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

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.



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.




Jun 13

My Fifth Anniversary

I took my first electric guitar lesson with Jim Goelitz at Kagan & Gaines Music five years ago today on Wednesday, 25 June 2008. It has turned out to be a life-changing date. I’ve continued to take weekly lessons except when I’m out of town or when Jim is on vacation. When I started out, I had no idea where learning to play blues guitar might lead.

Learning to play the guitar turned out to be more challenging than I had imagined, but I also found that with each day I improved. I’ve always enjoyed learning new things and never found practicing a burden (just a challenge at times to fit in a busy day). Even when I felt frustrated learning a new chord or riff, I was encouraged by the knowledge that if I kept practicing I would eventually get the hang of it. And I always have–even if it took longer than I imagined it should have.

Almost two years ago on Friday, 29 July 2011, I attended my first weekly class with the K&G ensemble–ably led/taught by Jim Goelitz. Participating in that group has accelerated my learning process and expanded my skills in many ways. It’s also–as others in the group agree–the highlight of my week. Since I joined the group, we have performed in public six times. I would like to have more opportunities to perform and hope we can find some new venues.

It’s hard to describe what I’ve learned in the last five years. I’ve learned to play scales, chords, riffs and songs with increasing ease. I feel a much greater facility on the fretboard and an increased comfort level when playing with the group. I’ve long thought of myself as an introvert, so performing in public in front of people is quite a stretch of my previous identity. Performing is still a source of anxiety, but it has diminished considerably. Jim has often encouraged me to “dig in” and play with “more attitude,” especially when soloing. I’m working on letting go of my usual sense of restraint. I’ve come up with a new musical motto: “It’s Time to Get Nasty.”

I feel a sense of accomplishment with what I’ve learned in the past five years and have even begun to think of myself as a musician and a guitarist. Music is a lifelong path. I’m often reminded of how much I still want to learn and know that will always be the case. It’s one of the appeals of playing music.

Apr 13

Learning to Sing

Ever since I first started taking guitar lessons in 2009, I’ve fantasized about one day learning to sing. All my blues heroes from John Lee Hooker to Buddy Guy sing as well as play guitar. I’ve imagined being able to sing and play songs both solo and with a band, but I’ve had almost no experience singing. I never sang in a school or church choir. I don’t even sing in the shower very often. If I’m by myself in the car, I’ll try to sing along with familiar blues songs. Nevertheless, singing plays such a central role in the blues–the music evolved from field hollers and work songs without instruments–that it feels important to learn to sing.

Up until now it has seemed like I had enough of a challenge just learning the guitar, but now I’m taking a few baby steps.

It continues to amaze me that one could both play and sing at the same time. At my 2 April guitar lesson, I mentioned to my teacher that I had tried singing along (at home alone) with one of the “simplest” songs our ensemble does, Bill Wither‘s “Ain’t No Sunshine,” but couldn’t keep the chords going reliably. Jim assured me that it was a skill that could be learned. He had me sing the notes of the blues scale as I played it up and down the neck and then said I should continue to practice that.

I started learning the Circle of Fourths on the sixth and fifth string early on in my practicing. As Jim insisted, I always sang the notes as I played them. My focus was more on learning the notes on the fretboard than on singing. I continue to practice the Circle regularly.

!Circle of Fourths

Now I’ve made singing the notes of the blues scale a regular part of my practice. At my 17 April lesson, Jim had me sing and play the scales and said I had good pitch, which was encouraging.

This reminds me of my earliest guitar lessons when the simplest finger exercises were a challenge. I now know from experience that practicing leads to improvement, so perhaps singing the blues isn’t so remote a fantasy.


Apr 13

Listening to Blind Willie Johnson (1902-1947)

I took a blues anthology CD out of the library the other day and as I was listening to it, Blind Willie Johnson started singing, “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying” (1928). I’d heard it before, but not recently, so it really struck me. His gruff, raspy voice is echoed at key moments by the high female voice of Willie B. Harris, while Johnson’s keening slide guitar work intensifies the song’s poignancy.

Johnson, Blind Willie with tin cupOne of the best visual representations of the kind of deep pain and high joy that the blues can create is a well-known statue by the Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). The Ecstasy of St. Theresa (1647–1652) is in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. This magnificent statue’s embodiment of spiritual experience has the fluidity of music.

Bernini - T. Teresa-detail 220 pixBlind Willie Johnson’s powerful blend of gospel and blues is hard to describe. Bernini points to what the experience is like, but you simply have to listen to the music. A large part of the appeal of music for me is that even when it uses words it is able to say the unsayable.

In his invaluable and detailed essay on Johnson, Jas Obrecht says he “created some of the most intensely moving records of the 20th century.” Johnson’s musical legacy consists of only 30 recordings on 78s made during the 1920s and ’30s. Obrecht writes: “A slide guitarist nonpareil, Johnson had an exquisite sense of timing and tone, using a pocketknife or ring slider to duplicate his vocal inflections or to produce an unforgettable phrase from a single strike of a string.” Both Eric Clapton and Ry Cooder are great admirers of Johnson’s work. Obrecht quotes Ry Cooder as calling Johnson’s instrumental “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” the “most transcendent piece in all American music.”

Obrecht also quotes Country Joe McDonald’s comment on the 1928 recordings with Willie B. Harris:  “Blind Willie Johnson with his wife was just unbelievable. You’re hearing a flash from the past, the tradition alive. Her singing has a modal plaintiveness that’s a line going back to West Africa and to Portugal and to the Moslem prayer chanting. It’s so spooky.”

Willie Johnson, Jr. was born on January 22, 1897 in Independence, Texas. “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying” was one of four songs Johnson recorded for Columbia in Dallas on December 5, 1928. Johnson died in Beaumont, Texas on September 18, 1945.

Anyone who loves the blues needs to have at least one CD by Blind Willie Johnson. I recommend Dark Was The Night (Columbia/Legacy, CK 65516), which contains 16 essential track with liner notes by Jas Obrecht. Or go all the way with The Complete Blind Willie Johnson, a two-CD set that includes all 30 recordings.

Here are the lyrics to “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying.”

Feb 13

Ensemble Plays at Chicago Church

Our Kagan & Gaines Music Co. ensemble played a set of R&B and blues songs at the Pine Avenue United Church in Chicago Sunday afternoon in honor of Black History Month. The performance went well; we had fun and the audience seemed to enjoy us.

We began with a medley of “It’s All Right,” “My Girl,” and “Rainy Night in Georgia,” then continued with “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” “People Get Ready,” “The Thrill is Gone,” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

At that point, we started playing something I wasn’t expecting, Albert King’s “I’ll Play the Blues for You.” We hadn’t rehearsed it in a while and I hadn’t been practicing it, so it took a moment to realize what the song was and remember the chords.

We concluded with our version of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” It was the perfect finale, because Mickey Johnson went all out in his rendition of Mr. Brown. The audience loved it.

Our ensemble was smaller than usual, because our keyboard player, Vera Beilinson, had to cancel at the last minute, because of illness. Our teacher and leader, Jim Goelitz, who usually plays with us, had a prior commitment.

Alex Scaramuzza and I played guitar, Lawrence Brown played bass, and Justin Young played drums. Mickey Johnson, Mike Estelle, Billy Smith shared vocals in various combinations.

In previous performances, we’ve had music stands, so I had music to refer to if necessary (though I rarely did). This time I didn’t use music and didn’t miss it. There were a few times when I got off track and missed the chord I meant to play, but I hope no one noticed. Alex and I soloed on “The Thrill is Gone,” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

I love playing “Thrill,” and it’s a favorite to solo on, but I felt my solo wasn’t as good as I would have liked. Alex sounded good in his solos, though it’s hard to listen to others in the group when I’m trying to pay attention to what I’m playing.

It was a challenge to hear our singers, because we had no monitors. Afterward, one of the singers said they had the same problem. Kagan & Gaines didn’t supply any equipment for this event, so I used my Crate practice amp. I don’t know how it sounded in the audience, but it seemed to me to be loud enough.

Lawrence, our bass player, is a member of this church, so our group had played here once before on Sunday, October 29, 2011. (My post about it is here.) At that point, I’d only played with the group for a couple of months. It was my first time to play in public with the group. I remember that my anxiety before hand neared panic-attack levels. Since then I’ve gotten more experience playing with the group and performing, I know the material better and my anxiety has greatly diminished.

It’s always encouraging to be reminded that I am making progress in learning to play this music I love so much.


Jan 12

Repetition and Music

Repetition is an essential feature of the form and structure of music. Much of the delight of music comes from repetition. This may come from the repeating of key rhythms, notes or phrases or from more complex forms such as theme and variation in classical music.

Repetition is also the foundation of music practice; without it we’d never learn new music.

Since I began learning to play guitar in the summer of 2009, I’ve played the blues scales up and down the neck countless times. I still repeat them every day, but have reached a point where playing them is almost automatic. I can play them fairly reliably with my eyes closed and can always hear when I miss a note.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve also played a few short Delta blues pieces many, many times. I’ve memorized them and when I’ve been practicing them consistently (I sometimes neglect them to practice other things), I can play them reliably. So far they are the only music I feel I’m close to internalizing. There are times when I feel I’ve made them mine in a sense.

Even after playing for more than three years, I can’t get used to how much practice and repetition it takes to learn music deeply–to internalize it. I often feel like I’ve played a piece so many times that I “ought” to have mastered it by now. How many more times do I need to repeat it? There is no way to know in advance. I just have to stick with it until it becomes “second nature.” Fortunately, I enjoy playing the music, so the repetition isn’t an onerous task.

I’ve been playing in an ensemble since July 2011. I’m getting better at playing the songs in our repertoire, and even though I’ve memorized most of them, I’m still a long way from internalizing them. At times I feel frustrated that I haven’t mastered them yet. Then I think of how much I’ve already learned and that reassures me that in time I’ll learn this too. As a breadmaker, I’ve learned that you can’t hurry the dough. It rises in its own sweet time.