…well…it was a strange weekend… pt 2

In part 1 of this saga, I talked about the lead up to (preparation for) and follow up to the TEDx Schenectady performance I did this past Saturday.  If you have interest in how I prepared for an intensive presentation (and thus how you can as well), you can read that here.

Here in part 2, I’ll talk about goals, perspective, food poisoning and infection with regards to last Sunday.

Oh what a difference a day makes!

Last Sunday I awoke to a perfect day.

A gorgeously stunning sun shiny day.

I was feeling motivated and looking forward to getting a lot done.

I fed the cats, read some things that had been on my to-do list for a while and planned out my to-do for the week over some coffee.  I went down to the local farmers market, got some groceries for the week, ate a spinach and cheese empanada from a local vendor that I’ve supported in the past, and headed back home to catalog and review the latest batch of films for the next FCI film festival.

Somewhere around noon, I paused to take a break from cataloging and got up to get a drink of water.  When I sat back down I felt a chill.

It wasn’t really cool enough for me to be cold.

Several minutes later, my whole body stated shaking.

I knew what this was.  This was food poisoning.

Sparing you the gory details but suffice to say that, as my wife was out of town, I did everything I could to just make it to the finish line on my own in the worst 28 hour endurance test I’ve ever had the misfortune to be subject to (as a reminder for long-time readers –  this is from a person who, to meet the requirements of a medical test he subjected himself to once for remuneration, had to stay awake for 63 hours straight in bed in an eight lux room (something darker than dusk but not night time), without any time cues or artificial stimulus, without moving, without caffeine or chemical stimulant, drinking water, eating 1/4 pieces of pb&j sandwiches at regular increments, and not knowing how long he would have to stay awake for).

The next morning after the fever broke, I noticed a large red rash that hurt to the touch, covering much of my lower left leg.  I assumed that I slept on the leg wrong and cut off the blood supply.  A trip to the doctor’s several days later provided the explanation that I had a substantial staph infection.  Additionally, due to the localization of the infection and the severity of the rash, I had probably been battling a staph infection for a while asymptomatically and that it was only when I got the food poisoning that the body couldn’t fight the initial infection anymore.

And this was interesting because for much of the last several months, I was just perpetually exhausted.  I would get home and just be wiped.  I would have to force myself to stay awake after 8pm.  It made no sense.  It does now.

Getting sick was a drag, but I had a number of things to be grateful for.

  • Had it happened a day earlier – there’s NO way the TEDx speech would have happened.  So I’m glad that didn’t get ruined.
  • It revealed a real illness that had been lurking inside of me.  You can’t treat what you don’t know is here.
  • It got me focused.  While writhing around in agony from food poisoning there wasn’t a single thought that went through my head for any length of time that didn’t come back to my immediate well being.
  • At the end of the day, I play guitar.  I don’t take that for granted.

I see a lot of advice for musicians and guitar players that appears contradictory, but it’s often contradictory because the advice that you might need in your 10th year of playing guitar isn’t necessarily the advice you need in your first 3 months of playing guitar.

I had a LOT I wanted to get done this week.  It didn’t happen.  Life happened instead.  It’s inconvenient but it’s not a big deal.  I’m on this trip for the long haul.  I’ve seen peaks and valleys and will continue to visit both of them because the only way to not see them is to decide you’re not going to go anywhere further.  That’s a creative death sentence.

Now I’m going to go play some guitar.

As always, thanks for reading.

-SC

A Music Business Lesson From A Film Festival

Hi Everyone,

It’s been a while since I posted anything there’s been quite a bit going on including:

  • Getting some of the Rough Hewn trio tracks ready for fall
  • Working on the new KoriSoron release
  • Performing the guitar parts for a guitar battle for an episode of a well known animated series (I can’t divulge information yet – but all I can say is that it’s on a network that specializes in cartoons)
  • Pulling together material for a TEDx Schenectady presentation I’m doing on September 10th
  • Putting a front porch on my house
  • Reviewing material for a Film Festival

 

This last point is one I wanted to bring up here as seeing the other side of what’s essentially a competition, is very different from actually submitting something to a competition.

FCI

This will be my third year as a volunteer artistic director for the Festival Cinema Invisible (FCI) a film festival that’s devoted to screening films from the Middle East that are invisible for one reason or another (censorship in one’s home country might be a reason – or perhaps films that sit in the margins for one reason or another and simply won’t be screened in movie theaters or available on demand. We partnered with Proctors Theater in Schenectady to screen the films on the largest screen outside of NYC and as I love films and have some ties to the music and culture of the Middle East it’s generally really rewarding for me to be involved in.

In any event planning like this – a nearly insurmountable amount of work is required behind the scenes to make sure that the Festival runs at a minimum and runs smoothly at an optimum.  One of the things that occurs is the film review process.  To put on 2 days of films this year (Approximately 40-50 feature lengths and shorts) I’ll have to review an exponentially larger number of films.  (Currently we’re at almost 300 submissions and 11 DAYS of view time required to get through them.  The final will probably be closer to 1,000 films).

Some of you are reading this and likely thinking, “Oh that sounds sweet!!”  and when you find a great film it certainly is.  It’s like going out to a live show and getting bowled over by a band you’ve never seen before (which happened to me last week seeing DhakaBraka just devastate a crowd that was largely there to see a free show and didn’t know what to expect from the band.)  but finding those great shows requires wading through a LOT of bad films.  Think about the time you went to see your friend’s band and had to sit through an opening act (or 2…or 3) you didn’t like.  Looking at phone to see the time), “Is this almost over?”  There are definitely a lot of those films, but the biggest drag is that there are a lot of really good films that I’ll never be able to see and that’s the topic of this post.

Unfortunately, we have to reject some really good films outright because they don’t meet the requirements of the festival.  More than 1/2 of the films that we’ve rejected have fallen into this category.  And that made me think of musicians.

How many times in my noob past did I send something out to someone for consideration or review that wasn’t what someone was asking for because I thought the merits of what I was doing would supersede their requirements?

“I know this says they want a pop tune – but when they hear the chorus they’re going to be bowled away.”

“I know this says contact them first – but when they see my cool packaging they’ll open it anyways.”

If you’re submitting something to someone it’s very important to make sure you’re doing it in within the submission guidelines and in the proper manner.  If the guidelines or the proper manner is not known, it’s important to ask if you want it to have any chance of being considered.

That’s what I’m dealing with now.  Films with breathtaking cinematography, great acting, and or amazing ideas that I’ll simply fast forward through because I know that I’ll just have to reject them to try to get to the overwhelming number of films that MIGHT make it into the competition.

This advice is particularly important if you’re:

  • Contacting a new venue for booking
  • Contacting an entertainment lawyer
  • Submitting something to a Festival or competition of some kind
  • Trying to get signed to a label

That’s it for now.  I have a LOT of films to get though and a lot of prep for the TEDx talk.

As always, thanks for reading!

-SC

“New” Recordings Announced for 2016

Hi Everyone!

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

Rough Hewn Trio (!!)

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

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

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

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

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


Onibaba

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

From Daren Burns’ description on Vimeo:

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

Here are some videos from a performance in 2010


Onibaba is:

Daren Burns – bass

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

Scott Collins – guitar

Vinny Golia – woodwinds

Kio Griffith – live video

Geroge McMullen – trombone

© Urban Nerds 2010″


KoriSoron

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

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


Solo Acoustic

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


Mas!

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

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

-SC

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

Recap from Part One of this post.

A Facebook Memory that came up from 2011:

 Facebook Memory

 

prompted a question from a friend of mine.

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

This prompted a long reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berklee

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

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

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

How hard can it be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freshman Roy Hargrove (now 2 time grammy winner)

Freshman Geoff Keezer(now 2 time grammy winner)

Freshman Seamus Blake

Freshman Dwayne Burno

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

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

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

So that was day one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Fateful day I stopped being a Guitar Major

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

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

I dug in deeper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok so imagine this scenario.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always Have an Exit Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Biggest Lesson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

have some more information.

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

Thanks for reading.

SC

An Update and Part 1 of a new lesson

One small step for man

I’ve been doing a LOT of research on pedagogy and rapid skill acquisition versus mastery in preparation for the new teaching project I’ve been developing.  It’s reinforced a lot of what I’ve learned through trial and (a great deal of) error, and it’s given me some new tools and insights for how to get people to learn new skills quickly and how to get people who want to go past competence to go past their current limits towards mastery.  The new project I’m working on is audacious and big and, to be candid, intimidating to try to develop, encapsulate and ship out to people, but it’s getting closer to being done!

In the meantime, it’s been a while since I wrote a lesson post.  Mostly, it’s because what takes 5-10 minutes to explain in person takes hours of work to explain to people in a way that you can learn from reading online.  With that in mind, I’m going to take a lesson regarding how to come up with your own licks and how to learn them efficiently and break it up into a multi-part lesson.  In this lesson, I’m going to give you an approach to generating new ideas and then in the next lesson, I’m going to take you through a practical application and show how I develop a new idea and get it under my fingers (and into my ear so I can have it at my disposal when I play).

Where do licks come from?

In my experience there are two primary ways to develop your lick vocabulary.

  • Learn licks from other people and make them your own.
  • Discover licks on your own.

Improvisation

There are several ways to discover your own licks but a the one I invest the most time in myself is improvisation.  When I’m really improvising (and not just sticking licks I already know into things I’m playing over), I always find some new angle or approach that I never expected.  But if you’re really in the moment, it’s impossible to keep of all those ideas afterwards using only memory.

Let’s talk about improvisation for a moment.  As even Derek Bailey couldn’t really encapsulate it over a hundred or so pages it’s not something that I’m going to be able to do here in a few sentences, but I’ll do my best to give you some thoughts on improvisation.  I’m going to use language as an example as we improvise when we speak every single day and generally do so quite naturally without a great deal of stress or worry.

Let’s say you’re going to give a speech.  You want the speech to be professionally delivered and polished so you write it in advance, edit and revise it endlessly and practice giving it over and over again so that when you go in front of a room full of people you can execute it in a perfect manner.  This is kind of  a classical music approach to having every performance be perfect.  It’s like working out a solo and playing the same solo every night over a song.  There’s nothing wrong with that, you may need to be that comfortable with the material to get up in front of an audience and speak.  But over time, you’ll probably find that it will be difficult to maintain the passion in performing the same material exactly the same way every time.

As an intermediate step, you might find yourself interjecting some new observations into the speech on the fly.  Perhaps someone asks for a clarifier about something you said and you need to come up with a more detailed explanation or an analogy.  Maybe a Q&A is added at the end of the speech.  It becomes a “thinking on your feet” moment.  Now you’re improvising a little.  Maybe you add little flourishes in a pre-written solo, or throw some licks in between a vocal melody if you’re playing guitar on something.

Now you know the speech (and the subject matter) thoroughly.  You don’t want it to be stale, so you have a series of talking points on an index card.  You know how you’re going to start the speech and how it’s going to end, but you just have a few bullet points on an index card to use as a launching point for talking about them in more depth.  This is how many people approach jazz/rock improvisation.  They know the material enough to be comfortable, they’re going to start with a lick or two – develop a few ideas and then target specific things to happen at certain points in the solo with an end in mind.

Then you have the next level.  You walk into an unannounced meeting and have to make an impromptu presentation on something. Now you’re REALLY improvising.

In my mind, improvising in any capacity involves some level of working without a net and limiting yourself to specific approaches.

For example: If I’m improvising on a tune I’m practicing –   I’ll pre determine things like:

  • I’m not going to play any licks I already know.
  • Perhaps I limit myself to a scale or hand full of tetra chords
  • I’m only going to solo on certain strings or solo in certain areas of the fret board.

Save it for the ages

One thing I recommend doing is dedicating at least one part of your practice session to developing new ideas and recording it in some way, shape or form.

In Korisoron, we have an inexpensive Tascam recorder that doubles as a live mixing desk that we use to record shows just so we can do pre-production for tracks we’re working on – but you don’t need anything fancy.  I picked up a ZOOM mini recorder used for well under $100 that just sits on my desk top for this exact thing (or when inspiration strikes) but an iPhone of android device would also work just fine.  Whatever you use – just make it something that is easy to access and works for you! 

Assess and Analyze

Now here’s the part a lot of people don’t want to do.  You gotta go back and listen to what you recorded and find the things you like.  Since you’re improvising a lot of these things won’t be pristine ideas, they might have mistakes or only be partially formed ideas.  The process here is two fold:

1.  Really assess where you’re at with your playing to determine what you need to work on.  If you find that your time is all over the place – that’s something to work on.  If you find yourself going back to the same rhythmic approaches for every phrase – that’s something to work on.  You want to be detached in this process.  This isn’t about beating yourself up over what you didn’t do well or giving yourself a pat on the back for something you did.  This is about coming up with an accurate assessment of where you are really at.  One way to detach yourself is to go into third-person mode and listen to the recordings as if someone else made them.   You don’t listen to it directly as a measure of what you did but as what happened musically.   One way to do this is to listen to the recordings a few days (or weeks) after you record them.  I’ve come back to recordings I did months ago and have no memory of any of the ideas that happened there.

2.  Find the diamonds in the rough and clean them up.  This is where the vocabulary part comes in.  For me, when I improvise my ideas and approaches are not often pristine.  So when listening back, I’ll take a little fragment of something I like and practice it and try to add it to my repertoire.  By practicing it – I mean:

  • Getting the lick under my fingers and being consistent in picking.
  • Working the lick in a variety of harmonic and rhythmic contexts.
  • Expanding the lick.  So if it’s an intervallic lick from a scale moving that interval up and down the scale to see what else it yields.

Get Swoll

Doing this consistently can not only add new ideas to your playing and writing (I can’t tell you how many of the things I improvised and recorded became songs at some point), but it can radically improve technical aspects of your playing.

To Review:

Here’s part one of the plan:

  • Improvise. (Create)
  • Record everything.
  • Listen back and find the new things that you improvised that you like. (Assess)
  • Learn (and when possible improve upon) the best ideas you came up with when improvising.

In Part II of this series, I’m going to use a specific example from my own practicing to show how I generate ideas by:

  • Creating.
  • Deconstructing.
  • Refining.
  • Executing.
  • Observing.
  • Correcting (and)
  • Executing Again.

You might want to write that down somewhere you can post it.  That’s an important key to getting things done.

As always, I hope this helps!  Thanks for reading.

-SC

Lessons From Looping

(Or establishing a reasonable measure for progress in auto-didactic settings)

Hi everyone,

I have some long posts in the pipeline but I though I’d try to get a quick one out that may be useful to some of you.  I’m going to start talking about observations for beginners, but intermediate and advanced students might gain something from this as well.

One challenge beginner students in any area face is that they don’t know what they don’t know.  By that I mean there are often many hidden elements to a good performance that are so far beyond the skill set of the amateur practitioner that it’s impossible for them to gauge whether what they’re playing is right or not.

Case in point – When I first started playing I think it took about 2-3 years to get my bends in tune.  It wasn’t a purely mechanical issue with my hands, the problem was that I hadn’t developed my ears enough to hear issues with intonation to be able to execute it properly.  Since I thought I had the concept down, I didn’t work on it I just bent notes to some variation of the actual pitch.  Instead of a quick realization of, “Oh I need to work on this (and here’s what I can do to fix it).”, it just became a gradual process of my ear getting better and starting to hear that the bends didn’t sound like other people’s bends.

(** Important qualifier – many professional guitarists still work on their bends even after they “have it down” as it’s such a critical element of the expressive nature of guitar.)

“Hey Teacher Teacher”*

This is one of the reasons that it’s highly advisable that beginning students find a good teacher as a good teacher can not only help a student recognize what skills they need to develop, but how to do them in a efficient way.

Good teachers save you a lot of time.

Bad teachers will cost you untold hours, months, days, years of setbacks.

What if you don’t have a good teacher?

It is easy to come to the conclusion that just as “The man who represents himself has a fool for a client” – the person who teaches him or herself is getting a poor education but it doesn’t have to be that way.

One thing you CAN do is record yourself as much as possible and try to get (and give effective feedback) on what you’re playing.  People often think this means getting elaborate equipment and trying to make professional quality full tunes.  You don’t have to do that (although if you try to do that consistently for several years – you’ll probably find the quality of your playing and recording / mixing skills getting MUCH better).  You can do this by simply getting in the habit of looping sections of what you do and playing over the top of it.  It does several things:

  • It works on your timing.  Oh boy does it ever!  You’ll start to hear when things are out of time with each other.  Working consistently with a looper will eventually do wonders for getting you to set loop points accurately and be able to play a loop in time.  (As you get better with looping, you’ll probably want to make the loops longer to be able to do more over them and this will increase your ability to play in time over longer 8, 16, 32 or 64 bar forms).
  • It develops your ear.  Vinny Golia once said to me that the difference between improvisation and composition is time.  In improvisation you only have 5 minutes to make 5 minutes of music where in composition you have much longer – but they’re often both rooted in the same process.  A process of exploration.  Of setting limitations and working within and around those limitation to create something.  Looping something and creating parts to go over the top of it develops multiple aspects of your musical personality.  It develops how you hear musical components interacting.  It helps you build words, phrases and sentences to add to your musical vocabulary.  It is play and work at the same time if you’re doing it right and can lead you to new and exciting things.

Other lessons from looping

I typically like stand alone loopers for live use (although if I’m doing soundscapes I typically use SooperLooper as the multi track loop changing capacity makes it easier or me to create something unique) and recently I picked up a Electro-Harmonix 720 for live use with my solo acoustic shows.  There were two main decisions for this.

  •  I wanted something that was small and battery operated so I could fit everything I needed in a gig bag.
  •  I wanted something where I could utilize reverse and 1/2 speed functions.

Every looper has it’s own quirks, and this one is no different.  I found that the first note in the loop would sometimes glitch a bit with the acoustic electric.  I noticed it a lot with the ZT and tried putting it in the effects loop – which was better but didn’t play nice with my LR Baggs.  Moving to the Yamaha THR5a largely fixed it (as I suspect putting at after something like an AG-Stomp would as well.)

While working out some sketches for ideas for some solo shows I have coming up, I decided to put the looper through the paces and loop some backing KoriSoron parts through it to work on some soloing approaches for some of the KoriSoron tunes we’d be playing in the weeks ahead (and for the 2nd EP we’re recording this Spring).  While doing this I realized that some of the solo lines I had weren’t getting articulated the way I wanted them to.  So I isolated the problem areas and went back.

This is a big time saver for me, as I can practice ad infinitum in a room and develop ideas but not all of them are going to work in a live context.

For several years now, I’ve gotten away from the idea of turning up when playing.  The reason for this is that it starts a volume war where everyone is a looser.  So, for example in KoriSoron if Farzad is playing much louder than me – I have two options:

Option #1:  Turn up my volume. This will cause Farzad to turn up his volume and then I will need to turn up again.  Eventually this gets to the point where it’s too loud and then it starts all over again.

Option #2:  Turn my volume down. I’ll play softer so that he has to play softer to hear me.  This means that the set volume ebbs and flows but stays consistent.

Playing my soloing ideas against a loop gives me a benchmark to help me determine what will work in a live context.

If you don’t have a teacher handy, you’re going to have to come up with your own curriculum to move forward.  Don’t make it boring!

I’d recommend creating your own loops, but also experiment with looping unfamiliar things and trying to work your way over them.  In home use, I’ll loop things like West African drum circles and see what I can make that works with (and against it), the same thing with vocal lines, chord changes etc.

There are plenty of free loopers for your laptop / iphone / android online – and you can probably pick up a used looper in your local area for very little money.

More than anything!  Get cracking!  There are always lessons to learn if you’re engaged in doing something.  (And it’s hard to do that on guitar if you’re reading this!)

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

-SC

*(give yourself bonus points if you recognize the Class of 1984 reference)

Extra credit – check out some of the work of artists like Andre LaFosse or David Torn who do REALLY creative things with loopers far beyond the sound on sound basic techniques I’ve outlined above.