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 – every college on the planet needs students to go there.  They need the revenue.  It might seem like you have to prove to them that you are somehow worthy but really, most of the time you only have to prove that you haven’t already disqualified yourself somehow  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 now 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

The Accidental Path To Authorship – Part I – Angry Guitar

Recently, I had a Facebook Memory that came up from 2011.

Facebook Memory

 

This 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?”

My reply is long and probably will never be read by the people who want to learn more about retro-fitting Steinberger tuners on their guitar but it may be of interest to those of you at crossroads in your musical development as the path to learning guitar at a deep level in my case was not a straightforward journey.

Ultimately, it speaks more to:

  • having a deep seated “why” and a desire to learn
  • adaptability and having an ability to create opportunity rather than waiting for one to happen
  • simple endurance.  Being too pig-headed to refuse to give up and keep going despite not having any kind of external support structure.

 

Part I of my revised (and greatly expanded) reply is below.  I don’t know if this will help anyone, but I’m posting it with the knowledge that there’s much to be gained in examining what to do as well as what not to do.

The short answer is no, I don’t miss it.

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 was an important part of what I wanted to do. The more I was writing, the less time I had to actually play and the longer it was becoming before I released something.

Thank you!  Good night!

For those of you who want the MUCH longer answer, here you go…

My entire path to guitar started in anger.

I was in middle school and studying drums with Rex, who was a notoriously difficult teacher.  He would brag about having 20 people sign up for drums and only have 2 complete the program.  It took me years to realize that difficulty is not an indicator of the merits of an educator’s program, but instead an admission of an inability to engage students at a deeper level.  I would come to see this again with some of the faculty at Berklee when I went there years later.  It took me a long time to realize that truly great teachers (like Henry Tate, Mitch Haupers, Jon Finn, Stephanie Tiernan or Rick Applin at Berklee or Susie Allen, Vinny Golia or Miroslav Tadic at CalArts to name but a few) have an ability to explain things in an accessible way and draw students in rather than setting up artificial obstacles to knowledge to see if you were “worthy” of receiving it.
Anyways, back to drums.  I had done rudiments with the sticks and practice pad I got, but it was deadly dull and, as no one could explain the tie in to this and making music, I had no educational buy in.  So I decided to quit.  My friend Chad told me to check out this guy named  Jimi Hendrix and I taped the local classic rock station playing “Are you experienced?” on my boom box and that just burned a hole in my head.  I played that tape over and over again listening to the sounds he made on the guitar.

When I decided to drop out of the drum group, I said, “I think I’m going to learn guitar” and my classmate (and eventual high school band mate) Jeff said, “You’re never going to play guitar.” – and that’s all it took.  That one moment of, “I’ll show you!” fueled much of the rest of my life.

Lesson one – change can happen in an instant and one moment can affect the rest of your life.

My parents got me a beat up 3/4 size acoustic guitar that one of my cousins didn’t want to play anymore to play.   I liked it – but with approximately 1/2″ action at the 12th fret it was largely unplayable so with much cajoling, my parents bought a guitar.  I wanted a name model and what I got was an acoustic that my high school shop teacher Jeff Chappel made.

(Lengthy side note for you guitar geeks still reading this, my Chappel guitar is also one of the weirdest guitars that I own in that the scale length is completely non standard – something like 24.70″.  This in and of itself isn’t a big deal until you’re working at Sandy’s Music years later and have to reset the neck.  In doing so you realize that Jeff employed a furniture builder’s technique of doweling both sides of the dovetail joint for increased glue space after you DESTROY the heel of the guitar trying to get the neck out of the pocket.  This then requires getting Sandy’s guitar repair guy (and future FnH Guitar’s design guru) John Harper to rebuild the joint and ultimately employ a Taylor style screw system to keep the neck in place, reset the neck and create a new fingerboard where – lo and behold – the scale length becomes an issue when figuring out where the frets go.  All this took place over the decade long debacle that became the first of several guitar repairs on that instrument.)

At the time, owning a guitar my shop teacher made was unbelievably geeky – now it’s the coolest guitar that I own.  It was also geeky as I wanted to play electric.  At the time the acoustic in comparison just seemed lame and  much harder to physically play than electric. (This is more amusing as all the gigging I’ve done in the last 2 years has been on acoustic!)

Lessons

My parents insisted that I have lessons so I studied with the only guitar teacher in the area, a lovely older lady named Flora who taught piano and guitar out of her house and basically had me play out of the Mel Bay book series for much of high school.  This curriculum was not super inspiring to a guy who wanted to play rock guitar.

One of her other students was a classmate of mine named Yio.  One day he heard me butchering a version of “Paranoid” that I got out of the Guitar For The Practicing Musician magazine I picked up at the local news stand and had me play in his parent’s garage.  I lugged my Pro Co Scamp amp and whatever mongrel distortion pedal I had at the time to Yio’s house and we played a couple of tunes.  Our friend, Vince, was playing drums and we tried to plow through the Scorpions “Rock me like a Hurricane”. After I tried to play the first lead in the beginning solo and just played as fast as I could, Vince said, “Scott Collins – lead guitar!” and from then on that was kind of my role.

Lesson one revised.  One positive comment can affect you forever.

Yio and I formed a band, part of that band became another band and I played in those groups all through High School.  What I remember about that time was taking it VERY seriously.  I spent every hour that I could with a guitar in my hand.  This was pre-internet so I spent a lot of time learning things from records and tabs from Guitar For The Practicing Musician. I didn’t have videos to watch or people to study with I just tried to learn with whatever was nearby.

I still took weekly lessons up through my junior year of high school but my teacher didn’t really know how to help me.  She was a piano teacher who knew how to read and play chords from the Mel Bay book – so I had to learn for myself.  What strides I made as a player just came from being willing to do what other people were not willing to do – namely sit down with a transcription of something like Mr. Crowley and play the parts over and over again until I could get them under my fingers.  As I didn’t have a lot of social obligations for things I needed to do if I wasn’t in school or working on jobs my dad gave me,  I had a guitar in my hand and played a LOT of guitar (and picked up every bad habit a self-taught player could learn).

During this time, I organized Battle of the Bands through the Yorker club, the New York State historical Society, partially as a way to play but more because my dad was a faculty adviser for the group and would be there to see me play.  He didn’t go to any of the performances I had outside of those events and always assumed I’d grow out of the guitar thing.  He was bitterly opposed to me going to school for music. To give you some perspective how deep this ran, two years ago we were talking on the phone and he said, “You know I finally realized that you’re really serious about this music thing.  You’re probably never going to give it up are you?”

I get it now.  He wanted the best for me and in his mind the best for me was a stable job, home and family – none of which he saw in a career in music (looking back at this today I would say he’s 99.9% correct about that as well.  If those things are of value to you – you will have to make them work despite a career in music not because of it.

My mom on the other hand, was the one who championed what I did.  She supported me and told me that I needed to try to do my best at whatever I did.  In the end, my parents were there when I needed them and I couldn’t have gotten into Berklee without them.

Lesson two – No person is an island.  You need to have at least one person to help champion your decisions while you establish your path.

I wasn’t able to play guitar in high school bands because there was only one guitar chair and it went to the older players there.  I finally got to play in the Jazz band in my senior year (Yio was in concert band that year.  This is what happens when you’re in a school with 800 students K-12 – you get hand-me downs until your last day).  I was given charts for things like Chick Corea’s “Spain” with no explanation of what to do for rhythm (“How do I play this chord?”  “I don’t know”, the band teacher replied, “you’re the one who plays guitar.”) or lead or what was expected of me in the band.  With no information at hand,  I had to try to figure it out on my own.  Again – this is pre-internet – so my days were spent at the library trying to find out what a 7b9 chord was.  The Grove music dictionary I had access to wasn’t particularly helpful in this area.  This lead to a nightmare concert, and a feeling that Jazz was somehow beyond me.

Lesson three – mindset is everything.  If you don’t believe you can do something, you’ll never be able to do it with that mindset.

Somewhere in my Junior year, I picked up a copy of Musician magazine because my guitar god at the time, Yngwie Malmsteen was on the cover, and saw an ad for Berklee School of Music.  “You can go to school for music?”  I lead a sheltered life.  If you removed our cars, electricity and rotary dial phones we would have essentially been Amish.  I didn’t even know that going to school to play guitar was a possibility.   That became etched in my brain.  Again, since this was pre-internet you couldn’t go any look at something online to get a sense about it.  I sent away for some admissions material.  I took a trip and visited my friend Bob who was going to school there and we ended up seeing the midnight screening of an epic of American Film making, “Street Trash”.  Man was I sold!!  Sign me up.  This is the school I need to go to and the city I need to be in.

My high school wouldn’t release a transcript to me (and I didn’t know enough to fight it) so I had to give my Berklee application to them and they sent it off with the transcript.  I got a rejection letter in the mail.  It turns out the high school guidance office didn’t include my senior classes on the transcript, so Berklee rejected my application and said I’d have to re-submit.  We resubmitted and Berklee said that they’d already accepted too many guitarists into the program.  I’d either have to take the 5-week program or audition.  Well, my dad was violently opposed to me paying money to “take a God-damn summer music camp”, so I had to audition.  (Note:  auditioning now is the norm but at the time NO ONE auditioned to get into school.  Once I got there I found only 3 other people in my time there who had to audition to get in).

Again this is all pre-internet so there were no online resources to determine what Major 7 chords were.  There were chords, sight reading and a performance piece.  I went to the library and looked up all the information I could.  I created a book of my own chord voicings based on what I found there and learned Steve Vai’s final portion of “Eugene’s Trick Bag” for my audition piece.

Lesson four – when you face what is a seemingly insurmountable obstacle you can either make excuses or make it work.

I had a meeting with an admissions counselor at 9 am in Boston (a 4-hour drive away) and my performance audition at 10.  I stayed up until about 1 am working on the piece and my mom said, “You better get some sleep we have a long drive tomorrow.”  I went to bed.

I was laying on the bed and it took a while to go to sleep.  I remember waking up and my underwear were soaked.  “Did I just pee myself?”  Nope.  The heater for the waterbed heated through the liner and now the bed was leaking all over the floor (and precariously close to the power strip).  As I got out of bed, I also got the single worse charlie-horse I’ve ever gotten in my life.  I was pounding on the walls trying to get my parents to help, dancing around in a desperate (and futile) attempt to walk off the charlie horse for the better part of 5-6 minutes before they finally heard me.

My parents woke up and we ran a garden hose down the front set of stairs and out of the house.  My mom started to siphon the water at the bottom of the stairs and got a mouth full of bed-water which included the chemicals they use to prevent algae build up.  This resulted in chemical burns in her mouth which had to suck on the 4 1/2 hour drive each way to Boston.

We finally drained the bed around 3 am and I had to take a shower and go to the audition.  I slept a bit on and off on the way down.  The pressure was on.  In a bid to not leave myself an out – I didn’t apply anywhere else.  If I didn’t get into Berklee, there was no plan B.

I went to the admissions interview.  I remember the admissions counselor was cute and I tried to impress her with a number of books I read but (again) growing up in a vacuum, I didn’t know how to pronounce Sarte (“Nausea” and “No Exit” were two pretty influential books for me), Camus or Kierkegaard.  At the time I’m sure I thought I was being smooth, but now years later thinking about the 5-6 random long hairs that were passing as a mustache, my mispronunciations and awkward mannerisms I want to crawl back into bed and pull the covers up over my head as I type this.  I went from there to the audition in the 1140 Boylston building by walking down a flight of stairs that felt much longer than they were.

When I got to the audition there were awards and accolades for the man I was meeting with all over the wall.  It was more than a little intimidating.  He was perfectly nice and had me run through some chords (“We don’t get a lot of people coming in with drop-4 voicings” –  I had no idea what he was talking about.  There were just the voicings I figured out based on that I could get out of the Grove dictionary.)  some scales and then my prepared piece.  Which I hacked my way through as best I could.

I thought I blew it.  I remember sitting there thinking, “I didn’t get in.  My dad is going to kill me.  What am I going to do now?”

“I hear some promise in that.  I think you could probably figure it out and get tings together here.”

“Does that mean I got in?”

“Well, I have to give the recommendation to admissions but yes – you got in.”

“Oh my God!  I could kiss you.”

“Please don’t.”

Somehow, I made it through the audition and I got in.  We called my dad from a pay phone in Boston and drove back.

Lesson five – when your back is up against the wall you’ll find out very quickly just how bad you want something. 

In this case, I wanted nothing more than to play guitar.

I was incredibly excited.  I knew I was going to get my ass kicked, but anticipated learning a lot as well.

In Part II –

  • From the Farm to the Fusion Farm.
  • What’s it like to go to a music college?
  • Working for a livin’ – Band(s) in Boston.
  • The Escape Plan.
  • Books and life pre-and post music grad school
  • The Escape plan Part II

I hope this helps – or is at least amusing!

As always, thanks for reading!

-SC

New Lesson Part III – A Process To Get Better

Case Study

In part one of this series I laid a some ground work for the idea that improvisation can be utilized for a practice and compositional tool.  In part two, I showed how I used that approach to write a song and develop a lick for the solo .

Here in Part III of this series, I’m going to use the lick I came up with to show how I approach practicing.  While I’m demonstrating this to show how to get a specific lick under your fingers, this approach can be used for more rapid skill acquisition in any area.

Step 1: Separate A Specific Goal From A Desire

A lot of times, people will say they have a general goal like, “I want to get better at guitar” and then buy a book that they read a bit of any perhaps play something for a minute or two in an unorganized session and then play the same licks they were playing before and never open the book again.

“I don’t know why I don’t get any better.  I practice all the time and have dozens of books but I keep playing the same things.”

It’s because you have a desire but you don’t have a specific goal.

Desire is important.  It’s a motivator.  It’s the why behind the things that you do.  But desire doesn’t get things done.

“I want to be a jazz guitarist” is a desire.

“I’ve adopted a daily practice of learning a new standard in every key and transcribing my favorite artists soloing on those tunes.” is a more actionable goal that works in the service of the desire of becoming a Jazz guitarist.

Goals address what what and the how of the things that you do. The specific mentioned above  is important as:

Specific Goals Get Specific Things Done.

Depending on the thing you’re working on, a setting a realistic time frame for the goal might be make it easier to achieve as well.

In this case, my goal is to try to get this lick:

32nd Note Lick Revised

up to the tempo of the song I want to use it in.

Step 2: Identifying The Thing(s) To Work On

In my example above, my goal is very specific so in this instance that’s the thing I’m going to work on.

It’s important to note that in going through this process you will very likely realize that what you’re working on uncovers all sorts of other areas that need to be developed to achieve that goal.

For a non-musical example, if you made a New Year’s resolution to loose 50 pounds by summer you might have identified working out at a gym as one of the things to work on but actually getting to the gym consistently might be a bigger problem in realizing that goal.  So you’d have to address things like willpower / motivation or other issues in addition to the initial area identified (the need for more exercise).

In the lick above, there might be a whole host of technical issues (sweep picking, string muting, etc.) that needs to be addressed in order to be able to play on the lick.  That aspect of it can become very frustrating if you didn’t anticipate it.  Just be aware that working on one thing will often mean working on multiple things.

Step 3: Contextualize And Analyze

One common mistake that I see people make is learning a lot of licks and then not knowing how to use them.  By understanding what you’re playing and how it works in a harmonic context, you can then take that information and re-contextualize it – (i.e. use it for soloing in other songs).

I already did a lengthy contextualization and analysis of this in part two of this lesson.  But here’s a cliff’s note version.

In this case:

32nd Note Lick Revised

The lick is a diminished lick that I’m using as a solo over an ostinato.

Ganamurti Ost

Step 4: Deconstruct

So when faced with a lick like this:

32nd Note Lick Revised

many players will just set a metronome and just start whacking away at it to try to get it up to speed.

This is NOT the best way to address something like this.

I recommend breaking it down into components.  So if I look at the first two beats and slow them down – essentially I see:

four four sixteenth first
Which is just the same fingering repeated at the 8th fret:

four four positional sixteenth two

and the 11th fret:

Four Four Positional three

So if I look at that first lick again:

four four sixteenth first

I can see that it’s the same basic idea on three strings in terms of picking and fingering – a minor 3rd on the same string, a single note on the next string and a minor third on the third string.

Or isolated further essentially this.

Diminished 7th quint

While the fingering might be adjusted slightly for the note on the middle string,  the first thing to do is address this initial shape.  Because if I don’t have this down then the rest of the lick won’t come together.

Step 5: Refine

If the lick features something really unfamiliar to me – I’ll break it down even further.

  • My initial focus is to just make sure I get the right notes.  Rather than even looking at 1/16th or 1/8th notes I might break it down to this:

D Dim 7 to octave

or even this:

5 Note half Note

  • The first thing to address is the fingering.  I’ll use the 1st and 4th fingers for the notes on the outer strings and the 2nd finger on the inner string.

5 note fingering

This will keep the fingering the same on the D-G-B strings:

5 Note fingering-2

And when I get to the G-B-E strings the only finger I’m changing is the note on the B string:

5 Note fingering 3

  • The next thing I’ll address is the picking.  Note that I’m going to pick the form in a semi-sweep pick that might seem unusual:

Initial Picking

The reason for this can be seen better when you look at the lick in full position:

16th Note Initial Picking

The reason I start the lick on an up-stroke is to create a small sweep going between patterns:

Picking Excerpt

But this solution is just what works for me.  You could use hammer-ons to play the whole lick as downstrokes and that would work as well:
Hammer On Lick

The point here is to find what makes the most sense to you to play the lick to make sure that you’re playing it properly.

Step 6: Measure

Tim Ferriss has frequently thrown out this quote (proper citing needed)

“That which gets measured gets managed.”

When I go on a trip, my sense of direction is typically terrible.  If the sun is out I can work out “the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West” to at least get my general bearings but at night – left to my own devices without a GPS of some kind – I will typically go in the wrong direction.

I mention this because past experiences have shown me that using perception without any kind of concrete markings is a terrible measure for how I’m progressing on something.

In my case, I do several things to help measure how I’m doing.

  1.  I use a stop watch.  I’ve been practicing for a while so I can sit for longer periods of time and generally stay on task, but for the beginner I’d recommend a 5-15 minute block.  If I only have an hour to work on a few things, I’ll take 4 15-minute blocks and really focus on only one thing for that interval.  That’s why the stop watch is so important because it allows you to focus on the task at hand without spending any mental bandwidth on how long you’re working on something.  (Bonus tip – 4 FOCUSED 15 minute sessions over the course of a day will get you infinitely further than one unfocused 1 hour practice session at a time).
  2. I use a metronome or a time keeping device.  If I can play the lick at the beginning of the session at 100 and end at 105 I’ve made progress.
  3. I write it down and by that I mean I (generally) keep a daily log of whatever I’ve practiced for whatever length of time I practiced it for and make any notes of things I addressed.

    Example:

    “3/13/16:  5-Note Diminished run- 15 mins @160.  Work on articulating middle notes.”

    That’s really important.  So many of my students who say that they’ve never made progress before become VERY surprised when they have to write something down and REALLY see exactly how much (or in most cases how little) time they’ve actually put into something.

Step 7: Play it (or perform it, or do it) and observe it

Okay – we’ve covered a LOT of preliminary groundwork but the reason for that is because practicing something wrong will only make you better at playing it wrong and you will plateau at a much lower performance level.  Playing it correctly (i.e. with no tension, proper form, timing and phrasing will take longer in the short run but will save you insurmountable time in the long run.

I hope you’ll take this advice from my own experience.  I have had to start from scratch – from the beginning – TWICE – because of all of the bad habits I picked up and had to get rid of.  Had I know what I know now, I could have gotten where I am now in 1/4 of the time.

Here’s the trick to practicing this.

You need to really focus on what you’re playing and pay attention to how you’re playing it.  But you need to do this in an impartial way.

This means divorcing yourself from the outcome and just focusing on the moment.  The way I do this is somewhat schizophrenic in that when I practice I almost view it as if someone else is performing it.  While I realize that this may sound insane –  the point for me is to not get caught up in judging myself (“that sucked” doesn’t help you get better) but instead to focus on the process (i.e. the physical mechanics of what I’m doing. “Is it in time?  Is it in tune?  Am I playing that with minimal hand tension?)  The goal is to be as impartial an observer as you can be and just focus on the execution.

To do this, you’ll want to perform it at a level where it’s engaging (don’t make it too easy) but not so difficult that it’s overwhelming OR where you’re bringing in bad practice habits. 

When I was in high school I used to just practice everything as fast as I could and then use a metronome to try to make it faster and all that did was had me play with a lot of tension and not in a rhythmic pocket.  I could never figure out how people could play effortlessly and smoothly and it was years later that I realized that they played that way because they practiced that way.

Step 8: Correct

This is where the adjustments happen.  If my hands are tense, I adjust to play with less tension.  If my rhythm is off, I adjust to get back in time.  If other strings are ringing out, I adjust my hands to mute the strings better.

Step 9: Isolate the problem area(s) – Deconstruct Again

If I’m working on a big lick and have a problem switching position – I’ll apply this entire process to just that one problem area and correct that. Don’t spend 15 minutes playing 100 notes if you’re tripping up on 4 in the middle.  Get the problem area sorted out and then (once that’s worked out and smooth) work on playing the areas immediately before and after the problem and ultimately playing the whole thing.

Step 10: Play/perform/do it and observe it again

So I apply the correction.  When I get to the point where I can play it 5-6 times in a row perfectly, then I’ll adjust appropriately.

This Specific Lick:

Here’s how I tackle this:
32nd Note Lick Revised

  • Since it’s a repeating 5-note pattern, I start with the first 5 notes and establish a fingering and picking pattern.  I practice that with proper technique and timing and get it to where it’s smooth and effortless at a tempo.
  • I repeat this process with the 5-note pattern on the D-G-B strings and on the G-B-E strings, again getting each individual pattern smooth and effortless.  Spending more time on the first pattern gets these patterns under my fingers more rapidly.
  • Once I have the three patterns down I’ll focus stringing them together in position.16th Note Initial Picking
  • Once that position’s down I’ll do the same thing in the other positions:
    four four positional sixteenth two

and
11th Fret four four revised

  • Then I’ll focus on tying them all in together and look for trouble areas.  One issue I had with this pattern is making the switch from the high E string to the first note of the next pattern on the A string.
  • In this case, once I could play the full pattern with 16th notes at 160, I cut the tempo in half and started working on 32nd notes at 82.  I typically raise the metronome marking anywhere from 2-5 bpm when developing something like this until I get to my desired tempo.  The end tempo is typically 10-20 bpm above where I’m planning on playing it as playing it live with adrenaline kicking it in, we always play things faster so I like to be prepared (or at least more prepared).

That’s the process in a (rather large) nutshell!

My recommendation is to give it a go with something that you’re specifically trying to learn and see how it works for you.

  • You may find that it takes you longer than you expect it to
  • You may find the process uncovers a LOT of other things that need work

Those are both okay!  They come with the territory.  The good news is once you start doing this consistently, you’ll find that you make REAL progress in the things you’re working.

 

Here’s the big secret no one is probably telling you:

Practice requires practice!

Just like anything else, you actually have to practice practicing to get better at it (practicing).

The good news is you CAN get better at practicing and in doing so you will find that it actually takes LESS time to work on things because you get more efficient at what you’re practicing and how you’re practicing it.

As I mentioned before, I am working on a whole new pedagogical model that uses this methodology as it’s core to get better playing results in a shorter period of time.  I’m just about through the development stage – but if it’s something that interests you – please send me an email at guitar (dot) blueprint @ gmail (dot) com – and I’d be happy to send you more information once it’s ready.

Finally, consistent and steady wins the race

To get better at something isn’t any secret at all.  It’s putting in consistent focused time, day after day.

  • Be clear on what you want to do
  • Be clear on HOW you’re going to do it
  • Do it every day until it’s done

Move on to the next thing and repeat

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

-SC

A Few Connor McGregor Quotes To Consider

Right now some of you might be reading this and thinking,

“Oh Geez…what is up with this guy and MMA?  I just want to play guitar.”

But to me they’re related.  Completely utterly and totally.

Because what it takes to get on a stage and improvise is also what it takes to get in a ring with someone who wants nothing more than to knock or choke you out.

You have to prepare endlessly and ruthlessly and get yourself to the best possible place you can be in and even then, in your absolute prime, you might get caught and KO’d.

The fighters who quit at that point are the ones who look at the match and say, “All that work was for nothing.”  They’re wed to an outcome.

The fighters who stick it out are the ones who are wed to the process.  They know that sometimes you have a good night and sometimes you have a bad night but if your training and preparation is excellent, then there’s a likelihood that even on a bad night you might be better than your opponent is on a good night.

When asked, “Why would you post something about Connor McGregor after he just lost a fight?”  the above is the answer.  Everyone loses a fight.  Everyone gets knocked down but the question is what is it that motivates you to get back up again?

“There’s no talent here, this is hard work…This is an obsession. Talent does not exist, we are all equals as human beings. You could be anyone if you put in the time. You will reach the top, and that’s that. I am not talented, I am obsessed.”

and (Re: the Jose Aldo 13 second KO)

“To the naked eye it was 13 seconds, but to my team and my family it has been a lifetime of work to get to that 13 seconds.”

I’m going to be posting a lengthy description about what it really means to practice something as that relates to both short term skill acquisition and long term mastery.  It may provide you some solace that most people know nothing about practicing, because most people do the same thing over and over, make very little progress and assume that because they put in the time that they know how to do it.

And I know this because I’ve been there.  Heck, I spent most of my life there!  I’ve now been playing guitar for most of my life and I’m STILL confronting the differences between what I think and what I know.

A recent story from a recent gig

Last Friday, I played a gig with Korisoron.  It was our usual repeating gig with a big difference – we had a special flamenco trio playing with us and as my wife was the dancer, I wanted to make sure it went well.  (If you live in the capital region of New York and you’re looking for Flamenco dance lessons or someone to dance for your show you can find her here!)

So I was running around a lot.  There was a lot of pre show and packing and set up and I didn’t get to warm up before I played.

In the OLDE days, I would have an entire ritual that I’d go through running scales and whatnot trying to get my hands ready.  Eventually I figured out that those gigs never worked well.  The gigs I played the best were ones where I was very lightly wamed up and not thinking about it too much.

Instead of running scales, I’ll play parts of songs or, in this case, pick a slow tune to start of the set and warm up over a song or two.  By the second tune I was largely good to go.

Is that a strategy I’d recommend for other people?  Absolutely not.  It worked for me in that context because I’ve already put the work in.  The work happens in the shed.  If the prep is done then it’s just a matter of going out an executing the best you can.

In my experience there is no cookie cutter formula to gigs where you’re improvising a lot other than being able to gauge the situation, making yourself as comfortable as possible and working from there.  As a kid, i got frostbite in my hands and feet and now even on days with mild weather my hands need extra time to warm up.  If it’s a hot gig with a lot of sweat I have to make other adjustments for my hands.  If I’m in a room where I can’t hear that well – I have to adjust again.

That kind of self-awareness happens over years of playing and learning how you respond to things.  Of getting to the point where you know what works and what doesn’t for you.

If you put the work in, then 90% of what happens in the ring, on the stage, is mental.  IF YOU PUT THE WORK IN.  That’s an important clarifier I’ve seen a lot of people talk a good talk about the mental game and fall apart on stage because they thought something they didn’t know.

“To the naked eye it was 13 seconds, but to my team and my family it has been a lifetime of work to get to that 13 seconds.”

To the untrained ear, an improvised solo is just magic notes from some mystic place that flow out over a verse or a chorus.  To those in the know, it’s a lifetime of work to pull those notes from a very concrete place to then make that moment sing.

In the next post, I plan to outline a specific practice strategy for how I get something done on a deadline – but in the meantime I hope you’ll consider a few points.

  • You can’t get anything of long term value without putting in the work for it.
  • Focus on the process not just to the outcome.
  • It’s not just about mindless work.  Learn what works best for you and use that knowledge to make better gains in what you’re working on.
  • Talent is just practice in disguise.

Thanks for reading!

-SC

For those of you in NYC this Friday (3/11/16) KoriSoron is opening for Persian Tar and Setar virtuoso Sahba Motallebi at le poisson rouge – 155 Bleecker Street.  Doors at 6:30.  Music at 7:30.  $15 in advance.  $20 day of show.  More information on the Facebook event page here!

The Gig As A Teaching Tool And Evading The Black Hole

My relationship to gigging has changed a lot over the years.

For many years, a gig to me was only as good as what I played.   If I didn’t feel I played well, then the gig was bad and if I played well then the gig was good.   During that time, at best, I didn’t feel that I played any gig particularly well.

Mostly I would just beat myself up after a gig and disparage what I did as a musician and as a human being.  Because (the faulty logic went) if the gig sucked then I sucked at the gig and if I sucked at a gig then I must suck as a guitarist – and how could that be after all the time put into it to not suck?

That’s an amateur view of gigging.  It took me a while to realize  I was using bad logic and taking the wrong lesson away from what I was doing.  (You can read another post of mine here that goes into much more depth about the amateur mindset and how to discard it.)

All guitarists still play mediocre gigs….it’s just that great guitarists play them less often, and a great guitarist’s mediocre gig is still at a higher level than a great gig played by an okay guitarist.   Additionally, professional guitarists disconnect from gigs when they’re done.  They might struggle after the gig, but they let things go because there’s another gig on the horizon to focus on.

But mostly what changed my relationship to gigging was the audience.

I started realizing that my own self assessment was really secondary to what the audience got out of it.  If I didn’t care about what the audience got out of it, then there was no point in playing to an audience.

The weird thing is that the audience got VERY different takes on the gigs than I typically did.  The gigs I hated were gigs the audience members often dug… and he gigs I liked?  By and large the audience was apathetic.  Eventually – between the audiences assessment and my assessment – I learned how to really gauge the temperature of the gig and how it really went.

The real question here is – Why does that matter?

If you’re asking yourself that question to puff yourself up and convince yourself how great you are, being able to gauge the success of the gig is not helpful at all.

For me, the importance is that being able to gauge what happened more objectively is an opportunity to learn.  What worked?  What didn’t work?  What should I do again?  For the things that didn’t work, how can I prepare myself better to get a better result?  As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Case in Point:

Last night I played a benefit gig at a place called the Linda in Albany, NY.  It’s the performance arts studio for WAMC radio and a very cool venue with a great staff and cool eclectic booking.  We were playing a benefit for WAMC with three other bands.  Our soundcheck was scheduled for 5.  Doors were at 7.  We got there early but assumed we’d probably soundcheck at 5:30.

The Linda had put a new sound system in that day that they were trying out so the staff had already been on hand for most of the day.  Two of the groups were going to use a backline (i.e. have guitar and bass amps and a common drum kit for use by multiple bands) to save time both in sound checking and switching between bands.  We got there around 4:45 and soundcheck was running behind.  The two bands before us had a number of things that had to be checked and we ended up loading our stuff onstage to soundcheck at about 6:45.

So the event began with a little stress but, truth be told, most events work on a “Wait – wait – now Hurry UP!” cycle.  We got our things on stage and worked out a few things with percussion mics and ended up running a few bars of a few tunes.  The house sound is LOUD and the monitors in front of me are on the brink of feeding back.  The tone I hear coming back at me is MEGA treble so I try to adjust with my own eq but its still jarring to me and LOUD.    I ask to be pulled out of the monitor directly in front of me as  I figured I could just use the house sound as a monitor if need be.

We left the stage around 7:10 – feeling really bad that this essentially screwed Bryan Thomas, the opening act, out of any kind of a proper soundcheck.  We talked to him as he was setting up and he said he can work around it (and he certainly did – Bryan pulled off a really cool loop based solo singer set)!  We then walked over to Van’s (a great Vietnamese restaurant in Albany) to get some pho before the set, and literally get back for the last tune of Bryan’s set and then have to load on.

While we were gone, unbeknownst to me, the overall house sound system volume dropped.  We got on stage, said a quick introduction and launched into the first tune.

At this point I couldn’t really hear myself so I started picking harder.  A lot harder.  Like bluegrass hard.  It was way too much excess tension and my hands were not responding the way I wanted them to.  We get through the piece.

The audience applauds and I introduce the next tune.  We only have a 1/2 hour and have already cut one tune from the set to get in under the time limit so (in a bad judgement call) I’m more focused on trying to get through the gig than taking the 30 seconds it would take to fix the problem.  Tune 2 – my hands are not responding at all the way I want them to.  I’m playing and they’re losing synchronization.  At this point, I become mindful of the fact that in addition to being too tense that I also have some adrenaline going and that’s pushing me beyond what I should be doing – hence the lack of synchronization.  I take micro breaks where I can to make sure I can pull off the unison line at the end.  We get through it.  The audience applauds again.  I take a breath and address the issues.

I try to joke with the audience to build rapport and keep them engaged.  I ask for some of myself back into the monitor.  Tune 3 is a slower tune.  I scale back and try to play less and continue to rest my hands where I can.  I try to balance being engaged with the music with doing what I need to do to technically get through the gig.  We get through the rest of the set.  It’s not one of my better performances – but it’s the best I can do in the situation.

I’m bummed because I know that this performance is being recorded for a future broadcast and I’m not super psyched about all of my mistakes being experienced over and over again but on the plus side, the audience is awesome.  They’re kind and super receptive, really giving us something back and really digging what what we’re doing.  The Linda staff is great and super supportive and John Chiara did a great job We make some new fans and some new friends.

I don’t play particularly well – but it’s a good gig for us.

This is one of those situations where my problem easily could have easily trainwrecked the gig.  You ever have that moment where you wake up and something bad happens when you get out of bed and that sets off a whole series of chain reactions in place (like tripping over a laundry hamper, cutting yourself shaving and/or burning yourself with spilled coffee)?  I call that entering the black hole.  Once you get sucked into a bad moment, it’s easy to get caught in the inertia of that energy (the  gravitational pull of the black hole) and just have compounding errors that spiral out of control.

There are two ways out of the black hole – and both involve mindfulness.

1.  Don’t go into the black hole.  If things go wrong, be aware of what’s happening and make mild adjustments and try to stay on course.

2.  If mistakes are compounding – take a breath.  Observe what is going on and make necessary corrections to get back on track.

This doesn’t come naturally.  You can’t learn it in a practice room by yourself.  The only way to be able to do this mid-gig is through a lot of practice and (un)fortunately, I’ve had numerous opportunities to practice this in a live setting.

Gigs are valuable opportunities to gain insights about what you do and the best ways to do it and (without getting to wu-wu here) no matter how many gigs you play, you will always learn something if you’re ready for the lesson.

As always, I hope this helps!

Thanks for reading.

-SC

Recording Prep, A Mini String Review And Why I Rarely Write About Gear Anymore

KoriSoron’s Recording!

KoriSoron is going into the studio next weekend to record 3-4 songs for release before the end of the year.

By “studio” I don’t mean tracking something at one of our homes and self mixing and releasing it (though there’s nothing wrong with that), I mean actually going to a distinct physical location where a professional has set up gear to mix and record and recording something, mixing it there and releasing it.

Now I hear a number of people saying, “Well that’s dumb – why would you do that when you can do it at home and save money?”  The answer is multi-faceted.

  1. Time is money and I want to save time.  If I’m working on a project with a budget and a deadline, it’s pretty easy for me to knuckle down and get things done.  But when I’m working on projects without a deadline…..it’s just too easy to go down the rabbit hole of distraction.  What’s the quote, Perfect is the enemy of done?  If you want it done, you need to have limitations and the external studio is an awesome limiter.
  2. A big part of our sound is the group playing together.  Doing something where Dean records a percussion part and Farzad and I overdub everything would ruin the sound.  It would be sterile.
  3. Live we improvise a great deal.  That requires getting it off the stage instead of making 100 passes at something and comping it together in a take.
  4. Recording acoustics at home – without an iso booth – is a nightmare.  Really.  It’s worth it to me to just let someone else do it.

So that means I’m spending time in pre-production so I’m not wasting time in the studio.  We use a Tascam DP-32SD to mix our shows and generally hit the record button which gives us valuable information on how things sound in reality (often very different than it sounds in memory and/or in our head at the time) and allow us to really prepare for things.

In a live setting everything I play for solos is improvised – but in the studio that ratio is probably more like 25-30%.   Live, I’m dealing with immediacy and in recording I’m dealing with posterity.  Recordings for me are sonic documentaries in that they’re a reflection of where I am in the moment.  Although I really like the work I did with Tubtime (and some of my other projects) I don’t go back and listen to them often as it’s like finding a picture of yourself in your high school year book and cringing a but while asking, “What was I thinking?”.

Since I relate all music to communication –  in a live context I try to have a moment of inspiration where I start to say something and come to a conclusion or observation that is engaging and surprises me as well.  A recording is more like a speech where I have have talking points and a general idea where I’m going to end up, but want to keep the transitions loose so I can engage the audience more.

Preparation in this case means really being aware of what the other guys in the group are doing and being aware of what I’m doing as well.  Sonically, that means really having my sounds down so I can be adaptable in that what might sound great in the practice room or on stage will not work for the studio.  I not only have to be dialed into the nuances of my tone to be able to adapt to what’s going on but I also need to be comfortable enough with what I’m playing to be able to play even if I don’t like the sound coming out of my headphones.

The Gear (and why I rarely write gear reviews here anymore)

My electro-acoustic rig is a Yamaha APX-1000 and a ZT Amps lunchbox acoustic amplifier with a boss volume pedal, a looper and (lately) a LR Baggs Session DI in the effects loop.  Everything is cabled with D’Addario/Planet Waves cables. Sometimes a Yamaha THR-5A is thrown into the mix as well.

For strings, I’ve used a bunch of them but keep coming back to D’Addario for my steel strings and electrics.  A while back D’Addario was looking for beta testers for their Acoustic Alloy N6 strings and I sent them my bio and they send me a pack of beta strings.

I really dig them, and they’ll be my go-to acoustic string once they’re commercially available.  They look more like electric guitar strings in that they don’t have that phospher bronze color.  D’Addario cites their use of hegagonal cores and High Carbon Steel in the construction.  All I know is the harmonics of the pitches seem to be clearer, and warmer.  They hold tone really well and also hold tuning really well.  It’s a great sounding string.  If you pick up the upcoming KoriSoron recording you’ll hear it on there.

Two other quick notes about my current rig.

1.  My electro-acoustic.  I really lucked out with this guitar.  I think Yamaha is doing really great work at a great price point.  Originally I played at APX 500’s as they were easier to get my hands on – but I like the nut spacing and construction better on my APX1000.  This is just a great acoustic-electric guitar and I hope to expand my relationship with Yamaha in the future.

2.  My amp.  The ZT Amplifier folks have been really supportive of KoriSoron and their amps have actually made me a better player in that they have a hi-fi quaility to them.  By that I mean, that they take whatever you are playing and reflecting that accurately at a higher volume.  In my case, it meant  some of the things  I was playing that I thought was “good enough” turned out to have technical issues and every biffed note and non articulated thing I played became apparent.  I had to go back to the drawing board for and really clean up some of the things I was playing to get them to sit in the live setting properly.  Those are things I might not have noticed with a mic – but it’s really re-focused how I play lead on acoustic in a good way.

Not all traffic is good traffic

When I write about gear on my blog, I only write about things that interest me or that I use (or have used) that I think would be of interest to other people.  There are a lot things that I’ve used that I don’t like and I don’t write about them because there’s enough other negativity on the web.  I’d rather be constructive about what I like and what could be made better about it, than trash something.

From a traffic standpoint that’s not a good idea.  I’d get much more traffic knocking something than writing about liking it – but it’s not the kind of traffic I’m looking for here.  Several years ago I write about a brand of tuners that I was using at the time.  I won’t mention them here because I don’t want additional traffic from them.  I found out that people were VERY opinionated about these tuners.  I started getting daily notifications from people who had technical questions about the tuners.  Requests for advice on installation or repair of the tuners.  Several people tried hijacking the blog and making it a marketplace for the tuners.  One person accused me of being a liar and fabricating my experience leading up to my use of the tuners.

I had posted my opinion about the tuners on the blog because I was using them and because I thought it would generate some traffic.  I thought that traffic might lead to people checking out other things I was doing and maybe buying a book or a cd.

But that’s not how the internet works.

People find a blog based on searches.  If they are looking to have an opinion validated or disputed about their a piece of gear, they are not going to read other things on your site to find out your approaches to pedagogy or art and artistry.  I have always been upfront about my posts here.  I write about things that interest me and write from a standpoint of what will help other people on the same journey.  I also promote things that I create.

Not all things are going to be of service to all people. In the words of one would-be commentator on a post about paying dues;

“Hey Man, WTF? I subscribed to your list as a way to learn. Your explaining company policy? Ok, that’s your focus. Cool. Thanx, but I’m out.”

Think about this from my perspective.  Someone came to the website, got free information and then got offended because I didn’t post another free lesson?  That person will never buy a book, buy a cd or support me in anyway.  They came because they wanted something free and only because it was free and I’m supposed to be upset because they’re gone?

Oh well….

Not all traffic is good traffic.  You’re not going to please everyone with everything that you do.

  • My interests are music and the deeper developments that we make as people by going deeper into art (or deeper into any kind of interactive experience).
  • My interests are how musicians and artists can navigate the current economic landscape to allow them to devote the time and resources to their art that they wish to.
  • My interests are in how to communicate on a deeper level and reach people.

That’s why my posts are generally longer.  From a pure traffic standpoint it’s dumb to write a 3,000 word blog article.  My writing is improvisational as well so these posts typically take hours to write as it requires substantial editing to make it something readable – but I engage in this process because it makes the writing more immediate and, in my experience, makes it more engaging and thus more rewarding for the reader.  Again, not smart from a business perspective but necessary for my goals.

I don’t write the article for the reader who is looking for a quick hack to get 1% better at this thing to then move on to the next thing to get 1% better at.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the focus here.

I write for the person who wants more.  Who wants more deeply.  Who wants to engage with the world on a deeper level.

If you’re reading this and nodding your head.  I write for you and I’m grateful for the opportunity to reach you.

As always, thanks for reading.

-SC