Are You Investing Enough In Yourself?

There’s a difference between spending and investing.

Many players spend a lot of time playing the guitar but don’t invest enough time in developing themselves.

A while back, I was reading a collection of interviews with graphic designers and one of them said something to the effect of,

“When people bring me portfolios of their work I often find myself saying, ‘I don’t want to see what you did 2 years ago…I want to see what you did 2 weeks ago, or better yet 2 days ago!”

At different points in one’s journey investing might mean:

  • Buying a guitar to learn how to play
  • Perhaps investing money and/or time into lessons
  • Investing in yourself by practicing
  • Investing in your gear maybe by getting your guitar set up or getting better gear
  • Booking gigs
  • Performing in front of people
  • Recording your music
  • Releasing your music
  • Improving your skills / your tones / your sound
  • Developing your brand
  • Cultivating an audience via social media
  • Developing media relations and contacts
  • Developing products and services for sale

As a whole trying to take all of these things on can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. In an interview with Lewis Howes, Chris and Heidi Powell talked about how they work with clients.  I’ve paraphrased one important thread from about the 59 minute mark or so:

  • So often people see the change they want to make as a huge mountain. They go to extremes to try to tackle the whole thing at once and convince themselves that the fun ends here.  Over the course of a day a week a month… they try, and they try and they fail and try and then fail (again).  They continue to fail (by trying to take on something too large to tackle) and before you know it they don’t believe in themselves anymore at all.

 

  • They then try to convince themselves and everyone around them that they’re happy with who they are and where they’re at – because they don’t believe that they have what it takes to (make the change they want to make). They make excuses for other people’s success and say, “well that’s just my limitation. I’m different.”

 

The reality for most people is not that other people are different – but the approach is different for the people who are successful. The people who are successful start so incredibly small…transformation doesn’t happen by committing to 20 things at one time.  It’s about making one unbreakable promise at at time.But you have to do it every freaking day.  You can’t miss a day and it has to be so incredibly simple that you will never miss a day.  Guess what?  By the end of that week you start to believe in yourself and you keep up momentum.

 

“Because we take people who have lost hope in themselves, because they’re looking at me and they say, I’ve tried and failed so many times that I’m never going to get there.  … That’s exactly how we grow it – one simple promise at a time and by doing that you keep yourself winning.  If you can keep yourself winning you start to believe in yourself again and there is nothing more powerful than belief.”

So here’s a question to consider,

“Are you investing in your goals / yourself in some way every single day?”

 

Not: “what did you do a week ago?”

Not: still reveling in that big gig you played a year ago.

Not: the 5 books you wrote 6 years ago ; )

What is your goal? (and what did you do yesterday / today / tomorrow to reach it?)

Not one epic Herculean accomplishment.

One small significant decision.

One small significant action.

For myself this means a lot of changes by the end of the year.  In addition to being 30 lbs lighter (and counting), two new bands, new releases, a re-branding and all new live content.  None of these things came from doing anything really radical.  They came from putting consistent work in.

Follow up and Follow through.

Change comes one decision at a time. 

One action at a time. 

Every.  Single.  Day.

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you are looking to make a change in something you’re doing.

  • Try making a commitment to making one promise that you will do consistently.  Even if it’s only for 30-60 or 90 days.
  • Build off of small successes.
  • See what happens after your trial period and adjust as necessary.

Here’s hoping this is your best year yet!

I’m at a music business conference next week.  Regular posts should resume soon.

I hope this helps and, as always, thanks for reading.

SC

Motivation Is A Question Of “Why” Not “How”

Today I want to talk about a technique for understanding and focusing motivation but first…

The Obligatory Update

I have been remiss in posting here.  As I write this I’m taking a break from prep for a back to back recording session coming up on the 15th with I Come From the Mountains (a new duo acoustic instrumental ensemble with Dean Mirabito from KoriSoron playing an Iranian / Middle Eastern / Hindustani hybrid / fusion with me playing modified acoustic guitars (fretless, 10 string guitar modified from a 12 string and a 6-string multiple capos) and Dean playing  tabla and Middle Eastern percussion) and Embe Esti (a loosely Afrobeat inspired electric band with guitar, bass, drums and vocals that brings in a lot of North African and Balkan influences as well).  WOW is that an awkwardly long sentence!

( In a gear related note – with the exception of the fretless guitar –  all of the guitars and amps I’m using are from Yamaha – so Yamaha Guitars / Yamaha THR if you’re reading this and have any interest in sponsoring a future recording session please feel free to get in touch! ; )  I’ve been working with their THR100HD amp and have gotten some really great tones with minimal pedals  so I’ll share my different rigs with you in a future post).

So writing a lot of new material and developing new projects.  New websites for both soon!

The Best Free Lesson I Can Give You

If you go through old posts you’ll see that I hammer this point over and over again.

You have to have a why to travel any distance on the path to mastering guitar.

 

Here’s why this is important.  Let’s say you’re in a playing rut.  You keep playing the same thing over and over and don’t know how to get out.  You get motivated and sign up for a video course and give them your credit card number.  You log in the first day and start working on the first lesson.  In this case, you happened to go with a player you like but you didn’t understand that the material is way too hard to process at your current skill level.  So you work with it for about an hour and take a break for a bit…and then never come back to it.  Or you buy a book and it comes in the mail and you crack the cover and never return to it.

Does this sound familiar?

The problem most players face at some level is they don’t understand why they are doing what they’re doing.

As a beginning player:  if you don’t have a strong enough motivation you won’t play enough to develop the callouses you’ll need to play.

As an intermediate player: if you don’t have a strong enough motivation you won’t practice the things you need to work on to develop the skills you’ll need to progress to higher levels of expression.

As an advanced player: if you don’t have a strong enough why you may get to a point where you have developed a substantial skill set but can not earn a living from that skill alone.

This is kind of the mid-life crisis of guitar.  Fortunately, I’ve gone through many of these throughout my time playing guitar but players who have never faced can be in for a devastating experience .

See The “What” Is Easy

There’s 12 notes.  Simple.  You can get the basics of chords and scales in a day, grasp them more fully in a week and start to really do something with them in as little as a month if you really put the work in consistently.

The “How” Is Also (Relatively) Easy

When you buy an instructional product  what you’re buying is instruction on the how.  There is a literal deluge of instructional material both online and in print.   Even the most basic of searches will lead you to someone who can show you how.  The how is something that is also pretty easy to get under your fingers if you really put the work in consistently (and can be patient about how long it will take to do that work).

The “Why” Is Where You Are On Your Own

If you don’t have a reason for why you are doing what you are doing you won’t put the work in day after day and without that consistence – you will never progress.

Here’s the simple thing to do to get to the core of matter

When I teach a guitar lesson to a beginning student I will often attempt to drill down to what the motivating factors are by asking a series of “why” based questions.

Q: “So what brings you here today?”
A: “I want to learn how to play fast?”
Q: “Why?”
A: “Why what?”
Q: “Why do you want to learn to play fast?  What will playing fast allow you to do that you can’t do now?”

Based on the answer – this starts a series of drill downs of variations on the question to get to the bottom – why are you really here?  What are you really trying to do and most importantly, what is the real goal that you are working towards?

Playing fast isn’t a goal – it’s a pathway to a goal that might be better reached a thousand ways.  If the actual goal and motivation is understood it’s much easier to commit to putting the work in consistently to reach it.

Here’s a hypothetical non-musical example played out a little longer

“I want to exercise”
“Why?”
“So I can gain muscle”
“Why”
“So that I look better”
“Why?”
“So people will date me”
“Why?”
“So I’m not alone”

So in this example the exercise is in service to a larger goal – excising loneliness.

This process for me came about after years of me feeling guilty about going to Berklee and never really delving into jazz improv, only to dig deeper into why I thought I should be working on that and realizing I didn’t really like a lot of standards  I was pursuing it in a half-assed way because I thought it was a skill set I should have, but in reality the tunes never moved me so my motivation to work on them wasn’t there.  When I spent the time working on things that moved me emotionally, I got into more challenging music that required doing some of the work I didn’t want to do before because the context was one I wanted to explore.  So I kind of came to the same place through the back door…

Here’s the takeaway

If you have an issue with motivation, try diving deep with a series of “why” questions to get to what the underlying reason behind what you are doing really is.  Once you understand your real motivation, it’s easier to be more objective about how to best work towards realizing an associated goal.

I hope this helps and as always, thanks for reading!

SC

 

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