Sunday, December 31, 2006

Ken Fischer

It was with great sadness that I learned of the passing of Ken Fischer. My friend Bobby Salomone called this afternoon to wish me a Happy New Year and during the course of the conversation, he asked me if I had heard about Ken. The details of Ken's passing are not as important as the contributions that he made, and the legacy he left to the world of guitar amplification.

Ken designed and built guitar amplifiers that have "Holy Grail" status among the tone-freak upper echelon of players fortunate enough to have plugged into one of his creations. His Train Wreck and Komet amps have already achieved iconic status.

I learned to love one of Ken's creations during the time that Mark Knopfler was at Shangri La recording his album of the same name. The studio was almost obscenely outfitted with an array of vintage tube amplifiers. Mark could choose from multiple tweed Fenders, Vox AC30s or AC15s, Marshall 45s or 100s, and other rare units made by Watkins, Magnatone, you name it.

One day, A package arrived and Mark had me unwrap what turned out to be a Ken Fischer Komet 60. It was beautifully done up in red so we paired it with a vintage red Marshall basket weave 4x12 cabinet. When I first saw the Komet, I thought, "Gosh, that sure looks lets plug in one of these real amps and go to work." Then Mark Spent the morning putting the Komet through its paces while graciously showing me how full of shit I was.

The red Komet responded to every nuance of Mark's exceptional technique and played a big role in the recording of the "Shangri la" album. The greatest guitar amp, sitting in the middle of a room, doesn't sound like anything until someone plugs in. I was lucky enough to witness a great amp being played by a guitarist who was able to coax everything out of that box of metal and glass.

Ken Fischer built amplifiers that respond to the abilities of great players and his passing puts into focus the finite number of units that are to come from his hand. I am grateful to have experienced Ken's fine work first hand and I very respectfully wish him eternal peace.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

James Brown and Gerald Ford

James Brown...Look at those two words...James Brown. I know a lot of words, but I don't know any that can be added to the words, James Brown. You can say that Bootsy is funky, or that Aretha is soulful. You can say that Prince can dance and that Tina works hard. But you can't say shit about James Brown that can make the image any clearer.

James Motherfucking Brown, man! I wonder if he ever scribbled his ambitions into a notebook when he was a kid. It must have said something like:

1. Sing my ass off

2. Write my ass off

3. Dance my ass completely off! Could you imagine James at the Jr. Prom? Glad I wasn't there, I might've run home for the last time and just hacked my feet off.

4. Reap the rewards of 1,2 and 3 and get laid...alot!

5. Get real high and shoot my truck, along with a lot of other shit.

6. Spend my entire career scaring the shit out of anyone with the balls to front a band.

James WAS the word "hard." James was any verb followed by "hard." Live hard, play hard, dance hard, party hard, laugh hard, cry hard, walk hard, talk hard, you name it, James was hard.

I'd love to describe what it was like to see James Brown live...but I can't. I really and truly can't. I don't write well enough. When I close my eyes and remember how it felt to be in the second row booth at the Vegas Hilton when "Livin' in America" was his comeback release, all that I come up with is "Fuck, man" and that's not good enough, so I won't even try. James Brown live was the ultimate "you had to be there" moment. I'll let someone else try to describe what it was like, I don't have the chops.

James left us Christmas morning. I think it should be a law that everyone...EVERYONE listen to 30 minutes of James Brown per day and watch 30 minutes of James Brown concert footage every Sunday. The world would be a better place...guaranteed!

Oh yeah, and did you hear about Gerald Ford?

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


After driving home on Christmas night, I have come to the conclusion that courtesy cannot be legislated. It seems that the diversity of the population in California has so many differing concepts of what are good manners, or if in fact, manners are even to be given a place in everyday behavior, that driving on the freeways has become an ordeal governed by Darwinian laws rather than vehicular codes.

I have always thought of the turn signal as an expression of courtesy. Signaling one's intention to change lanes at potentially lethal speeds seems to be a nice thing to do. If you are nearing your exit, it makes good sense to let drivers around you know that you intend to move over. It is also the law that you do so. But for some unknown(to me) reason, a turn signal has become a red rag waved in the face of a bull. Everytime I use my turn signal, the driver in the lane I wish to enter is stimulated by the blinking light to speed up and so impede my entry to "his" lane. As a result, I have found that the only way to make a safe lane change is to ignore the law and go while the gettin's good, so to speak.

Doesn't it seem silly that a driver, moving along the highway at sixty-plus miles per hour, would have such ownership anxiety over a chunk of asphalt that he would risk the safety of his passengers as well as those in the cars around him by speeding up to prevent another driver from safely going where he wants to go?Why is that? What gives drivers that level of nerve?

I think that it is because driving is an anonymous activity. We don't know who is in the car next to us and we will probably never meet face to face, so it seems safe to tell a BMW to "fuck off!" or an SUV to "eat shit, motherfucker!" Maybe there is a sense of power associated with hemming in a more expensive car. We feel safe in our cars. When we are behind the wheel, we can say anything to anybody without being held accountable. We can hurl the pent up hatred felt for our boss or our mother-in-law indiscriminately at strangers...strangers who are trying to change lanes.

I wonder what would happen if we behaved with the same vehemence when we weren't in the safety of our armored cars. How many times have you accidentally bumped someone's shopping cart and profusely apologized? You wouldn't think of screaming "Get out of the fucking way, asshole!" at the top of your lungs. If someone is weighing carrots, we don't give them the death glare and lay on the horn. If someone were to drop their ATM card, we pick it up and say, "excuse me, did you drop this?" Or when an elevator stops and opens its doors, do we intentionally stand in the doorway until they close again, preventing fellow passengers from getting off on their floor? Of course we don't.

So what is the difference? Why do we find it so easy to be nice when we can see the other person's eyes? I don't think that the threat of retribution is a factor. I wouldn't expect a grandmother to bounce a can of creamed corn off of my head if I rammed her shopping cart. And I don't think that anyone would kick me in the balls for cutting in line at the bank. It's just nice to be nice, isn't it? But just let us get behind the wheel and we become the commander of a Panzer division, hell-bent on the destruction of all that crosses our path. The frightening thing is that we achieve our most destructive state of mind when we are most heavily armed. A car is, after all, a most effective weapon at highway speed.

Laws attempt to make us behave. But we do as we like according to how much we think we can get away with. We speed until we get caught. We roll through stop sign unless we see a police car. And we always look for a black-and-white before we throw a soda can out the car window.I look forward to a time when driving under the influence of being an asshole becomes an infraction on the same scale as littering, which carries a hefty fine.

So let's be nice, just to be nice. When someone signals a lane change, don't get possessive about cement that doesn't belong to you. Say "after you" and realize that the split second added to your drive home made life a little easier for a fellow human. Let's start the new year by having some manners.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Nasal Singing...or Is It?

What does it mean to sing with a "nasal" placement? I've taught a few students who have come to me with the question, "How can I sing less nasal?" In each case, careful analysis of the mechanics involved in phonation and resonance proved to the students that what they characterized as "nasal" singing was, in fact, exactly opposite to what they had thought.

To illustrate, I'll introduce a hypothetical student...let's call him "Hypo" for short. Hypo sings with a pronounced twang and he has been told by his school choir teacher that he sings nasal. I am of the opinion that a musician, whether a singer or instrumentalist, will be more successful if he knows "what" he is doing, "how" he is doing it, and if he is doing it with "intent". So I begin by asking a few questions.

Me: Why do you want singing lessons?

Hypo: My teacher says I sing nasal.

Me: Do you know what your teacher means when he says that you sing nasal?

Hypo: I guess it means that I sing in my nose.

Me: How do you sing in your nose?

Hypo: I don't know.

Me: Did your teacher ever use the words "septum" or "palatine uvula" when he told you that you sing nasal?

Hypo: ...Um...huh?

Me: Hypo, sing this note for me...AAAh...

Hypo: Honk...

Me: OK Hypo, now hold your nose like you're going to dive into a pool and sing the note again.

Hypo: Honk !

Me: Sounds the same, doesn't it? So, can you tell me how you can be singing in your nose if you can plug it up and make exactly the same awful sound?

Hypo: Nope, But that's what my choir teacher said.

Me: OK Hypo, Today, you are going to learn two , THREE things. One, Your choir teacher is either full of shit, lazy or both. Two, If you want to get a good grade, you'll keep that to yourself and pretend to listen to what he has to say. Three, before you walk out that door, your going to learn how to sing "Aaah" instead of "Honk!"

What is mistakenly described as singing nasal is actually singing without the benefit of the resonance available in the sinus and nasal cavities. The first thing to be determined is if there is a physical abnormality that would cause this condition. Does the singer have a deviated septum? Has the nose been broken? If not, then it becomes a matter of mechanics, placement and resonance. Using the proper mechanics will place, or focus the voice in a way that optimum resonance can be achieved.

There are two ways to illustrate the resonance of the facial cavities. First, I have the student hum a musical exercise or melody. This proves to the student that there is a substantial amount of sound produced which does not come out of the mouth. Then I use the sound "ng" as in the word "sing". I have "Hypo" sing the word sing and sustain the final ng, or perhaps sing the word "singaah". From a mechanical standpoint, the sound "ng" is produced by closing the back of the mouth. The base of the tongue raises to meet the descending uvula which is the tip of the soft palate. This valve-like closure causes all of the sound to be focused up the back of the throat and into the cavities of the face, including the nasal sinus cavities. I call it "humming with an open mouth". Opening the ng sound to the aah sound will train the mechanism to maintain the same resonance for the open vowel as that accomplished by closing the back of the mouth.

Pete's rule number two states that "It's always simpler than it seems." The remedy for what is mistakenly called nasality proves that rule. It really is just that simple, but like everything worth doing, it takes repetition and lots of practice. Come see me and I'll prove it.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Music Theory

The study of Music Theory as it concerns the young musician in what I call the “pop-rock” area of music has been reduced in large part to articles in magazines dedicated to the selling of cosmetically redesigned instruments and equipment by massive chain and mail-order stores to the next generation of hopeful rock stars. Armed with the latest in phrase-sampling, pitch-shifting, tempo-slowing technology, this army of tablature junkies is learning less and less about more and more with every double-picking, speed -drilling issue of their favorite rock rag.

Personally, I read as many music magazines as I can get my hands on. And periodicals serve a great purpose in introducing young musicians to a world of ideas which most probably would remain undiscovered given the dismal state of artistic education in our school systems. The responsibility shifts then, to the student. The young musician who has found an area of interest by mastering a lesson found in a magazine must not stop as if a new continent has been discovered. For every door opened represents a long hallway of unopened doors behind which waits the information so intrinsic to a well-rounded musical experience.

Even a cursory musical education should include studies in traditional harmony, simple counterpoint, ear-training and dictation in melody, rhythm and harmony, and basic music history. Literacy results in freedom of expression and opens the doors of meaningful dialog between like-minded people. This can be said of any area of endeavor dependent upon cooperation and interaction. The more inclusive education becomes, the broader the horizons will open to the young musician.

There are two methods whereby musical education can be acquired with efficiency. The traditional method is to seek out a respected mentor or expert in a chosen field who will provide a structured course of study. Additionally, we now have available a huge body of information via the internet where the ocean of knowledge is limited only by the curiosity of the seeker. In combination, these two methods offer the opportunity of combining a well grounded, traditional education in music with the most up-to-the-minute research materials available.

Curiosity is a key element in the study of the arts. The young student must be determined in seeking out a good mentor who will teach in such a way that the student’s hunger leads him on a quest for further knowledge. Young musicians have a tendency to champion certain styles, artists or factions before they have learned enough to formulate educated opinions. Students should be encouraged to experience as many genre as possible. This will ensure a broad palette of musical ideas as well as a much higher level of pure enjoyment.

The following is a list of what I would consider to be important elements in the basic education of a young musician. A complete list being impossible, these are suggestions which, if investigated with a curious mind, will result in an fruitful search of further knowledge.

1. Rhythmic Notation. Learn how to read and write rhythms properly. This is a language you should know inside and out, no matter what instrument you choose.
2. The Musical Alphabet. Learn the names of the notes on the Grand Staff. Don’t be afraid or intimidated. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet of which only 7 are used in musical notation.
3. Intervals. Learn how notes relate to each other. This is the basis of Melody and the foundation of Harmony. Memorize how each interval looks as well as sounds.
4. Harmony. Take a beginning Harmony class at a community college. It won’t cost much and after two semesters of structured education, you will amaze yourself at how simple it is and how much more you understand.
5. Music History. Read about the lives of great composers and the times in which they lived and worked. You may find that what you thought were stodgy old stiff-necked squares were actually living, breathing, fun-loving pranksters much like yourself.
6. Analysis. When you have the fundamentals of rhythm, melody and harmony under some control, work on analysis. Listen to a favorite song and use your ears and the knowledge between them to write down the notes, rhythms, harmonies and how they interact to form a piece of music.
7. Listen. Listen to everything you can get your ears around. Don’t get caught up in listening only to what you think you like. Growing as a musician requires that you abandon some of the musical prejudices which may have drawn you to study music in the beginning. Embrace flexibility. Listen without judgement.

Some Final Bits of Advice

1. Don’t hesitate to make mistakes. That’s how you will learn to do it right.
2. Your progress is directly related to the hours spent on learning your subject. Ever wonder why some of your pals are such experts at video games?
3. No matter how much you practice or how hard you study, someone is practicing more and studying harder. Music has nothing to do with peer pressure so don’t try to compare yourself with others. If you put it all in, if you put forth maximum effort and work to your potential, you can be satisfied that you will be the musician you deserve to be.

Each and every musician brings his heart and soul to the musical table. How deeply a musician’s intentions are perceived by his audience is directly related to the level of musical skills mastered by the musician. If an author wants to report a conflagration, the flames of which destroyed half the village as the townspeople, tears streaming in rivulets down soot-stained faces stood transfixed by terror…and all he knows how to spell are the words “hot” and “bad”, his report may be somewhat disappointing in terms of impact and emotion. Great musicians possess large musical vocabularies as the result of curiosity, study and hard work. Not everyone is cut out to be a great musician. But by doing the work, you are guaranteed the opportunity to try.