May 132013

Every few days I end up in a conversation with some musicians where the topic is, “Why we all hate marketing and business stuff surrounding our music.” Musicians hate marketing, hate cold-calling DJs, hate negotiating gigs, and hate asking to get paid to play.

In his new book, Making Your Creative Mark, Eric Maisel gives some great reframing or thought-substitution techniques to get through the discouraging stuff. The basic idea is to be attentive to your inner conversations, and eliminate thoughts that do not serve your interests.

Here’s an example:

“I have to call three or four people today to start setting up gigs for this winter.” OK, that’s a good, sensible, useful thing to have in your head.

Then along comes the next thought. “I hate calling people. I wish I didn’t have to do that stupid stuff.” OK, this is where you need some substituting. You hate making business calls, but it’s not useful to think too much about that. What could you substitute?

“I don’t like making biz calls, but it only takes about twenty minutes. Then I can get on with something more interesting. Besides, I haven’t talked to Carol in Colorado for a while, and she’s always great to talk to.”

That substitution will give you a much better chance of actually getting those calls done. Kind of obvious? Yes. But discouragement and procrastination are built on gloomy moods, not following what is obvious and logical. And as Maisel points out, it is often very useful to let go of a thought even though it may be true. You hate doing something, fine if that’s true. But let go of that thought if it doesn’t serve your creativity.

Of course artistic passion means more than simply finding ways to get tedious tasks done. Obsessed, devoted, impetuous, falling madly, lustily, foolishly, hopelessly in love with your creativity. Forget discipline–this isn’t military training. It’s your romance with that instrument, that moment of writing, that dance, applying tools to wood and stone, speaking to the canvas with your brushes.

In the same book, Maisel writes that passion is what separates artists from dabblers. Some people can create casually, occasionally working at something, but usually one must stay passionate and be in the work day after day to create well. The concept of “getting into flow” is often spoken of in terms of immersing into something for several hours. But flow can also be a way of life, where artistic passion is a driving and directing force behind everything you do day upon day.

A runner must have strong mental and emotional focus during a race. But she also trains day after day with that same competitive drive and intensity. The passion to succeed is not a switch she can turn on right before a race and then forget it afterward. Success comes from wanting it and living like she means it. That’s the same kind of passion needed to live a fulfilling artistic life.

This new book from Eric Maisel is one of the best things I’ve seen in a while for the creative personality. He covers the most common difficulties and struggles facing artistic people–your thoughts, confidence, passion, identity, freedom, and relationships. If you’re not on the bandwagon reading every new book that coms along for artists, writers, or musicians, that’s cool. But this is one book I’d recommend to everyone with the desire to create.

Oct 262011

About a year ago I went to a show by a talented new Americana band. There were maybe fifteen or twenty people in the theater, not really much of a crowd. Normally a small turnout should be just a routine thing that a band should handle, but this was a night where the band was recording a live album. I won’t name the band because I don’t want to blow the cover for anyone who listens to the live album.

The show was great. The band played tight and rowdy, and the music was so sweet. When the band did put out the live album, I was eager and curious. Eager to hear that great music again, and curious to see how the tiny audience sounded during the applause and cheers.

The music on the live album is rocking, capturing the great sounds I had enjoyed in person. Apparently the entire show made it on the album since there wasn’t a flub the whole night. As for the audience sound, a little engineering helped put in some artificial audience applause to make things sound a little more substantial at the end of each track. The album sounds great.

I admire musicians who don’t short-change a small audience and who play the same show whether it’s for ten, a hundred, or a thousand. Of course career and business matters are going to work out OK sometimes, and sometimes not. This band took care of the music and the audience, even though their plans to record the show might not have worked out.

This reminds me of U2’s great album “Under A Blood Red Sky” from the early 1980s. It’s one of the best live rock albums ever, but the actual concert was a mess with a huge rain storm and less than half the audience that was expected. It’s another example of how to play live: Take care of the music and the audience you have, and the other business stuff will usually work out OK.

Aug 182011

As a huge fan of Warren Zevon’s early records from the late 1970s, I was eager to get into the oral history written by his ex-wife a couple years ago. I knew little about the man, just his melodies, arrangements, and lyrics were sometimes just perfect. I want to use the word “brilliant” here, but that word isn’t strong enough for his Warren Zevon and Excitable Boyalbums.

I hit the intro section of the book, and I put it down. I just didn’t want to read another book about another terrible person who did great art. Zevon was violent toward others, a lousy dad, and someone who probably Squandered a lot of his musical abilities and artistic opportunities. I just didn’t have it in me to go through a book like this. I’ve read enough about Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and so on over the years, and stories like this can really bring you down.

I had an audio version of this book lying around in my pile of stuff to read, and I just went back to it a few days ago. It is a great compilation of oral history, diary entries, interviews, little notes around the house, all kinds of primary-source and first-person stuff. And I took on the fascinating and disgusting story of an insane genius. Mental health is a messy and overwhelming problem to read about, and addictions and financial problems and a fickle music industry go all through this book.

I never met the man, so I don’t have any like or dislike for him as a person. I find the terrible parts terrible, the sad parts sad, and the joyful parts joyful. If you’re not familiar with Zevon, check out the albums I mentioned above. If you are a fan and haven’t grabbed this book, well it’s pretty good writing and a huge dose of real insane life in America that a lot of us know something about.

Jul 132011

I just read Joseph Girzone’s 1983 novel Joshua for the first time. The novel tells the story of a mysterious, Jesus-like prophet who appears in a small American town. The plot is simply, what would happen if Jesus showed up today?

I enjoyed the book, with its heart-warming stories and religious confrontations. I’m not a religious person today, but I was in the past, and I can appreciate the clever idea of the book. It’s like backwards historical science fiction for religious people, bringing a figure from the past into a late twentieth-century American town.

In this book Girzone shows that you need one simple idea to create something that touches people, as long as that idea is true and good. When I started reading the book, I thought, “Oh man, how far can this guy stretch this Jesus in America thing?” But he pulls it off.

Apparently Girzone wrote Joshua after retiring from the Catholic priesthood. Now that’s encouraging. You can start a successful writing career in your sixties–at least, if you can find a great hook and a hungry market.

If you’re not interested in religion or God talk, this might not be worth a look. But if you have had religion as part of your life, Joshua will be a quaint and encouraging read.

May 072011

Mindfulness is a technique often missing when a musician performs. An audience will sometimes hear a musician perform and feel like something has eluded them. He hit all the correct notes, played with expected and accepted tempi and dynamics, and thus accomplished quite the athletic feat. But besides these technical points, the audience feels like something else could have happened, but it didn’t.

The mindful musician plays as a person, not as a robot repeating the muscle-memorized actions. She is aware of the music’s structure, has emotional investment in the sounds, and opens herself to a connection with the audience.

How does a musician practice and prepare to add more mindfulness to her performances? One great approach is to rehearse away from the instrument. Here are several ways this can be done while sitting quietly, lying in bed, taking a walk, or doing some chore around the house.

1. Know the musical content

Go through a piece of music in your mind, imagining the physical actions of playing the notes. If your thoughts become fuzzy around measure five or at the first word of the second verse, stop there to refresh your memory. This form of practicing is like a quiz, to make sure you really know the piece well enough to recall it not only in your muscles, but in your mind.

Go through a piece of music and name all the notes of the melody. Go If your piece has chord changes with it, go through the chords and name them. Go through the melody and chords again, this time giving the numbers, such as “1, 5, 6, flat 5, 5 … ” Go through it again and use the solfage names of the notes. (If you are not familiar with the common number and solfage systems, take time to learn them. They are great ways to grow in musical literacy and ear training.)

If all this memory work sounds boring, well it certainly can help on a night when you’re having trouble falling asleep. It can also clear up fuzzy thoughts and alleviate boredom when you do return to your instrument. This mental sharpness is a lot more rewarding than mindless muscle memorizing of scales and exercises.

2. Know the interpretation

Go through your piece and think about dynamics. How loud at the beginning? What is the first sound the audience will hear when you start the piece? Where do the dynamics change? Is there a section or verse where you surprise the audience by becoming very quiet or loud?

Go over the tempi of your piece. Does it have one unchanging tempo, as in dance music, or does the tempo change? Imagine what it feels like to dance to your piece, even if it is not meant as a dance number. Better yet, get up and actually do the imagined dance, if no one is looking.

Do you find yourself saying, “I just play the whole thing at one volume and tempo, so what?” If that is your thought, perhaps you could add some variety and interpretation to the piece to make it more interesting.

Talk to yourself about the concept of the piece. Is it a story song, a program piece, a tone poem, a traditional dance tune, a love ballad, a novelty song, or a piece of purer musical content that goes past conceptual description? What do you expect the audience to say about the piece after they hear it for the first time? What about the hundredth time hearing it?

3. Find the emotional connection

How do you feel about this piece? Did you choose it? Did the conductor or band leader choose it? If you don’t like it, can you see the emotional reason why someone else would?

What emotional response did the composer intend? Is there a story behind the piece to explain its emotional intention?

Imagine performing this piece as an actor. What emotional work do you wear in your role as performer?

Imagine that you are explaining these emotional questions to another person. Tell them about the piece in terms of its emotional content and connections.

4. Increase efficiency

Without your instrument, imagine what it feels like to play the first phrase of your piece in a state of relaxation and strength. String players, imagine your fingers moving fluidly, efficiently, effortlessly, with the bow, pick, or fingers sounding the strings with ideal attack and tone.. Singers and wind players, imagine strong control of your breathing, relaxed muscle movements, and the desired tone for the phrase. Imagine the physical sensations and pleasures of performing the piece in an optimal state.

Notice any physical tension that arises while imagining the phrase. You will find it easier to isolate and work on tense spots without the instrument, just focusing on muscles and mind. Once you have played through the phrase with efficiency and relaxation, play the next phrase in your muscle imagination.

The goal here is to stop going through the motions mindlessly. Mindless muscle memory makes for impersonal performances, shallow interpretations, and risk of injury.

Speaking of injury: If a musician is experiencing pain or recovering from an injury, these forms of mental practice can round things out while resting and recovering. A singer with a cold or a blown-out voice can work on his music quietly sitting in a chair for thirty minutes while letting the vocal system rest. But a healthy musician can also benefit from these forms of practicing to sharpen mental and emotional focus.

For more on mental practicing and the broader topic of the relationship between mind, body, and music, pick up Julie Lyon-Lieberman’s classic book, “You Are Your Instrument.” Here is a link to this book at Amazon:

You Are Your Instrument: the Definitive Musician’s Guide to Practice and Performance

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Apr 242011

OK, musicians, is music just good old silly fun, or is it majestic, elegant, the foundation of the universe?

Let’s listen in on the debate.

Music is supposed to be fun.

No, wait, it’s more than that. It is elegant, is infinite, brings us close to the design of the universe.

Or, maybe it’s just fun. Making sounds, like birds calling to each other.

But birds sing for love, for mating, to build a home. For birds, their song is everything they live for.

Remember when we were kids, and we would sing all kinds of songs to each other. Just for fun, to make a smile or laugh. Isn’t that all there is to music?

Yes, but some kids also think about eternity, their small place in the unknowable expanse of time and space. These big feelings and thoughts are real, not just academic artifices that adults create to agonize their minds.

Wow, time out. These are some big questions.

There are two great books that have come out in recent years discussing this kind of question. Victor Wooten’s “The Music Lesson” teaches the Zen silly side of things, encouraging playfulness, imagination, and a whole-life whole-self joy in music. Glenn Kurtz’s “Practicing” is a first-person account of a young classical guitarist who gave up on music because he couldn’t reach perfection, beauty, mastery, and importance. It’s Mozart’s requiem versus “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” to oversimplify.

I love both of these books, because both provoke a lot of thought. If you’re a musician, why not click over to Amazon and buy these? Each one costs less than a CD, which makes it seem pretty cheap when you think about how many CDs a musician usually buys. Musicians also spend a lot of money buying sheet music, tab books, books on scales and technique. Maybe you are one of those who downloads several chord charts or lead sheets every month to learn more songs from your favorite artists. But have you read anything lately to grow your musical personality, to stretch yourself a bit beyond learning a new scale or a tricky chord change? Try out these two books, or maybe search around and find some others that might challenge and encourage you.

The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music
– by Victor Wooten

Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music (Vintage)
– by Glenn Kurtz

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Apr 032011

“Hey, how’s it going?”

“Good. I got very angry at music last week, and I’ve decided that I like that.”

“You like being angry at music? Umm, wait, you got angry at music? What?”

“Sure.” She laughed a sneaky laugh, then went on. “I keep trying to write my songs. I get out there, play one of my originals with the band, and no one seems to care. I sing the usual covers with the band that show off my voice a bit, and people get excited. Or, I sing some well-known song and they get excited. I’m sick of that. I want to write, be original like Melissa Etheridge. Someone like that, and I’m sick and tired of my songs not being there at that level.”

“But your originals aren’t bad, they just won’t fly when you’re doing a cover band gig. So you got angry at yourself over this?”

“No, I got angry at music. Stupid old music, it’s a whore. Music goes cheap and easy on people. Just sing the same old familiar thing and people get happy. Music should do better than that. It shouldn’t just be a mindless game–clap if you know this one. People should listen more, and music doesn’t challenge them to do that.”

“Ah, OK. Cheap music. But sometimes people just want some covers while they drink or talk or whatever.”

“yeah, that’s cheap music. It’s OK to do that, but I finally realized that I want something else. So I got angry, and I decided that I was going to make it happen. No more band for me.”

“What? You can’t do that.”

“Sure, why not? We’ve been doing the same songs for a few years, the same gigs. Just me up there singing “Bobby McGee” and all that crap. I’m going solo, going to hit the weirdo solo acoustic and songwriter stuff for a while. I told you I was angry.”

“I hope you weren’t angry at the band.”

“No, they were OK, and it was just a normal conversation. We’ve been friends for so long. They didn’t argue too much, so they’re probably ready for something different anyway. Now I have to figure out how to find my own voice.”

“You won’t find it.”

“What? What’s that supposed to mean?” she sounded angry at me now.

“You won’t find your voice. If you want your voice, you have to create it. It’s not out there for you to find. That’s the trap you were in with the covers.”

“Hmm, not sure what you mean.” She thought for a minute.

“You have to express you, not recreate Melissa or Janis or Joan Jett. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah, I guess so. Singing covers is me just playing karaoke, like a new actor who tries to imitate a famous actor. Now it’s my turn to create my own thing. You’re ticking me off though, it’s just a phrase, ‘find my voice.'”

“It’s just a phrase. But I wanted to make you think. You have a good singing voice and know how to perform, so you can do this songwriting thing, but you have to create your own voice for it.”

“OK, you win. My voice doesn’t exist, I have to crate it. Maybe it exists in my head. Hell, I know it does, I have lots of ideas and sounds I want to make if I let myself really think about it. My imagination just runs and runs all the time, really. You should hear some of the crazy stuff I have put down on Garage Band over the years”

“Wow, awesome.”

“Well, it will be awesome if I make it happen. What are you doing this weekend?”

“Nothing, why?”

“I have a few new songs on the acoustic guitar. I want to show them to you, see if you can put your bass line to them. Maybe we can put some stuff together and play some acoustic sets out somewhere.”

“Yeah, sure. I’d like to hear what you got.”

“OK, I’ll come over Saturday afternoon. Get ready to work your musical brain a little bit.”

“Sounds perfect. See ya then.”

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Mar 252011

Old-time music is alive and well. Here are several pieces of strong evidence to persuade you.

Foghorn String Band last week in Brooklyn:

Foghorn Trio playing Louisiana sounds:

Chance McCoy and Old Sledge in the recording studio, not bad for a first take, eh?

Monday night I enjoyed a fabulous show featuring the full Foghorn String Band with Old Sledge opening. I was there with several old-time musician buds, and we all loved it. By the sounds of the crowd and the numerous requests, I think we had some gazillion others there in full agreement. The show was put on by the Institute of Musical Traditions, who do a lot of sweet shows in the Maryland suburbs of DC.

It’s funny when I think about old-time music, I always have this urge to defend it. Bluegrass is supposed to be the virtuoso acoustic Americana genre, and I won’t argue with that. But old-time is much more free of cliches than bluegrass is. When I think of my favorite bluegrass fiddlers, Richard Greene and Vassar Clements come to mind–two guys who broke the rules and are now copied and turned into cliches. For old-time, the fiddlers play with more drive, less intricacy and flair, and sometimes more personality. Not to say that I don’t like bluegrass, but sometimes it’s nice to here maybe seven or eight songs with really solid lyrics in a three-hour show, rather than twenty-five songs with mostly weak, forced, or formula lyrics in a three-hour bluegrass show. Old-time is a breath of free, fresh air. I love bluegrass, but it seems right now we’re at a place where the old-time folks have a lot more creative juice flowing. At least what I’m hearing. Maybe some of y’all can point out some strong new bluegrass sounds coming out today.

Foghorn is an interesting band because they mix in Cajun songs, Monroe-style driving mandolin, and sweet bluegrass-style banjo. I can’t think of anyone else who puts three-finger bluegrass banjo picking into a dance-pulse old-time band like this. They’re from Oregon, and it isn’t too often that we get a west-coast five-piece old-time group touring the east coast.

I’ve written about Chance McCoy before on this blog. Like Foghorn, he plays tight, fast, driving, and clean. So does his band, Old Sledge. The guy playing clawhammer banjo was just smashing notes out of that thing during this show. Really great stuff.

So old-time is alive, and it isn’t just for fiddle scratchers and scrapers. Lots of tight, strong playing here with bands like this. Check ’em out.

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Mar 062011

Josh Ritter kicked some big old butt the other night at his show in Charlottesville VA. I won’t describe things in great detail, because I don’t think I can put it down here in a way to get you all excited enough. I’ll just hit the highlights.

Ritter’s lyrics are excellent. He raises the bar well above whatever most of us have been doing. He’s right there with Warren Zevon, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, all those crazy writers writing lots of really good lyrics.

Ritter’s music and band are great. Not a lot of slick jazzy whatnot like Steely Dan. Not a lot of long jams like Phish. But tight, to the point, get in and get out. The punchy piano reminds me a bit of Bad Plus. And the arrangements are all unique. Each song sounds very different, very imaginative, distinct. All this from a drummer, bassist, keyboardist, lead guitarist, and Ritter on rhythm guitar.

Ritter also worked the crowd real good. Lots of stories, jokes, a couple quiet intense spots. He busted into “Once In A Lifetime” and “Pale Blue Eyes,” both seemingly unrehearsed covers, almost as a joke on the audience and maybe even on the band.

Here’s a cool video of Ritter live on Letterman:

What else? The show was opened by a guy named Joe Pug who would have blown us all away with his acoustic guitar, harmonica, and dense lyrics hitting the old American scenery pretty hard. Pug was real good, but the poor guy had to open for Ritter.

Ritter is folky, classic rock, hardly a synthesizer or bloopy sound. It’s like new wave never happened and all the stuff since. I’ve complained on this blog a few times about the sleepy, easy-listening side of folk music, especially since the 80s according to my ears. I’m so glad there are people out there who can write ridiculously good and vast lyrics, play good simple acoustic guitar, and still put on a great rock and roll circus show for a small theater full of grooving people in Virginia.

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Jan 302011

People often ask me about my songs, where they come from. “Which town are you talking about in that song?” “Was that song about one of your past relationships?” “Did you write that song for your wife?”

For me, most narrative songs are like writing short stories or tiny novels. I say “narrative” songs to mean those that tell a story. There are other songs that are more introspective, first-person, more about mental pictures, feelings, or impressions than about a story. A lot of my songs are narrative, just telling a story, like a novelist does.

When I write one of these narrative songs, I don’t try to tell the story of something that happened to me. If I wrote a novel, folks wouldn’t mistake it for an autobiography. A short story usually reads as fiction obviously, and we seldom get confused. But people often assume that songs and poems are truly and literally autobiographical. This assumption comes from the strong confessional emphasis in many poems and songs from the past two or three generations–“songs in the key of me” as the cliche goes.

I wrote a song about a year ago called “Jenny,” and it is on my latest CD, “People Really Live This Way.” “Jenny” is a vivid character and specific image in my mind, though she is pure fiction. Fair skin, straight blond hair, about five-three, petite, round glasses, smart, polite but reserved, wearing green overalls and brown shoes. I really tried to get the green overalls and brown shoes into the song somehow, but I just couldn’t. It would have been good to get the hair in there too, but no big deal. The song really doesn’t describe the characters’ appearances at all except for one thing, Jenny’s glasses.

Here are the lyrics.

Jenny was a college student.
Didn’t know what she was doing
when she came to help out at the food bank downtown.

I was just a guitar loser,
part-time job, full-time ruin.
I was working in the warehouse at the food bank downtown.

When we met she touched her glasses.
“I’m volunteering for one of my classes.
I guess you’ll help me out and show me around.”

Afternoons packing boxes,
sorting cans, moving palettes.
We were working hard till our hands got tired.

A winter’s day, the snow kept falling.
I was working all alone when she walked in.
She made some joke about the roads getting bad.

“Hey, I heard you were some kind of musician.”
“Yeah, I’m writing songs, well at least I’m trying.”
“Maybe you could sing a song for me?”

We sat on some empty boxes.
I sang my song, she said she liked it.
She read a poem she had brought for me.

It was dark, our hands were cold.
We were kissing, we were getting bold.
She took off … her glasses in the dark.

I remember every time it snows.

Weeks passed, she graduated.
She had a future, I was back-dated.
Like a joke, it makes you smile and then it’s gone.

Next summer I got a letter
from some place down in South America.
She was working for the Peace Corps, she said she was doing fine.

She said: You can count me as your friend,
though I doubt you’ll see my face again.
Those were the best damn kisses I ever had.

I remember every time it snows.

Jenny was a college student.
I was just a full-time ruin.
I remember every time it snows.

Here are all the autobiographical connections I can think of. I volunteered in a food bank warehouse once when I moved to Allentown PA in ’94. It was a big warehouse full of food, half organized and half not. Most of the people there were nice and friendly, but one guy there talked to me as if I were an idiot. Some months later I ran the office at a tiny, struggling church there in Allentown. One of the board members at the church arranged for two college students to volunteer with me as part of their social work program. The one student came once and never showed again, which was smart of her. The other kept showing up even though I didn’t have any work for her. She was just following the program, and so I went along too. And no, there was no romance going on during any of this. You could add in the guitar playing and song writing, and that is the entire autobiography behind the song.

So there, all the rest comes from my perverted imagination. Just fiction to entertain myself, and luckily this one also seems to entertain others when I perform it. Next time you here a good story song, try to think of it as a story rather than a true confession by the writer. Maybe it’s fiction, maybe autobiography, but you’ll have to do some sleuthing before you will know which.

You can find this song on Amazon and iTunes to download, just search for “Scott Malyszka” and you’ll find all my stuff. You can also buy the mp3s or CD at

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