To Mars, The Red Planet: Perfect For The Blues

mars approachHopefully you are enjoying the sensation of musical weightlessness after this past week of improvising! No written notes to hem you in, rather the opportunity to play almost anything you want, whenever you want. Within a few necessary guidelines (like keeping your spacesuit on), you are free to improvise, to create, to express yourself. You never have to play the same thing twice, if you don’t want to.

And now you want to reach higher, try out some other tools in your arsenal.

The next place to explore, the most logical next step on our odyssey is:

Mars.

The red planet. The god of war. The best movement of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” and the home of Marvin the Martian.

Mars. The planet of strife, of clashing, and of dissonance. This is absolutely the best next place for us to go. Continue reading “To Mars, The Red Planet: Perfect For The Blues”

10 Progress Questions For The Next-Step Musician

stairs blueEvery so often, it’s time to step back and take a look at our musical progress. We can celebrate those goals we’ve met and decide how best to follow through or maybe reset some of the other ones.

Here are 10 Next-Step Musician questions that will help you do just that. The only presumption is that you are interested in growing as a musician.

1. Do you regularly listen to music that crosses styles and genres? As creatures of habit, we don’t often expand our musical tastes unless we are pressed. If your music is getting stale or too predictable, try a new artist. Find a different radio station. Let YouTube pick something new for you.

2. Can you sing or play music from a different genre than how you started? The classically trained artist will benefit from learning some jazz or pop tunes, while the rocker will find some classical training really helps his chops.

3. Have you considered taking up an instrument you don’t currently play? There are so many instruments to choose from: strings, winds, brass, drums and percussion, ethnic, cheap or expensive, historical or modern. If you’re a guitar player, try the banjo or bazooki. For a flute player, take up the piccolo, or maybe a recorder. For a violinist, try a mandolin. For a trombonist, see if you can master a didgeridoo (complete with the circular breathing).

4. Can you sing melodies and harmonies in tune? Record yourself and listen to your intonation. Need to work on it? And as a second step, can you find harmonies to sing that fit the song? Understanding how harmony works will set you apart as a vocalist, you’ll find opportunities to sing come your way more and more!

5. To what extent have you had musical training? Are you interested in more? Finding a quality teacher/mentor for your instrument or your voice is invaluable. A teacher should inspire you and stretch your imagination, helping you to envision yourself as a great musician and aiding you in finding success with practicing.

6. How well can you sight-read music? So the first question is: can you read music at all? If you can’t, that’s step one. Next is working on singing or playing the music accurately and expressively the very first time you encounter it. Take yourself through some new charts. Look them over in detail before you begin. And once you start to play, don’t stop until the song is over. How did you do?

7. Do you enjoy singing and/or playing with a group? And do you perform? When you have to listen and react as others play, you’ll find a new set of reflexes to train. But once you are able to listen and play at the same time, playing in a group will expand your experience and your thinking. You might play in a school or community band, orchestra or choir, in a club band, on a worship team at church, or in any number of small ensembles. The music will take on significantly different properties from when you only play by yourself.

8. Are you writing music? No matter what level you’re on, try it. Use everything you know about music to figure out a new song, then write it down in a way that you can play it again later. The coolest part is when you find a note you don’t like, you get to change it. You’re the composer!

9. Are you methodically teaching others how to sing or play?Are you ready for new students? If you are interested in teaching, first find a teacher to show you how. The teaching method, as a broad category, is called ‘pedagogue’ (ped-uh-goh-gee). If you are simply showing others how to play certain songs, I’ll call you a helpful friend; but a teacher is someone who will help the student become independent, able to figure out any new song on his own because he has been taught principles and fundamentals.

10. How soon would you like to make strides in any of the above areas? Here’s what really separates the average Joe from the Next-Step Musician (sorry, Joe). Give yourself a date on the calendar to take on any of these questions, then follow through on your plan. If you wait, it will never happen. Now is the time!

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about Next-Step Musicianship to [email protected].

© 2015 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?”

“Yup.”

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

 

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

 

Clarify, Simplify: Music Theory Doesn’t Have To Be Complicated

20130531_115102 I sat down with a music student the other day, a young man who plays very well but still is not where he wants to be musically. He writes his own music, but needs help thinking out of the box; he would also like to have his band play his songs. Though he is without a significant theory base to pull from and lacking the tools to rewrite and hone his work, he has done pretty well. He is a fun student for me to work with – I get to explain the whys behind his music, why some things work and some don’t, and I get to watch his face light up when he gets to an “aha” moment!

He has taken theory courses in school, but honestly, the courses he mentioned haven’t helped much, and probably won’t, because he isn’t interested in analyzing Bach and Beethoven. I remember being in his shoes.

One of the first things he and I did was to make sure we were speaking the same language. There are at least two key principles here that his previous music courses overlooked:

1) One term = one meaning

If you call a particular fruit an “apple”, that name has to be exclusive. There are, of course, many varieties of apples, but you’ll never see a carrot or a mushroom being labeled as an apple at your farmer’s market. An apple is always an apple.

For example, we can assign numbers to the major scale (you remember, “do re me fa so la ti do”… just like in The Sound Of Music…) A major scale then becomes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. And it is the basis for any discussion of music theory in our culture, it is foundational. But if we say a major scale is 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, then I start talking about a minor scale being 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, I have just added to the student’s confusion and torpedoed my integrity as a communicator. A minor scale is not 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, rather, it is 1 2 flat-3 4 5 flat-6 flat-7 8 (the natural minor scale). And this is just one instance.

Music is subjective enough that in order to talk about it intelligently, the terms we use really need to be consistent. But if we can’t be consistent about a musical idea, then we need to admit it up front. Take music genre terms for example. There are definite criteria for some styles of music: swing tunes always have uneven (swung) eighth notes, while pure rock will always have even eighths. Jazz will emphasize embellished chords (like Cma7 or G13), Latin beats are syncopated (emphasizing the off-beat).

But other terms we have to admit won’t always fit our preconceived mold. Try to define what “pop” music is, or even “classical”. Our definitions may be different.

Nailing down music theory can feel like trying to nail jello to a tree. And so as often as we can, let’s be consistent and give one term one meaning. As your own lexicon develops, you’ll be able to decide for yourself how to define the elusive terms.

2) Streamline your thinking

20130705_164455Music theory can be complicated and subjective, just as any sorts of theories are. If the theory is to help you write or perform, it has to be usable, meaning it’s uncomplicated and dependable.

When I’m trying to rip through my guitar lead or jam out a new chord progression on my keyboard, I’m not going to think, “I need to increase the frequency of audible vibration, increase the perceived amplitude while decreasing the duration of the envelope of…” Not if I want to make music any time this week. I will, on the other hand, think, “I want to go higher, louder, faster”. Those terms are usable and practical.

The first way of thinking is not incorrect. But it is unhelpful when I’m trying to play.

My student laughed and nodded when I pointed out that he did, in fact, know a lot about the terms we were defining. But the key for him, and for each of us, will be to simplify how we think about the nuts and bolts of music. This is a topic we’ll be returning to again and again, it is critical for us to be successful with our music.

How can I help you simplify and streamline? If you have any questions about music, music theory or its application, please email me at [email protected]. And while you’re thinking about that, let me ask you one:

What has your experience with music theory been like so far? Has it been helpful or not? Simple or confusing? I’d love to hear from you, and hopefully we can help each other sharpen our skills!

© 2013 Steve Case