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, 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.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Plan C

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a run to test my leg and see if my overuse injury had healed. Based on that run, I had two plans. Plan A assumed that everything was hunky dory, I felt spectacular, and I could get back to running right away. Plan B assumed that the injury was still painful, and that I would have to give myself a year before I was confident enough to start running again.

Well, now I have a Plan C. I felt okay for about a mile of running/walking, but my left knee started tweaking after that. While this was disappointing, it certainly was better than a few months ago, when I had to turn around and limp home after a quarter mile. Although my knee doesn't feel good enough for running, it feels much, much better than it did a few months ago. My new Plan C calls for more time off the feet to heal, but thankfully, not as long as a year. For now, I'll continue pedaling the stationary bike. In two more months, I'll take another test run/walk and see how it goes. I'll listen closely to my body, but I suspect that once I can manage a painless two mile run/walk, I'll be able to start running regularly again.

That brief run reminded me how much I love running. Although I feel it's best to stay off my feet for now, I'll be back on the road again someday. Pedaling the stationary bike isn't as exciting, but thanks to NetFlix, I'm certainly catching up on a lot of good movies and TV shows!