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, March 31, 2010

Weird Thoughts While Performing

Can you imagine yourself walking into a restaurant, pulling out your guitar, and playing while 99% of the room ignores you? This is something I experience all the time, and you wouldn’t believe the hours of practice that go into two or three hours of background music. The thing is, I care as much about the music whether I’m playing for 500, 50, or 5. Even if no one is paying attention, I still honor the music and play my best. Before and after the show, it’s business…setting up, tearing down, collecting my pay, and trying to get another gig. During the show, it’s all about the music.

The more you do something, the easier it becomes, and plopping myself down to perform in the middle of a public space feels normal to me now. Although I am outwardly a picture of calm, there are all sorts of weird thoughts that tumble through my brain as I perform. If I try to make these thoughts go away, they take over and get in the way of my performance. To maintain concentration, the trick is to allow these thoughts to dance around as they please, almost as if I’m observing them instead of thinking them. I’m the axle of the wheel, and the thoughts are the spokes, spinning and spinning while I remain at the center. With that bit of Zen out of the way, here’s some typical stream of consciousness chatter:

“I wish I had practiced this song more. Oops, there’s a mistake, but if I play it two more times, they’ll think I did it on purpose. Hey, she’s cute. I wonder if she likes fat bald guys who don’t make any money? She’s with a date. Here comes that hard lick. Yes! Got it! My knee hurts. My nose itches. Great, someone just sat down right in front of my video camera. Oh, here comes my favorite part. I love this bridge. Hey, she’s cute. Hey, my first tip of the evening. Thank you! Oops, don’t speed up! Nobody’s looking at me. Oh wait, there’s someone in the corner paying attention. I’m going to have to retune after this song. Boy, I love this guitar. I like cats. There’s another mistake, but it sounds better than what I wrote in the first place. Hey, she’s cute.”

There are other gigs where the music just clicks. Everything goes right, and even the mistakes sound good. Here’s what typically goes through my head when I’m in the zone:

“An hour just went by? I don’t remember any of it. Hey, she’s cute.”

Friday, March 26, 2010

What the Bleep Is Music Engraving?

I have a weird day job. Sometimes people ask me what I do for money, which I suppose is a fair question after I’ve played for two hours to a nearly empty restaurant. When I tell them I’m a music engraver, I get quizzical looks, so I immediately launch into an explanation. Most occupations don’t need explaining. If I tell you I work at McBurger Doodle, you can probably guess how I spend my workday. If I tell you I’m a music engraver, you’ll probably look at me funny.

Think of music engraving as typesetting, only it’s music instead of a novel. If you look at some sheet music, you’ll see that the music is printed neatly, but it didn’t start out that way. Music is usually scribbled, or the composer is so bad at using the music notation program that it may as well be scribbled. The chicken scratch has to be transformed into printed music, and that’s where I come in.
Here’s how it works. The composer submits her manuscript to a publisher. If the publisher accepts the manuscript, they send it to me. My job is to take that manuscript and typeset the music into a professional looking score and parts. I typeset the music with a music notation program. Just as there are word processing programs for typing (Word), there are programs for notating music. The two main music notation programs are Finale and Sibelius. There is a debate about which program is better, which we don’t have to go into here. I’ll just say that I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I use Finale. Anyway, just like a book typesetter, once I’ve sent my work back to the publisher, we go through a round or two of corrections. Eventually the music is published, and it goes out into the wide world to be performed by choirs, orchestras, bands, and chamber ensembles.

The work itself is extremely detail oriented. Fortunately, I’m an anal retentive kind of guy. My eye is drawn to the rare typo in a book. I revise my emails before pressing “send.” I used to sort my M&M’s by color, eating the brown ones first and finishing with the blue, but I don’t do that anymore. With music engraving, you have to match a very specific house style, which varies from publisher to publisher. This includes margins, text fonts, music fonts, line thickness, and many other details that all add up to give each publisher’s music a distinctive look. On top of that, there are the arcane rules of music notation. Writers have Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” or “The Chicago Manual of Style.” Music engravers have Gardner Read’s “Music Notation” or Ted Ross’“The Art of Music Engraving and Processing.”

This work isn’t for everyone, but I find it satisfying. It’s nice to be able to look at a pile of music and say, “I made that.” It also feels good to know that I’ve made a positive contribution to the world of music, and to the world in general. So far I’ve engraved nearly 1,300 pieces of music, including choral works, symphonies, concert band music, music for keyboard, hymns, chamber music, and an opera. If you are a school band director or a choir director, I can guarantee you’ve conducted something that I’ve engraved. It’s amazing to think of all the music that has been across my desk, waiting its turn to be engraved and then released into the world to be performed by choirs, bands, and orchestras.

So how did I find work as a music engraver? Persistence! I’m a freelancer. Some companies hire music engravers in house, while others hire freelancers like me. When I first began to look for work, I found a list of over 500 music publishers. I sent inquiries to 30 publishers every month. I was rejected often. Music publishers are reluctant to hire new engravers because it takes time for new engravers to develop templates that match their house style, and also because most wannabe music engravers don’t know what they’re doing. (Using Word doesn’t make me a typesetter any more than using Finale makes you a music engraver.) But I digress. Eventually I got my first freelance job with Santa Barbara Music Publications. They must have liked my work, because they’re still one of my steadiest clients. Over time I landed other clients, including the Neil A. Kjos Music CompanyEdward Collins Fund for American MusicShawnee PressOpera for the YoungAlliance Music Publications, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and a few composers, including Aldo Forte and Fred Adler.

In my heyday, I was working full time as a music engraver and pulling in a pretty good amount of moolah. These days I only engrave for a handful of clients, because I’m devoting the rest of my life to playing and singing. I engrave enough to make ends meet, and then I spend the rest of my day practicing, rehearsing, performing, or working on publicity and hustling for gigs.

It would have been safer to continue engraving full time, but once I started playing the guitar, I felt compelled to take another run at being a professional musician. This whole musical adventure is well worth the loss of income. The friends I’ve gained and the joy of performing again are worth more than any check I’ve ever received.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Stage Fright

As a guitarist and singer, I need to have steady hands and good breath control, so of course my stage fright manifests as shaky hands and a tight chest. I’ve been dealing with stage fright all my life. It’s a highly unusual thing, getting in front of people to perform. I’m shy and withdrawn by nature, and sometimes I question the wisdom in choosing a career path that puts me in front of people all the time.

Fortunately, my stage fright has decreased over time. Here are some tricks I use. Maybe this will help you deal with your own nerves.

  • Accept it. Don’t fight it. The worst thing you can do if you start to get the shakes is to suppress them. You’re experiencing a fight-or-flight adrenaline surge. If you try to suppress the shaking, you only make it worse. I usually start to get nervous about halfway through the first song. If I feel it coming, I literally think to myself, “Hello friend, I’ve been waiting for you!” Nervousness can be your friend. It’s a sign that you care, and if you’re able to channel it, you can use it to add excitement to your performance.
  • Breathe deeply and let it out. For me, the best way to release the adrenaline is to take a deep breath and blow out. It helps me to think that I’m actually blowing away the nerves when I breathe out. If I feel the shakes coming, I’ll immediately begin taking deep breaths.
  • Arrive in time for a good warm-up and quiet time. Some musicians have no problem showing up just before show time, but I need some serious alone time, preferably in the space I’ll be performing. I like to arrive early enough to set up my gear, make sure everything is in order, warm up a little, and then simply occupy the space for a while without being bothered.
  • Prepare! One sure way to get nervous is to come to a gig unprepared.
  • Deal with the now. If you just missed a note, don’t worry. It’s done and gone, and there’s no getting it back. If you worry about a difficult passage coming up, you increase the odds of missing what you’re playing at the moment. If you dwell on what’s behind you or ahead of you, it’s easy to get nervous and miss what’s happening right now.
  • Perform a lot. The main reason I’ve been able to deal with my stage fright is that I’ve been performing a lot. Although it’s not natural for me to be in front of people, the more often I perform, the more normal it feels.

Here's a site with some more useful tips for dealing with stage fright: http://www.happiness-project.com/happiness_project/2008/02/this-wednesda-3.html

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Adventures of a Young Musician: Starting Over


Welcome to the first installment of “Adventures of a Young Musician.” The main purpose of this blog is to give you a peek into the world of a working musician. If you are not a musician, I hope this will bring you closer to the musicians who play the music you love. If you are a musician, I hope you’ll connect with me as you read familiar stories. For performers and listeners alike, please write back if something touches you, interests you, or if you have some insights of your own to share with the rest of us.
At the ripe old age of 43, I’m not young, and I’ve been a musician since I was 11 years old. Although I’ve been a musician for over 30 years, I’m just getting started. To be more accurate, I’m starting over. I’m a jazz guitarist and singer now, but my original training was in classical trombone. I graduated high school one year early and went straight into the University of Illinois School of Music, where I graduated with a degree in Music Education. After graduating, I had a dismal career as a band director. I was an excellent conductor, but I just wasn’t cut out to be a teacher. I was a pushover and couldn’t keep discipline in the classroom. After a miserable year and a half of teaching, I decided to become a professional trombonist. My first trombone teacher, Robert Gray, helped me establish good fundamentals as a brass player, and my next teacher, Elliot Chasanov, helped me build on that foundation and develop into a true musician.
Eventually I found a job as a trombonist in the Air Force with the USAF Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, where I performed with the concert band and the jazz band. Things started out well. I quickly earned respect within the band for being a good trombone player, and I performed as a soloist during the concert band’s summer series. Unfortunately, I developed an overuse injury, tearing the tissue inside my upper lip. It started out as discomfort and stiffness, and eventually it began to feel like someone was poking the inside of my lip with a hot needle every time I played. It got to the point where I was barely able to produce a sound.
I left the Air Force after my first term. At the time, there seemed to be no point in reenlisting if I couldn’t play the trombone anymore. (With 20/20 hindsight, I could have stayed in and cross-trained to become a sound engineer, but that’s water under the bridge, now.) After the Air Force, I developed my own business as a freelance music engraver. What’s a music engraver, you ask? Find out in a future installment.
I still had my foot in the door of the music world through music engraving, but it wasn’t the same as performing. Three times I tried to get my trombone chops back, and three times I failed. One Christmas, my wife (now my ex-wife), Katherine, gave me the best present ever: a new guitar. Soon my fingertips were burning, I was struggling to learn my first chords, and I had fallen in love with music all over again. After a week of playing, I decided I was going to become a professional musician again.
That was six years ago. After a lot of practice (a LOT), I’ve reached the point where I feel that I’ve reached a professional level of playing. I still have a lot to learn (a LOT), but I’m ready to make another run at a performing career.
So that’s where I am now. Within year of playing, I gravitated toward jazz guitar. Now I lead my own combo, On the Cool Side, perform as a soloist, and am a founding member of Allen, Vinton, and Godfrey. I have a lot of experience, but I still consider myself a young musician. I’ve only been playing guitar for six years, and although I had plenty of experience as a classical musician, my new incarnation as a jazzer has opened me up to a whole new world of music, which I’m only beginning to grasp.
That’s it for this first installment, and now you have an idea where I’m coming from. From here on out, this blog will be mainly insights and stories from my perspective as a growing musician. I’ll include horror stories, a typical day in the life, favorite websites, my equipment (for you equipment junkies), dealing with stage fright, and much more. As we continue this journey together, I’d love to hear from you and learn from your insights.