As I stare down 2017 and try to move forward with music I've decided to look back to help gain some insight to help move forward. There was a time back in Seattle when I taught music regularly. I kept a music education blog where I posted little bits of advice, interviews, and random observations. Rereading the blog knowing what I know now I would disagree with a few posts but on the whole I had a lot of good advice. I finally got around to following it myself. :) If you want to take a look you can link to it here: http://perfectnotes.blogspot.com. I even wrote a small one hundred page book to help outline a method to help people practice. I think in reality it was me trying to figure out how to practice myself. Something I'm still learning but I feel a lot more confident about it now than I did then. Maybe I'll revisit the book idea again sometime.
Now, before I can move on with this post I want to get this chip off my shoulder once and for all. I need to state that I didn't start playing music until I was 31 YEARS OLD. I guess that's not exactly true but its mostly true. Now I'm 45 and 14 years into working hard at music and I can not use this as any kind of crutch any longer. Maybe I never should have but I've always struggled against the age thing affecting my confidence and I've often worried I just missed the boat and no amount of practice could make up for that. I realize now that's not the case and that's baggage I need to shed. The fact is I've been incredibly ambitious (and incredibly lucky) for someone who didn't start music until really late in life. Just tying to play one instrument well would be a big ask for anyone. Yet I've set out to play various styles and instruments. And now I play acoustic guitar, electric guitar, banjo, and my fiddle playing is no longer making my wife cringe. I've written lots of songs in genres as diverse as bluegrass, rock, folk, pop, and lots of instrumentals. I've had my music in movies, podcasts, and commercials. I've played in some great bluegrass bands like Sanctum Sully and Asheville Newgrass. I also founded my first rock band, Max Gross Weight, at the age of 43 (hahahah) and we recorded a decent EP and played quite a few gigs. Most good, some amazing and a few less so. I say all this not to brag but to take stock of the situation and try to asses a path forward.
Funny thing is despite all that I feel like I'm just now starting to actually feel like I "know" what I'm doing as a musician. Well kind of anyway. It begs the question, what now? I'm not exactly sure but I've been enjoying playing the solo variety show again. From a marketing standpoint it doesn't make a lot of sense to go out and play bluegrass, rock, pop, and old time all in one show. What the hell do you call it? Who do you play for? I don't know. I do know I love the freedom of not playing with a setlist and just go out and kind of wing it. A bit like a one man jam band but with less noddling. It's more about the freedom to drop into any song in any style at any moment. I've got about 25 solo gigs booked this spring and summer. And I'm planning my first ever "tour" this year. I plan to go to Colorado and play 2 weeks this July. I've got 2 gigs booked so far with hopes of getting about 8 more! I'm excited to have more focus on one "act" for a while and see how far I can take it musically. Check out the list of shows I've got and come see me! Max Gross Weight is playing a few gigs here and there too. I'd love to find that band a regular gig somewhere. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
And with that I want to circle back to the age "thing" and the practice book. I'm going to leave you with the introduction to the book. I haven't read it in years and rereading again I thought it was interesting. I sounded like I knew what I was talking about even if I was maybe not quite sure. Its a bit long but maybe you'll find it interesting.
“Without hurry, without rest
Confronted with a high mountain, you cannot reach the summit in one stride, but must climb step by step to reach your goal”
In the fall of 2002 my life seemed to be falling apart. I was 31 years old, I had just dropped out of graduate school, my relationship of 3 years with my girlfriend was ending, and my passion for rock climbing (the focus of my life for over 10 years) was diminishing. I needed to do something else. I had an overwhelming need to express myself and I needed to do it musically.
The funny thing is that my life only seemed to be falling apart. In reality it was falling together but I had no way to know that at the time. My life had been heading one direction. I was a rock climber, I was a graduate school student, and I was going to marry my girlfriend. This was all I knew at the time but it no longer made sense to me. I was crushed by the heartbreak and just plain sad. At that time I was listening to lots of bluegrass music. Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, John Hartford, Norman Blake, and Old and in the Way had come into my life at the perfect time. Perhaps it was a cliché, perhaps it was fate but in my despair I wrote a bluegrass song about my break-up.
The song came from complete spontaneity and pure emotion. It wasn’t a great song but it felt like one of the most natural and “right” things I had ever done with myself. I wrote another one. And then another. And then a few more. Four songs later a small seed of musical curiosity was suddenly sprouting leaves and I sensed that I needed to get it into as much sunlight as I could and as soon as possible.
I had been musical for most of my life but I had never gotten past the status of “hack.” I abandoned piano lessons after only two years when I was young. I couldn’t sit still long enough to practice. I played trumpet during 4 years of middle school band but not once did I take it home to practice. The guitar had been a casual companion of mine for most of my life but I could barely play a single song start to finish. I had even dabbled in banjo lessons and could do a bit of clawhammer style frailing but little else. Maybe calling my musical status a “hack” sounds a bit negative. Let’s just say that at the time I was ripe with potential I didn’t even know I had. I imagine there’s lots of other folks who are just like I was at the time, undeveloped but wanting more.
My lack of creative output was not for a lack of trying. By age 30 I had tried writing, drawing, and theatre (of which I have a bachelor’s degree). I tried hard at those things too but they always seemed like a hopeless struggle. I had tried to write both fiction and nonfiction since I had been in high school. Writing always felt like I was swimming upstream through rough waters. But those first batch of songs felt almost effortless and natural. Like a leaf floating down the creek on a sunny day. Those songs just came as if they been there all along. None of those were great songs but the process was a revelation.
A creative outlet had been sitting in front my face my whole life but I hadn’t realized it until now. It seems so obvious when I look back. I could always entertain myself if an instrument was around. I had spent hours learning riffs and fragments of songs by ear to pass the time. I enjoyed the puzzle of it and I loved music tremendously but, I had never thought I had any “talent” or that music would be my calling. I dabbled. I was a hack and I was OK with that.
I thought rock climbing was my calling and up until that moment it had been. But now I felt like something was slamming on the brakes with the direction my life was heading and I was realizing I was about to miss my turn if I didn’t slow down immediately. All of the sudden everything inside me said “GO THAT WAY!” even though I had no idea what the heck was over there.
But at this point there was nothing to lose. It seemed I had lost it all anyway. The three most grounding and seemingly important aspects of my life all fell apart at the same time. In fact music was suddenly the only thing that made sense to me. I wasn’t even very good at music but I wanted to find out if I could be. I needed to find out. I needed to get away from all the things I was used to and familiar with and explore this music thing without any distractions.
A friend of mine had mentioned that he had worked as a sea kayak tour guide in the Caribbean on the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Luckily for me he was planning on going back down to the islands to work for the upcoming winter season and he mentioned he could get me a job. I pounced on the opportunity. Sitting on a beach strumming my guitar sounded like it was exactly what I needed. And I was right.
I left Tennessee in late October and would stay in St. Thomas for 7 months. Arriving in St. Thomas was, and forgive me for being trite, magical. It sounds cliché and but I can think of no other words for it. The azure sea and gentle breezes felt like more than just pleasant atmosphere. It felt like an opportunity to be reborn. To find out something about myself that I had suspected but never quite understood. The endless water and sky allowed me a place to focus, reflect, and forget all at the same time.
I knew I had made the right choice. My work schedule was light, rent was cheap, and amazingly I quickly met other musicians to play with. My living “situation” turned out to be more inspiring than I could have imagined. My friend and I found an old 30foot sloop moored out in a lagoon that was a 20 minute kayak paddle from the mainland. This boat was long past seaworthy and was even less comfortable as a place to live but I couldn’t have found a more inspirational place to be.
The boat was nestled safely in a giant bay so it was protected from any large waves from the Caribbean sea. Sitting out on deck as the boat gently rocked in the salty breeze I couldn’t have felt farther away from my old life. I immediately set to work on music. I knew I wanted to become a guitarist, a banjoist, and a songwriter and I practiced everyday. Armed with loads of instructional materials I spent as much free time as possible practicing and learning music. I wrote as much music as possible too.
I had no direction or plan about how to get better at music. I merely tried hard. Climbing had taught me to work really hard but not necessarily smart. Sometimes the only way to succeed on a climb you have to fail, fail, and fail some more until you break through and get to the top. When it came to music I had no idea what I was doing but figured if I tried hard that was all that mattered. It always worked in climbing. It took me years to realize that with music this is not the case.
After about three months of flogging myself with scales and a practice regimen born of an overblown ego that was trying to play catch up for what it imagined was 15 years of lost time I crashed hard into the wall of reality. My left hand soon developed an intense pain in the wrist and fingers. The injury was bad enough that I that it prevented me from playing and forced me into a 3-4 week rest to let things heal. My reach exceeded my grasp by a long ways.
I had been productive though and I was frustrated by the setback. I had written about 10 new songs and was starting to get the hang of the banjo. Amazingly, music theory was kind of like common sense to me. It felt natural and intuitive and explained what I was hearing in music in very simple terms. I wanted to know more. I needed to go deeper. I sensed that maybe I could be good at this. This setback was hard to take at the time.
Of course, this minor setback was a warning and wake up call about how I was going about practice. I needed to learn how to practice. I had no idea what I was doing. Music lessons seemed like a good idea. There were some really incredible musicians on St. Thomas and I tried to take lessons with a few guitarists on the island who really impressed me.
Unfortunately these lessons did nothing to help me learn how to practice better or improve much at music. One guitarist merely told me I need to work on my left hand technique then proceeded to show off his original guitar piece. Others told me things about the guitar they thought I should know. Some of that was helpful, some wasn’t. But never not once did I receive a single piece of advice on how to actually get better. The truth is that most of the music teachers I’ve taken lessons with seemed disinterested with teaching. I realize now that being a great musician and being a great teacher are not the same thing.
Once I came back to the states I had written 20 songs, learned music theory, started to develop flatpicking guitar skills, bluegrass banjo skills, and even performed at a few gigs and open mics. I was a much better musician than the one who had arrived on that boat 6 months earlier. But, I still didn’t know how to practice. My approach to practice was completely random and inefficient at best and potentially harmful to my body at worst. It was sort of a shotgun approach. I would just blast away and hopefully I would hit something eventually. It would be years before I found a better way.
A few years later I moved to Seattle and decided to try teaching bluegrass banjo to make a few extra bucks. Once I started working with complete beginners I started to notice my own practicing deficiencies that much more. Working with beginners really made it clear that I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how tell these folks to improve either. It’s easy to tell a music student to go home and practice. Its something else to tell them how to go home and practice. Eventually, about 3 years into my new musical life I realized I was not improving at the rate I felt like I should be improving. I learned songs quickly but could never perfect them to point of playing them comfortably. I needed to find out more about improvement and fix all these problems with my playing.
I started to seek out books and articles written specifically about practicing. I wanted to learn not just about music but about how to improve at music. Why do some people seem to make things look so easy? Why couldn’t any of my music teachers tell me how to get better? Was I lacking “talent” or was I just going about it all wrong? What should I tell my music students about how to get better? It seemed so mysterious and out of reach.
It has taken a while, 13 years to be more exact, to figure this whole practicing thing out. In that time I’ve gone from total beginner (hack) to professional. I’ve played hundreds of gigs on stages big and small. I’ve recorded 2 CD’s of original music. I’ve scored several documentaries. I’ve written around 150 songs and hope to write at least that many more. I’ve learned to play harmonica. old time fiddle, and can dance while I play. No kidding! I wouldn’t call myself a virtuoso or anything so lofty as that. At this point I would simply say that I’m not bad. More importantly I know how to get better and can see all the improvement I can still make and look forward to improving. I finally know how to improve.
The purpose of this book is to hopefully present in clear and easy to understand language what I have learned about improving as a musician. From my failures and success you can learn to practice better. I’ve made all of the mistakes so I can tell you what to avoid. I can also tell what to do right. Of course I didn’t figure this out all by myself and I’ve done a great deal of research to help my understanding of musical improvement.
Music is a mysterious thing but getting better at it is not a mystery. It is systematic and methodical. Part scientific, part power of will. Part joy and part frustration. It is disciplined but there is freedom in music to be had. It can be both frustrating and incredibly rewarding for even the most modest of goals.
This book is designed to help out whether you’re just starting out on a musical instrument or if you’ve been playing for a while and you’ve stopped making progress. Even if you are a accomplished musician this book will help you solve the problems you might be facing with a piece of music. If you’re a virtuoso maybe there’s nothing I can say that could help you any further, but you never know.
Ultimately I hope you see that music is not only for the “talented” or “gifted.” High levels of musical ability are there for most people to attain if they have the right training and motivation. No matter what your ambition is it’s never to late to be the best musician you can be.