New CD; new book!

Steve Cheseborough on Seattle "Blues To Do" TV (photo by Margene)

It’s out! The new CD, Fetch It! See reviews of it here and here.

You can order it through this site or through CD Baby, or pick it up at Music Millennium in Portland or at any of my public appearances (see calendar to find out when those are).

And look for the third edition of Blues Traveling: the Holy Sites of Delta Blues, at your local bookstore, or order a signed copy from me! Here is a recent review of the book.

My webmaster, Jim Cheseborough, and I are always working on this website. The new google calendar should be working fine. Email me for help with anything that isn’t working here — or just to talk about the blues anytime.

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Me on Oregon Art Beat 2008

Me on Oregon Art Beat
Originally published 1/24/2008

Well, it’s exciting to be featured on a TV program anytime but it’s totally thrilling when the program turns out so well:

http://http://www.opb.org/television/video/blues-musician-steve-cheseborough/
Check it out! My thanks and praise to Shawn Hutchinson and his crew for boiling down my life and work to a fine eight-minute piece.

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Mowing the lawn acoustically

I housesat for a friend for about a month this summer, and he had a grassy lawn and a push mower. (Grassy lawns are out of style in Portland, where the trend is to kill the grass and replace it with native, mostly edible, landscape, but my friend hasn’t quite got there yet. He does have a nice garden with a lot of berries, though!)
Friend advised me that I could borrow a power mower from neighbor if I didn’t feel like using the push mower. I vacillated…push mower is quieter, healthier for me and for the earth, simpler to use…but power mower gets it done quick and without so much effort. And as I vacillated days went by and grass grew longer, and the prospect of doing it by push mower seemed more daunting. Then it hit me: do it a little at a time! Mow for 20 minutes a day, a small patch. If it takes 10 days to get through the whole lawn, that’s fine. Start over at the beginning on the 11th day.
Sure enough, that system worked great. I got 20 minutes of exercise every day without totally exhausting myself trying to do the whole lawn. I didn’t use fossil fuels or annoy the neighbors with noise. And the grass got cut — acoustically!
Yes, when you play an acoustic instrument, you use your own muscle power, usually through hands, feet or breath, to make something vibrate — a piece of wood, metal or skin, usually. And it is such a powerful thing to do. You might think the opposite, that real power involves plugging your guitar into a big amp and playing really loud. Trouble is, then you’re just flipping a switch. Playing electric music is like catching a football in a video game. Playing acoustic music is catching a real football.
Mew York-based jazz musician Taylor Ho Bynum is on an “Acoustic Bicycle Tour” of the West Coast, playing concerts from Vancouver to Tijuana, solo or with local ensembles, traveling by bicycle (he flew to Vancouver to start, and will fly back to New York at the end, but the West Coast tour is by bicycle). I caught his show in Portland last night,with the Portland Creative Music Guild, and it was wonderful — the music and the tour concept. Bynum plays acoustic music, and he is traveling acoustically. “I see the entire trip as a kind of composition,” he says. He also noted that this way he gets to actually see the cities he plays in, and the spaces between them, instead of just seeing airports and hotel rooms.
So, whether you play music, mow lawns, grind coffee (the hand mills are fun and easy to use and leave the coffee oils undisturbed and more flavorful) or whatever, try doing it acoustically, of your own power. You will get exercise, conserve fossil fuels, reduce global warming, and have a better experience.

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The Three Ps

Practice, play, perform.
Those are pretty much the three ways to make music. And the words create different feelings in musicians or music students.
“Practicing” sounds like drudgery, delayed gratification. Doing something dull now so that you can do the exciting stuff later.
“Playing” sounds like fun, of course! Kids play all the time; grownups have to work much of the time but look forward to chances to play.
“Performing” sounds even more exciting — that’s what got you interested in music in the first place, hearing others perform. That’s what the big-name artists do, perform all the time. Performing might involve pay, applause, admiration and all that good stuff. But it also might sound scary: am I ready to perform? What if I screw up in front of all those people? What if they just don’t like me?
So let’s look more closely at these three Ps and see how they work together. A student was complaining about not finding time to practice, and another student suggested that the first book a gig or at least schedule a jam session or some kind of public show. “I only practice when I have a gig coming up,” the second student noted. That idea has some truth to it. That’s why I like to bring my students to an open mic every few months, so that they have something to practice for, a reason and a deadline to polish up a few songs for.
The trouble with that idea, though, is that you have to reach a certain level of competence — and you do that by practicing! — before you’ll be ready for any kind of public performance, even a jam session. And if you just start practicing a lot, lo and behold, you probably will start getting invited to more jams, you’ll develop the confidence to go to more open mics, you might even get asked to perform in other settings as people notice how good you are. So it’s really a better idea to just practice regularly whether you have an imminent gig or not.
Also, practice should be a meditation-like experience, a daily soul-nourishing and solitary activity that you look forward to and enjoy deeply. I am not joking! Meditation is a great analogy. You don’t meditate to prepare for anything, really, even though it might help you prepare for stressful life experiences. You do it for its own sake. Same with the runner. He might have a race coming up, and knows that today’s run is helping him get in shape for that. But he still enjoys today’s run. Practice with that kind of attitude and you will get to love practice, and by the way, you will become good (or better)! And just like the meditator or the runner, some days you will have to push yourself, even force yourself to practice. But after the first five or ten minutes you’ll be into it and enjoying that special time, just you and your instrument and the music flowing between you.
“Do you really think Hendrix practiced? Or Coltrane?” a musician who admits he doesn’t practice asked. Yes, I am sure they practiced constantly, morning and night. Such genius instrumentalists weren’t born that way. And didn’t just jump onto the stage. I’ve read that Hendrix even took his guitar into the bathroom when he had to go, because he liked the acoustics of that room. Coltrane reportedly had an oral fixation, and had his sax in mouth almost all the time. Earl Hooker was a dazzlingly inventive guitarist with a wonderful tone, a musician’s musician, generally considered the best Chicago blues guitarist. He was on the road touring most of the year, and the other musicians in his band watched TV or played cards in their free time. But Hooker did not watch TV or play cards, at all. All he did was practice. Is there any wonder that he is a legend and the other musicians are not?
I think the musician who said Hendrix and Coltrane didn’t practice meant they “played” instead of practicing. I’ve heard other musicians say, “Just play every day.” The idea is, if the word “practice” bothers you, just call it “play” and then you’ll do it. Well, sure, you can call it whatever you want. But you do have to practice! And it’s not the same thing as playing. If you ask me, “Play me a song,” I’ll play you something I know, and I’ll play it in a way I’ve mastered (through practice!). I could even ask myself to play a song, and do the same thing. And enjoy the playing and the sound. And sure, just playing the song I already know is enhancing my musical ability to some tiny extent — doing more for my music than, say, watching TV or playing cards. But it’s not going to lead to real improvement, any more than our marathon runner will improve by taking a walk around the block. No, if I want to improve — and I do! And I hope you do too! — then I have to isolate the parts that I have trouble with, and play them slowly and repeatedly until they become easy to me. Or break a new piece down, perhaps with the help of a teacher, into component parts and work on each one and then fit them together. (This is a very brief description of how to practice — there are books on the subject, and if you’re my student I can help you with it, but this is the basic idea, break it down and work slowly on the parts and then fit them together.) This is very different from “playing” or “performing.” But it works. Very well. And it can be enjoyable, very enjoyable, deeply satisfying even. Digging soil and planting seeds also are enjoyable and satisfying to a gardener. You probably don’t tell your gardener friend “Don’t garden. Just eat the food.” So don’t tell your musician friend, or your musician self to “just play” instead of practicing!

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The Mob Museum

Another trip to Vegas. Didn’t do well at the poker tables, but that’s another story. I visited the Mob Museum in downtown Vegas, and I enjoyed it and recommend it. (Stop at Banger Brewing for a beer afterward, and at Pizza Rocks for a slice — downtown Vegas is so much hipper than the strip!)
The Mob Museum shows that even though the Mafia and other U.S. gangs came of age during Prohibition, and later moved into gambling, those are by no means their only businesses. The mob is interested in money. It goes where the money is — liquor was very lucrative during Prohibition, and gambling was very lucrative during the early decades of Las Vegas. But the mob also has been involved in Hollywood, labor unions, importing, drugs, etc. Wherever there is money to be made without having to do much actual work to get it (violence and intimidation and bribing officials are fairly easy once you’re experienced), that’s where the mob goes.
I found the earlier parts of the museum, about the rise and workings of the mob, more interesting than the later parts, about the investigation and dismantling of the gangs. But yes, organized crime has been more or less tamed in this country. And some people lament that and romanticize the gangster era, the museum points out. Some Las Vegas residents say the casinos ran smoothly and were more fun when the gangsters ran them. What’s wrong with that idea? The museum says the mob took profits out of the community, only to enrich the mobsters. Some of the proceeds went back into the businesses, but since the mobs avoided paying taxes, their success didn’t help the larger society the way legitimate business supposedly does.
But I immediately was struck by the similarity, not the difference, between the mobs and the corporations that now run the casinos (and everything else). The corporations also evade taxes (and have been increasingly successful at that in recent decades). The corporations also bribe public officials to get their way. They also resort to violence, in subtle but extreme ways, getting the police or even the U.S. military to help them achieve their goals whenever necessary. They don’t give anything back to the community unless they have to, slashing workers’ pay and jobs whenever it is expedient. Basically they are the same as the mobs, except bigger, better financed and more efficient. Like the mob, the corporations also are a “shadow government,” unelected but with great power over ordinary citizens.
We can only hope that someday soon the corporations will be dismantled and put into a museum as one of the interesting evils of the past.

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Nickel strings on nickel-plated guitar?

It sure sounded like a match made in heaven, nickel strings on my nickel-plated National. But after trying them, I am going back to the Gore-Tex-coated bronze ones! I know, I’m a traditionalist about a lot of things, but as my buddy Blind Boy Paxton says, “Sometimes the new things are better.” He’s the one who persuaded me to go back to using a wound third string on my parlor. Mostly by laughing at the strange quacking sound the unwound third was making.
I still have nickel strings on that parlor, though! And if you’re going for old-style authenticity, I encourage you to try them. On any guitar. Even a National.
That’s what all our guitar heroes of the prewar era would have used.
Until bronze strings became popular sometime in the 1960s, nickel strings were what all “steel” string sets were. We’re really talking about the wound strings here, the 6th, 5th and 4th, and maybe the 3rd, unless you use an unwound third. The metal they are wound with is usually some kind of bronze these days. Phosphor bronze is what you most commonly find in stores, although I have never cared for the superbright sound of those. You can also find white bronze, 80/20 bronze etc. The unwound strings up top are just plain steel, I believe that’s the same in almost any set of metal strings, even if you get coated strings. The bronze wrapping, and the coating, is only on the wound strings. The high strings are still plain steel.
So nickel strings have nickel wraps on those wound strings. I’m not one to change strings at all very often, much less string types. But since I got that new, old-fashioned parlor guitar recently I started experimenting with different strings on it. And I tried nickel and I really like it.
I wouldn’t say they instantly make me sound like an old 78 (that probably has more to do with the guitar and how you play it) but they do sound different. It’s hard to describe the difference — string companies typically promote their strings as “bright” and “warm,” which I think are opposites when it comes to string sound! These nickels probably are more toward warm and away from bright. But it’ll probably be different as they age, and certainly will be different on different guitars.
They do look cool, I think. And, perhaps most importantly, they are easier to play! Nickel strings have less tension than bronze strings. So you use less (left) hand strength. And you might want to try a heavier gauge than you usually use. (That might cancel out the difference in tension, but it might give you a better sound.)
If you want to try them, look for electric-guitar strings. Yes, I’m talking about putting “electric” strings on your acoustic. Most of the nickel strings now available are sold as electric-guitar strings: DR Pure Blues and D’Addario Pure Nickel Jazz are two such brands. And yes, they do work on acoustic guitars and no, you don’t have to plug them in (although I suspect they would sound great with a pickup)!

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Blues and brews at the Dude Ranch

I had heard (from Upright brewer/owner Alex Ganum) that there had once been a jazz club on the site of his brewery, where I play on Sunday afternoons. Alex was tickled to find out about the club, because he is a huge jazz fan. In fact the name of his brewery, Upright, is a tribute to the upright bass, an instrument Alex loves, especially as played by Charlie Mingus. You may have noticed the bass clef on Upright tap handles and bottles. And you might also have tasted Monk & Mingus, which Alex brews annually for the Cheers to Belgian Beers festival.

Of course I also was delighted to find out that there had been live jazz in the building (now called the Leftbank Building, 240 N Broadway), since I carry on the tradition by playing live blues in the basement every Sunday. And I am even more delighted now that I’ve found out more details, from reading Jumptown: the Golden Years of Portland Jazz 1942-1957 by Robert Dietsche.

The club in the building was called the Dude Ranch, and here is how Dietsche describes it: “There never was and there never will be anything quite like the Dude Ranch. It was the Cotton Club, the Apollo Theater, Las Vegas, the Wild West rolled into one. It was the shooting star in the history of Portland jazz…”
Apparently the building started as a hazelnut ice cream factory (!) in 1908, then became a speakeasy in the ’20s. It was the Dude Ranch 1945-46. Among the shows was Norman Granz’ traveling Jazz at the Philharmonic, featuring Thelonious Monk (and Roy Eldridge, Helen Humes, Meade Lux Lewis, Coleman Hawkins et al, playing together in various combinations). So Monk, one of the two jazzmen commemorated in Upright’s Monk & Mingus, actually did play in the building!
Besides being the hottest club, it also is significant now for being the ONLY remnant, sadly, of that scene. Everything else was bulldozed for the freeways, Rose Garden, hospital etc.

So…come celebrate Portland history while sipping fabulous beers and hearing old-style blues, 3:30-5:30 p.m. Sundays at Upright Brewing, in the basement of the Leftbank Building, 240 N. Broadway.

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Guide to Portland Waterfront Blues Festival 2012

Portland Waterfront Blues Festival, coming up July 4-8, is one of the world’s biggest blues festivals. It also is the biggest annual event in Portland — an interesting idea, for any city’s big party to be a blues festival, and especially a Pacific Northwest city without a blues tradition of its own.

First let me tell you about my own involvement in this year’s fest. I will NOT be stage-managing or emceeing the Workshop Stage this year. I had fun doing it last year. It was great to see a lot of friends and fans, and make new ones, there. And I enjoyed introducing and interacting with all the great acts that performed there. But unfortunately I will not be doing that job again this year.

I WILL perform at the fest. My slot is 3:45-4:30 p.m. July 5, on the FedEx Crossroads Stage (that is the stage that used to be the Workshop Stage — it is being renamed, relocated and restaffed). My program is called “Myth and Reality of the Crossroads” to christen the new stage. I’ll talk about what Robert Johnson and Tommy Johnson did or didn’t do at the Crossroads, where the Crossroads might actually be, what it means, etc., and sing relevant songs…or as much music and chatter as I can pack in in 45 minutes! Come on by.

Here are some other acts I recommend you check out this year:

  • Toots and the Maytals — the great Jamaican soul and reggae singer graces our festival.
  • Arthur Moore Harmonica Hoedown — Local harpist/teacher Moore invites anyone with a harp to come up and play a solo!
  • Goodfoot Allstars’ Tribute to James Brown — I haven’t heard this act, but it’s hard to go wrong with good musicians playing the Brown soundbook. JB was not just a great singer and entertainer — he was a great songwriter as well.
  • James Cotton Harmonica Workshop — This is not a how-to workshop, but the veteran harpman (who has worked with Muddy and Wolf)  talking about his life and music and showing us how it’s done. He also blows with Elvin Bishop later that night (July 6).
  • Zydeco — Stop by the Front Porch Stage to check out topnotch zydeco acts playing over several days. Includes dance demonstrations and lessons, and plenty of room to dance.
  • Lloyd Jones Big Band — Jones sounds great whether solo or with any kind of group. Here’s a chance to hear what he can do with his own big band.
  • Bobby Rush — This ageless chittlin-circuit performer has so much fun joking about his sexual prowess, admiring his lovely and flexible dancers of various sizes, doing some acrobatics of his own, and singing with a crackerjack blues-soul-rock band backing, that you will have a great time too. He performs with the band and dancers on the Miller Stage on July 7, then probably solo (he plays guitar and harmonica) on the Crossroads Stage on July 8. Both shows should be terrific, and very different from each other.
  • Otis Taylor and Don Vappie — The banjo came over from West Africa with the slaves, then became the quintessential white country instrument in America. In recent years it has been reclaimed by black players of blues, pre-blues and old-time, including Taylor, who sometimes plugs in and  veers into rock. His pairing with New Orleans jazz banjoist Don Vappie on the Crossroads Stage on July 7 should be acoustic and interesting. They also play together earlier that day on the First Tech Stage, joined by Portland banjo virtuoso Tony Furtado.
  • Cedric Burnside — This wunderkind is a grandson of the great North Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside. And he is not just trading on the name. Playing as a young teenager with his granddad, Cedric quickly distinguished himself as a killer drummer, and became sought after by various acts in and out of the blues. Cedric went into singing and songwriting, while still drumming, in a duo with Lightnin’ Malcolm. He has since taken up the guitar. He plays three times at this festival, and it could be something different each time.

OK, folks, that’s my advice. Make sure to bring $10 and two cans of food per day (the festival benefits Oregon Food Bank) and extra money for beer, food and Empty Bowls (handmade bowls that further benefit the food bank). See you out there!

 

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Vegas good and bad

OK, this post has nothing to do with the blues.

I traveled to Las Vegas recently to compete in a big poker tournament. After failing to cash in the tournament, I was feeling — OK, blue — and started getting annoyed by a lot of things about Vegas. But as the sting of losing wore off I started realizing there are many wonderful things about that city, too. So here is my list of what’s good and bad about Vegas, and why.

  1. Bad — The car-centrism. Yes, I live in Portland, the least car-centric U.S. city. But come on, Vegas is absurdly at the extreme opposite pole. And it shouldn’t be! Its main activities — gambling, shopping, sightseeing, eating and drinking — are all pedestrian-oriented. There are throngs of people walking around. But the city sure doesn’t make it easy.
  2. Good — The buses. Yes, Vegas does have public transportation. And the buses are great! Double deckers, so you can sit up top and see the sights. Air conditioned. With video and audio to help you find your destination. With helpful drivers in case the video and audio isn’t enough. And bike racks. The prices are reasonable enough (consider the two-hour and 24-hour ticket options before paying for a single trip) and here’s a tip: all the other lines are cheaper than the Deuce, which runs on the Strip and therefore caters mostly to tourists. So buy your 24-hour ticket on another line –it still works on the Deuce.
  3. OK/Bad — The monorail. Well, it is fun and futuristic to ride, and it gets you places faster than the bus. Faster than walking or driving too. But the trouble is, they set it up to only go among  Strip hotels. To be truly useful to passengers, they should have extended it to go downtown and to the airport. But, probably to benefit the cabbies, they didn’t. Another problem is that it is expensive to ride, and you can’t transfer from monorail to bus without buying another ticket. And the monorail stations are few and far between, and located way at the back of the casinos. So there often is a long walk involved. But if you are staying at a hotel that has a monorail stop, and you plan to travel around to other hotels that also have (or are near) stops, then consider getting a multi-day pass.
  4. Bad/OK — The gambling. Well, bad if you spend hours sitting in front of a slot machine. Bad if you play most of the games expecting to win. OK if you budget a certain amount of money for gambling as entertainment, have a great time while gambling, and then quit, thoroughly savoring the win or shrugging off the loss. You can be a consistent winner at blackjack, but only if you learn and practice a card-counting system and avoid detection by the authorities — which takes more time and effort than you probably are willing to make. But there is another game that you might win at…
  5. Good — Poker. Unlike every other casino game, in poker you are NOT playing against the house. The house charges a fee to run the game, but you are playing against other regular players. And some of those players are going to win. Not every Vegas casino has a poker room (it is not a big profit-maker for the casino, which is another clue that this is what you should be playing). But there are many choices of games and stakes, tournaments and cash games, the ever-popular Texas Hold ‘Em and other variants. If you are a decent poker player back home, don’t be afraid to try it in Vegas. Yes, you might run into some local hustlers who can outplay you. But you also might run into clueless tourists who only play once a year and have plenty of money to throw around.
  6. Bad — The sleaze. Sure, every city has strip clubs, prostitution, drag shows, etc. But it is so much more upfront in Vegas, the self-described Sin City. Mobile billboards and handbill pushers offer girls for hire. Even the regular shows in casinos, for mainstream audiences, often feature nudity, transvestitism, simulated sex etc., and proclaim it in ads you have to look at while riding the elevator. I’m not a prude, but would prefer they keep all this stuff a little more under wraps.
  7. Good — Public art, architecture and spectacle. A Henry Moore sculpture. Lion and dolphin habitats. Old neon signs. New neon signs. Dancing fountains. Amazing buildings. You get to see all this kind of stuff, free of charge, as you walk around.
  8. Bad — Scarcity of water. You almost never see a drinking fountain! And the casino bathrooms have only warm-water taps! This is in a desert. I consider this inhumane, almost criminal. So make sure to carry a water bottle, and refill it in your room and any other time you do find a fountain or cold tap. Buy water whenever you need to, even if you never do that at home. Make sure to stay hydrated, especially if you are doing a lot of walking or drinking alcohol.
  9. Good — Free drinks. They are stingy with the water, but not with the booze. While playing any casino game, including slots or poker, just ask a cocktail waitress to bring you whatever you want. Yes, you can ask for water. But the trouble is, the standard $1 tip makes it a high price for water, albeit a great price for beer, wine or liquor.
  10. Bad — Deliberate inconvenience. The casinos are set up so that you have long, confusing walks to get to the bathrooms, restaurants, exits etc. They want you to spend maximum time on the casino floor, where you might be tempted to gamble some more. OK, that is understandable. But it seems like they have further developed that premise to where they try to screw their own customers any way they can. The Rio, for example, where I recently stayed, would not let me use a luggage cart to bring in my own luggage. I had to let a bellhop do that, and tip him. The Rio also has a fitness center, which you might assume would be free for guests to use. No. There is an additional $22/day charge to use it. There is a similar charge for guests to use wi-fi. And there are ATM charges! Casinos charge you to use ATMs, so that you can withdraw money to gamble at their tables and machines. And I don’t think the Rio, part of the Caesars group of hotels, is any different from other hotels in that group or out of that group, in this regard.
  11. Good — People-watching. The sunny weather, pervasive sleaze, fun atmosphere, sight of the skimpily dressed cocktail waitresses, all  must combine somehow to bring out the inner showgirl in many women who visit Vegas. Women of all ages, shapes and sizes, many of whom I’m sure don’t dress that way back home, sure strut their stuff while they’re here.
  12. Bad — The shows. At least the few I’ve seen. Corny and not worth the ticket price unless you get them free or discounted.
  13. Good — The live music. The musicians in those shows are generally great. So are the musicians playing free in the hotel lounges and bars — jazz, rock, R&B, whatever, all terrific. I also have heard some terrific acts busking on the sidewalks. I guess Vegas attracts good musicians.
  14. Good — The Asian restaurants. I’m talking about the ones outside the casinos. There are wonderful little inexpensive Asian restaurants of every stripe, many in strip malls that contain four or five different ones, all vying for your attention. Many of these strip malls are very close to the Strip or downtown. So even if you don’t have a rental car, just get in a cab or bus and go out to eat.
  15. Good — The service. Sure, you can get bad service in Vegas. Please don’t write me with your horror stories, I believe you. But I also believe that in general, the level of service is much higher than in most cities, because you are usually dealing with professional servers, shopclerks, bellhops, dealers etc. in Vegas, in contrast with other cities where such jobs are usually filled by college students or artists who don’t want you to get the idea they actually care enough to do a good job.
  16. Good — Buffets.  I know, a sophisticate like me or you wouldn’t normally go near a buffet. But the ones at the casinos include plenty of delicious and healthy stuff, like salads and seafood, that might be hard to find in the other casino restaurants. And you can get discounted or free meals by using….
  17. Good — Comps. The casinos actually pay you for gambling! Even for playing poker, which is the only game you should be playing (see above). Less for poker, but it still might add up to a free or half-price buffet after a session. Most casinos have players’ cards, make sure to enroll in their systems and hand the card to the dealer as soon as you sit down. Then when you go to the restaurant use the credit on the card (or get more credit on it for paying of a meal, or a gift-shop purchase). Others, like the Golden Nugget, will just hand you a food voucher after you’ve been playing for awhile.
  18. Good — Main Street Station. I don’t have any financial interest in promoting this little gem. But I can’t understand why it is never crowded. It is an old-fashioned downtown casino with a spectactular chandeliered ceiling, old-style architecture and ambiance, a piece of the Berlin Wall in the men’s bathroom, and above all, a great in-house brewery that impresses even Portland-resident me! Great beer prices, too. And if you’re hungry, ask for the saimin soup, which for some reason is not on the menu but is good and a good deal. If only this place had a poker room I’d never leave.

OK, I think that’s enough about Vegas. See, the goods outnumber the bads, in this casual account. So consider going, and let me know how it goes. Have fun and good luck!

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Yawning as warmup

Go ahead and yawn. Do it a few times.  Feels good, eh?

People often try to hold back or cover up their yawns as they would with belches. Don’t be shy about yawning! It is good for you (maybe belches are too but we’ll leave that for another discussion).

Recent medical research shows that yawning is a natural antidepressant that reduces the reuptake of serotonin. And it also seems to help transition the brain from one state to another, e.g., waking to sleeping or vice versa.

But I am recommending here as a warmup for musical activity, especially singing. And as a general relaxation technique.

I did not discover this idea on my own — I give full credit to Kim Scanlon, a wonderful singer and singing teacher whom I met at a music workshop a few years ago. I spent way too little time with her, but I did spend enough to learn a little about yawning, which I use regularly. I am not an expert on yawning, but since I don’t see any websites or books on the subject by Kim or anyone else, I will explain how I use it and recommend you experiment with it and let me know how it goes.

The first thing is just to do it, to yawn, fully and repeatedly, without trying to hold back or cover your mouth or apologize for it. If you are new at this, try it in private at first. But eventually you will find that it is fine to yawn when people are watching. Unless you are in the front row at a lecture, or someone is pouring out her heart to you tete-a-tete, no one will be offended by your yawns. It might even get the watchers yawning (as we all know, seeing a yawn often leads to yawning), which, as you will know well by then, is very good for them! So spread those yawns around.

Yawn, and then yawn again. And again. At first you might have to make yourself yawn, but after the first couple you’ll be in the groove and the yawns will be natural and flowing. You may stretch your arms up and out if you like. Or just focus on your face and throat. All the myriad muscles in those areas will get stretched and relaxed. Keep yawning. Yawn for three to five minutes straight, or longer if you like. To avoid boredom, try different styles of yawn: eyes closed or open. Lips closed. Mouth closed. Yawn while smiling. Yawn with tongue curled up and then curled down. Yawn on one side only, and then on the other side. Pucker your lips and yawn. Curl your lips in and yawn again. Make up your own yawns. Have a yawning session with your friends, family or bandmates, and show one other different yawns to try.

How are you feeling? Guess what — those face, cheek, jaw, throat and tongue muscles you’ve stretched and relaxed are just what you use in singing. Your eyes may have teared, giving them a nice wash (without sadness). Your breathing has slowed down and your mind is calm — what a great preparation for singing and playing, for performing, for a competition of any sort, for public speaking, for any stressful situation.

 

 

 

 

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Getting the lyrics

After reading my last post about the importance of listening (and avoiding visual stimulation that distracts you from listening), one student apologized for having asked for the lyrics to a song. True, reading lyrics is a nonmusical activity. That’s why I stopped handing out lyrics before playing the recording of a song we’re about to work on in class — reading the lyrics is different from listening to a song, and you can’t really do both at the same time.

However, if you are going to learn to sing and play a song, you do need to learn the lyrics. And I do think having them in written or printed form is an essential step (before memorizing them, which I recommend doing well before performing the song).

So — how does one get the lyrics? Your first impulse is probably to do what you do when you are seeking most other forms of information these days: go online and google.  There are several major problems with this approach, however. First, the obscure blues songs we tend to work on in class might not have been transcribed and posted online. Second, even if you do find a transcription, it is likely to be grossly incorrect. And trying a different website probably won’t help, since websites tend to just lift from each other. The same error will appear all over the internet.

Note my use of the word “transcription” there. The lyrics do not exist in some pristine form that the songwriter typed out and filed away in a vault, and then were transferred to the internet for your convenience. No. The lyrics exist ONLY on the recording. If you find a rendering of the lyrics online, or in my collection, or in a book or sheet music, it is just that — a rendering, a transcription that some listener did by sitting down and writing what he heard or thought he heard. And in the case of 1920s blues recordings, with their hiss, scratches, archaic slang, regional accents, weird voices and muddy mono mixes, what the listener thought he heard is often very far from what the singer actually said! Why trust some stranger’s ears more than your own? You are experienced at listening to these old records and getting more experienced every day. Dig in! Even if you find a somewhat close-sounding transcription online, or if you get one from me or elsewhere, just use that as a starting point. Listen closely to the recording, stopping and starting often, and make corrections to the lyrics until you have a written document that matches what you hear. This process of repeated, hard listening will help you learn not only the lyrics, but how to sing them. And how to play the instrumental part. It will start to sink in and you might even have fun doing it.

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Seeing, hearing, playing music

A lot of my music students seem obsessed with seeing. They want to SEE if they are in tune, by checking an electronic tuner, rather than listening. They want to SEE the CD cover or lyrics to the new song we are working on, rather than listening to the recording as it plays. Perhaps worst of all, they want to see their own hands. They stare almost continuously at their left hands, trying to SEE if they are playing the same notes they think they SEE in their occasional glances at the teacher. Sometimes this results in almost humorous exchanges when someone asks “Am I playing this right?” His hands look like they are doing the same thing as the teacher’s, so he must be playing it right, right? Even though the sounds is he is making sound nothing like what the teacher is making.

Music is sound. Playing music involves the ears, and it involves the muscles (of the hands and arms for a stringed instrument, the diaphragm and vocal apparatus for singing). It does not involve the eyes. Oh, sure, the eyes might help you find where you set your harmonica, help you read the notes you wrote about last week’s lesson, etc. But do they help you play? No. Not at all. Blind people have no disadvantage as musicians. (They might have an advantage, but they certainly have no disadvantage.) Actually if your eyes help you during a lesson they are to see what the teacher is doing. So quit gluing them to your own left hand!

Vision is our primary sense for getting through the world. We freak out, quite reasonably, if the headlights go out while we’re driving at night; or if the lights go out in the house, or even if we can’t find our glasses, when we get up for a glass of water in the night. We like a nice bright unblinking light coming from our computer screen, and overhead when we sit down to read. So when we play music, especially when learning new material that you are not yet comfortable with, it might seem reassuring to have a light on and the eyes open wide, for safety.

But let’s think about another category of activities, the ones we close our eyes, dim the lights or turn them off for: Sleeping. Meditating. Making love. Eating a nice meal (some trendy restaurants even feature dining in total darkness). Getting a massage. In all these cases we want to turn off or at least turn down our vision, and get in touch with another sense or with our inner selves.

So let’s put playing music in that category, if you haven’t already. Try practicing in the dark or wearing a blindfold. Really. Listen hard to to every note you make. Practice something simple, and play it for a long time, and listen, trying to improve the sound. Keep that same quality when you play something more difficult, and when the lights are on. Great musicians listen harder and deeper than you. But you can improve by working on that. And relax and enjoy it! Notice that all those dim-lights activities above are relaxing and sensual, not intellectual. Guess what? So is music.

So when I frown about your watching music videos online, or visiting music-related websites, it’s not just that the quality of information online is often bad. Mainly it’s that those activities are vision-centric. Watching a screen pulls you out of the auditory world, which is where music lies. So listen to a recording instead. And when you sit down to tune, leave the electronic tuner alone. (They aren’t so accurate anyway, and it is so hard to overrule them when the damn light is showing you it’s right, even when your ears tell you differently.) Take your time, so what if it takes longer to tune. You will be forging the links between your ears and your instrument, your ears and your fingers, your fingers and the sound, the sound and your head. You might even come to enjoy tuning — it just feels great to hear those slightly-off vibrations, and guide them until they ring true. And once you get to enjoy tuning — boy, will you love playing!

 

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