Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Ad Infinitum

Part of being a musician is that I have to practice. I believe that if there is anything that you wish to be good at, the key is to do it frequently and with purpose. Whatever it is, with time and dedication, you will almost certainly improve. 
 
When it comes to my own routine of playing music, that means practicing every day whenever possible, whether I feel like it or not, while accepting the risk that I might annoy the people around me. As any parent whose kid was ever given a recorder could tell you, this is an unfortunate but often necessary byproduct of musicianship. At some point or another, you will probably piss somebody off. Not everyone will love you. This is music and this is life. Press forward. Do what you have to do.
 
I first picked up a guitar when I was sixteen years old. It stayed in the case for most of the next year, until I made a conscious choice to start practicing regularly. I never took lessons, but I had a good friend who was also trying to play, so we were able to learn a bit from each other. We challenged one another and ourselves to get better. I like to imagine that even Jimi Hendrix sounded like shit the first time he picked up a guitar. It's just how these things go. Skill is something you learn.

The first year or two of playing guitar were by far the hardest, but I am thankful that I did not quit. It could have been really easy to be discouraged. I started on electric guitar, and I still generally prefer it over acoustic. My first amp was a little 15-watt solid state Fender the size of a lunchbox. Once I was able to save up some money, I bought a Peavey combo amp that felt like it was made out of concrete. That thing was absurdly heavy and crazy loud, even with the volume on 3 or 4. I still wasn't very good, but I grew to really enjoy making noise. I was punk rock, minus the fashion statement.
 
My parents made me practice in the upstairs of the garage, which was separate from the house. Another friend of mine put a Frankenstein drum kit up there -- amidst the sawdust, corncobs and mouse turds -- and we played a lot of shitty songs composed of power chords. 
 
Then I moved off to college, where I sometimes set up my amp in the community room of the dorm where I lived. It was a good way to draw out the other introverted musicians, plus I really liked the acoustics in there. Other people were probably less thrilled about it, especially if they were trying to study while I noodled my way through some pentatonic scales and simple chord progressions.
 
Over the years, I have subjected many family members, friends and unsuspecting strangers to my unpolished musical meanderings. For a while, I was pretty terrible. So it goes. With practice, I steadily improved. I'm still no Jimi Hendrix, mind you, but I have gotten better. 
 
Meanwhile, anyone within earshot has had to hear me work out songs while I figured out how to play guitar and other instruments. I even owned an accordion for a while. It has been a long process for me to get to where I am today, which has not only required my own patience, but that of the people around me as well. For that, I am thankful.
 
Even now, songs seldom emerge from my head even close to fully formed. As such, there is a lot of figuring out the chord progressions, vocal melodies and lyrics as I go, which of course is far less pleasant to listen to than a fully written song that I have already rehearsed countless times. 
 
While my music might not be everybody's cup of tea, I am happy to report that I am no longer terrible. Not to me, anyway. Nonetheless, I'd like to offer a sincere apology and a wholehearted thank you to everyone who has put up with my daily compulsion to practice over the years. That includes my family, friends, neighbors, and random passersby. Some of you probably know these songs almost as well as I do. Some of you even heard them when they still weren't fully formed. 
 
For the many wonderful years that my two kids and I lived under the same roof, I sought to instill in them this idea that practice is part of being a musician, to normalize my routine in their eyes, so that they might apply this same level of dedication to their own passions, whatever they may be. At the same time, I recognize that they may very well have gotten tired of hearing me run through the same songs day after day, as likely did anyone else who ever had to live with me. Sorry about that. I hope you understand. I guess that makes us more or less even for the recorders.

A musician has to practice. To anyone who needs to hear it, thank you for putting up with me. As for everybody else, if you have a friend, family member or neighbor who is learning an instrument and/or writing songs, I hope that you will afford them the same degree of freedom to be terrible, at least for a while. Practice is the only way that we get better.


Monday, May 6, 2024

Coverage

I think it was around 2013 that I started making music with a friend of mine from grad school. Over the next year or so, we wrote about seven or eight songs together. I played acoustic guitar and wrote most of the music, while he sang and played some guitar as well. I was impressed by his skill at writing lyrics that seemed to fit so organically with my mostly pre-assembled riffs and chord progressions. He made it look easy. (Thanks, Nate.)
 
As was the case in pretty much every band I've ever played in, I was not the lead singer. As I am somewhat of an introvert in my personal life, I have typically been more comfortable in the background anyway. At the same time, I feel like I have learned from being the Garfunkel how to be a better Simon. I think that the best way to grow as a musician is to play with people who challenge and inspire you to get better. As Simon and Garfunkel would likely each tell you, but never in the same room together, ego just gets in the way.
 
Being the lead guy is a fairly new thing for me, but it's why my current musical project bears my name. For the first time, I've put myself at the center of my music. I like to think that it is more about perspective than it is about ego. Besides, at this point, I think most of the good band names have already been taken, and as much as I loathe advertising, I recognize that my name as it relates to my various creative, intellectual and professional ventures, is also kind of my brand. Perhaps I can one day use it to sell hot sauce.
 
After about a year of my friend and I making music together and performing our songs at the local pub, he graduated and moved to California, thus putting an end to our nascent band. RIP Autopilot. I was just starting to get back into the whole performative aspect of playing an instrument. The experience reminded me that sharing music is fun, but since I didn't think that anybody outside the vicinity of my front porch wanted to hear my one-man instrumental acoustic jams, I decided to learn some cover songs so that I could keep performing live on a regular basis. 
 
I had grown to rather enjoy the aspect of sharing music and wanted to continue as a solo artist, even though I hadn't written any songs for me to sing in over twelve years at that point. Crafting lyrics had been relegated to something that I used to do. Most of the writing that I did throughout this period was either screenplays or academic stuff. For all intents and purposes, I had ceased to think of myself as an aspiring lyricist.
 
The availability of tablature made it easy to learn a bunch of songs -- especially compared to those dark days when I had first started learning guitar by ear. Before long, I had a binder packed with printed lyrics and chord notations for about a hundred or so cover songs that I got to know pretty well. There were a lot of Counting Crows, Oasis, Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, The Cure, The Violent Femmes, Pearl Jam, Bright Eyes, and a bunch of other random songs in there, an eclectic sampling of my various influences. 
 
Of those songs, I can still probably play about two verses worth of most of them before realizing that I don't remember the whole thing. That seems to be how it goes, anyway. They're all in there somewhere, but my ability to recall them is a bit rusty. Plus I don't listen to the original versions of these songs nearly as often as I used to.

After about a year of playing other people's material, I got kind of bored with it, so I started writing my own songs again. The catalyst was probably when I heard my [now ex-]wife listening to and singing along with one of our songs that my friend had written the lyrics to, and I thought about how cool it would be if she might want to sing my songs as well. Sadly, that never happened, but it inspired me to keep writing lyrics anyway. (So in a roundabout way, thanks again, Nate.)
 
Once I opened the floodgate, the ideas kept flowing. It turns out that I really enjoy songwriting. By 2017, I had three full albums worth of original music, and by 2021, I added another three albums to my repertoire. I am currently working on album number seven. Now the bonus challenge has become practicing all of these songs regularly enough to remember them. 
 
I very rarely play covers anymore, in large part because my own material keeps me plenty busy. If I do play cover songs, it's usually just in practice or fun, pretty much never in performances. It isn't that I have anything against playing other people's music; in fact, I have a lot of respect for people who can cover someone else's songs well. I just personally don't get the same enjoyment out of playing them as I do my own. 
 
I can connect with stuff that I wrote in ways that I cannot otherwise. I also don't feel compelled to make it sound like anything other than myself, which, frankly, is kind of liberating. It's hard to sing a Counting Crows song, for example, without feeling like I'm doing an impression of Adam Duritz. Plus if I mess up a lyric in one of my own songs, more than likely, I'm the only one who notices.  
 
Nonetheless, I attribute much of my proficiency as a songwriter to that year or so that I spent learning cover songs. They taught me to keep it simple, as it didn't take me long to realize that most of the tunes in my overstuffed binder were composed of only a handful of chords. Verse, chorus, and occasionally a bridge: that was all I really needed to make a song. Armed with this knowledge, I went on to write a lot of original material.
 
Admittedly, my playing style has simplified somewhat as a result. Part of that also has to do with the challenge of being able to sing my songs as I play them on guitar or piano, while also staying in rhythm. For most of the time that I have been playing music, performing vocals wasn't really part of the equation, and I've found that singing and playing an instrument is a lot more difficult than just playing in the background while someone else sings. For a while there, it was a pretty steep learning curve, but playing cover tunes certainly helped with this aspect as well.
 
My advice to anyone who is just now starting on guitar or some other instrument is to practice singing at the same time if you think that this is something that you might eventually want to do. To that end, I also recommend learning how to play a lot of existing songs that you enjoy, as this will help you to develop a sense of what it takes to craft a catchy song. Do that until you get bored, and then, if you so desire, apply the lessons learned to developing your own original material. Or just keep playing cover songs. It's all good. Music is a journey that may take you to some unexpected places. 

Thank you to all of the people who dedicate even a portion of your lives to making music, including all of the great cover bands out there. I am of the opinion that every town needs at least one band who can play the songs that everybody knows. 
 
Music is meant to be shared, and doing so makes the world a better place.  

* EDIT: I just spent most of the evening playing cover songs in my living room. That was a hell of a lot of fun. I remembered more of these songs than I thought I would.