Musings of an 'Ukulele Artist

So I was just updating my calendar and decided to do some house keeping around my website and do a few updates. I stumbled upon this start of a blog post I wrote after finishing up my banner teaching/performing year in 2018. As I re-read this I realized that my thought process, while it has evolved and changed since, has fundamentally stayed the same. Within the past 10 months I have done even MORE teaching than ever before and have felt that I have grown pedagogically in surprising and enlightening ways. I spent the first half of 2019 teaching as a resident artist at Thorton Creek Elementary School where I got to work with approximately 170 young minds. I knew that it would be a change of pace for me but I didn’t realize just HOW it would change me as both a teacher and an individual. Now as I am finishing some of my larger events this summer and planning for the rest of the year, I feel as invigorated as ever to continue growing musically for myself and the wonderful people who have a deep fascination and love of music.

Our 3rd graders performing at the Seattle Folk Life Festival 2019. So nervous and equally excited to be on the main stage this year :)

Our 3rd graders performing at the Seattle Folk Life Festival 2019. So nervous and equally excited to be on the main stage this year :)

That being said I have left my original post below. I thought there are a few interesting points that “2018 Neal” made that I want to keep intact (at the minimum to document process). However, with a bit of a new mind I wanted to continue my thoughts and offer an updated perspective. Mind you, these are my musical musings and by no means something dogmatic to follow. I enjoy being the a tinkerer of my thoughts and ideas and encourage you to do so too.

Original Post
11/8/2018

So I just finished up the longest summer of work to date. Did the most traveling I’ve ever done and have taught the widest range of skill levels, approaches, and just straight up attitudes I have ever done before. It has been immensely illuminating to look back on my lessons with a fine tooth comb and make augmentations and dimishations (sorry, couldn’t resist). My philosophy as a teacher has been to meet the student at the halfway point of their interests and empower the student so that they can continue to grow. The individual is more important than any system for the sum of our efforts has the potential to exceed what we are. Harmonious individualism.

To reel it back in, I have been trying to observe what are the essential elements that make someone both a, “competent musician,’ and an artist. While the simple recipe would be diligence brewed with time, I believe that mentality can really separate an individual from the experience. This is not necessarily to lean into a lengthy and empirical list of traits a person must have to be a musician or an artist. Art belongs to the people so it shouldn’t be sequestered physically or mentally from the people.

That being said, I find it particularly invigorating to try and dig into the mind of the people I am playing with. It is a great exercise in learning a person’s musical vocabulary & can provide a musically cathartic experience. With the musicians I’ve played with this summer I have noticed a few common threads in the people who stole my heart. These are not tenets to practice by as much as they are ideas to exercise.


Courage

Something to Say

Empathy

Humor

Humility


So first I want to mention that these are distilled ideas that come time when I think of the people who I enjoy playing with. I think the operative word in the prompt is that they are ideas to exercise. From there we can loosen our posture and see what’s applicable to ourselves.

Courage - As one continues to play music, you develop a vocabulary that is a marriage between all the styles of music you have been both playing and listening to in both a direct and indirect way. Today, the world of music is wider than ever before with emerging styles and interpretations than can be accessed at our finger tips. More than ever with information being so readily available to us, it takes both a decisive and courageous mind to be creative. It’s taking the time to say I find this thing beautiful and letting the world make their own decisions if that’s true for them or not. This is not to close you off from the possibilities of other beautiful things, as the beauty of friend’s embrace doesn’t diminish the beauty of the night sky. It just takes courage to make a decision and say that I wouldn’t even notice the nice sky if I am held with love from a true friend.

Something to Say - This really builds off of and is intertwined with courage but is slightly more grounded in a lot of ways. Our experiences define and grace us with insights we could have never imagined. If the role of the artist is to experience and express the world through these perspectives, the more enriched our life experience is the richer our art will be. In high school when I first started digging into the blues after my initial stint of blues-rock, I remember talking with this seasoned blues musician about my endeavors. He chuckled when I mentioned that I love the raw emotion and the authenticity of feeling I was getting out of Muddy Waters, Son House, Robert Johnson, and Howlin Wolf at that time. He told me, “Blues is easy to play and hard to feel. Playing rock-n-roll is much easier.” I took his words to heart and to ponder with light understanding, even though I didn’t know what he was REALLY talking about. The folly of youth led me to then secretly wish I would have enough heart break and troubles to not just play the music but to live it too. While it is easy to see how naive I was (and my potential self fulfilling prophecy), I now carry my sadness and pain I have endured as a badge of honor and an essential element to who I am (not to mention the lesson of being careful what you wish for). It is in these stories and experiences that give us value to not just babble but to make an wholistic statement. Let your story empower your voice.

Empathy - One of the things that make us special as human beings is the capacity for imagination. This gives us the ability to live beyond ourselves and therefore be empathic to not just people we directly care about but also for those we don’t even know. Being empathic in a musical setting is both very functional and humanizing as well. Having the ability to understand the thoughts of another let’s us read idiosyncrasies in a person’s playing and posture, allowing us to respond and react accordingly. Just like having a conversation with someone, an ability to understand how a person thinks will give you greater insight and subtext to what the person is actually trying to say. That being say, allowing yourself to be vulnerable lets individuals reciprocate that empathy, furthering your connection in and out of the session. The capacity for human emotion is essential into describing our human experiences.

Humor - Probably the most esoteric of the bunch, I enjoy being around and playing music with people of great humor. Yes this does make for a lighter hang between songs or sets but is something that naturally bleeds into the music as well. Comedians and musicians are often kindred spirits as we frequently ride the line between work and play. I personally find that I operate my best when my spirit feels light as a feather and the people I am with are on the same or at least page. This lightness of spirit brings freedom as it often leads us away from ourselves and to the happiness of the people around us. There’s a reason why that many musicians laugh when they hear something they like from across the band stand. We could all use a tickling now and then :D

Humility - Most of us can stand for a bit of humility check from time to time. I find humility to be an acknowledgement of the vast wisdom that already exists in our world. The world of art expands on both axises of depth and variety respectively. Humbling yourself to the idea that we exist in a paradox of emotion and information gives room for the existence of everyone. This often may not be the most efficient or direct way to get somewhere if have a specific idea you are trying to arrive at. Yet, the routes we end up taking in life are seldom in a straight line. The artistry and the skill that comes with it often are clouded with competition and an acknowledgement of self. Now a little competition is good for growth, but perhaps from the stance that it is a catalyst for action and the only true opponent we have is ourselves, privies us to a posture of levity and leaves us room to elevate the music we are creating and not just ourselves.


I hope some of these personal insights resonate with you or at a minimum offer a perspective to contribute to the conversation about music as a whole. If you made it this far, I am curious to hear what you have think on the matter as well! Please leave your thoughts in the comments below :)

Music is the best!
- Frank Zappa