Monday, October 29, 2018

Hallmark Channel

The Christmas movies are showing on the Hallmark Channel now. They will continue for the next couple of months. Some are new and some are repeats.  They will all be repeats in the coming weeks as they get recycled through the schedule.

In some ways they are all repeats any way. The plots are almost identical. It's a classic "boy-meets-girl" scenario. One of them has forgotten the true meaning of Christmas and, by extension, the things in life that matter the most. It becomes the mission of the other to correct this problem and they fall in love along the way. The movie ends with their first kiss.

These movies are always sentimental, gentle, and romantic. They offer a nice respite from the news of the day/week. Even the people who don't like each other aren't evil.....just unpleasant. Everyone is still civil and polite. There are numerous cliches along the way, but somehow we don't mind.

What these movies don't have are gunfights, car chases, or explosions. There are no special effects or CGI. Generally the characters don't even raise their voices. Even the children are always well behaved and never have a full blown meltdown because "He's looking at me!!"

It's easy to make fun of the movies and their legion of fans, but we need to remember that all genres are cliche by their nature. In the westerns that I watched as a child there was often conflict between the stranger who rides into town and the authorities. Sometimes the stranger is the villain and other times he's the hero. Either way they were heading for a gunfight in the middle of the street by the end of the movie.

In todays action movie they spend the first ten minutes putting a cat in a tree and the next two hours getting it out. There is always a hero and an arch villain. Just like the western, they will meet at the end of the movie to settle things "once and for all".

In the super hero films the story lines are basically the same except everyone has a special power and they break entire cities or planets or some such during the final scenes.

  In an age where everything is an extravaganza. Where tragic events occur weekly, and if they aren't tragic enough the press embellishes just a bit. Where public outrage has been reduced to background noise. The Hallmark Channel has given us an oasis of life as it should be. Small, personal, full of love, kindness, and respect. Who wouldn't want to escape to that?

Monday, September 17, 2018

Plans? Right!!

Many years ago one of my college students said that he'd like a career similar to mine. One that focuses primarily on teaching, with perhaps a bit of playing on the side. Then he asked the "million dollar question"........"How did I get started?"  That was when I first confronted the truth of my story. I never set out to be a teacher. It was never part of a plan. I never applied for a teaching job, they all asked me. Deep down I had wanted to be a composer/performer.....I thought. But when I was in my early thirties I realized that I had made more money the previous year teaching part time than all of the money I had ever made performing or composing.  It was a career waiting to happen. So I had to 'fess up, say "I don't know", and explain myself. That's hard to do when someone admires you and is looking for the wisdom of experience.

When I was a child I knew nothing of the music business. I thought performers all had a nightclub that they played in. Sort of like my dad going to work in the morning, they would just go to the club at night to work. Then, when I became older, I became aware of musicians going on tour or "on the road" and I thought that was what I would need to do. Wrong again. Most of my performing has been for special events, mostly private, that are scattered about my calendar.

Until recently I thought of my performing career (such as it is) as a complete flop. Most of my friends are in bands playing in various clubs and casinos. That's something I was never able to do. But then I realized I make more money per event, with less equipment, and fewer demands on my time. Truthfully, I've been pretty busy the last few years. I'm as successful as they are, but in a different way.

"If I had only known then what I know now"...  That's a saying that haunts me. It seems that I've been stumbling from one circumstance to another for most of my adult life. So I'm always surprised to see "Life Couch" as a profession and the practitioners are my grandchildren's age. How did they get to be so smart?

There are those who make plans early in life and enjoy watching things work out as life goes on. Of course they stumble or have unpredictable circumstances disrupt things, but usually the plan stays intact. But that certainly was not my case. Plans were totally derailed and new courses set on more than one occasion. If someone were to ask me to be their coach I would laugh, wish them luck, and send them on their way.

Looking back I'm not sure I would have liked the career that I thought I wanted. The work I'm doing now is generally satisfying and I'm continuing to work well past retirement age. I realize how fortunate I am to be able to continue to play and teach. I still feel useful and relevant, which is not always the case for some people my age. I'm still growing as a musician and still have dreams. Yep! Fortunate indeed.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Teaching online

My most recent venture has been the development of online guitar and ukulele courses. This was inspired/instigated by an adult student who had moved away several years ago but wanted to continue  lessons with me. I secretly harbored some skepticism about its effectiveness but sallied forth regardless. After mucking about for a while I finally figured out a good way to do it and have been fairly successful since. But I have discovered some interesting things along the way.

First - The most common criticism I hear is that it's not as good as being there in person. I'm not convinced that's true. It is, however, different and must be treated as such. After all, private lessons and group lessons are treated differently. This is simply a third category. Online lessons address issues like geography, mobility, health, and schedule. Simply put, guitar lessons are now available to some people who wouldn't otherwise be able to learn.

Second - The majority of my online students are mature adults. These students don't want to play in a band nor do they want to sing in front of others, if at all. They admire their friends who sit at the piano and play songs that are familiar and would like to do the same on the guitar. They have a dreadful time finding a teacher willing to help.

Third - Aging baby-boomers will acknowledge that technology baffles them, but are generally willing to give it a try and surprised that it's not as difficult as it first seems. Their children, as a group, tend to be more intimidated and more reluctant to give it a whirl. Honestly this really surprised me. I just assumed they would dive in enthusiastically. (I've just got to stop making assumptions.)

Fourth - Many of the online teachers I've spoken with are still trying to use traditional methods and are disappointed in their results. Too often they blame the student. It seems to me that if you are going to use a new delivery system, it's prime time to question everything about the process to see what can be improved. But change is hard and radical change is harder.

Online education is still in its infancy. There are alternative ed. classes for high school, college classes and even degree programs, as well as classes in nearly every other subject. There are companies trying consolidate programs and teachers under one corporate umbrella and individuals like me trying to go it alone. It's like the wild west out here, but it's exciting in its own way.

I enjoy playing for people and I love teaching. Driving to and from the various locations? Not so much. So being active online allows me to continue to teach. I can still be useful. More importantly, I'm still having fun. It's always been fun, but now that I'm starting to get the hang of it, it's more fun than ever.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Coming attractions

So summer is slipping away and autumn is just around the corner. With it comes cooler temps, changing colors in the trees, and pumpkin spice everything from coffee to lip balm. I can tolerate the pumpkin spice, I love the colors, but the relief I find in the cooler temperatures is balanced by the knowledge that "cooler" will soon be replaced with "cold". We will go from days that are brisk to days so cold they are only fit for "well diggers" and "brass monkeys".  We can only hope that it will get even colder so that Hell will freeze over and the politicians will begin to be nice to each other. Or anything else that only happens during that auspicious occasion.

With each passing year I find that driving during bad weather or on slippery roads is less inviting. My driving skills aren't what they used to be and they were never that great to begin with. Even worse are the skills of many of my fellow drivers. Some of these people should have their cars impounded until spring.

On the bright side, we will soon be coming into the holiday season. It is over-commercialized I know, and it can get dreadfully hokey at times. But I still look forward to it. Food, family, and a desire to be nice to everyone.

Also the concert season begins. There are always a variety of things to choose from. Some are touring musicians or plays with national or even international acclaim. Others are home grown that feature friends and neighbors. These events beg and deserve your support.

Art galleries begin their seasonal offerings as well. You may not know it but there are some wonderful artists living among you. Local art galleries are a great source of gift ideas. And instead of sending your money to some little factory in Indonesia, you can support a local business.

This isn't just an invitation or challenge from me. It's also a reminder to myself to be more involved. Some years it seems that bacteria is the only culture I get exposed to. I cannot complain if there is a poor turnout to one of my events if I'm not willing to drag myself away from the TV long enough to enjoy what my town has to offer.

Some venues have begun publishing their coming attractions. Check 'em out and start planning to attend a few things. With any luck I'll see you there. I'll be easy to recognize. I'll be the cranky old goat complaining about the cold, the lousy roads, and the other people on them. Be sure to say "Hi".

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The immediate future

I'm going through some changes in my life.  Most of it involves driving and/or traveling to gigs.  I'm really tired of doing it as much as I do. At a recent wedding I had about 3 1/2 hours of travel time (each way) invested in a 30 minute event. After 40+ years I'm looking toward spending my time differently. It's time to significantly reduce the number of events that I play every year.

I've also reduced my teaching a bit for the same reason. I drive quite a bit to teach at the music store I've been affiliated with for 37 years. So I've dropped a day from that schedule too.

All of this sounds like the whining of an old goat who should have retired several years ago. But the truth is a bit more complicated. I'm actually hungry for some new challenges. Sitting around and waxing nostalgic about the "good old days" is a pleasant way to have a beer with old friends, but then I need to move forward. I know what I did yesterday..... the accomplishments and the screw ups. There is no need to constantly revisit those days. The challenge is "what am I going to do tomorrow?"

The thing is that I still enjoy playing music for people and I don't think I could ever stop teaching completely. So I'm not tired of those activities, just the long commutes. Fortunately technology is offering some interesting options.

I've been offering lesson online for several years now. I'm starting to get the hang of it. There is, of course, a prejudice against it. But for the people who have tried it, the results have been better than expected. Interestingly, most of my online students are seniors. So I'm developing new techniques and strategies to teach them better. My immediate goal is to increase my online student load.

With that in mind, I've also begun to consult with other teachers on how they can be more effective. I've seen several companies trying consolidate online teachers under one "roof" but when I go to their sites, trying to find the right teacher is complicated and the prices seem to be inflated. I'm convinced there is a better way and I just need to find it before someone else does.

I would like to explore the emerging trend of online concerts too. I'm not sure how well that works for the artist but it would give me an opportunity to play for people without all of us physically meeting in a room somewhere. Although that has its charms too.

I'm not sure how all of this is going to work, but I invite you to watch this space. Ride along on this journey with me. Feel free to comment, make suggestions, register complaints, and generally keep me company. It will be interesting to see where all this leads in a year or two.

Friday, June 8, 2018


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?