Happy Mother’s Day!

Happy Mother’s Day everybody! In honor of this mother’s day, I’ve decided to break my blogging fast and feed you some words straight from my brain to yours. Before I start discussing any musical material, or tell you how to pick up women at the bar (yes that is something I cover later in this blog post), I want to take a moment to celebrate my own mother. For one reason or another, motherhood has been a topic that has come up a lot lately in my conversations. Whether I’m talking with someone who had a very engaged mother, or someone who’s mother was not exactly present for much of their life, I have come away from these conversations with a deep gratitude for my mother. The selfless love and care that my momma has given me is the solid foundation upon which my life rests. She is an amazing, strong, sweet, sensitive, and intelligent woman who has an incredible intuitive sense for the needs of other people (especially children). She is also a talented, and prolific visual artist, who has inspired me in my own creative path (that’s one of her paintings above). She sacrificed so much of her own life so that my sister and I could have a leg up in our lives, and I can never thank her enough for this. Thank you momma! I love you!

I suppose that by talking about my wonderful mother there has been a bit of a topic trend in my last two posts: family. For my previous blog post was not exactly a real post, but a bunch of cute pictures of my niece used as a distraction technique so you’d all forget that I had set a pretty ambitious goal for myself. The goal was to write, record, and release four new songs during the moon phase cycle. Well, that was about two moon cycles ago, and clearly I’ve not released any new songs have I? HAVE I? No, I haven’t.

Not only did I not complete that goal, but additionally I just straight up stopped blogging for like two months. I really went off the deep end huh? Oh man, you should have seen how nice and regular my postings were from August to April. I posted something nearly every week! Oh wait actually you can see. Check out my WordPress stats y’all. Those black blocks are the days I posted something—notice the big conspicuous gap in postings during April and May.

Sidenote: this is also how I try to pick up women at bars. I lock eyes with a lovely lady across the way, confidently saunter over to her, and then seductively whisper into her ear “hey girl, check out my WordPress stats,” unveiling my blog data. Then she’s all like, “Oh my god. 44 followers? Semi-regular posts? I’m yours.” It works every time kiddos. For more on this topic, check out my other blog: how to pick up women at bars. Sadly, I personally won’t be picking up any women at bars until I pick up my pace on this blog.

In this bizarre alternate reality I’ve just created in which blog-writing is some kind of romantic currency, I very well may have kept up with my posts these past two months. However, living in the actual reality that we live in— the one in which blog writing offers little to no romantic, economic, or social rewards, I just basically stopped blogging when the rest of my life became too busy and full. I am after all not a full time blogger, but a full time student, and late in the semester when assignments, responsibilities, and social engagements were piling up, I could have kept blogging, yet I’m certain either my schoolwork or my sanity would have suffered.

So I forgive myself for the blog hiatus, and I hope you do too gentle readers. If you don’t, that’s ok too, but perhaps you should check out my other blog: how to forgive people. The good news is that now that school is out for summer, I am re-entering the blogosphere! I do this not for any romantic, economic, or social gain, but because this is a personally satisfying and enjoyable practice. This is where I come to organize and articulate my thoughts about my life and my music, its where I come to practice the craft of writing, and its where I come to set ambitious goals that I may or may not accomplish.

I mentioned one of these ambitious goals earlier: I would write, record, and release four new songs during the moon phase cycle. Specifically that was the moon phase cycle from February 26th to March 27th. Well, I obviously didn’t release any new music during that time, but that’s only because I also didn’t record any new music during that time.

I will however give myself a small pat on the back and say that I did write four new songs during this period. Furthermore, I will record and release these songs. For our final project in the jazz studies master’s program at NYU we are required (although it feels more like a privilege) to record an album of original music at NYU’s state of the art Dolan Recording Studio. The four songs that I wrote, which were heavily influenced by my music lessons with Wayne Krantz at the time, are songs that I will record as part of this final project.

Thus, I’ll give myself a D minus on my moon cycle assignment. Yet as classic slacker wisdom states: D’s get degrees, man. In this case, my D-minus execution of one goal, will indeed help me achieve one of my current goals of earning a master’s degree. What will be truly interesting to see, however, is how my life and goals shape up after I earn that degree. For graduate school provides a clear structure and aim for my life right now— yet once I graduate, it will be up to me to blaze my own trail. Whatever happens, I think that this lowly practice of blog writing will remain an important personal tool in my march towards musical success.

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Fridays with Wayne

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, my goal for this moon cycle is to write, record, and release four new songs. And the next logical question is “how the hell do I do that?” If anybody has a good answer to that question, please let me know. I’ll be sitting in my room watching Girls (the HBO show, not the gender) until I figure it out. Ok bye!

Girls On Hbo GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

But seriously folks, most of the modest number of songs that I’ve written, have been a product of pure inspiration. The music flows out naturally and easily, and the lyrics come fully formed as if written in stone. However, this makes for a very inefficient songwriting process. Although my songs have mostly been snapshots of inspired moments, these moments are are few and far between. Using this process of “inspired songwriting,” it has sometimes taken me years to finish a song. It is a very different approach to say “inspiration be damned, I’m going to write and record four songs this month no matter what!” Unfortunately that is exactly what I’ve set out to do, and thus I’ve got to figure out a way to write these songs!

Lucky for me, I am surrounded by brilliant musical minds at NYU and am paying top dollar to be able to ask them asinine questions like “how do I write a good song?” During a show a few weeks ago at the 55 bar, the great guitarist and NYU professor Wayne Krantz told the audience “all you need in a song are two things and an ending.” Like everyone else in the audience, I was amused that someone who plays such creatively advanced music would propose such a simple equation for composition. Yet unlike everyone else in the audience, I get to pick Wayne’s brain every Friday at 3 o’clock (yes i’m bragging) and can unpack his approach to songwriting.

Few would accuse Wayne Krantz of being a pop musician, and yet he claims that he approaches his songs like a pop musician in that everything is either a verse or a chorus. He comes up with a musical idea that he likes and decides if it is a chorus part or a verse part (“is it the comin’ home part, or the storytelling part?”). After he has built either a verse or chorus part, he then uses contrast to create the other part. For example, if the verse part contains mostly short notes, he may change to long notes for the chorus; or if the chorus part is loud and rocking, he might make the verse sound softer and more relaxing; or if the verse part is using mostly one or two notes at a time, he might switch to full chords for the chorus; or any combination of these and other contrasts.

This all seemed simple enough after he explained it to me, so I decided to use this method to write one of my songs. Indeed, one could certainly use this method to write a song, but after I brought in my song for feedback from Wayne, I discovered that he has some other principles he uses to write a good song. In my song the verse material was funky, syncopated, and used just one or two notes at a time. I contrasted this with a more flowing chorus of full, lush chords. Wayne liked it, but one of the things he pointed out was that during my verse section (the storytelling part), I had this two-note chord thing happening which could be heard has a melody, but more would likely would just come off as a vaguely cool guitar thing. He said that most people really just want to listen to a singer, and if they can’t have a singer, they’d like to have a saxophone player playing the singer’s part— it’s a much smaller percentage of people who just want to hear some vaguely cool guitar thing. Thus, as guitarists, we would be wise to play some kind of melody that at least sounds like it could be sung.

The second bit of advice he gave me was to write an ending. I had simply recycled my intro to the song and used it as my ending. He told me that he thinks “the audience kind of appreciates it when you do the extra work— when you’ve put in a little extra detail.” It doesn’t have to be long or intricate, but it is worth it to put in an extra bit of effort and create a definite ending. He told me that when he was in high school, the guys in Steely Dan were considered some of the supreme arbiters of good taste. Thus, years later when Wayne was hired to play guitar for Steely Dan he asked Donald Fagen “what makes something good?” Fagen paused, thought about it, and replied: “the amount of detail that it has in it.” Wayne advising me to write an ending to my song is also him pointing to the larger goal of simply crafting something with a lot of detail.

I am using the Wayne method and his insightful feedback to help me write these four songs, and I am certainly getting a lot of great ideas by sharing my work with him. Yet the usefulness to me of Wayne’s method is not due to the fact that it is the ultimate right way to write a song, but simply by virtue that it is a way to write a song. It is simply far easier to create something if you have rules, principles, and guidelines for creation. Wayne has been developing these ideas for forty years, and thus I am happy to stand on his shoulders and use them for my purposes— it makes my life easier. And yet, embedded in all of his great advice is a nugget of wisdom he shared that destroys all the others: “The more answers that you accept from others, then the less creative your thing is by definition.” Ultimately yes, I would like to plumb the depths of my own tastes, tendencies, and experiences and come up with my won set of rules and guidelines for creation, yet for now, I’m just trying to write four songs. No reason to reinvent the wheel just yet.

URGENT MESSAGE!

Last Thursday I went to 55 bar to see my teacher and guitarist extraordinaire Wayne Krantz perform with Michael League (bass) of Snarky Puppy and Josh Dion (drums) of Paris_monster. Like every Thursday night at the 55 bar, Wayne grooved, funked, rocked, and shredded his way through a fresh creative stream of unique modern music. I’m ever impressed at the fact that his playing is both technically precise and supremely spontaneous. Wayne’s music carries on the spirit of jazz (highly creative and centered around improvisation) without exactly sounding like jazz (Wayne rocks and grooves, he doesn’t swing). Although he told me afterwards that it felt like a bit of an off night, to an outside observer he, Michael, and Josh were in top form, demonstrating the height of musical possibility. I left the show extremely impressed and feeling like I urgently needed to go practice so that I can reach such a high level of musicianship.

On Friday I joined a new friend at Rockwood Music Hall and saw my first true rock show since I’ve moved to New York (wow, it had been far too long since I’d seen a good rock show). They are an L.A. based band is called Veers and my friend described them well as “smart rock.” They combined intelligent chord changes, tasteful instrument/vocal tones, and interesting song-forms over rhythmically precise rock grooves (i.e. “smart rock”). I’m sure the lyrics were thoughtful as well, but you know, it’s a live rock show in a relatively small room— to my ears the lyrics invariably get drowned out in these situations. After the show I met the lead singer and also chatted with some other musicians in the local NYC music scene. I heard casual talk about people jetting to Australia to play shows, or potentially doing an arena tour, or being music director for an up-and-coming indie rock songstress. I left the show happy to have gone, but feeling like I urgently needed to go immerse myself in the scene and meet the right people so that I too could have cool opportunities to travel and perform.

Urgent is one good descriptor of Manhattan (sidenote: it’s also a great Urgent). This city buzzes with an energy that sometimes seems to scream: “WORK HARD, PARTY HARD! You’re tired? DON’T SLEEP!!! THAT’S WHAT COCAINE IS FOR!” Kids, don’t do drugs. Also friends, family don’t worry, I never touch the stuff either— I hear it gives you double vision (I wish I could say that that is the last Foreigner reference in this blog post). Furthermore, whether you live in New York City or not I think most of us are victims of the sense of urgency created by the technological age that we live in. We walk around everyday with these little handheld super-computers giving us access to countless text messages, contacts, emails, songs, pictures, videos, podcasts, audiobooks, news stories, and social media accounts (not to mention the entire rest of the internet). We see pictures of our friends and family going on fancy vacations, or winning awards, or getting job promotions, or getting married, or having babies, etc. and it’s easy to think: oh my god I need to do that! I need to get married now! I need to have a high-powered job now! I need to be rich and famous now! Our sense of time and possibility is shaped by our setting, and personally my setting seems to be telling me that time is running out and I need to move quickly if I want to accomplish anything.

Yet there is another perspective on time housed right in my back yard. Saturday I took a solo stroll across Central Park on a beautiful sunny day in route to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Upon arrival, I instantly remembered how much I love going to art museums by myself (an activity I hadn’t done since my first semester of college at Lake Forest College when I would often take trips to the Art Institute of Chicago). It is a fine thing to go to a museum with friends, but I am never able to fully immerse myself in the experience of the art unless I am alone and free to roam at my own pace and let my own sense of taste guide me. During this intimate communion with the museum my thoughts slow down and I can get in touch with a different experience of time, for the mere act of taking time to gaze at a piece of art is a meditation.

Yet the art itself often also points to a story about time that is different than our prevailing cultural view. Take for instance this statue of Ugolino and His Sons by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux created from 1865 to 1867.

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This work is a visceral depiction of angst and desperation and an incredible technical feat of expert marble sculpting. It also represents a feat of patience and diligence which is rare in our culture today. The work is telling us: “yes it may take you two years of your life to create something this great— it may very well take you a lifetime, and you may be working on a single pinky toe for a decade— but you are taking this time because as an artist, you are attempting to create something that is timeless.”

Sure, there is no art that is literally “timeless”— every human creation is tied to the time in which is was made, and everything material will sooner or later deteriorate, yet somehow I do believe that the attempt to create something timeless is still a worthwhile pursuit. For viewing and creating these works of art does indeed expand our normal sense of time and let’s us touch something meaningful that extends both far into the past and far into the future.

If you are at all inclined, I encourage you to treat yourself to a solo date at your nearest art museum. I am certainly spoiled in that I’m a mere walk away from one of the greatest collections of art in the world, yet I think that any art museum will do. I strongly believe that the act of taking time to appreciate a painting or a sculpture in its every minute detail will make you a better person. The constant motion and rapid pace of our age (especially in a place like New York City) presents you with one hypothesis about time: time is running out! Days, months, years, and lives are short so let’s get to work, and then part hard! YOLO! Yet the art museum presents a different perspective: nothing great is made overnight. Greatness is made through slow, deliberate steps towards your goal. Furthermore, you don’t only live once (YDOLO!)— your physical body will perish, but your great work may live on throughout the ages, being born again and again for each new generation to appreciate and interpret…for to them, it feels like the first time.

Yes I just ended this blog post by jamming in another completely uncalled for Foreigner reference! BOO YA!

Moving to the Big Apple—Opus 10

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Start spreading the news

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