Not all mistakes are created equally

 

One of the things I’ve noticed about some of my students is that they react the same way to each mistake they make.  Typical reactions are anger, fear, or shame, and mistakes of any kind stop them dead in their tracks. They try to back up and attempt a do-over.  That in itself is a mistake.  Music keeps moving, whether you make a mistake or not. If you are in rehearsal mode, playing songs all the way through, then don’t EVER let a mistake stop you. Spend your rehearsals practicing getting yourself out of the self-inflicted jams.  It’s truly the fastest way to improve your performances.

A master musician is not someone who doesn’t make mistakes, a master musician is someone who hides their mistakes well.  Learn how to hide yours.

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And learn the different types of mistakes musicians make; is it mental or physical?  If you simply flubbed where you put your finger GET OVER IT, and keep playing. Physical errors happen to the best musicians and athletes on the planet. Do not spend a millisecond of your life berating your playing for this kind of mistake. IT. IS. NO. BIG. DEAL.

Of course not every physical mistake is the same either. Did you make a physical mistake because you don’t have the right technique or correct fingering for that passage? That’s different from a simple flub. Don’t stop playing, but acknowledge the problem and when you’re done playing spend time on fixing it. If your technique or fingering is incorrect, go back to work, slow everything down to about half-speed and practice the right moves until they feel natural.

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The mistakes to be hyper-aware of are mental errors.  Any sports coach will tell you that mental errors are the unforgivables in sports.  They are in fact, unforced errors.  But there are two kinds of mental errors. One is thinking you are doing the exact right thing and doing it only to find out it’s wrong.  And the other is a brain-fart.

In the first instance, instead of berating yourself, figure out what you were supposed to do, get committed to that and play through it the next time the correct way. In the second instance-get over it-it’s not a big deal; it is a mental version of a physical flub. The first instance speaks to having bad information, and the other speaks to not being mindful. Both are worthy of correcting.  I’ve noticed a huge uptick in the quality of my rehearsals since I’ve become mindful of being mindful.  BE. HERE. NOW.

And please, don’t ever give yourself the goal of playing mistake free.  It won’t happen. Even on nights that I’ve been flawless in my performance I’ve made more than a handful of mistakes; the difference for me is that I don’t telegraph my mistakes, I’ve probably made the same or similar mistake before, and I’ve planned an emergency exit of sorts. This is more for my benefit than the audience’s.  If I’m not affected by my mistakes I’ll play better, and both the audience and I gain from that.

So figure out the kinds of mistakes you’re making, make the right corrections, and go play music that inspires and moves you. If you do that, you’ll inspire and move us.

Cheers, kb

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Fingers, Picks, or Fake Nails Oh My! Part 2: Should I or Shouldn’t I

While it can be a real pain in the ass to those around me, I am gifted with an incredible desire to always get better at what I do. It’s the reason I wake up in the morning, and I honestly can’t understand any other way of living.  The day I wake up and don’t want to improve myself will likely be my last day. To me, self-improvement is my reason to live.

The way this shows up in my musical life is in my experimentation. I am incredibly inquisitive. I love trying new strings, capos, slides, guitars, tunings, and picks. My experiments have yielded tremendous results for me personally. But luckily I am also pretty self-aware, and I know that I typically respond favorably to anything ‘new’ and different.  I LOVE change. Embrace it, and actively pursue it.  I know change causes stress in many folks, but for me change is like taking a great big bong hit of the best weed I’ve ever had; it inspires me and unlocks music that may have never found the light of day otherwise.

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Continue reading

The Year of the Monkey

“…the year of the Monkey lends itself to luck in fortune. It’s also an opportunistic time, particularly in building and business growth.”

As we turned over the Chinese New Year this February I was inspired by what the Year of the Monkey is supposed to bring. I was committed to making changes in how I approached my music business, but in January I wasn’t sure how I was going to go about it.

I’ve never been one for New Year’s Resolutions. I typically don’t like to do anything flocks of people do.  I figure if something is worth changing , then change it immediately, why wait until January 1 to do it?  But I do use the winter months to reflect and meditate on my life; what I want to do over the coming year as well as what do I want/need to do better. And then come up with a plan to achieve those goals. The last blog post I published in late January was part of that reflection-The birth of an album.  But I was pondering other things as well.

As the calendar advanced a bit further into February I realized one of the things I needed to do was to develop a routine. Something that was easily repeatable, structured enough to yield results, and flexible enough to fit my family life, music business and creative pursuits.

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The first thing I committed to as part of my routine was begin writing Morning Pages on a daily basis. That was  February 22nd. It’s a tool Julia Cameron teaches in her book The Artist’s Way which has been the bible for a lot of writers, artists, and musicians since it was published in the early 90’s.  Basically, Morning Pages equals a journal: three pages of hand written stream of conscious prose, poetry, or whatever might pop out of the pen. But as opposed to most journals written in the evening and that reflect on the day’s events, these are written the first thing in the day, when our ‘editor’ is asleep.  It allows one to dream weave, think up impossible scenarios, push the boundaries of what we might think would ‘work’. It’s a place where no feeling or idea is wrong. You just write. I’ve only missed one day, and it was a day that had me up and out the door at 5:30am and home after 9pm.

I committed to creating daily to-do lists, and then committed to doing what was on them. One of the things every sane self-employed person learns to do is leave some things on the to-do list for the next day. You just can’t do everything every day. But I’d gotten a little too good at moving stuff to the next day.  I can do the important and necessary stuff every day. That’s easy. I just have to prioritize it and then make sure I’ve left enough time to do it. So I started scheduling activities at specific times during the day.

I also made playing the guitar a priority.  So I put that on the to-do list.  And after a month I created a separate guitar to-do list and played what was on the list. (That didn’t last long), which has morphed into a guitar diary. (More on that in a bit). A couple of years ago I had committed to moving more, sleeping more, and eating less. I redoubled those efforts.

I let my OCD run rampant and got hyper organized about EVERYTHING. And I started setting my alarm for 6:30am.

So now it’s May 19, and I’ve been in my routine for just about 90 days.  Which is why I’m sharing this with you today.  The 90-day mark for me is significant because that’s how long it takes me to actually accomplish positive change.  This has been true in anything I’ve ever done; sports,  business, or music. The first 30 days establishes the habit, but it takes more than that to reap any real results. Because there’s refining, flexing, learning and editing of the process to be done.

The Morning Pages have been an absolute godsend.  They’ve provided me great insight in a variety of areas, and I always feel mentally fresh after I write. Always. Even if I’ve written about some tough personal issues.  It’s so cool to start each day with an actively engaged and positive mindset.

One morning I had the realization that in today’s music scene what I really am is an independent entertainment and information content provider. That was huge. I saw in very clear fashion how I might coordinate and monetize (sorry a guy’s gotta earn a buck) my music as well as my knowledge through various on-line portals and social media.  That has had a profound impact on how I am ‘working’ my business now. My to-do list looks very different from what it did 6 months ago.

For example, one of the things you’ll notice is that I’m not going to write how-to‘s on  this blog anymore. I’ve started two video blog series on YouTube that are much more effective at relaying that kind of information than are longish essays. And videos are much easier to monetize.

But upon reflection, I realized that the So you want to be a better guitarist? essays I wrote in 2015 provided the skeleton of what will be future books or booklets. I’ve just completed the outlines on two books that will be built off them, and I’m planning a third, and maybe more. Again, these will be much easier to monetize in book form than on blog.

So, now I’m going to use this blog as my public guitar diary.  Really kind of what it was intended to be in the first place. I will talk specifically about my daily journey on the guitar. I may write a paragraph, or a whole essay, or just one sentence.  But it will deal with my relationship with the guitar as it is in that moment in time.

And you will still get to learn from my journey sans any monetization. Because the truth is I am now, and always will be working on the same things you’re working on; how to better use the guitar to share my stories, my hopes and my fears. So that’s what I’ll be writing about.And I will probably discuss more about how my routine has impacted not only my productivity, but my creativity-that’s a big part of my musical/playing process. And I’ll do that every day. So, please join me.

If however my daily musings aren’t dealing with what you’re currently working on or interested in, then head over to my YouTube channel; I have 14 new vlogs that are how-to guides on a variety of guitar playing topics, and I’m adding two a week, every week for the foreseeable future.

Here’s the link to my channel. Each vlog has a description of the information covered. And you can subscribe so you’ll never miss one.

Here’s the first one, just to get you started.

Cheers, kb

What’s in a Name: Part 2

While I do some editing on these posts, they are largely stream of conscious essays in which I write what I think and feel about the issues I deal with being a niche independent musician who is self-managed and self-booked. Recently I’ve been reviewing  my blog posts, and I’ve noticed an undercurrent of frustration and anger, and much of it is something I’ve already discussed: naming the genre of music I play. Back in May I wrote a post titled “A Rose by any other name: Or What’s in a Name?” It’s hot linked so you can read it yourself, but the gist of it was a rant showing my frustration at my largely failed attempt to be considered a folk artist.

As I say in that post, I’ve always wanted to be thought of as a folk musician. Why is that important to me?  At this point I’m asking myself the same question.  I know much of it stems from the ‘facts’ of my musical upbringing where folks like John Prine, Steve Goodman, James Taylor and Jackson Browne have more to do with my picking up and playing the guitar than Leo Kottke, Michael Hedges, or Alex De Grassi ever did.  And I’m almost entirely self-taught. I’ve had less than 10 formal guitar lessons. Those origins are about as folky as you can get. But I’m learning that where I am and what I do now is more important than where I’ve been in the past. I have to act on the former not the latter. Continue reading

Fingers, Picks, or Fake Nails Oh My!: The Dirty Little Secret of Fingerstyle Guitar

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I realize that I haven’t written a whole lot about guitar playing lately.  And ultimately I want to connect to other guitarists be they songwriters or instrumentalists.  So I thought it might be fun and informative to talk about one of the most misunderstood aspects of playing fingerstyle guitar; how we pluck the string. In a style of music known as fingerstyle guitar, which describes how we play rather than what style of music we play, I find it interesting that so little of how we play fingerstyle is understood or known by the general public. Most of us don’t play with our feet; so aren’t all guitarists fingerstyle? So then, what makes fingerstyle, fingerstyle?

The basic definition is that we pluck the strings with our fingers instead of using a plectrum.  That’s it. It’s why when you go to a fingerstyle concert you might hear folk, blues, jazz, celtic, classical, rock, any number of musical genres. I’ve discovered that most folks are amazed at how a guitarist’s left hand can fly over the fingerboard contorting every which way to make complicated chords, all the while not realizing that most of the ‘music’ is coming from the right hand, or plucking hand. There are left handed fingerstyle players and they use their left hand to pluck. So if you’ve ever wondered how we do what we do, and how much time we spend thinking about how we pluck a guitar string, read on. I certainly understand if you’d like to stop here, I’m getting into the weeds with this blog. The tall weeds.

First I should say that one of the things many fans of fingerstyle guitar don’t know about or understand is how much guitarists agonize over how they pluck the strings. Guitarists are faced with many choices, and each have their own strengths and weaknesses, there’s a compromise or limitation for every choice. Fingerstyle guitarists can choose to play with bare thumb and bare fingers, picks on thumb and fingers in a dizzying array of materials and styles, real fingernails,  real fingernails reinforced with super glue, real nails reinforced with acrylic and super glue, ‘tips’, which are fake nails attached to the fingernail, and then reinforced with acrylic and super glue. And many guitarists use a mix of the possibilities above.  Among the nail crowd there is much discussion about the perfect length and shape, and those who use acrylic or super glue can add thickness to the nail discussion.  And those in the pick crowd can usually speak eloquently about different brands or alloys and what works best for them. At one time or another in my 40 years of playing the guitar I’ve tried all of the examples listed above, and I know folks who use all these different methods today, and I know most of them have tried a variety of methods themselves. Let me be clear. There is no right or wrong, there is only what works best for each guitarist, and what works best can change over time.  Don’t beat yourself up about what you like or dislike.  What floats your boat and helps you tell your stories best? Those are the questions to ask, and the answer is what’s right for you.

Mostly the choices we make are about the styles of music  we write and play, which is ultimately driven by how we use our thumb and how we mute strings.  For example, most of the folks that come out of the Chet Atkins or Merle Travis school of guitar playing use a thumbpick and either bare fingers, nails, or fingerpicks.  These folks mute the bass strings with their palms and need the extra oomph the thumbpick gives to the muted bass notes which allows them to keep the volume balanced between the bass and melody as well as stopping unwanted bass notes from ringing too long.

Many of todays percussive guitarists use no picks or nails, just bare fingers. This allows them to tap anywhere on the guitar or fretboard with either hand and get even tone throughout. There are tappers who use picks and tappers who use nails, but it takes a real athlete to deal with the gyrations it takes to tap with nails or picks-it’s hard work physically and the technique has to be spot on otherwise you’ll destroy the instrument, break a nail in the middle of a performance, or just make un-wanted, un-musical noise. Playing with bare fingers allows the guitarist to use palm or thumb and fingers to mute strings from ringing.

Folks who use picks on all fingers are on the decline, but Will Ackerman still uses the same National thumbpick and steel fingerpicks he’s always used and still sounds great, it’s really part of his sound. Chris Proctor is another guitarist who has made great use of picks on all his plucking fingers.  Part of the reason picks are in decline is that more and more guitarists are moving to either playing with their natural nails or using acrylic nails. The tone is much better, and it’s very difficult to get used to using picks on your fingers. They aren’t as loud as picks, but with today’s pickups, amplifiers and microphones guitarists don’t really need to worry about being loud.  And today, more and more guitarists are going the acrylic nail route; either getting them at a salon, or doing it themselves. Steel strings are hard on real nails, and so is life. Acrylics offer tone close to real nails, but without the angst of worrying about breaking a nail-they’re tough, and if damaged easily fixed. You can play any style of fingerstyle guitar with a full set of acrylics, though as I mentioned before, if you’re a tapper you’ll have to develop really good control of your right hand so that you don’t inadvertently break a nail or scar the guitar.  This method also allows guitarists to use palm or thumb and fingers to mute strings from ringing. And while not as loud acoustically as picks, much louder than bare flesh, and usually louder than real fingernails.

I’ve been aware of acrylic nails since the late 70’s when James Taylor came to Dallas and got his nails done at a salon near where I worked at Frets & Strings on Lovers Lane.  At the time I was doing the Leo Kottke thing-a plastic National Thumbpick with three National steel fingerpicks on my fingers.  Leo called it the Freddie Krueger starter set.  I could play really loud, but after I found out about JT, I went to that salon and I’ve been using ‘store bought’, acrylic fingernails ever since.  Over 35 years at least. It’s s huge part of my sound.  HUGE.

After almost every performance and after every workshop I’ve offered there are a handful of guitarists who wait to the bitter end, hemming and hawing while I’m packing up, just to ask me about my fingernails.  So here’s some real detail on how I do my nails.  When the construction crew is finished around here I’ll create a video so you can see how I do this-but for most folks this should be a pretty good ‘how-to’. And this might be a good place for non-guitarists to walk away-your opinion of me might suffer upon further reading.  But for the brave and curious, here goes.

If anyone were to ask me what the core component of my sound is, I think most folks would be surprised to hear me say my nails, but it’s true. That’s the key for me. I’m not me unless my nails are just so, and it’s why I’m so anal about my nails.

The picture above shows what my nails look like right after a visit to the nail salon and have a set of acrylic tips ‘installed’ on my thumb, index, middle and ring fingers. This picture was taken after I had done the final shaping and smoothing. First let me say that I only go to the salon when I break a nail to the point that an extension or ‘tip’ is required. I think that this is a part of the process best done by a pro with two hands.  Before I go to the salon I clip my nails almost to the quick. When I go to a salon I ask for tips and acrylic on four fingers. You’d be surprised, most nail attendants have experience with guitarist’s nails.  They glue a tip on each finger to lengthen the nail, and over that they put a mixture of acrylic topped with brush on super glue until the nail is 2.5 to 3 times the thickness of my normal nail. I have them make my thumb nail about twice as long as my other nails. I have them leave my nails extra long and do the final length, shaping, and smoothing when I get home. This costs about $15 plus a tip for 3 fingers and my thumb.

When I get home I use 4 different nail files; one very rough for length and rough shaping, then two Sand Turtle files, Fine and Super-Fine, for the first two smoothing ‘applications’ and final shaping, and lastly I use a Mambo 3-way buffer to get the nails glass smooth. I pay special attention to the edge and bottom of the nail which contact the string the most, but also make sure the top of the nail is smooth too so that it can be used to strum or ‘bounce’ off a string without sounding rough or raspy. I use the 3-way buffer 2-3 times a day if I’m in my normal 2-3 hour playing regimen.  Sometimes more and sometimes less.  It doesn’t take long for steel strings to abrade even a reinforced nail and I can hear the change. Luckily, once the final shaping and smoothing are done, these ‘touch-ups’ only take seconds to do, but really do bring dramatic results.

I am able to maintain my nails with brush on nail glue and acrylic powder. I’ll say this again; the only time I go to the salon is when I need a tip to reach the correct length. I’ve had problems with self-glued tips staying on, and I have damaged my nails trying to deal with that problem. So I end up going to the nail salon about once every 15-18 months. I’m really good about wearing gloves when I’m doing anything with my hands, and I’ve gotten really good with super glue to fix the little mess-ups that don’t require tips.  About once every 10 days, more often if I’ve been in water a lot, I check the edges of the nails, smooth any loose bits that are created by growth and moisture, then brush on nail glue to ‘seal’ those edges, and then I file that down smooth so that the edges can’t catch on clothing, strings, what not. I use a soft rectangular block med/fine file for this type of work on top of my nails. I may do this two to three times on ‘problem’ nails, but this rarely takes more than 15-20 minutes for all four.  I use a spray on nail glue dryer that works immediately and I can do a final shaping and smoothing of my nails using the 4-File method explained above within the 15-20 minute time frame. I just did this today.

About every 6-8 weeks I apply brush on glue from just above the white portion of the nail to just below the cuticle, then dip the nail into acrylic powder several times, let it dry for a few minutes and then apply brush on glue to the whole nail and spray the nail glue dryer over that. I don’t add much if any acrylic near the tip or plucking edge of my nail since it’s already the right thickness. By adding this to the middle of the nail it’s less messy, less filing to shape, and looks and sounds better. I’ve found it easy to get the end too thick thus muting the sound if I apply glue and acrylic to the whole nail.  I may repeat this procedure on any problem nails or nails that have gotten too thin.  Even though I use the spray-on nail glue dryer I let the nails ‘rest’ for about 45 minutes before I do the final shaping and smoothing to let the acrylic powder dry fully and harden.  In fact, if I’ve had to really pile it on I may wait until the next morning to shape and smooth-especially if the environment is humid. You want it dry and hard before filing or you’ll have a mess. Once hard I file this down smooth and to the thickness I think will work using the block top file, and then deal with the plucking edges using the 4-File method, and then I play and listen.  If the sound is ‘thin’ to my ear, I’ll add another coat or two until I get the desired tone. If the tone is too muted I’ll file the thickness down until it gets the tone where I want it. I’ve learned that you can’t have your nails too smooth, but they can be too thick or too thin. Overall, not counting drying time this takes about 45 minutes.

All of the materials I use can be bought at Sally’s Beauty Supply either online or in the store.  Including my salon visits I spend about $100 a year on my nails, most of that is on nail files pictured below. In addition to the files I use Omega Labs Brush-On Nail Glue, “Hurry Up” Nail Glue Dryer in a 7.2oz can that lasts about a year, and Aspire Bonding Acrylic Powder for touch-ups. I have a 1.6oz jar that is likely a lifetime supply.

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I know this seems like a lot of work to just play the guitar, and maybe it is, but to be able to get a consistent sound that I know I can count on day after day, well, that’s worth every minute and every penny to me.  I wouldn’t do it any other way. I know, because I’ve tried. And to be honest I just love the looks on women’s faces when this big old hair hippy walks into a nail salon or Sally’s Beauty Supply-that’s priceless.

So, what’s your dirty little secret?

Cheers, kb