What Really Matters

handsIt’s been ages since I’ve written anything on my blog.  Rather than say that I’m going to try and do better, I’ll simply apologize for my silence.  I do hope to come here more often to share my thoughts on music and life when the inspiration hits me.  Today is one of those days.

It is around the time of my birthday.  It’s a day that I usually keep a secret because I don’t like a lot of fuss or attention.  Truthfully, I’d be content to be left to my own devices – hidden in the basement exploring music (or video games to blow off steam).  Maybe go to the movie theater to watch a good sci-fi or action flick.  A great meal is always nice.  It’s funny – I don’t mind being spoiled but I certainly won’t ask for it.  Everyday I try to give what I’d like to receive.  I always will.  When someone is special to you, you’ll make them feel special everyday, not just 2 or 3 days out of the year.  If someone wants to do something nice for me – cool.  If not, I know the things I like and have no problem giving to myself if I’m able.  I’m rambling but I bring up my birthday because the thought of getting a year older has brought me into an interesting head space.

I get up around 5:30AM every morning to practice.  I’m not a professional musician but I love music so much and want to play it well that I’m compelled to do it.  5:30AM is the only time I can work on being a better musician without feeling guilty about not spending time with family.  It’s also the best time to have an uninterrupted and focused practice session.  If time permits, I do more after work.  I have a 9-5 that pays my bills and keeps me engaged mentally but when it comes to feeding my spirit and making me feel good, nothing comes remotely close to how I feel in the rare opportunities I’m able to make music with and for others.

Last night a good friend of mine came by and we worked on two tunes for a couple of hours.  During that span of time everything was right with the world.  I mean everything felt – right.  I wasn’t concerned about work, the responsibility of being a husband or father, the health of myself and my family or my fiances.  I was in the moment and the moment felt wonderful.  As I frequently say in my meditation class, I was in my true state.  The euphoria of that short span of time remains in my body now and that was only two hours in a total of 24.  That means something.

I’m always concerned with what people think of my love of music.  I’m 40-50ish, not a pro and yet I spend a tremendous amount of time practicing music, listening to music, studying music and anything that relates to organized sound.  Vibrational communication is what I like to call it.  I  sometimes worry that people would rather see me submerged in a book related to career advancement or something that would lead me to improved finances.  That self imposed mental roadblock will frequently lead me to not take my musical study seriously or not enjoy it as much.  It makes me second guess why I drag myself out of bed at the crack of dawn to bang out scales, chords and rhythms in an effort to create something meaningful.

Music is what I love to do.  For some people that is more than enough reason to pursue a passion but for someone like me who truthfully is a bit low on self esteem, it can be crippling.

As I add another year to my life I’ve begun to realize what is truly important and I’m starting to feel OK about being me.  I know that sounds strange but I remember feeling that way when I was younger.  I was bold and empowered by the freedom of no longer being considered a child.  At some point however, I began to operate based on what others were doing and what I thought others wanted to see in me.  Again, all self imposed but powerfully present none the less.  That type of thinking will lead you down a path that is not your own and if you’re not careful you’ll look up and find yourself on a road that is extremely foreign.

I know a few people think I’m having a mid-life crisis here.  Perhaps, but I prefer the term mid-life awakening.

In a world of constant change, my love for music is probably one of the few consistent things that have been with me my entire life.  Consistency is something you can always grab for stability when everything else is reeling (for better or for worse).  That feeling I got last night playing music confirms it and solidifies it.

No, I’m not thinking of a career change.  I’ve got a family to support and my new bass guitar addiction requires me to stay employed.  I feel blessed for the job that I have and I plan to continue to do the work that I do.  That being said, if it feels right for this long – it probably is.  Full steam ahead.

Mindful Practice, Laurie Frink

Since starting to learn bass guitar I am approaching practice different than before.  A lot of the things I am doing now I should have done when I started playing trumpet.  I would even dare to say these things were suggested to me but I either stopped doing them or dismissed them.  Now that I?ve been working in this new manner for the past few weeks I see tremendous value in it.  As of late, I’ve been amazed at my retention and the quality I’m getting out of my practice sessions.

In the past I would just practice until my chops got tired.  I would play my exercises and work  until I started to feel that familiar burn at which point I would put the horn down.  One thing I never took into account was mental fatigue and focus.  With my new practice routine I play for a maximum of 15 minutes.  I set an egg timer and once it rings ? I put my axe down and wait 5 minutes before I continue.  The important thing is during those 15 minutes I am mindful of what my brain is doing.  If it is not totally and completely engaged in the exercise, time for a break.  A good example would be this:

Practicing major scales descending?.  focusing on tone?.  focusing on the notes and their relation to the chord?  I wonder if I can squeeze in 18 holes of golf Sunday morning?  *What are you doing Eric??  get your head back in the game*?.  Ok, Ok?  Good clear tone?.  When does the new season of Sons of Anarchy start again?

At that point I have completely disconnected from the exercise.  Even if my chops or fingers (when playing bass) feel good ? it?s time to stop.  I give myself another 5 minute break and then I jump back in.  If I were to continue to play while not focusing I would get muscle  benefit but not much else.  Tomorrow I would start in the exact same place that I started.  While a certain lack of concentration is OK for some exercises, most require you to think about technique, feel, tone, etc.  To not be mindful of all aspects of an exercise defeats the purpose.  A lot of times we grind on the same exercises or drills over and over again wondering why they haven?t been completely absorbed.  Sure ? we may be playing the exercise from a physical standpoint but are we 100% engaged?  I can speak for myself and say I was not until recently.

In meditation we call this being mindful – fully and completely engaged with what you’re doing.  I teach a meditation class on Saturdays but in all honesty I never really applied those principals to my music.  Since I have started approaching practice this way I am amazed at my retention and ability to improve.

Try practicing mindfully.  Try to really connect with what your mind/brain is doing during exercises.  If you find it drifting outside of the practice room ? time for a break.  When you come back and make sure that everything is fully engaged in the process ? mind, body and spirit.

Laurie Frink

The trumpet community recently lost one of their shining champions.  Laurie Frink was a teacher who helped so many players develop their command of the instrument.  Ingrid Jensen, Dave Douglas and countless others have all shared tales of how she helped them become one with their horn which opened the door to true expression.  I had the pleasure of studying with her and my current teacher Jon Crowley was a student of hers as well.  Facebook was flooded with stories and tributes to Laurie when she passed.  It was then that I really grasped how much she meant to so many people – not just me.

Curious about how many people she touched?  Do a Google image search for “Laurie Frink trumpet” – you will see a few pictures of Laurie but even more pictures of the countless players she has helped over the years.  She was and always will be a blessing to us all.

Rest in peace Laurie…

Remembering Laurie Frink, The ‘Trumpet Mother’ Of The Jazz Scene

Bass – How Low Can You Go?

It has been a while since my last journal entry.  As usual life has been full of change, change and more change.  Some changes were small but there were certainly a few big life altering changes.  I won’t bore everyone with those details but I will provide an update on where I am with my pursuit of music.

The fire is still there.  Even when I was adjusting to fatherhood my mind was on music and what I wanted to accomplish.  The challenge was making the time.  What I came to realize is in many cases I was making excuses for not coming to my instrument.  There were plenty of opportunities to work on my craft and even a few opportunities to get out and play.  For one reason or another I found an excuse not to do it.  My son Henry Michael is coming into his own and definitely gives me moments where I can have a (somewhat) focused practice.  On top of that I have support at home to make time to play pretty consistently.  For some reason however – I didn’t.

Why have I been stuck?  I still don’t know the answer to that one.  Maybe I’m still recovering from the dark period.  Maybe I just needed a moment to catch my breath and look seriously at what I wanted to accomplish and why.  I will say working on anything when you’re in a bad place mentally (aka depressed) can be extremely counter-productive.  Music is no different.  I have always been extremely critical of my playing and when I’m in a bad mood it is much, much worse.  Every missed note, botched change and failed attempt at saying something on my horn was a direct negative hit to who I was as a person.  I wasn’t learning anything – I was simply reinforcing every negative thought that I had about myself.  Instead of approaching practice with a neutral attitude and accepting it as is – I used it as another reason to beat myself up even more.  Real talk.

Maybe that is why I avoided it (I just realized this as I’m writing)… I was tired and needed a break from those negative voices.  I need music to be fun again.  I still loved listening to it but playing was just not fun at all.  My teacher has been great with keeping me focused and working on the right things but he couldn’t stand there in the practice room and fight off the negative voices.  I needed to do something before it was too late.

The Answer (?)

Enter the electric bass.  When I first started playing trumpet everything was new.  Every blatty sound that came out of that bell was pure heaven.  Ok – that may be an exaggeration.  It wasn’t heaven for my ears but certainly for my spirit.  One thing about the trumpet is it was hard work from the beginning.  I know most things are exactly what we make them but my memory of starting out on trumpet was it’s a fun challenge.  I enjoyed the work but it wasn’t easy.  Fast forward to now – with my bad attitude it is hard AND it isn’t fun.  Not a good combination.

After talking to some friends I decided to fool around with the electric bass.  With it I hoped to find enjoyment in music again and maybe even heal my spirit in the process.  From a music theory standpoint I admired how bass players connected the changes in songs.  A well crafted bass line says so much about song form and I wanted my solos to have that type of quality.  I wanted to be able to solo over “There Will Never Be Another You” and have people recognize the tune without any accompaniment.  I hoped that the bass can translate that feel to my horn.

Well, the fun is back again but along with it – I am finding that I spend more time on the electric bass than on the trumpet.  I still go through my technical studies on the horn and have made an effort to keep up my chops but I will admit that a lot more of my time is spent learning the bass.  One of the great things about bass is the ability to practice in silence.  If the house is asleep I can still jam out into the wee hours of the morning before work or late at night before bed without a practice mute that makes things stuffy and completely disrupt my chops.

I have a new found respect for bass players and how important their role is in a band.  They dictate so much more than I ever realized.  I’ve always been a Beatles fan but I had no idea that Paul McCartney was such a killer bassist.  Playing the instrument also connected me to cats like Donald “Duck” Dunn and James Jamerson – and with that a reconnection with the music of my childhood (Motown and Staxx).  I had no idea how beautiful a bass could sound on a solo until I started checking out Jaco Pastorius (genius), Richard Bona, Jimmy Haslip and others.  I am fortunate to have friends who are bass players and they have been great with advice, listening advice and encouragement.  I also have a great teacher in Todd Johnson.

Bass is certainly not without it’s challenges.  My fingers are slow.  Like a snail crawling through peanut butter slow.  My hands are almost always sore every day.  It is incredibly challenging to maintain the groove of a tune while sliding all over the fretboard.  The difference however is my attitude.  Bass is new which in this case means it is fun.  This was the exact same mindset I had when I first put my trumpet to my lips and blasted out an awful 2nd space G.  As the vibrations of my bass rumble through my chest and body I feel it exorcising the evil demons (ego) that tell me I can’t play this music.

Is the bass that “other woman” threatening my main squeeze (trumpet)?  It is far too soon to say.  I have a ton of work to do before I can even think about taking the bass out of the basement.  More than that, I still feel like I have a lot to say on trumpet (or flugelhorn but that is a story for another post).  I will say that I am enjoying my reconnection with the joy to music and to be honest – that was what I wanted to find again.  If it leads to me becoming a better horn player – great.  If it leads to me becoming a bassist… well… that’s cool too.

If you never realized how important a bass line is to a song I offer this as proof.  James Jamerson’s bass line on “What’s Going On” is pure perfection.  Creative.  Grooving.  Dark Brilliance.  Combined with Marvin Gaye and the message of the song and you have magic.  Have you hugged a bass player today?

Storms of Life

stormsoflifeIf I was ever looking for proof that music came from the soul – I found it.

I consider myself a very private person – even to those closest to me.  I have always tried not to involve a lot of my “personal” life in my blog but during the past year or two I’ve discovered that how I feel from a spiritual standpoint directly governs the music inside of me.  If I’m not feeling “together” spiritually or mentally, it is a serious challenge for me to commit and play my horn.  I can pick it up and lose myself in discovery occasionally but when things aren’t clicking or popping with my life – it is a challenge.  The negative voice that says “you suck” or “why are you wasting your time” is loud and clear.

I’ve heard the term “tortured artist” but I think it takes a special kind of person to rally past the things outside of the shed and still create or strive to improve.  I know some people who use their music as a refuge or shelter away from the storms of their life.  I recall telling a close musical friend that it could be done even through she was going through some personal problems.  Now that I am enduring the same myself I realize how difficult it cane be.

I wonder how professional musicians rise above things like this.  Is it pure motivation of getting the bills paid or do they view music as their refuge and friend who listens to their darkest secrets and thoughts?  I used to think I could do this.  While my ear still finds music as the salve that heals and calms, things feel so dark and unfamiliar right now that playing music fails to pull things together.

So what are my challenges?  Too many to mention.  While I am exposing a personal side of my life I don’t want to get TOO personal.  Suffice to say that everything I touch or am in contact with on a regular basis feels to be in some sort of turmoil or not as stable.  I do believe that in an effort to “find myself” I’ve become more lost.

I read that if everything around you seems out of sorts or just flat our wrong – the common denominator is you.  I see a lot of truth in that and have begun searching for the light in earnest.  Enough about that… if anyone was looking for a reason why this blog has been dormant for so long after years of regular inspiring updates – you now have your answer.

If anyone out there has experienced anything similar I’d love to hear your thoughts on how things turned out or how music helped get you through it.

Skype Lessons

I have recently began taking Skype lessons with my good friend Jon Crowley.  Jon and I connected online a long time ago and he has always been a source of help and encouragement when I began this journey to play music.  The lessons have been great.  Jon has kept things simple and specific.  He challenges me with improvisation as well as my trumpet playing.  Using Skype is excellent because it gives me flexiblity (something very important when you have a 6 month old child) without sacrificing “face time” with a skilled teacher.

Thanks Jon for your time, commitment and positive energy.  Knowing that I have stand in front of you and play my assignments every week keeps me honest and on the right track.  I hope this branches out and allows you to take more students — as long as I don’t lose MY spot on your schedule!

Jazz Advice.com

One amazing resource that I have found incredibly useful is Jazz Advice (http://www.jazzadvice.com).  This web site is FULL of great articles that any aspiring musician will find useful.  I find myself returning to this site regularly for help when I hit or wall or just want/need some inspiration.  They even field and answer questions from their readers.  I recently asked a question about learning tunes and their answer was extremely helpful.

Forrest and Eric are giving back to the music like the masters of old but in a updated way.  They should be aplauded for their efforts.  If you haven’t checked it out – be sure to do so and if you’re so inclined, give a donation.  It’s really worth it.

Practicing with Henry

One thing I wondered about was how my son would respond to hearing his Dad play.  So far it has been nothing but positive.  Several of my musician friends with young children encouraged me to include him in my practice and I’m glad I did.  On our first session together he looked at the trumpet with a wonder in his eyes.  When he heard me blow a nice long G his face broke into a smile and he began to laugh, sing and kick his legs in excitement.  He responds the same way everytime and in most cases my chops give out before his ears.  During one session I wore him in a Moby wrap/carrier while walking around playing different tunes.  By the end of my session he was knocked out sleep.

He has been good for every part of my life and I am thankful for him every day.  Thanks for supporting your Pops dreams little buddy!

Changes and Questions

Welcome to the new and improved Jazzbrew.com!  Since beginning this site back in 2002, I have made at least 4 different face lifts.  This one has to be my favorites.  Very special thanks to Wanakhavi Wakhisi for his excellent eye behind the camera and his patience to guide me through the process.  I am not comfortable in front of the camera but he kept it simple and that was the key to making the shoot a success.

Making changes to this site runs in complete parallel with my life right now.  The past two years have been full of changes and I would be lying if I said that it hasn’t been a challenge.  With the challenge came lessons and that is truly a blessing.  Every day I feel myself becoming more and more comfortable with where I am.  Thankfully music has been there to comfort me through it all.   While my practicing has slacked off more than I would like, my ears remain glued to jazz.  It’s magical power to sooth and inspire has been my anchor. My security blanket.

The biggest change?  They say a picture is worth a 1000 words and this picture says it all.

Yes, Jazzbrew will be a first time father at the tender of age of 43.

My life track record will tell the story of a man who launches off into a new adventure at a later age than most.  When I picked up the trumpet for the first time at 30 years of age, my sister told that things come to us when we?re ready for them.  I had my doubts but she was right.  Trumpet and improvisation requires a dedication that I did not have until I got
into my 30s.  Apparently the universe is telling me that I am finally ready for fatherhood.  Henry Michael (yes, it’s a boy) is scheduled to arrive in mid-late August.

The excitement of it coupled with questions are enough to fill another blog site which I would certainly do if I wasn?t already swamped with responsibilities.  Those questions include…

Am I ready?
Will I be able to afford the new financial challenges?
What will he look like?
Will he be healthy and happy?
Will I be a good role model?
Will he like jazz and be musically inclined?

All of these questions will get answered in good time but one needed to be addressed immediately?

Would I still have the time and energy to devote to my pursuit of becoming a good jazz trumpet player?

Everyone has told me that my life will change with the arrival and responsibility of a child.  I totally get that and I embrace it.  The concern is will I have time in an already busy schedule to practice trumpet enough to actually maintain my chops and more importantly improve?

I don’t have that answer yet but I have to try.  To give up music and my desire to be a better musician would be the equivalent of leaving a part of me behind.  I don’t want to do that.  In fact, if I continue to work at my craft I believe I will be an even BETTER father.

That in itself justifies the effort that I pour into a passion that doesn?t yield any real financial benefits.  The payoff is felt in my soul.  It completes me.  I think my son would agree that a happy father is the best kind to have.