There’s Value In Ritual

It starts with Santa

I must have been a good boy this year, because Santa was unbelievably generous to me this Christmas.  In addition to gear, books and films, this

rok2

Photo taken from the ROK website.

made it’s way to my door (courtesy of Mrs. Collins).

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“You say tomato I say espresso.”

The Rok Espresso maker is a hand pumped espresso maker that requires no electricity.  In theory, you simply add ground espresso to the portafilter and pour boiling hot water in the top chamber.  Lifting the handles up pushes water into the chamber and pulling them down creates about 9 bars of pressure to make an espresso shot.

I say “in theory” because it turns out that there are a lot of factors that go into espresso quality.  Traditional espresso machines have boing water going through them which keep the portafilter hot and makes for a more uniform shot – so I started soaking the portafilter in boiled water in the cup to pre-heat both of them.  The roast and grind of the coffee play a role so I experimented with pre-ground and full bean blends.  This lead me to a hand cranked ceramic burr grinder:

Ceramic Burr Grinder

Which works aesthetically with the powerless espresso maker and provides a uniform grind.  Experts will tell you that there are a near endless number of factors that will go into the flavor even down to the tamper (a stainless steel 49mm tamper for me – but the plastic tamper works fine).

Getting a shot of espresso now requires:

  • heating boiling water
  • hand cranking the burr grinder for about 115 rotations to get the proper amount of coffee
  • putting the portafilter in a cup and pouring the boiling hot coffee in
  • waiting about 10-15 seconds for the filter to heat up
  • pouring out the water
  • scooping the coffee into the portafilter
  • tamping it down
  • attaching the filter
  • pouring the water into the espresso maker
  • lifting the handles all the way up
  • pulling the handles down about an 1/8″ to infuse the espresso
  • lifting the handles back up and pulling them down to extract the espresso

then dumping out the portafilter.

in other words – it’s a few more steps than loading coffee into my Aeropress coffee maker which also makes a really good cup of coffee.

You may be asking yourself

What the Hell does this have to do with guitar?

and the answer is – quite a bit.

There’s value in ritual

When you slow down and invest time into something, you have the opportunity to enter a different headspace.  It’s not guaranteed, but think about the number of times that you realized something while you were brushing your teeth before bed or taking a shower before you start your day.

Hand grinding the beans only takes a minute or two, but it gives me pause and becomes a kind of meditative action.  When I get through all of the steps and taste the espresso, it’s nuanced in deeper way than the Aeropress coffee.  It’s a completely different experience than popping a netpresso pod into a machine and hitting start.

If you’re having problems reaching the goals that you want, you may want to consider taking the approach of adopting a daily ritual.  If you’re talking about guitar playing, consider adding one daily ritual to whatever you’re currently doing.  Maybe it’s transcribing, sight reading, chordal studies, scales or improvisation.  It really doesn’t matter that much what it is, and more that you’re doing it daily, with purpose and with proper technique.

Wait where are you sending me now?

Every year, I put a post up on GuitArchitecture.org about New Year’s resolutions, goal setting and breaking out of the mistakes of the past and if getting things done in the New Year interest you, you may want to read that here.

In the meantime, consider this…

In my experience, the biggest long term changes that come in life come from daily attention.  Don’t worry about huge overarching goals.  Work on one thing, and commit to doing it every day.

I have to “test’ more espresso while working on my 8-string playing (one of my daily rituals now that it’s back) and prep for UFC 168 tonight.

There’s a lot of good things happening that will be manifesting themselves more fully in the new year in the meantime,  I hope that 2014 is your best year yet.

As always, thanks for reading!

-SC

A Holiday Thought That May Help The Whole Year

Note: this was originally posted on GuitArchitecture but I think the message is still valid.

If web traffic is any indicator, I should be writing more about guitar shops in Vietnam, 8 string guitars (and pickups) and Philip Glass arpeggios which comprise the top 3 Google searches for my guitArchitecture blog.  (With absolutely no disrespect to Mr. Glass,  I never would have dreamed that there are thousands of people in the world actively trying to find out about “Philip Glass arpeggio”s.  Hopefully that makes someone’s day better!)

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But  since I don’t work with Google ads for ad revenue, I get to post on whatever interests me and while the personal motivation /psychology of guitar playing, tangential music business and music making observational posts get substantially fewer hits – they seem to be the ones that affect some people more.

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I’ve talked before about the need for a thick skin if you’re going to be an artist and how having a strong opinion could result in people reacting strongly to it as well.  While that’s an observation I still stand behind, I feel I should temper that advice with another suggestion that may serve you well.

Forgive people (including yourself) and

try to empathize with them.

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These things are actually related.  The more you see where someone else is coming from, the less likely you are to judge them harshly. This doesn’t mean forgetting, or letting people do hurtful things to you without consequence –  it just means letting go and moving on.  If this sounds counter-intuitive, then you should consider doing this because it will serve you better in the long run.  As Carrie Fisher once said:

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“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

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Looking back at my own life I see much truth in this statement.  I think of the actions of other people I resented and I see a series of torches that I carried.  Each requiring an exhausting amount of energy and maintenance to keep burning.

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John Lydon once said, “Anger is an energy” and while I believe that there are things are worth fighting and things worth fighting for, I also recognize that you only have a finite amount of energy in life.  In my own life, I eventually had to ask myself the question, “do you really want to spend energy and time on resentment or do you want to spend it on making your life (or the lives of other people) better?”

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A friend of mine recently sent me a link of yet another video of Pat Metheny going off on Kenny G.  When I saw it, I thought about some of Pat’s earlier diatribes about Kenny and my reaction was the same this time as it was before.   I didn’t laugh or think that it’s cool but instead I thought that it’s sad Pat Metheny has to be so insecure about what he does that he has to attack another musician for doing what they want to do musically.  Because if you’re secure about what you do, you don’t need to attack other people.  It does less to debase Kenny G in the public eye and instead of makes Pat Metheny look like a bully. Think I’m wrong?  Consider these questions for a moment:

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Does going off on Kenny G  get Pat more fans?

Does it get him more album sales?

Does it get more people going to Pat Metheny shows? Or

Does it keep Kenny G’s name in the news?

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If Kenny G had a deliberate plan of making music he hated just to sell a million copies of it then perhaps I could understand the rancor but I believe that Kenny  is playing music he wants to play just like Pat Metheny is.  It’s not something I dig, so it’s not something I buy or listen to so and (like many people I suspect) I don’t think about Kenny G until I stumble across another video of Pat going off on him.  If Pat empathized with that sentiment he might be less resentful of what Kenny G is doing (and would look a little less ridiculous).  Some jazz purists might not think that Pat looks ridiculous, but in support of my argument I ask only one question:

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Of all the ills in the world, is going off on Kenny G really the best you can do?

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Again, this is just my $.02 but don’t waste energy on people and things you dislike.  Instead, take that energy and invest it in making things better.  It’s something I’m still working on for myself.  Perhaps it will be helpful to you.

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Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all!

-SC

“You Make Your Own Luck” or On Opportunity

My wife was watching Master Chef Junior Finale on Hulu recently.  While what caught my attention initially was the complexity of the dishes they were serving.  The contestants (aged 12-13) served up the following meals for the finale:

Contestant 1: Ahi tuna cooked two ways (poke and seared), fried spot prawns with wontons and a coconut curry and poached pear in lemon ginger miso sauce.

Contestant 2: Basil lemon shrimp with an heirloom tomato crostini, pan-seared veal chop with potato gnocchi and butter sauce and a deconstructed cannoli.)

what really stuck with me was what wasn’t said in the episode.

When presented with the prospect of winning a trophy and a $100,000 prize, not one contestant or parent said, “I need to win this.  $100,000 is a life changing amount of money.”

There’s a reason for that.

No matter how many times you watch something, you can’t learn a technique until you actually apply it.  Even if you sit with a timer and do everything in a step by step process, you need to do it multiple times to make it work.

So how does a 12-year old make beef sliders with black garlic aioli, beef wellington, prosciutto-wrapped chicken roulade with goat cheese, soufflés or any of the dishes above?

They do it by doing it over and over again and if your child is cooking every recipe in your lavish coffee table book of recipes, then they’ll also need to have access to fresh produce and very expensive ingredients.  In other words, if you can afford to spend an extra couple of hundred dollars a week to support Jane or Jimmy’s cooking interest, then an extra 100K might not mean all that much to you.  Coming from where I did, I had an initial knee jerk reaction to that.

Another Upstate NY story?

A little back story here, I grew up in a middle class home.  My dad taught in a public school and my mom worked at Beech-Nut.  We were never in danger of starving, but we didn’t take lavish vacations either.  When my dad had summers off he did things like install pools for other people or took on other jobs to make ends meet.

One thing that growing up in a place like Fort Plain taught you was that there were haves, have-mores and have-lesses and that while you might not have what the have-mores had, that you learned to make due with what you had access to, you were thankful for what you had and you reached a hand out to the have-nots.

It also teaches you a certain level of self sufficiency.  It wasn’t that long ago that buying music meant driving somewhere because there wasn’t an internet to buy it on.  When I tell people that buying a cd (or a cassette – some of you may have to google that term), required driving an hour each way to Albany or Schenectady – they don’t believe me – but it’s true.

I realize now that while it was inconvenient, there was something that came from that process.  There was an excitement about having to go somewhere and finding something, and while it lead to some BITTER disappointments, it also lead to some amazing finds.  Those recordings had other associations linked with it that went beyond just the music (for a related post on you may want to check out this post on my other site).

Now back to our previously scheduled program

Looking at those Master Chef kids, it can be easy to get bitter about success because it’s easy to look at other people utilizing the advantages that they’ve been given and capitalizing on them.

The deeper lesson is that for those people who don’t fall into the “have more” category, you have to make your own opportunity.

I worked at an Ames department store in high school.  I knew I didn’t want to do that the rest of my life so I applied for music school.   It took a lot of sweat, blood and tears to get in (and get through it).

It would have been easier to have just stayed at the Ames store and keep working and earning a small but consistent paycheck, but instead having no opportunity at the time, I made my own.

The first observation I’d make about opportunity is that most people have to make their own opportunities, but the second part is that the work and effort you put into your opportunities will yield other opportunities.

I got the God of War gig because I went to music school, knew one of the composers and had the skill set (and the instruments) that he needed for the score.  There were a lot of missteps along the way to that.  There was no easy linear path or a plan to get there, there was just the work and the drive to get better at what I did.  This (unknowingly) became the preparation I’d need for that and many other experiences.

Since anything involving a list, typically drives more traffic here’s a brief synopsis of this post (with related material from other posts I’ve put up).

  • When you start off in anything, you make your own opportunities.
  • Many times, these opportunities will not meet your expectations, but that shouldn’t stop you. (Funny fact, MANY of the artists I know with impressive resumes spend years filtering out the points that look good on paper (like an exclusive gallery opening), but bombed as events (i.e. no one came, or it was poorly reviewed) with the events that were deemed “successful”.)  Yoki Matsuoka may be a MacArthur winner now, but when I met her we were both working at a small robotics firm in Cambridge, Mass, and I didn’t see that job listed in any of the press materials that she’s listed in).
  • In other words, stumbling and failure is a given on the road to other opportunities.  Don’t freak out about it.  Just do the best work that you can every single time and take stock of what worked and what didn’t.
  • Review, Revise and Repeat.  The key is to keep improving on what you do until you become the go-to person in whatever you do.
  • Always be on the look out and look for the deeper lesson.  If you see someone doing something successfully, bring it back to you.  Ask, “How could I use that to (insert whatever short or long term goal you’re trying to achieve here.)?”
  • Always be ready.  You never know when the next opportunity is going to present itself to you, so you should always be at the top of your game so that when the opportunity arises you can take advantage of it.

There’s a great story behind the Emmylou Harris/Spyboy recording and tour.  She wanted to use drummer Brian Blade for the session but Brian wasn’t available, so Brian recommended his brother Brady.  They gave Brady the call and he hadn’t played in a while, so he was out of practice.  He ended up pulling it out and did some amazing playing on the cd and tour.  This is excerpted from his Wikipedia entry,

Early 1995 saw Emmylou Harris persuade Brady to return to his kit as part of her touring band Spyboy, along with Daniel Lanois and Darryl Johnson. The following year they were joined by Buddy Millerand toured throughout the mid-nineties, culminating in a live album Spyboy, released in 1998.Touring the world with Emmylou Harris led Brady to encounter and be seen by some of the key figures in the American music scene which resulted in Brady becoming one of the most in-demand session drummers around. Brady took part in extensive tours and sessions with the Steve Earle during his El Corazón period; Jewel throughout her 1998 Spirit world tour; and the Indigo Girls on their 1999 album Come on Now Social, 2002’s Become You, 2004’s All That We Let In, and 2011’s Beauty Queen Sister.”

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Brady Blade is the exception to the rule.  Most other people would have gotten the call and if they weren’t ready, the call would just go to the next person on the list.  Don’t be the person who misses the call because they dropped the ball.

  • Finally, you’re never 100% ready so jump in and make the most of what you got.  The final thing about opportunities is that when they are presented, they often seem to be something that’s over your head.  Within reason, don’t be afraid to step up.  If you don’t read music and don’t play classical guitar style, and you get a call to play Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” with a full orchestra tomorrow because the guitarist dropped out, that might not work out for you but if you get a call to play classical style for an art opening it might be worth your time to pull some material together.

Everyone starts from humble beginnings, and some of us return often and have to build up from square 1 or 2.  Trust me, it gets easier the more you do it.  The main thing is to keep plugging away in the meantime and doing the best you can do in the meantime.

As always, thanks for reading!

-SC