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, 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.