Friday, July 31, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Day 31: Practicing in the Smart Car


Now, I thought basement practicing was a sign of commitment, but Peig has it over all of us, hands down. Driving her SmartCar to the cemetery and practicing there. You know, because it's hot out and the car has A/C. Oh, to be a fly on the windshield.

This brings me to a favorite site, www.chiffandfipple.com, and their treatise on knee driving and whistling. I admit it: I've done it and learned a million tunes while driving to distant gigs. Not sure if it's worse than texting and driving, but I've done both, and every time I think that I really shouldn't. And, I believe that it was just two days ago that I wrote about the way my subliminal self responds to things that I shouldn't do.

If you see a beat up old Corolla loaded with instruments, steer clear.

For fun reading... do visit:

http://www.chiffandfipple.com/kneedriving.html

Thursday, July 30, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Day 30: What Commitment Will Allow You to Put Up With

When I practice, I think of so many things I want to write about, it boggles my mind. I actually think it may even interfere with a thoroughly focused practice. So I'll narrow it down. Tonight: It's meese. You got meese? We have meese.

And I did mention that the practice room is in the basement? Last night, I was reminded in my basement practice session that, as they said in that 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, "We are not alone."

No mice sightings, just lots of evidence. Sherlock Holmes would just say, in a perfect London accent, "Duh." Please: I write about this in confidence... in the belief that I am not so special, and that I am Everyman. And as far as I can tell, Everyman has meese in their basement. But yes, it freaks me out, all the same. As do the earwigs, the pill boxes, the silverfish, the unidentified things with a million long legs, and the giant carpenter ant that I squashed with the bottom of my silver-sequined flip flop last night. (Then wiped up after, with closed, averted eyes, using an antibacterial wipe. I don't do guts well.) Everyone's basement is totally gross, right? Even those of us with semi finished ones?

So, that's what I suffer when I go down to the practice room. Oh, and the damp air and probably mold spores. If I have asthma after 100 days, please let's refer back to Day 30, shall we?

What I didn't write about last night was that I was so disgusted by the buggies in the basement (I have to speak of them like cartoon characters or I might never practice again) that I decided that it's time to Feng Shui the dungeon. That is, throw crap away. Lots of it.

So, today, emboldened and helped immensely by visiting Mother In Law Extraordinaire, I spent the afternoon in the basement making a giant yard sale pile. Giant. Remember Day 24? The cleaning night? The promise of a yard sale? Finally, I've held to a promise.

Then I went off to a splendid gig with Stage Door Canteen on the Buzzards Bay Commons. The saxophone section was stellar: Billy Thompson on lead tenor, Geoff Vidal on 2nd tenor, Roger on lead alto, Tom Bankert on second alto. Me on bari. Smokin', all of them. What fun!

And the dancers: All under three years old, and all fabulous. Make life worth living. Make music worth playing.

Came home, ate ice cream with family. Saw them all off to bed and at 11:30 went downstairs just for the ha-ta-tas but ended up also doing the technique exercises that I have yet to disclose...Woulda kept going but also thought perhaps certain particularly special family members (okay, one of them) might like to see my face before turning in for the night. Right after I finish this blog entry...

So let's get back to the yard sale. It's Sunday. Please come. We're starting early. 7-noon. At noon, I pack it in, count our earnings, take a shower, and head off to Hyannis, where I'll play with Stage Door Canteen as we open for the Boston Pops.

What a weekend!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Day 29: A Father's Stories...

My father really loves to tell this story. It used to make me feel silly, but I'm beyond embarrassment now. Why? Because I've realized: nothing has changed.

He finds this all very amusing and also telling: When I was a young kid learning the saxophone, starting from when I was ten years old, I was required to practice every night after dinner. It wasn't so easy to get me upstairs to my room to do so, he says. And I do remember. I recall him saying, "Just go upstairs and play for ten minutes. That's all you have to do." But I just didn't wanna. I would storm off from the table, stomp up the stairs, and slam the bedroom door. Begrudgingly take out the sax. (Problem was not so much about playing the sax as it was rebelling from being told what to do...) A few minutes later, the saxophone would start, he says. And it would continue... sometimes for two hours.

Downstairs, he'd chuckle to himself and enjoy the music, the squeaks, the squawks, and very rarely make further comment.

What has changed since then?

Day 29, and I'll say: Not so much. Only difference is that instead of stomping up stairs, now I'm running down those stairs to the practice room and can't wait to start. Like tonight. It began as a challenge, but ended joyfully.

Tonight was supposed to be a short session because I am exhausted, and also because I wanted to rest my hands after last night's concert at the Church of the Pilgrimage in Plymouth. We had a great night and overall, we're pleased. Doubly so because that big show is behind us, and we made it. (Thank you so much, you amazing friends, for coming. It really does mean so much!) So many terrific people came to the show, and that put us on a high. Naturally, that resulted in a direct trip around the corner from the church, to T Bones Roadhouse after the show, to enjoy a few brewskis with folks we hadn't seen in ages. Then, as we do, we continued celebrating back at the homestead, at the chimenea, then into the basement bar... my practice room. Steve's dad is in town from Ireland. And Steve sang a lot. That was awesome. I gave up at 3 am. They continued.

Let's just say that this morning was a little, well, ropey.

Best cure? How about this: drive to Provincetown with the inlaws and a cranky three year old, on an 85 degree day, taking scenic backroads in a car with no air conditioning. Also, make sure that you hit lots of traffic, just for good measure. If this doesn't kill you, no headache will.

I exaggerate (except the cranky three-year-old part. Oh she was REALLY cranky.) It was an absolutely enjoyable day but it was long. Home at 8 pm, just in time to have dinner and then at 9 pm, I hit the expected challenge: the mother in law and her very sensible and reasonable Irish attitude to life. As we finished cleaning up the kitchen, I said, "Well.. it's time for me to go practice for a few minutes." Her suggestion, and I could have predicted this word for word: "Or, you could just sit down, put your feet up, and have a relaxing evening for yourself."

There was no use explaining my 100 days. It wouldn't make sense to her ultra practical mind. I just said, "Well, I'll just go down there for ten minutes, that's all..." and then raced downstairs.

With last night's concert behind us, I was eager to revisit my sleek black and silver friend who'd been so kind the night before. That ol' flute, a great friend it has been (but only because I've decided to be a good friend to it). I turned my practice attention to tunes I have left dormant for a couple of weeks, and how fun it was to be with those old friends again, too!

It felt good. Real good. And most important was another realization: suddenly that elusive but so far evasive goal is feeling attainable. Not sure how far away or how long it will take, but it's clear that it's there, it's possible, it's reachable. And that is an amazing revelation.

An hour later, I had to tear myself away to come back upstairs. To write to you. How fabulous. But now, seriously, it's time to go to bed. Thank you!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Day 28: So Much for a Break

Hm... that break never really did happen. Rehearsal instead, but all in prep for tonight's concert at Church of the Pilgrimage, Plymouth, 8 pm. Featuring the Lindsays with Brian "Bongo Furey" Haley on percussion, Nikki "The Enigma II" Engstrom on fiddle, and Salil "The Happy Buddha" Sachdev on additional funky cool world percussion. Want a preview? Shh... don't tell. Ooh.. and also, tonight's show is being recorded. If it's good, it may become Live at the Pilgrimage II. Clap loudly.

The Lindsays and Friends
July 28, 2009
www.irishmusic.us

PROGRAM
Summertime (George Gershwin)

Jig Medley: Beyond Ballybay (Ed Reavey)/Swans Among the Rushes (Ed Reavey)/
Garret Barry’s (Trad.)

Air/Reels: In Memory of Herbie McCleod/Gordon Cote/Brenda Stubberts

The Green Fields of France (Eric Bogle)

Reel Medley: The Flutophonist/Annie Come Lately/Christmas in America (Brendan Tonra)

Wildwood (Paul Weller)

One Last Cold Kiss (Gail Collins & Felix Pappalardi)

Ordinary Man (Christy Moore)

Reel Medley: Mrs. Conway’s Chocolate Cake (Bill Black)/Jump Ball (Liz Carroll)/Musical Priest (Trad.)/Catharsis (Amy Cann)

And maybe more! See you tonight?

Monday, July 27, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Day 27: The Irish in the Civil War...and a Break

My friend Deb has got me thinking about the Irish in the US Civil War. Deb said she brought her whistle along on her annual trip to Gettysburg, and has been practicing on a quiet corner of the battlefield every day. She was moved to tears the other morning when she played her whistle on Little Round Top.

It was surely more than her own Irish soul stirring at the tunes she played. Such heavy Irish involvement in the US Civil War, and heavy losses thus sustained… so many Irish souls wandering that battlefield, people who’d survived the Irish Famine only to sacrifice their life on the battlefield at Gettysburg rallying for a cause that was barely their own.

Some 200,000 Irish-born men fought in the American Civil War, the timing of which meant that all of them would have come to America during the Great Famine and its aftermath. At that time, the Irish were the largest non-English ethnic group in the United States besides the African born slaves—and many historians see their involvement in the Civil War as a major step forward for Irish assimilation.

Like most Americans, Irish emigrants at that time were primarily loyal to their region—and so fought on both sides of the war. Five Confederate generals were Irish born and the Irish provided largest number of foreign-born troops in the South. Ten southern states had Irish units—and this is not counting the American born “Scotch-Irish,” descendants of the northern Ulster Scots who’d settled the American frontier, including the southern states and Appalachian regions, in large numbers in the 1700s.
Even greater was the Irish involvement in the Union Army. Thirty-eight regiments had the word “Irish” in their names and some 150,000 and probably more served in the Union Army—and countless more who were US born, second generation Irish. High-ranking Union officers included Meagher, Corcoran, and James Shields.

Notable among the Irish soldiers was the Irish Fighting 69th from New York, which later became incorporated into the Irish Brigade, led by the veteran nationalist leader of Ireland Thomas Francis Meagher. Before coming to America, Meagher had been a leader in a new Irish nationalist movement, the Young Irelanders, a group that favored more aggressive action against British rule there—a flame fanned by atrocities suffered in the Famine. Until that point, a more moderate “constitutional” resistance was in place, led by the great diplomat Daniel O’Connell. The Young Irelanders represented a return to the more hard core republicanism of Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen movement at the end of the prior century. The Young Irelanders launched a rebellion in 1848, and it failed completely and Meagher was among the leaders who left Ireland for America after its demise.

Meagher in fact had been an elite in Ireland. After the rebellion, he was arrested and was sentenced to penal servitude in Australia for life, but escaped to America in 1852. In America, he joined the New York bar, founded the Irish News, and then founded the famous Irish Brigade of the Union Army, in which he served as brigadier general. (Read more at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Brigade_(U.S.).

Meagher led the brigade in thesecond Bull Run, Antietam, and Frederickburg, all of which resulted in heavy losses. He requested fresh troops and was denied, and resigned in protest shortly thereafter. But the diminished Irish Brigade did continue on to Gettysburg, under the leadership of Col. Patrick Kelly. They brought some 600 to fight and in the end suffered the greatest losses of any unit at Gettysburg. Shortly after the battle, what was left of the regiment disbanded.

Then, only two weeks after Gettysburg, things got ugly for the Irish in New York. The US announced the Conscription Act, which instituted a draft that would begin on July 13. Despite significant and earnest involvement in the Union Army, it was clear that the Irish up to this point were underrepresented in the Civil War ranks, and it appeared that the draft was aimed directly at them.

To make things worse, politically the Irish were not a pro-abolitionist crew. They were opposed to emancipation and also the draft, and they had their reasons. They saw emancipation as both a social and economic threat, reasoning that it would mean an influx of cheap labor from the south, and thus direct competition for jobs. In northern cities, the Irish had already taken over the jobs previously relegated to blacks: stablemen, coachmen, porters, shoeshiners, laundresses, seamstresses, cooks, and other domestic help. However, they still worked together and competed for jobs on the docks, and tensions among Irish and black longshorement were by this time deep rooted.

The tensions erupted on Monday, July 13, 1863, on the eve of the Conscription Act going into effect. The only escape from the draft was a payment of $300—equal to the average laborer’s annual salary. And by this time, the war had become primarily about the abolition of slavery, a cause most Irish workers did not support, and many Irish saw the draft as a direct attack on the Irish population. The draft’s timing did little to court the Irish, as its eve was the famous July 12 Orange Day, which the English in Ireland celebrate William of Orange’s Protestant victory over the Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

And so, the riots broke out, and for four days, mobs of Irish longshoremen and other workers roamed the streets of New York symbolically and systematically attacking symbols of power and privilige in the city and also beating, lynching, and driving out black workers along the waterfront. Police figures counted 119 dead, but many suggest that the number was far greater. Estimates are that at least 2,000 more were injured and total property damage was about $1 million. The riots put a hold on the draft in New York, but it resumed on August 19. It was completed within 10 days without any more rioting or problems, but in the end, of the 750,000 whose cards were drawn, only about 45,000 actually served.

Thank you to Kevin Kenny’s The American Irish for much of this information.


And finally, a note about the 100 Days:


Today, in prep for tomorrow's concert, I'm taking a break. My fingers hurt, and Practice Tip #A1, most important of all: If there's pain, STOP! Probably will rehearse tonight, but the hands are hurting and also are becoming a bit less nimble. It's time.

Friday, July 24, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Day 24: When Beer and Buddha Collide

The Porters' Keurig saved my @##@$#$.

See, some days it's REAL freaking hard to get around to practice. Like, oh, today. Inlaws arrive from Ireland this evening, and the house is a bomb shelter.

Earlier today, I was going to write Practice Tips, Part II. Foremost: Pick a time. Make it immutable. Make a backup plan.

Plan A is always to wake up before everyone else and practice first thing. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn't. Like today.

Didn't get to practice early because Annie woke up early, and it's been all Annie, all day. Plan B on the practice is Annie's afternoon nap. Guess what? No nap today.

Plan C: After Annie goes to sleep. Well, today Annie was scheduled to go with Steve to the airport to pick up parents, and my plan was to stay home, clean the house, practice when that's done. Guess what? Steve left four hours later than expected.

So, 8 pm is when I begin to clean. It's Friday. When everyone else in the world is chilling with a beer (I tell myself), I consume chocolate cake, chocolate buns, down an enormous coffee ("Jet Fuel" from the Coffee People coffee company out of Seattle) at the Porters and head home to clean. That is, run around my house at rocket speed, spinning like a buffer, cleaning for the arrival of the inlaws. When I say running, I mean running. I got two hours folks, and it ain't pretty.

Remember yesterday, I wrote about keeping your practice zone clean? How important it is to keep the environment organized and free of clutter? Well, that's not because I do it. It's because I wish it. See, when we're talking about this house, I'm not saying things are a bit messy. I'm talking war zone. Think: Falls Road, Belfast, August 1969. Oh no, it ain't pretty.

It's my guess that most moms clean their houses when their kids nap. But I've been using that time to practice, and God bless the house, it has suffered.

So, I've spent two hours now running around this house, thinking "Where is all this clutter from?" You want clutter? I got clutter. No, seriously, DO YOU WANT CLUTTER? Because I'm having a yard sale. Next week. You can have ALL of mine.

I knew I was in for it tonight. Because all week, once 5:00 hit, there was no energy left. Nada. As a result, Monday's dishes still in the dishwasher... and because it's full, last night's dishes still in the sink. Goodness, what would Buddha say?

Probably not what I said. I said, "More chocolate. More caffeine." In preparation, like. All day, I'm gearing up for the big clean. With big coffees. Lots of chocolate. Satoko's chocolate buns. (No, not those buns. Those are probably more beige, but I'm okay with not knowing.)

The Buddhist might say: "No, you have not played flute today. But this is all practice. Make it a mindful clean and you can say you have practiced. These practices are one. Do the cleaning as if it were practice, and let loose your goals, your grasping. Be there with the cleaning."

Not me. Tonight, I'm living for the beer. And the sax. My goal: As soon as the house is clean and the living room vacked, I get to have a beer. Pull out my saxophone. Read the Charlie Parker Omnibook at 420 BPM. That is reward.

And guess what? Just finished. Got a text message that the posse is en route, and fast approaching. So, it's Harpoon time. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a sax to play.

The next two weeks are Test Time. I've made it 23 consecutive days, but it's been easy. Now watch me with guests. This one's gonna be tough!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Day 23: Tips

A Few Tips to Help Maximize Practice Time

Control your environment. It really helps to be uninterrupted. Let family and others in your household know that you need focused time. Select a space that is away from the fray of daily life: a basement room, or on a different floor of the house.

Keep the space tidy. A cluttered space can result in a cluttered mind. If you spend the first ten minutes of your supposed practice time just trying to find your instrument under piles of clothes, books, and paper, you will not come to your practice session with an uncluttered mind.

Practice when no one's home, or when no one else is awake. You'll know you're not interrupting anyone else, and you'll be free to make your own mistakes without worry of someone hearing you. It also allows you to take risks or try new things that you might not have tried if you knew someone were listening. If you can, sound proof your room.

Secure the support of those you need most, whether it be your close friends, your spouse, or your partner. Let them know that daily practice is important to you. If it really is that important to you, you'll find that you're a far more pleasant person to be around when you're doing it. The rewards will be obvious both to you and to those around you.

On that note, no matter how important practice is, take care of your family first. Your practice will have much greater chances of success if it is in balance with the rest of your family life. If you are skipping the family dinner in order to practice, you may find that family or your partner resents your efforts, and as a result, any efforts you make will be counterbalanced with the work you have to do to right your relationship.

Turn off the phone. Calls can wait 'til you're done. It's too easy for a phone call to completely derail your practice session.

Take your time. Especially when your practice time is limited, remember that it's quantity over quality. Better to spend 20 minutes working out that two-measure bug in a tune you've been learning than to rush through all ten songs that you're trying to keep current.

Play slowly. Better to play a tune once or twice, but do it right, than to play it twenty times but repeat the same mistakes. Playing slowly also exposes your weak points. You'll quickly see which parts of the tune you don't really know, when you force yourself to play a tune very slowly.

Remain focused. Don't phone it in. Especially once you're getting to know your tunes well, or when you're working on one of your daily practice routines (such as playing long tones), it's easy to tune out and not pay attention. You may find that you've been playing for ten minutes and not heard a single note you've played... instead, you were thinking about your to-do list for later in the day, the guy who pissed you off in the grocery store line, or the car repairs you haven't yet scheduled.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Last week with Debbie and Friends

Hi all! Just sharing a few nice pics from a concert last week with Debbie and Friends at the Cape Cod Playhouse in Dennis. We played a new song, "So So Happy" and it was so so fun... more on Debbie and her music at www.debbieandfriends.net! Great kids music, plus great new t-shirts, and ain't it all about the clothes, after all?



100 Days of Practice: Day 22, Adding to the Pile


Well... it would appear that I'm slacking on the writing... but not the practice. Instead, I've added to the task, now making sure that every day includes practice on not one, but two, instruments: sax and flute. Could be alto, soprano, or baritone sax... always Irish flute, and sometimes ALSO adding silver. 100 days isn't enough. Gotta add more weight. So far today: just Gershwin on sax. And some reels... some really cool sax music in store!

Anyway: This week's rehearsing time is all geared toward our next Tuesday's concert at Church of the Pilgrimage, which we will be recording. Here's info on the concert.

Music for a Summer Evening 2009 CONCERT SERIES

Tuesday July 28, 8:00 p.m.

The Lindsays, Traditional Irish Music and Then Some

Church of the Pilgrimage, 8 Town Square, Plymouth, Mass.

Free and open to the public


(PLYMOUTH, MA) – Husband-and-wife duo Stephen and Susan Lindsay return to the Music for a Summer Evening music series on Tuesday, July 28, 8:00 p.m. at the Church of the Pilgrimage, 8 Town Square, Plymouth. The Lindsay’s music is rooted in the Irish tradition—including upbeat instrumental tunes on flute, saxophone, and fiddle—but this year’s program extends to surprising places, including story-songs of love and war from contemporary Irish singer Christy Moore, pillar of British rock Paul Weller, and American songwriting icon George Gershwin. Tuesday’s program will also include some familiar Irish sing-alongs for a friendly evening of Irish-inspired music. Special guests will include: Brian Haley on conga and djembe; Nikki Engstrom, Cape-based fiddler whose recording Another Round won the Celtic Radio.net’s Album of the Year in 2008; and Plymouth resident Salil Sachdev, world-renowned percussionist, filmmaker, and chair of the Music Department at Bridgewater State College. Concert is free and open to the public.

About the Musicians

Susan (Gedutis) Lindsay is a Plymouth native and author of See You at the Hall: Boston’s Golden Era of Irish Music and Dance. She teaches in the Music Department at Bridgewater State College, and is a freelance music writer and editor for a varied roster of clients, including Berklee Press, Berkleemusic.com, and the Boston Irish Reporter newspaper. She completed her Master of Music in Ethnomusicology at Tufts University in Boston, and earned a Bachelor of Arts in music from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. In addition to the Lindsays, she also performs on baritone saxophone with Cape-based swing band Stage Door Canteen, and with children’s entertainer Debbie and Friends.

Stephen Lindsay is originally from Dublin, Ireland but now calls Plymouth home. His musical style was forged in the numerous Irish ballad sessions in and around Dublin’s northside, where traditional Irish ballads sat comfortably alongside newer songs from Christy Moore, Neil Young, or Bob Marley. Together with his band Celtic Symphony, he founded a long-time singing session at the Lighthouse Bar in Howth, a historic fishing village in northern Dublin that is also home to Barney McKenna, banjo player from the famous ballad band the Dubliners.

Since Nikki Engstrom's teenage days performing in (and winning) countless fiddle competitions in New England and Canada, she has delighted audiences with her spirited jigs, reels, and sensitive slow airs. Today, she performs with guitar/songwriter Sean Brennan in the Cape-based duo Stanley & Grimm, and also is the anchor of “Sonnay”—an all-ages fiddle group that consists of more than 25 of her students. Her recent CD Another Round won Celtic Radio.net’s 2008 album of the year.

Salil Sachdev, born in India, now lives in Plymouth. He is a composer, percussionist, filmmaker, and chair of theMusic Department at Bridgewater State College. His interest and research in world music has taken him to various parts of India, Ireland, and Africa, where he studied West African (Djembe) drumming, hand percussion, and Solkattu - the rhythmic solfege language of South India. In 2006 he completed a documentary film on the music of the Sidis, an ethnic group of East African ancestry living in India for since the last 800 - 900 years. Currently Salil is completing a film on the traditional music of Mali, West Africa. He holds a D.M.A. University of Miami, M.M. Ohio University, M.A. Northwestern University, and B.A. Delhi University.

# # #

Monday, July 20, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Day 20: Is Gigging Practice?

Back at it now. Just wanted to observe a couple days of silence, leave Jerry at the top of the blog for a few days.

In the meantime, the 100 Days continue and with style.

Experiment yesterday: Can lots of playing substitute for practice? Conclusion: No.

We planned to go to Bill Black's session at Tommy Doyle's in the afternoon, then I had a gig there with Stage Door Canteen later that night. That's about four hours of playing. I thought I'd give myself a break and not hit the practice room. Actually, frankly I didn't have a chance so I thought I'd at least get my playing in and still count it as a day.

Because it was an experiment, it still counts as a day. But as it turns out, it doesn't work. Gigging is not the same as practicing. And playing is not the same as practicing.

Practicing requires a certain mindfulness, an awareness and focus, an intentionality. Performing does too, but not quite the same kind. Performing is where the rubber hits the road. Practice is where you install and pump up the tires. Practice is where you can fix your errors.

Conclusion: Performing does NOT substitute. Same joy should be brought to both endeavors, but the focus is different.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Jerry Holland's Pure Radiance: Thank You


One of these mornings
You're gonna rise up singin'
You're gonna spread your wings
And fly to the sky...


From "Summertime," composed by George Gershwin for Porgy and Bess (1935).

Yesterday, Jerry Holland did just that: rose up singing, flew to the sky...after a two-year battle with cancer. He was 54.

Why? Why Jerry? Why do the good ones go so early? It's the question we can't help but ask. Seems the good ones deserve more summers. But I suppose that before we shake our fists at the heavens, let's redirect the question, "Why?" Let's ask this question not about his death, but about his life.

Jerry Holland spent his life answering that question. Born and raised not too far south of Boston, Holland's father was a musician. His parents brought him along on Friday nights to the Rose Croix, a dance hall in Dudley Square, Roxbury, MA, where the Downeaster set living in Boston would go to dance. As a young lad, he watched and listened to the finest of Cape Breton musicians in Boston: "Winston Fitzgerald, Bill Lamey, Angus Chisholm, and several other less well-known fiddlers, including his father," his bio states. Pianist Janine Randall (daughter of Downeaster Johnny Muise) told me years ago that she remembers being a young child with Jerry at these halls, the two of them playing in the lobby during the dances, swinging off banisters, dodging parents' suits and crinoline skirts. He absorbed the music, and by 1976, as a teen, had become an extremely talented fiddler. He relocated to Cape Breton, which has been his home ever since. A lifetime of international touring, performance, and composition has made us one of the stalwarts of Celtic music. (More about Jerry's background on his own Web site.) But above it all, there is a statement on his Parlor Music CD that seems to encapsulate what music was about for him:

"Two old friends who occasionnaly string together a few tunes in someone's welcoming living room; that is the humble context in which traditional music's vitality has been sustained over the centuries. On this recording, which pretends to be nothing fancy, we hear two of Cape Breton's finest players in such a setting."

That says it all.

For those who would listen to his music--full hearted, joy filled, ego free, attached to neither fame nor fortune, unpretentious, committed and connected to those around him, as he so clearly was--isn't that a way to answer that eternal question, "Why?" Isn't that what music making is about? Expressing both the question and the answer that is beyond words, words that cannot be uttered but only felt?

Right after I learned about Jerry Holland's passing, my friend fiddler Beth Sweeney stopped in. We shared a sad moment, and then swapped our own recollections of Jerry Holland. We didn't really know him, but both has met him more than once. And we have both been touched by his music and his presence. She recalled back to 1993, when she first discovered Jerry Holland's music. She was a little embarrassed to admit that she remembered having said to her then-new boyfriend, "I'm going to measure my life by "before" and "after" hearing Jerry Holland." We chuckled, but really it's not all that funny. That's what kind of musician he was: so significant that a person can say that his music made a marked change in their life. There is something in his music. Something in his playing, his phrasing, his meaning that awakens us to some new vision, an audible, singable representation of the things that life can be.

Beth and I honored Jerry's passing by playing a few of his tunes, in my backyard. We shared his depth by playing "In Memory of Herbie McCleod" and celebrated his joyfulness by playing one of his most well known and often-played compositions, "Brenda Stubbert's." We were surely not the only ones playing his tunes today. Jerry's feet must be tapping somewhere, with any one of his hundreds of compositions being played and celebrated by those whose lives his music has touched.

Jerry Holland has gone to the Big Kitchen Party in the Sky, as they say in Cape Breton. He died too young, but I can't help being philosophical: There was a reason he was here. We can't quite put that reason into words, because words are too small, too limited. We who have been touched by his music mourn him now because we have received his message. If we must ask, "Why?" then that's our answer: we have received his message. And we can be nothing but thankful.

In my July 15 entry, I quoted Hazrat Inayat Khan: "Sound becomes visible in the form of radiance." Jerry, the physical man may have relented, but his spirit surely has not. And now we can enjoy Jerry for what his music always was and always will be: pure radiance. May his soul fly onward and rise to the sky.

100 Days of Practice, Day 17: Goodbye, Jerry Holland.


How freaking sad. And to find out on Facebook.

The great Cape Breton fiddler and extraordinary human being Jerry Holland has just passed away--last night, I believe. This is such new news to me that I don't even know how he died yet, but it is surely related to the cancer he's been battling for the last couple of years.

A fiddler with such instant connection to the instrument that the two may as well have been one. And the most completely down to earth, easy, and genuine human being one could imagine.

Steve and I saw Jerry play at the Olde Inn in West Dennis a couple of years ago. He played with Sean Brennan (or was it Bill Black?) backing him. They'd never played together before, that much I know. Jerry played the three hour set with such ease, grace, and not a single wrong note played the entire time -- all of this with a guitarist he'd never met before the show.

We met Jerry first about five years ago in Cape Breton. I was writing an article for Irish Music magazine about the Celtic Colours festival. Through Jerry's manager in Cape Breton, we arranged to meet him for a potluck dinner that was held in the community hall before one of the Celtic Colours shows. I was nervous as all get out, but Jerry invited me to sit down next to him for dinner. He found out Steve was outside (we felt funny having "free dinner" for two when it was only one of us doing the article) and Jerry personally got up and dragged Steve in for dinner. Lovely chat... which continued outdoors, while Jerry had a smoke and got ready for the show. Nothing special in the conversation... chatted about Boston, about his work as a mechanic. A car mechanic. His hands were black from having worked on cars all day. He talked then about some horrible back pain he had, and how he'd really been having a hard time. Must have been the early stages of cancer.

Then he went in and played a two hour concert of the most delicate, agile, and beautiful fiddling we could imagine.

During that concert, he played "Lament for Herbie McCleod," a tune written for a Cape Bretoner who'd made his home in Boston, where Jerry is originally from. (Well, Boston area, that is.) It was so moving, so gorgeously done, that I ran to the merchandise table and bought his book, and have been playing the tune in concert, every time we hear that another of Boston's senior musicians has gone on to that Big Session in the Sky.

Guess what tune I'll be playing in Day 17's session? God bless you, Jerry, and thank you for being one of the magical ones. I'll post more info as it comes.

100 Days of Practice, Day 16 late!: Too Much Music to Write!

What a day Thursday was... two morning concerts with Debbie and Friends at the Cape Cod Center Playhouse (I'll post pics when they come!). Debbie's got a new song, "I'm So So Happy" coming on her new CD, and yesterday was the premier live performance of it. Such a great song!

Then a great lunch with friends who came to the show, an afternoon at the Farmer's Market with the babes (the little one and the husband), an amazing scallop dinner (recipe below)... followed by a surprise homemade dessert brought over by a neighbor. A cuddle with my girl, then a twenty minute practice session, then ran out to see and play with my friend Suzanne McNeill in Quincy. There, you can check out her video for her original song, "Lost in Boston." Suzanne's originally from Cape Breton and now she's doing her amazing thing here, and you just gotta check her out if you can... You'll see her video on that home page...

So. Yeah. Again, it's a new life if I can squeeze twenty minutes of saxophone playing into an already busy day—and like it. The theme continues: YEAH.

The recipe, thanks to the Soule Farm farmer's market lady... just throw some fresh chives into a blender with good olive oil, add salt and lemon and use this as a marinade for scallops... grill the scallops... and you end up with food that makes you say "YEAH," at the grill, all by yourself. I know I did.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Day 15, Part 2: YEAH.

Tonight's practice: a big YEAH. Affirmative. So affirmative I wrote it in big letters in the practice log, at the end of my supposed fifteen minutes "just do it quick before bed" turned into more than an hour. Before I started, I wrote down most modest goals for today's session in my log book, and alas... the list expanded as I went. (More about practice logs tomorrow... unless other inspiration hits.)

Sound is getting there. Something is happening. Great, great joy.

But, lesson: Take nothing for granted, you multi-instrumentalists. Tried the HA-TA-TA long tones just from middle G to middle C on the alto sax tonight. The alto, which I've been playing since age 9. These long tones kicked my, um... What I mean to say is, my chops hurt after just a few notes. Wow. Great lesson. Then worked on two tunes on the alto... then moved to soprano and worked on two tunes... then flute for my short list of tunes... a list that just expanded tonight.

Looks like the "just pick up the instrument" thing will no longer do, and it is with great joy that I'm leaving that behind. Great, great joy.

Thought it would be hard to make it 100 days. Now I'm wondering how I could NOT do it. 15 days in, and the bug has bit. How about you? It will.

But beware the dreaded plateau. It will come. Be ready for "All this practice and I'm getting nowhere." First of all, it's not true. But second of all, have this answer ready for yourself: "You're already somewhere. Stick around for a while and enjoy the scenery."

100 Days of Practice, Day 15: Yeah!

Johnny D's was a blast, folks! Practice pays off, in giving a connection to the instrument that correlates (eventually) to fearlessness. I'm sure it's coming.

Great to see friends we haven't seen in years... thank you all so much for coming. Among them was Susi Ecker... a soul that restores faith that goodness belongs on this Earth. Check out the poem Susi the Fabulous has this posted on her Web site:

A person does not hear sound only through the ears;
he hears sound through every pore of his body.
It permeates the entire being,
and according to its particular influence either slows or quickens the rhythm of the blood circulation;
it either wakens or soothes the nervous system.
It arouses a person to greater passions
or it calms him by bringing him peace.
According to the sound and its influence
a certain effect is produced.
Sound becomes visible in the form of radiance.
This shows that the same energy which goes into the form of sound before being visible is absorbed by the physical body.
In that way the physical body recuperates
and becomes charged with new magnetism.

~ Hazrat Inayat Khan ~

Check out more of Susi's photos of people, bicycles, motorcyles, kids and musicians and more... under ecker power on flickr.com. Here's the link.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Days 12, 13 and 14: Gearing up for tonight.

Fun gig tonight at Johnny D's, 17, Holland Street, Somerville! Show starts at 8:30 pm. Stanley and Grimm (Nikki Engstrom and Sean Brennan) are opening, and we follow at about 9:30.

Are we ready? Well, a significant gig at a great music club the weekend after Steve's 40th birthday party (two birthday parties, actually)? There have been fresher Tuesdays. But yes, we are ready.

So... three days at once, I'm checking in. It was a massively busy weekend with people around almost every moment. It has not been easy to carve out practice time.

The key appears to be schedule: doing it at the very same time every day. And first thing in the morning, for me.

Still ringing in my head are two important points:

1) It's music as a practice, not music practice. So that means retaining this unbroken ribbon of concentration, a music mindfulness. Even if it's not three hours a day, there needs to be a connection. The challenge may be specific to parenthood, I'm not sure. When there are young children in the mix, three hours a day is not really a possibility. But doing at least SOMETHING: that's possible.

2) Pat the Fabulous tells us: just pick up the instrument. If that's all you do, that's all you do... but the consciousness then has been retained.

Some friends of mine can't imagine going through a day without playing. And the payoff, of course, is that they are terrific, connected, accomplished musicians. They are blessed, I think, with the ability to be single minded. Focused. Clear. Then there are those of us whose glasses of water are a bit more muddy. You know, MUD. The background noise in your mind: work deadlines, worry over unpaid bills, anger at something that happened the other day, what shoes to wear to tomorrow's gig, etc etc... One benefit of practice is that it gets you to sit still long enough to let the mud settle.

Practice with a goal is good, but too firm a goal orientation subtly stirs the glass. Practice with a loose handle on a goal--but also practice for the sake of practice--that's what allows the mud to settle.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Day 11: God Bless Public Accountability

Today would have been an absolute non-runner were it not for... well, YOU. So thank you. If you weren't here, I probably wouldn't be, either.

It was a very late night last night, followed by a very busy day today. And with the last half hour of my waking day, I went to the ol' must-chamber--the chamber of mustiness, the cave... the basement practice room--and worked on the Brazilian tune that I've been pursuing... and then some reels written by Sligo/Mayo fiddler and composer Brendan Tonra.

No long tones. No technique. Time was limited; I decided to jump right in.

And now....

Thank Pat the Fabulous, for today's insight: "Less is more."

When practice time is limited and you're working on a new tune, it's best to just focus on parts of it and master them, rather than playing the whole tune half-arsed and saying you'll get back to those tough spots later on. It feels as if it takes longer to learn a tune this way, and it probably does. But what's the rush? Better to take longer to learn a tune but play it impeccably, than to learn it quickly but never iron out the bumps and play it only semi-well.

If any particular practice session is time-limited (aren't they all?), try focusing on the stuff you CAN'T do, not the stuff you can. Identify those particularly difficult passages, and work 'em. Work the hardest phrases slowly, over and over--increasing the speed ONLY when you can play it perfectly at the slower tempo.

So, that's what I tried to do tonight. Just work the really tough measures of this Brazilian tune I've been working on (i.e, getting my #$*&#$^ kicked by.) It's so tough because it's a different language, and I'm playing it on a different instrument: silver flute, not Irish. I haven't played the silver flute in years, nor have I ever mastered it.

What's also tough about this tune is that the shapes of the phrases are so radically different than in the Irish tunes I've been working on. With Irish music, once you've learned, say 50 or so tunes, you'll find that new tunes become increasingly easy to learn. So many of the new ones are just pieces of old ones rearranged. Within the tradition, the variety of rhythms is also limited; most tunes select rhythms from a finite buffet of rhythmic motifs. Look too far beyond that buffet table and you're in a different restaurant altogether.

So the new tune: Brazilian? The key of F# minor? Completely different rhythmic accents? A new instrument? And notes that don't exist on the Irish flute? This is unfamiliar and challenging. I'm a beginner again.

And as a beginner, I find myself forgetting all the things I would tell a student learning a new tune:

1. Break it into parts.

2. Slow it down.

3. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. But always with an eye toward getting it right. Then once you have it right, repeat it correctly numerous times. Just to make sure it wasn't luck.

4. Only when you can play it slowly, perfectly, do you increase the speed.

5. Get it right? Move on to the next part of the tune. Only when one part is mastered do you move onto the next.

6. Take your time. Learning it WELL rarely correlates directly to learning it QUICKLY.

7. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. But only if you can repeat the same phrase over and over again PERFECTLY. If you're not playing it right, then all you're doing is practicing a mistake. When this happens:

8. Take a break.

Then go back to 1.

And finally, know when to say when. If it's just not coming, leave it. Walk away. Do something else. Clean the fridge. Or go to bed.

Speaking of which... see you back here tomorrow.

Friday, July 10, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Day 10: What?

Yesterday's light practice day was a good idea... last night's big band gig... holy loud. Everything was okay until the Tower of Power chart hit the stands and from then on... well, let's just say the band was getting carried away. BUT: THank goodness for a light practice day because the chops survived a long, loud, and raucous big band gig with no pain.

During the day, rehearsed at Berklee for the July 16 kids show on the Cape. Debbie and Friends are unveiling a new song. Can't decide if it's more Mr. Big Stuff, Jackson 5, or Cheers Theme Song. But good stuff. Bring the kids on July 16!

Other news: Stanley and Grimm are joining us for our July 14 show at Johnny D's... if you're Boston based, do come out and see us!

Now... today.

So far only long tones and technique exercises (the ones that killed me the other day. You know what my biggest challenge is in playing long tones and exercises? Staying still. I find myself walking in small circles, facing different walls, sitting, standing. Do you? This by the way is the same problem that makes me a pain in the #$#$ to watch a movie with (especially if you happen to have a squeaky leather couch.) Suzy does not stay still long. Well, there is the next phase in the long tones practice: staying still. Just sitting.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Day 9: Lips Like Charlie the Tuna

Note to self: Don't double up on long tones and technique exercises on the very same day that you have a no break, 90-min big band gig...

By halfway through last night's Stage Door Canteen gig at the Windmill in Eastham, MA, Soul Mama on bari sax was chopless. As in, them lips just weren't happenin'! Well, they were trying very hard to continue to happen, but oh my achin' embouchure. And it didn't help that it was raining and about 60 degrees... God bless the 30 or so folks who braved the cold and sat under blankets and watched the whole show! The Eastham Green is a bowling alley of a park nestled between the Atlantic Ocean on one side (next stop: Ireland) and Cape Cod Bay on the other... Pardonnez moi, I do exaggerate: there are a few trees, houses, and a fire station shielding some of that breeze. Holy COLD.

Today's a light day on the practice side. Working on some tune transcription, then a rehearsal with Debbie and Friends at Berklee for July 16's children's show at Cape Cod Center for the Arts... then an evening gig with Stage Door Canteen at Liam Maguire's, beginning at 8:30!

Info:

Tonight: Thursday July 9 Liam Maguire's Irish Pub, Main St. Falmouth, MA
8:30-11:30PM. Me on bari sax, with swing band Stage Door Canteen. Special guests include fabulous lady Pat "Just Pick Up the Instrument" Drain of the Middle Street School of Music on guitar!

Next Thursday July 16. Performing with Debbie and Friends in a high
energy children's show.  TWO SHOWS!  9:30am and 11:30am, Cape Cod
Center for the Arts, Dennis, MA - Come and join us! This will be a
fun, full-band show. For tickets, please call 1-877-385-3911 or visit
Debbie' s page: www.debbieandfriends.net

I promise I'll post that practice exercise I've been doing. It's pretty darn cool.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Day 8: Expanding the Technical Exercises

Moving into week 2 and expanding the long tones... before, was just ascencding chromatically but as the embouchure strengthens, I'm expanding into doing the same exercise descending from high D to lowest D, chromatically. Ten minutes of long tones, ten of technical exercises, and 30 of songs to keep fresh... all good to prep for next week's Johnny D's show!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Day 7: A week!

Hey can we congratulate ourselves for completing a week? I think so.

Read an article this morning from the Boston Irish Reporter that Berklee is forging a program to bring more Irish students to campus. Why Ireland? Well, for one, Dean of Admissions Damien Bracken, just happens to be Irish. That helps. What also helps is that under the new leadership of Roger Brown the college is looking for ways to diversify the college, and attracting new types of expertise to campus certainly fits the bill. They've got some amazing string faculty on campus, so why not attract the students?

I blame and thank Bill Whelan for all of this. As the composer of the music that sets Riverdance alight, he brought Irish music to the fore in a profound way, updating the sounds and introducing improvisation and new beats. Irish musicians have always explored and the best of them have always improvised, but until Riverdance, the music was not recognized and appreciated by such a broad, popular audience.

It just so happens, Whelan also has a lot to do with this Berklee thing. He was the one who told Bracken that he felt the Irish were underrepresented at Berklee. Whelan and Bracken did some exploration, and according to Bracken, together with music experts in Belfast, Limerick, Dublin, and Cork, they came up with a concept of teaching improvisation across styles. So, last April, Berklee initiated a Berklee in Dublin program, a series of workshops in April that allowed 50 promising young Irish musicians the chance to work with Berklee faculty. Designed, of course, to attract Ireland's best and brightest to Boston. Several of those young musicians are here in Boston now, studying music at Berklee's amazing Five-Week summer program, an intensive summer study designed to funnel newbies to the freshman gates. How awesome of you, Berklee.

No better man than Whelan to introduce a cross-cultural approach to Irish music--his Riverdance music is full of the Eastern European influence, not to mention the flamenco and American jazz. What's great, though, is that he ensures that musicians who play the Irish component of the show are all top notch in the tradition, but also can do other styles. In addition, as I recall from an interview I did years ago with the director of Riverdance for an article for the Boston Irish Reporter, the musicians who play Riverdance have to learn the tunes traditionally, all by ear and never by paper. Then of course, they have to perform the whole show without sheet music. Yow.

I've written a lot about cross cultural approaches to the music, so I have particular interest in this thing Berklee is doing. It's likely I'll be writing more about it... and of course my book See You at the Hall was an exploration of the way that music reflects cultural adaptation. (http://www.amazon.com/See-You-Hall-Bostons-Golden/dp/1555536409) There are elements of a tradition that must remain to survive, but any tradition that does not adapt will quickly fade.

So this morning, I spent an hour in the basement adapting my own little traditions. I did my long tones and rolls, then played a few tunes on Irish flute... then switched the silver flute and worked on that Brazilian tune again. Tomorrow, I'll be playing bari sax with a swing band on the Eastham Green at the Windmill. Meanwhile, Debra is out there taking Irish flute courses and playing silver flute in her town band. Doing a bit of all these things, bringing them together and making new sounds that are true and unique to the individual musician.

I think Bill Whelan would approve.

Monday, July 6, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Day 6: Long Tones and That Blasted Brazilian Tune

Today's practice was playing that Baião tune on silver flute every time I needed a break from editing... many five-minute sessions, and I'll be honest: It's working.

Just put the wee one to bed and now I'm running down to the basement for ten minutes of long tones and maybe a little baião before bed. Crawling in with Steve is more appealing but the commitment is made... so I gotta do it.

Sleep tight all and catch you in the morning. It's clear: the only way to do this practice thing right is to do it first thing. But that 5:00 am alarm feels AWFULLY EARLY.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Day 5: Take 2

Take 2, it is. Or maybe Take Two and Call Me in the Morning... which is what I just did. I took two Tylenol to ward off a splitting headache, right before practicing. Holiday weekend, it's Sunday, and oh me achin' head.

So. I am completely embarrassed to be sharing personal thoughts publicly. But you know what? It's working for me. I just spent a highly unlikely half hour working a very amazing Brazilian jazz tune on the silver flute. The same tune that yesterday, I spoke of to bandmates in my world music trio, Caravan: "Yeah, I won't be able to play this one on flute. I don't do chromatic. I just do Irish and that only requires three keys. I can't play in the key of F#, with six sharps. I'll have to do this one on saxophone." Then, some strange little gremlin took over and I decided to try it on flute. That was yesterday. Today, I worked on it for five minutes early in the day, then another half hour or so tonight. Guess what? It's starting to come. And no one is more shocked than me. And who feels more excited? Amazed and excited. Energized. And who is it that just learned an amazing lesson about practice--actually, re-learned. I already knew that practice works. It's just that I'd forgotten what it felt like when it does.

On any other day until this blog, this would have been a no-practice day. Last day of a holiday weekend... enjoying perfect weather, running out and about visiting friends (who served a hot fudge sundae for breakfast), buying plants, sitting by a pool, having neighbor over for dinner, lighting chimenea and eating smores, and suddenly it's 9 pm and I'm wondering "whoah, when will I practice today?"

But wait, it gets worse. Friend left house at 9:30 tonight. Then, our heroine notices that other neighbors are still awake... While husband puts our kiddie to bed, I wandered in the dark down to their house. They'd just arrived home, with guests. The welcome mat was put out, and the introduction: "This is my musician neighbor I was just telling you about!" To my amazement, they actually WANTED to hear music. And to my further amazement, I actually went home, got the instruments, and played tunes for them (and the entire neighborhood) on both soprano sax and flute. Sat on their front porch and played the tunes for them that I've been practicing in my own basement. Turns out the tunes aren't really ready for prime time, but they didn't seem to notice. One fellow step dances. Well, fakes it. His wife tells me she's been married 40 years and never has seen him dance like that.

Today:

One man proves to his wife that he's still worth hanging around with, even after 40 years.

One flute proves that it's still worth playing.

These are the things that make life worth living. All because one musician decided she's going to finally do that thing she's been meaning to do for 20 years: practice every day.

100 Days of Practice, Day 5: Making It Your Practice

A few weeks back before I started this blog, I ran into my friend Pat at the coffee shop. Pat and I have developed a nice friendship just based on five minute conversations, because we run into each other all the time and we have music in common. I usually do my music editing and writing in the local microbrew coffee shop, and Pat stops in there lots of mornings before going to work. She's a jazz guitarist and vocalist, and together with Paul Horton, runs the very successful Middle Street School of Music, here in Plymouth.

Usually I'm working on some interesting music project and relish the chance to talk to Pat, because she's the only one there who would have much interest in, for example, the things you can do with a diminished seventh chord. But this particular day's excitement was actually personal, not work: I had finally gotten down to some sort of reliable schedule of practicing, and wanted to share the happiness with her.

So, as you do, we got gabbing about how hard it can be, especially with a kid at home, and a living to make, etc. Pat knows all about it. With twin daughters who were about seven at the time, I think, Pat went to Berklee College of Music full time. Pat's insight: "I tell my students, some days, all you gotta do is just pick up the instrument. That's it. Even if you don't have time to play." We both went back to our business after the conversation, but her words have resounded for me for weeks.

At first, I interpreted it as a comment about not being obsessive. Don't make a big deal about it. Don't make it difficult on yourself, and obsess. Just keep the instrument close at hand and heart. And now I'm seeing another side of that, and it is about simply remaining connected to the instrument. Back to Yusef's "Unbroken Ribbon of Concentration." What Buddhists would call "mindfulness."

And this is what July 5 is about: Music Mindfulness.

Yesterday, my session was super short. My soprano sax was still out and assembled, so in honor of the day, I picked it up and played bits and pieces of the national anthem. Why the heck not? Then figured I'd run through an Irish tune on it, one I've been working on. (Those handy E minor Irish reels are in F# minor on the soprano, so translating them over really is like playing in a different language at first. Like learning a language, it requires practice in an immersive way.) Then my husband arrived home from a bike ride, and pulled out his guitar. We played the tune together a few times til our three year old daughter got interested in doing a bit of dancing... Annie wanted Happy Birthday. So we played it, a bunch of times, while she danced. And I started improvising on it. Missed the chords. Come on now, there are only three chords -- how hard can it be?

Turns out, it's only hard if you don't know what the chords are. If further turns out, I didn't know what the chords are. So I asked. Steve told me.

Music session ended, Annie was off and running and we then followed. Shortly after, ten guests arrived. Flags were hung. Much was barbecued. Fireworks were seen. Beer was consumed. Chimenea lit. Day ended. No long focused session.

But, this morning, I was still thinking about those chords. Running over them in my head, while lying in bed, exploring melodic lines and arpeggio patterns that could work over them, in real time. No instrument in hand, just thinking.

And that, too, is practice. Not physical practice on the instrument, but mindfulness that was constructive and forward looking. It's not the same as physically playing the instrument. That must happen too -- but when it can't or when it simply just didn't, we can still use those moments and make practice not just a physical activity but a way of being. A frame of reference. A practice.

Happy Sunny Sunday!

100 Days of Practice, Day 4: God Bless Amarkah.

A very short session for me! Guests visited yesterday, the 3rd... and ended up staying over, with family. Today, I woke up in a tent in the backyard with their kids. The kids and I were the only ones awake for the first few hours, so needless to say, the morning session did not happen. It's becoming clear that for me, the practice session needs to be at the same time every day. If it doesn't happen first thing in the morning, it is VERY easy for the day to interfere. But... see Day 5 for a new take on that.

Friday, July 3, 2009

100 Days of Practice, Day 3: An Ode to Long Tones

My friend SG sent me this note:

"Flute playing uses up ZERO weight watchers exchange points, did you know that? Says so on the cardboard Calorie Wheel of Fate...You can play AND eat carbs. Isn’t that cool?"

Playing and eating carbs... I don't think potato chip crumbs are good for the inside of the flute, but I will admit that liquid carbs haven't sufficiently damaged my flute yet. Not so sure about my flute PLAYING, but the instrument itself: fine.

What flute playing can do for your bod, I maintain, is prevent the need for situps, ever ever ever.

I start each practice session with about ten minutes of long tones. Actually, I'm not sure how long it takes, but I just play every note on the flute, according to a pattern that came from sax player Geoff Vidal, via my friend Glen. Here's whatcha do:

Start at middle G on flute, select a tempo. 60 bpm for me. (I don't use a metromone but if you need something to help you find a steady beat, I'd recommend it.)

Breathe in through your nose for two counts. Deeply. Fill your belly.

Play the G as "ha... ta....ta...". "Ha" for four counts, first "ta" for two counts, then hold the last "ta" for four counts, or until you run out of breath.

Keep mouth in place, exactly, and breathe out through nose for two counts.

Big inhale thru nose for two counts. Fill your belly, not your shoulders. A good breath goes deep and expands your diaphragm.

Repeat for G#... then for A. Then A#, and keep going up the instrument til you hit C, then go back down to G.

Lips and mouth will start to tweak, and that is good. The more days you do it, the better.

Adjustments: If you are on a whistle, you don't have the in between notes (sharps and flats) so consider going from low D to high D and back down. If you're ambitious (I am) then do the whole dang instrument. I start at low D and go up two octaves chromatically to high D. Lips and mouth kill by the end, but it is good pain.

Remember, breathing in:
-To your lower belly. Shallow breaths are the kind that lift the shoulders. Deep breaths fill the tummy.

Breathing out:
-Compress your abdomen as you go. At the very end of the note, compressing your abdominal muscles down to nada will squeeze out more breath than you thought you had left. Seriously, for those who are looking for the six-pack abs: Do these daily and do them right, and you'll never have do a sit up again.

What long tones do:
-Build abdominal strength and control.
-Build embouchure strength and control.
-Focus your mind.
-Help you achieve nirvana. Hm.
-Drives away unwanted family and neighbors. (Any family or neighbors who actually enjoy hearing long tones have probably already achieved nirvana, and thus should be welcome to join you in the practice room.)

What to focus on:
-Steadiness of tone. Do you have one long beautiful tone, or is it warbly? It's bound to get warbly at the end, especially when your tummy muscles are shaking. That's alright.
-Quality of sound: Does the note stay strong all the way to the end? Does it crack?
-How do your facial muscles feel? Bet they hurt. But, this is good because it actually raises your awareness of them. The harder they work, the more you FEEL them, and understand what muscles go into making a good sound. That can help give you a mental picture of what they need to look/feel like and this can really help you develop a muscle memory for a certain embouchure position that works best for the sound you're trying to achieve.

If you are doing long tones right, you'll feel it in your tummy. As in, rock solid. I just did my long tones and I am telling you, it is so good for you.

That's my first step, every day. My second step is technique, and I'll write about that tomorrow. Gotta run back downstairs and finish my practice session!!!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

100 Days of Practice: Day 2

Well... nothing yet. The little one woke up at the same time as I did, and now I'm at work. Stay tuned. I'll check in later.

By the way, why so public? Two reasons.

1) Accountability. It's like having an exercise partner. If you're here checking in on me, then I'd better do it.

2) Sharing. Not because I think I'm unique or special, but because I think I'm NOT unique or special. That is, lots of us may be sharing this journey: there's something we've been meaning to do every day (eat right, exercise, quit smoking, whatever) but we never get to it. Human condition.

This blog is not about the Facebook approach of telling the world everything I'm doing, as if you'd be interested. It's more about sharing a journey that I think a lot of people can relate to. And I'm hoping you stay along with me, because it would be fun to share it, and I think playing music makes a person's life better.

Simple.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

100 Days of Practice: Day 1

Welcome to the experiment... I've committed myself to 100 days of consecutive practice, and I'm inviting you to join me.

As a musician who is balancing an artistic pursuit with the demands of family, and the demands of little things like, oh, the mortgage and the phone bill, my greatest struggle is to fit daily practice into the routine. In fact, it becomes a bit of an obsession, this "not practicing" thing. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I'm not practicing daily, and if I'm with the right friend, talking about it too.

But as a musician, you really do have to practice every day. It is both a mental and a physical necessity for playing the instrument. The things that make the sounds on your instrument--your hands, mouth, diaphragm, arms, etc--those things all are operated by muscles that work best with regular exercise. Like a marathon runner, an aikido master, a yogi--the musician needs to practice every day to keep things tuned. And I'm convinced likewise that our mind needs the regular conditioning of practice in order to be in the right place to make the best music. I had a teacher in college, the great sax and flute player Yusef Lateef, who called it "the unbroked ribbon of concentration." That's what daily practice does.

Folks, I hit 40 on April 30th. Decided it was time to actually get down to it. So, for the last couple of months, I've been on a discipline binge. Not actually being disciplined, so much as reading about discipline, finding a sherpa and talking to her about discipline, etc. Getting her help in structuring my life so that there's time for this discipline thing. Lots of talking. Some doing. But not so much as the talking and thinking.

Eventually the rubber has to hit the road. The butt has to hit the practice chair.

The path of musicianship to me is a lifestyle, but also a spiritual discipline. I've been reading Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa ... Readings about the daily practice of meditation, of a Buddhist approach to practice, have always seemed to apply quite neatly to the musician's path. Something you do every day not so much to get results as to simply do it every day. In my finer moments, that sounds lovely. Music feeds the spirit. Music gives you a voice with which to praise the elements. Music connects you with the eternal wind of the universe. Music helps you to be more human.

Turns out, beer does that too.

Admission: Most of my life is made of coarser moments, not finer. That's when I say, the hell with this spiritual crap, it's time to kick butt. Stop talking and start doing. Take names. Make some serious sounds.

All of this may sound strange from someone who is actually making their living in music. Maybe it seems a given that a musician just naturally practices every day. Don't get me wrong, I do practice. But, in the spirit of being human, there's always another level to aspire to, and that I think is what drives so many musicians to keep working, despite a certain level of mastery. I shared an insight with a professional musician friend of mine once, "You know, with this music thing, I realized this: I don't want to go higher. I want to go deeper." And I expected her to say, "Wow, how profound!" But you know what she said? "Nice thought. But I want to go higher, too." I loved that. I guess I agree with her.

So here's the deal. 100 days of practice. Begins today. Going to try it. Write about it. Want to come?

The Buddhist voice (Mr. Trungpa) told me that whatever you decide to do, there will be the possibility of two results: success or failure. And, he says, either way, there will be a message... Trust is about knowing that there will be a message and that the message is more important than the success or failure.

Place your bets now: At the end of 100 days: Buddhette, Beer Drinker, or Buttkicker? All three? None of them?

Stay tuned. If you come along for the ride, please check in! Post comments. We'll do it together. Hell, maybe we'll start a great band at the end. :)