And It Stoned Me…

“If you don’t live it, it ain’t  going to come out of your horn.”  – Louis Armstrong

I love this quote because it reminds me that playing the harmonica gets all tangled up with the rest of my life, and that’s the way it should be. It also means that every time I solve some problem about playing music, somehow it improves the rest of my life.

That’s why I write these letters, to wrestle with questions that mess with my musical adventures.

OK, on with todays questions:

Are you tired of the idea of “following your bliss”? How about “Do what you love and the money will follow”? Do you get the feeling that there is something “off” about these two statements? That they are leaving out some really critical information?

I’ve “followed my bliss” more than once over the edge of a cliff.

For example, some people can use alcohol and drugs strategically and moderately. I am NOT in that category of human. When I “follow my bliss” in this arena, I become Wiley Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon. I’ll chase after the perfect high and just before I get my greedy hands on it, I get blown up, slam into a brick wall painted to look like a highway, or find myself in mid air, about to become a crimson crater roughly one mile directly below my current location….

I was fortunate to find a way out of “following my ignorant bliss” with alcohol and street drugs.  But I have not given up on getting high. That is still one of the main reasons I play the harmonica.  Playing the harmonica can be a great way to get in touch with your “inner dealer”.  It is all about those pure, natural drugs inside your body that you trigger with your thoughts and actions. Thats right my friend, every time you have a good session playing the harmonica, you are also enjoying Mother Nature’s healthy version of stoned…

If you can connect the dots from that good feeling back to the triggers that caused it, you can now follow your bliss instead of your ignorant bliss.

“And it stoned me, to my soul, stoned me just like jelly roll, and it stoned me…”  Van Morrison was singing about a glass of water in this song. He could just as easily been singing about playing music…

Harpe Diem!

PS – If you want to get better at setting up your harmonicas for “high” performance, you can find my crash course in hot rodding harmonicas here: http://hotrodharmonicas.com/store/

 

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Time Travelers

mad hatter

I love stories like “Through the Looking Glass” where you live through the characters as they suddenly pop into other worlds,  strange dimensions of time and space.

One of the reasons i enjoy learning music is that this process is the audio version of walking through the looking glass. When you are interested in mastering some detail of music and set aside time to do that, you invite magic into your life. Time stops. You now have only one thing to get right and all the time in the world to get it right. It is a luxury, a drug like experience that is available to you for free. And the side effects are all good…

Even just a couple minutes in a car at a parking lot can give you a good hit of this feeling. All you need is a harmonica, and some small riff you want to polish up…

Last night I worked with my Tuesday night harmonica class on a harmonica instrumental by Dave Barrett. The first part of it had most of the notes on the beat or in patterns that were easy to catch hold of.

The next to the last chorus was a different story. When we hit that one, the high point of the solo in included a couple of tricky rhythm changes. We started narrowing down our focus to 6 bars, then 4 bars, then two bars, and ended up focusing on part of one bar, a three note riff…

It was like checking out the moon with more and more powerful telescopes until you are looking at just one crater.

I got everyone in the harmonica class in a tight circle so we could do the “drum circle” thing where you get in sync with the other people you are with as you repeat a rhythm. We sang the riff, we tapped it out, we counted it, and we played it over and over.

At first I thought that this would be tedious, frustrating, torture. But it ended up being fun. All the sudden it was “wow – look what time it is!” and we had to wrap up and get ready to leave.

I always end up feeling refreshed after I experience a bit of “timeless time”. I have friends who seem to live most of their lives in this space. It is just a matter of slowing down, way down, with only one thing to do. Could be washing a dish.

It takes a bit of planning, but you can create these “timeless time” capsules and scatter them throughout your day. It’s a good way to live.

I was hoping for a great way to end this post, but I’ve run out of time. So, for now:

Harpe Diem!

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Where’s the Madness?

The-General

I’ve been re-reading Stephen Pressfields book “Going Pro”, and he tells this story about how Rosanne Cash had this disturbing dream about trying to join a conversation with Bonnie Raitt and some guy named Art, and Art dismissed her as a dilettante…

This dream kept haunting Rosanne, and caused her to devote herself to finding her true voice, not just keep coasting along on the relatively easy fame and connections she had in the music world. She started taking voice lessons, and doing a number of things to push herself into a new level of authenticity in her music. She basically decided to stop trying to live up to others expectations, and find her own path, no matter what the cost.

She started writing more of her own songs and began recording a new collection of songs. As she worked on this recording, the producer (will have to find his name later, just need to write now while I have this momentum) asked her a question that I find fascinating and useful: “Where’s the Madness”?

This puts into words one way I have operated over the years to make a song my own. I believe we all (no exceptions) have within us a divine madness. One of my jobs as an educator is to find ways to wake students up to their own unique voice. Where’s the madness?

You can record yourself playing scales, listen to the playback and ask yourself where’s the madness? When your playback starts answering this question with something more than just keeping time and playing the right notes, you are beginning to own the notes you are playing.

The same goes for learning a song. Finding the madness is one way of putting into words capturing a glimpse of the mysterious power of music and aliveness, and expressing even just a hint of it. This has very little to do with technical skill, but when you add it to technical skill it comes alive.

One of the great pleasures of working with people who want to play the harmonica is being present when they come alive. When they find the madness. When they lose inhibitions and play something straight from the heart. Even if it is technically bad, I can feel it.

Perhaps this question will be useful to you. It works for me in my music and really, anything I want to do with a charge of aliveness….

Where’s the madness?

Harpe Diem!

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Genius is a verb, too (and how SPAH creates genius)

Do you want to be a genius harmonica player? You’re in luck… read on:

A while ago, there was a lively debate on Harp L about who were the real geniuses. The general direction that this thread was going in was that some people were geniuses, and others were not, and that this would be a good thing to argue about.

I insist that we all are geniuses, once we dig deep enough. If you dig what I am saying, then you may enjoy the reply that I decided to post as part of the genius thread:

Genius is a verb, too….

The thread about genius has finally made me want to throw in my two cents, as I believe that there are some good questions to ask about the debate. One is What is the point of this discussion? Another is “What are the assumptions we are making here?”

People who do research on accelerated learning and human potential (Donna Cercone, Brian Tracy, Dennis Waitley Win Wenger among others) claim that genius is a way that we use our minds and can be learned.

When we do this “who is a genius” game, It puts us in the position of being passive judges of something that we don’t have and others do. The idea  that we cannot access genius is poisonous and just plain wrong. It is an example of “learned helplessness” – I’m not a genius so why bother trying to be one?

A baby elephant tries over and over to break free of the rope that has it tethered. It gives up eventually after hundreds of futile attempts. The same elephant grows up with enough strength to easily break free of the rope, but never tries because it “knows” that it can’t do it.

We tend to do the same thing with our own potential as musicians (and in many other areas where we are “stuck”). We learn early on that we are not “geniuses” and we accept “reality” instead of relentlessly working at creating genius as our reality.

Instead of debating who is a genius, wouldn’t it be more fun to check out people who spend a lot of  time in the genius mode and ask “what are they doing?” “How can I do that?”

This is what I see going on over and over again at SPAH and other events like it. People come here and start relaxing and unwinding and after a certain amount of sleep deprivation and hanging out with inspiration, start having flashes of their own true genius. Something in the air makes them forget their usual self imposed limitations and they cut loose and play brilliant, alive music. With some it comes in flashes and then they get self conscious and it goes away. With others they get on the good foot and stay there for a while….. Some folks live there most of the time, and they get the label “Genius”. Sometimes.

That is one of the reasons that I love SPAH. I love being around people who are experiencing genius. Especially their own, even if they don’t choose to call it that.

Thats my story, and I’m sticking to it!

Harpe Diem!

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Happy New Year!

I had harmonica tab for Auld Lang Syne ready to post here, but for some reason I am unable to upload the PDF…. The gremlins of technology are messing with me again…

So here is my challenge to you:

You know the melody – start on blow 6 on your diatonic harmonica & find it!

It is a pure Major Pentatonic scale tune, and one every harp player should have in their bag.

Play it for someone you love, or at least get along with…

And get ready for a great year…

Harpe Diem!

 

 

 

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Merry Christmas!

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The War of Art, Harmonica Division…

I recently posted an email about how I fell off the path of practice. I ended up getting some replies out of the clear blue that just floored me. One of those resonses came from a man named Dave Moran, a fiddler and harmonica player from Colorado.

Here’s Dave’s bio (from a concert poster) Dave “Road Hog” Moran has been a college professor, a biologist, an author, a fly fishing guide, a race car driver, and every once in a while he operates the fiddle.  He doesn’t play a lot of notes; only the ones that need to be played, and those he plays with love, energy and a power that can only come from a man   who’s ridden a Triumph Bonneville into a fire hydrant.

My original email follows Daves letter:

November 22, 2013

Dear Richard,

Thanks so much for your email, “coming clean.”

Congratulations on being so clear! It’s great when we can come from our own truth. Because then — when we’re stuck — we realize we’re actually stuck, and will find a way out.

Recently, I read Steven Pressfield’s book, “The War of Art,” in which he, as a writer, describes long periods of stuckness generated by giving in to his internal adversary, “Resistance.” His descriptions of being stuck and getting unstuck ring so true.

Much of our “stuckness” comes from the epic battle between the conditioned Self and the real Self in which the conditioned self — the monkey mind — wins. “First, I gotta do the laundry. Then I’ll have the right to play my harp.” What, then, is a good strategy for preventing the monkey mind from running the show? How can we allow our real selves to put our favorite thing at the head of the line?

First: Don’t think “I should practice”. “Practice” is a loaded word; it implies a duty, a piece of work (which is defined in our culture as unpleasant) rather than play (which is where we’re at our best). And, “Should” is a loaded word, too; the tyranny of the shoulds can wreck our lives. On the famous painting of St. George and the Dragon, when you look at the dragon closely, every scale has “Thou Shalt” written on it.

Second; Location, location, and location. It’s key to allowing, helping, promoting our playing. The house is loaded with obligations, real and perceived, which jam our creative channels. We fear the phone will ring, bearing a negative message or a telemarketer. I play my harp best in my pickup truck. No phone. No humans. No perceived distractions coming my way. And, it’s a nice acoustic space filled with good memories. I put a CD on and play along with it. My driveway is fine, although I can be discovered there…so I take a drive out into the country where nature can in-spire me. Bring the Spirit in. When the Spirit comes in, there’s no room for chattering monkeys.

Third; our behaviours are run by pleasure and pain. When we want to play our harps — and don’t — it’s because somehow we attach more pain to getting started playing it (and it’s the getting started that is the hard part: summoning up the activation energy) than pleasure. I learned a wonderful strategy from Tony Robbins that works when I employ it:

1))Take out a piece of paper and make four columns in it. In each separate column, write

a) The pain I will get if I play my harp now

b) The pleasure I will get if I play my harp now

c) The pain I will get if I do not play my harp now

d) The pleasure I will get if I do not play my harp now

2) Then look at the columns, and — bingo! The way is clear. The disparity between the columns is amazing. The red meat is on the carpet. You’ve got leverage. Leverage works.

We all put leashes around our own necks and are eager for someone else to guide is. One modern leash is the cell phone. Unclip the internal and external leashes, turn off the internal and external cell phone, and go play! It’s recess!

Yours on the path,

Dave Moran

—————————————————————————————————-

November 18th, 2013

Coming Clean…

OK let me get this over with.  When I write to you, I feel it is my mission to share things I have discovered that are inspiring and helpful.  Nothing wrong with that.

But I also feel that it s my job to be honest with you about what is going on with me that relates to what i am sharing.

Oh hell, let me just get on with my confession- its not such a big deal after all, compared with a lot of things going on in the world.

One of my themes that I have written to you about is the joy of learning through practice. How even just a few minutes a day of focused practice can create huge breakthroughs over time. I believe this.

But for reasons I don’t entirely understand, I have not been practicing the harmonica all that much. I am back once again to relying on gigs to light a fire under my butt to get playing.

I have lots of great reasons for this – after all I have a family with two teenage daughters, a business, and a lot on my mind. No need to spell out all the details, you get the idea.

But I feel like a hypocrite preaching about how great practice is when I let it fall off my plate. I could have used any one of the  tools I already know about:

- committing to practicing for only one minute a day (Kai-Zen)
- talking to someone about it (asking for help)
- finding an accountability partner
- gluing gold stars on my journal when I practice
- publicly declaring to fine myself $5 every time I skip practice and sending the money to my worst enemy…

- ANYTHING besides what I WAS doing: worrying about myself and trying to whip myself back into “living right”.

Over the last couple months I seriously thought about just quietly slipping away and finding something else to do with my life. That’s how bad it got. Feeling stuck in one area of my life seemed to start cause a growing stuckness in other areas of my life. So I had to do something…

I decided to just come clean, write to you about my own ups and downs with practice, and maybe you will find it useful. And I will quit feeling like one of those TV preachers who is about to end up on the front page of the National Enquirer.

I KNOW it is really worthwhile to practice. It is like exercise – when I do it I feel great. And I am grateful for the things I have learned and absorbed by the practice I have done.

I am always amazed at some of my friends who have major work ethics and who seem to be practicing all the time. I guess I just have to say I am a work in progress…

One thing that makes me feel better over all is reading about other people who did things I admire and finding out that they all had areas of their life that they struggled with. We’re all bozos on this bus.  I have a book “Profiles of Power and Success” by Gene N Landrum   that describes the lives of high achievers like Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Amelia Earhart, and it is stunning how screwed up their lives were in some areas… And yet they did things that were extraordinary.

So – now I am looking to find new ways to ACT up – to trick myself into doing things I know will create some momentum. I have been down this road before. I quit playing the harmonica a few times over the years out of frustration or cause I compared myself to someone who seemed to be light years ahead of me and thought “why bother”… Or some other reasons I can’t remember at the moment.

I know  I need to play music and that is all there is to it. I can’t make that need go away, no matter how inconvenient it may be at times for me.

So – thanks for reading this. I hope in some twisted (or untwisted) way it is useful to you.

I have also had some cool discoveries that I will share with you the next time I write.

Till soon,
R. Sleigh

 

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Escape From Zombieland!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I  have a little brainstorm of an exercise that I want to share with you today. A way to explore scales or licks that could give your practice time a new life.

The last time I posted, I wrote about putting some feeling in playing scales. I’ve taken this idea a little farther and tried ditching the metronome and playing the scale as a totally emotional exercise.

Here is the challenge:

Take a scale, like the major scale or the major pentatonic scale, and play it up and down three times.

Make one of them sound happy, one of them sound sad, and one of them sound angry.

Play the recording for a friend and see if they can guess which one is which.

Don’t use a metronome. Just play around with your attack, whatever kind of phrasing, timing comes to you.

I’d play you an example, but I would rather not pollute your mind with my ideas. The whole object of this is to give you a way to start calling up feelings at will, and expressing them through your harmonica.

You could also try three degrees of anger: annoyed, angry, incoherent rage.

Try THAT with a major pentatonic scale!

Or whatever words you choose to come up with.

It’s interesting to see if someone else gets what you think you are creating.

If you play your recording to a few people and they can’t  guess what your aiming for, you have some homework to do…

So – the next time you find yourself in Zombieland, mechanically playing music, scales, etc on autopilot, here is a way to invite your soul and spirit to come back and play with you.

So anyway, I hope you find this useful.

Harpe Diem!

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Practice for Mastery

 

G_Major_Pentatonic_Scale

Earlier this summer, I got bored with practicing Pentatonic Scales. A few years ago, I decided that these scales would be my main foundation for playing the harmonica, and I don’t regret that decision at all. They are by far, the most useful scales I have ever worked on, and I truly believe that going deeper into these scales is better for my playing than almost anything else I can do.

But I still got bored, and looked around for all sorts of new things to work on.

Then this morning, I read the following passage from the book “Mastery” by George Leonard:

“the essence of boredom is to be found by in the obsessive search for novelty. Satisfaction lies in mindful repetition, the discovery of endless richness in subtle variations on familiar themes.”

So, I want back to a familiar scale, and decided to make it an exploration of the scale, the possibilities of the harmonica (where are the bends, how can I work the tone, what kind of feeling do I want this to have, how can I make this scale sound beautiful?)

It ended up being an exploration of how I can practice. I didn’t want to quit. It felt good. The recording is not perfect. My timing is a little off. I am OK with that. I am enjoying practice again. That’s the main thing.

 

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Time Machines

 


Time Machines

I like to think of some of my favorite things as time machines. As a kid, I was fascinated by the idea of getting into a time machine & walking into another world – like Philadelphia in 1776, or the New York Worlds Fair in 1939.

When I started really falling in love with the sound of classic blues recordings, I also used them as time machines. I could look at some photos of Chicago in the fifties, put on Little Walter, close my eyes and just go somewhere in my imagination.

I have an old one speed cruiser bicycle that is  another one of my time machines. I recently got this thing back on the road after a long period of storage. The tires are almost bald, so I am riding it close to home and the game is how long can I ride this thing till one of them blows…

When I am on this bicycle, I am ten years old. I am discovering how it feels to crank up hills, race down hills, and feel the wind in my hair. I wear a helmet now, so I pretend that it is some sort of Captain Heroic headgear that only the right sort of kids can have…

I also secretly want someone to notice how cool the bike is and by extension, how cool I am.

I also have old Marine Band harmonicas that I use as time machines. I deliberately leave these harmonicas as close to stock as possible. I check the tuning and make small adjustments to the reeds, but that is about it. They are tuned to pure just intonation, the velvet smooth chord sound of most of the harmonicas that ended up on the classic blues recordings from the fifties.

My goal with these harmonicas is to use them to go into the time machine part of my imagination. Once I am in that part of my imagination, it becomes like the plot of a science fiction story:

Enter Space / time coordinates -  “Maxwell Street, Chicago, 1954″. “Activate time travel”.

And then I play along with something like the original recording of “Juke”.

When I play the harmonica in this way, it is like riding the old cruiser bicycle.  I am in another world, I am Captain Heroic, and I secretly want to be on stage, connecting with an audience, admired, enjoyed.

I imagine what it must have been like to be Little Walter in front of an audience that was riveted on him, swept up in the magic of his playing,. And the feeling of this experience begins to seep into my playing. It is part of my practice.

When I use my imagination creatively as part of my practice, it changes from something I “should” do into something I want to do, can’t wait to do.

Instead of practice being one more damn thing to try and squeeze into my already overcrowded life, it becomes a refreshing way to travel into another world for a little while.

The important part about time travel as a practice method is using your imagination like you did when you were a kid. Then you can turn whatever you have into the props, the tools. It can be your secret world.

But if you want to tell me about it, I’d love to hear from you.

Harpe Diem!

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    Hi Richard, I just read your article re: Just Intonation. It’s the first time I’ve read an understandable explanation. It was concise. I am slowly going through your book, “Turbocharge Your Harmonica”, which I purchased from you at SPAH’s ’09 convention, and it, too, is pretty easy to follow. I am just beginning to try my hand at rejuvenating my old collection of diatonics, so understanding what method I’m trying to tune for is important. Thanks for putting it out there. Regards, — Doug Parrish

    Dear Mr. Sleigh, It’s been a few months since I bought your book. Today I was able to alter the tuning on a couple of my harmonicas. Nothing fancy, just Paddy Richter tuning. I am just so pleased with the book, the instruction is so clear: the graphics are well drawn and the text is to the point and easy to read. Prior to attempting this, I had no experience working on harmonicas. So far, I have learned with your book how to set up my harmonicas to play well (reed offset, etc) and now how to alter the tuning to fit my own needs. That is just great!. I also have found your videos on youtube very easy to follow and very informative. I would like to thank you for the effort you have put into the book, I can tell you truly love what you do! ---- PS- In the past, I thought the price of the book was a little high but I no longer do, I believe it is worth it’s weight in gold! — Franklin A. Villanueva Ironwood, M

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