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.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Branching Out: Musikgarten Workshop

I just finished an intense, weeklong Musikgarten workshop called "Music Makers: At the Keyboard." The purpose of the workshop was to provide us an overview and hands on instruction in how to use the curriculum.

To be honest, I wasn't enthusiastic going into this because I was still worn out from the UUMN Conference in San Diego the previous week. Fortunately, this workshop was in Atlanta, so not only was I in the same time zone, but I was able to crash at a friend's house only five minutes away. (I took over her oldest son's bed and spent the week sleeping on Transformer's sheets in a bed that was just a little too short for me.)

I sure am glad I attended. The workshop was excellent! I knew it was going to be a learning experience, but I had no idea I would learn so much or be so excited about it. Our instructor, Mary Louise Wilson, was excellent – easily one of the best teachers I've ever worked with. It also helps that Mary is one of the authors of the books.

In general, the "Music Makers: At the Keyboard" curriculum is about much more than playing the piano. The main focus is on the piano, of course, but the piano is a vehicle toward musicianship and not an end in itself. Children generally start this 3-year series at age 6 or 7. By the end of the curriculum, the children are able to play the piano competently, sight-read, sight-sing (in solfege), play musically, have an understanding of basic music theory, and even take musical dictation, which is something many college music majors dread.

The classes keep the kids (and teacher!) jumping, sometimes literally. In addition to the keyboard work, there is plenty of singing, moving, and drumming away from the piano. If you had been able to watch this workshop, you would have witnessed several adults sitting on the floor in a circle (some of us were pretty creaky), singing children's songs, dancing, drumming, galloping like horses, and in general acting a little silly, but with a clear purpose.

A few months ago, I was able to witness the end result of this piano curriculum as I watched an advanced class of Lynnette Suzanne's sight-read and sight-sing music. I can think of a few people I went to undergrad with who would have had problems with their music dictation. At the workshop, I was thrilled to witness the beginning of this process. As part of our teacher training, we observed Mary work with a group of children for four days. This was a typical group of kids. There were no "ringers." I was impressed that these kids were beginning to read and understand 8th note patterns on the fourth day.

I'm so glad I attended this workshop, and that I'm excited to be teaching a piano class at Tessitura starting August 12. Not only will this give me an opportunity to branch out into the world of early piano teaching, but I can use many of the same concepts to become a better guitar teacher.

The only drawback to this week is that I have a whole new repertoire of children's songs stuck in my head. It's hard to get back to sleep when you have "See the pony galloping, galloping down the country lane" rattling around in your brain.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

2014 UUMN Conference Last Day

Sunday, the final day of the 2014 UUMN Conference in San Diego. The conference itself was done. All that remained was to participate in two morning services at the 1st UU Church of San Diego. These were regularly scheduled services, heavy on the music, and the regular congregation was in attendance.

The mass choir sounded wonderful. There were too many singers to fit in the choir loft, so the choir sat in the middle of the sanctuary, facing the chancel. The band remained seated on the chancel through the entire service, so when the choir was singing, we had the best seat in the house. The band was a big hit. There were even people dancing in the aisles at times. Do you know how hard it is to get Unitarian Universalists to clap, let alone dance in the aisles?

I compared notes with Susanne, our bass player. We were both grateful for our experience in sitting in front of congregations for extended periods, pretending to be attentive. I like to call it "fake awake." Although the services were nice, we were exhausted. We managed to stay upright during the services, but we were tired, and the sanctuary was warm. Susanne snuck into the choir loft and took a nap between services.

Following the second service was the closing circle. I'm not a touchy feely kind of guy, but even so, I found myself wandering around the circle, hugging people goodbye, and looking forward to seeing them in Boston, where next year's conference will be held.

Some random thoughts and memories from the week:

  • Sitting in a bathroom stall in the Atlanta airport, I was startled by a voice announcement that sounded like it was right outside my stall. "Hello! This is Mayor Kasim Reed. I'd like to welcome you to Atlanta."
  • I was grateful for the chance to play guitar often. I'm uncomfortable socializing, but the opportunity to play with others helped me make connections.
  • The Traveler guitar was my conference buddy. I'm glad I bought that little guitar. It doesn't even compare to a full sized guitar. I was happy to be reunited with my Taylor when I returned, but it sure was convenient to have a travel sized guitar that fit in an overhead compartment and was easy to tote.
  • Two years in a row I have been fortunate to have good roommates. And by that, I mean roommates who are pleasant, interesting…and who go to bed early!
  • My favorite session was the workshop on children's songs, musical games, and dances. I can't wait to spring those on the children at NWUUC.
  • It was nice to see some colleagues who work near me, in particular Don Milton from UUCA in Atlanta and Amber Fetner who is music director in Athens, GA. As always, it was great to see Sarah Dan Jones again.
  • I had booked a red eye flight back to Atlanta, so I figured I had seen the last of the conference goers by the time I got to the San Diego airport. No! I was walking through the food court, looking for an overpriced meal, when I heard "Tom!" There was Amber Fetner. And then there was somebody else, and somebody else. And somebody else.
  • I had a LOT of downtime at the airport. I took a nap and woke up with a workshop idea for next year. I had enough time that I was able to outline the entire workshop. Soon I should see a submission form for workshops at the 2015 conference. If my idea is accepted, I'll write more about it.
Overall, this year's conference was a tremendous experience for me. On the one hand, I had the opportunity to play often and contribute in ways that I am strong. On the other hand, I attended workshops that challenged me, offered fresh ideas, and helped bring up my weak areas. It was a perfect balance. I'm looking forward to being in Boston next year!

Friday, July 25, 2014

2014 UUMN Conference Day 4

Saturday, the third full day of the 2014 UUMN Conference in San Diego.

Heading to a spot by the pool for a guitar warm-up, I had to laugh when one of the other conferences goers looked at me and said "Another terrible day." I have no complaints about the weather in San Diego. I brought a little bit of Atlanta's rain along for my first day in San Diego, and I do mean just a little bit – just a sprinkle, really. After that first day, it was sunny, beautiful, and in the 70s.

We started the day with a remembrance service, which was moving. During part of the service, the worship leaders listed names of members who passed away this year. I haven't been in the UUMN long, so I didn't recognize most of the names. As I continue to come to conferences and participate in UUMN activities over the years, I'm sure to recognize more and more of them. Whether I recognized the names or not this year, they are all an important part of the continuing history of Unitarian Universalism.

After the service, I helped Sarah Dan Jones with a reading session. Her partner, Abby, played piano on most of the pieces, but a few of them called for a guitar. Most of the reading sessions were for choral music, but in this session, we read through Silliman Competition winners, honorable mentions, runners up, etc. The Silliman Competition was established to promote the writing of music suitable for Unitarian Universalist congregational singing. There were some really nice pieces, many of which I'll be ordering. You can click here to read more about the competition and this year's winners.

After the reading session, I scurried over to band rehearsal. By now, the band was sounding really good. It was all starting to click. We rehearsed with the singers for the entire rehearsal this time, putting it all together for the next day's services.

Following rehearsal, I attended Don Milton's excellent session, "Going Beyond Warm-Ups." I got a lot out of this session – a LOT. So much that I was both inspired and overwhelmed. Fortunately, Don is also in Atlanta, and I offered him a deal. I will be buy him dinner if I can bring along a recorder and have him sing through several of these exercises again. I'm looking forward to applying his ideas and exercises to my own choir rehearsals.

I skipped the next session. By now, I was beginning to wear down. I wasn't particularly interested in any of the sessions in the final workshop slot, but I was keenly interested in taking a nap. I managed to find a room with a couch, and I quickly fell asleep.

After my little nap, I attended the final reading choral reading session, which focused on easier unison, 2- and 3-part music. We sang a few pieces that I'd like to order for my choir. Between this session, the Silliman session, and the first choral reading session, which focused on UU composers, I have quite a list of music that I'd like to order. I can't order it all. Pretty soon, I'll have to sift through the list and choose the ones that really spoke to me.

After the reading session, I headed home and once again spent some alone time with the guitar in my hotel room. All workshops and rehearsals were done. The next day, we would participate in two morning services and then say our goodbyes.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

2014 UUMN Conference Day 3

Friday, the second full day of the 2014 UUMN Conference in San Diego. This was my favorite day of the conference.

Like many of us from the Eastern Standard Time zone, I had difficulty sleeping. I woke early, headed outside to practice guitar, and then walked to the host church, the 1st UU Church of San Diego. The walk to the church was only 25 minutes, but most of that was up a steep hill. Practicing guitar at 6 in the morning helped me maintain some amount of finger dexterity. Walking up that hill provided my exercise. And doing both allowed me to feel a certain amount of smugness throughout the conference. If the conference had been extended for another week, I'm pretty sure I would have taken the buses like most everyone else.

After the initial service, I attended an excellent plenary session focusing on creating a good flow in the service. I took away some good ideas from that, and then went on to band rehearsal.

Although there were still some rough patches, the contemporary band was noticeably tighter than it was the previous day. The singers joined us toward the end of rehearsal, which I enjoyed very much. They sounded great, and it was nice to be able to hear the complete arrangements, including vocals.

Following rehearsal, I met with Sarah Dan Jones for a quick rehearsal. Sarah Dan would be leading a reading session the next day, and she had asked me to play guitar on a few pieces. I'm glad we got together. Being jazz oriented, I had a very different concept of the songs than Sarah Dan had! We ironed it out, and I was ready for the next thing, which was Scott Roewe's "Creating a Jazz Service" session.

Dana Decker, who led the contemporary band, had asked if I would be interested in playing for Scott's jazz service session. Of course I was interested, and I was happy to learn that Scott would let me play. I really enjoyed the workshop. Scott treated it as a public rehearsal, showing the attendees how to put together a jazz group and how you can adjust harmonies and accompaniments in hymns with jazz styles. Throughout the "rehearsal," Scott took questions. The band members all had microphones and could chime in when needed. Typical of me, while I don't talk much in "real life," I didn't have any problem piping up on stage with a microphone in front of me. I have to admit that I got lost in one song. I think that we were supposed to play the 1st 8 bars as an intro, but I didn't realize that at the time. I got to the bridge, and realized that something was wrong. There's an old adage, "when in doubt, lay out," which is exactly what I did until I figured out where we were. Unfortunately, this particular song was videotaped and posted on Facebook. I will not provide a link to that video. :)

After the jazz service workshop, I broke down my gear and scurried to Sarah Billerbeck's session, "Sing, Move, Dance, Play: movement activities, dances and music games for children of all ages." That's a long title. It was also hands down my favorite workshop of the entire conference. If all I could have done was attend Sarah's workshop, it would still have been worth the trip to San Diego. This past church year, I attempted to start up a children's choir, but I was met with scheduling challenges. Although I still plan to have a children's choir at Northwest UUC, I can only do so much with 15 hours a week. Instead of a formal children's choir this year, I'm planning on venturing into the realm of RE (Religious Education) and working with the kids in the classrooms. This will be brand new territory for me, and this workshop couldn't have come at a better time. I've returned to Atlanta with a great starter kit of songs, musical games, and dances for children. I can't wait to use them in RE! On top of the great information and resources, the workshop was tons of fun. How can you not have fun in a room full of adults playing, laughing, and literally rolling around on the floor? I left that workshop full of new ideas and buzzing with joy from the sheer fun of it all.

Following the children's music workshop was another choral reading session. This session was focused on more difficult material. It was fun to sing this music, but I won't be ordering from that list. Some of the pieces were pretty difficult, and my choir wouldn't be able to sing it. Someday they'll be able to handle that level of difficulty, but not this year.

There was no service this night. Instead, there was a banquet and talent show, which I skipped. By the time the day was over, I was ready to not be around people for a while. While most everyone else was at the banquet, I was recharging by practicing guitar in my hotel room.

This was such a great day. I played a lot of guitar, which is always a plus, but the best part was the children's music workshop. Nearly a week later, I still smile when I think about it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

2014 UUMN Conference Day 2

Thursday, the first full day of the 2014 UUMN Conference in San Diego. This was the beginning of what would be a magical, exhilarating, and exhausting three and a half days of learning and music making.

Each day of the conference began with a 45 minute service. A few days before the conference, Keith Arnold, a fellow UU musician, asked me to play guitar with a band that was being tossed together for the Thursday morning service. So I got up early Thursday morning to grab breakfast and take myself through a guitar warm-up. Getting up early was not a problem this year, since my body was still used to Eastern Standard Time.

The first service was excellent, and the band sounded good. I was thrilled to participate. Throughout the conference, I found myself playing for and with others often. I loved it! I find it difficult to meet people, even when they are as friendly and gregarious as the UUMN crowd. I'm less inhibited if I'm holding a guitar in my hands. Having the opportunity to rehearse and perform with others helped me make connections with people I may have otherwise shied away from.

After the first service was the annual meeting, but I played hooky. Last year, I went to everything, and I came home with a cold. This year, I purposefully skipped a few things as a matter of self care. I'm glad I did. I'm still exhausted (just slept 12 hours), but I'm in better shape than last year. I need to take it easy this week anyway, because I'm attending an intense week-long piano class teacher workshop next week.

So anyway, after the meeting, which I skipped, I attended the first band rehearsal. This was great fun! This is the first year there has been an official conference contemporary band, and I loved it. We had three horns, two keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, percussion, and singers. We spent the first rehearsal getting to know the music and each other. All the musicians were terrific and super nice. The instrumentalists in the band were coached expertly by Dana Decker, who has a gentle way of demanding perfection and encouraging teamwork. At home, both inside and outside Northwest UUC, I lead nearly every group I perform with. It was rather refreshing to sit back and have someone else tell me what to do.

After band rehearsal, I attended Don Milton and Anne Watson Born's workshop, "It's Not Just Learning the Notes." I just finished my third year at Northwest UUC. While I'm an experienced musician, I'm just a baby at this whole church music thing. I would say that for the first year, maybe two, I was unaware that a church choir is more than just a music making machine. This is a real community for the singers, and it means a great deal to them, otherwise they wouldn't put up with being corrected for 90 minutes every week. This workshop helped reinforce the lesson that I am constantly learning: that the choir is a community. I came out of it with new ideas for nurturing my own choir's community and building relationships.

Finally, I attended a choral reading session. The reading sessions are a highlight for me, because they expose me to new choral literature. Thursday's reading session focused on choral music written by Unitarian Universalist composers. Throughout all these reading sessions, I made note of pieces that I'd like to order for my own choir.

After the reading session, there was a dinner break and an evening service. I found a Mediterranean restaurant with kabobs. It was okay, but I'm spoiled by the excellent food at Noosh Persian Bistro, where I play every Friday with Godfrey and Guy. Noosh does things with rice that you wouldn't believe. But I digress. I skipped the evening service. As a matter of fact, I skipped every evening service so I could go back to the hotel, practice guitar, and recharge.

The first full day of the conference was awesome, and it just kept getting better.

Monday, July 21, 2014

2014 UUMN Conference Day 1

Last year, when I attended the UUMN conference in Dallas, I faithfully blogged about the experience every night. This year, I purposefully left my laptop at home. I didn't miss my laptop at all, but I wasn't able to blog. I did take notes. This and the next few articles will describe my time at this year's conference, which was held in San Diego.

On my minister's orders, I arrived in San Diego a day early to enjoy the city. There is so much to do in San Diego. I knew that if I tried to do it all, I would have been toast before the conference even began, so I just did a couple things. It just so happened that my biggest music engraving client, the Neil A. Kjos Music Company, was located 5 minutes from my hotel. The editor to whom I most often report, Ryan, picked me up at the hotel and took me on a tour of Kjos, where I met other members of the editorial staff and visited the warehouse and the printing press. It was pretty cool to walk by stacks of concert band music that I had engraved. I used to work for a small music publisher, so I was somewhat familiar with the equipment, but I wasn't prepared for the enormity of their main printing press. When I worked at Mark Foster Music Company, the press occupied one small room. The printing press at Kjos was huge! It was at least 100 feet long. It was amazing to watch it in action.

I realize that visiting a music publishing company isn't exactly a "San Diego-ish" thing to do, but I enjoyed the tour immensely. It was also nice to meet the folks at Kjos in person. All of my work with the company has been handled through email and by phone. After the tour, Ryan treated me to a seafood lunch and then dropped me off at the San Diego Zoo at my request. I spent the rest of the afternoon at the zoo and then took a cab back to the hotel.

That was the end of my free day. The next day was Professional Development Day. I didn't get as much out of Pro Development Day as last year, when we explored creative problem solving in the workplace. This year's theme centered around Unitarian Universalist musical heritage. It was okay, even fun at times, but to be honest, it felt like we spent 5 hours patting ourselves on the back in the guise of exploring our motives behind making music. That's just my personal opinion. I'm sure others got a lot out of it. I think I am more driven by intuition and feeling than the average person, but I'm much more driven by logic and problem solving than most musicians, or at least most UU church musicians.

That being said, there were some beautiful moments in Pro Development Day, particularly whenever we sang. There's nothing like being in a room full of musicians singing their hearts out. The emotional impact of this took me completely by surprise last year, when I could hardly sing because I kept choking up. I was braced for it this year, but it didn't lessen the beauty of the moments when we all sang.

Early in the conference, I realized one thing: I would never eat alone. Breakfast? I sat down alone with my eggs and bacon. Two bites into my meal, I heard the words "may I join you?" Next thing you know, the table is full. Lunch? Same thing. For an introvert like myself, this was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the thought of actually conversing with someone, especially at 6 a.m., filled me a certain amount of anxiety. On the other hand, I was partly at the conference to make connections, which is super easy when you are surrounded by gregarious musicians.

The first full day of the conference began the next day. This would turn out to be a truly marvelous few days, as you will see in the next articles.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

San Diego Bound

At this time tomorrow, I'll be on a plane, flying to San Diego for the annual UUMN Conference. UUMN is the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network.

This will be my second UUMN Conference. Last year's experience was wonderful. I learned a lot from the various workshops, discovered new music in the choral reading sessions, and even got my feet wet as a participant when I was asked to play guitar in a contemporary music workshop. The nicest thing about the whole week, though, was being around a lot of other people who do what I do. When you're a church music director, you are usually the only professional musician where you work. I enjoyed sharing notes with other music directors.

I caught a cold at the end of last year's workshop, partly because I was around a lot of people all week, but mostly because I kept myself really busy, attending every session and trying to get as much out of the conference as possible. This year, I plan on pacing myself a little better. That's what I'm telling myself, at least. I'm playing in a conference contemporary band, playing guitar for a few songs in a reading session, and was asked to play guitar with another group for the Thursday morning service. Aside from that, I'm pacing myself…really.

I'm actually flying out a couple days early, just to enjoy San Diego for a little bit. I'm especially looking forward to Tuesday. My biggest music engraving client, the Neil A. Kjos Music Company, is located in San Diego, not far from my hotel. The editor with whom I've worked the longest will be picking me up for a tour of Kjos and lunch. That'll be nice. I've been a freelance music engraver for over 15 years, but I rarely get a chance to meet my clients face to face.

Tomorrow's flight will be early. I leave Atlanta at 8:15, but because of the time difference, I arrive in San Diego at 9:30, giving me the day to get my bearings and get out a little bit. San Diego, here I come!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Luxury Practice Time

One of the nice things about my job at NWUUC (Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation) is that I have two months off during the summer. Some of this time will be spent in intense learning situations. I'll be attending the annual UUMN Conference in a couple weeks, and I'll be taking a weeklong workshop in teaching group piano to children the last week of July. By then, I'll be gearing up for another church year at NWUUC, planning for piano classes at Tessitura, and welcoming back some guitar students who were away for the summer.

For now, I've had a few weeks with nothing to do but practice guitar. This has been such a luxury! When I was in college, I practiced trombone for hours. Back then, I took it for granted that I would always have loads of time to practice. I assumed a professional musician would spend his time either practicing, rehearsing, or performing. Silly me.

I practice quite a bit, but I normally have to plan around music engraving, teaching private lessons, and my church music director job, not to mention chasing down gigs, keeping up a website, etc. Sometimes a big music engraving project or an obligation at NWUUC will eat into my practice time, and I'm lucky to be able to run through scales and arpeggios.

At present, I'm off for the summer, my teaching schedule is light due to summer schedules, and I don't have any music engraving projects to finish. I literally have all day to practice, and that's what I've been doing. I love it! When I have a totally free day, I'll play guitar in the morning, workout, play guitar after lunch, eat dinner, and play guitar in the evening. It's not often that I have a chance to practice this much, and I'm taking advantage of it while it lasts.

Most people would think it's crazy to spend most their summer holed up in their private studio, but I'm not most people.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Leaps and Bounds

I've been teaching a young guitar student named Ella for about a year and a half. Mostly because of her age, and partly because of some hand coordination issues her mother told me about, I've had to go very slowly with Ella. We've repeated several lessons and simplified others.

Over the past month, Ella has finally started to "get it." I can almost see the light bulb blinking above her head. She can read chord diagrams. She is playing her melody assignments almost perfectly. Her counting has improved by leaps and bounds. She is beginning to play chords more fluidly. Is there room for improvement? Always! But what a difference in her playing in the span of a month!

I can sum up Ella's recent improvement in one word: devotion. Ella absolutely loves the guitar, and even when she has struggled, she has a wonderful attitude about it. As a matter of fact, Ella is so fun and funny, that even a difficult lesson with her is a pleasure. Ella's parents are also devoted, making sure she practices regularly, and spending time with her at home to help her the best they can. Great parents, a strong desire to learn the instrument, and an upbeat attitude is a hard combination to beat.

On top of everything else, Ella wrote a song last week. She doesn't know how to write the notes or how to figure out what chords will go with it, but it's a good song. And I don't mean it's a good song for a young girl. I mean that it's really a good song, with a chorus, a rhyme scheme, an interesting melody, and thoughtful lyrics. Her mom is going to send me a voice recording so I can add some chords to it. It may not be long before she can figure out her own chords. I'll be happy to help her with that.

Ella started lessons at age 7. She'll be turning 9 in the fall. She's been begging and begging for an electric guitar. Her parents told her that if she sticks with guitar for two years, then she'll get an electric guitar for her birthday. She's earned it.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Jazz Guitar Lesson Recap 6/23/14

Today's lesson with Dave Frackenpohl was particularly good. I played well nearly everything really well, and Dave gave me good tips to help with the music that challenged me. This was one of those lessons that made me feel I was really getting somewhere. The glow will fade soon enough once I begin tackling my new assignment, so I'll enjoy it while it lasts.

Dave gave me a lot for today's lesson: Joy Spring, Body and Soul, Bernie's Tune, Angel Eyes, Bésame Mucho, Song for My Father, and my transcription of Jim Hall's Saint Thomas solo, which he played with Ron Carter.

We started off with Bernie's Tune, which I admitted to giving me problems. The chord changes themselves are quite easy, but I had trouble improvising at speed. Dave gave me a good exercise. More on this later.

We played Body and Soul and Joy Spring next. Dave was happy with how those went. I really like using Coltrane's 1235 approach for outlining chords. I used that so much in my practice sessions that my improvisations began to sound like etudes. That's okay, though. It helped me learn the changes thoroughly, and if you don't have any better ideas, it's a good way to make your way through the changes. I plan on using this idea as a way of learning songs in the future, and as a bonus, it's great for building technique.

We then played Angel Eyes, Bésame Mucho, and Song for My Father. All went well. Dave gave me some good substitute chords to play in the bridge. The progression, if you're curious, is in the second half of the bridge of Bésame Mucho. The stock key is D minor, but I play Bésame in A minor. In A minor, the first half of the bridge is Dm - - - | Am - - - | E7 - - - | Am - - - |. For the second half of the bridge, Dave suggested what amount to Autumn Leaves changes: Dm - G7 - | Cmaj7 - Fmaj7 - | Bm7b5 - - - | E7 - - - |, and then you're back to the A section. I'll look forward to using this in the near future.

Dave didn't give me as much music for my new assignment. After the way he piled it on for today's lesson, I'm not complaining! Here's the new assignment.

  • Speed Building: This is what Dave suggested after I told him that I feel challenged in building speed. (And yes, I know speed takes time.) Take a scale and play it up to the 9th and back down in 8th notes. Start at quarter=70, or whatever feels comfortable. Then play it in triplets. (In triplets, you need to play it up to the 10th to make it work out evenly.) Then play 16ths up to the 9th and back. Pay very close attention to make sure you're playing solid time and not rushing. When playing triplets and 16ths, accent the first note of each group of 3 or 4, respectively. You can practice this for scales in general or use it as a warm-up before improvising. If you use it as a warm-up before improvising, play this exercise on the scales you plan on using in your improvisation. Do this scale exercise for at least 5 minutes.
  • Sweet Georgia Brown: This is one of those "must know" standards, and it's well past time I learned it. This is also my new transcription assignment. It's up to me to pick the solo. Dave suggested I start by listening to Django Reinhardt. I suspect that my search will begin and end there.
  • Well You Needn't: Learn it.
  • A Day in the Life of a Fool: Memorize it. I already have this one pretty well learned, but when I perform it, I almost always sing it and then play it as a set solo arrangement. I rarely improvise on this one, so most of my practice on this song will simply be getting comfortable playing over the changes.
That seems like such a small assignment compared to my previous lesson, but there's plenty of good material to challenge me.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Children's Music Program

I consider the past year to be a musical success at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation. The choir sounded good, the new contemporary band was a big hit, and we were successful in resolving some long running issues with the sound system.

Not everything went according to plan. My biggest challenge was in starting a children's choir. I think there were two main reasons for the difficulty: scheduling and lack of a tradition.

At the beginning of the church year, I scheduled a children's choir rehearsal every other week at 12:30, after Second Hour. We had service at 10, Second Hour (classes) at 11:20, and then children's choir at 12:30. In theory, this seemed like a good idea. In practice, it didn't work out so well. By the time 12:30 rolled around, everyone was hungry and ready to go home. On top of that, we occasionally had a church wide event that overrode children's choir, such as a congregational meeting or a potluck.

With no established children's choir in Northwest's recent history, it was more difficult to start one than I anticipated. Part of my goal was to simply show the kids what it was like to be in a choir. That was hard to do when we sometimes had rehearsals with only 2-3 singers.

Now that this first year is done, I'm rethinking children's music at Northwest. I still think it's important to have the children participate in the musical life of our congregation. I've decided that, if the kids can't come to me, I'll go to them. Rather than have a regular children's choir, I'll go into the classrooms 1-2 times a month after the main service and sing songs with the kids. Also, and this isn't set in stone yet, we have been thinking about holding a kid friendly mini-service in the chapel maybe once a month. I'll plan on being part of that service as a song leader. Every so often, we'll hold a special rehearsal with the children, in which they'll prepare to sing their favorite songs for the main Sunday service. I think we'll have more success in getting good attendance if we hold a special dress rehearsal every so often instead of an every other week schedule.

There will still be a children's program next year. It'll just be less formal than I originally envisioned. I still would like to have a children's choir at Northwest, but we'll do this first. One step at a time.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Classical and Jazz Guitar

Two months from today, I'm playing a wedding gig. For the cocktail hour, I'm performing jazz standards with Godfrey and Guy. For the pre-ceremony gathering music, the client wants some classical guitar. I have from now until then to work up 30 minutes of classical guitar music. The bride understands that I'm a jazz player, and that she's not getting Segovia. I'm going for easy material. My job is to play relaxing music before the ceremony. There's no need for technical wizardry. The hardest thing I'm playing is Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, which is a challenge for me, but is child's play for your average classical player.

Although I'm mainly a jazz guitarist, I find that I enjoy working on these classical pieces. My approach to learning this music is quite a contrast from my jazz guitar practice. In practicing jazz guitar, I never feel "done." Jazz is an improvisatory art. I spend a lot of time learning to navigate my way through chord changes while coming up with interesting melodies. The melodies I create are ephemeral. Sometimes they are sublime, sometimes they are iffy, and most of the time they are somewhere in between. My improvisations change depending on what licks I've been practicing, my mood, who I'm playing with, the feel of the room, which guitar I'm playing, and even the lighting.

While jazz guitar often feels like a moving target, classical guitar feels more stationary. You can always play more cleanly or with a difference nuance, but you at least know which notes you supposed to play. In general, there's little, if any, improvisation with classical guitar. If jazz guitar is like a free flowing conversation, then classical guitar is like the script of a play.

I've heard jazz guitarists disparage classical guitar, saying that it feels like paint by numbers, but that's not what it feels like to me. Even the limited selection of classical music that I'm able to tackle is gorgeous, and it fits in quite well with my mellow style of playing. I'm glad for this gig, because it has rekindled my love of classical guitar. I'll never be mistaken for a real classical guitarist, but I think I'll keep this music in my repertoire after the gig is over.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Year Three

This coming Sunday will mark the end of my third year as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation. It has been a wonderful three years.

When I first started the job, I was frankly happy to have a steady source of income, even if it was only a quarter time position. While I enjoyed being with the people at Northwest, I have to admit that I looked on it as a steady gig. I felt that my job was to come in twice a week, do my "music thing," and then make myself scarce. I felt that the music program was a separate entity – a self contained little bubble within Northwest.

That sense of separation began to dissolve in my second year, when Terry Davis became our minister. She brought a sense of inclusiveness, openness, and energy that had been lacking. Music became more integrated into the Northwest experience as Terry consulted with the staff to plan services. I began to become more than "the music guy." I was playing my part in a supportive team. Terry also helped me realize the impact that my role has on the church, and in particular on the choir members. Being a secular humanist, I had never thought that my music program was a ministry, but I learned otherwise. (And for those of you who are wondering how a godless heathen such as myself could be a music director at a church, I invite you to visit www.uua.org and read up on Unitarian Universalism.)

It wasn't until this past year that I began to feel like I was, indeed, the actual Director of Music at Northwest UUC. It began to feel real. For the first two years, I felt like my job was to keep a steady hand on the wheel and keep the music going through some staff changes (new music director the first year, new minister the second year). In this third year, I began to put my own stamp on the music program, most notably with the launching of a contemporary band. This band, which has yet to be named, was a popular addition right from the start, and then it kept getting better and better. Also, after struggling with sound issues for years, we finally managed to update our sound system, thanks in large part to the expertise of Bob Bakert, who is not a member of Northwest, but hosts the Hungry Ear Coffee House show that Northwest puts on every month.

Even where I have met challenges, I feel like I'm growing into my role. I had some difficulty starting a children's choir this year. (More on children's choir in a future article.) Even where I have faltered, I have continued to enjoy the support of the staff and the congregation. Rather than giving up on a children's music program because of a rocky first year, they have offered advice and support, and we have a new plan for children's music in the coming church year.

As each year passes, I am more and more grateful for this job. It started off as a gig, but it has become so much more.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Lesson Recap 6/9/14

I just returned from a good jazz guitar lesson with Dave Frackenpohl at GSU. I was ultra-prepared for this one. I wish I could say that about every lesson.

Dave gave me a lot to work on for this lesson, which included:

  • Satin Doll: 3-note comping exercise. This was pretty simple, and it was a good warm-up. These 3-note voicings are a good reminder that there is power in simplicity. I don't have to try to play every note of every chord. Even in a setting where the guitar is the only instrument, simple 3-note voicings often sound best.
  • Joy Spring: This is a workout! The melody is challenging on guitar (at least for me), and the chords are a little tricky to improvise over (at least for me), but I love this tune. It sounds so happy! Dave clued me into a simple Coltrane approach for when the chords come at you two to a bar. If you can't think of anything else to do, it's quite effective to outline the chords with a 1-2-3-5 pattern. That's an idea I'll be incorporating into other songs. Next assignment: Continue this song to build speed and work out some 1-2-3-5 Coltrane patterns.
  • Body and Soul: I did pretty well at this playing in the key in which I sing it (Bb). I've been singing it in this key so long that I had forgotten that the stock key is Db. Next assignment: Learn it in Db.
  • Bernie's Tune: This is a fairly easy song to learn, but it highlights my lack of dexterity. I can play pretty stuff all day long, but my fingers aren't very nimble. Next assignment: Dave gave me some scale patterns to practice. Over the D minor, I'll be practicing a D dorian bebop scale, and over the Bb7, I'll be practicing F dorian bebop and F melodic minor. It'll sound like mindless scale practice for a while, but it'll help speed up my technique.
  • Saint Thomas: I transcribed the classic Jim Hall solo, from his duet with Ron Carter. Aside from being a terrific solo, this is a great exercise in using voicings with octaves and 6ths. Next assignment: Memorize the solo and work it up to speed.
In addition to the assignments listed above, I am to memorize Angel Eyes, Bésame Mucho, and Song for My Father

Despite playing well today, most of my next assignment is a reassignment of the tunes I just played, but I don't mind. In repeating these songs, Dave is prodding me to dig deeper into the music and improve my technique. The work I put into these songs directly affects my understanding of the rest of my repertoire. I'm looking forward to further exploration in a couple weeks.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Traveler Acoustic

I bought another guitar a couple weeks ago. Here's my excuse this time: I'm going to a conference in San Diego next month, and I wanted a guitar that is small enough to take on the plane without any hassles. I bought a travel guitar. To be more specific, I bought the Traveler Acoustic AG-105 EQ.

Traveler Guitar makes a variety of travel sized guitars, both electrics and acoustics. I liked the idea of an acoustic for the simplicity of not having to plug it in to practice. Plus, I simply prefer acoustic over electric sounds these days.

In the photo, I put the Traveler next to my Taylor for comparison. One thing I love about the Traveler is that it has a full scale, 25.5" neck. Even though it doesn't have a cutaway like the Taylor, I can more easily reach higher notes on the Traveler. You can't see it very well in the photo, but the tuners are on the end of the strings by the body of the guitar. It also has a pick-up, so I could plug in and use it as back-up guitar if the need arose. The Traveler's tone is decent, but with such a small body, the guitar lacks a depth of sound. It doesn't even compare to the Taylor, which has the most beautiful sound of any guitar I've owned, including a gorgeous Heritage 575 that I still play.

But I didn't buy the Travel for the tone. I bought it for portability. I'll be taking it to the UUMN conference in July, and it'll replace the guitar I currently use for teaching. And the Travel has one thing the Taylor doesn't: a strap on the end so you can hang it on a hook. Bonus points for cuteness.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Memorizing

A lot has happened since last I wrote. I'll see what I can do about getting caught up on this blog. The latest and greatest happening is that my duo, Godfrey and Guy, landed a regular gig at Noosh Persian Bistro. It's a wonderful gig! We play at this lovely place every Friday from 7-10 (more about Noosh in another article).

One of the nicest things about a steady gig is the luxury of playing through your repertoire on a regular basis. We have been rehearsing weekly for 2.5 years. Without a regular gig, we spent a lot of time reviewing songs we had already learned. Now, we can review our songs at the gig, and we can spend our weekly rehearsal time learning new songs or shoring up our weaker numbers.

For the past couple months, I've been spending a lot of time memorizing Godfrey and Guy songs.  We have more than 100 songs in the book, and we add a handful of new ones each month. That's a lot of music to memorize. My goal is to memorize them all. I estimate that we burn through at least 40 songs each Friday. Someday, I hope to play a gig at Noosh without cracking open our book.

There are two main reasons I am memorizing our music. First, it's easier to gain rapport with an audience if you don't have the music in front of you. Instead of staring at the music stand, you can make eye contact with the audience. Second, when I've memorized a song, I feel a deeper connection with it. If a song is memorized, I play it with more presence and command.

The weekly repetition helps me keep these songs in my head. We can't play through all of our music in one night, but there are few songs we play every week. I also find that challenging my memory is like exercising a muscle. The more time I spend memorizing, the easier it becomes.

Finally, there is so much music to memorize that it could easily become overwhelming. I've found that the best approach is to memorize 1-2 songs each week, cycle through the other songs I've already memorized, and then challenge myself to play those songs from memory on the gig. Like anything else worth doing, it's a gradual process.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Rockin' Oakhurst Elementary

I just returned from an important 8:30 a.m. gig with a 6.5 year old student name Bennett. Bennett was assigned to give a black history presentation to his 1st grade class. He gave his presentation on Stevie Wonder. Bennett loves Stevie Wonder. (I think it is evidence of good parenting.) His teacher knows that Bennett is taking guitar lessons, so she suggested that he perform a Stevie Wonder song at the end of his presentation. Bennett and I decided on Ebony and Ivory, which is actually a Paul McCartney song that he and Stevie Wonder recorded as a duo.

Nailing a Dmaj7
To prepare for this performance, I copied out the first 8 bars of Ebony and Ivory, which can be easily played with just two chords. In working on the song, Bennett learned how to play a Dmaj7 chord and how to use a capo, which he placed on the second fret to match the key of the recording. (The actual chords alternate between Emaj7 and F# minor. With the capo, Bennett alternated between Dmaj7 and E minor.) We practiced the song for two lessons, worked up a nice little arrangement, and then I met up with Bennett's parents this morning for the big show.

When we walked into the classroom, Bennett looked forlorn. He was already standing in front of the class with all his classmates seated in a circle around him. By the look on his face, you'd have thought he was being offered up as a sacrifice. There was a great show of relief on his face when he saw his parents and his guitar teacher walk through the door.

Bennett had certainly done his research and knew his stuff, although he needs to work on his delivery. He had made a large poster with all sorts of Stevie Wonder facts, and he kept his back to the class as he read from the poster. His mom, who was recording a video, pretty much got a video of Bennett's back for about 10 minutes of presentation.

When Bennett said something about Ebony and Ivory, I knew that was my cue. Like any good guitar tech to the stars, I had already tuned his guitar and added his capo. We sat down and began playing. Bennett nailed it! I couldn't have been happier with his performance. He got a big cheer at the end, and then some of his friends asked for his autograph after his presentation. Sadly, no one asked for my autograph.

Proud Parents
This morning was a big deal for Bennet, but it was a treat for me, too. I was so proud of how he played of his presentation in general. It was a lot of fun to put his guitar lessons to use in a real world setting. Bennett sometimes asks me when he's going to be a good guitar player. As far as I'm concerned, considering he's only 6 years old and has been playing for a year (maybe less), Bennett is already good. He has a good sense of rhythm and sings on pitch (when I can get him to sing). He didn't miss a beat today. Most importantly, he's excited and curious about the guitar. If he keeps on practicing, his natural talent and enthusiasm will take him far.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

More Than Chords

Lately, I've come to realize that I am more than just a guitar teacher to some of my students, particularly the youngsters.

Last Saturday, a 9 year old stopped in the middle of his lesson and asked, "Have you ever had a friend you went to school with, and then he went to another school, and now it feels like you hardly know him anymore, like he's different?" That sure made me pause! I literally thought to myself, "What would Mister Rogers say?" We talked about it for a little bit before picking up our guitars again.

Thinking about this student led me to reflect on other young students. A 7 year old girl draws guitar pictures for me, one of which is currently stuck on my fridge. An 8 year old boy always moves his chair close to mine and constantly touches my leg with his foot, like I'm some sort of totem. Next week, I'm going to come to a 6 year old student's school to help him play part of Ebony and Ivory for a class presentation on race. His mom told me that he is super excited about this.

Maybe some students open up like this because their guitar lesson is a safe place. I'm about as non-threatening a teacher as you'll ever find – picky about the music, but friendly and encouraging. Their 30 minutes with me is separate from the rest of the world. It's something that their friends don't do, and often there is no parent around. Maybe they feel like they can say things in their guitar lesson that they may not be able to say at other times.

I have to be mindful of my influence as a teacher and an adult figure. I thought I was just teaching chords and music reading, but something else has been going on.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Got Rhythm?

Every morning, I spend about 20 minutes playing scales and arpeggios to warm up my fingers. Guitar is a little different from most instruments in that there are several ways to play any given scale. For example, on the piano, there is only one middle C. On the guitar, there are several middle C's sprinkled around the fretboard. Similarly, there are several different fingerings for a C major scale on the guitar, depending on where you start on the neck. I use 5 basic patterns to play any given scale. If I were to play all my scales and arpeggios in all 12 keys, I'd be worn out by the time I finished warming up, so I warm up in a different key every day, moving my way through the circle of 4ths. Today happened to be my "C" day. It'll be F tomorrow and B-flat the next day, etc.

I recently began to apply this "key of the day" concept to I Got Rhythm, by George and Ira Gershwin. The melody isn't the most fascinating string of notes you'll ever hear, but the chord changes are extremely important in the jazz world. There are many variations on "Rhythm changes," and there are several tunes based on Rhythm changes. (By the way, a new melody written over a set of chord changes to a previously written song is called a contrafaction. Now you know.)

Since I play my warm-ups in a different key every day, I've also begun playing I Got Rhythm in the key of the day. I'll play the melody, play the chord changes, outline the chord changes as arpeggios, and then improvise. When I began this little adventure, the key of the day was G-flat, so it got off to a slow start!

I'm already finding this to be a tremendously valuable exercise. My transposition skills are improving. The song is filled with ii7-V7 progressions to work through. Some keys force me to find licks in chord shapes in which I'm less than comfortable. Just as with scales and arpeggios, I plan on working through Rhythm changes for a long, long, long time.