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.

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.