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…


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…


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…


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…


(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…


The People and Places on Main Street

There are few things I like better than walking along a great Main Street.

For the past two days, I’ve been lucky enough to walk around four terrific Main Streets:  Middletown, Connecticut; Amherst and Northampton, Massachusetts; and tiny Red Hook, NY.

You can pick up life lessons on Main Street – like the bumper sticker I saw on a car parked along Northampton’s Main Street this morning:  Just say NO to Negativity.

You can also meet very interesting people.  While taking photos around Northampton, I was approached by a resident of the streets of the city.  He must have seen my inner preservationist (sometimes people who look at the world a little differently have great powers of observation), because he told me he liked to work for the “hysterical society.”  He then proceeded to point out the historical courthouse (where Calvin Coolidge first practiced law) – a very nice 1885 building.

My new friend then pointed in the opposite direction and identified the Northampton City Hall.  “See those turrets?” he asked.  “Every time I look at them I expect to see archers peering over the top.”  And then he extended his arms as if shooting a bow and arrow.  Take a look for yourself and see if you don’t agree.

As he left me to go have his morning coffee in the basement of The First Church, this local historian pointed out that Jonathan Edwards, the great Puritan theologian, had preached in that very building.  It was a nice history lesson to start the day.

Last evening we stayed at the Hotel Northampton, which is part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s  Historic Hotels of America group.  This is a wonderful establishment, located right in the heart Main Street.  We enjoyed the restaurant, the staff, the rooms, and the ambiance.

You can also eat well on Main Street.  Over the past few days we’ve yet to visit a chain restaurant, but have enjoyed some tasty local meals at the New England Emporium in Middletown, the Fresh Side in Amherst, and the gourmet J & J’s Cafe in Red Hook.  Everyone’s enjoying trying out the local fare.

And to be neighborly, one should plan on doing a little shopping along Main Street.  I’ll have to admit, I may have gone overboard on this point but it isn’t every Main Street that has a fabulous instrument store along the lines of the Fretted Instrument Workshop in Amherst, where they had JUST the type of guitar I’ve been looking for over the past year.  The proprietors, Tony and Mario, listened to me play on several instruments, and then brought out a used Parlor guitar in great condition made by Rick Davis at Running Dog Guitars.  I was sold.

Hey, I’ll admit it isn’t every day you find the guitar of your dreams on Main Street, but you can always find great people, great food, and great places.

More to come…