Some Observations In The New Year

The Preface:

I haven’t been writing a lot lately.  In addition to playing, recording and working on a number of projects, I’ve been doubling down on my research in habit forming, short term skill acquisition, long term mastery, business development, entrepreneur vs. freelancer and thinking about THE BIG PICTURE.

This blog tends to focus more on the motivational / philosophical aspects of making music and playing guitar rather than how to play a specific lick or where to put one’s fingers on a guitar.

There’s a substantial amount of lesson material here, but write more about the WHY of guitar playing because for intermediate to advanced players, the WHY is much more problematic than the HOW or the WHAT.  Understanding the WHY is also what will keep you playing guitar (or whatever other endeavor you want to insert here) past a certain point instead of moving endlessly from one temporary obsession to another.

Reactive vs Proactive:

At the end of every year, I tend to take a few days and take general stock of where I am, of where I’ve been, of where I’m going.

The big surprise for me this year, is that much of my life has been spent with reactive action driving proactive movement with an underlying need to play guitar as the catalyst behind it.

In other words – stumbling into a long term career instead of planning a long-term career.

I think this is how it is for most musicians outside of the classical world and I think it’s a  mistake for anyone who wants to try to make this a career.

In the classical world, traditionally you were typically either a soloist or an orchestral player so your entire skill set development went into following those paths.  Building repertoire and resume’s and moving up the orchestral ladder to ultimately get a coveted spot in a well regarded orchestra.

In contrast, consider the previous band success model of playing in multiple bands to finally get into “the right” band that built larger and larger followings and finally gets to the point where they reach the end goal of signing to a major label.

But reality has changed both of these models forever.

Orchestras are in increasingly difficult positions and more and more people end up playing in part-time capacities in a number of different orchestras just to try to make ends meet.  The major labels are more selective than ever when it comes to artist signing and with most of them demanding 360 contracts with artists – they want a pound of flesh from artists with their signatures.

While some people will have the right combination of skills, contacts, timing and luck to be able to fall into a career –  for most artists, the path can no longer be an auto pilot. But requires a plan.

Start With The Vision

The most successful things I’ve ever done in my life came through Reverse Engineering.

  • Taking a desired outcome
  • Working backwards from that outcome to determine the steps needed to get there
  • Putting daily work in on those steps and moving forward on those goals.

Whether it’s having a goal to play like your favorite player or having a goal to be a full-time musician or desiring to be retired by age x – if you don’t have a vision of where you want to go then you will simply drift around aimlessly moving from one thing to the next.

That’s fine if you want to explore and see what happens.  It’s not so great if you have things you want to get done.

Be Clear On Your Brand (and Re-brand when necessary)

I’m going through the process of updating social media, consolidating and getting ready to launch my new lesson approach / series and what cracks me up is how positively schizophrenic my CV is. It cracks me up because it makes the job of getting my name out and getting calls for various things almost infinitely harder than it needs to be.

For example I’ve played in Trip-hop, Hip hop, Metal, Rock, Pop, Country, Rockabilly, Jazz, Industrial, Art-Pop, Theatrical, Fusion, world music and a host of other genres.  That makes me a generalist.

The difficulty in being a side person, for example, is that people look for people with specific skills in a specific genre.  The guy who was a side man in a dozen metal bands is more likely going to the the person who gets a call from the band who needs a metal player unless they’re looking for something specific.

I have a very distinctive sound.  If I’m playing something, you’ll know it’s me regardless of the effects or context.  I’m typically the guy who plays with a lot of passion and can play a lot of notes.  In teaching, I’m the guy who can identify blocks that students have and can help them overcome them.  I have a specific voice for communicating things both in presentation and writing style.  But when people are unclear on your brand, they’re unclear on what you have to offer and (here’s the important thing to being in demand forever) how you can help them.

After I spoke at TedX I was leaving the venue and one of the organizers came up to me and said,

“You know, when I saw that you were going to be speaking my first thought was, ‘Oh no!  Why is he speaking?  I don’t want to hear him speak!  I just want to hear him play music.’  But then I saw your talk and it was really great.”

That’s what happens when people don’t understand your brand.  People who saw KoriSoron might see me play electric and say, “I didn’t know you played electric guitar!” and people who see me play electric are surprised to find out that I play acoustic.  Or fretless or saz or bass or any of the other things I pick up.

That’s why I now realize that it’s important to have projects that serve a long term goal, rather than have an expectation that people will be able (or even willing) to follow a narrative of what I’m creating.

There’s a business adage that, “It’s not who you know – it’s who know you”.  An adaptation of that might be, “People can’t call you / see you / support you if they don’t know what you do.”

The new KoriSoron release will be out in February and I have some new things in the works.  There will be some posts related to this year as the journey continues.

A lot of my teaching and a lot of my posts center on mistakes I’ve made and documenting them to help other people avoid the mistakes I made and (hopefully) shortening their own learning curve.  With that in mind, I hope that this helps you in some way.

As always thanks for reading.

SC

PS – I’ve mentioned it before but my new instrumental release with the Rough Hewn Trio is out now and you can purchase it in a pay-what you want model here.

Powerpuff, New(?) Music and TEDx Video Is Live

Hi Everyone,

A few quick updates.

  1.  Apparently, I missed an ultra-brief window that the episode of the (2016) Powerpuff girls I played on (“Electric Buttercup”) was up on the Cartoon Network site – but I have word that the episode will be broadcast TV on November 28th – so I should have a link to that soon.
  2. First “New Music” Item – Back in 2011 – I played on an Onibaba recording session for bassist Daren Burns that got me fired from John French’s recording / band (a topic for a whole other post).  Daren previously released one cd of that session (Disintegration of Secrets/Apparitions of Kings available on Bandcamp here.) but he just released the rest of the session this week.  That CD, Anesthesia is out now and you can purchase (or listen to) that here.  In addition to Daren and myself, you also get Vinny Golia, George McMullen and drummer Craig Bunch adding to the general disarray.
  3. Second “New Music” Item – Back in 2012 – right before I left sunny CA – I was playing in a project called the Rough Hewn Trio.  We recorded some tracks and then entered a bizarre black hole where the project was pronounced dead and resuscitated several times.  After MANY false starts – the mixes for the tracks with myself, drummer Craig Bunch and Chapman Stick / Warr guitarist Chris Lavender are finally signed off on and are in the mastering stages so we hope to have that out by the end of the year.
  4. Third New Music Item (This one actually IS new) – KoriSoron recorded some tracks for our second ep – featuring our most challenging material.  We’re in the process of mixing that now and anticipate having that mixed and mastered by the end of the year.
  5. Non-Music Item  – Festival Cinema Invisible – an organization dedicated to bringing invisible films from the Middle East to the Capital Region of New York – is having its 6th annual 2-day film Festival at Proctor’s Theater in Schenectady in April of 2017.  I’m the General and Artistic Director of the Festival and this year’s Festival will be culled from over 1200 submissions (on its way to 1300 by the deadline) sent to us from over 100 countries around the globe.  You can find out more about the festival (and FCI) here.

My TedX Schenectady Talk / Presentation

The video of my Ted X Schenectady talk (with a KoriSoron performance) Past Forward – which dealt with the intersection of art, commerce and scarcity was posted this week.

The video is embedded below (or linked here if you have a browser issue)

For those of you interested in the process  of developing the talk, I talk about that process (and some of the performance challenges like not having a lavalier or hand held mike or having the song form change unexpectedly while you’re soloing) here.  I wish I been able to just just do the performance OR the speech – I would have been in a better frame of mind to roll with the punches of changes that can happen in a performance.  But chalk it up to experience.

The talk is supposed to feel loose and conversational but the reality of delivering something like this in a specific time line means that you have to have it pretty structured (with some improvisation thrown in to keep it from feeling like a PowerPoint presentation).

I’ve included the last of the 15-20 drafts the talk went through below.  It’s not a transcription of the talk I did – but it covers the bulk of the points I made (and also some points I cut in the interest of time).

I hope you dig it!

As always – thanks for reading!

-SC

Scott Collins – TedX Schenectady Talk – 2016

Hi. I’m Scott Collins. I’m a guitarist in KoriSoron a Schenectady-based trio. We create original music based on traditions from across the globe.

The title of this presentation is Past Forward. Past forward, in its most simple definition, involves taking material from the past and revitalizing it by making it contemporary which is what we do in KoriSoron.

I’ll talk more about Past Forward and KoriSoron but to do that I need to put that in the broader context of scarcity.

For much of history the value of music has been based on scarcity.

By way of example let’s consider music in the time of Beethoven.  The only way you could hear music was to be in the presence of someone playing it live.

You might actually be able to perform the music yourself if you a.) owned an instrument, b.) had formal training and c.) were one of the few people that could actually get access to (and afford) sheet music.

Access to music was limited to exposure and modes of transportation. It was also limited in that only a handful of people had the tools to perform that music.

This remains unchanged until sometime after 1877. Since we’re in Schenectady I’ll give Thomas Edison a shout out by name for his invention that recorded sound to a wax cylinder as the first major change in this performance model.

Edison’s invention allowed people to collect live performances and listen to them over and over again. For the first time listening to music shifted from something that came from a live musician to something that came from a device like a radio or a record and a record player.

The equipment used to record music was prohibitively expensive and required substantial skills to use and maintain. Musicians couldn’t do this on their own as it was financially beyond their means. Companies looking to sell records provided an advance to musicians to record their music (and then produced records that they marketed and distributed). This gave tremendous power to the record labels who had a virtual monopoly on the funding, recording and distribution of their recordings.

A perfect storm came together in the form of a technological revolution that completely undermined the scarcity model.

  • The cost of the computers came down to the point where most people could afford them and the internet increased its depth and breadth and became a destination for people to actively go to.
  • Music recording software became powerful enough to replace physical recording components and musicians began to record at home. Additionally, the internet allowed them to distribute music on their own and the amount of available music expanded exponentially each year (and continues to do so).
  • Mp3s and file sharing allowed people to find music online instead of having to go to a retail store.

File sharing services like Napster allowed people to download music for free, but could be cumbersome to use. Companies like Pandora sensed the real desire in the market for people to listen to music on demand and paved the way for current streaming services like Spotify.

The music industry was thrown into chaos because their entire business model was based on the ability to limit people’s access to music and create a demand for CDs, LPs, DVDs etc. and those physical objects were no longer necessary to listen to music.

Three basic approaches emerged to deal with this.

  1. The major labels tried to fight this change and stay with a model that worked on attempting to create scarcity to create demand.  It was a dismal failure that (with several other factors) destroyed the industry and only left 3 major record labels standing.
  2. Some musicians, often those who used to be on major labels and were now independent, saw the changes that were occurring but didn’t understand the needs of the market. So they emulated the record company model and also attempted to create artificial scarcity for their own music. When well-meaning fans got excited about tracks and posted them online – they chastised the fans and attempted to browbeat the audience into caring about the music industry and how much money there were losing in the new business model.

Musicians being musicians began to undercut one another to get to competitive pricing and soon they were giving their music away with the hope of generating income live. Incidentally, many live venues started to succumb to cultural changes brought about by the internet (people who stayed home to stream movies on platforms like Netflix) and were unable to stay open making it even more challenging for musicians to derive an income.

3.  The third approach is a present day approach. Music is ubiquitous so let’s create opportunity by finding the real demands of the market and meeting those needs

People are not buying cds. Based on Apple’s latest iTunes stats, they’re not even buying single tracks online anymore. They’re paying for services that stream whatever they want, whenever they want it.

But people don’t really care about streaming. What they’re really paying for is access to songs. More specifically what they are paying for is a feeling. They want to pump their fist in the air and mouth the words to their favorite songs. The real demand is to be moved emotionally.

Several years ago, I wrote an ebook called An Indie Music Wake Up Call. I ended the book with this quote:

“’Popular’ music in the 21st century will not be marked by musicians who play at being business people, it will be marked by entrepreneurs who happen to play and write well and firmly understand where the bottom line is.”

The bottom line is doing what you do in an honest and sincere way and cultivating tribes of people who identify with what you do and are moved by it. That feeling is a scarce thing. It is something people nurture and support.

I started the presentation talking about music in the time of Beethoven and in many ways musicians are coming back to the business model where music is something that is experienced rather than a genie locked in a digital bottle for sale.

In contrast to the professional musicians in Beethoven’s time were the musicians who performed folk music. This was communal music that was passed down aurally to each subsequent generation. It is no small irony that this music is now often experienced by audiences in a non-communal setting through recordings or in a formal setting such as concert halls.

Music is a language. In KoriSoron we take inspiration from a variety of folk music from around the globe and create original music based on that vocabulary. I can pick up words, phrases and even grammar by listening to others speak, but expressing the poetry of a foreign language authentically requires a context that is outside of my experience. So what is a musician from upstate New York to do?     I write my own poetry. I use the music from other cultures that speaks to me and moves me as a platform for creating new music to move other people.

The true beauty of music is that while it can be created on an intellectual level, it communicates to others emotionally. You don’t need to speak our language to be moved by it, you only need to listen.

Finally I’d like to talk about Past forward – a term I got from Ellie Lee, an animator and film maker I knew in Boston who now works in LA. Past Forward was a phenomenal event that she curated in a loft in Boston’s Chinatown. On Past Forward nights, people would go through an lightly marked door and pay a small cover to see films she brought to screen (often with the film maker in tow), eat homemade baked goods, drink beer and watch bands play. And there was a real community of people who came out to those events.

That DIY ethos of creating a scene was SO influential to me. That idea of sharing things that move you to move other people as well. It is at the heart of what I do as a guitarist. As a human being. It is at the heart of KoriSoron.

If what you want in the world doesn’t exist, you either wait for someone to make it or you make it yourself.  

I seek to speak to people and move them and truly moving people is an uncommon thing. It is scarce. It has value. It is worth doing.

Thank you.

…well…it was a strange weekend… pt 1

Right now some of you are reading this guitar-ish related blog after getting an email with the above title and probably rolling your eyes.

I hope you’ll bear with me.

TEDx Schenectady

A while back I was asked to perform at TEDx Schenectady and coincidentally enough a TED Talk / performance was something I always wanted to do.

More specifically, I was asked to do a performance with KoriSoron and talk a little about the music we played but I was having difficulty with that proposal as what we do, as a technical / craftsman’s approach, in KoriSoron isn’t really interesting to people who don’t have a music degree.  (Having said that it DID take quite a few performances for me to figure out how much context I’d have to give an audience for the pieces we played.)

The theme of this TEDx was “The Future is Now”.   To me, a TED talk should demonstrate ideas or approaches that are actionable for the audience in some way.  Lecturing on the broad strokes of South Indian music and how a group of musicians in upstate New York adapted that to western instruments and a quasi funk tune form wasn’t going to give people a lot to take home and adapt for themselves.

As an alternative I decided to:

  • Contextualize our performance by examining the transition from music being solely a live experience, to music being something held on an object that was played to music being something that had no associated object or per-sale cost associated at all.
  • Examine the real needs of the market and then talk about simply trying to give people the product they’re willing to support (namely artists and songs who move them).
  • Tie that back into what we’re trying to do (namely that) in KoriSoron.  We were told that we had a strict 18-minute time allotment.  I knew our tune was just under 6 minutes long so IF I could get my talk down to 10 minutes we’d have enough time to do both.

How To Prepare for a TEDx Talk

  • Have a unique point of view (and an end point) and if you’re not sure it’s unique make sure it’s going though some filter of you where you can present it authentically.  In general I’ve found that the only people who don’t worry about the uniqueness of their ideas are EXACTLY the people who SHOULD pause for a moment and ask, “Hey is this REALLY my idea and if it’s NOT my idea which part of it can I really call mine?”  If necessary, that is the thing to extract, refine and build upon.
  • Research.  This might seem like an odd second step but I think doing a little research on everything I’m considering talking about gives me a number of different perspectives (and may even change the focus of the talk) and – more importantly – it leaves a presenter in a better place if there’s a Q&A.
  • Outline.  When outlining, spend a LOT of focus on the beginning and the end.  The whole thing needs to be good ’cause if it sucks in the middle people will zone out in the end.
  • Write the whole thing out like a paper.  The “trick” to most art is the unimaginable amount of work that goes into making something look effortless.  Write big, broad and clunky strokes if need be.  Just get it down with the end goal of delivering it like a story (keep reading).
  • Read it to other people who will challenge or ask for clarifications about what you have written.   When you do this, imagine that you are reading someone ELSE’S talk to them and do NOT take their criticisms personally.  That’s really important.  I struggled A LOT with this presentation and determining what I wanted to mold it into and my wife was the one who said, “You have 16 ideas in what’s supposed to be a 10 minute presentation.  Maybe you should try 1 or 2.”  I don’t always agree with her, and I struggle editing with her because I DO tend to take her criticisms personally, but my work is immeasurably stronger after it’s gone through those passes because it helps clarify what I’m trying to articulate and why I’m trying to articulate it.  **Quick shout outs here to John Harper who did a lot of leg work and went through multiple revisions, Caroline Dillon who did a couple of passes with me, Warren Senders who was kind enough to give me 45 minutes of his time to talk about music as language, Daren Burns, Jose Duque, Ellie Lee and everyone else who helped with a kind word or an open ear.
  • Edit based on what you find of value from those criticisms.  Never say in four words what you can say in two and speak it aloud as you edit it.  (It doesn’t matter how good it looks on the page, if it can’t be spoken it’s worthless).  Also start to anticipate Q&A questions and work out some rough answers for them.  This game is 90% preparation and 10% execution (although on game day it’s 100% execution).
  • Time yourself reading it – without interruption aloud.  Try reading once fast and once slow.  Get a sense of what the time is.
  • This step depends on where you’re at.  If you’re way over time – you have to go back to steps 5 and 4.  (If you get 2-3 people asking, “Hey what about that one thing you had in there?” you may want to pay attention.)  If you’re at (or near) time – stand in front of a mirror and watch your recitation.  When you do this, try to watch yourself like a third person and be observational and constructive.  (Look for random pacing, shoulder slumping or odd postures, weird ticks or other things and unless you do this a lot you will be shocked at how you come actually across in public.  Recording this and reviewing the recordings is a good idea as well.
  • One thing you’ll notice is that your hands are probably awkward holding a sheet of paper.  Trust me – you DON’T want to be holding a piece of paper on game day.  Make an outline of points of your presentation to remember the “bones” of your presentation as a “story” instead of a number of phrases to memorize verbatim.  A story is more natural and flowing than a presentation and can be embellished and edited on the fly.  Try to remember the specific details of the original presentation and gradually start moving towards progressively smaller notes and moving away from the original presentation entirely.
  • Practice telling the story like an actor or a story teller.  Get back in front of the mirror and in front of people.  Record both versions and don’t stop adding, cutting, editing and revising until the story version of your presentation is better than the original presentation. Make sure to be aware of time and transitions.  Two days before my presentation I was still over so I kept cutting anything I could to make time.
  • This one might only apply to me.  Don’t get frustrated with yourself.  Don’t beat yourself up.  This is a profoundly artificial and unnatural process.  If you take this seriously and try to do your best, you will likely be confronted with deeply ingrained habits and other issues that you will have to try to fix on the fly to get through the presentation.  For me, this is another story for another time.
  • Prepare for a worst case scenario.  That doesn’t mean expect the worst just don’t get thrown when unpredictable things happen.  Be prepared to project and enunciate if the sound requirements aren’t what’s expected. (Neither of the mikes at my TEDx appeared to work so they just had to put an ambient mic in the front of the room.  The video isn’t available.)
  • Practice smiling and making eye contact.  You don’t need to practice this in any “audience” of friends or family with more than 2-3 people.  You want to engage people.  People can hear when you’re smiling on the phone.  They know when you’re engaged in a presentation.  If you practice the presentation stressed you can guess how you’re going to perform it.

So there’s the prep.  Now in contrast, the day before I had done a highly technical talk on FERPA policy that was just as awkward and stiff as trying to plow through 21 slides in 8 1/2 minutes would allow.  Let’s just say that that presentation needs some revision. ; )

How did this one some 22 hours later go?

Events like these are always challenging as there’s a LOT going on.   We picked the tune that best represented what we do with the least amount of gear.  I got there around 11 and the other guys got there at 11:15 and just before 11:30.  The event started at noon, but it turned out we had doors at 11:30 so we literally had 15 seconds to soundcheck and then had to strike the stage.

There was a first 1/2 then we kicked off the second half.  A few of the speakers had gone over so we were about a 1/2 hour behind so we had to set up quickly and go with what we had for the soundcheck.  I did my presentation and performed it the best I could.  I guessed it was going well because I saw a handful of cell phones start to go up as I was speaking so I guess I was saying something interesting.

I got to reference Hershell Gordon Lewis by name (I believe a TED first and a moral victory for me) and did a brief introduction before we played Ganamurti Melakarta.

I adjusted my sound based on the amp being on the floor (carpeted – the room in my house has wood floors and is reflective).  I made a bunch of quick adjustments before we packed up.  I made the semi intelligent observation to just put the amp on a flat wooden chair for a more reflective surface for the performance but forgot to adjust it when we played.  (3 hours later – “Why is it so nasally?  OH YEAH!…”).  So that got sorted out.  Midway through something happened where the form got changed just enough that it threw me off a little during my solo.  I got back onto it and rode it out until the end of the tune.  People seemed to like it.  We got applause.

We ran over so unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any questions.

The remaining presenters then presented and the event was over.

Managing Expectations

There is always a lot of built up stress followed quickly by an “Is that all there is?” reminder with events like this and that feeling is about managing expectations.  With any type of local event you should expect some variation on the following:

  • Don’t expect that the event is going to be a network event unless it’s billed that way.  A lot of presenters are volunteers.  They want to do what they said they’d do and split.  You’re going to be disappointed if you expect to speak to everyone.
  • Unless your name is on the marquee, the audience didn’t come there to see you.  I remember playing a gig once where no one said a word or had any reaction while I played and I thought people hated it. I packed up in silence and just tried to get out as quick as possible.   For months afterwards I’d run into people who were at that show who were really complimentary about my playing.  People don’t come to gigs to talk to musicians so if you want to speak to them (engage them and potentially start to build fans) you’ll need to introduce yourself and make yourself available to people as they mill about.  Every once in a while people will be moved enough to talk to you but openness is a two-way street.  Note – this is incredibly difficult at the END of a gig when people want to go home.  This is the challenge of a working musician.
  • That the event staff will be profoundly earnest and hard working – but will also not be people who do this every day and will generally not be able to anticipate every need.  When I’m working at Festival Cinema Invisible (FCI – a local Middle Eastern film festival that I’m the Artistic and General Director of) events at Proctors GE Theater in Schenectady, the people who work a lot of those events begin to anticipate any of the general commonalities.  You can’t do that when you run one local event in your first couple of years.  Managing the venue, tickets, and people and food and speakers.  It’s just too much.  (From personal experience a NOTABLE EXCEPTION to this rule is Maria Zemantauski and everyone associated with the HVCC Guitar Festival who put together an event that was one of the most musician friendly I ever attended.)  So plan on having your needs worked out (and their solutions if need be) in advance.    Ex: “No power?  No problem? I have a 50′ lead cord here!”
  • Gigs are always what you make them.  I find you do these events, just like you take the opportunities that you can, because it’s never known what person or situation you may cross paths with attending one but it’s certainly known what the opportunities are in not attending one.

 

This post is already two times longer than I intended.  I have a part 2  so I hope you’ll come back and read day two of the Cinderella story!

As always thanks for reading!

-SC

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!

-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