Jan 102011

A few months ago my artistic online friend Wendy gave me a suggestion to help focus on a task: Set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes and just do that task until the bell rings. Sounds simple, obvious, and pointless, right?

Well I tried it out while practicing for some recording work next week. I set the timer on my exercise bike (since I don’t practice in the kitchen) for 15 or 20 minutes and just played one tune over and over. Then I did it again for another tune I was working on. It was a good way to feel how 15 or 20 minutes of playing the same thing felt. It reminded me of breathing exercises, where you breathe in and out for 10 or 30 seconds to try to memorize in your body what that feels like.

Normally, I bounce from tune to tune, song to song when I practice. I do this to keep the “natural” flow of playing in mind, making my rehearsal somewhat like a performance. I have heard several classical guitar players and instructors advise that a musician should not practice the same piece repeatedly so that it doesn’t become mechanical or rote. The idea is to keep coming back to each piece with fresh focus and energy.

As I thought about how to practice for my recording session next week, I considered the one unique challenge in a studio: repetition. You got to record the same tune for five, six, ten takes. Sometimes you got to start a take over. You can’t bounce back and forth having your engineer set up one take, then set up for the next tune. In other words, you need to be ready to record the same track for thirty to sixty minutes and maintain your groove through all that repetition. That is a challenge that you will only find in a recording session, and it might ambush you if you’re not ready for it.

So I thought of my friend Wendy’s suggestion that was lying around on the corner of my brain, waiting to be used. Musicians, give it a try and see if it helps your stamina and groove. The one thing I found was that I was thinking really fast trying to notice mistakes so that I could fix them on the next go around. No stopping for a break to noodle and catch my breath, just keep playing for 20 minutes straight. No stopping to tinker with the metronome to try a different speed, just play that tune solid.

I kind of like it. Give it a try,and let me know what you think.

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Dec 062010

I’m wondering who’s sick of holiday music, and who can’t get enough of it. Just want to learn more about what folks feel about this topic. Please give some thoughtful comments to a few of these questions, to educate my mind a bit.

How many holiday albums are you buying this year?

How many free downloads of holiday tunes have you grabbed this year from artists’ websites?

Do you still listen to holiday CDs from years past? Or are they off in a box somewhere?

Do you like the old standards, or are there new compositions that are making you merry?

It’s mostly Christmas this time of year, but are you into any music for Hanukkah?

What’s the most annoying holiday music you’ve heard lately. (My vote is for Dylan’s album last year.)

Ok, thanks in advance if I can get some of you to speak your mind. Feel free to go off on other tangents, if your spontaneity is leading you there.

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Nov 272010

I plugged in my fiddle for a terrific gig with the Zen Consultants last night. The ZCs are a once-in-a-blue-moon folky rock group whose core consists of Larry Mediate on rhythm guitar, lead vocals, and overall leadership; Ron Goad on drums; and Bernie Muller-Tyme on lead guitar. Larry asked me to join on fiddle and Lucian Kowalski on bass for this gig at Bangkok Blues.

The restaurant has great Thai food and some American items too, like cheeseburgers and steaks. We were the first band of the night, playing for a bit over two hours. I say “folky” because most of this material could translate straight off to acoustic instruments no trouble. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the Beatles’s “Across The Universe,” Neil Young’s “Powder Finger,” Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho And Lefty.”

Bernie does a great version of Nick Lowe’s “Peace Love & Understanding” where he stretches it out in a groove with dramatic dynamic shifts, and an extended improv talk in the middle. Bernie was in the a cappella group Da Vinci’s Notebook for ten years–a fabulous group who performed in a free improv mode. The man plays lead guitar in the same mind space, just plays and let’s the guitar talk. Not overpowering on the lead either–it’s a treat to hear a Telecaster just blending in. His playing reminds me of a good mandolin in a tight bluegrass circle.

Same goes for Ron and Lucian. Both guys are solid and just play. Lots of good blend with these guys, they follow Larry, and it really is easy to play with them. Not a lot of tight tricky parts for me. I just played fills and leads, tried my best to blend with my bluegrass mind.

My electric setup is a new deal for me. I put a Headway Band pickup around my #1 fiddle. The instrument is terribly dark in tone, which works great in Feel The Wag since we don’t have a bass player. The blend with hammered dulcimer feels really good with those guys, but I wasn’t sure if the dark tone would work plugged in. I plugged the fiddle into my little Vox 5w busking amp, put on a touch of chorus and went for a semi-cello warm tone. To me, the best-sounding electric violin tone is often more of a viola or cello mellowness, almost doing the role of a B3. I wasn’t going for the more squawky vocal electric fiddle tone like Richard Greene with SeaTrin. Richard was the lead in that group, but I’m just playing fills and warming up the soup a bit. It seemed to work pretty good last night. Folks said it was a bit tough to hear the fiddle for the first part of our set, but the sound guy turned it up a bit and folks could hear it.

We got a lot of compliments, some requests that we could fill and others we couldn’t. It was flattering to have some other excellent musicians there to hear us, including Dulci Taylor and Jim Clark. Bernie and I each took a ten-minute solo spot, playing guitar and singing, to give the other guys a break, and that worked well to keep the music going for the audience. I sold a few CDs, signed an autograph, got some folks to sign up for my email list, and met lots of really fun and sweet folks. I hope we get a chance to do this again soon.

Oct 172010

On my new CD, “People Really Live This Way,” I include a song called “Johnny Ramone” that deals with queer identity. The song has two first-person narrators. One is a male of unknown age remembering how his father and God seemed to be against him for possibly being gay. The other is the father struggling with the experience of having a feminine son. This two-narrator approach might remind you of Cat Stevens’s “Father And Son,” if you’re familiar with that song.

On my 2008 CD, “I Don’t Have Friends Anymore,” I recorded a song called “Everyone’s Just A Little Bit,” joking around and playing with the idea of the Kinsey scale. The scale says that being straight or gay is not a yes/no question, but a spectrum. The second verse also points out that talking about sex out loud is really another way of being “out,” since such frank talk is generally not allowed. It is definitely a song that gets some uncomfortable reactions when played live.

That first CD also has a song called “The Note,” in which the narrator describes a shy boy who writes a note. The note tells the adult narrator that the boy accepts his feminine side.

So how does a straight guy like me end up writing three songs about gender and queer identity on his first two CDs? I grew up in a small town in Western Pennsylvania where boy and girl were rigidly defined. Out of the hundreds of kids in my high school, there was not one kid who was out. All the queer kids were in the closet. I think about the simple statistics, that there were a significant number of gay kids who were afraid and confused growing up closeted in our town. I think about myself, a straight kid with a profound visual impairment, a skinny body, a strong feminine side to my personality, and a terrible feeling that I didn’t belong because I couldn’t compete in sports, the arts, or dating.

I spent about ten years as an evangelical Christian. I went to Bible college and seminary, and I know all the religious reasoning behind the idea that being queer is a sin. And before that, I grew up in a church that only allowed men to be in positions of authority. I heard all the talk that being gay was just as bad as having sex outside of marriage. The only problem was, I also knew quite a few evangelicals who were having sex outside of marriage.

I’ve heard stories from gay friends about how tough it is growing up, and how tough it is to be out as an adult in some places. I’ve also known two people who told me that they used to seek out young gay men just to beat them up.

Questions of queerness and gender are everywhere in America. My conscience and my emotions brought these three songs out of me, because there are just so many people who are not treated kindly and fairly. These songs are my way of taking a stand where few songwriters would dare to go.

You can read the lyrics for these songs at my website’s lyric page: http://www.feelthewag.com/lyrics.shtml

I’d be curious to hear some thoughts from others out there. What do you think?

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Sep 222010

Three years ago I found Danny Schmidt’s music on a sampler CD. Suddenly I couldn’t stop listening to his music, his brilliant lyrics and sweet voice. Two summers ago my wife and I couldn’t stop listening to Andrew McKnight’s “Something Worth Standing For” CD with its creative arrangements and intense message. Last year, it was Devon Sproule performing for an hour at Jammin Java that flipped my wig, her solo with an old semi-hollow electric singing funky pure poetry. All songwriters from Virginia, all from about an hour or two from us here in the DC suburbs.

So it’s no surprise that I’ve found this year’s Virginia heroes–Trent Wagler and the Steel Wheels from down around Harrisonburg and Staunton. Their CDs have been burning up my iTunes, a mountain-style quartet with total rock-and-roll energy. I caught these guys last night at the Tortilla Factory for the Reston-Herndon Folk Club monthly show, and they blew the place apart.

They performed as a trio with upright bass, fiddle, and Wagler on guitar, banjo, and lead vocals. (Their mandolin player was taking time off for a newborn daughter.) Not a flat tire in the crew. Brian on the bass was spot on walking and slapping the beat. Eric Brubaker plays strong, sweet, driving hard fiddle. Wagler’s picking is clean, strong, and fast. His lead vocals are high, strident, mountainy, rock-and-roll raspy and sweet. His voice reminds me of John Fogerty on the old CCR records, and a friend pointed out quite a resemblance to the old CCM rocker Larry Norman’s high bluesy voice.

The songs were mostly originals and totally original. The lyrics always mean a lot to me, and their words were real good. Like I said, it takes me maybe a year or so to find someone who is writing something that is fresh and captivating to me. These lyrics are thoughtful, yet you feel like you get it on the first listen. “When That Whistle Blows” slays me, a guy saying goodbye to his lady with her new man chopping wood in the back yard and their new baby on the floor, looking just like the narrator, heading off alone on a train.

The guys were chatting up everyone and a lot of fun to talk to. These guys have a couple more shows coming up soon in our area, and we’re already making plans with friends to get there.

Get this stuff on your iTunes, it’s all worth it. http://www.thesteelwheels.com

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Sep 202010

I had a blast yesterday playing at the Bluemont Fair. Every September the little town of Bluemont VA turns itself into a fabulous country fair with animals, deep-fried food, crafts, stuff for kids, and music stages all over the place.

I played a solo set for an hour at a stage by the children’s area. My material isn’t exactly the best fit for little kids, but it works. I had my parents there and a bunch of friends listening, and I got to meet other friendly musicians who were playing at the same stage before and after me.

Then Feel The Wag played for two hours at a great spot called “Plaster’s Field.” This is a wine-tasting area where a few of the local wineries were sharing their tastiness. We got there in time to catch a few numbers by Broken Pick, who were singing some nice country and folky rock things–very nice voices in this group. Our set went really great. We had a nice crowd circled around us with lots of applause and chatting. The performance spot really isn’t a stage of any kind. We just set up on the ground under some shady trees, and folks have tables and chairs around us. No PA, just playing out in the open. It really was a fun setup for us playing our old fiddle tunes totally unplugged. We’re thinking that next year we should make a push to get more gigs at some of these wineries here in the Blue Ridge foothills.

It was great to see so many friends. I didn’t get to hear much music this year, and I missed out on the pit beef and funnel cakes. I just didn’t have as much time because I didn’t go out for both days like past years.

Looking forward to next year. You can find out about the fair at http://www.bluemontfair.com

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Sep 072010

I had a lot of fun playing at Jammin Java last night at a Songwriters Association of Washington (SAW) show. It was great hearing a lot of guys I hadn’t heard before. I say “guys” because it somehow turned out to be an all-man show. There was a really nice crowd there to listen, including lots of other musicians and songwriters.

First was Nathaniel Brown, a young guy and a son of a folky musician. He sang with a hard style and sounded great. I got a CD from him, and I expect it to be some good basement grunge stuff with good lyrics, but I haven’t listened yet. Jim Heald was next, but I only caught a little of his stuff because I was in the green room. I did hear some nice chords, rising by whole tones, and I liked the little bit I heard of his singing, which reminded me of Mark heard’s high strident voice. Next was me, and I felt pretty good up there. The sound is usually real sweet at JJ, and it is easy to sing there. Sound guy Kirby did a nice job the whole night. I got some nice feedback afterward, including good comments for a new thing I tried called “Get Myself Together.”

Brother Lou was after me, and he sang some originals with a loud, raucous voice and clever lyrics, kind of like a more rowdy John Hyatt thing. Tom Whall played very tight, funky chords and licks on the guitar while singing in a high, clear tenor. I kept talking with people at our table about how slick and good he sounded. Tommy Rueckert played 12-string and sang in an early 70s style, including a James Taylor cover that got a great reaction from the crowd. Sol “Roots” also played a few numbers to help with sound check, doing sweet blues and reggae with some percussion buddies on the side. Former local folky Todd Crowley did two songs on his autoharp to switch up things, and host Ron Goad did his usual excellent job as emcee.

I did miss one performer, Karl Valentine, but I got to hear everyone else, and it was a treat. I got a copy of Jean Bayou’s new CD, and I’m looking forward to hearing that. These songwriter shows are always full of talented, creative people, and it’s always a treat to hear and meet other musicians.

SAW’s website is http://www.saw.org

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Aug 302010

I am looking for clients interested in free coaching to work with me as I start a creativity coach training in September. You may be interested in creative coaching if you have a creative personality and would like to see your endeavors grow and blossom.

Creativity coaching will help you …

Create more regularly
Get unstuck when facing a blank page or canvas
Choose and reach new goals
Face market challenges
Get better gigs
Deal with rejection and discouragement
Deal with existential doubts (Is my art meaningful? Does anyone else care about my poetry?)
Deal with the stresses that come with creating and performing
Work through practical problems (How to get my CD done, how to price my paintings)
Find your unique creative identity and style
Satisfy your creative personality

It is not psychotherapy, not treatment for clinical problems such as anxiety or depression disorders, and not a one-step solution to all your problems. It is a boost to your creative endeavors and a personalized dialog to grow your creative work.

If you are interested in this free coaching, write to me at scott@feelthewag.com to talk more about it.

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Aug 272010

Writer’s block? Stuck performing the same old songs and not sure where to turn? Need to add something to your performances?

In September I will start a “creativity coach” training course, and I am looking for a few folks who would be interested in participating. I am offering free coaching for folks looking for a creative boost in writing, performing, or any other creative pursuits.

The weekly coaching sessions will be primarily through email, but phone or in-person may also work out. The free sessions would be an ongoing dialog from September to December. If you are interested, write to me at scott@feelthewag.com.

Have a great day.

Aug 032010

I’m home after a full week at Rocky Mountain Fiddle Camp. My first time at one of these things, and it was really great.

As far as classes go, there were lots to choose from. I did old-time with Matt Brown, swing with Andy Stein, and PEI Scottish style with Ward McDonald. I also did Irish guitar with Dennis Cahill, and I took in a couple sessions of Scottish song with Ed Miller. All of the classes were top-notch, not a stinker in the schedule. Some instructors did the usual thing of teaching tunes and letting the tunes bring out technical points about the style being taught. Andy went over technical and stylistic details rather than having us stumble through tunes, and this was great for me. After his classes, I would go back to my room and write down notes on all the stuff he showed us. He did a lot of hand-over-hand with me, and I really feel and hear a huge difference from that. Dennis also talked and showed us things rather than pile on the tunes. After a couple hours with him, I was all fired up with new ideas, and I actually couldn’t sleep that night because I kept thinking about all the stuff I had to figure out on the guitar.

The camp facility itself was a bit primitive for my taste, but I’m a fussy city guy. It was held at a Y camp two hours west of Denver. Dirt paths, no sidewalks, no stairs to get up and down steep slopes. Industrial-strength cafeteria food too. But there was the option to get a private room with a private bath, kind of like an inexpensive motel room. So it wasn’t optimal but it wasn’t too bad. I’d much rather see something like this done at a college campus, which seems to be the trend here in the east for music camps..

The folks at the camp were all super friendly. I come to this from the hectic northern VA suburbs, and I’m not a very patient or subtle person sometimes. It was refreshing to be around so many like-minded music people who were all feeling very happy, peaceful, and friendly. I made lots of friends, and a few drinking buddies too. I learned how to do a real country waltz (not just step around and count to three) along with some square dance steps, jammed with some folks, listened in on other folks jamming, and just had lots of fun.

Definitely worth checking out if you are looking for a fiddle camp. http://www.rmfiddle.com

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