It doesn't matter of you're a jazzer, a folk singer, a rocker, or a classical musician; there's always something new to learn. I'm constantly learning new scale patterns, licks, and new chord fingerings. Jazz harmony is like peeling an onion. There are so many layers that I'll never explore every harmonic possibility in jazz. I've always enjoyed puzzles, and jazz harmony is the puzzle of a lifetime.
Now I'm discovering that there are new skills outside of music that I want to learn in order to further my career and satisfy my artistic goals. Once again, I find myself a beginner in many areas. This is both frustrating and thrilling. It's thrilling because every time I pick up a new skill, I have something more to offer as a music professional. It's frustrating because I have an ego that gets bruised easily if I can't learn something right away.
When I get discouraged, I have to remind myself that in all of my areas where I'm strong, I was once a beginner. I can sight-read like you wouldn't believe, but reading music isn't an inborn skill. I learned to read music like I can read words…one syllable, one note at a time. Same goes for music theory. Someone had to show me chords and their meaning, and I went through theory class just like all the other college music majors. Music engraving with Finale? I'm a wiz at it now, but when I started out, I didn't have a clue what I was doing.
The new skills I'm picking up now are using a looper, learning to use recording software, and talking to people…yes, talking to people. I'll explain later.
For those of you who don't know, let me explain what a looper is. You use a looper to record a short phrase, and then have that phrase repeat endlessly. What's cool is that you can loop several phrases on top of each other to play back at the same time. For example, you can set up a percussion groove to loop over and over again, then record a bass line and some chords on top of that, then a melody or whatever else you can think of. There are some people out there who can do amazing things with these loopers. I recently bought the big daddy of loopers, the Boss RC-50 Loop Station. Right now, my goals are modest. I want to spice up my solo gigs by looping a percussion rhythm, recording chords, and then improvising over the looped chords. This is only the start, though. The RC-50 is an incredibly powerful tool that will let me explore many possibilities as I get used to using it. I'm finding that learning how to use the RC-50 is similar to learning an instrument. It won't take me as long to learn the RC-50 as it took to learn the guitar, but there are some skills I have to develop before I can use it in public without falling on my face. Of course I want to be great at it right away, but no. It appears I'll actually have to spend time reading the manual and practicing with it! I guess using the RC-50 isn't an inborn skill.
The next thing I'm learning is Garage Band, which is the recording software that comes pre-installed on the iMac. I want to use Garage Band to create solo guitar demos, demos of my original music, and backing tracks for my solo appearances. I'm already running into hurdles, but that's because I'm trying to do too much soon. I'm going to take a few lessons in how to use Garage Band. Yes, I know there are tutorial videos and that the program is set up so it's easy to learn (relative to other, higher end programs), but I've come to the conclusion that for something like this, I need someone to help me out, not just with the software, but with recording in general. To really excel on the guitar, DVDs and books aren't enough. You're going to have to find a good teacher at some point. I feel the same way about learning the ins and outs of audio recording.
And finally, talking to people. Yes, this is a new skill for me. I really do know how to talk. I talk to myself all the time. What I'm working on is being able to talk to complete strangers. I normally keep to myself, which is one reason I enjoy playing background music. To get gigs, though, I need to actually talk to people, not just send emails and hope for the best. I have a gig tonight, and I've been telling people about it on my morning walk. Those who know me well will tell you that this is completely out of character for me. Lately I've taken up the challenge of making cold calls in search of gigs for myself and for On the Cool Side. I've been spending an hour or two a day this week on the phone, calling up restaurants and bars. What I've discovered is that cold calling isn't as difficult as I thought it would be. Sure, it's not fun to be turned down over and over, but nobody has been rude to me, and if they are, so what? It's probably not a place I would have enjoyed playing in anyway. Now that I've learned to deal with my fear, cold calling is just a numbers game. I don't need to get a gig from everyone I call. I just need one, and chances are good that they'll like our music enough that they'll want us back! Even if I'm only able to land one gig in a week, there's a strong possibility that it'll turn into a recurring gig.
Like any other endeavor, being a musician means constantly learning new things, not just chords and songs, but related skills. For me, right now, this means learning to use a looper, learning to record, and learning how to talk to strangers. Next year, who knows? I guarantee there'll be something else. As I learn new skills, I just need to avoid frustration by keeping a beginner's mind and being open to all possibilities.
- Tom Godfrey
- 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, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.