Blog Entries

What does this contribute? Fret Fest 2016

March 30th, 2016

Fret Fest

This post is late. I had hoped to get this up last week but was finishing the last pieces of Fret Fest business. I was on solo dad duty as tiny baby’s mom was away—the latter was all consuming! Now, on to the post:

One of the things I think about with each experience I have in music (and sometimes life) is: “What’s the takeaway?”

What is the one thing (or two if I’m lucky) that can be learned from what just happened or is happening? This month I have two takeaways (bonus!), both of which are important.

1. I do not, no matter how much I’d like to say the contrary, have the self-control to buy a package of cookies at the grocery story without eating all of them within 12 hours.  Seriously, the whole box in an evening…along with a frozen pizza.  Paul Newman’s “Ginger Newman O’s” are my downfall each and every time. The takeaway? Ditch the frozen pizza.

2. Directing/Building a guitar festival (something I never planned to do in my career as a musician) has become some of the most rewarding, creative, challenging, and inspiring work I’ve ever done.

While the first takeaway is important and falls more in the “life” category, the second is the one I’d like to focus on.

This was the seventh year for Fret Fest at Peabody and the third year for me as the sole-director of the event. Creating and maintaining Fret Fest requires a tremendous amount of planning and teamwork with the staff at Peabody.  I feel incredibly fortunate to work with an amazing team and have learned, firsthand, how important it is to: 1. Ask for help/advice; 2. Be humble; 3. Listen; 4. Be patient; 5. Stay flexible; 6. Never give up; 7. Know that something(s) will be out of your control; 8. Say thank you to everyone (#8 is really, really, really important).

As I have continued to build this festival to reach new audiences, the biggest takeaway for me is actually a question: What does this contribute?

This was a question I had never brought to the festival until the past two seasons, and it’s had the biggest impact on my approach towards the day.  [And, in some ways, a large impact on my independent musical work and creative projects.] I love this question because it can be interpreted in many different ways and because it offers the opportunity to set yourself in the guest’s shoes.

What can I bring to this day that will be memorable and unique for everyone who attends?  What styles of music can we explore?  What workshops can we create that will inspire, challenge, and stretch the aspiring young guitarist or the individual that just wants to keep growing as a musician?  What would happen if we brought several styles of music together in a single concert?  Will there be cookies?

These are just a few of the questions that came up to the surface when I looked at Fret Fest from the point of contribution.  More importantly, it provided me with a bit of perspective when I found myself up to my knees in challenges.   For example, this year’s Fret Fest was happening on the same day as Baltimore’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.  Ok, you’re thinking…”so there’s gonna be a parade…big deal?”  Well, the starting point of that parade was Mt. Vernon Square (where Peabody is based).  We were the launching pad for all the fun. In addition, the parade, with it’s bagpipes and all, would be starting at 2pm, which was at the same time as our Guitar Ensemble Concert. Did I mention that the concert hall has enormous windows overlooking the park where the paraded participants were stationed???

This is where those 8 points I mentioned earlier came in handy.  I asked for help, listened, tried to stay flexible about options, was definitely humbled by the situation, realized that much of it was out of my control, and didn’t give up (though I had a few trying moments). When the final ensemble performed at the concert it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Afterwards, I said thank you to all the people who attended the performance and to the amazing people who soundproofed the concert hall!

The answers that you find when you stop and think about what you are contributing don’t have to be huge, mega-complicated things.  They can be small gestures, moments where you and others are able to take the time to answer a question, make sure a person feels included, or simply help someone with a chord they have been working on.  It can be that shared experience where you all watch a performance and react to elements of it as a group or as an individual.  And, yes, it can be making sure that there is a plate of cookies available when an event has finished.

But what does this have to do with me playing the guitar?  Precisely nothing and everything.   What is extraordinary about this day, for me, is that for a short time Peabody is filled with people, in all stages of life, who share the same passion for music and the guitar that I do and we’re all together in one place.  Does it mean a little less guitar playing for me in the short term? Yes. But that time away from the instrument is a small sacrifice to create a community built from a single question about what a person can contribute.

Performing: It’s a Roller Coaster

February 24th, 2016


“Whispered” from the audience during a recent performance:

Audience Member #1: “Do you like this music?”

Audience Member #2: “What?”

AM1: “I said do you like this music…on the guitar…that he’s playing?”

AM2: “Oh. It doesn’t bother me. Do you want to leave? I’ll go if you want to.”

AM1: “No, I don’t feel like moving right now. I’ll just sit here till he’s finished.”

To be seen and yet not seen is an interesting aspect of the professional musicians lot, your performances are either sought or encountered, they are the sole focus of some and in the peripheries of others, the content is loved or hated; your presence as player key yet at times you’re ignored.  The amazing part of this is that it can easily all be going on in the same concert.

Now I’m not actually fuming about the conversation that I shared with you at the start of this piece, it was quite funny in an out of body kind of a way.  It’s all contextual, the situation was not a grand concert hall in NYC, although it could have been, but it does bring home some of the basics of live performance. You work, you prepare, you worry, and practice but sometimes you just can’t make everyone happy.  Performing in every sense of the word is a roller coaster.

I say that with two distinct meanings.  The first is that for a performer to become skilled at performing requires that they must do it over and over and over again.  This means you will perform, if you’re serious about it, in front of anyone, anywhere, and at almost anytime (which I can say is true as I’m grabbing any chance I can get to try things out).  The bumps, bruises, scrapes, and punches that you take with each visit to the stage are part of paying your dues or in corporate speak: on the job training.  These flight hours (if you’re really, really serious about your vocation) will generate critiques, notes that you make after each performance.  These need to be objective, although that’s not always easy.  You are trying to focus on what worked and what didn’t, you are definitely not trying to set yourself up as your own personal punchbag, there’s just no point.  But as a soloist there is generally no one else to blame but yourself when things don’t go as you imagined, using that information to develop yourself as a performer becomes absolutely key.  When you bomb, your notebook fills up quickly—the upshot being, with the right mindset, those times when you just didn’t seem to hit the collective spot give you the most information to improve.  I’ve got a lot of notebooks at this point.

The challenge is figuring out how you are going to handle all of the elements which make the performance (yourself, your instrument, and that piece you’ve been spending all that time cultivating) and deliver it to that roomful of strangers – who as we have learned may or may not actually want to be there.  That takes real work.  Listen to any successful comedian in an interview and you hear them explain how long it takes them to build a strong set on stage.  In fact, I think they often times explain it more clearly than most stage artists do.  You’ll hear them talk about working out material in some small club in the middle of nowhere and they totally fall apart.  They will do this over and over but something miraculous begins to occur—they get better.  That’s what we’re all trying to do in this life, right?  Get better.  The best, or should I say most humbling, part of building this skill set is that it never stops.  You never finish improving and in order to keep getting better you will find yourself playing in the weirdest situations you could ever (or should I say never) imagine.  That’s not to say it’s bad.  I’m just here to tell you, in my experience, that the pendulum has a wide swing.

I was having dinner with friends recently (tiny baby was asleep) and rehashed a story of performing a recital in NYC and finding myself the following weekend playing Bach on a golf course at a wedding ceremony where the bride was nearly taken out by a stray ball. Thankfully bride, groom and guests all had a chance to dive to the ground upon hearing the nearby golfer yell, “Oh, sh*t!”  Surprisingly, the music did not stop as both guitarist and composer would not be deterred by the errant swing of the would-be Arnold Palmer.

It occurred to me as I swabbed down the decks and made myself laugh again as I remembered the faces of the wedding guests as the ball flew through, that there is an extended process behind every players journey and you really only get to see the end result.  No one at the wedding knew or cared that I had been somewhere more musically important days before, my presence fulfilled their sonic needs and, I must admit my monetary ones.  So audiences never get to see the daily ups and downs of building a concert career, but you as a player must use every experience in front of people or indeed the back 9 as an opportunity to grow.  We, myself included, see a snap shot of each performer—that day, that moment, that piece.  Did it sound good or didn’t it?  Did you want to hear more or did you want to move on?  The venue becomes irrelevant, your experience everything.

The second part of this roller coaster would be the unexpected surprises you have no control over: the venue, the audience, the travel that day, etc.  The conversation that opened this post could never have been planned.  The question is how do you handle it?  What do you do?  Plug on? Give up?  Call them out?  Give them the stink eye? For me, it becomes a question of focus.  You have to know that you’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea (just look at the comments people make about artists on YouTube) and while you’re maybe playing in a grocery store next to a rotisserie turkey (yep, done that one, too) someone will be enjoying what you are creating.  At the end of this process that’s what we’re all trying to do—connect with the listener.  Perhaps what’s most interesting about this musical ride is that you can make a connection with an audience anywhere, if you choose to, and that there isn’t a rule book as to what  or where is more or less important if you’ve brought someone asmall bit of sonic joy.  More on this next month as I’m about to put my money where my mouth is for all of you…



Sonic Pictures-In High Fidelity

January 14th, 2016

Sonic Pictures

With the tiny baby asleep, I’ve been into straightening up my workspace during my off hours. That’s what you do in the New Year, right? It’s sort of like a spring clean but with an eye on the past as well as the future. While shuffling piles of papers into folders, in the name of organization and efficiency, I found some old photographs. Visually captured moments that instantly took me back 10-15 years. As I was looking at these snapshots I started to reflect on what I was listening to when these pictures were taken—a musical timeline materialized.

Each photo captured an event, a moment from my particular history. Music, especially those tapes, LP’s and CD’s that have fallen to the back of a cupboard or in the bottom of a box because you’ve “gone digital,” can have the same impact. A song or piece can serve as a sonic picture. A moment in sound that documents, to the world, that for a brief time a piece of art was created. The beautiful thing about a recording is that the artist(s) makes the work and then, bravely, sends it out to the world with the hope that someone will connect with it. It lives on and can become not only the artist’s story but a part of yours or mine.

Perhaps what’s most special about this process is that there’s a chance the listener builds a relationship with a song that is completely independent from the artist’s.   As I type this, I realize that I’ve got a laptop full of memories now that don’t have an image, but create a soundtrack of my life. So, here are some sonic pictures (in the highest fidelity possible via the internet) of my journey on this planet. Putting this together was a tremendous amount of fun as I broke it up into musical snapshots in 2-5 year increments. In an attempt to be succinct, keep myself in line and not bore you, I allowed myself 3-4 sentences to describe each work and it’s significance. Hope you enjoy!   For those feeling inspired, let me know your favorite tunes and sonic pictures: @zaneforshee

Leo Brouwer: Estudio Sencillos VI: Ricardo Cobo  My first “Cool” etude for the guitar. I was so proud and still feel that way today as I teach it to students.

Fugazi: Margin Walker From a dubbed cassette tape to my ears. Seventh grade was never the same! Their DIY approach had a huge influence on me and I still love them to this day.

John Williams: Lute Suite No. 4- Prelude in E major  My first guitar teacher made me a dubbed copy of John William’s “Seville Concert” and this piece was my introduction into the world of classical guitar. By the time I was 17 I was driving with three other guitar students from St. Louis to Chicago to see him perform. I remember it like it was yesterday—Williams wore a purple striped shirt, blue pants, and black reebok sneakers.

Drive like Jehu: Do You Compute These guys were my heroes during my days in an indie rock band. They completely blew my mind, making the rock quartet dynamically powerful through their creative song form structures. Way ahead of their time.

Tom Waits: Jockey Full of Bourbon I love Tom Waits. Found him when I was 17 and have been listening ever since. I’d check out his interviews with David Letterman, too. Watch one by clicking here.

Sergio & Odair Assad: Jobiniana No. 1 I first saw them when I was 15 years old. Knee deep in rock & classical—-they had me on the edge of my seat.

Morphine: In Spite of Me College! Freshman year and my friend sent me a mix tape (remember those?) from Olympia, WA. with this fine trio.

Benjamin Verdery: Bach Cello Suite No. 4-Bourree  Grew up listening to him on cassette tapes while riding the bus to school. Now I call him on the phone…funny how life works. One of my guitar heroes.

Van Morrison: Radio  This album still has the most timeless sound to it. It’s a requirement for me during any road trip. Also, he’s very punctual as a live performer—I dig that!

Charlie Hunter: Your Cheatin’ Heart  I first encountered Charlie Hunter at a live show in 1997 (1 week after my junior recital). Everyone at the club was speechless. We still are today.

Led Zeppelin: Tangerine  My college roommate from my senior year forced me to listen to Zepplin during my 20’s. For all my moaning and groaning I became a huge Zepp fan—this was the one that won me over.

Jeff Buckley: If You See Her Say Hello (Live)  I love this entire album as it shows what a HUGE artist Jeff Buckley was both as a singer/songwriter and as performer. I also found it inspiring that he set himself up a weekly gig at this cafe to simply practice performing—-he’s the real deal. He’s also covering a Bob Dylan classic and this performance is beautiful.

Murray Perriah: Scarlatti Sonata K. 491  Murray is one of my favorites. He makes every piece on this entire album come to life and this sonata by Scarlatti is a perfect example.

Rufus Wainwright: Vibrate Rufus is one of the best songwriters living among us today. He is so creative and writes works that are authentic, humorous, and intimate.

Tom Waits: Chocolate Jesus Did I mention that I like Tom Waits?

Wilco: Hate it Here  While I never met Jeff Tweedy, we grew up in the same parts and I’ve always been a fan of his work. This album comes after he re-booted the group. This was also the album they were touring when I saw them open for Neil Young at Madison Square Garden…

Julian Bream: Cuentos para la juventud & La Maja de Goya  What else can be said about Bream. He was the coolest of the cool. The wild man of classical guitar and showed everyone who played (and listened) what phrasing and tone color was all about. I bought this album used at a guitar shop for 6 dollars and it stayed in my car for 2 years on repeat.

Jackson Browne: These Days  He’s just so good and he wrote this when he was 16.

MGMT: Electric Feel  I lived in Spain for a year and cruised around much of the country listening to this track. It was particularly fun for me as I had this album just before it was getting big there…timing is everything.

The Hives: Try it Again  This is my daily listen as it get’s me moving to keep up with the tiny baby. My wife is responsible for introducing me to this fine group of gentlemen.

M. Ward: Let’s Dance  This week we lost a musical giant. He was a hero to many, including my good friend Christian Biegai, and this is one of my favorite covers of his work. Light a candle for Bowie and his family. Hope you enjoy this one too, Christian!

Drinks to Practice By

December 16th, 2015


My name is Zane Forshee and I’m a coffee addict. Not tea, not cocoa, not a mocha frappucino with 17 pumps of whatever flavor you want shoved in there… Nope, I want 2 shots of espresso with a bit of boiling hot water added to it. You get extra cool points if you add a little cinnamon and nutmeg to the espresso before you brew it. We call that little touch “Christmas in a cup” around my house but that was during a kinder, gentler time known as: B.B. (before the baby). The new time period in my life, A.B. (after baby), approaches coffee with the understanding that this is how I get anything accomplished. Some people reading this are thinking “How can you do that to espresso?” My answer? It’s good, it’s cheap, it works, and I can make that cup last an entire practice session or almost 3-4 hours of teaching. It is the fuel that keeps the engine running.

As much of my life revolves around the guitar, beverages play a huge motivating factor in getting the work done. One reason for this is, I think, the simple ritual of making the coffee: setting up the pot to brew, preparing the coffee grounds, placing the cup(s) on the counter, turning on the kettle, straightening the kitchen, each action helps to clear my mind before I sit down to work, it’s a little like a meditation. The coffee itself is both a comfort and tool that makes the approach towards the practice chair that bit smoother. This is partially due to fact that most of my practice time, these days, comes either at an ungodly early hour of the morning or late at night. Ye olde coffee wakes me up with the same intensity as the Hive’s tune: Come On.

The funny thing about life is that everyday it manages to surprise you, and it’s up to you how you deal with it – you can tuck and roll and keep going or you can simply stop, and wonder what’s going to happen next. Example: if the tiny baby (who’s not so tiny anymore) wakes up early, or doesn’t want their nap. Although to be honest it is not so much of a surprise, there is a little glint in the eye and a raised eyebrow which communicates clearly that tiny baby doesn’t want to sleep but wants to par-tay! Anyway what it means is that the practicing is getting done a bit later in the day. I’ll be frank, it’s not fun, right now, to sit down to practice late at night. All I want to do is sleep, but if you’ve got put the time in…you’ve got to put the time in. There are two techniques I use to combat this lack of motivation besides the mighty espresso bean. #1: Piggy Timer (aka: Pomodoro Technique). The timer is the best way for me to get the ball rolling when I’m a bit reluctant to start. If I can make it through those first 15 minutes of a practice session, then I’m good to go for the rest of the scheduled time. I set my super pig for 15 minutes. This helps keep my warm-up focused and then I take a quick break, sip that coffee I so lovingly prepared, and reset the clock for another 25 minutes (repeat as needed). You can read all about this strategy by clicking here. It’s an interesting thing to observe when you give yourself a time limit on any given task (especially something as open ended as practicing sometimes might be). I find it helps to organize my work and provides a bit of comfort in knowing that there is light, so to speak, at the end of the practice tunnel. If I still can’t seem to motivate for an evening practice session, I lean on my next motivational tactic #2: Practice Reward. As the lack of motivation occurs, for me, primarily during evening hours, my reward usually consists of either: a beer, a scotch, a bourbon, a wine, and some sort of cookie type object (cake or pie will also do, I am equal opportunities sugar). This is helpful not only due to the fun nature of the reward but also because after working for a few hours at night, I can’t always slow my head down to go to sleep. Having a little “treat” serves not only help me get the work done, but to give me a few moments to unwind on the couch—I highly recommend an adult beverage accompanied by a good read.  If a book isn’t your thing, you could try this fine approach created by Mr. Nick Offerman which you can check out here.  Also, I should mention that it would be a single beer, or a scotch, etc. Not a beer, a scotch, bourbon, and a glass of wine. If that were the case, nothing would be accomplished for the rest of the week…ever.

As we are now fully ensconced in the “Holiday Season” (is that Mariah Carey I hear, or Slade for my British friends!), I’m changing up my post practice beverage of choice. The eggnog has been located and retrieved from the local market (no small feat!) with the first glass poured this past Friday. Upon finishing a late night practice session for a concert the following day, my head still filled with the Scarlatti sonata I was rehearsing, I trotted out of my musical vault to briefly revisit my childhood. One glass, one fresh pint of eggnog, a bit of nutmeg, and Nat King Cole’s version of the Christmas Song and—Boom! It was Christmas circa 1980 whatever it was… It made all the work a bit sweeter, and the concert went well, too. Never underestimate the power of sugar and dairy. As I have more concerts in the coming months (lots of exciting news about that soon), I’ll be leaning on the use of the super pig and a love of beverages, both hot and cold, to pull me through. What are your favorite drinks to help you practice and/or cope with the family over the holidays? Or better yet—what should I be trying: before, during, after? Let me know! You can find me on twitter: @zaneforshee – Cheers!!

One Guitarist’s Creative Process Pt. 1

November 18th, 2015


I’m up early. I managed to wake up before the tiny baby. You remember, the small earthling that has taken over my home and all the waking hours in it! My unusual alert state has provided me with a rare moment to pause and reflect. Coffee in hand, laptop at the ready, I’m thinking about the process that an artist goes through in order to create their work. This is on my mind at the moment as these days I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts. Little handsfree miracles of information, entertainment and insight mean that I can still do something while I push my sleeping child’s stroller up and down a series of hills (that’s a story for another time). Podcasts have given me the opportunity to hear some fantastic interviews from a number of artists on how they approach their work and this has inspired me!

Listening to these artists’ stories, I quickly noticed the circuitous path that each travels while developing their craft. Interestingly, the starting point often has little to do with where they find themselves later on in their artistic life. Funny how it works that way…

It is an interesting proposition for someone like me. I generally play other people’s music, whether it is created for me or initially for someone else. So when I approach the creative process I am thinking about crafting a convincing interpretation, taking something and making it “my own,” and that is in itself no small endeavor. The notes of a given piece are the same for me as they are for you, or any other artist. The challenge that presents itself is choosing which elements of the work to bring out or emphasize.  How will I keep the audience engaged but also support the goals and vision of the composer? All the while, I need to maintain that all-important connection to the piece itself; if I lose interest how can I expect the listeners to stay with me on the journey?

As a young guitar student, the goal was to get the pieces I was studying to sound as close to those of the guitarists I had on recordings. After all “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and imitate I did…well, as best I could. It’s the starting point for so many guitarists, and instrumentalists in general, copying something that inspires you or excites you is the push to get better and stretch yourself as a beginner. After years of “trying to sound good like—(fill in the blank),” I began to develop my own opinions about how a work should be approached and performed—freedom, baby! A big part of this shift occurred, in part, through my own research about the composers I was performing. It was pointed out to me, by someone far wiser than I, that “if you’re going to spend all this time playing these works, why don’t take some time and get to know more about the people who created them?” Good point. Who were they? What interested them? What were their struggles? What did their other pieces sound like? Did they rely heavily on coffee like me? I needed more information! In its earliest stages, solving this question was accomplished simply by reading books, articles, and journals about the composers I was studying on the guitar. Mainly the old dead dudes: Bach, Scarlatti, etc.  As I continued to broaden my listening and playing, I discovered new composers—living composers! They walk! They talk! You could actually ask them questions and they would give you an answer—Boom! (Mind. Blown.) This really and truly crystallized for me in the summer of 2000 when I attended a week of master classes with Cuban guitarist/composer Leo Brouwer.

For (classical) guitarists, Brouwer is one of our towering new music figures and his works have impacted countless players of the late 20th and early 21st century. By the time I met him, I had played all his etudes and so many of his pieces for guitar that I had lost count. He is still, importantly, one of my favorite guitar dudes! You can even see me play his 3rd guitar concerto here or listen to my recording of his Sonata for solo guitar here. So, meeting the guy who wrote all of this music that I’d spent a pretty sizeable chunk of my life studying/performing had a significant impact on me. In the days that followed, amongst a sea of guitarists, that were all trapped in Canada, I was able to get answers to questions I had about his music from the source. It was both incredibly inspiring and exciting. All the guitarists I met during that week, myself included, walked away with a stronger understanding of Brouwer’s music. We became new advocates for his art.

Perhaps what’s most interesting to me is how something as simple as meeting another artist can impact your musical development in such a profound manner. After that summer, it became an integral part of my work to get to know the composers I was performing. The creative process shifted from simply working up a piece, to understanding it and its creator. It became a 2-part process:

1. Studying the work itself

2. Getting to know the composer

This last bit is especially important as the composer holds all the cards, so to speak, regarding how the piece came into existence, what sparked the direction of the work, and important details that often times can’t be communicated (or get left out) on the written page.

Getting to know a composer, by meeting them in person or through research (in the case of the old dead dudes), becomes an essential part in understanding their style. For the guitar players: you probably want to listen to as much of their music that’s not written for the guitar as possible. Open those ears! Once, I had to perform a work by a living composer and had nothing to go on. Even the ubiquitous Google search yielded nothing. It was me and the guitar sidling up to the practice chair, mano a mano, for hours going: “I guess this is what the composer wants…” or as I call it—flying blind. All this to say: playing music whether solo or with others is a collaborative effort. The performer(s) needs the composer just as much as the composer needs musicians to realize their work.

But don’t take my word for it, go and ask a composer! Don’t know one? I’ll do one better—I’ll bring one to you in my next blog post. I’m going sit down and chat with the amazing David Revill about his work as a composer, recording engineer, writer, percussionist, and general creator of awesome things, and you’re invited! Also, we are going to discuss the painful process he’s been going through working with me as he creates his new work for solo guitar and electronics Tiahuanaco!

I’ll close with this thought by Tom Waits, as it pretty much nails the creative process for any artist: “For a songwriter, you don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one, too.”