This July 4th weekend marks five years since I rekindled my inner spark for music and began my journey of expressing my love through guitar. As I think back on all I have discovered and all I am planning to become through sound, I realized I have much to be grateful for this weekend.
Here is a sampling from the tapestry of American artists and the songs that have inspired me along the way.
In the months before I became clear on what I wanted to be through music, Ray LaMontagne’s “All the Wild Horses”, is the song that opened my eyes and heart to all that was possible. Let this song guide you to all that is wild within your soul and discover the magic that can happen.
Improvisation has offered me so much freedom in my playing over the last few years. My first taste started with a rendition of the Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong’s jazz number, “Duke’s Place”, by McCoy Tyner. In the spring of 2010, I had the chance to meet jazz pioneer Pat Matheny. His latest project really brings out his inner mad scientist and shows how much of an innovator he has been for the genre.
This spring, I finally got up the courage to play, and occasionally sing with an informal folk and bluegrass jam group. One of my favorites in our song book is a traditional gospel ballad made famous by Alison Krauss and Union Station in the movie “Brother Where Art Thou”.
As we dedicate the day to our stars and stripes, I would love to hear what others enjoy playing or singing to celebrate our nation’s rich musically history.
The last few weeks I’ve been reacquainting myself with a voice from my past. The experience has been both surreal and a homecoming at the same time.
When I first heard my Grandpa’s 1946 Gibson ES 150, my ears had only begun to comprehend the sonic adventure they were designed to enjoy. But even at three months old, it appears the Gibson and I had a connection and a purpose that would slowly unveil itself to me.
Originally, the Gibson was my Grandpa’s main squeeze, when he joined a country band just after high school. He retired the guitar to its case shortly after this picture was taken and only occasionally played it when we visited. A newer acoustic had joined the family that allowed my Grandpa the ease and flexibility of playing the bluegrass tunes he loved to play for hours.
In the 80’s the Gibson took up residence in our living room, where my mom would practice her chords and my dad would recant folk songs from his childhood. Each time the Gibson would make a brief appearance outside its soft, protective shell, I’d marvel at its warm sunburst sheen and the deep resonant tones it had: so different from the bright brassy tones of its newer sibling. I was in awe.
The Long and Winding Road
Years passed, I continued down a different musical path, choosing my voice and not the guitar to express my love of sound. Now retired to a closet, the Gibson waited.
Time marched on; I had long since separated my love of sound and music making as something I did only when the “real” work of paying the bills was done. More often than not, I was too tired to utter anything but an exhausted yawn.
Then it happened. One Sunday in July 2006, I woke from a deep, restful sleep when a strong inner voice said, “Music is here for you. You need to make music again.” I immediately turned to voice lessons for answers. Although I was energized by what I discovered, something still seemed to be missing. I wanted and needed something deeper.
A few months later another realization floated into my consciousness, “I want to learn how to play guitar.” The statement I uttered seemed so natural, so right. “But how?” I reasoned with myself. I could count on one hand the number times I had run my small forefinger across the strings of my Grandpa’s guitars, but that far from made me ready, or “worthy” of the instrument. But the small inner voice continued to insist.
Despite my dad’s warning that forming calluses would make the experience unpleasant, I continued to persist. Then I dropped an even bigger bombshell, “I want to refurbish and play the Gibson.” Years in the closet had dried its tuning keys and left them in such a fragile state that they looked like a sneeze in their direction would reduce them to dust. Furthermore, dad insisted after years of no maintenance and a move across country from Minnesota to the arid Arizona desert its neck, body and electronics had most likely seen better days. I resigned myself to change its rusted strings one day, and put it under glass to gaze at lovingly.
I started lessons the following spring of 2007 and have continued to build my confidence and musicianship with a little help from the Beatles, my little parlor and my Grandpa’s acoustic.
Until a few weeks ago.
When I am Sixty-four
My parlor needed a set up and the acoustic’s wider bouts made playing tiring, especially after I had grown so accustomed to a smaller bodied guitar. My teacher had a solution. I had told him the Gibson’s story and showed him a picture of it years earlier. “Bring it to lesson next week and we’ll take a look,” he said.
With giddy excitement, I did. He carefully replaced the strings, lowered the action and reset the intonation. I am not sure how the tuning keys remained intact, but they held together long enough for me to hear it amplified from the warmth of a tube amp for the first time.
“Can you hear this Grandpa?”, I shouted to the heavens, as I sat near tears the entire lesson.
Once home, I let the tears come. I now knew why I had to finish bringing the Gibson back. It had a voice that had been nearly snuffed out, because it was deemed old, past its prime. But it had a voice none-the-less and it needed to be heard.
I realized that its story was very much like my own. Since leaving choral singing behind in high school, I had resigned myself to making music when it was convenient, or when I thought I was worthy, not because I needed to do it for my emotional or spiritual well being. I had a song too and this guitar was going to help me find it.
When the keys finally gave out three weeks later, the next phase of the restoration began. After some trial and error, we found a new set of tuners that gave the Gibson’s headstock a decidedly fresh look while still maintaining its antique charm.
Even though the Gibson is now 64 years old, I know our story is far from over. The sound memories that it carries within its wood are here for me now to listen to, reflect upon and to create brand new melodies that will continue to add to its character. I know each time I take it from its case and smell its sweet scent — which reminds me of an old leather-bound book and brandy — I’ve forged an unspeakable connection that can only be explained as sonic intuition.
This week, quite by chance, I came across two movies that illustrate beautifully how music and sound intrinsically link us to others.
One of my absolute favorites from the last three years, August Rush, was on television last week. From August’s opening lines in a sea of wind-swept grasses, to the stirring symphony and his closing words in the final scene, “ The music is all around us, all you have to do is listen,” I sat in rapt attention or moved to tears just as I had years earlier.
Some reviewers of the movie have said it was nothing more than a modernized retelling of Oliver Twist. While I see the parallels, I think these people have sadly missed the point of this film and an opportunity to show how music’s energy moves us in unspeakable ways.
Without giving too much away for those who haven’t seen it, even as life pulls the main characters in opposite directions and seemingly strips them of their joy, it’s music and an inner knowing, driven by sound, that brings them back to themselves and closer together.
Last night, I was pleasantly surprised by the sonic message in the final scenes of the animated retelling of the classic Dr. Seuss story “Horton Hears a Who.”
For the most part, it’s a cute story about the Who’s and their idyllic life on their spec of pollen. But when their existence is threatened, it ultimately comes down to the energy in every Who’s voice shouting, “We are here.” combined with the sonic boom from the mayor’s son’s megaphone, to show the skeptics on the other side that their voices do matter, that they do exist.
Quite literally, I think life can make us forget that we have a voice and a creative spirit that must be heard. If we let others tell us we are wrong, that our passions aren’t real, then we are at risk for developing disease that can only be rectified if we reclaim our right to be heard.
If the music within you is muted; I strongly encourage you to watch, and more importantly listen, to the messages within these films. They, just like sound and music, have the power to transform.
This week I returned to yoga after a long six-month drought. Aside from feeling like a winded sprinter in the first 15 minutes, I was most surprised at how my mind, which normally falls to quiet stillness during meditation, could not find peace. I know it has a lot to with my less-than-desirable level of fitness, but it got me thinking about space and how I could cultivate it in the present moment.
In the last year, jazz improvisation has taught me a lot about listening for the space in music and finding opportunities to punctuate the silence with small musical phrases. More importantly, though, I’ve learned how to linger. What is that you ask?
It’s the exact opposite of trying to fill all the silence with sound and just letting one note ring and fade back to silence before moving to the next note. When I first started improvising, I often felt like the music was threatening to run me over if I didn’t keep up; I was left dizzy and floundering in the dust of partial and poorly executed phrases. After witnessing a few of my flustered attempts, my teacher tried a different approach, “Hold a note and let it ring, give it space than move,” he said. “You have all kinds of time to make the next note, there’s no rush.”
The wonderful simplicity of this lesson was so freeing, that I seldom find myself struggling to link phrases together anymore. When I feel like I am getting ahead or behind of the song I am playing along with, I just pause, reset and resettle into a groove. Normally, if I feel this way it’s because I haven’t allowed myself to listen for the spaces the other musicians leave for me to discover, like little gold nuggets.
Sound and silence is just as important in vocal improvisation and chant as it is in jazz. I recently came across an excerpt of the book “The Yoga of Sound” in which author Russill Paul makes a beautiful observation about sound and the human ear:
“The ear is feminine and soul-like because of its receptive, deep, interior, mysterious qualities. This is why the quality of our hearing and kinds of sounds we hear are important; we derive healing and nourishment for our soul from the process. In other words, to neglect our ears is to neglect our soul.”
So how do you find space and silence in your daily lives? If this concept of listening for silence is new to you, I encourage you to try it. It really is music to your ears.
I came across a great blog post last week from Dan Goodwin that really got me thinking about where my creative mindset was a little more than a year ago, where it is now, and how my guitar playing seems to exude new energy and confidence because I’ve changed how I relate to my instrument.
I no longer worry about gaps in progress, which used to feel more like ravines I had to crawl out of, rather than an occasional bump in the road. More importantly, I think the biggest reason I am progressing steadily now, is because I have learned to appreciate and anticipate what Dan calls “happy accidents”.
Dan cites perfectionism, having too many choices and an inability to have fun while creating the biggest reasons for our mental blocks. Here’s what I’ve learned about myself, the musical process and laughing in the face of these three creativity stumbling blocks.
Perfectionism will stunt musical progress faster than any blister or broken fingernail ever could. Trying to make every note perfect before I played it, only added to my frustration. Worse, because I wouldn’t allow myself to play a “wrong” note I was unable to learn from my mistakes. In his book, “The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self” William Westney, encourages all musicians, at all levels of ability, to think of themselves as detectives.
“Be detached–in the best sense. Avoid the ego-driven emotional roller-coaster of “Yippee—I was great! alternating with Aarrggh—I messed up! Don’t take the outcomes personally. This isn’t about our egos. It’s about gathering objective evidence.”
I’ll admit, I am not always great at staying neutral when I practice. It’s just too much fun to let out a hearty ‘Whoo Whoo!’ after nailing a difficult barre chord or finding a nifty lick, while improvising. But, one thing I do differently is to not allow myself to react to frustration and negativity. The minute fatigue or frustration threaten to revert me to a cranky two-year old, I put the guitar down and leave my practice space.
Having too many choices is a nice predicament to have when you’re trying to decide which ice-cream flavor to fill your sugar cone with, but I agree with Dan, when it comes to improvising, less is more. Lately some of my biggest Aha’s! have come while focusing on the notes of just two or three strings. It is truly amazing the combinations the fingers will find with a little focused attention.
It seems to go without saying that if we have fun while we create, we will be more productive and happy. But just like with perfectionism, sometimes we make it difficult to experience joy because we set limitations on our ability to live in the moment.
When I first started lessons, I approached them ambitiously. “I am going to learn guitar in three years and apply for college, so I can get my degree in music therapy,” I told friends and family. While all well intended, I realize now that my academic goals had little to do with answering that inner voice that lead me down this path in the first place. Now more than three years later, my goals for using music to heal others remain the same, but the timetable has been replaced with a desire to know my guitar as an extension of myself. I’ve come to realize that only through inner mastery and joy will I find the creative answers that will lead to personal and professional fulfillment.
Time to go practice… who knows what kind of happy accident could be waiting to happen?
My journey through sound began at a very early age. From the age of three on, I can remember getting a healthy dose of American Bandstand along with my Saturday morning cartoons: grooving to the hits of the day.
There were the long winter nights listening to my Dad’s reel-to-reel recordings of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells that sent currents of electricity up my spine, and Isao Tomita’sinterpretations of Claude Debussy’s Reverie and Golliwog’s Cakewalk that could reduce me to tears and then have me laughing hysterically (they still do more than 30 years later).
Then there was my cherished record player that introduced me to the voices of Motown, George Harrison and Ricky Skaggs. It served as a backdrop for many hours of blissful vocal exploration.
My love of singing continued throughout grade and high school, giving me many opportunities to hone my skill and share my first love with people from around the world.
Fast forward 18 years later. I am sitting in a yoga studio quietly contemplating what I hope to discover from a summer-long workshop designed to put me touch with my personal sound and the six energy centers, or chakras, of my body. “What do I sound like?”, I wondered. After nearly two decades, the only signing I had done involved singing along with the car radio and a couple of stints of Karaoke at company Christmas parties. I realized that I had no idea what I sounded like unaccompanied and striped to my essence. It had been even longer since I had sung without an agenda and had enveloped myself in the rush of harmonics that I heard and felt to my core as I vocalized on the fly. “I can do this. I need to do this,” I said, at once exhilarated and petrified.
Each class started with a group chant that progressed to call and response and finished with each of us choosing two or three Sanskrit seed syllables to weave a tapestry of vocal invocation using only our inner knowing and our sound to carry us from note to note.
One evening, during the call and response portion of class, as the instructor led us in chant, I felt my usual sensations of serenity and calm, but somehow tonight was different. I also felt a growing wave of heat and vibration that traveled through my arms and legs and left me feeling extremely energized. Even at 10 o’clock that evening, after three hours of chanting, I felt that I had energy to burn and couldn’t settle down. “Wow!,” I thought. “What I had I tapped into tonight?”
I received my answer the following Tuesday evening.
While discussing my previous week’s experience with my classmates and teachers, I pondered that the seed syllable “Krim” (Kreem) must really hold some significance for me, as it kept me unusually energized. The teacher who had led the chant paused, looked surprised, then smiled and said, “The fear you had wanted to put aside, well, you didn’t just move it, you demolished it.”
It turns out, the intended syllable had been “Eim” (I’m) which Eastern Hindu, Vedic and Tibetan Buddhist traditions define as “Develops and manifests spiritual knowledge. Used to achieve good education, memory, intelligence, musical skill and spiritual endeavors”
While with Krim I had chosen to express, “Seed of the Hindu goddess Kali, goddess of creation and destruction.” Chanting this is said to produce an accumulation of kundalini power at the base of the spine.
Whether by accident or intuition, I had called upon the energy I had needed to speak my truth. The same innate energy I tapped as a three year-old, and as a teen, as I lost myself in sound.
How has sound affected you or your clients? What have you learned about yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually with music and sound as your guide? I would love to hear from other practitioners, teachers or students who actively use sound in their practices.
Revealing where technology, sound and music intersect to create health