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.

Jun 13

The Call and Response of Creativity

Alice Sara Ott gave an amazing solo piano recital at Symphony Center on Sunday, 2 June 2013. She played Wolfgang Mozart’s Nine Variations in D Major on a Minuet by J.P. Duport (1789), K. 573; Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata in D Major (1825), D. 850 and Franz Liszt’s Grandes études de Paganini (1838 | 1851). The Liszt was described as especially challenging to play and it certainly sounded like it. Ott made it sound effortless, which made her musical ability and technical skill all the more impressive.

The program reminded me of the way creativity is in part a process of call and response. Works of art call to us and we respond in various ways. In classical music, composers have often written works as variations on the work of other composers, as Mozart did here.

Liszt was so powerfully affected by seeing violinist-composer Nicolo Paganini perform in Paris that he vowed to become the Paganini of the piano. Paganini inspired him to work on his piano technique for four or five hours a day. Later Liszt tried to create an equivalent of Paganini’s work on piano.

Ott played the entire program without music. How many hours must she have practiced these complex and difficult works to achieve the level of mastery she showed? Her calling to be a pianist (she began lessons at age 4) is obviously very powerful, as is the call of these composers. When one plays a song or piece of music until it becomes yours in some deep interior sense, then the magic happens.

This creative call and response also occurs throughout the history of the blues. Blues musicians responded to songs they heard and liked by adding them to their own repertoire. They also adopted or “borrowed” parts of lyrics, riffs or melodies, incorporating them into songs of their own creation. I’ve often heard a blues song and recognized a line or phrase I’ve heard in someone else’s song. Once the blues were more widely recorded (and copyrighted) this freely flowing exchange diminished.

Call and response is also an important concept within the blues and related music, but that’s a topic for another post.

May 13

Ensemble Plays for Seniors (5/24/13)

Our Kagan & Gaines Music Co. ensemble played for an enthusiastic group of some 50 elders at Roosevelt Towers on Friday, 24 May 2013. We played through our entire set of fourteen R&B and blues songs: “It’s All Right,” “My Girl,” “Rainy Night in Georgia,” “Feel So Bad (Ballgame on a Rainy Day),” “Black Magic Woman,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” “The Thrill is Gone,” “People Get Ready,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Baby What You Want Me to Do / Bright Lights Big City,” “Come Together,” “So In Love With You,” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” Our set lasted just over an hour, the longest we’ve ever performed.

Mickey Johnson, Mike Estelle, Billy Smith shared vocals in various combinations. Our teacher and leader Jim Goelitz, Alex Scaramuzza and I played guitar, Lawrence Brown played bass, and Justin Young played drums. It was disappointing that our keyboard player, Vera Beilinson, didn’t join us. Jesse set up the sound system before hand and made sure we sounded our best.

The audience had a good time and enjoyed our playing. Mickey went all out on his James Brown rendition for “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” As at our church gig earlier this year, it was a perfect way to finish the set.

Practicing and playing music–both alone and in a group–offer many pleasures and satisfactions, but there’s nothing like performing–and playing well–for a receptive and enthusiastic audience. I think everyone in the group enjoyed it as much as the listeners. I appreciate Mickey Johnson’s arranging for our gig. I would love to do this more often.

May 13

It Takes as Long as It Takes

Years ago I worked for a magazine publishing company in St. Paul. After meeting with the graphic designer to discuss a new brochure or other advertising material, I would always ask how long it would take to see a design. His frequent response was: “It takes two minutes to cook a two-minute egg.”

I’m often reminded of that principle when I notice my impatience to achieve a certain result or goal. Learning music is often a test of patience. It can be frustrating to try to learn a new scale, riff, or set of chords if you feel like you “should” be able to master it–or at least get the hang of it–sooner.

Blues Lick in B

Blues Lick in B

It takes more than knowing on an intellectual level where your fingers are supposed to go. It’s like learning a new dance step. You “know” what your feet are supposed to do, but it takes a certain period of stumbling before the steps turn into the graceful and swinging movement of a dance.

Learning to play guitar (or any other musical instrument) takes a lot of repetition and a lot of practice. If you imagine you should have learned that song after practicing it twenty times, you’ll make yourself miserable, if it takes you 50 or 100 or 300 times.

It can be a challenge, but, as much as possible, I try to focus on playing it this time and then again and then again–and enjoy the process. Each time I play a chord, riff or song I get a little better at it. Practice always leads to improvement. We just have to accept that it takes as long as it takes to reach a level approaching “mastery.”




May 13

Buddy Guy: “When I Left Home: My Story” (2012)

Guy, Buddy - When I Left Home (2012) cover

If you’ve seen one of Buddy Guy’s full out, wild man blues performances, you might not expect the humility and modesty that underlies the life story he tells in When I Left Home. With David Ritz as co-author, Guy recounts key memories in his life, many of them involving meaningful encounters with blues musicians he admired. While I consider Buddy Guy one of the major blues performers alive today, he points humbly to such towering figures as Guitar Slim, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and B.B. King as the originals from whom he learned. B.B. is the only one of these bluesmen who are still living.

Buddy Guy was born George Guy on July 30, 1936 in Lettsworth, Louisiana. While today Guy is a highly successful performer, award-winning recording artist and blues club owner, much of his book details the struggles to eke out a living while performing and recording. For many years he drove a tow-truck in Chicago, because he couldn’t make enough from playing in clubs and as a sideman in Chess Records studio recordings. These struggles are typical of blues musicians of his generation who often earned little or nothing from their recordings and couldn’t earn a living from performing.

The style of the book captures Buddy Guy’s voice as he talks about his life and you can feel his presence. It’s a breezy and enjoyable read. This is by no means a complete autobiography, but rather highlights of a life. Guy deserves a more detailed biography that will fill in his rich history as a bluesman. Nevertheless, When I Left Home succeeds in giving us a flavor of this remarkable life.

Buddy Guy tells good stories, but the real story is in his high-energy guitar playing and singing. He’s at his best live–he’s a consummate showman, so don’t miss a chance to see him perform. You’d never guess from the intensity and enthusiasm of his performances that he was almost 77, but you never know when your “last chance” to see him might come.

Buddy Guy will play this summer on Saturday, June 15 at Blues on the Fox in Aurora, IL and at the Ravinia Festival on Saturday, August 17, 2013. Every January, he plays Thursday through Sunday at his club, Buddy Guy’s Legends in downtown Chicago.


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.

Jan 12

2012: A New Year

A new year begins. However, arbitrary a demarcation that is, it’s an opportunity to look backward and forward. 2011 was overall a good year, especially in regards to my music. I achieved some significant milestones in playing with others and in performing. Those have been goals since I started taking lessons and I want to continue on that path. I’ve come a long way since my first lesson. It’s taken longer than I expected and been more difficult than I imagined before I started out. I still feel like something of a beginner. I’ve greatly expanded my musical abilities, but there is so much I still want to learn, so much I want to be able to play. It almost goes without saying that this will be a lifelong process.

I’d like to start going to more blues jams. There are three that I know of: Harlem Avenue Lounge (where I’ve been a couple of times), Rosa’s Lounge–both on Thursday nights, and  at Buddy Guy’s Legends on Mondays. I don’t feel I’m quite ready to participate, but I hope to get up the courage before the year is out.

A more long-term (but hopefully not too long) goal is to get into some kind of blues band, where I could get more experience playing and performing and expand my repertoire. Ideally, I’d like to play in a group of more experienced players, so I could learn from them and gain experience “playing out.” It will probably be a year or more, before I’m up to that. Someday, I’d like to put together my own blues band, but I’m definitely far from ready to do that. I still need my training wheels–as I’m often reminded in my ensemble class.