How Music Has Changed My Life

Here's an ariticle I wrote for TakeLessons.com in Jan of 2015 (http://takelessons.com/blog/2015/01/how-music-has-changed-my-life-2/)

 

Sometimes I forget how music has changed my life. I won’t detail all the years of weekly lessons, basement and bar bands, college classes and teaching jobs that sprang from my original obsession with a sunburst electric guitar in the Sears catalog. But I will say this – learning to play music has in one way or another determined how people view me, who I met, how I spent most of my spare time, how I met some of the loves of my life, who my friends are, what jobs I held and how I spend my days now.

 

There is an indescribable joy you get on those magic nights when you find yourself playing an inspired improvised solo over a great groove your band is laying down. I don’t know what else in life can give you that kind of a natural high. I imagine it must be like skiing naked down a mountainside. It is also very gratifying to hear an audience applaud at something you wrote, and even better to have them pound on the table for an encore after you’ve left the stage! You have to keep it all in perspective, or your head can get too big to fit through a door.

 

But even day to day, it’s nice to know I can sit down and amuse myself with music written anywhere from the year 1500 to last month, and make a living doing nearly the very thing I’d be doing if I wasn’t paid. 

Which Instrument Should I Learn to Play? DUH?! Guitar!

So you want to learn to play an instrument. Excellent idea. Music can enrich your life in ways you had never thought possible. But which one should you learn? Well, I am here to tell you why your best choice would, without a shadow of a doubt, be the guitar.

So first off, you can play riffs and melodies on it. Well, that’s nothing to brag about, you can do that on any instrument (except drums). Now that doesn’t mean drums aren’t cool. But you aren’t going to write a song on the drums. And if you play the drums, you can jam with your friends and have a blast doing it, but you’re going to need a roomy vehicle to get them around.

But, here’s the thing, with its’ 6 strings (and sometimes even 7 or 12), not only can you play melodies on the guitar, you can play 2 or more melodies at once! Or, you can play a melody while you play the chords that go with it. So it is already way ahead of all of the instruments used in the orchestra. You can’t do that with the woodwind instruments or the brass instruments or the bowed stringed instruments. It means it’s a great tool for writing songs, because you can hear a melody and the chords together (the melody could come from the guitar or your voice). Now, in fairness, you can also do that with a piano or an organ. But it takes 4 burly men to carry your piano over to your friend’s house. And when you’re sitting around that campfire at the ocean, where are you going to plug the organ in?

Let’s face it, the guitar is the instrument of choice for sitting around the campfire because it’s portable, can be strummed in all kinds of rhythms, is loud enough to sing with and you can play chords on it. You don’t see people singing songs around a trombonist, now do you? And if you could get the piano to the campfire, you still couldn’t wow everyone with your skill at bending a note while you make that “baby filling a diaper” face.

And I haven’t even touched on the electric guitar yet. Without relearning an instrument, you can pick up an electric guitar and get a whole array of new sounds that are completely different from the acoustic guitar. Want to be loud? You’re only limited by the size of your budget for a high wattage guitar amplifier.

The guitar has some relatives that can do similar things but their sound tends to limit the style of music they get used for. Start banjo lessons and your buddies will start with the “Deliverance” jokes almost immediately. The ukulele sounds like a toy in most songs except Hawaiian music, and the mandolin makes you think of the “Godfather” soundtrack.

So with all of these things going for it, it is no wonder that the guitar is used in every imaginable style of music – pop, blues, jazz, folk music from almost every nation, classical, gospel, country, classic rock, alt rock, heavy metal, new age, etc. As you develop as a musician, even as your musical tastes change, your options are completely open.

Perhaps that is why guitars come in every size, shape, style and color. You can find a guitar that goes with your own personal sense of fashion or style. Makes you wonder, why don’t music stores have full-length mirrors?

Other Instruments Friendly to Guitar Players – Bass and Ukulele

Have you ever tried to play another instrument other than your guitar? The bass guitar is easy to transition to from guitar because it is basically the lowest 4 strings of the guitar – EADG. However, the strings are much larger and sound an octave lower than the guitar. The frets are farther apart as well. However, because you know the location of the notes from the guitar, it is fun to try playing along with songs you know the chords to. In this way you can see how a bass player constructs a bass line from the chord tones.

The ukulele is another easy transition from guitar. It is basically the highest 4 strings of the guitar but tuned one fourth higher. In other words, instead of DGBE, they are tuned to GCEA. Also, the 4th string G is tuned one octave higher than you expect (which can be very interesting when you arpeggiate chords). This means that you can retain the chord fingerings that you’ve learned on the guitar (or at least the top 4 strings of them), although the chords will have different names. The chord shape you played as G on the guitar will actually come out as a C chord (4 notes higher) on the ukulele. Or, expressed another way, if the music calls for G, add five notes to that – you will play a guitar’s D shape on the ukulele.

Because of this, ukulele is a great starter instrument for small children – the small frets fit their hands and the nylon strings are easy on their fingers. Also, if they wish to switch to guitar when older, all of the chord shapes they learned on the ukulele will be put to use on the guitar, although their names will change.

Trying a new instrument can spur a burst of creativity. The new sounds can inspire you to play and experiment and you may discover something new. When I first picked up a ukulele, having a high string on the low and high end of the strings gave a really different sound to the right hand finger patterns I was use to playing, and within a few minutes I had a song, which I called “Brenda, Brenda, Brenda”. I have attached a video of me playing it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkSWFL9HUmU

Don’t Forget to Thank Your Guitar

Sometimes I forget how much the guitar has changed my life. It would have started at about the age of 5, being energized by the catchy riffs and vocal melodies of the Beatles. By age eleven I had been listening to rock music on a daily basis for 6 years, heard countless guitar licks, rhythms and solos by a myriad of rock groups, and I knew I wanted an electric guitar – because there just weren’t many things cooler than that.

I began to salivate over a photo in the Sears catalog of a red and black electric guitar that I felt must surely be within my parent’s Christmas gift budget at $29.95 (I have since found a photo of this beauty online at:  http://www.silvertoneworld.net/electric/1405/1405.html.

I begged and pleaded until they caved and I was the proud owner of an electric guitar. I had no amplifier, but I delighted in holding the head stock against the rec room paneling so that it resonated through the walls, making it’s thin body more audible. I banged away on that thing through winter and spring but still couldn’t play anything resembling music, as the beginner book that came with it was gibberish to me. That summer there came an ultimatum from parent land – “you asked for this guitar and so you have to learn to play it – you’re taking guitar lessons!”

I won’t detail all the years of lessons, basement bands, bar bands, college classes and guitar teaching jobs that eventually sprang from my original obsession but I can say this – learning the guitar has completely shaped the course my life has taken. It has in one way or another determined how my classmates viewed me, what people I met, how I spent most of my spare time, sometimes who I dated, what jobs I held and how I spend my days now. Because of the guitar, many of my closest friends are musicians, and let me tell you, they make for interesting people, and they have likely permanently warped my sense of humor.

Because of the guitar I have had the pleasure of performing songs I wrote for people, know the absolutely indescribable joy of improvising music with great musicians, met hundreds of fascinating people who I have seen weekly for up to years at a time, can sit down and amuse myself with music written anywhere from the year 1500 to last month, and can make a living doing nearly the very thing I’d be doing if I wasn’t paid.

So thank you, Guitar, thank you very, very - very much.

How to Use Apps to Make Practicing More Fun and More Productive

I strongly believe that playing along with a recording while practicing will make you a better musician. I say this for a few reasons: First off, you will be playing along with studio musicians, who usually have a great sense of “time” (playing in the correct rhythm) and “feel” (adding the right emotion and attitude to the part). By playing along, you are absorbing a little of their knowledge and methods. Second, sometimes when we play alone we don’t realize that we are taking too long to get to a note or chord. Sometimes we play a passage with the wrong rhythm or notes – maybe we remembered it wrong or we just haven’t mastered it yet. When you play along with the track you will hear if you are off and you’ll know that you have to fix something, rather than turning it into a bad habit that just needs to be unlearned later when someone points it out. Third, it is more fun to play along with tracks than all by yourself. You feel like you are “part of the band”. The challenge to get it right and keep up is motivating, and you’ll probably practice longer than you would normally. However, sometimes for a student the track is just going by way too fast. If we could just slow the music down we would have a chance to keep up and still have all of the benefits that I mentioned above. Fortunately, nowadays that is very easy to do.

If you use an ipad, ipod or iphone that can run apps, there are plenty of apps that will slow down music, some will even let you loop a section or change the song’s key as well. I can only assume the same is true for Android devices. A quick search on Google or the app store will lead you to them.

If you use Windows Media Player, the ability to slow songs down is built right into versions 11 and higher. Windows Media Player will need an mp3 file, although newer versions work with wav files as well. Follow these instructions below, depending on your operating system, to slow down playback in WMP.

You can’t do this while the track is on the cd, so first you need to import the song from your cd and convert it to a music file, like an mp3. There are lots of different software programs that can do this, but here is one easy method:

You can skip steps 2,3,4 if you’re going to stay entirely in the Apple world

1) Download the free iTunes player from itunes.com 2) From the “Edit” menu choose “Preferences” 3) Select the “general” tab, select “import settings” 4) Pull down the menu beside the words “import using” and select “MP3 Encoder” 5) Put your CD in and import the song into Itunes 6) Your MP3 will be in an itunes folder such as: Music/iTunes/iTunesmedia/music/artistname/albumname/songname.mp3

If your song is already in itunes, but you want to play it in WMP and slow it down, use this method to convert it:

1) Select the file in your itunes library 2) Pull down the “file” menu and select “Create new version” 3) From that menu select “create mp3 version”

N.B. on older versions of iTunes, “create mp3 version” is under the “advanced” menu.

Now…. To slow the playback down in Windows Media Player:

Windows 7

1) With Windows Media Player running, right click the mouse on the background within the player 2) From the menu that pops up, choose “enhancements” 3) From the next menu (within enhancements), choose “Play Speed Settings” 4) A new window with a “ruler” will now appear. By selecting “slow”, the slider will move to 0.5 x play speed. This will be too slow. Move the slider to around 70 to 80 % (0.7 to 0.8), or as desired.

N.B. the ruler seems prone to hide behind the player. You will sometimes need to minimize the player to see it.

Windows XP

1) Make Sure you have WMP version 11 or higher (free to upgrade) 2) With WMP running and the song loaded, pull down the menu called “now playing”. The song must be in MP3 format (see above to import as an mp3). 3) From the menu that pops up, choose “enhancements” 4) From the next menu (within enhancements), choose “Play Speed Settings”

A new window with a “ruler” will now appear. By selecting “slow”, the slider will move to 0.5 x play speed. This will be too slow. Move the slider to around 70 to 80 % (0.7 to 0.8), or as desired.

There you have it. You can now enjoy playing along to recorded tracks at a speed that’s right for you.

Are online guitar lessons as good as lessons in person?

I am happy to announce that I was one of a handful of guitar instructors selected by Google for the rollout of their new Helpouts service (www.helpouts.google.com) today Nov 5, 2013. Helpouts is an online tutoring service. You can book a live-on-camera lesson with an expert on any number of subjects, including guitar. You can book a lesson with me on Google Helpouts at https://helpouts.google.com/103266227781274777511/ls/a85927b209eca1b9

Are online guitar lessons as good as lessons in person? Well, it’s hard to beat having your teacher right there in the room, as you can certainly watch what they do a little clearer than on camera, however, an online lesson is the next best thing. And, an online lesson has some distinct advantages over an in-person lesson. Consider:

Advantages of Online Music Lessons over conventional, in-person lessons:

1. There may not be a guitar teacher or a bass teacher in your area who knows about the types of things you wish to study, or is qualified to your liking

2. No travel costs for you (gasoline, etc) to and from your guitar lesson

3. No traveling in bad weather

3. No time lost traveling to and from your guitar lesson

4. There is no cost for “the call”, just the guitar lesson

5. If you need a guitar lesson at “odd times” of the day, you are more likely to find a guitar teacher online that can accommodate you, as he/she doesn’t have to worry about “driving in” for 1 student

Guitar is for Scrappers

Learning guitar is for scrappers. It’s not for wimps, prima-donnas or quitters. It’s hard to learn. Hard that is, depending on your teacher – I’ll come back to that. It’s a plank of wood with different size wires stretched very tight across it. You have to hold the wires down against the plank of wood and bang on the wires – but you have to bang in the right rhythm. Sometimes you have to hold several wires at once, in different places, with your hand contorted in an un-natural way, and do it till it hurts. Who thought this up? What madman – or genius? It can play melody or harmony or percussion or all three at once – and it’s portable. You can play any style of music on it, sing along with it, write songs with it, experess your soul with it. A friend once said it makes women take their clothes off. I neither confirm nor deny this. But it’s hard. The teacher’s job is to keep you from finding out just how hard it is – ‘cause if you knew you’d say “to heck with this”, and then you’d be missing out – big time. The teacher’s job is to show you how to tame it – just a little at a time – so you don’t get frustrated – so you have fun – so you want to go home and torture yourself with it – til you hear yourself make music from it. Teachers cut up your guitar food into small bites so you don’t choke on it. Teachers will listen to you whine and say “this is not possible” or “I can’t get it to work” or “I’ve tried everything” - they’ll smile and say “you’ve almost got it”. Sometimes they’re lying. Teachers will listen to you go buzz and plunk and boing until you’d think they’re going to go home and shoot themselves but they don’t, they show up the next week ready for more. Teachers are scrappers too.

Are private music lessons obsolete?

It used to be if you wanted to learn how to play an instrument you had two choices - 1. Take weekly lessons on the instrument - 2. Teach yourself how to play by ear or through instruction books. Now we have more methods. There are instructional DVD’s, often supplied with an instrument or instruction book, or available separately in music stores. Now with youtube, there are many free video lessons available on the web, where an instructor talks to the camera in a pre-recorded video and shows you how to play a certain song. While this is one useful way to learn, it is far from ideal. The instructor doesn't know your skill level, so he/she just assumes you can follow along and play what he/she can. You can't ask questions; you can only repeat sections that went by too fast for you. If you are doing something wrong, however, you may not necessarily know what it is. For example, your tone could be anywhere from average to nerve grating and you may not necessarily know. Free is not always better.

Weekly private lessons with a qualified instructor are still the easiest and most complete way to learn a musical instrument. Your teacher can give you immediate feedback on easier ways to play a passage, how to get better tone, and explain the best technique to advance quickly. When you start with good technique from square one, later you can play anything you like. When you start with bad technique, eventually you discover you can’t play the difficult things the pros can, and you end up re-learning your technique so you can continue to advance.

And you can learn to read music. A lot of young students think, “What do I need that for? I can read tablature.” Well, tab is great for learning pop songs, but it won’t be enough in the big league. When I was a young boy taking lessons, of course I wanted to be a rock star, but did I know then that music would become so important to me that I’d end up studying it in college, and later teaching music to others? Did I know I’d have to read music to play in a jazz band or do recording studio work or that I’d need it to document my compositions? No, I did not, but I am sure glad my private guitar teachers taught me how to read music and introduced me to music theory. If they hadn’t done that, my life might have taken an entirely different (and probably less interesting) course.

Another thing your teacher can introduce you to is new music. Music from other cultures and time periods that you never knew existed, or never thought that you would like. They can tell you about virtuoso performers on your instrument that will open your mind to new techniques and sounds that you didn’t know were possible. You’ll discover composers and songwriters whose music seems like it was written just for your enjoyment.

Throughout my musical development, the greatest periods of growth were either those where I took lessons, or those where I performed with musicians whose talents or technique were superior to mine. It is so difficult to motivate yourself to practice and push the boundaries. We humans are typically lazy creatures. In my lessons, it was often the desire to perfect a tune I really liked, but sometimes just the wish not to look like a buffoon to my instructor, that motivated me to get some practice in for the next lesson. And when you do that every week for a few years, you really advance. Those weeks and years will pass you by regardless, but when you spend them learning music, and you look back one, five or ten years later – you will be astonished at what you’ve achieved – and here’s one more fun part of that – everyone will envy you!

From a video you can learn a song – and that’s a great thing – but from a teacher you can learn concepts – technique, preparation, how to stay in rhythm, good practice habits, music theory, discipline, how to harmonize, how to improvise, how to write a song. And with our school systems cutting out music programs more and more – do I think that private music lessons are obsolete – no, not by a long shot.

How Should Music Students Practice?

When a new student begins lessons they or their parents will often ask me “how much should I practice?” This is a very good question. My stock answer is “20 min daily minimum”, ½ hour daily would be good and if you are having fun practice as much as you can.” This advice is meant for beginners. Other people may have different goals that would require more practice. The important thing is to practice regularly. Try to do some practice every day, even if you only have 10 minutes. 20 min a day is better than 60 min every 3 days. Your mind and your muscles will retain the training better if repeated frequently.

But just as important, maybe more important, than how much you practice is HOW you practice. I’ve noticed that most beginners tend to practice this way: They play through the piece from the beginning. They stumble in the difficult sections. Then they either play to the end and re-start at the beginning or go right back to the beginning from their “stumble point”. Either way they play it again pretty much the same. They keep repeating this process. Some of them will eventually get the piece perfect. But most will get really good at the easy sections and never master the difficult passages.

A better approach would be to note the difficult sections, even marking them with a pencil. Then work on just the difficult passage. Ask yourself why you stumble. For instance, maybe it is difficult to move your third finger rapidly from string 4 to string 2. If so, repeat that movement until it becomes easier. You may have to “do it in slow motion” at first and gradually speed up until you have it at the song tempo. Go through the difficult sections one at a time, they may be only a bar or two long, and “fix” each of them in this way. Then take another try at playing the piece from beginning to end. Many songs or exercises have easy sections or may be mostly easy. Don’t waste your valuable practice time on repeating sections that you can easily sight-read without error. Work instead on developing the skills necessary to play the difficult sections.

Teachers are not perfect and sometimes they give you too many assignments. You may be better to put one piece on hold and perfect the one piece you have time for. Your teacher will be more impressed with your progress if you played one piece beautifully than if you played two pieces poorly.

Lastly, before you end your practice section, play something just for the sheer enjoyment of it. It could be rocking out along with your favorite track, or playing something easy that you just like the sound of. Practice time should be enjoyable. If it is something you dread, you will find ways to avoid doing it. If you are feeling this, talk with your teacher. You may find them more understanding than you thought. They have probably been through it themselves at some point and they may have some good advice.

What is classical guitar?

I often get students who sign up for lessons through a form and they specify they want “classical guitar lessons”. After I meet them I find out that what they really mean is they want “formal training” in guitar, that is, they want to learn to read guitar music notation and go through a structured curriculum that covers all of the basics of guitar technique, and the associated music theory. Bravo for them. And that is exactly what they will get. (I teach a more relaxed curriculum for those that want that too). However, say “classical guitar lessons” to a guitar teacher and they will assume you want to learn to play a specific type of guitar called “the classical guitar”. So what is a “classical guitar”? It is a specific type of acoustic guitar with a wide neck (and wider spaces between the strings to make finger-picking easier). Instead of the steel strings found on electric guitars and most acoustic guitars, the 3 high strings are made of nylon and the 3 low strings are made of silk with steel wound around it. This makes the strings easy on the fingernails of the right hand, which are used to strike the strings. While steel string guitars are usually played with a pick (though they can also be played with finger-picks or fingertips), the classical guitar is played with the fingernails.

The music played on this style of guitar is usually classical music. But that doesn’t necessarily mean only the music of dead guys who wore wigs. There are plenty of interesting modern composers writing music for the classical guitar (e.g. Stuart Weber, Leo Brouwer). It is often used to play latin styles of music and some jazz guitarists prefer the sound of the classical guitar (e.g. Earl Klugh, Charlie Byrd). You may have heard the classic guitar without necessarily realizing just what it was, if you have ever heard recordings by Andres Segovia (who popularized it), John Williams, Julian Bream, Liona Boyd, Christopher Parkening, David Tanenbaum and others.