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 and have been music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation since 2011.

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.