Sunday, September 25, 2011

I'm getting a lot of enjoyment out of practicing lately. Since I made the commitment a few months ago to spend more time with my "student mind", if you will, I've found it more and more rewarding and necessary. It's something I tell my students all the time, but it's worth noting that it can be easy to forget...even for a teacher. :)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sticking our necks out again....

Well, CD number 8 is "officially" released: "Torch", by DI3 (formerly the Dave Isaacs Trio but now an equal partnership). Having done this so many times there's a part of me that enters into this with some trepidation....once again, you pour time and money and care and a lot of raw emotion into a little square package and put it out there for the world to hear. Sometimes people freak out and you're the greatest thing ever. Sometimes they could care less. My experience, like most people's, has always been somewhere between the two extremes. But there's a difference this time. DI3 is, as I said, a partnership between three friends who happen to play music very well together. None of us are looking for stardom. We do want to be heard, because playing music is what we do....and while we would do it regardless, it's better to have an audience and a fan base so that you can potentially achieve financial success while you're at it. And we all want to be acknowledged, right?

The original goal of "Torch" was to document something that all involved think is special. We've achieved that goal, and so the next goal is to grow our audience. This is music that we all believe needs to be heard, and we love to it's a natural next step. And if that audience happens to grow larger than we had envisioned, we can just be happy and celebrate that success. This is the first time in almost fifteen years of making records that I'm already content with what we've achieved. The rest is gravy. what a relief, and a play for the love of the game.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Reconnecting with Creativity, or What You May Have Never Lost.

Over the past three years I've been so focused on teaching that I spent less and less time creating and writing. That began to change last winter when I realized that I was in danger of losing touch with a part of my life - and a part of myself - that I don't believe I can be happy without. In the past nine months I've started and finished two CDs - one with my trio DI3 and one for my friend Rebecca Hosking - and written and recorded lots more new music. Getting back in touch with my own creativity has been an interesting process, though. Teaching is creative work as well, especially if you really care about reaching students and making a lasting mark. It's also been great to see the work my students have been doing, some of them have been an inspiration to me as well.

After many years of thinking that my "artist self" and my "teacher self" live in two different worlds, the past year has got me thinking differently. I may need to dress a little differently in one role than the other, and speak a little differently. (My university gig certainly demands a level of formality that the rest of my life doesn't). But they're two sides of the same coin: I couldn't teach what and how I do if I weren't DOING it, and teaching makes me think differently and listen more intently. From the business side, my private teaching studio and my college positions bring income and formal credibility that help me book workshops. Workshops are lucrative and are something I can do on the road...making it easier to book more gigs, which raises my profile, which creates more demand for my teaching. Full circle. So what if it's only taken me until my 40's to figure that one out! It's just more proof that teachers can still learn and that players need to play. Simple as that....and my energy and motivation have really ramped up in response. More good things are coming my way, it's already begun. Just goes to show....when you look at your life and start asking questions, you just might get some answers.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Walking The Walk

I gave a workshop on bluegrass and mountain music this evening. It was fun to go through the music I had to prepare, but it was challenging, and reminded me what practicing meant. I love this music, but it's a difficult style to play well and I'm not immersed in it the way the best bluegrass pickers are. So I felt a real need to prep, and I was glad I did. Played a lot of mandolin, that was fun.

I had a realization the other day in a lesson: that once a student reaches a certain level of skill, the difference between student and teacher is a matter of their different listening and problem-solving abilities. I can see the problems when I make sure to look for them, and giving them attention leads to solutions. Ultimately, this is the most important skill I want my students to to stay on the road to being a better player.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Time to start treating this like a blog!

I've been using this blogspot account more as an archive of articles than an actual blog. Maybe it's the real-time part that's a challenge, although I suspect the real issue lies in the lag between my thoughts and my two-finger hunt-and-peck typing.

I haven't been a journal-keeper in a long time, and my excuse has often been that I'm too busy, or I'm not interested in keeping a chronicle. Neither is true. I've finally admitted to myself that while I do enjoy writing articles, it's something I have to make myself do, like a homework assignment or a tax return. (OK, not quite that painful). Once I'm into the flow, though, I do enjoy the process. So this is an experiment in keeping that flow in motion.

Interesting how I've been attracted to playing the piano lately. There's several areas developing on guitar...more nylon-string lately, a little more bluegrass vibe and country blues on the steel-string, and more slide on electric. But now that I have some piano students again it's making me want to play more myself. Very gratifying to have another piano part on another record, and better still that it was done live with the vocal at the same time! But there's something in the tactile part of playing piano that just feels good lately, where the guitar seems to be fighting me at least half the time. At least, if I'm trying to play something interesting.

Scraps of songs are collecting again too, and I'm beginning to book cowriting appointments again. I have much the same feeling about cowriting as I do about writing articles...hard to get started but gratifying once it's under way. One new song I'm very excited about, and there's a couple under way that have real promise. remain this focused on and interested in playing music, writing music, and writing about writing and playing music!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The TSU Guitar Summit: A Guitar Program For “Guitar Town”.

Nashville is home to some of the best guitar players on the planet. And while there are many, many great guitar teachers and no shortage of students, none of our many academic institutions have a reputation for turning out great guitarists. There are many smaller, well-established private programs that do very well, with strong reputations and a steady clientele, and some of the same people that teach for the small businesses also teach at our colleges and universities. I fall into this category myself, having worked for one of the larger music stores in town for almost three years before I started teaching college. We don't lack for talent or resources, and maybe that's part of the reason: no one program is likely to become THE place to go when there are so many options. But I think there are other, more significant factors at work.

In my opinion, there are so many fantastic self-taught players here that the prevailing sentiment seems to lean AGAINST formal music education. History does back up this view...choose any iconic popular musician of the last fifty years, and odds are if they studied music it wasn't in school. Some of the most influential players in pop music created their sound by developing technical approaches to their instrument that no teacher would even consider. Mark Twain famously said “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”. I'm sure there were thousands of novelists from Twain's day with college degrees, but we don't know their names or their work. So given all of this, why WOULD an aspiring musician want to study formally? And why would Nashville, a city with more raw talent per square mile than possibly anywhere else on earth, need to develop such a program of formal study?

Truth be told, maybe it doesn't. Some of the most important lessons about playing music will never be learned in a classroom, and unlike other disciplines a degree in music doesn't make you a musician. Raw talent, creativity, and drive can sustain an entire career: the education comes from the proverbial school of hard knocks. Some believe that those things can't be taught but must be God-given, and sometimes they are. But I've come to believe that our gifts are something to be grateful for but not relied upon. The purpose of formal education is to help the areas we have been gifted reach their full potential, and to cultivate the areas where we lack those gifts.

Formal education gives us the tools to identify and strengthen our weaknesses. It teaches us to be responsible: to take tasks seriously, and to achieve when achievement is demanded. We learn that we don't know what we need to know, and that we may not see the fruits of our labors for years to come. Or, we might learn that we're terrible at taking direction, and either learn to handle it or quit. And the fact is, most people quit. They drop out of school, or they stop practicing, or they quit taking lessons, or a thousand other things that could continue to happen but don't. And for every story of the star who dropped out of school to make it to the big time, there are thousands of other dropouts who just stayed dropouts. To quote one of my favorite songwriters, Tommy Womack, “you can't be a has-been when you never was.”

It's as simple as this: commitment and hard work come more easily to some than to others. Life doesn't give grades except for pass or fail. That ought to be incentive enough, but for most of us it's not. Formal study provides another means to gauge our progress, and surrounds us with like-minded people in a focused environment that promotes and rewards learning. This doesn't have to happen inside the walls of an institution, it's happening right now on Music Row or on Lower Broad. But the institution exists to lift everyone up, while the school of hard knocks is ultimately out to thin the herd.

This might sound cynical, but it's not. With so much talent in one place, talent becomes less important. When so many people are trying to get through one narrow gate, the gatekeeper has to work harder just to manage the traffic. Standards become increasingly harder to define, and the bar is forced higher. This is a good thing in that the people who can stick it out and grow from the process raise their game, and they begin to stand out. But not everyone is ready for the what happens then?

As a career educator I'll be the first to admit that I'd be hurting for business if all those people just took the proverbial ball and went home. But I can also say with complete conviction that I have never met a hopeless case in twenty-six years of teaching music. I've met plenty of lazy, distracted, self-absorbed, and unreasonably self-entitled people.....but I've never worked with anyone who didn't progress if they made the commitment and stuck it out.

School is a great place to learn those foundation skills without risking your career in the process. If I had come to Nashville straight out of high school, I'm pretty sure I would have been chewed up and spit out. And for the record, I was a mediocre student in high school, the kind who would get endless lectures about my “potential”. One English teacher called me a “conundrum” (which of course I then had to look up)....he could see that I had a good mind but wasn't putting it to much use, at least in his class. Now I have students like that myself, but the difference is that rather than telling them (in so many words) that they're just lazy, I look for ways to reach them. When one method fails, I try another. I learned this from some of the great teachers I was fortunate enough to be exposed to in college. And I was also fortunate enough to live in a place that was crowded with talented, successful people who wanted to give back. New York City was an amazing place to be a student, and so is Nashville for exactly the same reason: there are SO many talented people to learn from. The trick is to find them, or better yet, find them gathered together in one place.

This summer, as I have the past two years, I'm organizing a guitar festival at Tennessee State University we call the Guitar Summit. The term “summit” can mean a pinnacle, the very top, or it can mean a meeting of great minds or great leaders. That second definition sums up the intent and mission of this event: to bring some of Nashville's best players and teachers to one place and see what happens when they work together. This is not the first program of its kind, here in Nashville or anywhere else...but it IS unique in that the entire program is based on the idea that this meeting of great minds and great talent creates great energy. Some of the classes are team-taught, and some are just discussions between one player and another. No matter the method, the idea is always to be engaging. By offering so many classes in a short time, the student's brain gets stimulated, but by varying the approach we allow room for ideas to settle in. You don't leave the Guitar Summit with a stack of photocopies and books you'll never open again (trust me, I have plenty myself from past experiences in my student days). If we accomplish our goal, you leave with a head full of ideas and inspiration, and had an opportunity to hang out in an intimate setting with true masters. Putting all of that to work in order to make you a better musician is still up to you...but as I learned from my best teachers, that booster shot of inspiration can make all the difference.

Whether this event makes a mark on the guitar community in Nashville remains to be seen. It's certainly one of my goals, and the team we've assembled this year is the best yet. (An official press release with a full instructor list is coming very soon). But the idea of a meeting of minds and ideas is at the heart of the very concept of a university, and this too is the heart of the Guitar Summit. I am in the very fortunate position of having the support of one of Nashville's oldest institutions of higher learning, and an unparalleled pool of talent to draw from. It's a powerful combination, and I have high hopes and higher goals. Join us at Tennessee State University this June 3-5 and see for yourself.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Defining Your Style

This article first appeared in the Songwriters E-Tip.

One of the biggest and most formative reality checks in my life came when I was sixteen years old. I had signed up to attend a summer program at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and the day my Dad dropped me off I was brimming with excitement. Then I walked in the door and saw hundreds of people with guitars in their hands. I knew plenty of people who played guitar, but I had never seen so many in one room, most of them older than I and probably more experienced. (This turned out to be true, but I also came to learn that summer that being surrounded by more skilled and seasoned musicians is possibly the best training any aspiring player can have). Still, that first image of hundreds of guitars and guitarists stayed with me to this day.

Nashville is like that too, for artists, pickers, and writers....practically everyone you meet is either in music or is close to someone who is. Most of those people are good at what they do, and some of them are great. Some start off mediocre but become great, for the very reason I mentioned before: that being surrounded by excellence will force you to either raise the bar or quit. Personally, I'm an advocate for raising the bar, and every one of my students knows how strongly I believe that. The way to meet a challenge is to rise to it, and Nashville offers opportunities for growth everywhere you turn.

So now we have a large group of driven and talented individuals who are all trying to achieve the same or at least similar goals. With such a large pool to draw from, it's almost inevitable that talent and skill, essential as they are, become less important to success simply because of the laws of supply and demand. When everyone is talented, talent as a commodity is plentiful and therefore devalued. This is why so many people stress the networking aspect of building a career: all other things being equal, the person with the best support team and network of contacts has a tremendous advantage.

But with all that said, there's another factor that sometimes gets overlooked. Throughout the history of popular music, there have been performers and songwriters who achieved great success despite the fact that they may not have been the best singer, player, or songwriter. Few people would call Bob Dylan or Mick Jagger a great singer. The Sex Pistols could barely play their instruments. (Some people would say they couldn't play them at all). But these artists made an impact on popular music....through great songwriting talent (Dylan), great charisma and chemistry with bandmates (Jagger), or such pure audaciousness and conviction as to be undeniable (let's face it, the Pistols were not the first punk band but they may very well have been the first one you heard of).

What all these people have in common – and every iconic artist you probably ever heard of – is that they defined themselves and their music in a unique and compelling way. I can't think of a single career artist that didn't have a SOUND, a vibe and a feeling that made you want to listen. And finding your own sound is the way to stand out from the pack.

Let's start with the fact that we are all individuals and no two of us are alike. When it comes to singing or playing an instrument, even those of us with formal training have come to an accommodation between the ideal we studied and the reality of what works on the gig. It's also worth pointing out that a classically-trained performer, while likely to have excellent technique and control, is not encouraged to develop a singular style...after all, in classical music the composer decides what the music is supposed to sound and feel like. In the popular music world, an individual style becomes essential. So the question is, no matter which path you took to get to where you are today, what can you do to REALLY define who you are as an artist?

I want to point out that I'm using “artist” in the broader sense of the word....a person who creates art in some form. I actually heard someone say once that a particular musician was “an artist NOW” because she had recently signed a record deal. This kind of thinking only discourages creativity and perpetuates the myth of the chosen few, in my opinion. To me, an artist is a person who uses the tools and materials they have been given or developed to create something that touches others. A technically accomplished singer or player becomes an artist when they learn how to place all that ability in the service of expressiveness and creativity. A less accomplished singer or player becomes an artist when they learn to make the most of the limited skills they do possess. The common thread is that in either case, one must evaluate and make choices. Be kind to yourself in these evaluations, but be honest about your strengths and limitations. This is where a good teacher can be a tremendous help, as it's often hard to assess ourselves clearly.

Also keep in mind that these assessments are an ongoing, career-long process. Skills can be honed, new vocabulary and techniques can be learned. This is one of the most beautiful things about a creative life....that an open mind never runs out of possibilities. We might say, then, that we proceed along two tracks at once: assessment of the skills we have and how to best apply them, and assessment and development of the skills we want to improve. Every career artist goes through both these processes, and the ones that remain vital are the ones that never stop doing so. There are, of course, business and logistical factors that come into play as well. For example, an artist may choose to record an album as a soloist because they have concluded they can't afford to tour with a band. But again, the application of artistry is in the choices that follow that decision.

It all comes down to a simple idea that I've brought up in many articles and will continue to hammer away at: as we learn to listen and evaluate, we learn how to grow. As we ask questions we find answers. It's so basic that it's easy to lose sight of as we get more and more involved in the complexities of the business. Here's a simple formula:

1. Identify your strengths.
2. Identify what touches or moves you in the work of others.
3. Emulate, but don't imitate. Allow your limitations to create distinctive traits.
4. Never stop asking questions or working to raise the bar.

If you make this process a part of your regular work in writing, performing, and recording, then your development and growth as a distinctive and singular artist will never stop...and neither will you.