My Recipe For a Great Music Session

Every musician I know has their own recipe for a successful session whether that’s songwriting, recording, or rehearsing. I thought I’d share mine with you.

Have Something in Mind That You Want to Accomplish.

This sounds obvious, right? But how many times have I sat down to work only to be frustrated by not knowing what I actually wanted to do? I’m not talking about those times when I feel like playing to entertain or soothe myself, I mean when I want—or need—to get to work. Sometimes I’m lucky. I’ll be sitting there strumming or picking some vacant little rhythm or pattern and an idea for a song will strike, but usually it doesn’t work that way for me.

I keep extensive checklists and notes in Excel because I learned long ago that scraps of paper and paper bar napkins can get lost, saturated with wine stains, or look like ancient hieroglyphics the next day. Sure, sometimes an idea hits me when I’m away from home, so I’ll make a note to myself on my phone’s Voice Memos app or scribble out a note on a napkin or the back of a grocery receipt. This is fine for those unbidden light bulb moments, but not for the long haul. On those occasions when I must use the app or the handwritten note, I transcribe my ideas into Notepad as soon as I can and save them in a folder called, “Song Ideas.”

Anyway, when you want to work, make sure you know what it is you want to work on, and have all your notes and ideas where you can access them.

Get Your Shit Together.

Look, not all of us can afford, or have the room, to create a dedicated music workspace like in this photo. Most of the time I work in my bedroom sitting on a four-legged stool with the bed serving as my desk. You have to use what you have, but wherever you work, make sure everything you need is handy and right in front of you. Instruments, picks, capo, tuner, lyric and chord sheets, charts, laptop, DAW, mics, gear, whatever. If you have to get up to hunt down something you need, the interruption can ruin all your intents. And if you can, have a place to work where you know you won’t be interrupted. Put your phone on silent and leave it in the other room. If you use your laptop as a music tool like I do, turn off the sounds and put it on airplane mode. The idea here is to surrender yourself to the music and only the music. She’s a jealous mistress so if you want a good session don’t take her for granted. And if you can’t afford a dedicated music space just remember back when you sat on your bed writing music all those years ago. Grow where you’re planted.

How About a Nice Cup of Tea?

About an hour before I set to work I brew myself a large cup of lemon and ginger tea (I get the Twinings tea bags) with a little honey. Then I sit back, go over my notes and relax to get myself out of the “normal” of the day. Sometimes I’ll meditate for 15 minutes after the tea if I find I’m having a hard time letting go of things that want to keep me distracted. No TV, no music, no phone, no internet. Just a little quiet time. This also is the time that I begin to adopt a take charge attitude. This is my music, my creativity, my outcome. I’m not here to please others or to conform to expectations set by the business, the charts, or even family and friends. This is about music and I strive to become a channel for the mystery and magic to flow through. Do NOT drink iced drinks, dairy products, or orange juice right before singing. These create all kinds of unwanted problems like tight vocal cords, phlegm, and gas, and who needs that?

Adopt a Tude.

No!
Yes!

A positive, commanding attitude isn’t just in the mind you know. It starts with the physical. Sit up straight, pull back those shoulders and hold your head up. Your body is like a stand up bass. Can you imagine what kind of sound that instrument would make if its neck was bent forward, its headstock facing down, and its body turned in on itself? Yeah. None! Help out your vocal cords by straightening your neck. Holding your head up opens up the acoustics of that mouth of yours, and sitting up straight and squaring your shoulders creates resonance, breath control, and support of your diaphragm. Your body is a musical instrument so learn to play it correctly.

Everyone’s different. After all, it’s called in-di-vid-u-al-i-ty for a reason and what works for one person may not work for another. This is my method. Hope it helps a little!

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This & That

This:

Around Bookends Cottage 2017 has started out with naught but a yawn. Not a yawn of boredom, mind you, but a yawn of exhaustion. I keep looking over at the Christmas tree, the lights off and the gifts all gone, and I know I have to take it down, but I just can’t seem to find the energy to do it. It’s always such a joy to put up every year, the entire family gets into the act, friends come over, food is nibbled and drinks are drunk, but where is everybody when it’s time to take it all down and put it away? I always end up doing it alone, which is why I didn’t want to go all out this year, with decorations in every room of the house. It’s too much for me to take apart when I’m worn out from the holiday season. We have about a gazillion tree ornaments and all those new strands of lights we had to add and that need to be pulled off. And then there’s all of the outdoor lights, wreaths, ladder-climbing and et cetera. Oof. I’m tired just thinking about it…

That:

I’ve been trying to get back into my project of finishing Book Two (With A Bullet) and sending it off to print. In reality, this should take me only about two weeks, but all of my creative motivation has disappeared. Music, too is on my list, but that’s really pushing it. At my age, singing is an athletic event and I have to be in peak condition to do it well enough for a recording. And then there’s the setting up and tearing down…

This:

I’m well aware of the fact that it’s going to take the entire month of January to get back to where I was, engery-wise, last October. Damn you, Hashimoto’s, you soul-sucking bastard. One of the things I can do now that I’m on Medicare is make an appointment with an endocrinologist, but going to a new doctor is always difficult for me. Because we live in a cherry red state, and because the only endo in this town who takes Medicare is a born-again who touts her religious beliefs on her website, and because I’m married to a woman, I’m more than a little hesitant to go see her. I’m absolutely worn out from dodging the bigotry bullets in the Bible Belt. Oklahoma is just southern enough that these doctors are sugary sweet to your face, calling you darlin’ and hon, and saying “Well, blay-ess yer hart” with a big smile on their face while unsuccessfully hiding the aversion they feel toward you. Sure, I get the same medical attention as anyone else, but navigating all that crap is psychologically and psychically harder than I can describe. I’ve lived in this state for nearly 20 years. You’d think I’d be used to the way their eyes glaze over when I have to explain that my spouse isn’t a man. And it happens in all situations here, from introductions at social events to buying an anniversary present from a helpful shop clerk. And since the election the socio-political ice has gotten a bit thinner around here anyway. I’m not sure if I want to get out and try to walk on it just yet. Not with the 20th looming on the near horizon…

That:

On a completely different subject, I came into 2017 wanting to give this blog a new look, but after spending an entire night looking for a new theme, I gave that up. WordPress has a gazillion themes to choose from, but only a handful of those are designed for actual blogging. Most of them are for businesses, services and products, and photography. And even those they say are for blogging are dominated by featured slides, huge pictures of emo girls sitting or standing forlornly with pigeon toed feet, extreme closeups of glamour dolls or of twenty-something hipster dudes looking for all the world like they love their commute to their cubicle every morning. And there’s no place to write any actual content anymore. I suppose the blogging craze is over and I should really just give it up, but after 17 years that’s not easy to do. Hell, I don’t even know if anyone even reads these entries. Maybe I’m just wasting the two or three hours it takes me to put one together and post it. But that’s another whole issue…

This:

Nettl returned from her New Year’s New York City excursion bearing some amazing gifts. One was a large tin of authentic Hungarian paprika that she bought at a shop in Grand Central Terminal. To celebrate this delectable spice I made a pot of Viennese Goulasch last night, and I’ve made a pledge never to buy the domestic crap ever again. There’s just no comparison. It’s kind of like refusing to use margarine after tasting sweet cream, unsalted butter. I don’t care if it costs more. If I can’t afford it, I simply won’t make anything that requires it…

That:

Back to Book Two. One of the reasons I never seem to finish this book is that things keep coming up that need to be added to the story. Sitting on it for so long as brought up a lot of things that need to be addressed where my characters are concerned. Katy is only now beginning to flesh herself out so that I can understand what truly motivates her. I don’t know how I have avoided her inner workings for so long, but she’s coming along and I enjoy writing about her now. This is really important, too, because it leads me into Book Three more seamlessly and effortlessly. Being these people’s creator, shrink, and biographer isn’t easy, but it eventually is fun…

And with that (pun intended) I shall leave you until the next time. This Christmas tree has been giving me the stink eye for three days and I really need to quite literally put it in its place.

Have a wonderful week!

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The Journey Out

creative freedom

I wasn’t a particularly social kid. I had one or two good friends, but even they didn’t get a lot of my time. I spent “off” time in my room playing records, reading and drawing and, when in my teens, I added writing music, stories and letters to that list. I was social only on occasion and I had no trouble declining invitations to leave my private world. I never was what people call popular, either, and that was fine. When I got into my late 20s and early 30s, though, I suddenly became popular and acquired a large circle of casual friends, but I still maintained only two or three close friendships with people I’d known since childhood.

Myers-Briggs tells me I’m an Extroverted Introvert, which explains everything. I love people, but in small doses, and even at the peak of my long period of extroversion (which lasted nearly three decades) I was happiest when the party was over and I could spend the week in seclusion recharging my battery. I almost forgot that I’m actually a loner and that I need a lot of alone time. Recently, this has all come back to me and my Facebook hiatus is reuniting me with a part of myself that has been neglected for far too long. Even the thought of hosting an occasional party doesn’t excite me like it used to do. Anymore, it just means a week of preparation, a week of cleanup, and a month of Hashimoto’s-induced fatigue.

When we’re young we crave social interaction with a lot of variety, which is only natural given our biological imperative to procreate the species. We need lots of candidates to choose from and a lot of support, but now that that’s all over for me, the thought of having fewer casual friends is more a relief than anything else. Unfortunately, every single one of my lifelong friends are gone now, which leaves me no one to call when the rare moment of loneliness hits. But this is what my marriage fulfills, and is supposed to fulfill. I have a best friend in Nettl and the fact that we’ve been together for 16 years is no small consideration. I’m blessed and grateful that she fills the void in me that my old friends left. Maybe not 100%—there are just some things JP Deni supplied that no one else ever will, but then again, Deni didn’t fulfill every emotional need that Nettl does. With childhood friends it really comes down to shared memories of more innocent, carefree times, and life has a way of moving you along, especially when you’re the last living survivor.

waving-goodbye-joana-kruse
Photo by Joana Kruse

Twice now I’ve watched a circle of casual friends make a mass exodus from my life. Different people, of course, but the same phenomenon. The first group were hangers on who anticipated my impending “fame and fortune” and wanted to be along for the ride. When an important contract fell through they left en masse within a matter of days. This time it’s harder to name and harder to stomach. It’s ugly and based in lies and betrayal, a refusal to communicate, and probably a lot of misunderstanding. Good riddance to both groups. When the first group left I was elevated to the highest creative period my life has known. I’m anticipating even better things this time around because the pain is much greater. (I’m a big believer in relativity.) In both cases, the pain is a blessing in disguise and the “pony under the pile” is that I have more emotional space to do the things that are really important to me.

I’m calling it creative freedom.

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Sacred Spaces Within

wind-instrumentWe musicians have a special relationship with our instruments. We fall in love with them, often name them and sometimes refer to them with either male or female pronouns. When I got my very first guitar, a little $14 6-string that my dad brought home to me as a surprise for my 14th birthday, I took it everywhere I went, even to bed at night, where I gently placed it on the other pillow.

It was my first 12-string, however, that I fell head-over-heels for in 1968. I’d been wanting one for over a year and I finally found one at Disco, a forerunner to today’s Walmart or Kmart. After I saw it I knew I had to have it so I saved the $42 it cost from money I made working in a local music shop after school. JP Deni’s Mom drove us there, and I came home proudly hugging “John Dylan Bumagy” (pronounced boo-MAH-gy… long story). That guitar took me to San Francisco, Hollywood, Laurel Canyon, and across country on tour. I played it in concerts and on television, in schools and prisons, weddings and funerals, nursing homes, coffeehouses, and a whole lot of parties and jam sessions.

It wasn’t until 1973 that I got a really nice 12-string, a Takamine. Unfortunately, that was stolen in 1978 when my house was burgled, and John Dylan Bumagy ended up getting auctioned off (along with all my other instruments which included a Martin 12-string, a Story & Clark piano, a clarinet, a 5-string banjo, some penny whistles, Indian flutes, and recorders, an Irish bodhran, and a bowed psaltry in The Big Dump of 2001. My heart breaks when I think about it, so I just don’t. Moving on…

contrabass

So you see, I have a certain idea of a musical instrument being a kind of sacred space, where the music grows and swells and then bursts through the sound hole to fill small rooms and concert halls alike. Recently, I found some photos that just amazed me. They were taken by Bjoern Ewers for the 2009 season of the Chamber Orchestra of the Berlin Philharmonic. Fantastic views of the inside of musical instruments that make them appear to be sacred spaces—cathedrals—dedicated to the one truth that is Music.

guitar

“So next time you are holding your guitar
(or any instrument) in your arms,
close your eyes and think about the space inside.
Imagine yourself there.
What an amazing sanctuary to contemplate
the music uniquely yours to express,
the songs uniquely yours to sing!”

Yvonne de Villiers, designer and founder of Luna Guitars

violin

__________
Edited and reposted from my old blog, The Incurable Insomniac.

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