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.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Reassessing

Often my blogs and Facebook posts celebrate victories and achievements large and small. Not this time. I've come to realize that my new running "career" may be finished. Last month I experienced sciatica pain while running and ended up limping home. I took the month off running and focused on walking, cycling, and yoga. This morning I took a very brief test run. After walking a mile as a warm-up, I alternated running and walking 50 yards at a time. It didn't take long before I began to feel the beginning of the sciatica flaring up again.

I suspect my leg problem is a combination of factors. I most certainly overtrained, running too much too soon. There's also the fact that I spent much of my adult life weighing 300+ pounds, which really messed with my knees. Even after losing the weight, I've had to be very careful with my knees. While I am certainly healthier overall than I was a year ago, years of unhealthy living have taken a toll on my body, and there's a limit to how much I can reverse the aging process.

If I could afford it, I would see a sports therapist to help sort out the problem, but I don't have the money. The good news is that my leg feels fine when I'm walking. I really love running, but I also enjoy walking. There's just something that feels good about moving forward on my own two feet. Maybe in another year, I'll give running another try, but not today.

It's not like I'm giving up a career as a professional runner. That was certainly never going to happen! Whatever my choice of exercise, the ultimate goal is health. I like walking, but I also like workouts that really get my heart pumping. My plan is to practice yoga and walk in the mornings, and then mix in some faster cycling 3-4 times a week to satisfy my urge to push the pace.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Once on This Island

In about a month, I'll be playing guitar in Once on This Island with Act3 Productions. I'm excited about this show! This will be my second show with Act3. I played All Shook Up with this company in February, and I was impressed at production level and depth of talent, so I'm really looking forward to playing Once on This Island.

The music is just plain fun, and it's a little different. I'm not sure if you can pigeonhole the music into a single genre. It has a lot of island rhythms with a touch of New Age. Most of the music has a very strong beat, which makes it deceptively difficult for the pit orchestra. While much of the music is written for dancing and sounds simple enough, the composer throws in some meter changes and asymmetrical phrasing to keep us on our toes.

While the guitar book for Once on This Island isn't nearly as frightening as the All Shook Up book, it's still a challenging part. I've been practicing the show music regularly so that I can hold up my end when we meet for our first orchestra rehearsal. If there are any high school and college students out there who are interested in playing shows, there's one main difference between playing school productions and playing professional productions. In school productions, you usually have a lot of rehearsals, and you can get away with learning the music during rehearsals. For a professional show, you have very few rehearsals – sometimes just one – so you need to learn your music before you even start the first rehearsal.

Here are a couple YouTube clips to give you a sense of Once on This Island's music.




Aside from the music, I like the story. This is not your typical Broadway musical with a fairy tale ending. It's suitable for family, but there are some serious elements that address race and class issues. If you're interested in learning more about the story, this Wikipedia article offers a good synopsis. Just don't read all the way down if you want to be surprised when you see the show!

Once on This Island is scheduled to play at Act3 Productions June 17-19 and 22-26, and I would love to see my Atlanta friends there. As far as I know, tickets are not yet on sale, but you'll want to check back at www.act3productions.org from time to time. Tickets for All Shook Up sold out quickly, and I expect the same will be true for this musical, too.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What I Miss Most

A couple nights ago, I sat in on a combo rehearsal. It was a blast! It was six horns plus a rhythm section. All the arrangements were well written, and everyone was a strong player. We started off reading some vocal charts with Lynnette, who is the primary vocalist in my Tea for Two trio. After rehearsal, and knowing my background as a former trombone player, she said that whenever the trombonist played a solo, she wondered if I missed playing trombone.

I enjoyed being a trombone player, but I don't really miss playing it. What I miss most is having the kind of mastery over an instrument that I had as a brass player. To blow my own horn, so to speak, I was an awfully good trombonist before my overuse injury brought me down. If I were still able to play today, I would most likely be a trombone professor at a college or performing in an orchestra (or both).

As a relatively new guitarist of a little over 6 years, I struggle daily with technique, and my command of the guitar isn't even close to the level I had reached as a trombonist. I constantly practice scales, arpeggios, and other exercises. For me, the whole purpose of practicing technical exercises is to have them be second nature, so that when it comes time to make actual music, you can forget all about scales and just play.

The bad news is that I'm not as a good a guitarist as I was a trombonist. The good news is that, barring illness or accident, I should have another 30 or more years to practice. So there's hope! Some day, maybe in another 10-15 years, I'll reach a level on the guitar that surpasses where I was as a trombonist. I'll won't want to stop there, though. I hope that when I'm in my 90s, I'll be hunched over my guitar every day, trying to learn one more lick.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

How to Practice

I don't have an immense amount of natural musical talent. This is a realistic self assessment, not false modesty. Of course I have musical gifts, but there are plenty of other musicians who have way more talent than I have. We are all born with varying degrees of potential, but what's really important is that we learn to develop whatever gifts we have been given.

One thing that's helped me make it this far (and hopefully further!) is my approach to practicing. Talent alone will only take you so far. I know a few musicians who have an incredible amount of native talent, but their skill level has stalled out because they're relying on talent alone. They sound fine, but they don't seem willing to take their playing to the next level. If they would develop a consistent approach to practicing, they would sound incredible.

Here are some strategies that I use in my own practice sessions. Maybe they'll help you out, too.

  • Set aside a certain amount of time each day for practicing. Whether it's 30 minutes or 3 hours, dedicate that time period to the guitar (or whatever instrument) – no distractions. A little bit of time every day is better than a lot of time one day.
  • Always warm up. I start every practice session with some guitar exercises that stretch the fingers, and then I start to work on scales, arpeggios, and other patterns. Once I've finished working on my warm-up and technique exercises, I feel more ready to tackle new guitar arrangements or difficult music from a show book.
  • Focus. Start each practice session with a clear idea of what you want to accomplish. Maybe you want to learn a new scale pattern or get better at playing the new chords you just learned. If you have goals, you can keep your practice sessions more focused.
  • The pencil is your friend. Write reminders in your music. Even if you play your repertoire from memory, it's nice to have those reminders if you're practicing and you run into a memory block.
  • The metronome is your friend. Playing to a metronome is the best way to train yourself to keep a steady tempo. I probably spend 50% or more of my time practicing with a metronome.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. To master a new technique or lick, you need to play it over and over. If you play something wrong 5 times in a row but get it right on the 6th, don't stop there. Practice a lick until you can play it perfectly at least three times in a row.
  • Decide on some stopping points instead of running straight through a song. Try breaking a song up into 4 or 8 bar chunks. Stop after each phrase and evaluate. Did you miss a note? Could you have phrased something differently? Go back and practice that phrase again before moving on to the next phrase.
  • Practice backwards. We all naturally tend to practice a song from beginning to end. Sometimes the second half of the song gets less attention than the first half because of mental or physical fatigue. Try practicing the last four bars first and then work your way from back to front.
  • Practice the hard parts! It's more fun to practice the parts of the music that we're good at, and sometimes we neglect the tricky parts. Isolate the difficult spots and drill them over and over until they're easy.
  • Add a tricky part to your warm-up. If you have a difficult lick to play in a song, turn it into a pattern and play it in all keys during your warm-up. After a few days, this tricky spot won't feel difficult at all.
  • Practice slowly! (This is the practice technique that I use the most.) Use a metronome, and practice a difficult passage at a tempo at which it's almost impossible to make a mistake. After you can play it three times in a row with accuracy, speed up your metronome by 5 BMP (beats per minute), and practice the passage until you can play it accurately three times in a row. Eventually you'll reach a breaking point. Do this over the course of a week, and you'll be surprised at how much faster you can accurately play the same music. Accuracy is the key. Accuracy precedes speed. You improve your accuracy by developing muscle memory. Your speed will develop as your motor skills improve.
  • Practice your weaknesses until they become your strengths. Figure out what you're worst at, and practice it!
  • Record yourself. This can be a painful experience, especially the first time you hear yourself, but this is the absolute best way to evaluate yourself.
Knowing how to get the most out of your practice session is important, but don't forget to have fun! There is practicing music, and there is playing music. Don't forget to play. It's important to listen to yourself critically so that you can improve your skills, but it's also important to shut off that critical voice and just play for the joy making music, which is what got us musicians hooked on music in the first place.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Art of Not Caring

Improvisation is a big part of being a jazz musician. To the listener, it appears that the notes just flow out of the musician like it's the most natural thing in the world. The truth is that improvisation is a learned skill. Like anything else, some people have a special knack for improv, but even the "naturals" have to work on certain skills if they want to continue growing in their art. This can include scales, arpeggios, licks, and the study of music theory.

While I'm not a natural at improvising, my own improv skills have improved quite a bit over the past several months. I've been working on licks, building speed with scales and arpeggios, and learning new patterns. I'm highly analytical, and while it may seem counterintuitive, this trait has gone a long way in helping me become a better improviser. I've always been fascinated with music theory. While many other students at music school seemed to look upon the required music theory classes with dread, I looked forward to them. I loved analyzing music and picking it apart to see how it all worked. As a classical trombone player, music theory satisfied an intellectual curiosity. Now that I'm a jazz guitarist, music theory is a necessity. Today, the cool thing about music theory is that it's theory in real time. As the music is flying by, my brain goes into overdrive as I consider whether to play the chord as written, or whether or not to alter it depending on what the other players are doing, or whether I'll play a substitute chord, and if I play a substitute chord, which substitute chord of several do I choose?

Now, if I get too wrapped up in the theory and over think, I'll get in my own way, so I try to save the theoretical study for home practice and just let my fingers do my thinking for me while performing.

I'm pretty good at switching off the music theorist while performing, but there's something else I often do to get in my own way. I care too much. I try too hard. Maybe the musician who took the solo right before me played great, and I feel like I have to keep the energy going, so I'll try to will myself into playing an equally great solo. Maybe I'll start a solo with a preconceived notion of what a good solo sounds like. Maybe there's just some pretty woman in the room that I'd like to impress, and the caveman part of my brain somehow thinks that I'll stand a chance with her if only I play a really good solo for 32 measures! Whatever the reason, if I "try" to play a good solo, it almost never happens.

Oddly enough, I seem to play my best solos if I'm really sleepy. I started to notice this two or three months ago. Practicing at home, I found that if I was really tired and started improvising like I didn't care, my solos sounded terrific. Then I would wake up and think, "Wow, I'm getting good!" Fully awake, trying to duplicate the feat, my next solo would invariably suck. Playing half asleep, though, it was like I was channeling the music rather than forcing it out.

Just a couple days ago, I started practicing the fine art of not caring whether I played a good solo or not. Here's what I do. I start by putting my body into the stereotypical "this is lame" slump that teenagers have perfected over the centuries. Then I close my eyes part way, as if this is all so boring to me that I could easily fall asleep. (Again, I learned this from observing teenagers.) Having put myself into the state of not caring how I sound (although secretly I do), I proceed to improvise. It works like a charm! I let my fingers do the walking, and I'm more able to open myself up and simply be a channel for the music.

Last night I took a chance and applied the "I don't care" approach to my improv solos at a Tea for Two gig. It worked in public just as well as it does in private. Not to pat myself on the back too much, but I played some pretty good solos, and I even played a few new things that I hadn't thought of trying before. It was a very interesting experiment to try in front of a listening audience, like stepping off a cliff and trusting that a bridge would appear.

As long as I'm breathing, I'll continue to analyze music and practice scales, arpeggios, licks, and patterns. That's all important, but it's equally important to learn how to turn it all off and just play.