About Me

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Atlanta, GA, United States
When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995 and have been music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation since 2011.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Half Century

Today I turned 50 years old. The big 5-0. A half century.

I don't really celebrate birthdays. If others are offended that I forget theirs, maybe they'll find it reassuring that I often don't remember that it's my own birthday until half the day has passed. Thanks to Facebook, I'm now reminded of each birthday as soon as I fire up the computer.

If you had asked my 20 year old self what my 50 year old self would be up to, he would have predicted that:

  • I would be firmly established as a band director in a major high school or in a college.
  • Along with that high profile high school or college band directing job would be a family and a nice house. I'm not big into white picket fences, but I love porches. That house would have a big wraparound porch.
  • I would be playing trombone in a local group, either a jazz band, concert band, or chamber ensemble like a brass quintet.
Well, 20 year old self, the joke's on you. None of that happened. Instead, I am a freelance musician doing the following:
  • Holding the part time Director of Music position at Northwest UU Congregation.
  • Performing as a freelance jazz guitarist and singer.
  • Teaching guitar, ukulele, and piano lessons.
  • Working as a freelance music engraver.
How did I end up here? Who cares? I love what I do. I don't have that one steady job or a nuclear family, but in spite of some nasty twists and turns, I've managed to create a life filled with music. I'm unable to play the trombone anymore, but I'm having a blast with jazz guitar, which is an endless puzzle to be solved. I love all my students, and in my NWUUC music director job, I'm surrounded by caring people and a supportive staff.

So here's to 50 more years! As for today, I'm going to celebrate by going about my regular day with a lighter heart.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Ready for More

It's August – back to school time for many. For me, August means it's time to gear up for another year at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation, where I serve as Director of Music. This is a part time position, and I have two months off every summer. Around this time last year, I was feeling burned out despite my summer break. It's not a good sign to feel this way before the new church year even begins! It got worse, too. I thought that I would maybe feel more enthusiastic once I was back in the swing of things, but I kept feeling more and more burned out as the year progressed.

I don't know why I felt this way, but I have a couple guesses. We were going into the new year with the intention of trying new things, including a more informal Sunday service called Worship Café, which we scheduled every couple months, and the Join-In Choir, which was a new initiative of mine. Both of these ideas involved some extra effort on my part, particularly the Join-In Choir, for which I wrote all the arrangements. Going into the new church year, I knew I was going to have some more work to do in a schedule that was already pushing up against the limits of my 15 hour position.

Mostly, though, I think I was feeling burned out because I was going into my fifth year, making this the longest time I've stayed at any job. Aside from my four years in the Air Force, I've always been a freelancer, working at home and taking on projects as a music engraver, performer, and teacher. I don't know if there is any such thing as a "five year itch" in the world of work, but if there is, I was feeling it.

This year I feel so much different. I'm excited to come back and start working at NWUUC again. Some of it is just a general feeling of enthusiasm that seems to have come on, and some of this is deliberate on my part. I've taken some personal steps to help me put this year in perspective, including:

  1. Deciding to even out my NWUUC work schedule. The Director of Music is a 15 hour position, but I have rarely worked exactly 15 hours in any given week. If I'm doing a lot of arranging, I have often put in 20-25 hours in a week in addition to performing, teaching lessons, personal practice time, etc. Other weeks, I might work as few as 8 hours. Each staff member kept track of their hours last year, and my hours miraculously averaged out to almost exactly 15 hours, but the roller coaster ride of longer and shorter hours took its toll. This year, I'm taking steps to even out my hours.
  2. Putting in some "preseason" work. This relates to my first decision to find a way to even out my hours. During the summer, I've been logging some hours, organizing a choir retreat, doing a bit of library work, and copying new music for the Band. I've been doing this on my own time, without the pressure of any deadlines. As the year progresses, I'll be factoring in these hours. If I start to feel guilty that I've put in a few 12-hour weeks in a row, I'll remind myself of the significant number of hours I've worked and recorded this summer.
  3. Learning to love my work. I listened to an interview featuring Mike Rowe, the host of Dirty Jobs. Mike Rowe observed that many of the people who perform some of the nastiest, dirtiest, smelliest jobs actually seem enjoy what they do. He said that they have learned to love their work. Listening to that interview and comparing Dirty Jobs to my Director of Music job, how could I not love my work? Are there things I don't like about it? Of course! But there is so much more to love about it. I work with a supportive staff. I give amateur singers and instrumentalists an opportunity to make music. My piano accompanist is ridiculously talented and easy to work with. I have to work within an overall framework, but I have quite a bit of autonomy. I pick all the band and choir music. Although the minister usually has the final say in hymn selection, she selects from a list of hymns that I suggest each week. I get to fiddle around with a sound system. And I get paid for all this.
So, as I begin my sixth year at NWUUC, I'm recharged and ready to go. It's going to be a good year.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

2016 UUMN Conference Highlights

I just returned from my fourth UUMN Conference. This year's conference was held in Madison, WI at the First Unitarian Society of Madison. As usual, I had a great time and learned a lot. I'm extremely introverted – practically off the charts in every personality test I've ever taken. In spite of that, I've gradually been getting to know some of these lovely UUMN folks as I continue returning to the conference and seeing many of the same faces each year.

Here are some highlights, observations, and lessons learned from the past week:

  • The flight out and back. I considered it a good omen when my seat on the flight out was upgraded to the "almost first class" section. That's the first time I've had leg room on a flight. A young boy across the aisle was on his first flight. As the plane lifted off, he shouted, "Woo hoooo!" I live in Atlanta now, but I grew up in the Midwest. As we approached Madison, I felt a sense of homecoming as we few over fields of corn and soybeans. Alas, my seat wasn't upgraded on the flight back, but it sure felt nice to touch down in Atlanta and feel the familiar oven-like heat of home.
  • Practicing in public. With plenty of wait time, I practiced guitar in the airport. During the convention, I practiced guitar in a hallway in the hotel so I wouldn't wake up my roommate, who probably wouldn't appreciate hearing scales and arpeggios at 5:30 a.m. I used to feel self conscious practicing in public, but between my Noosh and L'Thai gigs, I play so much background music that practicing in public spaces actually feels normal.
  • Plenary sessions with Marcia McFee. In addition to leading each morning's service, Marcia led two sessions entitled Think Like a Filmmaker: Sensory-Rich Worship Design for Unforgettable Messages. Marcia gave us a lot to take in. Essentially, her premise is that she considers filmmakers to be the preeminent storytellers of our time, and that the main reason for this is that film offers a blend of elements, including visual and musical components. When all the components work together properly, they combine to form an experience that sticks with you. Leading by example, Marcia's services and workshops layered a number of stimuli at the same time. Sometimes music was used to underscore spoken word. There was a theme throughout the conference based on the refrain from a hymn: "There are numerous strings in your lute. Let me add my own among them." There was a visual component of actual "strings" at the front of the auditorium (actually, long, colorful ropes) that were used in different ways from service to service. One of Marcia's main themes was planning services so that you move seamlessly from one event to the next. At Northwest UU Congregation, I think we do a fairly good job of transitioning from one thing to the next in services, but there is always room for improvement.
  • Too much of a good thing. While I agree with most of Marcia McFee's ideas, I feel that an overemphasis on the seamless transitions and layering of visual elements, spoken word, and music can be too much of a good thing. I may be in the minority among the attendees, but I felt that the services sometimes crossed the line and came across as productions. To me, it felt like we were being led by the nose through services. As a layperson, if I were visiting a church that went to such extremes to put on a sensory rich experience, I wouldn't come back. Along the same line, in her workshops, Marcia will often stop and tell everyone to talk to the person sitting next to them about a topic that she just covered. As an extreme introvert who needs to sit and think about things, this was incredibly off-putting to me. I came to dread the "let's discuss" moments. I would have appreciated a "let's sit quietly and think about this" moment, and then I may have been more open to the "let's discuss" moments. Again, I'm probably in the minority, but in discussing the workshops with others, I'm not the only one who felt this way. As the conference went on, I started sitting as far away from others as I could and put out the "don't talk to me vibe" when we were asked to "discuss amongst ourselves."
  • Lots of playing. Last year, I was a little disappointed that I didn't get to play for any services or workshops despite throwing my hat in the ring. Well, I wasn't disappointed this year! I had the privilege of playing for two morning services, a friend's workshop, and in my own workshop. Aside from the joy of playing the guitar, it's important for me to play with others at these conferences. I'm extremely shy about meeting people, but if I'm holding a guitar, I feel very comfortable interacting with those around me. Once I've met and worked with someone in a musical setting, I begin to feel more comfortable speaking with them in non-musical settings like lunch, the bus, between workshops, and in the hotel lobby.
  • We Like to Move It, Move It! This was a fun workshop with Sarah Billerbeck, focusing on music and movement activities for children. First of all, it was just plain fun and silly, plus Sarah was working with a room of real, live kids, so there was a lot of energy in the room. I played guitar for Sarah on a few of the songs. That was fun, and it allowed me to some room for improvisation as I was accompanying the children's movements. And even though I don't work often with children in my church job, I still learned a few songs that I could teach to my choir as warm-ups or even use for congregational singing.
  • Repertoire! I learned several songs that I plan on introducing to Northwest UU Congregation. I was introduced to several terrific new choir pieces in the choral reading sessions. The music for the conference choir was, for once, easy enough to introduce to an average church choir. I'm excited about bringing some new songs to the Northwest Band, and I picked up a few songs that could serve for congregational singing or material for Join-In Choir.
  • How to Get Asked Back. Led by Joyce Poley, Aaron McEmrys, and my good friend Sarah Dan Jones, this session was for the "troubadours" – those musicians who travel around to offer workshops, special services, concerts, etc. This is not something I've done as a Unitarian Universalist music professional, but it's something I've been thinking about off and on. This panel discussion gave me a few ideas for the kinds of things that someone with my unique skill set could offer, and the panelists gave some good practical advice about nuts and bolts issues like marketing and pricing.
  • Building the Band. For the first time, I presented a workshop of my own, called Building the Band. I talked about lessons learned from starting a band, finding music, spicing up hymns with a band, and rehearsal techniques. This was the last workshop slot on the last day, so there were fewer attendees than there probably would have been if I had presented this workshop on an earlier day. Still, it felt like the people who attended got something out of it, and I had fun putting this together and presenting it. Each of my main topics could have been an entire workshop topic, especially the section on rehearsal tips. Learning from that, if I have the opportunity to present a workshop again (and I hope I do!), I'll choose just one or two big topics next time so we can go into greater depth. Aside from that self-criticism, I felt very good about this presentation and consider it a success, especially considering it was my first time. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of questions, both during the workshop and after, when people approached me in the hotel to talk some more. On top of that, one person described me as relaxed and open to questions, and another described me as inspiring. So, pat on the back for myself before I start picking away at where I need to improve.
  • Meeting the Band. One of the best parts about putting together my workshop was throwing together a band to play some musical examples. I was unable to find a time and place for everyone to meet at once for a rehearsal, so I rehearsed the music with one or two musicians at a time, and then we all played together for the first time at my workshop. Although I didn't expect to have to rehearse this way, it worked out really well. Aside from playing with some terrific musicians, I had a lot of fun working with everyone. Kudos to Susanne Maziarz (bass), Tristan Strelitzer (drums), Scott Roewe (alto sax), and Jed Levine (piano). We want to play together again next year! I don't know in what capacity we'll play. I don't care if we play a workshop, a service, or we just end up playing together at the hotel. I just hope we can all play together again.
  • Meeting an Old Friend.  Most years, I find that the workshop is being held near an old friend. This year, I had a chance to meet up with Jon Becker. I first knew Jon when I was an undergraduate trombone player at the University of Illinois. Jon was a trombone player studying for a his Master's Degree in music education. Several years later, I worked with Jon as part of the Collins project. I engraved the entire body of work of the American composer Edward Joseph Collins. This was a LOT of work! We're talking several large orchestral works, some involving choir, concerti, numerous piano and chamber works, and even an opera. Overall, this was about 10 years worth of work. Jon wore many hats in this project, including editor, so we were often in touch about the progress of each project, fixing errata, and other music engraving matters. Although Jon and I were in touch frequently during this period of time, we hadn't seen each other in person since I graduated from the U of I in 1988. It was really nice to meet Jon face to face and catch up in person.
  • Choral Workshop. Emily Ellsworth, the conductor of the children's choir at this conference, presented an absolutely superb workshop. Nominally, it was about working with children's voices, but as Emily herself said, it was really about working with voices of all ages. She focused mainly on choral warm-ups. As I took notes at this year's conference, I would often use a highlighter so that my attention would be drawn to especially salient points when I went over them later. Looking at my notes now, I highlighted most of the page. As an instrumentalist who isn't as comfortable working with voices as a trained choral conductor, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I'm doing a lot of things right. That doesn't mean that I didn't learn a lot from this session. I learned a few things I could tweak to make my choral warm-ups more effective. I learned a physical warm-up that will get the choir laughing – not that it takes much to get my choir laughing. I also have decided that I need to take voice lessons. It's something I've been thinking about, but Emily just came out and said it. She recognizes that many music directors (including me) who direct choirs are trained as instrumentalists. The best way we can learn how to teach vocal techniques effectively is to take voice lessons. I'll be looking into that. I learned a good way to describe a dynamic range to a choir. Number 1-10. Number 1 is the softest dynamic that will still project to the congregation. Number 10 is the loudest you can healthfully sing without shouting. I'll start using this number system with my choir. I remember learning about a similar number system back when I was a high school trombonist playing in all-state band. It was good to be reminded of this. I'm grateful for Emily's workshop. This single session was worth the trip.
  • Call and Response, Zipper Songs, and Rounds. I would like to learn more songs that a congregation can learn to sing quickly. Fortunately, my friend Sarah Dan Jones is a living library of these types of songs. I got to talking with Sarah Dan in the hotel lobby, asking her if she could recommend a book or other source for learning call and response, zipper songs, and rounds. At this point, Sarah Dan's repertoire lives mostly in her head, and the songs bubble up as they're needed. Sarah Dan mentioned that she sometimes thinks about writing them down, but she hasn't gotten around to it. Well, I'm the king of "writing things down." I offered to engrave them for her if she'll sing them to me. We're going to set up a Skype call and get all this started. Who knows? Maybe this will turn into a future publication. At the very least, I'll learn a lot of fun songs.
All in all, this conference was a wonderful experience. It always is. I learned a lot, deepened some friendships, and have a sense that I'm beginning to find my niche within the UUMN community.

Next year's conference is in Arlington, VA. I'll be there!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Bebop for a Better You

Bebop isn't my favorite music. As a jazz musician, maybe I shouldn't admit it, but there it is. I don't hate it, but I haven't gone out of my way to listen to it, at least until recently. I personally prefer music that has a singable melody and sounds simple, even if it really isn't that simple. My favorite types of music reflect my easygoing personality. Even if the music is difficult, I like it to sound relaxing. With its angular lines and frenetic pace, bebop is far from relaxing.

Although bebop isn't my first choice in music, I've been playing more and more of it recently. Why? Because it's great for building technique. I spend a lot of time practicing Godfrey and Guy music – learning new songs, memorizing our repertoire, and working out guitar arrangements. Most of our repertoire is of the "Fly Me to the Moon" variety, straight out of the Great American Songbook. My technique has improved over the years as I've work on this highly melodic style of music, but nothing gooses my technique quite like working on bebop, which is why I've started working on bebop tunes again.

I don't have an outlet for performing bebop, and I'm not using these tunes to build repertoire anyway. Instead, I'm treating each bebop tune as an etude – a musical study. (My current "etude" is Billie's Bounce.) For me, bebop tunes are etudes in technique, transcription, and learning licks. For technique, I'm working the melody up to speed, or as close as I can get. Because bebop often has unusual lines, the melodies can expose holes in my technique or pose fingering problems for me to solve. For transcription, I'm learning the melodies and at least one solo chorus by ear. For licks, I can use the chord changes to practice new licks, plus I can take parts of the melody or a solo to learn one licks. Each tune is a long study. I'll keep working at it until I get what I need out of it, and then I'll pick another.

Already, I've noticed that my improv solos tend to be more creative when I'm practicing bebop, so I must be onto something. The Great American Songbook is my bread and butter, but bebop will continue to be in the mix.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Tips for Memorizing Music

When I was a classical trombone player, I rarely memorized the music that I played. Much of it was orchestra or band music, but I even used music when I played solo recitals. Now that I'm a jazz musician, I memorize music all the time. I'm constantly working to memorize Godfrey and Guy's repertoire as well as my own. When I was a trombone player, I was in awe of those who performed from memory. Now, I realize that it's nothing to fear. You just have to work on it as you would any other skill. The good news is that, the more often you memorize, the easier it gets.

Here are some tips I've picked up along the way that may help you memorize your music.

  1. Memorize frequently. Even if there is no immediate need, spend some time each day memorizing something. If you're a jazz musician like me, you can memorize the melody or chords of a standard. If you are a classical musician, try memorizing an etude or a section of a solo. The more often you memorize, the easier it gets.
  2. Sing. If you are learning a tune from the Great American Songbook, sing the melody. If you are memorizing an instrumental, or if you are memorizing a classical piece, sing it anyway. It'll help cement the melody in your head, and you may find that you play more musically.
  3. Learn the words. Even if you never plan to sing the song in public, learning the words is another great way to keep the new song in your head. You may also find that the music takes on new life and meaning when you learn the words, and it will help you to be a more sensitive accompanist.
  4. Find patterns and and forms; analyze. The more deeply you understand the music, the easier it will be to remember. Finding patterns in the music will speed up the process of memorization. When I first began memorizing chords to songs, I memorized a chord at a time, which was tedious. Later, I realized that the chords for jazz standards often follow similar patterns. It's much easier to recognize a typical 1-6-2-5 pattern than it is to memorize C6, Am7, Dm7, G7. 
  5. Practice away from your instrument. Are your chops tired? Fingers aching? Sing the music in the car. Run through the music in your head while you're going to sleep. Visualize. Imagine the feel of the instrument, the fingerings (or slide positions) you'll use, etc.
  6. Memorize a little at a time. It can be daunting to memorize a big piece of music. But you don't chop a big tree down with one swing of the ax. You chop away, one swing at a time. Start with eight measures. If that's the most you can memorize in that practice session, that's fine. It's eight measures more than you had memorized before you started. Build on that.
  7. But still play all the way through. Even while you are memorizing a little at a time, still practice the rest of the music. By the time you've memorized most of the music, you may find that the last section is nearly memorized from sheer repetition.
  8. Put it away and come back to it. My main reason for memorizing is to be able to perform my repertoire without the printed music. When you perform, you need to get it right the first time. There can be only one "first" time you play a piece of music on a particular day, but I've found that the next best thing is to go away from that music and come back later. After I've memorized a song, I will often play that song and then put it away, even if there are some mistakes I want to fix. I'll practice a few other things and then go back to the song again, keeping in mind places my memory may have blanked the first time. I'll just play it once and then repeat the process: practice something else and then come back for another run through of my memory song.
  9. Constant review. Once I've memorized a song, I don't take it for granted. All of my repertoire needs constant review. Fortunately, I play a few weekly gigs in which I have a chance to cycle through my repertoire, but to me, that isn't enough. Part of my daily practice involves playing through my repertoire. I have an alphabetical list that keeps growing longer as I continue to memorize. I'll play through 10-15 songs a day from my memory list, just to keep everything under my fingers and in my head.
If you make a practice of memorizing your music, I'm sure you have some ideas of your own. If you have any tips for memorization, feel free to add then in the comments section below.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Five Stages of Jazz Guitar Arranging

Writing arrangements for solo jazz guitar is a special joy of mine. Some of my arrangements are purely instrumentals, while most of them are written as solo choruses to vocal arrangements for myself or for Godfrey and Guy. Arranging for solo guitar is challenging and rewarding. I always learn something in the process. These are my five stages of jazz guitar arranging:

  1. Glee – I like a song so much that I can't wait to arrange it for solo guitar. Or Lori, my music partner, likes a song so much that I am required to write an arrangement.
  2. Despair – After sitting down with the new song and trying different approaches, I realize this is harder than I thought it would be. In fact, I can't think of a way to make it work. If it's my own song, I might find it difficult to find chord forms that will allow me to highlight the melody. If it's a Godfrey and Guy song for Lori, it's a sure bet that she sings it in a key that is too high or too low for the guitar, forcing me to get creative with octave displacement.
  3. Hope – After fiddling with the song for a couple days, or even a week, I figure out a good way to play a phrase. If I've figured out how I can play one phrase, I know I can write the rest.
  4. Determination – After a week, or possibly a month, I've written the entire arrangement. The end is in sight. Now I have to learn how to play what I wrote. This can take a while. Sometimes I can play my arrangement right away, and sometimes I need to spend a lot of time playing it in super slow motion before working it up to speed.
  5. Pride – Finally, I can play my new creation at a gig – usually a background gig where people are more worried about getting refills than whether or not I'm debuting a shiny new song. That doesn't matter to me, though. I mostly care that I took the time to write a new arrangement for a song that I like, and that now I have a new song in my repertoire.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Mobile Music Man

Today marked the close of one chapter and the beginning of another. I paid my final studio rent check to Tessitura, turned in my keys, and drove around the neighborhood all afternoon giving private lessons. I'm accustomed to planting myself in Tessitura on Monday and Tuesday afternoons, so it felt odd to be driving around. I liked the activity, though, and it won't take long to adjust.

This first week, I'm figuring out where everybody lives and ironing out some wrinkles. For example, one of the parents typed in the wrong street number, which caused me to knock on someone's door a half a block away. Thankfully, nobody was home at that other place, and it didn't take me long to sort things out and get the correct address.

It's a good thing I like dogs, because I met a lot of them today! One of the parents seemed surprised that their dog, who likes to bark and bark, settled down while I was teaching her son. For this particular dog, which looked like a black lab mix, it seemed the best thing to do was make friends while I was alone in the room with her, and then relax and ignore her so that I didn't prompt any more barking. Sure enough, she chilled out, and my student and I had a peaceful lesson with our backs turned to her. (She got plenty of petting before I left, though.)

I scheduled 15 minutes between each lesson, which worked out really well, since everyone was in or around the same neighborhood. As long as I end each lesson on time, it's not a problem getting to the next one.

I enjoyed teaching in the homes today. Students and parents all seemed much more at ease in their own environment. The parents seemed to enjoy the freedom to be at home instead of being stuck in the lobby waiting for their kid to finish a lesson. Many of the kids seemed excited that I was "visiting" their house. I enjoyed meeting the pets and siblings, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed roaming the neighborhood.

I'm grateful for the years I had teaching at Tessitura. Having that studio as a home base provided a great opportunity to establish myself in Oakhurst. Now I'm looking forward to the next chapter as a mobile music man.