Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Secret

I arrived at my guitar lesson, bright-eyed and caffeinated. I wore my "thinking" shirt, a white-collared long sleeve I ironed the night before. I brought a tiny video recorder, a notepad, and a pencil I twirled into my hair bun, like the traditional Chinese do with their chopsticks. Today, I would learn the secret if I had to pry it out of my teacher with the chopstick!

My instructor motioned me into his studio with a smile. True, half of my lessons are spent attempting to decipher French, the other half deciphering music. I gave him my full attention during the first half hour.

 I admit sometimes my mind wanders off to think about what I'm going to have for lunch or if I ought to go next door to the Italian pastry shop and order one of those delectable brownies dusted with powdered sugar. Then I re-focus when I think how if there is any time to be "living in the now", it is right now, with the mind of a brilliant guitarist at my disposal. 

He taught me a series of intricate open chords that wove into a pentatonic exercise which starts at the headstock end of the guitar neck and ends near the bridge. He's all about transitioning from one area of the neck to another with gusto. Then he threw in a couple impressive blues licks, because that's what I pay the big bucks for. 

After he was satisfied that I had mentally and physically integrated the new material, at least enough to be able to work on it at home, he asked me if I had any questions. 

I had been waiting for this moment. I sat up straight in my chair and cleared my throat.

"Everything you taught me was great. I'm wondering, though, if I have a simple melody in my head, how to I play it through the guitar? I can figure it out if I play a few notes around it."

At this point, I stopped, and fumbled around the fretboard, until I found the notes in the sequence I sang to him moments earlier. 

"You see, I can find it, but I want the process to be seamless. I want to be able to speak through my guitar, like I'm speaking to you."

I placed my left pointer finger on a fret on the neck, but I didn't pluck the string.

"Can you tell me what this note sounds like?"

He sighed, and started off in French, took one look at the confused expression on my face, and switched back to English.

"You mean perfect pitch. I can't do that, but I have students that can. And they are the life of the party. That's great and wonderful, but it doesn't matter much, unless you want to impress people." (I think he worded it as "the party of the life", but I knew what he meant.)

He went on,

"Meg," (He always emphasizes my name with a hard "g" at the end,) " If I go to China and bring with me a Chinese dictionary, what is that going to do for me in Beijing?"

I thought, "Well, it would definitely make you look like an idiot, and in case you needed toilet paper…." 

"It would do nothing," he continued. He started playing scales up and down the neck at dizzying speed.

"Yes, yes, this if fine. Good. Good. But it won't help you, not really. These are just the notes in a scale like letters in the alphabet."

It was in this moment when I realized something that I think I already knew, but I just needed my teacher to illuminate. To learn how to speak, you don't study a dictionary, saying the same word over and over again, and expect to speak eloquently land on your feet in actual conversations with people. 

Can you imagine going to a dinner party, entering the room, offering your first handshake, and starting out your conversation with:

"Apple. apple. apple. blue. blue. dog. dog. dog." and then just to mix it up a little

"Apple. blue. dog. Apple. blue. dog" and if you want to get REALLY crazy start saying those words in warp speed. That will really impress the dinner guests!

Yet, this is how we novice musicians go about learning how to play and we think we are really somethin' else.

To learn to speak well, you immerse yourself in a culture where people are talking all the time. Some of the things people say don't make sense to you. Maybe they use unfamiliar words, or string them together in strange and new patterns. They speak loudly, they speak softly, fast, and slow. Some voices are raspy, some are delicate and light as a feather. 

Eventually, you start to use these words that you hear. You try them out. You see the reaction you invoke in people. You learn how to communicate sadness, anger, or joy. You make many mistakes. Sometimes you don't make any sense, but you laugh about it, and you keep, talking, talking, talking, and eventually you learn how to say exactly what your mind wants you to say and the best way to say it.

Well, its' the same with music and guitar. My teacher was on the right track in the beginning of my lesson. He was teaching me vocabulary, subtle nuances in phrasing. He was teaching my how to whisper and how to yell when appropriate. 

At one point he literally said, "Good, now PUNCH your guitar." Instead of tip-toeing around the strings, I let out all of my inner pent-up fury in a single chord, and the pangs of the vibrations of sound felt good, DAMN good. 

He was teaching me how to play the guitar and express myself like a human with licks and real songs, instead of like a robot with scales and arpeggios.

I was looking for a short cut. Come on, give me a scale to learn, a magic pill to take, an incantation to whisper over a cauldron of frog legs and a hair of a goat. But it's really so simple, and I knew it all along.

I just need to keep playing my guitar with other people who play guitar, over and over and over. Eventually, after many, many mistakes, I'll learn how organize riffs and chords, and then string phrases together, and someday, oh someday, I'll be fluent in music, and then, at my guitar lessons I'll only have to decipher the French.


Friday, August 8, 2014

From Sweden, With Love

I was taking a break in the afternoon from writing songs and packaging up Chandler orders to get outside and grab some pork belly tacos at Nick's work. I've always chosen solitary, creative careers. Sometimes I need to surround myself with happy strangers eating tacos and sipping on cappuccinos to get my creative juices flowing again.

"So, what have you been up to today?" asked Nick's co-worker as he wiped off a coffee-stained counter top.
"Oh, you know," I replied, "I'm busy writing all my bad songs."
"Your what?"
"My bad songs. I've got to get all of my bad songs out of me so that the good ones can come through."

He silently navigated away from my reply, and asked me how I liked my coffee and the weather. I think the prospect of somebody making bad art on purpose made him feel a little uncomfortable. 

Let me tell you a secret, artist to artist: Not EVERYTHING you make is going to be amazing. 

Ugh oh. Cat's out of the bag. 

Where do you go from here? My opinion: simply keep going. Keep writing songs. Keep writing chapters. Keep cooking up your latest creations. While you're working, don't focus on all the things that you are doing wrong. Focus on all that you are learning and all the ways you can improve. These ideas will make your next project that much more awesome!

Yesterday, I wrote a bad song. I wrote a string arrangement coupled with a hacked-up drum loop. Then I wrote a mediocre melody with mediocre lyrics on top. Instead of wallowing in how bad it was and how the universe was out to get me, I stopped to eat a taco, grab some caffeine, and got right back to work on the next song, implementing improvements I learned from what didn't work on the previous song. 

Something beautiful is going to fall out in between all the not-so-good stuff. Trust me. Don't be afraid to make crap. It's a good thing!

It's been awhile since, I've released new music. After going through a bunch of garage band files that have been cluttering up my laptop, suddenly I realized I had the bare bones of a record, or at least a solid EP!

Yesterday, I received a timely email with the subject: "hey, I really love your music!!!"

It wasn't for my old band "Meg and Dia". It was in regards to my last project, "The Khaki Scouts". 

The email read:


I just wanted to say that I just found you on band camp, and I really enjoy your music! Are there any new tracks coming from you soon? :)

From Sweden with love,


I thought Nick and I had taken our band camp page down, so I was very surprised to get this email. It was just the ammunition I needed to start working on these new songs. 

And I think this just illuminates that even when you aren't sure that you are making a difference, or that anyone is connecting with the stuff you are making, there's always somebody out there who is eating up everything you are doing. 

Maybe they are not as vocal as you wish they were. Maybe you can't see them. Maybe you'll never meet them, but maybe, just maybe you are making them smile and stirring their soul behind the soft glow of a computer screen.

We hear you. 



Tuesday, August 5, 2014

My Other Dream Job

While I waited for my cardamom and date smoothie, a woman from my yoga class took a seat next to me. We talked about the weather and our matching yoga mats. She told me that she'd like to start doing more yoga, because she sits at her desk all day for work. She said yoga has done wonders for her well-being because she hasn't been sleeping much lately or eating well. I couldn't help asking her what she did for a living that was causing all this stress on her mind and body.

She said she is an animator for Disney. She just finished working on the movie Frozen. I thought to myself, "WhaaaAAAaAaAAaaaat??" All my sisters' favorite movie at the moment is Frozen, (this includes Dia whether she will admit it or not.) 

Before I wanted to be a musician, my childhood dream was to be an animator for Disney. This woman sitting across from me was living one of my childhood dreams! And I told her so.

She asked me what I did. I told her that I was a musician and a jewelry designer. 

"That's so cool. You get to make art!"
"But you get to make art too!" 
"Yeah, I know, but I'd really love to get back to working with my hands. There's this ceramic studio just around the block. I'd love to start taking classes."

On my drive home, I thought about our conversation. She must have been an artist since she was a little girl. It must have been extremely competitive to land her job at Disney. Now that she's there, I'm sure there is no shortage of starving interns willing to do anything to sits where she sits. But, yet she is still tired and frazzled and searching for something more. 

Being able to create art in any context is wonderful, but to be able to make whatever kind of art you want, whenever you want, aaahh, that's the key to peace as an artist. To have freedom in artistic expression is what I believe this woman was looking for, and what I need to be more grateful of every day. 

While I labored on Meg and Dia's last full length album, an A & R guy constantly added his two cents about the direction of our songs. At one point, I think he tried to turn a pretty, piano ballad into a raggae song! I kid you not. The producer had me on an extremely tight deadline. I'm sure our label called him to tell him to call me to tell me that "we needed an album LAST week, and if I didn't hurry up and write it…" So, yeah, I guess I know how the animator feels. 

Now, I'm making my own art on my own time. I'm free. I'm so thankful for that. 

Maybe you are thinking, "Well, that's great for YOU Meg, but I have classes I am obligated to attend and a job that isn't exactly stimulating". I understand. I've been in that position myself. You may have a superior, you may have deadlines, you may have limited choices. 

But still...

I urge you to find time to make the kind of art you want to make. Steal 10 minutes, 20 minutes, or gasp, even an hour.

The art you are making IS important. Treat it that way.

Honestly, Meg