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!



Facing the Buffet and Making Choices: A Musical Smorgasbord

About a year ago I went through one of my “turn the focus to classical guitar” periods.  I had been playing with a community classical guitar group for fun, and had joined a classical guitar sextet to do more challenging material as well as possibly gigging with them.  I periodically go through these phases where I want to return to “serious” music, whatever that really means I’m not certain.  I posted a list of pieces I wanted to revisit, relearn and add to my solo repertoire.  That list is still on one of the windows in my studio, poking up behind my computer monitor.  Today it’s reminding me of where I’ve been before and where I’ll visit again some time from now, or tomorrow.  In many ways music has become a buffet table laden with delights from the many different places to explore, some exotic, some complex, some simple to the point of primitive, others heavy, weepy, joyful and downright creepy.  It’s all there right in front of me and I want it all at once.  I’ve also found that when I’m faced with the buffet I have difficulties determining my identity in all of it.  The easy answer is I’m a musician, but I’m not one that necessarily falls into a convenient slot for further identification, and that’s largely due to my own broad interests.

I have performed classical music as a guitarist, a pianist, and a choir member with large and small ensembles as well as performing as a solo classical guitarist.  I’ve also performed in alternative rock bands, dance bands, funk bands, blues bands, jazz bands, folk bands, country bands, jam bands, Americana groups, R&B bands, zydeco bands, cowboy rock and roll bands, hard rock bands, light rock bands, classic rock bands, country rock bands, and I’m sure I’m missing some other genres that I’ve done as well.  I’ve enjoyed all of them, some more than others, and when it comes down to brass tacks if the other players are good I’ll consider most genres as fair game and interesting in their own way.  I often like to be in a variety of groups at one time, playing different types of music in each, because variety keeps me ticking.  Too much of the same, along with too much repetition, kills the mix for me, and most of the time it doesn’t matter to me if I’m playing bass or guitar as long as I’m playing and performing.

One of the dangers of facing the buffet is overfilling the plate, particularly if it’s a really good buffet.  One of the local restaurants that I love is called The Khyber Pass, an Indian restaurant with an absolutely killer all you can eat buffet.  I have to be careful there because I’m always tempted to stuff myself to the bursting point, and all too frequently have because it’s so good.  The musical buffet presents the same danger, particularly when it comes to projects.  Sometimes it’s difficult not to over-commit, especially when opportunities start coming in.  When you have highly eclectic interests, like I do, often in order to get the variety I crave I have to play in multiple groups.  Most groups focus on a particular genre or target, and variety bands, particularly working variety bands, tend to be pretty tightly knit as well as few and far between.  This means that variety frequently requires multiple commitments, which in turn can lead to overcrowded plates.  When the opportunities are rolling in I have difficulty not overfilling the plate and then wanting to fill it with even more.

Now I’m looking at the list of songs on the window, wondering what I could pull off working on, how much time I have available, and then thinking about the new standards type of jazz project I’ve been considering doing, the four groups I’m currently with (two startups, one fully out of the gate and one getting out), and then my solo interests.  I have a lot going on, yes, but still want more, as well as more club dates to pay the bills.  I’m truly bellied up to the buffet, but I’m starting to wonder how much of it is dessert, versus how much is what really sustains me.  If I’m running with the food analogy, I have to also take into consideration what I need to eat to keep me as healthy as possible and what will keep me running best.  I have often found that when I want more, it’s usually because I’m not getting enough of something specific; there’s some important aspect that is missing in the equation so quantity becomes a way to appease the desire that hasn’t been either attended to or even defined.

Much of my musical journey has been a search for that missing aspect that needs to be fulfilled.  I’m still searching for the ultimate “right fit” and while I find myself periodically down for the count, I still inevitably pick myself up and return to the search.  I have to do this; it’s not optional for me.  It’s really integral to my personal make up, so I return to the search and keep bringing plates back from the buffet to my booth where I dig in once again.  The classical guitar comes out with the technical exercises and complicated pieces, the bass tunes down to E flat for the classic rock band and then up again to standard for the blues rock bands, and the acoustic steel string and nylon strings come out for the other work, all the while seeking that elusive compromise that makes it all work together, and brings home the cash.  I’m still searching, and I will be probably long after I find what I’m searching for.



Time Crunches: Another Exercise in Organization

Well, I’m definitely back home because the rehearsal schedule for the week is in. Tonight the blues band is auditioning a pair of drummers, Wednesday the rock band rehearses, Thursday morning the blues/rock band rehearses, then Thursday evening the blues band auditions another drummer or two. The rock band has a gig Saturday night and then we start over, trying to fit in an acoustic band rehearsal someplace as well. What I really need to see is the gig schedule filling up a bit more, but that’s another work in progress. Adding on to the above, I sent out sixteen inquiry letters this morning for part time teaching positions and need to continue the job search while also keeping up with the writing pattern I established last week and working in some practice times as well. So much for the simplifying discussion with my counselor a couple weeks ago.

Generally I do better when I’m busy, mostly because it forces me to prioritize my tasks and then I need to create and keep a pretty organized schedule in order to stand a chance of getting everything done that I need to do. When I’m not really busy then I have a tendency to skip the scheduling aspect and things don’t get done at a rate that even approaches personal satisfaction. I end up thinking that I have more time than I do so the procrastination starts, particularly when I have a task that I’m viewing as less than fascinating that needs to be finished. Most people have similar issues and while my time in the Army tells me that what it really boils down to is discipline, there is also that thing called motivation that has its own impact. When you are self-employed, you are the boss and unless you’ve got a client that needs your immediate attention, you are the only one telling yourself to do something. I essentially have to be my own Drill Sergeant.

Deadlines make huge differences and planning your work by actively creating a schedule creates the framework that enables the deadlines to be met. I know what my writing goals are for the week, and I know what my rehearsal and band schedule is for the week. The only way things will get done is if I sit down and plan when I can get the writing in, when I can get the musical preparation in, and then use that time to do it, not something else. This is further complicated by needing time to take care of the dog, the kid, the wife, and my own physical needs, so there needs to be time in the schedule for those things as well. Once again, get out the paper and pen to figure out what time you need to pick up the kid, make dinner, eat, and all of the other tasks required for the family. The time in between these things is what I’ve got to work with for the work related stuff so really, if I don’t create the schedule, things won’t get done and I’ll have even less time to work with.

When we do the schedule we have to be realistic about what we can accomplish in a given amount of time. Last week I managed to crank out 43 pages of a potential book project, along with several blog posts and the letters of inquiry that I printed and mailed today. I was writing about 1,500 or so words of the book project a day and then about another 800 or so for the essay of the day. I was “on vacation” for Thanksgiving break, but it was very much a working vacation. I think I spent about four hours writing each day, including Thanksgiving Day, Monday through Friday. I wrote two blog posts over this weekend, one Saturday and one Sunday, and now I want to get back in the saddle with the novel. So I need to allot that time. I didn’t take an instrument with me last week so there was no practicing to be done or other musical preparation for the week.

Usually I have about six hours of time between dropping my daughter off and picking her up from school Monday through Friday. If I write for four then I have two left to walk the dog, eat lunch and maybe start doing some instrument work or job hunting, on days that don’t have a rehearsal during the day. Hmmmm. I guess it will take some discipline to get through it all. I also have some time after she gets home from school but that varies depending on what she has scheduled for extracurricular activities, appointments and what not. All in all, during the actual course of the day I have about 7 hours to work with before dinner, and then the evening rehearsals and gigs. Yep, it’s time to hit the drawing board to map it all out. How’s your schedule?

Another Round of Writing Challenges and Continued Growth

Well, here it is November 1st, 2016 and I’m sitting in my writing room letting the sunshine stream in while the sounds of construction come in from the street out front. It’s supposed to be a beautiful day with highs near 75 degrees here in Oak Park, less than a mile outside of Chicago, IL. I’m feeling very lucky right now because many years on this date I’m facing lead gray skies combined with chilly temperatures and dampness that seeps into my bones. Today I’m also starting my first two month writing challenge as I continue to attempt to change, grow, and become more than I was yesterday. In the past I’ve done a one month essay challenge, in July of 2015, and just this past August another dedicated to fiction, both times with a goal of hitting a minimum of 750 words per day.

This time my plan is to simply write those 750 words per day and not worry about the genre; instead I’m going to permit the day to dictate what I work on. Hopefully this will lead to an interesting mix of essays, fiction, poetry and whatever else might come out as I listen to the voices in my head that choose to speak on any particular day. I’m also keeping the door open to altering my goals over the next two months while maintaining the one constant rule: no less than 750 words per day. From that perspective I might find a particular piece that calls for more development, more attention, or whatever, and run with it for several days, building it as I go.

I’ll still need to come to grips with sifting through the pages, building a revision and submission process, and pushing through to completion of the process through publication: finding homes for my work other than my hard drive, blogspot, or desk drawer. Eventually I want to produce some book length manuscripts and actually see them come to fruition, but I’m still laying the foundation for that as well as searching for concepts to run with. This two month challenge is another step toward that long term goal, and a way to ensure that I keep the sentences flowing forward as I shuffle closer to it.

I’m also planning on keeping my musical pursuits moving which is definitely in keeping with my ADD. I tend to do best when I’m juggling several projects, some of which are on my own while others are collaborative. I write best on my own, but I perform best in a group setting. In that vein I’m currently working with a semi-acoustic trio playing guitar, and also playing bass for two other groups, a rock cover band and a blues rock band. Additionally I haven’t given up the ghost on my solo work, all of which, through the four avenues, I’m hoping will generate some income while I’m moving forward with my writing. I believe I can get done what I need to in terms of preparation for rehearsals and gigs during my afternoons while devoting my morning bandwidth to writing.

It’s easy to see that this could end up generating tons of work and create time crunches as well, particularly when added to the changes I need to make in my diet and exercise patterns. The fact of the matter is that I feel better about myself when I’ve been productive as a writer in a way that I don’t from my other activities. As a musician I get satisfaction from performing; it fulfills a very real need and when I haven’t been performing I find much fodder to feed my bouts of depression. It’s something I’ll need to do probably for the rest of my life, or until I can’t carry the equipment anymore. Writing, however, is different in that after I’ve written I feel that I have created something with the potential for permanence and the possibility of concrete communication. The two fields are not mutually exclusive, writing and music, and I am finding that I am getting greater clarity about what I want to do musically over the long haul as I am getting the same with my writing, but that’s a topic for a different essay.

The sun is still shining and the construction crew is still working out front. The Tuesday 10am testing of the local tornado sirens just kicked in, something that used to give my daughter pause while seated in her classroom. I’m sorely looking forward to the completion of the street project, replacing the sewer lines, water lines, curbs, parkway sidewalks and street surfaces. They’ve been working away at it for two months now and have about four to six weeks of work left to do. Once that is done I’ll have my beloved peace and quiet back, but until that time I’ll simply have to keep myself focused and appreciate the sunlight as we head into late autumn. Here’s to the next two months of music and writing! Cheers!

The Hidden Enemy: Your Inner Critic’s Attack on Progress

Last week I started writing a theme and variation piece.  I completed the theme and haven’t hit the variations as of yet.  It has been awhile since I’ve written something that wasn’t some form of arrangement of someone else’s piece and I haven’t decided if I’m going to run with it, although I should, because regardless of how it turns out, it’s a way to prime the creative pump.  My main issue with it at this point is that it sounds like something written a couple of hundred years ago, and while I love music from that time frame and earlier, it’s time has come and gone.  However, it’s really in the draft stages, so what comes next might change things quite a bit, or not.  I have found that when confronting something like this, what I’m really facing is my inner critic, that voice which tends to stop forward momentum by immediately calling to task whatever accomplishment has been made toward producing something.  In the early stages of any creative endeavor, it is a must to shut off our internal critic in order to give ourselves the opportunity to move forward, whether it is writing an essay, story, piece of music, or even starting to learn a new piece of music.

            We all follow a progression from novice to mastery on everything we choose to learn, if we stick with the process and don’t permit ourselves to be derailed while underway.  Often life interjects and interrupts the process, whether it’s simply the task of making a living, fulfilling familial duties, or taking care of the million daily necessities in living our lives.  This is reality, not an excuse, and it’s something we all deal with.  Given that we already have responsibilities that interfere, we really don’t need to give time to our inner critics during the early stages of our process on anything new that we’re attempting.  It’s counterproductive, yet all too often it’s precisely this which stops us dead in our tracks.  For many of us, our inner critic is what we most frequently hear from, and we latch onto it in order to maintain some sort of standards.

            However, the inner critic is not really the enforcer of standards.  For one thing it is biased, and frequently is not biased toward us.  It brings in comparisons to other people we view as our competitors, or folks we look up to as examples of where we might want to be with a piece, or even our entire career, and these comparisons all too frequently occur before we’ve even managed to get the piece off the ground or even out of the conception box.  This is where the damage occurs because we are most susceptible to derailing in the early stages where we lack confidence in the creation of the piece, or in our ability to perform it.  If we give our inner critic free reign, particular in the early stages of a project, we are often dooming the project to extinction before it’s even off the ground because before we know it, we’ve convinced ourselves that we are going to produce an inadequate product.

            Does this mean that we exorcise our inner critic entirely from ourselves?  Like many of our other mental processes the inner critic does have its place, but we must train ourselves to use it wisely and recognize when we’re jumping off the deep end into the dark never-after before we make that leap.  We do need our inner critic, but we need to be careful about when we employ it.  If we’ve got a piece down physically, or think we do, now it’s time to use our inner critic.  Bring it out and let it work with the piece to see how we can make it better.  This is the key, though.  We must train our critical selves to truly seek to improve what we are doing, not tear it apart.  Look at where work still needs to be put in and figure out how to best accomplish that work in a manner that will not tear us apart in the process.  The best teachers bring out the best in their students through being constructively demanding, and building on experiences.  Ultimately we become our own instructors as we move along on a daily basis so we need to decide what type of teacher we work best with, and become that teacher ourselves.  This is what our inner critic should be, our internal version of our best teacher.

Sometimes we will come across a piece that simply isn’t going to work, or we’re not ready to tackle either because we’re not proficient enough to make satisfactory progress on it, or because we’re simply not willing or don’t have the time to invest in pursuing it.  We should be able to recognize this without turning it into an opportunity to dump on ourselves, and if we’re doing so it’s usually due to an inadequately trained inner critic speaking out of turn.  Remember, the whole purpose of good criticism is to provide advise in how to improve something beyond its current state of existence.  So now, let’s train that inner critic to work for us instead of against us.

Mistakes: When do we break out the hammer and Nails?

Sometimes we don’t perform as well as we either expect to or want to. We might have put in the time working on the material but for some reason the neurons aren’t making the connections and things just don’t mesh. This happens when we practice, rehearse and perform; it’s part of being a musician and really part of being human. We make mistakes, sometimes they just happen while other times it’s because we weren’t prepared. Whatever the cause it is up to us to fix the issue, particularly when it is because we weren’t prepared. However, one of the keys to turning the corner on this is to not over-castigate ourselves for our errors. After all, our performance is generally judged holistically, whether it is over time or the course of the performance itself. Very few folks in the audience run a tally on how many errors we made and I, for one, prefer to hear a musically performed piece with a glitch or two over a sterile note accurate one any day.

That being said, I have myself been guilty of being overly self-critical on more than a few occasions, and I have come to the conclusion that there really is no plus side to that approach. Yes, we do need to critique our own performances in order to improve, but we also need to give ourselves credit for the wins as well, and often if we’re consistently hypercritical we run the risk of losing our love for the entire process. Why do it, if all that it leads to is misery? It can also degrade our performances because when we become too focused on either the mistakes we’ve made or avoiding making another we can become overly cautious and tentative during our performances. We become focused on the notes, not the music which can also lead to a cascading effect, compounding the initial error with further flubs.

There does need to be a balance. If we are making mistakes because we didn’t put in the time and effort to learn the piece then we should give ourselves a good tongue lashing, but one should be enough; then get to work on it. We should know what to do to fix the problem(s), so do what is necessary. Being unprepared is one of the areas where we shouldn’t cut ourselves much in the way of slack, particularly if it is a consistent state of unpreparedness.  If things during one week snowball and we find ourselves struggling to make everything work, then ok, that’s a bad week. Make note of it and move on. But when we end up being unprepared on a regular basis, we need to give ourselves a good kick. Consistent unpreparedness is detrimental to performance practice and shows a certain amount of inconsideration for the folks we work with and perform for.

Chronic unpreparedness is different from most scenarios we face as musicians. One of the off-shoots of making mistakes sometimes takes the form of obsessive fixation. We’ve all experienced the case where we simply have a bad day, making errors on parts we know and haven’t had any difficulty with before, so we immediately want to fix them, and then they happen again, and again, and again. What we really need to do, especially in a rehearsal situation, is move on to something else and revisit it either later during the same rehearsal or at the next rehearsal. But instead of simply letting it go, we tend to instead fixate on it to the point where we actually reinforce the mistakes rather than fix the issue. We actually end up practicing the mistake, which then creates a new problem. The best thing to do is stop before this happens. Move on and deal with something else.

Focusing on our mistakes can also end up creating performance blocks when we place too much attention on either avoiding the mistakes or on the mistakes we’ve already made. This type of focus is a prime contributor to stage fright. We build up so much stress over whether or not we’re going to make a mistake, or mistakes, that our anxiety takes over and increases the likelihood of exactly what we fear happening to occur. It can also lead to shaky hands and memory loss, simply because we are focusing on negative outcomes, which creates tension, rather than the whole picture. When it comes down to making and performing music tension is the enemy. It inhibits the fluidity of our physical movements and impacts our rationality, as well as interfering with our emotional sense of balance, all of which negatively impacts our ability to perform at our best capacity. Focusing on the mistakes builds tension.

Finally, our focusing on the mistakes in our performances robs the audience of the positive experience they are having. Most of the time a large portion of the audience, if not most of it, isn’t going to notice if we missed one note. They are happy with the performance, and having enjoyed it will want to voice their appreciation either through applause, dancing (if it is the type of venue that welcomes this), or even talking with us after the performance. When we focus on our mistakes we will often be dissatisfied with our performances, and this frequently comes across in our bows, facial expressions, or during meet and greets after the performance. This type of open self-criticism has a negative effect on our audience’s experience and we owe it to them to not indulge in it. If we are upset with ourselves, at least take it home and deal with it there, and even if we aren’t prone to be overly self-critical there will still be times when we do feel this way. Remember, healthy self-criticism serves the purpose of fixing errors and problems. It is by nature designed to be helpful, not destructive. If we’re breaking out the hammer and nails it should be to constructively build something, not to crucify ourselves.