The Last Gasp of 2016

It’s almost six o’clock on the last day of 2016 and I’m just now starting my last blog post of the year.  I’ve been pretty tired today due to getting in at three in the morning from last night’s gig and then not being able to fall asleep until four-ish.  I had to be up at eight to get ready to teach one of my guitar students.  A power nap did occur, but it was short, maybe twenty minutes of actual sleep, so coffee will have to carry me through until time for bed.  Last night we hit at about 8:45 and finished our last tune at around 1:30.  All in all we played well and kept a crowd there through the night.  It was a decent way to finish out the year’s performances and we all made it home safely.  Over the past few days I’ve been thinking about the positives of the year in review and haven’t taken a stab at the things that could use improvement.  I think that it’s time that I do just that.

This past year kicked off with my being involved in one group, The Chicago Classical Guitarists Ensemble, essentially a sextet.  We did some good work and performed at the Mid-American Guitar Ensemble Festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan in early April.  We had a couple other performances, but I decided to leave the group in May because while it had been a very worthwhile experience it was not moving me closer to increasing my income as a musician.  While this might seem to some to be a somewhat mercenary reason for moving on, one of my major goals for this year was to come closer to a livable income in my chosen profession, and this was not moving me forward in that direction.  This left me entirely on my own through the summer, which yielded three pickup gigs with some local semi-pros between June, July and August.

After moving through eight months of the year, I hit the end of August and the realization that it had been a full year since I’d been involved in a regularly working group, which didn’t sit well with me.  I obviously was not getting closer to one of my prime goals, so something had to change.  I decided to load on the groups to try to boost the income potential.  Theoretically, I thought, this would be likely to resolve the issue, so I dove in, committing to four bands and a heavy woodshedding workload.  Since around October the gigs have started to come in through a couple, the workload is still pretty heavy, and the income is improving, but not anywhere near what it needs to be, and quite frankly I’m still not getting the level of personal satisfaction out of the game that I’m looking for either.

My writing practice has made solid improvements this year over the previous years.  I have, as of this writing, successfully completed two writing challenges for a total of three months of daily writings of at least 750 words per day.  I’ve generated a good number of essays that I’m pleased with and some fiction that I’m not sure what I’m going to do with.  There were periods of lost time over the rest of the year and low productivity, but for the most part I’m starting to actually be the writer I want to grow into.  I’m running two blogs and have been gaining followers on both as well as being read all over the world, twenty-seven countries and counting.  This pleases me greatly, but I also need to look at formal publication submissions, particularly ones that pay.  However, I do think that I’ve made much more progress this year in my writing work than I have in my musical work, and I’m going to stick to that perspective because I’ve actually accomplished some of the goals I set for myself in this arena quite well.  The bar will need to be higher for 2017, but I am going into the next year in this area with some confidence.

One of the things that I have learned over the years is that as a creative person I have to be a creative person in order to have any chance of achieving either personal satisfaction in my life or a modicum of happiness.  I must create; it’s something that I HAVE to do.  When I’m not pursuing a creative bent, I lose my desire to be.  My depressive periods become progressively more dangerous, last longer, and are much more devastating.  I become increasingly difficult to live with and wall myself away.  So, I have continued my pursuits and will do so, continuing to try different approaches until I find something that works and yields the results I desire.  I’m finding my way, and will eventually get to where I want to be.  Tomorrow I start 2017, and start brainstorming for a fresh approach to the conundrum which is making a living as a musician.

 

 

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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!

 

On Facing Adversity: A Reflection on Our Future

Every morning I wake up and check my social media feed. I used to do so to catch up on my friends and find out what was going on, but for the past year my feed has been inundated by political postings, both fact and fiction and it’s sometimes difficult for me to find the difference despite my advanced degree. For the most part the news is inevitably bad, especially post election. Every day I see that the atrocious one has appointed some other incredible lowlife to work in his administration whose only qualifications are being rich, ethically bankrupt, and a fan of the man. I see a man who’d rather run an obscene victory lap than take the security briefings the job requires, and who quite frankly doesn’t give a red hot damn about the laws of this country, the people of this country, nor the Constitution of this country. He cares about his money, his power, and himself, always has, always will.

I have valued my social media feed for its ability to put me in contact with a ton of people I have known over the years, most of whom I’d lost contact with. Through it I can find out what these folks are up to, where they have moved, and all of the various things that go with maintaining long distance friendships as well as professional contacts. While I still am able to do so most of what I see is the disaster looming on the horizon, the crimes my country is still permitting (and now endorsing under the incoming administration) against the indigenous people who are currently attempting to protect the integrity of their water, and the gross ecological threat to the planet the new administration represents. This is heavily seeded amongst the photos of grandchildren, gig announcements, cat and dog photos, and the very occasional non-political cartoon.

Everyday I see further threats to the safety of my African American brothers and sisters, Muslim brothers and sisters, and LGBTQ brothers and sisters who all simply want to live in peace with each other, and have the opportunity to an equal share in what happiness life has to offer. I see the rise of the “alt. right,” simply a euphemism for Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, misogynists and bigoted self-aggrandizing greedy folk who despise difference, in a place that is supposed to be a haven of safety for the people, not those who prey upon them. It brings me to the brink of despair that plagues every breath I take of what clean air we have left. I feel an intense sense of loss for what this country could and should be, and sorrow for what it is becoming.

I posted my intent to step back from social media several weeks ago, but didn’t because there were folks who valued what I had to say, and my voice in the argument that much of this space has become. I respected their wishes and have hung in there, however at this point what we all need to do is find a source of hope. We need to find some kernel that tells us that we can rise above the polluted waters, defoliated forests, and flattened mountains that the users and abusers want to leave us with. We need to find hope that we will not be sunk into massive wars due to an individual’s inability to control his base urges, and inability to think before speaking. We need to find hope that we, as citizens, are heard and heeded, that our interests are protected, and that our rights to freedom of speech and assembly are not stripped from us. We need to have hope in the application of the laws of this country to all people within its borders, and that no one is above the law regardless of their position of power, and that they will be held fully accountable for their actions, or lack thereof.

Above all, we must maintain the hope that we can make a difference, that we can still make our country a better place that embraces difference as well as unity. We need to know that the world our children and grandchildren are left with has not been destroyed by power hungry narcissists who care for nothing other than themselves. While I am facing despair, there must be that small light in the distance, that north star that provides even the smallest chance that we can indeed overcome and make our ways to a better future despite the incredible uphill battle we are facing. I know I need it, and I’m sure that the rest of us do as well. So let’s find that light that is in the distance and bring our internal mirrors to focus it into something larger that we can share in the journey we are now facing.

Dreams and Realities: Moving through A Life Long Musical Career

Last night as I was sleeping on the pull out sofa bed at my in-laws’ I dreamed I was playing guitar with Elton John and when he left the stage it became an open mic night.  Did I mention it was a dream, heh, heh?  We didn’t have a plan on what to play; after all what do you play after doing a set with Elton John?  So we went into a basic blues shuffle and I started to take a solo but the neck on the Strat I was playing felt like there was something wrong.  At that point I awoke to find my left hand wrapped around the metal tube that made the frame of the bed, trying to form a bar chord.  No wonder the “Strat” neck felt wrong!  Occasionally, like last night, I get lucky in my dreamscapes and get to play with some great folks.  Another night I dreamed that I was sitting on the floor playing with Emmy Lou Harris and Ricky Skaggs.  These are the type of dreams that I don’t want to wake up from, but when I do I count myself lucky to have had the dream for a couple of reasons.  First, they’re really cool dreams, and second because they remind me of the level that I really want to perform on; they are literally my dream playing positions and inevitably show the variety of my musical interests in the process.

Last night’s dream was unique in that I was playing in two very different situations, one of which was high function pro level and the other was very much local get together and see what happens.  It was an odd juxtaposition because they were drastically different on so many levels, but it was a dream that within itself was portraying a dream versus reality situation.  What I want, vs. what I get.  For most of us our realities don’t match our dreams so we find a way to accept our lots and move on with them.  Others actually get to live their dreams, but who knows, maybe they dream about having a week where they can simply hang at home and not have to hop on a jet to the next venue.  All I know is I’d like to have that opportunity on a regular basis at some point before I shuffle off this mortal coil to paraphrase the bard.

When our dreams and our realities are out of phase and we have the opportunity to reflect on this disconnect we can either take the opportunity to try to figure out what is standing in the way and come up with a plan to get us closer to those dreams, or we can settle into acceptance of our lot in life and try to be content with it.  A third possibility, of course, is to find the disparity between the two to be too great to overcome and too depressing to deal with, so we quit.  This third option is clearly the most self-defeating because in allowing this perspective to cloud our minds we find ourselves losing something that has been a very important part of our lives.  Yet another option is to do everything in our power to perform at the level we desire to, whether we are on the national stage or in a local corner pub.  In many ways this is what separates the true pros from the amateurs.  I once heard an interview with Huey Lewis where he stated that all he ever wanted to do was sing and play his harmonica, whether he “made it” or not.  Obviously he made it to the international star level, but what drove him there was his love for what he did as much as anything else.  He was committed to his art and craft, and was going to pursue it regardless of where that pursuit led him.

I truly believe that if we took a survey of most of the folks my generation considers as our idols (I was born in 1962), most of them were in it for the long haul whether fame came or went.  In fact for a large percentage of them fame was fleeting.  They were big names for awhile but were mostly forgotten yet most of them continued regardless, some hoping for the next big hit, while others kept going simply because that’s what they did and how they identified themselves.  Some did go on and pursue alternative careers, but they were probably the minority.  There is much that goes into becoming a famous musician, not the least of which is a hefty dose of luck.  Sometimes musical skill wasn’t even part of the equation but the artist had something to offer that appealed to a group of listeners at the right place and time to elevate them to idol status.  Regardless, most of them continued and many grew throughout their careers.  If we look at The Who’s music from when they started and compare it to their peak performance levels there is no argument that they continued to push their boundaries throughout their careers as a group and as individuals.

Not all of us are going to become household names, in fact a very small percentage of musicians or performers of any kind do.  If fame is what drives us to be musicians then we’re dealing with a very shallow motivator that will eventually in all likelihood break down and leave us lost along the roadway.  Music itself, a love of performance, and the desire to make the best music we can make are motivators that can take us the long distance of our lifetimes regardless of what fame we might garner along the way.  Love of the medium and the journey itself is where we should find our rewards, regardless of whether we’re actually making a living at it or not, and surrounds ourselves with the best like minded people we can work with does a lot to make that a reality for ourselves and move us toward our ultimate goals one way or another.

 

Fear and Risk Taking: Keys to Growth

In our society we are currently living with an undercurrent of fear that permeates much of what many of us do.  Some of us are afraid of the consequences of giving sanctuary to Syrian refugees because a trace few might be terrorists, while some of us fear the consequences of not helping the Syrians by giving the Middle East yet another reason to hate us.  Some of us fear people who are different than we are, and even more are experiencing fear of what our government might become.  We fear so many things, but mostly things we perceive as being beyond our control.  These are the fears that keep us up at night because we feel impotent, that there’s nothing we can do to change something or prevent something from happening.  Fear can be a paralyzing factor for many of us, and can prevent us from taking risks in our lives.  Let’s face it, anything that is worthwhile in life involves some form of risk taking, and often fear gets in the way of our making necessary leaps to get to a higher plane of existence, whether it’s work, love, or even self-improvement.  As musicians and human beings, the only way we will grow and become better than we were yesterday is through taking informed risks today and tomorrow.

The only way people become better at doing something is by doing it.  Most people can accept that as a logical premise because we’ve seen it proven repeatedly.  Despite this many people become too comfortable in their bubble, and they work very hard to maintain that bubble of comfort to the point that they will not leave it, even if they want to.  If you want to become a better tennis player, you don’t play people who aren’t as good as you, or even those on your same level.  You need to seek out players who are better than you are, players that force you to up your level, and push you to become better.  You learn from the experience, and it’s the same way with being a musician.   If you want to learn how to improvise solos, you put in the practice time, yes, but then you must at some point get together with some like minded players and jump off that ledge.

You also need to be prepared to fail, and know that this is going to be the case.  Do it anyway, and keep doing it.  Eventually growth will occur and you’ll find yourself improving, your confidence will become greater and your comfort level will expand.  Once you reach a point where you are comfortable, are getting good results, and consistency, then you can start looking for the next level’s worth of challenges, the next ledge to jump off.  Does this mean you ditch your band?  Not necessarily, because work is work, but there might come a point where you need to move on in order to keep growing, learning, and becoming the best musician you are capable of.  You might want to keep a comfort zone, a safe area that you can return to that provides you with needed support.

Fear serves its purpose and as such is not something that should be ignored.  After all, it has helped keep our species alive for thousands of years, and can warn us about potentially hazardous situations on many different levels.  However, we can’t permit fear to dictate whether or not we do something that could be highly beneficial for us.  Yes, sometimes we will fall flat on our faces, but we need to be able to determine whether or not the potential payout of taking the risk and succeeding is worth the risk being taken.  There is often truth in clichés and the one that states, “nothing risked, nothing gained” is pretty accurate.  If you want to move forward you have to take the first step, and then follow it up with the next and so forth.  Otherwise, you are going to go absolutely nowhere.

Remember, when you do decide to take a risk it is usually a pretty good idea to make an informed decision to take that step.  Scope out what is involved, give yourself a solid honest critique of where you are in relationship to the target, and then assess whether you are on a good ledge to leap from in accordance with your current abilities.  If you’re just starting out on bass, and a spot opens up for the Saturday Night Live band, auditioning for that position simply doesn’t make sense simply from a repertoire requirements perspective alone, but finding a slot with a group of garage band jammers might be the actual appropriate leap to make.  Be honest with yourself, take some risks, and commit yourself to growth.

 

Some Thoughts on Work Prioritization

So, I’ve got four bands that I need to prep for.  How do I do it?  First I need to look at the volume of work in relationship to when I need to be prepared by and then I can set my prep schedule accordingly.  Fortunately one of the bands is pretty much set.  For that one I can show up when we have a rehearsal scheduled and I’ve already got much of what we’re doing under hand.  It’s really almost a show up and gig band as it stands, with nothing actually on the books right now.  Another one is a start up that just lost the drummer, so it’s in a holding pattern.  No problem.  The other two, on the other side of the coin, are where I need to focus right now.

The one, which I gigged with last weekend, just handed me five cds with a total of 75 tunes on them.  About twenty of those really need my attention because I’m not familiar with them, can’t hear them in my head if I push play on my internal stereo system, and really need to get the under hand.  I have a rehearsal with them tonight.  Tomorrow night I have a rehearsal combined with a keyboardist coming in for an audition.  I’ve got about four tunes to get in hand for that and a gig with them Friday night.  So between the two of these is where I need to focus my woodshed time.  We’ll see how I divide the time from there.

Often I find myself in these situations prioritizing based on which fire needs to be put out by when and allocating time accordingly.  I’ll put some time in for rehearsal tonight, but what is going to get real priority is going to be the band I have the gig with Friday. I need to brush up on the material we’re performing then as well as nail down the tunes for the audition so I can focus on appraising the keyboard player.  The other band I’ve got a few weeks before the next gig so I can pace myself a bit easier there.  I’ve also got other irons in the fire, which need their own prioritization, not the least of which is finding a more reliable source of income to support my family with, as well as keeping up with my writing responsibilities.  So the pressure is on from multiple perspectives.

My situation here is far from unique; in fact it’s a pretty common one with players who are trying to make a living doing what they do best, performing.  Juggling multiple bands, their repertoire, rehearsals and performance dates can become quite the complicated process in itself.  It requires constant attention, keeping an accurate date book, constant sharing and updating your booked dates with your colleagues, and making the best use of the time you have available to meet your obligations and show up prepared for the rehearsals and gigs that are scheduled.  This is also while keeping in mind that you have other important obligations as well, such as your family, doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning and all of the other things that go into having a complete life.  Sometimes it can become overwhelming and requires a step back to reassess and breathe.

You also have to ensure that you work in time that is entirely for you in some shape or form.  You might need some time where you actually don’t even do anything, some time to download and process or simply sit and breathe, meditate, check out for the moment.  This is reasonable and quite often required in order to be able to maintain a positive attitude and be able to actually make progress with the seemingly impossible pile of work in front of you.  That being said, there are also times when you have to be able to accept that perhaps you have bitten off more than you can handle, which requires tough decisions to be made in order for you to create a more manageable balance.  Everyone should be able to handle periods of “oh my God, I’m so busy I’m pulling my hair out,” without coming unglued.  It’s when there is no ebb and flow that we need to make changes.

Currently I still have hair left and I can make the balance work, as long as I stay on top of it, and don’t zone out, get distracted or start ruminating on the ills of the world too much.  I know that on good days I can really get quite a bit done, so I need to take advantage of them.  The bad days I still usually get something done despite the emotional drag.  It really does boil down to planning and prioritization, preferably before it gets to the putting out the largest fire point.

 

An Election Day Reflection, November 8th, 2016

Whew!  Today’s going to be a busy one!  It’s a good thing that I voted almost two weeks ago because I don’t think I would have had time to hit the polls.  I’ve done my civic duty and now can only hope for the best, or what I believe is the best for Americans of all colors, religions, ethnicities, genders and sexual preferences.  It’s a good thing I’m going to be busy because otherwise I think the stress would paralyze me.  Today I’ve got two rehearsals in two different towns, neither of which is mine, ha, ha!  One is from 11-2pm in Des Plaines, Illinois with a blues/rock band and the other is from 7:30-10ish in Addison, Illinois with a classic rock band.  In between I’ve got to pick up the kid from school, ferry her to dance, make dinner for the family, pick up my wife from the train station and my daughter from dance, eat dinner and maybe squeeze in lunch and a dog walk if George is lucky.  We’ll see.  This, to me, is the best way ever to avoid staring at a screen and watching the early poll tallies coming in.

This has been a highly contested and vicious race which has actually impacted friendships all over the country as normally easy to get along with neighbors have built fences between each other.  It has impacted our work lives as well because we’ve all been quick to pass judgment upon each other based on our political support and not really sitting down and talking with each other.  Two of the bands that I work with are comprised of a mix of liberals and conservatives.  We work together quite well as we are united by a common cause, music, and we essentially avoid discussing politics with each other.  It keeps the peace between those of us who would hammer away at each other otherwise.  It also allows us to be friends.  We don’t call each other names, insult each other or act like rival gang members.  We don’t call into question each other’s patriotism, dedication to our country, or anything else.  And when we perform we are just as apolitical as when we rehearse.  We do what our political system hasn’t done in some time, we make it work.

One of the key issues in most bands is personality combined with egos.  Musicians are known for having both, which is quite frankly a natural situation with any group of performers.  Do you have to be best buddies with your band mates?  Not necessarily but it certainly helps us be the best performers we can be when we can work with each other with a limited amount of hostility and interpersonal drama.  After all, when we perform together we are ultimately trying to as a group be better than we are on our own and it takes a healthy mix of people and personalities to do so.  We don’t have to always agree with each other either, but in order for the band to work well we all have make compromises, which are to the benefit of us all.  There is room for the individual in a cohesive group, but as a member of the group and not at the expense of the group.

I saw a photo the other day of Steven Tyler and Joe Perry hanging out with President Obama on Air Force One.  They got to ride home in the plane with the POTUS, which is pretty cool.  Both Tyler and Perry are Republicans and they are Americans.  It was clear in the photo that there was no animosity whatsoever between any of the three despite being members of political parties.  I saw the photo on Facebook and there were positive remarks but a whole slew of “oh my God, the Traitors” rhetoric as well.  I don’t understand how this has happened over the past twenty years or so.  There were three Americans in the photo, not enemies.  Three people like you and me, living their lives and going about their business to the best of their abilities.  I’m a liberal, have been all of my life.  I served in the United States Army as an infantry officer after I graduated from music school, by choice.  I swore to lay down my life for my country, its constitution and ALL of its citizens.  And yet there are many out there who are labeling folks like me as the enemy of this country, and just as many saying the same about conservatives.

I want my bands to succeed financially and musically, and I want that for all the members of the groups regardless of genders, sexual persuasion, gender identities, political party affiliation, religious identity, etc. and I’m willing to work WITH the members to do so toward mutual goals.  I want to do the same as a citizen of the United States, and I want this to be a country that shows that it can do so.  I want my daughter, who I ferry back and forth to school, dance lessons and whatever else she needs to do, to know that this is a country that values her as both an individual and a member of the society.  I want her to understand the value of being able to discuss opposing viewpoints and creating compromises that make the whole better than the parts.  It’s time to go make some music!