Review: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

A few years ago I made an acquaintance who turned out to be an illustrator. While this really isn’t anything like being a musician, the two disciplines do share an artistic and creative mindset. Naturally we got to talking about the frustrations that can happen in our fields, and how the uphill climb can feel interminable. He recommended The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and I immediately put it on my Christmas list.

When it arrived under the tree, I started reading it immediately, resisted half the advice, and gave up after chapter 9. It sat for three years while I told myself I’d do it another time. Then I went through a series of disappointments and disruptions that put my life in chaos.

I fell into a grinding depression. It wasn’t the kind where I was on the floor sad; it was more like exhaustion and a short fuse. Minor annoyances could ruin my day. By late August of this year I’d lost patience with my own behavior. I was living in a fog, too, unsure of the next steps in my life, and lacking the energy to do many of them in any case. So I made a deal with myself: do The Artist’s Way, or therapy. Something needed to give. I chose The Artist’s Way.

Artist's Way

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Julia Cameron addresses her book to those she calls in “artistic recovery”—artists who’ve been somehow wounded by mistreatment or ill fortune, or paralyzed by fear or doubt. That seems like an extreme diagnosis, but the more of the book I did (you don’t read this book, you do it), the more sense it made to me, and the more it seemed to apply to my own life. There are twelve chapters, each of which is designed to guide a week’s work. Each is addressed to recovering a particular aspect of the artistic life—a sense of safety, a sense of abundance, or a sense of strength, to name a few.

Each week has its own specific exercises geared towards the appropriate goals. Some of them have obvious utility, such as listing those who’ve supported your art, or those who haven’t, but others might seem pointless or hokey. Cameron acknowledges this and cautions that the exercises we most want to dismiss are ones we might well need and should think twice about skipping. I did better with this some weeks but not others. I couldn’t bring myself to collect rocks, write and mail a letter to myself, or make a “God jar,” for instance. But now that I’m done with the book, I’m going to visit some of the exercises I let go the first time. It should be added that for every exercise that I couldn’t stand there was at least one I just didn’t have time for. Many of these exercises have unexpected but highly effective ways of arriving at the truth of a matter, or creating action items. My favorites were usually speed-writing lists. These are particularly good at cutting through the b.s. and getting to the heart of a matter, and it often left me asking myself, “Where did that come from?”

The two main cornerstones of the course, however, are the morning pages and the artist’s date.

The person who told me about this book mentioned the morning pages first and foremost and swore by them. In this activity, which is much like journalling, you write three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing each morning for roughly a half hour. This is followed up with a series of affirmations, such as, “I have the right to be an artist.” Hokey, but it works. Believe me. You can’t write something ten times a day for twelve weeks and not address it.

The artist’s date is time you set aside for yourself to replenish the artistic well—maybe taking a long walk, buying a new record and listening to it, or going to an art gallery. I was better with the morning pages than the artist’s date, but I do see the point of it and am getting better at giving myself the playtime I need to experience rejuvenation and inspiration.

The turning point for me came in a cemetery, of all places—the Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia, to be exact. I’d been past it many times and always wanted to check it out. It seemed pretty from the outside, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. As I got lost in between larger-than-life monuments and under trees turning auburn in late September, I felt like I was in a different world.

Grave of Thomas Eakins. Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia

The grave of artist Thomas Eakins. Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia.

 

Grave Thomas Eakins

The famous artist Thomas Eakins is buried there, but I didn’t know this until I showed up. His grave is hard to find, and it took me several attempts, “cheating” with my phone. I was about to give up when I caught myself looking past the angel statue that I was using as a landmark to find his stone, which lays flat along the ground and cannot be seen from more that a few feet away. I stood over his grave, and my body felt electrified. I’ve always enjoyed visiting the graves of inspiring famous people. There’s nothing but skin and bones and dust there, but it’s as close as I’ll ever get to them, and that’s exciting for me.

I left the cemetery feeling like a different person. The first time I attempted this book, I never did an artist’s date. Blew them off. Now I was convinced of their indispensability.

As I made my way through this book, I noticed my mood lifting. I was a little less tired, a little less irritable, a little more healthy in my decisions. Then some quiet but important changes started happening. There was even some of what Cameron calls “synergy,” that is, when good things that you’re hoping for just happen for no apparent reason at all. The full-blown version of Finale, the composition program I really needed, went on sale for 75% off. The song cycle that gathered dust for four years got the revision it needed. I started studying to become a personal trainer again after a long period of burnout. My composing and musique concrete mixing took off, but with a gentler undertone to my approach than the spartan isolation I enforced on myself before. I restarted this blog.

Then I did the unthinkable for anyone of my ilk: I scheduled two mini-vacations. These are not day trips. One is halfway across the country; the other is on the west coast. I have almost never allowed myself such outings.

Maybe all of this is a coincidence, but I doubt it. It seems so illogical and in many ways needlessly circuitous, but it works.

I will admit, however, that I deliberately ignored one piece of Cameron’s advice: fasting from reading. Her point in prescribing this is that many blocked creatives use reading as a distraction. But for me, I use it for ideas and inspiration. I left it aside, and I make no apologies for it. I believe the week I was supposed to avoid reading I was making my way through Pierre Schaeffer’s journals on musique concrete. I made a lot of progress in my work because of that book. That’s a subject for another post some day.

Other exercises Cameron assigns include not only digging up monsters from the past (the teacher that told you not to quit your day job, etc.) or our own limiting beliefs (I’ve never drawn before, how can I start now?), but also doing good things for yourself—activities as simple as enjoying the texture of a favorite fabric, lighting scented candles, or throwing out old, ratty clothes. Caution, though: some of the digging could drudge up some very powerful demons. I think it’s important to learn from these exercises but not indulge the hurt in a counterproductive way. If you need an inoculation against jerks, I recommend the Stoic philosophers.

Cameron has a semi-religious outlook that may be annoying to many, but the book is still profitable if this concept is somehow modified or even shelved, since the focus is on change from the inside out. The type-A reader (of which I am one) may sometimes feel coddled, but patience with the author is the best approach. She’s been teaching this course for years and knows exactly what she’s doing.

This isn’t a book everyone will like but it is a book almost everyone would benefit from. I suspect Cameron would agree, since she repeats several times that everyone is creative and simply needs to learn to tap into that potential. For now, I need to keep it handy on my desk as a continuing guide and reference. I feel ten times better than I did three months ago, but, like I felt when I first talked to my acquaintance about this book, I still have a long way to climb. The difference is that I’m now more likely to enjoy the trip.

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Benedicta: Marian Chant from Norcia – The Monks of Norcia

I was perusing a new blog I discovered today, Music of Our Heart, when I found this short piece about the Benedictine Monks of Norcia and a chant CD they put out. I can’t believe I missed this, but I’m glad I found it eventually.

I love the differences in the way the monks of each monastery sing the chant. There are not only slight rhythmical and interpretational differences, not to mention variations in the manuscripts used in the different religious orders, there are also differences in vocal production and timbre. The monks of Solesmes have a nasal sound, the monks of Heiligenkreuz have a brilliant sound, and from this trailer, I gather that the monks of Norcia have a particularly robust sound. The variety of approaches is refreshing, and I can’t wait to get my hands on this CD of Marian chants by the monks at the monastery built by St. Benedict himself.

Music of Our Heart

CBS Sunday Morning featured a segment on this morning’s show, “Chanting monks become best selling recording artists“.

I became intrigued on several levels  by what I heard and felt. I learned that Father Cassian Folsom hailed from Connecticut with a passion for music and reviving the Monastery of St. Benedict in Norcia, Italy.  Being a practicing Catholic with a sense of religious music devotion I couldn’t help but be enchanted by the story and its message.

Benedicta: Marian Chant from Norcia – The Monks of Norcia is a superlative recording. In my quest to write and share the wisdom of spirituality and the healing power of music, Marian chant strikes just the right religious chord in the  music of our heart.

The chanting and prayer put me at such peace. I hope you will allow the light of this recording into each of your respective hearts.

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Practicing and the 80/20 Rule

The 80/20 rule, often called the Pareto principle, states that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. There are variations on this. Sometimes it’s 90/10 or even 95/5. It can be used to evaluate almost any situation, not just productivity, but also, say, to size up sources of pleasure or frustration.

I recently found an article published by author/podcaster Tim Ferriss applying the 80/20 principle to guitar practice, and it got me to thinking about how I use the same approach for my keyboard practice.

This isn’t about “hacking.” There are no hacks or magic formulas. This is about effectiveness, and who doesn’t want to be more effective when they practice?

fast fingers

If you play a musical instrument, practice is part of life. Life isn’t fair. I even have to practice my own compositions. Sadly, there are a few that are still unlearned.

Here are some considerations with 80/20 in mind:

Muscle Memory

Practicing is like being at the gym: you’re training your nervous system and muscle memory to accomplish certain tasks. You can’t force what isn’t in the body yet. You have to be methodical. Do people walk into the gym on the first day and do 100 pull-ups? Of course not. They have to work up to it. By the same token, you cannot simply will a piece of music into your fingers. I’m ashamed to admit that it took me much longer than it should have to figure this out.

Less is More

At the same time, you can’t just slave away mindlessly. When I was in college I was acquainted with a trumpet player who went to take a lesson from one of New York’s best orchestral musicians. “How much do you practice?” the teacher asked.

“Five and a half hours.”

“Five and a half hours of what!? I don’t care if you practice for five hours or five minutes. All that matters is getting the work done.”

Getting the work done. I’ve learned that the less material you focus on at once, the more you accomplish. Sometimes I even limit myself to spending a 30-minute practice session on one page of music. The baby steps are the ones that matter.

Fingerings

When I start on a new piece, before I do anything else, I decide on fingerings. Remember, you are training your muscle memory. This can’t happen if you’re using a different fingering every time. You can practice with a metronome until you’re blue in the face (I think that’s their main function, to make us crazy) but if your fingerings aren’t consistent you’re not getting anything done. Consistency creates consistency.

Isolation

Isolate hard parts and problem areas. It’s like laying siege on a city—isolation until capitulation. Isolate down to a section, a phrase, even a single note if necessary. Practice one hand at a time and work on one finger if necessary. If I keep missing a note, I practice in such a way that I lengthen that note or stop on it in order to solidify my technique in that spot.

Mistakes vs. Deficiencies

It is advantageous to know the difference between a mistake and a deficiency. If you make a mistake that is a one-time-in-a-thousand kind of thing, it’s usually best to ignore it. Otherwise you end up conjuring problems that didn’t need to exist. A deficiency is a persistent problem. Those are the matters that deserve our attention when we practice. Similarly, I never touch the pieces that play themselves, or conversely, the ones that seem to get worse with practice. I don’t know why, but I have a few of those, and they just go better if I wing it.

Simplicity

As a keyboardist, I have access to all kinds of fancy instruments with fancy buttons and funny sounds—organs, synthesizers, whatever. During practice, these machines often serve as a primary source of distraction. So I prefer to do most of my practicing at an acoustic piano. Choose your most basic instrument to limit distractions and foster flow.

Decide What to Ignore

About fifteen years ago, I was engaged to play the organ reduction of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms with a local university chorus on very short notice. The reduction for the organ is clumsy, as it simply takes the full score and crams it onto an organ staff with little regard for idiomatic peculiarities. For example, there are numerous difficult runs that involve playing in octaves. Well, an organ plays the octaves for you, and trying to do that with any tasteful articulation would have been comical. So I dropped the top octave. I made that decision on the first perusal through the score. Let go of the idea that this is cheating. This isn’t a junior year jury, it’s a job.

Exercise the Brain

I do technique exercises occasionally, but I’ve stopped doing them in easy keys. Every piano player in the world knows Hanon. Most of us go comatose when we hear the exercises. I only do a few of them, but now I do them in keys like B major and G flat major. It makes me think and keeps me engaged. It gets stuff done. Don’t let yourself space out.

Slow

Above all, slow practice takes first place. I never practice at performance tempo unless I’m working a piece up for the first time. Tempo is relatively easy to achieve when everything else has been properly prepared. Don’t waste your time at performance tempo! If that’s how you’re practicing then you’re likely just learning your mistakes. The slow way is the fast way. Not even altering rhythms—dotting sixteenth notes and such—is any replacement for slowness. This is true whether you’ve got ten minutes or two hours to work. I used to resist slow practice, but now I savor it. It allows me to dig in to a composition and really see it for what it is. If I’m unwilling to practice something slowly, it usually means I probably shouldn’t be performing it in the first place.

By the same token I almost never play a piece straight through in practice. That’s just another waste of time. Focus on the problem areas. If your practice session sounds like a performance, it isn’t getting much done. If you want to play through a piece for pleasure, knock yourself out. Just don’t call it practice.

In the past few years I’ve had a harder time finding the time to practice. Abiding by these rules has helped me to keep my hat in the ring. Follow them yourself, and your repertoire just might be a little sturdier.

I would like to thank all of my teachers, each of whom tried to inculcate these lessons into me years before I wised up and started applying them.

 

Wedding Processionals: the Cure for Perfectionism

For about fifteen years after college, give or take, the primary source of my income was as a church organist. This might not sound too exciting, but there are a lot of challenges in the job to keep you on your toes.

As a high school and college student I had terrible performance anxiety. I would pick apart everything, even while it was still happening. There was no sense of flow. I was stuck in my own head and worried entirely too much about what other people thought. And I was an incurable perfectionist, which kept anything I did from being all that good.

When I graduated from college, I took a job playing the organ for a church, and I soon started playing for weddings, which are probably to this day the most stressful gigs I do. Not playing with my youth orchestra at Carnegie Hall at age 15. Not trying to remember a rock n roll set with three drinks in me. Weddings.

Every wedding is different, especially the processionals. Some have more bridesmaids, some less. Some have a ringbearer; others don’t. Some use one song for the bridesmaids and then switch to a different one for the bride, and others don’t. Some people print programs that contradict what they asked for in the first place, leaving everyone unsure of what to do.

If this sounds like a pain, it is. On top of it all, there are always curve balls:

The ringbearer stops halfway down the aisle and cries.

The nervous bridesmaids sprint like there’s a fire, laying waste to good timing.

The bride hesitates.

The biggest problem for the organist is being able to see all this happen, as church organs tend to be buried, mercifully, in lofts and around corners, or behind a pillar. The musician shall not be seen. As an introvert, I’m fine with that. But then I can’t see anything else. So there I am squinting into a mirror trying to watch a procession that might as well be a half block away, and I’m trying to coordinate the right cadences with other musicians.

St. Patrick's church

The cavernous St. Patrick’s Church near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, where I recently played a wedding that was the impetus for this essay.

 

But not just any old cadence will do. In much of the traditional wedding repertoire, there are cadences on the dominant rather than the tonic, which would make the song sound “not done yet,” which is no way to leave a bride at the altar, unless you want to play a prank in very bad taste.

The most consistent thing about a wedding processional is that it never goes as planned. I recently did a wedding with a trumpet player, and to make matters more interesting, we were doing a very nice but uncommon piece of music. Not exactly hard, but we couldn’t take our eyes off the music much, either.

WE had a game plan set up, but of course we were in the middle of no man’s land in the piece when we suddenly realized the bride was only a few steps from the altar. This left us to rely on ESP, for lack of a better word. In these kinds of moments, you are literally listening for what the next note is that the trumpet plays, and then you guess (!) which measure to jump to. One time I had a trumpet player suddenly jump back to the main theme of a piece. I caught up, eventually. I couldn’t blame him.

Needless to say, these performances are far from perfect. I guess the good news is that people rarely seem to notice, though that’s no excuse to be sloppy.
In such circumstances a perfectionist will go nuts. It’s a totally different world playing for a chaotic wedding versus playing under the red pen of a professor or a critic. Conservatories prepare musicians for exams, but not for life. Weddings are one area in which I felt the sting of this difference.

But I’m grateful for the baptism by fire, such as it is. “Perfection is death,” a friend of mine says. A perfectionist will get eaten alive playing a wedding. The good news, though, is that he’ll also get shaken up a bit and learn to play fast and loose, to dive in and make the best of it. This can only improve overall musicianship, reduce nerves, and induce a higher state of flow.

When I first started out I had some very bad weddings, even embarrassing ones, but because of the challenges they contain, I learned to let go and play with joy, and that has carried over into all the playing that I do.

Saxophone Riff

I ran into an old friend, Mark Brown, a few weeks ago who plays the saxophone, and I  explained what I’ve been up to in my studio, mixing field recordings into soundtracks and such. He gave me permission to record him. It took me awhile to figure out how to cut this up into something that worked, but this weekend I sat down at the D.A.W. in the right frame of mind, and it all came together. This is what I ended up with.

 

I’ve also taken footage of a bird singing and faced similar problems in terms of how to mix it so that it works musically. This saxophone track was good practice for that one, and now I feel like I might be ready to take another look at the mockingbird and see if it can be made into something sensible. The main problem has been too much footage and sifting through it. Sometimes fewer resources are easier to deal with.

Willie Nelson, Master Cover Artist

Singing other people’s songs is a sensitive art form. I’ve found that the covers I like are the ones that either do a great job of capturing the true spirit of a song, or do the daring thing of making the song something completely different than it was before—arguably a new song. If this second approach is taken, the cover needs to be amazing or it’s a failure, in my opinion.

Willie Nelson recently won a Grammy for his album of George Gershwin songs. I confess it’s the first time in years that I’ve enjoyed listening to Gershwin. But these aren’t the only, and probably not the most popular, covers that Nelson has done. I’ve discovered that he’s able to penetrate to the essence of a song and make its basic point even better than the original writer did. This is no matter of controversy to me. The French organist Olivier Latry plays Messiaen’s music better than Messiaen did, and countless DJ’s have remixed great sound tracks and made them even better.

Two of Willie Nelson’s efforts stand out to me—his covers of Marie by Townes Van Zandt, and Desperadoes Waiting for a Train by Guy Clark. Van Zandt and Clark were close friends, moving into the Nashville area, incidentally, just as Nelson was moving back to Austin in the mid 1970’s. But they all knew each other’s work. Nelson and Merle Haggard made Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty famous in 1983 with their cover of it on the record by the same title.

It may seem unusual that Willie would do a Townes song better than Townes did, given the latter’s guitar picking capabilities, but Willie can hold his own, and if Townes’ picking is better than Willie’s, the latter’s singing is certainly stronger. To me, the ingredient that makes Willie’s version of Marie better is his more accurate execution of the mood of the music. The song is about a jobless hobo, who narrates the song, entangled in bureaucracy at the unemployment office who becomes homeless when he meets a girl named Marie and has to move out of the mission where he’s staying to live under a bridge with this new girl. Marie develops the suspicion that she’s pregnant and thinks it’s a little boy. “I hope he don’t end up like me,” the narrator laments. But shortly after that, she dies in her sleep, and the protagonist hops on a train and heads south.

Townes was a master songwriter and an amazing performer when he was on, but sometimes his performances could be languid, as is the case with Marie. His tempo lags, and his delivery is almost as overwrought as an opera singer’s. His mood is all sadness, void of the indignation the narrator of this story undoubtedly feels.

Willie’s version, on the other hand, conveys the angst proper to this tale. Even his guitar snarls angrily in the background. He picks up the tempo, and his delivery has a matter-of-factness that sears the soul. One thing that helps is sheer genetics: Townes has a mellifluous baritone voice, but Willie’s is dry and reedy. It reminds me of a bassoon, or, more accurately, its predecessor, the Renaissance instrument known as a dulzian. It fits the mood of this song perfectly.

Willie’s other master cover is of Guy Clark’s song Desperadoes Waiting for a Train. Guy Clark, like Townes, has unmistakeable characteristics and an instantly identifiable half-spoken, half-sung delivery, and there’s no mimicking him. Any attempt to do so would fall short, much as many such attempts to emulate Lou Reed have been wanting. So Willie didn’t try to emulate him in this cover, which is part of the Guy Clark tribute album This One’s for Him, produced by his biographer Tamara Saviano.

The song is about Clark’s step-grandfather, Jack Prigg, an oil-driller who’d lived and worked all over the world, and, by the time Clark knew him, lived in his grandmother’s hotel in West Texas. The song describes Prigg’s mentorship of Clark, giving him money for the girls, teaching how to drive when Prigg was too drunk to get home, taking him around to see his friends. The song goes on to describe Prigg’s old age and death, and Clark’s visit to him the day before he died. As Prigg is about to die, Clark sings, “Come on, Jack, that son of a bitch is comin’.” This is beautiful. It reminds me of a friend of mine who was a train enthusiast who’s wife told him on his deathbed that the next time he hears a train he should feel free to get on it and take it for a ride, and shortly thereafter, he died. It’s this moment in Willie’s cover that’s exciting and makes his thicker instrumentation advantageous. Just as the train is coming, the whole band cranks it, and gives the song a climax that Clark’s version does not have.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Nelson’s version is better than Clark’s, but it gives a whole new appeal to the song, and that is a display of his mastery. Of course, there’s a thrill in hearing the story first hand from Clark, and his quirky delivery gives the song a flair that no one else will ever be able to give it. But Willie’s version gives the song a better sense of direction and climax, and it’s so much more powerful that way. Ironically enough, although Willie’s instrumentation seems thicker, his track seems less produced than Clark’s whose version on his first album, Old No. 1, borders on the overproduced sound that a lot of Nashville-produced records are known for. I prefer listening to Clark’s version on the live record from Austin, in which he performed with fiddler Stuart Duncan and bassist Edgar Meyer.

Finally the story that proves my point: his cover of Gravedigger by Dave Matthews, of all people.

Matthews is an admirer of Nelson’s and was totally stoked to find out that he was going to cover his song. Since then they’ve even performed it together.

He has even changed his own rendition of it in places to emulate Nelson’s version, as he explained in Rolling Stone. What higher praise could there be? The writer of a song makes changes because he thought someone else interpreted it better. This is evidence that Willie Nelson knows how to tackle a song from the inside out and sing it according to what it is. This takes not only genius but also humility, and I’m pretty sure he has both.

This is nowhere near a complete list of the covers Willie Nelson has done. He’s covered Coldplay, Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan, among others. Maybe at work today I’ll get to put my earbuds in and explore some of those too.

Recent Cubase Soundtracks

I’ve made a series of soundtracks recently from field recordings I’ve taken here and there. These are not always the easiest to put together, but it’s always a lot of fun.

Anyone who knows me knows that I drink entirely too much coffee. I consider it to be one of the four food groups. I’d sooner give up alcohol–I think. I love the fact that Bach wrote a Coffee Cantata, at a time, according to Victor Borge, when coffee was considered a vice more akin to illegal drugs today. I decided I wanted to make my own coffee cantata, but instead of stringed instruments and singers, I decided to use the percolator that’s in my kitchen.

 

Another recording I made was of Philly’s famous Trolley Poet, Mike Fuller, who’s been featured in a number of stories. First I recorded him, then I mixed the soundtrack, then I got his permission. Perfectly backwards process, but it worked. I didn’t do much manipulating with this one, as I wanted to preserve the deliberate rhythm of his speech and the long pauses he employs, several of which allowed other sounds to come out of the texture and make music along with him.

 

(That’s my picture in the soundcloud link, not the Trolley Poet’s, alas.)

I’ve been using Cubase for my soundtracks. I’m now in the process of learning Reaper, a program with lots of potential. Hopefully I’ll have some results from that experiment soon.

I truly believe that music is everywhere, and I listen for it constantly in the most random things. If I didn’t, I’d go crazy from the oppressive prosaic character of day to day life.