Hard Work and Re-Inventing Myself, For Myself

Dan Baby Drum Trash Can 2px - Spring 1966
Trash can drumming: Spring of 1966

Music has always played a major role in my life. I started showing an interest in drumming at around 18 months. In grade school, I played trumpet and later switched to drums when I moved to a new school that had school-owned drums. I bought a guitar with my lunch money and painfully taught myself.

And since we did not have a piano at home, I would leave a window unlocked in the school band room so that I could break in after-hours and teach myself piano, as my flashlight shone upon the keyboard.

That was just a sample of my dedication.

I marched in State Fair the summer after graduation, before going to college. After all of the state competitions and various bands in school, I ventured to LA in 1986 to become a pro musician. Drumming in a rock band was what I had wanted to do since I was old enough to speak the words.

1987 Home
On my own: My first apartment, and finally, my own drums [1987].
For a while, I did not even own any instruments. I’d still get gigs, by using drums at rehearsal halls. For gigs, I would rent drums from the band before or after us, giving them my pay. Later, I would ask the club owner if I could sweep floors for a few bucks or  a sandwich.


I relied on the kindness of others, which did not always work out. Sometimes I was homeless and would have to sleep behind dumpsters.

On the toughest of nights, I would be sleeping behind a dumpster, crying myself to sleep because I was hungry and the pain was unbearable. People who are not driven do not put themselves through this.

I was in a strange city that was not welcoming, two thousand miles from what used to be “home.” That was the power of the pull my dreams had.

I had prepared for my entire life to do this. I took every chance I could. I worked hard. I struggled and made things happen. After giving it my all, I would push to give a bit more.

steel panther.jpg
The expectations of 80s rock stars were so bad that making fun of it is now big business.

I almost got signed once. For every band in which I played, there were dozens of bands that rejected me, for reasons that had nothing to do with music.


I didn’t have the right “look,” which was often times things like not having “metal hair,” or not having a buff physique.

These attributes eventually became more important than the music itself, which had become generic, homogenized, and lame. There was nothing rebellious or driving about it.

In order to survive, I adapted my outlook.

My original goal was to make a living with music. I didn’t need fame, and had no interest in being a rock star. I just wanted to make music.

Adapting meant joining the work force, which did not really pay all that well. I was working 40 hours per week, my roommate was working 40 hours per week as well. We had nothing, and sometimes found ourselves being so hungry that we’d to go McDonald’s to eat out of trash cans. Other times, we’d ask for ketchup packets and take it home.

On occasion, I would tell my story to someone who claimed to be interested. The most common responses that I got were upsetting, as well as insulting. When they said these things, they did not realize that they were declaring me a loser to my face. With most other scenarios, this would never happen. Somehow, when discussing music career pursuits, it’s a different story.

“Obviously, you did not try hard enough.” My experience tells a different story. There’s really not much else that I can add to this, beyond what I’ve already written.

“You weren’t good enough.” I actually did believe this for a while, until I met other incredible musicians who also did not get anywhere in the music business, or who got ripped off, exploited, or unceremoniously dumped into the cultural garbage bin.

Today, many of the acts that are a big deal in the industry involve those who have no musical talent, which is another discussion.

“You’re making excuses.” This usually comes from people who buy into the junk psychology that self-help motivational speakers spew out. “If you work hard enough, then you can achieve anything.” What this phrase does not tell you is that it is very possible to work really hard and then NOT get anywhere.

I could point to the vast array of great musicians who have also gotten nowhere, as well as those who were once celebrated and are now forgotten. To get ridiculous about it, I could ask how well Beethoven or Vivaldi are selling these days.

But you can also look to other industries. A former co-worker started a restaurant with his husband in West Hollywood about ten years ago. We would cross paths from time to time, and he would talk about how difficult it was.

He had no idea how hard it would be to get a restaurant off the ground. And I know how much passion he puts into his work, because we worked together for a few years.

Close to 60% of restaurants fail within their first year. The popular sentiment is that 90-95% fail. 60% is the correction in publications, so I’m putting my bet on it being somewhere between these two numbers.

Of course, I did fail in some instances. There were some auditions where I did not live up to expectations. No excuses there! In fact, I am still very capable of failing today, and I expect that I will be failing a lot more in the future.

The point is to do it, and to find out.

Putting all of the blame on other things, other people, or situations, would be unreasonable, unrealistic, and immature. While I accepted my failures and learned from them, I also had to accept the hard reality of the overall situation.

Hindsight is 20/20 in this case. MTV had changed what people expected in music. It is romantic to think that if I had started my pursuits ten years earlier [were I born ten years earlier], that I would have had a better time of it. However, reading about musicians from the late 60s and early 70s has me convinced that this would probably not have been the case.

Making excuses involves complaining or being down about it. That’s not what I’m doing here, in case anyone is not getting my point. I wouldn’t blame you for not getting it, because you cannot see me while I’m writing, and cannot hear my voice.

I’m not complaining. I’m accepting the reality of the situation.

If I had to find one thing to complain about, it’s the people who tell me to my face that I didn’t work hard enough, or that I didn’t want it enough. Their ignorance of the big picture is staggering, which is why their negativity does not stick with me. I forgive them, for they know not of which they speak.

This is when you take those limes and search for some tequila. That is exactly what I did, after one band rejected me, citing that I “looked too much like Pee-Wee Herman.”

IMG_0250I then spent six months studying the character, learning the voice, mannerisms, and behaviors. I learned to think like the characters so that I could improvise. I learned magic tricks and made up games. And with that, I started working for myself as a professional Pee-Wee Herman impersonator.

Like most other entertainment ventures, it was a seasonal thing. Nobody would be hiring me around Christmas. But when spring and summer birthdays were happening, I was in demand.

I got so popular that a business used a photo of me in their pizza shop, which was posted in a story in The Israeli Shelanu, with a caption that roughly translates to “Pee-Wee loves Picasso Pizza.”

This resulted in my receiving an angry call from his lawyers. That’s how you know when you’ve made a name for yourself. I let them know that I was there for a party, I had no idea what they were doing, and I did not read that paper. Still, they gave me a big list of things that I was not allowed to do.

I see why Mr. Reubens’ lawyers were not happy about this. I had no idea this was happening.

Their list would turn out to be rather ironic, because my business came to a crashing halt due to the scandal, where Mr. Reubens was caught masturbating in an adult movie theatre. Really, what do they expect people do in these venues? But I digress.

After this happened, I called his lawyers back, and let them know that I was put out of business by their client. It was a brief call. I closed with, “Maybe you should have given your own client a list, too.”

The business died, and it was not because I was not working hard. In this case, I worked very hard, and got some reward, for a little bit. Sometimes things sort of work out.

After that went away, I returned to music as a songwriter. I had co-written a musical in 1987, which is still in production today [2018], so why not?

Viewing myself not as a star, but as a support player, I found a singer and wrote an album for her. Below is a clip of us having our first run-through of the flagship song from that album. Half-way through the two-minute clip, the audio switches from first-run demo to finished product.

This did not get anywhere, even though we had incredible financial backing. Ultimately, the singer ran off with the master tapes, returning to The Philippines. Lesson learned. At least it didn’t fail because I did not work hard.

I did get some solid studio experience from it, working with a great producer and solid studio musicians. There is always something to learn in the studio, even if you’ve done it before. The experience was not a total loss. More about that idea later.

I made a return to drumming with a band in the late 1990s, and kept on through today. Almost all of the bands I was involved with worked hard. The ones that did not work hard were unable to keep me around for long.

However, something was different this time around. I wasn’t struggling to “make it” in the music business anymore. I wasn’t relying on music for money.

Instead, I was back to a place where I had once started, where my love for music, and what music gave me in return, was in play.

It felt great.

In March of 2014, I had a labrum tear in my right shoulder. The pain was unbearable, so much that I could not lay down to sleep for a month. Thanks to physical therapy and lots of work, I was able to mostly recover within a few years.

Of course, this meant that I could not play drums for quite some time. Being a drummer, lugging lots of gear is required. I could not even do this.

The band I joined in 2003, Noodle Muffin, had stopped gigging in 2009. I kept playing drums, fretless bass, guitar, keyboard, and any other instrument they wanted me to play on their recordings. This inspired me to beef up my own home recording studio, so that I could do more.

MD02 AKAI Professional MPD18I found value in the art of finger drumming, using the AKAI MPD18 with Addictive Drums [in Reaper] as a way of getting drums that sound more played than programmed.

When I got my home studio to a certain point, I started taking guitar lessons with my guitar consultant. He had sold me almost all of my guitars. He knew what I had and what might be a good addition to my collection.

He also knew what kind of music I liked. We worked on the basics for a while, until I hit a wall. It was through no fault of his, and ended up being an issue that I did not even know that I had.

I stopped taking lessons from him, while recommending to others that they study with him, since he’s a really good teacher.

I did not yet know if the problem was with him or me.

I had to find out what was wrong, so I went to get help. I agreed to a battery of intelligence and psychological tests. At the same time, I had started studying with another guitar instructor.

The IQ test results were very good. But the other tests concluded that I had Asperger’s, which is on the Autism spectrum and is classified as an Autism Spectrum Disorder [ASD]. While there is no cure for this, there are ways to work around at least some of the issues.

I let my new instructor know about this. So far, we have been able to work around or through some of my issues. He has a better understanding of my issues than most people, which has turned out to be helpful.

Someone close to me, whom I will not name, asked me why I was taking guitar lessons, and what I was going to do with my guitar lessons. In their mode of literal thought, the natural progression is to get paid to play guitar in a band, or something along these lines. As someone with Asperger’s, I can relate to literal thought.

Through these lessons, I’m learning lots of new things. I’m taking on some difficult challenges as well.

Learning new things keeps a person’s brain active and engaged. It sparks creativity, opening the mind up to new ideas. It’s a way to keep growing. It’s making me a better musician overall. It’s making me a better guitar player, for nobody else but me.

I’m doing it for me, and I cannot think of a better person or a better reason.

It was hard to accept at first, especially when I learned that there is no cure for it. What made it difficult was seeing the horrible attitudes that others have about Asperger’s, as well as Autism in general.

Autistic Guitar Reddit.jpg
This message courtesy of the sensitive people on Reddit.

Looking back, I could see the impact that this had on my life. There were things that would happen, and I would always wonder why.

Sure, one cannot change the past. The good news was that parts of my past made sense. The bad news was that I was unclear about what this would mean about my future. Was there anything I could do about this?

The answer to this riddle certainly seemed bigger than sprouting an impressive mane of hair or turning into Pee-Wee Herman.

At first, I felt devastated, as if my life was over. I’d been dealt a bad hand, and now I have to suffer it until I die. Maybe I should re-invent myself again, but this time do it for me.

The big trick to re-inventing one’s self is that it gets more difficult as you get older. Society expects people in their 50s to know what they’re doing, to be established, and to be settled. This is not how my life worked out. I know why, and I have accepted it.

I could easily get depressed about this news, feel badly about it, or even use it as an excuse. For me, it’s more of an explanation than an excuse, even though it is the reason for some of the things that have happened to me in the past. Viewing it as an explanation was a good start.

Then I decided to not feel badly about it, and instead try to figure out how it worked for me. I have since learned that this is how I am able to memorize music and retain it. It’s how I can learn and memorize songs that are linear, and not modular. It’s also how I can do the same thing over and over and over again without getting bored by it. Instrument rehearsal involves a great deal of repetition.

As for those who are derogatory toward those who have Asperger’s or other types of Autism, I had to deal with that. The first thing is to understand that they’re ill-informed, and are broadcasting their ignorance the world. This allows me to have a laugh at their ignorance; an issue that can actually be fixed.

Dan Fender Autistic Telecaster.jpg

In a symbolic act of acceptance, I went out and got myself one of those “Autistic” guitars: A 2015 Fender Limited Edition American Standard Butterscotch Blonde Double-Cut Telecaster.

Only 500 of these were manufactured during the Fender “10 for ’15” campaign, so they’re actually difficult to find. Out of the ten different guitars that Fender made for this promotion, Vice President of Fender Product Marketing Justin Norvell said this particular model is, “quirky,” as well as “off-beat” and “a guaranteed collector’s item.”

It sounds and plays like a dream. I suspect that I love this guitar because of this, but also because it gets made fun of online. I’ve been made fun of online in the past. We relate to each other.

You can stay positive about yourself all the live-long day. But when others take a bad attitude toward you, then simply staying positive is not enough.

You have to also be able to cope with people who have bad attitudes and what they have to say about you. Whether it’s indirect, such as the Reddit post, or pointed directly at me, it can have an impact.

Whether a person speaks in a hurtful way out of ignorance, or out of malice, I cannot control what they say. What I can do is control whether or not I will react to it. Reacting is emotional. Sometimes reactions can be overly-inflated in proportion to what is being said and who is saying it.

I have the power to respond to it, when appropriate, and to ignore it when it is not important. Who is the person saying these things? Are they important to me? Are they making a good, useful point? As my grandmother said, “Consider the source, and then ignore it.”

Refusing to let others ruin my day is the best thing for me to do.

I could have ended up bitter about my lack of commercial and financial success in my attempts to get into the mainstream industrial music business in the mid-1980s. Instead, I accepted the reality of the situation. I also accepted my own failures, learned from them, and grew as a person.

I could have given up, put away my instruments, and moved on. Instead, I made adjustments to my life and my goals after accepting the reality of it all. In the chaos, I remembered that music was always an important part of my life. I am fortunate to not have lost that.

I could have quit when I had my labrum tear in early 2014. Instead, I modified my focus and adjusted what I was doing, so that I could keep music in my life.

I could have become stagnant with my music. Instead, I sought out instruction and knowledge, and worked to improve for myself.

Life is work. It’s a struggle. It will always be difficult for almost everyone. Re-inventing one’s own self after age 50 is a daunting task. The way I see it, I’m here, and I get the opportunity to do this.

I got to give my dreams a shot. I can look in the mirror and say that I did my best. I also learned how important music is to me, and I’ve learned a lot about myself.

As a result, I still have music in my life, and I have no regrets about what happened or how it all ended up.

Not only do I accept the hard work that I put into life, as well as into re-inventing myself, but I am proud of it.

Just as there are those who will say that I did not work hard enough, there are also those who will suggest that “the universe has a plan” for me. I do not buy this, for if the universe had a plan for me, then I’d not have to work hard or re-invent myself. Instead, I could sit back and enjoy the plan. At the very least, it would be good if the universe would tell me about this plan. That’s why I do not buy into this idea.

But if the universe were an actual being that was focusing its intelligence and plans for me, I would tell the universe to not waste its time. I would ask it to instead focus on the other people in the world who have very difficult lives. People who are sick, injured, or in really bad situations that are bleak.

Do not help me, universe. I’m doing fine and I have a good life. There is a long list of others who need the help way more than I do.

Now let’s go see what today has in store for us.


The “No True Scotsman” of Music

To understand my point, one must first understand what is known as The No True Scotsman Fallacy. An example of this “circular” type of argument from the link is below.

(1) Angus puts sugar on his porridge.
(2) No (true) Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
(3) Angus is not a (true) Scotsman.
(4) Angus is not a counter-example to the claim that no Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.

This fallacy can be employed and served as an attempt to refute someone’s point in an argument.

I have met many, many musicians over the course of my lifetime. Some of them are good at what they do, and they have a good deal of confidence in what they do.

But then there are others who have been sold a bill of goods, typically by other people, regardless of whether or not they’re a musician. I consider it to be psychological abuse, because it can be paralyzing to a person who is maybe lacking in confidence.

In keeping with the format of the example above:

(1) Joe is a guitarist, but cannot sweep pick.
(2) No (true) guitarist is lacking in sweep pick abilities.
(3) Joe is not a (true) guitarist.
(4) Joe is not a counter-example to the claim that no guitarist is lacking in sweep pick abilities.

In other words: Steve Vai shreds on guitar, and you’re not a real guitarist until you can play like him.

This can be done with any instrument. Just take someone who is highly-talented, use them as the benchmark, and then proceed to insult and belittle.

If you’re feeling like your not a real musician, then please read on, because I do have some good news for you.

Is Steve Vai the benchmark of guitar? What about Andres Segovia? Certainly, they are masters at what they do. But they are not the benchmark for what makes a musician, even though they are/were highly incredible players. Declaring them to be the benchmark is dishonest, discouraging, and ignorant.

It’s also not a healthy way to think about it.

What is fair to say about the likes of Vai or Segovia, is that they are inspirations. Also, they are aspirations. It is healthy and realistic to say that you’d like to play like them one day, or to be as good as them one day.

The fact that you might not yet be there does not mean that you are not a musician.

One I’ve encountered is that “Ringo is a horrible drummer, because of how simple he plays.” The idea here is that Ringo stinks as a drummer, or may not even be a “true drummer,” because he’s not shredding the kit like Buddy Rich.

The video is a clue into why this argument is fallacious.

Indeed, playing for the song and the genre is what makes Ringo a great musician. Now, if he wanted to play drums for a speed metal band, then he’d have a complete host of problems, as well as a ton of work ahead of him. He’d have to dedicate years, or maybe even a decade or more, to be able to do this.

Does Ringo suck because he cannot play speed metal? Of course not.

This is the best response to give to someone who has this type of criticism about your playing. It’s one thing for them to note that you need work on timing, or maybe you need to be more smooth. But it’s another to say that you “suck” or are not a “real musician” because you can’t do a certain trick on the instrument.

That’s not what I play.

You can encounter them at a music store, or maybe at a club. It’s usually someone who cannot yet do the things they’re laying at your feet. In that case, they’re trying to compensate for their own bad feelings about themselves.

If they can play like that, and have this attitude, then they’re just being a jerk about it.

I used to go to this open jam, where you sign up on the list, and then get called up to play a few songs when it’s your turn. Sometimes I’d sign up for drums. On a few occasions, when lots of drummers showed up, I’d sign up to play fretless bass.

These people are world-class musicians who are confident in their abilities. Sometimes they make mistakes. But they are always having fun. That’s why they do it.

It’s a community activity, and not a competition. Nobody there ever talked about how they were better than this other guy. Ever.

This is something that I’ve thought about while writing this. Did I become a musician when I moved to LA to play on historic stages in the mid-1980s? Did I become a musician when I recorded my first tracks in 1978? Did I become a musician when I joined the school band in 1971?

We can go deeper. Did I become a musician when I could sight-read? Did I become a musician when I was first introduced to Music Theory in 1983? Did I become a musician when I could finally play my first song?

Have I not yet become a real musician??

Dan Baby Drum Trash Can 2px - Spring 1966
Me, drumming on a trash can at 18 months old [Summer 1966]
One might suggest that I became a musician when I first showed interest in playing music.


Since I first showed interest when I was 18 months old, I would say that at this stage I was emulating my uncle’s band drummer, while showing a high level of interest and aptitude.

I actually became a musician when I was four years old, because this was when I became a student.

My uncle, who played guitar in his band, sat me down and wrote out how to play an F Major scale on the guitar. He did this when the band was on break. After he wrote this, he left me with his guitar and the paper, while he went outside to hang with the band.

I looked at the paper, looked at the guitar, and started trying to play it. It was pain-stakingly horrible. My fingers were too little. I did not yet have technique of any kind.

However, I was trying, and I was learning. This is what music students do.

Once you are a student of music, you have become a musician.

In the past, I’ve studied with many music teachers. Since that day with my uncle, and subsequent days with him, I studied with various grade school and high school band directors. I studied drums with John W. McMahan, author of “Readin’, Ritin’, and Rudiments: A Collection of Studies for the Beginning Snare Drummer.” I continued drum studies in junior high with Richard Paul, who would later be my professor at Ball State University.

Kindergarten Report Card 1.jpg
Kindergarten report card from 1970-71. The “S-” grade in Music was due to my difficult with the social aspects of music. Kindergarten was my introduction to doing things with other kids.

After that, I kept on taking lessons whenever I could. I took some private drum lessons with Chad Wackerman, and also paid attention and learned from every musician I have ever met.

Lately, I have been taking guitar lessons from a professional guitarist. While I keep his name private for security reasons, and out of respect for his privacy, he has made a name in the music industry, and has contributed to albums that will truly stand the test of time.

He has been playing guitar for over 50 years, and yet [according to him], he has not yet mastered the guitar. Adding to this, he says that he never will master the guitar, as there is not enough time in anyone’s life to actually do this. The guitar is an Infinite Instrument, because you have a complete small orchestra at your fingertips.

Imagine how things would be if he could not call himself a musician until he’s mastered his instrument. There would be no point to any of it.

He got good at his genre-of-focus [and others], at songwriting, and other abilities. Then, he started branching out to discover other aspects of guitar, such as classical playing. While there are still things that he does not know [because knowing it all would be impossible], or has not yet conquered, he is farther along than I can ever get, even if I practiced 5 hours per day every day for the rest of my life.

My perspective of his playing is that he’s a genius and a major talent. To himself, it’s a different story. He’s never happy with anything that he’s ever done. He writes something and records it. Then, by the time it is mixed, mastered, and released, he’s already moved on. He’s already moved forward. That song he recorded in the past is now “old hat,” and not representative of what he can do now.

Dan Lapel Talent Show late 80s
High school talent show, playing Ozzy’s new hit, “Goodbye To Romance” [late 1981]
Some of that could be real. Some of it could be psychological. I think that GREAT musicians are never satisfied with where they are. This is how they become great.

When I told the guys in my band that I was taking guitar lessons, they were curious. “Why are you taking lessons? You’re already a great guitarist.”

From my perspective, I am not, which is why I am taking lessons and learning. I will be learning until the day I die, or the day that I move on. I haven’t moved on from music in 53 years, so I have doubts that it will happen.

When I was young, I was in awe of punk rockers who painfully pushed out three chords on the guitar, with each chord the result of a down-stroke in 8th notes.

Players like that sold more guitars than shredders, because what they played was more accessible. But I digress. The point is, I’m not going to say that this is NOT music, because it’s too simple or easy, or any other reason. Even if I did not like it at all, saying it stinks does not mean that it’s not music, or that they are not musicians.

They’re a different type of musician.

What you have to do is choose a path.

In my guitar lessons, I’ve been diving into music theory and various concepts that apply specifically to the guitar. I could easily get drowned in music theory. It did happen once, and I actually panicked.

Now that I have these concepts in my lap, I have to work on them every day for years to get to a point where I can effective utilize them in my playing and songwriting.

Now, I have to decide where I want to go with it. I’m thinking of tasty blues-style lead playing. This is a good example of where I’d like to go.

I’m choosing this style, not because it’s easy. In fact, it’s far from easy. However, it is spacious and open. I do not feel the need to fill every single beat of the music with as many notes as humanly possible.

My first goal is to get to a place where I can improvise something interesting and musical. Should I happen to build speed, which could happen since I work with a click track or backing tracks, then that will be a bonus.

The reason why I have to choose a path is simply because life is too short. If I try to learn as much as possible about guitar, and I don’t make music, then there might be little point to it all, beyond accomplishing things for my own growth.

Supposing that I go with the path of a tasty blues-style lead player, I can focus on the aspects of that particular style. I don’t have to sit and spend time on Classical playing, or metal shredding, and similar things. There are an infinite amount of paths to take.

That’s not to say that I could not later wish to focus on those and add aspects of it to my own path and style.

The point is to get good at what you want to play.

Communicate with your teacher/mentor about your goals and challenges. Do your homework. Practice every single day. 20 minutes per day, every day, is by far better than a few hours during the weekend. Building synaptic connections in your brain, and having those work in conjunction with your muscles, is the goal with daily practice.

Ask questions. Talk about what’s not yet working for you, and why. Be open to critiques about your playing, as well as your technique.

Being interested, curious, and willing to learn, are good attributes for any student.

1977 Bedroom
Making do with what I had [1977]
Remember to have fun and enjoy it.

For me, outside of a brief period in my relatively recent past, where I had some anxiety related to learning music theory, I’ve truly enjoyed every minute that I’ve ever spent with an instrument.

That difficulty I had there is not the first time that I’ve encountered difficulty. It’s also not the first time that I’ve had some anxiety. Sometimes it can happen.

When it does happen, it’s important to stop, breathe, and put it all into perspective.

You’re learning how to do something that will ultimately be fun. Try to relax, and enjoy the learning process, as well as the horrible sounds that you’ll make at first. There is work to be done, but the results are worth it all.

I am in a place where I am accepting entry-level music students. If you are interested, then please consider visiting my website for more info, and then contacting me if you have any questions. You can also leave comment questions on this blog.

So whenever someone says that you’re “not a musician” because you can’t do something, remember that they might be a jerk, or they could be insecure. “You’re right. I cannot play that. Yet.”

For almost 50 years, I have enjoyed being a student of music. I am looking forward to the continuation of this journey. I’m excited to find out what will happen next.


Style, Feel, Perspective, and Music as a Language

There was a time when I had an interest in managing bands. My first attempt at this was with an all-girl punk band. They had some really powerful songs. Overall, I truly appreciated what they had to offer. Unfortunately, when I expressed this to them, things fell apart.

“You have some fantastic songs here. Your stage presence is on-point and accessible, and your style and feel is very unique.”

If I said this about your band, you might take it as a compliment. That’s because it is a compliment. However, the lead guitarist of the band did not see things that way, so she repeated back her perception of what I said in order to gain some clarity.

“So, what you’re saying is that we’re all fluff, but that we’re not good musicians?”

This was painful, so I had to respond to it.

“Hey, I’m not gonna say you’re virtuoso performers, and in all fairness, I only know a few true virtuoso players. I’m not one of them.”

I left the post-show meeting, knowing that I would not be representing them. It was the last time I ever saw them again, as a band. What happened?

Finding Your Voice

Before I get into what happened, I should be clear that my compliments to them were not hollow. As musicians, we are all given a set number of notes and pitches. With these limited number of options, we have to come up with our own combination, so that we can deliver something original.

In this band, the drummer delivered some bombastic beats. Parts might sound familiar, but she had her own STYLE added to it. The lead guitarist played some melodies, with dead notes here and there, that got into the realm of 8th notes, at best. The rhythm guitarist painfully pushed out barre chords with down-strokes only. The bassist was always riding 8th notes on the root note of the chord being played.

Overall, it does not seem all that original, when you put it on paper. In fact, it sounds rather boring to me.

But they had a style, both in their presence and playing. They had a feel about their performance. They were bringing originality to their music, which was sorely in dire need of that. Their originality was what made it all work.

Their originality was what made them marketable. It was why I wanted to represent them.

Was it wrong of me to compliment the band? Maybe, because it did open the door for the lead guitarist’s insecurities to ooze out and take the wheel. I did not know them well enough to know that this was an issue.

She was not a great lead guitarist, in that she couldn’t sit in with another band, or take on a jam session. However, she was good within the context of this particular band.

I do understand this kind of insecurity. After all, I encounter musicians who are better than me on a daily basis. Whether they really are better than me is for someone else to judge. In my mind, they’re better.

The call is coming from inside the house!

That’s where the problems live: In your mind.


A person’s own perspective can be a tricky beast to tame.

From her perspective, there were other musicians out there who were better than her. While this is true for almost everyone, in my defense, I never made a comparison between her and anyone else. That would not be productive, at all.

And if I didn’t think she was doing something good, then why would I want to represent the band?

I could imagine her releasing music online, and then some 12-year-old girl who looks up to her listens to the songs over and over again, hoping that one day she can play the guitar that well. I sincerely believe that could have been the case for this particular band. My vision for this band extended beyond the band itself, into the realm of possibility.

Were my compliments to her about spoken language, I would have complimented her cadence and ability to engage an audience. I might have even said that I like her accent.

And were her reaction to me be about spoken language, she would have gotten upset about how I was hinting at the idea that the words she used were not elegant or big enough.

When you put it into this context, the reaction seems rather ridiculous. That’s because it is ridiculous. And in all fairness, I’ve had that reaction at times, when I was a younger and less experienced player.

Your vocabulary might seem impressive to some, and might seem limited to others. Again, it’s perspective. Most people do not use most words. With very few odd exceptions, the list of words that people use is way smaller than the list of words that are available to be used.

In fact, if you speak English, then I have 20 words here, and I am certain that most of you have never, ever used them.

  • genipap
  • futhorc
  • witenagemot
  • gossypol
  • chaulmoogra
  • brummagem
  • alsike
  • chersonese
  • cacomistle
  • yogh
  • smaragd
  • duvetyn
  • pyknic
  • fylfot
  • yataghan
  • dasyure
  • simoom
  • stibnite
  • kalian
  • didapper

Now, for some serious follow-up questions.

Are you a poor speaker because you do not use these words? Of course not.

Are you stupid because you did not know these words? Absolutely not.

Are you a less talented person? Do you have less to offer? Are you a failure?

The list goes on, and the answer is always “no.”

When you treat music like a language, you can relax as you keep speaking, keep listening, and keep learning.

A person who judges you, or who makes fun of you, would do this anyway for something else. They’re not worthy of your presence, and you should get away from them as quickly as possible. I used to tolerate people talking smack about me, how I play, or the music I like, but not anymore. Improved self-respect took care of that problem.

Music is not a competition, although it can clearly be a mind game. Bringing an end to comparisons is important. So long as you are playing, practicing, learning, and growing as a musician, you can have confidence that you do not deserve harsh judgment.

Judgment should be reserved for the audition room, and that’s the only time where judgment is necessary. Even if you’re a good-enough musician, you might not be a fit for other reasons. Getting the right people in the band takes judgment.

Outside of that scenario, you are a musician. You’re valid. If you make the audition, then you’re in the band. If you don’t, then you’re still the same musician you were when you walked into the room. No big deal.

When you treat music as a language, you will have the freedom to speak, to listen, to learn, and improve. You can use the new words that you learn in your own sentences, with your own context, your own inflection, and your own personal accent.

This is how you find your voice.

Do not let your own personal insecurities shut down your voice. Speak up, and be heard!

What is a “Zen Musician,” Anyway?

This blog contains advice on how to deal with roadblocks related to learning, as well as positive approaches and mindsets that result in a more positive experience with your instrument.

Hang On

Yesterday’s blog was called “Anecdotes and Tips of the Zen Musician.” Some of you might be wondering why I would call it that. I could just blurt out an answer and call it a day. But a story is always more fun, and it will stick with you. Besides, you might learn something. I sure did.

I had been taking guitar lessons for a while. The instructor was good, and I would recommend him to anyone I know. But I felt like I had hit a wall with our lessons. It was the “I’m never going to get THAT” kind of a wall. He’d play something to demo a technique, and I would go blank. I didn’t know if the problem was me or him [it was actually a combination of the two], so I started studying with another guitar teacher.

This particular teacher is someone whom I’ve admired for my entire life. I sent him an email, and got a response and questionnaire. My hopes were up that I would be accepted as a student.

My stress was also up. Am I good enough to take these lessons? Will I be a good student? Will I get it? So many questions started arising.

I got accepted, and the lessons began.

My worries were driving me at first. I was going to work and be a great student, or so I thought. As we’d talk in the lesson, I’d start to worry. “What’s that mean? Maybe I’ll get it later. Oh no, I was talking to myself and just missed something. Now I’ve missed something else. OH NO!!!”

The worry that I would miss something was causing me to miss something.

Instead of letting him know about this issue, I found a Music Professor on YouTube and sent him an email about my concerns.

He replied, saying that he’s seen this a lot in students. He referred to it as “Mathematical Anxiety.” The idea behind this is that the anxiety becomes so powerful that it impedes learning and performance. The student might perform better if they were not so worried.

We had a few Music Theory sessions, since this was where most of my anxiety was located. His advice was to approach Music Theory like a language. Have low expectations at first. Pick up a word here and there. Give it at least six months before you start trying to really put it to use.

I let my guitar teacher know about my anxiety. I also let him know that I had talked to someone about this anxiety. Turns out, he’s friends with that person. Small world.

I also let him know about how I was diagnosed with a learning disability, the details of which I might cover in a future entry. I sincerely believe that this issue got in the way of things with my previous guitar teacher. He’s a good teacher, but my learning disability got in the way, and he wasn’t effective in working with it.

To be fair to my previous teacher, I did not get the diagnosis until after I had started lessons with my current teacher. In other words, the problem was there, but I had yet to identify it.

He said that he understood my issues, and he had good things to say to put it into perspective. “If you get 15 percent of what I show you on the first try, then you’re a genius.”

He also added that he’s got his own things to deal with, and that sometimes they can cause problems. As he put it, “Everyone has rocks in their backpack.”

Finally, he reminded me that it’s not the end of the world if I misunderstand something, or don’t remember something. This is a life-long process that never stops.

Bell Ball and Skull.jpgEQUILIBRIUM
It took a lot of work, but eventually I was able to let go of the worry, relax, and be myself in lessons.

Since then, I’ve come a long way as a guitar student. I have to remind myself of this, because of a learning paradox.

The more you learn, the more you realize you do not know.

The place where I first started self-learning guitar in 1977 is so far away that I cannot see it. Any goals that I want to reach are met with new goals, and all of these are so far away that I cannot see them.

Having goals, when goalposts are constantly moving, is a difficult task. Dedicating daily time to daily practice, as well as measuring anything that can be measured, become essential tools. There are days when you get somewhere, and other days when you sense that your wheels are spinning.

This is where things enter the world of Zen. How do you forget something if you do not know that thing? The snapshot of this is big-picture, in that it is not about a specific thing that you do not know.

It can be things you are certain you do not know, as well as things that you do not know that you do not know. You don’t know that you don’t know it. If you don’t know that you don’t know it, then how would you ever know, if you don’t know that you don’t know? Insert opportunity for worry here.

Forgetting about what you don’t know means letting go of the concept itself, and changing focus. Here’s what I do know, here is what I am adding on today, and this is what I can do with it.

That is an infinitely more productive mindset.

But how do you let go of not knowing? It starts by acknowledging the fact that you will never know it all. My teacher has been studying for over 50 years, and teaching for at least 30 years, and he is still learning. Even he does not know it all.

We are all life-long students.

During one lesson, we had gotten into some new Music Theory ideas, and I was given three or four pages of things to learn and add to my practice routine. It was a lot, even though it does not sound like it. Some of these things are items that will take me a few years to reach properly.

He asked how I felt about the workload, and I gave an honest answer.

“It feels like I’m in a dark and endless abyss of information with the Eternal Instrument that is the guitar. I’m drowning in exercises, as well as music theory. In fact, I am WAY in over my head with all of this, and I don’t know which way is up. Overall, I’m fine.”

I felt that this was an honest communication. Yes, I had way too much to do. There is always too much to do, especially with guitar. Most of it won’t show results by the next lesson. In that regard, I felt like a failed student for a long time, even though this is the nature of what is being taught and learned.

His reply to how I felt about this was perfect.

“Good. I want you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

What a Zen response. I took this to be a suggested goal.

DW St Vincent.jpg

I get my lessons, I don’t see results right away, I don’t get the majority of what I’m taught the first time, and there’s a steady stream of information coming in. With just about anything else out there, one might say that this isn’t working out because it takes too long. They might even suggest that you’re a bad student.

My guitar teacher has acknowledged that all of the above is what is to be expected. So what makes for a good student, anyway?

I practice every day. It’s in my calendar. I work at my own pace, but I am working. In each lesson, I have questions regarding some items in the previous lesson. Sometimes we talk about what I’d like to do, playing styles I’d like to achieve, and so on.

This is what makes for a good student.

Being open, trying, and working. Sometimes, there are even noticeable results!

There is a big difference between letting go and accepting the futility of “mastering” the guitar, and not caring.

Quite simply, not caring would lead to me not doing my lessons or practicing at all, because I don’t care. That’s a negative position.

Letting go means that I’ve accepted the futility of mastery, and that I am still putting work into my lessons. This position gravitates in a positive direction.

It’s digging a hole on the beach, one grain of sand at a time.

sisyphus camus.jpgTHE SISYPHEAN DREAMER
I think that Sisyphus was a guitar student. The idea of being a guitar student is not about reaching the top.

It’s all about pushing to the top, and then never getting there, and then pushing more the next day.

Many musicians revere Steve Vai as a master of guitar. Does he ever stop practicing? Does he ever stop learning?

No, he never stops. This is why he goes into uncharted territory, such as incorporating melodies from Bulgarian wedding music into his guitar playing, even though these melodies are not really friendly to the guitar fret board. This is what he does.

What he does not do is sit around and think to himself, “Wow, I’ve gotten pretty good.” He is never truly happy with his own abilities, and so he keeps pushing that boulder.

My guitar teacher is like this. He can record something, and hate it by the time it is released because he’s a better player now. Today, he would have done that song differently and better. With all of his albums, for him it equates to a trail of things that he’s surpassed. He is not happy with anything that he’s ever done, even though there are many people in the world who are VERY happy with what he has done.

As a result, he’s always all about right now, and sometimes about the future. The past is a snapshot of what now used to be. Today, now is something better. Tomorrow, today’s now will not be as shiny as it was. The opportunities were taken. Life moves on.

Sometimes, I’ll notice that a particular thing has gotten easier for me on guitar, or that I’ve gotten better at it. I consider these to be “little wins.” They are like a taste. They don’t fill me up, resulting in complacency. In fact, they fade so fast that I want to work toward finding another little win.

If you are an entry-level student, you’ll enjoy more little wins in the beginning. As you advance over the years, the little wins get more difficult to see.

Sometimes I’ll have to dig into my notes to find a little win. I was playing this riff at 120BPM three weeks ago, then at 150BPM two weeks ago, last week at 160BPM, and now I’m at 165BPM. Right there are a set of little wins. Had I noticed them from week to week, they would be four little wins. Since I noticed them all at once, they were consolidated into one little win.

You can find them. Sometimes that can take some work.

There are things you can do to become a good student, and to become that Zen Musician.

  • Always learn. Whether it’s lessons, or just jamming with someone else. Be open and learn.
  • Check your expectations. Having high expectations can lead to discouragement. Sometimes it’s best to have no expectations.
  • Practice every day. A small bite of time every day is more productive and better than one bit chunk of time during the weekend. Nobody ever got better over the weekend. It must be every day.
  • Do not stress. You’ll get where you want to get if you keep pushing that single grain of sand away every day.
  • Journey, not destination. Are we there yet? No, and we will never get there. There is no “there.” There is only now. With daily work, tomorrow you’ll be one step further than you were yesterday, and you might not even notice it.
  • Enjoy pushing the stone. Sometimes practice can feel futile. The purpose of practice is to practice. The purpose of playing is to play. Keep pushing that stone up the hill, and you will start to notice things along the way. These things will not materialize if you do not push. Look forward to practice.
  • Discuss issues and concerns. Be honest with your instructor. They are there to help you. If you’re stuck on something, or worried about something, then let them know. A great teacher will be able to answer these issues and give you information that will put you in a better place.
  • Breathe. Sometimes when we get stressed or worried, we might hold our breath. This only increased the stress and worry. Breathing deeply and calmly will help you to get centered, and will put some of these issues into perspective.
  • Relax. This is repetitive, given the one above about not stressing, but it is worth repeating. Stress and worry get in the way of learning and progress. Let go and trust your teacher, as well as your consistent routine of practice. Most of all, trust yourself!

Remember that playing the guitar, or any instrument, is supposed to be an enjoyable experience. If you’re not enjoying it, or are stressing about it, then a decision needs to be made between moving on to something else, or making personal adjustments. Since music has been my life, I opted for the latter and made adjustments. I’m glad that I did.

Today, I will be happy about the fact that I have to push this boulder up the mountain. I will learn something new, and will grow, both as a musician and as a person. I will be centered, relaxed, and will focus on my breathing at times. Today is another opportunity to have another “today.” I shall be inspired.