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, December 30, 2013

2014 Goals

In my last blog article, I outlined my goals for the next 10 years. In support of those long range goals, here are my goals for 2014. I have some other, smaller goals, but these are the main ones.

Weigh 195 pounds. I feel like my weight is finally (finally!) under control. I've been maintaining about the same weight since September. This year, I plan to make a final push and get it down to a healthy 195 pounds. My strength is improving, my resting heart rate is nice and low (in the 50s), and I feel good in general. While I am feeling quite healthy, I would like to actually look like I work out. I've been going to the gym regularly to add strength training to my cardio work. I'll continue to do that, and I'll tighten up my diet a bit.

Establish the NWUUC band and children's choir as regularly anticipated parts of Sunday services. This is in support of my goal of eventually building the job from a 15 hour per week position to a 20 hour per week position. The adult choir is a well established, cherished part of the music program. My hours increased this past year from 10 to 15 hours. I'm spending most of the additional hours on building the children's program and the church band. Those two new programs are keeping me busy, but once they are well established, I'll be ready to add more to NWUUC's music by either adding another program or by expanding the band and the children's choir.

Maintain a roster of at least 20 guitar or ukulele students. My long range goal is to have 30 students, but if I added so many students all at once, I wouldn't be able to handle the schedule and still juggle my other responsibilities. I have 13 students now, so I need to add 7 more to meet my goal. I generally add only one student each month, but I have a pretty good retention rate. I'll just keep building my roster slowly.

Add another event planner to my list of regular clients. I finally managed to get my foot in the door with a good event planner. I'm hoping that having one major event planner as a client will make me more attractive to others.

Become more comfortable with unaccompanied guitar improvisation. One of my long range goals is to improvise comfortably in the style of Joe Pass. I've been improving in this area, but I have a long way to go. I've been approaching this skill haphazardly, improvising unaccompanied on random songs. This year, I'm going to focus on a handful of songs and get really comfortable with them. Through my lessons with Dave Frackenpohl, I've learned that I can make good progress on improvisation in general if I focus intensely on one or two songs at a time.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Next 10 Years

I started playing guitar 10 years ago. To make a long story short, I was a professional trombonist until an overuse injury ended my brass playing career. After a hiatus from any kind of performing, my wife (now my ex) gave me a guitar for Christmas, and I was immediately hooked. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new career as a guitarist. I originally intended to play folk and Celtic music, but I drifted toward jazz, which is my main focus.

When I decided I was going to become a professional guitarist, I drew up a list of goals for the first 10 years. My overall goal was to become an "entry level" professional. To me, this meant attaining a skill level that was high enough that I could do a good job at gigs. It also meant that, while I wouldn't necessarily be the first call player in Atlanta, I would develop enough connections to keep me gigging on a fairly regular basis.

I'm rarely satisfied with my playing, but I would like to pause for a moment and be grateful that I met my 10 year goal. I'm not a world beater on guitar, but I'm pretty good. I sight-read extremely well. I gig steadily.

Okay, the moment is over, and it's time to look at the next 10 years. This is my overall goal: To become a well established freelance musician making a comfortable living as a performer, teacher, and church musician.

That's a pretty broad goal. Maybe it's more of a mission statement, but it can be broken down into several goals. To be a well established performer implies an increasingly higher level of musicianship, so the most important goals to me are in the area of musical development.

These are my goals for 2024:
  • Play an average of 2-3 good paying gigs per week.
  • Maintain a roster of 30 students.
  • Increase the NWUUC Music Director job to 20 hours per week.
  • Memorize 100+ jazz standards.
  • Comfortably improvise guitar solos in the style of Joe Pass.
  • Become a good scat singer.
  • Become a competent piano player.
  • Become a competent ukulele player.
  • Be financially stable enough to take 1-2 yearly vacations.
  • Live in a rented house, big enough for a studio space, in a quiet, safe neighborhood.
  • Comfortably maintain a healthy weight of 190-200 pounds.

Having all these goals without devising a way to meet them is no good. I've broken each of these goals down into separate steps, but I won't include them here, otherwise, this would be a really, really long article. I'll break down a few choice goals into steps in future articles.

Getting this far was a blast. It was 10 years well spent. Time to get busy and make the next 10 years even better.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Lullaby

I enjoyed a special Christmas treat when my mom sang Peggy Lee's Christmas Lullaby with me in last night's Christmas Eve service at NWUUC

Let's backtrack.

When I was a kid, Mom was a professional musician, singing folk songs and strumming her guitar at public and private events. For public shows, Mom and Dad would take my brother (Darren), my sister (Cheree), and me along. Darren and I would often perform a handful of numbers with Mom. Dad would run the sound system. Cheree was too young to sing with us, but she would dance in Mom's guitar case and keep us all entertained. (Our parents took us to gigs to perform, but I imagine another reason they took us was so they wouldn't have to spring for a babysitter.)

Those performances were special times. Looking back, we weren't exactly playing in huge venues. We were on the mall circuit, and we would often play at local churches and small festivals, but that was big time for us kids. I felt like a star! I'm mainly a jazz musician, but I still have a deep love of folk music that can only stem from this treasured childhood experience.

Mom has been visiting for the past few days and has heard me practicing Christmas Lullaby over and over, so she learned the song by osmosis. We arrived at church early so I could make sure the sound system was set up. After a quick soundcheck, I ran through the Christmas Lullaby and heard Mom harmonizing. She sounded pretty, so I asked her if she wanted to sing it with during the service. Mom immediately agreed. We sang through it a couple more times and were good to go. She sounded great in the service. It was a real treat to sing with her.

Things have come full circle. The last time I performed with Mom, I was the short one, and she was the one holding the guitar. It was a special performance on a special night.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Tick Tick

I teach an adult student who has been playing for about 11 months and has been making steady progress. Her movement from chord to chord is becoming more fluid, she has a couple "go to" strumming patterns that work in 90% of the songs she wants to play, and she has a natural affinity for fingerpicking. To help her move to the next stage of her playing, I've been preaching metronome work.

We had a good laugh today when she said, "The metronome messes me up."


Right now, my student has trouble strumming steady quarter notes along with a metronome set to 80 bmp. However, she can count out loud in time with the metronome, no problem. She can also tap her guitar in time with the metronome. After she counts out loud and taps, she is then able to strum to the metronome. So, that's the exercise…count with the metronome, tap with the metronome, and then strum with the metronome. I've given her one-bar combinations of quarter notes and eighth notes to play, but I've asked her to always start with the quarter note exercise.

This may sound like a remedial exercise, and I know for certain that my student doesn't enjoy this, but it's absolutely essential to develop a sense of rhythm and time. It's the only way you're going to play well with others. Even if you're a soloist, you're going to need to keep a steady beat, otherwise people will find it challenging to listen to you.

Whether you want to be a killer lead player or a rock solid rhythm player, practicing with a metronome is the most efficient way to improve your technique. Once you are able to maintain a steady beat and stay in sync with the metronome, you can make friends with difficult lines or chord changes more easily. First, you start the metronome at a tempo at which it is nearly impossible to make a mistake. It may be an excruciatingly slow tempo, but that's okay. You want to start super slow, so that you are properly training your muscle memory. Get it right in slow motion, and you can then incrementally get it right at speed. Just start at a nice, easy tempo. Practice a problem area until you can play it correctly. Increase the metronome speed by 5 clicks and repeat the process. You will eventually run into a speed at which your technique finally breaks down. Remember the top speed at which you could play with control. The next time you practice that spot, start 10-20 clicks slower than your top speed and build from there. It won't be long before you can sail through that lick or those tricky chord changes.

My student has told me that she has no rhythm. I beg to differ. She has an undeveloped sense of rhythm, but it's in her. All she needs is a metronome and a few minutes a day focusing specifically on tempo.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Ripples

A while back, I led a monthly jam session at Zen Tea. It was a casual Sunday afternoon session, open to musicians of all levels. We went around the circle, taking turns leading songs. Most of the songs were of the folk variety. I would usually lead an accessible jazz song. Some brought in their own original songs. The jam session is no longer being held, but I discovered today that it had a lasting effect on at least one person.

Early in the short history of the Zen Tea Jam, a trumpet player showed up a couple times. Then he stopped coming. He always seemed to have a conflict. I didn't think anything of it and assumed that he had lost interest.

That trumpet player called me today, asking for some music theory help. It turns out that, even though he wasn't able to participate in the jam session, his love for music was reignited, and he decided to get back to playing trumpet regularly. He is joining a band. He told me that some of his friends used to play in their school jazz band or concert band. They talk about how much they miss it, but they don't pick up their instruments. I was genuinely pleased for him. I congratulated him, telling him that a lot of people miss playing an instrument, but they don't do anything about it. He, on the other hand, is picking up his horn and joining a band.

This trumpet player was inspired to get back into playing. That would be beautiful enough, but I like to think that his example will inspire some of his friends to start playing again. Maybe their children will be encouraged to pick up an instrument. Maybe this short lived jam session had a ripple effect. I hope so.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Lesson #16

This is a recap of my latest jazz guitar lesson with Dave Frackenpohl, who teaches at Georgia State University. This helps me wrap my head around the new assignment, and I hope it also helps others who may be on the same path.

We started with a series of 7th chord arpeggios over the melodic minor scale…1 going up, 2 down, 3 up, etc., and then working our way back down. Dave showed me a more useful fingering for a form that starts on the 6th string, but otherwise, these went pretty smoothly. Then we played through Four. He showed me some different chords to use in the B sections. I've been starting the B section on an E-flat, but Dave told me that it's more common to start on G minor. Next, we moved on to Old Devil Moon. I mainly wanted to work on this so that I could work up a good accompaniment and a chord melody solo. Dave was pleased with the chord melody solo, but noticed that I tended to rush the B section, when I switch from Latin to swing. He also questioned the lead sheet and asked me to double check other sources for the melody and changes in the last 4 measures. Finally, we started looking at When Sunny Gets Blue for the next lesson assignment.

The new assignment:

  • Continue Diatonic Arpeggios. I've worked on a series of 7th chord arpeggios over the major, harmonic minor, and melodic minor scales. Now I just need to keep at it until I can play them without having to think about them.
  • Excerpt from Perpetual Motion. This general technique exercise is from a Paganini piece. To strengthen my up-picking, I'm supposed to play the 8th notes up/down/up/down in addition to the usual down/up/down/up pattern.
  • You Took Advantage of Me. This was part of today's assignment, but I didn't work on it. I've had several gigs to prepare, and something had to go! The assignment is to listen to the Joe Pass/Ella Fitgerald recording of this song and steal as many comping licks and ideas as I can. I would eventually like to transcribe the guitar solo, too.
  • Four. I had a feeling I'd be working on this one again. I learned the basic melody and chords last time. Now, my assignment is to transcribe a chorus of either Miles Davis or Horace Silver from their recording of the tune.
  • Old Devil Moon. There's not much more to do with this song, at least as far as lessons go. I just need to check on the chords and melody at the end and put myself on a metronome to resist the tendency to rush the B section.
  • When Sunny Gets Blue. Memorize it.
As usual, I have a mix of old and new assignments to practice for the next lesson. We're getting deeper into the arpeggios and a couple songs, and I have newer material to learn. All of these lessons are paying off. It's nearing Christmas time. I find that holiday music is a good measure stick of yearly progress. You play them for about a month and then put them away until next year. This year, I'm finding many of the Christmas songs easier to play, and I've discovered that I can improvise over several of them unaccompanied, when last year I had to use a looper for nearly everything when I played solo.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

It's Not About Me

Last night, I played a wedding cocktail hour with Tea for Two. With some weirdness leading up to the gig, this could have been a bad night.

On the way to the venue, I stopped for gas, only to discover that I didn't have my wallet. So I drove home…and couldn't find it. I looked everywhere, twice. I don't often lose my temper, but I displayed a vocabulary that would have shocked my young guitar students. I finally found my wallet, which I had absentmindedly placed it in my gig bag, which meant that my wallet had been with me the whole time. Twenty minutes late, I drove back to service station with one final stream of curses, gassed up, and made my merry way to Gala Special Events in Marietta.

One of my special talents is getting lost. Thanks to the Google Maps app, I don't get lost very often. More accurately, the app gets me to the gig site, but I actually don't know how I got there. I managed to miss the turn to Gala Special Events, though. I passed right by it, came back, and passed right by it again. The third time, I finally spotted the sign, which I would swear wasn't there the first two times I drove by.

As I walked into the reception hall, the hostess said, "Oh, I thought they weren't having a band tonight!" The DJ had already set up and was occupying the whole stage. I don't know where she got that information, but I assured her that there was, indeed, a band tonight. We were scheduled to play for cocktails, and the DJ was there for the dinner and dancing. I also made it clear that we needed to be on the stage where the DJ had set up. Once we got that sorted out, the DJ, who was either flexible or recognized that I was not in a calm state of mind, moved his table back far enough that we could set up the trio. Then, with very little warm-up and a minimal sound check, we played the cocktail set.

With all of that strangeness, you'd think this would have been a bad gig, but once we got started, I felt just fine, and the band sounded terrific. I just needed to take a moment to remind myself that this evening wasn't about me. It was about the bride, the groom, and the friends and family who were there to celebrate a special day. They didn't need to know that I had temporarily lost my wallet, gotten lost, arrived later than planned, and had to convince the staff that we were supposed to be there. All they needed was good music, and we were there to deliver.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Tipping Point

Something very strange has been happening lately. I'm doing what I love, and money is coming in. (Usually I'm doing what I love, OR I'm making money.) Tonight, I realized that I haven't been stressed about paying rent for over a year. For a working musician, that's quite a feat! I'm not sure when it happened, but I feel like I have reached a tipping point in my pursuit of a freelance music career. I'm able to spend more time bettering myself as a musician and less time worrying about making my rent.

It has taken a while to reach this point, and I'm pausing for a moment to appreciate the journey. When I first began playing guitar, I set a goal of becoming a professional guitarist in 10 years. Surprise! Ten years later, here I am.

I'm far from being the best guitar player in town, but I seem to have carved out a place for myself. I have a part time music director job at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation, teach guitar lessons at home and at Tessitura, and am landing a fair number of gigs. If I had to rely on just one of these endeavors, I wouldn't subsist, but when you put them all together, it means that rent and bills are being payed, and I even have some cash left over at the end of the month. A miracle!

Things seem to be trending upwards in general. My church job recently expanded from 10 to 15 hours. (I'm hoping that this will grow to 20 hours over time.) I teach a little over a dozen guitar students and enjoy a good rate of retention. (I eventually want to grow the roster to 30 students.) I recently got in good with an event planning company that has already hired me for 3 gigs. (I don't want to be playing every single night, but I would like to eventually play 2-3 of these good gigs per week.)

Without doing something every day to improve my musicianship, all other success is hollow, so first and foremost, I strive to become a better musician. I have a long way to go as a pro guitar player, but, looking back at where I started, I'm pleasantly surprised at where I am today, and I'm excited about what tomorrow will bring.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Mighty Fine Aquarium Gig

I enjoy background music gigs. You put on a tie, play some relaxing music while folks mingle, collect a check, and go home. On a typical background gig, a few people may come up to you during the evening and compliment you, but that's usually about it. You play and sing your best, but you fly under the radar.

Last Tuesday's background gig at the Georgia Aquarium was anything but typical. A medical information technology group, AHIMA, rented out the entire building for the night. In one room was a DJ and an arial group, there was a string quartet in the lobby, and I had the good fortune to be performing solo next to the giant tank near the Ocean Voyager exhibit.

My area was where people would come to get away from all the noise of the event and just relax. The room was so peaceful, with whale sharks, mantas, and other big fish swimming lazily. During most background gigs, you might get an appreciative nod from time to time, but there is no applause. I was quite surprised when people started applauding for me. It wasn't like it was a show.  Not everyone applauded, and the guests didn't stop what they were doing just to listen to me, but it was nice to have a little bit of recognition throughout the evening.

As I look back on that wonderful gig, there were a few highlights:

  • Arriving early enough to see some exhibits after setting up my equipment. I'll bet that not many people get to walk in the Ocean Voyager tunnel alone!
  • Seeing the whale sharks for the first time.
  • Warming up while watching the fish swim by.
  • Seeing someone cry while I sang Over the Rainbow – assuming that those were happy tears.
  • Hearing a mother and her two grown daughters sing along with Dream a Little Dream of Me. After I thanked them for singing, the mother told me that she sang this song to her daughters when they were babies, and now one of the daughters sings it to her new baby.

As far as background gigs go, it doesn't get much better than this. On top of everything else, I made a positive impression and established good rapport with the event planning company who hired me. They told me they want to make me one of their "go to" musicians. Sounds good to me! They hired me for another gig at the Georgia Aquarium in January. I'm crossing my fingers that they put me in front of the Ocean Voyager tank again!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

More Skype Lessons

I just finished a Skype lesson with an old friend, Matt, who is currently deployed in Afghanistan. What a way to reconnect! It's amazing to me to help a beginning guitar player halfway around the world, and I also found it amusing that he had to remove his gun belt at the beginning of his lesson.

Aside from growing up in rural Illinois, Matt and I have a few other things in common. We were both trombone players. I was in the Air Force. Matt is currently in the Air Force. (I left after 4 years, but Matt has made a career of it.) As adults, each of us talked to our wives (now my ex) about how we really wanted to start playing guitar…enough that they got tired of hearing about it and eventually bought guitars for us. Matt is even interested in folk/bluegrass with a possibility of playing jazz at some point.

Today's lesson was lots of fun. It was wonderful to reconnect, and Matt did really well for his first lesson. We began by working on A minor and E chords, and then we progressed to C and G7. Matt did remarkably well in forming the C and G7 chords. He actually played the C chord correctly on the first try, which is rare for a beginner. We decided that this was probably because trombone players are naturally gifted. That's our theory, anyway. Toward the end of the lesson, we began applying the C and G7 chords to Jambalaya. This is always a good song for starters. It's catchy, fun to sing, and only has two chords. I had also forgotten that Matt has a good voice, so it's going to be a lot of fun to help him learn songs.

Matt has ordered a guitar method book. Being inconveniently located in Afghanistan, overnight delivery is out of the question. It'll be a couple weeks before that book arrives, but we have plenty of material in the meantime. Once that book arrives, we'll spend about half the time on chords/songs and the other half in the book.

This was just a fun lesson overall – reconnecting with a friend who has the potential to be a good guitar player. I'm looking forward to our next lesson!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Children's Choir

Today was a long day, but it was a good one. I led the church choir in the morning, led a children's choir rehearsal in the early afternoon, and then played a gig in the afternoon. It was all good. The adult choir did a good job, and the gig went well, but the highlight of my day was the children's choir.

Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation has been wanting a children's choir for a few years. I believe one of my predecessors, Sarah Dan Jones, started working with the children when she was music director. I don't recall if my immediate predecessor, Kathy Kelly George, led a children's choir or not. I do know that Kathy is excellent at working with children's choirs, and I had the privilege of observing one of her rehearsals a few months ago.

This is the first time Northwest UUC has had a children's choir for a long time. Today was their first rehearsal, and it was my first experience leading a children's choir. I had a blast! I expected maybe five children to show up this first time, so I was pleasantly surprised when we had about a dozen. After a quick warm-up, I taught them two easy songs. For the most part, the kids stayed on pitch, and they picked up on the words fairly quickly. Aside from teaching the music, my main focus was in getting them to sing out. We could see the parking lot from the window. To help them project, I told them to pretend they were singing to someone outside.

Some of today's highlights:

  • A few of the children were wearing their Halloween costumes, which reminded me that last year at this time, I was having the kids help me write a song. That was a striking coincidence.
  • When I led them through a breathing exercise, one of the girls raised her hand and told me that her choir teacher does the same thing. I took this as a sign that I wasn't completely clueless.
  • After the rehearsal, one little boy came up to me with the lead sheet I had handed out and asked if he could use it to make a paper airplane.
  • At the beginning of the rehearsal, one boy told me that he didn't want to sing. I told him that this was fine, but if he wasn't going to sing, he needed to be quiet during rehearsal. He stayed way in the back, and soon I noticed that he was singing along with everyone else. At the end of the rehearsal, he declared that he would like to sing after all.
This was such a rewarding experience for me, and I hope that this will be a fun and rewarding experience for the children. I'm so very glad I started this. I'm looking forward to working with these kids and getting to know them, and I can't wait to showcase them in a music service. My favorite part of being a school band director was working with beginners. It appears that this love for teaching beginners extends to singers, too.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Lesson #15

This is my usual recap following a jazz guitar lesson with Dave Frackenpohl of GSU.

We started off sight-reading from some books that Hal Leonard had sent to Dave. I was interested in perusing the Hal Leonard Jazz Guitar method, which looks like a very useful book for a couple students of mine.

After that little warm-up, we dove right into Blues for Alice. I played the melody in two different registers, played the piano solo I had transcribed, and then improvised. No problems here. Then we moved on to the Joe Pass solo from his recording of 'Tis Autumn with Ella Fitzgerald. I got through it okay, which is the best result I could have expected. My assignment was to finish the transcription and then start learning it. At this point, I have the solo memorized. It's just a matter of woodshedding until it's under my fingers. We followed this with an arpeggio exercise over a harmonic minor scale. No problems. Then we worked on There Will Never Be Another You, starting with an arpeggio exercise that I had created for over the chord changes and then improvising. Again, this went well, and we ended the lesson with a page from the Blues in All Keys study from Galbraith's Guitar Comping book.

The new assignment.

  • Learn Four. I played this tune a long time ago, but it's time to get it going again. It's one of those bebop standards that you just have to know…plus it's fun. I'll be refreshing myself on the melody and changes this week. I predict that, at the next lesson, Dave will tell me transcribe a solo from a recording of Four. Dave is beginning to consistently assign bebop tunes. These are great for my technique.
  • More Joe Pass! I had started to transcribe Joe's ending in his recording with Ella. Part of my Joe Pass assignment is to finish that. Then I'm supposed to pick out a medium tempo Joe and Ella song, begin a new solo transcription, and pick out devices that Joe uses when he's comping for Ella. I've selected You Took Advantage of Me for this part of the assignment.
  • Arpeggio Exercise over Melodic Minor. I've worked up arpeggio exercises for major and harmonic minor, in which I outline 7th chords, ascending on the 1 chord, descending on 2, etc. This is the same exercise using the melodic minor scale. (For non-jazz players…In jazz theory, the melodic minor has the same raised 6th and 7th both ascending and descending. In classical theory, the melodic minor reverts to natural minor descending.)
  • Old Devil Moon. When asked which jazz standard I'd like to work on next, I asked for Old Devil Moon. I like this song, but it's awkward, and I'd like to play it better.
  • Galbraith's Guitar Comping. I'll be working on the next page of the Blues in All Keys study. I just finished the page that covers G-flat and B, which aren't exactly the most common blues keys! Next up are the keys of E and A – much more guitar friendly.
As usual, Dave has given me a challenging assignment. I discovered a while ago that jazz guitar lessons are quite different from the classical trombone lessons of my younger days. In classical trombone lessons, there were few long term projects except for solo and recital material. I was assigned a set of etudes, I learned them, and then I was assigned yet another set of etudes. The "long term" assignment was really to apply the fundamentals of good tone and articulation to each new set of exercises.

With my jazz guitar studies, the individual assignments are often long term. I'll work on the same song or transcription for 2, 3, or even 4 lessons in a row. With lessons spaced every other week, that means that I will sometimes be working on the same song for two months. Learning to play jazz and improvise is such an internal process that it often takes a long time for new concepts to settle in and become a natural part of your playing. Often, learning to play a particular song or transcription is almost a byproduct. The real payoff is internalizing new ideas that you can apply to everything else you play.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Good Day

This was a mighty fine day in the life of this working musician.

I started off with a workout, as usual. I cranked out 34 push-ups. Only a few months ago I could only manage two. After a short practice session, I checked my email and found a gig waiting for me, courtesy of an event planner. This is the third gig that this event planner has booked for me, which is a very good sign. She followed that up with an email asking for the different musical configurations I have to offer (solo, duo, trio, vocals, no vocals, instrumentation), saying that she'd like to make me one of her "go to" musicians. That's music to my ears. I've been trying to get my foot in the door with an event player (any event planner) for quite a while, and this is a welcome development.

As I stepped outside to run an errand and grab lunch, it truly felt like autumn, my favorite season. It was sunny but crisp. The wind was blowing, and the leaves were falling like rain. It was beautiful.

In the afternoon, I drove to Northwest UUC, where I am the music director. I planned the evening's choir rehearsal and answered/wrote a few emails before a staff meeting, which started off with celebrating Terry, our minister's, birthday. The meeting was a good one. We spent most of the time discussing issues surrounding our church's upcoming experiment with expanding from one to two services. That's a hot topic, to put it mildly, and will be the topic of another blog article soon to come.

Rainbow Loom Bracelet
After our meeting, I taught a couple guitar lessons. One lesson was with an adult student who is making very good progress. The other lesson was with an 8 year old girl who is a joy to teach. She's so enthusiastic and funny. This week, she had a present for me. She had made a rainbow loom bracelet for me, which I proudly wore for the rest of the day. That small gift really made my day.

We had a good choir rehearsal in the evening. We're all set for Sunday's service, and we made good progress on some November music. I reserved 15 minutes at the end of rehearsal to talk with the choir about the upcoming two-service experiment and how it will affect the music program. Again, this is the topic of a future blog article, but for now, it's enough to say that it was a good discussion. I received a lot of good feedback that will help me decide how to handle scheduling music for two services, and in our general discussion, they brought up a couple issues that I hadn't considered. I'm glad we had the discussion, and I'll be consulting with them again as we get further into planning the church's overall schedule.

As usual, this was a busy day, and because I wear many hats, the day offered a lot of variety. Yup, a good day. I could stand to have more days like this.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Teaching Outside the Box

I often experience a bit of déjà vu when teaching beginning guitar students, because they usually share similar problems. The lessons can blur as I teach one student after another, but there are some lessons that stand out.

Today, I had a delightful lesson with an 8 year old student named Ella. I teach at her home, usually with her mom in the background observing the lesson and her sister, Lane, doing homework. Ella is a fun student. She loves playing the guitar, and she has a lot of personality. She is hilarious, actually. We're at a point in her lesson books where Ella is stuck. We can't go forward in the books, but I don't want to keep reassigning the same pages, because she will get frustrated.

Rather than doggedly trudge through the books, I've veered away a bit. We're still working in her lesson books to some extent, but I've started writing material for Ella to reinforce what she has already learned. For example, last week, I surprised Ella by writing a song for her called Elegy for Ella.

Today's lesson was so fun! We started off by playing a song in one of her lesson books. She had problems in a couple spots. Then I noticed that one of the difficult spots had the same notes that you often hear cheerleaders shouting at games. "Let's go warriors, let's go!"  After I pointed this out to her, she played those two measures more smoothly. Then Ella noticed that the last two measures were the same notes as We Will Rock You. Perfect! We changed a dry lesson song into an interesting song that had two school cheers. I reassigned the song, but wrote in the words to the two school cheers above the usic, and the song suddenly has new life and meaning to Ella.

Ella did a fine job on Elegy for Ella. We took turns playing the melody and chords for each other. It's a pretty long song for her (a whopping 16 measures!), so we're continuing to work on it. Since it's "her" song, Ella doesn't seem to mind working on it some more.

Last week, I wrote out a "mystery song" for Ella. She was supposed to learn it and figure out what it was. She solved the mystery. (It was Jingle Bells.) She asked for a Halloween song. There aren't a whole lot of Halloween carols, so I wracked my brains and finally came up with Have You Seen the Ghost of John. I wrote out the first four measures of that, and now Ella has a Halloween song to practice.

It was wonderful to see the spark come back in Ella's eyes as we modified her lesson material to suit her needs, and I think we're sparking some creativity, too. I sent a PDF of music manuscript paper to her mom to print out, suggesting that Ella might try writing a song. Instead of notes, Ella came up with lyrics. Next week, I'll help her write some notes and chords to go with her lyrics. This will be a fun long-term project.

As if the lesson wasn't fun enough, I had a delightful time with the family afterwards. Her older sister came in and showed me an instrument that she built for a class project. It was two boards held together at a 90 degree angle. Seven strings of various lengths were attached, and you could pluck them to produce different notes.

And as if THAT wasn't fun enough, while Ella was having her lesson, Lane was busy in the kitchen making a treat for everyone. She had squeezed out some clementines, added a little water, and made little glasses of clementine juice for everyone. She had set out paper plates and written our names on the plates so we'd know which one was ours. Added to each plate was a little piece of clementine with a toothpick stuck in it. It was so cute!

And I get paid for this!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Unexpected Concert

A beautiful thing happened on the way to my guitar lesson. I drove into a parking garage near the Rialto Center. As I was walking out, a man from the office in the parking garage saw my Taylor guitar case and started asking questions. It was pretty obvious from his questions that he knew a thing or two about guitars. He asked if he could play it. I had plenty of time before my lesson, so I said, sure. I expected maybe a few C and G chords, but he launched into a really terrific arrangement of Satin Doll. He sounded great! You just never know when another guitar player is going to pop out of the woodwork. It was such a special moment to be treated to a mini-concert in a downtown Atlanta parking garage.

Lesson #14

I am continuing my practice of recapping my jazz guitar lessons with Dave Frackenpohl, who teaches at GSU. This helps me wrap my head around each new lesson assignment, and I hope that it helps others who may be on the same path.

I went into this lesson less prepared than usual, but I had a good excuse. Last week, I was preparing for a 3.5 hour solo guitar gig with no vocals and no looper. I put my lesson material aside for a week to prepare for that gig. As expected, I had an okay lesson…not terrible, but not great. It happens.

We started off by playing There Will Never Be Another You. It went well. I thought I was done with this tune, but no! Dave assigned an arpeggio exercise to go along with this song. (You can skip down to the "new assignment" part of this article if you absolutely can't wait to see the arpeggio exercise.) The exercise can be done with any song, but we're sticking with this one.

Next, I played my new harmonic minor arpeggio exercise…outline the 1 chord up, the 2 chord down, etc., working my way up and down the scale. Dave reassigned this exercise, suggesting some more comfortable fingerings.

We then played Blues for Alice. I had to play this pretty slowly. I have the song memorized, but it's a really awkward melody on guitar (and perhaps on other instruments, too). I'm to continue working on this one, building up speed.

Then I played a page of the Blues in Twelve Keys exercise from Galbraith's Guitar Comping book. No problems here.

Finally, we sight-read a duet that was transcribed from a Joe Pass and Herb Ellis recording. Dave enjoys sight-reading guitar duets at the end of my lessons. I'm a strong sight-reader, and I think Dave likes to read this material with me. I certainly enjoy it.

The New Assignment

The new assignment looks a lot like the old assignment, but with some new wrinkles.

  • Continue transcribing a Joe Pass solo. This is Joe's solo from his and Ella's recording of 'Tis Autumn. I've transcribed a pretty fair chunk of it, but I set it aside when I began preparing for the solo guitar gig.
  • There Will Never Be Another You arpeggio exercise. This is a pretty straightforward exercise, but Dave suggested a few chord substitutions that will slow me down for a time. The exercise is to arpeggiate 7th chords from the changes, starting with the 7th, so the upward pattern is 7-1-3-5. I am also supposed to reverse that, going from high to low in a 5-3-1-7 pattern. When I get used to that, then I'll be ascending on one chord and descending on the next. There are a couple dominant chords that don't function as dominant chords (in the standard key of Eb, there is a Db9 and an F7, neither of which function as dominants). Dave suggested altering the 5th (sharp or flat) for those chords.
  • Harmonic Minor Arpeggio Exercise. I'll keep plugging away at this, using the more efficient fingerings Dave showed me. When I'm able to play this smoothly, I'll have a melodic minor arpeggio exercise to tackle.
  • Blues for Alice. Build speed on the melody, and find a solo to transcribe, but just one chorus.
  • Galbraith's Guitar Comping. Add another page from the Blues in Twelve Keys etude. This new page covers the keys of Gb and B…not your most common blues keys!
A recurring word in this article is "reassign." Except for Blues for Alice, which I honestly don't like, I don't mind repeating material from lesson to lesson. I find that my playing improves overall when I explore the possibilities of one song in greater and greater depth.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Little Composer

I just returned from a fun lesson with Joel, an eight year old guitar student who is exploring his creative side. He has written two melodies, complete with chords, and tells me that he is halfway finished with writing another one. I'm super thrilled about this!

It's exciting to see a young student find a creative voice through composition. As a bonus, Joel's general note-reading ability has skyrocketed. In writing out his melodies, Joel has to think about the notes he is writing, the rhythms, and how he is going to play them. By doing this, he is processing and internalizing a lot of information. Today, Joel read two new lesson assignments nearly perfectly the first time, and I believe this is due in no small part to his endeavors in composition.

Joel doesn't have any idea what chords to write for his melodies yet. His chords are quite random, and so I edit those pretty heavily. For his next lesson, I'll bring in a chart with the chords he knows, spelling them out note by note so that he starts to get an idea of which chords may go with his melodies. I'll also suggest chord groups that often go together (G/C/D7, Am/E/C, etc.). Joel is quite the explorer on the guitar. He likes to know how things work, and so I think we'll be getting into the rudiments of music theory pretty soon.

I see some of myself in young Joel. When I was around 12 years old, I began writing music. It wasn't great, but I enjoyed it, and the writing made me eager to learn music theory, because it helped in my writing.

After having this experience with teaching Joel and seeing his note reading accelerate, I'm going to encourage other young students to begin writing. I'm not going to make it a requirement, but I will give them some staff paper and gently encourage them.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Lesson 13

As usual, I'm summarizing my latest jazz guitar lesson with Dave Frackenpohl, who teaches at Georgia State University. This helps me process each new assignment, and I hope it helps others who are on a similar path.

We started off with an arpeggio exercise based on the major scale, outlining the I–maj7 going up, the ii–m7 going down, etc., and we followed that with the drop 2 chord exercise on a Maj7 chord, playing all four drop 2 voicings ascending, then taking it through the cycle of 4ths, ascending in one key, descending in the next, etc. Those went well. Dave suggested some more efficient fingerings for the arpeggio exercise.

We then played through the changes and soloed over Blues for Alice. I never got very creative with this part of my assignment. With so many 2-5's, I treated this more as a chance to practice various 2-5 licks. After Blues for Alice, we played through There Will Never Be Another You. I was pretty comfortable with this. Dave suggested exploring the Lydian Dominant scale over the Db9 chord. I also played through the classic Kenny Burrell Chitlins con Carne solo, playing all five choruses from memory and adding the guitar self-comping between phrases that Kenny does so well.

The new assignment:

  • Harmonic Minor Arpeggio Exercise: The same arpeggio pattern as before…outlining 7th chords, ascending on I, descending on iim7b5, etc. There are some tricky fingerings to work out here!
  • Drop 2 Exercise on 7 and m7: Use the same approach as we did with Maj7 drop 2's. Follow the cycle of fourths. Play through all four drop 2 forms in one key, ascending, descend on the next key in the cycle, wash, rinse, repeat.
  • Galbraith's Guitar Comping: Add another page from the Blues in 12 Keys exercise. We didn't get to this book in today's lesson, but I'll add another page anyway.
  • 'Tis Autumn: Transcribe the Joe Pass solo from the classic recording on the Fitzgerald and Pass…Again album. I'm super excited about this assignment! I love this version, and the guitar solo seems very approachable. I also plan to steal as many of Joe's comping ideas as possible.
  • Blues for Alice: I've learned the changes. Now I need to learn this awkward melody.
  • There Will Never Be Another You: Continue working on this song, and focus especially on using the Lydian Dominant scale over the Db9 chord. As a bonus, Dave showed me an exercise I can use to develop ideas from the Lydian Dominant scale. Using F7 as an example, he's having me outline F and G major triads in different inversions.
I'm very grateful for these lessons with Dave, and they're really paying off. I have a solo guitar gig next weekend. I haven't played pure solo guitar in quite a while, so I've been brushing up on my old arrangements, adding new ones, and improvising (unaccompanied) for a chorus or two. I've been pleasantly surprised at how much I've progressed since I last played so much solo guitar. My old arrangements sound better, I've been able to add several new songs that I couldn't play before, and I'm holding my own as I improvise unaccompanied. I spend most of my practice time pushing myself to work on new things. I rarely look back, but it's kind of nice to look back and compare myself to the player I was a couple years ago. My nose will soon be to the grindstone again as I work on my new lesson assignment, so my self-congratulation won't last long. Still, I've enjoyed looking back, and it makes me wish I could look ahead to see the player I will be in another 5-10 years.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Lesson #12

Continuing the practice of reviewing each jazz guitar lesson with David Frackenpohl at GSU to wrap my head around the new material and help others who may be on the same path.

Dave took a teaching break over the summer, so it's been a couple months since my last lesson. I've been getting a lot out of our sessions, and I've been looking forward to starting up again.

We began by looking at a new arpeggio exercise and a series of inversions to enhance fretboard knowledge (more on these later). We then played through Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. This went pretty well, since I've been working on the song for two months! I was glad for the extra time on it. I play with a quartet, and I've always cringed when the leader calls Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. The bridge is tricky to improvise over. I can certainly navigate the changes now! Ironically, the quartet leader hasn't called this tune since I began working on it.

Next, I played through two pages of Blues in 12 Keys from Galbraith's Guitar Comping book. My original assignment was from the Brazilian Guitar book, but I was getting burned out on samba, so I assigned this exercise to myself instead. I love this Guitar Comping book. The etudes are challenging, but it's a terrific book for expanding your chord knowledge. After I played the blues comping study, Dave suggested I look at Charlie Parker's Blues for Alice.

Then I played my transcription of Kenny Burrell's classic Chitlins con Carne solo. Dave told me I sounded like Kenny Burrell when I played it. I don't begin to approach the level of a Kenny Burrell, but I was grateful for the compliment. I played along with the recording many times and worked hard to match Burrell's inflections. I love the soul jazz style, and I want to keep studying Kenny Burrell and other soul jazz guitarists.

Dave offered plenty of new challenges for the next lesson.

  • Diatonic Arpeggio Exercise: In every major key, outline the Imaj7 up, the iim7, iiim7 up, etc., and then reverse that going down. Use strict alternate picking. Do this in all major keys, as well as harmonic and melodic minor. Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment, but I love doing these sorts of exercises. I've been wanting to change up my arpeggio routine, so this exercise comes at a good time.
  • Inversion Exercise: Play through each inversion of a Maj7 chord using drop 2 voicings. Do this in all 12 keys in the cycle of 4ths. Start by playing up the neck in one key, then move to the next next key and play down the neck. For example, start ascending on Cmaj7 inversions. When you reach the top of the neck, find the nearest drop 2 voicing of Fmaj7 and descend, ascend on Bbmaj7, etc. Jazz guitar is like an endless puzzle, and I enjoy exploring the fretboard and unlocking its mysteries.
  • Galbraith's Guitar Comping: Learn the next 1-2 pages of the Blues in 12 Keys study.
  • Blues for Alice: Learn this standard. The melody is good for single line technique, and I need to have this particular set of changes under my fingers in all keys. This particular variation of blues changes is called "Bird Blues."
  • Chitlins con Carne: I've transcribed the Kenny Burrell solo, but I haven't memorized it yet. I need to memorize it for next time. Also, I need to add some Kenny Burrell style "self comping" in the spaces between the single line licks. I'm more than happy to keep working on this solo. As I mentioned before, I love the soul jazz style, and in my book, Kenny Burrell is the man.
  • There Will Never Be Another You: Learn this standard. Memorize the melody and chord changes and be ready to improvise. I requested this one, because I've always felt awkward improvising over some of the changes. With a couple weeks of focused work, I should be as comfortable with this one as I am now with Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
Whew, that's a lot to work on, but I'm glad to get these lessons going again. I've learned a lot from Dave, and the hard work is beginning to show in my playing. Even though we only work on a few songs at a time, I am learning concepts that apply to my playing in general. I find that I'm able to navigate chord changes to new songs more easily, and I feel like I have more command over my improvised solos. I still have a long way to go, and I'm glad to have Dave as a guide.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Going Acoustic

I bought a new Taylor guitar about a week ago. Although it is an acoustic, the low action makes it nearly as easy to play as an electric. I'm absolutely in love with this guitar, so much so that it has become my main guitar, even for jazz.

I started out with the intention of playing acoustic guitar. David Wilcox is the musician who inspired me to begin playing guitar in the first place, and I also loved (and still love) folk music, particularly the folk music of the British Isles. In my first year of playing, I found Bob Shaw, an excellent guitar teacher  whose main focus was jazz. I gradually turned into a jazz player and began playing electric guitars. My first electric was an Epiphone Sheraton II. Then I bought a beautiful Heritage 575, and for the past few years, my main guitar has been a Godin XTSA.

Although I've been playing electric guitars, many of my favorite players play acoustic, including Earl Klugh and Tommy Emmanuel. A new favorite of mine is Vinny Raniolo. Vinny, who tours often with my favorite guitarist, Frank Vignola, plays an acoustic guitar…not an archtop, just a really sweet sounding acoustic that would be a folk guitar in someone else's hands. Inspired by Vinny, and with a natural preference for acoustic sounds, I bought the Taylor 314CE, and I'm glad I did.

I will still bring out the electric guitar from time to time, but I feel that I'm able to express myself more authentically with the Taylor. I can hear each string more clearly, and I hear more "wood" in the sound. My rhythm playing has a nice "chunk" to it, and my solo guitar arrangements have more life. I'm looking forward to taking the Taylor out for its first gig tomorrow!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

New Baby

Although I've played mainly electric guitars, I've been more and more attracted to acoustic sounds over the past several months. The Godfrey and Guy duo has been mixing in some folky songs with our jazz standards, and I've been thinking about how nice they would sound on acoustic. I've also been interested lately in reviving an old love of mine…Celtic music. I absolutely love the folk songs of Ireland, Scotland, and England, and, just like the folk songs in the Godfrey and Guy repertoire, these sound marvelous on acoustic guitar. Even in my jazz playing, I'm loving the "woodier" acoustic sound and the chunkier comping.

For me, the main issue with moving from mainly electric to mainly acoustic has been my wimpy electric guitar hands. Acoustic guitars are generally harder to play than electric guitars. The strings are usually heavier, and the action is a little higher. An evening of solo guitar can be rough on the hands even on an electric, but it would wreak havoc on my hands if I tried to do the same thing on the acoustics I've played.

Taylor 314CE
Enter the Taylor 314CE, my new baby. A couple years ago, I played a friend's 314CE at a New Year's Eve party and was struck by how easy it was to play. I've been thinking about that guitar ever since. I've been saving my pennies. A few weeks ago, I knew I was getting close to being able to afford a 314CE, so I went to Sam Ash to try one. I just wanted to see if my friend's guitar was an anomaly, or if they were all so easy to play. Sure enough, this guitar felt just as good in my hands as my friend's. Two weeks later, I had enough in my account to pay for a guitar and have money left for pesky things like rent, bills, food, and gas, so I went back to the store, tried it one more time, and bought it.

Sometimes I experience buyer's remorse, even if it's a piece of equipment that I need for my work, but not this time. It played and sounded great in the store, and it sounded even better at home. It's ridiculously easy to play. It feels like this guitar was made for me. I couldn't put it down all evening.

As she handed me the receipt, the salesperson said "This is a forever guitar." I think she's right.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Getting Close

As of this morning, I'm pleased to announce that I've lost 50 pounds and have 16 to go. There's no magic formula for this, no special diet, no pills. It's simply a matter of math and consistency.

The math part is that if you expend more calories than you're consuming, you will lose weight. This is where the MyFitnessPal app has been so useful. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants a simple, straightforward way to keep track of their eating habits. You start off by inputting your age, your general activity level, how much you weigh, how much you want to weigh, and how much weight you'd like to lose every week. (It caps off at 2 pounds per week, and you can also set it for weight maintenance or weight gain.) It starts off each new day by letting you know how many calories you can consume. You add your meals and snacks as you go, and it also factors in your exercise. Once I've factored in an hour of cranking away on the stationary bike, it's satisfying to see 700 more calories added to my daily intake!

For me, using MyFitnessPal isn't so much about the exact numbers as it is about monitoring my own eating habits. As long as I'm eating healthy foods and staying in the ballpark, I'm losing weight.

Consistency is king! MyFitnessPal helps a lot with my food consumption, but I also have to make sure that I exercise on a regular basis. I hop on my stationary bike 6 times a week. I usually pedal an hour a day (yay for Netflix), but if I don't have the time, I'll settle for as few as 30 minutes. As long as I'm doing something 6 days a week, I'm making progress. In addition to the cardio, I'm also doing some basic strength training every other day…nothing fancy…crunches, planks, push-ups, curls, and lateral dumbbell raises. My legs get plenty of workout on the bike. I've added strength training partly out of vanity and partly for its extra calorie burning effects. Vanity…When I've melted away my excess fat, I'd like to have a few manly muscles to show for it. Calorie burning…Having extra muscle boosts your metabolism. Your body requires extra calories to maintain muscle mass, and simply carrying around more muscle is a big help in maintaining a healthy body weight.

As I get closer to my target weight, I'm gradually slowing down the weight loss. I've already begun to allow a few more calories each day. When I have about 10 more pounds to go, I'll allow a few more. I'm trying to come in for a soft landing. I've lost significant amounts of weight before, but one mistake I made was that once I hit my target weight, I convinced myself that I could eat whatever I wanted since I was exercising so much. Wrong! This time, I'm gradually increasing my food intake so that, by the time I've reached my goal, I'll already be consuming my calories at a normal, sustainable level. There won't be any sudden switch from weight loss to maintenance mode. That's the plan, anyway. As I've stated before, I want this to be the LAST time I ever have to lose such a significant amount of weight. After this go round, I want to keep it on an even keel.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Paying Dividends

My younger guitar students are always surprised to learn that I take lessons from a teacher, too. Surprise, surprise, I don't know everything about guitar. I may be further down the path than my own students, but and I am a student, too.

My own teacher, Dave Frackenpohl, is taking time off during the summer, so I've had a couple months without a lesson. I'm continuing to practice the lesson material he last assigned, though, because these lessons with Dave are paying dividends.

Jazz guitar is such a different animal than classical trombone. When I was a classical trombonist, it was fairly simple to measure my progress. I couldn't play a certain etude at first, and then I could. Or I could play with fewer cracked notes or expand my high range. My progress as a jazz player is harder to gage, because the nature of the music is more ephemeral. With classical trombone, I would practice the same solo over and over until I got it right. Because jazz is improvisatory, you never play the same solo twice.

I can't use a specific solo or exercise as a measure of progress, but I can get a sense of my progress by my comfort level when improvising.

We work on a variety of things in my lessons that have helped me to develop as a jazz musician, but I think the most important is transcription. I transcribe solos of great jazz musicians and learn to play them. This helps me understand how these world class musicians crafted their solos. It also gives me an opportunity to steal licks from the greats. There might be a couple measures of a solo that I especially like. I'll take that lick, learn to play it in all keys, and find ways to use it in my own solos. It's very similar to learning a new vocabulary word. You learn its meaning and how to spell it. Then you learn to use it in a sentence. At first, you may feel awkward using the new word, but the more you use it, the more natural it feels, until it is a regular part of your vocabulary. Then you learn a new word.

I've noticed that my solos are becoming more coherent over the past few months. Sometimes it feels like I actually have something to say instead of just babbling. I still play my share of crappy solos. It's all made up, after all, and sometimes you paint yourself into a corner. Still, I'm feeling a greater confidence in my soloing these days, and I owe a lot of that to Dave.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Meet My Little Friend

Meet my little friend.
This jazz guitarist just bought himself a ukulele! I have to admit that this is in part an investment. I've had several parents ask me if I teach ukulele. On Monday, one more parent asked about uke lessons, and that was the tipping point. The plan is to spend some time getting comfortable with it, and then offer ukulele classes to youngsters at Tessitura, where I teach guitar. It'll be nice if some of those little ones eventually become guitar students, but even if they don't, I'll be doing us all a favor by sending happy little ukulele players out into the world.

This is a fun instrument! I've already taught myself a few chords. It seems like it would be almost impossible to play a ukulele and be anything but happy. There are people who do amazing things on the ukulele, but I think I'll stick to the basics. I enjoy pushing myself as a jazz guitarist, but I also like the idea of playing an instrument simply for the sake of strumming and singing some happy little songs.

I like to record "memo songs"…just single take songs captured by my iPhone's voice recorder. Yellow Submarine seems like a perfect ukulele song. Time to get busy!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Gearing Up

A few days ago, I was pleased to see an increase in my NWUUC paycheck, reflecting my increased hours. It's not a huge amount of money, but when you're a freelance musician, every little bit helps. To me, this pay increase represents a new charge to the music ministry at NWUUC.

NWUUC has had a very basic music program for the past couple years. It's been a quarter time position (10 hours a week), which leaves just about enough time to run a choir, plan music for services, and practice music for the services in which I'm the lead musician. In the newest budget, the congregation voted to add 5 weekly hours to the job, with the understanding that much of that will be devoted to developing a children's music program.

Seeing that extra money in my account was a reminder that things are about to get real, and I'm highly motivated to raise NWUUC's music program to a new level. I'll spend most of the extra hours on children's music, but I also plan on forming a church band to rehearse once a month. I've occasionally asked musicians in the congregation to play with me when it's my Sunday to be the lead musician. With limited hours, we only had time to meet the morning of the service, and I would go into each service crossing my fingers that it would all turn out okay! My new hours will only allow for one rehearsal a month, but right now, that one rehearsal will seem like a luxury! We will rehearse music for upcoming services, but I also plan on rehearsing songs in general, gradually developing a band book. Just like the children's choir, it's not going to be something we can build overnight, but an accumulation of regular rehearsals will go a long way toward developing a deeper sense of ensemble and a solid repertoire.

After the recent UUMN conference, I purposefully did not think about my church's music program. I just wanted to let all the new information settle in my brain. Tomorrow, though, it all begins! I'll take out my notes and conference materials, meet with NWUUC staff, schedule children's choir and band rehearsals, schedule some piano tunings, order music, and get this new church year going!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Cheaper Than Therapy

I'm feeling melancholy tonight, and I'm grateful for music to help me through.

There's a saying among musicians that music is cheaper than therapy. How true! I often approach music in an academic way. I'm a big music theory geek, and jazz guitar is my geeky playground. Sometimes, though, you have to let go of all the knowledge and just play.

Today was one of those days when I just needed to play and let it out. I'm pretty open in my blog, but I won't write about topics that could potentially hurt others. Let's just say that I'm glad I've learned to figure out what things I can control and what I can't. I'll leave it at that.

One thing I can control is the music that flows through my fingers. In a music service last summer, I explained during the children's story that, even though blues songs are often sad, it can actually feel good to sing the blues, because it helps you sing the sadness away. My improvisations, even over the happy songs, sounded a little sad tonight, and that's okay. I was playing what I felt. I'd be lying if I said I played all my sadness away, but playing guitar tonight helped me channel my emotions. I suspect I'll be letting some more out at tomorrow's gig.

I don't know what tomorrow will bring, but for tonight, my guitar provided some much needed music therapy.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Appreciating Normalcy

After a great experience at my UUMN conference, I'm finally settling into a normal routine back in Atlanta. I loved the conference, and now I'm learning to appreciate normalcy. I don't exactly lead a normal life. There's no 9 to 5 in my schedule. Each day offers something different, but overall, my typical week has a certain ebb and flow of music engraving, practicing, students, church work, and gigs.

Before the conference, I was beginning to feel a little burned out and bored. Now that I've dropped from the conference back into my everyday life, I very happy to get back to business as usual…only it's not exactly business as usual. My job at NWUUC is expanding, I have new professional contacts and new friends, and I'm excited about the future again.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

UUMN Conference, Snapshots

I had planned on singing with the mass choir this morning to cap off my first UUMN conference experience, but I woke up with a sore throat. I was starting to feel some vocal fatigue yesterday during the reading session, and I was feeling tired in general. I tried vocalizing a little bit this morning, but from my mid to upper register, it just came out as a squeak. I was careful to pace myself singing this week, but still, I sang a lot more this week than I ever have. I think my scratchy voice is a result of vocal fatigue and general conference fatigue. I decided to bug out this morning and head back home. It's a long drive, and I didn't want to overuse my voice, go through another emotional experience, and then arrive home at 3 a.m. after a 12.5 hour drive. If I had done that, this would certainly have become a full blown cold. I arrived home at about 10:30, which is a much more reasonable time than 3 a.m.! I'll get a good night's sleep and hope that some good old fashioned rest will nip this cold in the bud.

As I was driving home, memories from the conference kept swirling through my brain. Here are some random snapshots.

  • The powerful experience of being in a room full of wonderful singers all belting out a hymn for the first time.
  • Being around a couple hundred other people who do what I do and knowing that I'm not alone in this profession. It was fun to swap stories and realize that everyone else shares similar experiences and faces similar challenges. Others were able to offer advice in how to solve some of the issues I face, and even though I've only been a music director for two years, I have my own unique set of experiences, and so I was able to offer help to others.
  • Being asked to play guitar with the band that played in a workshop on contemporary worship music.
  • Being pleasantly surprised to see Don Southworth, who used to be the minister at my own church.
  • Getting daily texts from a friend back home who was checking on my progress. It was great to be at this big conference for the first time, learning as much as possible, but it also was nice to share my experiences with someone back home. It helped me feel grounded, and I began looking forward to those check ins.
  • Realizing, after the valet handed me the car keys, how nice it was not to not drive for almost a week.
  • Hearing everyone in the sanctuary spontaneously sing Sarah Dan's own hymn to her (Meditation on Breathing) after her last speech as outgoing president of the UUMN.
  • Missing the children's choir repertoire and techniques workshop after being recruited to play for the contemporary worship music workshop, and then having someone walk up to me and hand me the music and handouts from the children's workshop without me even asking.
  • Hearing the children's choir sing their first note when they joined the adult choir.
  • Being so tired the last evening that, when I got back to my room, I took one shoe off and then had to take a break before I had the energy to take off the other shoe.
  • Having a profound experience attending the musical meditation service, and looking forward to taking that concept back home to my own church.
  • Looking at my watch on the ride home after five hours in the car, realizing that I would have just then been leaving Dallas if I had stayed to croak my way through the choir pieces, and realizing I made the correct decision for my health.
  • The most profound thing that came out of the conference, at least for me, was a clinician who told us that the secret to good singing is that there is no secret. It is a gradual accumulation of small skills over time.
There's more. It'll all start to sink in after a week or two. I'm looking forward to sharing much of this with Terry Davis, the minister at NWUUC.

Like most introverts, when I experience something new like this conference, I spend most of my time observing rather than jumping in. Next year, I would like to participate more. I would like to be one of the guinea pigs in a conducting masterclass, and I would like to play guitar and sing as much as possible in services and workshops. For the masterclasses, I need to pay attention to the announcements and sign up as soon as possible when there is a call for conductors. To participate as a musician, I need to stay in touch with the people I've met and make myself available.

That's it! That's my first UUMN conference experience. Now it's time to sleep in my own bed and not set the alarm.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

UUMN Conference, Day 4

Boy, am I tired, but this has been another good day at this year's UUMN conference. The mass choir rehearsed first thing today. Once we arrived, we had about 30 minutes before rehearsal started. I used that time to review a Spanish piece that we've been rehearsing. The notes and rhythms aren't that difficult, and the pronunciation isn't tricky, but when you put all those elements together, it becomes a challenge. I wandered around outside, speaking and then singing my part, and I wasn't the only one. Everywhere I looked, I saw other singers with their heads buried in the music. It paid off, because the choir sounded noticeably better this morning.

Yesterday, a friend of mine texted me and asked what my favorite moment of the conference was. I told her it was the first day, when a room full of terrific singers all sang a hymn together. This morning I texted her a correction. My favorite moment of the conference was this morning, when a children's choir joined the adult choir. Talk about angel voices! That was a spectacular moment, and I can't wait to sing that piece of music with them tomorrow morning.

There was another time slot for workshops after the choir rehearsal, but I wasn't interested in any of them, so I practiced guitar instead. The first few days of the conference, I tried to go to everything, but you can't keep that up all week. It was relaxing to spend a little time alone under the trees and play guitar. Your typical guitarist would sit under a tree and strum folk songs, but I was practicing scales and licks. It works for me.

After lunch, we enjoyed an intergenerational service that included the children's choir. One thing I noticed about all of the services was that the order of service often included instructions for the hymns. For example, we might all sing verse 1 together, then low voices sing verse 2, high voices sing verse 3, and everyone sing again in verse 4. I liked this. It was nice to stand silently through a verse and enjoy listening to other people sing. I could see it in other faces, too. I think it helped us appreciate each other more.

Lunch followed the service. I took my lunch and my instrument to a jam session. Dana, a bass player who had played in a lot of the services and special events, caught up with me. "Are you the jazz guitar player?" "Yes." He invited me to a jam session, and I told him that I was already planning on going. I met him upstairs. It was just the two of us for a while. Before we jammed on anything, he put a piece of music in front of me and asked if I could play it. I kind of showed off by not just playing it, but creating a guitar arrangement on the spot. Okay, I more than "kind of" showed off. Then we played it together. Then he put another piece of music in front of me, and we read through that. Then Dana said, "I might have a gig for you." He was leading a workshop on contemporary music in church services and asked if I wanted to play with the band. "Sure!"

The funny thing is that I had been watching the musicians that most frequently played for the special events. I had been planning on asking someone how I can be one of those musicians next year. Next thing you know, I'm playing a couple numbers with them. Be careful what you wish for! I had a great time playing with the group, I got to take a couple solos, and it was a terrific workshop. I will definitely be in touch with Dana and these other folks to make sure I can do some more playing next year.

The good news is that I got to play in that workshop. The bad news was that it shared the same time slot with a workshop on children's choir technique and repertoire, but here's the great thing about this bunch of people: One woman knew I was interested in the children's choir workshop and expected to see me there. When she saw me setting up for the contemporary music workshop, she realized that I was going to miss the children's choir workshop, so she took extra copies of the music and handouts and gave them to me. That was incredibly thoughtful of her.

Later in the afternoon, we had our final choral repertoire reading session. This session focused on Unitarian Universalist composers, most of whom were at the conference. There were some terrific pieces in that pile of music. When I get back to Atlanta, I'm going to have to make some difficult decisions. I've been exposed to a lot of new choral music, and I've found several pieces that would work well with my choir. Unfortunately, my music budget has limits, and so I'll need to sit down and decide which pieces to order. I guess I'll just have to earmark the rest for later.

The final event of the day was a children's choir concert. I was (and am) exhausted. I was afraid that I would fall asleep during the concert, but those kids sang so well that I couldn't have slept if I had tried. (Well, maybe if I had tried.)

I'm back at the hotel now. As soon as I finish this blog, I'll pack my things so that I can check out quickly tomorrow morning. Our final event is a service tomorrow morning, and then we'll all say our goodbyes. Following that will be a long drive back to Atlanta.

Friday, July 26, 2013

UUMN Conference, Day 3

Another day at the UUMN conference in Dallas. I continue to learn a lot – much more than I could possibly process. I'm glad I'm taking notes! I also learned that handouts from the sessions will eventually be available on the UUMN website, so that'll be helpful.

We started with another service, and then we had an excellent plenary session. By the way, I had to look up "plenary" to learn that a plenary session is a session that everyone can attend. There typically four or five things happening during any given time slot, but nothing else is scheduled during the plenary session. If I learned nothing else today, I know what a plenary session is. Anyway, the plenary session was a good one. The focus was how to use technology to enhance a service rather than just using technology for the sake of using it.

After the plenary session, we had another good choir rehearsal. I am a conductor who stops and starts frequently, which I'm sure exasperates my choir. This conductor does the same thing. Now I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end. That doesn't mean I'll change! It just means that now I know how it feels. (I'm sure my choir members will be amused to read this.)

One of the choir pieces is in German. I can fake my way through Spanish, Latin, and Italian fairly well, but not German! The conductor talked us through it. I made notes as quickly as I could, but I wasn't able to keep up. Fortunately, my roommate is an opera singer who is used to singing in German, and he's agreed to help me with my pronunciation.

I brought my guitar and managed to fit in an hour of practice during lunch. I noticed yesterday that a few others brought instruments and managed to find rooms to hide away to practice a little. (It's a big church.) I followed suit and did the same today. I'm enjoying the conference, but it was nice to have a quiet moment with my guitar. I don't think I'll be practicing on my own tomorrow, though. A piano player spotted me today and remembered from the newcomer introductions that I was a jazz guitarist. He invited me to a jam session tomorrow during lunch. How can I say no to a jam session?

Following lunch, I attended a piano literature workshop. From this workshop, I received information about collections of piano music that work well for services. I'll take that list home and give it to NWUUC's accompanist and to the piano players in the congregation.

After the piano literature workshop, I attended a session by Paul Tucker, our choir director. His talk was about unifying a choir with vowels and relative volume. Frankly, I was out of my depth in this session, but maybe what he told us will make sense after I've had more experience as a choir director. I did pick up a few good tips, but I honestly found myself wishing that I had attended the workshop in creating a musical meditation service, which was going on at the same time. This is why I'm glad that each workshop's handouts will be made available on the UUMN website.

We ended the day with another choir repertoire reading session. We read through a lot of music for advanced choir. There was some challenging music in that batch! It was beyond what our choir can currently handle, but we did read through one piece that I think would be within our reach. Also, I had engraved three of the pieces that we read today. Again, I had to resist the urge to elbow the person next to me and let him know whenever we sang a piece that I engraved.

There is a banquet tonight, but I am just too tired to go. I am absolutely wiped out. I'm going to grab a bite and then turn in early. Tomorrow is a longer day, and I need to rest up.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

UUMN Conference, Day 2

My friend Sarah Dan, who is the outgoing UUMN president, came up to me this afternoon and asked how I was liking the UUMN conference so far. The first words that burst out of my mouth were "I'm learning a sh*tload!" It's true. If I wrote about every single thing I learned today, I'd still be typing tomorrow morning. Here are the highlights.

We began the morning with a music service. Each service this week has a theme. Today's theme was "Better Together." We sang a few songs from Las Voces del Camino, which is a Spanish language Unitarian Universalist hymnal. I really enjoyed those songs. I bought a copy during lunch, and I'm strongly considering introducing the hymnal to my congregation back in Atlanta.

After the service, we had a meeting. Meetings aren't exactly my cup of tea, but my goal is to absorb everything I can this week, including things like meetings. I'm glad I stayed, because I learned about an upcoming hymn writing contest! The most beautiful moment of the meeting was after Sarah Dan spoke her final words as president. When she was finished, the people spontaneously began singing her Meditation on Breathing, which is a very popular song to sing among UUs.

Then we had a mass choir rehearsal for this Sunday's service. Dr. Paul Tucker is our conductor this week, and he is excellent. I learned a lot about choral conducting simply by watching him rehearse us. I found myself trying to sing and take notes simultaneously, which is not an easy trick! In particular, I learned a simple way to teach a choir how to sing proper vowel sounds. I'll be using that exercise with my choir when we start rehearsing again in August. Aside from observing and taking notes, it was wonderful to sing with a huge group of excellent musicians. The baritone section along had 20 strong voices!

Lunch followed, and then I attended a choral conducing masterclass given by Paul Tucker. It was an excellent masterclass, and I picked up a few new conducting techniques. There were three conductors signed up to be guinea pigs, and they were a good mix. One had obviously had good conducting training, one was a pianist with no formal training, and the other was an opera singer/voice teacher who also had no formal training. At a future conference, I would really like to be one of the conductor guinea pigs.

After the choral masterclass, I attended a workshop on vocal technique, which focused heavily on vowel sounds. This was all good information, which I'll put to good use with my choir. The thing that really stuck with me was what the clinician said at the end of the workshop. "The secret to good singing is that there is no secret. It is an accumulation of small skills that add up over time." How true! And it helped me put this week into perspective. I'm not going to come out of this workshop being the world's leading expert on choral vocal technique. Instead, I'll be leaving with a little more knowledge than I had before I came. These new skills will eventually become a regular part of my bag of tricks. Later on, I'll go to another conference or take part in a workshop and come back to my congregation knowing just a little bit more. My choral conducting, knowledge of UU music, guitar playing, repertoire, guitar teaching skills…it will all improve over time. I just need to stay curious, keep learning, and stick with it.

Before we broke for dinner, we had a choral repertoire reading session. We just read through a pile of music. Some of the music was forgettable, but there were a few standouts. We all received complimentary copies of the music. I marked the ones that I thought would work particularly well with my choir. I'll do the same tomorrow and the next day, and when I get back, I'll decide which pieces to order for the choir. I recognized one of the pieces, because I had engraved it for Santa Barbara Music Publishing. I had to resist the urge to inform everyone around me that I had engraved that piece.

After dinner, there was a singing meditation service. I've been trying to think of different approaches to a music service. This was a beautiful service, and I think I'd like to use this concept with my own congregation. There was very little speaking…just a lot of chanting (using chants from a variety or religious sources), and a lot of silence.

So that was my day! I'm looking forward to tomorrow, especially the rehearsal, another workshop by Paul Tucker, and the next choral repertoire reading session.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

UUMN Conference, Day 1

This was the first day of the UUMN conference. I started the day off early in the hotel's excellent fitness room with a few other early risers. I was tired from yesterday's trip, but it was important for me to establish a healthy routine right away. After my workout, I came downstairs to see if the hotel offered free breakfast to guests. The receptionist told me that those in the executive suites received a free breakfast, and other guests could enjoy the hotel restaurant (and if the prices are anything like their dinner prices, I could probably blow $20 on scrambled eggs). So, no free breakfast. Alas. I went out to hunt and gather, and I was fortunate to stumble across a place called Southpaw that offered nothing but healthy food choices at a reasonable price. That'll be my breakfast place for the rest of the week.

Today was Professional Development Day. The UUMN conference is for all members of the UUMN, but this session was for church professionals. Since this was a gathering of musicians, we all started with a song, and we halted the day long session to sing from time to time. It was a powerful experience to sing with these people. My professional singing experience is all small group jazz. I love the intimate style of jazz singing, but it was thrilling to sing in a room full of professional musicians. I can't wait for tomorrow's conference choir rehearsal!

The session was on Adaptive Leadership. It sounds like a dry topic, but it was an interesting, enlightening session. I highlighted a couple ideas that I would like to try with my choir right away, but since the session lasted all day, it's mostly a blur. I took notes, and I'll digest the information later.

After this long session, we had a couple hours to ourselves. I used that time to practice guitar and grab some dinner.

After dinner, there was a reception with all the conference attendees. There was food at the reception, which I had to pass up because I had already eaten dinner. Rookie mistake. The next time I go, I'll know to wait and grab some grub at the reception! Although I'm comfortable in front a large group of people, I don't do very well in big social settings, so I was a wallflower. I'll be more in my element tomorrow, taking part in workshops and singing in choir rehearsals.

That was my first day. The rest of the conference is filled with choir rehearsals and workshops. I've had a chance to look over the schedule to choose from a wide variety of workshops, and I'm looking forward to learning and singing a lot!