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, January 26, 2012

My First Piano Lesson

The title of this blog is a little misleading, because I took piano lessons from age 7-10. After that, I quit to concentrate on more important things, like baseball and bicycles. I just took my first piano lesson in 35 years. Although I'm plenty busy with guitar, a part time church job, and music engraving, it's important to me that I learn how to get around on the keyboard. I want to be read well enough to play church hymns and simple choral accompaniments, and I want to eventually be able to play piano or guitar on a jazz gig.

After my first lesson, I'm confident that I've found a piano teacher who can help me meet my goals. While there are certain general things I'll need to learn, he is already tailoring lessons to include classical and jazz styles.

We spent a good portion of the lesson working on posture and hand position, and I have a few basic position/relaxation exercises to perform before working on anything else.

Since one of my goals is to play hymns, I brought Unitarian hymnal and picked an easy hymn for starters. (For you curious UUs out there, I chose Spirit of Life.) For now, I'm not supposed to worry about speed or even rhythm. Instead, my teacher wants me to move slowly from chord to chord as an extension of the relaxation techniques. I'll gradually gain speed, but right now, it's more important to establish basic posture and hand position.

Finally, we worked on basic jazz voicings. I learned simple voicings for three jazz chords and played them in all keys. Just like guitar, as I work through these voicings, they'll gradually come naturally, and I'll be able to apply them to jazz songs. We'll start working through Autumn Leaves next week.

Aside from the joy of learning another instrument, I can already see how this will help my jazz guitar playing. I've always have a knack for music theory, and my knowledge has deepened as I've explored jazz guitar. The nice thing about the piano is that music theory is laid out right in front of your eyes. When I eventually move beyond basic jazz piano, I'll be able to apply any new knowledge to my guitar playing as well.

With piano lessons, my busy schedule just became busier. I already have a lot on my plate, but I can move things around and make a little more room.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Piano Lessons

You'll hear very few people say "I sure am glad I quit piano lessons when I was young."

Starting from age 7, I took piano lessons for about 3 years. When I was 10, I switched to a different teacher. The music he chose for me was more demanding. When I was 10 years old, I just wasn't ready to put much extra effort into the piano when I had more important pursuits, like baseball, bicycles, and skateboards. So, I quit piano lessons.

If my parents had forced me to take lessons for another couple years, I may have eventually embraced the challenge of playing more difficult music. I might even be writing this blog as a concert or jazz pianist. 20/20 hindsight. All I can do now is plunk out a voice part…maybe two voice parts if they're in rhythmic unison. If nothing else, learning to read music at an early age gave me a head start when I joined band in 6th grade as a trombonist. (Why trombone? I wanted to play drums or trumpet, but we already had plenty of those. I was a tall boy. The band director looked at me, said "you have long arms," and so trombone it was.)

One of my goals this year is to learn to play piano. There are two main reasons I want to do this: I want to enhance my abilities to perform my church job, and I want to make myself more flexible as a performer.

My job at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation requires me to be proficient on an instrument, but it doesn't specify piano. When I provide music for services, I play the guitar. For choir, we have a paid accompanist, and we have a couple pianists in the congregation who also play for services. I don't need to play the piano at NWUUC, but learning the instrument will make me better at my job. It will be nice to have the flexibility to play hymns on either guitar or piano. Eventually, I would like to be able to play for the choir in a pinch if our paid accompanist has an emergency.

I would also like to be able to play jazz piano. First of all, it just looks like fun. From a purely mercenary point of view, it'll make me more attractive to potential clients. When most clients think of guitar, they seem to picture either folky strumming or screaming rock lead guitar. Even though I have demo recordings on my website, it takes some effort to convince some clients that what I can do is sit down with a guitar and play melodies, chords, and bass lines for a couple hours without singing a note. Once I reach a certain level of proficiency, I'm positive that I'll open myself up to a wider assortment of gigs.

This Thursday, I'll be going to my first piano lesson in 35 years. I believe I've found a teacher who is going to be a good match for my goals. He appears to be 2 parts jazz and 1 part classical. Just like the guitar, this will take some time, but I'm looking forward to the challenge.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Saga Continues

Around this time last year, I was nearing my weight loss goal. I was running and following a strict but sensible diet. Around March of last year, I finally met my goal and weighed under 200 pounds. Not longer after that, I developed an overuse injury from running.

Over the past several months, I've gained a lot weight again. It happened in increments.

Long distance running is a big calorie burner, and I was able to eat quite a bit and still lose weight. Once I stopped running, I began to lose my focus, but not my appetite. Despite walking and pedaling quite a bit, I gained some weight. Late last summer, I was hired as the music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation. It suddenly seemed like I didn't have time to exercise. The job was only a 10 hour per week commitment, but that's almost the exact amount of time I had been spending exercising. In what was an already busy schedule, my exercise time was directly replaced with the music director job.

Over Thanksgiving, I decided to straighten out my priorities, start exercising again, and tighten up my diet. After some false starts, I began hitting my stride around Christmas time. I didn't have the nerve to step on the scale until last Sunday. I thought that I had maybe gained 30 pounds, so I was bracing myself for somewhere around 230. Imagine my shock when the scale read 258. Shit!

That was the jolt I needed. You can fool yourself into thinking you don't look too bad, but there's no fooling the scale. It will never lie.

I'm motivated first and foremost by the bathroom scale. Also, several people have told me that I helped motivate them to lose weight, and I don't want to disappoint them. Finally, I bought a lot of new clothes when I hit 200 pounds, and I refuse to spend money on a "big boy" wardrobe when that money could be better spent on guitars and gear!


So, the weight loss saga continues. I'm down 9 pounds since my last weigh-in and back on track.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Grateful

Sometimes, not often, I find my thoughts drifting toward what I don't have. When I notice myself thinking in these negative terms, I can quickly work my way out of it by looking for the silver lining and being grateful for what I have. Here are two examples.

Last night was the NWUUC choir's first rehearsal of 2012. We only had one rehearsal before our first choir Sunday of the year, and I was ready to hit the ground running with a solid rehearsal. It turned out that some of our singers were still out of town, one had a last minute meeting, and one was sick, so the choir was half its normal size. At first, I was disappointed, but my disappointment disappeared once rehearsal was underway. Those who were there sung enthusiastically. We had a terrific rehearsal, we had fun, and we're going to sound good on Sunday. Rather than obsessing about the singers who weren't able to make it, I chose to focus on the singers who were there and give them my all. I love making music with this group. Even though only half the choir was there, I ended rehearsal feeling happy, energized, and ready for Sunday.

If my life had turned out the way I originally planned it, I would be a band director right now at either a large high school or a college, happily married with children, and ensconced in a respectable home. The band director thing fell by the wayside when I discovered that I simply didn't like it! Through a convoluted path, I've ended up living in a basement studio apartment as a divorced freelance musician. Sometimes I catch myself thinking of what could have been, or at the very least, wishing I could afford a bigger place. Lately, something happened that gives me perspective.

A couple weeks ago, I went to Maggiano's to have dinner with friends and listen to another friend, Tom Olsen, play with his jazz trio. It was a pleasant evening, and I left Maggiano's with another entire meal's worth of ravioli. Driving home, I saw a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk next to his shopping cart, surrounded by his stuff, using his fingers to lick the last vestiges of frosting from a plastic tray of cupcakes that he had found in the trash. I stopped the car, got out, and gave him my ravioli and a couple dollars. From the look on his face, you'd have thought I had given him a pot of gold. He cried and thanked me, telling me that I just proved there were still good people in the world.

As I got in my car and drove back home, my studio apartment suddenly seemed like a castle. My small income seemed like a fortune. I may not have the proverbial house and a picket fence, but I have a roof, food, and friends who care about me. In the future, when I find myself wishing I had more, I'll just need to remember that poor homeless man to regain perspective and be grateful for what I have.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Learn Tunes

Joe Pass is one of my all-time favorite jazz guitarists. He was best known as a solo guitarist. His "Virtuoso" recordings are jaw dropping. My favorite recordings of Joe Pass are his duos with Ella Fitzgerald. I love the mix of solo guitar and understated, "just right" comping for Ella's singing.

Joe Pass' most famous advice for learning to be a good jazz guitarist was to "learn tunes." Many guitarists search for "secrets" of the master players. The big secret is that there is no secret. It all comes down to practice. The more you practice, the more you develop whatever talent you were born with.

While it's necessary to put in the hours, the quality of those hours is also important. This is where Joe's "learn tunes" advice comes into play. You can play technical exercises and develop fast fingers, but nobody wants to hear you play a bunch of scales. When you spend a lot of time learning tunes, you not only develop your technique, but you learn how to use your technique to serve the music and not the other way around. Joe Pass had astounding technique, but at the same time, his improvisation was approachable and melodic.

Last year, I spent too much time working on technical exercises when I should have been learning tunes. I was approaching jazz in guitar in the way I approached classical trombone. Most classical trombonists are ensemble players. They spend most of their time sitting with a handful of other trombonists in the back of a large orchestra or concert band, rarely playing solos. Back then, my job was to be able to sight-read anything you put in front of me. I spent a good portion of my practice time working on very difficult music that you would never hear outside the practice room. My philosophy was that because the exercises I was playing were so difficult, I would rarely encounter a trombone part that I couldn't read perfectly on sight.

It's different with jazz guitar. First of all, I'm a soloist. Even when I'm sitting in as a back-up player, I usually get the nod to play a solo here and there. Second, as a jazz player, I have to improvise. When you learn a lot of tunes, you gradually learn the language of jazz. If you spend a lot of time playing exercises, your improvisation will probably come out sounding like an exercise. If you spend a lot of time playing melodies, your improvisation will come out sounding more melodic.

I'm still practicing my core warm-up exercises of scales, arpeggios, fingerpicking exercises, and licks. I've scaled it back, though, sticking to just the basic exercises so that I have more time to work on tunes and increase my repertoire. It's just the first week of January, and I've already had time to write a guitar arrangement and learn a couple new vocals. I'm discovering that there's another good reason to spend less time on exercises and more time playing tunes: It's more fun!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Fighting the Urge

In my last blog, I wrote that one of my goals is to weigh 185 pounds by the end of the year. Even after having to stop running due to a knee problem, I've been good about exercising. It's the diet the kills me. When I was training for half marathons, I could eat what I wanted without gaining weight. When I had to stop running, I still had a runner's appetite, and I kept on eating as if I were still burning through lots of calories.

My diet is back under control, but it's being sorely tested these first couple weeks of 2012. Like most dieters, my willpower is weakest at night. It gets even weaker after a gig or rehearsal. You can really work up an appetite performing. There's almost nothing that tastes better than Waffle House or Mexican food after a gig!

I've been rehearsing for a production of Xanadu. The next two weeks are filled with night after night of rehearsals and shows. There is an IHop, a Waffle House, Mexican restaurants, three grocery stores, and several convenience stores on the way home. The temptation to stop and grab a late night meal grows each night.

I know that I'm not alone in craving foods at night, and that, like me, some of you may also have unusual schedules and find yourself traveling in the evenings.

You may have your own strategies. The way I deal with it is to plan ahead. First of all, as I'm watching my diet, I plan my meals for the day. Rather than obsess about what I can't eat, I focus on what I'm going to eat. If I have an evening show, timing is a factor. I'll usually eat dinner about 60 minutes before a show (90 minutes if I'm singing). I'm still hungry after a show, but not as hungry as I would be if I had eaten dinner earlier.

I'm also diligent about choosing restaurants. I prefer to eat dinner near the theater to avoid rush hour traffic and the potential of being late (my biggest pet peeve). It's easy to blow your diet when you're eating out. I always choose a restaurant before I even leave, otherwise my stomach will steer me toward Mellow Mushroom Pizza or Five Guys. I'll usually go with Subway or someplace I can order soup and salad.

I steel myself before each rehearsal or show, knowing that someone usually bakes cookies or brings treats. Today I succumbed and accepted a cupcake (yum!). After the show, I do my best to resist the urge to stop for food. I'm not beating myself up over that cupcake, I resisted Waffle House on the way home, and I pedaled 60 minutes today, so I'd say it was a good day overall. Tomorrow is another day and another rehearsal, so I'll be doing this all again…minus the cupcake.