Keeping Your Ego Out Of The Song’s Way

Hey everyone.

A quick update before the post.  Just as an FYI – the podcast isn’t dead but with a number of recent time crunches and an unstable recording environment for a while recording opportunities have been non-existant.  There will definitely be more (less apologetic)  posts in the future.

Glenn Branca Ensemble at Berlin Atonal (Photo taken from Berlin Atonal FB page)

Glenn Branca Ensemble at Berlin Atonal (Photo taken from Berlin Atonal FB page)

Meantime back at the ranch –  I just got home from some shows in the UK and Germany and doing any type of touring always makes me a little introspective and makes me think back to this post that was originally posted on guitArchitecture.  It’s interesting playing shows with someone like Glenn Branca because you’re surrendering to the composer’s vision and doing your best to execute it.  It’s a mind set “classical” players live in constantly but it can be a strange one for an improvising artist.

Letting the song sing

One of my more esoteric laptop guitar gigs with Mark Trayle and Ulrich Krieger is up on SoundCloud.

My rig is essentially the same as before:

Guitar (8 string Omen) –> Duet Break out box–>Duet–>Laptop (w. usb Line 6 shortboard)–>AU LAB (w. SooperLooper and PODFarm)–>18 Watt atomic amp.  My favorite tech comment came from Mark, “Wow I just realized that your entire rig is on the lectern.  That’s pretty cool…”

Gigs like this are a little strange for me as multi-layered looping, manipulating and mixing typically involves a lot more editing than actual playing, but a big part of a situation like this involves keeping your ego out of the music’s way and making sure that you serve the song.

The Obligatory Experiential Example

Once I saw a gig at the House of Blues with Shawn Lane, Jonas Hellborg and Apartment Q258.  I was really excited to see the show and the first set was a  cool improv.  I was blown away at the hairpin turns that Hellborg and Q258 were taking, but at the 40 minute point or so – it looked like it was going to wrap up, and I guess Shawn hadn’t played enough – because he pulled out a 15-20 minute guitar solo.  While I love Shawn’s playing, I was looking at my watch by the six minute point.  It was so over the top that I left before the set was done.  It was just too much, had nothing to do with the spirit of the piece and just had too much to do with him showing us how well he could play.

About a year later I saw one of the strangest lineups I could remember:  Buckethead (with bass, drums and DJ) and Lane/Hellborg/Q258 opening for The Jazz Mandolin Project.  Initially, my thought was, “oh no not this again” but this time Lane was playing tunes.  The group played 3-4 tunes with open sections.  Everyone was playing in service to the song and there aren’t three people on the planet that could have played that set that night better than they did.  Jazz mandolin project got crushed but to be fair, I felt bad for any band that had to go on after Buckethead and Lane that night.

Which kind of musician are you?

Essentially there are two types of musicians that I’ve met in my travels:

  • there are people who play instruments to play music
  • and then there are those who play music to play their instruments.

As a related example, please allow me to explain…

Why Some Academic Jazz bugs me…

When I went to Berklee, there was an overarching theme that ran through many of the jazz recitals I saw:

  • Get through the head as quickly as possible
  • breathe a sigh of relief that that’s done because now the “real” music can happen (solos)

If you hate the head so much, why even play it?  Why not eliminate the song form entirely?

It’s because people are taught that the real music comes from their melodic/harmonic voice rather than emphasizing that it’s their voice in service to a context, be that a song form, a dialog with other players, or a specific audience/performance situation.

It’s a big part of why I never played jazz.  When studying it, I quickly realized that I just didn’t dig a lot of the real book tunes.  What I dug were specific players and those players always play the song and not the instrument – be it Ornette, or Monk or Bill Frisell.   It’s the combination of the players and the material that got to me.  I’m much more open about jazz now but that concept of the tune as a necessary evil is abhorrent to me.

For the players out there, on gigs like the one I posted, there are plenty of moments where I have to resist the urge to overplay and what follows are several techniques I use in that service, but for non players I use some of these approaches  in conversation as well.

1.  Pause and take a breath.  After that breath, do I still need to play/say what I want to play/say?  If the urgency is still there – then I play it.  90% of the time it probably isn’t.

2.  Play only when I exhale.  Sometimes I’ll talk or sing while I’m playing as well.  Sometimes that has nothing to do with the notes coming out of my guitar – but it’s about an interactive conversation.  And I want to make sure that everyone else speaks as well.

3.  Overplay and then regret it later.

Here’s another way to think about it.  You can work out consistently and build up huge muscles but you only need the muscles of a baby to pet a cat and if you handle a cat with the same force that you lift weights, you’ll probably kill it.

Just because you can play a million notes doesn’t mean that a million notes are going to work in every situation, but if you have the ability to play a million notes in your pocket you can pull it out when you need to.

In other words, your strength may not help you in petting a cat – but it may be the thing that keeps you alive when a book case falls on you.  Context may not everything but it’s a whole lot of something to consider.

Playing with good people is 1/2 the battle

Fortunately, Mark and Ulrich are such incredible musicians that it set the tone for the performance.  I knew that whatever they did would be great and that all I had to do was help mark the path and stay out-of-the-way when necessary.  I’m really fortunate that I’ve been able to play with people like Vinny Golia who are at such a stunning level that it’s going to bring me up a little just by sheer gravitational talent pull (and more likely to get my performance up by kicking my ass into gear to get with the program.)

The laptop/looping things I do are really different from many of the other contexts I play in but I enjoy them immensely and hopefully other people will as well.  Here’s hoping we see some official collins/krieger/trayle recordings in the future.

Thanks for reading!

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ps – If you like this post, you may like the kindle ebooks I have for sale on Amazon.

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“Embrace The Scariness”

Let’s say you want to get something done.

Fear can either kill your project or kick it into gear.

But what effect it has largely depends on how you view it.

Some fear is healthy.  Standing on the ledge of a building might invoke the kind of fear that is razor sharp and puts all of you senses on overdrive.  That kind of fear – the fear of survival – can be a healthy and reasonable fear.

The other fear – the fear of failure or the fear of the unknown – can kill you.  Fear of failure can kill your dreams and sap whatever inertia you might have built up in seeing your project to fruition.

Failing to do anything is infinitely worse than failing to succeed.

When I moved to NY, I left a secure gig and a lot of leads for future work,  but I left because my wife was already living there there and that was the priority.

In the middle of a particularly arduous moment in the relocation, my dear friend Lulu offered me the best advice I’d ever gotten. “Embrace the scariness. It will keep you sharp. And once you are here, work will come.”   And even when the work didn’t come right away  I didn’t die.  Life moved on and I moved with it.

Here’s a hard fought lesson about fear. That moment when you feel the all embracing fear and you’re wondering if you’re going to be able to do the project should be when you know you’re on the right track.

It’s the moment when you realize that you’re going to commit to doing something. Sometimes you have to take a leap even if that means you’ll be forced to sink or swim (and nothing wakes a person up more quickly than choking on a mouthful of water).

Just remember that no matter what you’re working on you’re probably not going to die.  Learn to identify your fear and head it off at the pass.

As a big bandleader once said, “A musician is not like a fine cheese or wine.  They don’t get better just sitting around.  They get sh*ty and stale.”

If you’re scared, it means your probably about to make a change.  Embrace the scariness and repeat often.

As always, thanks for reading!

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Don’t Knock It ‘Til You Try It – A Little Perfectionism Is Good For The Soul

Perfectionism has a bad rap.

It’s true.  Tune into any podcast, blog post or pop culture portal and someone will tell you perfection is overrated.

Present company included.  I have a post right before this one that described perfection (As in perfectly sequenced MIDI timing and pitch) as boring.

But here’s the thing (and there’s almost always a thing)….

It’s easy to go to extremes.

People will tell you that in a black and white scenario that they like the grey, but they typically like the grey closest to either extreme because balancing the middle is hard.

Those in any facet of the entrepreneurial space say, “Hey just get it out there and keep getting stuff out there!”  But that  advice works on the assumption that what you’re getting out is good.

It’s easy to confuse output with accomplishment.

On one extreme you have artists who cut corners with projects and turn out 1/2 baked recordings, books, films  and other works of art because they want to get the next thing out the door.

On the other extreme, you have people who never release anything because what they’re working on is never done.

The hardest thing in the world for an artist to confront objectively is a mirror.

“…Anything Less Than The Best Is A Felony.”

The best means discomfort.

It means pushing yourself right up to the limit of what can be done in the time frame that you have to work in.

Very few people do this on their own.

I really dislike gym culture (and much of its clientele), but I really like the physicality of gyms.  What’s great about it is that you see your limits immediately.   You can either can lift something or you can’t.  The benchmarks for performance are immediate and obvious as are the developments you make over time.

Developing yourself as an artist is much more difficult to determine.

It’s the distorted reflection in the mirror.  Many artists often look in the mirror and see someone else’s reflection.  They compare what they do to what other people are doing.

But it’s really like the gym.  It doesn’t matter if the person next to you can bench press more that you can, it only matters what you can do.

Another book story

I just re-released my pentatonic book.

When I initially released it, I wanted to put out an inexpensive pdf that would help people because some of the feedback I got from my other books was that they had too much information and were more money than people wanted to pay.

But releasing it the way I did just ended up hurting me instead. Because instead of making it 60 perfect pages, I made it the best thing I could in a weekend and got it out the door with my thinking being,  “Well the people who want a $5 book will read it quickly and then want a bunch of them in short order so I need to get in the flow of releasing a lot of them quickly.”  So I did it as an experiment basically.

It was a terrible idea.

It was a terrible idea 1.) because it wasn’t perfect.  There were typos and oversimplifications and shortcuts that were taken to get the length of the book down.  While some people who were looking for this format saw it and said, “Wow this is a great idea!”  the people who were judging all my output by this first impression (i.e. looking for faults in the book i.e. shopping) said, “Oh…thank God I didn’t buy the full book.”  It was the wrong first step to introduce people to what I do.

It was also a terrible idea because 2.) while it was a bargain for what it offered (6 lessons in a really valuable technique for $5) – the people who bought that book were never going to pony up $30 for a 400 page book. It would just be an endless series of releasing 60 page $5 books.

(On a related note, the people who bought the larger books were probably less likely to go back and purchase a smaller book.)  It was the wrong market for the wrong product.

So from a sales perspective, it was the wrong way to go.

On the plus side of this process – I got to use what I had done as a template to make the book I wanted to, instead of the book I thought people were asking for.

So, I took the lessons from the other books and filled out the material and re-wrote and edited almost everything.

And you might think, oh if the first book was 60 pages, it should only take 1/2 that time to create a 100 page book.

It ended up taking about 80-100 hours.

For the most part, those hours were spent on really tedious work.  Recreating graphics and editing them on the pixel level.  Rewriting almost every word and sweating the content.  Working on layout, fixing the table of contents.  Printing the book in multiple versions and getting the information flow just right.

In other words, mostly cutting and pasting and editing.

Hopper

Despite what can only be described as a borderline unhealthy appreciation for Apocalypse Now, my favorite artist named Hopper isn’t Dennis Hopper but instead Edward Hopper.

Here in NY, the Whitney is showing a fabulous Hopper exhibit (“Hopper Drawing”)  that shows numerous sketches Hopper made before he made some of his most iconic paintings, and seeing them really shows his thought process.   Mostly you see a process of him sketching ideas with endless variation and tweaking them so that when it came time to paint it he understood every nuance.  Every light source…every shadow…every aspect of the architecture that would allow the painting to express what he wanted to say.

If he just threw the first image that came to his mind up on the canvas, it never would have worked as well.  It was only in that exhaustive research and exploration that he came to the true articulations of what he needed to say.

The effortless work of art is a lie.

Even watching Shawn Lane roll off a “perfect” improvised line, that effortlessness only comes from tens of thousands of hours of work (or more) to get to that point.  Hopper got to where he did by striving to push himself further.

To discount perfection entirely is to sell yourself short.

Better work only comes from raising the stakes, demanding more from yourself and repeating endlessly.

Like everything – it’s a balance.  Too much perfectionism and nothing ever gets released.  Too little and you release sub-par material.

But in a “It’s a journey not the destination” variation – it’s not just about finding the balance – it’s about finding out why the balance is important and how that balance helps you achieve what you’re setting out to do.

Until next time – thanks for reading!

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PS – if you’re interested you can find out all about my newest guitar book release here, here or here.

Re-contextualizing Time

Here’s an obvious statement, with a not-so-obvious ramification.

Time is cumulative.

 

As a society, we’re trained to think of time in specific blocks.  We take an hour for lunch.  We work from 9-5 (if you’re lucky).  Television shows are either a ½ hour or an hour.

 

So we’re trained to think that if we don’t do anything for the full hour that nothing is getting done.

 

Here’s an experiment.

 

Can you do a 100 push ups in a sitting?

 

If not, can you do 10?

 

If you could do 10 consecutive push ups with perfect form how long would that take?  Maybe 30 seconds?  Now let’s say you did that 10 times a day.  That’s 300 seconds (aka 5 minutes).  But you can’t do anything with 5 minutes of exercise a day, right?

Wrong.

Try it every day for 5 weeks.  Try adding 1 push up per set every week (and more if you can).  That pushes you up to 15 per set or 150 a day.  By sheer increase in number you’ll notice that you’re getting stronger.   You’ll probably  notice physical changes as well.

Guess what happens when you apply this to practicing a difficult passage with a metronome?

Reclaim those shorter time increments in your day by reprogramming your brain for what they mean!  Those minutes add up over the course of the days, weeks and months ahead.

You can get a lot done in a lunch hour and those hours add up. Set a timer and work on things for 20 minute increments.  But when you work on them, really work on them.  Don’t half-ass them.  If you do this multiple times a day, you will get a lot more done than you might think.

If you have a strong understanding for why you are doing something, you will do whatever you have to to overcome any obstacles associated with how.

I hope this helps!  More posts soon (and more podcasts as soon as I can stop running my air conditioner long enough to record one!)  Thanks for reading.

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PS: If you play guitar you may be interested in a book I just released yesterday!

The Scott Collins Fretboard Visualization Series: The Pentatonic Minor Scale

Book Cover Full
You can read all about that here or see excerpts and order the book here.

Deadlines Are Your Best Friend

Hey Everyone!

I have a new post coming up next week about benchmarks and perfection, but as a starting point I wanted to bring out this chestnut (originally posted on guitarchitecture.org).

One of the things that attracts me to improvisation is the immediacy of it.  You perform and then it’s done.  While I like documenting these improvisations I fully recognize the danger of doing so.  (The danger being that when you record something there is a tendency to say, “Oh that sounds pretty good. I should just tweak a couple of things and then it will be perfect.”)

A Variation on the “I used to Walk a mile in the snow to get to school” rant

The way records used to be made back in the day,  involved a bunch of musicians who rehearsed and/or toured some material to death getting together in a room.  Mics would be set up and levels were typically set by putting loud instruments in the back of the room and softer ones up front (soloists would literally step up to the mike to solo and then step back) and after the end of the performance, the record was recorded.

Multitracking came along and studio time was still prohibitively expensive enough that you wanted to get tracks done as quickly as possible.  I played in several bands that did weekend cd’s tracking and overdubs on day one and mixing on day two.  There were always things that you wanted to tweak – but two days later you had a CD and it was done.

You kids and your new fangled “machines”

Now everyone has a multitrack recorder called a computer that can edit audio to the millisecond and the temptation to play god and make the perfect aural universe is a dangerous one to productivity.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my computer and I love Logic but I also know that if a take is 95% of the way there in terms of recording – it may take all day at best to get that extra 5%.  In a worst case scenario it might take forever.

Perfection is over rated.

Midi can be “perfect”.  It can be quantized and performed uniformly ever single time.  From a performance perspective, it can play things faster and cleaner than you will ever be able to with millisecond accurate timing.

Midi is also typically boring.  No one wants to watch a sequencer play things on a stage.  Audiences might listen, but they’re not going to give it their full attention.

In pop music (i.e. “rock” music) – ProTools and midi as a performance standard have increasingly become the goal.  Once I was sitting with a world class engineer and in discussing talking about how out of control the pursuit of “perfection” in commercially released recordings is,  He said, “let me give you an example” and proceeded to bring up a track he was working on on his desk top.  The track was going really slow.

“Is that an old computer?” I asked.  It turned out that it was the newest version.  Top of the line with memory and drives at the highest level the system would support.

When the track finally loaded I saw why it took so long.  There were eighteen thousand edits on the drum track alone.  18,000 edits!  On a 4 minute song.  Every single drum hit was cross faded.  Every single hit was moved and jostled to fit a midi track.

From a perspective of timing – it was perfect but from a performance perspective it was boring and it sounded like every other programmed drum track you ever heard.

I am not advising you to give up on bettering yourself (quite the contrary) – but my general advice to any artist is not to get seduced by “perfection”.  Perfection can be a great motivator or it can be the siren song that sinks your productivity.

To paraphrase a quote that I should be able to cite, “A true artist never completes a work but merely abandons it.”

Deadlines are your best friend.

Deadlines allow you to get things done.

Real (i.e. no-moving and non-negotiable) deadlines force you to realize that 95% of something is more than 100% of nothing.

Work at the highest level that you possibly can – but realize when it’s time to move on to the next thing.

As Steve Jobs famously stated,

“Real artists ship.”

Thanks for reading!

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Changing One’s Perception And Removing “Should” From One’s Vocabulary

“Oh should you now?”

We all have things that we know we’re supposed to do and don’t do with frequency.  We should see the doctor regularly.  We should exercise more and eat less.  We should really write our grandma.  We should really get to practicing.

The reality is that “shoulds” are little minefields in our brain.  We plant them around everywhere and then get absent-minded about where they are.  When we finally have to confront one, the temptation is to get upset because you now know what you should have done and did not – and the onus of it falls on you.

Getting past “should” is a life long struggle and as someone who is still working on it, I can say that it’s not easy but it is possible.

This can be done by removing the phrase “I should” from your vocabulary and replacing it with “I am

(i.e.  replacing “should” with “do”)

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Adjusting your perception.

If you meet expatriates from the US who have been living in another country for a long time and not speaking their original language, occasionally they have a real disconnect when you speak English to them.  This has happened to me on several occasions where I’ve met people who were frustrated at not remembering words in English and feel very disconnected in speaking it with people.

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There’s a reason for this.  They’re out of practice.

If you are a native English speaker in the US – you practice speaking and writing in the language every day.

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The difference is you probably don’t think about it as “practice“.

You just think about part of it as your day.  As something that you do naturally, you don’t think of it as work or drudgery.  You feel comfortable enough in your use of it that when you are confronted with phrases or terms you’ve never heard before – you simply listen instead of freaking out and make sense of in in context.  You pick up information and interact with it all day long.

If you doubt this, try the following: Take your current practice regimen and instead of practicing scales or chords or what have you, take out a dictionary and apply the same regimen to trying to expand your vocabulary.  Unless you’re studying for the SATs or GREs, I bet you make it a day before it gets discarded entirely or doomed to the “should” bin.

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If you make practicing just part of your regular day instead of something that has to be carved out of your schedule it will be easier to maintain.

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Occasionally, I read articles with guitarists who claim that they never practice.  It’s important to remember that anyone who is the topic of an article in a trade publication  is generally going to be a professional musician with a rigorous performance schedule.  If they don’t have time to practice – its only because they’re gigging too much and while they may not be “practicing” by a strict definition you can bet they’re keeping their chops up.

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I have no idea if Scotty Anderson “practices” but based on hearing him play I imagine that he has a guitar in his hand most of the day and is either playing or working on things all of the time.  Eddie Van Halen is another guy who may not identify what he does as practicing – but every interview I’ve read with him makes it seems like he has a guitar in his hands playing for hours every day.  (It’s also worth noting that many people consider Van Halen their best album for songs and playing.)

When Jimmy Rosenberg was playing with Sinti at the ripe old age of 16 he was asked by a guitar magazine how he got that frighteningly good at that age and he said, “Well I practice/play 4-5 hours a day, and rehearse with Sinti 4-5 hours a day, and then we have concerts”.

If you have a problem committing to practicing, you could change your mindset to move past “practicing” as an event and instead concentrate on doing” as a habit.

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Think about how easy it is to gain a bad habit.  Now think about how hard it can be to break that habit.

There are plenty of good habits that you probably have developed as well and maintaining a good habit requires very little work.

Again it’s about perception.  If practicing is something you view as a chore it will be something that you are loathe to do.  It’ll be much easier to practice if you can make it something you look forward to.

To quote Albert Ellis,

“Don’t should on yourself”.

I hope this helps!  Thanks for dropping by!

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Do You View Your (Music) Career Like An Actor?

I just saw a documentary on Netflix called “That Guy Who Was In That Thing” which is about a number of instantly recognizable character actors and their paths to get to claw their way to the middle.  ; )

The documentary is thoroughly engaging by being both entertaining and thought-provoking.  There also happen to be a number of parallels between performing in the film/television industry and performing in the music industry.  The subjects spoke at length about the difficulties that come with the ebb and flow of work that their careers take.  They talked about how they were (and are) out of work for years before they get a few gigs or hit a streak of work and all of them had stories of other parallel jobs that they worked while trying to make a living acting and tales of losing gigs for any one of a dozen reasons.

Two things grabbed me right away.

1.  The subjects spoke at length about how the number of actors out there willing to work for less has caused many of them to make less money than they did before. The thinking being, we don’t have to pay you that anymore because there are 10,000 other people who will kill to sit in that chair for less money.  The number of parallels with this and recording musicians (and performing artists) was striking. I’m paraphrasing here, “You realize that they don’t need you to fill the role, they just need to fill the role.”  Does this sound familiar to anyone performing and/or recording music out there?

2.  Musicians might actually have it easier than actors.

Here’s my thinking behind this.  Actors need vehicles to act in.  So the model they use is basically variations for  Advertising / Televison / Film.  For a TV show, this might mean

  • auditioning for a pilot with hundreds of people
  • getting a callback with maybe 50 people
  • getting a second callback with 20 people
  • doing a test with 5-6 people
  • having a series of negotiating calls made to see what you will cost them
  • testing in front of the studio executives this will limit you to a group of maybe 3 people
  • if chosen, you then shoot a pilot
  • the pilot then has to get picked up and
  • then you hope that the series doesn’t get cancelled after the first few episodes

The interesting thing to me was that this paralleled musicians and major labels.  The thinking was for years that you had to be in a band and signed to a label to have a career. Online distribution changed that model forever.

Having said that, artists on labels are/were the only people getting tour support. (They’re  generally the only people to also get tour support via sponsorship. )

For actors, working with studios means you get to keep your SAG card.  You get to keep your benefits and the SAG card is key to the audition process (and the securing of roles).

It doesn’t say it directly in the documentary – but some of these actors slogging it out in endless auditions seem to be afraid that the new (up and coming) actors are just getting pulled from YouTube.

I don’t think it’s the case for major films – and won’t be for a while.

Studio legend Tommy Tedesco once related a story where some MI students went with him on a session and one of them said, “I don’t understand.  Someone who’s been playing a year could play that part.”  And Tommy said, “yes. that’s probably true.”

The student pushed it more and said, “But you make triple scale, why do they pay all of that money to bring you in when they could get someone to do it much cheaper?”

Tedesco replied, “Because when you spend 50 or 75,000 on a recording session with an orchestra, you don’t want to lose money because some guy might screw up his part.  You’re going to get the best players on the session to make sure that absolutely nothing goes wrong.”

Again, I’m not knocking YouTube – but a YouTube performance doesn’t mean you can handle the rigors of any gig that comes your way.  While it might get you an audition, in and of itself, it’s never going to give you traction if you don’t have the skills to back it up.

Here’s what bugged me about the documentary.

No one talked about going DIY.

No one talked about making their own films.  Writing and staging their own plays.  Starting their own companies. All they talked about was a variation of the formula:

Get call from agent + audition + a dozen factors MAY = a gig.

It’s easy to view a music career like this.  Waiting for a shot – the right moment, the right contact – to make a big pay out.  It’s the lottery mentality to which I say, “sure, put a couple of bucks in and see if you get lucky, but putting your life savings in it probably won’t pay off.”

Those development contracts like Joan Crawford were on back in the day are never coming back to the movie houses.  Those days of getting signed to a label and having a carer carefully cultivated over multiple releases are never coming back.

Elvis already left the building.

While I’m fully in favor of seeking out opportunity – by and large you make your own opportunities and the formula for that is:

Do really good work + Do it frequently + Affect, motivate and/or move other people = being the go to person for “that thing”.

If what you do services a niche audience, you might not get rich but it’s probably the best way to build a long-term career.

Thanks for reading!

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