Mar 252012

Imagine a person who builds a house making frequent mistakes from beginning to end without even knowing it. The foundation is not level and solidly laid. The supports are not plumb, the walls are not sturdy, all because the builder did not do anything about the mistakes. If the builder would recognize and correct each mistake as it happens, then the house would turn out beautifully. Maybe all that correcting and reworking would take three times as long to complete the house. But which result is better–a rapidly completed house that is flawed and worthless, or a slowly built house that turns out wonderful in the end??

Last night I was out for dinner and some live music with a crew of friends. The topic of practicing guitar came up. We talked about how hard it is to notice mistakes, and then to decide what to do about them. It seems like the whole point of practicing is to improve, but seeing mistakes and fixing them can be tricky when practicing becomes mindless routine and unconscious habit.

Watch yourself as you practice to notice as many mistakes as possible.
Once you find a mistake, then you must decide what to do about it. You can choose to ignore it, because you are intentionally focusing on another part of your playing. Or you can stop and work on the mistake until you are playing the passage correctly. Or you can plan to work on the mistake later. Do you make a deliberate choice with your mistakes, or do you follow a habit or routine without much awareness?

The most obvious choice is to stop and fix a mistake when it happens. How does a musician fix a mistake? By repeating the phrase or passage and trying to play it correctly? By improvising an exercise to focus on the underlying skill needed to correct the mistake? By focusing your mental attention to the trouble spot to clarify the connection between mind and muscles? Identifying the cause of the mistake might point you to the best remedy. If the problem is mental distraction, then you will need to put more focused attention on the problem. If the cause is physical, then you will need to work on muscles and technique. Sometimes a mistake is more stylistic–a weak or forced presentation. In that case you will need to combine your imagination and technique to develop a more effective interpretation for the piece.

Here’s a novel way to make some good use of your practice-time mistakes. Watch for mistakes as you play, and write down a nice long list of them. Do this for fifteen or twenty minutes, and suddenly you have a list that can serve as your practice agenda for the coming weeks and months. If your practice time is boring or uninspired, build your mistake list and get to work.

I once read in a book of Zen sayings that “life is a continuous mistake.” That saying has stuck with me for years. Life is messy, and people make mistakes all the time. Sometimes we don’t see our mistakes, and they just continue to happen. Other times we can recognize them and use them to grow and improve. It works for practicing music, and it works for other areas of life. Look for your mistakes in your relationships, your finances, and the way you spend your time. It’s a good thing we are all so flawed, because we have lots of mistakes to help us learn and grow.

Feb 202012

Imagine a bunch of kids in a backyard football game. They play for the pure fun of the game. The game is not a means to an end–just a pleasure in itself. None of them think about the status and wealth that comes to the most gifted athletes. They play because it’s fun to play. The kids abandon all thoughts except the game itself, losing themselves in the moment of the action.

Lose Yourself

How can an artistic personality bring an attitude of abandon to his work?

  • Lose track of time. Set up your schedule so you have some blocks of time to just hang out with your work. Find an afternoon or evening where you don’t have to think about the next thing coming up in an hour. Even better, set up a regular time. “Every Saturday night I stay up late with my sculpture work.”
  • Lose yourself in space. Find a comfortable place where you feel good doing your work. That place might be a typical work area, such as a library or home studio. It might be an unusual place, such as sitting in your car in the park, or on the steps leading up to the attic. Find a place where you can get lost in your work without interruption, even if that means negotiating some spatial boundaries with others in your home.
  • Lose yourself in the work. Produce without worrying about marketability. You can decide which finished pieces you will send out into the public later. First things first–just work and forget everything else. Your imagination has enough material most of the time. It only needs you to struggle through the hard work of choosing, creating, revising, and finishing.

Play games

Give your imagination some freedom, let it run off its leash for a while.

  • A poet who is stuck might try to write the worst poem possible, or she might try writing a love poem to an earthworm.
  • A musician struggling with an intense piece of music could try playing a few lines backward or in a silly rhythm, just for some comic relief.
  • An actor might parody himself, or imitate his cat performing Shakespeare.
  • A novelist could imagine a plot where a large rock is elected prime minister of Canada, and how that would bring about world peace. Or perhaps a story where scientists discover that the number eighty-two doesn’t really exist.
  • An artist could draw cartoons of giant forks and spoons having a dance in the kitchen.

Though these are silly suggestions, there is a serious side to the attitude of abandon. Sometimes the intensity of artistic work makes a soul miserable. Sometimes a creative person holds to tightly to her project. She tries to hard, worries too much about outcomes, and suddenly the joy of the work turns into resentment and harsh self-criticism.

For the artistic personality that feels discouraged or stuck, letting go with the attitude of abandon can help break up the ice around the imagination. What are some things you can do to grow the attitude of abandon in your creative endeavors?

Jan 062012

There’s a rule for songwriters that I have heard from Jack hardy’s quotes: always take something positve when you listen to another performer.

This rule is not just another case of “because you should” or some similar vague guilt trip. I’m not a big fan of the imaginary mom who stands in your brain ready to evaluate what you are doing, just because.

No, this rule is very practical. If you focus on criticisms and negative parts of another person, then you walk away with nothing to add to yourself. “she talked too much about herself.” “He came across as a salesperson more than a musician.” and what do you gain for yourself?

But when you focus on finding some positive stuff from another performer, you then have a little reminder of what you can add to your own work.

  • “She talked too much, but her arrangements were very interesting. I need to get better at arranging my songs”
  • “His sales pitch was annoying, but his lyrics were clever and provocative. I want to spend more time polishing up the lyrics on my new batch of songs.”

I’m talking about musicians learning from other performers here in these examples, but You can pick up ideas for yourself from areas other than your own.

  • A novelist is listening to a rock band, and she is inspired by the dramatic shifts from loud to soft. She tries to employ some dramatic changes in tone while working on her next chapter.
  • a songwriter is really digging the characters in a spy novel. He tries doing some character and plot in his next batch of songs, making a deliberate move from abstract symbolism toward a narrative style.

Focus on what you like, and take something for yourself from the other guys.

Dec 102011

Music is not about playing the correct notes. It is not about being rewarded for being a good musician. It is not about being better than others, having the teacher, conductor, or producer stroke your ego by telling you you are better than others.

Music is not about being cool. In his post, “Are jealousy and Sour Grapes Killing Your Music Career” at the CD Baby DIY Musicians blog, Chris R. posits that there is no such thing as cool. I have to agree with him on that–taste varies so much, it really is hard to see how the goal of music is to get you into the cool crowd.

Music is not about putting in a little bit of work in order to become the center of attention at gigs. It isn’t about having a bunch of people tell you how pleased they are. It isn’t about having everyone listen to you, where usually you spend your life stuck listening to what others have to say without getting your say in.

What is music about? It is about playing, that’s all. Like little kids playing a game simply for the fun of it. There’s a saying that baseball legend Willie Stargell used to say, and it is probably older than him, “They don’t call it ‘working’ baseball. They call it ‘playing’ baseball.” Baseball players are playing a game, no matter how much money and how many TV cameras are involved. It’s still the same game that little kids play in their back yards.

And music is still just music. It’s little kids banging on pots and skillets. It’s five little kids honking on little harmonicas all in different keys, making noise and having a laugh. Read about Mozart’s life, and you will learn that he had dirty jokes and an impish side to his personality, though he wrote such elegant, transcendent music.

After all the workshops on how to market yourself, how to record your demos, how to book your regional tour, how to promote your gigs, how to sell CDs once you’re at the gig, and how to follow up with your fans after the gig–after all the self-management and self-promotion and self-franchising, it’s just music. You’re still a little kid banging on a toy piano, just for the fun of it. That’s the only way your music will mean anything to you and your fans.

Stephen Nachmanovitch’s book , Free Play, is an inspiring read for musicians and other artistic people who need to foster their improvising impish side. He writes about losing yourself in the music and regaining a child’s playfulness. Give this book a look if you feel that your artistic side has become too serious or too depressing for you. You will fine it a big help in getting back to the simple playfulness of your creative pursuits.

Dec 022011

I had the opportunity to hear musician Suzanne Vega speak twice in November. Vega’s work is one of the strongest influences on my own songwriting and music, so it was a privilege to here her speak in person about her career and work.

First, she gave the keynote address at the northeast Regional Folk alliance in New York. She talked about the recent deaths of Bill morrissey and Jack hardy, who were her friends and supporters during her early years as a performer. These two helped her build her peer network, get out to play in more places, and held her to a high standard for her music.

Second, I attended a songwriters workshop by Vega in Washington DC. The workshop was set up to have three DC-area songwriters each present a song to the group, and then Vega would discuss the work with the writer. I expected her to be tough, critical, and encouraging. She was critical, and she was tough on one songwriter in particular who really didn’t appear to be ready for such a public grilling. But I was impressed with Vega’s warmth and genuine interest. She seemed to like the songs a lot more than I did, and she showed no sign of a “rock star” attitude.

Vega described how a good song is an idea that you can’t get rid of, something that sticks in your head and keeps bugging you until you have to finish it. that’s very different from my process, which is to capture lots of ideas so that I don’t lose them. she seemed to say that a writer could just lose a lot of ideas, because the really great ones would force themselves to stick in your brain. I can see both sides–take down all your ideas and inspirations, and review them later to find the few gems. But don’t tie yourself entirely to those notebooks and computer files, because a really good song will write itself over time.

One person at the DC workshop asked how he could become more comfortable and free as a performer. “Rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse,” was Vega’s answer. Another great reminder that practice is the number one ingredient for good music. How hard and how smart you work at your rehearsing determines how good you perform.

Vega pointed the audience at one of these events to Jack hardy’s songwriting manifesto. Here is a brief version of this set of ideals and instructions, well worth your pondering. Write a song every week. Get into the good stuff that other people are doing. Melody is half the song, so write melodies that stand without your guitar or piano. Spend some time reading and thinking about Hardy’s ideas, and you’ll learn how hard and how rewarding it is to be a songwriter.

Nov 192011

You know the feeling. A great concert, a fabulous festival, an inspiring conference–and then you go home. The day job is there, the kids’ homework and after-school activities await, and even the dog is pissed at you for going away for a few days. Suddenly and surprisingly, your mood drops way below normal. What happened to the high from the big event?

My good friend Dr. Ruthie is a sex and relationship educator. She sees a similar let-down in the conferences in her field of work. She and many others use the term “con drop” to describe the low energy state after an intense, inspiring event. Check out her blog post on “Symptoms and Solutions For Con Drop.”

Music people can experience the same let-down after a big event, especially festivals and conferences where you get to hear so much great sound and meet so many people. I’ve just returned home from a super weekend at the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance, and my sluggish days afterward reminded me of Ruthie’s post. Allow me to borrow a bit from her and put my own spin on the aftermath of a big music event.

Be Your Own Best Secretary

Once you get home, you’ll want to remember and follow through on all the great conversations and experiences. There’s no way your brain will remember all the people you talked to, all the insights and inspirations you gained, and all the follow-up you want to do. You need to act like a secretary for a terribly busy big shot–keeping all the contacts and appointments organized.

When you are organized, you won’t be bumming and regretting afterward that you slept through some great stuff or got sick by not eating for a day and a half.

  • Take exhaustive notes. When you get a few minutes between sets and conversations, write down everything. Keep a journal describing everyone you talked to, all the acts you saw, and all of your impressions. It’s the only way you will retain those rapid fire impressions and details. The information will keep coming at you faster and faster, and your brain’s buffers will throw away lots of good stuff because they just can’t hold it all. Writing down all of your experiences will give you a chance later to sort and sift through things. You’ll have business cards, CDs, emails, flyers, and scribbles all over the place, so plan your strategy for organizing all those names, faces, times, and places.
  • Set a good schedule for your basic necessities. Make sure you have the meals figured out so you aren’t short-circuiting yourself by under-eating. Keep up with your hygiene. I keep hearing people complain about how stinky some folks get at festivals and conferences. Smelling bad makes for bad networking, no matter how pretty your business card, no mattter how good you sound. And make sure you have a good plan for sleep. That might mean napping at 3 pm so that you have the energy for 3 am jamming. But that 3pm nap might not happen if you don’t intentionally put a spot in your schedule for it.

Keep It Real With The networking

There are musicians and music-biz people who are all about selling themselves. The old maxim for musicians is, “Promote yourself, promote yourself, promote yourself.” You can act like a slimy used-car salesperson or a greedy preacher, willing to go to any length to make a deal. Or you can find a natural, authentic, and friendly way to connect with others.

there is a big difference that is easy to see when you are looking for it. Some performers are making a presentation, and others are engaged in two-way conversation. There’s a time to pitch yourself, sure. You got to get airplay and gigs. But there’s also a vibe of openness and community that some people have. They’re the ones who join into the jam session to jam and have fun, rather than to show what they got and to brag about who they jammed with later. They’re the musicians who listen to other musicians and become sincere fans, rather than simply sizing up the competition.

When you have the community approach to your networking, then you’ll have some new friends and contacts after the big event. When the let-down hits you, you’ll have a few nice emails coming in over the next few days that will help brighten the mood. Otherwise, you’ll be sitting at home wondering why plastering your thousands of flyers all ove the place didn’t really pan out.

Finding The Gaps

If you watch closely, you’ll see trends. The same two or three vocal licks or stylings being used, the sexy instrument of the season–it’s been the ubiquitous ukulele for the past few years. And you will see some gaps, some glaring absences. I saw two or three of these at NERFA, and I’m considering them as secret weapons. Of course there’s nothing automatic about doing something different from everyone else, but you might find that you have a unique aspect to your music that will be a breath of fresh air. That’s how fads and trends start–a lot of people start saying, “Wow, yeah, haven’t heard anything like that for a while!”

And no, I’m not going to give away my secrets. You’ll have to figure out your own secret weapons, or catch up with me some time next year.

What Are Your Experiences?

It’s not just for music festivals or conferences. The big let-down can ambush you after any event with intense emotions and energy. I wonder how many honeymoons have been derailed by day-after-huge-wedding drop. I don’t know for myself–both of my wedding ceremonies were very small, and I have never experienced a regular “honeymoon” at the all-inclusive resort, or whatever the kiddos go for nowadays.

What are your bummer hours or days like after a big event such as a huge concert or conference? Leave a comment and let us all know your experiences.

Nov 052011

Today I ran across this blog post on about a violin student’s tears when facing the challenge of playing Bach. I’m an appalachian fiddler, not a classical violinist, but I can relate to a few points here.

Point #1: don’t count on linear progression in your efforts to improve. The writer describes how a piece can make intonation and other technical issues come to the fore. I see this with my Appalachian music buddies. We’ll take a simple tune and try it out, and it seems ready to go within a few tries. then after playing it at gigs for a while, suddenly the tune seems to lose its groove, and we have to really practice hard on it to tighten it up. Now you have it, and suddenly you lost it and struggle to find it again.

I see this in my private practice on the fiddle. I’ll work on tone exercises for a few months, and suddenly my timing seems off. I work on timing, and my intonation slips. then I work on intonation, and circle around and around. Music is like other parts of life: You keep learning the same lessons over and over.

Point #2: Don’t assume that your subjective experience of playing a piece corresponds exactly to the objective experience of hearing it. In the Bach blog post, the student feels like she is losing ground while the teacher hears progress. I see this dispute between subjective and objective in myself and in other musicians fairly regularly. “did that sound OK?” “I didn’t play very well.” “You sounded great. Why do you act like you didn’t play so well?”

It helps to give less than one hundred percent credence to your subjective experience of playing. Listen to the subjective, but then ask others for their input and feedback to balance things out.

Point #3: Perfection? What is that? I appreciate the idea of holding oneself to very high standards. but perfection means playing in tune, playing in exact rhythm, all the technical and mechanical parts of music. What about emotion and personality? What about smiling at the audience, or playing with sadness, or vulnerability? for my appalachian fiddle music, it’s about making people tap their feet and getting up to dance. If I skip a few notes but have a strong pulse and drive, that’s a successful performance.

Sep 282011

If you know the name “John Hartford,” you are probably a fan. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say they didn’t enjoy the man’s music, imagination, and wit.

Hartford was a fanatic for traditional fiddling, especially the styles from the western side of Appalachia along the Ohio River and down through Missouri toward the middle parts of the U.S. And for all the research and scrutinous study of traditional fiddling, his fiddle had a voice all its own.

The man played banjo with such soul, sweetness, and tone. Among banjo nerds there are all kinds of ideas about Scruggs style versus Keith style versus Fleck and Trischka. The hard-driving classic bluegrass’s and the funky sweetness of jazz and newgrass pickers. Hartford’s banjo sound had its own voice, almost a granfather’s chuckling narrative.

His singing, his lyrics, his stories, his constant dancing and musicality are all over tons of great records. Get out to Amazon or iTunes or a good used CD shop and pick up a couple things by Hartford if you’re unfamiliar. It’s funky, fun,, acoustic, purely American music that defies genre.

Marcy Cochran and Sheila Nichols are two fabulous filmmakers and fiddlers working on a John Hartford documentary. They have piles of primary source material from family, friends, and legendary musicians such as Glenn Campbell and Earl Scruggs. Check out their Kick Starter campaign here and consider lending your support. And check out the trailer here on Youtube. This is great stuff for your ears and your heart.

Sep 252011

Recently a friend and I were talking about how brilliant The Clash were. Those guys made music that was smart, tough, and constantly new. The Clash are an example of a band that held its artistic ground while fighting against a rigid music industry and a stifling society.

To me, it seems that rebellious artistic spirit is harder to find in today’s music. In many ways, the musicians finally won. The music industry is no longer overpowered by a few large record companies. Most of the money is still there with those companies, but today we see musicians making their careers work as independent artists. Being indy wasn’t as viable a generation ago.

Being indy means that the musician is her own tour manager, producer, public relations department, and stage designer. OK, not always. Many indies hire a great team to handle those business matters. In any case, being an independent artist means you aren’t fighting someone else for creative control. It means you’re not fighting someone to get more money. It means you are the one trying to make some money while putting together some good music.

When I read blogs and articles for songwriters and indy musicians, it seems that the most popular topics are promotion and marketing. How to use social media, how to bring the crowds to your gigs, how to woo them to your merch table once they’re at the gig. I guess a lot of people are more interested in having the baddest email list around rather than writing the baddest songs around. That trend is logical–musicians more than ever need to have skill and savvy to put together a tour or a radio promotion campaign. But sometimes reading article after article about business strategies and kick-starter campaigns leaves me longing for someone to write about the music itself.

I imagine a restaurant that has a great location and ad campaign, but the food is a mediocre afterthought. Then I imagine a restaurant that has fabulous food but is tucked away in a quiet spot that doesn’t get much notice. I’d rather be that uncelebrated chef with an unshakable vision and passion for his food and his customers. Hopefully there’s still room out there in music for the wonderful unknowns to have a little space for themselves.

Aug 302011

Here’s a helpful little post at about career planning for musicians.

The article addresses people currently attending music school, but I think it applies to lots of others doing artistic work. Dream up a lot of career options for yourself so you can find the directions that fit you the best, not just the most common ones. Work on your image and relationships, because artistic work depends so much on a strong support system.

There’s more from this author in his book, The Musician’s Way. Check it out below at Amazon.