To leap across a chasm in several systematic steps

When I was a kid, we had to do the President's Challenge for physical fitness. I failed every time, because I could not do a pull-up. Every year, I would watch the little monkeys in my class who could do a bunch in a row, and then I would get up there and struggle mightily while the P.E. teacher would say something like, "I think you" and make a note on my sheet.

I wished to avoid this humiliating display in the future, but I had no idea how. Every so often, I would go out to my swingset int the backyard and hang until my shoulders felt like they were going to pull out of their sockets, but I never could do a single pull-up.

I think of this when I have a student who requests to learn a piece well beyond their ability level. I think an exciting, challenging piece can be a great motivator, but there is a point where a piece can be so difficult it is truly inaccessible for the time being. The student will try and try, like I did with my hopeless backyard strength training, and get no return.

What's the alternative? Systematically breaking it down (yes, sorry, sometimes you have to be a geek if you want to do a thing well). Unfortunately, when I was a kid we did not have the Internet, but if we had, I would have been able to research pull-ups to learn how to do them, including ways to make them easier. I could learn about the muscles used in pull-ups, and create a plan for building strength in those muscles. I might also acknowledge that overall upper body weakness is an issue for me, and create a complete plan for strength training with the help of a personal trainer.

Maybe, after six months of focused, targeted, and carefully sequenced training I would do a pull-up on the first try. From there, I would finally build up the number of reps I could do in a row.

By contrast, I could take those same six months and spend a few minutes every day trying to do a pull-up to no avail. I strongly doubt I would be able to do a pull-up after six months of that, for two reasons: One, I wouldn't even get to the point where the correct muscles were supporting my body weight; and two, I would probably get bored and frustrated and quit three days into it.

So, back to the musical example. Usually, students have great intuition about which pieces are right for them to learn. But occasionally, not. "I want to learn 'Cliffs of Dover' because it's my favorite song on Guitar Hero." Okay, fine. Go ahead and download the bazillion-page tab and set about learning it. Learn a tiny lick every day. If you don't go mad in frustration within the first ten minutes, after six months you might be able to play the whole thing (if I painstakingly show you how to play every note that you can't figure out on your own).

On the other hand, you could spend those same six months learning fifty easier songs that use similar skills and a similar vocabulary. You can build fluency, speed, and technique while improving your musical ear and your reading skills.

After six months have passed, you may well be able to pick up most of "Cliffs of Dover" by yourself in just a week or two. You might not even need the tab for very much of it, because your fingers will "hear" different parts of the song and automatically go where they belong as a result of playing so much. Because in the process, you learned fifty other songs. You learned how to play the guitar, not just "Cliffs of Dover."

They say you must leap across a chasm in a single, dramatic, all-in move. Or you could go to school, become a civil engineer, and design a bridge that will enable you to easily walk across. The first way only works if it works, and most of the time it doesn't. The second way is built to work every time. Not as daring, but you'll get there in the end.

Where are you attempting with no visible progress? Is there an intermediate benchmark you could be striving for, or a more systematic way to achieve your goal?

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)

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”


I had one of my best gigs ever last night. I had a really good time, and I think it showed.

I spent the early part of the day doing some practicing – as opposed to playing. It was not a joyful act. I thought I had changed, but there I was on gig day falling back into the same old patterns. I felt pressured to do better than I had in the past, to succeed, to push myself, to perform new songs, to impress; I ended up feeling inadequate and bored.

I decided to take a break and go play in the yard. I noticed a few mulberry trees a little over a foot high around the south side of the house, growing fast and distinguishing themselves from the rest of the weeds. I decided to transplant them along the back fence, where someday they might help to cover up the view of the apartment building behind my house and provide a little more privacy.

As I worked, my mind continued to sing the songs I had been working on. Sometimes the singing in my mind spilled out of my mouth. I had a pleasant time in the ninety-five-degree heat – that’s what singing is for.

I went back inside and puttered around the house. I thought about why I signed up to play at Limerick Junction on a Sunday evening, for free, in the first place. I guess because as a musician, it’s my job to play music for people – whether I want to or not, sometimes. In the past, I’ve always been glad I did it – I meet new people, I get out of my comfort zone, I stay in the game, I try out new songs.

I came back to an idea that’s worked for me in the past: instead of thinking I had to come up with some amazing, epic set, I should just sing a bunch of songs. Songs I happen to feel like singing tonight. Songs I like, some of which I wrote. No pressure, no epic statement: simply transmitting the joy of making music.

So that’s what I did. I went upstairs to the guitar and played this time – refreshing my memory on a few things and tweaking others. And then I got ready to go, and went, and just got up there and did it.

And while I was onstage, I remembered another reason I perform: because the audience makes me able to do things I didn’t know I could do, or didn’t know I would do. I surprise myself. It’s an exciting collaboration.

Feeling at the top of my game, I decided last night that I would wake up early this morning to play. I did it, and I think I’m going to do it again tomorrow. I memorized a Schumann piece, reviewed some Scarlatti, and learned the intro to “Martha My Dear.”

There’s a freshness and ease to my musicanship lately which is showing up in my playing, practicing, performing, and teaching: I am inhabiting the world of songs. It doesn’t matter what instrument it’s on or what era it’s from or whether I wrote it or not – whatever song I am working on, I want to get wrapped up in it. It may seem an insignificant concept, but it took me eight years to get to this point. And this is where I’m going to live from now on.