Sunday, April 25, 2010

Playing What I Want

Last night, I recalled one of the main contributing factors that led to me quitting music the first time around. I actually majored in flute performance in college. All went well until one day I walked into my flute professor's studio and she handed me the Prokofiev flute sonata and announced that would be the centerpiece of my work that semester. Well, I had come in with my own idea: I wanted to play the Chaminade flute concertino. I had fallen in love with that piece during the previous semester and wanted passionately to perform it. But it was to no avail. My professor had already decided that another student in her studio would be performing the Chaminade and I would be performing the Prokofiev. Nevermind that I didn't even care for the Prokofiev. And trust me, I grew to hate it. And I did not perform it well because I hated it so much. As a musician, I knew good and well that there would be times I'd have to perform pieces that I didn't like so much. But the fact that, as a soloist, I had no say in what I would perform that semester, really burned me. Music was supposed to be about expressing the soul, not fitting into some cookie-cutter world. This incident started a chair reaction that ended with me giving up the flute.

Today things are much different. I threw myself into a career that I initially loved, and over time became disillusioned with, but sucked up when the economy turned poor. A 17-year career with a company ended with a devastating layoff. But that certainly put things into perspective. And in many ways that event turned out to be the best thing ever - because now I have music back! Because one thing I learned through that whole trying time is that I'm in charge of my decisions. And I decided that I would play the guitar, and that I would play what I want.

So I walked into my guitar instructor's studio for the first time last December. And what was the first thing he said to me? He said, "what do you want to learn?" A far cry from "thou shalt learn this!!" from 20+ years ago. Instead of wanting to produce a carbon copy of himself in terms of style and artistry, he wants to help me produce me. When I bring in a song I want to work on, he doesn't laugh or dismiss it summarily (although he may gently suggest it's not quite within my skill range yet). Finally! I'm playing what I want.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Festival Season is Upon Us! Finally!

We finally got that long, cold, weird wet winter behind us and are full-steaming it ahead into spring. And that means one thing: Outdoor festivals! And live music on patios at bars and restaurants all over. What is it about hearing music outside that's so, well, festive?

I kicked off my outdoor music season at Berryhill Baja Grill last night, featuring guitarist extraordinaire, Vic Duncan, who also happens to be my instructor. Berryhill is a cool place, because they have the kind of doors that slide all the way open, literally bringing the outdoors in. Kind of a weird setup for a "stage" for Vic (we actually ended up sitting behind him) but hey, the Dos Equis was cold, and the music was live! Trade Frankford Road for a beach or a lake view, and nothing could be more perfect. Well, unless drinks were on the house...

Thus began my month-long warmup for the ever popular Wildflower Festival in Richardson. This is its 18th year, and my 6th consecutive year. It's an annual weekend event for me and my sister, and it's by far the best outdoor festival I've ever been to. It's situated in, of all things, a corporate campus. There are banks, hotels, "urban-style" aparments, and various corporate headquarters on site. But they nestle 3 outdoor stages, one indoor stage as well as a laser show inside a theater into it. Then they mix in a food court, beverage stations, artisan tents and other vendors and it makes it one big, three-day party. A festival, even! And it's so cost-effective. A three-day pass is only $25. That's for *all* the shows!

A couple of years ago, thanks to some artwork my brother had donated, my sister and I managed to score VIP passes. Well, that spoiled us, and so now we plan to spring for the "Friends of the Festival" package which gets us reserved seating, free catering and beverages, as well as rooftop viewing. And that's even relatively cost-effective: $250 for 2 people. So $125 apiece. I paid $150 for one Van Halen ticket. It's a bargain!

This year's lineup features noteable local as well as national acts, like: Journey tribute band Frontiers, Le Freak, the B-52's, Candlebox, Los Lonely Boys, Vince Neil, and many, many others. Including .38 Special, who I've always wanted to see in concert, but never have. In addition, there's a singer/songwriter competition, and a street dance. The fun is non-stop! I've even considered checking into the on-site hotel so I don't have to miss a minute (and can always get to a private restroom...)

I'm already planning what to wear...

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Suffering for my Art

So they told me all about how I'd get callouses on my fretting fingers when I started to play the guitar. What they didn't tell me was how much it would hurt - and continue to hurt. I just got finished playing a few minutes ago, and decided to start typing, which wasn't such a good idea. Each stroke of a key my left hand is responsible for sends a zinger up my finger.

I figured, well once the callouses are there, it won't hurt anymore, right? Wrong. I've been playing every day now since December. Every day after practice, my fingers hurt. And not just some surface pain, it goes pretty deep within my fingertips. It hurts for several hours after I'm finished, and then they continue to be numb.

Always numb. I can't even pick up paper or small things with my left hand anymore. So I'm thinking - are all guitarists out there, all the ones in bands and ones that jam at home, and all the classical players - are they all walking around without feeling in their fretting-hand fingertips? How long has it been since Eddie Van Halen, Eric Clapton, or Jeff Beck had non-numb fingertips? And how does it affect their daily lives?

For me, it makes it difficult to work my office job sometimes. But at least I'm beginning to understand why "they" picked the non-dominant hand to play the frets. I always wondered about that - I mean, why wouldn't you use your "stronger" hand to do the hard part? Well, it's because your fretting hand is rendered semi-useless in the process, so best go with the non-dominant hand. For that, I am thankful.

And I have a whole new appreciation for Bryan Adams' lyric, "...played it 'til my fingers bled..."

Now I'm off to soak my fingertips in Palmolive...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

My Inner Guitar Hero

So, I used to be one of those "musician-types" who scoffed at those that took Guitar Hero and Rock Band seriously. I mean, I thought, cute - if you want to pretend to play instruments and be in a band, fine; it's just not for me. The music is good, and it's fun at a party. But I had people actually tell me, "oh, my boy Timmy is so awesome at Guitar Hero, that we're going to get him guitar lessons!" Um...well, that's not always going to be a direct translation from one to the other. Guitars have frets and strings, need to be tuned, are bigger than guitar controllers, the list goes on.

Nine times out of ten "Timmy" gave up quickly, especially when they realized how much time away from Guitar Hero guitar practice was taking...

Still, I like to sing, so I got Rock Band to be the singer. The singing part on that game, while not displayed exactly as typical music notation, is actually quite a good visual of pitch, and gives you a pretty good idea of whether you're on pitch or not. So I'd say Rock Band can help you train as a singer, at least where pitch is concerned.

I decided if I was going to make the most of my Rock Band game, I'd better try the drums and guitars. I'm happy to report that the drums, while definitely not set up like a "regulation" kit, do a great job with rhythm and timing. I'd definitely recommend parents start their kid out with Rock Band drumming and see if they take to it before investing a full-blown drum kit, and the headaches that accompany a beginning budding drummer.

Finally, I picked up the guitar controller and tried my hand. Having played the actual guitar, I thought it would be a breeze. What's pushing little buttons down compared with the agony of developing callouses on my left-hand fingers? Well, certainly there's very little callous-building happening in Rock Band and Guitar Hero. It doesn't help you read tablature or understand chords. It doesn't help you find out what notes are on what strings, where. No barre chords. No hammer-ons or pull-offs. But, not unlike the drums, I find that those games help me a lot with rhythms.

The little "fret lines" that slide down the screen toward you as you play are actually set at eighth-note intervals. I've seen some pretty complex rhythms coming down, even on the easy levels. Some fast transitions. Some combinations that work better with up-and-down strokes rather than just down. And even though you're never really playing along with the lead guitar on the music track, if you listen well, you can really tell how the rhythms fit in with the guitar lines in the track.

Oh, and there's a whammy bar!!

So now, I'm a convert. I say, "Let them play Guitar Hero!" kids of today can be exposed to some amazingly legendary classic rock while we "older folks" can learn to appreciate the music of today. It's always good for the generations to understand one another. And, if you learn a little about music in the meanwhile, all the better for society as a whole.

Just remember - it's a game - have fun! And if you do find that you're musically inclined, don't be afraid to try out the "real thing."