Growing up Without Tech: A Reflection on Reality

I grew up during the sixties and seventies, entering college in the early eighties when desktop computers were something very new. There was only one kid with a computer in the entire dorm when I was a sophomore, and shortly thereafter cel phones started appearing that were the size of a brick. Once again, none of my friends had one. My childhood survived being a luddite before it was difficult not to be one, and I have adapted to a world filled with technology, as have most of my generation. I belonged to the last generation to take typing classes on IBM Selectric typewriters that were the industry standard of the time, now it is difficult to find one anywhere, let alone get ribbons for them. What I did get out of my childhood, which was also mostly without a TV, was a connection to my outside world and to the people I grew up with.

Computer games were also rare so that was another distraction that I had to do without. Today these games take up enormous blocks of time in children’s and adults’ lives that used to be taken up with interacting with other people and with the environment. Some folks will argue that these games can be played with multiple players, help decision making skills and also teach how to work as a team. I think that this is actually not the case because these games are not rooted in reality. They don’t help kids learn to relate to other people in the real world that surrounds them, nor do they really learn much of anything from gaming. I play computer games and can guarantee that what I’ve learned from them is simply how to escape from reality and put my thought process on hold. Games tend to rope folks in for more time than is really available, distracting them from building strong relationships and physical activity that used to be the norm.

The lack of computers did make finding information a slower process, but the quality of the information that was found tended to be more reliable and much easier to fact check. The library was one of the main areas where I went to gather information for my reports and to find reading material for the joy of reading. You had to know how to search the stacks and the card catalogue. Today tons of information is available just a few clicks away on the computer, however most of it really needs to be fact checked and it’s often difficult to determine the credibility of most web sites that offer “the truth.” Social media also has taken over many people’s lives to the extent that they rely on it for information which is all too often false. Despite having access to an incredible resource we have lost our ability to vet sources. Perhaps it was a skill that the populace was short on to begin with but was held in check by the type of media that was available in my childhood.

I spent my childhood running through backyards, playing football in fields with groups of friends, and stomping through the woods that I found while putting 2,500 miles on my bike each summer. I swam in the mornings with AAU swimming during the summers. Plunging into an unheated pool at eight a.m. to swim laps while the coach walked up and down the pool deck, I worked up my own heat, got my heart pumping and then road my bike back home. I delivered newspapers after swim practice in the winter with my hair freezing at the edges of my hat. There were so many books that called to me, model aircraft to build, music to listen to and practice. I didn’t have a video game to pretend to be a rockstar, I had a guitar that I learned to play and went to music school with. I had friends that I bonded with strapping on skates at the local ponds, and I still have a scar on my chin from the hockey stick I took to the face on one of those ponds. I swam and danced at the Youth Center with hundreds of other kids. I had a childhood and it was a good one.

I truly believe that if I had the technology available to me that our children have, I probably would have had a very different childhood. Instead of sneak reading books by flashlight I probably would have been mainlining video games in a corner, and while both are forms of escapism, reading does have a concrete benefit that gaming does not. I probably would not have been nearly as active as I was, which would have led to a weight problem sooner in my life. I have an addictive personality, which would have led to difficulties with the screen time just as it eventually led to a three pack a day habit with cigarettes that I eventually kicked. I’m glad that I didn’t grow up with the distractions that are present for the present generation, and while my childhood wasn’t without its own brands of difficulties I wouldn’t trade it for today’s conveniences.


Am I a Guitarist or a Musician who Plays Guitar? There is a Difference.

In the early part of my musical career I was primarily a classical musician.  The bulk of my training during the first fourteen years was in classical guitar, and the last four years or so of that period was spent practicing about eight hours a day focusing entirely on classical music and guitar technique.  There was a precision to the process as well as the end product that was very appealing then, and still is to some extent for me today thirty-one years later.  Some of this is entirely based upon the tactile sense of performing those works and performing them well.  It felt good physically as well as emotionally and there was a lovely sense of logic in how the fingerings lined up and fell under the hand.  At that point in my life I loved the music, but I loved the vehicle even more.  My focus was to be the best guitarist I could be, which is actually different from being the best musician one can be.

That is not to say that I lacked emotional expression in my playing.  I had enough of a connection to the pieces to work some magic, and my level of commitment for at least the first three years of school was sealed in granite.  However, when my junior recital came up my ADD was in full force.  I wanted to play everything, particularly the difficult pieces.  My memorization was all based on muscle memory, some of which was still very much locked in the short-term memory rather than long term.  When I hit the stage I was underprepared, had quite a few memory slips which had never happened before, then walked off the stage at the end of the performance and into a major depressive episode that ended up with me in the Army at Fort Knox six months after graduation, much to the confusion of my college professors and the college friends I had who were still in touch.

Part of the problem was that I was entirely invested in being the best guitarist I could be.  I was much more concerned with the act of playing the music than knowing and understanding it.  My process was based on repetition, rather than analysis and while I’d listen to folks like Janos Starker for how they performed Bach’s First Cello Suite, I didn’t bother to analyze the harmonic structure of the chord progression.  When working on a fugue I would look at the outline of the theme and it’s variations, but didn’t dig into the nuts and bolts of the harmony in the process.  This is all very ironic when considering the fact that I took multiple years of music theory covering periods from the middle ages all the way to the contemporary along with double majoring in music composition.  But it’s not too surprising in retrospect because my compositions were based on some good ideas, but the development was where I really struggled.

Today the story is different, as it should be.  Now I do apply my knowledge to figure out what is going on in the pieces that I’m playing and while the bulk of them are far less complicated than Bach’s masterpieces I’m not simply being analytically passive when I play.  I no longer consider myself a classical guitarist, nor should I.  My chops in that area are quite rusty after three decades of performing in other genres.  But I do go through periods when I pull out the classical and work on pieces, which did recently result in a two-year stretch of performing with two classical guitar ensembles, one large and the other a sextet.  When I start reading the pieces, it’s usually because I want to play something that requires more sensitivity and complex thought process than running through some blues or classic rock.  Forgive me, but I often think “I want to play something beautiful,” and then pull out some Villa-Lobos, Scarlatti, or Bach, get myself set up and start running pieces.  I’m not doing so to actually perform them; I’m doing it to enjoy the process and I find myself thinking about the chord shapes and how they lead into each other.  I find myself loving the music for what it is and how it communicates within the lines and their relationships.  I find myself doing what I should have been years ago, and I’m doing it out of love for the music.

If this had been my approach years ago, my end results might have been different with my recital.  The aftermath certainly would have been, but instead because I was so focused on being a guitarist first my self-image was ripped out from beneath my feet.  We all second-guess our pasts which is why that old cliché “hindsight is 20/20” is so apropos in so many situations.  But change is something that is something we all have the power to create, and if we can learn from our past experiences to change our perspectives and processes for the better then we should put our efforts into it.  Today when I pick up my bass I still love the tactile experience of working those big fat strings; it feels oh so good, but I also love what I can do with the music when I’m playing it.  I’m not really concerned with being a great bass player, I’m more concerned with playing the best bass line I can to support the piece that we’re performing and what I need to do musically to accomplish that.  I’m deep in the structure of the tunes, paying attention to phrasing and articulation because it is an integral part of the piece.  I love the role that I have in the band and how what I do works with what the others are contributing, and the only way that works and works well is if I have a solid understanding of the musical pieces we’re performing.  Today I pursue being the best musician that I can be which places the focus on the music, how it best works, and why it works that way.  That’s why I’ll be able to make this a life long career and have made it through about 45 years of doing it thus far.  Always remember, your craft matters, yes, but not more than the music itself.


Meeting the Next Year by Charging Out of the Gate

Today the sun is shining for the first time in about a week. We’ve had a long stretch of gray culminating in a bit of a light snowstorm that dumped about six inches of snow in 24 hours. Now the sun is hitting the garage roof and has started building icicles on the eaves. It’s definitely a plus to see blue skies for a change. I’m starting a new year after celebrating my birthday yesterday with Indian food and cheesecake, and the planning is starting yet again. I made progress this past year, but I want to hit the ground running for this coming year. My big challenge is going to be breaking into the world of booking shows ,which will require me to really step out of my comfort zone. I’m not very comfortable selling myself, which is essentially what booking entails. It requires that I talk about myself, maintain a positive outward persona, and not take anything personally, all of which I find to be challenging due to various reasons. I lean towards being an introvert, don’t go to bars unless I’m playing there, go through periods of depression, and as far as not taking anything personally see a and b.

Over the years I have developed the ability to appear extroverted in certain situations. If I have to go to a party I will find someone to talk to, and often engage quite a few folks there, but I find the whole process exhausting. I can also only handle about two hours of interaction before I’m ready to find a quiet dark corner and regroup for about four hours before venturing out again. It really takes a lot out of me. When I teach college English courses I’m very careful about how my schedule gets set up. I avoid teaching back to back courses like the plague because I have to be “on” for the entire class, keeping the students engaged, using humor to rope them in and deliver the intended lesson for the day. After an hour and twenty minutes I’m wrung out and really need a break. So I try to ensure that I have at least another class length’s time before I have to go in and do it again. This is pretty typical for introverted folks. I imagine that doing the booking is going to be tiring in a similar manner, as well as requiring me to go to places I normally wouldn’t in my free time.

Being the type of person that I am I like coffee shops quite a bit, as well as some types of restaurants. I don’t drink alcohol with any frequency and when I do choose to have a drink it’s at home where I don’t have to concern myself with driving anywhere. The only reason I go to a bar is if the band I’m playing in has a gig there, or occasionally someone else’s band has a gig that I’m interested in. This doesn’t happen all that often however, because if I’m not out playing I’m probably home sleeping. I dislike loud crowded places, which is what you get at a bar most of the time on the nights music is offered. This is also part of my lot as an introvert. I don’t have a problem with going to a classical concert, where everything is orderly. In this situation people aren’t running into each other, trying to have conversations over the music, or crowding together like they do at bars, so I can maintain my inner sense of personal space.

A major part of booking involves dealing with rejection. I know this and for the most part I can deal with it well. It’s a business and as such I can’t take rejection as a personal thing. I’m not living in the venue owner’s space so I can’t possible know why he or she will say yes or no. My concern here, though is handling it when I’m depressed because I’m going to have to deal with that. I might be fine now, but I know that down the road I’m going to be facing that scenario. When I’m depressed it’s very difficult to handle rejection; it seems like an affirmation of all that my inner demon is telling me about myself. Sounds like fun, huh?

The answers to all of these concerns lies within myself in many ways. For instance, the concerns about the bars can be met with focusing on other venues for my solo work, like the coffee shops and restaurants. I don’t have to play in bars. Granted, there is more work for bands in bars, it’s kind of a traditional venue for them, but I can point my solo performances in a different direction and still meet my goals. The introvert related issues really boil down to setting limits for each day in terms of how much time I devote to dealing with interpersonal communications. If I do my research ahead of time like finding out who is the person who handles booking and when they are on site before making a trip there, can cut down on the amount of time I have to be “on” to make my pitch. The rejection aspect is simple reality. Everyone faces it, deals with it, and moves on from it. The easiest way to deal with it is to realize it’s a non-issue because it’s going to happen probably more often than not. I can get over it. I did with submitting poems for publication. I’ll just stuff a sock in that nasty old demon’s mouth and get on with it. What do you say? Shall we book some gigs?

Today’s Reflection: Where am I today Compared to Last Year?

I can see the snow falling outside the windows of my studio here in the back of my house.  We’re supposed to get around 6-8 inches between last night and the rest of today; so far we’ve got about three or so.  It’s enough to cover the garage roofs and cause the yews along our garage to sag under the weight.  My dog, George, who is responding very well to his new thyroid meds has left tracks from the back door to the garage.  Every time we let him out in the backyard he goes and checks on the car in the garage out there as part of his patrolling routine.  Today is the start of my fifty-fourth ride around the sun on our planet, and I’m looking forward to some nice Indian food this evening as part of my little celebration.  Sometimes I find my birthday to be something I’d rather ignore, particularly when I am in the middle of an episode of depression, because often birthdays involve reflection upon what has or hasn’t happened over the past year, where I am now vs. where I was last year professionally, and various other things.  When depressed it’s particularly rough because my birthday is only three weeks out from New Year’s Day, another traditional time of self-reflection and goal setting.  Today I’m on the fence, teetering so I could go either way.  However I have made progress this year both from a writing perspective and a musical one.

This past year has been productive on the writing front, particularly the past four months.  After coming out of a depressed period where I wrote very little, this summer I wrote quite a bit of fiction due to a solid challenge month.  I’ve also been putting in the time on the computer for the past couple of months, both producing creative non-fiction in the form of my essay writing and also about 12 chapters of a potential novel.  I do need to return my focus to the novel, but I must say that I am pleased that I have been developing an actual writing practice where I do sit down every day and turn out a decent block of writing. It is becoming an ingrained part of my day, that I both need and want to do.  On the average I’d also wager that I’m much happier overall when I have done my writing for the day than when I haven’t, largely because I feel like I have done something worthwhile with my time, something that has helped me grow as a person in some manner.

Despite kicking off this past year in a state of depression I also made progress musically.  I performed at the Mid-American Guitar Ensemble Festival with a sextet, and also in Master Class with them, which was quite a bit of fun.  And while I chose to leave that particular group around June, I have started performing with four other groups, one of which will be performing at Buddy Guy’s Legends next month.  I’ve also returned to performing on bass as well as guitar, which has been a very positive move on my part.  My skills are improving almost every week due to such an increase in activity and I’m starting to see my schedule of performance dates increase as well.  The pay rate has been increasing as well, which is always a plus.  I’ve also decided to start booking my solo act as well, so I’m in the process of making my promo kit and will start distributing it in the next week or so.

There are some areas that I do need to focus on to keep moving forward that have been weak points over this past year, one of which is self promotion both for performances and bringing in students.  Self-promotion really requires networking as well as having a product to sell.  I’m quite good at putting together the product and getting things lined up, the difficulty arises when it comes time to get out there and interact with people to drum up business.  If I could afford to hire someone to do this for me I would in a heartbeat.  Most folks who run businesses do the work that they’re best at and then farm out what needs to be done that someone else could do better for them, however this requires a source of revenue in order to pay that someone else.  At this point whatever revenue I generate I need in order to stay afloat, so I need to get over my reticence about talking to people about booking, and just get out there and do it.  Likewise I need to be more creative about seeking students.  I’ll share what I learn along the way on both counts in future blog posts as time progresses over the next year.

I also plan on finding a publisher for my writing over the next year as well.  One of my goals in life is to write a book length manuscript, submit it, and finally have it accepted somewhere and published in print form as well as electronic.  One of the difficulties I have had in the past with this was amassing enough material to produce a book length manuscript.  I was close last year, but stalled out on the project.  Now I have clearly written more than enough essays on the subject of music to assemble a collection that would make a decent book, so this is another one of the areas that I need to revisit this year and actually close the circle on.  I need to finish assembling the manuscript, knock it into shape and then get it out there to potential publishers to find it a home.

The snow is still falling and George’s tracks are starting to fill in.  As I reflect on this past year I can see that it is very similar to the snow that is coming down and filling in the gaps.  I am making progress, and am building upon past progress as well.  Yes I’ve had some less than stellar periods over the past year, but when looking at this year’s arc and comparing it to others in the past I do see that I’m finally moving forward in a way that I feel pleased with.  There is still much progress to be made and I’ve definitely got my work cut out for me over the next year, but things are quite frankly looking better now then they were at this time last year in many ways.  I’m in it for the long haul, and have been, so I might as well keep pushing!


Building an Organized Thought Process: Getting the Most out of Time

Yesterday I wrote a nine hundred word essay. I was in a bit of a hurry, trying to fit things into an incredibly busy day, and I was stressed about how I was going to get my writing done in the midst of everything else I was attempting to accomplish. So I sat down and cranked it out, essentially going all out to produce something and hoping for the best in the process. I could post what I wrote, and it would be ok, but it really wasn’t up to my standards. For one thing I only had an implied thesis to guide me, which didn’t solidify into anything overtly tangible in the process. For another, I felt that what I had belted out was only loosely viable as a rough draft. The focus vacillated throughout the piece, and it would require some time and effort before it coalesced into something I’d be satisfied enough with to post to my blog site. While some of my writing is therapeutic, my main goal with each piece is pour some of my knowledge and experience into an essay that will either entertain or help fellow musicians, as well as other folks with creative bents. In order to do so the essay must have a point that is clearly made, be reasonably well supported through logic and examples, and also present itself in an organized manner. This requires a certain element of ensuring that I have the time available to do so, and that I have an organized approach to what I’m attempting to do. I have found that this holds true to most of the creative endeavors that I have been, and continue to be, involved in, whether it is writing creative non-fiction, fiction or poetry, practicing my instruments, or performing with them as well.

Personally I find that writing, and attempting to write well, helps in maintaining an orderly thought process in what could be a very disorderly mind. As I’ve mentioned in other essays I have ADD, which means that I have both the capacity to hyper-focus as well as be easily distractible. This increases when I become excited about something, particularly when ideas are flying around. My brain will latch onto a passing idea, follow that for a while, and then get distracted by another passing idea. This is one of the reasons why I started off my post college writing career writing poetry, because I was dealing with a smaller product. Today I find that most of my writing is primarily essay based and I follow a process to do it that permits me to focus and keep my thought process organized. I have a premise which becomes my thesis, and then I lay out my development through a logical framework until I reach my conclusion. For my shorter essays I do a mental outline after I’ve kicked out the idea, organize my thoughts in a logical sequence and then take a run at it. I can do this because I’ve been writing for years, and at this point the organization principles are ingrained to the point where they influence how I think.

The same principles can and should be applied to practicing my instruments. At this point in my career the value of my practice sessions isn’t based on how much time I’m sitting and playing, it’s based on what I get done in the amount of time I have. Focused practicing both in the short and long haul, produces far better results than long stints of unfocused practice. The latter actually tends to end up being more time spent playing than actually learning and improving. Each practice block should have a specific purpose and a plan to meet the goals of the practice session. If I need to address technique issues, then that is the focus, and while exercises are a great way to ingrain excellent technique I find that working a section of a piece I’m going to perform that requires the use of the targeted technique to be a much more practical and efficient use of the time. The technique will end up transferring to other situations where it needs to be employed, and I’m ending up a step closer to actually using it on a gig. This is an example of focused practicing that will move you closer to your goals, particularly when you are dealing with limited blocks of time.

Organization and time management are also highly valued by active performing artists. They’re keystones of professionalism both on the stage and off. When you have a contract to perform it sets the expectations and responsibilities that must be met. Typically this includes where and when you’re to perform, for how long, and what kind of performance is expected. This requires heavy duty organization and time management skills. This runs from knowing how long it will take to get to the venue, set up equipment and getting ready to perform, to how many pieces are required to fill the time requirement, and what pieces are appropriate for the intended audience. It even requires planning an organized departure. Often performances involve quite a bit of expensive gear; you do want to ensure that you leave with everything you brought, with it in the same shape that you brought it in. It is also important to plan things to minimize the amount of pre-performance stress that you encounter, which means including time for things going wrong. More often than not, things will go wrong when you haven’t allowed enough time for a gremlin to appear and be dealt with.

Over the years I have found that having an organized plan of attack for most of what I do in my life yields rewards, and through my writing practice I have helped myself establish a platform to reap those rewards in many areas of my life. It has helped me think in an organized and logical manner, streamline and improve my musical practice sessions, run rehearsals that minimalize wasted time, and ensure that I maintain certain aspects of professionalism in my performance duties. I have also found that my thought process is much clearer and more engaged on days where I’ve spent time actively writing than when I haven’t, because I apply similar principles to my other tasks. Yes, the ADD does still kick in, and sometimes my attention span has spasms, but for the most part I have found my method of dealing with it.

Promo Packets: A Booking and Self-Promotional Must

Self-promotion is one of the things that are required of a performing artist. Building a promo packet that accurately reflects your performance strengths and what you have to offer is vital to taking the next step into the booking world that all of us must enter at some point. This can be a bit tricky because you want to build yourself up into a salable commodity, but you don’t want to over-blow your own horn. Whatever you put into your promo packet you have to be able to deliver, so while you might be tempted to stretch reality a bit, you really have to be careful how far you push it. Often promo packs will include a headshot, biographical information, perhaps a song list, any endorsements from prior performances or venues. You might also list venues where you’ve performed, bands you’ve worked with and whatever else will paint you in a good light and get your foot in the door. Most of the time one the more important items in the packet is the demo CD where you are giving your target an example of what you can do. Usually these have maybe four or five tunes on them, sometimes more. Another option is video of past performances. Your packet should look professional and give the person who is booking the venue confidence that you will be able to deliver once hired.

When it comes to putting a professional packet together, the best way to go about it is to farm out as much as one can to professionals in the field. If you want good photos for the promo pack, you need to find a quality photographer to shoot them, and it should be someone who is familiar with the product you are selling. Take time to coordinate with the photographer about potential location shoots, and to also consider what you are going to wear for the photos. You want a look that is appropriate to what you’re trying to sell, and sometimes this might necessitate costume changes. You might want a rock and roll image for booking rock clubs, plus a more formal image for booking corporate events. If you’re presenting both looks in your packet, the person booking the show will have greater confidence in your professionalism.

Likewise, when it comes to the demo recordings you should go to a reputable studio to produce them. The recordings need to give a good idea of what your performance is going to deliver, and while they don’t have to be the same quality as a national headliner’s studio produced albums, they should give a pretty accurate perspective of your abilities. Studio time does cost money, just like booking the photographer, so you need to plan what you’re going to record, and also ensure that you are well rehearsed before showing up for the recording session. The more time you take to get a good take of a tune, the more money you’re spending to produce the entire demo. Usually what will happen after you have cut the demo tracks is a quick mastering session, that might simply be mixing the recordings down, adding some light reverb and then burning your master CD. If you plan well and go to a decent studio it is possible that you might be able to complete the process in one session. I did a fingerstyle demo in two hours of studio time. I laid down about 12 short tunes and had a basic mastered CD in my hands at the end of those two hours because I was prepared, knew what I wanted, and maintained focus. It helped that it was an excellent studio as well.

If you are a decent writer, then go ahead and create your own bio. Even if you aren’t, you’re going to have to present the pertinent details of your musical career to someone else to write it, so you should at least outline the important points you want to make before taking to someone who can write it up for you. Remember, the packet is you in the hands of the venue. Everything about it represents you so you want to be certain that the bio is well written, just like the photos and the recordings. If you don’t know how to write well, no big deal, just find someone else who can so that you end up with a bio that reads like it has a professional purpose. Along with the bio it’s also a good idea to have a statement of purpose, or an artist’s statement. What is your perspective on performing and how do you go about communicating this with your audience? Once again, you should consider what you put in, reflect upon it, and if it’s not going to be helpful it should be cut.

Usually business cards are included with the promo packet. These are pretty easy to get your hands on these days, particularly with companies like Vistaprint that can be accessed through the internet. Vistaprint has a wide variety of business card templates that are really easy to use to design a respectable card at a reasonable price. I’ve used them for several years and have been quite happy with the end product, as well as their prices, and their speed of delivery. They always seem to get the cards to me faster than I expect and they’re always exactly what I’ve ordered. Once again, if you are not confident in your abilities in this area, you can always hit up a friend you have confidence in to help you design the cards and put in your order. It’s pretty easy.

This being said, another alternative that has been gaining popularity is the electronic promo kit. Essentially you can build a web site that does all of this as well as hosts your own email address. You can either hook up with one of the d.i.y. online companies to build one or you can hire someone to make a full blown professional site that even allows you to sell merch on it, a good way to supplement your gigging income. This does cost money, and it’s a real case of getting what you pay for. You’ll still need to do business cards, but in this case your card is the gateway to your promotional material. When you use a traditional promo pack, each one you hand out is a business expense that you’re not going to be able to use again. Clubs don’t return your packets so once it’s dropped off, it’s done. This is one of the benefits of the online type. Plus with the online one your fans can access it as well.

Promo kits are still very much a reality of being an active performing artist, and in most cases they are the gateway to solid booking practices. They are your professional representation in your absence so they need to accurately represent you in the best manner possible. So whether you choose to use a traditional promotional packet with recordings, photos, bios, and business cards packaged in a nice folder, or opt for the electronic one along with business cards, the packet itself is a necessary tool to self-promotion and booking. Whichever you choose, think carefully about what you include and what image you present. It’ll pay off in the long run.

The Importance of Cross Training In Music

As a musician on the local level it is a very good practice to become a well-rounded player, particularly if you want to work with any regularity.  This becomes even more important if your goal is to significantly add to your earning potential.  It doesn’t mean that you need to be an expert in all genres, but at the very least you should be conversant with your instrument in several different genres.  This opens up the possibility of playing in variety bands, which is the primary type of group hired for corporate gigs and/or weddings, in other words the better paying gigs.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t aspire to being the go to player for blues in the area or, rock, country or whatever.  Everyone has a specific area where they’re in their prime environment, their specialty as it were.  But if you’re in it for the long haul, and at the very least to supplement your income, it is in your best interests as a player to branch out.

There are many benefits to reaching beyond your initial comfort zone.  For one, whatever you learn, and learn well, becomes integrated into your musical language.  For instance, if you understand what makes a decent solo and the vocabulary thereof, you might find yourself intermixing some aspects of this into your approach in another genre, like blues or rock.  This can provide a different perspective in how you approach your solos that can start to make you stand out from the usual assembly of licks that might comprise someone else’s blues solo.  Robben Ford is an excellent example of a player who is highly conversant in blues, jazz and rock forms.  He has in fact mastered all three, and while he is perfectly capable of delivering a high octane scorching blues solo he often digs into his multifaceted background to bring jazz and rock influences into his solos and choice of material.  In doing so he has created his own vocabulary which is quite rich in chord voicings, phrasing and delivery.  When you hear a Robben Ford solo, you know who you’re dealing with.

Listening is also an incredibly valuable practice to improve as a musician, and once again it is important to have an eclectic approach to what you listen to.  It is very important to be an active listener as well as a passive one.  Most of us listen to a ton of music throughout our days, but most of this is actually passive listening.  We’re listening to background music; it’s a soundtrack for our other work, exercise, or whatever we’re doing at the moment.  It slips in and out of our immediate attention, but mostly stays in the background.  This is passive listening; listening for fun.  Active listening is when the music is the absolute focal point.  You’re listening with a purpose, to understand what is going on in the tune, how it is structured, how the lyrics work or don’t and why, what the instrumentalist is doing while the vocalist is working, where the solos are and their shapes and colors.  All of these things, and more, lead to a better understanding of the art form, leading us to learn from the experience of hearing a piece of music.

So, how does listening play a part in becoming a more well-rounded player?  If we both actively and passively listen to a wide variety of musical genres it helps to create an inner pool of knowledge.  This is where we start to learn the characteristics that make up the vocabulary of the many different styles of music that we might encounter as a performer.  It enriches our background, and gives us so much more to draw on.  It exposes us to other areas that might become additional focal points of interest, and in doing so helps to ensure that as musicians our art form is a lifelong learning process.  Even a blues bass player can learn and employ what he or she has learned from listening to the orchestral works of J. S. Bach.  The man wrote beautifully constructed bass lines that serve the same purpose as a beautifully constructed blues bass line.  From looking at Bach’s bass lines, the blues bassist will learn about the values of contrary movement which will make his or her bass lines more interesting to hear, as well as to play, just as an example.

If you have a broad background to draw upon, the chances of working more, as well as maintaining interest in the art, increase dramatically.  People do get bored from too much repetition or too few challenges.  When you seek out knowledge of differing musical styles, the learning process is engaged, your repertoire increases, and your musical potential does as well.  If you want to even be a semi-pro player, it’s going to take work on your part as well as a dedication to both your art and your craft.  If you take a gig with a variety band you’re going to be crossing genres, which can both provide for an interesting gig as well as a challenging one.  You might face jazz, country, rock, blues, funk and R&B all in the same gig.  You don’t have to be Wes Montgomery, Vince Gill, Geddy Lee, Buddy Guy, and Otis Redding to do it all, but you will need to be able to represent the genres with a certain level of dexterity to successfully pull the gig off.