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Last Saturday I was sitting at a 2nd avenue bar called the Thirsty Scholar with my friend Jonathan. We were talking about Ashtanga Yoga, jazz jam etiquette, and his time in Brazil when we heard about the bombing in Chelsea. Despite the scare, we let the night steer us to Union square where we watched some chess matches and met a man named William Lombardy, better known as Bobby Fischer’s chess coach. Lombardy made pleasant general small talk with us for about two minutes before he embarked on a free flowing rant which included a denouncement of the NYC judicial system, a discussion of his eviction battle with his landlord, and a scathing criticism of America at large.

And these are the rich ups and downs of New York City. One minute you’re having a delightful conversation with a new friend, the next you hear of a terrorist attack, the next you meet an iconic chess master, and the next he’s telling you how terrible the world is. I’ve only been here for a few weeks (so check back with me in a few years), but my feeling is that this city is neither good nor bad— it’s just superlative. Due to the incredible density and volume of people from all backgrounds and walks of life, NYC offers you both the best and worst of the human experience, sometimes in rapid succession.

Musically (this is a music blog after all), I’m also offered a daily course of both the best and the worst. I got to school and am literally face to face with some of the best musicians in the world (e.g. improvisation class with Billy Drewes, guitar lesson with Peter Bernstein, master class with Ari Hoenig etc…), I then go to the practice room and am faced with my own mediocrity as I struggle to learn Anthropology, and finally as I’m waiting on the subway home, I’m treated to a sloppy rendition of “Hey Joe” by a drunk busker with an abrasive guitar tone (I call it a “sloppy joe”).

As I encounter such a spectrum of musical quality, it’s difficult to not get caught up in the game of comparing myself to other musicians— variably I’ll think “oh man, I’ll never be able to do that” or “he’s 7 years younger than me, how is he so good?” or “pssshhh, I’m better than that guy.” Yet these are not productive thoughts. Even though I am in school and obviously trying to use this time to improve, comparing myself to teachers, or classmates, or subway singers is not a good way to achieve that goal. For ultimately I’m not studying music because I want to be better than anyone else— I’m studying music because I love it and I want to be better capable of expressing it. If I use the desire to be as good or better than others as my motivation, practices and performances become either a chore or a competition (neither all that enjoyable). Yet if I use my love of music as my motivation, practices and performances become a joyful privilege.

Yet this motivation was reduced to an even simpler level in a masterclass with the great Peter Bernstein (no relation to Leonard). One of my classmates asked him the question “what inspires you to play?” He replied “I just try to get down to the basic fact that I like holding the thing, and I like hitting a note and feeling it vibrate. Sometimes I run into trouble if I get more complicated than that.” He explained that he doesn’t really even hope to sound good, because “well, what if I don’t sound good?” This was a revelation for me. Here was one of the most tasteful and talented guitarists in the world (a man who has performed with artists such as Sonny Rollins, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Diana Krall, and countless others) saying explaining that the only thing that he tries to let motivate him is the fact that he likes to feel a note vibrate against his chest.

Pete doesn’t play because he is trying to be great, or because he is trying to be better than anyone else— he plays because he just loves to hear and feel the notes. Musician or not, there’s a lesson here for everyone. Throughout the inevitable ups and downs of life, it is wonderful to always have an activity that you know you love to do. Whether it is music, basketball, painting, or anything else, the surest way to keep doing your favorite activity is to fall in love with the most basic elements. If you can learn to simply enjoy the sound of a note, or the feel of the ball in your hands, or the sight of a brush stroke on the canvas, or even the mere act of breathing, you’ll have learned something really important about living.

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I’m leaving today

I want to be a part of it

New York, New York

Ok, so technically I am not leaving today, but it is true, I’m going to go make “a brand new start of it” in New York City this fall. This past fall I applied to a number of music master’s degree programs in New York City. My hope was that I would get in somewhere (anywhere), increase my musical knowledge and skill with the help of my teachers, meet fellow musicians at the school in order to start or join a band (or multiple bands), and proceed to “make it” in New York. Because “if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere” (that’s my last Sinatra reference I swear). Well, in March I was informed that I had been accepted to NYU to do a master’s in jazz studies with a focus on guitar performance. And an instant after hearing this news, a very tangible feeling of fear appeared in my gut. New York is so far away! I can’t leave my friends and family! I’m so comfortable here! School is so expensive! Is that really what I want to do? What if I’m not good enough? I should stay here… Yet in spite of these voices of fear, and in fact because of these voices of fear, I have decided that NYU is exactly where I need to be this fall.

I am making a conscious decision to go against what my fear is telling me to do because in my heart and mind I know that going to NYC is right. I am simply experiencing something like long-term stage fright: before I play a show I always get a little nervous (and sometimes I get very nervous), but that doesn’t mean I don’t want and need to play the show; I am extremely nervous about moving to NYC, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want and need to move. In fact whenever I take a moment to check into my body, and I say to myself “I am moving to New York,” my heart smiles. Yet it is a strange phenomenon to know that something is right, and to still be clearly afraid of it. I likely won’t be free from these fears until I actually start school (even then who knows), but in the meantime, I am going to engage in the futile activity of trying to dispel these fears by explaining to myself and you readers exactly why I am moving.

I have reached a peek in my music career. When I finished my bachelor’s degree at UALR my singular goal was to not get a “real job,” and instead to support myself solely with musical activities. My logic was simply that if I used only music as my livelihood, I would be spending a lot of time working on music, and thus would become better at music, and thus would be equipped to have more opportunities to earn money with it, and thus would be spending even more time on music (and so on and so on in a wonderful positive feedback loop). At first I had to hustle hard to find enough guitar students and gigs to pay the bills, then slowly but surely I had enough musical work to feel comfortable. As we were doing my taxes for this past year, my accountant even told me that I “did well this year” (granted I did well by a young, single musician’s standards— the bar is low). I have succeeded at my initial goal and have spent over two years in Little Rock as a full-time professional musician. Unfortunately I have also grown somewhat complacent as a result of this. There is currently no pressing need for me to get a lot better at guitar, or make a lot more money, or challenge myself creatively. If I were to stay here in Little Rock, I like to think that I would do these things out of sheer will and self-motivation, but I wouldn’t necessarily have to. If I am going to succeed in New York City, among the enormous amount of creativity and talent there, I will have no choice but to maximize my potential. I’m aiming for a new peek.

I am going to New York to test myself, and to learn. Sometimes it is not clear to me here in Little Rock how good of musician I am. Honestly I could name ten guitarists in town who I think are better than me, and yet I have had a few people tell me that I am the best guitarist in town (they need to get out more). I play a large amount of gigs, yet many of these gigs connections are made through friends and family. There is not a clear external test of how good of a musician I am. In New York, I’ll be one of hundreds of good guitarists, with little to no connections prior to arriving there, and I am going to have to work my ass off to practice, plan, and put myself out there. Perhaps this sounds like a fools errand— it is actually a personal test to see what kind of musical and personal strength I can muster in my pursuit of New York City success. Regardless of what the success test shows, I know that I have much to learn, and at NYU I am going to receive an incredible musical education and be in the presence of world-class guitar teachers such as John Scofield, Peter Bernstein, and Wayne Krantz. I am going to grow.

Finally I am going to New York because the time is right. I have always thought about moving somewhere else, but part of the reason I have stayed here this long is because I have an incredible family whom I have loved to live close to. However, this past summer, after decades of living in Little Rock, my parents moved to Newport, AR and my sister, brother-in-law, and baby niece moved to Kansas City, MO (each move was for work)— my stable family tree has been uprooted. Thus the people who are closest to me, my blood, do not need me here right now. Add to that the fact that the location of my brunch gig shut down last month, and it is time for this little bird (ok, grown bird) to leave the nest and go take flight. Peace!

For those not yet privy to it, this blog is part of a nine-month long project in which I release a blog-post and a new song every week. So below is this week’s Opus if you care to listen, and even further below are links to posts from past weeks. Enjoy!

Week 1—Nine Months of New Music

Week 2—That’s Masturbation

Week 3—Oblique Strategies

Week 4—A Conversation with the Wolfman

Week 5—Turn Off the Music

Week 6—Thoughts on Prince

Week 7—Grieving for the Afterthought (pt.1)

Week 8—Grieving for the Afterthought (pt. 2)

Week 9— Paul Simon, Still Alive After All These Years