Friday, June 8, 2018

Graduation

I have two granddaughters who have graduated high school this year and will head to college in the fall. Of course I'm very proud of them and I'm also in shock that I'm old enough to be able to make that announcement.

Graduations happen every year at this time, so it's no surprise that I find myself in this situation. But I also have a student who is graduating and going off to college this fall. This also happens each year. A student who began as a young child has grown before my eyes, become as good a musician as they could and now leaves to go to college.  Of course I'm very proud of them and proud to have known them and their families. But I'm also sad that I will likely never see them again except on social media.

That has helped my separation anxiety. I still get to follow many of them through the internet. It's fun to watch them continue to grow. To finish college and begin their careers, get married, buy a house, etc. It's all a part of life, of course. They have their own paths to follow just as I did at that age. And I take some pleasure in believing that they will have fond memories of me as they go through life.

There are some peculiarities too. I'm currently teaching an eleven year old who has been with me since he was six. He is the youngest of four kids and his father took lessons from me when he was the same age. Whew......second generation!

I also recently received an email from a former college student. Now that he is approaching retirement he wants to know if I will consider teaching his again.  (Retirement?!......really?)

I have begun to feel a bit like everyones "other Grandpa". (Maybe I should have my students call me "Gramps") At first I felt a bit weird about that, but now it seems to fit like an old pair of slippers.

I congratulate every graduating student from pre-school to grad school. You made it and now you move on to the next stage of your life. If you're lucky you will eventually graduate to a place where you are the "other Grandpa or Grandma". All-in-all it's a pretty good place to be.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Pleased, proud, stunned

Most people know that I have taught at a large music store in Lansing for over 30 years. Fewer know that I also teach at a smaller store fifty miles north of there. I only have a few students but it's close to home so I don't mind.

The teaching studio is quite small so we only do one recital per year. It includes all of the students from all of the teachers. Yesterday was our annual "Spring Recital" and it included 21 students representing 4 teachers. Besides guitar, there were violin, 'cello, and piano students. The students are all being classically trained.

Many in attendance were a bit confused about the inclusion of the guitar in this performance. In their minds the acoustic guitar is what you learn on, then you "graduate" to the electric guitar. One student's grandfather reminded him "Don't forget your pick". The student quietly replied, "I don't use a pick." Grandpa looked a bit confused.

As luck would have it, this student was third on the program right after a piano and then violin student. He played a lovely 19th century waltz and he knocked it out of the park. His hard work had paid off. Grandpa was stunned. Pleased, proud, and stunned. He had never heard anyone play in this style before. He didn't know it was possible.  And it had certainly never occurred to him that his own grandson would play like this. He was, as I said, pleased, proud, and stunned. I know all this because he told me several times during the social hour.

I was pleased and proud of all of my students yesterday, but not stunned. I taught them. I know what they can do. What does stun me is that this is what they want to do. I don't have to talk them into it. I will occasionally suggest a finger style arrangement of a pop song and they enjoy it, but then they're anxious to get back to the classical repertoire.

Music does not have the same importance or significance in their lives as it did in mine at that age. We had no social media and they're drowning in it. Music is important but on a different level. The rock guitarists that my generation revered are just "old-time" musicians to them. (Ouch! It hurt to write that.) With finger style or classical guitar they don't need expensive guitars, amps, and effects pedals to make music. Just a simple acoustic guitar and the willingness to learn to play it properly will yield some great music.

And great music is what we heard yesterday. From that waltz, to an anonymous Aria, to a Bach Minuet. Their friends and family were pleased and proud and some were even stunned. Have I mentioned lately that I love my job?

Thursday, May 3, 2018

My Consenses moment

Every business needs to advertise. Some will on TV and radio, others in newspapers, on billboards, direct mail, etc. Nearly all use social media. Artists need to advertise also but we're usually pretty awful at it. And we're historically cheap. We don't make much money so we're reluctant to spend it. Social media is mostly free so we do our best using it.

There are all manner of companies that are willing to take on this task for us. I've never used one because....well, I'm cheap. I use some social media and I write this blog and that's about it.  Oh, and I run ads in a couple of wedding magazines. But I do all of my own marketing.

Aside from the cost, another downside is that I get tired of talking about myself all of the time. It seems like I'm always hustling. My two primary businesses are teaching guitar and playing at weddings. So I do what I can to promote them. I also have five CDs for sale through iTunes and Amazon and they can be streamed via most major services. So I'm constantly "reminding" people.

Several months ago I got an email from Jane Rosemont, a talented photographer and old friend. It was an invitation to contribute to Consenses.org, an online artists collective. Each month they feature one work of art, that may be any discipline, and other artists are invited to submit something they created that was inspired by that work. A winner is chosen from those submissions and is the following months feature. It's a unique way for artists to gather and inspire one another.

Anyway, I've submitted a couple of times and this month my composition "A Fond Farewell" is the featured artwork. Composing is something I enjoy doing, but it's not my career, so I was going to keep this private. I felt it was only right to share it with a few friends and family, but I was not going to go all out "social media".

Apparently that was not a good idea. I know it was not a good idea because my friends and family have been telling me that it's not a good idea. I honestly thought folks would be tired of hearing me talk about me all of the time, but I guess there's some tolerance left. So I'm blasting the internet. Truthfully I'm very excited by this. My compositions are rarely heard by anyone except those closest to me, so to have one featured this way is pretty special.

Special thanks to Sally Taylor at Consenses.org and Jane Rosemont for revitalizing a tired, old, guitar picker.

This is part of the email notifying me:  Congratulations! we’ve chosen your artwork to be our next Monthly Challenge on Consenses.org.

If you would just like to hear the song just follow this link: https://youtu.be/hGVr-S6eW78

If you would like to see Jane Rosemont's award-winning photography go to https://www.janerosemont.com 


Monday, April 30, 2018

Jonathan

Jonathan started lessons with me a few months ago. His goal was to play acoustic covers of pop music. He was able to play a few chords but couldn't read music. So we began the slow, arduous process of learning to read, with the promise that we would get to the other stuff as soon as possible.

Some weeks ago, as we were preparing for our Spring Recital, I asked Jonathan what he would like to perform. He mentioned the title of a pop tune that I was not familiar with. "Go ahead and play it for me", I said. He proceeded to play a very complex arrangement of the song. Although it was impressive, it was not complete. So I said "No". He was really disappointed but it's not in his nature to argue with an authority figure so he didn't say anything. He didn't have the sheet music with him but a moment later he was able to recall the rest from memory and played a complete song for me. At least I think he did. I don't know the song so he may have simply faked it. I would never know.

As we sat there I remembered my own motto: "Our goal is to play beautiful music beautifully." He had certainly done that. Everything else we do, scales, arpeggios, theory studies, exercises, etc. are all done with that goal in mind. So exactly when did the process become more important that the outcome?

I tried to put myself in his place. Honestly I would have been outraged. So I softened my body language (it's amazing how formal I can get during these times) and gave my permission. He gave the biggest grin I'd seen in a long time and thanked me.

At the recital he was a hit. He played better than all but a few of the kids. He played from memory without using sheet music, and the song he played was a pop tune not classical. This was his first recital so all of the kids wanted to know who he was.

I explained that he had previous experience and that I believed that he had learned the song from TABs, a numerical/pictorial replacement for standard notation. As it turned out that was a false assumption on my part. He just watched a couple of Youtube videos and figured it out on his own.

With most of my students I'm a combination of Drill Sergeant, Coach, and Grandpa. I yell, cajole, threaten, compliment, and over-explain just to keep them motivated and moving in the right direction. But with Jonathan and a couple others, I need to guide them a bit and then get out of the way. I have to be careful not to choke off their enthusiasm. I show them a little trick here and there, and sneak the technical stuff in when they're not expecting it.

Jonathan is only thirteen years old and definitely "punching above his weight". I wasn't able to play like this until I was an adult. He has a great ear for music and a great work ethic. If I don't screw this up, he could be a real musical force within the next few years. Watch this space....

Friday, April 20, 2018

Recent Recital

Wednesday night I held my Spring Recital for my Lansing students. I put on two student recitals per year, one in  April and one in November. This past one featured nineteen kids between the ages of 6 and 17 all trying to conquer their terror and play for a room full of people.

I try to keep these events as relaxed and casual as possible without giving up decorum and dignity. There is no dress code, but the kids are asked to "dress up" a bit if I'm asked. That standard has a different definition in different families. The kids also choose their own song to play from the songs we've learned in the past. I discourage them from performing the hardest song they know but just play a favorite instead.

I don't believe this event should showcase a kids technique, and by extension how wonderful the teacher is. Instead it should ask the students to share their talent. To offer a song that they like as a gift. It's important to make the music the focus of the moment. This is why I allow the students to take their music on stage and never say anything when they hide behind the music stand when they play. Trust me, there is nothing relaxed about performing, but this helps.

As a college instructor I told my students that the second best compliment they could get was some variation of, "Wow! You're a really great guitarist." The best compliment was something like, "Wow! What a great song." That means that your technique is so good that it becomes invisible and only the music remains.

At any rate, the kids all played very well. They absolutely glowed in the pride and affection of their parents. And I received more than my fair share of compliments too.

One compliment came from a colleague who commented on how well behaved and orderly the event was. A bit more than 80 players and their families stuffed into a small auditorium and there was only friendliness and respect as everyone seemed to be on their best behavior.

Another compliment came from a parent who said that my recitals were always "classy". That everyone was polite and considerate. The kids all showed a lot of poise and good manners on stage. I'm a bit of a nag when it comes to good manners on stage. I believe good manners lead to the poise that folks tend to mention. Manners also enhance the experience for the audience, much like fine china can make a hamburger taste better.

Once again, the students played great and I am reminded of how lucky I have been all of these years. If you would like to see these kids in action you can watch the video at: https://www.facebook.com/RogerHumphreyClassicalGuitar/

Monday, April 16, 2018

The best music

I remember being interviewed many years ago and was asked, "What is the best kind of music?" It's a trick question, of course, and the interviewer was waiting to pounce on my answer. So I answered, "That's easy. It's the music you listened to in high school." That wasn't the answer she was hoping for. There were no cameras present so she felt free to scowl while I shot her a short smile.

I was thinking of that exchange recently as I listened to some old Andres Segovia recordings. Few people know that name today, but he was a giant in the world of classical guitar during the mid twentieth century.

I came to classical guitar relatively late. I was about 21 and had been a singer. This classical stuff was all new to me. I started to listening to Segovia's recordings along with recordings by Julian Bream and was immediately hooked.  I was able to take a couple of lessons but then was on my own. I relied on the recordings, books, sheet music, and the brute force of hours of daily practice.

This was during the seventies and without realizing it, I was riding a rising tide of interest in this music. As I slowly started playing this lovely music, there were others who were playing it and many other new pieces. And they were quite a bit better than me. I felt like I was still trying to catch up. And I felt like I was doomed to be a step or two behind forever.

During my 30 years teaching college another interesting thing happened. The overall technique of the students increased sharply. The songs that I was initially teaching my seniors gradually became the standard for incoming freshmen auditions.

Another thing happened. I began to lose interest in the music. I heard the same pieces played a thousand times by hundreds of different guitarists. I heard new repertoire, recently composed, that left me cold and unmoved. There was the inevitable justification of these pieces, but I honestly didn't care to listen to them. I felt like the art form was rapidly moving forward and I still wasn't able to keep up. Still about two steps behind.

Conversations with colleagues seemed to be about personalities, or styles, or technique, or historical accuracy, or equipment. Who plays what guitar, what strings are being used, etc.  I find these conversations to be modestly interesting, but they are subjects for those still building careers. Trying to figure out how the other guy did it. I'm past that stage in my life.

Then I listen to Segovia and realize that the conversations are never about artistry. They're never about love, or beauty, or the simple search for truth. The un-quantifiable stuff. I listen to Segovia and I'm back where I started. Moved by the sheer beauty of the music and totally lost in the moment. This is the reason I wanted to play this music and the experience I wanted to offer an audience.

This is the music that changed the course of my professional life. This is the art that I forsake for the academic. This is my "high school - best music in the world". A reacquainted first love. And I now have the skills to play it. So now I need to work on my artistry.


Thursday, April 12, 2018

Gigs in memorial

This past Saturday I played at two different memorials back-to-back. The first one was traditional with visitation from 10:00-11:00AM and then a service from 11:00-12:00. During the visitation I played light classical music and then I accompanied a singer for three songs during the service.

She was an experienced singer with a nice voice so that helped a lot. However, I had to record backing tracks for her to practice with because she had never worked with a guitarist before. We were able to get together once to rehearse a few days earlier so when Saturday came we performed well together.

The second memorial was from 1:00-4:00 at a different facility just down the road. There was no service, just a couple of speeches during a reception-like event. I had enough time to get from one to another and set up my equipment. However, lunch was only a granola bar eaten during the drive and a sip of water to wash it down.

The family had requested I play as much '60s and '70s pop and folk music as possible so I spent a lot of time in the preceding weeks arranging and preparing new songs. I think the final tally was about twenty. These were mixed in with the usual classical pieces that I play as background. Sort of like chocolate chips in the cookie dough.

Unsolicited remarks at both events were positive. Many of the guests went out of their way to compliment me and I truly appreciated it. Most of the events that I play are customized like this so I'm never quite sure if my efforts are good enough until after. I worry obsessively (to my wife's annoyance).

The previous week my teaching studio was on spring break so luckily I had additional time to make it all work. This week, when I returned to teaching, my students asked me what I did over the break. I think they were a bit disappointed when I told them.

A point that I constantly try to make is that being an artist is not a regularly scheduled job. It's a lifestyle. I refuse to glamorize it because some of my students may be influenced and they need to know the truth.

But a life in the arts is also a privilege. The music I play at a memorial helps people say "Good Bye". The wedding music helps couples kick off their life together. When I play at church I am able to help people worship God. And when I play a recital I am able to help people remove the shackles of their worries and rest a bit.  So, although I sometimes complain about being tired, I am also aware of just how lucky I am.