What I Forgot about Open Mics

Last night I went to an open mic for the first time in many years. A friend of mine started one not far from where I live a few weeks ago and I had planned on supporting her effort. Unfortunately I just joined a new band that rehearses Monday nights, at the same time the open mic runs. Last night we took the night off and two of us made our way over to Hamburger Mary’s in Oak Park, IL where Kat Fitzgerald was running the event. There weren’t many folks there, but those of us who were put on a nice In the Round type of event, eschewing the stage in favor of a more intimate close in feel.

I was feeling somewhat stressed due to just having confirmed that we were due for some probably costly home repairs, and had a pretty good crank going, which seemed to be the prevailing emotional state of the entire household as well. I was at the point where I really just wanted to veg in front of Netflix for a few hours, put life on hold and maybe sip some scotch in the process, something I don’t frequently do due to possible interactions with my prescribed meds. Also, I must admit that there was a period where I was a regular at many open mics searching for work with bands. I found myself weary of the open mic scene and the mixed success I was finding there, especially after discovering that most of the people at them were there for a temporary escape rather than recruiting. I was basically burned out on the whole open mic thing. Instead of giving in to the voices in my head, after I finished my dinner I grabbed one of my Godin nylon string guitars, made sure the gig bag had everything I needed and headed out the door.

I hadn’t seen Kat to speak to in several years. We’d been in touch over facebook, but I hadn’t actually talked to her since she moved back to the Chicago area from San Francisco. It was great to see her, meet some new people and make some music with them all. Another person was there whom I hadn’t seen in years, Debbie Mac, and it was nice to actually talk to her as well after not running into her since I’d left a band some four or five years before.

When it was my turn to play I ran through some fingerstyle pieces, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number by Steely Dan, Linus and Lucy, and a couple of Stevie Wonder tunes before closing out my part of the set with a spontaneous jazzy blues jam with my friend Bill Kavanagh on bass, and Kat playing Cajon. All in all it felt good, was low stress and I forgot about my issues for a while. I also accompanied a couple other folks as we went the rounds before we closed up shop just a little bit before ten o’clock.

All in all it felt more like a casual gathering of friends who all just wanted to spend a bit of time making music together. Sometimes at open mics I’ve been to there has been a bit of a competitive edge present, not quite the head cutting of some of the old jazz sessions, but there was an element of that present. Not at all last night, which was nice. No one was there to prove anything, just that they were capable of having a nice night out making music strictly for the fun of it, talking shop and getting to know some new folks. I’d forgotten about that aspect in my many years away from it. Here’s to a pleasant sense of community!

Off Topic: The Social Media Mire

Social Media has become quite a pervasive entity in people’s lives.  We open accounts with the goal of finding and keeping up with friends that we’ve lost track of, to make new friends with shared interests, or to promote our businesses.  The bands I’m in use Facebook to promote their shows, as do thousands of other groups, artists, writers, dancers, and anyone who wants to be someone.  As people spend more and more time on these outlets, their lives and beliefs are being influenced whether they believe it or not.  Over the past few years I’ve watched the information that is being passed along, and have observed the willingness of folks to believe almost anything they see there, as long as it fits their preconceptions, and reinforces their personal beliefs.  Better yet, if it plays to their fears it becomes even more believable.  Combining this with the alt. right’s destruction of the public’s faith in the “main stream media” has created a conspiracy theorist’s dream come true, an open audience that will entertain accepting something as factual, that has absolutely no connection to truth, let alone correlation to it.

I used to view social media as a place where I could virtually hang with the peeps, and it still is to a certain extent.  Through Facebook, for instance, I’m in contact with many people from my past that I had lost touch with over the years and many over many moves from one part of the country to another.  Despite being a writer, I’ve never been much of a letter writer and although I’ve done better with email.   Facebook brings an element of immediacy to the connection that isn’t there with email.  You also can compartmentalize your interactions, without having to commit to full conversations.  This gives me a feeling of connection with these folks that I value, but in reality I don’t have to invest much effort to maintain the connection and neither do they.  In this aspect the entire connection is somewhat misleading in that it too, is virtual.  I’m not really interacting with these folks on any concretely meaningful level aside from maybe allowing myself and the people I’m following an opportunity to not feel isolated, even if in reality we are.

From my perspective this is one of the major negative issues with social media, the blurring of reality and fantasy, which extends to the quality of information that is being presented to its users.  People post meme after meme, attaching meaning to what is mostly a bumper sticker approach to communication.  Some of them are funny, which is fine because that is what they are meant to be, but all too frequently they’ve become rallying points for solidarity with some political or politico-religious statements where no-one bothers to check the veracity of the posts.  I’ve seen statements accepted as fact that any high school English student should be able to discern to be based on false premises through very light research and when presented with the factual information the response was, “well, it sounds like something he/she would have done. . .”  And that was the tenor; the person didn’t care about the facts.

Repetition is one of the ways that people convince others to believe things that aren’t factual, and social media is one of the largest purveyors of this type of communication.  There are laws about truth in advertising, and in advertising subliminal messaging is illegal in the US.  Repetition of misinformation, however, with the purpose to mislead the public isn’t ethically right, but it’s also not illegal and essentially that is one of the grand loopholes in the entire social media experience.  People are being misled on social media everyday by the millions.  People see the same thing over and over and eventually it starts to influence their beliefs.  They trust their friends who are reposting things that they have seen posted by other folks who’ve seen it somewhere on their feed and reposted it, so they accept it as fact without bothering to check the veracity of the so called information being presented.  Much of this type of information’s sources are not listed or made available, or is listed but the source is questionable at best due to either bias or shoddy reporting.  The more often it is seen and repeated, the more it worms into the beliefs of the folks reading or seeing it regardless of it’s actual credibility.

Yes, we are being manipulated every time we log onto social media, and it’s not by our actual friends or contacts, although they may unknowingly be contributing to the issue through reposting things.  We now know that Russia influenced our most recent election in the US in part through using social media to manipulate the American people’s beliefs about the candidates.  They ran a misinformation campaign on social media to support the individual they wanted to run the US for the next four years, someone who is a committed social media user himself, launching destructive twitter post after twitter post despite not even being in office yet.  If you choose not to believe that this is the case, just think about how a lie about you, or someone you know, was spread and ended up damaging that person on a personal level, or that person’s reputation because enough people believed it to make it accepted as fact among the majority of people around that person.  The remarkable thing about this is how easy it is to convince people to believe a lie, and then once they’ve bought into it, how difficult it is to make them believe the truth.

 

Being Mindful of the Physical Aspects of Music Making

One of the things I really love about playing a musical instrument is how it feels, the actual tactile experience. I particularly enjoy the feeling of fat strings under my fingers, which is one of the major reasons why I’m drawn to nylon strings. I love the breadth of the two-inch fingerboard combined with the feel of high-tension nylon strings. They’re nice and round, comfortable to push down, and visually pleasing as well. I don’t like the feel of carbon fiber trebles; they’re thinner than standard classical strings and bite into the fingers differently. Bass strings are also lovely combined with the wider fingerboard of the five string the texture and string response feels oh so good.

Playing brings a welcome tactile experience. There’s something about running up and down the fingerboard, the mechanics of the fingers meeting the strings and the clean order of solid technique being put to use. I don’t enjoy playing sloppily because it feels wrong. I’ve been trained, and trained well. I spent time developing clean playing habits, and while they’ve changed over the years due to working in different genres and the requirements thereof, my hands know the difference. Good technique inevitably feels better than bad technique, and good sound comes from good technique.

The longer I go without playing, the worse my hands feel. I’ve reached the point and the age where my hands start to stiffen and feel uncomfortable when I haven’t been playing regularly. The joints start to ache, and my palms and forearms start to feel crampy. Stretching helps somewhat, but what really makes the difference is spending a couple hours or more running the fret board, moving strings, and sending sound into the air. Doing, in this case, is far better than resting. Inevitably after working through some time on the instrument, my hands feel better, and so does the rest of me, especially when I focus on how it feels to play.

Focusing on the tactile experience also brings about healthier playing practices. There should be a sense of flow and order to the process of making the strings sing. The only physical tension that should be present is the amount needed to push down the string, initiate and maintain a clean sound. I have a tendency to carry a lot of tension in my body, particularly in my back, shoulders and neck. I also have scoliosis, which gives a pain response to tension in these areas. When I focus on the tactile process, I attempt to not only focus on the feeling of the strings under my fingers, but also on my body’s sense of relaxation. I try to keep my back, neck and shoulders as relaxed as I can, playing with as light a touch as I can while still maintaining a sense of dynamic response within the music. Musical tension might be present, but physical tension should be dismissed.

Relaxation promotes musicality, flow, and good health. Tension creates dissonance, pain and fatigue. At some point we all experience this, and we will still reach a point where we’re tired even when we’ve been maintaining a relaxed state. I have found that when tension starts to come into play my abilities decline dramatically. What was easy before now becomes difficult. My hands start to throttle the guitar or bass neck, while my shoulders start climbing toward my ears. Before long my abilities to deal with faster passages declines and emotional communication becomes static. Mistakes start multiplying and frustration escalates. By the end of the session, whether it is a gig, rehearsal or practice, I’m achy and ready for some ibuprofen. If it was a gig usually the next day is pretty physically brutal between the back pain and fatigue, often combined with a tension-induced headache. Tension also radically increases the likelihood of a repetitive stress injury that can sideline a musician for weeks. Been there, done that, don’t need to go there again!

Being mindful when playing makes a huge difference in being able to maintain a state of physical relaxation. The tactile experience should be pleasing, and when tensions starts to ratchet up being aware of the tactile experience’s divergence from pleasure to stress should be a signal. Granted, sometimes we do experience discomfort that requires working through as anyone who has ever played a steel strung acoustic guitar knows. It is necessary to build calluses in order to be able to play the instrument, and it is also necessary to train the muscles. In this case your hands and forearms are athletes and as such need to work out, stretch, recover and do it all over again to build strength and endurance. Athletes themselves seek flow, tension and release, as well as awareness of the physical process and tactile experience. They draw from this to enhance their performance, as should musicians. I can feel it, how about you?

Challenges and Excitement: Finding a Project that Moves Me

Sometimes you really need to take a break, and the more complete the break is, the better. A break can serve as a vacation from the daily grind, but can also serve as a time for reflection and upon occasion that reflection can possibly lead to an epiphany of sorts. I have found that on the occasions where I have taken a break from playing I often come to a realization about the direction I am heading in, particularly when I’ve had a pervading sense of dissatisfaction. I find that during these breaks I’m more likely to listen to music and find sources of inspiration that I hadn’t either permitted myself to think about or encounter. These are mostly small realizations that might spark a subtle shift in direction. Other times they might lead to a larger train of thought. Once in a long time there is that moment, the moment when the lights turn of and I become aware of something that really needs to change, something that simply can’t keep going the way it has been and I’m not certain how I’ve permitted the situation to get to where it is.

I have a full plate right now insofar as musical projects since I’m currently committed to four projects. In order to get a somewhat reasonable performance schedule, mostly motivated by making money I am working with three groups as a bass player and one as a guitarist. Two of these are blues rock and the other two are more classic rock and a variety of other things. None of these projects is really making me stretch as a musician. I get the chord charts together, do a minimal amount of woodshedding and hit the rehearsals, then the gigs, then do it over again. Occasionally there will be a gig that comes up that is something that I look forward to, once in a long while one that I’m excited about, but more often than not I’m not too excited about any of it.

What this tells me is that I need to find/create a project that does excite me and that provides a fairly frequent challenging aspect to it as well. This is usually what I can recognize. The real difficulty is identifying exactly what the project should be. I like performing in groups more than I like performing solo, but I’m beginning to think that I might need to take a better look at solo work. Over this break I heard an interesting live album by Ferenc Snetberger, a European guitarist who kind of falls between the cracks when it comes to classification. Snetberger was performing for a quite large audience on the recording, playing solo classical guitar. There was a series of eight pieces titled Budapest, and then a really nice arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that was quite interesting. The recording was such that I wasn’t exactly certain if everything was written, or if he was improvising sections quite masterfully.

I think that I’m going to explore this type of approach and see what I can do with it. I am drawn to fingerstyle guitar anyway, have a background in classical music, albeit some time ago, and am also drawn to improvisational music. This would definitely provide a challenge, and could possibly include some ensemble work that could be quite interesting as well. I’m really a between the cracks kind of guy myself when it comes to my guitar playing at least, so in many ways, the more I think about it the more it makes sense to start moving in this direction. I don’t necessarily need to quit anything that I’m doing at this point in order to start moving forward with it, but I will need to budget my time very carefully, particularly now that I’m also committed to teaching a couple of English composition courses this Spring.

Still, I find the prospect of doing this to be somewhat stimulating, but once again I am not getting a burst of excitement in anticipation of starting to move in this direction so perhaps I need to consider my options some more. Then again, I don’t really get excited about much in life when it comes down to it. I don’t know if this is directly related to my depressive disorder, the medicinal treatment for it, or simply part of my personality, which would actually be a bit on the sad side of things. It does feel like a somewhat comfortable approach, which might indicate that it may be a bit difficult for me to really dig into and get going. Perhaps the ensemble approach should come first. At least I have an idea this time, so I’m one step further into the game.

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.

 

 

Building Instruments: A Business Experiment in Tucson

I’ve always been interested in guitars, and later that interest grew to include basses, and then a variety of stringed instruments. When we lived in Delaware, in the late 90s and into the early 00s, I worked at a music store, Mid-Atlantic Music where my boss, Nick Bucci, did repair work and was also beginning to build his own instruments. Nick was, and still is, both an excellent guitarist and luthier. Even his earlier instruments were formidable. I used to love watching Nick work on instruments, whether he was repairing something or building something from scratch. Watching Nick, led to learning basic repairs, set up techniques and wiring tips from Nick. I had some issues with not rushing things, which led to a fair share of mistakes, but by the time we left Delaware I was more than competent at doing setups and various other small repairs. I also had the bug, and was starting to move toward building.

My first attempt at assembling an instrument was a FrankenStrat I put together in Delaware from a Warmoth body and a reissue Fender Strat neck that I purchased from Tommy Alderson, another of Nick’s employees and currently one of Steve Morse’s guitar techs. Nick painted the body for me and I did all of the assembly. It was a decent strat in the end which went up for sale before we moved to Tucson. From there I bought an A style mandolin kit from Stewart-MacDonald, along with some tools and scrapers. It was an expensive mistake, and ended up being unplayable, but that didn’t stop me from buying an F style mandolin kit when we hit Tucson. It was more difficult than the A style, but it is still playable some fourteen years later and is currently hanging on my studio wall in Oak Park. From there I was determined to start making some functional instruments.

I came into a small inheritance at the time which financed tooling up and purchasing building supplies. My father generously let me use a back room in his art studio in Tucson to set up shop and I started designing and building electric guitars and basses. Honestly I loved the whole process. Working with the wood to carve necks and create bodies was a tactile joy. I loved the feel of the wood giving in to take shape under my hands, and the smell of the sawdust. Quite frankly it was one of the happiest periods in my life, out there in that shop creating something out of nothing. It wasn’t easy, to say the least, but it was very gratifying despite the intense learning curve. My time with Nick had given me a basic understanding of what I needed to do, but I hadn’t done any actual woodworking since middle school shop so many years ago.

I had to learn how to use the router effectively, and I found that it was a difficult tool to master. There was quite a good deal of torque involved which was quite tiring physically for my forearms and hands. The neck shaping was also quite physical because the roughing out was done with rasps and draw knives. I used a radial sander for smoothing and shaping as well, both on the necks and bodies. There were many blisters from the draw knives and a sore spot where I braced the necks against my chest during the process that would ache for days. There were always piles of wood shavings and sawdust everywhere. How it didn’t get into my dad’s painting studio still amazes me. I did keep the door shut between his area and mine, and then while I was running the sanders, band saw or router I always kept the windows and outside door open to push the sawdust outside as much as possible.

I read books about building, watched Stew-mac instructional videos and bought a compendium of wiring diagrams to learn from. While I had watched Nick refret instruments, I had never done it myself so that was a massive learning experience in itself. After close to a year in the shop I started building instruments that actually worked, played well and sounded good. Ironically enough my successes were primarily bass guitars, one of which I still own and play upon occasion, although it is quite heavy. It was at about this time that my daughter was born and I found myself going over to the shop less and less. My mother was more than willing to look after Phoebe while I was in there, but money concerns were building as well so I went into teaching part time at Pima County Community College. Soon thereafter I closed the door on my shop, focusing on playing as much as could, teaching and raising my daughter.

I still have the equipment to build, and finished a bass last August using a neck I’d built in Tucson. Most of the time, though, my shop in Oak Park is gathering dust and cobwebs. One of the things I learned was that building is an expensive process even after you have the required tools. The raw materials, particularly good ones worthy of building with, are inherently expensive, as well as the hardware and electronics. I do miss the feeling of the wood taking shape in my hands and the smell of sawdust from the various woods used. I also will value the experience of pursuing something that was a passion for that year or so, even if it didn’t lead to a profitable business in the end. Who knows, perhaps I will return to it someday in the future.

Reviewing the Past Year with Eyes on the Next

After being gone for close to a week I find myself back in Oak Park, Illinois and back to the good old Midwestern gray skies once again.  It was nice to see blue skies out in Tucson, Arizona, and to enjoy a short hike in the desert without burning up in the process.  My family and I arrived home yesterday evening and picked up our dog, George, from Spike’s Boutique Hotel for Dogs shortly thereafter.  This morning I had a rehearsal with one of the blues-rock bands I’m playing with, The Blu Wavs, and tomorrow night I have a gig with them in Palos Heights.  I’m off this New Year’s Eve, which is a plus because I can spend it with my family as well as avoiding the inevitably impaired drivers that come with that particular holiday.  On the negative side it’s usually one of the better payouts of the year, so I’m missing that.  Saturday is New Year’s Eve, and my wife likes to set aside some time to review the passing year, making note of good things that happened, places visited and experiences accrued, as well as some time to consider the incoming year and set some benchmarks for it.

This past year has had some interesting turns, particularly toward the end, assisted somewhat by taking both the summer and fall semesters off from teaching college.  This past summer I did teach three weeks at the Dominican Gifted and Talented Camp, one week of Creative Writing, one week of Star Wars Fan Fiction writing, and then one week of American Literature focusing on Ernest Hemingway.  It was fun for the kids and for me as well and it was two more weeks than I taught the summer before.  I had two weeks scheduled for the previous summer, but only one flew.  This summer I was scheduled for two and picked up the third due to a scheduling conflict with the originally slotted instructor.  I managed to acquire the third through a combination of networking, social media, and luck.

The summer was slow in terms of gigs because I was officially band-less.  I did a couple of pickup gigs for local block parties, which were fun, and I also performed with a group that was assembled for an original music block that was also fun.  Through these gigs I added contacts and now have some increasingly reliable folks with skills to draw from for similar situations.  Starting in August I started increasing my musical commitments to what I have right now, four groups, two of which are actively performing and two of which are in the process of building up to it.  This is a welcome shift in the tides as well, as I was not working nearly as much from a year ago in August to last June.

I’ve also landed a part-time gig teaching English Composition for this Spring Semester at Moraine Valley Community College.  I have two classes stacked around mid-day on Tuesday and Thursday.  The pay is much better than where I was teaching last year, and it only requires that I’m there two days a week versus the four I was at the old position.  I’ll still need to plan preparation time, grading time and allow for a longer commute, but the result is I will still have a good amount of time for my writing and musical projects, two distinct plusses.  MVCC is south of Oak Park, and is very close to a large natural area with many acres under the auspices of the Cook County Forest Preserves that are quite nice.

With everything that has come along during the past six months or so, I’m finding myself developing a strong desire to clarify my musical direction, especially the overall arc of where I want to go with it.  I’ve piled on the projects, hoping that they will start to generate income, and a couple have started to bring in some funds, at least in bits and pieces.  It’s definitely not a living as of yet, but it’s a start.  However, I do think that I need something more from it all, as well as a good deal more cash coming in from it.  I’m coming to the conclusion that I really need a solid direction that is under my control and that excites me.  I’m a fairly steady guy; not much really gets me excited.  I look forward to things, but in so far as getting a real charge out of pretty much anything, it really doesn’t happen all that often.  So this is something that I really need to do something about in the next year.  I think that it is truly vital that I do this in the very near future.  After all, another year has passed and so has another birthday.  It looks like one thing is certain, I’ve done some preparation for tomorrow’s time with my wife and daughter!