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.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

New Year, New Goals

At the end of each year, I like to sit down and make a list of goals for the new year. I have a list of overall goals that I'd like to meet by 2016, which will mark my 10th year of playing guitar. Each of those goals is broken up into smaller yearly goals.

I didn't do as well at meeting my goals in 2011 as I would have liked. Circumstances changed that made it nearly impossible to meet a long list of goals that was already challenging. Fortunately, these were positive developments. One was becoming the regular guitarist for Act3 Productions, and the other was becoming Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

Some of the goals I did not meet included recruiting 20 guitar students, memorizing 50 vocals, recording several backing tracks, and arranging several guitar solos. I found that I simply didn't have the time or energy to meet those goals. The music director job is only a quarter time position, but when I added it to an already busy schedule, my time was stretched pretty thin. It looks like I'll be playing 3-4 musicals a year for Act3 Productions. At my current skill level, it takes a while to learn an entire guitar book for these musicals. In the couple months before a musical, I'll often spend 2-3 hours a day learning my part, so I don't have those 2-3 hours to spend arranging or recording. On the other hand, my guitar playing continues to improve, partially as a result of learning those musicals. I'm finding that it's gradually taking less and less time to prepare for musicals, which gradually allows for more and more time to focus on my own repertoire.

As far as guitar students, I enjoy teaching, but my schedule is filled with music engraving, the church job, practicing, and gigging. If I hadn't landed the church job, I would almost certainly have my 20 students, but I'm not advertising as a teacher these days. If a student approaches me about lessons, I'll teach, but for now, I'm not actively recruiting. If the church job went away, or if music engraving suddenly dried up, I would start looking for students again.

On the plus side, I met my weight goal, I've improved at solo improv without accompaniment, I've written a few arrangements (just not as many as planned), and I've finally become comfortable standing and playing guitar. In fact, now I prefer standing over sitting, unless it's a background music gig.

I'm not making excuses for not meeting some goals. It's just that life happens, things change, and you have to adapt.

In past years, my goals have been centered around guitar or fitness. I'm really enjoying the music director job at NWUUC, which factors into my 2012 goals. Here's my list of goals for 2012:

  1. Improve my fingerstyle playing. I started out mainly as a fingerstyle player. Lately, I've been playing mostly with a pick, but I've been watching a lot of Tommy Emmanuel and Martin Taylor videos, and I'd like to get start getting more creative with my fingerstyle playing.
  2. Weigh 185 pounds. I've gained weight over the holidays, and I'm not very happy with that. I've been good about exercising, but it's time to get my diet back on track. At least I don't have to lose over 100 pounds this time.
  3. Attend a choral conducting workshop. I feel that I'm doing well as a choir director, but my formal training was almost exclusively for band and orchestra. I've spent the first few months of the job getting my bearings, but to be a better music director, I feel it's important to start participating in workshops and clinics.
  4. Start piano lessons. Last year, when I almost won a job at another church, I considered taking piano lessons. When I didn't get the job, I dropped the idea. Now that I do have a music director job, I would like to start developing some piano skills.
  5. Find one more steady music engraving client. A few years ago, I dropped a few clients so I would have more time to focus on guitar. Unfortunately, I went overboard. One more steady client won't affect my overall schedule that much, and I'll be in a better financial position. As a guitarist, I'm still a little fish in a very big sea. As a music engraver, I'm a shark! In my ideal world, I would spend all my time practicing and gigging while money rains down from the sky. For now, most of my money will still be coming in from music engraving, and I'm fine with that.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Playing Sick

Wow, it sure has been a while since I've blogged. 'Tis the season for performing, and I just haven't had much time for blogging. Fortunately, after this week, I have a little break before a two-week run of Xanadu.

This weekend, I'll be busy leading the music at NWUUC for both the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services, as well as the New Year's Day service in another week. Unfortunately, my body decided to catch a cold yesterday. I don't feel any better today, but I don't feel worse, either. I'm hoping this means I'm already on the mend, and that I haven't caught a slow, long-acting bug.

There's never a good time to catch a cold, but some times are worse than others. For example, if you're a church musician doing a lot of singing for three upcoming services, it's a terrible time to catch a cold! If I were just playing guitar, it would be miserable but doable. Singing with a cold is something else.

So if you have a cold, is it okay to sing? It's a judgement call for me. In my case, my cold seems to be staying in my head and hasn't affected my throat or chest (knock on wood). For me, this means that I should be okay to sing. If my cold travels south, I'll have rethink things.

I'm not a heavy singer. For my style of singing, I use a microphone and don't need to generate the power and projection of a classical singer, so I feel like I can get away with singing with a cold now and then. If I had several performance dates in a row, I would definitely back off. Most likely, I would just play the guitar and bring in another singer.

Not that I enjoy being sick, but I practice more efficiently when I have a cold. Normally, if I have a public appearance coming up, I'll practice my music to death, even if I'm just playing hymns for church. With a cold, I don't have the energy or voice to be able to do that, so I'll practice exactly the amount needed and no more.

The funny thing about music is that, for a brief time, I'll get wrapped up in the music and forget that I'm sick. Last night after choir practice, one of my singers told me that I appeared energetic and not sick at all. I was miserable just before rehearsal, and I was miserable as soon as rehearsal was finished, but during rehearsal, the music gave me an energy boost. The same thing happened today while practicing guitar. It was hard to get started. I just didn't feel like doing anything. I was so involved with pushing my technique, perfecting a solo, and learning my Xanadu part, that I didn't even think about my cold.

Of course, now that I'm finished practicing, I'm tired all over again. I'll be hitting the sack early tonight, hoping I feel a little better tomorrow than I did today.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Never Bored

A few years ago, when I was living in Chicago and engraving music full time, my schedule was simple: Wake up and engrave until noon. Walk to my favorite sandwich shop (every day) and have lunch. Walk home and engrave until 5 or 6. Have dinner. Read a book, watch TV, or play a computer game. Go to bed. Wake up and do it all again. Wednesdays were a little different, because I volunteered at the Old Town School of Folk music in the afternoon, archiving old concerts by transferring them from DAT to CD. I even worked half days most weekends.

It was a predictable, boring existence, but that changed once I started playing the guitar.

At first, the only difference was that I practiced an hour or two a day. Then I started taking lessons and eventually worked up the nerve to start playing in public…in nursing homes and church, then restaurants, coffee shops, and paid gigs. I knew playing the guitar would add variety to my schedule, but I had no idea!

I started playing with the intention of becoming a fancy fingerpicker of American folk and Celtic music. Then I veered off into jazz and started dabbling in other styles with InTown Band. These days, I have to stay on top of a lot of different things at once. This week is a perfect example. I just finished playing Rent, I'm preparing Christmas music with Tea for Two, I'm performing jazz standards at solo show tomorrow, InTown Band plays a three hour show on Saturday, and I'm conducting a church choir on Sunday! So much for becoming a folk music specialist.

I'm putting a lot of things together – music engraving, teaching lessons, performing, and working as a part time church music director. I haven't talked to other musicians about this, but I suspect that most other freelancers are also putting together a lot of different projects to make it all work.

While I enjoy the variety, sometimes I long for more simplicity. I'm not sure I could handle all my current projects indefinitely. What I think is going to happen is that eventually two or three of my projects will outstrip the others. One of my bands may really start to take off, the part time church job may expand, or I may decide to make a stronger effort to recruit a lot of private students. At that point, I would have to make some hard decisions about which projects to keep or drop. Even then, I'll always have enough going on that I'll never be bored again.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Late!

Today was the final performance of Rent at Act3 Productions. It was a terrific show, and I'm looking forward to the next one. In January, I'll be playing guitar in Xanadu, and the cast will be on roller skates!

Although this last show went very well, it was marred by one cast member who was 15 minutes late. The audience patiently waited for this key cast member to arrive. This is the first time anything like this has ever happened at Act3 Productions, and I suspect the director will be taking steps to make sure it's the last time it ever happens. It would be one thing if this person had a legitimate excuse for a one time offense, but tardiness was a pattern of his throughout rehearsals. It's safe to say that this person won't be cast in any future Act3 shows. It's really too bad, because he is a talented young performer, but there are other performers out there who are equally talented – and who show up on time.

Many years ago, when I was an undergrad at the University of Illinois, I fired a musician for constantly being late to rehearsals. I was music director for a campus production of The Wiz. There were two violinists. One was okay, and one was really good. The one who was really good was late to every single rehearsal. I fired him because, as great as he sounded, it wasn't fair to the other musicians who showed up on time, and it affected group cohesion. I started to see eyes roll every time he came in late. When I announced that he was no longer part of the orchestra, the sense of relief from the entire group was overwhelming. I never thought I would receive applause for firing someone.

Anyone who has worked with me can tell you that my pet peeve is punctuality. If it's a gig, I'll be there at least an hour beforehand. If it's a rehearsal, I like to arrive at least 30 minutes early. My idea of being late is arriving 5 minutes early. Most people don't realize I'm serious when I say that there's probably an emergency if I'm not there 10 minutes before report time. I've started playing guitar too late in life to ever be the most talented guitarist in town (unless it's a really small town), but my dependability will continue to help me open doors and build trusting relationships with key players.

While I don't expect others to be as chronically early as I am, I do expect people to show up at the time we've all agreed to meet. To me, there are some important reasons to show up on time.

  1. It allows space to prepare yourself mentally and physically for a rehearsal or show.
  2. It shows a respect for the other members of a group. If a rehearsal starts late, I often become resentful, thinking that I could be reading, getting some extra work done, or just taking a little extra time at dinner instead of rushing off to a rehearsal that ended up starting late anyway.
  3. It shows professionalism. When, in contrast to many musicians, you have a track record of showing up when you say you're going to show up, that's a big plus in developing a good relationship with a venue owner or a booking agent. Also, it may cost you money to be late if you've signed a contract that says you'll arrive at the gig site at a certain time.
I hope that today's tardy young performer learns from this experience. He won't be cast in an Act3 Productions show again, but he's young, and there will be other opportunities. If he takes this lesson to heart, he'll become as reliable as he is talented.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Cube-80XL Review

A couple weeks ago I blogged about an old friend unexpectedly buying me an amp to return a favor from many years ago. This is a review of that amp, the Roland Cube-80XL. This is not an exhaustive review. The way I use the Cube80 is influenced by my style of play, so there are some features I don't use. If you want to learn everything about this amp, you can check out the Roland website.


The 80XL replaces my Cube-60, which is a terrific amp. I've used the Cube-60 for jazz and with my original group InTown Band, which blends several styles (rock, jazz, blues, reggae, soul, gospel, and whatever else we decide to throw into the mix). I still love the 60. In fact, I'm using it for a current pit gig, leaving it in the theater for the duration of the run while simultaneously using the 80XL for other shows.

I absolutely love the Cube-80XL. The best thing about it is that it just plain sounds great, and for the small to medium venues I play, I have all the volume I'll ever need. It has three channels: JC Clean, Lead, and Solo. The clean channel is modeled after the JC120 (Jazz Chorus 120). The lead channel has an impressive array of amp models. The clean and lead channels each have their own volume control. The solo channel allows you to save settings from both the clean and lead channels, including onboard effects. I've messed around with the various amp models from the lead channel, and they're fun, but with my style of play, the clean channel is all I use.

It has some nice effects on it, including chorus, flanger, phaser, and heavy octave. I especially like the chorus effect. I usually use a chorus pedal, but the onboard chorus sounds great and will do in a pinch. The heavy octave is fun. With this effect on, the amp simultaneously generates an octave below whatever note(s) you're playing. This is no substitute for being able to play octaves the real way, a la Wes Montgomery, but it's fun to turn on the effect and play fast runs in octaves.

You have a choice of spring or plate reverb. I don't use a lot of reverb, but I do like to add a touch of plate reverb. Although the delay effect is nice to have, I prefer to use a delay pedal for more control over the delay effect.

The 80XL has an aux in, allowing me to amplify an MP3 player. This is handy for background gigs where I need to provide music while I'm taking a break. I simply plug in my iPhone, call up one of my playlists, and I've got recorded background music while I saunter over to the buffet table.

You can use foot pedals (not included) to switch all these effects on and off, and you can also use a pedal to switch back and forth between clean and lead channels. The onboard tuner is handy, too.

Aside from the terrific sound quality from the clean channel, my favorite feature is the onboard looper, which allows you to loop 80 seconds of music. You can start recording a phrase by pressing a foot pedal, and you can overdub. The only thing I don't like about the looper is that you can't turn the loop off with the foot pedal (or possibly I have the wrong kind of pedal). This makes it impractical for live performance, but that doesn't matter, since I already own an RC-50 looper. It does come in handy for practicing at home. For example, I can loop some chords ad nauseum while I practice a new lick. I originally intended to only use the Cube 80 for performances and recording while using the Cube 60 as a back-up, but I've found the onboard looper to be so handy that the new amp has become a useful practice tool.

The Roland Cube-80XL is a terrific amp. Between this amp and my old Cube-60, I don't see myself needing another amp for a long time to come.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

No Do Overs

Last night was Act3 Productions' opening night of Rent. The show went very well. This is my third show as a guitarist with Act3. I continue to be impressed that a community theater with mostly teenage singers and actors puts on such amazingly good performances. Act3 won several categories for their recent production of Once on This Island at the Metro Atlanta Theater Awards. This was the first time Act3 had been entered in these awards, and they cleaned house! Act3 Productions has only been existence for about a year and a half. To be putting on such quality performances and winning awards so quickly is impressive. I am grateful to have become Act3's guitarist. I feel like Act3 has a bright future, and I'm lucky to have gotten in on the ground floor.

One thing I love about live performance is the spontaneity. Even when you're in a situation where the show is blocked and the lines are memorized, there are glitches. When you are recording in the studio or filming a movie, you have the luxury of going through multiple takes until you get it right…not so with live performance. There are no do overs. Last night was a case in point, and it was also a perfect example of professionalism and quick thinking on the part of Act3 talented performers.

For one of the numbers, they decided to go with a pre-recorded track instead of the orchestra. (I have no idea why.) It was a solo number for the character "Angel." (Check out the YouTube clip from the movie version.) About a third of the way into the song, the recorded track cut out, and Angel was left singing a cappella. Literally not missing a beat, the other onstage characters started clapping and beat boxing, and then the orchestra joined in, improvising an accompaniment.

After the show, it was decided that the orchestra would be backing the singer, and we wouldn't use the recorded track again. (This was a perfect example of why live performers, mistakes and all, are superior to backing tracks.) Except for the keyboard, all the other parts are marked tacet (which means don't play), so today's assignment was to listen to the track at home and come up with a part to play. Tonight, we'll meet early to rehearse the number. I'm 100% sure that we'll sound great come showtime.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Getting There

There is an Ira Glass quote that has surfaced recently on Facebook. The quote is condensed from a video that Ira made about storytelling. I've copied this quote from the blog, Design Talk, by John McWade.

"What nobody tells people who are beginners – and I really wish someone had told this to me – is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years, you make stuff, and it's just not that good. It's trying to be good, it has potential, but it's not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn't have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it's normal, and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only be going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambition. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I've ever met. It's gonna take a while. It's normal to take a while. You've just gotta fight your way through it."

Ira Glass is right on the money. There is a definite gap between where I am now as guitarist and where I want to be. Day by day, I'm closing the gap. It will take years to get there, and I'm fine with that. As a musician, I've had my nose to the grindstone in recent years. I try not to compare myself to the musician I will eventually become. Instead, I focus on the here and now, challenging myself with new concepts and increasingly difficult material. Sometimes I look up from the grindstone long enough to realize that I've made some important steps. Little epiphanies here and there have helped me realize that, while I'm not yet where I want to be, I'm getting there. I'm able to play my daily scale routine faster, more fluidly, and more consistently. I'm able to learn new licks and songs more quickly. I was pleasantly surprised at how much more quickly I was able to learn the Rent guitar book compared to how long it took to learn parts for other musicals I've played recently. So, again, I'm not there yet, but I'm making progress. The key has been, and will continue to be, to just play and play and play. Practice at home. Play in public as often as possible, even if it's just for tips and food. Get on a sub list and sit in with other bands. Play wherever and whenever you can.

Our taste guides us in our quest for artistic excellence. There are so many great jazz guitarists out there, and they all serve as my guides to a certain extent. My favorite jazz guitarists from the past include Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery. Some of today's finest guitarists include Tommy Emmanuel, Pat Metheny, Martin Taylor, and Frank Vignola. If I had to pick a living guitarist who most closely matches my own aesthetic, I would have to pick Russell Malone. He has amazing technique, but he often reigns it in and plays some of the most beautiful ballads I've heard on the guitar. Even when he's burning through a solo, he plays melodically and with intention.

Here are a few videos of Russell Malone that represent the future musician I would like to be. In the first video, he's accompanying Diana Krall. His low key comping is masterful, and he plays a beautiful solo. The second clip, Mugshot, shows off his funkier side, and in the third video, he plays a tasty solo guitar version of How Deep Is Your Love (yes, the Bee Gees song).




Saturday, October 22, 2011

Balancing Act

Last month I blogged about relapsing back to my old dietary ways, snuggling up at night with some chips and my two best friends, Ben and Jerry. After some recent struggle, I feel like I'm getting my weight under control again.

These last couple months have been about regaining balance. This past summer, I was exercising a lot, and I mean a lot! Pedaling the stationary bike for up to two hours some days, and walking 10-12 miles, I had it in my head that I would try ultra-marathoning at some point. (Frankly, this still sounds like a cool idea.) The problem was that when I took a church music director job, I didn't have time for this amount of exercise when you also factor in music engraving, practicing, and hustling up gigs.

Suddenly, I felt like I didn't have time to exercise at all. The music director job is only a 10 hour per week commitment, but that's about how much time I was exercising each week. In many respects, I'm an all or nothing kind of guy. Sometimes that plays to my advantage, but this time it got me in trouble. I just stopped exercising, thinking somewhere in my all or nothing brain that if I couldn't exercise for hours at a time, I couldn't exercise at all.

This was wrong, of course, and I've finally found my balance. I may not have time to plop on the stationary bike and pedal for two hours, but I have 30-40 minutes. If I have time to mess around on Facebook or write a blog, I have time to exercise. I can't eat as much as I did when I was working out 90-120 minutes at a time, which is a crying shame, so I've had to regain my balance there, too. It was hard to give up the Ben and Jerry's (again!), but I feel a lot better now that all the sugar is out of my system.

At this point, my newest "skinny clothes" are too tight, but give me a couple months and I'll be wearing them in style again!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Good Karma

This week, straight out of nowhere, an old friend helped me out in a big way.

This story begins a couple weeks ago, when my amp blew out just before playing a set with Tea for Two at the Oakhurst Arts and Music Festival. The sound man told us that there had been problems with the power all morning. My amp sounded fine until there was a power surge. It emitted a loud POP! and then went dead. The sound man solved the immediate problem by plugging me directly into the system, but after the show, I had to get my broken amp fixed.

Did I say this story begins a couple weeks ago? Sorry, my mistake. This story begins over 15 years ago, when I was a trombone player in an Air Force band. Kurt, a bass player friend, stayed at my apartment for a few weeks while he was going through a particularly nasty divorce. I didn't think anything of it. It's just something that a friend does for a friend, and I enjoyed his company. I'm happy to report that Kurt is happily remarried, and it seems like he's got a great family and is enjoying life.

Fast forward to last week. Kurt and I are Facebook friends. We haven't seen each other since I left the Air Force. We'll write a note to each other occasionally, but for the most part, we do the usual Facebook thing and comment on or "like" each other's status updates, pictures, etc. About a week ago, Kurt sent me a message. He had seen a couple status updates about my ailing amp. He wanted to buy me a new amp, and I wasn't allowed to say no, because it was payback for the time he spent sleeping in my apartment during his divorce. He knew that I would eventually get my broken amp back, but he still wanted to buy me a new amp so that I could have a back-up. I sent a link to the amp that would replace the Cube 60, to give him a clear idea of what I would get, and also to give him an opportunity to back out if it seemed to pricey. (For you gear heads out there, I chose the Cube 80, which is like the Cube 60 on steroids, yet is actually a little less expensive than the Cube 60 was when I bought it a few years ago. Go figure.)

Who was I to refuse this offer?

I thought Kurt was sending a check to cover the cost of the amp. Imagine my surprise when FedEx left an actual amp on my doorstep this afternoon! I'll be putting this new amp to good use in the next few weeks as I play a show with InTown Band, followed by two weeks of Rent, and I can rest easy knowing I have a good back-up amp.

I am incredibly grateful to Kurt for helping me out. It's a real testament to his character that he would offer this kind of support, unsolicited, for giving him a place to crash so many years ago.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Successful Experiment

Earlier tonight, Tea for Two took a chance and played a special Jazz by Candlelight concert at Zen Tea. We play once a month at Zen Tea, and like most other acts, we play for tips in the dining area. It's obviously not a lucrative gig, but it's a nice place to play. The staff treats us like gold, and it's a beautiful space. I don't play many free gigs anymore, but I enjoy playing at Zen Tea to stay sharp and work on new material.

Zen Tea has a multipurpose back room that is used for meditation, Tai Chi, yoga, and other classes. We store our cases there when we perform. A couple months ago, I was in back with Connie, the owner. I looked around and said, "Have you ever had music back here?" Connie perked up at the idea, and we decided to go for it.

Tea for Two
We were quite persistent with our marketing, putting up posters, energizing our small but growing fan base, sending out emails, and posting on Facebook, etc. Normally, the dining area gig is a "rehearsal gig," but since this was the first show at Zen Tea for which we were selling tickets, we wanted to add some extra polish. We picked our set list early and rehearsed a couple times with Bruce Gilbert, whom we added especially for this show.

The weeks leading up to the show were a little nerve wracking for me. I knew we were going to sound good, but I was a little worried about ticket sales. This was my first experience creating and promoting my own show, and I wasn't sure what to expect. I would have loved for the tickets to sell out the first day, but we're not exactly the Beatles. After the first week, we sold five tickets. After the second week, we sold eight. I was bracing myself for a minuscule showing, but this afternoon, Connie called to tell me we had sold out. As a matter of fact, people were still calling today, and Connie had to inform the callers that there were no more seats available. Full disclosure: With tables added for ambience, the small room held 22 audience members, so we didn't suddenly sell 100 tickets overnight. For our current fan base, this room was just right. As our number of fans grows, we'll gradually be able to fill larger rooms.

Bruce Gilbert
Numbers aside, our show went very well. I was pleased with how we sounded from beginning to end. I was a little nervous at the beginning of the show. I play so often as a background musician that at first it was disconcerting to have people actually listening to us! I settled in and found a groove after the first couple songs. Lynnette's vocals sounded great, and I was satisfied with my own vocals and guitar playing. Jeff was solid as usual on bass, and I was so happy that we had pianist Bruce Gilbert joining us. We normally play as a trio (flute/guitar/bass), and we sound good that way, but the piano added a whole new dimension to our sound and made us a more flexible group. As a bonus, Bruce sang a few of his original songs. He sounded terrific on his solo material, and he was a beautiful addition to the Tea for Two sound. We had someone shooting video. I'll go through the footage in the next day or two and post a few selections on YouTube.

This little experiment was a resounding success, and now we have a model that we can use to create similar gigs. At Zen Tea, we'll still be playing mostly freebie shows in the main area, but we're going to put on special shows in the back room now and then. Connie and I are talking about a Christmas show, and we'll probably put on a Valentine's Day show as well. We'll also be looking around for other places to play…places that may have a little used back room, as well as less traditional venues. Aside from Zen Tea, I'm not interested in the idea of playing in coffee shops anymore. The coffee shops and similar venues are saturated with musicians who play for tips only. Owners are understandably unwilling to pay for music when there are dozens of musicians who will play at no cost.

Rather than go where all the musicians are, I'm going to start creating opportunities by going where the musicians aren't. I think there are plenty of places in Atlanta that will be willing to host a concert, do their part in promoting the show, and share in ticket sales. We'll start small, targeting similar sized rooms and seeking larger and larger venues as demand grows. I already have some venue ideas, but I'm not ready to spill the beans until I've booked a few places!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Weekend Full of Music

As the title of this post subtly implies, this weekend has been full of music.

Last night I played a gig at 2 Rules Fine Art on Marietta Square. This was for a gallery opening coinciding with the First Friday Marietta Square Art Walk. Because of the Art Walk, there was a steady stream of art lovers walking through the door, and there were several music lovers in the crowd. There were also some awesome cookies from a local bakery. I've been much better about watching my diet lately, but I have to admit those cookies were irresistible. I had waaaay too much sugar last night!

I was also pleased to play with Tom Olsen, a terrific jazz pianist and a super nice guy. I don't often work with Tom, but not for lack of trying. We're both busy musicians, and our schedules don't often coincide. The planets aligned this weekend, though, and we were able to play not one, but two gigs together.

This morning, Tea for Two played at the Oakhurst Arts and Music Festival, and Tom Olsen was able to join us. The art gallery gig was last night, and the festival gig was in the morning, so this almost felt like one really long gig with a sleeping break. I brought the Tea for Two book to last night's art gallery gig, so we were able to simultaneously play one gig while rehearsing for the next. We were able to pull off this morning's festival gig with a 30 minute rehearsal with the full group. No problem!

The Oakhurst festival gig was fun, but there was a poltergeist in the electrical power supply. We were first informed that they weren't able to get power to the monitors, which would have made singing difficult. When you can't hear yourself in the monitors, you think you're singing too softly. It's easy to overcompensate and start singing too forcefully. Fortunately, the monitor problem was solved minutes before we started. Tom's keyboard amp sounded horrible, like someone was adding a distortion effect. The sound man switched to a different power source. The problem went away, but returned about halfway through the set. There was nothing to be done at that point, so we soldiered on. Meanwhile, I was experiencing no problems whatsoever until my amp blew just as the emcee was introducing us…literally seconds before we were to start! There must have been a power surge. My amp emitted a loud pop and then went dead. I sang the first song with just the piano to back me up. The sound man motioned for me to keep playing, and he ran around, took my cord, and plugged me directly into the system. We were finally able to hear my guitar about halfway through the first piano solo. My amp is sitting in the shop now, and I hope it's nothing more than a blown fuse. The City of Decatur is going to reimburse the cost of the repair.

In spite of the technical problems, we enjoyed the festival gig, and we heard good comments. I was especially pleased that the emcee and the sound guy were both very complimentary in talking with us after the set. We kept our heads through the technical challenges and didn't freak out on the sound man. (Rule #1: Don't piss off the sound man.) While I would have preferred not to have to deal with those problems at all, in a way, I was glad we experienced them, because it demonstrated to me that the people I'm working with are real pros who can keep their cool in challenging situations.

I'm not playing any more gigs this weekend, but I'm still enjoying plenty of music. Tonight I attended a concert of German lieder performed by some stunningly good classical singers who were accompanied by Erin Palmer, the former accompanist at NWUUC. Tomorrow morning I'll run the sound board while Ken Sizemore leads a special music service at NWUUC called "Songs of Protest and Change," and in the afternoon I'll be heading to Anthony's Pizza to hear live bands all afternoon.

This weekend is more music-filled than most, but as I look at my weekly schedule, every day is filled with music in some form…gigs, rehearsals, practicing, jam sessions…it's all good. I'm one of the fortunate few who can honestly say that my way of making a living makes me feel alive.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

In a Jam

Last night I had no gig scheduled. This turned out to be a good thing. I went to a friend's birthday dinner at Burnt Fork, a new BBQ place in town. Delicious! We all chipped in to buy dinner for Allison, the birthday girl. Humor ranged from physics jokes to adolescent snickering while others talked about rolfing.

Not surprisingly, everyone at the table was a musician, and Allison invited us to her place for an impromptu jam. Before we started, we ate some of Allison's birthday cake, which was baked "from scraps" by her 6 year old neighbor, Ben. We all wrote a thank you letter to Ben, and then commenced with the music making.

It's easy to have a good jam session when you're with Allison Adams, Cyndi Craven, Billy Gewin, Ashley Filip, Rick Diamond, and Lindsay Petsch from Maple Street Guitars. There was also a "new guy" who recently moved from Colorado. I'm embarrassed to say I don't remember his name, but he's a terrific player and a first class songwriter. He's been going to the Tuesday Night String Club at Java Monkey on Tuesday nights. I've missed the past two String Clubs, so last night was the first time I met him.

All these folks, in fact, play at the Tuesday Night String Club. The difference is that the String Club is more open mic-ish, with short sets of 15-20 minutes. Last night was a sit in the kitchen, round robin sort of affair. It reminded me why I moved to Decatur in the first place – to be around more musicians. When I first moved to Decatur 3 years ago, I started going to a Sunday jam at Kavarna, where I met many of last night's friends.

There's a strange phenomenon in most jam sessions. You know your turn is coming. Five people went before you, and you have plenty of time to decide what to play, but when it comes around to you, you inevitably draw a blank. Luckily, when it was my turn to lead, Billy made it easy for me. He had been looking through my songbook and lit up when he spotted All of Me. For once, I knew what I was going to sing when it was my turn.

I only played the one song last night, but that's okay. I got the nod to play a few solos on others' songs. When I'm waiting to play at the Tuesday Night String Club, I like to figure out the chords while other musicians are performing, so I've secretly learned some of my friends' music and was able to play along. (I was so happy to finally be able to play along, out loud, with I Wanna Be Like You.) I was able to find some riffs that supported the other singers, and if I was too lazy to figure out the chords, I just enjoyed listening to my friends while I pet Allison's pooch, Caleb, who was very happy to see everyone.

We all had a great time celebrating Allison's big day. She should have birthdays more often!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Getting There


I'm beginning to feel like I'm starting to get somewhere with my music career. This is old news to those who follow my blog, but to recap: I started out as a trombone player. While I was a musician in the Air Force, I injured my lip to the point where I couldn't play anymore. After the Air Force, I started freelance music engraving, building my clientele to the point where I was doing quite well. Financially, I was raking it in, but I wasn't very happy. About 7 years ago, I started learning to play guitar, and this reignited the fire. I just knew I had to be a musician again. I soon started cutting back on music engraving so that I could spend more time practicing the guitar. While my guitar playing improved rapidly, my finances suffered greatly. Among other factors, my dedication to the guitar and curtailed income contributed to a failed marriage.

The past few years have been musically satisfying but financially lean. I've had to borrow money for groceries, and I've literally been down to my last dollar more than once. I'm fortunate to have a landlady who understands my situation. I've been two months late on rent, but at least I've always been able to catch up. Still, I understand that even her patience will only go so far.

Fortunately, things are looking up. I'm starting to get better gigs, I have enough music engraving work to keep me busy (but not too busy), and my music director position at NWUUC is just what I need – a steady job that is personally satisfying, and not so time consuming that it detracts from my performance aspirations.

I'm not getting rich from all of this (at least monetarily), but I've managed to right the ship, and I'm finally to a point where I'm not so stressed about my bills. I've had doubts about my path over the last year, but I'm glad I hung in there. I've met some difficult challenges, and I sense that things will continue getting better.

There's still plenty that I want to do. I'm content with the amount of music engraving projects I receive, so I don't need to make any more progress in that area. While the music director job at NWUUC is quarter time, I anticipate that this job will expand. I still have a long way to go before I'm getting the kind of corporate gigs I'd like to be playing, but I'm making steady progress in that direction. InTown Band will have a steady gig in the very near future, and we've got big plans for Tea for Two, including recording an album early next year. InTown Band is going to start recording soon, and I'm considering a solo CD.

While I still have plenty of work to do, I've made it through a bad patch, and I'm starting to gain some momentum. Playing and singing has been musically satisfying all along. Money isn't everything, but it's nice to finally be gaining some financial security from all the hard work.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Goodbye Hungry Ear

The good news is that this Saturday, October 2, we have a good show lined up at the Hungry Ear Coffee House. The bad news is that this will be the final show before the Hungry Ear permanently closes its doors.

The Hungry Ear Coffee House is a monthly musical show that usually features two acts. The music is typically of the folk variety, but we've also welcomed jazz, classical, and other styles. The majority of musicians are singer/songwriters performing original material. 

Before I ran the Hungry Ear Coffee House, Clarence Rosa ran it for 25 years. After a brief hiatus, I started it up again and ran it for about a year and a half. The Hungry Ear has always been a volunteer operation from top to bottom, and that's where the problem was. I recently accepted the position of music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation, where the Hungry Ear is held. After accepting the job, I told our minister that we needed to find someone else to run the show. I didn't want to blur the line between volunteerism and the music director position, and with my new time commitment, I needed to keep my own schedule relatively sane. I was willing to continue booking the performers, but someone else had to take over the operation.

Yesterday at church, the minister told me that nobody was ready to take over the Hungry Ear Coffee House, and the general consensus was to let it go. While this is disappointing, it's also what I expected. In spite of some amazing Hungry Ear shows, especially in the last few months, I've felt the support of the church gradually waning. My sense of this lack of support was confirmed when, after I announced the end of the Hungry Ear yesterday in church, not a single person commiserated with me after the service.

The Hungry Ear has been an important part of my own development as musician. When I first moved to Atlanta, I attended some Hungry Ear shows and was inspired by many of the musicians to work on my own guitar playing and singing. These included Bill Kahler, Cyndi Craven, Allison Adams, Jon Adams of Montana Skies, and many more. Eventually, I worked up the courage to perform at the Hungry Ear a few times. I later became talent coordinator, which allowed me to make connections with the Hungry Ear musicians, and these connections deepened when I took over the show.

The Hungry Ear Coffee House had a good run, but all things must come to an end. Goodbye Hungry Ear. It's been fun!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Relevant Music Education

Today I spoke with a young guitar student after her lesson. She's been doing very well in her lessons, and I felt it was time she found a group to play with. It's one thing to learn your lesson material, but it's a whole new ball game when you start learning to play with others. I asked if there was a group at school or church that she could play in. She said something about her school that was disappointing. There was one period in school that was for music. The band kids would go to band. The orchestra kids would go to orchestra. The "other" kids went to a music appreciation class. If her music appreciation class was anything like those I attended as a youngster, it probably didn't go a long way toward developing an appreciation of music. Ironically, every one of the "non-musical" students in that class played an instrument…usually piano, but there were some guitarists, drummers, and bass players. While the band and orchestra students went to play in their groups, the other musicians who didn't play school sanctioned instruments languished in a music appreciation class when they could have been playing in a band of their own.

How relevant is formal music education? (And I'm writing mainly about instrumental music here.) I'm too lazy to look up statistics, but I'm guessing music education in middle school and high school is not that different from it was when I was a student. While there are a few schools that offer an outlet for, say, young guitar players, I'm betting that the vast majority of them focus almost entirely on classical music and marching band.

There's nothing wrong with a formal music education. Although I'm mainly a jazz guitarist now, I came up as a classical trombonist. I'm very much a product of a classic, classical music education, and I have a degree in music education from the University of Illinois. I don't play trombone anymore, but as a result of my education, I'm a strong sight-reader (rare in a guitarist), I can sing most anything on sight, I can arrange my own music (and write it down), I can read a score, I can lead an efficient rehearsal, and I can conduct a band, choir, or orchestra.

All that being said, I feel there's something missing. I stumbled into jazz guitar on my own just a few years ago. I had taken a few stabs at learning guitar earlier in life, but it never took. Perhaps if there had been a guitar class at my school, I would have started getting into guitar in my teens instead of my late 30s.

Like other institutions, the world of music education changes slowly in the public schools. Schools should continue to promote classical music through band and orchestra programs. Classical music is wonderful and worth pursuing, but it's just one style of many. I hope that in the future, we'll see more programs that promote the performance of jazz, blues, rock, reggae, folk, bluegrass, country, Celtic, Indian, African, and the list goes on. While it's important to study the music of the past, I hope more schools will stay relevant by teaching the music of today. In other words, I wish there was a program that gave my young guitar player an opportunity to play at school.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Passing One Up

I've been diligently learning the 1st Guitar book for Rent with Act3 Productions, and I'm quite pleased with my progress. I'm able to play nearly everything up to tempo, and I'll be comfortable with the most difficult sections in another week or two. After that, it'll just be a matter of consistent review and practicing with the soundtrack to develop a sense of how my part fits with the rest of the ensemble.

Today I had to reluctantly pass up a good gig because it conflicted with Rent. It would have paid nearly twice as much with a slightly smaller time commitment. It was another musical, too. I love playing musicals. I'm happy to be the regular guitarist for Act3, but it would have been nice to "diversify" and get my foot in the door somewhere else.

There are some musicians who would have taken the more lucrative gig, but I'm not wired that way. If you constantly go to the highest bidder without regard for the people who already hired you, you may get some good gigs at first, but you'll eventually find yourself with a bad reputation as you burn your bridges. That's not to say you should never jump to another gig, but you should have a really good reason. While I won't earn as much money playing Rent, I'll be playing for an organization of terrific people who have been very good to me, and who have let me know that I'm their first call guitarist for the foreseeable future. If I had taken the new gig, I could have jeopardized my future with Act3 for what might well have been a one time gig…not a smart tradeoff.

Each situation is different, but here are some factors I take into consideration when I'm lucky enough to be contacted for a gig that conflicts with one already on the calendar.

  • If the first gig is a freebie and the new gig pays, I'll take the new gig.
  • Money is a consideration. I don't know what my breaking point is, but I have to be honest and admit that I can be bought. It would have to be for a LOT more money.
  • Enough time to find a replacement. If I had been asked to play the new gig a month or two ago, I probably would have taken it, because it would have given Act3 plenty of time to find another guitarist. If I switched gigs now, I'd be leaving Act3 in the lurch. It would take them time to find another guitarist, and the new guitarist would have had to scramble to learn a difficult guitar book.
  • Opportunity. I love playing for Act3 Productions, but if I got a call to play a show at the Fox, or if a well known touring artist wanted to hire me, that opportunity would be too good to ignore. I'd take the new gig.
I'll generally stick with the first gig, but I'll switch gigs given a certain combination of opportunity, time, and money. For the most part, though, it's going to be difficult to get me to drop one gig for another. To me, it's very important to nurture relationships with the people I play for. That means being loyal to my client, and if I do decide to switch gigs, it means helping them find a replacement. I'm not the #1 guitarist in town, but I earn big points by acting like a professional. I show up early, dressed appropriately, with my music prepared, and unless I have a really, really, really good reason to switch, I stick with the first gig and dance with who brung me.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Trombone Again?

Recently, I reestablished contact with Pete Jirousek, a good friend from my undergrad days at the University of Illinois. We exchanged emails last week, and last night I spoke with him on the phone. It was wonderful to be catch up with Pete again. Not only is Pete an all around good guy, but he's an excellent horn player based in Chicago. He teaches at VanderCook College of Music and has degrees from two top tier music schools, the University of Illinois and Northwestern University. Pete's played in several orchestras and has performed in numerous Broadway in Chicago productions. Although Pete is doing quite well for himself as a horn player, there was a time when he thought his career might be over. He didn't have all the same problems I did with trombone, but his story was pretty similar to mine.

After speaking with Pete, I suddenly have hope that I could be a trombone player again. I won't go into much detail here about the mechanics of playing a brass instrument. For now, suffice it to say that I can still buzz my lips into a trombone mouthpiece, and if I can buzz my lips, I should be able to play the trombone. The overuse injury I incurred in the Air Force has long since healed, and the problem is more mental than physical. I can buzz a trombone mouthpiece, but when I put the entire instrument up to my face, my lips lock up, and I feel like I'm fighting myself. In the Air Force, I was pressured to play on an overuse injury for nearly three years. Whenever I played a note, it felt like someone was poking the inside of my upper lip with a hot needle. Three years is a long time to experience that kind of pain, and as a consequence, I eventually developed a strong negative reaction whenever I held the instrument to my face.

The challenge will be to unlearn that negative reaction and substitute it with positive experiences. As I mentioned earlier, if I can buzz, I can play. The plan is to simply buzz a trombone mouthpiece for a few weeks to rebuild my embouchure. (An embouchure is what you form with your lips and teeth to buzz or blow into an instrument.) After I've regained some embouchure strength, I'll gradually add the trombone, but I'll still focus more on buzzing than on playing the entire instrument. The success I experience buzzing the mouthpiece should transfer to the full instrument, and I'll eventually be able to replace all those negative responses with positive ones.

Although I haven't played trombone in years, I still think like a trombone player. If I'm sight singing or trying to learn a melody by ear, I'll mentally use trombone positions to find the notes. Sometimes I'll wake up with trombone scales rattling around in my head, and I can still remember the melodies from etudes and solos that I played fifteen years ago. As Pete put it, the knowledge is all there. I'm still a trombone player…I've simply taken a really long break!

I don't want to get ahead of myself, but I can't help imagining what it would be like to be able to play the trombone again and add it to what I'm already doing as a guitarist and singer. I was a classical trombonist back in the day, but I suspect I would have fun exploring jazz trombone. I don't know exactly where I would fit in the Atlanta scene. Not to brag, but I was awfully good back when I had my chops, and if I reach that level again, I'll be able to carve out a place for myself. It would be really cool to be flexible enough to be called for gigs or studio work as a guitarist, singer, or trombonist.

First things first, though. It's time to get a trombone mouthpiece and start buzzing!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Stages of Learning

I'm currently learning the 1st Guitar book for Rent (School Edition), which I'll be performing with Act3 Productions in early November. When I played trombone, it didn't take long to learn my parts for an opera or a musical. I could usually play the music at sight, and then it was just a matter of learning the cues so I didn't have to count hundreds of measures of rests between entrances. I've found that learning a guitar book for a musical is a lot more involved. First of all, I'm not as good a guitar player as I was a trombone player (yet!), and second, the guitar plays almost constantly, so there's a lot more music to learn. There are specific stages I go through when it's time to tackle the guitar book for another musical.
  1. Disbelief. I receive the book in the mail, peruse it, and wonder how I could possibly learn that much music.
  2. Despair. Playing through the book for the first time, I conclude that the music is impossible.
  3. Denial. I put the book away for a few weeks.
  4. Acceptance. Looking at my calendar, I realize I'm going to have to learn the book sometime, so I dig it out and start learning the part.
  5. Hope. On the second reading, I realize that I can already play most of the music, and that the rest of the music is difficult but not beyond reach.
  6. Enlightenment. I listen to the soundtrack for the first time and realize "Oh, so that's how it's supposed to sound."
  7. Diligence. I practice the book almost every day and make steady progress.
  8. Mastery. A couple weeks before the show, I can finally play everything at performance tempo and keep up with the soundtrack.
  9. Panic. The first rehearsal is in three days. I redouble my efforts.
  10. Arrogance. I start thinking I sound good.
  11. Disillusionment. At the first rehearsal, I realize I don't sound as good as I thought I did. It's always different playing with a live orchestra.
  12. Elation. I make adjustments, and I'm happy with my playing again.
  13. Disappointment. The tricky section I've spent so much time practicing gets cut.
  14. Panic returns. Opening night.
  15. Joy. Opening night is over. It's smooth sailing from here. I kick back, enjoy the show, and repeat the pit player's mantra, "Don't mess up."
  16. Relief. Closing night. The show's over, and thank goodness I don't have to play that book again for a while.
I'm currently at Stage 7: Diligence. My first rehearsal with the cast is in about 8 weeks, so I'm way ahead of the curve on this one. Opening night is November 4.

Monday, September 5, 2011

How to Unplug?

I've found the computer very draining lately. It seems like I can't get away from it, and no, the irony of blogging about this does not escape me.

Many years ago, when AOL was first coming out and email was becoming fun and easy, I was wary of computers. This was back when I was an Air Force trombonist and didn't use a computer very often. My girlfriend at the time got me to sign up with AOL, which was fun, but even then, I never got totally into it.

When I left the Air Force and started freelance music engraving. I used the computer for engraving and work correspondence…and games! When I first began looking for music engraving work, my advertising was all by mail, and by the time it became more convenient to advertise online, I didn't need to, because I had established a reputation, and my clients found me. This changed once I put my shingle out as a guitarist and singer. These days, I'm keeping up a ton of email correspondence, maintaining two websites (my own and Tea for Two), keeping up pages on Gig Salad, ReverbNation, and Facebook, keeping up a YouTube channel, and of course, writing this blog. I also continue to use the computer for my music engraving work and as a guitar practice tool using Band in a Box.

It's easy to get burned out on this computer stuff, and it doesn't help that I'm living in a studio apartment, where the computer is right there all the time, in plain view.

Since I started my new music director job, I've noticed a strange thing. Wednesdays are my busiest days by far. I'm practicing and engraving in the morning, taking care of church business in the afternoon, and rehearsing the choir at night. This is a day that should leave me exhausted, but oddly enough, I've found that I feel almost refreshed after a long Wednesday. I don't think it's a coincidence that this is the day I spend most of my time away from the computer.

So, what to do about all this? I have to check emails and maintain an online presence for publicity, and I'm not exactly at a stage in my career when I can hire people to take care of all that. Still, I feel like I need to unplug, at least a little bit. I don't know exactly how I'm going to do it yet, but I need to find a way limit my computer time and simplify things.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Relapse

I haven't written about fitness and exercise for a while. Since my leg has been bothering me, I haven't been able to run. Instead, I've been riding the stationary bike while watching NetFlix. While every run offered potential adventure, there's really not much to say about pedaling in place and watching episodes of Lost.

While I like to write when good things happen on the fitness front, it's not always rosy. I'm a compulsive overeater, and I've relapsed the last few weeks. When I was running 5-10 miles at a time, I could eat a little extra and still maintain weight. Not so with the stationary bike. When I went for a test walk a couple weeks ago, only to discover that both my left hip and knee (especially the knee) hurt too much to run, I became depressed. Depression is a major trigger for my compulsion to overeat. We all have our issues. Some of you who read this may wonder how someone could have issues over food. Why can't I just push the plate away? I don't know why I have food issues, and I don't feel like spending a lot of money on a therapist to find out. Some people drown themselves in alcohol. I've got Ben and Jerry to keep me company.

Mood swings of any kind, not just depression, are a trigger for me to grab a bag of chips. When I landed the new music director job, I gave in to my first impulse, which was to treat myself to some extra food. There's nothing wrong with celebrating, but that, plus the overeating from the earlier depression, snowballed into some major caloric intake!

The worst thing about constant overeating is the cycle of self pity. I start to feel worse overall, which unfortunately makes me crave food even more. My sleep is disrupted, I'm tired all the time, and I don't feel like exercising, which makes me gain weight more quickly.

Today I put a stop to all that. I hopped back on the stationary bike, and I feel better already. I've lost well over 100 pounds, and I truly don't want to gain all that weight back. I've gained weight over the past few weeks. I can still fit into my new clothes, but let's just say my pants are a little too snug to be comfortable. It's time for the pity party to end. I won't be running for a long time, so it's time to deal with that and make a daily appointment with my stationary bike. I know exactly which foods to eat to get back down to a healthier weight, and it's time to put that knowledge back in practice.

If you've lost weight recently, or if you're still losing it, please don't let this discourage you. Just take it as a word of advice from someone who's lost 100+ pounds but is still fighting the fight. Once you take the weight off, congratulations are in order, but be on your guard. The next challenge is finding an equilibrium. If you can figure out how to do that, then please tell me your secret!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wish Granted

When times are tough, I'm often guilty of that useless mind game "if I could travel back in time, what would I do differently?" Part of that fantasy involves investing in Microsoft. I would have stuck with piano lessons. Also, in hindsight, there are a couple girls that probably would have gone out with me, but I was just too scared to ask them out at the time. Alas, I'm still hopelessly shy in this area.

Most of my back to the future fantasies involve music…starting guitar at age 9 instead of 39 for example. Another one is my choice of college majors. I can't imagine being anything other than a musician. I would still have majored in music, but I often think that I would have enjoyed being a choral music education major so that I could go on to lead choirs. It came in a roundabout way, but it appears that, with my new job, my wish to conduct choirs has been granted.

In a recent blog article, I wrote about being hired as music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation. So far, I'm loving the job. One of my main responsibilities is leading the choir. When I first took the job, I had a minor case of buyer's remorse stemming from nervousness about making a major change in my life. Having sung with this choir, and having served as interim music director three times, the choir members were already familiar with me. Not that I was expecting a rebellion, but I wasn't sure how the choir would react to the difference between "interim substitute" Tom and the "in charge" Tom. In our first choir rehearsal, I made myself clear about how I like to work. They've gone along with me, and so far, working with the choir has been a dream. Rehearsals have gone smoothly. The choir season is off to a good start, and I'm looking forward to making great music with them for many years to come.

Of course I won't love every single rehearsal, and I won't love every aspect of the music director position. Not everyone in the congregation will be 100% pleased with the direction I have planned. I will run into hurdles. I will have setbacks. I will make mistakes. Worst case scenario, I may have to be on a committee. Overall, though, I feel like I'm right where I'm supposed to be, and I'm pleased my secret wish to work with a choir has been granted.

Be What You Are

A couple nights ago I played at the Tuesday Night String Club at Java Monkey. This is a low key, semi-invitational open mic. I like the fact that it's low key. There are enough musicians to offer a variety of music, but few enough people that you often get to play at least 20 minutes. The String Club falls on the same night as InTown Band rehearsals, but I still like to go if I'm not too tired. Since the majority of my playing is with groups these days, it's refreshing to be a solo act for a little while. Tuesday isn't exactly a prime gig night, so by the time I usually get to play, the patio has mostly cleared out. I don't mind, though. While I like to have an audience, I mainly go to play and relax. I really like the people involved, and it's nice to spend some time with them.

I'm enjoying getting to know Lindsay Petsh (and I'm probably spelling his name wrong). Lindsay runs the Tuesday Night String Club with Allison Adams. He's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. At the last String Club, Lindsay said something that made me think. While I was waiting for my turn, he was complimenting my guitar playing. Of course, I'm always happy to have someone tell me that I sound great, but for some reason, probably insecurity, I tend to deflect compliments instead of graciously saying "thank you." In this case, I said something like "yeah, but I still have plenty of weaknesses to bring up." Lindsay told me that it wasn't my weaknesses that were important, but my strengths, and that I use my strengths very well.

I've been thinking about Lindsay's words for two days, and I've taken them to heart. I've been overly focused on what I am not. I am not a technical wizard who can fly all over the guitar. I'm not flashy. My solos aren't dazzling. My singing isn't bluesy, I don't scat, and I don't have a huge voice.

Those are my weaknesses, but I have strong points. Overall, I'm more lyrical than dazzling. I play my best solos when I slow down and dwell on rich harmonies and singable melodies. (In fact, super fast playing for the sake of super fast playing turns me off. While I appreciate the technique involved, after a few bars of super fast playing, I long to hear a melody.) I have a clear voice and phrase well. You can understand the words I'm singing. When I accompany others, my "less is more" style lays out a nice structure without overshadowing the soloist.

Thanks to Lindsay's words, I've decided to embrace my lyrical strengths. At tomorrow's Tea for Two gig, I plan on slowing my solos down and playing more melodically. That's not to say I'm abandoning technique. I'm constantly working to improve my skills, but the technique should serve the music and not the other way around.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

How Did I Get Here?

This is crazy. How did I get here? Tomorrow I'm going to be standing in front of a choir as the latest music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation. If things had gone as originally planned, right now I would have either been the band director at a college or a really big high school. Instead, 25 years later, I somehow I wound up a freelance guitarist, music engraver, and brand new music director. Here's the chain of events that have led up to this point.

  1. I entered the University of Illinois one year early, majoring in music education, where I was consistently praised for my teaching and conducting ability by a notoriously difficult teacher. Student teaching was a dream. I was on my way.
  2. After two dismal jobs as a school band director, I realized that I wasn't cut out for public school teaching, or possibly I found myself in two impossible situations. Either way, I gave up my aspirations as a band director and went back to school to study trombone with Elliot Chasanov at Kent State University.
  3. While studying with Elliot at KSU, and again at the University of Illinois, my trombone playing improved immensely. I won an audition and began a performance career in the Air Force.
  4. The Air Force gig started off well. I really enjoyed it. The plan was to put in my 20 years and then seek out a college teaching job. Then I developed an overuse injury that halted my trombone career. Suddenly, the Air Force wasn't quite so fun. So much for that.
  5. While in the Air Force, I learned how to use Finale to prepare printed music. I loved it so much that I decided to become a freelance music engraver. I'm still a freelance music engraver. I'm very good at it, and I'm proud of the work I've done. (1,300 publications and counting!)
  6. After a year of struggle, my freelance music engraving endeavor really began to take off. I had lots of work and was making very good money. I had finally found out what I was going to do with the rest of my life, until my (then) wife gave me a guitar for Christmas!
  7. Learning the guitar rekindled my dreams of being a performing musician again, so I set to learning guitar with a vengeance. (Unfortunately, this had a detrimental effect on my marriage, and that's all I'm going to say about that.)
  8. I started off wanting to play Celtic music and singer/songwriter music similar to David Wilcox or Susan Werner, but then I hooked up with a jazz guitar teacher, and then I got hooked on jazz guitar.
  9. Over the next few years, I was in and out of a few jazz groups, and I started and stopped a few of my own. Eventually I found a balance between my own solo playing, subbing in big bands, and my jazz vocal combo, Tea for Two, which I think is going to be a big winner.
  10. While working on my jazz guitar chops, over the years I also became more and more involved with the music program at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation. I never really wanted to start going to church, but I went because my (then) wife wanted to go. She eventually left, but I stayed, and there I remain. I started off singing with the choir, and then I worked up the courage to begin playing guitar for services. I eventually became a substitute conductor as needed, and I served as interim music director three times. This last time, when the job opened up, it seemed like the right time to apply, and tomorrow I'll be standing in front of the choir.
I'm the type of person who likes to plan. Unfortunately, life often seems to have different plans! Maybe it's the improvisatory nature of jazz that has influenced me, but lately I've just decided to let the universe have its way. I still make my plans, but I'm no longer surprised when life takes a detour. For now, I'm equal parts music engraver, performer, and church music director. This finally feels right, like I'm where I'm supposed to be.

New Job, New Directions

A few days ago I celebrated my 45th birthday. I'm not big on parties, so this birthday was low key as usual. I received a few phone calls and about a million birthday greetings on Facebook. My Tea for Two partner treated me to lunch. Aside from that, about the only thing I did was win the music director job at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation. That was a pretty nice way to celebrate my birthday.

Another finalist and I auditioned by rehearsing the choir. I've stood in front of the Northwest choir many times as a substitute conductor and an interim director, but this was different. My heart was pounding! The choir took a break after the first candidate finished. As I was waiting in the library for my turn on the podium, I overheard someone say "I really liked him." That didn't do much to sooth my nerves. When it was my turn, I did my best NOT to impress or show off. I knew the choir would soon be singing at least one of the audition pieces for a service, so rather than try to dazzle with my brilliant knowledge of whatever, I treated this as a regular rehearsal, with the intention of helping the choir prepare for their first service of the new choir season, regardless of who ultimately got the job.

A couple hours after rehearsal, the committee chairman called me to let me know that the choir enthusiastically endorsed me, and that they would recommend me to the board of trustees, who would then vote yes/no and extend me an offer.

The most visible part of the job will be directing the church choir. Aside from that, I'll oversee all the musical goings on at Northwest, playing for services, scheduling musicians to play on my Sundays off, and helping to plan services.

This is a part time job with a time commitment of 10 hours per week, leaving ample time for music engraving and guitar performance aspirations. There are sacrifices to make. I gave up my guitar chair in the Atlanta Swing Orchestra because they rehearse the same night as choir. I won't be actively recruiting students anymore, although I'll be happy to schedule lessons with anyone who approaches me. It'll be important for me to budget my time so that I only commit to 10 hours per week. This is partly for my own sanity, so I can resist the urge to overcommit, but it's also important for the music director who follows me. It wouldn't be fair for the next director to be expected to work 20 hours a week for 10 hours pay.

This is a new chapter in my musical life, and it's be a prime opportunity for personal growth. While I'm thrilled to get the job, I'm also a little nervous. I've been a freelancer for so long that I haven't had a real job in nearly 15 years! I haven't had to deal much with workplace relationships, because it's just been me sitting at home in a t-shirt for over a decade. Having to answer to more than just my clients will be an adjustment, although I think I'll manage to survive. I'll have buy more than two pairs of dress pants.

This is also a golden opportunity to grow as a musician. I'm a competent choir director, but not a great one. I've had experience and training as an instrumental conductor, but the only formal training I've had as a choir director is a choral conducting class I took as an undergrad at the University of Illinois many moons ago. I've learned quite a lot about choral conducting through observing other good directors, including former Northwest music directors Sarah Dan Jones and Kathy Kelly George, as well as Jerid Morisco, who conducts the Marietta Master Chorale. I've also had experience working with the choir the three times I was interim music director at Northwest. Now that I'm in the position of choir director, I'm about to get a whole lot more experience! I plan to seek out conducting workshops and other opportunities to grow as a choral conductor. I can speak with great authority as an instrumentalist, and I look forward to speaking with the same authority as a choral conductor in the not too distant future.

My goal with the program at Northwest is to raise the level of music in the church and sustain it. For various reasons, the program has been up and down. I would like for the music at NWUUC to be so good, so dynamic, that people return to the church simply because they enjoy music. We already have the musicians to make this happen. I'll soon be hunting down all the instrumentalists in the congregation. I already know we have a first rate percussionist and one of Atlanta's finest guitarists (it's not me). I want to know who plays piano, guitar, zither, ukulele, tuba, or whatever. If little Susie is learning how to play clarinet in her school band, I'll write a solo she can play and accompany her on guitar. I want to get as many people as possible excited and involved in the music at Northwest!

This blog is called Adventures of a Young Musician for good reason. The past few years have been an adventure as I have pursued excellence as a musician, sought out performance opportunities, and experimented with different projects. Those endeavors will continue, and with this new development, I'll soon have another series of adventures to write about.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Special Hell

I just spent a beautiful morning in traffic court. This blog is mostly to describe the experience, but let me get this out of the way first. I was guilty as charged. A couple months ago I ran out of money, which is not an unusual occurrence for a freelance musician. Unfortunately, I ran out of funds right around the time my car insurance payment was due. I chose groceries over car insurance and allowed it to lapse for two days. I caught up on my insurance policy, but then I received a bill from the Georgia Department of Motor Vehicles for letting my insurance lapse, and I didn't have the money to pay that fine. (It felt like my penalty for being poor was to have to give up more money.) One thing I miss about Chicago is the mass transit system. I didn't even need a car. Atlanta's mass transit system is severely lacking, and if you need to get to a gig to make money to, say, pay a fine, you're going to need to take a car. I got caught driving on a suspended license from not being able to pay the lapsed insurance fee, which meant that today I had to go to traffic court to pay the very expensive piper – again. Fortunately, by some miracle, I had the money to pay today, so the issue is resolved.

There will be those who read this blog that say, being a deadbeat poor person and all, I got what was coming to me. I agree that I was guilty as charged, but I'm far from deadbeat. I just happen to be a musician, and it's difficult to find good work. If you could see the 12-16 hour days I spend engraving, practicing, rehearsing, gigging, working on publicity, scaring up gigs, teaching lessons, etc., you'd find me anything but lazy. Poor means you have no money. Poor does NOT mean you're lazy. There's a certain segment of our society (rhymes with Pee Farty) that seems to equate being poor with having no moral compass or ambition. Sometimes being poor simply means you're poor.

Back to my experience today at traffic court. I didn't dispute anything I was charged with. All I wanted to do was show up and pay the fine. On the back of my citation, there was a number to call if I wanted to pay my fine over the phone. Sounded good to me. After listening to many options from the automated voice, I was finally able to enter my citation number, only to have the voice tell me that I had to be at court. I thought there must be some mistake, because all I wanted to do was pay my fine. On the phone, the magic voice rattled off a website I could visit to pay my fine. It was a really long website url, the magic voice gave the information too quickly. There was no option to have the magic voice repeat the web information, so I had to keep navigating back through the menu until I reached the web info again. After listening to the magic voice repeat the web info for the fourth time, I was confident I had the correct website. Once I got on the website and entered my citation number, I was once again informed that I had to show up in court. Oh well.

I showed up early today. On the first floor, just after the entrance, was a row of cashiers. Perfect! I walked up to a cashier and asked if I could pay my fine. Nope, I had to go upstairs to court. The deputy telling me where to sit had such a thick accent that I couldn't understand him. I thought he told me to sit in the front row, which I did, until he told me to move to the fourth row. (I was wondering why no one was sitting in the front row!) It was just before 9 a.m. Down by the cashiers, the clock on the wall read 6:25. Up in the court room, the clock was stopped at 2:15. I'm surprised they had clocks at all, because I think that while you're in court, space and time is suspended.

Someone came out and started quietly giving instructions to the crowded room. We were indoors, but he really should have been using his outdoor voice. I was close enough to hear most of what he was saying, which was if you're here to plead guilty and pay a fine, then please line up along the wall. Perfect! When it was my turn, the clerk looked at my citation and said I had to wait for the judge, so I once again sat down. Later, the quiet announcer passed out a form for us to fill out and sign. The form was to let everyone know that yes, we understood our rights, and we would like to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest. The problem with passing out the form is that no one knew we needed pens! There was a flurry of "can I borrow your pen?" I had a pen with me, which I lent to three other people. When it was finally my turn to stand in front of the judge, I had trouble hearing him. His honor was even quieter than the original speaker. Someone needs to either install a microphone in the courtroom or teach these folks how to project with a good stage voice.

After pleading guilty, the judge told me the fine and instructed me to go back down to the cashier, where the clock still read 6:25. I misheard the amount, because the judge was kind of mumbly. I thought he said $128, but no, it was $328. Ouch! By the way, even though you can theoretically pay with a credit card over the phone and online, if you pay the cashier in person, it's cash or money order only. There was an ATM conveniently located away from the cashiers, so at least I didn't have to leave the building to get cash. I also found it very difficult to hear the cashier, who was behind thick glass with no microphone, using a delicate "indoor voice." The crowning glory was watching my receipt being printed on an old fashioned dot matrix printer.

Now, I realize traffic court is not supposed to be fun. I wasn't expecting the judge to be handing out balloons and lollipops. I had committed a traffic-related sin, and I was there to pay up. There are so many ways this operation could be improved. On the other hand, maybe this soul sucking experience is part of the punishment.

In the future, if I once again have to choose between insurance and groceries, I may just choose insurance.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Real Book for Life

When I practice, part of my routine consists of reading through Real Book tunes. I own the three Real Book volumes, and each day I read through two or three standards. I work methodically, checking off each song as I go, until I've worked my way through all three volumes. (Each volume contains 400+ jazz standards.) Once I work through all three volumes, I go back to the first volume and start over again. I'm nearing the end of my second trip through the third volume, and soon I'll be starting round three. (For those who don't know, the Real Book is a huge compilation of jazz standards. It's something that nearly every jazz player has in their library.)

I plan on cycling through the Real Book for the rest of my guitar playing days. First of all, I like this music. It's enjoyable to play through a few standards at the beginning of my practice sessions.

Apart from the simple enjoyment of playing this music, Real Book reading is a good way of learning to apply new concepts and techniques. When I first began reading through the Real Book, I had only been playing guitar for a year. I used it to improve my sight-reading, learn the entire fretboard, and apply the new jazz chords I was learning. It was a painstaking process, but by the time I had finished volume three, I was a strong reader, and I found most big band guitar parts to be a piece of cake.

As I began working through the Real Book for a second time, my initial goal was to be able to create simple chord/melody arrangements on the spot. (Chord/melody is a style of guitar playing where you play chords, voicing them in such a way that the melody note is always the top note. You really need to know your chords and the fretboard to make this work.) This was very difficult at first, and as I near the end of volume three, it's still a challenge, but I'm much better at it. About halfway through this second tour of the Real Book, I also decided to challenge myself to improvise unaccompanied, using the chord changes of whatever songs I was reading that day. This is also a major challenge, and I have a long way to go, but at a recent gig, I finally felt confident enough to add unaccompanied improv throughout the evening.

The newest concept I'm applying to my Real Book is shell voicings (also known as guide tones). ***Music theory jargon alert.*** When you play shell voicings, you play only the 3rd and 7th of every chord instead of the full chord. These two guide tones are the notes that most strongly define the chord. Shell voicings are especially useful if you're playing with a piano player. When a jazz guitarist and a pianist play together, the pianist often plays extensions, or color tones, while the guitarist stays out of the way and plays the more basic chord tones. ***End music theory jargon alert.*** You'd think it would be easier to play just the two notes at a time rather than the full chord form. Physically, it is easier, because you only have to use two fingers. Mentally, it's a challenge, because I'm not yet used to zeroing on in just the 3rds and 7ths. Just like everything else, shell voicings will get easier over time until they becomes a natural part of my playing. Even after just a week of practice, these voicings are becoming more comfortable. Once I've applied them to just one of the Real Book volumes, they'll be second nature.

Even as I get used to playing shell voicings, there will be other challenges. Each pass through the Real Book will help me learn new skills and become a better musician. As with any other good book, I find deeper and deeper meaning each time I read it.