Friday, April 30, 2010

The Key to Epic Practice Sessions: Structured Breaks

One of the joys of being a middle-aged bachelor who lives life as a musical quest is that every now and then - about twice a week for me - you end up having perfect days: No chores, no students, no gigs, and no interruptions. Today was such a day.

On days like this, I do two epic practice sessions separated by minor errands and a nap, for a total of five hours of intense and focused practice, and one hour of strength training on my Bowflex (Two thirty minute sessions). In order to log this much time, it is positively mandatory to take breaks, but just sitting around or surfing the web is not a useful break. I'm talking about structured breaks that count as practice time because they aid your playing.

My method is to use a freeware program called Meditation Timer for my practice sessions.

As you can see, I set the timer for 180 minutes, which comes out to three hours. Every thirty minutes, I get a bell chime that reminds me to take a break. "Only" 150 minutes is practice time on the guitar, and the last 30 is strength training on the Bowflex.

During the breaks I do two things: I take nutritional supplements, and I stretch. I take many nutritional supplements.

I don't recommend taking any nutritional supplements, because that's up to each individual, and different people will find different things useful and effective. As for me, I take a men's multi, all of the L-factors - l-argnine, l-carnitine, acetyl l-carnitine, and l-lysene (These help with muscle tone and connective tissue strength) - the joint-specific stuff - glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM - and omega-rich oils, flax seed oil, and cod liver oil. Also, obviously, many other minor trace minerals.

Since I take so many supplements, I divide them by type for each break: Capsules the first break, gel caps the second break, and the solid pills and lozenges 50/50 the final two breaks. I don't take this stuff because I want to live forever, I take it because they make me feel better and give me increased energy. It is an integral part of my guitar playing.

After I get the supplements down, I stretch. I really, really don't recommend stretching, because it is very easy to injure yourself and even ruin your guitar playing career if you do it wrong. So, you have been warned! If you try any of this stuff and you hurt yourself, it's not my fault.

First thing I do is toe-touch, and many feel like if they can put their fists to the floor, they have good flexibility. Wrong. That's just the warm-up for the real stretching, which is getting to where you can touch your chin to your great toe. If you can't do this, you run the risk of developing sciatic nerve problems: Sitting around with your left foot elevated is deadly for your lower back and hip joints. If you develop the flexibility to put your great toe under your chin, there is almost a zero percent chance you will ever have sciatic nerve problems: I cured my own sciatica by doing this at the recommendation of a personal trainer friend of mine. It was miraculous, but it took me about six weeks before I could do it!

Here's how I do it: Sit on the edge of a bed with one foot flat on the floor, and the other on the bed and bent so that the bottom of that foot touches the knee of the other leg, like this.

The first thing I don't recommend that you do is to get to where you can bend forward and touch your chin to the knee (The great toe is a lot more difficult). It might take you more than a month to do this, even if you are under 30 years old. Then I don't recommend that you work your way progressively down the calf until you reach the foot. I bend forward while exhaling five times for each leg, working from the knee to the foot.

Then, I sit straight on the side of the bed and lengthen the musculature on the inside and outside of my arms. Many guitarists get repetitive stress injuries because they never stretch their arm muscles out, and with exercise both muscles and tendons tend to shorten.

What I do, that I don't recommend you try, is put my palms flat on the bed by my hip joints and slowly bend forward while exhaling (Exhaling helps your muscles to relax), starting like so.

Both hands, obviously, and again five times while exhaling, while allowing the fingers to roll: Don't try to keep the hand flat, it's physically impossible, and you'll hurt yourself. This gets the muscles on the inside of the forearms.

For the outside of the forearms, the last time you lean forward, flip the hands over: Now you are stretching while sitting up instead of leaning forward. Remember to exhale, if you are foolish enough to try this.

The last thing I do is a new stretch I learned that is the only stretch possible for the ligaments in the elbows. It is easy to describe: Put your left fingers on your left shoulder, and press with the right hand on the wrist bone of the left arm. The left arm must be perfectly relaxed, and remember to exhale if you are enough of an idiot to do this. I do five reps for each arm, and this has fixed my problematic elbows, which have bothered me for over a year.

So, I do this at 30, 60, 90, and 120 minutes. By the 150 minute mark, I have kept myself at the optimum level of warm up and "in the zone" for nearly two full hours, and I'm ready for the last half hour on the Bowflex. I do a jillion different exercises over the course of several days because I have all of the attachments for my old Power Pro, but the things I do that are specifically for my guitar playing are forward and reverse wrist curls. I also do a final stretch after the workout, but I don't recommend that you follow my example! lol.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Gerald Klickstein's Excellent Musician's Way Blog (Updated)

A few days ago, and old acquaintance of mine, Gerald Klickstein, emailed me out of the blue to inform me about a book he's written called, The Musician's Way. I haven't gotten the book yet - taxes have consumed all of my time for several days - but I have gone through the companion weblog, The Musician's Way Blog. If you are a guitarist - especially a nylon string guitarist - this is a must read and bookmark.

UPDATE: Gerald has pointed out that The Musician's Way is also available in paperback for only $24.95, which is 75% less than the $99.00 hard cover edition. Now we poor musicians have no excuse not to order this valuable resource.

Gerald Klickstein (Left)

To back up a second, I call Gerald an acquaintance and not a friend because we didn't really know each other well at all. Circa 1990 I was a master's degree student at Texas State - then Southwest Texas State - and he was the guitar professor at UTSA. So, I've heard him perform and lecture, but we didn't exactly hang out.

What I want to talk about then, is the wonderful attitude Gerald exudes in a world where there are more than just a few out of control egos and bad attitudes. Once he made me smile by mentioning that sometimes you just have to pour a glass of wine, light a candle, and pick up the guitar simply to enjoy it, versus being a slave to some detailed practice regimen. That excellent perspective permeates his blog and also his students: Nothing gets passed along to a student faster than a hyper-critical perfectionist attitude. Back in those days, for example, I'd encounter some ridiculously over-critical undergraduate guitar student and be tempted to ask, "Excuse me, but which one of the Holzman brothers are you a student of?" lol. Gerald is the opposite of all that and a real class act. He reminds me of Bill Kanengiser - a guy who makes page turns look elegant - in that respect.

So get thee hence!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Concert Review: Pat Metheny and His Orchestrion in Austin

I've been aware of Pat Metheny since his first album, Bright Size Life came out in '76 - and I've always liked and, especially, respected him - but I am not what you would call a fanboy. The PMG stuff has always been a little too... non-aggressive, I guess - for my taste, and also some of it strikes me as same-same sounding and self-indulgent: One PMG project sounds pretty much like any other to me, musically, though there has obviously been a lot of evolution, just not in a direction that particularly wows me.

A huge, gargantuan, and singular exception to all of my nonplussed reaction to his music is the solo baritone guitar album he did, One Quiet Night, the CD of which lived in the dashboard of my pickup for nearly three years. I like that CD better than any solo classical guitar CD with the exception of some of those by Kazuhito Yamashita, and believe it to be truly a transcendental and sublime masterpiece. That it won a Grammy for Best New Age Album is, I think, hilarious and, well, just wrong on too many levels to even contemplate.

I've actually met Pat a few times, as we were both Synclavier Guitarists back in the mid to late 1980's, and so I met him a couple of times when he performed with it at Berklee, and also at Dartmouth, where NED had a summer session for Synclavier owners in... crap, it's been a long time - 1985 or 1986 I believe. He's a super-positive guy and seems to be one of the happiest and most well-adjusted musicians I've ever met.

He's also adventurous - being a Synclavier guy is a huge plus in my book - and his latest project with the Orchestrion he has put together is, in many ways, just an extension of what he was doing twenty-five years ago with the Synclavier... only this monstrosity is computer-driven mechanical versus purely digitized.

As I was enjoying the show, I wondered how I'd explain it, and Pat himself explained some of it during breaks in the performance, but, um, "you had to be there." Beginning with the simplest metaphor, any technically literate guitarist is familiar with the JamMan concept: You record a vamp you want to play along with, loop it, and play over that. Well, in a way, the Orchestrion is the ne plus ultra of that concept... or is it the sine qua non?

The next level metaphor would be the simple digital sequencer, which works like the JamMan concept, except for the fact that you are recording a MIDI track that will instruct a digital instrument or computer what to do: Which instrument sound to play, and what notes - the Synclavier was just a self-contained environment for doing precisely this. Okay then, now imagine that your JamMan-Sequencer hybrid is controlling real, actual acoustic instruments and not just virtual ones, and you now understand the Orchestrion concept.

This is deep, man, because it takes mechanical actuators to actually strike, pluck, bow, and blow these things. If you think about that for a moment and let it sink in, you realize touring with such a contraption must be a first order logistical nightmare. Just imagine touring with a digitally controlled player piano, a digitally controlled steam calliope, and a couple of Yamaha Disklaviers - all of which the performer has real time control over via foot pedals - and you can get just a taste of how much of a horror show these performances must be to stage. Seriously, I don't know why Pat did this, but I'm kinda glad he did. As for myself, I find the Synclavier concept superior in nearly every way, except for the shock value.

The show was at The Paramount, which is an old theater from the golden age of film. It's not nearly as creepy-cool as the Majestic here in San Antonio, but it's not a bad venue for a show like this. Here's the pre-show view from my seat about 2/3 back from the stage on the main floor.

Pat started out with what was, for me, the best of what he does, which is solo guitar. First up was him playing a Manzer Nylon String Guitar, I believe, and the tune was quite a lovely beginning. I did find the bass percussion and rumble that came through his pickup and amplification system a bit distracting though, but that's what you get with piezo and internal mic combinations. My RMC Polydrives don't have that problem. Ha!

Then he brought out the Manzer Baritone Guitar for a One Quiet Night type of piece - and that was the highlight of the night for me, right there - and finally, for his introductory pieces, the bizarre Manzer Pikasso came out for an outrageously over-the-top piece with epic levels of many effects. "Too much of a good thing" crossed my mind.

To introduce the audience to the Orchestrion concept, Pat went back - waaaay back - to a piece from Bright Size Life in which he used just a single percussion instrument to play along with. Then the curtain came up to reveal the whole army of mechanically actuated instruments. There were actually a couple of Disklaviers, blown-bottle organs, guitars, basses, a marimba, a xylophone, and about a gazillion percussion instruments. Knowing that this was an historic, once-in-a-lifetime type of event that would be discussed and debated for years, if not decades, made it impossible for me to resist pulling out my iPhone and surreptitiously snapping a single shot.

Here's the thing: I was with a guitarist friend - we go back to our years together at both the Guitar Institute and Berklee - and he is the biggest Metheny fanboy you can imagine. Well, even Mike agreed that all of the music would have been better realized with a real, actual drummer versus the percussion ideas that Pat came up with. I'll take that one step further and say I don't think Pat's Orchestrion Suite translates to recorded media at all. Coming into this show, I had seen a lot of video and listened to the recordings, but for this project you really, truly actually do have to be there to experience it first hand. It's psychedelically mind blowing live, but very ho-hum to me recorded, even on video. You just have to see all those actuators in action.

So I think this show is an absolute must see for any guitar fan - no solo guitarist in history has ever done so much with... so much - but unless you are a rabid Pat Metheny fanboy, don't expect to get anywhere near the same universe in terms of an experience from the recorded media. You might as well be listening to a guy playing a JamMan along with a sampler.

Monday, April 12, 2010

New to Me Late 2007 17" HighRes 2.4GHz MacBook Pro w/7200RPM HDD

Buying the Lexicon I-ONIX FW810S recording interface forced me into the Mac Intel Age, since the drivers for it, and therefore the mixer software, will not work with the old Power PC units I have (Four, actually). Since I'm still a cheapskate musician conditioned by decades of low income combined with extreme gear lust, I bought a refurb, naturally, and saved just a ton of money.

Here's my late '07 17" HighRes (1920x1200) MacBook Pro running my I-ONIX at the beginning of this morning's practice session.

The camera flash just about blacked the screen out, but you can just barely see the full mixer console. Without the 1920x1200 screen - the same resolution as those 23" Cinema HD Displays (!) - I wouldn't be able to get all of it on the screen. I've also gotten the FW810S working with both Cubase LE 4 and GarageBand, so I'm just about ready to start some test recordings. The regular 4,500RPM drives found in most notebooks are buggy to record audio with - lots of dropouts because they are so slow - so the 7,200RPM drive in this little hotrod ought to be just the ticket.

Yes, yes; having the computer on the edge of the desk is not exactly ideal - or perfectly safe - so I'm going to get an Anthro Rolling Laptop Stand - Finally! Internet in the bathroom!

Alas, the battery that the MacBook came with went bad within just a couple of days.

Not sure what causes this kind of swelling/deformation, but high performance batteries are definitely the weakest link in portable computing. A new one is on the way, though, which is why I prefer to buy from Apple Authorized Refurbishers instead of individual sellers. This computer was well over $3K new, and I didn't even pay half that... plus the 30 day free warranty.

Ultimately, I'm going to have to replace my late '05 Power Mac G5 with an Intel Mac Pro, but like I say, I'm cheap and they haven't come down enough yet. The MacBook is awesome, but I do prefer the larger screens for working at home. At least I won't need new monitors. ;^)

My manager sent me a few pics from my gig out in Las Vegas. This was the view from where I was playing on the back patio of the Lowes LV.

That's Lake Powell in the background.

And, in what has to be the least flattering photo ever taken of me, she managed to catch me getting ready to lower the spare tire so I could change the flat I arrived at the gig with.

Managers are supposed to make the talent look good! LOL. I guess she doesn't have much to work with, though.