sure to check out his Strange County Drifters project and keep an eye out for some forthcoming FnH guitars!)

Lessons:

  1. Don’t be outworked.
  2. Practice for perfection, understanding that perfection is a just a goal, not to be used as a judgement of success or failure.
  3. Push through your limits, you will be amazed at what you discover about yourself and what you can do.
  4. Your comfort zone is a place to rest, not a place to live.
  5. There will always be someone better, Always. learn from them.
  6. Ego is the most dangerous barrier to achievement.
  7. Your mind is so incredibly powerful that it can override your physical being. We all live this everyday and don’t even realize it. Use it.
  8. No one cares except for you. Don’t bother trying to make others care. Care for yourself.
  9. Breathe and relax.

All of these apply to everything, but my discipline is music and guitar.

To which I would add the famous Samurai maxim, “Seven times down – Eight times up.”

There are real limits in life.  If you haven’t ever done a bench press (and never done a similar physical activity) you’re not going to pop a heavy weight off your chest on a bench your first time- but that doesn’t mean that you won’t ever be able to do it.

You don’t know what you can’t do today until you try.
You don’t know what you can’t do tomorrow when you put the work in today.
You don’t know what you can’t do a year from now when you put the work in everyday.

A limit you have today doesn’t necessarily have to be a life long limit if it’s something you can change with consistent, focused work.

I hope this helps!  Thanks again to Chris Fitzpatrick for sharing!

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“Everyone has a plan, and then they get punched in the face.”

I’ve talked before the amateur mindset and embracing lessons from temporary setbacks in earlier posts, but there’s nothing like taking a (figurative) punch to the face at a gig to see how much you get rattled.

Last Friday evening, I played the kickoff event for the BuckMoon Arts Festival at Fulton-Montgomery Community College with KoriSoron.  We were experimenting with a new live set up and performing in a theatre we’d never played in as a group before.

The day itself was warm and humid and I was sweating as I loaded things in.  The theatre itself was relatively cool.  We got everything set up and soundcheck went okay, but people were coming in and sitting down during soundcheck to watch us play which is always a little challenging.  Not wanting them to leave, I said that I just needed to take care of a few things and that I’d play a couple of solo pieces before the set.

The reality of the situation was that my hands felt sticky and were sticking a little bit to the back of the glossy neck of the guitar.  This was not a huge problem but was enough of an issue to be disconcerting.  I made my way to the bathroom, washed and dried my hands and came back to give it a go.

The first two solo pieces went off fairly smoothly.  It was still a bit before the set was supposed to begin so I had to pull another piece out of the hat and start playing that.  The spotlights were on and the stickiness got worse.  Having been in compromised performance situations before, I went into “grin and bear it” mode and did my best to get through the piece.  A lot of notes (and a few clams) later the piece ended and I wiped down the neck of my guitar.

One of the other things I experimented with at this show was a longer explanation about the songs we were playing.  In previous shows, I’d just make a song introduction and crack a joke but I realized it was hard for the audience to engage in tunes that they had never heard before and didn’t have a context for.    So I added the context.

As I was talking about the first tune, in the most non-nonchalant way I could imagine I tried wiping down the back of the neck furiously to remove any dried sweat or anything else that would keep my hands feeling sticky on the neck.  I called out the next tune and within the first two bars my hand was sticking again.

There were four things I could have done:

1.  Since I didn’t have the foresight to bring any talc on my own, I could have reached over into Dean’s stash of talcum powder for his tabla and put a squirt into the palm of my hand.  Problem solved.  Unfortunately, I didn’t think of this solution until 2 days after the gig.

2.  I could have adjusted my playing.  I could have recognized that instead of fighting the situation that I could work with it and just slowed WAY DOWN and played as simply as possible.  Unfortunately, I didn’t think of this solution until the drive home from the gig.

3.  I could have had a complete meltdown.  Fortunately, this is not a option for me but I’ve been on several gigs where other players have addressed things in this manner and…well…I guess the kindest thing I can say is that once you’ve seen that you’ll never forget it.

4.  I could decide to suck it up.  Grin and bear it.  Refuse to adjust my playing to the situation at hand and then get frustrated that I didn’t play as well as I thought you ought to.

Option 4 meant that we made it through the gig without any train wrecks (we even got compliments on the show) but that it did not go as smoothly as hoped (I have yet to crack open the recorder and see what we have recorded (that’ll happen later!).

The practice room is a critical stage in getting any material ready for prime time, but there’s nothing like a live gig to take you out of your comfort zone and learn where things are really at in your playing.  Every fighter has a plan when they step into the ring, but the ones who typically do well are the ones who can take a punch to the face and adjust appropriately to what’s going on.

Sometimes you NEED to stick to the plan and sometimes you need to adapt to the situation you find yourself in.  That presence of mind comes with experience and even experienced performers will sometimes drop the ball on this.  Hopefully if you find yourself in a difficult situation at your next gig, you’ll remember this tale of woe and be able to adapt and adjust (or just bring baby powder!) and not just swing for the fences!

As always, I hope this helps!

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Acoustic Plugged in – Electric Unplugged

Hello everyone,

I’ve been delayed in posting for a while as I’ve been knee deep practicing material for some upcoming Korisoron shows and recording later this summer.

(If you happen to be in upstate New York, we’ll be playing July 10th as part of the kick off event for the BuckMoon arts festival – https://www.facebook.com/events/792648237521231/)

Some video of one of the songs we’ll be playing is here:

I’ve talked before about some aspects of practicing on an acoustic guitar, but performing with KoriSoron has taught me a lot about what a different animal acoustic electric really is.

The biggest thing has been how radically different the experience of a mic’d acoustic versus a piezo-equipped acoustic really is.  With an unplugged acoustic, what you hear is what you get – but unless you’re actually recording it with a microphone – what you hear – particularly for lead playing – is not what comes across in a live room.  This is an even bigger chasm of experience when dealing with a piezo pickup.  This wasn’t a huge difference when playing with my ZT amp but going into a pre-amp pedal and out to a PA (or recording direct) became a head scratching experience.  Now that we’re looking at recording some demo material from live performances (and getting the tablas and percussion a little more front and center) – I’ve been researching  how to get a simple system that amplifies sound and records what were doing.  We’ll do our first live run at Buckmoon this Friday – but I’m feeling pretty good about the initial options here.

For the mixing desk – we’re using a TASCAM DP32-SD.  It’s a standalone recorder kind of like an updated version of the 4 track cassette version some of you remember from your own early forays into recording.  It seems like an odd choice – but here’s why I liked it.

  1. My laptop is a little too unstable for live use.  I tried running some signals from a previous show to the laptop and it look close to an hour to set up and a 1/2 hour to tear down, and I wasn’t psyched with the end result.
  2. Increasingly, I like the idea of a limited function machine.  It doesn’t check email or make videos it just processes audio.
  3. The Tascam does what it does well.  It records 8 tracks simultaneously (more than enough for a trio) to an SD card is is DEAD quiet.  The faders are non automated and old school but useful for my application and it features lots of routing options, some onboard digital effects (compression, EQ and verb are useful for monitoring – in this case going out to the house) and a pretty straight forward interface.  I like the fact that I can set it up and just move on.
  4. The Faders and monitor out allow me to run a signal to a powered speaker and act as a gentle push for live sound.  The ZT amps work great for live use – but sometimes we need to get the tabla and other percussion out in front a bit more.

With that in mind, we’re trying to run the least amount of mics on stage as possible, so we’re currently using some Yamaha gear to help with that.  I’ve been using a Yamaha THR5a in lieu of my AG Stomp and I have to say that I dig the amp as a practice model.  You can tweak the sounds with a computer interface to a much greater degree than just the amp controls – but it sounds quite good for what it does.   I wish they got rid of the battery compartment and added some XLR outs (the only out options are USB and headphone out – the biggest drawback to the amp) but I really cant complain about it as a live interface.

Practicing acoustic plugged in to get ready for the show has really been a revelation.  It’s forced me to make major adjustments in my left hand and focusing on it like a classical player and pay deep attention to the nuances of tone.  Again, playing it acoustic it sounded one way, but practicing it plugged in gave me a much more realistic impression of what the audience was hearing – and that’s making me dig deeper and really tear apart all of my 2-string building block shapes and work on getting them to sound clear with the piezo.  It’s a bear, but that work really pays off and has made a difference in the overall tone of the acoustic playing as well.  It’s the exact opposite of my advice to play electric guitar unplugged to make sure that you could make out every articulation – but both roads lead to the same conclusion.

As before, I need to give a lot a credit here to Miroslav Tadic and Jack Sanders who really did a lot to open that perception for me and make it something I could develop!  I just wish I pieced it together earlier – but better late than never.

So we’ll see how all of this goes on Friday and we’ll see if I’m still chipper about this next week. I guess the lesson here is – don’t be afraid to challenge assumptions – often.  Very often I teach lessons with students who say, “Oh I know that” and when we go deep into it they start to realize just how little they know.  The teacher is also the life long student – so even when confronting something and saying, “Oh – I know that” it’s amusing to see the beginner belt come out and realize that all roads lead to Kata – the basics – the fundamentals – and you can never know them as deeply as you think you do.

I hope this helps!

If you’re in the area, I’ll be playing with KoriSoron at the FM Theatre at Fulton-Montgomery Community College at 8pm on Friday, July 10th.  The event is free and open to the public.

Thanks!

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(The) Primacy of the Ear

Saving Pretty Polly from the train tracks

I left my last post with a little cliff hanger:

Next time, I’ll talk about ear training, the one music book I would tell every musician interested in improvising to buy (no it’s not the Real Book) and how to save yourself tens of thousands of dollars in tuition by doing so.

I’ve talked a lot about the pluses and minuses of going to music school and some of the pitfalls in being an autodidact, so while I’m not going to talk about the big issues behind both of those approaches I do want to briefly outline what the great self taught players and great formally trained players have in common.

Ability to analyze.

Here’s a quote from my interview with Miroslav Tadic that bears repeating:

Understanding what you are playing while you are playing it puts you into a whole different place. This is extremely rare with classical players and this is what marks a great classical player and sets them apart from the other players. You have a player like Glenn Gould who had everything memorized and knew what was going on in every note that he was playing. After he stopped playing concerts he would go to the studio and everything that he recorded (and he recorded a vast amount of music) was all played from memory. The reason why you can have that kind of memory is because you understand what’s going on in the music. It’s not just having photographic memory or sitting there and having a technique for memorization it’s having the understanding of music. Even if you’re only going to play classical music, if you sit down and as you’re playing, go through the piece and ask yourself – what am I playing or what is this?

….You can really make it much more enjoyable and can really help you eliminate the dreaded memory lapses because you know what you’re playing. It’s not just this part that’s abstract to you. If you blank out all of the sudden and you have no idea of where you are. But you can always remember, oh that’s the F major part, before the cadence that takes us back to D minor or whatever. It’s not the theoretical knowledge of someone who’s a music student but the connection between theoretical knowledge and the actual living knowledge of music. The sonic knowledge. This is a really important thing. For example, you can know what a Neapolitan chord is – but you’ve also got to be able to spot it every time you hear it. Those guys who wrote that music – you can bet they knew what it sounded like. It’s not an issue of them sitting there and making calculations or something. It’s a flavor – like hearing a pentatonic scale. If you hear Pentatonic Minor riff, is there any question about what someone is playing? No. You can hear it and recognize it for what it is because it’s the music of our times. The same way, if you’re playing music from some other time well you should know it like the music of your own time.

This doesn’t mean that great musicians are in a perpetual state of constant analysis of everything, but if you have a deeper understanding of what is going on around you, you have a higher likelihood of being able to interact with it on a deeper level.   Some players have an intellectual knowledge of this, “There’s a minor vi to I in this part of the tune.”  some have a sonic knowledge of this (i.e. they hear the chord progression and know what’s going on in a deeper level.)

And here lies the other big similarity between the aforementioned players,

the ability to hear and listen

And, in my mind, there’s a big difference between the two.

Hearing is reactive – (“someone’s playing something”)

Listening is proactive (“the soloist is playing a line based in 4ths, I’m going to play something complimentary under that.”)

I may be in the minority for making that distinction but I think it’s an important one.

At Berklee, the classes that caused everyone to groan were the Ear Training (“Ear Straining”) classes.  The reason for this is because the classes focused on intervallic drills, the ability to hear chord qualities (major, minor, 7th chords in inversions) and transcribe melodies from ear.

In other words, all things that you need to be able to do in the real world – but a lot of the material was not something that would inspire you.

When I went to CalArts for my grad studies the only other school that I looked at was New England Conservatory and their Contemporary Improvisation program.  Ran Blake (the former chair of the program back when it was called Third Stream and a current faculty member there) has just released a book on the methods that he uses to teach there, called Primacy of the Ear.  It’s a thin book, approximately 125 pages of with 30 pages of indexes, sells for $30 and it’s a bargain.  It’s entirely possible that I never would have gone to grad school if I had this book back in 2005  (which would have been a huge mistake for me).

Having met Ran, I can guess that the book is a number of lessons, conversations and observations (you can read a very early pdf regarding this topic back in the third stream days that was substantially revised and expounded upon here) that co-credited author Jason Rogers edited together into a coherent guide-book for those people who want to truly own their music.  What’s interesting about the entire approach is how one he relates this process to creating an original style.

For those of you who don’t want to get the book, I’ll illustrate a process that Ran outlines in much greater detail that will help you with your hearing, phrasing and overall improvisation (I know I’ve done this before).

Step 1.  Pick a tune and a performance of that tune that inspires you.  Don’t pick something you want to learn because you think you should learn it.  You’re going to spend a lot of time with this process, so make it something that you REALLY want to learn.

Step 2.  Passive listening.  Play a recording of the tune throughout the day.  The goal is to start getting the song form in your ears.  This is like when you hear a commercial over and over again and find yourself able to sing back the melody away from the commercial later.

Step 3.  Active listening.  Now you’re only listening to the tune in short intense stints.  This is sitting down at a desk with no other distractions and really listening to what’s going on.  Noticing nuances, inflections, that type of thing.

Step 4.  This is the actual bear.  You start learning the components AWAY from the instrument.  So you learn the melody by ear.  You learn each phrase away from the instrument and get to the point that you can string it all together.  You want to be able to pre-hear the melody in the song.  Once you have this material mastered (i.e. can sign any part of the melody from any point in the tune), then learn it on the guitar using your inner hearing to guide the process.

Step 5.  Repeat with the bass line of the song.

Step 6.  Repeat with the chord progression of the song.  LEARNING EACH INDIVIDUAL VOICING of the chords one at a time melodically.

I’m sure that some of you at this point are thinking, “this is insane.”  If you’re thinking, “Oh I could do that.”  it’s very likely that an attempt to do this at this level will have you also come to the conclusion that it’s an act of insanity.

But it’s not insane.

This is a DEEP methodology to get into what is really happening in a song.

This process basically ensure that you know the song at the microscopic level and have a much deeper likelihood to engage with it at a core level.

This process has been adapted to all kinds of music.  In this video, Ran combines the music and biography of Mahler with film Noir to create a performance that is a true synthesis of styles.

This is only possible with an intimate understanding of Mahler and film Noir music.  That comes from deep engagement and deep listening.

How would you do it now?

Coming back to the original cliff hanger:

Next time, I’ll talk about ear training, the one music book I would tell every musician interested in improvising to buy (no it’s not the Real Book) and how to save yourself tens of thousands of dollars in tuition by doing so.

Knowing what I know now – if I didn’t go to undergrad –  here’s how I’d do this from scratch.

1. Get great teachers.  Yes plural – Teachers.  I’d take some classical lessons to get proper technique.  I’d take some lessons on theory to augment my own study.  I’d take lessons on any specific style I was interested in for as long as it made sense.  If I was interested in rock playing, I’d get some rock approaches down and if that got me what I wanted I’d move on from there.

2.  Take some classes at a community college.  College really isn’t for everyone at every time of their life.  There are people at 18 who are just not in the headspace to commit to full-time enrollment in college.  But try some courses in music theory or liberal arts to expand your horizons.   IN GENERAL – try a number of different approaches to learning and LEARN WHAT WORKS FOR YOU.  For me, being at a college surrounded me with other people and that immersive process was really important for me at that time in my life.  Now that I know how to teach myself, I can learn things on my own time and it’s more efficient.

3.  Get good materials to study on your own  I’d look on Amazon for the best reviewed books and order them through inter-library loan.  The ones that resonated with me I’d buy.

4.  Listen to as much different music as possible (preferably live music) and go out of your comfort zone whenever possible.  Expose yourself to things and find out what resonates with you – and more importantly WHY it resonates with you.  This is also where teachers/mentors/peers are critical because they can help articulate things going on in the music that will help you determine why something is cool.

5.  Perform in low risk setting at first to get your footing and play with people better than you.  As much as possible.  Determine from those experiences what you need to work on and work on them in a focused, deliberate way.  It’s a “7 times down 8 times up thing.”  Great teachers will help you here too.

6.  I’d learn as much music as I could by ear.  I’d transcribe anything that interested me.

7.  I’d continue to try to find favorite authors and artists and engage in their work in a deeper level.  Go deep with what you know and keep your eyes open for new things.

8.  Since this is about what I would do rather than spending 60k at a private undrgrad college – I’d go to a community college and get at least an associates degree in business and/or communication.  I would do this with the filter of learning anything that would help me become an independent musician.  I’d augment this with interning at a PR company or something similar to gain any insight on monetizing what I did, promoting it or drawing customers to whatever services (like lessons) or products (like mp3s, cds or dvds) I’d be providing.

9.  I’d make connections with other people and connect with existing community or create new communities.  Find like minded people and develop an inclusive scene.  There’s nothing wrong with online groups, but if they don’t have a component (or at least the potential component) of engaging face to face it’s not going to help you in the long run.

10.  Don’t lose the forest in the tree.

There’s a teacher at CalArts that had my favorite quote about the biggest potential pitfall that students can engage in.

“CalArts….come here as a decent reed player and leave as a mediocre tabla player.”

The biggest challenge with self-study is that you need 3 things to ask a question:

1.  You need to know that something exists to ask about it.

2.  You need to know that asking a question is an option.

3.  You need to have someone to answer the question in an intelligent way.

When you self study, you’re often missing most (if not all) of these factors.  It’s the “You don’t know what you don’t know” paradox.  The last thing that I would do all over again if I could instruct an 18 year old version of myself, would be to tell them that learning is a process not a destination.  You will always encounter things that, at the time, will seem like things you should have already known.  Don’t get hung up on should.  Realize that you are on a spinning ball, spinning around another spinning ball that’s spinning around an infinitely deeper structure.  Where one is physically appears to be the same place but is always changing.  Understanding where you are in music or life is the same thing.  I’m always surprised at how different perceived knowledge is from real knowledge is.  Don’t let it beat you up.  Just re-assess, adjust and keep moving forward.

Now back to that ear training.

As always, I hope this helps!

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Practicing Performing

As musicians, we spend a lot of time practicing things but a lot of us don’t ask WHY we’re practicing.  We have vague notions of things like, “to get better” but nothing concrete.

This leads to things like shred guitar groups on Facebook where it’s a constant one-upsmanship of technical skill.  And while that’s a natural phase of skill development, it often doesn’t have a whole lot to do with making music or being musical in a band context.  Paul Gilbert once talked about how he had to completely change the way he soloed when he toured with Mr. Big because the highly technical things that blew people’s socks off in 500 person clubs in LA were completely lost in arenas with cavernous reverbs washing everything out.

Why we do something can inform both what we’re doing and how we’re doing it as well.

Last night, I played a gig with KoriSoron, the band I play in with guitarist Farzad Golpayegani and percussionist Dean Mirabito.  The money was negligible and the audience was small but that gig was more informative that a month in the practice room because I had real time analysis of what worked and what didn’t work in a live setting.  Furthermore, when I looked back at my improvisations I could determine what I thought I was playing versus what I was really playing.

If you want to play live music, you should play live shows as often as possible and see live music as often as possible to see what works.  I’ll add much better clarification of this idea with a quote from what I would say is a must-read  interview I did with Miroslav Tadic:

Performing has both a physical and the mental aspect to it. They’re connected but people have different levels of reactivity to each of them that can only be tested in performance. The good news is, you don’t need to be in a club or a concert hall with a bunch of people who have paid for tickets to see you to develop that skill. All you need is for a couple of people to actually sit down, listen and pay attention to what you do.

Most people, including myself, have found that there is really no difference in playing for ten people in your living room or playing for 2,000 people in a concert hall you’ve never played before. Mentally it’s the same thing and in both situations you go through the same kind of reactions. Once you learn those reactions and observe yourself in that situation, those reactions are not going to surprise you when you’re on stage and this is the most important thing.

For example, lets say the physical reaction is that your hands are sweating, shaking or cold. These are all physical reactions to this mental state of performing for people. You don’t experience that in the practice room, but if you go in front of people and all the sudden your hands are sweaty and you’ve never played with sweaty hands, it’s a terrifying experience. But if you know that your hands sweat when you go in front of people and you know how that feels you will know that you’ll still be able to play. It’s not going to be as enjoyable as when your hands aren’t sweating, but you’re not going to be completely thrown off by that because you’ll have already had experience with that. Eventually they’re not going to sweat, because what’s making them sweat is going to go away. That terror of being in front of people will turn into inspiration.

Next time, I’ll talk about ear training, the one music book I would tell every musician interested in improvising to buy (no it’s not the Real Book) and how to save yourself tens of thousands of dollars in tuition by doing so.

As always, thanks for reading!

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Owning What You Do

Getting Past “Jazz”

A friend of mine posted something about working on the changes to “Giant Steps” the other day, and all I could think of was, “man better him than me…”

There was a long time that I lived under this weird misconception that I had to like jazz. That if I just listened a little deeper and learned a little bit more that there would come a moment that “stella by starlight” was going to speak to me.

And so I listened to a lot of jazz and spent some time on II V’s and other related jazz theory items and I came to some realizations.

  • Informed Aesthetics are defined Aesthetics.  I credit Susan Allen at CalArts for really making me think about my aesthetics in a deeper way.  It’s not enough to simply be dismissive about things.  When students tell me that something “sucks”, I force them to explain to me 1.  What sucks means and how this sucks and 2.  what about it they don’t like 3.  what about it could be better?  Sometimes they can really articulate something substantial, but a lot of times it’s a knee jerk reaction and diving into what is aesthetically displeasing about that yields some deeper insights.
  • Related to that examination, I tend to follow musicians more than genres.  I don’t like a lot of shred guitar but I’ll stand behind Yngwie’s work with Alactrazz (or the first Rising Force record) until the end of time.  I don’t know that “autumn leaves” will ever be a song I want to listen to but I can always find a reason to seek out recordings or performances by players like Ornette, Trane, Bird, Monk, Frisell or a couple dozen other musicians that are lumped in that category.
  • A lot of the music that moves me is melodic and rhythmic rather than harmonic.  I find myself going back to the melodies of favorite works from traditional Arabic music or traditional music of Japan, Korea, Turkey or Iran.  I’m sure that it’s been done, but I have yet to hear one of those songs performed with ii V I’s superimposed over them that made them any “better”.

You might play what you practice but you perform what you know.

At Berklee, there was a lot of pressure to become a Jazz guitarist, and I felt like a failure for a long time because it seemed beyond me.  Eventually, I realized that the issue wasn’t that Jazz was some pursuit that was intellectually beyond me, it was that I had no interest in Real Book tunes so there was no fire inspiring me to learn the vocabulary or put the time in to developing those areas.

While classical music was interesting to me, I realized that I am never going to out perform the recorded works of Bach interpretations from the guys who lived breathed and ate that music 24 hours a day.

I doubt that I’ll ever have the passion necessary to be a traditional jazz guitarist any more than to be a traditional classical guitarist – but realized that there was a lot from both disciplines that I could integrate into what I’m doing.

As guitarists, we talk a lot about skill sets (both physical and mental) but we don’t talk a lot about passion and at the end of the day that’s the thing that really matters the most.  People don’t buy into your performance based on the number of notes that you play, they buy into how it makes them feel.  If you’re not passionate about it, they never will be either.

What are you doing to achieve your goals?

If you’re having trouble reaching your musical (or other) goals – take a moment and examine what you’re actually doing to achieve them. 

If you feel like you’ve hit a rut in your playing, take a hard look at what you’re actually doing to get out of it and readjust if necessary.  For example:

  • Did you just buy a book or did you actually read it?
  • Did you really sit down and work on your picking or did you just play the same thing that you always play?

Like I’ve said before, It’s easy to confuse doing something with getting something done, but if you don’t feel like you’re making progress taking a close look at what you’re doing an excellent place to start.

(A teacher can also help you get get on track to get where you need to go.  If you need help in this area, feel free to email me for in person lessons or Skype lesson information!)

As always, thanks for reading!

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Teacher’s Circus And The Seeming Disconnect Of Events In TIme

Hello all!

It’s been a bit since I’ve posted anything.  KoriSoron has been more active and we’ve been playing more shows and working on new material and it’s been great for my acoustic playing.  Working with players like Farzad Golpayegani and Dean Mirabito lights a fire under my seat because if I’m coasting on something – they’ll run right over over me.

I find that pushing myself live and coming to gigs without preconceived licks or approaches and trying to make something happen in the moment brings out the best and worst moments in my playing.  Typically it either sounds great or I wipe out and have to try recover as quickly as possible.  It highlights the chasm between the things I can imagine and the things I can execute in a live setting and gives me a lot of things to add to my “to do” list of things to work on.

I found myself getting frustrated with one particular idea that wasn’t coming together this evening and I thought of a particular event from my wayward youth that reminded me of a lesson I learned about the perceived disconnect of events in time.

Teacher’s Circus

I went to a small town high school.  I think this happend whenI was a sophomore….maybe a junior.  We weren’t seniors so we had some status in school but we were pretty far down in the pecking order.  There was a lot of trying to look “cool” around the “cool” kids.

We had a small computer lab at the school.  I don’t remember the deal, but if you took a programming language or a class that involved the use of said computers, you could get a pass that would allow you to hand out in the computer lab with your friends rather than study hall, which was just a large room with everyone in it.

It was a status thing and, it’s worth mentioning that the administration hated the computer room.  They didn’t hate the room itself but they recognized that the people that were hanging out there were going to be the type of people that were smart enough to clean up after the mischief that they created and make it more difficult to catch them in their troublemaking.

So one day I, again wanting to be cool and being one of the people who thought he was funny, went on the computer and in about 10 minutes wrote up a little ditty called, “Teacher’s Circus”, which invited people to come out to an imaginary circus featuring several faculty members, the superintendent and a fellow student engaged in unnatural and illicit acts for public amusement.  One of the older students thought this was hilarious (as did my friends) so she asked me to print out a copy.  No problemIt’s funny right?  We all had a good laugh.

Fast forward to about 2 months later.

I’m in a choir rehearsal on a Friday afternoon just waiting for the day to end as I have some friends coming over later to watch horror movies.  In the middle of the rehearsal, the superintendent comes in and says he needs to see me.  I walk out with him and ask what’s wrong.  I didn’t do anything wrong that Friday, so I figured whatever the issue was –  it wasn’t something I did so it would get resolved.  He doesn’t say a word until we get to the office.  He closes the door and pulls out a well worn and wrinkled  piece of computer paper and starts to read, “Come one come all to the Teacher’s Circus….” and I feel my heart sink to the floor because I’m busted.

I try to interrupt him (and avoid further humiliation) by saying, “You don’t need to read anymore – I know what it says.”  but he reads the entire page and concludes by saying, “We know you wrote this.”

I should mention a few small facts here:

1.  My school size was something like 800 students K-12.  Our graduating class had over 90 people and some of the staff were freaking out and wondering how they were going to graduate a group that size.

2.  The town I grew up in had about 2,000 people.  Everyone knew everyone else’s business.

3.  My father was a teacher in this microscopic public school system.

4.  My love of books had, at this point in my life, extended to philosophy.  In particular, I was reading what I could about Stoicism and somehow (probably through a comic book) got very interested in the code of ethics surrounding the Samurai.  I had read the Book of 5 Rings and the Hagakure and there were a lot of thoughts in my head at the time about concepts like honor.

So, I didn’t deny it.

“We know you wrote this.”

“Yes I did.  I wrote it.”

At that point my dad was brought in.  He wasn’t sure why he was summoned to another building in the middle of the working school day but when he head the thing I wrote he slapped the glasses off of my face.  Then he backhanded me and I saw the superintendent smile, and I was enraged that he was taking delight in my misfortune.

The rest of the story I’ll leave out here.  Let’s just say that the situation deteriorated from there and after I got home, certain disciplinary methods were employed that he’d likely be arrested for employing today.

In the recovery period from said discipline, it was then revealed to me that my punishment would be my dad driving me to each one of his co-worker’s houses that weekend where I would then apologize to all of them in person.  That was done on Saturday.  We spent about 4-6 hours driving in the car over that day and not talking.  Finally, at one point he said (in complete seriousness), “Well I guess it could have been worse…you could have murdered someone.”  In his mind, that was the enormity of the crime that I committed. I was embarrassed and felt dumb and was also well aware that if this was anyone else – they would have been suspended and that would be the end of it – but as my dad taught there – well – we had to make a Federal case out of it.

Now let me tell you something.  That experience really screwed me up for a while.

The big lesson that I learned at the moment was that I needed to be paranoid   because there was a complete disconnect in my head from the thing I did and when I got busted for it.  Whenever someone asked me a question after that day, the first thought that went through my head was, “What did I do now?” and then a running inventory of any real or imagined thing I did would cause extreme nervousness.  This went on for decades…

Now perhaps I’m just rationalizing a pretty horrific memory with my dad, but this event may have been one of the first things that got me to start to think about long term implications of things.

So what does this have to do with guitar playing?

As the thing I was practicing this evening was getting frustrating I thought about this story and my perception of disconnect of events in time.  You don’t always get rewarded now (or punished now) for the things you’re doing right now (unless you post them on YouTube).  Those things generally happen later.  Sometime, much later.

The things you play live don’t just magically happen.  They come from years of concentrated work to develop the skill set to a level where the execution is innate.  The gigs that people get generally start with connections that have been developed over time and are kept based on the well honed skills that have also been developed over time.  Yes – sometimes there’s luck – but the purely lucky fade almost instantly.  The overnight success is a myth that usually built on a foundation of years of work that seems fruitless and unfair at the time.

So the reminder to myself?  Don’t get frustrated.  It’s a temporary setback.  Show up.  Put the work in now and see the benefits later.

It’s good advice.  (I’d also recommend not saying or putting anything in print that you wouldn’t want to be quoted on later. If something you say can be taken out of context and used against you – be prepared to address it later on.)

Back to the shed.  More things coming soon and, as always, thanks for reading!

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