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.

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.



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.

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.

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

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.

Oct 11

Milestone: My First Gig (10/29/11)

I got to the Pine Avenue United Church in Chicago about fifteen minutes early and sat in the car trying to meditate and calm myself. I had never played guitar in public before and had only played with our Kagan & Gaines ensemble for a couple of months. For the previous couple of days, I’d been extremely nervous about this event. When I saw Jim Goelitz, my guitar teacher pull up, I went to the door with him. He had brought three large guitar amplifiers from Kagan & Gaines.

Lawrence Brown, our bass player, is education director of the church, so he was already there for the youth outreach program, which lasted all weekend. Justin Young, our drummer, was also already there. Jim and I set up the amps in front of the stage next to where Justin had set up his drums.

The room was a large auditorium-like space the size of a basketball court (there was even a hoop at the end opposite the stage). Near the stage were a number of folding chairs and behind them were folding tables and chairs.

The program started a little after 3:00. Six young women did an interpretative dance to a couple of modern recorded gospel songs. Then four young people from another church did a mime interpretation of two gospel songs. They wore black robes and white gloves. Stark white makeup highlighted their facial expressions.

I’d been nervous that Alex Scaramuzza, guitar, and Mickey Johnson, vocal, hadn’t arrived, but they made it before it was our time to go on. I was relieved our group wasn’t first on the program. It gave me a chance to get used to the space and the audience.

We started with an instrumental, Jimmy Smith’s “Back at the Chicken Shack.” Then Mickey came up and we did “The Thrill Is Gone” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “My Girl,” and “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.” Even though it wasn’t on the planned set list, Mickey announced Otis Rush’s “Feel So Bad” and we played that after “Thrill.”

He obviously likes that song, and he used it effectively to get the crowd going. He had suggested playing it at our practice the previous evening. Fortunately, I had an intuition to go over the chords yesterday and so I was able to get through it OK. I played almost the entire set without music.

As our final number, Jim picked “Equinox,” the John Coltrane jazz tune, which I felt weakest on. Fortunately, Jim and Alex played the melody. I’m still having trouble with the timing on it. Once Mickey left, the audience started to disperse. They especially responded to “My Girl,” recognized the instrumental lead-in, and sang along.