Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Strength & Patience

Music has always kept me going. Through depression, anxiety, abrupt change, and illness, music has always been there for me. I remember the first moment when I felt that emotional pull from the harmonies of a song. I was 6 years old and I was hanging out on the construction site where my dad was building our new house in Florida. I had recently been plucked from my New England existence and dropped into a swampy and hot reality in St. Johns County. After school I would go to the site and listen to the radio while dad worked until sunset. Like most kids, I preferred the top 40 station, and I remember hearing "Hands to Heaven" by Breathe. Not as profound as you were probably hoping for, but it pulled at my heart, and for an instant, I felt less alone.

I have had a lot of unexpected challenges in my life lately, and the only thing keeping me grounded is music, specifically the guitar. I find this surprising about myself, because I have a love/hate relationship with the guitar. New students always make the mistake of thinking the guitar is easy. It's really no wonder why they think this. Everyone and their brother plays the guitar and those who play well make it look very easy. But, as I always warn them, the guitar is very difficult to play. It is difficult because it requires two things many people do not possess: strength and patience.  Strength is the key factor in good guitar playing, and you need patience while you develop that strength. To make a good sound, your fingers need to become strong and flexible and your arms need to have the endurance to stay up for an extended amount of time.  My latest musical hero is Lindsey Buckingham, the former guitarist and musical mastermind of the late 70's band Fleetwood Mac. I love the way he plays the guitar. He exhibits so much strength in the way he plays.

When Lindsey plays, the guitar is merely a vessel for the music inside of him. He is making that sound. Every song he has ever loved, every traumatic and happy experience he has ever had, every great singer and instrumentalist he has ever heard... all of that is resonating inside him and the vibrations come out as music through his guitar and voice. He can command a stage all alone where most need a band to create that kind of power. His voice is strong because he is in the moment with the lyrics and you can tell the words come from his heart. His fingers have the same honest expression. In the song "Never Going Back Again," his right hand plays a continuous roll while his left hand seems to fly all over the place playing both supportive accompaniment as well as lead riffs. This is hard to do, and the most impressive thing is that he seems to do it all from his heart.

I suppose my love/hate thing with the guitar is based on the fact that I have always been challenged by strength and patience. If I am going to play the guitar well, you are going to see a very vulnerable side of me, and will I be able to summon up the courage to do that? Can I get honest enough to show you every experience I have ever had through the vessel of my music? It is hard to be patient when you want something so bad, and it is difficult to be strong enough to be ok with that. Strength and patience go hand in hand. You cannot really have one without the other.

One of the few benefits of dealing with loss is that I feel music more intensely than before. When I play the guitar lately, I can sit for hours fingerpicking and trying to emulate the lessons I am learning from Lindsey Buckingham. When I finish, my left hand is sore with deep valleys in the tips of my fingers from  pressing so hard, and the muscles in my arms are becoming so toned that friends are asking me if I have been working out.

I have always been told I am strong. Maybe I am.  I can take a lot of pain and put up with a lot of bullsh&* before saying enough is enough.  I can play the guitar for at least 2 hours straight before my arms and fingers cry out for me to stop and take a break, and I can stand up to people who talk down to me. But life is difficult and it is hard to be patient and strong all the time. Just like my muscles after a marathon practice session, I have moments in my life where I want to quit because it is so hard to be strong. Those are the moments when I have to remember to pause, pick up the guitar, and play. For just 2 hours, all of the stress in my life goes away, and I become just a little more patient.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


If I had a dollar for every time a student rushed through a rest, I would be able to afford a small island. For some reason, beginning music students totally discount the value of silence. They want to rush through every piece and skip the rests. As soon as they learn "Fur Elise" they are in a hurry to play it as fast as possible, usually making 15 different mistakes before the end of the 8th measure. This is beyond annoying, but I have learned how to take it. I usually take a deep breath and say in my most manufactured calm voice "You know... slow is actually harder to play than fast." They don't believe me at first, but they understand soon enough. Kids always think fast and non-stop is more impressive, but they are wrong. Slow is harder. Especially in our culture! We are all speed addicts in many ways.

One time I answered an ad on craigslist to sing backup for a piano player and when we met, she spent the  first 45 minutes chatting about her life. I tried, but I could not get her to focus on the original reason for our meeting. Today, a student kept asking me questions before I was done answering the question she previously asked. At some point I had to stop and say, "I need you to listen for a few minutes while I talk. Then you can ask questions." The problem was that she was so consumed with the desire to talk that she was not really absorbing the lesson, and it was a very difficult lesson filled with completely new concepts.

I spoke last week about Words, and how much I am paying attention to the sounds of certain words, and the tone of my voice. I am also paying attention to silence. In Jazz, which I am also exploring at the moment, I have noticed that the rests are almost MORE important than the notes! The best Jazz musicians know when to relax and say the most in the least amount of notes. I have been teaching myself Jazz Piano with videos on YouTube, and let me tell you, the internet is ripe with show-off Jazz piano teachers trying to teach beginners how to play "simple" Jazz concepts. Let me just say that if you are a real beginner to piano, and you go to these websites and feel a strong desire to give up: the problem is the musicians on these sites!! I have been playing piano for 15 years, and I have a hard time keeping up with them. Most of these Jazz musicians just want to show off and play as many notes as possible, as fast as possible. I am not impressed. What impresses me is a musician who can make an interesting sound in just a few notes, have the courage to pause a bit, and then jump back in for more. Silence is important in music. The rests are part of the composition, too. The Jazz musician who stands out for me on this topic is Thelonius Monk. I have been watching his performances on YouTube, and I notice that he is totally in the moment when he plays. He doesn't seem to care if you are watching or not. He takes a pause when he wants to, and the result is beautiful.

In the following video, Monk is playing solo, but notice how many times he takes a pause. The song just would not be as impressive without those rests. When I see the musicians on these Jazz YouTube lessons, I see a constant stream of notes... not good.


Jazz is all about feeling. I should say that all music is about feeling. It is. Sometimes you don't notice it. Sometimes a musician is more interested in showing you how technical they can be, but I remember what I knew as a child: that music is about feeling, and sometimes silence is the best way to express our feelings. We don't have to take it to an extreme, like in John Cage's "4'33" where the orchestra basically sits on stage in silence for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Yes I am serious.

Personally, I think this is ridiculous. The long running cheers and the overwhelming praise of the hosts are even more ridiculous. How impressive that you could sit still and silent for four WHOLE minutes. Please... Can't we just learn how to be still and patient on a regular basis?

I'm not saying we have to go as far as Cage. I'm just saying that maybe in our everyday lives, and in music, we can learn to appreciate silence. Silence allows us an opportunity to absorb the feelings inside ourselves, the ambient noises that exist in the world, the words that come out of other's mouths, the feelings that are really being shown from others around us. Instead of being so concerned about what WE have to say, we can learn to listen better. We can learn to pause and appreciate silence.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


As far as teaching goes, summer time is always more laid back than the rest of the year. I always use the time to learn something new, something to challenge myself musically.  Over the past few summers, I have committed the hot days to learning Bluegrass Banjo, Irish style Mandolin, Eastern Sound Healing and Chanting, and even Belly Dancing. This summer I have chosen to work on something that scares me, something I have avoided for 4 summers now: Jazz Piano. I have to take a deep breath in after writing that, because now that I have told you, I have to commit to it.

I grew up around a lot of Jazz musicians. I remember the Jazz kids in school were such nerds, and I mean that in the most endearing way possible. They were so smart at music, and they loved showing it off to everyone. Every time I tried to have a conversation with one, I would get lost within the first minute. They spoke so fast, and it seemed like they were striving toward degrees in Math instead of Music. The Jazz kids always seemed to be 10 steps ahead of me as far as Music Theory knowledge goes. I couldn't keep up. But I have always loved improvising, and I admit, there was a big part of me that felt jealous of these musical brainiacs. When each summer starts and I begin pondering what my new challenge will be, Jazz Piano is always the first thing that comes up. This idea is always followed by a frantic mental search of all the other musical concepts I long to learn. Even Fiddling sounds less intimidating to me. (It's not.)

So today, I pulled out the old Jazz Standard Fake Book, downloaded a few podcasts, and got to work. I have to give myself credit. I did all right. I'm certainly not ready to be humiliated in front of a group of real Jazz musicians, but I thought I did a good job swinging the melody in my right hand, and keeping the left hand steady with the rhythm. After an hour of playing "Cheek to Cheek," I had a smile on my face and more energy than I usually have. My desire to learn Jazz was confirmed.

There is something magical about Jazz. I listen to Jazz more than any other style of music because I find it impossible to be sad when Jazz in on.  I have been slowly reading a book by the famous trumpet virtuoso and talented music educator, Wynton Marsalis, titled, "Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life." Marsalis makes a great argument about how playing Jazz in groups can be so beneficial for teaching communication, conflict resolution, quick thinking, discipline, and focus. Sometimes when I read his thoughts, I think I am reading my own on this blog! The way I feel about music in general, Marsalis feels specifically about Jazz. And he is right. Jazz is an art form that is totally focused on Improvisation, and Improvisation is usually how I make my argument that music is important for teaching communication, conflict resolution, focus, etcetera, etcetera. The biggest difference between the improvisation I do and what Jazz musicians do has everything to do with harmony. Harmony is all about the way you piece notes together, also called voicing. Jazz Voicings are different from other styles of music. The music theory behind Jazz is like a whole other language. To me, if music is considered to be a language, Jazz is like a specific dialect of that greater language. It has it's own traditions, history, grammer, forms, rhythms, and man do they talk fast!!! You have to be really prepared in order to keep up.

So for some reason, this is the summer I have chosen to really push myself. Previous summers have given me the tools to play Banjo and Mandolin in a country band, which is super fun. I wonder if I will do well enough to play with real Jazz musicians? As long as I stay committed to practice, I will. That is all there is to it. When it comes to challenges, it's all about following through to the end. Staying committed to overcoming challenges.

All right... enough messing around on this blog... I should get practicing.