Tuesday, October 26, 2010

And the vapor from our breath seems to freeze in a question mark

The thought hits me sometimes - He should be here. She should be here.

It seems to follow me like a skillful shadow, so cold and empty, keeping out of sight most of the time, until I'm sitting in the recording studio, listening to the engineer play a track back that I wrote about them being gone. Why aren't they here in the studio, too? They should be here...

It's a beautiful fall day, and I walk across the street to the guitar shop. All of a sudden, I notice the blue car that looks like his - why isn't he inside selling guitars and showing off shred guitar?

The house lights go down, and the orchestra tunes up - the first chair violin walks onstage - my god, she's got the same hair. That so could be her.

I had a student by today who had to skip last week's class due to a death in the family. Barely standing, they showed up to the lesson. It was their 15 year old cousin and niece this time.

Why aren't they here?

I think it was the facebook post that I saw today. "It's so and so's birthday today. We miss you, buddy."

In honor of them...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Don't cut Pablo off in traffic...


Went on a mini-vacation with my Mom and Bros, and took a day trip to the National Gallery of Art. Holy smokes! I really appreciated it this time. There's these buildings filled with priceless art, and we get to look at it for free! The gift shop was having a sale on prints of the art, and I picked up Picasso's The Tragedy for two bucks. Now that's a deal! My mom first pointed the painting out, and it's been a favorite ever since. It is profound.

The print is sitting in my teaching studio now, and has evolved into quite a lesson. Check it out:

Here's the painting:

Take a close look at it. Note how deep it is, and you can tell that the people are in a very bad place. It's lovely! OK, sure, not that they're in pain, but how powerful and alive a painting can be.

How is this? Sure, sure, I know there's technical reasons. My students have actually been teaching me a lot. According to them, blue means sorrow, and bare feet mean discomfort. I applaud the young cultured folks! Rock on!

The cool thing is - it was conveyed even before I knew this stuff. That feeling jumps right out of the painting.

So, I've come up with a nifty songwriting challenge. (But not limited to the songwriting medium, other artists!) Write the sonic brother to that painting!

How? Far be it for ME to say how Picasso works, but this is what I've been lecturing on for hours about:

Put a lot of intention behind the note. Let's check out driving. If someone cuts you off, you'll honk angrily at them. Store that sound in your mind. (I poked myself in the eye today pointing to my head - my finger hit my hat, and slipped off the brim, into my eye. Ouch.) Next, picture seeing your buddy on the road, and you honk friendly-like. Store that sound. Now compare. How is it that the exact same note, with exact same tone, sounds completely different?

It's that intention! (Sure, sure, and context, and how long you lean on the horn, etc. But for all you excessively literal folks, I'd like to say - go take a hike.)

Now that the excessively literal folks are off looking for the nearest hiking trail, we'll get back to our example.

Think of your voice. You can say "Hi!" if you've just won the lottery, or "Hi!" if you're ready to rip someone's face off. The word is the same, but the intention behind it makes the space between the lines read very differently.

Now - playing music. Feel a feeling, and pour that into each and every note you play. Don't worry so much about mechanics. Do you think "huh, I wonder how I have to tense my throat to sound angry?" Nope! You just yell!

Play what you feel right now. Then, be an actor, and play whatever feeling you choose. It's way cool, because not only can we express ourselves, but we can tell stories.

See if you can write the counterpart to The Tragedy. Send it to me, I'd love to hear it!

Rock on!

- Josh

Monday, October 4, 2010

Human soundtracks

Annnnnd a Happy Belated Birthday to the one and only Mr. Stevie Ray Vaughan!

I hope you folks listened to some of the late, great Mr. Vaughan yesterday! Wait - this blog has taken a few days. It was last week.

Anyway, got a cool thought for you today. But to get to it, first the story...

I was doing some busking (street music) this weekend. I'm very fortunate to have access to such a great pitch. It's in historic Alexandria, Virginia (USA), right on the waterfront. Setting up with an acoustic guitar, I can jam to my heart's content as the breeze blows in off the river, and entertain the people who stroll along.

Early October is a peculiar time on the docks. The days get shorter, and the wind runs up the river with a melancholy warning for the revelers. It tells the man who makes the balloon animals first, and seems to make his brightly colored shirt fade a little, like the leaves clinging to the trees in anticipation of the Winter. It must be a cousin of whatever agent makes the carnival music slightly out of tune as it echos through the chilly and empty fairground. The party is almost over.

I was standing and strumming, playing Stormy Monday, and a little dust devil wandered up and made the leaves whirl in the corner next to the cold concrete walls. I stood in it and played the blues. Winter was certainly on it's way. I decided that it would be my last gig on the waterfront until the spring. A few hours later, and the random drunk shooed away from my set, I addressed the night and the lights sparkling on the water, stood up a little straighter, and after a little consideration as to what was a good season's end song, I started to softly play Tears in Heaven.

It was way cool...All of a sudden, I felt like I was in a movie with a soundtrack! I was the soundtrack! The lights took on a softer glow, and the docks looked downright cinematic.

Here's the thought:

We are the soundtrack. We are the nightlife.

Choose what you play with great care and thought.

Rock on!

- Josh

Friday, October 1, 2010

Bad habits my foot

Happy October, everyone!

Wow, I think this is one of my favorite months. Besides, it's Stevie Ray Vaughan's birthday on the 3rd - coincidentally (or not) the same day as my stepfather's. A great month all around!

Pursuing any discipline gives one a before-and-after perspective on what they were told, and what is actually the case.

The business of learning guitar has some rumors going around that, at best, are amusing, and, at worst, discouraging legions of would-be greats from ever picking up the instrument. Well, OK, maybe I'm being a bit dramatic, and acting just like what I'm preaching against, but hear me out for a minute.

It wasn't that long ago compared to, say, the way the line at the DMV moves, but about a decade or so ago, I remember standing in the guitar shop. I was awed by the walls lined with guitars of all colors, and the smell of new amplifiers wafting through the air. (It is actually quite a wonderful smell.) The salesman told my father quite earnestly "He should sign up for guitar lessons. You don't want him to pick up any bad habits."

Who would argue with one of these messengers of music, and purveyor of the ultra-cool - a guitar salesman?! Not teenage me, that's for sure! Besides, I was dying to take lessons, and couldn't wait to get one of those guitar cases that I could put stickers on. (Things really haven't changed that much.)

So I signed up, and I'm so glad I did. I'm writing this sitting in my office in my home that I own. I bought it with money I made as a guitar instructor myself.

But here's the thing - I never saw any bad habits to avoid.

I can explain...

A lot of instructors scare people into taking lessons by ominously mentioning bad habits. So far, I know of one of these frightful habits, and I am going to tell you right now, and take the scare tactic teachers out at the knees! (MAN I've had way too much caffeine!)

- Make sure your thumb stays perpendicular to the neck of the guitar - don't have it go parallel.


*hums a certain Queen song.*

Guitar is an instrument of innovation, experimentation, and inspiration. Sure, there's technique, and many lifetimes can be spent acquiring perfection. But sign up for lessons because a teacher can help you learn faster, more efficiently, and inspire you to new heights. My lessons with my teacher were something I looked forward to each week, and were a source of inspiration. But you don't need a guitar teacher to learn guitar. Funny that I should be going on about this, but I think it's true. Hey, I think a good teacher can be the best thing for learning! But if you can't afford one, can't find a good one, or would rather learn from a book, that's fine, too!

Maybe all the bad habit camp folks mean is that they can make the road easier. True, true. I call it the evolution of teaching. I learned from my teacher's mistakes, and my students have learned from mine. It's scary how fast these kids are learning the material sometimes. But the road rarely leads off a cliff, so don't be afraid of trying stuff on your own.

I remember one time I was looking at guitars with a client, and I was chiding him on picking the strings a certain way. One of the salesmen came over and said "Hey man, maybe he'll invent something new!" Johnny B. couldn't have been more right!

This invention and innovation is a magnificent thing about music. Where would we be if little James had always kept his amp at a respectable volume and didn't flip his stratocaster left handed?

We might not be listening to Purple Haze.

Learn on, good people! In what ever way suits you. Invent, innovate, inspire, and be inspired.
The world of music awaits you.

Rock on!

- Josh