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.

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.





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.

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.”




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.


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.