Late March 2017 Updates

It’s spring and the world seems to be waking up all around me.  We’ve had a couple of false starts, complete with a couple of days where the ground turned white, but it appears to be now definitely started.  Fortunately it doesn’t seem like the false starts impeded the return of the spring flowers as the neighborhood’s crocuses are in full bloom, the daffodils have started, snow drops have presented themselves and the forsythia are now doing their things as well.  It shouldn’t be too long until the redbuds bloom.  I’m hoping that the one my wife and daughter bought for me several father’s days ago will finally bloom for its first time.  We shall see as it’s a little early for it to hit its stride yet.  Musically the stride is being struck, however as things are finally moving forward with the bookings.

I have three gigs lined up in the next month or so with the blues rock band I play bass for, have two folkish guitar gigs on the books with Cedes Buck, a local singer/songwriter, an opening gig with the classic rock band, have a web site near launch ready for the trio, and have been added to an original band, The Hurtin’ Kind, as their lead guitarist.  It looks like my first gig with them will be in June.  I’ve also invested in some fingerstyle guitar music to add to my solo bag of tricks so it’s easy to say things have really started moving along.  Next week I’ve got seven rehearsals slated then a gig.  Still looking for that balance between gigs and rehearsals, which I will be attaining one way or another.

My writing has been on hiatus mostly because of the political nightmare I’ve found my country mired in.  It was occupying entirely too much of my working memory to the point where every time I sat down to write essentially the same tirade would start emerging from my keyboard and wriggling itself across the page.  So, I decided to step back from the writing and focus on music and teaching for the time being.  Sometimes when I find myself faced with this type of rutted thought process I find the best thing to do is simply stop, take several steps back, and attempt to get my perspectives under control.  I’m still really upset with what is going on, but stepping back has allowed me to start refocusing myself on the things that I need to do for my music and the other aspects of my life that need attention.

That being said, I do find that I’ve committed myself to quite a few projects, all of which require varying levels of attention.  I’m going to have to make some decisions regarding them eventually in terms of ultimately where I want to be, which definitely leans toward the original line of things.  I do like being busy as it keeps me moving and doesn’t give me time for inertia to set in, but the shotgun approach can only go on so long.  We’ll see what shakes out of the next few months and where it takes me.  I’ve been in contact with a friend in San Francisco whom I’d lost contact with some 20 odd years ago.  He’s experienced some success with the direction he’s taken, kind of a gypsy jazz/Americana mix that keeps him working steadily in San Francisco, and gigging in various other locations as well, such as New York.  Ultimately, I’d like the situation he’s built, but not necessarily in the same genre.  It’s starting to become clearer though, which is good.

So this is my version of an update on things in the world of Christopher Hopper.  The balls are all in the air, and it would appear that more are being added as the days pass.  I’m hoping that I can keep them all up there, and if any are dropped the results aren’t too damaging.  Here’s to spring!

 

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They’re Marching Everywhere!

The sun is shining today, of all days, and has been since I hauled myself out of bed. It is well past dawn and on into the mid-afternoon now, and I’ve seen hope today take form in massive protests taking place all over the country. Here in Chicago almost 250,000 people joined the Women’s March today, while numbers came in around 500,000 in Washington, DC. And those were the two largest of many across our nation, and elsewhere as well. Today’s march in DC dwarfed yesterday’s inauguration attendance, and sends a clear message that the people of this nation are not content. They are sending the orange man a clear message that they are uniting to stand up for their rights, and their way of life. They will not cower under his glares and misogynistic behavior.

I’ve been watching the images scroll in from across the country on my computer, and as they have my feelings of pride in my country have been being restored. More precisely, my feelings of pride in my fellow Americans have been as I have watched this movement gain momentum, and the numbers continued to grow. Here in Chicago the organizers had to adapt and then readapt as the people continued to arrive. They were expecting around 22,000 initially, from what I’ve seen, which quickly morphed to 50,000 and some changes in rallying points. By 10:30 this morning the numbers hit 150,000 strong, then, two hours later close to 250,000 people were marching, chanting and showing their solidarity against an incoming administration that seems hell bent on destroying years of social progress, denying people of their civil rights and turning our planet into an ecological disaster zone.

This in and of itself is such a ray of sunshine at this point. Seeing that there are so many folks out there that aren’t blind to what is at stake in our country gives me a sense of hope that somehow we just might make it through this somehow. I’m not naïve; I know that it is going to be a long haul, but these are truly significant numbers of people openly aligning themselves in pushing back against the darkness that is threatening us. It gives me hope that our country isn’t up for sale to the highest bidder, and that we’re not going to go quietly into a lockstep goose-stepping future.

I’ve seen so many photos shared by my friends of the marches in their areas across the country. Smiling faces as they held their signs with their friends at the staging areas and along the march routes, hand made signs that some had obviously spent some time creating. These were people DOING something about the situation we are faces, people who care about the direction of our nation, and its policies both at home and abroad. Women from all walks of life, many there with their families, came together and made a massive statement for everyone in the world to see. Smiling faces filled with determination to do the right thing and stand for justice and all that is good here.

I’m thankful to all of them. And I’m thankful for the folks who, while they might not march, contribute to the cause in their own ways, whether it is writing letters to their representatives, volunteering in their communities or whatever they can do to help move this forward and keep hope alive in this country, particularly hope that we can continue to move forward as a diverse country, filled with a rich cultural heritage that welcomes difference while guaranteeing equality for all. I don’t want to see that wealth squandered by despots, nor do I want the principles that this country was founded upon to be lost. There is too much at stake for us to let that happen.

I’m hoping that this is a sign of things to come and that the American people will continue to stand up against corruption. We should be that shining light of freedom, equality and justice that we have dreamed to be and so many have come here to find. We are capable of so much good, so much more than the incoming administration represents. We have the ability, the strength, and the knowledge. Now, with the advent of these marches, I’m also seeing that we have the motivation to take the steps to make ourselves heard and to keep driving forward, not set the clocks back fifty or sixty years to the halcyon days of the straight white male. We are ALL Americans, regardless of race, ethnicity, religious creed, gender or orientation, and every single one of us will be heard. After all, in this country the government is SUPPOSED TO WORK FOR US.

What Have I done Today to Get Closer to my Goals?

One of the new things I’m doing this year is every day I try to do at least one thing that gets me closer to one of my professional goals.  Granted, every day that I write, I’m getting closer to one of my professional goals, that of a daily writing practice.  However, what I am really looking at is something aside from the things that I already do on a somewhat ritualistic basis.  Today I’m kind of crammed because it was the first day of classes, so I’m a bit behind the power curve when it comes to getting my regular things done, like this writing bit.  I also have a rehearsal tonight in Addison, Illinois with one of the bands that is actually working.  This rehearsal also includes auditioning a keyboard player, so I’ve got to set up my book to put the songs we’re working for the audition up front.  This week I’m trying to get in an hour a day working on jazz standards with one of my guitars.  This is the daily thing that is aimed forward.

I am tenuously forming a goal for a direction to pursue musically that provides me with both personal satisfaction and an element of regular challenge.  I’m still trying to flesh out the concept but it’s related to jazz, so that’s why I’m working the hour a day on standards drill.  I’ll continue with it until the concept crystallizes further and gains more clarity, at which point I’ll sharpen the focus in what I’m doing with the guitar during that time frame.  I am drawn to improvisational music and using pieces for the jumping off point, but I’m interested in finding something that speaks to me as an individual more than the jazz standards do.  I’m not certain at this point if it’s going to come to me writing material, or finding a niche of existing tunes that gives me a better sense of it all.  It could be a combination thereof for that matter.

I’m also open to the possibility of using some classical pieces as jumping off points.  There are many pieces that are theme and variation sets that essentially are the end result of the composer playing or working around the original concept in what could be thought of in terms of a documented improvisation session.  Bach’s Art of Fugue runs through quite a few variations based upon an original concept, and while he used the fugue as the form, and the variations as an example of what could be done, it is quite a remarkable piece of music in its entirety.  When it comes down to it, Bach was known during his lifetime primarily for his prowess on the organ and his improvisational abilities as well.  Today we know him most for the massive amount of extremely high-caliber compositional work he left behind.  It is interesting that there wasn’t much of a divide between performers and composers at his time.

Whichever the form, or even a mixture thereof, I have my glimmerings of where I want to head next in my musical pursuits.  I don’t want to spend the next forty years of my time on the planet chasing my musical tail doing the same things I have in the past, as that wouldn’t be productive in a manner that supports forward movement.  Additionally that’s too much like treading water for my tastes.  I want to move toward something that I feel reflects more of my take on music, and gives me a clearer avenue to shaping what is being presented in live performance and on recordings as well.  I’d also like it to be my project that I take the lead on as opposed to another sideman gig.  This would be another welcome change as well since the bulk of my musical career thus far has been as a dedicated sideman in other folks’ projects.

It has taken quite a while for me to get this far, to the point where I have at least glimmerings of where I want to go from here.  About ten years ago I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do.  I was ready to take the leap, put myself on the line and take the chance.  What I was shooting for didn’t happen, in fact the opportunity to leap passed by in a blink.  It took the wind and everything else out of my sails, mostly because I had my sights so firmly locked on it that I hadn’t allowed myself to come up with alternative scenarios, as in if I don’t do this, then what else is the next best viable alternative.  Here it is ten years later and I’m just now starting to get an idea of what next.  I guess that’s just the way it works sometimes.  So, I’m going to do that one thing today that gets me closer.

 

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.

 

 

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!

 

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.