May 15

The “Idolization” of Creativity

Who is creative? Who do you think of as being creative? I would guess most people would name major figures in the arts–those we think of as “stars” or “geniuses.” Everyone would agree that Rembrandt, Picasso, Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Proust, Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix are creative masters in their chosen art form.

While there are many other examples of exceptional creative talent, creativity is not limited to stars or geniuses. In fact, I believe that creativity is an inherent human quality, one that everyone possesses and one that we should all honor in ourselves and each other.

Have you ever watched young children playing together? Isn’t it striking how creatively they take whatever objects are at hand and create a game, tell a story, create a new world or another way of amusing themselves and each other? Children are a reminder that we all start out with amazing creative resources.

Unfortunately, our sense of creativity is too often squelched by the adults around us (parents, family, teachers, peers). We’re told we don’t know how to draw, that we’re singing off key. We get the message that what we create isn’t good enough or isn’t right. Making art or music is turned into drudgery. Gradually, over the years we’re convinced that we’re not creative. Creativity becomes a talent only stars or geniuses or “idols” possess.

No matter what our age, our creativity is there to be uncovered or rediscovered. It may take some exploration and experimentation to find the creative domain that most appeals to us, but it’s worth the effort. Engaging in a creative activity allows us to feel fully alive.

There are many forces in our (commercial) culture that promote “stars” or celebrities as the only ones who are creative. If you can barely croak out a tune in the shower, you can easily believe you’ll never appear on “American Idol.” However, if you feel called to sing, take a leap of faith and pursue it. Creativity is not about fame and fortune. It’s about nurturing and honoring the human spirit and our relationship to others and our world. It’s about being who we are.

Especially at the beginning of a creative journey, our achievements are likely to be quite modest. If we compare ourselves to creative models or mentors we admire, we may feel hopelessly inadequate. Perseverance and persistence will bring improvement, though seldom as fast or to the extent we might wish. The third ‘P”–patience–plays an important supportive role.

When I started taking guitar lessons in 2008, even the simplest finger exercise was a challenge. I was a long way from making music, but I loved the blues and wanted to play guitar in the spirit of the musicians I admired. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that practice doesn’t make perfect, as the saying goes, but it does lead to progress. Today it’s hard to believe those early exercises could have been so difficult. Now I can actually play music. There is still a lot I want to learn–it’s a lifetime journey, but I find satisfaction in what I can play. It’s taken many small daily steps to reach this point. Tomorrow, I’ll take another step and see where it leads.

Whatever your age, don’t wait to discover your creative talents. It doesn’t matter if you never become a great creative talent (a “star”), as long as you can find a source of personal satisfaction and enjoyment. Start exploring and take the first small steps on your creative journey.


Apr 15

The Passionate LIfe

At a large gathering a few months ago, my wife introduced me to Julie, a woman she had met not long before. As Julie and I got to know each other and shared information about our lives, work and activities, I told her about my learning to play guitar and how much I enjoyed it. I probably said that playing with a band was like a dream come true (when I first started taking lessons in 2009, it seemed a remote fantasy).

After I’d talked about this, she said, “I can see how passionate you are about music by the way your face lights up.”

I thought about this moment several times later and was reminded of how helpful others can be in reflecting who we are. Sometimes people remind us of aspects of ourselves we weren’t conscious of or ignored. In this case, I was well aware that music was a passion for me, but I was happy that it was obvious even to a casual acquaintance.

In thinking about this encounter, I was also reminded of the often-quoted passage in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.

I suspect too many of us become resigned to our lives without even realizing it. The challenges of life can at times be overwhelming and can leave us feeling we have few or no choices. When we’re caught up in the seemingly urgent demands of daily life, we can lose track of priorities. It’s important to find a few moments of quiet to listen to the voice within us. If we listen well enough, we may hear a calling that has gone unheeded.

I’m very grateful to have discovered my passion for music, especially playing blues. It enriches my life in so many ways. I fervently wish that everyone might discover at least one creative activity they feel passionate about whether it’s music, writing, cooking or knitting.

Nov 14

Demystifying Meditation

Musicians, like other performers, often experience some degree of nervousness or anxiety about playing in a group or for an audience. Even acclaimed celebrities report feeling stage fright. This has led some artists to use or abuse alcohol and drugs to relieve tension. Fortunately, there are better ways to find the calm center that furthers creativity.

Meditation is easy to learn, but takes a lifetime of practice. There are many approaches and techniques, but in its most essential form, meditation is simply a way of paying attention to the present moment.

Being aware of the present moment is the core of spiritual practice and one of the highest forms of wisdom. It’s also an ongoing challenge. But for musicians the present moment is where music happens, so it’s important to learn how to be there.

Even if we weren’t assailed by the multiple stresses and stimuli of our busy lives, our minds would continue to chatter away about worries, regrets, plans and hopes. In order to be fully aware of the present moment, we need to quiet the “monkey chatter” within us. This constantly pulls us back to the past or draws us to the future with all the emotional turmoil both can entail.

Meditation can be done anywhere, any time and in any position. It is best to start in a quiet, pleasant, comfortable place. You’ll want to eliminate as many distractions from the environment as possible. Your mind will provide enough distractions of its own.

I’m most familiar with the Zen Buddhist form of sitting meditation, called zazen (“seated meditation”), which I began practicing in 1970. In zazen, you sit on the floor on a round cushion (zafu) in a full- or half-Lotus Position with your hands in your lap as shown below.

Full Lotus Position

Full Lotus Position

In the Lotus Position [padmasana]—named for the shape of an open lotus flower, one sits cross-legged with the feet on the opposing thighs. The position is commonly used in Hindu Yoga and Buddhist meditation, but may be challenging for some. I can usually manage only the half-Lotus.

Since I’ve learned this approach, I find this position a helpful physical reinforcement of the practice. However, you can meditate just as effectively sitting in a chair with your feet flat on the floor (or even lying down, if necessary—provided you can stay awake).

It’s also best not to close your eyes; keep them lowered, but half open. Focus on a spot on the floor or some other neutral object. Some traditions focus on a spiritual object (flower, mandala, altar, statue of the Buddha, etc.). Your primary focus is elsewhere, so after a while you will almost stop seeing what’s in front of your eyes.

The essential element in any meditation practice is to pay attention to your breath as you inhale and exhale. This is both simple and challenging. As you try to focus on your breath, you will suddenly realize you’ve been thinking about an incident at the office, or what you need from the grocery store, what you forgot to tell your spouse or the paper you have to write.

Release yourself from any judgment or blame. (Meditation is in part an attempt to step outside the human ego.) Simply resume paying attention to your breath.

Thoughts will continue to intrude. Each thought is like a pebble or even a rock dropped into a pond. The water ripples and then gradually calms. As you continue to pay attention to your breath, your mind will calm. But don’t worry if another pebble drops in. Allow it to sink to the bottom and let go of it. Just pay attention to your breath again.

To focus on the breath, I have found it helpful to recite a gatha (“verse”) that the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, proposed. This seems to sum up the essence of spiritual wisdom:

Breathing in I calm my body
Breathing out I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.

After reciting this to myself a few times as I inhale and exhale, I will sometimes shorten it to “in,” “out.” Another aid in focusing on the breath is to count from one to ten and then back down (I count it like music: 1 and, 2 and, etc., for the in and out breaths.). The persistence and insistence of the mind’s “monkey chatter” is such that I’ve never been able to complete a counting cycle before I got distracted and lost track. I simply begin again…and again…and again. No judgment, no blame, no regret.

Some traditions use a mantra to help focus the attention. This mantra may be given to one in secret by a guru or teacher (e.g., Transcendental Meditation). Perhaps the most widely used mantra is the Buddhist six-syllable Sanskrit mantra: Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ. The text has been interpreted in various ways. I’ve often used it as the focus of meditation and the fact that it’s in Sanskrit helps me to focus.

While you can meditate almost anytime, it’s ideal to spend 20 minutes or so when you first get up in the morning.

Thich Nhat Hanh and others also encourage mindfulness breaks throughout the day when you bring your attention back to the present moment and notice your breathing. These may last a minute or longer depending on your situation. These are good times to recite the gatha above.

There are many books on meditation that can be helpful or supportive of your practice. I especially admire the work of Thich Nhat Hanh, who speaks from a Buddhist perspective, but to a Western audience. One doesn’t have to know or accept Buddhist teaching to benefit from his teaching on meditation.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, has also written extensively about what he calls Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). While he was trained in Zen Buddhism, his concept of mindfulness is secular.

People become interested in practicing meditation for many reasons: to relieve or reduce stress and anxiety, to find peace, to relieve pain, to improve health, to connect more deeply with the universe. In recent years, scientific studies of meditation have established that it has measurable positive effects on the brain and the rest of the body. Meditation has been shown to improve immune function, lower blood pressure, reduce stress and increase empathy.

It can be helpful in developing your meditation practice to do so in a group of some kind. The support of others can make it easier to persevere when meditation seems frustrating or pointless.

And, ideally, if paradoxically, meditation is “pointless.” The more you are attached to a goal or goals for your meditation practice, the harder it will be to let go of the chatter, listen to your breath and pay attention to the present moment.

Further Reading

Benson, M.D., Herbert with William Proctor. Beyond the Relaxation Response. New York: Berkley Books, 1984 | 1985, 180 pp.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. Being Peace. Edited by Arnold Kotler. Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax Press, 1987, 117 pp.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. The Miracle of Mindfulness:  A Manual on Meditation. Revised Edition. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976 | 1987, 140 pp.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, And Illness. New York: Delacorte Press, 1990;  revised and updated edition: New York: Bantam, 2013, 720 pp.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment—and Your Life. Sounds True, Incorporated, 2011, 120 pp.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go There You Are:  Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion, 1994, 279 pp.

Nov 14

Blues Radio in Chicago

Blues lovers in Chicago are fortunate to have so many options to hear the blues. We can hear live blues played in small clubs every night of the week. Is there another city that offers more live blues? I plan to write more about this in future post.

Chicago radio also provides many hours of blues for fans. Two radio stations offer weekly opportunities to listen to old favorites and discover new ones.

While it’s primarily a rock station, WXRT-FM (93.1) offers an hour of good blues on Tom Marker’s Blues Breakers program every Monday night at 9:00 PM. If you don’t live in the Chicago area, you can, of course, listen online, as is the case with most radio stations today. Complete playlists are also available online.

The best station for the blues isn’t even in Chicago. WDCB-FM (90.9) is owned and operated by The College of DuPage in the far western suburb of Glen Ellyn. While the majority of their excellent programming is devoted to jazz (I love jazz too, so I listen a lot), they devote many hours to diverse a array of blues.

Scott ‘Hambone’ Hammer hosts Hambone’s Blues Party on Thursdays from 10:00 PM to midnight. Hambone has hosted the Blues Party since November 1995. In addition to recorded blues, he often has musicians and bands in the studio for interviews and live performances.

If you need a reason to spend Saturday night at home, ten hours of blues is as good as any. The evening starts with the locally produced Blues Edition from 7:00 to 9:00 PM.

Blues from the Red Rooster Lounge has originated from Boulder’s KBCO 97.3 FM since April 1985. It runs on WDCB-FM from 9:00 PM to 10:00 PM on Saturday. For 12 years the Rooster (known off-air as Cary Wolfson) was the founder and publisher of Blues Access Magazine.

Blues from the Red Rooster Lounge

Blues from the Red Rooster Lounge

From 10:00 to 11:00 PM, Leslie Keros’ Chicago Bound celebrates musicians with a strong Chicago connection. The Chicago blues scene has played a central role in the development of the music, so there is a lot to celebrate. Keros continues from 11:00 to midnight with Messin’ with the Blues, a program that explores the various styles of blues.

For the night owls, Steve Cushing hosts Blues Before Sunrise from midnight to 5:00 AM. Cushing has a deep and extensive knowledge of the heritage of the blues, as he has demonstrated for over thirty years on the show. Cushing plays early blues tracks you’ll here nowhere else. He has also published a couple of good books on the blues:  Blues Before Sunrise:  The Radio Interviews (2010) and Pioneers of the Blues Revival (2014).

Steve Cushing. Blues Before Sunrise (2010)

Steve Cushing. Blues Before Sunrise (2010)

If you don’t live in Chicago or simply want to listen to some blues right now, there are many options available online. Live 365, for example, lists 162 blues radio stations.

May 14

The Practice of Practice

Like most children whose parents decide they would benefit from taking piano lessons, I dreaded practicing for my next lesson. Piano practice was boring drudgery. I remember feeling a sense of victory after my lesson if I had practiced just enough to convince my teacher that I’d been practicing as much as I was supposed to. I thought I was fooling her, but I was fooling myself. In my thrill at getting away with something, I overlooked the fact that I was depriving myself of the benefits of practice: learning to play music better–and with greater satisfaction.

When I started taking guitar lessons as an adult, I had a completely different experience. In part, this was because I knew I wanted to learn to play blues guitar. I had chosen this to satisfy a personal goal. In addition, practice was no longer a pain, because I enjoyed the process. I enjoyed the sound of the guitar, even if I was just playing scales. It wasn’t long before I realized that practice led to noticeable progress. It made a difference! Even things that seemed difficult and frustrating to learn yielded eventually to practice. Patience and perseverance led to the ability to play more easily, more reliably and more expressively.

For me, “practice” is just a form of playing music. It takes place in a context of focused attention and may consist of playing scales, chords, exercises, musical phrases or entire songs, which are repeated to build new habits and ultimately better skills. It’s unfortunate that the word “practice” has gathered such negative connotations.

A musician–like any artist–can’t flourish on talent alone. It takes lots of patient work–playing music–hour after hour, day after day–until an acceptable level of mastery is achieved. Jimi Hendrix, for example, is considered one of the greatest guitarists of the 20th century. He no doubt had a lot of talent. However, he was also profoundly devoted to playing the guitar. Those who knew him report that he was almost never without a guitar and was playing constantly–either on his own or with whatever musicians he could find. When we watch his masterful performances at the Monterrey Pop Festival or Woodstock, we’re seeing more than talent. We’re seeing the results of countless hours of playing (and performing) music. There is something magical about listening to such a “musical genius” perform, but a good part of the “magic” is simply practice.

There is another reason “practice” has lost its negative connotations for me. I now associate the word with the phrase “spiritual practice.” This refers to actions or behavior that has spiritual meaning, reinforces a spiritual state or attitude, or contributes to spiritual development. Spiritual practices vary depending on traditions, but may include meditation, prayer, chanting, calligraphy or even flower arranging.

I believe that any creative activity–writing, painting, cooking, and, of course, making music–can serve as a spiritual practice. When I practice (play) music, I’m not simply trying to improve my musical skills, but also to reach a point where I have sufficiently internalized a musical element or song. My ultimate goal is to learn the music well enough that I can step out of the way–letting go of my need to play it “right” or “better”–and let the music play through me as its instrument. As with any creative activity, the biggest challenges are internal ones.

As with any spiritual practice, I see music as a path I walk. I take one step, trying to pay attention to each moment, and trying not to worry about where the path will lead. It’s a path I expect to follow the rest of my life.





Jan 14

Blue Groove Plays at Healy’s (1/24/14)

Musicians with a wide range of ages and musical experience performed a program of American roots music—including folk, blues, R &B and jazz—at Healy’s Westside in Forest Park, IL on Friday, January 24, 2014. All the performers study music with professional musicians and teachers at Kagan & Gaines Music in Forest Park.

Singer-songwriter Lena Fjortoft, who opened the program, played acoustic guitar and sang her original folk-rock songs. She has a lovely, plaintive voice. Her teacher, James Goelitz, with over thirty-years of professional experience as a musician and teacher, also teaches the students in Blue Groove.

The jazz ensemble Generations played jazz standards by such musicians as Bobby Timmons, Pepper Adams, Larry Carlton, and Jamey Aebersold. The group included Logan Curry, alto & baritone sax; Adam Peoples, trombone; Mike Estelle, tenor sax & vocals, Jim Poznak, piano; Noah Goins, bass & guitar; Chris Dixon, drums, Mary Sullivan, vocals; Bob Sullivan, blues harp & vocals. John Connolly directed the ensemble and played keyboards. Mr. Connolly has taught music (brass and keyboards) for over thirty years and has been a professional musician for much longer.

Mr. Connolly said of Generations, “Our band wants to share its love of all things jazz. In class, we learn about improvisation; this performance allows the band to share what they’ve learned with an audience.”

To complete the program, Blue Groove played a lively set of blues, R & B and jazz songs by such musicians as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, Otis Rush, Carlos Santana, The Temptations, Herbie Hancock, Bill Withers, and Grand Funk Railroad. The band included Mike Estelle, vocals and tenor sax; Billy Smith, vocals; Alex Scaramuzza, guitar; Byron Leonard, guitar; Vera Beilinson, keyboards and Lawrence Brown, bass and vocals. Percussionist and teacher John Marella was the ensemble’s guest drummer. Jim Goelitz, the band director, also played guitar and bass with the group.

Every time I perform with Blue Groove, it feels like a dream come true. When I first started taking lessons in 2008, it seemed like a remote fantasy to perform in public in a group like this. I would love to have more opportunities to perform.



Aug 13

20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

Who wants to see a documentary about back-up singers? You do. If you enjoy music, especially singing, 20 Feet from Stardom is a must-see. You’ll hear amazingly beautiful voices. You’ve probably heard the singers many times, but have never known who they were.

Morgan Neville’s film focuses on five talented singers: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, and Judith Hill. Beginning in the Sixties, they have sung on many well-known R & B, rock and pop songs behind singers from Ray Charles to Mick Jagger. Clayton, who sang on The Rolling Stone’s 1969 hit “Gimme Shelter,” was the only one of these I recognized.

Lisa Fischer

Lisa Fischer

Among the star performers who are interviewed are Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Nia Peeples, and Sheryl Crow (a former back-up singer). Interviews with producers and others in the music industry give a behind-the-scenes view of how the music we hear gets made (it’s not always a pretty picture).

Springsteen talks about the challenges in moving from back-up to lead singer. Clayton, Lennear and Vega tried to make it as solo singers, but had limited success. Lennear has been teaching Spanish. Darlene Love spent a period cleaning houses, before a song on the radio called her back to music. At 29, Judith Hill is the youngest of the featured singers and is working toward a solo career.

Regardless of these singers’ struggles and setbacks, the music is thrilling and awe-inspiring. You can’t help but come out of the theatre with your spirits lifted–and wanting to hear more of this music.


Jul 13

Chasing Happiness

“Happiness in this world, when it comes, comes incidentally. Make it the object of pursuit, and it leads us a wild-goose chase, and is never attained. Follow some other object, and very possibly we may find that that we have caught happiness without dreaming of it.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne, American novelist and essayist. The American Notebooks (1851) [Quoted in Time, July 8, 2013 cover story, “The Pursuit of Happiness.”]

In my case, I decided to chase after music (learning to play the blues) and found…endless challenges, frustration, anxiety, disappointment…but more importantly the satisfaction, joy and exhilaration of making music. I also discovered a passion for music that I expect to last the rest of my life.

Whether your “object of pursuit” is music, art, literature, public service, cooking or knitting, I hope you find something you love that leads to similar challenges and joys.




Jul 13

The Heart of the Beat

As a faithful listener to public broadcasting, and especially our local NPR station, WBEZ-FM, I have had my share of “driveway moments”–when I become so engrossed in an unexpected story that I stop what I was doing to continue listening. I often turn on the radio in the kitchen while I’m cooking or doing dishes. More often than not, it’s in the middle of a program or story.

Tonight I stumbled on an episode of the Canadian Broadcasting program, “Ideas.” I’ve heard it a few times, mostly by chance, and have usually found it interesting. The 1 July program on synchrony was enthralling. (Merriam-Webster defines “synchrony” as “a state in which things happen, move, or exist at the same time.”)

The CBC website summarized it this way:

What is it about rhythm, pattern, and synchronization that fascinate us? How do pacemaker cells in a heart synchronize? How can thousands of people unconsciously walk in step? There are so many recurring patterns in nature like ripples in sand and the stripes of a zebra. In speaking with musicians, mathematicians, and psychologists, filmmaker Tess Girard explores the idea of rhythm and what it means to us.

You can listen to the hour-long program from the website above or download a podcast from this page. I highly recommend it.


Jul 13

Finding a Lost “Friend”

Last year I came across a list of favorite music I’d started compiling years earlier and one of the pieces was a violin concerto by Antonio Vivaldi, one of my favorite classical composers. Unfortunately, the list didn’t show the name of the piece and he wrote over 230 violin concertos. I set about listening to Vivaldi CDs I owned and others from the library. I knew it was the second Andante movement, but none that I listened to quite matched the poignant and moving quality I recalled.

This afternoon I played an old LP that John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat had made together (Hooker n’ Heat, 1971). Then I noticed that among the records I’d gotten out to play some time ago was a 1980 Musical Heritage Society recording of Vivaldi mandolin concertos. On a hunch I played the last piece on side two and that was it: Concerto a Due Chori in B-Flat Major, P. 368/F.I. No. 60, “Con Violino Discordato,” strings and B.C [RV 583].

When I looked online for a CD of the piece, I found only a couple of recordings are available. You can listen to it here on YouTube.

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was born March 4, 1678 in Venice, Italy and died July 28, 1741 in Vienna, Austria. He’s best known for “The Four Seasons” (circa 1725), but also for his 12 concertos “L’estro armonico” op.3 (1711). I enjoy these and other works by Vivaldi, but this concerto for “violino discordato” will always have a special place.