Saturday, September 28, 2013

Special Project 07

And just like that, boom, the equinox. Summer weather, gone. Hello autumn. After an incredibly dry and warm summer, rain is now in the mix and there is touch of chill in the air. As soon as September arrived, my student load increased. For the record, that’s a good thing; a borderline desperately necessary thing. Kids who took it easy for the summer are back into the weekly routine. Vacation time is over, and adults are back into their work routine. A few brand new students as well, which is a welcome and much needed surprise. The Seattle Circle Guitar School is being incorporated into the Friday schedule for grades 2-8 at a local public school. And the Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists project for next May looms on the horizon.

In short, I’m suddenly busy. And in terms of this writing project, finding time requires more of an effort. I notice that I am in danger of losing my train of thought.



During the first years I was teaching at the studio in Issaquah I was, in a certain sense, suddenly re-immersed in OST. But I was not seriously engaged with it. I just did the minimum necessary to stay one lesson ahead of my students. For the legion of kids working through Mel Bay or Hal Leonard books, this amounted to exactly nothing. No matter how wretched my reading was (is), it was still better than theirs. The rest was personality, cheer-leading, and occasional teacherly sternness with regard to practice habits. Older kids tend to want to learn their favorite hits. 99% of that could be dealt with in real-time, in the lesson; plug in the mp3 player or slide in the cd, and figure it out*. Occasionally I would have to do a little research outside of the lesson, but it was minimal.

Adult students also wanted to learn songs, and the process was more or less the same. For a large number of adults, lessons seem to be a kind of necessary weekly opportunity to just get together with someone and play for 30 minutes or an hour. It’s a recognition, albeit often a subconscious one, that the way you learn to play music is to play music, and that means playing with others. Most of the adults I work with have jobs and families and grown-up obligations, and so going out to find a gang of pals to get together to jam just gets more and more difficult. I am the next best thing.

So, I do a lot of jamming with adults in guitar lessons, all the time keeping an eye out for opportunities to bring what we are doing into something that we can observe, quantify, and learn; could be technical/mechanical, could be music theory, could be fretboard knowledge, could be ear training. Any time I can stop, and lead into some useful information with “take a look at what you just did there…”, that becomes an opening, and often sufficient incentive for them to take something home and practice it. And if the usefulness of something as non-sexy as learning and practicing scales can be demonstrated, bonus!

One thing you learn from “jamming” is your limitations. The licks and tricks that my hands somehow remembered from years back were more than sufficient to impress a student, but for me as a player and a listener the experience of hearing myself play exactly what I always play in a given situation was becoming disheartening. So for the first time since early 1986 (I remember the recording sessions very clearly, because I knew that I was discharging my final OST obligation, and that afterward I would play only in the Guitar Craft tuning) I sat down and actually practiced in the old standard tuning.


*For the record, I really enjoy this process. Well, perhaps “enjoy” is not the right word. “Value” might be more accurate. It keeps me on my toes; challenges me. Guitar lessons are always on the verge of becoming rote and mechanical, and anything that puts me a little off balance serves to keep the experience creative and real. At first I felt uncomfortable that I looked like a bit of an uncool old fart for not only not knowing the songs kids wanted to learn, but seriously having never even heard of the bands they were asking about. But pretty quickly I figured out that my ability to listen to something and reproduce it amounts to a kind of showmanship. After a while, an argument can be made with the student that the real skill is not in playing the song, it is the ability to figure it out for themselves that they really need to learn.

When I first moved to NYC, I signed up with a number of Temp agencies, and I enjoyed temping, on a certain level, for similar reasons. No two days quite alike. Every assignment involved going in and very quickly determining what is what, who is who, and doing it well enough that the next time they need someone they ask for you by name.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Special Project 06


The level of effort Tuning the Air required is pretty easy to muster in short endeavors. But for a project that was of no determined duration, it was really, really tough. We tried to ease this by “breaking up the band” at the end of every season; everyone had honored the commitment they made, and that was that. We were free to move on. Those who wished then came together and committed to the next season, and we began again. It was a useful fiction, and only mildly successful. What Tuning the Air needed to realize its potential was going to take years, whether we could see that or not.

I would never be so bold as to imagine I know what any individual’s personal reasons were for joining, staying or leaving the Tuning the Air company. What can be safely said in general is that Tuning the Air asked a lot of everyone who contributed, and we all had to do pretty difficult calculations when considering our own participation. If my own experience at all reflects what others were working with, it could be said that where ever the line between staying and leaving lies, we lived perpetually within inches of it.

The run of Tuning the Air, from early 2005 through the end of 2011, coincided with a significant shift in the demographics of my teaching practice. From my arrival in Seattle in late 1997 through the Level 3 course in Atlanta in 2003 an influx of guitarists with a specific interest in Guitar Craft had been the core of my work. By 2005 that had waned. The guitarists in that first wave were maturing, and they needed to find ways to apply and assimilate what they had learned in order to move forward. That is to say, they needed Tuning the Air, not more guided circles or weekly individual lessons. For me, this meant working more and more with guitarists with no GC interest. 

In the summer of 2005, about half-way through the first season of Tuning the Air, I began teaching a couple days a week at a little music store/studio in the outskirts of Seattle. Mixed blessing, this. On the purely practical side, it helped to stem the relentless and borderline desperate negative cash flow I was struggling with. But only just; the economy of that system is based on trading the bother of finding and scheduling students for a little more than half of the money you would have earned. It gave me small but reliable income in my otherwise hand-to-mouth personal financial situation, which afforded me a little freedom to continue saying “yes” to the show, while working to expand my private teaching practice. The more far-reaching value of the experience for me, though, was that it very quickly honed my teaching chops. I got to work within a purely traditional music teaching structure, learning a great deal about what people who are shopping for a guitar teacher are looking for and expecting; meanwhile I was able to very explicitly explore what of my Guitar Craft experience was translatable and transferrable. And, it gave me the opportunity to work with a lot of school-aged kids, which really is a very specialized skill that was completely new to me. So is working with the parents of school-aged kids. I stayed there for almost 5 years; 2 days, and later 1 day a week. When I let it go, I was very happy to be out of that “system”, but I had gained a lot.

The other thing that came from this experience was the re-acquaintance with the “old standard tuning” that I spoke of in "Prologue 2”, and the points of seeing regarding what had changed within me during the years of Guitar Craft Only. And it was through this work that I began to see some things about my own aspirations that I had not anticipated.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Special Project 05

Tuning the Air – Background

It will be interesting to see what the long-term repercussions of Tuning the Air are. Realistically, though, we don’t always get that luxury. Things unfold in larger time-frames and wider scopes than we do. Teaching has that quality as well; you set things in motion as best you can, and if the student is reasonably diligent you get to witness a certain level of progress, but you rarely get to see where it will ultimately lead. For myself, I often find that things that I noticed, or were pointed out to me, 5 or 10 or 20 years ago, that seemed unremarkable at the time, suddenly come back with a force of significance. I can only assume that for some of my students this will also be true. Some small and ignorable observation that I make now could spring back as a life-changing epiphany in 20 years, or it could just be nothing. Either way, I’ll never know.

Tuning the Air had a certain inevitability about it. The infusion of Guitar Craft-related energy into Seattle beginning in the mid-90s was going to manifest itself in some way. Actually, in a number of ways. There was a very evident critical mass. In the smaller local circles that preceded it, there had always been a need to consolidate; to get everyone on board in order to generate enough energy to make anything happen. All or nothing. Not so here. In Seattle it was possible for an array of projects and creative insights to play themselves out. I could be all-in on endeavors that spoke to me, available and involved as needed with those that I did not feel so strongly about, or generally supportive toward the ones that I had nothing to contribute to. Even when good will was stretched or failed, it was okay. There was enough to go around.

Tuning the Air was a massive undertaking, in terms of commitment and time. Seven years. 30-40 shows per year, performed weekly in two 15-20 show blocks or “seasons”. Each performance involving about 6 hours of work from arrival for staging, lighting and sound setup to departure after striking the set. Two rehearsals per week. And then there was the personal practice. In between “seasons” there was precious little break before we set to work putting together the new material for the next one. For people with jobs, careers, school, spouses, children, mortgages, and lives outside of the show – which is to say, all of us – this was a very lot to ask.

That not everyone remained with the company for the entire seven year run is not in the least surprising. What is remarkable is how many people did. I would never have predicted that. At the final performance on December 15, 2011, seven of the nine guitarists, plus the lighting artist, the designated audient, and our in-the-house “ears”, had all been part of the team that presented the very first performance on April 11, 2005. And the audience was heavily stocked with former air tuners.

I documented, through a dedicated journal, the day-to-day Tuning the Air process from August 2009 through to its closing in December 2011. Just skimming it will give a taste of what these people agreed to take on, without much in the way of rest. After many years of "work in the circle", the show was, in my estimation, the most fully realized exploration of the potential of performance in this format. The team’s performance within the context of the second Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists was one that I will always be proud to be able to say I was a part of.

Some historical data, for those interested. When I look back on it, I am amazed (and also a little exhausted):

Monday, September 9, 2013

Special Project 04

Juggling Tunings

The Guitar Craft tuning appeared in a moment of inspiration, a point of seeing, a creative leap. When Robert describes how it “flew by”, he is describing a moment that is familiar to anyone who has ever been fortunate enough to find themselves in the creative now. In that moment, he was alert enough to notice. To be awake in those moments when the source of all creativity makes itself known to us, is from my perspective the primary aim. To have the skills to do something with it, well of course that is nice, too.

In the early days, I was more or less convinced that the rationale for the Guitar Craft Tuning was that it served to throw experienced guitarists off of their game. It worked. Boy oh boy did it work. The first courses were only open to “plectrum guitarists of at least three years experience, fluent in the English language and above 18 years of age.” So you had to already play guitar, and with a pick. Most of us were more experienced than that minimum, and the tuning came as quite a shock. For me, feeling stuck as I was, it was a great relief. It was a chance to start over, this time with intelligence and clarity replacing the haphazard and accidental nature of my first experience.

How many people get that opportunity in life? How many people get that opportunity twice?

Before long I came to see that the tuning is much more than the shock value it sometimes provides. As shocks go, it’s a good one. And players with OST experience still suffer. But people began arriving already knowing a bit about the tuning, perhaps having experimented with it. And even more than that, the “experience” prerequisite fell away, and people who had never played guitar became more and more common. So now, there is a large pool of guitarists out there who have never played anything BUT the Guitar Craft tuning. That’s pretty interesting.

When I moved to Seattle, I was toting among other things the Stratocaster I had purchased on a whim a year or so earlier, but I was really still not doing anything with the traditional tuning. I would pick up the guitar and let my hands run through blues licks that were so much a part of my pre-GC playing, just for fun. The occasional OST student. I had a notion to start a blues band, as a kind of diversion, but it never quite came together. In Seattle in 1998 there was a huge amount of Guitar Craft energy and activity, and I had my hands very full.

It was really another 6 years before I began to address the old tuning in any kind of serious way. Guitar Craft students, alone, were not getting it done in terms of paying my rent (and my escalating health insurance bills. Don’t get me started; I was never sick, I was just aging), and so I began to actively seek non-GC students. For the most part, for these lessons I relied on:
  • Muscle memory. Never underestimate the power; for good or ill.
  • The new clarity with respect to seeing the fretboard, regardless of tuning, that I referred to in Prologue 2. I also noticed that my ability to read music in the old tuning, which was never much to begin with, was much improved, even though in Guitar Craft there is virtually no reading. Fascinating.
  • The understanding of technique that I had acquired through my work in Guitar Craft, easily transferrable to any tuning.
  • A generally good ear, noticeably sharpened through the work in Guitar Craft.
I still didn’t practice in the old tuning. The Guitar Circle work and Tuning the Air dominated my “serious” guitar playing, and demanded constant attention and a great deal of practice. Some OST lessons required a bit of prep in terms of learning tunes that students wanted me to teach them, but that was about it. That has never been difficult for me. The manager of a little studio I taught at for a couple of years, during the “job interview”, asked me if I knew all of the popular songs kids were listening to. Being fatally honest, I said “no”, but quickly assured him that with a recording I could figure anything out on the fly. He took me at my word, thankfully. Okay, if you want to learn a Meshugga tune, or some shredding sweep picking solo, I’m probably going to point you to a more appropriate teacher, but that is rare.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Special Project 03

Guitar Craft is not a Tuning

Principles are universal. Application is particular.

If you come to me for guitar lessons, you get Guitar Craft. Or, more accurately, you get me. And with that comes whatever, in 29 years, I have internalized from Guitar Craft and assimilated into my own understanding. With people who come specifically for Guitar Craft, either at courses, or in Guitar Circle-related local events, or in private lessons, we can be very upfront about all aspects of what that means. There is a body of extant work, writings, recordings, and websites that can all be accessed with ease, as well as players with a certain visibility who have a GC background to look to. So while the reality of that work can be something of a shock, the ideas behind everything from the most basic principles of body mechanics to the seemingly arcane notions of the “Guitarist Inside” are all out there and available, and people who sign up for that have a notion that they are letting themselves in for something different from what they have experienced elsewhere.

But GC students only accounts for a small part of my practice. Most people I work with have never heard of Guitar Craft. They are not looking for a life path, and they are certainly not interested in adopting a brand new tuning that no one they know or might play with uses.

The beauty of this situation is that it serves as an extremely efficient bullshit filter for me. I used to get in trouble from calling Crafty Guitarists out when I felt they were using Guitar-Craft-isms rather than thinking for themselves. Truth be told, I am not immune. I’ve mellowed a bit in my advancing years; I think. But with my OST students, it is not an option. We have no shared jargon to fall back on in place of thinking. Well, we do, but it is the vulgate. If I need to share something I have learned in Guitar Craft, I need to use my own words. Unless I can express what I see with complete authority, coming directly from my own experience, it is just so much yammering, and my typical student has a low yammering threshold. They just want to play this chord/lick/song better. However, when I can speak from within my own authority, there is an opening. What I have learned from Guitar Craft becomes available to someone who has no idea, and may never have any idea, that there is even such a thing as Guitar Craft.

And there is the key. If Guitar Craft were a tuning, nothing I have gained in Guitar Craft would be of use to any of these other students. But Guitar Craft is not a tuning. The tuning is a tool. Within the work of the Guitar Circle, it is a point of agreement; it is part of our mode of work. But it is not, itself, Guitar Craft. Guitar Craft works on and through the musician, not the tool. If the principles are authentic, they can be applied to all things.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Special Project 02

Prologue 2

If I’m not careful, there could be more prologue than logue. Will strive for brevity, although it goes against my nature.

Guitar Craft had just walked in.

Reading Robert’s most recent, and likely final, draft of “The Guitar Circle”, I can rest assured that the comprehensive picture of Guitar Craft will be addressed, for those who care, in due course. Not my concern here. For now it is sufficient to say that Guitar Craft addresses the whole musician, from our greatest creative potential to the most elemental matters of technique and mechanics.

What IS specifically relevant to this special project is the latter. Three things that Guitar Craft addressed for me right from the beginning were exactly the things that I had intuited my need for: the rudimental mechanics of technique, an approach to understanding harmony on the fretboard, and how to practice. Whatever lofty creative aspirations I did and do harbor, this was what I needed in March 1985. And what I have established for myself since that time is a practice that has continued to evolve with my understanding, and served me for more than 28 years.

After testing the waters and discharging some obligations, which took about a year, I took the decision to work only with the Guitar Craft tuning. When making a commitment of this sort, it is probably better to be definite about the period of time, but I was not so clear headed. I vacillated between “forever and ever” and “for now”, whatever that means. What I settled into was “for the foreseeable future, but as if it were forever.” Basically, it was clear to me that I would never develop any real proficiency in this new tuning if I always had an “out”; a psychological and emotional, and practical, safety net. So for 12 years, if I wanted to play something, I had to find a way to play it on an instrument tuned in fifths. No exceptions.

In 1997, things were changing fast. I was preparing to leave NYC behind, and heading to parts unknown, which eventually became “Seattle”. Part of the plan was to let go of the corporate jobs I had been doing to keep myself afloat in Manhattan, and to earn my way strictly through music, primarily teaching. Before I left NY I literally threw all of my suits and ties away (actually, dropped them in the donation box of a church thrift store in Chincoteague, Virginia).

As much as I love working with Guitar Craft students, the reality was that this plan would necessarily involve taking on students who were not inclined to jump into a new tuning. At about that moment my friend Roy told me he was heading out to a music store in suburban New Jersey to look at Fender guitars they had on sale. I joined him, and while I was there a sunburst Lone Star Stratocaster jumped into my lap and wouldn’t leave. I kept the guitar around as something to noodle on from time to time for fun, and to have for those students who preferred the traditional tuning. All of my creative musical work was still in Guitar Circles, using the Guitar Craft tuning.

But teaching in O(ld) S(tandard) T(uning) required me to do some homework in OST. Matters of basic mechanics are indifferent to tuning, but it was my responsibility to get myself back up to speed on the OST fretboard. The most striking thing I noticed through this process was that despite more than a decade of never putting my hand on an instrument tuned in this way, I could instantly see the organization on the fretboard. I wasn’t “remembering” the NST fretboard. At no time prior to walking away from it had I seen it in this way, or with this detail, or understood it with this depth of clarity. My realization was that while I thought I was learning a new tuning during those years, what I was actually doing was learning how to see and hear; to be able to recognize musical patterns and relationships independent of the tuning.

So I worked with the “old” tuning as much as my teaching obligations required, and then a bit more, for fun, for me. And since the blues is my bedrock, it was going to come out. Pretty much everything I play, regardless of the tuning, has the blues in it, but here it was again in a very simple and pure form.

With the completion of Tuning the Air in December 2011, I began to work seriously in this tuning again, because there was some music I really wanted to play.

Special Project 01

Prologue 1

I had my very first guitar lesson sometime in September 1974. I was 21 years old and had been playing guitar for about 8 years, but I was self-taught. That is to say, I learned how to play guitar from an idiot. September 1974 was my first semester at Berklee, and guitar lessons were part of the deal.

The thing about guitar lessons at Berklee: they don’t actually teach you to play guitar. They more or less assume that you can play guitar, that you know how to practice, and that following their syllabus for guitar will guide you to greater marketable skills.

The program is geared toward becoming a more proficient professional musician, and perhaps that is as it should be.

I was not particular sharp in my awareness at the time. I was cruising through life on auto-pilot vaguely doing stuff that seemed like it would help me get better. I really had very little conscious awareness of what I needed, but I did have some pretty good intuitions in that regard, which I applied in my typically scattershot and haphazard way. I remember specifically asking my assigned guitar teacher how to hold a pick, and I remember him looking at me with a “what the hell are you talking about? You just hold it” expression on his face. In my second year I signed myself up for classical guitar lessons as well as the regular ones, in the hope that this would address some of my questions about mechanics and what I thought should be rudimentary technique, but mostly I ended up slogging through etudes guided by a very nice fellow who either really had no clue what the issue was, or was too busy with too many students to actually address what he saw. Or maybe I was just too much of a dunderhead to hear or accept the advice I was asking for.

Not ragging on Berklee. Their beauty and genius, at least in the mid-seventies, was that anyone willing to work and apply themselves was welcome. That was me, and I loved the experience, and got things out of it that continue to nourish me today.

But they couldn’t teach me to play the guitar. And I was not sufficiently autonomous in my seeing and reasoning to know exactly what I needed. I just knew I needed something.

Flash forward 10-ish years. I’ve been applying myself as best I can. All recorded evidence suggests there has been improvement in my playing. But nothing has happened to improve my technique, or to address the things that were holding me back. I am keenly aware that I have hit a wall.

In walks Guitar Craft.