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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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

The Three C’s Of Zen Guitar: Centered, Committed, & Controlled

First a big shout out to Philip Toshio Sudo; author of Zen Guitar. I read that book before I went into the recording studio to record Homecoming & WinterNight over two weeks in September of ’97.  Philip plays electric guitar and the book has almost nothing about actually playing the guitar in it. But it was still one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read on music.  If you play guitar you owe it to yourself to read this book. You can get it at Amazon!

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The book deals with the mental attitude we bring to our practice, rehearsals and performances. It had a huge impact on me-as you can tell I write more about the mental aspect of playing the guitar than the actual playing. Ultimately I think mental attitude is more important than any of the physical skills that we have or don’t have. And physical skills diminish over time, but think of how many great older musicians there are playing right now. It’s because even though they can’t fit quite as many notes into a two bar phrase, they are capable of putting more emotion, more intent, more feel into every note they play. Their music has more depth. Those musical stories are more vibrant than ever.

In last week’s blog I wrote about the Holy Triad of Tone, Rhythm & Dynamics and the core importance they have in any musical performance.  Over the weekend as I was rehearsing on harp guitar I realized that unless one had the right mental attitude it would be hard to achieve what one must in regards to Tone, Rhythm, and Dynamics. And I found that there was another ‘Holy’ triad. This time it was being centered, committed, and controlled.

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I find the key foundation to a great rehearsal or performance is being centered. From a dictionary I get this: well-balanced and confident or serene. That’s perfect.  But to paraphrase my wife; “What’s that mean?”

It means you can’t bring worry, anger or fear into the rehearsal with you.  It means that you don’t just pick up the guitar to pick up the guitar.  It means you have intent, you know what you’re about and you’re ready to do it when you pick up the instrument.  This is not about being focused per se, though some people may feel focused when they’re centered.  To me what it means is that I’m balanced. I’m not easily knocked off my goal when I run into some difficulties which I inevitably will.  If one is centered they won’t be overly critical and bring a lot of negative self-talk into their analysis of their rehearsal. When you are centered you bring a calm certainty to the proceedings.

If you are stressed or agitated, angry or upset, it might be smart to reschedule your rehearsal. Otherwise you’ll bring those feelings and patterns of thinking into your playing. And it probably won’t end the way you’d like.

 

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Before we talk about commitment it might be good to discuss the two sides of that coin.  There is big C Commitment which is about long-term aspects. For example this describes an approach to learn a new song, tuning, key, or new technique like two-hand tapping or slide. And then there’s little C commitment; which is how we decide to play an individual note, phrase or composition.  In this blog I’ll be focusing on little C commitment.

You can’t play music timidly if you want to convey emotions.  And there’s really no other reason to play music. IMHO.

When one is calm and confident it is easier to achieve the next mental state. Commitment. This to me might be the key ingredient in musicianship. If you don’t commit to the note and how you’re going to play it you’ll never achieve what you want as it relates to Tone, Rhythm, and Dynamics. It cannot happen.

And yet, that is what confounds most intermediate musicians as they attempt to master their instrument. And at the core of not committing is fear. Fear of a mistake which will shame or embarrass us. FACT. Great musicians make HUGE mistakes.

Michael Manring is considered by many to be the finest fretless bass player in the world. I’ve gotten to tour and play dozens of gigs with him and I know he’s the best musician I’ve ever been around. He’s also among the most kind. I call him Skinny Buddha, and  I think he’s gone whole years where he hasn’t made a single mistake.  But when he does? It’s a doozy! HUGE with a Trumpian Y YUGE. Because that was the note he meant to play!

I learned everything about committing to a note/phrase through a performance with Michael in Southern Utah in 1998. We were playing my arrangement of Duane Allman’s Little Martha and he thought the chord change was to the IV chord when it was to the I. Meaning he played a big fat G against my big fat D and it brought everyone out of their reverie; momentarily. We’re pros, we played on, and incredibly never skipped a bit-no easy task given that I play the A section in 17/8.  No words were spoken, and the rest of that evening was like all of our shows-fun for all. Me most of all.

But we talked about it after the show. Because I was amazed that he shrugged it off so easily. At that point in my career, if I’d made that kind of mistake I would have crawled into a hole and played scared the whole night. He told me something that as an ex-jock I understood.  It was a simple mistake. It was not a big deal. He meant to play it that way. There was no fear carried forward.  Athletes, great athletes shrug off failure and mistakes as long as they commit. So do great musicians. Great performers FORGET their mistakes. They leave them in the past, where they belong. So should you.

Playing committed is often a way to discover just how well you know a particular piece of music. Is your knowledge formative, or nuanced?  How you commit is the acid-test to your depth of understanding of that piece of music.

If you make a stunning amount of committed mistakes, it probably means you don’t know the song well enough to perform it. But that is still better than playing a timid version with fewer mistakes.  Play with passion or don’t play at all. Take that song back to practice and get to work. That’s all that needs to happen.

I feel it’s important to say that playing committed doesn’t mean always playing loudly. It’s committing to how we’re going to apply tone, rhythm and dynamics to a note, phrase, or composition. You commit to playing softly and tenderly every bit as much as you commit to playing something loudly and brashly.

I also think that it’s important to say that for a guitarist, the idea of commitment is mostly about the plucking hand.  As I’ve read recently on Facebook. Your left hand (fretting hand) shows us what you know. Your right hand (plucking hand) shows us who you are.  Are you confident and committed, or timid and indifferent?

In other words; mean what you play!

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Control. Merriam-Webster says this: restrained.  Other synonyms are disciplined and contained. Those last two are closer to my meaning for controlled.  But I’m going to use another jock reference: staying within yourself as my definition.  What do you have to offer the music today? Right now? This minute? This is about how I feel emotionally and physically.

The sports I played most were baseball, tennis, and golf. All are basically individual sports; baseball is a game mostly played between the pitcher and hitter (especially as it relates to this topic).  All are sports that can be and are played daily by professionals.  But you can’t bring your A game to every occasion. In fact even the very best only bring their A game about 40-50% of the time.  The rest of the time you’ve got to do the best with what you have.

I was trying to get this idea across to a student the other day. Luckily they’re way into sports so I used a baseball pitching reference. There are days I know I can throw an easy 94 with late movement, and some days I’ve only got 89.  As long as I don’t try to play a song as if I can throw 95 I’m fine. For me, control is knowing my limits. Knowing what I have in my hands that day. Focusing on control doesn’t stop me from doing, focusing on control allows me to choose appropriate repertoire, tempo (rhythm) and dynamics. Focusing on control allows me to do well.

If you are lucky enough to perform your music you must understand that every day is a new day.  This is especially true for aging musicians. Respond accordingly.

But sometimes control can be about restraint. This is especially true as it relates to tone and dynamics. I’ve seen guitarists who hit the thing so dang hard that nothing stays in tune let alone sounds musical. Strings rattle against frets, strings are bent out of tune, and there’s no nuance. EVERYTHING IS PLAYED FULL VOLUME ALL THE TIME. If this is you, knock it off.  No one wants to hear musical screaming all the time.  Control yourself!

And control can also be about speed.  It’s a mistake to play everything at 100% maximum speed or effort. Golf pros and MLB pitchers will tell you that it’s best to maintain about 75-85% of maximum effort. That’s repeatable over the years.  And this is when staying in control keeps you from becoming tense.  Playing too fast always leads to tension and that effs up everything. And if you’re always hovering around max effort you have no way to go when more is required.

So the next time you pick up your guitar ask yourself if you’re calm cool and collected. Are you ready to play each note with intent? And are you playing within your capabilities at that moment?

If you can answer yes to these you’re going to have a rewarding time on the guitar.  And so will those who get to listen.

 

Cheers, kb

 

 

The Power of Wow

Today I was reminded of the power of wow, and today that experience came from playing great instruments.

Truth told the last couple weeks have been hard guitar weeks for me. I’ve been working very hard to get ready to go on the road for a mini-tour the first full week of June which has included lots of office work, and I also had a less than satisfying visit with my father and family over his 90th birthday in Northern Michigan that included TSA hassles and gridlock.

I use the phrase playing the guitar to describe what I do and the word play is important. Play requires a certain mind-set, and mine was nowhere close to allowing me to play. I bounced back and forth from being a hyper efficient self-employed business man, and frustrated traveler/son.  I still spent time on the guitar, but man it was work. Real work. It was like doing push ups, or running on a treadmill. It was just exercise. I wasn’t playing at all.

Luckily I recognized that, and last week when I got back I told myself to chill. Most of what I was frustrated about was beyond my control, but anything that was within my control was dealt with immediately. And that really freed up my mind.

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And since I’d been fighting my baritone while I was in Michigan (my fault, not the guitar’s), I picked up my 20 year-old 12-fret which had recently been restored to its former glory by its maker, Alan Carruth.  And my immediate thought was wow. Just wow.

It sounded so good, and of course behaved great. I was once again transported by the power of wow. And because it felt so great I played with some reverence for both the music and the guitar, which translated to nice tone, improved dynamics, and really fluid rhythms. Ah, I was playing music.  I wasn’t working on the guitar.

And today, for the first time in several weeks I picked up the harp guitar and later the baritone guitar I had fought with last week. Holy Shit!! Twin Wows!  Both drew me in and seduced me. And again I was playing music not working the guitars.

People don’t know this about me, but I can go months without playing a particular guitar. So much depends on how much I’m touring, who I’m touring with, and what guitar has grabbed my particular fancy. And the last couple of weeks the wow has been the 12-fret guitar. But a couple of weeks before that it was the high-string, and before that it was the baritone. And before that it was the piccolo harp guitar.

As long as I’m playing a couple of hours a day, it really doesn’t matter which guitar I’m playing. I’m keeping my hands in shape, and if my hands are in shape it only takes me a few days to put together a 90 minute concert spread over 3 or 4 guitars.But I always try to follow the ‘wow’ because that’s where the playing is, that’s where new music is, and that’s where, when I’m really lucky, I can find a transcendent performance.

For me following the power of wow keeps me fresh. And staying fresh is so important when you’ve done something for over 4 decades, and something you still do a couple of hours of almost every day. It helps that I have five great guitars, but you can find wows in lots of different ways just on one guitar.

Putting on new strings, try a new tuning, trya partial capo, put the capo higher than you ever have before, play an old favorite song you’ve long neglected, plug in and turn up the amp really loud, record a video, or perform live. All can provide players with a wow-a breath of something fresh and exciting. Something that seduces us and draws us in. Something that makes 90 minutes FLY by. If we’re going to continue to grow as musicians it’s important to stay open-minded and keep asking ‘what if I?…” Following the power of wow does that for me.

What’s your wow? Find it, pursue it.  The power of wow, is powerful indeed.

Cheers, kb

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