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.


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.

Sep 11

Floating into the Blues

One of the most valuable techniques my teacher Jim Goelitz has taught me is his “trademarked” method of learning chords, which he calls “float and drop.” The goal is to learn the chord shapes as a grip that your hand remembers with precision. To practice chords, you very slowly position your fingers just above the strings (float) and frets you want to press for a chord. Then you very slowly drop your fingers to the strings and strum the chord to make sure it sounds clear. You repeat this process with the next chord.

I find this is an especially helpful way to practice two or more new chords when I’m having trouble getting reliably from one chord to the next. Recently, Jim had me demonstrate “float and drop” for a couple of chords that were bothering me. He noticed that I was moving too fast. He stressed that the movement needs to be like slow motion in a movie. This helps ensure accuracy and precision. Before your fingers touch the strings, they need to be in the exact position for that chord.

It may seem obvious, but in working on a transition from one chord to the next, I realized it helps to notice the most direct path your fingers can take between the two chords. Perhaps a finger stays on the same string and just moves up or down. It’s more effective to practice following this path in slow motion with “float and drop.” It may take a lot of repetition, but eventually it leads to improvement.

Once I’m starting to get familiar with a chord grip or transition, I find it helpful to practice it with my eyes closed. The ultimate goal is to “find” the chords without looking.