Music Musings

A collection of random thoughts about music that you are probably much too busy to read!

Song Collecting

I have been a song collector for most of my life. Finding a new great song is as amazing as eating Indian food. Not only is it great to discover a new song, but it is even greater to discover a new artist, and greater still is to have your eyes opened to a new style of music you hadn’t known.

Back in NYC, a Puerto Rican friend introduced me to Salsa. I didn’t appreciate it then, but the seeds were planted, and today I am in awe of the many diverse Latin musical styles and the expertise of great Latin musicians.

A few years ago, I discovered Angelique Kidjo and was blown away by her multi-textured, poly-rhythmic African Pop sound and incredible singing skills.

From my Hassidic friends I was introduced to (what else?) Hassidic melodies and niggunim, replete with subtle word-driven rhythmic twists and uncommon East European modes.

A couple of years ago, my wife and I were vacationing in Cape Breton, Canada, and I discovered an exquisite Celtic style of music that was imported directly by Scottish immigrants who arrived in the 1800s. There is no other music like it anywhere in the world. I should also mention that if you are considering a new place to vacation, Cape Breton is stunningly gorgeous.

My Teachers

The best musicians I have known never considered themselves great. I'm a bit competitive: As un-great as my teachers might have believed they were, I am sure that I am much un-greater. Music development is a lifetime journey; you never arrive but boy are there some gorgeous sights along the way!

I am grateful to all of the master teacher/musicians with whom I have studied (who never considered themselves great). They include my first teacher (who is responsible for my lifelong addiction), multi-instrumentalist performer/studio musician John Curtis, a founding member of the Pousette-Dart Band, renowned classical guitarist, composer, Michael Dadap, Pulitzer-prize winning composer, Ned Rorem, and celebrated American composer, Jack Gallagher. My debt to each of them is enormous.

As much as I learned from those people, I learned almost as much from playing and listening to many not-famous musicians, and even from many non-musician friends who were unafraid to say that a particular song was lousy, or that an instrumental solo didn’t quite fit the song (thank you!).

Some of my best teachers/critics have been children whom I was supposed to teach. If children get bored with your playing, they let you know it (believe me, they do!) You can either get frustrated or try to figure out what you are doing that isn’t clicking with them. Here’s the thing: the same musical elements that turn off or on children also turn off or on adults. This usually has to do with subtle musical characteristics like groove and pacing and variations of melody. Children might not be able to articulate these subtleties, but they will definitely let you know if you've got them right! All you have to do is play for them, and their responses will be honest. "When Will I Begin?" is an adult album, but it is a much better adult album thanks to what I have learned from children.

Recording with Roger

I didn't always appreciate the art of recording. Like many people, I thought that recording an album was basically a matter of composing and performing music, then pushing the "record" switch.

Today, I think of the recorded album creation as my preferred art form. Unlike a public performance, if you get it right, people will listen over and over. That's pretty cool! Also, unlike a public "performance," you have many more choices and possibilities of sound-timbre, vibrato, dynamics, mix of instruments, placement of sound, and so on. All of the great rock, pop, and jazz albums that I have loved were brilliantly recorded by sound-people who did so much more than push a button. When I listen to the great albums today, I notice not only the contributions of the composer and performers but also the unique creative contribution of the recording people.

My co-conspirator for this album, "When Will I Begin?" was Roger Christie, the wizard of Black Cat Crossing studios in Harvard, Massachusetts. A recorded album is really a creative collaboration between sound person/producer and composer/performer, and I can’t imagine a better fit. Roger was instrumental (pun intended) in almost every aspect of this musical creation. This includes not only making valuable musical suggestions but also providing a critical musical ear and, like a good football coach, demanding that I push for the highest musical standards. "You can play better than that. Let's do another take."

All that plus a passion for creating the very best possible album sounds, Roger mixes and combines sounds like a painter mixes his/her palate of colors -- forever trying to create the shade that will most perfectly fit the painting.

Performing, Writing, Composing

Performers and composers don’t perceive music the same way. Neither do writers and actors.

A performer goes to a concert and mentally critiques the technique and interpretation of the performer. A composer attends a concert and tries to figure out the themes, forms, and harmonic structure of the composition. If the composer likes the concert, he or she is in awe. If the composer doesn’t like the concert, then he or she usually spends the concert time mentally editing and recomposing the unsatisfying sections. Same thing happens when an actor and a writer attend a play. The actor mentally critiques the actors on stage; the writer critiques the plot, dialogue, choice of scenes, character development, and on and on.

If you talk to performers and composers after a concert or to actors and writers after a play, you often wonder if they both attended the same event.

For many years I was passionate about performing. I lived in New York City and taught, studied and performed classical guitar for ten years. During those years, I also performed world folk music and traditional folk music (the 'singer songwriter' thing). My identity was wrapped up in performing. But at the same time, I was teaching acting-improvisation at a school for gifted children, and I couldn't put down the pen. I even wrote a few plays -- one of which won some awards and sold out in a theater in NYC for three weeks.

At some point I realized that I was bi-musical: a composer and a performer. The musicians I tend to click with most are just as quirky as I . We are a small, crazy breed, but there is always room for others to join the club.