Monday, October 17, 2022

5 Things I Wish I'd Learned Sooner About Guitar Practice

1. Keep a "wins" journal

I took a guitar lesson in the pandemic. The best thing the instructor asked me to do was keep a "wins" journal. I didn't know what that was. They explained what they considered "wins":
  • When you get through an exercise at a particular tempo without making a mistake
  • When you learn a new chord or a new lick
  • When you practiced (at all) that day
  • When you like the way your guitar sounds
...and so on.

I started to realize the journal would accomplish a couple of things. For one, it would create a record of progress. I would be able to see how I was improving over time, sort of like marking your height on a doorframe as you grow up.

More importantly, it was a kind of positive reinforcement, framing guitar playing as a series of successes, progress, and wins. Rather than a battle, constant disappointment, and frustration with lack of ability. 

I also started to use the wins journal to plan upcoming practices, based on previous ones or things I want to work on.

2. Don't look at the neck

If you want to be able to play without staring at your hands, practice not looking at your hands. It sounds obvious, but I didn't realize this until fairly recently. Classical musicians learn this quickly, because they have to look at sheet music instead. 

You will be surprised how quickly you learn to trust your hands and fingers, and to instantly correct when you are wrong. It makes a huge difference in your playing and your confidence

Yes, when you are first learning something new, you might need to look down for a bit, but the sooner you get in the habit of not looking at the neck when you play, the better off you will be, and the easier it will get. 

3. Use a metronome

You think you're doing pretty good? Put a metronome or drumbeat on, loop your exercise, and see how consistent you really are. I suspect you will find you are not as fast or consistent as you think. 

Metronomes aren't scores. Higher isn't better, slower isn't worse. Metronomes are simply ways of helping you practice better. 

Start with the metronome slow enough that you can get through something (your scale or exercise) easily. When you are smooth and fluid, bump up the tempo up a little. Repeat. If you get it so fast you are struggling, back it down until you can get through your piece. 

Do not "chase" the metronome or try to keep up. The metronome is telling you where you are, not where you should be. Slow down, get smooth, then you can go a little faster. The metronome will give you some objective feedback about your progress, and it will reinforce consistency of tempo.

You can get an app for your phone, or use a drum machine (real or virtual). 


4. Spaced repetition

You aren't going to get better by practicing the same thing for 4 hours once. You will get better by doing spaced repetition. 

That means short, frequent, consistent practice sessions, rather than long, infrequent, occasional practice sessions. 20-30 minutes a day, every day, focused on particular exercises, techniques, and pieces will produce results. 

Within that 20-30 minutes, don't spend all the time on one thing. Break it up. Do 3 or 4 things for a few minutes each, then repeat a couple of times. 

This is proven to be the best way to learn just about anything. 


5. Practice is the answer for everything

Whatever the problem is with your guitar playing, the answer is almost always "practice more". 

That includes things like "I don't have any ideas for riffs or songs", "I think I need a new guitar or piece of gear", and "I don't like my guitar sound", as well as the usual problems with chords, rhythms, scales, riffs, string skipping, string bends, alternate picking, sweep picking, or playing lead. 

Just practice. Pick up your instrument, give yourself 20-30 minutes, and focus. 

Wednesday, October 05, 2022

Some Documentaries About Creative People

The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling

As I said in a recent episode of the podcast, I have spent many evenings in the pandemic watching old shows. HBO Max has "The Larry Sanders Show", which remains compelling. I noticed they also had Judd Apatow's 2018 documentary about Garry Shandling, "The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling". I started the first of its 2 parts expecting a typical hagiography by a series of talking heads.

I got something more inspiring and interesting. 

The movie highlights a fundamental conflict within Shandling. He is knowledgeable about Zen Buddhism. He meditates. He journals.  He is clearly looking to alleviate the suffering that comes from attachment. But Shandling is also striving for success and personal happiness, and his hunger for those achievements is palpable. 

The documentary gave me new appreciation for Shandling as a person, and for his work. As funny and entertaining as both Shandling and this movie can be, I also found something melancholy and poetic in both.


George Carlin's American Dream

Judd Apatow also made a documentary about George Carlin -- "George Carlin's American Dream" was released earlier this year. Carlin's work remains extremely relevant. 

The documentary traces Carlin's evolution as a person and thinker, and shows how his ambitions and feelings drove his extremely clever material. The film, like the critics, can be overly dismissive of some of his early work. It seems unfair to expect Carlin to make us laugh and think for his entire career. Most comedians would have settled for an entire career built around Carlin's lesser bits, and we would have considered theme to be great. Check it out, but be sure to watch a few George Carlin specials, too.


Get Back

This documentary about The Beatles making what would become "Let It Be" is an impressive achievement in some ways. Peter Jackson and his team had mountains of footage to wade through, all needing clean-up, and still missing coverage of essential bits and moments. All those shortcomings were resolved, through technology and hard work. The film looks vintage, but good. The sound is great. A modest framework has been added to help give some shape -- there's a calendar, and each of the three sections of this 6-hour film focuses on a particular slice of the project.

But it's way too long. Perhaps it is truly capturing how these interminable and aimless sessions must have felt to the participants. Perhaps it is just difficult for me to appreciate, because much of the footage isn't "revelatory", it's somewhere between "Well, this is what writing songs and rehearsing with a band is like. What's the big deal?" and a kind of PTSD flashback of the worst band practices and arguments you've ever had.

Overall, the film does help remind us The Beatles were just a band. A really good band, made of talented players and writers, hardened by a few years of intense gigs, who made some foundational records and had incredible influence...but also just a band. 

And this is what bands do, what practices feel like. Long. Boring. Full of goof-off covers, space jams, multiple tries at songs, and occasionally, transcendence when you hit on something good or play a song particularly well. Crankiness, fights, people trying to push things into shape, and people quitting.

There is something nice about sticking with the original footage and resisting the urge to supplement it with modern interviews, voiceovers, or anything additional. But this also makes "Get Back" somewhat  monochromatic, and combined with the sort of shapeless nature of the film, it made watching it feel a bit like a chore. The titles next to every single musical moment seem a bit overblown, too.

Nothing really happens. We don't get much context around why The Beatles want to do this (or even if they want to). If you know The Beatles and their story, there's foreshadowing inherent in the project. But if you don't...you aren't told this would be their last album. There's also so much left out, including how these sessions turned into the very different album that was ultimately released, what the band thought, how it was received, and so on. 

And then the movie just sort of ends. Recommended only if you're a hardcore Beatles fan.


Here To Be Heard: The Story of The Slits

Like the Moog documentary, it is unfortunate this project is not better, because it is now likely the only non-fiction film we will get about The Slits. I can look past the extremely low budget -- it has no real lighting, most of the dialog is picked up with ambient mics, and the movie seems to have been shot on consumer-grade gear. OK, fine, but this is such a compelling story about critical people from the original UK punk scene, so the story will be great, right?

Director William Badgley does not manage to tell it well. The best bits of the documentary come from the "where are they now" aspect of the film, though the answers are mostly sadly predictable (dead, in recovery from drugs, etc.) with a few shining exceptions. 

Badgley spends a lot of time with some of the members of the band, and what feels like hardly any with others. Viv Albertine, in particular, seems to get almost no camera time. This is odd, because she is the most articulate of the former members, and because she wrote an excellent memoir which does a far better job of telling not just her story, but the band's story as well.

I suspect Badgley was intent on staying in the good graces of the band, and/or that the band had final cut. This is because several critical bits of information are simply left out of the band's story. One of those critical bits of information is that Ari Up's mother -- publishing heiress Nora Forster -- married Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) in 1979. (Forster is 13 years older than Lydon, and Lydon is 6 years older than Ari.) 

Lydon and Forster adopted two of Ari Up's children 10 years before her death. You can do some internet research as to why, but it does not cast Ari Up in a good light. 

Lydon does not appear in the documentary, nor is he really mentioned. He probably didn't want to be in the documentary, and he can be litigious. Still, facts are facts.

Another fact is that Ari Up refused treatment for her cancer, which could have saved her life (and would certainly have prolonged it). Again, a known fact that goes unmentioned.

These omissions make me wonder what else was left out of the story. Read Viv Albertine's book instead.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Dean Williams (1977 - 2022)

Dean Williams died in July of this year. He was 45 years old. His family and friends are hosting a celebration of life for him today. I wanted to acknowledge him here.

Dean Williams
I met Dean back in the 90s. Dean was a member of Chill Productions, one of the first internet music labels. Dean's music made a strong impression. His music covered a lot of ground, with compositions going from ambient to more danceable tracks, and the occasional vocal track, always with a dollop of weird and the occasional bit of silly.

After I joined Chill, I got to know him as a person online. I found him hilarious and insightful, with great taste in music.

Dean traveled to San Francisco several times to see his friends and the odd bit of business. I was lucky to get to hang out with him in person several times. 

He was even more charming, kind, and funny in the flesh than he was online. 

Those are words you will hear Dean's many friends use repeatedly when describing him. Charming. Kind. Funny. Creative. He was all of those things, effortlessly so. The sort of person I wished was my best friend.

He was the best friend of someone else I know. They met as teenagers, made records together, performed together, and supported each other through many of life's ups and downs as they entered middle age. 

Dean was also an entrepreneur, starting his own business and building it up to more than 50 people over several years. He managed that while being a father and continuing to create music.

His sudden, unexpected death hit me surprisingly hard. I wish I could say Dean and I were closer. We were friends. It is difficult to believe someone so joyous and full of life is gone. His passing has opened a kind of tunnel or connection to all of the other losses of the last few years, if not decades. Looking at his photograph and hearing his music is making me tear up as I write this.

My heart goes out to Dean's family and closer friends.

Dean's song "(Kurtis It's) Christmas" has been a holiday favorite ever since I heard it. This year, if I can bring myself to play it, I suspect it will be a little less joyous.

Thank you for your wit, heart, and creativity, Dean. The world was better with you in it.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

53 (and change)

This year, when my birthday rolled around, I opted not to write on the day itself. I re-read last year's post. I thought about simply writing "yes, and more so", but that seems like a cop-out. Even as therapy is helping me be kinder to myself, I still have my standards. 53 and change looks OK so far.

My hair is longer still, but is long enough now. My level of fitness remains constant. The runs have been more difficult this year, but I have also managed to avoid overuse injuries so far. I have added a few new exercises here and there. 

The aforementioned therapy has also been beneficial. At my age, I am able to appreciate those who choose caring for others as a profession in a way I did not when I was younger. I am also getting a little better at allowing myself to be taken care of, to be vulnerable, human, and imperfect. It is uncomfortable at times, but is ultimately less painful than continuing to carry all that armor around.

Anu Kirk, 2022. Photo by Lauren Tabak.

My days and weeks remain consistent, with some iteration and evolution. A new espresso machine is making the best coffee I've ever had. I am still spending lots of time talking to friends, but focused more on depth than breadth. I'm watching different shows at night, having burned through whatever I was watching last week, month, and year. I still think I should be reading more, but I am also reading all day long, though it is mostly computer garbage.

I have continued to do the Music, Mindfulness, and Madness podcast. I look forward to my weekly conversations with Dee and Michael, and writing the occasional essay for them as well. That experience has been a gift, and started me thinking about some new projects.

When I look out my window, I see the world has decided it would rather risk getting COVID than continuing to stay shut down, for better or worse. Life remains unpredictable and precarious. Environmental news is mostly bad, with some cause for optimism. American politics is the same. Ukraine has not fallen to Russia. An earthquake just shook the house as I write this.

Some companies are trying to drag people back to the office. The specifics are still to be determined, but I expect after a few big outbreaks (and perhaps lawsuits) that may again change.

At 53, I can appreciate how complicated things are, and how people in the world are often just trying to get by, making decisions that are OK at the time, and perhaps not great in retrospect. I am trying to be less judgmental about all of it, and simply experience and accept things. To be, and be without an expectation of having to act, or react as much. 

The vaccines and care mean getting Covid seems to have become more of a nuisance than anything else (with a few unfortunate exceptions, and the ongoing, unknown risks of long Covid). Many of my friends have had it at least once. I am still careful, and have managed to avoid it so far.

I have even taken some trips in the last 12 months. While air travel is more uncomfortable and unpleasant than ever, it was refreshing to get out of my room, my house, my routine, if just for a few days. Reconnecting with people was well worth the risk and inconvenience.

On one of those trips, I went back to what is now called "the DMV". I spent a few hours driving past houses I used to live in, schools I used to attend, and towns and streets that were my home. I wasn't sure why I wanted to do it, but I felt compelled. The swampy DC summer meant that being outside even briefly was punishing, and the traffic was terrible. 

I marveled at how it all could simultaneously change so much and so little. As I reached each destination on my journey, I experienced a profound sense of closure, of things being put to rest. It has been a long time since I lived there. I am able to recognize how these places, the people I knew there and then, and the things that happened helped shape me into the person I am at 53, but I am also able to look at all of it with context and distance.

I have been practicing guitar more than I have in a long time, and I find my tangible (if modest) progress satisfying. I am still taking voice lessons, and learning to sing in a different, more sustainable way. As my live band remains idle, I have taken to doing more self-accompanied performances online, and have never been more comfortable simply playing a song for someone accompanied by just a guitar or keyboard and my voice. Beyond the basic mechanics of playing and singing being easier, I feel I am more capable of conveying emotion and feeling.

That feels like progress in many ways.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

On Grief and Loss

In the summer of 1987, Brood 10 of the 17-year cicadas hatched, crawled through the earth, and filled the air with their screams as they swarmed in their brief, frantic lives. It was deafeningly loud. When you drove anywhere, the windshield of the car would soon be spattered with the sticky remains of the bugs. Their dead husks crunched under our feet. It was strange and disturbing, but became just one more part of the summer.

I had just graduated high school. My friends and I spent our first weeks out celebrating, excited about heading off to college, and feeling like we were one step closer to adulthood.

On the morning of July 4, 1987, I was sitting in the kitchen finishing breakfast when the telephone rang. It was my friend, Carol Williams. Her voice trembling with horror, sadness, and shock, she told me that our friend Amy Edgerton was dead.

Amy Edgerton
Amy was a special person among an already remarkable group. She was a martial artist, drove a Morris Minor, and was smart, charming, and pretty. She was one of those people who moved within multiple social circles, being cool enough for the most popular kids, but able to hang with the weird, arty outcasts, too. We were friends, and had gone out a couple of times. 

And suddenly she was gone.

Just a few weeks later, Wally Judd -- another high school friend, a musician I had played with, was killed by a drunk driver.

These deaths -- the first of people close to me -- were a terrible shove into adulthood. We weren’t indestructible, life was precious, fragile, and short, and there was no sense to any of it.

Over the coming decades, I would lose more friends to illness, misadventure, and the challenges of living. Shock eventually gave way to resignation.

The pandemic has been particularly rough. In the last 2 years, I have lost 4 friends to suicide. A fifth tried, but mercifully survived.

35 years later, it is again summertime. The 4th of July passed, and I had lunch with a friend from high school. We reminisced about Amy, and I found myself crying in the car on the way home.

This past Thursday, I received an email. My friend Dean Williams died unexpectedly this week. Dean was 45. He was the funniest person I knew. Big-hearted and kind. Hard-working and an entrepreneur. He was also an incredibly talented musician. I had known him for nearly 20 years, meeting through the internet music group Chill Productions. Dean leaves behind a wife and 4 year old daughter, and many grieving friends. 

I was overcome with sorrow at the news, sobbing uncontrollably over the last few days. 

That expression of grief is still new to me. I have difficulty accessing my emotions at times. For many years, I thought this meant all of these losses didn’t really mean that much to me. It turns out I was wrong, and all that grief has been packed away in my mind, my heart, and my soul, waiting until I was ready to deal with it. Or at least less unready to.

The deaths of my friends over the years, particularly the recent suicides, has given me new respect for experiencing loss, for feeling the hurt, for acknowledging the holes left behind in our lives by the passing of those we love. I think it is important, as a way to honor those no longer with us, and to acknowledge their impact on us.

Nick Cave lost his son in 2015. About his own grief, he wrote:

It seems to me that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves. We are tiny, trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence. It occupies the core of our being and extends through our fingers to the limits of the universe. Within that whirling gyre all manner of madnesses exist; ghosts and spirits and dream visitations, and everything else that we, in our anguish, will into existence. These are precious gifts that are as valid and as real as we need them to be. They are the spirit guides that lead us out of the darkness.

I feel the presence of my son, all around, but he may not be there. I hear him talk to me, parent me, guide me, though he may not be there. He visits Susie in her sleep regularly, speaks to her, comforts her, but he may not be there. Dread grief trails bright phantoms in its wake. These spirits are ideas, essentially. They are our stunned imaginations reawakening after the calamity. Like ideas, these spirits speak of possibility. Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption. Create your spirits. Call to them. Will them alive. Speak to them. It is their impossible and ghostly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jettisoned; better now and unimaginably changed.

When I first read Nick Cave’s words back in 2018, I remembered something. About 6 months after Amy died, I had a dream. In that dream, Amy appeared to me. We walked together and talked. She told me not to be sad, that she was fine where she was, and that I and everybody should get on with their lives and not worry. I woke from the dream with tears in my eyes, but a sense of peace in my heart.

I think about Amy every 4th of July. With each passing year, I am sadder about her life being cut short. There is so much she never got to experience -- not just life’s various joys, but the challenges, setbacks, and tragedies as well. 

If any of my dead friends would have had wise words about grief, loss, and how to handle it all, it would have been her.

--

[a version of this essay was included in the August 10, 2022 episode of Music, Mindfulness, and Madness.]

Monday, January 31, 2022

Jon Appleton (1939 - 2022)


The world is a little quieter today. Jon Appleton has died. He had just celebrated his 83rd birthday on January 4.

I met Jon, or "Professor Appleton", as I knew him, when I was a student at Dartmouth College. Jon taught music, and in particular, "electro-acoustic music", which was exactly the kind of weird, technology-enhanced noise I wanted to learn more about.

Jon was patient with me, at a time when I had more ambition than skill, and more interest in making rock music or what he called "disco shit" rather than serious art music.

My first class with him was a large survey class -- Music 3. It was my favorite class that year by far. I would go on to take any and every class I could with him, including an independent study course for which I received a special commendation.

Jon thought I had potential and talent, and his statements to that effect were the kind of encouragement and validation I was starved for. I was eventually invited to be the first undergraduate to be allowed to take classes at the graduate level, as part of his brand new electro-acoustic music graduate program.

His impact on my musical education is hard to overstate. He helped expand my compositional horizons, my ear for textures, and my sense of what was allowed. He encouraged me to try new things, to experiment, to play, and to be rigorous.

One of my favorite classes found him throwing out the syllabus a few weeks in, saying "I don't think this is working, what do you all want to study?" We ended up learning about songwriting, melody and other forms of pop composition. I can still hear him singing and playing "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?" by The Beatles and analyzing how the song was put together. 

Many of Jon's other students went on to become composers and professors of music themselves, including Paul Botelho, Ted Coffey, and Michael Casey (who now heads up the Dartmouth Digital Musics program!). I would also work with another friend and former student of Jon's, Tim Schaaf, at PlayStation.

Jon was a unique individual. He had strong opinions about everything -- music, people, the world -- and he was not shy about voicing them. He stood up for what he believed in. He was also kind, warm, and had a quirky and unusual sense of humor.

Jon was extremely intelligent and creative. In addition to English, he spoke French, German, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Tongan. He made weird videos that would have made him a TikTok or YouTube sensation, had those things been available back when he was creating them.

Jon was also an emotional and passionate person, married multiple times. He felt things deeply and strongly, to the point that he abandoned at least one composition I knew him to be working on because it was turning out to be too sad.

Jon mostly worked in what was called "electro-acoustic music", a serious music genre focused on timbre and construction. Jon's earliest pieces were musique concréte, when tape machines and oscillators were the only way to compose, and then adopted the then-new analog subtractive synthesizer and early computer tools for music composition. 

Dissatisfied with their limitations, he helped create the Synclavier -- the world's first digital synthesizer, and helped make sure it would be able to go beyond "disco shit" and do micro- and macrotunings, sample, record, and edit, sequence at high resolution, and have multiple synthesis methods. 

These are all things we take for granted today, but they were unheard of on any instrument in the late 70s and early 80s when he and the rest of what became New England Digital began to work on it. It is a sign of progress that this device, which cost $500,000 in 80s dollars can now be purchased in an emulated version for your computer or phone for a few bucks.

And it was used for some pop music, by Michael Jackson (the intro to "Beat It" and a bunch of Thriller), Sting (Nothing Like The Sun and other albums), Trevor Horn, Laurie Anderson, Duran Duran, and countless other artists you and I love. Frank Zappa was a big Synclavier fan and perhaps the best example of an artist bridging popular and serious with it.

Appleton himself was fast and creative on the Synclavier, and used it to compose a number of beautiful and interesting pieces. In his later years, Jon returned to writing traditional tonal music for piano, choir, and strings. 

Jon was an inspiration to me and countless others. I created and taught my own 20th century music class inspired by what I learned from him and how it changed me. I continue to teach songwriting and compose in no small measure because of him. I use the things he taught me every day.

I am grateful to have been his student, and later, his friend. I saw him all too briefly back at Dartmouth to celebrate his retirement back in 2009, and a few times here in San Francisco as he was passing through. 

Thank you for the music and the wisdom, Jon.

---

You can find some of Jon's work on various streaming services, music stores, and YouTube.

Here is one of Jon Appleton's pieces for Synclavier:


A short documentary about Jon from 2011:



This interview with him from 2020 highlights his sense of humor and his personality: