Let’s get bored

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When I was in China last fall I watched a teenage girl on a Beijing subway say goodbye to a friend getting off at a stop. As soon as they had waved goodbye and the doors closed, the girl pulled out her phone and began thumbing away.

This reminded me that these days, all around the world, it no longer looks “normal” to be doing nothing — even on trains, in elevators, in waiting rooms, standing in lines, or walking down the street.

Since we can now bring our personal entertainment environments with us everywhere in the form of phones, tablets and headgear (like Google Glass), all locations and situations are becoming our personal entertainment environments.

We no longer have to be bored in traditionally boring situations…and are likely never to be bored again.

That’s great, right? Or is it…

The continually advancing capabilities of devices (and the media hype that goes with them) suggest to us that we are being further empowered every time we adopt a new, clever, entertaining tech capability.

It suggests that we will be using our devices more and more in the future as they become more and more relevant to our lives, assisting us in every imagineable situation.

As much as I love, use and benefit from technology (and I certainly do), I think today’s constantly-innovating, tech-driven lifestyle is encroaching on our time and freedom to just be.

In other words, we are running out of opportunities to be bored.

I recently read an article in an inflight magazine about boredom (picked up because I was bored on the plane). Various points were made by various experts.

•Research suggests that when you are bored your brain begins to create new neural pathways and connections within itself, leading to creativity, new thinking and other benefits.

•Our constant interaction with technology and screens is actually bad for our creativity and can result in a lack of originality.

•An example was given of a scientist who values her bored-time so much she refuses to use her laptop on plane flights — only a pad of paper and a pen, and only if she really needs to remember something.

We associate boredom with undesirable attributes like laziness, lack of motivation, non-productivity, arrogance and apathy.

Who wants to be (or look) bored? If you are bored — the current lifestyle model tells us — there is something wrong with you.

I was frequently bored as a boy growing up in a small town in upstate New York. My siblings were years older than me. I lived at the end of a private road surrounded by woods. Most friends my age lived miles away, requiring rides from parents if we wanted to play together. It was often up to me to entertain myself.

I learned to enjoy playing alone, and being alone with my thoughts. I had no particular agenda, I was free to adopt an idea one minute and abandon it the next; to invent, explore and discover what was inside as well as what was outside. I had a rich, lively, original inner landscape — powered by boredom.

Today I am convinced that the habits I developed from being bored as a child — proactivity, a love of exploring, openness to new ideas, being comfortable with myself — made it possible to connect strongly with creative outlets like writing and guitar playing later on.

I still see boredom as the starting point for creativity, insight and adventure.

I see it as an opportunity.

I see it as freedom.

Boredom compels you to solve the problem of being bored. It causes you to look around, literally and metaphorically. It can result in unexpected solutions, perspectives and new thinking.

Next time you feel bored, try resisting the impulse to reach for your phone and, instead, let yourself be bored for one minute. You might suddenly find yourself exploring a more interesting device: you.

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Posted in Creativity, Culture, Health and Well-Being, Neuro-science, Psychology, Technology, Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 209 Comments

Recording an instructional video project

A few weeks ago I flew to Colorado to record a video series for an internet company specialising in online guitar lessons.

I had been contacted by the company about six months earlier and liked what they were offering guitar players: online instruction in the form of short pre-recorded lessons from their favourite guitarists.

I also thought that with more and more people playing — and in some cases even teaching — my music on YouTube and other internet sites, it was time for me to weigh in and personally teach the guitar style I invented.

I flew to Denver from Glasgow (via Amsterdam and Minneapolis), rented a car and drove — in a snowstorm — to Fort Collins. After taking a day to adjust to the new time zone, and with the entire state blanketed in new-fallen snow, I showed up at the studio on an icey, arctic-cold Thursday morning.

The shoot turned out to be three days of hard work. It brought back memories of when I recorded my first instructional video twenty years earlier (that had been just one day of hard work).

At the end of each shooting day I was exhausted. I would go back to the hotel, take a nap, grab dinner at a nearby restaurant, head straight back to my room and go to bed. Not my usual style.

The shoot consisted of around twenty 7-10 minute lessons where I teach my techniques and approach and show guitar players how they can use them to play my music as well as enliven their own music and playing.

The lessons, most of which I had prepared in advance, included “Meet your acoustic guitar”, “Playing chords over the top of the neck”, “Chunks, whunks and slap harmonics”, “The acoustic guitar as a drum kit”, “Creating an integrated percussive groove”, “Combining techniques within a tune” and others.

I also taught four of my tunes in full.
That was tougher than I thought it was going to be.

I discovered that I “know” my music at a certain speed. Everything changes when it gets slowed down.

My tune “Tractor Pull” — a busy composition for both hands — was especially difficult to teach. I had to stop many times to re-play a section at its actual speed and observe what my fingers were doing, then re-teach the section after realising I had taught it incorrectly.

But the crowning difficulty of the shoot was presenting to a camera lens.

As things progressed I grew more relaxed, but I was always battling the feeling of being in a bubble.

I find it far easier to teach a live workshop for a theatre-full of guitar players because there is someone to interact with. I can make eye-contact, engage the audience in dialogue and generally gauge the level of comprehension and involvement.

That reality check was not available in the isolated environment of a video studio. I had to imagine an audience of guitar players in front of me and remember to include not only the basic material of the lesson but answers to imagined questions and sidebar points.

As challenging as the three-day shoot was, I’m glad I did it.

It felt good to document my playing style. It was an opportunity to impart my accumulated knowledge and experience — and my philosophy of music and composing — to other guitarists.

I was able to explain not just what I do and how I do it, but why I do it — what’s fun about it, what’s important about it (getting more music from the guitar) and what’s rewarding about it (playing multi-voiced music on a solo instrument and making full use of the sonic potential of the acoustic guitar in the process).

I flew home on Sunday tired but happy. I’m looking forward to seeing the series available online soon. I hope it helps guitar players to expand their minds, their skills and their horizons on the instrument.

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Posted in Guitar, Learning, Music, Neuro-science, Teaching, Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

When you are doing nothing, you are doing something

When I first finish a challenging creative project, I feel a sense of relief and euphoria.

That feeling may last for a little while.

But eventually it wears off…and I am left feeling exhausted.

The truth is, the project has caused me to put out an enormous amount of energy…and I now need a rest.

When I am tired I lose (temporarily) my ability to create, innovate, or think fresh thoughts.

And that makes me feel lost.

The fatigue separates me from the heady feeling of power, confidence and dynamism that was part of the creative mode I was in…and that I had grown attached to.

That electrifying sense of connection with what I was creating disappears and is replaced by a feeling of weakness, listlessness…sometimes actual depression.

I say things to myself like, how could I ever have accomplished what I just accomplished and then feel as empty as I’m feeling now?

I worked so hard, gave so much. Why don’t I feel happy now?

I rail against my tiredness, as if in so doing I will get the magic back.

It doesn’t work of course. I just feel even more empty and exhausted.

Then at a certain point it all bottoms out and I recognise that I am in a state of withdrawal.

I accept that I am tired, let go of trying to be dynamic and creative, adjust my mood and expectations and move on to other things.

After a lifetime of dealing with my creative cycles, I have learned that the magic always comes back.

An idea for new tune, an opportunity for a cool photograph, an insight for a blog post are all right around the corner.

The secret is to get away from the intense creative activity I’ve just spent so much time in, and do…well…nothing for a little while.

I ride my bike, take naps, stare into space, run household errands, fix things, read, cook, meditate, tidy my studio, take walks, catch up with friends, and generally do anything and everything that is not about the creative project I was just doing.

The Irish have a saying: “A change is as good as a rest.”

Actually, changing a pattern of behavior is a rest from that behavior and its associated activities.

Being creative is not just about the active, productive times.

It’s about the silences, the gaps, the pauses between creating, when it can seem there’s nothing going on and time is being wasted.

It’s not.

When nothing is going on in your conscious mind, there’s always something going on in your unconscious mind — where the development of the next idea, the next composition, the next project, the next solution to a problem begins.

Creativity is not just about manifestation.

It’s about gestation.

When you are doing “nothing”, you are doing something very important.

When the rechargeable battery in my electric beard-trimmer runs out, I plug it in. It takes about eight hours to fully recharge. During that time I don’t use it.

Next time you are feeling tired and disappointed in yourself, give yourself a break.

You are in the battery-charging part of a creative cycle.

Use this time to take care of the rest of yourself.

You’ll be back soon.

Posted in Art, blogging, Creativity, Guitar, Music, Photography, Psychology, Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 15 Comments

An incredible year

I think this past year has been the biggest of my life.

It was a year of creating, producing, traveling, performing, making new friends, learning, meeting challenges and growing.

It was a year of “firsts” — my first album in seven years, first time doing my own photography and design for an album, first time playing for a convention of billionaires, first time running a crowd-funding campaign, first time visiting South Africa and China, first time launching a photography website, first time playing at a Jimi Hendrix festival, first time collaborating with classical musicians on my music, first time receiving a lifetime achievement award from an international guitar festival, first time participating in a global festival of ideas in Mexico, first time recording an online instructional video series.

It was also a year of sadness — both parents died — my mother in July, my father in December. Although I was prepared for their deaths (they were both in their nineties and went peacefully), nothing could mitigate the power of the grief that accompanied their moving on.

What is the greatest thing I gained from this year?

I think it was confidence — in my ability to adapt to new situations, collaborate successfully with other musicians, persevere with difficult tasks and projects…and triumph over stress, fear, fatigue and my own inner inertia (yes, I battle with it often).

Although none of these types of challenges were new, there were many more occasions for them this year than ever before.

The music career I chose has always been full of priceless rewards and extreme challenges, for which I have always felt both lucky and grateful.

Adjusting to losing family members is its own kind of challenge.

It is not every year that I look back at the end and go…wow. I did that.

2013 was that kind of year.

So…how was your year?

Posted in Creativity, Guitar, Learning, Music, Performing, Photography, Recording and producing, Teaching, Thoughts, Touring, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

China on my mind

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I went to China for the first time last month. I spent ten days playing concerts and workshops, sightseeing, exploring, eating, drinking and shooting photos in the three biggest cities — Guangjhou, Beijing and Shanghai.

Food, the heat and humidity, public transport and infrastructure, art, affluence and poverty, driving behavior, traffic jams, the music I was given to listen to, the incredible attentiveness, kindness and generosity I was shown by my hosts, all stand out in my mind.

As there is too much to tell in the space of a single blog post, I will offer a few experiences and impressions.

In Guangzhou (pronounced “gwahn-joe”) I visited the Guandong (aka Canton) Museum of Art and saw a one-man multi-platform (painting, sculpture, sculpture installation, video) exhibit by the Chinese artist Qiu Guangping. His work was powerful, turbulent and emotional…full of disturbing scenes of chaos, upheaval, destruction, trauma and suffering…and ironically called Heaven. I like this artist and will seek out his work in the future.
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My favourite memory of Guangzhou was relaxing on the riverside quay with drinks in the evenings…beautiful views of city lights…a feeling of romance in the air.

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In Beijing, the cultural capital, I was treated to amazing group meals at restaurants specializing in Hot Pot, Chinese Barbecue and Peking Duck.

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I also visited Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China. As tourist-filled as these well-known destinations were, I nonetheless found visiting them to be a powerful experience. Chinese families made up the biggest part of the throngs passing through these sites. They seemed terribly proud and excited, as if on a pilgrimage.

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I loved the funky, rickshaw-like three-wheeled electric-powered tricycle taxis I was moved around in. I could not help smiling every time I rode in one. While appearing to be a throwback to an earlier era, these charming conveyances actually make great practical sense for negotiating the traffic jams in Beijing.

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Speaking of negotiating, the constant haggling with merchants, taxi drivers etc. that I witnessed was entertaining. My Chinese hosts would always negotiate the proposed price of things downwards with much yelling, dismissing, gesticulating, appearing to walk away etc. until an agreement was suddenly reached — usually a fraction of the price originally asked. Yet the merchants seemed happy. I asked how this could be and was told the amount finally agreed on was the actual the amount they’d had in mind all the time.

I took the high-speed train from Beijing to Shanghai. Smooth, quiet, fast, comfortable and ultra-high-tech, it looked like — and rode like — the French TGV and the Japanese Shinkansen (after which a tune of mine is named).

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In cosmopolitan Shanghai I was able to wander through atmospheric old neighborhoods where I found wonderful bars in which to relax, drink whisky and smoke cigars.
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The streets of the downtown were lined with beautiful tall trees (put there by the French I was told by my host) which added to the exotic, international vibe of the city.

The food, throughout the trip, was incredible. On the morning I arrived I let my hosts know that I love spicy food. For the duration of the trip I was treated to Hunan and Szechuan specialties that frequently challenged my pain threshold.

Food experiences included fried white radish patties, beef rice noodle rolls, chicken and wild mushroom porridge, red bean porridge, beef t-bones, chicken’s feet, prawn and caviar dumplings, spring rolls, lotus root, beef tripe, stewed bullfrog, pig stomach, ducks’ blood curd, baby squid, crispy whole fish, beef, pork and lamb dumplings, stir-fried choy sum shoots, roast duck, and pork, corn and water chestnut fritters…as well as never-before-tasted varieties of green tea, black tea, red tea, yellow tea, bitter buckwheat tea and Chinese Fire Water, a grappa-like strong spirit.

One day I was taken on a car trip south to visit the factory of the guitar manufacturer that had sponsored the tour. Once we had left the modern motorway and were driving through the countryside and through smaller towns and villages, I witnessed some extreme poverty. There are many for whom the Chinese Miracle has not happened yet.

The transit infrastructure everywhere — motorways, subways, trains and train stations, airports — was impressively modern and high-tech, yet this didn’t seem to make any difference to the traffic jams in all three cities, which were epic. The aggressive, undisciplined, improvisational behavior of drivers (and constant horn-honking) seemed to contribute to the problem.

It was explained to me by Raymond, one of my guides (real name Li…many of the English-speaking Chinese I met had alternate Western names) that prosperity is still so new in China that “everybody wants a car as a prestige symbol”, with the result that the excellent public transport in the cities is actually under-utilised.

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Having grown up in the 1960’s during the Cold War, it was an eye-opener for me to see every well-known American car brand — Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ford, Lincoln, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep — now a prominent part of the traffic queues in all three cities.

I found it interesting that unlike Japan, Singapore and (the now assimilated) Hong Kong, the Chinese drive on the right in left-hand drive cars like in North America and continental Europe.

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I’d heard many times in the years before I went that China was hot, dirty and polluted…but I found mainland China’s three largest cities to be no more so than Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong…or any large Western city.

My overall impression of the political climate was that the Chinese seemed happy, relaxed, upbeat about the future, proud of their country and its achievements but also able to speak critically of it.

The only indication I could glean of government control of communication during my visit was the blocked access to Western social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus on the wi-fi everywhere (Instead, the Chinese use “clones” of those networks. The Twitter clone is called Cuckoo).

I was given Chinese music to take home. The two cds (whose names I don’t know) are in constant rotation in my home CD player — imaginative, emotional, beautifully-produced, infectiously happy (yet not new-agey) music that somehow doesn’t get old after many listens. While I was able to identify Western musical influences such as Yellowjackets, Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays, Bobby McFerrin, The Bulgarian National Women’s Choir to name a few, the sound and spirit of the music ultimately comes off as Chinese.

On my last day, in Shanghai, I had the surprise opportunity to get a new custom pickup system installed in my baritone guitar by a man named Ruci who makes his own microphones.

The system sounds awesome. Now every time I play a gig I am reminded of the friends I made during my brief introductory visit to China…and the country and culture I can’t wait to visit again and get to know better.

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A unique festival

I recently participated in a unique music festival in Rochefort, France, called Rochefort en Accords.

The slogan of this small festival in the south of France — the brainchild of French Canadian organiser Pascale Graham and her partner, American cellist Eric Longsworth — is “a festival of the unpredictable and the unexpected”.

And it certainly was — for the participating musicians most of all.

The challenge presented to each of us:
Produce your own show using the other invited musicians, many — or, in my case, all — of whom you have never met or worked with before.

You were expected to work both as the “bandleader” on your own show and as a sideman on other people’s shows.

You were expected to accomplish this in two days, and then perform your show for the city during the Friday and Saturday night concerts.

Whatever kind of musician you thought you were…whatever you may have been used to doing…you were going to be moving out of your comfort zone.

I spent the first day listening to musicians from France, Germany, Japan, America, Argentina, Canada, Madagascar and West Africa, imagining them playing on my music…and imagining myself playing on theirs.

Piano, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, violin, viola, cello, harmonica, electric keyboard, drums, bass, electric guitar, accordion, mandolin and vocals were all available to work with.

Throughout the two rehearsal days I approached musicians, proposed their participation on particular tunes and negotiated time to rehearse with them.

Despite my limited French and most other musicians’ limited English, everything worked out brilliantly.

We simply communicated musically.

I was able to organise and perform ensemble arrangements of “Ladies Night” with cello (Eric Longsworth), violin (Jacky Molard), harmonica (Guy Belanger), drums (Franck Vaillant) and bass (Dia Youba), “Shinkansen” with an improvising vocalist (Mikea), “Rainmaker” with a drummer (Franck Vaillant) playing percussion and full drumset, “Love In The Old Country” with cello (Laura Caronni), clarinet (Gianna Caronni), bass clarinet (Fabrice Barré) and flute (Maïa Barouh), “Night Ride” with blues vocals (Mathis Haug) and saxophone (Daniel Paboeuf), and 40-minute set with an improvising harmonica player (Guy Belanger).

I also worked as a sideman (playing electric rhythm guitar) in two other musicians’ shows.

It was an amazing experience to hear my compositions arranged with other instruments.

I found my rubato ballad “Love In The Old Country” backed by cello, clarinet, bass clarinet and flute especially eye-opening. It seemed to come alive…as if it had been meant to include that instrumentation all along.

What struck me most about this little festival was the incredible atmosphere of openness, enthusiasm and support coming from fellow musicians, and the genuine esprit de corps that had developed by the end.

The ticking clock was everyone’s challenge at Rochefort. There was never enough time before you were going to be on stage performing with someone you had just met. Luckily the staff knew this and were excellent at last-minute and logistical problem-solving.

The brutal timetable forced you to be spontaneous, flexible and open, to create using available personnel and materials, to take risks, to learn quickly from failures and build on successses, and to develop confidence working with other musicians.

I got very little sleep.

It was exhausting, stressful…and extremely fun.

I made new friends and now have a pool of superb international musicians to call upon when I am ready to do an ensemble record next year.

You leave this festival with the feeling of having tested yourself to a
never-before-experienced level…of having been appreciated by a community of peers for what you do…and of having become a better musician — and person perhaps? — for having navigated its demands.

When I think about it now, I smile.

It was a gift.

Posted in Art, Composing, Creativity, Culture, Learning, Music, Performing, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Thoughts on the campaign

My forty-six-day campaign to crowd-fund my new album and a global tour ended a few days ago.

Although the campaign didn’t reach the “goal” amount which would have helped pay for me to tour with the album, it did reach a contribution level that is going to make a huge difference to my business and career.

Friends, fans and supporters of original music have collectively paid for the creation of an “asset” — in this case, an album of original music — that will (I hope) become part of people’s lives and continue to generate income for years to come.

The campaign has been an incredible, eye-opening experience.

It has been stressful at times.

I have learned many things.

But mostly, I’ve had fun.

The idea of crowd-funding an album would have been unheard-of — let alone impossible — just a few years ago.

I am from a generation that came way before the internet and social networks were imagined.

If you had told me when I was growing up in the 1960’s that one day I would “crowd-fund” a record with contributions from fans over a platform called the internet, I would have laughed.

A friend recently described crowd-funding as “pulling money from the ether”.

And that is how it can look to someone from my generation — difficult to believe.

But the truth is that in an incredibly short period time — just a few decades — the internet, social networks and e-banking have evolved to such an extent that innovative capital-raising ideas like crowd-funding are now not only possible, they are becoming the norm.

The ability for an independent, self-employed artist like me to source financial support for his career directly from his fans is real.

I know this because the campaign — and the many awesome people who shared it and contributed to it over the course of forty-six days — truly delivered that support.

Once again, my eyes are wide with amazement at technology, the people who created it, the people who use it, and the ever-evolving benefits we all receive.

Life is more than good. It’s miraculous.

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