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.

 

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Revaluating Past Work: My Oso Guitar a.k.a. The Bumble Bee

Back around 2003 while I was building guitars in the shop off of my father’s art studio in Tucson, I experimented with an Oso body.  I call it that because it is similar to the Zuni bear fetishes in shape.  At the time Klein was building an interestingly shaped electric guitar that was designed so the neck would be elevated, angling upward when the guitarist was seated as opposed to parallel with the ground.  This appealed to me, as my classical training has always come into play when positioning any guitar or bass I play.  I didn’t want to copy a Klein, even if I was in the learning stages, so I came up with the Oso body.

I ended up making two Oso guitars, one black with EMG strat pickups and one yellow with two Lace P-90 pickups and a three way switch.  The black guitar had a nice lacquer paint job, thanks to my father.  The yellow I stained and sealed myself.  Between the two the yellow Oso was a more successful instrument once the build was completed.  I pulled it out of my closet today here in Oak Park and put it through its paces this morning, after years away from it, just to refresh my memory and reassess the instrument.

The guitar is quite comfortable on the leg, and on the shoulder as well.  I carved the body from ash, and it is smaller than say a Telecaster so the weight is fairly light, but not as light as swamp ash.  The neck is maple with a rosewood fretboard.  I carved a tall bone nut from a blank, and the bridge is a Schaller roller bridge with the spacer still attached to the base.  The tuners are Schallers as well.  I have the action set as low as I could get it, but there is some buzz on the low E and A at the sixth and seventh fret.  The neck is flat, no bow, so if I took it off and adjust it a bit I might be able to remedy that issue.

The guitar sounds quite good, particularly when using the neck pickup.  It produces a nice clear tone across the spectrum that warms up as the tone is rolled back.  The bridge pickup sounds quite good as well, with some bite but the highs aren’t piercing which is a relief.  When the two pickups are combined the tone is a bit weak and quacky.  Unfortunately it’s not one that I would choose to use, and I don’t think there would be too many alternative takers out there who would.  I am pleased though with how the neck pickup worked out, as it is the one that I use most anyway.

The neck is narrow across the fretboard and the string spacing is a bit on the narrow side as well.  This makes for fast picking, but also necessitates more precision with left hand finger placement.  It doesn’t take much to send the low E string over the edge.  The frets feel a bit tall, especially close to the nut which feels a little bumpy when sliding down to them.  I might be a bit overly sensitive on this right now, as I have some cracked skin that is bumping along over them.  One aspect that does displease me was that the access to adjust the truss rod is in the neck join like the original Fender guitars.  This makes adjusting the truss rod a bit of a pain since I have to take the neck off to make changes.  I built this guitar before I learned how to build the neck with the truss rod access at the headstock, though.  Later attempts eliminated that issue.

Overall, it’s a better instrument than I originally thought it was, and everything is still solid on it fourteen years after I built it.  That pleases me immensely.  That being said, there are definitely points that need improvement.  The neck pocket needs to be about a quarter inch deeper, allowing the strings to come down to the pickups more closely, and then the two areas with some fret buzz could be refined somewhat.  All in all, though it’s definitely not a bad guitar for a somewhat early attempt at building, especially when the reality is that I only did this for about a year, maybe a year and a half.  I have another from the same period that is still in Tucson.  It is blue with has a single cutaway and is a more traditional shape in some ways.  It is loaded with a pair of Rio Grande humbuckers in a Les Paul configuration.  I’m looking forward to bringing that one home and re-evaluating it as well.

 

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.

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.