About Me

My photo
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, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

You and the Night Prep

A few days ago, I finished writing the last arrangement for an upcoming recording session for Godfrey and Guy's You and the Night album. Now that I've finished the arrangements, I've been learning my own parts. We perform most often as a voice/guitar duo, so there's usually not much for me to keep track of, but this album will include bass, drums, trumpet, and tenor sax.

The more I play this music, the more pleased I am with what I wrote. (This isn't always the case!) Most of my guitar parts involve simple comping, but I've written sections where the trumpet, sax, and guitar play unison and harmonized lines together. After literally getting up to speed on my own parts, I began playing them with a MIDI file that I created as a practice tool. The MIDI playback sounds very stiff compared with the way live musicians would play, but it's a great way of getting a sense of how it will feel to play my part with the full ensemble.

I'm having fun playing with the robotic MIDI file, and I can't wait to put this together with live musicians! Tomorrow I'm working with Lori and our bass player, Mark. We'll use this time for Lori to get used to the arrangements while Mark and I work out good grooves for each song. If the rhythm section is strong, we'll have a better chance of having a smooth rehearsal with the horn players.

This is such an exciting project! We'll rehearse with the full group in just over a week, and then we'll hit the studio a week after that. In writing the arrangements, the music was all in my head, but it's about to get real!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

G&G Recording Dates: Getting Ready

800 East Studios, where Godfrey and Guy
will record their first album.
In January, Godfrey and Guy will be recording their first album. I'm excited about this project, and also nervous. I've played for a few recording sessions, but this is the first one for which I'm responsible. Lori and I are sharing the financial burden, but I'm doing the organizational work, including booking studio time, hiring musicians, planning the recording sessions, and scheduling rehearsals. Additionally, I've written the arrangements and am learning about mechanical licensing. There's a lot to do!

So far, the most enjoyable part of the process has been writing the arrangements. We plan on recording eleven songs. Four of those songs are "head charts," in which we'll all just be playing from the same lead sheet. We have a general direction we'd like to go with each of these, but the performance will be loose and mostly improvised.

I have written arrangements for the other seven songs. The instrumentation is voice, trumpet, tenor sax, guitar, bass, and drums. I've never written for a jazz group, and it was challenging and fun to come up with background horn lines. I also wrote several horn soli sections, where the trumpet, sax, and guitar (as 3rd "horn") are playing harmonized bebop-ish lines. One of my personal challenges is to learn the parts I wrote for myself!

Here's our song list:
  • No Moon at All
  • You and the Night and the Music
  • Night and Day
  • Angel Eyes
  • Dream a Little Dream of Me
  • In the Wee, Small Hours of the Morning
  • Tenderly
  • Whisper Not
  • How High the Moon
  • A Night in Tunisia
  • 'Round Midnight
The arrangements are complete. Studio time is lined up. Licensing is in process. Rehearsal is scheduled. Our first session is scheduled for January 16. I think we'll be ready to roll!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Background Stories

Background gig at the Georgia Aquarium.
Playing for the fish.
I recently changed the name of my blog to "Background Stories." It seemed more fitting. Except for my part-time music director job at NWUUC, I make much of my living under the radar playing background music and teaching private students. Even my music engraving, which is still a small part of what I do, is background sort of work.

Unlike many musicians, I actually enjoy playing background music. As a matter of fact, I prefer it. Yes, I like applause, and it's nice to play the occasional show, but I really like gliding into a restaurant or a corporate event, playing and singing some of my favorite songs, collecting a check, and then gliding out.

I find that I am especially well suited for background music, both as a musician and as a person. I'm a low key individual with the personality of a sideman. My musical style is also pretty calm. I prefer to perform and listen to relaxing music. I don't have to tone it down for a background gig. "Toned down" is my default setting.

Playing background music also affords me an opportunity to essentially "practice" in public. I am always working on new things. Sometimes it's a new song, but more often, I'm working on new musical concepts and trying to find places to play licks that I'm learning. When I'm playing in a restaurant, I feel comfortable enough to explore a bit and try some new ideas without feeling like the whole room is paying attention. My weekly gigs at Noosh Kitchen and L'Thai are my own learning laboratories. I am helping to create a pleasant environment for the customers, but at the same time, I'm in my own little musical bubble, enjoying the puzzle that jazz guitar presents.

I really enjoy my low key musical life. Not everyone is cut out for the bright lights, but there's something to be said for making a quiet living doing what you love.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Looper Practice

I set up my own practice room a few days ago. Since this spot in my apartment is dedicated to guitar and only guitar, I can leave my essential practice tools set up and ready to be used at any time, including the small pedal in front of the chair in the picture. This is a looper, which records what I play and then plays it back through the amp. I use a bigger version of this looper for some gigs. I'll record the chords while I'm accompanying myself or someone else, and then I'll improvise solos while the chords play back. This is a fun way to use the looper, but it's also an amazing practice tool.

Now that I have this little looper permanently set up at home, I use it a lot. In practice sessions, I use it mainly as a super fast, easy way to record myself and listen to the playback. Have you ever heard a recording of yourself talking and thought, "That doesn't sound like me?" The same goes for playing an instrument. Your own perception of your sound as you play is usually quite different from the way it actually sounds.

I have recently begun using the looper to listen to my improvised solos. (I can't believe I haven't thought of this before.) Improvisation is such a fleeting thing. When I improvise, I rarely remember much about what I played 10 seconds ago, let alone an entire solo. Up until now, I would improvise to Band-in-a-Box tracks and congratulate myself when I played over the changes comfortably. I never thought too much about my style and delivery.

Say hello to my little friend.
Almost as good as a teacher.
With the looper, I can play through the chord changes once. After that, I can add layers to the loop, which enables me to record an improvised solo over the changes I just played. What an eye opener! In some respects, I was pleasantly surprised at what I heard. In general, I tend to play lines that are melodic and singable, which is exactly what I'm going for. Sometimes there are licks that surprise me. I'll hear the playback and think, "Wow! Did I play that?" On the other hand, my relative youth as a guitar player shows through, especially in my timing. When I'm navigating through tricky chord changes or I'm just not quite sure what to play next, I'll start playing ahead of the beat, as if I can't wait to get through some challenging measures. Being made aware of this tendency, I'll take another crack and the solo, and 9 times out of 10, I'll sound more comfortable the second time. It'll be easy to forget to play more deliberately in performance situations, because there are other things that demand your attention, but the more I focus on improvising with a more relaxed feel at home, the more it will become a habit in the real world.

If you own a looper, I highly recommend using it as a practice tool. If you sing or play an acoustic instrument, you can record with a voice memo app on a smartphone or with an inexpensive digital recorder. After the initial shock of really hearing yourself for the first time, you'll be amazed at how quickly you can improve your playing or singing. It's almost as good as having a teacher in the room. In some ways, it may be better, because you can hear for yourself what needs to be fixed.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Power of Slow

My young guitar and piano students believe everything I tell them…almost. The one thing they never seem to believe is that their playing will improve immensely if they practice slowly. They want to play fast right away.

One of my brightest students is an 8 year old piano player. I lost count of how many times I told her to slow down today, especially when she was sight-reading. I actually got her to slow down once, and – surprise! – she played more accurately. It didn't matter. She just played faster again. I can certainly understand an 8 year old's impatience, so I don't take her resistance personally. I'll just keep reminding her to slow down over and over until I eventually wear her down. In a few years, she'll have progressed enough that I'll have to hand her off to a more advanced piano teacher, and then the new teacher can tell her the same thing.

If there are any young musicians out there reading this (or parents of young musicians), here are some reasons to practice slowly.

  • Playing slowly improves accuracy. If you are having trouble playing something quickly, and you continue practicing it that way over and over, you are going to get really good at making the same mistakes. If you slow down, you can pinpoint where you are having problems. Play at a tempo in which it is almost impossible for you to make a mistake, and then gradually speed it up.
  • Playing helps you play more relaxed. If you are playing too fast, you build up tension in your fingers, arms, shoulders, and the rest of your body. If you are tense, your body tends to lock up, and you can't play as fast. If you start slowly, within your comfort zone, you will be learn to be more relaxed as you build up speed.
  • Playing slowly helps you learn to play expressively. Playing fast is impressive, but if all you can do is play fast, listeners will soon get bored with your playing. You also need to learn how to play with good phrasing, dynamics, and nuance. In playing slowly, you'll learn to develop the power of expression.
  • The pros all practice slowly and build up speed. That's one of our big "secrets." If the pros practice slowly, why not you?
I hope that all of my students will be turned on to the power of slow at some point in their development. Until then, I'll keep saying the same things over and over in my lessons…"slow down!"

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Practice Room

Back when I was in college, I spent many hours in practice rooms. A typical practice room was basically a jail cell with a wobbly stand, an uncomfortable chair, and a battered piano. The rooms in which I practiced were either a) not soundproofed, enabling you to share your practice session with the rest of the hall, or b) soundproofed so heavily that the sound of my trombone died immediately. (I was a trombonist before I was a guitarist.)

For most of us, particularly those of us who played loud instruments, the practice room was the only place to practice. Sitting in a practice room for a multi-hour session, I would sometimes dream of the future, when I would be able to practice at home.

Be careful what you wish for. I can practice at home now, but there are also many distractions at home, especially the computer. If I practice in front of – or even near – my laptop, I find it difficult to resist the urge to check email, look at Facebook just for a "little while," or visit YouTube to watch "just one" video.

There is something magical about a tiny practice room. When you sit down to practice in one of those cubicles, it's just you and the music. There is nothing else. You forget about your cell-like surroundings and focus only on improving your musical skills. My greatest period of musical growth took place when I was spending hours in college practice rooms.

To replicate the practice room atmosphere, (minus the trombone player blasting The Ride of the Valkyries a few doors down), I just set up a room in my apartment as a practice area. Until recently, I practiced near the computer and my phone. No more! I've carved out a small space where it's just me and the music once again. I have my own college practice room with a few upgrades, such as windows and air conditioning. No computers or mobile phones are allowed. I've already noticed a difference in the quality and duration of my concentration.

I like my new practice room, and I'm looking forward to more quality practice sessions in the future.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Join-In Choir

We tried something new at Northwest UUC last Sunday. Instead of a traditional, rehearsed choir, we held the first ever Northwest Join-In Choir. Singers of all ages were invited. No one needed to know how to read music. The join-in singers joined in with the regular Northwest Choir, and they were accompanied by the Northwest Band. I taught them the music in one rehearsal, and they sang in the service.

Join-In Choir was a hit! I had been hyping the Join-In Choir for at least two months. My nagging fear was that, after all the articles, emails, special announcements, and one-on-one conversations, nobody would show up. I was pleasantly surprised when ten new singers appeared. Four singers had confirmed they were coming, so I was expecting at least that many. It was terrific to see six others stroll in, including two that had left the regular choir a couple years ago because they could no longer make the time commitment.

Rehearsal was lots of fun. It was a powerful experience to hear my small choir beefed up with ten more voices. I actually had trouble singing the first two songs in the service; I was so moved by the sound of the Join-In Choir that I was choking up a little. As I was looking around the congregation, I was pleased to see non-choir people enjoying the music. I think they were as surprised as I was by the power of the extra voices, and I saw some big, big smiles on the faces of some visitors.

One thing I learned is that even though my regular choir is fairly small (around 18 members), several people in our congregation have a desire to be part of Northwest's music making. There will probably be even more singers next time. Two join-in singers were out of town but will sing next time. Two more young singers will probably join next month. Our minister plans to sing with us, and there may be some others who join us next time after seeing us have so much fun the first time.

Now that we have successfully launched Join-In Choir, we'll offer it once a month. Five years ago, a typical monthly music schedule at Northwest was alternating one Sunday of piano music with one Sunday of traditional choir music. Here's what our schedule looks like now:

  • 1st Sunday: Northwest Band
  • 2nd Sunday: Northwest Choir
  • 3rd Sunday: Northwest Band and Join-In Choir (includes regular choir)
  • 4th Sunday: Piano
Aside from a relentless marketing campaign, there were some other factors that contributed to a successful launch of Join-In Choir.
  • Easy Music – The music was easy enough that I could teach it to the join-in singers in one rehearsal. For example, we sang "Blowin' in the Wind." I sang the verses while the choir hummed, and the choir sang the chorus. In our rehearsal, we spent a few minutes repeating the chorus over and over so the singers could find harmony lines. I stressed that someone needed to sing the melody, so it was not a big deal if they couldn't find harmony notes. Also, the hymns for the day involved a lot of call and response. For example, I led the congregation in singing "This Little Light of Mine," and the choir echoed each phrase.
  • Regular Choir Musical Support – Although I could have easily waited until Join-In Choir day to teach this music to the regular choir, we rehearsed the Join-In music lightly in the couple weeks leading up to Join-In Choir day. The Join-In singers were surrounded by people who were already confident in the music, so if they weren't quite sure what to do, they just had to listen to whoever was standing next to them.
  • A Welcoming Choir – I knew the regular choir would be friendly and welcoming, but I also wanted to make sure the Join-In singers felt they had a place in the choir – literally. We made sure that the regular choir members left empty chairs. The last thing I wanted was for the regular choir to be bunched around the center while the Join-In singers sat on the periphery. 
  • The Band – Although the Join-In Choir was in the spotlight, the band was a huge part of Sunday's success. The Northwest Band had already rehearsed their parts, so on Sunday, I was able to focus nearly all my attention on teaching the music to the singers.
It took me a while to warm up to this Join-In Choir idea. I first heard about it a couple years ago when I was talking with someone at the UUMN Conference in Dallas. It seemed like an interesting idea, but I didn't do anything with it. Still, the idea was rattling around in my brain. One of my own choir members brought up the idea not long after that conference. I still didn't do anything with the idea. Finally, I heard that another Atlanta UU congregation had started a Join-In Choir, and that it was a lot of fun. Why did I wait so long to offer this opportunity? If this past Sunday was any indication, this is going to be a popular and permanent addition to Northwest's music program.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Smoothing Out Your Guitar Chords

Perhaps the biggest frustration my beginning guitar students experience is not being able to move from chord to chord as quickly as they would like. All guitarists go through this phase. If I had an easy way to get over this rough patch, I could sell my secret and be rich. The truth is that it takes practice – lots and lots of practice.

When you practice guitar chords, you are training your motor skills. Your goal is to think about a chord and have your fingers form it automatically. This takes time to develop, and it involves a lot of repetition. The only way to develop your chord-forming skill is to – wait for it – practice forming chords. Let's use a sports analogy to illustrate the point. If you are a basketball player and you want to improve your free throws, you're going to have to shoot a lot of free throws. If you miss your first four attempts and then make your free throw on the fifth try, you don't stop. You keep shooting free throws so you can teach your body how a successful free throw attempt feels. The same goes with chords. You don't just play a few chords and stop. You play them over and over until you can practically play them in your sleep.

Here's one exercise you can use for practicing chords. Let's say you are learning a song in D, and it has the chords D, G, and A7. First, pick two chords, and practice switching back and forth between them over and over. Then pick another pair. Try all the possible two-chord combinations.  So:

  • Alternate between D and A7 for a while.
  • Alternate between D and G for a while.
  • Alternate between G and A7 for a while.
  • Try a longer combination. Cycle through D – G – A7 – D.
Some general tips as you practice switching from chord to chord:
  • Don't worry about trying to play a fancy strumming pattern. You are working on your fretting hand, not your strumming hand. Simply strum each chord once. You can add strumming patterns another time.
  • Start slowly so that your fretting hand is relaxed. As you get more comfortable with the chords, see if you can gradually pick up the pace, but never play so fast that your fretting hand becomes tense.
  • Keep your fingers as close to the strings as possible as you switch chords. The closer you keep your fingers to the strings, the faster you'll eventually be able to play.
  • Study the fingering for each chord. Do the chords have any common fingers or similar shapes? For example, when moving back and forth between D and A7, if you play the A7 with fingers 1 and 2, you'll find that you can easily keep those two fingers in the same formation, move them to strings 1 and 3, and you're in perfect position to play the D chord.
Finally, while I don't generally recommend practicing in front of the TV, this is what I call a "TV" exercise. With the sheer repetition, this type of chord practice can be mind numbing. When I practiced chords in this way, I would plant myself in front of a TV, picked a handful of chords to practice, and watch a show while I played the chords over and over and over.

If you practice your chords like this, you won't sound better instantly, but if you do this consistently, you'll experience noticeable improvement in just a few weeks.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

UUMN 2015 Conference, July 25

This was the last full day of the 2015 UUMN Conference. There was a lot of singing today. A lot!

The little breakfast place I've been frequenting wasn't open yet, so I walked a little farther to Starbucks and picked up a breakfast sandwich before heading to Boston Common for another early morning guitar practice. It was a bit on the chilly side. I guess if you're traveling to Boston, you should pack some long pants and a light jacket, even if it's summer. I've really enjoyed practicing in the park. There is a lovely pond, complete with ducks and swans. There are older Chinese people practicing Tai Chi, joggers, dog walkers, statues, fountains, and weeping willows (my favorite tree).

This morning's service was the UUMN's annual Service of Remembrance, held in yet another historic church, King's Chapel. You really get a sense of history in these beautiful old churches. Honoring the UUMN members who have passed away that year, the Service of Remembrance is always moving.

Following the Service of Remembrance, I practiced in the park for another hour and then attended choir rehearsal. Although the choir is chock full of great singers and the music is lovely, these types of ensembles are always a little nerve wracking. We aren't used to singing with each other, we're just now getting used to the conductor (who is wonderful), we have rehearsed three times, and we are singing in tomorrow's service at Arlington Street Church. All that being said, I know we'll do just fine.

Following lunch (and more practicing!), every workshop I attended involved sight-reading choral repertoire. I stopped singing after a certain point, because my voice was getting tired. Not only was my voice tired, I was fading fast. I had no idea you could doze off while singing. Still, I stuck around to listen, and I have a list of terrific pieces for my choir to sing.

I left the conference a little early. I was wiped out! And I wanted to make sure I could rest up before this evening, because my best friend from high school lives in the area, and we had plans to meet for dinner. My friend, Mark, showed up around 6:00, and we walked…and walked and walked. We had planned on Italian food on the North End, but every restaurant we checked was all booked up. We settled on a seafood place, which turned out to be a good choice. The food was delicious! Some friends were giving me grief for coming to Boston and ordering shrimp a couple days ago, so this time, I went for clam chowder and cod. The meal was actually pretty healthy…if you don't count dessert. I knew my diet would go off the rails today; I had planned on it, actually! At least the walking burned off quite a bit of it. It was really great to catch up with Mark.

Now I'm back at the hotel and will soon be packing my stuff. I'll be attending a service tomorrow and singing with the Conference Choir. After that, I'll be able to spend just a little more time in Boston tomorrow, because I booked a 7:55 flight. I'm not planning on doing any touristy kind of things, because I'll have my bags, but I can at least hang out in Boston Common one more time and maybe linger in a local restaurant.

I've enjoyed this conference immensely, and I'm in love with Boston. I honestly feel like I could live here – not that I'm making plans. There's the little matter of finding work! That being said, I may keep my eyes open. This is a great city.

Friday, July 24, 2015

UUMN 2015 Conference, July 24

Today's UUMN Conference started earlier than usual for me. I practiced in the park at 6:00, and then I was part of a focus group that met for breakfast and explored experiences with fair compensation guidelines for music professionals at mid-sized Unitarian Universalist congregations. This is not something I typically think about at 7:00 a.m. About a dozen of us were asked lots of questions and encouraged to share experiences and thoughts about a variety of issues related to fair compensation, including how our pay compares to the UUA Fair Compensation guidelines, the hours we are paid to work versus the hours we actually work, level of education and training compared to the religious education directors and ministers at our various congregations, whether or not we are truly perceived as professionals by other staff and the congregation, and much more. I already knew I was treated well at Northwest UUC, and I found myself feeling pretty good about my work situation. Our minister, Terry Davis, treats me very well. We plan services together, and she has made it clear to me on many occasions that she enjoys having me as a colleague and that she considers the music to be just as important as the sermon and other parts of Sunday services. My pay is almost smack in the middle of the UUA Fair Compensation guidelines. I suspect that I work more than the 15 hours for which I am paid, but I'll find out for sure when I begin the next church year, because we're all going to be tracking the time we spend doing our jobs at Northwest.

One thing we all agreed on is that most of the congregants have no idea what kind of planning and preparation goes into pulling off the music on a Sunday morning, not to mention the years of training and practicing. The reason many of us can sight-read a piece of music well is that we've spent years in the practice room. One of the participants had a great quote. When a good musician plays a piece of music well, he says "That piece took twenty years to perform. You just heard the last five minutes."

After the focus group meeting, we went to the morning service. It was really nice to hear an organ in such a grand, historic space as the Arlington Street Church. Wow! One effective part of the service was a series of short quotes, punctuated by Native American flute. I'd like to try something similar at Northwest. We are going to be adding an early meditative service once a month. I bet we could try this in one of those services.

I skipped the annual meeting that followed the service, opting to practice in the park for another hour, and then I returned for the Conference Choir rehearsal. We rehearsed the music in greater depth today. Our conductor has a knack for being picky but pleasant. I took one thing away from rehearsal that I'd like to try with my own choir. We work on vowel sounds in our warm-up, and I try to talk about vowel sounds as we rehearse the music so that we can achieve a better blend. I now plan to occasionally have the choir leave out consonants altogether and sing only the vowels so that we can really hone in on vowel sounds.

After choir rehearsal was lunch and another guitar practice session, and then the workshops began.

The first workshop I attended was "The Risky Business of Congregational Singing." It was essentially another workshop on creative hymn leading. At first, I was afraid that it was going to be somewhat of a repeat of the "leading from the keyboard" session that I attended yesterday, but I learned plenty of new tricks and tips. I find that I'm doing a lot of things right, but there is always something to add or improve. Here are some ideas from the workshop that I would like to try when I get back to my own congregation:

  • If a song or hymn needs a verbal introduction, have the accompanist play quietly while I talk.
  • Some of our hymns are short and have only one verse. Repeat the hymn, interspersing readings (similar to how the Native American flute was used between readings in the morning service).
  • Train any helpers (especially leaders of rounds) in microphone technique.
  • Some hymns can be effectively sung a cappella.
  • I assign a hymn leader from the choir on my Sunday off. Have the hymn leaders practice leading the upcoming Sunday hymns at the Wednesday night choir rehearsal.
The second workshop I attended was "Using Technology to Build and Sustain a Thriving Music Ministry." We discussed how to effectively use current technology during services and to prepare for services. Much of this was familiar to me, but I still picked up a few things. The topic of projecting lyrics came up. Not many in the room had experience in projecting lyrics, including me. I'm becoming less resistant to the idea of projecting lyrics – as long as we still have the option of using hymnals. We also discussed how projecting can be used for non-musical items, such as displaying the Order of Service on a screen, video, pictures for the children's story, and using images to enhance the sermon.

We closed out the day's offerings with a Choral Repertoire session. Today, we read through several challenging pieces. Several of these difficult pieces tripped us up! We didn't read anything that I felt I could take back to my choir, but I still enjoyed the sight-singing practice.

I'm attending three sessions tomorrow that will explore choir literature, including a workshop entitled "Unique Rounds for UU Choir" and two reading sessions, one of which will focus on smaller choirs. I'm sure to find some gems for my choir tomorrow.

Looking ahead to next year, I spoke with the person who chairs the conference planning committee to let him know that I would be happy to lead a contemporary group next year.  I was disappointed to find that there are no plans to continue having an official Conference Band like there was last year. I was under the impression that it was going to continue. Since that isn't going to be part of the picture, I told him that I would love to lead a workshop that focuses on how to get a contemporary group started. He seemed interested in the idea, so we'll see how it goes. After this third year at the conference, I feel confident enough that I feel like I have something to offer, and that I can take a more visible role in the UUMN.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

UUMN 2015 Conference, July 23

This was the first full day of the 2015 UUMN Conference. It started off with finding a nice, inexpensive breakfast place just around the corner. Boston and "inexpensive" are rarely associated with each other, so I was glad to find this place. My church is footing the bill for this trip, but that doesn't mean I need to go to all the pricey places. After all, I want them to pay for next year's conference in Madison!

Boston Public Garden – my practice space
for the next few days.
One great thing about the location of our hotel is its proximity to Boston Common/Public Garden. This is perhaps the best practice space ever. Right after breakfast, I walked over to the park and practiced for a little over an hour.

We have three host churches for this year's conference: Arlington Street Church, First Church Boston, and First Lutheran Church of Boston. All are within easy walking distance of the hotel.

We began the day with a service at Arlington Street Church, a beautiful historic building. This being a Unitarian Universalist Musicians conference, there was a lot of music. Each year, I am awestruck by the sound of 200+ musicians, mostly professionals, joined in song. The power of all those voices truly moves me. There are times that I have trouble singing because I find myself getting choked up by the experience. Another wonderful thing about this conference is simply being around so many professional church musicians. Most of us are the only music professionals in our church, and being surrounded by all of these people is a reminder that I'm not alone.

I skipped the plenary session that followed the morning service and practiced some more in the park. The speaker visited Northwest UU Congregation a few months ago and led a three hour workshop, so I didn't feel the need to hear her again. That being said, the topic is an important one: Sexual Boundaries and Professional Ethics. Let's just say that the workshop I attended was an eye opener, and I'm certain that most the people who attended her presentation felt the same way.

Following the plenary session was the Conference Choir rehearsal. What a treat! We are working on four pieces for Sunday morning. Our conductor, Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, is excellent. We spent most of our rehearsal reading through the music and getting the general gist of it. We'll dig into it more in the next two days. Aside from making great music, I like to use these rehearsals to learn tips from the guest conductors. There is always something I can take back to my own choir.

After rehearsal, we had an easy walk to First Church for lunch. Along with about 200 other people, I didn't really know where I was going, but I followed the herd and got there just fine. I used the down time at lunch to practice some more, and then it was time for the workshops. The workshops are held at First Church and First Lutheran, which are conveniently across the street from each other.

There were a lot of good workshops to choose from. For the first one, I chose "Leading Hymns from the Keyboard." The focus of this workshop was to help pianist and organists develop ways to lead hymns more effectively from the keyboard. Keyboard players are generally at a disadvantage if they have to lead congregational singing, because they are hidden behind their instrument. It didn't matter that I wasn't a keyboard player; I still picked up some good tips. I was happy to learn that, as a hymn leader, I am already following most of the workshop leader's suggestions. For example, I have no problem using a microphone and filling up the sanctuary with sound. I don't drag the hymns. I like to spice up the hymns by adding a swing beat or turning a tried and true hymn into a bossa nova.

There are some other things that I can add to my bag of tricks as a hymn leader. For example, I have never given my congregation any kind of special information or context about the hymns we sing – mostly because I don't know the context myself! To remedy that, I just ordered Between the Lines: Sources for Singing the Living Tradition. This is an excellent resource for learning more about the hymns we Unitarian Univeralists sing. Another thing to consider in hymn leading is what our workshop leader called "paperless" singing. Paperless singing can be leading a simple hymn by rote, or it can mean projecting a hymn onto a screen. I've been resistant to projecting lyrics, but I might be open to projecting lyrics with music (if it's legible). I'm attending a workshop on technology in worship services tomorrow, where, among other things, I'll learn a little more about projecting lyrics and music.

The second workshop I attended was "The Second Voice Change: The Aging Voice," led by Don Milton, the music director at UU Congregation of Atlanta. There was a lot of good information here, and the workshop was well attended. As a general rule, church choirs tend to be comprised of older members. I have a couple exercises to bring back to my choir, as well as another good reason to practice. Just like exercising your body, the singing voice needs exercise. A daily, systematic practice routine is essential to keep the voice in shape. Voice muscles lose any new gains in strength, flexibility, and endurance after 48 hours. Any vocal improvements that my singers make during a Wednesday evening rehearsal will be lost by Sunday morning! Fortunately for my choir, exercising the voice doesn't have to mean practicing their parts – although I would very much appreciate it if they did! To exercise the voice, you can simply make noises. You can practice by making noises in your car as you run errands. Just be careful at a stoplight if you have your windows down.

One major thing I took away from Don's presentation is that I really should take voice lessons. I sing pretty well naturally, but to be honest, I could use some improvement in teaching others how to use their voices properly. I can correct notes and rhythms all day, but I have trouble explaining to a new singer something as simple as using head voice. If I can get with a vocal teacher, I can learn how to work with my singers more effectively.

The last thing I attended today was a Choral Repertoire session, where we sight-read through a bunch of new repertoire. I like these sessions. It's a great opportunity to scout out new music for the choir, and I enjoy sight-reading anyway. Today's session focused on music by fellow Unitarian Universalist composers. There were some real gems in there, but some of the pieces would be pretty difficult for my choir. Still, there were a couple that I'll consider ordering.

There is a worship service tonight, but I skip the evening services. I learned after my first year that I simply can't go to everything and maintain my health. Instead of attending the service, I worked out, ate dinner, and then started writing this blog article. This hotel is attached to a real gym! I was expecting the usual handful of treadmills and a stationary bike. Instead, I was delighted to find a full fledged gym. After my workout, I got a call from my best friend from high school, Mark Stanaford, who lives in the area. He's going to make reservations at an Italian place on the North Side. I have no idea where the North Side is, other than it must be north of where I am staying, but I have read that if you want truly great Italian food, the North Side is the place to go. I'm really looking forward to meeting up with Mark!

Tomorrow will start early. Before the actual conference day begins, I'm taking part in a focus group to explore fair compensation guidelines and practices for mid-sized congregations. Then there will be a morning service, choir rehearsal, and more workshops and a choral repertoire session. I can't wait!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

UUMN 2015 Conference, July 22

At my first UUMN Conference to two years ago, I caught a cold. At last year's conference, I had a persistent cough and couldn't participate in any of the singing. Third time's a charm, I hope. My voice is strong. I'm healthy (knock wood), and I'm ready to fully participate in the conference choir.

Today was mostly a travel day, with a big UUMN Conference meeting at the end.

You'd think that with all the touring I did when I was an Air Force musician, I'd have the traveling thing down. When I was an Air Force musician, however, I drove the truck, and I didn't think about how much I was packing. I had plenty of room in the back of the equipment truck to toss my gear. I definitely overpacked for my first two UUMN conferences, but not this year. With a carry-on and a Traveler guitar, I could skip the baggage check, and I took the train to the airport, which meant no driving at all. Yay!

The flight was uneventful, and I took a cab to the airport. I'm glad the cabbie knew where he was going, because I would have had some major problems navigating Boston! I picked up my conference package at the registration table and then hung out in the lobby for quite a while, because I arrived at the hotel pretty early.

I went out for seafood and got a shrimp dish. I've already gotten a lot of grief about getting shrimp instead of lobster or something more local. Hey, so I don't know my seafood! It was still mighty tasty.

I pulled out my guitar to run through some basic scales, but I had forgotten to loosen the guitar strings before the flight and had problems with the high E string. Fortunately, I packed an extra set of strings. Crisis averted.

I just came back from the big meeting. There was a reception after the meeting. There are a lot of, let's say, effusive people at a typical UUMN conference. I'm not one of them. I made my appearance, even forced myself to talk to two people I've never met, and then high tailed it out of there.

Tomorrow is when the good stuff begins. I'm looking forward to singing with the conference choir, not just for the musical experience, but to watch a master choir conductor and learn a few things. There are plenty of workshops that look interesting. I'm ready to get this thing started!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

UUMN 2015 Conference, July 21

Tomorrow morning, I'm leaving for my third UUMN conference (Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network). Being a last minute packer, I just packed my suitcase. I'm traveling light this year, with just a carry-on and my Traveler guitar.

I'll be blogging about the conference from day to day, partially as a way to share my experience, and partially as a way to take notes and remember all I'll learn.

Tomorrow is a travel day with a meet and greet in the evening. I'm flying from Atlanta to Boston, which is a relatively short flight – much shorter than the trip to San Diego last year. I enjoyed San Diego, and I'm equally excited about Boston, partly because I'll be in the same time zone!

I'm looking forward to this conference, and I can't wait to share it with you. Stay tuned!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Seven String Transfer

Tonight, I began the slow process of learning to play my Godfrey and Guy duo material on the 7-string guitar. I came up with a great sounding accompaniment for Take Five. I patted myself on the back before reminding myself that I have well over one hundred more songs to relearn! I also spent time working up Black Coffee and I'm Beginning to See the Light, and I'll start in on Girl from Ipanema tomorrow.

Funny how just one more string can change the landscape. I love the extended bass notes that the low A string offers, but taking advantage of those notes often requires rethinking a chord voicing or comping in a different area of the neck than I have been using for a particular song. The new chord voicings that I'm learning aren't that difficult, but the little changes start to add up, and my brain eventually overloads.

When I play the traditional 6-string guitar, there are certain devices that are burned into my muscle memory so completely that I can play them without a second thought. Those devices transfer to the 7-string, but I have to think about them again as I learn to incorporate the 7th string into the mix.

With this first set of songs, I'm starting the process of reprogramming my muscle memory. As I work through a mix of swing, blues, and bossa songs, I'll gradually get comfortable with the 7th string and the possibilities it opens up. The process won't take quite as long with the next set of songs. By the time I've worked my way through a couple dozen songs, I'll have worked up a handful of useful licks and tricks, and things will get easier and easier…or at least that's what I keep telling myself.

Comping is one thing. Then there is solo playing. I've worked up a lot of solo arrangements. I'm going to have to totally relearn those solos. That'll be interesting.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Fortunate One

At last night's weekly Godfrey and Guy gig at Noosh, a customer asked the manager to ask us to turn down the music. I don't believe that the customer is always right. We use the volume knob judiciously, and as a guitar/voice jazz duo, our music tends to be gentle, with a lot of space. The rest of the customers were so loud that we could barely hear ourselves. Maybe the customer felt like the only thing she could possibly control was the music, because she certainly couldn't tell the other customers to be quiet. We grumbled through the rest of the night about this.

As I woke up this morning, I reminded myself that, despite the occasional annoyance, I'm very fortunate to be doing what I'm doing. As a matter of fact, things are really coming together this summer, and I find myself doing exactly what I want to be doing. I teach private guitar lessons three days a week, hold down two weekly gigs, and work part time as a church music director.

Am I satisfied? Well, not really. There is always another hill to climb. I'd like to find another weekly Godfrey and Guy gig. I'd like round out my student roster by filling in the remaining slots on the days I teach. I'd like to land a few more corporate and wedding gigs. I'd like to build the Godfrey and Guy duo into a full fledged jazz band. But honestly, things are humming along. It feels like the pieces of my life's puzzle are finally coming together. I'm lucky to be doing what I'm doing, even if I have to turn to volume down sometimes.

Friday, June 26, 2015

New Solo Gig

I'm thrilled to add a new weekly gig to my schedule. There are two L'Thai restaurants in Atlanta – one in Tucker and one in Smyrna. Both places have music Friday through Sunday. There are a few musicians who rotate. I'll mostly be playing at the one in Tucker, and mostly on Sundays, except when I'm not. Clear as mud? If you live in Atlanta and would like to drop in and say hello on one of my nights, the best thing to do is check my Facebook page, where I'll be announcing when and where I'll be playing from week to week.

This is solo guitar, no singing. This gig is going to be good for me in many ways. First, it's a gig! We musicians like to collect and keep them. Second, it's always good to be out in public. I have a website, a profile on Gig Salad, and I keep things up to date on Facebook, but there's nothing like being out in public where you can meet potential clients face to face. As a matter of fact, on my first night, I was approached by a guy who produces music for a local recording studio. He really liked my playing, took my card, etc. I looked up the studio, and they record commercials for some impressive clients, Indie films, and documentaries. It's not like I'm expecting a call tomorrow, but you never know where these kinds of contacts will lead.

While the L'Thai gig is great for publicity and gig hunting, I'm mostly excited because it gives me an outlet for developing my solo guitar chops. Performing with Godfrey and Guy every Friday at Noosh Persian Bistro already provides a good opportunity to bring up my solo guitar playing, but sitting down and playing solo in public for a couple hours each week will help me bring that aspect of my playing to a new level.

Next up, I'd like to find an additional weekly gig for Godfrey and Guy. I have the solo gig – great for solo chops. We have the duo gig – great for duo chops. I'd love to find a place where we can field a small combo to develop a group.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Seven String Guitar Book

The 7-string guitar adventure continues. I've been messing around with the 7-string guitar for a couple weeks. I figured out a few things, but it quickly became apparent that I needed some direction. My teacher suggested Mel Bay's Complete 7-String Guitar Method. A quote from the introduction reads "[This book] is geared toward the intermediate to advanced student. Those who already have an understanding of scale and chord construction, and other basics of jazz guitar playing, will probably benefit most from this book." Perfect! That description sounds an awful lot like me.

This isn't a book you'll typically find at your local music store, so I ordered a used copy online. Returning from a late rehearsal, I found my new (to me) book waiting for me in the mailbox last night. I started working through it today, and it's just what I need to help me tackle this beast.

The book is organized into three sections: Scales, Arpeggios, and Chord Voicings. It's set up so that you can work through each section independently. I'm spending most of my time on the scales and chord voicings. I'll start working through the arpeggio section after I'm familiar with the major scale patterns.

The material in the book is both new and familiar. Let's take scales as an example. The 7-string guitar is tuned exactly like a 6-string guitar, with a low A string added. So really, the scales are all patterns that I already know, but there is another string that extends the low range. It won't be long before the extended scale patterns are ingrained – same with chords and arpeggios.

The chord section is written with the assumption that you already know 6-string jazz chords, so the author concentrates on chords that are unique to the 7-string guitar. The chord exercises are pretty simple. They are all written in the key of C, with the assumption that you'll learn to play them in all keys. As simple as the chord exercises are, it's thrilling to hear those low notes.

If you are a jazz guitarist exploring the 7-string guitar, I highly recommend Mel Bay's Complete 7-String Guitar Method.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Four Years

In a few days, I will have completed my fourth year as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation. I have been attending NWUUC since 2004, when I first moved to Atlanta. I served as an interim music director three times, keeping the music program going while various search committees looked for new music directors. After serving as interim for the third time, I thought, "enough of this interim stuff," and applied for the position.

I've been a freelance musician most of my adult life, doing this and that to make ends meet. Except for my four-year stint in the Air Force, this has been the longest I've held anything resembling a normal job. Maybe "normal" isn't quite the word I'm looking for. This music director job is far from normal!

As I've grown more comfortable with the job, the music has evolved and grown at Northwest. When I first started, the music program was very traditional, with the choir singing two Sundays each month, me providing the music once a month, and the pianist providing music on my Sundays off. My initial goal was to simply keep the music program going as it was while I got used to the job, but soon the program started to reflect my own musical tastes. Before I took over, the music was classically oriented. It still is, but I've introduced a lot more jazz, rock, and folk into the mix than there used to be. I used to perform the music alone on "my" Sundays, but our minister suggested that guitar alone didn't always feel right; there needed to be more. So I recruited a bassist and a percussionist from the congregation to play with me. This grew into an official church band, with a lead singer, two guitars, flute, bass, piano, and percussion.

This year, I experimented with combining the band and choir for two services. It was a hit. The band loved playing with the choir, and the choir loved singing with the band. After a summer break, we are going to combine the band and the choir once a month. On top of that, the band/choir Sundays will feature a "join-in" choir, meaning that absolutely anyone can sing in the choir that day as long as they can be at the pre-service rehearsal that Sunday morning.

I learn every day from this job. It certainly has taken its twists and turns. The combined band/choir is something I never would have anticipated when I first began serving as Director of Music. Where does it go from here? Who knows? We'll keep the band/choir ensemble rolling for a while, and I imagine something new will evolve over time.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Seven String Transition

I've been playing the new 7-string guitar for about four days. It's a challenge, but it's fun. I brought the 7-string to a Godfrey and Guy rehearsal after exactly one day of owning the instrument. I could practically feel the smoke coming out of my ears as my brain went into overdrive. To make a long story short, it'll be a while before I debut the new instrument in a performance.

While I expected the transition to 7-string guitar to be tricky, I was surprised at some initial awkwardness when picking up the 6-string again, although it didn't take long to readjust. Last night's performance at Noosh suffered a bit after focusing on the 7-string earlier in the week. I play as many songs as possible from memory. Memory slips are inevitable in a three hour gig, but I had more than my share last night.

Going forward, I'll spend equal time on the 6- and 7-string guitars. At some point, I may have to decide whether to continue playing both instruments in performance or switch permanently to a 7-string, but based on the way things are going, I'm not going to have to make that decision any time soon!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

One More String

After saving my pennies, I bought a 7-string guitar. At $800, the Ibanez Artcore isn't exactly cheap, but it's the closest thing to an entry level price I could find for a 7-string archtop. It's a beautiful looking guitar. I prefer the tone of my Heritage 575, but still, this Ibanez has a pretty sound.

So why spring for a 7-string guitar when I haven't come close to mastering six strings? I've been fascinated by jazz guitarists who play 7-string instruments. In particular, I've been watching videos of Bucky Pizzarelli, Howard Alden, and Charlie Hunter. You can do a lot with a guitar, but if you are playing solo, or if the guitar is the only accompanying instrument, I find that even the best players lack a certain depth of sound. The extra string adds that depth.

The 7th string adds a bass note below the low E string. From what I understand, guitarists will either tune it to a low B or A. Like most jazz 7-string players, I've tuned mine to an A. Any note that I play on the 5th string can be played an octave below on the 7th string. I discovered right away that this adds a lot of body to chords with 5th string roots.

With the 7th string tuned an octave below the 5th string, I find the new landscape easy to understand intellectually. Physically, it's going to take a lot of adjustment. The guitar is tuned the same way with just one more string added. How tricky can that be? Plenty tricky! I'm so used to navigating from the 6th string, that I constantly find myself playing on the wrong group of strings. On the other hand, I find that the extra string doesn't affect my single note playing all that much, probably because I play most of my single note lines on strings 1 through 4.

This is not an instrument I would use while playing with a bassist. I'll continue playing my Heritage in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra and my church band. When I begin to feel comfortable with the Ibanez, I'll use it for Godfrey and Guy and solo playing.

The only way I'm going to learn to play this instrument is to simply play it as often as possible (which is obvious – this isn't rocket science). I spent quite a bit of time with the Ibanez today, mostly experimenting with different chord voicings. I'll also explore the 7th string in a more methodical way. I learned basic jazz guitar chord forms from the Mel Bay Rhythm Guitar Chord System. I've already taken myself through the book three times. I guess it's time to play through it a fourth time, adapting the chord forms for seven strings. I'll bring the Ibanez to my next lesson, too. Although he doesn't play a 7-string guitar himself, my teacher may have some suggestions for getting to know the Ibanez.

I already knew it would be challenging to learn the 7-string guitar, but all I had to do was play an "A" chord, and I was hooked. Even with the little experimenting I've done, I find that I love the depth of sound that the extra bass string offers. I'm looking forward to exploring and discovering new sounds and possibilities.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Ella's Poem

Today, I said goodbye to a delightful young guitar student, Ella, who is moving in a few weeks. I've lost track of time, but I think I've been teaching Ella for two years or so. The thing that makes Ella a joy to teach is her personality: part rock star, part comedian. In her first lesson, Ella was sizing me up and didn't say much. In her second lesson, she opened up right away about school, guitar, and life in general. From that point on, Ella has made me laugh out loud in nearly every guitar lesson.

Although Ella is moving to a different state, we are going to continue lessons through either Skype or Google Hangouts. I'll miss seeing Ella in person, but I'm glad that we'll continue lessons online.

Instead of having a lesson today, I went out for frozen yogurt with Ella and her mom. As a parting gift, I gave Ella a Snark tuner and a chord book. Ella gave me a card and a poem she had written. I was really touched by the poem. Here is Ella's poem:


Strum, strum, strum.
Light sound, hard beat
Makes me want to move my feet.

Tap, tap, tap.
Guitar resting on my lap.

Bump, bump, bump.
Made from a tree stump.

You may like the sound
That comes from the amp on the ground,
But the acoustic guitar is for me
You see.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Simple Is Good

"Less is more." It's a cliché, but it's true. It's a lesson I find myself learning over and over again. Examples:

I lead a band at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation, made up of two singers, two guitars, piano, bass, and percussion. When I begin learning a song for the band, I tend to play very rhythmically and with full chords. With two guitars and a piano, there is a lot of overlap in comping, so this full out approach usually doesn't work when I play with the band. As I listen to what the other players are doing, I invariably find myself playing less and less. I'll just play offbeats or some other simple rhythm, and I'll play 3- or 4-note chords instead of full guitar chords. On hymns, which tend to be simpler than the band songs, I sometimes find that it sounds best if I don't play at all. It's humbling to find the band sometimes sounds better when I lay out. On the other hand, it frees me up to be a more effective song leader for the congregation.

The larger the group, the less you have to do. I play guitar in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra, a 17-piece big band. My role as a rhythm guitarist is to help keep time and to outline the basic harmonic movement. Rhythmically, my job couldn't be simpler. I'm playing quarter notes 95% of the time. (Notice I said that my job is simple…not easy. Believe it or not, there is an art to playing quarter notes.) Harmonically, the less I play, the better it sounds. The bass player covers the root notes, so I leave those out. The piano player plays all the extensions (9ths, 11ths, 13ths), so I leave those out. That leaves me with the guide tones, sometimes called shell voicings. Unless I have a solo, which is rare for a guitarist in a big band setting, I usually play 2-note chords. By themselves, those shell voicings don't sound like much, but they're wonderfully effective in a big band.

Being the sole instrumentalist in the Godfrey and Guy duo, you'd think I could play all sorts of crazy stuff, but no. As much as I'd like to think otherwise, the main focus of the listener is on the vocals. If I get overly fancy with my guitar accompaniment, I get in the way of the singer. I have more freedom to branch out in Godfrey and Guy than I do with the church band or the SJO, but I still find that a strong basic groove sounds best…a walking bass with rhythmic stabs, simple quarter notes, a basic Bossa beat, all in support of the song. And if I feel like throwing in a little lick now and then, it's more effective when it jumps out of a simple texture. As a bonus, when I'm playing a 3+ hour gig, my hands get less fatigued if I keep it simple.

As I delve deeper and deeper into jazz guitar, I'm constantly working to improve my technique, solidify my time, and open my ears. I'm not setting the world on fire, but my technique is far better than it was five years ago, and I'll keep working to improve. But even as I continue to stretch my own boundaries, I keep reminding myself of the basic rule that less is more. Simple is good.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Roller Coaster Club

I have dropped twenty pounds since the beginning of the year. Like many of us, I am in the Roller Coaster Club. I'll have my weight under control, and then a few months later, my pants are too tight. I'll lose weight again, get cocky, and then let go of the habits that helped me stay smaller.

About a year ago, maybe longer, I was feeling pretty good about my weight. It wasn't as low as it was when I had lost 120 pounds running and dieting, but I was getting there. Then something switched in my brain. I don't even know what triggered it, but I started eating unhealthy foods again. I probably snuck a pint of Ben and Jerry's or something, and it all went downhill from there. You can live in denial for only so long, but your pants don't lie. By early December, there were three shirts and one pair of dress pants in my closet that still fit. I realized that I could either start buying bigger clothes, or I could make some changes so that I could fit into my smaller pants again.

For me, the most painful part of any new weight loss endeavor is dusting off the bathroom scale and weighing myself. Oddly enough, once I've recorded that first weigh-in, I immediately feel better. I don't feel good about the number, but the mystery and suspense are gone. Once I step on the scale, I have a clear goal, and I can proceed.

Fortunately, I don't have to drop 120 pounds this time, but I still have a lot of weight to shed. Once I set my mind to it, I'm really good at losing weight – I've done it so often! I've been losing the pounds pretty steadily.

How am I dropping weight? There's no magic involved. It's simply a matter of diet and exercise. Even when I'm heavy, I enjoy exercising. I wouldn't say I love my stationary bike as much as I loved running, but it's pleasant enough to break a sweat while watching Netflix or reading a book.

With my exercise routine already in place, I just needed to tighten up my diet. I'm not on an overly strict diet. All I'm doing is keeping track what I eat. I write down each meal and snack in a pocket sized notebook. That's really about it. I don't count calories. I'm not on any particular diet plan. I just write down what I eat, I eat smaller portions, and I make better food choices in general. For example, instead of a sandwich, I'll order a wrap. Instead of taking home a pint of Ben and Jerry's, I'll buy a box of fruit juice popsicles.

In the past, I've become lax when I've reached my goal weight. I figure that I'm skinny and exercising a lot, so I can eat what I want. Wrong! This was wrong in my 20s, and it's certainly wrong as I begin to approach 50 and my metabolism slows.

The reason I had problems maintaining weight in the past was that I didn't have an end game. This time is different. I already know what I'm going to do. When I get to that point, here's the plan for maintaining:
  • Continue to exercise
  • Continue recording my meals and snacks
  • Continue weighing in every 2-3 days
  • Gradually begin adding more calories to my diet until I find an equilibrium
If I can follow those simple steps, I think I'll finally be able to quit the Roller Coaster Club.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Things I Didn't Expect as a Guitarist

When I started learning the guitar 10 years ago, I knew it would be different from classical trombone. Some of the differences surprised me.

I never dreamed I would give so much attention to my fingernails. I don't keep my nails extra long like some classical and fingerstyle guitar players do, but I file them every morning to maintain a certain length. If I chip a nail, it's a tragedy. On the plus side, I stopped biting my nails the day I picked up a guitar.

Numb Fingertips
When I first began playing the guitar, I could only play for a short length of time before the pain in my left hand fingertips grew too much to bear. I gradually developed callouses, and now my left hand fingertips are permanently numb. Interestingly, my fingertips will start to burn toward the end of a gig that lasts 3 or more hours. So my left hand fingertips either feel pain or nothing.

Gear Acquisition Syndrome, or in some cases, Guitar Acquisition Syndrome. When I was a trombone player, my gear consisted of a trombone and mutes. As a trombone player, I would see someone on stage with an acoustic guitar and marvel at how simple it looked. Not until I started gigging did I realize that the guitar was just one piece of the puzzle. I also needed an amp and cables. Batteries. Effects pedals if I was playing a musical or in a rock band. For many venues and every wedding gig ever, you need to bring a PA system. And there are the guitars. I've owned several guitars over the past 10 years. Now I'm down to four that I play on a regular basis. The only things left on my wish list are an AER Compact 60 amp, and a wireless microphone. Once I get those two pieces of equipment, I'll finished buying new equipment. Really. I can stop any time I want.

Gig Hunting
As a trombonist, I never had to look for gigs. I was in an Air Force band. Someone else booked the gigs. My job was to go wherever someone pointed and play a show. As a freelancer, things are very different. I count myself very lucky to have found a steady Friday gig with Godfrey and Guy, but I'm still on the hunt for wedding gigs, dinner parties, and another steady gig on a different night. Who knew that looking for work would be more work than the actual work itself?

As an Air Force trombone player, I didn't need to diversify. I was hired to play in the concert band, and I was a decent section player in the jazz band. That was about as diverse as I got. Today, I'm a guitar player, church music director, music engraver, and teacher.

I never planned on being a guitar teacher. At the time I began learning guitar, I was music engraving full time. The plan was to engrave and practice during the day, and to gig on weekends. I didn't expect the guitar to take over as much as it did, to the point where I do very little music engraving. Somewhere along the way, I began teaching private lessons and discovered that I really enjoy it. I'm branching out as a teacher, too. I've begun teaching beginning piano lessons and exploring the possibility of teaching general music to youngsters. Teaching used to be "Plan B," but it has become one of my favorite things.

Being a Soloist
When I was a classical trombone player, it was intimidating to play a solo. Most of my playing was in bands and orchestras, where I was part of a section. As a guitarist, and particularly as a jazz musician, I am usually the only one playing a guitar. Unless I'm playing in a big band like the Sentimental Journey Orchestra, I'm going to be called upon to play a lot of solos. Playing a solo gets my adrenaline pumping a little bit, but it's not nearly as scary as it used to be.

While it was rare for me to play a solo as a classical trombonist, it was rarer still that I had to improvise. If playing a solo intimidated me, then improvising was downright terrifying. When I first began playing guitar, I intended to be a folk player. The plan was to come up with some nice arrangements and interesting accompaniments, but never to improvise. Little did I know that I would meet up with a teacher who would get me hooked on jazz. I'm not the greatest improviser in the world, but I'm making progress and having fun with it.

Classical trombone was fun in its own way. I enjoyed the music, and I was part of a small, quirky community of low brass players. As much as I enjoyed trombone, I enjoy the guitar even more. Part of it is the diversity of styles. Depending on the situation, I might be playing jazz, blues, rock, acoustic, or even faking my way as a classical player. As a jazz player, I enjoy being able to just show up and sit in with a group on a gig and hold my own. I've always been a music theory geek, and I find that jazz guitar to be an endlessly fascinating puzzle.

I knew that playing guitar would be fun, but I had no idea! My body is beginning to betray me as my knees and back are slowly giving out, but guitar is going to keep my spirit young for a long time.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Sentimental Journey Orchestra

After hanging around as a sub for several years, I finally became the regular guitarist for the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I had been subbing for Jerry Aull, who has played guitar and sung with the SJO for a long time. Jerry recently moved far enough away that driving to the weekly Monday rehearsal would be too much of a haul. Jerry contacted me about six months ago to let me know that he would probably be moving, and he floated the idea switching roles. I would become the SJO's regular guitarist and he would sub for me when needed. Jerry remains as the male vocalist and will rehearse with the group once a month as a singer.

My years of hanging around like a vulture, waiting for something to happen paid off. In a group like this, the joke is that you have to wait for someone to die before you can officially join the group. Fortunately, all Jerry did was move.

Last night was my first official night rehearsing with the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I've played as a sub on countless occasions, so it didn't exactly feel fresh and new. As a matter of fact, I knew I would be asked soon, and I had been debating whether to join the group or not. A couple years ago, I would have jumped at the chance without hesitation. Lately, though, I've been busy with plenty of projects. There is my part time job at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation, a weekly gig and rehearsal with Godfrey and Guy, and an ever increasing roster of private guitar and piano students at Tessitura. With all of that going on (plus making sure I have the time to dedicate to practicing), I wasn't sure I wanted to take on the extra weekly rehearsal.

Upon reflection, playing with the SJO was too good to pass up. The group doesn't actually gig often, so it's not like I suddenly have a bunch of shows to play. What made me say "yes" to SJO was the opportunity to grow as a musician. I play most often in small group settings, where we are playing from lead sheets or from memory, and things are looser. I am usually the leader of whatever small group I'm playing in, and I will often change things on the fly…maybe try a different introduction, repeat back to the bridge instead of the beginning, etc. Playing in a big band is a completely different experience. As a guitarist, I may play a solo once in a blue moon, but I'm usually playing a set rhythm guitar part. There's nothing better for your rhythm guitar reading than playing through a bunch of big band charts.

I'm grateful for the opportunity to play with the SJO on a weekly basis, and I'm grateful for another opportunity to grow as a musician.