Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tue Sep 30 2014

The sun has returned. So naturally today I have a solid teaching schedule from 10am to 9pm. Enough breaks for things like a little lunch, and a necessary run to the post office (which I intend to do on foot, as I’ve seriously shirked my exercise routine lately), but not much else.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Etymologically speaking, this may be a distinction without a difference, but I tend to think in terms of “aptitude” rather than “talent”. In a cursory check of definitions on several online dictionaries, one tends to be included in the definition of the other, and they often turn up as synonyms. Nevertheless, in my personal parlance/experience they are not quite the same thing. When people talk about “talent”, there tends to be an unspoken “natural” in front of it. The implication being that the ability to, in this case, play an instrument well was inborn. Talent is more of an observation of the result; he plays well, he’s very talented, I wish I’d been born with talent too. Whereas for me, “aptitude” tends to speak to potential, and the capacity to learn. When I recognize aptitude, it is in the form of seeing someone with one or more of the tools necessary for the task. This is something we can work with.

As I mentioned way back when I began this line of inquiry, rhythm is one pretty rudimentary indicator of what I think of as aptitude. I have 3 students aged 10-12 who can all pretty much mirror back for me any strumming pattern/rhythm I throw at them. They listen for a couple of repetitions, watch what I’m doing, and then they do it. Lovely. I have adult students who have played all their lives who couldn’t tap their foot while playing a Bo Diddley beat or a John Lee Hooker boogie if I held a gun to their head. Two of the kids are siblings, which really makes me wonder about that whole genetic thing. But this aptitude doesn’t guarantee they play well, it just means that they won’t be struggling quite as much with this particular element. On the flip-side, another kid I’ve worked with for several years shows a distinct difficulty with this part of playing guitar, but he works his ass off and the change over the time I’ve known him has been remarkable.

“I was born tone deaf with no sense of rhythm.” – Robert Fripp

Between you and me, I don’t actually believe that. Not quite, anyway. But as a stretch of the truth in order to make a more important point, it rings very true for me. Whatever we are dealt in terms of genetic and organic material to work with, “aptitude” in the context of this discussion, very little happens if we don’t work with it and build on it. But even more importantly, aptitude is not the prerequisite. Work is. We begin where we are, the aphorism goes. If where we are is pretty comfy, that could very well be as far as we get. I think anyone who has ever taught a musical instrument has had the experience of working with someone who has some musical aptitude, and been in that place where you are about to break into new territory, only to have the student right at that crucial moment snap back into something safe and reliable. Why would I endure the pain and humiliation of publicly sucking at something that isn’t coming easily to me, as I grapple for new possibilities, when the stuff I can do without working at it works just fine, thank you very much? The experience for me as a teacher is just heartbreaking. You feel all of the air go out of the room. And you are left with the sense that we didn’t just go back to where we started, but we took a huge step backward.

So, here’s a question. Was this guy…

…actually destined to become this guy?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Mon Sep 29 2014

Had meetings and lessons until midafternoon on Friday, and again on Saturday. Outside of that, made it a mental health weekend. Took myself out to dinner on Friday. Some guitaring Friday and Saturday for no other reason than my own enjoyment. Did a lot of reading, a mystery novel with no particular redeeming value beyond simple entertainment and diversion, watched some movies and tv. Rain most of the day Sunday. Made it a total do-nothing day off. Not even guitaring. In fact, forced myself to avoid it. Football. Reading in the back yard once the sun made an appearance late afternoon. Closest thing to labor was steaming vegetables and throwing together a salad to go along with leftovers for dinner.

I’m not very good at actually doing nothing. One of the things that happens is that in the void I start noticing all of the things that need doing, or have been avoiding, and over time I’ve gotten in the habit of addressing that sort of stuff as soon as I see it, lest I forget. So to ward off that tendency I put out a piece of paper and wrote down anything I thought of along those lines throughout the day. It was still an effort not to do them when I saw them. I did give myself leave to go ahead and take the garbage out to the curb, since the schedule for that isn’t really optional, but found that one of my neighbors had already taken care of it. Took that as an sign that I was on the right track.

This morning, then, was the resulting office day. Up with the alarm clock. Balancing bank account and credit card statements, paying bills, writing emails, answering email in my “for later” folder, looking into airfares for Christmas back east and the GC Intro/OCG Prep course in Mexico in February, following up on some self-promotional stuff (updating Craigslist ad and putting in bids on one of the online services I use), and beginning the search for a GP since I can’t remember the last time I had a physical.

It is now after lunch, and the only thing not crossed off the list is “practice”. Yay. Several hours before the lesson schedule kicks in.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Yikes, a couple days of laying off the focused practicing and my playing goes to hell. Settled in on holding down the basic guitar parts for Don’t Go No Farther, while working on phrasing and delivery of the lyrics, which for some reason get me a bit tongue-tied. Mostly I think I just don’t know them well enough yet, so I really have to think about what is coming up next, and that doesn’t really lend itself to a natural flow of delivery. Plus there are a couple of timing quirks. By Wang Dang Doodle standards, these lyrics are a piece of cake, so I know it is doable, but it has hit that “I’m not really having a lot of fun practicing this” stage.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Thu Sep 25 2014

Rain continues. I’m liking it. I’ll be tired of it eventually, but right now I’m liking it. It makes me want to hunker down inside, and yesterday I got a whole lot of practicing done. Breakthrough in being able to play the new Wang Dang Doodle arrangement and sing at the same time. That alone is good news. Also worked on Muddy’s Don’t Go No Farther and found my way to a great lick for the intro. Practiced it pretty relentlessly, in part so I wouldn’t forget it, but also because it needs to be dead reliable. I was maniacally practicing it with the metronome when one of my middle school aged students arrived, and that became a useful a discussion not just of the need to practice (even when you are old like me) but also a look at what we are actually aiming for when we practice.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

At the last minute, two of my students had to reschedule for later in the week due to unexpected work commitments. I’m pretty easy going about these situations, unless they become chronic. And I’m not losing anything, we just found another slot in the calendar. This opened up a sizeable chunk of my afternoon. Good! More time to practice. Then, inexplicably, I felt the undeniable urge to do some overdue major cleaning in the kitchen. Hands and knees on the floor with a scrub brush-level cleaning. Not my favorite pastime, but I do love the result. Also took care of a few errands including a swing by the vet’s to drop off a little something for them to examine. The sun has come out. Temptation.

But now I still have time to practice.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Coincidentally, a reference popped up on my twitter feed about a BBC article entitled “Was Jimi Hendrix born a genius?” Obviously caught my eye, given the question on the table about natural talent. The part of the lead line that reads, “myths about his talent do him a disservice,” is what specifically got my attention. The article itself turns out to be pretty lightweight, and focuses more on the fact that he did his homework. The fact that he practiced all the time doesn’t really come up. Still, it’s relevant.

Moving away from Jimi and back to us mortals, because… you know… what am I going to say about Jimi Hendrix?

Quick sidetrack: Sometimes I’m blunt. I do my best to only pull that out when I think it is going to be effective in a positive way, but sometimes shit just comes out of my mouth. Like the time I was pointing out to a student that mashing his palm up against the back of the neck with his thumb waving around in the air was seriously slowing him down. His response was “but Jimi held the guitar that way,” and before the last word had completely left his mouth I heard a voice that sounded an awful lot like me saying, “you ain’t him.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Myths about his talent do him a disservice,” is something that is applicable across the entire spectrum. The people I know, who I would describe as “talented” (yes, I do use the word all the time, the current discussion notwithstanding) are also the hardest working humans I know. So I always wince a bit when I hear one of them described in terms of their gifts or natural abilities. The implication is that “if I was born with their talent, I’d be that good.” No, but if you worked as hard as they do you’d be a lot better than you are now.

Between a student with aptitude who doesn’t want to do the work and the one with no particular gifts who is engaged, I’ll take the latter every time. Partly, because I am the latter.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Wed Sep 24 2014

Steady rain all night. A relaxing sound. By midmorning it had slowed to a drizzle. The kind of rain that could last for days, or weeks, or until spring. This one is likely to be days, but you never know. Turned in early last night (in my world, anything before midnight is “early”). I don’t usually read in bed because I tend to fall asleep, but the weather made cozying up under a pile of blankets with a book and a cat seem like the way to go. The only downside of going to bed early is that I then wake up early. The first time it turned out to be 3:30am. No problem rolling over and going back to sleep until I actually needed to get up, which on Wednesdays is about 6:30. It is only as I type this that I realize that the Tracy Nelson earworm did not figure into my morning for the first time in what seems like forever. Perhaps the focus on new songs yesterday filled some of that space.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So, the Wang Dang Doodle arrangement that I’m working on is more or less derived from the Koko Taylor version, which she recorded at Chess with Willie Dixon singing backup vocals. It came out a couple of years after the Howlin’ Wolf version, and was actually a hit for her. This was in the early 1960’s, but I wasn’t aware of any of it at the time. All of my early-life blues exposure came through rock bands who covered blues material. Only later did I get serious about following those influences back to their source, and the life-long love of this music went to a much deeper level. The first time I heard the song was probably on a Savoy Brown record, or possibly the “London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions” (Wolf with Clapton, Winwood, Watts, and other British rock/blues luminaries). The two albums came out almost simultaneously in 1971, shortly after I graduated high school and as I was embarking on my path to fame and fortune in a Norfolk, Virginia-based blues/rock band.

Koko’s version took the rough edges off of Wolf’s original, particularly his notoriously idiosyncratic relationship with time. This is more or less the history of blues moving into the world – it goes from something unique to a particular artist and undergoes a kind of standardization which makes it a lot more easily accessible to a lot more people. Pretty much every cover I’ve ever heard since then has been based on Koko’s version. Even Wolf’s London Sessions version is a cover of Koko, more or less. So when Bill and Igor and I first got together in The Undercover Blues Band, we elected to go back to Howlin’ Wolf as our jumping off point. What evolved was a completely unique approach. Not a cover of Wolf’s arrangement, by any means, but not Koko either. Much of what we do in UBB is pretty straightforward interpretations of songs anyone with an interest in the blues would know. But there are several arrangements so specific to this combination of players that I would be very careful about trying to recreate them with anyone else. This is one of them.

Still, I have a perverse love of these tongue twisting lyrics, so as I began looking at putting together a repertoire that travels, I decided to go back to the beginning. After working with Wolf’s original for a while I found myself heading back to Savoy Brown. I liked the groove and got some energy from playing with it, so it felt I was going down a good path. The weird thing about their version is that it is looooong, and basically what happens is they play the whole song through, and then inexplicably switch to a boogie rhythm and play the whole thing over again. For me, and this is strictly a personal thing, if a song is longer than 3-4 minutes, there had better be a really good reason. My days of 10 minute guitar solos are behind me; 2-3 choruses max, only stretching it out further when we are really clearly on a roll. So back to Koko; clean and succinct and pretty much exactly what I was looking for. One interesting discovery, after 40+ years, was that Savoy Brown turned the rhythmic placement of the repeated figure completely around. I wonder if that was intentional. Kim Simmons has a Savoy Brown Facebook page. Would it be rude to ask? “Hey Kim! In 1971 did you really mean to move that figure 2 beats to the left, or was that an accident?”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So… “natural” talent or acquired ability?

Last Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, I was following this train of thought, concluding more or less that 1) I don’t actually know if such a thing as natural talent exists, and anyway 2) if I ever had any, it was exhausted early. I kind of took a break from writing over the weekend. It had started to become more of an autobiography than I had really intended. TMI and too much work, and I wasn’t sure that was really what I was after.

So rather than spell out the details of a lifelong pursuit of the musical craft I’ll propose this as the process that encapsulates it all for me:
  1. Play guitar.
  2. Develop a sense of competence and achievement. Feel good about my guitar playing.
  3. Put myself out there.
  4. Find myself in a situation where I realize how completely delusional my assessment of my own talent is. This generally involves coming face to face with people who really are good guitar players, and not just guitar-playing wannabe’s like me*.
  5. Hang around these people/this school/this band/this job, and learn everything I can from them.
  6. Practice what I am learning.
  7. Return to Step #1. Which is to say, put into practice what I have learned.
And so it goes. Repeat that for about 50 years, and here I am, still repeating it. How specifically this has manifested at any particular moment in my life, I’ll bend your ear over a drink sometime. Tall tales and war stories.

* Note: this is not actually how I judge myself or my abilities. It is, however, a pretty fair representation of the way it feels in that moment of recognition of how far I still have to go.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So… “natural” talent or acquired ability?

The protracted Wang Dang Doodle-related yammering was really a kind of associative tangent to this question. I’m not quite as obsessed with this particular piece as its current prominence in this blog might suggest. The outcome of my work on this song will be that I’ll be standing on a stage somewhere, I’ll be playing this tight little guitar figure/groove, and over top of that I’ll be singing these clever twisted lyrics, and it will look like it is the easiest and most “natural” thing in the world for anyone to be doing. But the way I need to address the piece very precisely illustrates the reality of the process I need to go through every time I have to make the journey from complete incompetence to being able to do something that appears effortless.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Tue Sep 23 2014

Yikes. A lesson I had forgotten to put into my calendar emailed me this morning to ask if we could reschedule for later in the week. So, basically, a lesson I didn’t know was happening today won’t be happening today. Bad Curt. Bad, bad Curt.

[Tweeted in a 140 character truncated form]
“Autumn. Cooler temperatures. The cloud-to-sun ratio is shifting.
More rain is in the forecast. That can only mean one thing: IT'S GIANT HOUSE SPIDER SEASON!”

At this time of year I become extra alert to any movement I detect in the corner of my eye, just out of my line of vision, and to those moments when the cat suddenly goes on alert. Tupperware stationed in every room.

Between lessons (the ones I didn’t forget), took my first exercise/walk in the rain of the season. Autumn seems to have dropped in with a vengeance.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

While walking, I had my “Blues Playlist” (4.8 days worth, according to iTunes) on shuffle. I enjoy this because pieces come up that I wouldn’t have necessarily gone out and listened to on my own. Always good for a surprise. I hit “skip” a lot, depending on my mood, but occasionally something pops that is a real gem. Today I got two gems in a row. The first one was a Little Milton piece called Walking in the Backstreets and Crying. Immediately saw that it was right down my alley, guitar-wise. Vocally it is in more or less the How Blue Can You Get? (without the comic relief) and Going Down Slow category – ranging from sonorous baritone to a shout. Challenging for me, but a direction I want to continue to work on.

As I was making a mental note to look into the Little Milton piece when I got home, I’m Gonna Miss You (Like The Devil) by Slim Harpo came on, and I got immediately happy. Always loved it. Hasn’t been on my radar lately. I have a kind of ambivalence to Slim; love him when I love him, and can’t hit “skip” fast enough the rest of the time. This tune has always tickled me. I don’t see myself trying to replicate his arrangement/style, and definitely not his airy falsetto, but I think it is very strong material that I could do something with. There is one word in the chorus that I have always heard differently from anyone else. Did a web search on the lyrics when I got home. The tune is obscure enough that there wasn’t much, and in true 21st century interweb fashion, what was available was clearly done by one person and cut-and-pasted by everyone else. They didn’t hear it the way I hear it. So I pulled out the big guns, and called on my lyric-whisperer, Mr Barry Stock. Sent him the recording and he did his magic, determining that the word everyone hears as “things”, but I hear as “pains”, Slim sings as “paings”. So we’re both right, I guess. I’ll just sing it the way I feel it.

Not entirely sure taking on new material is the most efficient thing to be devoting my time to, but it got my juices flowing so that can’t be all bad.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Rain has gone from intermittent to slow and steady. This could last a while.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Mon Sep 22 2014

Down So Low by Tracy Nelson/Mother Earth is now officially the most pervasive ear worm I have ever encountered. For more than a week it has been playing in my mind at the moment I wake up, every day. This morning I was thinking about something entirely unrelated when I noticed that it was playing in the background, like the sound system at a grocery store. The only way I can get rid of it is to intentional run a different song in my mind, preferably something I am working on.

Made Sunday a day off. Did some bicycling in the morning, before it got too warm. It got into the mid-80s by late afternoon, but in my little semi-subterranean lair that doesn’t really affect me. I am constantly leaving the house fantastically overdressed, because I need a sweatshirt to stay warm inside, even though it is roasting outside. Hung out in the yard and did some reading. Watched a little too much football. In every way a lovely day.

No lessons today until mid afternoon, and then it goes straight into the evening. My last lesson, at 8pm, is one of my every-other-week students, and planning what to do with him is always a bit of a challenge. But this week I already know what I have in mind for that lesson – a natural follow up from the last. The thing is, I keep forgetting that I’ve got it covered, and go into a panic about what to do. Evidently panicking every other Monday is a well-established habit for me.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Sat Sep 20 2014

Voicemail from the vet. Blood work looks "fantastic". The only thing that she described as "vaguely out of line" was an indicator that could "possibly" point to intestinal inflammation. Great. Now what? He eats everything I put in front of him. He has energy. Not acting like a sick cat.

One morning lesson, and one early afternoon rehearsal. Home to sit in the sun in the back yard to read and let the “sick” cat have a little leisure. Lovely Saturday, basically.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Fri Sep 19 2014

The day began with a very, very informative and (I think, ultimately) productive skype conference call regarding the Guitar Circle Children’s Project. Not quite sure where this is going to go, exactly, but something is on the move. Kind of milking my new subordinate role in North American Guitar Circle activities. It is a challenge for me, but a really enjoyable one. Frank’s “keynote” from the Mexico AAD course working with listening is the really useful in this. I’m having a great time.

Next, a phone call with the mother of a prospective student. We seemed to be on the same page, and so I booked the gig. A few more of those and I can be a little less tense. Also responded to an email from a young guitarist who is moving to Seattle in a month or two, and is interested in getting back to lessons after some time away. Told him “It sounds to me as though you've hit that place that we all do at certain points in our lives, where you need to pause, retool, and probably take a step or two back in order to make the necessary leap forward.” If that assessment resonates for him, we can probably do some good work.

Took Melvin to the vet for his annual checkup and rabies booster. The only thing she was not happy about was that he continues to lose weight. The trend has gone on long enough that she wanted to do some blood work. This makes me a little nervous, but I guess I’ll get the results tomorrow. He came home, walked straight to his bowl and emptied it, and then pretty much crashed for several hours. Nervous exhaustion I think. He generally does okay with the checkups, but getting taken in back and held down while they drew blood was a new experience, and I couldn’t be with him. I got to have the experience of sitting in the waiting room hearing him howl. I don’t know how people with children do it.

The weather cleared, so we headed out back. Me to read. Him to eat grass and puke.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Came back one more time to Wang Dang Doodle, the non-UBB arrangement. Something about it has been not quite satisfying. Just on the edge. Not wrong, just not hitting on all cylinders. On a whim/intuition I changed the key, which changed the fingering of the figure that I’m playing through it, and something kind of clicked. I worked it for a while with the metronome keeping me honest, because I’m going to need to be able to keep this guitar part cooking while I sing, and that is a major division of attention exercise.

Another Guitar Craft aphorism:

When stuck, increase the complexity.

So I’ve got the metronome clicking (on the backbeat, because this is a heavily swung arrangement) and I’ve got the guitar part cooking, and I begin working on singing the lyrics. Actually I speak the lyrics in time to begin with, as the most difficult part of the whole challenge is maintaining a natural cadence, without my vocals either pulling the guitar part off track or lining up unnaturally with the guitar part. It is tough, but I saw it begin to settle in and there were moments when I knew I was really inside the lyrics, but connected with the guitar part as well, so there is hope.

The funny side effect was that after 30 minutes or so I found that I was no longer having difficulty remembering the lyrics. I’ve been singing this thing for years. Decades. And this endless stream of bizarre character names always trips me up.

Automatic Slim, Razor Totin’ Jim, Butcher Knife Totin’ Annie,
Fast Talking Fanny, Kudu-Crawlin’ Red, Abyssinian Ned, ol’ Pistol Pete, Fats, Washboard Sam,
Shaky, Boxcar Joe, and Peg and Caroline Dye.

But for some reason, this afternoon for at least half an hour, that was the least of my problems.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Thu Sep 18 2014

Ugh. Had to put my Seattle Circle “Executive Director” hat on yesterday, and sit on the other side of the desk. An email and simultaneous voicemail from a young man (everyone is young to me, and although he didn’t specify his age he graduated from Berklee in 2002, so I’m just doing the math) who has relocated to Seattle and is looking for work as a guitar teacher. Obviously I can empathize. I’m not quite ready to start making cold calls, but if it came to that it wouldn’t be the first time, and it is kind of soul sucking. Warmly saluted a fellow Berklee-ite, and wished him well, but had to tell him that we are not hiring.

Rain again today. Seattle rain. A steady drizzle. I like it. The summerlike weather is supposed to return over the weekend, and I’ll be glad of that. But at the moment this kind of suits my mood.

It’s Skype day. A couple of Guitar Craft lessons at a distance. Internet video is not my favorite medium for teaching, for all sorts of reasons. But in circumstances like this, where there are not that many instructors in the world, and the team is spread out all over the place, it is a pretty great option to have. It is interesting, as I’m in this space of evaluating my practice, that most of my GC-related students are outside of Seattle and on Skype now. A reflection of the maturation of the group here in Seattle, which hasn’t gotten any smaller in the years since I arrived, but isn’t expanding either.

Jimi Hendrix on the stereo at all times when I’m not otherwise occupied (and at a few times when I really should have been otherwise occupied). I came out of school on Sep 18 1970 and headed to the parking lot to meet my friend Izzy, who had graduated a year earlier. The first words out of his mouth were, “poor Jimi.” What? I was in shock for days.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Not to stretch this out more than necessary…

Basically, from the moment I bought that Sears Tiesco Del Ray electric guitar, and my father bought me that pawn shop amplifier, I identified myself as a guitar player. My friends and I spent all available time being musicians, whatever that meant: trading stuff we had figured out, or playing records and figuring stuff out. In my imagination, when I walked down the hall of the junior high, I was recognized as “the guitar player”. The fact that there were lots of people playing guitar didn’t seem to phase me much. At any gathering there was always someone considerably less hip than me who could pick up a guitar and strum any number of songs that everyone knew. I couldn’t do that. Well, maybe House of the Rising Sun. But mostly I could pick up a guitar and play the riff to The Last Time or the lead line to Wipeout, but that required them to be able to imagine the rest of the band. At the end of the last year of junior high school, my band (The Bannd, for the record. Somewhere in my collected junk I still have the band’s business card) played the school talent show, wearing Sgt Pepper costumes we had had made for us just for the occasion. We performed 2 surfy instrumental tunes written by Jeff, the other guitar player, who was, incidentally, a much better guitar player than me. I spent the summer between junior high and high school with my friends, diving into the revolution. My Gibson SG Standard and my Fender Super Reverb and my fuzz tone. Taking on the world.

Within the first couple of weeks of high school, I had figured out who the musicians were. I also quickly figured out how much better they played than me. I can remember the first jam session I set up with Jerry. He picked up his Fender Telecaster and began playing, and for the first time I heard a sound coming from someone my age that actually sounded like the guitar players I listened to on record. A dark day for my ego.

In Guitar Craft there is an aphorism:  

If we wish to know, breathe the air around someone who knows.

This is more or less the approach I instinctively adopted, although at the time I’m quite certain there was nothing even vaguely conscious or intentional about it. It was just me going along being me. It wasn’t as though I “took up the mantle of humility” as part of a plan to gain musical enlightenment. I don’t think I’ve ever been humble in my life. But I made it my business to hang out with players who were better than me.

Jam sessions have always had a competitive quality – kind of a gun slinger’s vibe – and I threw myself in with complete bravado. You went in with the intention to show somebody up. Big egos going at it. When it was really on, we would drive one another to excel; by trying to outdo one another, we would outdo ourselves and gain something that we couldn’t have found sitting home practicing. But there was also this kind of code that required us to acknowledge when we’d been beaten, and I got beaten all the time. Yeah man, you cut me good. In fact, if there wasn’t someone there to give me at least a run for my money, I wasn’t all that interested it turning up. And when I knew there were going to be some really big guns coming, I was totally happy to sit back and be the designated rhythm guitarist all night, just so I could watch and learn.

By the time I graduated high school, there weren’t so many guitarists. The wave of enthusiasm that the Beatles and British invasion had spawned, when it seemed like everyone played guitar, had ebbed. I’m sure most houses had a guitar in a closet somewhere, but they didn’t get pulled out so often. Real life was approaching. Getting into college and planning a career and a life was the primary focus of the people I had grown up with. As a musician I was still pretty much the little fish, but the pond was also a lot smaller. When I walked down the hall, I really was recognized as one of the guitar players (or, one of them fucking hippy fag guitar players – it was, after all still Virginia). We were a more exclusive group. Not many of us were contemplating college. I went through the motions, in some measure just to prove to my mother that I could get into college. Given the nosedive my grades had taken, she was convinced I’d blown my chances to get accepted anywhere. I applied. I got several acceptances. I had spent my entire life assuming that I would go to college, so if nothing else, this exercise made it abundantly clear that I had zero interest in going to school for another 4-6 years.

So I didn’t. I joined a rock and roll band.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wed Sep 17 2014

Evidently there was a 4.0 earthquake over on the peninsula that could be felt here at about 3am. Didn’t wake me up, I don’t think. I was awakened at some point in the night because the cat became aware of heavy raccoon activity outside the bedroom window, but no idea if that was related. Overcast today, cooler, and even a little bit drizzly. I don’t think this is the real turn of the season, but it is a reminder of what is coming.

Another slow work day. I elect not to panic, but I need to remind myself to adopt the necessary professional attitude about the ebb and flow of business cycles, and use some of this time to continue taking active steps to move things forward. One of the guitar teacher websites I am registered on asked if I’d like to record a skype/video interview to include on my profile, and I’m a little intrigued. So I took some time this morning to watch a number of the interviews they have posted on their site, to see what works and what does not. Not totally convinced that this is a good way to present oneself, but I saw that what definitely does not work is looking and sounding like you are hearing the question for the first time, and hemming and hawing as you search for a poorly articulated answer. So I took some notes and outlined the script they follow, with the aim of seeing how I might respond. Robert has always observed that the best thing you can do for an interviewer is to ignore the question they asked, and answer the question they “should have asked.” I can see from this morning’s research that the most effective interviews were the ones where the teacher used the generic rote question as a jumping off point for the message they really want to convey, clearly and succinctly articulated.

We’ll see if I want to go any further with this. Probably a good exercise, on its own merits. It has certainly got me thinking about these questions. I have no clue if this website actually generates business for anyone. But something that I have learned over time, and something that Tom Redmond is pretty specific about, is that when I bring my wishes and aims into clearer focus, and hold them, things begin to move. Every time I go through this process of putting myself out there, good things eventually come, and most of the time they are not the direct result of one of my marketing and promotion strategies, at least not in any obvious way.

Some more work in this mode, some personal practice, a little more writing on yesterday’s blog theme investigating the notion of “natural” talent, and a trip to the bank and the grocery (probably on foot, killing that exercise bird and the errand bird with the same stone) all on the calendar between now and late afternoon. Then the day’s lesson schedule actually kicks in through the evening.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So yesterday my conclusion was that if there is such a thing as “natural talent”, I wasn’t issued a whole lot of it, and what I got was expended by the time I hit junior high school.

For whatever reason, I was always attracted to music. I always sang, including in the children’s choir for the Christmas service every year. From my earliest memories we had a piano in the house, but I have no memory of anyone ever bugging me to play it. I began piano lessons when I was in 3rd grade. I don’t know whose idea it was, but one of the things I have come to recognize in retrospect is my parents strategy of noticing when one of our interests was sincere, and responding with some kind of support; lessons, classes, or clubs, or whatever. And then when our interest waned or moved elsewhere, they were just as willing to let it drop. I liked drawing. I was in an art class. Then I moved on. No pressure or rancor. No drama.

And so it was with music. If my parents had to nag me to practice, I don’t remember that either. Selective memory I suppose. I do remember going downstairs to the piano to play because I wanted to, and asking for the sheet music for songs I liked (Baby Elephant Walk was a huge favorite). I made up songs and improvised. I remember holding down the sustain pedal, hitting big glorious chords, and then slipping under the piano to listen to and feel the resonance. I also remember being frustrated that my left/right hand independence was seriously wanting. While I was still in elementary school I switched to violin. That was definitely my idea. I played a rented violin and learned in a music class at school. I don’t think I ever had a private teacher. When I hit junior high, the orchestra was long on violins and short on cellos, so volunteered to switch. But by then I had already had the experience of sitting on the sofa in the family room on a Sunday evening and seeing the Beatles for the first time, along with the rest of America. And all the mayhem that followed. And I was pretty certain that the future did not lie in the school orchestra for me. When I went home, it was to the electric guitar that I had saved up for in the year after that Ed Sullivan Show. And so I told my orchestra teacher that I was going focus on guitar (interesting that I felt I needed to explain that to him) and with that my formal music education came to an end, at least for the next 6 or 7 years, and my real music education began.

I wasn’t a very good guitar player, “natural” or otherwise, but I was a tenacious one. The gift of persistence? And I think I was blessed with an immunity from the crippling aspects of self-consciousness, since I was eager and happy to parade my lack of competence in front of anyone, any place, any time. I often joke, when I’m in an old fogey “kids-these-days” mood, that what I did was buy a guitar, then start a band, and THEN learn to play the guitar. Primarily, I wanted to be in a band, and to play music, and to perform. This is not an attitude I encounter much in my students, and it puzzles me a bit.

I was actually humiliated by my incompetence. There was not a lot of delusion in my self-assessment. Well, maybe there was just the right amount of delusion. I could be up in my room banging away on the latest song I had learned for hours and hours, imagining myself in front of a giant and adoring audience, and be just as happy as hell. No doubt what I was hearing did not line up exactly with what was actually coming out of the amplifier. To my ears, I sounded just like the record. But more than that, there was a pure kind of joy that came from making those sounds. I don’t imagine the rest of my family was thrilled, but as long as my homework was getting done and my grades were okay, nobody bugged me. In contrast, whenever I got together with other guitar players I very acutely realized how clueless, incompetent, and lost I was, how stupid I looked, and how far I had to go. And I hated it. But I never ever avoided those situations. In fact, putting myself in that situation became a large part of my strategy.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tue Sep 16 2014

This September stretch of summer-like weather during the day continues, but in my little subterranean abode it is definitely “throw an extra blanket on the bed” weather at night.

Yesterday preparing for a lesson with a very talented high school-aged student, working on how an electric guitarist might approach accompanying a vocalist with something more interesting and just strumma-strumma-strumma. This involved an excursion into Tracy Nelson’s Down So Low. Incredible and soulful song, a blues sung as a spiritual. The original is piano-based, but it is great fun to play to the guitar as well. I remember hearing it when the first Mother Earth album came out in 1968. It wasn’t really “my style” as a player, so I never made any effort to figure out the chords, but it had a powerful impact and I listened to it often. My ear for harmony was pretty rudimentary, and what I missed at the time and only came to realize much later in life was that there is a turnaround at the end of every verse that modulates the song up a minor third. So the first verse is in A, the second in C, and the last verse is in Eb. I could tell that the emotional intensity of the song, and that unbelievable voice, was increasing with each verse, but it never occurred to me that this was in part accomplished through a simple musical/harmonic device.

Changing keys every verse poses a certain kind of challenge, but for a guitarist there is a kind of easy “out”. So when working with students on this piece, I take a cue from one of my Berklee teachers, and take that option away. I’m sorry I can’t remember that teacher’s name, because it was one of those small and almost off-hand insights that changed everything, and I wish I could acknowledge him. He gave us the assignment to learn Satin Doll in all 12 keys. No problem… until he said, “And guitar players, that means all 12 keys in one position. No moving the same fingerings up and down the fretboard.” Well, that kind of changed everything.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As I was sitting quietly first thing this morning, which is how I begin every day, I found that my mind had moved to the subject of “natural” talent. It is very clear to me that for some people music seems to come much more easily than others, and it would not be a difficult logical leap to conclude that there is such a thing as innate aptitude. But I’m really not sure, and although I immerse myself in work with a wide range of people, my insights are anecdotal and certainly not scientific. It is remarkable to me, though. The things that seem simple but turn out to be difficult, and vice versa. How many times have I begun a lesson with something that I think is simply foundational in order to get somewhere else, only to spend the entire hour on this preliminary exercise, and then send them away with work to do on their own so that some day we can actually get to where I thought we were going today. On the flipside, on any number of occasions I have shown something quite complex as a demonstration of where I hope to go, only to have the student pick it up right away, and suddenly I’m scrambling for what to do next; can we take it further, or do we move on to something else?

Rhythm is, I think, the first and most rudimentary indicator. Some people can pick up the rhythms I present right away, while for others playing in time while tapping their feet is a major, major difficulty. And it completely transcends age. My perception is that whatever the percentage breakdown is between people for whom this comes easily and those for whom it is a terrible effort, it is about the same among adults as it is for kids. Everyone is different.

Natural or learned? I really don’t know. And since everyone I see comes with their own, invisible to me, history, whether that is 8 years or 50, I really have no verifiable way to know how they got to where they are.

What I do have is my own experience, and that is a lot of information. And on that score, one thing that is very clear to me (now, at any rate, although I think I have known it all my life and it is the sort of thing that gets pounded into the subconscious for safe keeping) is that if there is such a thing as natural talent, and if I ever had any, I pretty much used it up by the time I was 10 years old.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Very good “connect the dots” lesson with one of my new students. For 4 weeks he has been dutifully practicing the scales and exercises I’ve given him. Today, just short of the “Why am I doing this? What is it all for?” moment, we put it into practical context, and I got to watch light bulbs go on all over the place. Plus (bonus!) it had just exactly the right measure of “And, if you had just a little extra mastery of this set of scales we’ve been working on, imagine what would be possible!”

Ironically, my own personal practice is pretty damned long on rote and short on inspiration at the moment. Fortunately I’ve been around this track enough times that I don’t need to feel like it is going anywhere to know that it is going where it needs it to go.

Now a fourth grader (one of the ones who can replicate any rhythm I throw at her) who is now working on the irritating and thoroughly boring, but in my estimation necessary, skill of reading guitar music is walking up the path. Here comes 30 minutes of Ode To Joy. Her older brother (fifth grade), who is a former student and has similar “natural talent” (see discussion above) has, it is reported, moved from guitar to trombone in order to take part in the music program at his school. I shudder to think what kind of honks and blats are being heard in the house at practice time.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sun Sep 14 2014

Sunday. Up at leisure. Out on the bicycle early because it is going to be warm today. Just a short ride, up to the bank to deposit a check, over to the grocery store, and home. After yesterday’s marathon ride, didn’t feel the need to press today. Out to the back yard with the cat to enjoy the weather, give my dad a call, and do some reading. Back inside to alternate between football games and doing some practice in the form of running scales through the circle of fifths. Not exciting, but useful.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Sat Sep 13 2014

No problem waking up this morning, to say the least. The cat puked up a hairball and all its associated bile on the bed. No time to ruminate on any dreams I might have been having at the time, although I did have two lingering images that seem associated with whatever was going on in my sleep. One had something to do with a little league baseball game. The other was a question about what exactly a "diphthong" is. Anyway, it was before dawn and I really wasn’t ready to get up, so after doing a preliminary rinse on the bed linens in preparation for laundering later in the morning, I threw the spare blanket on the bed and climbed back in, accompanied by a cat with a conveniently short memory. Not sure I slept, perhaps dozed a little, but got the extra rest I needed.

One lesson at noon.

A number of things to take care of this afternoon, so I canceled the weekly afternoon rehearsal, which I hate to do, especially at the last minute. In addition I need to make time to keep placing the postcards. They ain’t going to attract any attention in my backpack.

Not getting a lot of practice done right now. The promotion push seems to be taking a lot of that energy, which I suppose is okay for a short burst, but I the long view I really need to find a balance so that it isn’t an either/or proposition.

On the other hand, I stumbled on to a completely different approach to Wang Dang Doodle that could possibly have promise. A more complex guitar figure, which makes singing and playing that much trickier. But it has the virtue of being neither a dumbed-down version of the UBB arrangement, nor a trio rendition of the original Howlin’ Wolf arrangement, which is the approach I have been taking recently. It is also in A instead of E, which could give me some vocal space that I haven’t had. We shall see, assuming I actually carve out some time to practice. You lose the fun (seriously, I mean it, I love this stuff) of the “drop a beat turnaround” from Wolf’s version, which we incorporated in the UBB version with a vengeance, but it has its own rhythmic idiosyncrasies that keep it in the spirit I think.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Fri Sep 12 2014

Hmmm. No entry for yesterday. Not that I committed to posting daily. Actually I just started typing one day last week and here I am, so any rules I am reacting to are purely imaginary.

Quick Thursday recap: Practiced in the morning, biked to the grocery store at noon, new/old student mid-afternoon, skype lesson after that, dinner and then out to see the Suffering Fuckheads and to welcome Carl back to Seattle in the evening.

Interesting thing about the new/old student. When someone decides to stop taking lessons, 9 times out of 10 they use some variation of “I’m going to ‘take a break’ for a while” followed by “I need to focus on” fill in the blank, and some explanation such as “my family” and/or “work is just really complicated right now”, or something along those lines. And a lot of it is absolutely true. Maybe most of it. The rest is just being polite. In any case I know that I’m never going to see them again. It’s okay. I never take it personally. Life in this line of work would just be unbearable if I did. Students come and go. I have been thinking about this lately, since this is one of the times of year that I know is going to be highly transitional, and I have already had this conversation with a couple of people. So this afternoon’s student is one of those rare exceptions. Haven’t seen him in over 2 years. Never expected to see him again, and then out of the blue there he is, describing the work and family complications that he finally got ironed out, so now he’s ready to get back to work. Go figure.

Funniest sign-off, sent in the form of a text: “My wife just went into labor, so I have to cancel today. I’ll email you next week when things settle down.” I’ve never had children, but even I knew that was a sentence only a first-time father could type. I just laughed. Perhaps I’ll hear from him in 18 years, when things settle down.

Most irrefutable sign-off: “We’re are making a test tube baby so there's lots of time and money spent on that.” I hear that.


No problem waking up and actually getting up the last two days. Dreams persist, and I still haven’t had any kind of insight about what it is I’m trying to tell myself. It will come, I’m sure. Early skype call this morning with the SCGS team – very good stuff. Doing a little laundry and house cleaning. One more skype conference call coming up around noon, and then I am hopping on the bicycle to do a little tour-de-north-of-the-canal with my new postcards, posting them on bulletin boards and putting them out on counters, to see if I can drum up a few more students to make up for the ones that have recently decided to take a break for one of any number of very good reasons.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Note to self-promoters out looking for bulletin boards on which to place flyers, postcards, or business cards: If you walk into a cafĂ© and don’t see a bulletin board, head to the bathroom. Just outside the restroom is where coffee shops tend to place their boards. It’s not totally off the wall, as people drinking coffee often need to hit the head.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Wed Sep 10 2014

A strangely introverted day. I was up bright and early, as I have a 7:30am lesson on Wednesdays. It was not difficult, although I was again reeling a bit from my dreams. Something is going on in that realm. The dreams are very insistent, although the details vanish the moment I awaken. I think the recent spate of “oversleeping” stems largely from waking up at a typically early hour, and then lying in bed trying to hold on to the thread of the dream, only to drift back to sleep or half-sleep.

Anyway, up for the lesson. Another cool and overcast morning. Out to Staples to drop off the files for the postcards. Actually turned the heat on in the car for a mile or so, just to take the chill off. On the way home treated myself to a diner breakfast, and then some grocery shopping for dinner necessities. I really feel like hunkering down at home, for some reason. At home, a little office work, paying bills and such. Noticed that the sky had cleared and the sun was out, so Melvin and I hit the back yard. He explored – he has a 25-ft leash and is only interested in things 26 feet away from me. I sat and read the Warhol Diaries. We were both shouted at relentlessly by blue jays.

Now back inside to get down to work. I feel a little weary, or low energy, but I’m going to have to work through it. Just a couple of lessons in the late afternoon.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Tue Sep 09 2014

Better job of getting up this morning. Lolled a bit, pondering the travel adventure dream I was having before I awoke, but didn’t go back to sleep, and certainly didn’t check out for 90 minutes of adventures with arithmetic again. That little episode, frankly, is more disturbing the more I think about it.

Interesting quandary last night and this morning. Found myself wishing to practice a bit, but at hours that would not really be appropriate with respect to my relationship with my neighbors. Electric certainly out, but I don’t think acoustic would actually be an improvement. I’m pretty well insulated from the 2 front apartments, but for the folks upstairs it is a different matter. They are old friends, and very understanding. They put up with one very early morning lesson I have down here every week, but for the most part I try to keep office hours limited to 9am-to-9pm. Last night I went for electric guitar unplugged, which pretty much limits things to the most rudimentary calisthenic work. Better than nothing. This morning I opted to spend the available time on necessary office work. I have been remiss in keeping up my advertising (such as it is) so I decided to catch up on the online postings, and went ahead and invested a couple of bucks in one referral service that I’ve had a little success with in the past.

First lesson at 10am, and then the day is off to the races.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Funny how seductive office work can be. Banged away at updating online profiles and lesson advertisements until my 10am student arrived. An hour of work with counting and playing, and Bicycling to Afghanistan (which is always fun) and then I found myself back at the computer to do more of this stuff, contemplating a redesign of the flyer I put up on local bulletin boards, and now I am actually laboring to tear myself away in order to get some quality practice done before my next student. The funny thing about all this advertising is that I rarely get any students directly from them. Indirectly or mystically? A little hard to measure. But there is something to the notion that when you make an effort and put yourself out there, things do tend to come your way, often from unexpected places. So I post a bunch of online ads and hit all of the music store and coffee shop community bulletin boards, and suddenly I start to get inquiries that come from referrals, or people who have stumbled onto my website, or former students who “took a break” months or years ago, not from any of the advertising. Hey, I don’t need to know how it works, I just need to know that it does and get on with the important stuff.

Now, I will absolutely practice.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Got in some practice. After a little more calisthenics I found myself coming back to Going’ Down Slow, over and over again. I trust it is not prophetic, but I was just feeling it today. Dropped the key a whole tone and even at apartment volume it felt like I was finding some things in the vocals. But for the most part the day has come down to promo. Worked up a new flyer and decided to get it printed up as postcards. It would be really nice to have 6 more lessons a week. That is for tomorrow. For tonight, I am done.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Mon Sep 08 2014

Continuing the trend of sleeping later than I intend. Not sure where this is coming from. I have always been an early riser. Even on weekends when sleeping in seems to be a logical indulgence, I always feel as though I have lost time if I don’t get up early. This morning was particularly weird, though. When my alarm went of, my mind was evidently in the process of solving a math problem. Or more accurately, observing an arithmetic pattern, testing it and putting it into a statement. This statement:

(x+1)2 – x2 = x + (x+1)

Why? The thing is, in my twilight state, the only way I could verify was to test it through the longest sequence of numbers I could. After a few minutes, I decided that this was getting ridiculous and got out of bed. When I looked at my clock, I realized that 90 minutes had actually passed.

Very strange way to begin the day.

Weather-wise, kind of got my wish, I guess. It is cool and overcast out this morning. So if I go out for a walk or bicycle it will be because I need the exercise, or I need a break, and not the feeling of “gotta go right now” because I don’t want to squander weather that is going to become rare in short order. Lesson schedule doesn’t kick in until mid afternoon, so I have some time to put in some work.

Opened with about an hour of exercises with the metronome. On to vocals for Wang Dang Doodle with basic guitar accompaniment. Vocal phrasing becoming more natural and generally freer, but I just wince when I hear the rhythm of my vocals get hijacked by the guitar. Daily practice. It also occurred to me that I should begin with the third verse, since it is the one I am most likely to blank on.

Now on to working through the list.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Through the “Current” repertoire. I don’t think I need to dwell a lot on those pieces. I know how they go, I’m comfortable with the lyrics, and I have a pretty good sense of the arrangements I want. On a day like today when getting going is tough, it’s a useful way to begin. In my comfort zone, and gets the juices moving. But since my singing and playing in the apartment/office are of necessity restricted in volume and enthusiasm, they don’t generally sound that great, and I run the risk of becoming disillusioned with pieces that I know work just fine in actual playing situations. Skipped to the “In Process” list, which is were I should probably be putting my focus right now.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Now we’re having some fun. Into the “In Process” list, and a couple of tunes that I’ve been flirting with for some time. The first is a Hooker tune called Big Legs, Tight Skirt, and it is kind of the answer to a long-standing dilemma. I love getting that Hooker boogie beat going. The problem is that if you are not careful you end up reflecting more ZZ Top, or George Thorogood, or even Canned Heat, JLH. This is a lesser know piece and it kind of suits me (it’s also my ringtone). I just need to play it enough that I can go from zero to full boogie on beat one. Right now it still takes me a while to get into the groove. It is not a heavy Boogie Chillun/La Grange/One Bourbon feel. It has a walking bass swing groove with a boogie top. Typically, I come in a little tentative, then when I start to find the feel I get too heavy and lose the subtly, and then finally settle in. Need to be able to skip steps 1 and 2.

The other piece is a long time project that I think I’m ready to go for. In the 60’s, blues based rock bands had a standard guitar-feature jam tune called Cat’s Squirrel, that of course we all picked up and it became a staple at our jam sessions. The first Cream and Jethro Tull both albums feature really stellar renditions. I’m not much interested in instrumental pieces anymore. For me this is a vocal-based genre in which the guitar acts as accompaniment and second voice. A couple of years ago I found myself wondering where the piece came from in the first place. The Tull album had it listed as “Trad, arranged by Abrahams”. I don’t remember how the Cream album attributed it, but they were typically pretty good about giving credit where credit is due. My cd copy of “Fresh Cream” says it was written by someone named Isaiah Ross, and in the time since I first began researching song origins 45 years ago, this thing called The Internet was invented. So a year or so ago I started looking.

Didn’t take much time to figure out that Isaiah Ross recorded on Sun Records in 1953 under the name Doctor Ross. He was a one-man band, stomping on a bass drum and hi-hat while strumming guitar, playing harmonica, and singing. Found the original recording of Cat Squirrel (no possessive “Cat’s” on the original). I went on to find a remake he did on another label with a band, in 1961. Kind of suspect that’s the one that caught Eric and Mick’s ears. The difference is that it’s an actual song, and not just this cool 2-chord riff with meandering guitar solo. The 2-chord riff is just the instrumental refrain between verses. That got me kind of pumped.

I’ve been playing with an interpretation that kind of nods to both of Doctor Ross’ recordings, ignores the later jam band versions, but kind of fits my style very nicely. After working with it for some time this afternoon, I observed that what I was playing had just a hint of Bo Diddley beat to it. This tickled me even more. Like Hooker, Bo Diddley is a hard guy to cover without falling into stereotype. A bazillion Who Do You Love or Can’t Tell a Book covers, not to mention all of the derivative Hand Jive’s and Not Fade Away's, cast a long shadow, and finding a way to incorporate that feel without going down that path really rather appeals to me.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On to paying work. First new-school-year-related "oops, I forgot my lesson" of the season. I'll be holding my breath a little at lesson times all week. Waiting for another school-aged student as I type. Then the parade of adults begins. Last lesson ends at 9pm, and I’ll probably want some dinner after that, so likely no more of this work until tomorrow.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sun Sep 07 2014

Up earlier than yesterday, but not much. Another stunning looking day out. And again I feel obliged to honor it. No lessons or other scheduled obligations today, so I’m visualizing a long morning bicycle ride. I have been remiss in my grocery shopping, so there ain’t much in the house, and what I need is too much to carry in my backpack. An actual grocery trip at some time in the day will be needed as well. Weirdly having fond and nostalgic feelings about those grey days when I don’t feel so duty bound to get out.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Slow Sunday. After a good, long, sweaty bike ride, and a little reading out in the back yard, and a trip to the grocery store, and some lunch, I set up to do some practicing. Not a lot of heart. Did some good work on Wang Dang Doodle, which I really need to touch on quite regularly if this arrangement is going to work. Also, while I was biking the Johnny Winter version of the Lightnin’ Hopkins tune, Back Door Friend, kept running through my mind. I kind of figured it must be on my “Under Consideration” list. I have always liked it, but Johnny’s version is a heavy slide arrangement, and slide ain’t really my thing. Pulled up the list and realized it’s not on it. Hmmm. Maybe Louisiana Blues is out and Back Door Friend is in? It has a number of elements that kind of speak to me. Played around with it for a bit. Felt good. –ish. Not quite enough to officially move it to the Active list, but I kind of want to keep it on my radar.

Overall, I was doing worthwhile work but I wasn’t really feeling the love. So after a while I switched gears and went to some callisthenic/scale exercises. I can generally get something going with these exercises, even when I’m distracted or have no energy. It worked for an hour or so. Then I threw in the towel and turned on the endless string of football games.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Sat Sep 06 2014

Slept in a bit this morning. Had a lesson at noon and rehearsal at 1:30, so I used the morning to continue the review of repertoire. Most time spent with Wang Dang Doodle. Wanted to see if what I worked with yesterday had stuck with me. It had. Began to work on the rhythmic turnaround at the chorus, which was eluding me yesterday, and found it a bit easier. Working with the metronome (a very un-Wolf thing to do, since the original starts accelerating in the second bar and keeps steadily speeding up through the fade out) but I wanted to keep track of the whether or not I was making the rhythm flip reliably, or if I was just imagining it. When I am playing conservatively it is quite reliable, but as soon as I get playful things can go awry. Also worked with singing over this arrangement. There is so much room for playing around with the guitar part, but it makes my vocal phrasing very stilted. Decided that for the time being, when working on the vocals, I will use the metronome and stick to the barest essential guitar part, until I know I can execute independent and authentic phrasing in both parts simultaneously, and then I’ll allow myself to get cuter with the guitar part.

Played through a few pieces on the “Under Consideration” list. Decided to move Louisiana Blues back to the inactive “Potential” pool. Every approach I came up with sounded more or less like a rock band covering a blues tune. This is a piece that goes way back for me, and my connection was initially Savoy Brown. Not dissing them, love them in fact. But I’m not interested in playing rock covers of blues tunes any more. There are some great tunes that I love, but they have become rock standards. I Just Want To Make Love To You – great tune, but the primary cultural association is Foghat, or maybe the Rolling Stones if you’re a little older, not Muddy. I’m having some of the same difficulty with Sittin’ on Top of the World, as it is a very specific cover of the Cream version. I don’t want to become dogmatic or doctrinaire on this point, lest I indiscriminately rule out strong material. But I don’t want to be classic rock cover band either. I’m finding, in general, that my best course of action is to go back to the earliest recordings I can find, and begin working with the raw material myself, so that what emerges is coming from my sensibilities. Even if through this process it works its way back to something not particularly original, as long as it feels authentic to me I can live with that. In the end, my aim has nothing to do with innovation or breaking new ground, but rather it is all about doing justice to the material.

So, we’ll see.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Fri Sep 05 2014

Had the SCGS skype meeting first thing in the morning. A little time to do some warmup exercises before my 11am student. Then it really was too beautiful out not to take advantage of, so I hopped on my bike and headed out – errands as well as leisure – until around 2:30. Home to a little lunch, out back with the cat and a bit of a read, in to a much needed shower. Then, finally down to work about 3:30.

Not a lot of energy, and a bit of Day Two-itis, where I’m having difficulty remembering why I’m doing this. But I knew what I wanted to do. Played through the “Current” and “Current, needs re-arrangement” pieces. Lyrics mostly intact, except of course Wang Dang Doodle which is always an effort and needs constant reinforcement. Hating my guitar playing as do the comping, fills and solos. Not very fond of my voice either, but that is partly due to the fact that I can’t really belt things out in my apartment, and that effects my range. For some reason The Real Thing is the only song I do that is right there in the vocal sweet spot at any volume.

Not much inspiration on the re-arrangement front. Can’t imagine what I’m going to do with Walking Blues other than just play it straight, and I’m not sure how interesting that is going to be. What Bill and Igor put me through on that piece is just insane. May have to wait until I’m with other players to see what might work. I have an ear for what I have in mind for Built for Comfort, but my hands haven’t found the notes yet.

Wang Dang Doodle is the real mystery. It is the quirkiest thing in the UBB book (“Howlin’ Wolf meets Captain Beefheart” was Bob’s description. Or was it Dean?), and I have no interest in trying to recreate that without both Bill and Igor. One option is to take the Koko Taylor/Savoy Brown approach, which irons out all of the Wolf’s timing quirks, and gives the whole thing a jump feel. That would be pretty straightforward, but kind of boring. I’m leaning to something a little more Wolf-ish. Played around with singing it over the Smokestack Lightning lick today, which isn’t actually that far off, at least in a familial way, and has a certain appeal. It was at least fun, but I’m not quite convinced. Plus I wasn’t quite feeling what to do with the rhythmic inversion in the chorus. Think I’ll just play along with Wolf for a while and see what comes up.

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Thought I was done practicing, but then I put on Wolf and had to pick up my guitar and figure out what the hell was going on. An hour later I’m pretty sure I’ve got my plan worked out. No attempt to duplicate that, as if anyone could. But in the style, and including a pretty cool (possibly bright?) idea for a little surprise. We’ll see, but at the moment it is tickling me.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Thu Sep 04 2014

The weather demanded that I take advantage of it for a long walk this morning. Blues playlist on shuffle, as usual. The iPod was in a funny mood, or else I was, so I was hitting the skip button more often than I generally do. Pondering the points of seeing from last night. Thought about the “persona” aspect, including mode of dress and a lot of stuff along those lines that kind of makes me wince, but also feels as though it needs to be very clearly and deliberately addressed. Came home to a little lunch, and began this journal. Now to actual work.

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Set up my practice space. Got the green bullet mic out and plugged into the “normal” channel of the amp, and set out the harps. Getting a level on the mic, the cat left the room in total disgust. The cat notwithstanding, I think I may not be able to work on my amplified harmonica very seriously except when I know that all of the neighbors are out. Even unamplified it is kind of loud. Also tried to fix the reed on the retuned E-minor harp, that I kind of bungled when I was working on it way back when. Made it worse. Wondering if I can find a bunch of used harps somewhere, that I can soak in alcohol to disinfect and then use to work on my harmonica retuning. Making mistakes and killing $30-40 instruments doesn’t seem like an option. Or maybe the harmonica fetish is a distraction. On to repertoire.

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Reviewed my repertoire list. First looked at the current stuff and made some decisions about what I want to keep and what I’m ready to let go of, at least for the time being. Several that I dropped could always be reinstated, but I’m just not that excited by them now. Also dropped a couple that are very specific to Igor, which could be revived if he is involved. Three of the pieces I want to keep will need to be reworked, since the Underground Blues Band versions are highly idiosyncratic, and this band will need to go back to a more straight up arrangements, and find its own interpretations. Secondary list of active repertoire is five new pieces I have been working on recently that I just need to get up to speed. The third active list includes a couple that I have always enjoyed that never quite took off for the Undercover Blues Band, as well as a handful of pieces I’ve always wished to do at some point.

Then there are all the others, which you just never know. Some are definite possibilities, should they be needed. Others are probably a pipe dream, but what the hell, I like them. The 4 Active Lists are:

Current Repertoire:
  1. Boom Boom
  2. Born in Chicago
  3. Dust My Broom
  4. Going Down Slow
  5. Little Red Rooster
  6. The Same Thing
  7. Two Trains Running (Still A Fool)
  8. Yonder Wall
Current Repertoire, needs arrangement reworked:
  1. Built for Comfort
  2. Walkin’ Blues
  3. Wang Dang Doodle
In Process:
  1. Big Legs Tight Skirt
  2. Cat Squirrel
  3. Don’t Go No Further
  4. Get Out Of My Life Woman
  5. Help Me
Under Consideration:
  1. Evil
  2. I Smell Trouble
  3. I’m A King Bee
  4. It’s My Own Fault
  5. Keep It To Yourself
  6. Let Me Love You
  7. Louisiana Blues
  8. Mean Town Blues
  9. Sittin’ on Top of the World
  10. That’s All Right
  11. Too Young To Die
  12. You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had
If I actually had all of these together, that would be about 2½ sets (using the 4 minute rule). But first things first. Next step, actually practice this stuff… daily.

And then there is the currently inactive list… Potential:
  • Songs I have always wanted to work on but have never had the opportunity. Some may not actually suit me at all, but I like them.
  • Pieces that have crossed my field of awareness long enough for me to make a note about and do a little research. They have my attention and seem on some level to suit me, but have never been tested.
  • Songs that I have played, but let go of for the time being. Perhaps they are feeling a little tired and I’d prefer to let them rest until I can do them justice again. For others, their time has probably simply passed for me. Still they are out there and you never know when you might need to dig deep.
Time to switch gears for lessons.

Note to self: seriously, who to approach for this project?

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After the lesson, the first Seahawks game. What to do. Although it is very contrary to best practice, not recommended and I know it, I elect to run scales while watching the game. Kind of distracted work and don’t know how effective it really is, but it’s an hour of finger workout. Not proud of this, but what the hell.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Wed Sep 03 2014

Driving down Greenwood about 9pm, I see the Ould Triangle, notice that it is Wednesday night, and think "Wednesday Night Blues Jam". Decide to pop in. Jeff on stage doing his solo slide stuff. Greeted me from the stage. Wished I had a harmonica or two in my pocket, which isn't as unusual as it sounds - I often carry harmonicas just for such an occasion. As if on cue, Jeff called out to me to see if I had my harps and wanted to join him. Opportunity missed.

Sat for an hour, nursing one drink. It was early, and the players were still on the sober side, and everything sounded very good. Made the observation that if someone shows up with a white Strat, they are probably going to play some Jeff Beck tunes. Wondered what my sunburst says about me.

The regulars were doing their thing, and as I took it all in I thought about why I would want to play. Saw that I need to get a working band together, with a solid repertoire.

So, what and where is this band? Not the Undercover Blues Band. When we are not Curt-Bill-Igor, it really isn’t the same band. Subs will get us through in a pinch, but there is something that only happens when we 3 are together. And Bill is kind of busy these days. Igor is also ridiculously busy, but he would not say “no”, and who else could I possibly want if Igor is available. We’ll see. I think this band is probably “Curt Golden and the ________s”, which is a rather different kind of entity.

As I drove home, saw that I needed to get my repertoire together. Practicing is fun, but it can actually be a distraction for me. I need to play songs, and sing, and do a little bit of harmonica-izing. Began to formulate a plan for the upcoming days, and the idea of this journal came flying in