What’s In Your Closet?

shirt in my closetHere’s a subject I admit I know little about. And yet it affects my ability to lead worship every single time I step onstage. Every Saturday night, you’ll find me once again poking my head into my closet, wondering what to wear for Sunday morning. I’ve learned over the years if I really get stuck (doesn’t happen as often as it used to), I can ask Sue.

“So what do you think, sweetie, does this go with that?”

“Oh, no.”

“How about this one?”

“Probably okay.”

“Well, what about this one?”

“Let me help you, dear.”

Other than jeans, I don’t buy my own clothes anymore. Sue has done a wonderful job stocking my closet with clothes that usually keep me out of trouble.

Dress For The Gig

Before you walk onstage, whatever the venue, you really should have given some attention to how you look. Street clothes are okay if you’re trying to present an “every man” image but they can also communicate apathy. Like you just don’t care about who you’re playing for.

The eye is naturally drawn to both the best-dressed and worst-dressed people in the room. If you’re leading worship and someone else on the team has raised the fashion bar, people in the room may experience tension over who they should focus on. I’m not one to get really worried about it, but I do believe it’s true. Take it up a notch just to be safe. But only one notch.

Dress For The People

Dave, a friend of mine, is a traditional church kind of guy. Enjoys singing hymns, wears his suit and tie every Sunday. When I asked him why at one point, he said dressing more formally was a sign of respect for the people he would see at church. And respecting the people was one of the ways he would show respect to God.

I agree.

Now, I don’t wear a suit and tie unless its a wedding or a funeral. And (fortunately) we hold pretty informal Sunday services at our church. But I still want to respect those I’m around. So I’ll pay attention to how people dress for our services, then I’ll take it up just a little.

Negotiables For Worship Leading

Jeans or khakis? Street clothes or business casual? Collar or no collar? Plaid, stripes, patterns, colors – these all matter because our clothing choices may set up unintentional reflex responses from service attenders.

I used to be oblivious to this, until Mark, an artist friend, informed me.

“How does this look?” I would ask, inviting his response to my choice of shirt and sweater. I think the shirt had a small checked pattern and the sweater had a stripe or two.

“It’s okay with me,” he would say. “But it will drive my wife a little insane.” Not in a good way, either.

Apparently what I wore had been the topic of conversation in their house on at least one previous occasion. Not really the outcome I’m working toward in the services. I have since paid more attention to how I look, and when in doubt, I’ll ask those more knowledgeable than I.

Non-negotiables For Worship Leading

There are some standards of dress that we as worship leaders do need to adhere to. These are about modesty and propriety. I realize that even these standards leave some room for interpretation. We don’t want clothing choices that distract, and that includes, of course too much skin.

Don’t let tops get too low nor skirts too high. The tighter your clothes fit, the more uncomfortable you’ll make some folks. And yet, if they are too baggy, it looks like you don’t care. We don’t want holes where there shouldn’t be holes, and we don’t want to see what’s underneath.

There, I’ve said it. Here come the emails…

And as an acknowledgment of how life is unfair, women will need to think about dressing up one level above the guys. When they wear the same thing, my wife tells me the women look like they have taken less care than the men. This is totally a perception thing, but it will most certainly affect worship leading.

The Heart Of The Matter

Now that I’ve come across way more like my parents than I ever thought I would, let me just say this: at the heart of these decisions is the desire to help people know they are cared for, and their opinion matters. I’m not walking onstage to prove anything or boost my ego. I want to worship God, and He told me to love people. If how I dress onstage impacts them for better or worse, I need to pay attention.

Have you found that what you wear influences the way you are perceived? You can leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about dressing for the gig or next-step musicianship to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case

Are You Performing With Passion? What We Can Learn From Taylor Swift

Let me say right up front I’ve never met Taylor Swift. I don’t know a lot of her songs. I don’t know much about what kind of person she is. I don’t know what she’ll be like five years from now.

But I am often inspired when I see her perform.

When she walks onstage, she’s ready to rock and roll (or whatever the country and/or pop equivalent is). She wears her emotions on her sleeve, she attacks the stage with purpose, energy and skill. Though she uses her appearance to her advantage, that’s really not what keeps me watching. It’s her attitude, along with her expertise. It’s her passion for the music and for the crowd.

And – I’m just guessing here – I think she has a blast.

What Draws Us In?

We are invited into each performance by several components, all working together to invite us into the experience: the look, the skill, and the passion.

The look is most often the first aspect of a performance that catches our attention. It includes everything we see from the performer(s) to the landscape, architecture, and lighting that surrounds us. It’s true whether it’s on a screen, in a theater, or outside at a summer concert. It has to all fit together. And though many of you are way more visually oriented than I am, the look influences the whole experience, either enhancing or distracting. It starts with the atmosphere of the venue, is enhanced by the lighting and staging, but then is focused on the performer. I’m not judging here, just recognizing the reality that the way the performer dresses and carries him/herself is crucial to first impressions.

The skill of the performer will be the next thing we’ll notice. At first, there is a period of validation – can this artist deliver? When we’re satisfied they can, the next thing we want to know is whether or not they can hold our attention. I joke about having A.D.D., but I think most of us these days are increasingly attention-span-challenged. Are they performing with excellence, are they exceeding our expectations? Then, when we’re convinced they are, we wonder if they will show us something new and fresh. We want to be surprised and delighted.

The passion of the performer, when we’re comfortable with the look and the skill, is what I believe keeps us engaged. Their passion doesn’t just entertain us. It helps us believe. Passion in the performance lifts us up, transcending the mundane and the mechanical. It gives us a glimpse into life on another level, where beauty and excellence are vibrant and alive. We want to live in that place, and the passion we witness in a performance makes us feel like we really can.

Steps To A Passion-Filled Performance

We who perform, though all artists, are all over the map when it comes to our ability to emote onstage, demonstrating our passion. As for me, a guy who has to work at showing emotion when I perform, I admire those who seem to be so good at it. I’m better at it than I used to be (I think). But it takes some deliberate steps for me every time.

  1. Know well what you’re going to sing, play and say. Rehearse the mechanics of your performance to the point of being absolutely comfortable with each facet. Drill the rhythms, pay attention to being in tune. If you are planning to comment between songs, write out what you want to say. Even if you don’t stick to your script, the exercise of writing it out will help you focus on what your message really is.
  2. Look the part. Dress for the gig (more on this in a future post). When you are confident in how you look, you can feel free to focus on the performance. If you are performing for an older crowd, dress up, they will expect it. If your audience is younger, consider the venue and how they will be dressed. Then go just a step up. And never dress in a way that distracts, from too sexy to too sloppy, from clownish to indifferent. Make sure your look fits the experience you are trying to provide for your audience.
  3. Expand your movements. If you feel like you’re moving enough onstage, you’re probably not. This includes, by the way, the look on your face. Are you communicating your passion you’re feeling through your facial expression? You may need a friend’s input for this one.
  4. Let your passion lead you. When you have prepared the music, the atmosphere and your movements the best you can, the next step is to exercise the courage to put your heart out there. It takes courage because you are vulnerable and exposed. But that’s the best way to get an audience to follow you, by showing them how you feel and leading them to the same place. And when you are done, you can be confident you’ve left it all on the stage, you’ve done your job and inspired many through your passion.

Are your performances filled with passion? Please leave your comment below, or email me with any questions about music, performing, and next-step musicianship at [email protected].
© 2014 Steve Case

10 Ways To Use Silence In Your Songs

My brother-in-law, Steve Shelander, shot these night sky photos. He is quite the astronomer!
The silence of space inspires my imagination. My astronomer brother-in-law, Steve Shelander, shot these night sky photos. These galaxies are in the constellation Hercules, a scant 470 million light years distant. More or less.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but silence is quite possibly the most important part of our songs.

Silence? Not playing the right notes at the right time?


Not using dynamics, tempo, and all the other artistic tools on our workbench? Silence? Really?


We may think silence is a bad thing, like when a musician forgets what comes next, furrows his or her brow and stops playing. We know they’ve blown it big time.

Or we may look at silence as the holy grail our parents tried to get us to adopt. (”Be QUIET!” -remember those wonderful moments from your childhood?)

But the intentional use of silence in our music is good. In fact, it is necessary. And cool.

Reportedly, the world-renowned concert pianist Artur Schnabel, once made the statement (quoted in many places): “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes, ah, that is where the art resides.”

(I found this again on brainyquote.com, but I’ve heard about the quote for many, many years. Not sure when he said it, but it nevertheless has the ring of truth in it! Great quote.)

Types of Silence

We should start with an understanding that silence is not always exactly, well, silent. There are several kinds of silence. And each has its place in our arsenal. So what kinds of silence are we talking about?

M51 is one of Steve's favorites. It's called a "globular cluster", also within the constellation Hercules.
M51 is one of Steve’s favorites. It’s called a “globular cluster” within the constellation Hercules.

I think of silence in three primary categories:

  • Rhythmic silence happens when a player doesn’t play for a moment but the music is still going on. This is always useful, whether you’re counting rests in the music or playing short, detached notes (staccato, spiccato, pizzicato).
  • Natural silence happens when you’re sitting in the doctor’s waiting room and the background music has stopped, or when you’re sitting in the audience when the lights dim, and you’re waiting for the Concert Master to walk out onto the stage. (Maybe when a tree falls in the forest with no one around to hear it. Jury’s still out on that one…)
  • Utter silence is to be found in the vacuum of outer space. It takes some work for us to really experience utter silence here.

The Ten Ways

And so, thinking about silence in these three ways, here are ten ways to take advantage of intentional silence in your own songs.

  1. Punctuating rhythms. Rests, particularly shorter ones, are inherently part of rhythm. They are to be found within phrases as well as at the end of phrases and should be counted just as deliberately as the notes themselves.
  2. Longer silences between phrases you play will help your music breathe. Just as sung lyrics may invite you to take a breath at the end of each line, leaving space between your instrumental phrases really helps you to shape and group your phrases. It also helps the listener to stay with you.
  3. Breathe between movements. When you finish a major section of the larger work, let silence help you take a breath, don’t rush it. Then start fresh into the next movement or section.
  4. Use silence as a surprise, like building up to a chorus and unexpectedly silencing everything on beat 4 before you crash into the downbeat of the chorus. Really fun, makes the band sound tight!
  5. Build anticipation through a longer period of silence. Particularly in a ballad or slower song, if you hold onto a moment of silence for just a little longer than expected, it can really add to the drama of the song.
  6. Use momentary silence to regroup after a long held chord. When you hold a chord or sing a long syllable as the music comes to a halt, take just a quick moment to be silent before you restart. Might only be a literal second. But an artfully placed moment of silence will make your song sound unhurried and relatable.
  7. Silence is your starting point before you play. The air is, to varying degrees, silent just before you begin. Even if you’re playing in a club, the disorganized sound of conversations and incidental noises in the room are the counterpoint to what you’re about to play. Use it to prepare yourself, expect the listener to be preparing themselves, anticipating something great. (Then it’s up to you to not let them down. Just sayin’.)
  8. Repeating periods of silence can add to a general pulsation of the music that feels like an unstoppable forward movement, like you’re in your kayak on the river, gradually getting closer to the rapids. As silences get shorter and shorter in a repeated fashion, the tension will build.
  9. Utter silence for a beat or a measure can make the listener feel like they are in a vacuum, with a complete absence of sound. It is unnatural and disconcerting. Utter silence can make you feel deprived, like something normal is missing. You long for the next sound to take away the discomfort. I’ve heard this used effectively on pop recordings, but it’s never used for very long. It can be a painful moment, followed by relief when the music comes back in.
  10. Explore silence as an experiment. John Cage always seems to enter the conversation about silence because he famously performed a piece in 1952 that he entitled, 4’33” (”Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds”). No instruments were to play, the whole point was to discover the ambient sounds in the room. Silence, in his view (and mine) is not really silent.

How do you use silence in your own music? Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, music theory, and next-step musicianship to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case

Tuning Your Guitar Has Just Gotten Easier

andrew's gibson min-etune les paul demo_Snapshot (3)So Andrew walks into my studio for his guitar lesson, sits down and pulls out his electric guitar.

A shiny new Gibson Les Paul Min-ETune.

I’m not sure what to think. Looks nice. But what’s up with the name? Oh, I get it, it tunes itself. Sure.

Now I am often an old school kind of guy, not fond of short-cuts or technologies that replace the need for self-improvement. Although there are exceptions, I’ll admit. Like my Snark tuner. Or my peg winder. Or my Shazam app on my phone. Or my digital metronome that allows you to turn down the volume so you don’t have to hear the click, you can just watch the moving needle while you play.

Okay, maybe I’m not as old school as I’d like to think.

My student Andrew and his new Gibson
My student Andrew and his new Gibson

Andrew’s guitar is a nice piece of work, any way you look at it. Hey, it’s a Les Paul. He let’s me take it for a spin. Plays nice, feels good. A decent representation of the typical Les Paul quality.

But when I turn it over to look at the back of the head-stock, I now see the magic behind the curtain. A small box is neatly hidden between the tuners, complete with indicator lights telling me which tuning is now in effect.

“So I can just push a button, and it will re-tune the whole guitar for me?”


Apparently this technology has been around for 6 or 7 years, and because I diligently keep up to date on cutting edge musical trends and toys, I’m coming up to speed on this one now.

Handing his guitar back to him, Andrew demonstrated for me. Take a look.

Andrew’s Gibson

The robotic tuning system really does a n ice job, even with significantly different tunings. It will adjust, then readjust the tension on all the strings, anticipating the tension on each string and how it affects the others. Given the amount of stress on the neck overall, each string’s tweak can and will throw all the others off. But it knew that and compensated.

This tuning system will go from standard tuning to DADGAD and back in a matter of seconds. And I found as I played it, the tuning was either perfect, or really close. If you want to see it in action, check out this video clip. The guitarist uses the tuning function in the middle of a song – he doesn’t play for 4 measures, then comes in powerfully in a different tuning. This opens up lots of new possibilities!

The creator of this system, Tronical, has now created after-market systems for several other makes that got my attention, including Fender (for Stratocasters and Telecasters), Ibanez and even Taylor acoustics. Hmm…

I doubt that I will install an E-Tune system any time soon. But it is a fun development that will, I’m sure, catch on. Now if we could invent robotic picks that never missed a string, we’d really have something.

What’s the coolest piece of technology that has helped you play your own music? You can leave a comment below, or email any questions you may have about music theory, playing the guitar, or next-step musicianship to [email protected]

© 2014 Steve Case


Planning For Change In Life And In Music

Green Lakes State Park
I like change, I look forward to life changing. To new opportunities, new adventures. I grow through the experience of my life constantly colliding with change. Yea, change!

But I also hate change. Fond memories of people and places now relegated to the past when I thought they would be doorways into the future. Losing people I care about because their life changed, too, and now geography, vocation, interests take new trajectories.

I like change when it happens at a pace I can readily absorb and adapt to. When my morning coffee cools just enough, or when most of the colorful leaves are still on the trees in mid-October. I know they’ll fall, but I’m happy to have them take their time this year.

I hate change when it is thrust upon me without my permission, like my ice cream cone melting too fast, or walking into the boss’ office with my job intact one minute, and an hour later, walking out without one.

I like changes in music, because I am easily bored. The refreshment that comes from a new sound, an unusual rhythm, a clever lyric all breathe life into my passion for it.

I hate changes in music when I don’t emotionally agree with them. When the artist seems to have changed something I looked forward to, even emotionally depended on, just so they could do it differently, putting their own stamp of artistry on it.

When it comes down to it, I like change when it results from my exercising free will, when it’s my idea. I hate change when it results from someone else exercising theirs and it doesn’t fit with mine.

Change is inevitable, yet change itself changes. It will happen in all areas of life and takes many forms. And just when you get used the idea of one facet of life changing, get ready to duck for cover. Another change is on its heels.

So how should I navigate the turbulence of change?

With a plan.

Learning To Plan Out The Changes

I was challenged back in my Army Band days by my good friend, Don. He was a kind of spark plug in my life, coming up with crazy ideas, smiling and laughing. He would bring a lighter side of me out, and it was a good thing. He could also scream on his trumpet.

It was 1979, and we were in our jazz band rehearsal for some concert or tour. We starting playing a blues piece, and somehow it came up that Don thought he could write a better one than that. The conversation quickly deteriorated to the point where Don challenged me to write a jazz band piece myself.

Not to let the gauntlet lie on the ground unattended, I picked it up.

from page 1 of my score
from page 1 of my score

For the next couple of weeks, I wrote and wrote. I remember pulling at least one all-nighter.

But what came out was cool.

I had never written anything as ambitious as this before, a 4-minute barn-burner that sang, that grooved, that gave Donny a chance to scream up high again. I had a riot.

The piece changes structure and form several times in those 4 minutes. Yet there seems to be a cohesion that, for me at least, works. And so, in writing it, just going with my stream of consciousness wasn’t enough. I needed a plan.

The Map

I took time to ruminate on it, to play with chords and melodies in my head. Then I created a map. I would list it something like this:

Intro- 6 beats soli / 2 measures drum fill / 6 beats soli / 2 bars drum fill / 3 bars harmonized soli / 2 bars drum fill crescendo uptempo

Section A- 8 bars bass trombone lead / 1 bar drum fill / repeat lead melody in all sections, harmonized /

Section B-

And so on. I had dreamed up the whole thing before I wrote a note.

Next, I grabbed a jazz band manuscript score from a local music store, and started to write. But I had never written for trombones and saxes before. So I would write whatever lead line in each section first, then I added scale degree numbers in a vertical line across all instruments, indicating what voice in the chord they should be playing.

The last step was to actually fill in the notes, transposed for each instrument.

It took some work with each section in the band to make sure what I had written was 1) actually playable, and 2) good. But we did it. The band master subsequently included my piece as part of our songbook, and we performed it several times in concerts and on tour.

The Song

Here is part of the recording, done on a boom-box (so you know the quality will be top notch). I titled it, appropriately enough, In Pursuit Of The Storm.


The plan is what kept me on track and sane with all the possibilities spinning around me. Next-step musicians are the ones with a plan. They don’t just spin in place, and they aren’t satisfied with status quo. Next-step musicians look for the new twist, the next level, the air that becomes even more refreshing as your reach the summit.

Expecting Change

Even with my love/hate attitude toward change, I know more is coming. Time to plan for another step or two.

And after all these years, I’m glad I answered Don’s challenge. It gave me great confidence to complete such a huge project and have it come out so well. Gave me the confidence to keep writing and to keep taking risks.

And I think he bought me lunch.

Are you a planner or someone who shoots from the hip? How has planning helped you in your music? Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, theory or next-step musicianship to [email protected].

(c) 2014 Steve Case


Stepping Up: 5 steps To Transpose Your Song

Raising the pitch
Raising the pitch

Someone once said that every time you play a song in a new key, it’s like visiting a new country.

I agree.

The landscape is different, the feel is different. It can really be refreshing.

There may be mechanical reasons to change the key of the song. Maybe it’s too high for you to sing comfortably. Or maybe you could play the song a little easier in a different key than the original. Or maybe you just like it somewhere else.

On the guitar, transposing can be as easy as using a capo (a clamp-type device placed on the neck to raise the pitch of all the strings equally). If the capo works for you, by all means, use it. I’ll use mine on occasion. But a capo has limitations.

What I’m going to describe is the actual process of transposition, that is, intentionally moving a melody and its chords up or down as much as you want. You’ve got complete freedom, yet the song remains intact.

The big idea here is to use numbers as the common ground.

5 Steps For Transposing

1. Build the major or minor scale for the key you are in, and number each scale tone. (Which chord can you finish the song on? That’s the key.)

Let’s say we’re starting off in the key of C (easy place to begin). Here’s the scale with its corresponding numbers:

1    2    3    4    5    6    7     8

C   D   E   F    G    A    B    C


2. Translate your melody into numbers, representing each note’s place in the scale (we call these scale degrees, fyi).

For this example, we’ll use one of your Top 10 favorite folk songs of all time, “On Top Of Old Smokey”, although this technique works for all styles & genres:

1    1    3    5    8       6       4    4    5    6    5

C   C    E   G   C       A       F    F   G   A    G


1    1    3    5    5       2        3    4    3    2    1

C   C   E   G    G      D       E    F    E    D   C


3. Give each chord a number as well, again taken from its position in the major scale. Be sure to add whether it’s major or minor (capital Roman numerals for major, lowercase for minor).

In “Smokey”, the chords are as follows:
F (IV)                                    C (I)

On top of old Smokey, all covered with snow

G (V)                                C (I)

I lost my true lover from courtin’ too slow.


4. Decide if you want the song to be higher or lower, and how far. Build that scale.

Let’s say that the song just gets a little too high for me to sing, so I’ll need to lower it a bit. (I know I titled this blog “Stepping Up”, but you can go either direction. Work with me.) If I take it down a whole step, now I’m on Bb:
1     2     3    4     5    6    7    8

Bb  C    D   Eb   F   G    A   Bb

I = Bb major

IV = Eb major

V = F major


5. Now apply the numbers you assigned for the melody and chords to the new scale. Keep all rhythms the same as they were.

Old notes:                                 C    D    E    F    G    A    B    C

Scale degrees:                          1     2     3    4     5    6     7    8

Now become:                           Bb   C    D   Eb   F    G    A   Bb


Chords now change to:
Eb (IV)                                 Bb (I)

On top of old Smokey, all covered with snow

F (V)                                 Bb (I)

I lost my true lover from courtin’ too slow.

Thinking about the melody and chords this way allows you not to just transpose to a single key. It allows you to transpose to every other key. When you think about numerical relationships, it applies to all keys. The more you get used to thinking in numbers, the faster this process becomes.

Your Turn

Try transposing a verse or chorus from one of the songs you already play. Use these 5 steps, and you’ll be able to put any song in just the right key for your voice or your instrument. Or try taking the last chorus of your song up a half step for some added energy at the end. (Barry Manilow made a career for awhile out of key changes in his songs! It was a bit overused, but it worked for him. He’s really a fine musician, by the way.)

How have you used transposing in your music? Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about transposing, music theory, or next-step musicianship to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case


When Shortcuts Aren’t Shorter: Training Takes Time

Apple peeler
A time-saver we all appreciate

We’re always looking for shortcuts, aren’t we?

We check our GPS to see if there’s a faster route (or we might step a little heavier on the accelerator). We buy gadgets that will perform tasks for us with less effort. When it’s the middle of apple-picking season and our apple peeler/corer/slicer breaks, we start planning on how to get a new one. Really.

Saving time and effort usually seems like a wise course of action. To wit, my life is full of clever innovations.

I admit, I have myself become dependent on (addicted to?) lots of gadgets in my life. Many of them are musical. I really appreciate my Snark tuner, for example. It allows me to tune my guitar during a performance or in a noisy room, and it will always be pretty close to concert pitch. But it also makes me lazy. “Where’s my Snark? I didn’t bring it? You mean, I have to tune up the old-fashioned way, by listening?”

pick stamperOr this handy gadget. On the top, it reads, “Pick’s 4 Life”. It’s a pick-stamper, meaning if I ever need a pick to play my guitar but can’t find one, I can just pull out some old credit card and punch out a new one. No kidding, it’s pretty cool! And, if Dave Ramsay should read this, it’s a great way to actually use your credit cards for something helpful instead of buying lots of stuff you can’t afford.

I like shortcuts. I use them. I promote them.

But they are not always the best answer.

Training Takes Time

The thing is, when it comes to music, there are very few shortcuts that are worthwhile. Listening to music is one thing (I still use my iPod a lot), but creating it, playing it, singing it – now we’re talking about training yourself to reach new heights with a personal skill set, not a new toolbox.

Getting your fingers or your voice to take on new, complex tasks where very small details matter is not easy. Step by step, almost anyone can learn to play or sing, but only through diligent practice.

I have students, for example, that struggle with counting aloud while they play. It’s an important technique to learn, but it can be hard to learn.

Now for you woodwind and brass players, your approach will have to be different for obvious reasons. But playing guitar, piano, cello, ukulele – this is now an axiom in my studio:

If you can say it while you play it, you know it. If you can’t, you don’t.

Saying note names or counting aloud as you play are both difficult when you first start doing it. It feels like juggling. But those techniques really help you clarify in your mind what you are doing. Saying what you’re playing puts your thought process right out in front of you like nothing else.

You’ll notice your mistakes faster and know what to practice.

Then you’ll play more accurately.

And then, you’ll learn new songs faster.

If you find you can’t do it, that means there is something still too fuzzy about the whole thing. Maybe your technique is distracting and not dependable. Maybe the whole counting thing doesn’t make sense yet.

But the axiom is true. If you can say it while you play it, it is clear in your mind and will stand a better chance of coming out correctly. If you can’t, you don’t know it well enough. Not yet.

It Pays Off

Listen, you don’t get in shape for a race in a day. You practice, you train, you repeat it over and over. There is no shortcut, no way to bypass the blood, sweat and tears of personal training. But every time you repeat it, you train not only your reflexes but your thought processes as well. It will get better if you stick with it.

Let me encourage you today, if you feel like practicing gets you nowhere and you’re getting tired of the struggle – take a deep breath, regroup, try it again. You can do this music thing. Take smaller segments of the music. Try a slower tempo. Take a break and come back in a few minutes.

It’s going to take diligence, time and focus. And there aren’t any shortcuts.

How is your own practice time going? Is progress slow, or have you found some methods and mindsets that work well for you?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you may have about music, practicing, or being a next-step musician to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case

The 9 Rings Of Music Theory

tree rings

How do you get out of your musical ruts? How do you break free from repeating all the same things you’ve been doing over and over, and inject some new life into your music?

Glad you asked. As a matter of fact, I can think of several ways.

You can make a point of listening to artists and styles you don’t normally listen to. You can play with other people and have them show you licks. You can find a teacher who inspires you.

And those are all good ways.

But the clearest way, to me, is to get a handle on the big picture, locate yourself in it, then take the next step toward something better. First get some basics down, then add something more advanced to spice things up a little.

 Growth Rings

tree rings closeupOne way to think of music theory is as a series of concentric circles, like the annual rings or growth rings of a tree. At the center are the foundations, the basic elements for life and health. Each ring moving outward adds new tonal material or a new way of looking at the relationships within the previous ring.

In the center, it is simple, it is predictable, and it is safe. At the outermost ring, the relationships are cutting edge with the rest of the world, beaten and railed against by the storms of artistic whim and public opinion. It is not safe out at the edge. Exciting, yes. But not safe.

Here is how I envision the skeleton of 21st century American (western) music theory. Just like the growth rings of a tree.

At the core:

Simple major chords (I IV V) and pentatonic melodies (for simple folk, country, and rock & roll styles)

Layer 2:

Alter a couple of tones to create minor pentatonic melodies (Blues)

Layer 3:

Add more scale tones to create the triads generated from a major scale. Use major and minor pentatonic melodies (for all of the above styles as well as Pop)

Layer 4:

Add more scale tones at a time for embellished chords, and and use the entire major scale for more sophisticated melodies (approaching Jazz, as well as developing all the others)

Layer 5:

Displace roots within the major scale for various modalities (i.e. Dorian, Phrygian modes, et al)

Layer 6:

Add an additional tone outside the scale for secondary dominants and altered chords

Layer 7:

Dysfunctional Harmony explores relationships not based on tension and resolution as all the previous levels are

Layer 8:

Full Chromaticism uses every 1/2 step for more complex, but still explainable, progressions and melodies

Layer 9:

Out Of The Blue. This is where I use whatever tonal material I want, whenever I want, simply because I can

This is a pretty good analogy, and it has served me very well over the years. Doubtless, I’m leaving something out, but I think as a basic structure, it works.

Make It Your Own

You can, of course, add to it and refine it as you wish. You can move along historical lines if that makes more sense to you, from Gregorian Chant to Renaissance, to Baroque and Rococo to Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic, Modern, 20th Century. Then (thanks to technological improvements from the Gramophone to the iPhone), you can feel free to trace through Jazz, Country & Western, Rock & Roll, Easy Listening, Opera, Broadway, Disco, Alternative Rock, Grunge, Indi, Electronica, Rap, and many other small distinctions that get tedious, to say the least.

The goal of an analogy like this is to give you an idea of what’s out there. How much of this do you know and use? If you recognize elements on one ring but not on another, it may help you know what to explore next.

The more simply I can think about music theory, the more helpful it is to me. And as I consider these growth rings for my own music, each one inspires me to learn more, to grow my expertise and ability on each level.

Do these music theory rings make sense to you? How far can you go in finding and playing songs on every ring?

Please leave a comment below if you’d like, or you can email your questions on music theory or next-step musicianship to [email protected].
© 2014 Steve Case

How To Make A Living As A Next-Step Musician

“If you’re gigging on weekends but pumping gas during the week to pay the bills, you’re not a professional musician, you’re a professional gas-pumper.”

This is as close to paraphrasing my own guitar teacher as I can remember, back in the dark ages when I was 16 and there were actual people employed at gas stations to fill your tank with gasoline as you waited comfortably inside your vehicle. It was (and still is, if there are any left anywhere) an honorable profession.

But his point was simply to face reality. In his view, a professional is a person who makes his or her living doing whatever it is they call themselves. A professional musician was, therefore, an artist who supported himself through his music. I’ve taken his statement as a personal challenge ever since I first heard him say it.

Gordon would tell me, “if you can make a living doing anything else, do it.” Then we would share a laugh about our inability to find a real job deteriorating into becoming a guitar teacher.

And it hasn’t been easy. Rewarding, but not easy. And I have been blessed with a decent amount of talent, with a good work ethic from my parents, and with a very understanding, very hard-working wife. More than anyone else, she has been my support and strength over the years as I have pursued my music.

But I agree with Gordon. If you can figure out a day job that works for you and you save your art just for fun, you’ll save a lot of stress. Having said that, it has served me well over the years, from teaching and performing to becoming a worship pastor. It can be done! You will most certainly have to be creative in your approach.

Making It Work

Often we can mix our music with other skills and make it work. The music reviewer who is first a musician writes with authority and experience in the field. The restaurant manager who is a musician might better understand the artistic temperament of the creative chefs, space designers and entertainment he hires. And the pastor with the music background will have a head start in taking supernatural truth and translating it into daily life for his pastorate.

Musicians have several strikes against them right out of the box when they choose to go pro. Their artistic temperament, the overwhelming competition from everybody else, and the business of being involved with selling art in one form or another. None of these make it easy.

And yet, there are ways, if you’re ready. My advice, for what it’s worth, is to ease into it. You’ve got to make sure your bills get paid, so don’t give up your day job just yet. But when it only seems logical that you go pro, when you can see where the income is going to come from and you know it will be enough, that’s when you can make the leap.

Jon Acuff wrote a really good book on the subject of knowing when to give up your day job in order to pursue your dream job, in Quitter. Great read, worth the time, get it. It may help you make better and clearer decisions.

How To Approach Taking The Next Step

Do you know what you would like your next step to be with your music? Maybe your next step is to learn enough songs that you could actually start doing gigs. Maybe it’s to get an agent who will find performance opportunities for you. Maybe your next step is to teach and actually do it professionally.

Here is a thumbnail sketch of the process to intentionally go pro with your music.

1. Know who and where you are

  • Assess your artistic abilities as they are right now. Know what you are capable of. Ask someone else to give you feedback – an objective voice will help you immensely.
  • Live as frugally as possible. The smaller your financial commitments are every month, the more nimble your ability to respond to opportunities.
  • Understand your temperament. If you are disorganized and like it that way, you’ll need a partner who will put up with you. If you are lazy, none of this will work, so get your backside in gear. If you are a workaholic, you’ll need to figure out how to relax without being restless.

2. Know where you want to go

  • Research various aspects of the dream life you envision. Where will you perform? Who would you teach? Is recording part of the picture?
  • Where will you record and how will you pay for it? None of these are deal-breakers, you simply need information at this point.
  • Interview people who are doing what you want to do. Have them tell you their stories and give you a view of the landscape from their perspective.
  • Be patient, yet with eager anticipation. Formulate your plan of action when the time comes, then be ready to jump without the nerves (if that’s possible).

3. Count the cost

  • Determine where the money will come from. What do you have to sell?
  • How will your life have to change in order to live the life you envision as a professional musician?
  • Keep your ambition under control. Start small, one project, one student, one performance at a time. Be faithful with every small thing now, and you’ll find that bigger opportunities come your way in time.

4. Pull the trigger

  • Take the step. At some point, when you’ve done the homework and made some changes, you need to say yes. Make it happen, take the next step into the professional musician world.
  • Celebrate it. This is a big deal. You should feel great! Mark the moment through dinner with friends or through a special concert where you invite everyone you know and all their friends.
  • Then burn the ships. Like Cortez burning the ships after his arrival in the new world, decide you are now a professional musician and there is no going back. Make it work. No plan B. Variations on plan A maybe, but no plan B.

If you are a professional musician, what was the biggest step for you? If you aren’t a pro yet but want to be, what is the step that holds you back?

Please leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case

Some Next-Step Musicians Who Are Raising The Bar

footsteps in Trebuchet font

I’ve been having a ball over the past few months helping a (mostly) young worship team at a nearby church. I want to highlight them today because the team members are great examples of Next-Step Musicians.

When we at CaseTunes (okay, that’s really Mike and me) talk about Next-Step Musicianship, we are referring to an attitude, a drive, a perspective that is always looking to creatively improve the music we generate.

Doesn’t matter if you’re a singer or instrumentalist, a novice or a pro. Something inside you makes you unable to settle for being only as good at your music as you are now. You want to stretch. You know you can do better. You’ve got it in you, and you need to figure out how to release it.

I’m not trying to make this sound epic, although for some of us (including you), it certainly may be. Next-step musicians are always trying to raise the bar, to create music that expresses the soul a little more clearly, a little more passionately. We are constantly seeking to improve our art by getting better at what we do.

The Next-Step Music Team

So back to this worship team. They asked me to lead some rehearsals and help them get better at what they do.

It has been a tremendous experience for all of us.

Now the church is small, yet eight musicians came to the last rehearsal. That speaks well of their attitude by itself. The team has been playing every other week, though I think that is changing. They rehearse two or three times for any service they lead. And when they show up for rehearsal, they come ready to make it happen!

I have to admit, I had some reservations when I first met them. Not personally, they are really great people. But musically, they are quite the eclectic mix. Their rhythm section consists of a keyboard, a drum kit and an accordion. Two to five vocalists will lead worship from the stage.

And last week, they blew me away again with their attitude.

My Job Was To Paint

During rehearsal, I would listen, teach a little, suggest some techniques and strategies so the songs come out more cohesively and artistically. Using the instruments and vocals as the musical palette, I began to paint. A little here, a little there. And to a person, they did their best to give me what I was looking for.

I suggested to Al, who plays the accordion, to think about his role in the band – should he be like the glue holding it together, or rhythmically punctuating the chords, or sometimes playing scales and fills to keep it interesting? He’s a really fine player, and he took my suggestions and ran.

The keyboard player, a sophomore in high school (I think, so when she reads this, she can correct me if I’m wrong) has taught herself how to play chord progressions and read charts. And she has come quite far! I get to suggest different techniques for her to try, or key changes, or different approaches to rhythm. Then she buckles down and gets to work. I’ve stretched her thinking a couple of times, and she without exception rises to the occasion.

I suggested to one of the vocalists (who I had just met) that she try singing an obligato vocal part, that is, kind of a free-form echo of the melody and lyrics in between the phrases everyone else is singing. I didn’t have to ask twice. She started adding those in, and it sounded wonderful. Really nice.

The drummer is a another high school musician, and he’s got some chops. For him, it’s a matter of choosing when to blend in and when to drive it, when to lay out and when to lay it down. And he does great.

In fact, every single person on the team (and I plan to write more about them in the future, so for those of you I didn’t mention yet, you’re on my hit list) brings a combination of talent, determination and a commitment to the team that is really cool. They will continue to serve their church with more and more excellence if they keep doing what they are doing now.

And I have the privilege of working with them. What an honor. What a blast!

You Can Adopt The Next-Step Attitude

Let me encourage you today to very intentionally be a next-step musician. If you’re getting stuck, you may want to download our audio guide and infographic, “10 Reasons You Aren’t Thriving As A Musician”. We all get stuck at times in our musical journey. But a little encouragement can go a long way to get you unstuck. We hope these ideas help you!

Try each of these next steps with your own music. Each one will add value to your art and your life:
  • Always, always, always be learning new songs. Search the web for resources, for charts and videos to help you.
  • Pursue a more systematic approach and find a teacher. If you find a good one who isn’t near you, think about using Skype for lessons.
  • Play with someone else, maybe a band or a worship team at your church. It’s very rewarding, and your approach to music will change as your experiences feed your creativity.
  • Write some of your own songs. They don’t have to be #1 hit songs, they just have to be yours.
  • Take on a student, teach someone more about music. Find a musician who is not as developed yet as you are, and work with them – you’ll be surprised at how much you learn, and you’ll be investing in someone else. It’s a double win!

So what are the next steps for you? Are you looking for ways to stretch yourself and refine your art?

You can leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected] with any questions you may have. I look forward to hearing from you!

© 2014 Steve Case