Thursday, March 22, 2018


In late February or early March of 1968 I was asked to teach someone how to play guitar.  I didn't think much of it at the time but I've thought about it quite a bit recently. That was 50 years ago...a half of a century. And it never occurred to me that I was actually taking the first steps of my career.

I won't bore you with the autobiographical tales of the journey. We've all got stories to tell and mine really isn't any more interesting or important than yours.  And while I ponder the highs and lows of it, I'm still looking forward. That's the part that gets to me. I still spend more time thinking of the future than the past. Scheming to help my students and to be better at this tomorrow than I ever have been. Oh I flirt with the notion of retirement, but the simple fact is that I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I did. Honestly I would feel like I was quitting before the job was done.

I have mentioned numerous times that I enjoy using technology to help my students. I also use it to give online lessons to people who live a long way away. I'm always a bit taken aback when people half my age are reluctant to try it. The same people that get cranky with their grandparents for not being internet savvy, are reluctant to do online lessons because they don't understand how it all works.  Yes the internet gremlins get feisty sometimes and it just doesn't work. But fortunately that doesn't happen often and I have to remind myself that this stuff is still in its infancy.  It wasn't possible at all just a few years ago.

In the last fifty years I've seen the popularity of the electric guitar rise and fall. I've seen the popularity of college guitar programs also rise and fall. Fewer students want to perform and fewer still want to try to go pro.  For some it's a way to be social, for others it's  a quiet hobby that they feel little need to share with others. It's a constant blessing to be able to help them.

I've taught people from all kinds of backgrounds. Rich and poor, young and old, many races and cultures, disabled and able bodied. They all have one thing in common. The desire to play beautiful music beautifully. This is a simple profession that does not bring wealth, fame, or power. I have enjoyed, however  hugs of affection, smiles of appreciation, and tears of joy.  That's a pretty good trade.  And a half century slips by in the blink of an eye.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Teaching Gavin

This year, like most years, I have a long-standing student graduating from high school and will be off to college in the fall.  She's been with me since she was eight. Ten years now and it will be sad to say "Goodbye".

Teaching young children can be challenging, however she was a breeze compared to some. For example, seven year old Gavin has been with me for about two months. He's a nice boy but just can't seem to stay focused. He will stop in the middle of playing something to ask me a question.  As I'm trying to answer his question he starts fussing with the strings on his guitar. This goes on for most of the lesson.

Working with kids like Gavin takes a lot of patience and I'm finding that as I get older my supply of patience is rapidly dwindling.  His mother sits in the room with us and she gets totally frustrated. I think the only thing that saved his bacon a couple of times is Mom didn't want witnesses (me) to be able to testify in court. I'm sure most parents of young boys can relate. You would think that he had been mainlining straight caffeine just prior to the lessons.

What I find interesting is that she says that he's never like this at home.  It's only at guitar lessons that he behaves like this.  That's contrary to my experience. If a kid behaves like this with me they usually behave like this at home or school too. Why save it just for me?

At this weeks customary lesson I noticed something else. Most kids with attention issues will start talking about unrelated things. In the middle of an exercise they'll talk about a TV show. They'll stop playing a song to tell me about their dog, etc. But Gavin was only talking about music or the guitar. Many of his "questions" were observations that began with the phrase, "Did you know....?"

I started to get an inkling of what was going on. As we wandered into the lesson his mother started getting frustrated again and was fidgeting some. I gently waved her off and went with the flow. It occurred to me that I had been so busy teaching Gavin that I wasn't letting him learn. I was so busy teaching him that I wasn't letting him share his discoveries with me.

He was noticing how the guitar functions. He was comparing notes from one song to another. He was getting excited about details that most students, at all ages, seldom noticed and didn't care about. And I suddenly had my "Helen Keller" moment when I understood. I could see what was happening.

Music and the guitar are like a great big playground in his mind. Full of wonder and surprise and absolute joy. No matter what he's doing there are several other things to do. Gavin can not only think about it on an elementary level, but in the abstract as well. So rather than wait for me to guide him through it, he just takes off on a journey of unexpected delights. My job now is to give him just enough discipline to make order out of chaos without sucking the fun out of it. To enhance not limit the experience. Oh....and to keep his mother from wringing his neck.

I don't know where all of this will lead.  I'm hoping I'm good enough to deserve this student. I'm anxious to teach him all I can for the next several years. But I'm also excited to see what he can teach me.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Looking back

A young student sits in the living room of his instructor while the instructor and his family eat in the next room. The instructor occasionally mumbles some corrections between mouthfuls.

Or, a kid taking a lesson from a would-be rock star. The rock-star jams for most of the lesson and asks the kid what he wants to know without ever really showing him how to do anything.

Or, "I don't actually play guitar but I can read music. So I can guide you through the books."

These are just some of the horror stories I heard when I began teaching. When I spoke with college teachers they always complained about the poor quality of students that were auditioning for them. Compared to the violin or piano students, the guitar students were far, far behind. But it's no wonder. Most music students had the benefit of a teacher who pushed and prodded them to a level of quality that was acceptable to the college. Guitarists didn't have that advantage, or the acquired skills of time management and efficient practice habits.

I'm a self-taught guitarist with no college degree. It never occurred to me that I would end up teaching college for 30 years. But college programs were springing up all over the country and if guitarists were going to keep up with the other musicians,  the applicants had to be a lot better. I decided that I could make a difference at that level. The word that permeated my thoughts was "professionalism".

Looking back I realize that I was at the right place in history. Young teachers all over the place were raising the standards to levels that far out-paced the older ones. Classical guitar was gaining in popularity around the world and if you could teach it you could support yourself.

I have been lucky to have been associated these past 3 decades with some of the finest and most professional music teachers imaginable. The standards that I aspired to then are higher now. I'm a better musician and educator because of them and I can't believe that I get to hang out with them.

I recently got a message from a former student. He was bringing me up-to-date on his life and career in music. He concluded with "I feel fortunate to have had your influence during my early music training."  That's the dividend of a life invested in music education.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Trying to explain...

G.E. Smith, the former Saturday Night Live music director and sideman to so many famous acts, was asked in an interview, "What advice would you give to someone just starting out?" His response was immediate and definitive, "Don't do it!"

I was chatting with a friend about my student who wanted to switch to electric guitar and perhaps become a professional musician. His response was, "Introduce me. I can talk him out of it in 15 minutes!"

A few days ago I received a phone call from a high school student who was doing some kind of project and asked if I could come to her school to talk about being a professional musician. I had to decline for several reasons. Also, I was in my car pulling into a medical facility for some tests. I tried to be polite about it but I may have been a little short.  I wish the call had come at a better time. I may have tried to work it out.

I don't know what I would say to a classroom full of teens about my business. I don't believe I would be nearly as negative as the others. But this is not a job for the faint of heart. The hours can be long and irregular.  The pay can be short and irregular. It's the nature of it. There's more to be negative about than most folks realize. When I have a student tell me now that they would like to major in guitar at college I make them convince me. I once told a young colleague that if he wasn't obsessed with being a professional musician then it was a hobby.

But if I stop and think for a mere moment I can find much more to like about it than dislike. I regularly have more fun at my job than most will ever have at theirs. I've had moments onstage where it all came together and I thought to myself while playing, "There is no place in the world I would rather be right now."  The other times, when things fell apart in front of everyone, were embarrassing at the time but have since become funny stories.

I've been fortunate to be able to work quite a bit and continue to do so. Occasionally I feel a bit worn out and declare that I'm going to slow down and enjoy life. But then more gigs come in and I greedily take them. This cycle has been going on for a while now and it really annoys my wife. It should be noted that my wife has advised against my retiring. She understands that music is not just what I do, but it's who I am. It's not just an occupation but a lifestyle also.

I think I would try to explain to the students that music isn't as glamorous as most people think. It is simultaneously better and worse. And, after all these years, I'm still obsessed.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Olympic ceremonies

Like many, I watched much of the Olympics on TV the last two weeks. The athletes were heroic and I found myself becoming interested in sports that I knew nothing about.

However, I am not athletic in any way, as evidenced by a recent fall in my garage while taking out the trash. I don't understand the nuances and I'm not familiar with the athletes or others associated with the sports.  While watching an ice skater leap and spin in the air I expressed my astonishment at how wonderful she was only to hear the TV commentator  rattle off a laundry list of things that she did wrong.

I'm a musician. I compose, arrange, teach, and perform. I understand the pressure of putting it all on the line in front of a room full of people.  I convey, or try to convey, that empathy to my students as they prepare for recital. Arranging or composing music is an exercise in creating something from nothing. The things I have done in my career have been pretty small.

But the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics were stunning on a grand scale. The people who were responsible did an outstanding job of showcasing Korea. I was struck by how unified the programs were. They flowed from one moment to the next with cohesion. The flow was graceful and natural.  It's really hard to make something seem that effortless.

I was also impressed by their use of technology. I love technology if it helps me do my job. But I don't use it just because it's cool. There needs to be a purpose.  In these ceremonies, there was an artistic vision that was realized by technology. Repeatedly, my first response was "Wow" followed later by "I wonder how they did that".  It's a great way to present their technology to the world. I'm sure we will see more of it soon. (Drone art anyone?)

I would be remiss if I neglected K-pop. This music has been slow to catch on in the US, but it's here. I've had many students tell me that it's one of their favorites. It's not what you can play on solo guitar so they don't ask to learn it, but they do love to listen and dance to it.  Honestly I wasn't that interested until I watched it during the ceremonies. Make no mistake - I still feel like the geezer I am. But I have an appreciation and respect for this music.

These ceremonies were Olympics worthy on every level. I applaud the creators, technicians, and everyone else involved.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Guitar thoughts

I was about twenty-one when I first started buying and listening to classical music. I took a couple of classical guitar lessons a year later. Then I was hooked. I've been in love with the music since.

As I've gotten older (lots older) I've come to appreciate the beauty of the instrument and its complexity despite its seemingly deceptive design. It's just a wooden box with six strings stretched across it. I don't plug it in and there are no devices attached to it to alter the sound. It's just my fingers and the guitar.  Perhaps the easiest instrument in the world to learn how to play badly and one of the most difficult to master.

I'm uncomfortable when someone praises my playing because deep down I know that I would have to live another lifetime or two to actually deserve the compliment. That's not humility speaking (I have a significantly inflated ego), but an acknowledgement of fact.

People will sometimes refer to it as a "Spanish" guitar because of its association with the music and culture of Spain. Although I enjoy some of the Spanish repertoire, it's not my favorite and I've only ever played a few of the pieces. There is a vast array of music available to todays artist and I tend to be drawn toward other styles.

With age my musical tastes have changed and broadened. I play a lot more pop music now than ever before. I felt a little odd about that until a friend reminded me that it's all music. No labels, no compartments, no segregating of styles. If I like the song, I play it. A couple of years ago I began changing my self-description from "Classical Guitarist" to "Guitarist".

These thoughts have been rattling around in my brain for the last few days because Feb. 21 marked the 114th birthday of Andres Segovia, one of the founding fathers of modern classical guitar. Although I never met the Maestro I know several people who have and they've shared some very interesting stories.  I was influenced by his playing, though, via recordings and, most recently, videos available online.

He was not the only classical guitarist of the 20th century, but he may as well have been. His forceful personality, backed up by his prodigious technique and astonishing artistry, propelled the guitar from the informal world of folk music to the great concert stages of the world. All during two world wars and a civil war in his homeland. Not a bad legacy. Happy Birthday Maestro. May you rest forever in peace.

If you would like to see and hear him just click here:

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Urban collage

Many years ago I had an artist friend who made collages. He would take magazines and cut the pictures out and then use either the entire image or pieces of it to create something uniquely his own. Some of his stuff was pretty cool. Like the vase made up from photos of other vases and urns.

I'm not sure what the copyright laws had to say about this. He was probably in violation of several of them. But, like most starving artists, his work remained obscure so he flew under the radar.

I'll be truthful. While I thought he was clever and I respected his artistic vision, I never really wished to own one of his pieces. I could admire something like that in a gallery but wasn't interested in looking at it every day at home or work.

I think many approach art like this.  It may be unique or even peculiar but we somehow find a way to respect it even if we don't understand it.  At the very least we can admire the skill it takes to realize the vision.

I was thinking of my friend recently. Trying to remember his name, if you must know. We used to have some interesting conversations about art, life, and stuff as only young people can and I missed those chats.  I wondered about his opinions on todays pop culture. And you can't think of that without Hip-hop.

What would he think about sampling? And suddenly it hit me. My friend was very good at cutting up existing stuff and pasting it together to get something new. That's all that hip-hop is. Electronic cutting and pasting. Using someone else's work to create something else. Something new and relevant to the times.  My friend used scissors and white glue. Todays artists use a computer. Different tools, different media, same goals.

Hip-hop has been around for decades and makes more money than any other musical genre. I'm guessing that my observations have been obvious to the faithful from the beginning and I'm a little embarrassed that it's come to me so late. But better late than never I guess.