Mental Health, Music and Me

May is Mental Health awareness month, and so I thought it might be helpful to talk about it.  It is my experience that many full-time musicians deal with some mental health issues: anxiety, depression, ADHD, and OCD are among the most common.  I have many friends in music who are also dyslexic, and though not a mental illness, if undiagnosed it can add to the depression and anxiety one deals with on a daily basis.

Most people who know me probably wouldn’t think that I have dealt with all of these maladies except dyslexia since I was a kid.  Hell,  I didn’t really KNOW until last June when I had an anxiety ‘attack’ while on tour last year.  I’ve long known that both my father and mother dealt with both anxiety and OCD, even though we didn’t use those words back in the day let alone call it mental illness. And my paternal grandmother also dealt with an assortment of mental health issues that seems to mirror mine. And, I hate to say it, but I see my four adult daughters deal with these issues at varying levels themselves. And I also knew that a lot of mental health issues are genetic.

The thing about mental illness is that denial, or even just lack of understanding, is part of the illness.  I won’t lie to you. I’ve known I was fucked up since I was about 8 years old when I knew I was ‘different’ from normal kids. But until last June I never used the phrase mental illness to describe my maladies. And because I’m a smart SOB, and a pretty fine actor I was able to ‘fool’ people into thinking I was a gregarious, confident and healthy person. Myself included.  But on the inside. Holy fuck-what a worm riddled mass of fear, anxiety, depression and anger my poor brain was.

Folks who know me know I struggle with sleep. Getting to sleep.  And I have for as long as I can remember.  I slept with a nightlight in my room until I was 10 or 12-it helped keep the terrifying thoughts at bay-a little bit. Because once the room was dark and all I was left with was my own thoughts-it was terrifying. And still can be.

My inner thoughts have always been on the dark side. Especially at night. I imagine ‘real-world’ scenarios where bad things happen to me and those I love.  And I can have an argument with someone in my head days or hours before I see the person. And I get angry and can stay that way for days, weeks, even months under the ‘right’ conditions.

In the 80’s when I was in my mid-20’s my first marriage was starting to implode.  So we went to therapy-something my wife stopped doing, but I continued doing.  As I look back the folks I was seeing for therapy really didn’t have a handle on the organic piece of mental health; it was all about how we thought and then acted.  It helped, I began to act differently, and even begin to get a ‘handle’ on the thinking piece of the puzzle.  If you’ve read these blogs you’ll find what I learned from therapy in much of what I teach to budding performers and musicians.  Self-talk, the words we say to ourselves, may be the most important conversations we have. I learned to put ‘screen doors’ on my ears and visualize the ‘bad thoughts’ going in one ear and out the other. Those who deal with my cocktail of mental health issues understand how looped base thinking can affect them-those bad thoughts just keep going round and round until we either feel them and let them go or act them out.  I got much better at letting them out. But I still didn’t feel better. Not on the inside. And as you can imagine my marriage ended in an ugly ball of flames.

And then the most wonderful thing happened. I got carpal tunnel syndrome and the possibility that I might lose the ability to play the guitar helped me get my priorities straight. And there began the process of becoming honest with who I was, who I am, and who I wanted to become.

And this was brand new territory for me. I’d never asked myself who I was, what I believed, and how I wanted to act. I took my lead from my father-that’s too nice. I didn’t have options of being who I was as a kid. Kids don’t get enough credit in my opinion. They know way more than adults think they do. I knew that my father didn’t like who I was-I think I scared the shit out of him because we were so much alike-so I did my best to be the person he could like.  I learned to be a chameleon. I have an ability to fit myself into almost any group, no matter how deplorable. I had learned how to read people and give them what they wanted.  I used to think it was a gift. Today I think of it as a curse. Because it was a really difficult ‘habit’ to break.

Playing an instrument is a wonderful tonic for me-it helps me with my mental illnesses. The music I compose and play is music that helps ease my anxiety and depression. And let’s face it, it gave me a healthy way to deal with, and even use my ADHD and OCD for the power of good.  I mean, what normal person sits down and draws out fingerboards with all the notes from open position to the 12th fret for 5-6 tunings? As a way to relax? And how many 35 year olds are willing to relearn how to play the guitar

And as someone who believes that the ultimate responsibility of a musician is sharing their music with a live audience it forced me to deal with my anxiety head-on.  When I talk to folks who have ‘normal’ stage fright I nearly laugh.  Their hands shake and their voice quivers a bit, but have they been having daily nightmares about performance, do they lose their ability to eat a day or two in advance of their performance? Does it give them diarrhea? (Sorry to be graphic) Does it make them snap angrily at everyone around them over things that really don’t matter?

The last piece of my mental health puzzle was when I realized the role that cannabis has played in my life the past 25 years. Remember, as I was coming to many of these realizations about myself, we were in the Reagan era of “Just say no”. And marijuana was touted as one of the most dangerous drugs on the planet.

But a good friend of mine in Taos, NM knew I was dealing with a pretty bad case of depression at the time and offered to find me some cannabis-he said it’d help. At that point I hadn’t smoked in over a decade. At the time I was proud of the fact that I’d taken on some of my issues without medical or chemical intervention. Just done the hard work of therapy and using 12-step Co-Dependency meetings do try to temper my chameleon-like nature.

The first time I used cannabis after that decade was pretty amazing. It definitely helped me deal with my depression, and looking back I now realize that’s when the dark thoughts started to abate, and my ADHD and OCD had much less control over my behaviors. That’s still true today.

But most of what I’m talking about in this blog today is relatively new information to me.When I look back at my life, actions, and feelings now I can see the role my mental illness played.  And it makes me wonder what my life would or could have been like if I’d known and acted on my mental illness when I was a much younger man. Or if my parents had. But the times were different then. We didn’t know what we know now.

My hope is that if you are dealing with mental illness you’ll get help-both chemically and therapeutically. I’m not suggesting you smoke weed if that’s not for you. Or play the guitar if that’s not your thing.  I know that there’s not enough cannabis or guitars in the world to help me with my issues if I don’t do the therapy work and learn new ways of thinking and acting. It’s something I will work on the rest of my life. But please, seek out the help you need.  It’s pretty amazing when you get the help you need.

The good news for me is that I no longer beat myself up for being fucked up.  Owning my mental illnesses has really given me tremendous freedom, as well as making me even more responsible for how I act and feel than ever before.

And yes, I still suffer from anxiety, depression, ADHD, and OCD. But they control me less than they used to do.  And I can more easily see my thoughts and actions for what they are and act accordingly.

And I am closer to the person I want to become than ever.

 

Be well friends.

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An Inconvenient Truth

I think one of the things pros don’t talk about enough is the time we spend away from our instruments; and the stage.

If you’re a pro that plays, practices or rehearses every day there is a very strong chance you’ll have injuries that will affect your ability to perform.

Typically these are repetitive stress injuries, or RSI. Surveys of symphony orchestras found that 64% to 76% of musicians were experiencing RSI that affected their performance. And remember that these musicians are among the most highly trained in the world. They are taught, and practice the very best ergonomic and musically efficient techniques.

Imagine how those who are self-taught fare.

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I personally think that about 85% of my peers over the age of 50 have dealt with some form of RSI. Enough that it’s kept them home when they’d rather be, and quite often financially need, to perform.

So what are some examples of RSI that guitarists frequently encounter? Tendinitis and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Ask me how I know.

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And then there are other physical issues that present themselves to guitarists specifically; lower back, neck and shoulder problems are most common.  Sciatic issues abound. These injuries can affect a guitarist’s ability as much or more than the above mentioned RSI. Ask me how I know.

And let’s not discount the toll travel takes on the body. If you have back or neck issues from playing they are severely exacerbated by driving and flying. Ask me how I know.

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So, what is a sexagenarian with over 30,000 hours on his hands do to protect himself?

I play as little as I can.

This still averages out to over 15 hours a week; most weeks.  But I also schedule an off-season. And then a spring training, and then I go about my year.  And I pretty much insist on celebrating a sabbath from my guitar every week. I only play 5-6 days a week.

If one were to look at my schedule closely over the last decade they’d see very few performances January-March. And if I play them, they’re typically regional 60-minute, one-set affairs.  This is on purpose. I plan my year in much the same way an MLB player does.

I take January off. In fact I take from the last gig of December until the end of January off. This doesn’t mean I don’t pick up the guitar, but none of it is rehearsal. I only play what I want, when I want to, and I spend most of my time fishing for ideas on a variety of guitars. Or experiment with strings and tunings as I did this year with my baritone-eventually deciding to tune it C-C in standard which was another step lower. This is a valuable creative time for me, but I only play 3-4 hours a week, at most.

The rest is invaluable.

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February is when spring training starts for me.  I play at least one 60-90 minute focused session on one guitar 5 days a week. This time includes warm-up and stretching. I play as long as I can stay actively engaged in critical listening which is the requirement for me to call it a focused session. Once the outside world begins to intrude I put the guitar down.

I allow myself to play one more 45 minute focused session, if I want to, on another guitar, or play a ‘casual’ session for up to 90 minutes. An example of a casual session would be playing while watching a sporting event or news broadcast. But the only mandate in early February is one 60-90 minute focused session .

I ease myself back in making sure that I’m playing at about 60-70% of volume and tempo. Think pitchers playing long-toss. I’m stretching muscles that haven’t been taxed in 30 days.

By the middle of the month I move to two 60-90 minute mandatory focused sessions, and allow one casual session of any length as long as I’m feeling relaxed and pain free. I also up volume and tempo, approaching performance tempos and volume.

In February I do not evaluate my accuracy.  This is important. If you’ve taken a break from focused playing, or playing at all, your accuracy is going to be negatively impacted. To expect anything else is foolish, and can set you back. Expect to make more than the average amount of mistakes.

Instead, I evaluate how loose I feel when I play, how well I’m playing dynamics, and how is my tone. I get to the basics of playing music. For example right now I’d rate my tone and dynamics close to 9, my rhythm is about 6.5 as I’ve found myself rushing a bit, but I’m playing with 100% commitment. I would say I’m playing enthusiastically. I’m really happy about that. The mistakes will clear up over time. It’s important to KNOW that that last statement is true. The mistakes will clear up over time.

By the first week of March I will play three focused sessions, one on each of my stage guitars, and as many casual sessions as I want to play. I think it’s important to note that most of my compositions come from these casual sessions, and I think it’s important to make those a regular part of my daily guitar habit. I also increase my playing to 6 days a week; if I want to or feel the need. Quite regularly the 6th day may be spent all casually. Meaning I’m going fishing on all my instruments. As a guitarist/composer I think of this as a working vacation.

I have been playing injured for most of the past 6 years. It was really a series of unfortunate events and included major flare-ups in tendinitis, neck and shoulder issues that pinched nerves and numbed the fingers of my right hand, severe right-hand thumb pain and stiffness from a non-guitar related injury, and major sciatic nerve damage. I soldiered on, but at a pretty serious cost. Both to body, but ultimately my performances as the injuries severely limited my repertoire.

I’ve had to learn the difference between playing hurt and playing injured. As well as learning the warning signs from when pain is presaging an injury. And what to do about it. Right fucking away. I no longer mess around.

One of the things I need to remember is that I’m not going to forget how to play the guitar if I don’t play for a week. In fact, I don’t get that rusty when I’ve not played for a week.  I can take a week off and get back 80% of my repertoire to stage-ready in 5 days. You just have to know how. And for me I basically do a compressed spring training.

 

For me, I’ve come to realize there are probably no more guitar mountains to climb.  I’m about as good a guitarist as I’m going to be. This does not mean that I can’t get much better as a musician. Because being a great musician is about being a great storyteller, and my storytelling can always improve. That has become the focus of my playing for over a year now.

So, if you play every day, keep an eye on your hands and body. Make sure you’re playing in the most ergonomic position that you can, and don’t be afraid to take time off when time off is required.

Happy playing, kb

The Good, the bad, and the ugly

Yesterday was one of the more frustrating days I’ve had on the guitar.  I had been up since 3am traveling to Michigan when I finally got to play the guitar at about 4:30 in the afternoon.

There was a hive of activity as family members arrived to celebrate my dad’s 90th birthday Monday so I took my baritone guitar out on the back porch to chill and get some of the road off my hands.  My stretching and warmup went well, but the guitar was NOT cooperating.  I had put new strings on it before I left, and with the temperature dropping and humidity rising my guitar did what guitars do; it remembered it was a tree and was moving all over the place.  It was especially wonky when I played in its lowest tuning Dropped-D intervals starting on Bb.

After about 15 minutes of pulling strings and fighting the guitar I said screw it and tuned it up to DADGAD intervals starting on C and it handled it much better. Not great, but I got in about 45 minutes of playing that wasn’t satisfying at all musically, but did do the one thing I was looking for and that was to knock the rust off. I kept telling myself not to be pissed at the guitar, it was just doing what was natural, and that kept me relaxed enough to accomplish my goal.

This morning I had vastly different goals.  I wanted to play some music. My hands felt decent, not great, but my stretching session went well and I hunkered down on the guitar.  And I learned a lesson. As much as I’d like this guitar to be tuned lower for standard and dropped-D intervals the strings just don’t have the mass required to do that.  And the truth is, this guitar loves any alternate tuning a whole step lower than standard.  Any and all alternate tuning sound amazing bE amuse the string gauge is perfect for those tunings.

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And I played music for about 75 minutes.  The guitar sounded and felt fabulous, everything worked, and I played in CGDGAD, DGDGAD, DGDGBD, DGDGBbD, and DADGAD intervals, and the guitar LOVED it.  Every single note, even the ones I  fluffed.

While I’m a little bummed about not being able to play standard and Dropped-D material on the Bari, I’m a believer in using a guitar in a way that suits it best. Since I got my 12-fret OM refurbished about 10 days ago all the standard and dropped-D stuff sounds fabulous on that, so I’ll perform that material on that guitar. It’s a no-brainer. And  I’ll use the Bari for what it does best.  Also a no-brainer. I will use this information as I start putting together my set lists for my June concerts, and I know my performances will be better for it.

Frustration isn’t always a bad thing. To me it just signals that something isn’t working and I need to find a solution.  And today I did. I listened to my guitar and came up with a winning solution.

What did your guitar teach you today?

Cheers, kb

 

The Financial Conundrum of being a Live Indie Performer in the Digital Age

I’ve long kidded that the reason I got into music is that when I was young my parents told me music wasn’t lucrative.  I was just starting Sunday school and they had talked about lucre and how lucre was a bad thing, i.e. filthy lucre. If lucre was a bad thing I reasoned that anything lucrative must also be bad and music WASN’T lucrative therefor it must be good and a worthy pursuit. Right? That was sound reasoning wasn’t it?  Ah youth and naiveté. But I’ve never thought of playing music as taking a vow of poverty either. I was smart enough to know I wouldn’t get rich or make nearly the amount of money I had as an executive recruiter, but when I started out touring nationally in the mid 90’s things were working out. I wasn’t filling rooms like I’m doing now on a semi-regular basis, but the folks that did come were a huge support and bought my CDs.  Tickets to my shows were $10-$20 and if I didn’t get a guarantee I would typically get 70-80% of the door.

Here’s the thing. When I got in the business CDs sold for $15 and tickets to my concerts were in the $10-$15 range and, as I said, I retained 70-80% of ticket sales plus 100% CD sales. Over 20 years later CDs are sold (ha! more on that later) at the same price of $15 and the tickets to my concerts have gone from $10-$20 a ticket to $12-$25 a ticket. But here’s the kicker; rooms are by and large keeping 40-50% of the door instead of 20-30%. Why? Because their costs kept going up, like everyone elses, but instead of passing the costs off to the consumers by raising prices to appropriate levels they’re making up most their revenue from the artists who are bringing people in as opposed to their customers.

Continue reading

Dancing with Shadows or What wakes me up at 3am

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These posts I’ve been writing have been for the most part positive in nature. Partly because I’m a naturally positive guy, and partly because I think it’s important to stay positive-see the best in a situation and not the worst. And I’ve always found whining and complaining to be both counter productive and boring as hell to listen to. If you don’t like the way things are, change them. Don’t expect someone else to make the changes for you, or because you want them to; things change when YOU make them change.  (It would appear that my bias against laziness and ‘being stuck’ is showing.)  But my mantra has always been “Make a plan, work the plan, trust the plan. Refine the plan and then repeat. Over and over and over again.”  I used this process to set up a search firm in Dallas, TX in 1982, The Danbrook Group, that is still in business today, as well as establish my own search from that I successfully ran from 1984-1993. It’s a process that I used in 1989 when I taught myself chord theory and learned how to play and compose in alternate tunings, and the same process I used to establish my own record label while becoming a nationally touring independent musician.

But that doesn’t mean doubts don’t creep in. I know artists who are constantly insecure. They’re constantly questioning their talent and their worth as an artist.  I don’t struggle with that. As one of my heroes Chet Atkins said: “If you hear something you like, and you’re halfway like the public, chances are they’ll like it too.”  I’ve found this to be absolutely true. People have always enjoyed my music-especially since I started playing my own music-I’ve always reached people at a deep level with my guitar. What I struggle with is not whether or not my music has value or worth, what I’m struggling with is whether or not the pursuit of creating and performing the music has been worth it to me and my family.  I think of the hours and hours I spend closed off in my studio when I’m home coupled with all the time I’ve spent on the road the past 20+ years.  And as the world measures such things I have NOTHING to show for all the labor.  I have no 401K plan, I have no retirement, no pension, no savings; NADA. Any financial security I’ve had has come through me marrying well.  And my social security will be an absolute joke because my income is so low. I can’t help my daughters with college money, or help them at all financially when they’re going through rough times the way so many of my friends can.  While I can and do help out around our house with general expenses I am next to useless when an emergency like septic issues crop up and we’ve got an unexpected $750 plumbing bill on our hands. I can’t tell you how helpless and worthless moments like that make me feel. Continue reading

Marijuana and Me: A musical romance

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I know this blog is going to be a bit controversial so let’s first get a few things straight.  This is NOT a political post. If you know me, you know that I am an outspoken advocate for the legalization and taxation on the sale and distribution of cannabis to adults 21 and over in the US.  I believe this with ALL my heart because history has definitively taught us that prohibition doesn’t work.  IT DOESN’T WORK. And I’m not in ANY WAY advocating your use of Cannabis, nor do I condone its use by minors. While the evidence is sketchy (another casualty of prohibition) it doesn’t seem prudent for an immature, under-age brain. And I have friends who have had dependency issues with weed, and I’m sympathetic to their plight, but there plight doesn’t affect my belief in the freedom for me and others to indulge in a private, responsible way. If it doesn’t work for you, or it makes you sick, don’t use it. We’ve got enough problems to deal with in this country as it is; making things illegal through prohibition is like throwing gasoline on a fire.  This blog is about my experience and use of this humble plant; one I’ve enjoyed responsibly for decades. However, for those of you who are prohibitionists, here are a few quotes from folks way smarter than me on the subject for you to ponder upon.

Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself; and where they are, they should be changed. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana in private for personal use…
― Jimmy Carter

“Prohibition… goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes… A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.
― Abraham Lincoln

The legalization of marijuana is not a dangerous experiment – the prohibition is the experiment, and it has failed dramatically, with millions of victims all around the world.”
― Sebastian Marincolo Continue reading

Why I perform: The Most Important Minimum Wage Job in the World

As has been the case for many of you the past couple of months, I’ve been going over 2013 income and expense for tax season.  Last year wasn’t a good year, not by a long shot. It was the worst revenue year I’ve had in over a decade. Simply put, I got my ass handed to me.  Last year I drove over 45,000 miles, booked, played and did the PR for 80 concerts, and played the guitar 2-3 hours every day. I spent 100 days on the road sometimes sleeping on couches, mattresses on the floor, and even a couple of nights in my car out in the middle of nowhere because they were charging $90 for a $40 hotel room.  After running the numbers I spent a minimum of 3000 hours working in 2013.  Let’s just say that after expenses my income was way under the PROPOSED minimum wage increase to $10/hr.   WAY LESS.

So it’s clear I’m not in this for the money.  And believe it or not, I’m one of the lucky ones. There are very few instrumental guitarists who get to do this for a living. Probably less than 100 or so on the planet.  And other than a couple of folks who we all know, none of us are getting rich doing it.  So why do it?  On a personal level I can’t NOT do it. I’ve tried.  I know for a fact that I won’t last long after my stage days are done, because that’s where I’m of service, that’s where I belong, and that’s where I can be an agent for change in a troubled world.

You see, in a world where people are leaving dogmatic religions and emptying churches I believe we need a place where people can come together and bond in a communal environment.  While listening to music on your own sound system can be a powerful experience, nothing has the impact of the shared musical experience with a room full of others.  I KNOW that people leave my concerts feeling better than they did when they came in, and I know that will carry over into the rest of their evenings and even the next day. Why? Because that’s what happens to ME every time I attend a concert.  And this affects the way we see and treat the world and the people  around us. Continue reading