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.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Saying Goodbye and Making Room

Last week, a parent of one of my piano students told me that her son would be "taking a break" from piano lessons. We all know what this really means. A few years ago, this news would have disturbed me on two fronts. I would have found myself wondering what I did wrong that this student would quit, and I would have sorely missed the money! Fortunately, I'm now in a position where losing a single student is not a major financial setback. I've also learned that losing a student isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Some students click with certain teachers, and some don't. I have a fairly regimented approach to lessons, which is well disguised with a laid back teaching style and bad jokes. The basic idea behind my teaching is that if you can master the material I give you, you will be able to teach yourself to play anything. When I was a classical trombonist, I never had to bring an ensemble part to my teacher, because everything I played for lessons was much more difficult than anything I played in band or orchestra.

While this approach works with most of my students, it doesn't work with everyone. Some students (and to be frank, their parents) want me to get right to the "good stuff." They want to be able to play the music from their favorite band right away. I don't play that game. If we jump right to that favorite song, they're going to miss some crucial steps. This isn't to say that we don't explore music from their favorite bands, but I'm not going to let them play it if I don't think they're ready for it yet. If they (or their parents) are patient, they'll eventually be able to play whatever they want.

I have a fifth grade guitar student that I would love to hold up to other students his age as a great example of how to practice. He has been diligently doing everything I tell him to do for the past three years…a rare student! He has worked his way through three levels of method books, and now we're on to more advanced material. He is a good melody reader and has a solid knowledge of open chords. We're working on major scales, the chromatic scale, pentatonic scales, and Barre chords. As soon as he develops enough strength to handle Barre chords, the fretboard is really going to open up to him. He's going to be more than ready to try out for middle school jazz band when it comes time.

Another example is a high school guitar student whom I've been teaching since she was 10. Although she likes to perform Taylor Swift and acoustic/rock/folk songs, she enjoys working on jazz standards with me. She told me that since she started playing the jazz standards, all the other music she's been playing has become easier. She no longer needs my help in learning pop songs.

While I would have liked to continue working with the piano student who is now "taking a break," lessons with him never felt right. I never quite felt like I was getting through. There's nothing quite as painful as watching a student try to fake his way through his lesson material. I could never quite convince him or his mom that practicing the "current thing" would get him to the "next thing," in terms of both physical skill and understanding. While I don't think I was the right teacher for this student, he has musical talent, and I hope that he eventually finds a teacher that can motivate him.

In the meantime, I'm happy to report that I'm going to be working with a brand new student in a couple days. I hope we click.

You and the Night: The Learning Never Stops

We just finished our third Godfrey and Guy recording session for You and the Night. The purpose of this session was to make fixes in the instrumental tracks. My goals for this rehearsal were met, thanks to the help of some great musicians and Ken Gregory, the owner of 800 East Studios and an amazing sound engineer.

Our trumpet player was having some lip problems and needed to take the week off. That threw a wrinkle into the proceedings, but Ken was able to fix several trumpet blips digitally. It won't take too long to make the remaining fixes when our trumpet player's lip is feeling better.

Aside from the thrill of recording our first album, this has been a huge learning experience for me in many ways.

I often write my own arrangements for groups I perform with. When I was a trombonist, I arranged music for trombone ensemble. I often write arrangements for the church choir that I lead. I've arranged many, many songs for solo guitar, and now I'm writing small band charts for Godfrey and Guy. I've never written music for a jazz ensemble, and I've already learned a lot. For example, now I know how to write more usable parts for the drummer by writing instructions to play time for 16 bars rather than writing out 16 bars of slashes. For the most part, my writing for the two horns worked pretty well, and I'm especially pleased with the soli sections for two horns + guitar. Still, I heard a few problem areas when I listened to the rough mix. Sometimes the writing was a little too thick (even with just two horns), and I ended up writing unisons or leaving out a part or two. Now that I think of it, every single rewrite simplified the music and got out of the way of the vocals. We recorded my rewrites today, and I'm happy with the changes. For future arrangements, the basic lesson is that simple is good. I'm also thinking that I may seek out a teacher to help with jazz arranging. I've always had a knack for arranging music, and I'm sure I could learn a lot on my own, but I could learn a lot faster with a teacher.

Recording Process
While I was officially in charge of each session, I often followed the lead of the other musicians, each of whom has more experience in the studio than I. I was responsible for the general direction of the session…calling breaks, keeping everything on schedule, pointing out fixes to be made, etc., but I often left the details up to the other musicians, and particularly to Ken, our sound engineer. In today's session, I was truly amazed at how little we actually played. Ken was able to fix an amazing number of mistakes digitally, and the musicians were really only required to replay anything Ken couldn't fix, plus take another run at some solos. Lori and I plan on recording more albums in the future, and I'm sure I'll learn something with each new project.

Guitar Comping
While I feel the guitar parts sound pretty good, I know I can do better. Most of my playing is either purely solo (solo guitar or the sole accompanist in Godfrey and Guy) or as part of the Sentimental Journey Orchestra, a 17-piece big band. I rarely play in a combo situation. As a soloist, I play anything and everything. As part of a big band, I'm mainly restricted to playing quarter notes all night. Playing with a combo, I need to find a happy medium. The bass and drums are keeping time, so I have the freedom to play some pianistic fills or even lay out sometimes. While my guitar comping in the rough mix is perfectly acceptable, I plan to practice some more and then head to the studio one more time to lay down some tastier guitar tracks.

It Never Stops
I told my guitar teacher, Dave Frackenpohl, that I was taking a break from guitar lessons while I completed this recording project. I couldn't focus on the recording and lesson material at the same time. I felt that I was putting my education on hold, but that wasn't the case at all. I've learned so much these past few weeks that I almost feel like I've gone through another semester of music school. The learning never stops.

Friday, January 22, 2016

You and the Night Recording

Last week, Godfrey and Guy went into the studio to start recording our upcoming album, You and the Night. I was a bit nervous going into this. I've never organized a recording project of this size, and I wanted to make sure it went smoothly. I wrote the arrangements, printed out parts, and set an ambitious schedule for our first session. I had planned on laying down rough recordings for seven of the eleven songs, but we actually got through all eleven with five minutes to spare. Yay!

Although I was nervous in the days leading up to our first session, I felt relaxed and loose once we started recording. Truth be told, I had a lot of fun! If I had a bottomless bank account, I would have no trouble spending the money on extra studio time.

A few days after recording the basic instrumental tracks, we recorded the final vocal tracks. Normally, we would clean up the instrumentals first and save the vocals for last, but a Thursday night session would have wiped out some of our band members who have busy schedules. Lori and I recorded vocals last night, and it went very well. Lori sounds amazing! I feel my own vocal tracks could be better, not for lack of singing talent, but because I was coming down with a cold. I had a sore throat and was getting chills – not the most ideal recording situation. We had to rerecord a few spots because I would start coughing in mid-phrase. To the average listener, I probably sound fine, but I can hear all through my songs that I'm trying to hold back a cough. Once we've finished up all the recording sessions, I'll wait a week and take another listen. If I'm satisfied, great. If I feel I should give it another go, I'll schedule some more studio time when my voice is at full health.

I spent most of today listening to the rough mix, marking my musical scores when I heard something that needs fixing. It was very helpful to have a CD to take home. While in the studio, I was mostly focused on keeping things running smoothly and nailing my guitar parts, so naturally I wasn't hearing everything. Tomorrow, we'll all reconvene at 800 East Studios and clean up the instrumentals.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Lessons from Elliot

Elliot Chasanov, teacher extraordinaire
Although I am now a guitarist, one of my main influences is Elliot Chasanov, professor of trombone at the University of Illinois. I first met Elliot when he was teaching at Kent State University. I was in the middle of my second year of teaching, and I was miserable. I was in Cleveland at the time. I remembered that two of my University of Illinois classmates had been private students of Elliot's in high school, back when he was playing in the Air Force Band in D.C. I recalled that he was now teaching at Kent State, which wasn't too far from Cleveland. I called Elliot out of the blue, telling him that I was planning on getting out of teaching and back into trombone performance. I asked if he might have a graduate assistant position available. As it turned out, the current grad assistant was getting his degree and moving on, so the spot was indeed open. I drove to Kent State to audition, and next thing you know, I was the the graduate trombone assistant at KSU, working toward a Master's in trombone performance.

As a jazz guitarist, I have developed a vastly different skill set than I learned from Elliot, yet he continues to be one of my main influences even to this day. No matter the musical style, Elliot's lessons hold true. Here are a few highlights from my days as Elliot's student.

Play with intention.

I'll never forget my first lesson with Elliot. We spent an hour picking apart the first phrase of the first etude in 60 Melodious Etudes for Trombone. It wasn't that I was missing any notes. I played the right notes, and I played them in tune with good phrasing. What was missing was the intention behind the notes. There was a certain fire that was missing in my playing, and Elliot was trying to draw it out of me. It was an incredibly frustrating lesson for me. I knew that he was giving me an important lesson (even if he was ticking me off!), but at the same time, I didn't "get it" just yet. It took me a few more lessons to learn how to stoke the fire and play from my heart. I finally started to develop some fire when we worked on the Grøndal Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra. I recall playing the first section in a lesson. He stopped me and said something like "that's not the way I would have played it, but it works great for you." I was on my way to finding my own voice. As a trombonist, I developed an intense style that served me particularly well in orchestral playing. My guitar style is more subdued. As a jazz guitarist, I prefer playing quietly, and I leave a lot of space in my playing so that there is room for others to contribute to the groove. The fire is still there, but it doesn't burn as fiercely. Elliot taught me to play with intention. Just as I found my own "trombone" voice with Elliot's help, I am gradually finding my own voice as a jazz guitarist.

There is a place for you.

Elliot is very encouraging. On more than one occasion, he told me that as long as you're a good musician and a good person, there is room for you in the music world. Thankfully, I've found this to be true! Most of my contemporaries have been playing guitar since they were young. I, on the other hand, began learning the guitar just over a decade ago. I have a lot of catching up to do! In spite of that, I have managed to carve out a place for myself in Atlanta through performing, teaching, music engraving, and as a part time music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation. It's a far cry from the classical trombone path I had originally chosen, but it's working for me.

Walk the talk.

Elliot leads by example. He teaches younger trombonists how to be good musicians, and he himself is a terrific trombonist.  Just like Elliot, I'll continue to be the best musician I can be, not just for myself, but as an example for my students.

Listen to yourself…literally.

If I could only take one idea away from Elliot, it would be his insistence that students record themselves when they practice. Listening to yourself on tape for the first time is a humbling experience. (I sound like THAT?) Once you get past the initial shock, recording yourself is the fastest way to improve. Your own perception of how you sound is often very different from how you actually sound. As you continue to record yourself, you will make adjustments that bring you closer to playing with your own ideal voice. When I was Elliot's student, we used portable micro-cassette recorders. These days, I'll play a section of music into a looper and then listen right away to the playback. With a recording session coming up, it's doubly important to listen to myself. If I can fix most of my problems at home instead of the recording studio, I'll save time and money!

Be true to your friends.

Elliot was not only a teacher, but he is a great friend. I never told him this, but I once went to knock on Elliot's office door. I don't remember if I wanted to talk to him about something or if I was going to ask him if he wanted to get some pizza. Before I knocked, I heard him talking on the phone. I couldn't help overhearing, and like a little sneak, I listened for a while. It sounded like he was talking to someone who had called him as a reference, and Elliot was singing his praises, telling the person on the other end that this student was an unbelievably good player, hard worker, great teacher, etc. If I were on the other end, I would have hired that person on the spot. I snuck away after half a minute, feeling guilty for eavesdropping. The next day, Elliot told me that a university had called, asking for a recommendation to fill in a trombone teaching spot that was soon to be open. It was then that I realized he had been talking about me. That really floored me, and even though I didn't get that job, I still remember hearing Elliot sing my praises to someone else. It wasn't so much the things he said (although they were flattering). It was the fact that he was going to bat for me and doing whatever he could to help me out. I try to follow Elliot's example. I'm a loner and don't have many friends, but for those few who are close to me, I would do anything.

I feel fortunate to have had Elliot Chasanov as a teacher. I've taken a different musical path, but his lessons will stick with me forever.