The Latest is Not The Greatest

Since beginning this blog I’ve tried pretty hard to keep it focused cleanly on the subject at hand, which is to say my guitars, my guitar lessons, and my opinions and experiences related to both. I’m not completely convinced the world requires a public record of any of these things, but I am positive that what the world DOESN’T need is a public record of the more personal aspects of my life. I have made a conscious effort to only mention friends, family, my workplace, etc., insofar as they have some connection to or impact on the aforementioned guitar-related experiences.

And so it is that I write now about outside forces that have affected my musical pursuits over the last couple of months; not to complain (God knows I’m doing enough of that off-line these days), but rather to keep this record complete.

Since my last entry in October, a number of changes have taken place at work, chiefly the unexpected departure of my boss and the relocation of our NYC offices. Along with the continued crappy state of the general economy, the consequences of these two occurrences have been staggering. In addition to all the usual trials and frustrations of moving, our office relocation was also an office resizing — from a crowded-but-adequately-sized space to something roughly half the size. Over a month later now, we still haven’t figured out quite where to put everything. Worse, the absence of my boss has left an oversized hole in upper management which has resulted in an oversized dose of micromanagement coming from the top. My level of exhaustion and frustration is staggering and at least vaguely depressing.

All this may seem completely off the mark as related to the topics of this blog, but the connection is that all this has thrown me and my home life into such upheaval that I have almost completely stopped all my musical activity. First, my daily schedule became so irregular and unpredictable that I was forced to suspend my lessons. Since then the stress and overwork have increased exponentially, to the point where I’ve also suspended my practice time. I haven’t lost my interest and enthusiasm, but I’ve found that the only way for me to recharge my batteries is through passive activity: I can listen to music, watch TV, read…. I just can’t expend the energy to pay attention, make the decisions, and concentrate on the myriad of details necessary for mindful, constructive practice. Of course this, too, adds to my general frustration.

It’s very hard for me to see where this is all leading. My gut tells me the situation at work is unlikely to improve. It remains to be seen if I can find a way to personally deal with the situation more effectively, or if I’ll have to make changes of a more drastic nature. Certainly I can’t continue indefinitely down this same path.

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What I Did This Summer

Summer activities have severely eaten into my practice schedule and, to a greater extent, my blogging time. But lessons and practice do go on.

Over the last weeks and months I have been working with John on some fingerstyle bossa nova rhythm. Mostly, but not exclusively, the changes to “The Girl From Ipanema.”  Although I’m a big fan of the song, and of bossa nova music in general, the real intent here is to build up my dexterity with unfamiliar changes and to increase my chord vocabulary. After all these years of playing essentially the same…what, maybe 40 or so?…chords over and over, I am completely astounded to rediscover what a difficult thing it is to learn new chords, chord shapes, and progressions.

Along with that, I’ve been working on reading the (Ipanema) melody line as written in my song book. I emphasize “as written” because the timing presented in the lead sheet is a bit more unconventional than anything I’ve been reading thus far, and it also doesn’t necessarily match any of the vocal renditions I’m familiar with. Of course I don’t want to be a slave to the written page, but as with the chord changes, I’m considering this to be less about learning the song per sé, and more as an exercise in learning to read and count.

As we’re covering this, John is explaining a lot about the theory behind the music; how certain structures and specific voicings work together, what other options there might be for different transitions, how those options affect the mood or the feel or even the melody itself. In all honesty, the biggest part of all this information is still quite a bit over my head, and I only comprehend the smallest, most basic concepts. But every time these discussions take place, a little more of it falls into place in my head.

Most recently we’ve returned to Bill Leavitt’s Modern Method books. Book Two, page 60 to be exact: “Position Playing.” John tells me this is “where the training wheels come off.” So far I’m only working on the first two pages, but the challenges are already obvious to me. Baby steps….

Out of it all, though, some things shine through in perfect clarity:

-Building my chord vocabulary and practicing chord solos John has written for me has very definitely helped me to feel more confident about playing up and down the neck. My knowledge of the fingerboard is still seriously lacking, but it’s clear to me that I’m continuing to make progress and that the territory above the fifth fret is not the no-man’s-land I’ve always thought it was.

-My reading skills have greatly improved. When I started lessons, I knew next to nothing about relating standard notation to the fretboard. Now I’ve reached a point where recently, as I was reading through some tablature, I noticed that I had switched to reading the notation without realizing it. To be sure, I’ve got a long way to go as a reader. But again, obvious progress has been made.

-Working with the scales, exercises, etudes, etc., on a regular basis, with established goals and focused intent, has opened a new awareness  for me in regards to my attention to fundamentals. Concentrating on this work has made me realize how lackadaisical I’ve been in the past with my accuracy, and how little attention I’ve paid to tone.

-Making the time for daily practice continues to be my biggest challenge in this whole endeavor. Too often I’m not able to strike the balance and fit everything in. But I just keep doing what I can….

Good News and Bad News

Despite the fact that I’ve drawn and painted since I was a child, majored in visual arts in college, and have spent the past 21 years as a textile designer, the sad fact is that I have almost no ability to visualize something in my mind unless I see it with my eyes. So it is, then, that since my last post I have spent hour upon hour Photoshopping pictures of Floyd onto pictures of Miller guitar headstocks and fretboards, trying to come up with even a general idea of an inlay design I might like. But alas, it was not to be.

Fortunately, I have had much better luck with my other idea. Throughout these weeks I’ve been fortunate enough to find several Tibetans willing to share their time and teach me to write “karma” using Tibetan characters. I found there are many words and phrases in their language that mean or refer to karma, and the project pretty quickly became a matter of winnowing down to just the right word for the task at hand. After much research and numerous emails to monks and scholars all across the country, I’ve settled on the Tibetan word “las” (in some contexts pronounced “lay”), which is the direct Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit word “karma.” It’s a short word with the correct meaning, has aesthetically pleasing calligraphic lines, and is compact enough to fit entirely on the 12th fret. It will be the only marker on the fingerboard.

I am greatly indebted to Ganden Thurman and Tashi Delek at Tibet House in New York City, who got me started with several words and phrases; Pema at the Northwest Tibetan Cultural Association, who, along with Michael Dunn of the Asian Classics Institute, verified and clarified whatever information I found; and most especially to Karma Tashi at the Association Cognizance Tibet in Raleigh, NC, who methodically and painstakingly explained the words, meanings, grammar, usages, and punctuation until I got exactly what I was looking for.

At a point in all this research, I also contacted Ken Miller and brought him up to speed on the ideas I was working with. During our email conversation, he confirmed that work on my guitar would begin at the end of this month or the beginning of February. Niiiice!

So that’s the good news.

The bad news is that on Monday, January 12, I learned that I am among a group of peers at work whose salaries have been reduced in response to the ever-slowing business climate. As a result I’ve had to cut back my guitar lessons from every two weeks to just once a month. I don’t want to bellyache about this because clearly many people have taken much more severe hits than I have over these last months, and I know I am extremely fortunate that my situation is no worse than it is. Contrasted against the lost homes and lost jobs that many have been faced with, my current plight registers as less than trivial, and I know it. I mention it here not to moan and groan, but because this is meant to be a chronicle of all my experiences, good and bad, along this musical path.

What’s Happening Now…

Well, I seem to have let this blog go…unblogged?…for quite awhile now. That’s not an indication that I’ve eased up on any of these pursuits. I just eased up on the writing.

The lessons continue to go well. I feel that John and I have gotten into a good groove now. My ability to articulate my notions of what I’m doing and what I want to do has improved, and therefore so has his direction of my path from here to there. I’ve also gotten something of a handle on how much material I can cover in a two-week period, so we’ve streamlined our lesson time to some degree.

Practice sessions generally continue to go well. I know time behind the box is the biggest key to success, and with the ongoing daily rountine I definitely continue to see improvements in my technique. On alternate Mondays, though, my brain does go into a bit of a meltdown. I suppose because I’ve been so long removed from a classroom or teacher/student setting, there is a bit of what I can only call “test anxiety” that sets in during my final practice session before a new lesson. Of course there is no testing involved, at least in any formal sense. But for some reason, on those particular Mondays my perspective shifts from what I’ve accomplished to how far there is to go. But then the next day the lesson goes well and I bring home another batch of stuff to work on and all is well again.

As for the new guitar, there is no real update except to say that all my initial excitement over this project returned in full force when I recently read that Anita Hammond, a fellow member of the Flatpick-L online community, picked up her new Miller guitar, “Snowflake,” over the Thanksgiving holidays. Her own excitement was infectious and the photos she posted just underscored what a great experience this build is going to be.

It also occurred to me that my guitar should be getting started sometime pretty soon. I believe I read somewhere that Ken said it take him approximately 4 months to build a guitar. He estimated to me during the initial planning that I’d receive mine sometime around April of ‘09. This being the case, my math says it could get underway any time now. Very exciting.

I continue to wonder what I might want for my guitar in terms on inlay. Ken Miller’s wife, Virginia, does wonderful inlay work, and it just somehow seems right that a custom guitar needs customized decoration. But I’m having a tough time coming up with something.

After some contemplation early on I had almost shelved this idea, but at Suzy’s prompting I am again considering sending some photos of Floyd, the bloodhound we lost to a brain tumor in ‘06, to see if Virginia might be able to work from them. Floyd and I had a strong and unique connection, and he had a wonderful countenance that may translate well for this kind of project. And I think “Floyd” would be a great name for a guitar just as it was for Floyd himself.

Taking a different tack altogether, I have long held an interest in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, and most especially the concept of karma. I had the idea to perhaps find the Tibetan characters for “karma” and have them inlaid at the 12th fret. But in the admittedly limited time I have spent researching it thus far, I haven’t found a definitive source for this information. I don’t want to wind up in the situation you sometimes hear about, where someone has the Chinese character for “Courage” tattooed on their chest only to discover later that they were mislead and it actually says “panties” or something.

And I must also point out that despite how much I’m intrigued by beautiful inlay work, my general less-is-more aesthetic tells me the best inlay could be none at all. I find this to be a completely acceptable —perhaps even preferable— idea, and will be perfectly happy with it if the guitar gets finished before I can settle on an inlay design.

Practice Points

As of August 26, I’ve had five lessons with John. I don’t know how to accurately describe what a great experience it is. Every two weeks I leave his house with some other aspect of my playing or some new concept to consider. Sometimes he’ll say just one sentence that will completely change the way I think about what I’m doing, or what I’ve been doing inefficiently or incorrectly for the past … 30 years. Even in this short time, my practice regimen (which previously was more or less non-existent) has become organized, focused, and demonstrably productive. I’m seeing noticeable improvements in the efficiency of my playing, most especially in the more technical aspects. And my brain is absolutely swimming in theory, even though I am sure at least as much of it is going over my head as into it.

On the topic of practice, I must say carving time out of the day really hasn’t gotten any easier. When I started out, I expected that after a week or two that hour would start to seem like a normal part of the daily routine and I would just do it without even thinking about it. That hasn’t happened. Perhaps it will with more time, but as it stands right now it is still a conscious decision and effort to make sure I get that time in every day. 

The practice sessions themselves generally go pretty well. I’ve established a routine where I “warm up” with a few tunes I know. Starting slow and gradually increasing speed, I begin by going over a few chord changes, and then running through a few repetitions of one or two fiddle tunes. I’ll also spend a few minutes going over older material from my lessons. Anything that I already have in my head, as opposed to the new material I’m working with at a given time. Out of an hour’s practice time, I’ll spend between 5 and 10 minutes on the warm up. Following that, I usually focus on two main “topics” in each session. Twenty minutes on learning new triad conversions, say, and then twenty minutes on a new chord solo. Working this way seems to produce results, and it’s an organized way for me to cover everything. On some occasions, when I’ve had the time, I’ve gone another 20 minutes on a third piece, or returned to the first item for further work.

Lately, no matter what I’m working on, I have been trying to pay more attention to my playing posture and hand position. During a recent lesson John suggested I use my guitar strap even when seated, as I have developed a tendency to use my left (fingering) hand to support the neck. Optimally, of course, both hands need to be completely free to move around. I also tend to hold the neck like a baseball bat, rather than resting my thumb on the back as I should. Paying more attention to that, I can immediately feel how much more efficient the proper positioning is when I’m learning something new. On the other hand, everything I’ve known how to play all these years seems almost completely foreign when I play from a new physical position. Logically I know it’s the right move to make in the long run, but it is a little frustrating to suddenly struggle with tunes I’ve known for years.

Another overall concern I’m trying to focus on is what John calls making my playing “sing.” A few weeks back he had written out a little single-line solo for Oh, Lady Be Good. In practice, of course, I basically used the solo like a drill. Not surprisingly, when he and I played it together at the next lesson, John said that all the notes were in the right place, but it sounded like an exercise. He was absolutely right, of course, because that’s how I had been approaching it. Since then I’m consciously trying to always play past the notes and get to the music. 

Out of all this practice, I’m definitely seeing a difference in how I’m playing. I’m not completely sure a person who’s heard me play in the past would necessarily hear me now and consciously think, “hmm, that boy’s playing has really improved.” But I feel a considerable difference in how relaxed I am, both in my hands and in my head. I also notice that I’m able to learn new material more quickly, and correct mistakes with less effort.

Another thing I notice is that I am practicing every day, but I’m not playing much at all. I very much need to find a way to fit in some time to just simply play, without any nod toward accomplishing this task or that. This is going to be tough, because my days are pretty well maxed out as it is. As I’ve said several times, finding an hour to practice is no easy task in itself. Finding time to just doodle will really take some doing.

Ahh well…. However hard it is to fit everything in, the real truth of the matter is I’m lucky to have this opportunity and I’m loving every single minute of the ride. Looking at the whole situation, I think I’m immersed in all this just about as fully as I can be. Every few days I learn something new, or figure out how to do something better than before. And each accomplishment makes me see how far I still have to go. If I were still in junior high school with nothing but time on my hands, or if I were, say, independently wealthy (send your donations to my PayPal account), I could very easily be completely obsessed.

Back to School

Went for my third guitar lesson this past Tuesday evening. My schedule got a little off-track when I went on vacation, so it had been a full four weeks since my last lesson. Despite the fact that I still feel a little overwhelmed, John tells me I’m doing well.

I’m still trying to make it a point to get in a minimum of one hour of practice time every day. I can’t say that always happens, but I haven’t missed by much. I feel sure this regularity is as important to my improvement as is the material I’m covering. There’s no telling how many years have passed since I last made it a point to play guitar every single day, not to mention structured practice

I’ve gotten to a point where I’m “off the paper” with the chord solo I was working on for All of Me. I’m certainly not what you’d call fluid with it, and there are at least three definite problem areas. But given that it’s a whole new ballgame for me in comparison to the styles I’ve played in the past, I suppose it’s coming along as well as can be expected. As I mentioned in an earlier post here, we also started work in William Leavitt’s method book. This has been the worst and the best for me up to this point. I’m finding it exceedingly difficult to read even the simplest of the beginning exercises. But then, of course, when I finally do have a breakthrough it’s just that much more rewarding. One night late last week while working from this book, I was concentrating so intently, almost hynotically, that I literally jumped, as if I had dozed and jerked awake. If I hadn’t caught myself when I did, I believe I may have been only a minute or two away from drooling into my guitar.

So anyway, back to Tuesday’s lesson. We went over everything I’ve covered so far, playing together on All of Me and on the duet pieces in the method book. As I say, I haven’t exactly mastered all of it, but I’m headed satisfactorily enough in the right direction for John to press onward. We went over the next few pages in the method book, which brings sharps, flats, and/or accidentals into the picture. We (or I) played through some of the new exercises, and others we only discussed.

Then I pulled out the songbook I had bought. He paged through it more or less randomly, checking out this tune and that. He stopped at Giant Steps, which I didn’t know by name, and said I should be able to play through the lead sheet based just on what we had covered up to this point in my lessons. He played the chords, and lo and behold, I did indeed play the melody. Well enough that I even recognized the tune.

Finally he zeroed in on Oh, Lady Be Good, which he says is a favorite jamming tune at Kauffman Kamp, the musical-instruction intensive hosted by Steve Kauffman every summer in Tennessee. As he had done with All of Me, John wrote out chord diagrams for this new song. This time, he pointedly specified chords consisting of three notes, and those three notes are always configured on the 3rd, 4th, and 6th strings. The idea being to pare the chords down to their most basic structures, while still providing a backbone on which to hang the tune.

And speaking of tunes, he took time to write out the beginnings of a single-line solo for the song. Besides serving as a basis for eventual jamming, this little ditty, repeated over and over, is a great little exercise for left- and right-hand technique, tone, dynamics, etc.

So far, practice with these three-note chords has been much easier than anything we’ve covered up to this point. I feel certain this is due in part to the fact that they are all very similar in configuration, and in part because I’m getting more accustomed to being in “practice mode.” The solo is coming along nicely, too, although I have not yet spent quite as much time with it as I have with the chord progression. I’ll be concentrating more on that today, as well as working on the exercises in the Method book.

Forward motion…

Making Up for Lost Time

Sunday was the first time I got back to practicing since traveling to the Canadian Rockies for vacation last week. Traveling plans didn’t allow for me to take along a guitar, and there wasn’t one available to me while I was out there. And I would not have had time to play anyway, as every day was filled with an amazing and breathtaking (literally) hiking/sightseeing experience.

As great as the whole experience was (and it was great), the long and short of it from a six-string perspective is that I didn’t practice for a full week. And man, what a difference a week makes!

Late Sunday morning I sat down to practice and was astonished at how much ground I had “lost.” I had been getting relatively smooth with all my new chord changes before leaving town, but today I was finding myself searching around and grabbing the wrong strings. Or, on the occasion that I found the right chord, I was dulling out strings to produce more of a thud progression rather than chord progression as I played along.

Gradually, after just sticking with it and REALLY slowing things down, I began to get back in the groove a bit. After about 45 minutes or an hour, I think I got back to roughly where I left off last week.

Later in the day I caught up on some shopping, as well.

I had planned to go back to Mandolin Brothers on Saturday. I want to take my D-28 in to compare with the Collings D3 in the same room at the same time. And of course I’m also curious to see what other instruments they may have gotten in since I was there last. But, having just arrived home from our trip on Friday night, there were many things to take care of and Saturday got away from me before I had the chance to venture to Staten Island.

On the plane home from Canada, though, I had finished reading Clapton’s Guitar, a book about master luthier Wayne Henderson written by Allen St. John. In the back of the book is a listing of several vintage guitar shops around the country, including Lark Street Music in Teaneck, NJ. My cardiologist had mentioned this place to me once after seeing the Martin Guitar logo on the back of a jacket I wore to a checkup, but I had forgotten about the place. Late Saturday night I checked the web and found that Lark Street Music is open on Sundays. So Sunday after a late lunch (still a little off schedule from our trip), Suzy and I headed off to Teaneck to see what I could find.

While not as jaw-dropping as Mandolin Brothers, Lark Street is still an outstanding guitar shop. I played Martins, a Mossman, several Gibsons, including one from the year of my birth and another that sounded better but looked as if it might fly apart at any moment. (Of course, that’s probably why it sounded so good.) I tried out my first Blueridge guitar, a very pleasant surprise, and several models made by the Santa Cruz Guitar Company, by far the best of which was a curiously small-bodied baritone guitar.

The two guitars that stood out to me were a Martin and, again, a Collings. The Martin was an OM “Negative,” which I had never heard of. It’s a limited edition guitar with black body and white appointments, the most oddly striking of which is the white fingerboard. At first glance I dismissed it as flash, but eventually I took it off the wall and found that it had a great feel and a very nice tone. If there were no Collings guitars in the world, I would have been mighty tempted by this thing.

But of course there are Collings guitars out there, and the D2H I played at Lark Street was a real winner. Perfect feel and outstanding tone. This guitar rivals the D3 I placed on hold at Mandolin Brothers. I don’t think it’s quite the D3’s equal, but it’s extremely close. Once one of these guitars is in my hands, I just can’t seem to let them go. Beautiful, beautiful instruments. I can’t wait to get back to Mandolin Brothers to play that D3 again….