The Deluxe Tool Kit is now off the market till further notice…
There will be more information on this soon!
There will be more information on this soon!
If you never heard of D. H. “Bert” Bilbro, I’d like to introduce you to one of the most fascinating harmonica players I have ever heard.
In 1928 Bert recorded a steam train imitation on the harmonica that was done in one take, that at times sounds like two harmonica players playing at the same time. How he creates this illusion as well as the other textures he gets out of his Bb Marine Band harmonica has been a mystery I have been exploring off and on for quite a few years. Here it is:
The diatonic or blues harmonica has one of the richest forests of sound and overtones of any instrument ever created. If you want to take a break from playing melodies and rhythm backup on the harmonica, there is nothing quite like exploring the sonic landscape of the steam train imitation.
It gets you listening to pure sound as you shape it and turn it into an impressionistic story.
If you want to “roll your own” steam train, here is a way to go to the source – a great archive of steam train recordings:
So this for a while and when you go back to playing music you may surprise yourself with the new life you put into your notes and chords.
It is also fun cause there is no “wrong” way to do this. Can be a real rut-buster…
One of my all time favorite quotes that I keep on the wall near my desk is the one from Marriane Williamson that starts “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” The quote ends with: ” As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
The funny thing for me about this quote is that I have often been tempted to write about this quote, but did not… cause I was afraid to.. Ha! thats a good one, isn’t it?
Before I move on an maybe make a fool of myself, let me just say THANK YOU for taking the time to read my letters. I see myself as someone who has a lot more questions than answers, someone who has a lot more room for improvement than I “should” have at my age, so it amazes me that people write back to me and tell me to keep sending these letters.
It helps me to think of myself as someone who just likes to read and explore and finds ways to connect dots in new ways. Anybody can do this – read a lot, do research, and ask questions, play music, and try to make sense of what music does, how it does it, why its a good thing to do. I write to dive below the clutter and surface noise to re-connect with whatever it is that makes music so beautiful, compelling and indispensable for a good life. AND a good world. And then I connect this to my own harmonica practice.
Something about the Christmas season this year pushed me off the deep end, and I am willing to make a stab at why music creates peace on earth (oh yes it does… maybe not enough, but it does). Wish me luck – I may be in over my head….
Here’s what I have to throw at you:
1. Music is one of the most immediately powerful arts on the planet. It gets inside your head and triggers a reaction instantly. It’s hard to ignore. Advertisers know this, they use and abuse music all the time because it is one of the easiest ways to create a mood and influence you to feel a particular way. Musicians are considered potentially dangerous by the people who “run” the world. The powers that be here in the USA kept a close eye on John Lennon when he moved over here to live, because he thumbed his nose at authority with his music, and asked uncomfortable questions…
Music can make you want to march off to war. It can also help people to calm down and connect with each other long enough that we don’t have to march off to war. I think that one of the reasons that we haven’t yet nuked ourselves into oblivion is that enough people in the world are playing honest music that wakes us up to higher levels of problem solving than brute force.
2. Playing music or listening carefully to it wakes up your intelligence and consciousness. It builds your brain, body, mind and spirit into stronger, more useful tools for living well. Playing a scale with full attention can become an out of body experience! When you put your heart into your music practice, you work on a creative level that goes beyond the boundaries of your body. You tap into transferrable skills that wake you up to the power you have to live a good life. You get better at creating your own happiness, which is a form of peace. Here is a quote from the cartoonist R. Crumb (who is also a musician): “Music self-played is happiness self-made.”
When you move up to a high level of consciousness (happiness, peace) through music, you don’t end up in barroom brawls. The idea that slugging somebody to solve problems seems crazy.
One of the reasons that more of the world is not some big bar fight is that enough people are playing or listening to the right kind of music. You can be one of the good guys. You can help tilt the balance of the power of the world of music toward creative problem solving instead of the path of destruction. Peace on earth exists. You can help other people realize this by creating your own version of peace in your life with your music and the way you practice.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it…
Happy New Year!
PS – Please feel free to share this with anyone you know who might get a kick out of it. They can also sign up at http://rsleigh.com for more Monday letters. Thanks!
I don’t know about you, but I have had a rocky relationship over the years with the idea of commitments. Im my musical life, there have been times when I was so excited about learning and playing music that it was not a conscious decision to commit myself, I was just in the game and enjoying the hell out of it. That was great till that scene dried up and I had no real strategy to make something new happen.
I have friends who seem to just naturally set goals, make commitments and just keep motoring ahead. For them, motivation is a verb. Something they do, not something they wait for.
Chuck Berry: “As I was a-motivatin over the hill, I saw Maybelline in a Coupe De Ville…” Get moving, and you will find someone or something that excites you…
Anyhow, back to these people I know who are major musical adventurists and achievers…. goal setters, people who make and keep schedules, i gotta admit that they inspire me and the older I get the more i question the “don’t fence me in” musical philosophy that ruled my youth.
I started playing once a week with a blues band in State College PA, the Triple A blues band. Friday from 7 – 9 at a place called Zenos. Your basic basement college town old school tavern. Dark wood chars and tables, long room with a low ceiling, hundred year old Penn State posters behind plexiglass, chili, sandwiches, fries, all kinds of beer.
The guy who started the band, Andy Tolins, has been doing this gig for about 20 Years. He is a monster multi instrumentalist and on this gig he plays slide and electric guitar and sings. Stubby on Drums, Jogo on bass, JT on keys. I never know what these guys are going to play next. I do know that if I show up and start playing, I get inspired.
Many years ago there was a guy called Jack the Poet here in State College, and he was a big inspiration to a lot of people who were trying to stay sober. Jack was one of the worst drunks ever and somehow he managed to come back from the brink and keep his job as a writing instructor and live out the last part of his life as the kind of guy who just made you feel good to be alive. Every time I saw him speak in public he always said one key phrase: “action before motivation”. He would tell the story about getting up in the morning full of aches and pains, hardly able to move, and then suit up and go play tennis. By the end of the game he was a new man, limber and able to walk with glide in his stride.
I wrote the phrase “action before motivation” with a sharpie on my Conn Strobotuner years ago and stare at it every day when I tune harmonicas. Jack the Poet lives on in my harmonica shop.
So – there you go – I’m planning on being more inspired, cause it will be in my schedule.
Thanks for reading this!
PS – Stay tuned for details on how to get a free sample of my new, completely rebuilt course on the foundation skills for playing the harmonica. This new approach gives you a way to absorb scale degrees, pentatonic and blues scales, and will show you how to uncover new power in your breath control and timing…
I found a great phrase this morning in a book by Steve Chandler: “the voice of your spirit”. I like this Phrase. It zeros in on what I was trying to describe a while ago when I wrote to you about discovering your own voice by recording yourself and then listening to your own music.
When you listen to a recording of your music, you hear things that pass you by when you are in the middle of playing. You hear even more when you have a clear idea of why you are listening and what you are listening for.
There are two great ways to practice and listen to music: for technical progress, and for the spirit of the music. It helps to separate and exaggerate the differences between these two approaches to understand them and get the most out of them.
Let’s briefly talk about technical practice and then return to focusing on the spirit of music.
When you work on the technical aspects of your music, be strict, critical, tough, focused. Small very clear goals help a lot. So do metronomes, cause they keep you honest. When you record yourself while doing this kind of practice, you can compare where you were to where you are now, and hear progress. This will inspire you…
Listening for the voice of your spirit is a very different practice than using the critical listening skills you use when doing technical practice. You have to train yourself to listen for the voice of your spirit. It can feel weird and risky, uncomfortable. But don’t let this stop you: the voice of your spirit is the best part of your music – don’t miss out on it!
You have to turn off the inner critic. You have to be forgiving, open, kind. You may not hear much of a signal at first, but you will hear something….
Remember John Lee Hooker: “it’s in you and it gots to get out”…
The more you practice listening for the voice of your spirit, the more often you will hear it. This will make it easier for you to tune out the media circus around you and stay centered.
You will become a better musician. And a better version of who you are…
PS – if you have any good stories of discovering the voice of your spirit, I would love to hear them…. thanks!
“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…
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/
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:
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?
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!