Learning is not linear

So, I'm now teaching middle school.

Following a calling is an incredible thing. I've found that it's best to not ask why I feel called to do something - I've just got to do it. Not that I'm impulsive, necessarily - I believe, as Rilke says in Letters to a Young Poet, that things grow within us without our awareness before they seem to spring up out of nowhere in our lives. The roots of this project go deep, even though a mere five months ago it was unknown even to me.

In order to best serve my students, I prepared. I researched curriculum. I reviewed the finer points of quadratics and quadrilaterals, colloids and covalents, appositives and apostrophes. I developed a daily schedule, put together a ton of IKEA furniture, and meditated on my vision for the school year.

Man, was I in for a surprise.

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Turns out that thing only you can do is also the hardest thing you can do

"Find something you love and let it kill you." - Derek Sivers

Thoughts of inadequacy and self-doubt had better not get near my most important work. (Library of Congress photo)I've been hooked on House since 2007 when I crawled into bed exhausted in the middle of the afternoon after Eclectic Music's first-ever November recital. I decided to reward myself (for pulling off the recital, not for crawling into bed) with a TV episode downloaded from iTunes. I remembered seeing promos for the premiere of House during the legendary 2004 ALCS and it looked interesting, so I thought I'd give it a try. Seven seasons later, I am still along for every DDx and going-into-a-commercial panicked use of the crash cart.

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Amanda Knox, appreciating freedom, and defeating the "shoulds"

"Free thyself from the fetters of this world, and loose thy soul from the prison of self. Seize thy chance, for it will come to thee no more." - Baha'u'llah

Vero Beach, Florida, July 2007.I'm thinking about Amanda Knox quite a bit - I guess I identify with her. After all, I was once a young and naive American woman. Assuming she is innocent of murder (and, considering that another person is already in prison having confessed to the crime she was accused of, that's not a big stretch), it could have been anyone. It could have been me.

And so I imagine what that must be like - to lose four years of your life to prison, having had to accept that you might have to spend your entire life there. And then - to be exonerated. To be released. To appreciate fresh air, green grass, your family. Freedom.

Of course, my very next thought is, I have that freedom. It is a gift I receive anew every morning, when I get to choose how I want to spend that day. So what am I going to do today to live it to the fullest?

It's amazing how easy it is to forget that freedom is there. That my choices created my circumstances, and that my choices can change them. And that even when I encounter obligations, I still get to choose my attitude.

One of my guitar students, who is a busy grad student in the sciences, came into his lesson this week positively glowing. He said, "I learned that when I feel like I'm doing better, I do better." He was thrilled with his progress because he had finally figured out how to let go of the idea that being hard on himself was going to make him learn faster.

Once we get out of our own way and lose the "shoulds" and "should haves," we are free. One aspect of the "prison of self" is ego. "I should have learned this by now!" "I'll be the slowest one in the race!" "I have what I always wanted, why am I so unhappy?"

Yuck. I've made some major life changes recently, and I have more discretionary time than I used to. Instead of enjoying it to the fullest, I've had moments of questioning my decisions, questioning my motives, and hours of spending a beautiful day inside because I couldn't figure out what I was "supposed" to be doing. How stupid. I might as well be working fourteen hours a day again if all I can do is whine.

Amanda Knox will certainly have a time of transition, and will probably encounter a lot of existential pain as she confronts anew the "what should I do with my life?" question that any twenty-four-year-old has to deal with. But she will never forget the overwhelming feeling of finally being released from prison, and she will never take it for granted.

I always think things like, "I should play my twelve-string more often," or "I should learn Portuguese," or "I should call so-and-so" or "I should make time to play piano today." I'd like to shift from "I should" to "I will." It's my life! I can do anything I want with it.

Creating a virtuous cycle: My secret

I do well when I'm doing well. I thrive on momentum. I can spin anything into a positive, whether it's for the benefit of my students, employees, or me. There's always an angle that can shed light on an underappreciated virtue or accomplishment. "Well, just think of where you were last year at this time - you've made so much progress!" Whatever it takes to keep feeling good. Preserving a winning streak is easier than making a comeback.

Princess Mary of England at the piano, 1910 (Library of Congress)When I do feel down, I have many strategies to employ in order to press the reset button on my life and get back on track. Prayer and meditation. Exercise. Being outdoors. Water - the ocean is best but even gazing at a pool or fountain will do. Spending time with friends and family. Playing music, especially with others. And when all else fails, a little caffeine.

In addition to these wonderful things there is one activity that, throughout my life, has been an unusually powerful catalyst for change. Believe it or not, it's playing classical piano.

Although I have always made my living as a music teacher, playing classical piano is little more than a hobby as far as my professional life goes. I don't play weddings or concerts, and my degree is in voice. On good days I am a solid intermediate player but I have yet to learn much important repertoire.

In spite of all of this, classical piano has held great significance for me since I taught myself Schumann's "Melodie" (Op. 68, No. 1) at age eleven.

Playing classical music is both the cause and the consequence of a calm, even temper, self-acceptance, connection with my emotions, a well-ordered life, and an alignment of priorities.

My playing is inconsistent, which is ridiculous given the clear benefit that provides me. What can I say - I do not always have a well-ordered life and an alignment of priorities! However, because the piano is something I return to again and again, each time I can see anew the changes it sets into motion, and one conclusion I can draw is that perhaps I am not always ready for such dramatic upheaval.

In other words: I can head to the piano bench, have some quiet and apparently boring moments with a few measures of Mendelssohn, and three days later I must be prepared to question everything I have ever believed about my existence.

Okay, maybe that doesn't happen every time. But it's happened often enough that I'm wary when I start to find myself gravitating to the piano.

On the other hand, it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. When I have enough free time and mental clarity to spend several hours a week working hard on classical music, I've clearly got my shit together. Then the additional clarity and peacefulness created by all that playing begin to infuse the rest of my life. It's a virtuous cycle.

Even if I don't want to shake things up I find great satisfaction in playing classical music. The fact that it is recreated from the page makes me feel the way I do when I'm engrossed in a novel, a willing prisoner of a rich inner world created by the collaboration between the writer and me.

There is a sense of communion I feel with the composer, as though I am literally bringing him to life as I play. This long-dead European becomes my friend and colleague as I decode the symbols he lovingly placed on the score centuries ago. An almost-forgotten cipher is his only way to intimate the physical and emotional road map of his work.

There are no words in this music - the presence only of sounds refreshes and entrances me. I am drawn into a deep concentration that lingers after I am finished. I remember an afternoon working on J.S. Bach's Inventio No. 13, hypnotized by the ticking of the grandfather clock I was using as a metronome. Several months later, I played the same piece, now mastered, on the morning of the PSAT exam that would yield a National Merit Scholarship. Better than amphetamines.

Unlike a drug, this high is long-lasting, cumulative, and bears no side effects other than a sometimes uncomfortable expansion of one's capacity as a human being.

I know that not all of my piano students will feel this way about playing. I only hope that they will find something in their lives, whether a hobby or a vocation, that will inspire them to learn and grow out of love rather than duty. I hope they will find something that will allow them to turn the volume down on the less pleasant things in their lives while amplifying their joy, satisfaction, and renewal.

Pride and Joy

Every so often, someone will ask me how long Eclectic Music has been around. And I'll say, "I've been in Atlanta X number of years, so..." And they'll say, "No, but when did it really start?" implying that it didn't begin until I brought on my first contractor.

That was in 2007, and I can understand why that is a more interesting milestone for people. We started growing faster, having more visibility and presence in the community. That's also about the time my life changed significantly in the way the life of a new parent changes - no more going off the grid, no more sleeping in, and no more keeping up with movies, TV, and radio.

I guess Eclectic Music is my pride and joy. I might or might not feel a tiny pang when I hear Marvin Gaye sing, in the song of the same name,

"You've got kisses sweeter than honey/And I work seven days a week to give you all my money."

Yeah, I know just what he's talking about. Minus the kisses.

Except, figuratively speaking, there are sort of kisses. There are "I love you, Mommy" moments when it's all worth it, and everything comes together. There are really a lot of those moments, because music facilitates such a strong soul connection between people. And because I tend to work with a lot of children, who can't help but make you feel that sense of legacy - of investing in something bigger and more meaningful than yourself.

Today I got a call from a family I haven't worked with in several years. I started teaching piano to their youngest daughter when she was eight. She was one of the fastest-learning young piano students I've ever spent time with, with a sweet demeanor and an intuitive understanding of musical concepts. I can't remember exactly why we stopped working together - something logistical. Anyway, they found my website and are coming to see me next week. Her mother said something really touching: that no one else has been able to her daughter to find the joy in her music the way I was able to.

This story is obviously meaningful to me, and it reminds me that I didn't start in 2007 - I began building this school almost ten years ago, in 2002. I did a lot of work that I never thought was going to pay off to anything more than helping one more student advance toward his or her musical goals. I did that work because it mattered. It clearly still matters - the only thing that's changed is the scale.

The scale is sometimes unwieldy. I'm playing a waiting game right now, hoping that the fall enrollment numbers are going to look good and that they will sustain three gigantic rent payments and a too-big-but-essential office staff. They will, they will. They have to!

When I first moved to Atlanta I distributed flyers around town and waited for results - and now I'm doing the same thing again. I could see that as evidence of how far I haven't come, or I could look at the network of relationships that has evolved as a result of my work and feel the pride. And joy.

Why would any of this end now? Because of that network, it won't. Because I keep trying, with all the love that I have, to grow as a person and as a business owner.

My Aunt Marie said recently that, if she could raise her two daughters over again, she "would have enjoyed it more." I'm trying to take that wisdom and apply it to my current situation. To see the end in the beginning, and the beginning in the end. And to appreciate the moments as they happen.

Bold moves: clever, ridiculous, necessary

I just made a very bold move. I did it because I couldn't think of a good enough reason not to, and I was thrilled and freaked out by the possible outcomes of doing it. So whoosh! Off the cliff.

Pacifica, CA, October 2010I love the idea of laying everything on the line in business and marketing - my risk-o-meter is broken. But when it comes to making art, I am much more conservative.

The only reason I can think of is that the results are much easier to measure in business - really, the concept of a calculated risk doesn't make sense in art. Success and failure are easier to define.

I've been focused on business for so long that I've buried my musical goals pretty deep, or in some cases transferred them to my music-related business. But now I'm suddenly giving it some serious thought - what were my goals? Why did I not achieve them? And more relevant: What risks, too uncomfortable to consider, did those goals represent?

Among other things, I spent my twenties as an aspiring songwriter and performer. The great thing about being out of my twenties is that I can examine them as a thing separate from myself, like a movie (Casey's Twenties, a new film by Gus Van Sant) and see themes that I didn't recognize at the time. I see black-and-white thinking, distractability, a limited understanding of my strengths and weaknesses, a lack of solid planning, and a tendency to get stuck on things that require money or outside help.

Ironically, if I had treated my music career like a business, I might have achieved some success. I would have been able to view some of the things that actually happened as steps on the way to success if I'd only had the courage to define what that success would look like.

On the other hand, I also had trouble just sitting down and making music for fun. I don't need to make a damn statement. Nobody really knew about my music but me, so why didn't I just play? Perhaps I'd accidentally stumble upon something good. Or at least interesting.

Of course, it's not over. If I can figure out what I want out of my music career, I can make a plan, set goals, and be ready to leap when I find something that matters enough to scare the crap out of me. And just have a good time at the very least.

What do I want now? I don't really know yet. Michael and I went out on New Year's Eve and busked for a half-hour in Piedmont Park. That's rather bold, when you think about it.

What is the point of my business?

As my business develops, I am thinking about how I got started and where I hope to go from here. I started teaching music lessons because those were the skills I had. What would I do if I were starting a career based on the skills I have now?

I am passionate about music, and I'm passionate about education. Of course I'm passionate about music education. But I'm thinking: Why? What is the point?

The ideas I get the most excited about sharing have to do with effectiveness - doing the most with the least. Fixing problems that most people miss. Finding shortcuts that sharpen and strengthen. Uncovering the principles that underlie all effective methods and applying them in innovative ways. This is how I teach, this is how I run my business, this is how I run my life. Classic NT personality type.

However, my job in business is not to scratch my own itch to make things more effective, efficient, and excellent. It is to serve people, and often the most effective way to do that is a principle that contradicts some others:

     Figure out what people want, and help them to get it.

In some cases, I have to help them to figure out what they want. And in some cases, I have to help them to figure out that there is something worth wanting. And in some cases, I have to figure out that what they want is not what they say they want...or not what will help them to achieve their larger goals. It gets confusing and murky in there, but as long as I still have some guiding principles to go by, we're fine.

Here's what I believe:

  • Music is a means of self-expression and connection.
  • Self-expression is a means of self-development.
  • Life is a process of self-development.
  • Self-development is discovering and enhancing your ability to be of service in the world.
  • Being of service means connecting with others through who you are, what you create, or what you do.
  • Connecting with others, whether directly or indirectly, helps them in their own journey of self-development.

What's exciting about music is that it's a direct and immediate connection - that's what makes it so powerful. But sometimes, in the process of developing a musician, we discover that their most authentic means of self-expression is another instrument or another medium entirely. That's okay - that's the point.

So, the point of my business is clear: to encourage and develop self-expression for people of all ages. Our most obvious way of doing that is through music, and that's enough for me right now. But obviously, I love playing with the larger ideas, and I hope that others can find something here relevant to their own work.

Soggy mail

This morning I woke up before the alarm and went for a run before dawn. I checked my email and there were receipts from three families I didn't know, signing up for camp. I felt like a rock star, totally in control of my world.

Guess what? It didn't last. My phone was broken, preventing me from accessing voicemail. The AT&T rep. was great but kept calling when I was in an appointment. I started a project I couldn't finish. I was fifteen minutes late for a lesson because I lost track of time. A kid who was supposed to take a piano lesson refused to, and insisted on drums instead. There was a miscommunication about a teacher's schedule, requiring me to call several families and grovel. An afternoon camp wasn't running so smoothly, the teacher in charge having had little experience working with groups. Oops, I was supposed to make the plan earlier and instead spent the morning fixing my phone. Yikes!

As an entrepreneur, it's easy to get a God complex - you are the go-to person for everything if you don't delegate properly. As a teacher, you can end up in the same place if you aren't cultivating autonomy in your students from the get-go. And as a coach of leaders, you can dole out responsibility but find yourself micromanaging if you haven't shown your team the procedures they will carry out and the standards you expect.

So it's a triple-whammy for me, and today it was hard to reconcile my sense of responsibility with actually being able to keep it all together. The constant interruptions, the dozens of crises, the relentless need to watch the clock...it's all been a big challenge and I made lots of mistakes. I tried to keep the attitude of "it's all a learning experience" but after ten hours or so, I was pretty tired.

I did make it. My last lesson went from 6:30 - 7:00, and it was pleasant - a thirteen-year-old beginning guitar student. About ten minutes in, a woman walks by on the sidewalk, on the phone, dragging a roller suitcase. I watched a magazine and a letter fall out of her back onto the ground. I jumped up and banged on the window, pointing to the stuff that had fallen out. She just looked at me like I was crazy and continued walking and talking.

At this point I had a choice. I could run outside and save her mail, or I could focus on what I was doing - what I was being paid to do. Did this student deserve an interruption? No. My work with the student was my priority. The lesson continued.

Ten minutes later, a surprise rainstorm came up. I watched as the pieces of mail in the street got wet, and then got soaked. Again, I had an opportunity to save this woman's mail - maybe I could have dropped it in a mailbox and it would get to her again - and again, I let the opportunity pass me by in favor of doing my real work, serving this music student.

Tim Ferriss, in The Four-Hour Workweek, says "you must be willing to let small bad things happen" if you ever want to escape meaningless chores and interruptions and spend your time and energy doing what matters to you. This is really hard for me. The buck stops here, and when something goes wrong I feel the need to make it regardless of what I actually have control over, or whether it was even a big deal.

But at the end of the day (literally), it might be okay to just let the soggy mail sit there.

Those who can't do...

Two things kind of stink about teaching music: The first is that when a student fails, it's all my fault, but when a student succeeds, it's because of talent. Bummer.

The second thing that stinks about teaching music is the topic of this post: Spending time helping other people develop their musicianship means I'm not spending my time developing my own. What is the relationship between these two activities?

There are six-year-olds playing way harder stuff on their YouTube channels.


It takes time and focus to get good at something

Gladwell, in Outliers, talks about how research suggests that a person needs ten thousand hours of practice at a skill in order to get good at it. I can tell you that I've easily put 10,000 hours and then some into teaching music lessons. I've probably amassed another 10,000 hours or so on music in general, but since I spent that time listening, singing, songwriting, recording, and playing a few different instruments, I do not have any serious musical chops. Yeah, I can play, but I'm no Jimi Hendrix (or Keith Jarrett, or Bob Dylan, or Paul McCartney, or George Martin for that matter).

The past few years have been particularly painful in this regard, because I'm spending most of my time being the administrator of a school. But to use that as an excuse for not going anywhere as a musician would just be rationalization, so I'm working on a couple goals: playing more music and refining and sharing my teaching methods.


Doing two things is not focus, in case you were wondering

Ugh! Why can't I just have one goal instead of two? That is how you become successful, right? Well, I really do feel like I have to have both in my life. My teaching is at its best when I'm actively pursuing my musicianship (playing in a band, writing songs, performing, etc.) and my playing...well, without the teaching, my playing would really suffer because I'd have to sell my guitar to pay my mortgage. Teaching has always been the foundation of how I make my living; however accidentally I may have landed in this profession, it seems to be what I'm good at.

So if I've been spending a disproportionate amount of time teaching and not playing, at least I've really learned how to do it well. Meanwhile, those of my peers who spent the past decade in grad school and then practicing six hours a day? They are excellent players, and they are not automatically good teachers as a result. In fact, some of the best instrumentalists I've known are also the worst teachers I've known. This is not a coincidence, the same way that it is not a coincidence that I cannot play Fantaisie-Impromptu: There is only so much time in the day. Corollary: We focus on what we're already pretty good at.


Those who can't teach, do

So that old saw, "Those who can't do, teach," has some validity. But! I take issue with its implication that a) teaching is easy; or that b) I have to be able to play like Glenn Gould in order to be qualified to guide a student through their first several years of study on the piano.

I had lunch with Katie Baughman today, and we talked about how our colleague, Jennifer Christie, is such a gifted piano teacher precisely because piano is not her first instrument! This unique perspective gives Jennifer an insight into the mind of the beginner (and people stay beginners for a long time, so this is very important). Also, Jennifer has made the choice to invest in learning how to teach well, since she can't rely on dazzling her prospective students with virtuosic abililties on the piano.

It's funny: every so often, a parent wants the teacher to audition. I absolutely believe that regardless of the specific repertoire a teacher has mastered, he or she should have excellent technique and artistry. But in listening to your teacher play, you might miss the point, which is that being able to play Fantaisie-Impromptu does not mean you have the tools to teach someone else how to do it. Really, they are separate professions.


George Martin was a rock star, too

The performer gets the glory - his work is breathtaking, memorable, inspiring. And great teaching exhibits the same level of elegance, grace, and ease that great playing does. It's less flashy, but just as vital. That student who gets props for his talent? I'll let him take the credit. But I'll also take the warm fuzzy feeling.

What do you think? Is teaching the ugly stepsister of music? Do I sound defensive?

Finding your inner fourteen-year-old

A songwriter who doesn't write songs

Eclectic Music was founded in the Fall of 2001. I moved to Atlanta in January 2002 and hit the ground running, trying to build my business before I ran out of savings. I took a job waiting tables for a little bit, but I was teaching full-time by June, on my own and as a contractor at a couple of schools.

By 2006 I was fully on my own, and then in July 2007 I brought on additional teachers. That's also about the last time I wrote a song. Well, I wrote one last one after the Red Sox won the World Series that fall. But since then, nothin'.

Songwriting has always been a huge part of my life and my identity, and for me to not write even one song for two-and-a-half years is a really big deal. What happened?

It's not like I haven't been feeling creative. But a lot of that creativity (and a lot of my time) has gone into my business. Eclectic Music, as much as I love it, is a lot like an evil vampire baby.

For some people, running a school would be enough. However, I've always believed that my teaching must be balanced by attention to my own musicianship. These days, I feel very strongly that my challenging left-brain work as an administrator must be balanced by joyful, challenging right-brain work as an artist. So, I gotta get back on the musical horse somehow.


Sitting on the end of your bed

Adult students often have trouble building momentum due to a lack of time and a lack of self-confidence. I tell them the same thing I'm telling myself now: you have to put yourself back to age fourteen or fifteen, before you got your driver's license, before you and your friends were up to anything cool, and well before you had a job, bills, and a stupid incessantly buzzing BlackBerry.

"More Guitar" (detail) by Michael McGillImagine sitting on the end of your bed, back at your childhood home, with a guitar in your lap, just playing the hell out of that thing. There you are for hours upon hours, muscling through the physical pain and the lack of any clue what you are doing, with brazen, cocksure determination. "Of course I can do this. Keith Richards/Johnny Ramone/Kurt Cobain/Billie Joe Armstrong/Jack White/Taylor Swift can do this."

Now, sitting on the end of your current bed or piano bench or whatever, put yourself in that same place, even if you only have ten minutes. Find your inner fourteen-year-old, and you will start to silence all the inner noise about how you're too old and you have more important things you should be doing.

If you are fourteen (or younger), you only have to silence your phone and log out of Facebook, and you'll be in the zone.



Obviously, this all works better if you give it hours, not minutes. This will not be possible or practical for everyone, but for me right now it's a must. This week I'm on Spring Break, so once I'm in the right place emotionally, I'm going to do what I did in high school and dive in completely: musical immersion.

My goal is to have four three-hour sessions this week. It's okay with me if my songwriting dry spell continues during this period - I just want to build up a little momentum. I want to get back to that place - that delicious, timeless Eden - where music was on my mind constantly and it was all that mattered to me. I feel that way when I hear a great song or play drums with The Omnivores, but it's not often enough to create the momentum to create.

If, each day, I could taste a little more of that freedom and expansiveness offered me by my inner fourteen-year-old, I might have the emotional energy to get through the pile of emails that is no doubt piling up as I write this. Or I might not even bother, and not care, and just go write a song.

"Sweet Little Sixteen, she's got the grown-up blues.
Tight dresses an' lipstick, she's sportin' high-heel shoes.
Oh, but tomorrow mornin' she'll have to change her trend.
And be sweet sixteen an' back in class again."

-Chuck Berry

How do you know if you'll get better?

Times are tough. Sometimes, it has nothing to do with the times - it's me. It's my own private struggle.

Like right now. My business, my school, has been growing at a good clip for the past couple of years, but each phase of growth brings new challenges. There have been so many times when it felt like I couldn't keep going, that it wasn't worth it. Now is one of those times.

In my former studio at Virginia-Highland Church, January 2007Every time I've come to what seemed like a dead end, I decided to keep on pushing through. It's been painful, grueling, exhilarating, and I still can't say whether it's been worth it. I still don't know how it will turn out. I do know that I'm learning a lot, and that every time I think I can't work harder than I'm already working, I discover grimly that it is possible.

This business experience definitely parallels my musical experience. A student recently asked me, "How do I know if I'll improve?" He was working on songwriting. I had told him, "keep writing songs, and eventually you'll write good ones."

"But how can I be sure my songs will actually get better?"

"That's a very good question," I said. "But, I mean, how can you not get better? You're working so hard on this in a focused way. It's inevitable that you'll succeed."

I pointed out to him that by coming to a music lesson each week, he is opening himself up to input from another person. Without that input, his songs might stay the same, but being open to the influence of an outside perspective will allow his work to change and progress.

I do the same in my career - I consult with trusted advisors (of which I'm fortunate to have many), read The Dip and other brilliant books over and over again, and listen a little harder to what my business is telling me. And I keep going.

Be open to the wisdom of others, and keep at it. You can't help but get better, in music and in life.

As for me: I'm going to continue pushing through my discouragement, fear, resentment, and confusion. I'll follow some good advice and visualize a desirable outcome for myself. A better existence is in my crosshairs, and I do have the tools to get there. I'll let you know how it goes.

"So what did you use computers for?"

Andrew, fourteen, did an amazing job learning the guitar solo to "Let it Be". Armed with a fairly accurate tab acquired on the web, he went home and practiced effectively and thoroughly. He told me he broke the 'back' button on his iPod remote from scrubbing backward so much to listen to small sections of the solo repeatedly.

"Good job," I said. "You did it right, then!"

We explored some other solos he could learn, since he's on a roll. "'Maybe I'm Amazed' would be good."

"Ok, should I get the tab online?"

"Well, it's better than nothing. If it's wrong, we can fix it. God knows I've had enough practice doing that."

"So what did you do to learn a song when you were a kid? Did you just download the tabs?"

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "It pains me greatly to say this," I said. "But you see, we did not have the Internet when I was a kid."

Andrew stared, amused and flabbergasted. "That sucks. So...what did you use computers for?"

"You know, word processing, spreadsheets, accounting..."

"So did you have Word?"

"I think by the early nineties. But I remember a time before Windows. We had," I paused. "DOS."

His eyes widened.

"Black screen, C-prompt, blinking cursor," I went on. "You had to talk to the computer in its own language. No photos, no movies, no music..."

"That sucks!"

"No mouse."

"No mouse?!"

"Well, it wasn't all bad. We also had ATARI 2600 - joystick, single orange button..."

"Wait - are you talking about a GAME CONSOLE?"

I had to laugh. I'm not so old, it's just that things have changed so fast.

"So anyway, there was no online tab. And if you wanted the lyrics, you had to figure them out by listening." And pausing your cassette to write them down.

"That sucks!"

Maybe. But kind of special to be among the very last generation of American teenagers who had to do things the hard way. Of course, even that is relative since I am also among the first generation who can't remember life before computers.

Ironically, Andrew's learning the same songs now that I did back then. The good news is, the songs haven't aged a bit.

I don't care how many years you've been playing

What matters is what you've accomplished during the time you've been studying your instrument, regardless of how long it took you. And even that doesn't matter unless it matters to you.

In any case, I hope you've been doing other things during that time, like holding down a job, raising children, eating, and what-have-you. Hey, why not keep track of how many hours you've been actually playing? That would be some useful information. Or would it?

I don't generally care for "resume currency": the type of information that would appear in a third-person bio. And as a rule, I dislike third-person bios unless you are so important that there's a Wikipedia entry about you.

Maybe it's because I went to state universities and public grade schools, or because, as one of four children, I didn't have the kind of upbringing that allowed me to begin violin lessons at age three, or because I don't have an advanced degree; whatever the reason, I consider details about someone's age, education, and the rest of their curriculum vitae to be not very important. While at times this attitude has been naive, it has also at times allowed me to escape the status quo and find my own way in the world.

So, the number of years (or hours) you've been playing is just a number. But people want this number because it helps them figure out where you are, and where they fit in. People use your number to rationalize their own choices.

When both of my maternal grandparents passed away from lung cancer in the same month (having been divorced for forty years, by the way), people asked me, "Were they smokers?" The real question was, "Could this happen to me?"

Below, some of the questions musicians get asked in this vein.

Question: "How long have you been playing?"

Subtext: "How long will it take me/my kid to get as good as you are?" or "How long have you been playing compared to me, and how do I rate against you?"

Question: "How old were you when you started playing?"

Subtext: Same as above.

Question: "Did you come from a musical family?"

Subtext: "If the answer is yes, then that explains your talent, and explains why I could never have been a musician."

Question: "How old are you?"

Subtext: "How do you compare to me when I was your age?" or "Where do I want to be when I'm your age?"

Question: "How long did it take you to learn that?"

Subtext: "Should I even bother?"

I have worked with a great many students in my career (How many? For how long? Meh.). I've learned that their struggles, slumps and triumphs cannot be measured in years.

It would be helpful if there were some external metric we could use to assess whether we are succeeding, whether we are in the right profession, whether we're playing the right instrument, whether we should even keep going. Since there isn't, I recommend the following:

"If it sounds good, it is good."

"If it feels good, it is good."

And, “The art of music is divine and effective. It is the food of the soul and spirit. Through the power and charm of music the spirit of man is uplifted." - 'Abdu'l-Baha

And of course, "Hail, hail, rock'n'roll!" - Chuck Berry

I don't care how many years you've been playing. Just keep playing.

Love Minus Zero/No Limit

My love affair with this song goes back to early 1993. Steve Wiatt got the Bob Dylan tribute video on Pay-Per-View (remember that?) and lent the VHS tape to my dad (I do believe it’s still in his possession after all these years). And then my dad showed me the clip: Ronnie Wood introduces Eric Clapton, and Clapton proceeds to give one of the most spiritually generous performances of his life.

I had never heard Dylan’s own recording of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” before - later that spring I would buy my first Dylan CD (remember those?) and fall in love with the pencil-sketch charm of the version on Bringing it All Back Home. But Clapton’s rendition is lovingly, reverently, exaggeratedly Dylan-esque: warm, humming organ, those noodley little walkdowns down from the five chord, and, as ever, liberties taken with the vocal melody, rhythms, and even the lyrics themselves. Bob would be proud - of course he is still alive, anyway, so I could ask him what he thought about it, if I knew how to get in touch with him.

But the guitars! Sounding like nothing Dylan ever recorded. The soaring, beautiful, sweet, bluesy guitars - Clapton on his trusty Strat, G.E. Smith (remember him?) chiming away on a Tele. I had been playing for a few weeks the first time I saw this performance, and it made an impression. Clapton takes two solos, and they are stunning in their immediacy and melodicism. Some gorgeous, soul-lifting bends…he makes it look so easy.

Ironically, the ease with which Clapton built his solos was something I could not relate to at the time, much as I loved the sounds I was hearing. My mind, like my father’s, was designed to distill the colorful richness I was hearing back down to the pencil sketch of Dylan’s original: figure out the chords, memorize the lyrics, and be able to play and sing this thing by heart before sundown. This is the song that taught me to transpose before I knew what that was called, taught me to sing in my own style before I knew what that was. I’ve never let go of it, but I’ve never been able to make it feel like that Clapton version.

A few Christmases ago, my brother Tristan converted that VHS tape into a DVD and presented it to me under the tree. We watched it that morning, and I wept. I sobbed in front of my whole family. It was bittersweet to see that the gorgeous lead guitar playing that had so inspired me was still so far out of reach, and worse, that it was so okay with me. It was like I had promised myself, “I will play guitar,” and then went out and bought a french horn, never even noticing or caring that I had broken that contract. And in a way, I still don’t care.

Today one of my students, a delightful sixteen-year-old, was working on “Love Minus Zero.” To explore arrangement possibilities, I went on YouTube. There, in the suggested search field as I typed in the song title, was “clapton.” Could it be? It was - some Japanese guy posted the clip. We watched and listened - and then I shared it with another student later that day. And then I listened to it on my walk home in the dark (YouTube on the iPhone!).

And something interesting is happening - I’m hearing more. I pointed out to my student that while it sounds as though Clapton is playing continuously, he’s really creating separate phrases that overlap. One comes over in an arc and as it ends another comes underneath, like the currents of water in an ocean wave. I noticed that most of the solos are pentatonic. I realized how little he was playing during the verses - laying out and letting the rhythm parts back up the voice, then filling in with meaty licks between the lines of lyric as though it were a blues tune.

So this thing might actually be within reach: to learn one or both of these solos just for fun and education. Maybe the assumptions I’ve always made about myself with respect to my natural abilities as a musician are ready to be overturned. That will mean a lot for the way I teach, but even more for the way I live.

Regardless, “she knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all.” Deep, man. That either means exactly what I’m talking about, or nothing at all.

Trying on Songs

It’s been awhile - our school is really growing and has required much care and feeding. Now, as the title of this post suggests, I’ve got a gig coming up and I am shifting my focus to my own musicianship.

I’ve had a few different performance opportunities this summer, but they were all very different venues and occasions: a night at Kavarna with The Omnivores, a wedding, a devotional event at the Baha’i Center. But I find myself in the middle of back-to-back Fridays at MetroFresh, so I’m warmed up and I have the energy to try new things next Friday.

I haven’t been writing songs much lately (yeah, I will eventually get back into that, too), so what I’m doing is trying on other people’s songs to see if they fit. You know, it’s exactly like going clothing shopping for me: browse the racks and pick out something that looks like what I would always wear, something that I really hope will fit because it looks like what I need, something that’s too expensive, and something unexpected. A lot of times the thing I picked up just for fun ends up fitting perfectly, while something that looked like a sure thing at the right price just doesn’t work on me. And the gorgeous, expensive thing is, alas, not for today.

Likewise, a song that seems ridiculous (how about a girl singing “I’m a Boy,” or an acoustic version of “Isobel” by Bjork?) ends up working because it challenges my creativity and my assumptions about myself. And I got so tired of the “sure thing” that, for the past ten years or so, I’ve mostly eschewed songs by young, white female artists so that I could find my own voice. And there’s always a song that will be just out of reach, at least until the day that I can perform “Never Going Back Again” flawlessly.

So today I have been working on “Walk on the Ocean,” that Nineties gem from Toad the Wet Sprocket. A nice complicated chord progression covers up the fact that I just stand there and strum the whole time. The recorded key is right in my range, which is a bonus. Pass!

Another one is “What Light” by good ol’ Wilco. The lyrics are simple and direct, and right up my alley. I messed around and stuck the capo down on the second fret instead of the fifth for vocal reasons - now my voice pops out nicely (maybe the musical the equivalent of making alterations to a vintage dress?).

As I played, a new thought occurred to me: I’d like to make up another verse to this song. And I might. That would really make it my own. In the song, Jeff Tweedy sings:

And if the whole world’s singing your songs
And all of your paintings have been hung
Just remember what was yours is everyone’s from now on.

So I guess he’d be cool with that, huh?


This week, I’ve been going to my studio first thing in the morning, throwing down my bags, taking off my coat, and hopping onto the piano before other obligations can get to me. I got a few new books on Tuesday - stuff written for children from Gurlitt, Koehler, and Bartok. Besides making excellent material for sight-reading, these are pieces I could potentially teach to my students. I had fun reading through some easier music the way one might read through a novel or an interesting newspaper article.

Today, I decided to start with guitar, since I have burned through all my practice time so far this week playing only piano. Instead of playing through written music, I worked on learning some songs by ear. I don’t feel like I got too far with any one thing, but I’ve been away from it for awhile and I have to build up my finger strength again. Because of this, any playing I do is beneficial - but when I don’t have a lot of structure I don’t feel committed to a piece of music, and don’t really achieve mastery.

I feel as though I’ve gone through a long tunnel with piano - it is finally a joy, after years of self-doubt and confusion. I was full of baggage: I didn’t start until late in childhood, I’ve always practiced inconsistently, I was always a crummy sight-reader, and I never really felt like I had a strong foundation. Through sheer determination, I’ve been able to keep coming back to piano and put in the effort necessary to get to a place I can feel good about.

Now I have to do the same thing with guitar - and after years of self-doubt and confusion, I think I’ve finally figured out what to do. I must follow the exact same path I’ve taken with piano: go back to the basics and build up my skills step-by-step, balancing any serious challenges by playing many songs and pieces that are relatively easy. This is the same program I use for my students.

What makes teaching guitar a little trickier than teaching piano is that I have to do a lot more work to find songs that are both at the right level of difficulty for the student and also will suit her taste in music. I have learned a lot from this process, however, and I need to do the same thing for myself. Maybe I’ll go to the music store and find the equivalent of Kabalevsky and Koehler for my level on the guitar, or maybe I’ll just put together a book for myself: lead breaks from Beatles songs, Carter-style picking, and Chuck Berry riffs.


Silvio Rodriguez - “Ojala”

Radiohead - “High & Dry”

McCartney - “Put it There”

Gurlitt - Opus 187, Nos. 1 - 49

Mozart - Allegro (K. 15a)


My appetite for practicing music is exactly like my appetite for food. I get hungry to play, and I’m slightly uncomfortable until I’ve had the opportunity to do so. Things go well for awhile, and then all of a sudden I’m “full” - my brain gets fuzzy and I get distracted, and the music in front of me becomes rather cold and unappetizing. If I keep going after that point, I don’t feel well, so I quit. Then, not too much later, I get a craving for something sweet and I want to go back and play again.

I am fasting (for religious reasons) from sunrise to sundown every day until March 20. Although I am abstaining from physical food, the musical food will do very well in the meantime.


Heller - Etude in A Minor

Grieg - Waltz

“Sinking in the Lonesome Sea” (traditional)

Baby Driver

I played very little piano today, focusing more on guitar. It was a relaxed family day, so it would have been weird if I sat in the living room playing piano for hours. Instead, I played a bit with my brother-in-law, Jesse - we did “And Your Bird Can Sing” with me on rhythm and him on lead, a few Paul Simon tunes, and “Gone For Good” by the Shins. Jesse is a terrific singer and guitarist, so we can do some good harmonies and figure out stuff on the fly.

We listened to “Baby Driver” and “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” two fun shuffles off of Bridge Over Troubled Water, thinking about playing them. We discovered that they are both tuned down a half-step to Eb. I used to wonder how you could tell something like that quickly without exhausting all other options first, but I’m getting better at doing it. I think a lot of that has to do with confidence - I assume that if it’s too hard for me to play, I’m probably not playing it correctly. If my voicings have a bunch of awkward stretches or it’s hard to get a good sound from a certain chord, I’m probably playing it in the wrong place or I’ve made a bad assumption. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle: you might make guesses at the ones you don’t know or leave them blank, and as you work your way around you can make corrections or even have something click that didn’t before, just because you’re seeing it in a new way. I love working out songs by ear.

I dug out some old guitar books of my dad’s and played through them. The were busy, crappy arrangements of public domain stuff like “Greensleeves.” Given that my whole philosophy of learning music revolves around songs, I believe that the quality of one’s learning materials is the most important thing in music instruction - more important than the quality of the instrument, or even the skills of the teacher. So this by-the-numbers Mel Bay stuff was not very useful or satisfying to me - it’s really hard to make those pieces sound good, even if (especially if!) you play them exactly the way they are written.

And then…later on in the evening, driving with Jesse, my sister Ashley the birthday girl, and Jonah (my adorable sixteen-month-old nephew), I found a much more important use for my musical skills than hacking through some hacky guitar methods: I sang the baby to sleep. I was sitting next to him in the back seat as the sun was setting, leaning close and going from vigorous play songs like “Bingo” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” to lullabies hummed gently in his ear. As I watched his eyelids droop, I felt a grace that served to put all of my musical strivings in their proper context. It is all for this kind of joy and love that I play.

Playing is working

So lately I’m just sitting down at the piano and playing. I used to have some pieces I was “working on,” where I would get the metronome out and learn every nuance of the piece with painstaking deliberateness. These days, I’m just getting back to the piano after a couple of months away, so I don’t feel like taking it that seriously. Ironically, I am learning much faster and better than I used to.

This weekend I’m staying with my parents in Maine. It snowed all day, so what else to do but play with my sixteen-month-old nephew and play a little piano? I decided to play from a book my siblings and I used when we were kids, filled with many of the pieces I’m teaching my own students.

Some of these pieces never get old - I could play them every day for the rest of my life and not tire of them. Others I’ve never liked and never will. Today, I most enjoyed playing those pieces which used to look too scary to me to even try, but now flow easily. While this is the result of several years of work, the benefit has mostly become evident only recently.

What I used to do, when things were going well, was pick something really hard to work on. Now, instead, I’m just going to keep playing.


Khatchaturian - “Ivan Sings”

Kabalevsky - “Slow Waltz” & “A Sad Story”

Tchaikovsky - “Italian Folk Song”

On Practice

There’s something about playing music every day.  Showing up every single day to see what you can do.  Why is it so hard? 

Discipline is hard.  We eat every day and sleep every day, but even these biological drives are difficult to regulate.  How much should we eat or sleep?  When?  For something like exercise, or practicing an instrument, or even flossing, there is an internal struggle – sometimes even an external one.  The child who shows up merrily to her piano lesson each week is the same one who was rolling around on the living room floor crying and declaring the piano her mortal enemy.  For me, as a professional, the practice issue gets confused with others.  Irrational fears come out: “What if I practice every day and still suck?”  Priorities and goals seem to bait-and-switch on me: “Why am I playing classical piano when I really need to practice original songs for my gig next week?  Maybe I should just play drums instead.  Or wash the dishes in the sink.” 

After years of struggle, I have come back to what worked for me when I was fifteen: playing songs.  Playing songs, every day.  There’s not much more to it than that (you can keep your scales and arpeggios, Mister). 

Yesterday I had a sick day.  I can’t be still when I’m home sick, so I played.  And played is really the word.  I tweaked a Maybelle Carter-style guitar solo I’d come up with for “Sinking in the Lonesome Sea.”  I worked out an intro for one of my original songs that I forgot about and didn’t play on Sunday.  What a great feeling, to rediscover a song of mine that I lost!  I knew I was working, and working hard, and practicing these parts over and over, but it felt like play because there was no deadline, no other agenda for the day, and no pressure.  It was like being a kid (one with a runny nose, very adept at rhythmic transcription). 

Today I was back at work to infect a number of children and adolescents with my summer cold virus and enthusiasm for music.  There were some nice moments at the K. house, working with a family of five kids who have an honest-to-goodness band.  Brandon had written a melody to which his brothers added a bassline, a drum groove, and a B-section featuring Shaun on alto sax.  It was really exciting to hear it come together – it is the first of many original compositions, I think. 

I wish some of my afternoon students could have seen what the K. family accomplished this morning.  Practice doesn’t seem like practice when you can enjoy the fruits so regularly and so immediately. 

Mia did really well today – I was so proud of her.  She’s been my student for nearly four years, which is almost half of her life since she just turned eight!  I always enjoy spending time with her.  She is working on a version of Guaraldi’s “Linus & Lucy” which is way above her level, but she keeps blowing my mind with her willingness to read the music carefully, count out loud, break things down into small sections, and, most importantly, keep going, always with a positive attitude.  Unfortunately, she has no motivation to play the piano when she’s at home.  She’d rather be, well, playing. 

I guess until “practicing” means “playing” in the same way that one says, “playing outside” or “playing baseball”, there’s no point in forcing the issue.  I suppose it’s my job to help them all get to that place of devotion and love, and I have a hunch that it’s by example.