Be Present When Serendipity Strikes

Harp Guitar

Harp Guitar

It was a flight like dozens of others I’ve taken in the summertime: delayed, due to thunderstorms, and the prospect of climbing into bed much later than planned with an early morning wake-up on the other end.

When I finally boarded last Monday’s flight from Nashville after a day’s work on our campaign to save Music Row, it barely registered that my two seatmates had stashed guitars in the luggage bin. This was Nashville, after all. I mumbled a couple of hellos, and promptly fell into my customary power nap around take-off. Waking up thirty minutes later, I opened my laptop and started work on a project that was overdue.

Only after returning to my seat later in the flight did I exchange real conversation with the woman seated in the middle seat, between her boyfriend and me.  As I often do, I asked what type of guitar she played.  She replied, “One’s a harp guitar and the other is a flamenco guitar.”  Bing!  My mind suddenly woke up.  Harp guitars are pretty esoteric instruments, and those who play them approach their music with religious zeal.  They also tend to be very good musicians. I mentioned to her that I enjoyed the music of Stephen Bennett, a harp guitar devotee. In fact, I was listening to some of his music at that moment on my iPad.  She replied that she knew Stephen, and then seeing that the terrific guitarist and composer Alex De Grassi was next in my musical queue, she said “I’m playing with Alex next week.” She followed that by asking if I knew Tommy Emmanuel, another stellar guitarist.  I replied that I knew his music, but didn’t know him personally, upon which she handed me her headphones and played a video from a recent concert where he joined her for an impromptu—and beautiful—duet on one of her compositions.

At this point I stuck out my hand and said, “Hi, I’m David Brown.”  She replied, “I’m Muriel Anderson.”

Oh my goodness.  I was sitting next to the woman who I’d proclaimed my love for to God and the internet, after hearing her version of the Beatles tune Day Tripper. I had wandered all over BWI airport several years ago trying to find where she was going to play in a gig promoted as BWI Live.

Muriel Anderson

Muriel Anderson

Over the last half hour of the flight we talked guitar makers (her harp guitar was built by Mike Doolin and I showed her pictures of my two Running Dog guitars by luthier Rick Davis), harp guitar festivals, historic preservation and the importance of saving Music Row, and her newest album Nightlight Daylight, which is a two-CD set with music for the morning and music for the evening.  She was pleased that Guitar Player magazine named Nightlight Daylight among the top 10 CDs of the decade but even more pleased, I think, to show me the interactive fiber-optic lighted CD cover.  (Push on the moon and the night stars come out. Very cool!)

This is a musician who has collaborated with some of the best:  the late guitarists Chet Atkins and Les Paul, for example.  Yet she was as engaging, lively, down-to-earth, and interesting in person as she came across on stage and in her music.  When I mentioned the National Trust had a hand in saving RCA Studio A in Nashville, she immediately said, “And you saved Chet’s office!”  I told Muriel that I’d had the privilege of sitting in that very office, finger-picking on a beautiful guitar owned by the man who bought the building at the 11th hour. As we were leaving I said, “I have a Gallagher guitar at home, and I bet you can guess why.”  After thinking a bit she said, “You’re a Doc Watson fan, and that was Doc’s guitar.”  Then she added, “He was my first guitar hero.”  I knew that, having read it online at some point.  He was mine as well.

I know I can be oblivious at times, but this experience reminded me—once again—of how much we need to wake up and focus on life. Not all encounters are so serendipitous or pleasurable, and yours—when they happen—will be different.  Perhaps you’ll get to meet the writer you’ve always admired, or gain an insight for work you’ve long sought but needed a serendipitous moment to find.  When it happens it can be wonderful.  Trouble is, you won’t have the chance if you don’t take your head away from the screen or out of the conversation in your head, and talk with real people.

Have a good week, and when a bit of serendipity comes your way, may you be present to receive it.

More to come…

DJB

Think Slow

Our 15-year-old nephew—a budding musician—was in town this past weekend, so I took him to the House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park. There he could see every type of musical instrument known to humankind (plus some) and, frankly, it gave me an excuse to play a few good guitars.  Not that I don’t have good guitars at home.  Later in the day my nephew had a chance to see and play my two prized Running Dog guitars made by luthier Rick Davis.

Playing my Running Dog

Playing one of my Running Dog guitars (photo by Claire Brown)

Davis was profiled in Tim Brookes’ 2005 book Guitar:  An American Life, where the author seeks to replace a badly damaged first guitar with a hand-crafted one “for the second half of my life.”  He writes that as he nears 50 years of age, he finds an itch that can only be scratched with a new guitar.  And as Brookes notes, “Guitar makers even have a word for these baby-boomers-who-always-wanted-to-be-great-guitarists-and-now-have-the-money-to-indulge-those-dreams:  dentists.”

“Much later, after the guitar is finished, Rick will refer to ‘the eternal and infinite capacity of the consumer to confuse making a purchase with falling in love.’ I should have known better, I suppose—but then again maybe not. First guitars tend to be like first loves:  ill-chosen, unsuitable, short-lived, and unforgettable. I’m not sure I ever want to get to the point of making a rational decision about a guitar.”

Lately, I’ve been thinking about decision making at key junctions of life.  Like Tim Brookes, there are some things—guitars among them—where I don’t want a rationale decision model to get in the way of my emotion. But we face many decisions that require serious thought and calculation. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize winning author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, would suggest that we let our emotions make all types of decisions where a slower, rational model should come into play.  There is a recurring theme in Kahneman’s book that “many people are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible.”

We put too much stock in the fact that we’re confident we’re making the right choice.  We put too much stock in our emotions.

“Subjective confidence in a judgement is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that this judgement is correct.  Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it.  It is wise to take admissions of uncertainty seriously, but declarations of high confidence mainly tell you than an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.”

When important decisions have to be made, I’m trying to take the time to step back, work through the crux of the matter, set aside emotions, and push back against a quick confidence that I’ve reached the right answer.  Thinking and decision-making—deep thinking around critical moments in your work, career, or life—requires time.

Think slow when you should, and have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Practicing

Practicing by Glenn Kurtz

“Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music” by Glenn Kurtz

Over the holidays I returned to a book I first read some ten years ago.  Glenn Kurtz’s Practicing:  A Musician’s Return to Music is, in its simplest form, a memoir of a young child prodigy on the classical guitar who attends the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and then quits playing in his early 20s when he realizes he won’t be the next Segovia.  Fifteen years and a career change later, Kurtz returns to the guitar and finds, in the process, a richer love for music.

But like all good memoirs, Practicing is so much more than a simple life’s story.

Kurtz has been practicing since he was eight years old, but it isn’t until he returns after his hiatus that he begins to understand all the richness of the various aspects of preparing for performance, or life.

“Practicing is training; practicing is meditation and therapy. But before any of these, practicing is a story you tell yourself, a bildungsroman, a tale of education and self-realization. For the fingers as for the mind, practicing is an imaginative, imaginary arc, a journey, a voyage. You must feel you are moving forward. But it is the story that leads you on….From the outside, practicing may not seem like much of a story… Yet practicing is the fundamental story. Whether as a musician, as an athlete, at your job, or in love, practice gives direction to your longing, gives substance to your labor.”

When we hear of practice, we tend to think of artists, but Kurtz makes the point that practice is universal.  “Each day … practicing is the same task, this essential human gesture — reaching out for an ideal, for the grandeur of what you desire, and feeling it slip through your fingers.”  Because we will never reach our mind’s ideal, we take a risk when we stretch.

“Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure… Every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time.”

“Every day you go to the gym or sit down at your desk. The work is not always interesting, not always fun. Sometimes it is tedious. Sometimes it is infuriating. Why do you continue? Why did you start in the first place? You must have an answer that helps you persevere… Without telling yourself some story of practicing, without imagining a path to your goal, the aggravation and effort seem pointless. And without faith in the story you create, the hours of doubt and struggle and the endless repetition feel like torture.”

However, Kurtz continues.

“When you truly believe your story of practicing, it has the power to turn routine into a route, to resolve your discordant voices, and to transform the harshest, most intense disappointment into the very reason you continue….Limitation is the condition of our lives. What matters — what allows us to reach beyond ourselves, as we are, and push at the boundaries of our ability — is that we continue. But then everything depends on how we practice, what we practice.”

Running Dog Guitar Ought-3

My Running Dog Guitar Ought-3…the guitar where I don’t spend enough time practicing (photo credit: Running Dog Guitars)

In his return to music, Kurtz found his limitations but then began again to push.  To continue.  We all have routines that make up our work, but if we approach them with the story of who we are and what we wish to be, they can be turned into a route for our lives.

Here’s to focusing beyond the inevitable disappointments and looking to the route that gives meaning to our work and our lives.  Here’s to practicing.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Guitar: An American Life

Running Dog Guitar Ought 3 Top Detail“You start off playing guitar to get chicks and end up talking with middle-aged men about your fingernails.”

This is just one of the dozens of truisms, cogent observations, and laugh-out-loud lines found in Tim Brookes’ 2005 Guitar: An American Life. Candice gave me the book for Christmas, and though I finished it shortly after New Year’s Day, I’ve only now found the time to say how much I enjoyed this “part history, part love song” to the guitar.

I learned of the book last summer when I met Rick Davis, the builder of my two Running Dog guitars. Rick – along with a new guitar he built for author Tim Brookes – are featured in Guitar. After baggage handlers broke his Fylde guitar, Brookes turned to Davis to build him a new one.  In alternating chapters Brookes chronicles the building process while taking the reader through an idiosyncratic yet compelling history of the guitar.

Since the book has been around for a few years, it is easy to find good book reviews online. I’ll content myself with simply repeating some of the great lines from this delightful read. Let’s begin with that fingerboard.

“I’ll often feel intimidated just by looking at the fingerboard.  A fingerboard is a curiously disturbing thing, and not especially inviting, a combination of inscrutable rectangular geometry, strings one way, frets perpendicular. What about those inlays on the third, fifth, seventh, ninth, twelfth, fifteenth, and eighteenth frets, refusing to conform to any regular sequence, more perplexing than a Fibonacci series? ‘This is perfectly easy,’ the fingerboard says, ‘but you will never understand it.'”

Brookes, on a day when he has to have his snow tires taken off and his summer tires put on (he lives in Vermont), takes his guitar to the shop’s reception area and plays Django Reinhardt and Scott Joplin for the receptionist.

“When the tires are done and I stop playing, the two women break into smiles. ‘Very relaxing’ is the verdict. I’m tempted to hear that as ‘very boring,’ but I think, no, live instrumental guitar music probably is relaxing in the context of work, artificial light, the smell of artificial carpet and Naugahyde, oil and gasoline drifting in faintly from the shop. They agree that it beats canned music.

‘I’ve never had someone come in and play music in all the years I’ve worked here,’ says the receptionist, and I think, ‘What good is a guitar if you leave it at home?'”

And a final excerpt, this time around the question, “How do those guys play those chords?”

“Playing guitar is as much about the hand as it is about the guitar, perhaps more. Which is one reason why it’s a conservative art: the hand wants to conform to the shapes it knows. Advanced classical and jazz guitar ask the hand to make shapes it only ever makes during electrocution or in the last contortions of strychnine poisoning, which is why those guys develop spidery fingers – long, thin, oddly spread apart. The rest of us stick with the shapes we know, shapes that feel right.”

The guitar is an amazing instrument – simple, complex, versatile, fascinating – and I’m fortunate to have three wonderful guitars made by two luthiers of the highest order. If you have a life-long love affair with this instrument, or are just getting to know it, you’ll enjoy Guitar: An American Life.

More to come…

DJB

Guitars and Baseball

James Nash once gave some good advice to aspiring guitarists:

Rule #1 for learning to play fast:  don’t practice while watching the ball game. 

Well, tonight…I’m guilty.  Two hours after starting, I’ve finally put the last instrument back on its stand.  I was watching baseball the entire time.

However, I suspect that the San Francisco-based Nash would approve of my choice of ballgame, as the hometown Giants are in the World Series against the Detroit Tigers. And while I didn’t get any real practice in tonight, it sure was fun to multitask around two things that I love.  (Note to regular readers:  Candice, who has become a baseball fan this year with the emergence of the Nats, is out-of-town. I wasn’t ignoring her.)

I grew up as a Giants fan.  The Braves hadn’t moved to Atlanta, so we didn’t have a MLB team in the South.  And Willie Mays is, to my mind, the most complete player in the history of the game.  He was so much fun to watch as a young kid in Tennessee. In those pre-internet days, I had to resort to calling the sports department of the local paper, the Daily News Journal, to get the west coast Giant scores off the wire. But it was worth it to find out if Mays and the Giants won.

Since my Nats couldn’t make it past the Cardinals this year in the postseason, I’m solidly behind the Giants in this World Series. And, at the risk of jinxing them, they’ve had a great start in Game 1.  How about the Panda!

Multitasking isn’t helpful to living in the moment, but tonight I’ve lived in two great moments simultaneously! I’ve just loved wrapping my hands around my Running Dog.  And I have so enjoyed seeing the Giants get off to a great start in the World Series.

Being the superstitious baseball fan I am, if the Giants win I’ll have to multitask again tomorrow night!

Go Giants!

More to come…

DJB

P.S. – If you want to hear Nash give his advice first hand, go to the 4:30 mark in this video and you’ll hear it from the mouth of the master.

G.A.S. Continued (Or How I Ended Up With Another Guitar)

I hadn’t planned to buy another guitar.  Seriously.

But sometimes good things happen when you least expect it.

I HAD planned to try to meet the maker of my Running Dog guitar on my next trip to Seattle. Since I bought it used from a guitar shop in Amherst, Massachusetts, I didn’t know Rick Davis, the builder who made my parlor style instrument back in 2001. But after playing it for a couple of years, I wanted to meet the guy who built such wonderful small guitars with the beautiful tone.

A recent trip to the west coast gave me the opportunity to stop by Rick’s shop in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle (aka, The Center of the Universe). Rick shares his shop with his partner, Cat Fox, and they couldn’t have been more welcoming. Rick told me the provenance of my 2001 Parlor guitar.  I learned he was the subject of Tim Brooke’s 2005 book Guitar: An American LifeAnd I played a beautiful 2011 Ought-3 model. (I also noodled on a baritone guitar, although I really didn’t know what to do with it – I’m not that good a musician.)

But the Ought-3 – which is sized between my dreadnought and parlor guitars – stayed with me. The neck, as I’ve come to expect from Rick’s guitars, fit my hand like a glove. A 1 3/4″ width at the nut made it perfect for fingerpicking. The warm tone comes up to the player through the soundport, in a way that I had never experienced. The beautiful Camatillo rosewood back and sides along with the quirky Hippocamus head stock turned it into a work of art.

I went back to my hotel, but couldn’t get the guitar out of my mind. I posted a note to Facebook, and my guitar-playing cousin weighed in urging that I go for it. Candice and I talked – first by email and then later by phone. She knows how much I have loved playing the parlor guitar, and she was incredibly supportive. In the end, we decided to take Hershey’s advice and go for it.

When I called Rick to tell him I wanted the Ought-3, he said, “Come over and play it some more before you decide.” Most of Rick’s guitars are custom-designed and built, so he wanted to make sure this was the guitar for me. He graciously agreed to meet me the next night after I finished an early dinner, and I sat in his shop and played for an hour or so. Now it can be nerve-wracking to play for a builder (who is also a guitarist), but Rick encouraged me to relax, commented on a Doc Watson tune I played, and told me more about this guitar. Before the night was over I had bought a new guitar and got a ride back to the hotel from its builder.

My new Ought-3 arrived last Friday, and I’ve played it constantly since then.  Here’s how Rick’s website describes the model:

Running Dog’s Ought-3 is based on the 000 of the 1930s. The longer scale length gives the Ought-3 more power and projection while retaining the resonance of the 12-fret neck. The Ought-3 name comes from both the Martin 000 and from the first year I built one, 2003.

And for you gear heads, here are the specs:

Soundboard: Bearclaw Sitka spruce

Back & Sides: Camatillo rosewood

Neck:  Mahogany

Binding:  Maple

Purfling:  Poplar (dyed)

Bridge and fingerboard:  Ebony

Width: 15″

Scale length: 25.4″

Width at nut: 1 3/4″

Options: Venetian cutaway, Soundport, Redwood burl rosette, and the “Hippocampus” seahorse inlay.

As I played it this weekend, Candice and I both marveled at the tone.  It has been great to get to know this guitar – and I’m looking forward to having it teach me more music for a long, long time.

If you are wondering what G.A.S. stands for, it is shorthand for “Guitar Acquisition Syndrome.” I love each of my guitars for different reasons and to play different types of music. But I will admit that I had to put new strings on my other guitars knowing that I’d never pick them up anytime soon if I the strings were old.  Not to worry…I’ve played all three this weekend

But that Ought-3…perhaps it should be the Ahhhh-3. What a wonderful guitar.  Thank you Rick!

More to come…

DJB

(Photos from Running Dog Guitar)

Finding My New Running Dog Guitar

I’ve been thinking about a smaller guitar for some time, to take my music in different directions and to help move beyond what has been a rather long plateau of musical mediocrity when it comes to playing.  But the time was never right, the funds were always tight, and I had other priorities.

A couple of months ago I broke through a personal logjam, and in the process started focusing more on enjoying my music.  (I am good enough to know that I’m not that good, but I decided not to worry about it anymore.)  Candice and I talked, and I told her my dream of getting a new guitar.  She said, “Let’s go for it.”

Of course I had a plan and even discussed it with some friends.  I had a builder in mind and even sought out some of their guitars to test drive.

But then I stumbled across a beautiful Running Dog guitar and decided to seize the day.

Two weeks ago we were in New England with our twins for college visits.  With a couple of hours before the tour, we saw a nice little sidewalk cafe where we headed for lunch.  I noticed a sign for The Fretted Instrument Workshop and mentioned to Candice that I might go up and play a few guitars after eating.

I climbed the stairs to the second floor shop and instantly saw three small O and OO-size Martin guitars with slotted headstocks and 12-fret necks.  Just what I was looking for!  I played through all three Martins, and while I liked them the necks weren’t feeling exactly right.  The shop’s owners were watching carefully, and one headed to another room and came back with this beautiful guitar.  He said, “Try this and see if the neck feels better for you.”

Thirty seconds later, I knew I had found my guitar.  As I played, it just felt right in my hands.  The curly koa back produced a warm sound.  It was beautifully balanced.  I loved the look of the Parlor guitar, based on an 1896 size O Martin.  And as I played I thought about a friend who passed away tragically and suddenly just a few days before, still relatively young and in the prime of enjoying an active retirement.  As a friend likes to say, this isn’t a dress rehearsal.  It was time to act.

Candice finally came up to find me.  She walked in and I could tell by the look on her face that she knew what I was thinking.  With a great amount of love and understanding she said, “Let’s do it.”

But before I pulled the trigger, I had a college tour to take.  I told Tony and Mario that I’d be back in 90 minutes.  And then I quickly emailed a couple of colleagues, including one who is a collector.  I said, “I’ve never heard of Running Dog guitars.  Can you do some quick research while I walk around learning about student/teacher ratios and the renovation of the historic dormitory?”  In less than a minute Carl replied with, “I’m on it!”  Within 15 minutes he was emailing me all about the beautiful bracing and craftsmanship of Rick Davis’ work and ended with, “Buy that sucka!”

And here, dear readers, is my new 2001 Running Dog Parlor guitar (pictures courtesy of Claire).  The first photo is of the full front, where you can see the beautiful, traditional shape of the size O guitar.

Next is the headstock.  We’ve now decided that the running dog going across the headstock is Lilly (yet another reason to buy the guitar!)

The curly koa back, with the matching sides.

Here’s a fun and quirky feature.  The original owner of the guitar was a Civil War reenactor.  You can see his allegiance by the custom design on the back of the headstock.  The owners of the shop heard my Southern accent and asked if I would have a problem with the “Union Forever” sentiment.  I laughed and said that 1) I was in historic preservation so I loved the additional connection to history and 2) I was smart enough to know that the right side won the war.

Back at home, this has become a familiar spot for me.  I have two sessions scheduled tomorrow to play this guitar with friends.  I can’t wait.

More to come…

DJB