Apr 302014

Everyone I talk to about doing artistic work raises the topic of needing more time in the day. “I’m so busy–how can I squeeze in my creative pursuits?” Here are some quick tips that may help.

1. Give Up Something

Choose a specific activity that you will give up to make time for your creative work. Maybe you don’t need to watch all 162 games of your favorite baseball team. Maybe you can give up that committee you’ve been volunteering on for nineteen years. It’s not that these are bad things, but sometimes you need to say no to other activities to make room for your creative work.

What you are telling yourself: “I am doing my work. My work matters as much as everything else in my busy life.”

2. Handle Distractions

The phone ringing, the kids doing kid stuff, noise from outside, your sore left knee. The dirty dishes and the dirty laundry and the plant by the window that needs watering. And there’s always something to look at on the Web. Immersing yourself in creative work will require you to block out the world for a while.

Then there are the distractions from within. “My boss was such a pain today.” “Maybe I’m no good at this writing thing.” Whatever thoughts arise that are not contributing to your work, let them float away down the stream of consciousness.

For most people, the earlier in the day you start your creative work, the fewer the distractions. If getting started early is available to you, give it a try.

What you are telling yourself: “It’s hard to do my work with such a busy life, but I am equal to these distractions.”

3. Create Every Day

Pick a time and place where you’ll work every day. Tell the other people in your house, “I’m writing each morning before I get ready for work.” Hang up a sign to remind you and others of your plan.

If you want to create in a fulfilling way, you need to put in the time and attention. There are no shortcuts. Getting to your work every day will help you move from dabbling to creating.

You may need a transition period if all you can manage are a few minutes per day. Even a little time and space each day is a good start. If you can begin to spend a little more thought and effort on creating, then you’re heading in the right direction.

What you are telling yourself: “My artistic work demands a great deal of time and brain power. So I will show up to work every day.”

4. Plan A Project

Let’s say you show up at your chosen time and place to do some writing, You will also need a concrete idea of what you will write. You will need a form and a goal. Think in terms of describing your current project to others. “I’m writing a short story, a dark suspense thing.” “I’m writing an article about the need for improvements to the parks and playgrounds in the south half of town.” “I’m working on the second draft of my novel.”

This goes for other types of work too. A musician practices honestly when she can state her aim for that session with her instrument. An artist works with focus when he knows what he is painting.

Treat “to create” as a transitive verb, always needing an object. What specifically are you working on?

What you are telling yourself: “I know what I am working on. I’m not just creating–I’m creating something.”

Moving On

When you put tips like these to use, you are sending a message to yourself and others that your work matters. Most of us have time in our hectic lives to get our creating done. See if you can use a few of these ideas to get more momentum behind your artistic work.

Sometimes life is just too busy, and there truly is no time to give to your creating. If that is your situation, be patient, and look for opportunities to simplify other parts of your life so you can get to your creative endeavors in the future.

Nov 082013

I like to think of creativity exercises as short-term tools. They’re not really solutions in themselves, but they can break habits, build habits, and help the heart and mind break away from malaise.

I’m talking about creativity exercises such as: think of a color, then write down ten objects that have the color. Then write a story plot using those objects. Or, take a musical phrase and play it in all twelve keys, then play it backwards in all twelve keys. Sure you could write a story or a piece of music this way, but usually the process is much more imaginative than that.

It reminds me of my religious life from many years ago. People would really get into the rules and procedures of prayer, but it seemed rare that anyone actually achieved a prayerful life. I might not have it right, and maybe folks were experiencing something far more substantial than what I saw. But it seemed to me that prayer was usually about certain physical acts, like closing eyes, bowing heads, folding hands or linking hands with others. It was about words, lots of tedious words, despite Jesus’ teaching on that subject. And Jesus also taught that praying in public places was a waste of time, yet folks seemed so into saying verbose prayers in public almost any chance they got.

Something similar goes on with musicians and writers. One of the hardest things for me when I’m teaching music lessons is to help a student simply relax and fall into playing music. There’s always lots of discussion about buying more instruements and accessories, even though the student already has too much stuff. It seems like the idea of playing music is more appealing than the actual experience of it. I think it seems like the work that goes into learning an instrument holds some kind of dread. It might go back to how nasty and boring our assignments were in school as kids. It might have to do with something similar with parents, with religious education and services, how we’re taught as kids to dread the stuff that everyone says is so important.

By the way, if you are reading this and you have taken lessons from me, please don’t think I’m describing you specifically. Almost all the music students I’ve had over the years have struggled to find happiness in making their music.

For writers, there are exercises and books about writing. There’s worry about writing. There are all kinds of classes and activities around writing, even finishing an MFA. All useful in some ways, but I think the best attitude is to see all that as short-term. Those are little tools to help get things started, but you’re not writing until you’re writing. Just write. Go ahead. If you don’t know what to write about, then wait. Take a walk. Don’t think about it, just wait. Don’t worry, you’ll get some ideas sooner or later.

I recently ran across a mention of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s “Oblique Strategies” cards. I heard about them many years ago, and it’s a very cool idea. You pick a card, and it points you to some new direction for your current work. Here are some examples:

  • A line has two sides.
  • Do nothing for as long as possible.
  • Question the heroic approach
  • Ask people to work against their better judgement.

(This text came from http://www.rtqe.net/ObliqueStrategies/Edition1-3.html)

I’ve never actually owned a set of these cards, but the idea is enough for me. Just do something different, change the monotony, or repeat the unpredictableness, or just launch out into some place. Go eat a sandwich. Go find an animal to say hello to. Think inside the box. Think outside the box. And then eat the box.

Aug 302013

How often do you find yourself talking to yourself about yourself?

“I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“I’m so much better than he is.”

“She’s so much better than I am.”

“Why did she say that about me? I don’t think she likes me very much.”

If self-scrutiny is a frequent activity in your brain, you might find it helpful to change that habit. It’s useful once in a while to reflect on ways to do well and be better. But endless evaluating will quickly drain your enthusiasm.

You may not think specific thoughts like these, but you may have vague emotions of worry, gloom, and fear around your creative work. Visceral self-doubts are tougher to deal with, because you are not simply arguing with habits of thought. You are dealing with deeper emotional connections. Wy not spend some time thinking of ways to break the routine of endless evaluating?

Get started.

One of the toughest things for a person with an artistic inspiration is to begin work on it. If you’re a writer, a wonderful idea for a new novel can feel like a new romance or adventure, bringing waves of elation and anticipation. But that novel inspiration comes with no guarantees, and there is no automatic process that will get the book written. That novel idea might lead to many months of writing and rewriting only to realize that you have twelve and a half chapters that simply won’t turn into anything. Why risk such failure? Why do something that could be a huge waste of time and energy?

One response to the doubting is, “Well why not?” If you’re going to write, you have to just write and write. Even the most skilled novelist must throw away lots of chapters and even entire novels that just won’t fly. You have to do lots of writing–including lots of disappointing writing–before you can learn to do some good writing. You can ask lots of questions about your ability and inexperience and what the big world thinks should be in a novel. You can spend a lot of time wondering if you have the right set of qualities and talents that make up “the successful writer.” Or, you can put the questions aside and start writing to see where it will lead.

Get finished.

Any kind of creative work has a huge element of plain old “work” in it, including things that are mundane, tedious, and difficult. When life demands that you dig in and get some work done, resist the boredom and discouragement. Keep practicing that music, keep revising and editing that poem, keep working stroke after stroke on that painting. It may be boring, it may be discouraging, but the path demands that you put in many long hours of sweat and stubborn focus. During those dull, hard steps in your work, you will be tempted to doubt yourself. “Am I good? Is this worth anything? Why is it so easy for others?” Trust the path, and get the work finished. You won’t know what the finished project will look like until you actually have it done. Why not throw yourself into the work till it takes you to its completion? Why not try to find fulfillment by losing yourself in the task for long stretches?

Be kind to your artistic self. Treat yourself the way a loving parent treats a child who is learning something new. Be supportive, objective, calm, and friendly toward yourself. Take yourself for a walk when that kid is having a bad day. Maybe treat that kid to some ice cream or play a game together. A child shouldn’t have to face endless scrutiny, worrying if her parent will disapprove yet again. Your artistic self needs that same kind of encouragement and guidance. That positive energy often does not come without some intention and effort. Wy not spend some time thinking of ways to replace habits of endless evaluating with habits of kindness toward yourself ?

Jun 302013

Recently I worked with one of my musician clients to practice for some radio interviews. Here are some of the things we worked on.

get in and get out. Time is precious when you are taking part in any audio or video interview. If it’s live, you won’t have much time to stop and fix your words. Become comfortable with making complete responses in little bites of ten seconds, twenty seconds, thirty seconds, one minute. Finally, practice answering questions in exactly one sentence.

Talk about one thing. How would you answer the question, “So tell me how you got started with music?” You could describe your mom’s singing to the car radio, the music at your neighborhood synagogue, and how you loved a certain Brahms record when you were in high school. Try saying one thing, not everything. “I heard a lot of great music going to synagogue as a kid.” That simple response says tons and will lead the interviewer toward questions about tangible, specific, and memorable things.

Simplify. Call yourself a jazz performer, even though that isn’t exactly who you are. Call your music “roots” even if you don’t quite enjoy that label. Let an interviewer refer to you as an “emerging” artist, though that might feel a little patronizing. Create a three-word phrase to describe your music. “Mellow Americana.” “Nineties country.” “Urban story songs.” It’s like having a business card, just a little something that helps you stick in people’s memories. You’ll also need some pithy, simplified phrases to describe your music when talking to presenters, DJs, producers, and so forth. Trust that the folks you are talking to will understand that the simplified verbiage is just a hint of something far more substantial, and you would give them more if only time would allow.

Perform. Think ahead about what you want to show of yourself, and what you will keep private. Just like performing on stage, you create your performer persona. Be engaging, interesting, provocative, fun–whatever you do to get your music out to your audiences will also carry well in an interview.

Expect bad questions. An interviewer might ask you about your love life, or might make an inappropriate joke about your age, gender, or ethnic background. Assume the worst and most awkward questions will come up sooner or later, so think ahead of how you will respond to them. You might go with, “I don’t have anything to say about that.” Or, “That’s an insulting thing to ask.” Or, “I don’t know what to say about that, but let me go back to what I was saying about my new CD … ”

In my coaching practice I work with musicians, writers, and other artistic people on practical things like preparing for interviews. I also help my clients find fulfillment and accomplishment in their creative endeavors. Drop me an email if you’d like to find out more about my creativity coaching services. I’d love to hear from you!

Feb 182013

Every time a musician says “no” to a gig, he is making his circle of opportunities a little smaller. When he’s feeling tired and wanting some chill time at home on the couch, someone else with more motor will take his spot and keep it.

Every time a pianist says “no” to practice, she’s saying that music is not as important to her as it is for some others. On the days she doesn’t practice, someone else is racing ahead to push the music a little further.

Every time a singer says “no” to fixing a mistake in practice, he’s telling himself the mistakes are OK. He’s made that mistake twenty times in the past, and he’s sung it correctly maybe once or twice. He may need to sing it right fifty or a hundred more times to patiently untrain the mistake.

Every time a novelist says “no” to writing, she is missing the opportunity to make her draft a little better. Other writers out there aren’t skipping as many days, and some of them will make it mainly on their drive and dedication.

Every time an artist says “no” to his most important project in order to dabble in something else, he is robbing the left pocket to fill the right one. Spending energy on a frivolous diversion with no intention to complete it diminishes the soul of his main pieces.

Every time a poet says “no” to working because she is worrying and doubting, she acts unkindly toward herself. Doubting herself means she doesn’t consider herself equal. Worrying denies that working very, very hard is what makes brilliant art. She does well to hold onto the truth: She is equal, and the best thing she can do for her creative heart is to work like she loves it and means it.

When you feel discouraged, lazy, distracted, or worried about your artistic work, bravely say “yes” to your creativity.

Oct 052012

A forty-year-old construction worker gets arthritis in his hands after absorbing the vibrations of heavy tools and machines for years.

A call center worker keys in orders straight through her eight hour shifts. She’s scheduled for carpal tunnel surgery next week, and she’s worried about how she’ll pay the bills and take care of her four-year-old while she recovers.

A promising young pianist has to take some months off from her music for physical therapy after a sudden wrist injury. She was practicing one day and felt something snap in her wrist. In an instant her career veered off the road.

Those are some extreme examples of hand problems, but they are not too unusual. People strain their hands more than they realize. It’s not uncommon for creative people to work their hands twelve hours a day or more when creative work is combined with a day job. Musicians are especially vulnerable to hand and wrist injuries since they often push to do far more than others do with their hands. But a hand problem can also interrupt or limit the work of sculptors, painters, writers, and dancers.

Here are some suggestions for taking good care of your hands.

  1. Take charge: You are ultimately in charge of your hands. Pay attention when they feel tired, achy, or in pain. Get some medical attention at the first sign of trouble. You can blame your job at the computer keyboard all day. You can blame your violin teacher who didn’t give you proper technical guidance when you were in high school. Genetics and luck are all there too. But you are the one who is in charge, and you’re the one who has to solve the problems and stay healthy.

  2. Get the blood flowing. When the wrists and hands are full of blood, they heal and recover better. Let your arms hang limp at your sides, and feel the blood gathering in your hands. Try “the rag doll” yoga pose by bending forward at the waist and hanging limp. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but try to get used to the feeling of blood gathering in your hands.

  3. Get stronger. Find some regular exercise to strengthen your arms and upper body. You can often prevent hand problems by strengthening your arms from elbow to fingertip. The muscles that move your fingers and wrist extend the whole way back to the elbow, so stronger arms make for stronger hands. Vinyasa yoga is great for this with the “upward-facing dog” and “downward-facing dog” poses. Or you might be more inclined to hit the weights at the gym, getting on the chin-up bar, or putting in some good old push-ups.

  4. Use ice and heat. when a football player gets to the locker room after a game, he needs ice to bring down the swelling of a banged-up shoulder. A marathon runner may use wet heat on her sore back after run to treat chronic pain. If you are playing music, typing your novel, or painting for hours a day, you’re also an athlete. Don’t ignore the physical toll your work takes on your body. Learn how to use ice and heat to treat various kinds of soreness and injury. You might also want to try this less conventional treatment for tired muscles: Fill up a big mixing bowl with raw oats, rice, or dry beans and run your fingers through it for a few minutes. It’s a great massage for your hands, and believe it or not, it feels really good.

  5. Take a break. There’s an old saying among musicians: “Don’t practice for a day and you’ll feel it. Don’t practice for a week and your audience will feel it.” This is true, no doubt. The way to have a meaningful artistic life is to pursue it passionately and constantly. But there are times where a rest is the best thing for you. If you’re a little numb with your novel and your hands are sore every day, maybe close up that laptop for a week. If your fingers are sluggish and ignoring your brain’s commands at the piano, you might need a few weeks of very light practicing to rest your hands. Find a slow time between gigs and deadlines, and take a break.

  6. Check your technique. How’s your posture? Where do you hold tension in your body most of the time? Are you using your hands in the most efficient way possible? We usually think of musicians when we talk about proper technique, but a lot of writers and artists can also benefit from ergonomic improvements. A musician might get some lessons to check on her technique. Yoga, relaxation exercises, or Alexander technique can teach you to be more aware of your body and to use your hands more efficiently.

  7. Get good medical help. The hand is a delicate, complex structure of tiny bones, muscles, and tendons. Even a small injury is a big deal to the intricate structure of your hand. A wart on the back of your hand might seem like a simple thing to have removed, but keep in mind the risk to the tendons that are right there under the spot. Most hand problems should be taken care of by a hand specialist for these reasons. There’s just too much stuff too close together for you to take chances.

Here are two books that explain lots of great ways that musicians can take care of themselves, including their hands. Artistic people from other disciplines might find other resources to be more suitable to their activities. If you have a good book or article to suggest, please leave a comment to let us know.

Jun 262012

When I was a spiritual person in my younger days, I loved a good sermon. Now you ask various church people what makes a good sermon, and you’ll have trouble getting a lot of agreement. Some people want to hear comfortable, familiar platitudes, and some like loud shouting and stomping around. Others expect the preacher to give a deep academic exposition of a text or topic. I knew one strange guy who would say, “If I don’t feel guilty and ashamed after a sermon, then that preacher isn’t doing his job.” Whoa, yikes!

I always felt that a good sermon simply meant telling a good story. When a person could stand in front of an audience and paint stories in their imaginations, well that’s what I liked. And when I had the task of delivering a sermon, I tried to put together twenty minutes of good stories. I modeled my sermons on Garrison Keeler and John Steinbeck rather than Billy Graham or Jimmy Swaggart, the most popular preachers back then.

After many years as a church person I came to the cynical conclusion that most people go to church to see their friends and to be entertained by the sermon and the music. I’m not a spiritual person now, but I do have a great appreciation for friends, stories, and music. I’m always finding intriguing new melodies from fiddle tunes and old songs, and writing my own songs is my way of making up stories today. I’ve had the privilege of performing and recording in recent years with some good friends such as Bud Burwell, Marcy Cochran, Loralyn Coles, Tom Bodine, Harny, Al Bernier, and Brother Lou.

I spend time sometimes thinking about where that shared territory might be between spiritual people and unbelievers. It’s hard to see it with so many words spoken publicly out of fear, frustration, and old-fashioned meanness. But I think stories and songs can help people understand each other.

Not that I’m trying to do anything grand with my songs. I’m just writing stories that I like, and I figure that if I like them, then other people will probably like them too. If the song is going to mean something to someone, well I can’t order it to do that. I can’t say, “Look here, song, you better get out there and help people get along with each other and forget their troubles.” Nope, the songs have to just do what they are going to do.

May 242012

Jason Blume is a successful songwriter with huge hits in pop and country in the 1990s and 2000s. I recently picked up his book, Inside Songwriting: Getting To The Heart Of Creativity, and I found it a quality read. Whether you’re into songwriting from the “artistic” perspective or trying to make it in the music business, Blume shares some great ideas and anecdotes here. He emphasizes creativity, craft, and professional poise, explaining that being a successful songwriter is more than finding the secret shortcut or learning the magic formulas. The book gets a bit repetitive with the anecdotes, but overall it offers some great practical advice.


Blume gives some good homework exercises to break down your assumptions and dogmas. One exercise is to listen to CHR (contemporary hits radio), current country hits, or other formats of new hits on the radio. Most songwriters I know don’t listen to this stuff because a) you’re working in a non-commercial style, or b) you’re old enough to have “retro” or “classic” tastes. blume instructs you to listen to see how the current hits are constructed. Is there a key change from verse to chorus, or into the bridge? What is the range and contour of the melody? What interesting rhythms, rhymes, and phrasings can you find? How do the lyrics connect the writer with the audience? As Blume points out, the radio is a huge, free course in new songwriting ideas.

I tried this out on a new country station for an hour, and I noticed some real interesting stuff. I was surprised that there was almost no fiddle present. I expected fiddle to be there because it was pretty big in the Garth Brooks ’90s country, which is the most recent country period that I’m familiar with. I also heard , a lot of lyrics that were more sensitive and reflective, but not in a whiny or crying-at-the-bar kind. And I heard a lot of fun ’70s rock influence. Yeah, I also heard a lot of disposable stuff that made me shake my head and say, “Ugh!”

Here’s another exercise from this book: Take one of your recent “finished” compositions and rewrite it with five new melodies. I decided to try this on a song that I have finished and felt was totally solid work by me. I thought, “It’s just an exercise, but this song has already been through a dozen melodic revisions and doesn’t need to change.” I picked up my guitar and started singing the first new melody that came to mind, something a little more driving and contemporary-sounding. And poof, that melody was actually an improvement over the “finished” one. All in a few seconds.

That instant new melody–just add water–was a surprise, and usually you won’t get that quick of a result when you try five new melodies. But blume teaches us something important here. When you think you’re done, try putting out another 500% on that song. It might not change at all, but you need to have a ridiculous level of diligence and effort if you want to finish songs at a higher quality.


Blume tells us songwriters to get rid of our excuses, you’re not too talented or not talented enough or too old or too young. He spends a little time breaking down the biggest excuse of them all: “The odds are a million to one. Why should I think that I’m so special?”

His answer is this: Each person is special and unique. No one can write the way you can. You just have to do the ridiculous huge amount of hard work to be the best you that you can be. Maybe it’s all been done before, but no one can do it the way you can.


You ever find yourself saying to someone, “I know in my head what I want to say, but I’m having trouble putting it into words”? I do this a lot sometimes, which means that my brain, my mouth, the other person’s ear, and the other person’s brain are all working at different speeds. I have to slow down my brain or my mouth to get all these parts understanding each other clearly.

Blume’s book talks about how communication works in songwriting. You write a great song, something that feels so urgent, intense, fun, or deep for you. But when you play it for others, they seem to say, “What does the broken clock mean? And why was there a dog barking on the mountain?” Time to think about synchronizing your feelings, your song, and your audience’s feelings.

Blume points out the big difference between what you feel from your song and what others feel when they hear it. That’s why your upbeat love song might need to be done as a slow heartbreaking ballad. Subjective versus objective. Try getting into other people’s heads a bit to get that communication flowing a little more clearly.


Blume writes that there is no magic shortcut or secret to successful songwriting–just hard work and always trying to get better. You can’t get enough feedback. You can’t rewrite enough and improve enough.

You’ll have friends and peers who scoff at the idea of honing your skills. My deal is this – Learning techniques doesn’t mean you follow formulas slavishly. A technique is just another tool in your toolbox, so use it when it is needed.

Most of us have very specific, well-developed daydreams about what our success would look like. So what would successful songwriting work look like? Lunch with awesome musicians, glamorous parties with glamorous people or what? This book focuses on the songs themselves as career success. A successful songwriter would be a busy person, working hard at music, having frequent collab sessions with other writers, working out details with singers, getting feedback from publishers. Late nights, rushing to meet deadlines. And of course taking lots of verbal and written rejection.

To wrap it up, here’s one of my own exercises: How would you explain to someone the work of writing a great melody? If you’re like me, you stumble and stall at that question. Give your mind a try at that, and leave a comment to let folks know what you come up with.

May 012012

I recently read Michael Gray’s biography of Georgia blues musician Blind Willie Mctell. The book is titled hand Me My Traveling Shoes, a line from McTell’s best-known song, “Statesboro Blues.”

Gray’s approach is to dig through primary sources of all kinds to fill in the hazy details of McTell’s life and times. Learning about African Americans in the southeast United States from the early 1900s is often a puzzle that tests the patience of a diligent researcher. Gray did his research well, resulting in a thorough and balanced history. If you are a fan of country blues or early-1900s folk music, this is a great read.

A Great Musician

Gray paints McTell as an energetic, industrious, optimistic soul. Blind from birth or from childhood (the specific details are unknown), Willie McTell was one of Atlanta’s most popular blues performers. McTell played the 12-string guitar with brilliance and skill. During the 1920s and 1930s, the 12-string was a popular instrument in Atlanta for its loud sound and the complex piano-like tone. McTell was one of the top 12-string players of his day. Today the 12-string is usually played with simplistic strums, but McTell played jumping bass lines and syncopated rhythms on it, plus a little slide work too.

McTell’s singing was sweet and high in a tenor range. He defies today’s stereotype of “blues singing” as whiskey-soaked growl and rasp. And his material also defies today’s notion that blues music is about miserable topics. No doubt there are some nasty numbers among the few dozen recorded McTell tracks available today, but most of the songs have a playful or rowdy tone to the lyrics. His “blues” are no bluer than the popular country songs and folk ballads from the same period.

McTell is known as a blues musician, and he was a specialist and innovator in the forms of Piedmont blues. But there is a strong gospel thread through his recordings too, along with some borrowing from popular songs and ragtime numbers. McTell was an entertainer, not a purist.

Turbulent Times

Gray lays out a detailed study of the historical, geographical, and cultural context of McTell’s life. McTell lived from 1903 to 1959, a period in which Georgia went from post-war reconstruction to urbanization and industrialization. McTell lived on the fault lines between country and city, between black and white, between farm and factory.

McTell’s blindness was no more a hindrance to him in his day than it would be today. He booked his own gigs over the telephone. He walked the country roads around the small towns where he grew up. He knew the streets, landmarks, and tram lines throughout Atlanta during a time when the cityscape was changing rapidly. In those days, the streets were redesigned to accommodate the arrival of automobiles, and the population of Atlanta doubled in the first two decades of the twentieth century. McTell is portrayed in this book as someone who kept in step with the changing times.

McTell was savvy and earned his living from his music. Some who don’t get a close look might expect blind musicians from a century ago to live as bumbling, penniless street performers who really didn’t know what was going on around them. On the contrary, McTell was literate, well oriented to Atlanta life, popular, and much admired.

First-Person Biographer

Another unique feature of Gray’s book is the inclusion of first-person anecdotes from the author’s research trips to Georgia. Gray is British and brings a foreigner’s objectivity to the task. He describes how he found census records, birth certificates, death certificates, and funeral home records. He also points out the many unfortunate gaps in the paper records from the early 1900s in the south.

Gray joined forces with an local couple to find the lost grave site of McTell’s second wife, Helen. He gives his impressions and opinions about the interesting and curious personalities that he interviewed. And he describes many of the helpful people behind desks at courthouses, libraries, a funeral home, and the medical institution where McTell died. At one point Gray found himself in the hateful eye of a hard-ass Georgia country cop. Being a guy with a British accent means he got more than the standard helping of humiliation and cruelty, an experience which could help an outsider appreciate what African Americans lived with every day under southern segregation.

It’s a curious thing to me. A writer in the twenty-first century has a terrible and frustrating time finding out about a popular black musician from a major city in the United States from less than a century ago. Does this show us how primitive and indifferent American society really was just a couple generations ago?

This dense book doesn’t read like Wikipedia. It’s for nerds who love the method and the research for its own sake as well as the subject matter being uncovered. Pick up Gray’s book, and you’ll get an appreciation for McTell along with a broader understanding of the times in which he lived.

Apr 162012

Stefon Harris has this great discussion on Youtube on the topic of jazz and mistakes. Check it out

Harris says that mistakes are opportunities. If you want to take the music somewhere, you can’t push and pull the others forcefully. You contribute to the motion and color and feeling by listening and responding. Forcing things to go in a certain direction will alienate your collaborators more than inspire them. As long as one accepts the other’s music, then the group plays and creates a big music with deep feeling and meaning.

Let The Musicians Play

I’ll talk about myself a little, though I’m certainly not the perfect example that all musicians should follow. I do tend to take unusual approaches to music sometimes. For example, I don’t tell others what to play very much. I know this has thrown a few of my musical collaborators off a bit, because lots of folks are used to finding a specific part and playing that. “This is my part, and I’ll play it this way.” I figure the music works best for me if every practice and every performance has a spontaneous and present flavor to it. It has to smell and taste like “now.” And I tend to gravitate towards musicians who can put a lot of “now” into their playing.

I once heard an interview where mandolinist David Grisman said that playing with guitarist Doc Watson was always a great experience in the 80s and 90s, because Watson never told anyone in those sessions what to play or how to play. That’s trust and respect.

This “free” approach isn’t a magic formula. Sometimes musicians do need more direction, of course. There are settings, such as orchestral music, where freedom is the opposite of what makes the music come alive. You have to find the approach that works in your situation, so you can’t just follow this or that dogmatically. No matter what the approach your music needs, the trust and respect you give to your collaborators is a potent fuel for feeling a great moment with the music.

Earning and Giving Respect

What if the musicians around you haven’t earned your trust and respect? What if you’re frustrated because they aren’t playing very well? maybe they are playing fine but you’re just in a bad mood. Maybe you just need to give folks a little more room to play. The competitive nature of music and the music biz makes a lot of folks grouchy, arrogant, and disapproving jerks. Watch out so you aren’t becoming one yourself.

(Insert here your favorite memory of a conductor throwing a tantrum, because that is obviously what music is all about.)

Perhaps you are standing next to someone who really doesn’t have his technical chops down solid. If you’re trying to play with someone who is seriously in over his head, that will drag you down. In that case, you can be respectful to the person by trying to help them out as much as you can, even if you can’t trust the musician to stand up to the challenge. We’ve all been in that situation where we’re just struggling and fighting with the music, and nothing good is coming out of it. So be respectful when someone else is struggling, even if you have to shake things up to get the music right. Respect the person even if you can’t respect the music.

There is a difference between technical mistakes and improvising opportunities. You need to have sound musical technique. Bad timing, slowing down the groove, playing out of tune, and making lots of rattle and clunk are not what your audience is listening for. The mistakes can be opportunities for learning and improving, as I wrote in the previous post on this blog.
Bottom line; A lot of bad music is made in the name of “freedom” and “breaking the rules.”

on the other hand,breaking the so-called rules, listening, following, accepting, and trusting are all the breath and heartbeat of the spontaneous improv side of music. Can you follow the rules, break the rules, play freely, play strictly, whatever your approach, and carry the life and the story across to your audience?

Tell A Story

Performing music well is like telling a great story. Folks usually don’t worry if someone makes a few small hesitations, mistakes, and “ums” while telling that great story. People are more interested in you and what you are saying, as long as you are making that story come alive.

Imagine a person who doesn’t speak the lingua franca well because she grew up with a different language as her first tongue. There’s no reason why that person can’t tell a great story despite her limitations in grammer and vocabulary. Carry that over to your music, and you get the point. Try to get the technical things write, but at some point you have to get past musical grammar and spelling. At some point you have to make the story come alive, even within your technical limitations.

John hartford used to say that style is a function of one’s technical limitations. That’s a good thing to tell yourself once in a while. “I can only work within these limits and parameters, so whatever I come up with, that is my style.”
the next time you practice, alone or with others, think about the stories you are trying to tell with your music. What story, picture, and feeling can you speak into each piece of music you practice? Try to go beyond the rote and get to the story behind the notes.