Music 101: Gratitude

One of the most valuable lessons I learned as a musician came from Carlos Santana. He said that when you work on your instrument – learning scales and patterns, working repetitiously until your playing flows naturally – you should not think of it as ‘practice.’ Practice is a chore. Instead, you should think of it, as he does, as a blessing. Learning to play an instrument is a gift, and one for which we should all be grateful.

Gratitude is an essential part of being a musician because there is no musician, however innovative or original, who is not standing on the shoulders of giants. Very few of the giants holding me up are not part of, or massively influenced by, Black American culture, a culture that all modern musicians are indebted to. In addition to the giants who influenced me as I grew and developed my musical tastes, there are those I play with and learn from.

Like so many musicians, my earliest teachers were members of my family. The first people I knew who wrote their own songs were my brothers. Jim in particular inspired me to expand the limits of my writing. In college, I met Matt Kennon and, through him, Eric Myers (a/k/a Sal Iva), a pair of punk rockers who helped me expand beyond the folky ramblings of my earliest experiments in songwriting. Once, when I was struggling to come up with a chorus to go with the verses I’d written, Eric told me to take the last line of the first verse and repeat it four times for the chorus. It worked. Many years later, in the 21st Century version of Late Model Humans, Matt, Jim, and I spent years in weekly round robin sessions where we nurtured our songwriting styles.

As a singer, I also learned first from my brothers and then from Matt, Eric, and also from Nancy Maher, who would become my wife and teach me about more than music. We sang together in my first band, Racy Dates, and listening to the blend of our voices helped me learn the essential art of harmony. The two people I have sung with the most – Jim and Matt – also taught me the most, including giving me the confidence to take chances and make mistakes. There are two other friends – Terrence McDonnell and Rashmi Ray – who I didn’t sing with very often but whose singing I was lucky enough to hear often and learn from.

As a guitarist I learned first from all the people I’ve already mentioned but also from my bandmate in both the 20th and 21st Century versions of Late Model Humans, Martin Hill. From him I learned the dark art of improvisation and the importance of the space between the notes. There were many nights in the studio, while our bandmates were talking among themselves, that we would indulge in instrumental conversations all our own.

There are other bandmates over the years – principally Nik Winters, Sharon Emmitt, Todd Elder, Chris Park, Carla Lother, and Tim Kennon – whose styles were different enough from mine that they did not directly influence my writing, singing, or playing, but who, along with all those already mentioned, taught me a skill vital to any musician: collaboration. I believe that all musicians are slaves whose master is the song they are playing. It is only when the singers and musicians collaborate that we become more than the sum of our parts and satisfy our master/mistress by creating the magic of music.

Finally, I am grateful to one other group of people: those who provide inspiration. In addition to the artists (musical and otherwise) who came before me, and those who are my peers, there are women, beginning with Nancy, who have found a way to shine a light of love into my heart. The desire to share my deepest thoughts and feelings with someone I love is an impulse that expands into the creative expression of my music. To me, all great music is born of love. This world needs all the love it can get, and I will always be grateful to those who gave it to, or inspired it in, me.

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