Sunday, February 19, 2017

Winter Acoustic Music Weekend

Here it is. February. I am sitting outside in Screendale with a fire in the propane fireplace. The sun has set and I just returned from walking in Hudson. There were way more people in town than I thought there would be, but I guess that is because tomorrow is a holiday for many.

I had just came back from a weekend northeast of here, in Groton, Massachusetts. It was a camp put on by the folk radio station in Boston, WUMB, called Winter Acoustic Music Weekend. It is an amazing space. When I arrived, I could hardly hear the woman checking me in because of the joyous singing and playing happening in the same room. All these people, jamming, happy to be together again to live in peace and make music. Everyone on the same page here.

That is how these weekends go. No ego in evidence. No sense of 'this is better than that' when it comes to the various students. The people putting it on are very strict on that. Sort of like unconditional love.

Now, that doesn't ever mean that no one ever points out something you can do better. On the contrary, you are here to learn, and learn you will, if you give it even the slightest chance. One of the first things you learn is to help those behind you and give them a hand.... The next thing you learn is to honestly find something positive to say to your peers.  And then there is gratefulness. Gratefulness to the folks cooking your food, cleaning up behind you, teaching you music, organizing the weekend. As a matter of fact, I have to admit, this is the first time I have been with these folks when I have not wanted to yell after a while, somebody-- gossip! -- PLEASE!!! or whatever negative thing seems to need acknowledgment today. Perhaps my trying to banish negativity in my life is paying off, or maybe I am just settling in with these folks.

I know, no one believes it, but I really am naturally shy. I hide it real well, I think, but my first level of comfort is to sit in a corner and watch. And when I first started with these folks, that is exactly what I did. I forced myself to play in the student concerts, and I still did this weekend too, even after all these years. I would sit with a different group every meal. Yep, sounds like I am a social butterfly right? No. If I sat with different people each meal, no one would ever really get to know me. There was strategy that played fully into my shyness. As a matter of fact, I had told my local friend here before I left for the weekend, that, unlike with my Neil Young fan friends (Rusties), I have no 'best friends' at this camp. I had people that I know well and people that I know less well. But no real friends that I sit with and discuss life, mine or theirs. Just really really nice folks who make music!

Making music. As you know, if you know me at all, MUSIC is a religion to me. I use it as my spirituality. I use it to combat boredom, to make friends, as a social outlet. I use it to get me up or calm me down or celebrate a holiday. Music means a hell of a lot to me.

Making music, learning music and playing with others, calls me. It calls me often and strongly. I get depressed if I don't get enough, either making it or listening (yes, live is better, always better)

All my Rustie gatherings just don't come around often enough. And when Neil is not touring, there is not a REASON to gather. Quite a while ago, I would hold monthly Neil Young jams and rotate them around a few people here in the northeast. That pretty much died when our drummer and good friend moved to the west coast. I am not sure why, but that took the wild (a typo that I am going to leave. Of course, i meant to type wind) right out of our sails. Some Rusties still try to gather around making music, and it happens, but is not the big thing it once was. Many of those people only pick up their guitars when we gather, and those of us who make music regularly are way more into our own music or at least, the music that is getting the gigs. Neil Young tributes in a rural community is not going to get you gigs.

And the jam scene around me is pretty sparse. I guess most local musicians really are not into jamming. Not sure why, since it is something that I feel pretty strongly about. I don't really get why jamming is not high on everyone's list. Yes, it is fun to polish something and make it pretty. But it is AMAZING to jam and find yourself in the middle of magic that will never happen again.

But that doesn't happen much this weekend, to tell you the truth. We have song circles, but that is basically a listening thing, not jams (but of course, now I have a new idea for Screendale). There are also jams, usually with simple songs and 10-15 people on guitars. Sometimes, you can get to sit with a couple other players and fool around with some songs and that is where magic happens, but that is more often happening at the week long summer things.

This weekend, I was the last performer at the student concert- the closing act. Now, I didn't discuss it with anyone, but I know my responsibility. I need to come up with something that closes the evening. Makes it worth their while to stay until the bitter end....

I chose a rock song that I recently wrote, 'Over Coffee'. Sort of a woman telling her girlfriend about her lover blaming her for his affair. Yeah. Isn't that called gaslighting? Yes, it happened to me a long time ago, and I very much remember how it felt, although the details in the song are changed. I end the song pretty dramatically. Seemed like the best song in my repertoire of original songs (I do a lot of covers in the informal groups, but originals in my one chance on stage with these folks) to end a concert with.

I had written the ending after listening to teachers at this gathering last year talk about surprising your audience. It really is a hard song though (a fellow student told me today it 'punched me in the face'). Then, I could not remember... have I done this song for these people? If I did, I should not do it again, I need something FRESH to end the show with. I started to think of other songs, maybe end with a sing along that I wrote, a hard hitting political song, or an old cover? So many possibilities.

During dinner, one of the teachers told us sitting at the table, in response to me talking about changing my mind before getting up to play, 'Every time I have done that, I have BOMBED and been sorry I did it'. I should have listened.

No, I ended up realizing that Over Coffee could not have been heard by this group, and it would certainly be my best song to do for the student concert. I did it, and I really think it rocked. Judging by the response of the people listening, I think I accomplished my goal. I ended the night on a musical statement I could be proud of.

After the show, I went to a Song Circle. It was a large one, and all the people there were people I enjoy hearing. As the instructor who was leading said, there were so many styles represented in the room.

Of course, I kept changing my mind on the song I would sing a few dozen times, while waiting for my turn.  Then, it was getting close, but I had chosen a song I recently learned, but was really nailing most of the time I sang it. A cover song, but I thought it would be the best I could do.

There were two young woman in front of me who had NAILED a version of Sound of Silence for the student  concert. Their harmonies were just delicious!!! It was wonderful.

However, their originals as played in the song circle, were unique, catchy, arranged impeccably, sung beautifully, with wonderful turn of phrases and melodies and.... well, you name it BOTH of these girls have it.

My turn? No. Whew. Saved (i think) when the leaders turn to another person who I didn't know, but had also done a great song during the student concert. I did feel, however, that I could confidently follow her ... ok, that was before she did her jam song. She had the group singing and laughing and clapping.....

I had to look for a real winner on a moments notice. I remembered the song that I always pull out in this situation. EVERYONE loves Tequila.

Except these folks. We are not even allowed to drink in this place. They clapped at the finish. But remember, they ALWAYS support people. I am learning how they act to FUN and how they act to OK. Definitely, I had performed just OK.

Boy, talk about falling DOWN. Ouch.

Ego. It is always always always your enemy when it comes to music. There is always someone better than you. There is always someone coming up from behind. And NEITHER  of those facts have ANYTHING to do with you.


So, I learned a very important lesson (yep. again.). Neil said it. Don't listen to anybody. I always took that as being about following directions. But maybe it is not.

Maybe it is about YOUR **expectations** of yourself, verified through the feedback of others. BOY, I felt good when people reassured me that I did, I performed, I did what it was that I tried to do, as the end act to the concert. And--

WOW, when I got the polite clapping for one of my best -according to prior feedback- songs, that stung.

I mentioned that today to the instructor, who had told me that he always regretted changing his mind on a song selection at the last minute. He told me this time- don't worry about it. These people expect folk songs. Your song was fine.

This is a songwriting teacher. Does he know what power his words hold? He acts like a very flippant person, but I am sure that he knows.

You know. There are people ahead and people behind, and you shouldn't listen to others... but it still feels good when someone says something supportive.

Does the teacher who looked at a song of mine before I left, heard it and said in many many ways that the song was worthy of being heard, know what kind of impression he had on me? Yeah, I do think he does.

SO. As I was leaving today, I ran into several people who I did not spend much time with, but whose music made a mark on me. I remembered the gifts those two teachers gave me, as well as all the gifts of comments made after closing the concert.... and I spent a little time thanking each of them for what I liked about their song, or their time with me, or their just BEING.  I hope I lightened up their experience if maybe they were a little too much on the side of regrets.

I think I am beginning to understand the positivity in this group.... their trying so hard to be an oasis in an increasingly hard world.

And, I guess that IS the MAIN lesson.....

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

No fear, No envy, No meanness

I guess that most artists come to a point in their journey where they look around and wonder how what they do fits into the world. Up until recently, I just kept moving forward in the things I was taught to do. This blog chronicles much of that journey. For example, I was taught that not sharing your music is selfish, that music is a cooperative gig. Sometimes, that cooperation is between you and the people you are with, jamming together. Sometimes, the cooperation is between you and the audience. And even sometimes the cooperation is between two parts of yourself, maybe when you are learning a new song or writing a new melody or reinterpreting an old song.

BUT, it is Cooperation.
Executing an arrangement.
Drawing in your audience to share that emotion and that human story.

As I have pondered my part of the music scene around me.... my history... I see that even before I had anything to offer besides willingness, I was leading song circles because I so greatly believed, and still do, that music is for everyone, and everyone can have a part. I think I have grown up a little past that now, as it is no longer satisfying to me to sit and listen to a person who can barely play their instrument week after week. Sometimes that impatience makes me feel a little guilty, but it is what it is.

I think that I am no longer satisfied with those open song circles because I also believe in work. I think that the study of music is important in my life, and if making music is important in your life, I hope that you see the benefit in working. The more you work, the more intimate music becomes to you. You start to understand as you study, for example, why that combo of notes produces that particular sensation in your body and you start to know when to use it to produce that sensation, trusting that the other players can meet you there, maybe understanding it a little differently and adding to it. And the better you are at executing the movements of the music, the better you will be at touching a piece of yourself, your fellow players and/or your audience. Part of the beauty of music (and all other art, actually) is that you can never learn it all, you are never THERE, you can always see ahead to something you just can't quite do .... yet.

Some people get very frustrated with that process, and only want to focus on and achieve a result. I remember getting so excited once, when I learned something new about music and said to my teacher, 'Do you think I can call myself a musician yet?'. I don't think he quite understood why that was so important to me, but it was. I wanted to wear the label of musician proudly. I wanted the label to mean that I had obtained a certain level of accomplishment. I now call myself a musician with pride and I don't question that I can use the label appropriately. My skill level is still far below some people you may easily think of, but I can stand in front of folks and give them pleasure with my sound. I am a musician.

So, what to do with my contributions now? It has been a couple years now since I gave up running the song circle. At first, it was ok. I had Screendale and the first year of party jams went really well. Over time, though, people stopped coming. I am not sure why, but I think that I had reached a point of frustration in the expectations some people had over what my Screendale parties should be and that spilled over into the parties themselves. I know what I want those gatherings to be.... I would like them to be a song circle for musicians who are skilled enough to participate, as well as have folks who are not musicians come for interesting conversation with live music in the background. I would like it to be sort of a speakeasy or maybe a 'salon'. I can and will continue to run these party jams here and I will continue to network with other musicians, to find people who can fit into the milieu and be comfortable. I am still working out ways to do that.

Wow, that sounds a little exclusionary. As the Screendale Jams have declined, however, I find myself trying to figure out why my new musical friends don't feel comfortable jamming. I think it has to do with the traditions I was musically raised in and my core ideas about music. In other words, how my expectations around music differ from theirs.

From the very beginning of my journey to musician, I was exposed to people who sat around in circles and played together. At first, it was classes. Then, I frequented Card Lake Open Mic and got exposed to Sammy Brown's instruction on how to perform. (I am still so grateful to him for so very many ideas.) I used those suggestions when I went to the Song Circle in Spencertown and worked on them the few times I went there. You know, I hardly knew how to play my instrument, but standing quietly and watching hands and getting to know keys and what chords to expect was a great instruction. I still have trouble remembering the chords so that the leader can solo over them, but even that is getting easier. It was that Song Circle that I modeled my own after. Those experiences really melded my opinions and desires towards this philosophy of jamming and sharing. Gathering with Rusties also solidified the ideas, since we would gather and sing together songs that everyone of us knew, which made it SO much easier to JAM.

But I stopped the song circle and Screendale was failing. I was, however, playing out a lot with my friend Rick Warren. He is such a good guitarist, with such a good reputation and the ability to follow me even to the wrong chords! And I love to play out.... watching people dance and sing and have fun. As time went on, I got a lot of attention, sometimes from people who I have looked up to in the local scene, and that means the world to me. However, for some reason that I could not name, I felt depressed about my music and it was worsening. I was wondering what is the use, and looking at all my new friends who are working together, but don't have a place for me to join in. I found myself pulling away because really, it just hurts too much to see my new friends all having fun making music but not with me, and my old friends moving on to other lives...

Then, the season stopped and I didn't even have gigs to go to, to share my music. I started to get envious and fearful and that produced a lot of negativity in me. I don't like that. Not at all.

My new friends don't like to jam. They like to practice. They like to come up with intricate harmonies and complicated guitar parts. They sound absolutely beautiful. I like that too... I like to listen to it and I love when I am involved in executing a planned arrangement and it sounds soooooo THERE. But I was not being asked to join. Once, I spoke to Rick about it, and he said he thought it was because I seem to be on my own path and committed to being a leader, not a follower. Wow. That made me feel a little better at first, but really, being a leader also implies that people are fitting in with me, not cooperating with me. I fell down a little further.

I have been giving this all a great deal of thought because I don't believe in depression. When I am having that helpless, hopeless feeling, I know in my head that that is not true, and eventually, I have to work to find a way to bring myself up out of it. I keep looking for the key until I find it, even though I would so much rather wallow in it and feel sorry for myself (yes, i know, that sounds so silly, doesn't it? but that is what depression does...). Also, when you are depressed, you have no energy or motivation to solve the problem. You have to just, out of strength of will, force yourself to look for an answer.

I THINK I have my answer, and it has to do with being a social person. I need a lot of alone time, and that is why I like living alone. I am a musician, and that means I have to sing the same songs many times, I have to play the same notes many times and when I am writing something, that happens even more as I try out words and melodies and discard and rewrite and.... well, I imagine that most people would really want to strangle me after a while to stop the noise... and if I have that kind of pressure around me, I would stop working... because I am a social person. Because I am a social person, I feel bad when I am left out of my friends projects, even when I know it is not my genre and I have little to contribute. Because I am a social person, I love to perform and see people enjoy my sounds. Because I am a social person, I love to jam with other people.

I started to get better when I started to understand that I need to socialize. On my goal list, I include supporting my friends gigs as well as going to 'regular' open mics and searching out new open mics (network, network, network). I also include seeing friends with nothing to do with music as well as attending shows of people I admire. Phew, I can still do all that, and it feels better than sitting by myself at home depressed, for sure. (Note, however, that it didn't feel good or right at first. At first it felt that I was confirming the fact that yes, I am alone, people do not want me in their music, and being depressed is really the way of life now... it was miserable)

REFRAMING and BE PRESENT are tools that we are taught about in all sorts of self help things. It works. Instead of sitting at a friends gig telling myself that they could have used me for that song, and I could have brought more energy to that section, or whatever... (comparing myself with others.... never a good idea), I just enjoy their MUSIC. And they enjoy having me there... i am giving them support and validation. I also learned (again) about being in the moment and how that helps one to suspend judgement. If you suspend judgement on the people playing in front of you, and suspend judgement on your own imagined performance (or actual past performance), and just be in the present and listening and enjoying what your friends are doing FOR you at this moment in their music, all of a sudden, the key to the ideas of 'No fear, No envy, No meanness' presents themselves.... Be in the moment, without judgement and without expectations. Yes. There it is.

I still wish that these folks would try feeling more comfortable with jamming. Of course, it is a selfish wish, since I enjoy it so much and I love to have others join with me. There is beauty in Jamming. When a group of people with musical knowledge get together around a song and add something from their instruments and something with their voices, there is magic. Now, I understand why that is sometimes not satisfying to some people. A LOT of it is not sounding like it could. Bad notes and misjudgments abound. But if the musicians have put in the time to understand their instrument, magic can happen and usually does. There will be times, often only seconds long, when it is perfect. That would not have happened without risk. And there are times when the whole song is magic... those are the moments I simply love. They happen without planning and they can not ever be repeated, and that is actually part of the pleasure. And, if you work with basically the same people for a while, each time that tune is repeated over the months of gathering, it develops and changes and all of it is ok. That is what I get out of the busking experience also.... we do the same songs each time in a jamming format, which gives all the musicians present the freedom to explore something a little different... the chance for a little magic AND we don't get bored!!! The idea that we are all human and humans are flawed is a key concept in this art form I call Jamming. And I realize that I am very much more attracted to this form of making music than performing a perfectly rehearsed script :)

And it is an art form. Neil Young has taken that idea to its peak... the idea of keeping the music alive not by doing the same score each time, but by purposefully, in front of an audience, experimenting with an idea that suddenly comes up. He asks his band to follow him more by feeling than by thinking... something that a lot of people don't care for in his music, but i simply love. I also love it when the musicians I am working can Jam. I love the creativity that goes on at a moments notice.

Pete Seeger also does that, but in a different way. He is more tied to the words and the SONG as the main theme. He worked with ways to draw an audience in with sing alongs, teaching the songs as they are played out. He did it so very well. Songs must be picked that are conducive to the technique, and it takes some skill at getting it going, but he was a master at it. It is a skill I am learning. It is one more tool to use to bring people into the music.

Yes, I think that is a key concept to this whole long piece.... bringing people INTO the music. My goal. I will continue to work with that idea. I think I may be back to the beginnings of my journey.....

("No fear, no envy, no meanness" is advice received by Bob Dylan, mentioned in his book, Chronicles)