What Makes Me Me.
I listened to funk and soul music in the car with my Mom. American folk on LP’s at home with Dad. I lived in two different worlds and music fit differently into each. My first instrument was the trombone.
Sixth grade, I convince my Mom to let me play guitar. I swing blindly around in the dark, but am figuring things out. I stumble into a great teacher. I learn a ton about how to really play. At the same time, I’m in an indie punk rock band; think Fugazi and Drive Like Jehu. We just got a record review over 20 years later on this crazy blog.
At 15 I’m booking shows locally. Clubs, people’s basements, abandoned buildings. I go on tour at 16. I become completely aware that I am limited only by my willingness and ability to bust my ass. We record a 7-inch vinyl. Things get real and exciting.
At the same time, I’m going to classical concerts. I’m figuring out there’s more career possibility and longevity in classical. And a hell of a lot nicer accommodations. You need only be on tour in the south in July to realize this. Plus, I see a band of guys in their 30’s and think “Dude, you’re old… why are you still here and opening for me?”
The band breaks up after freshman year of college. I focus on solo guitar, developing skills, interpretative ideas. I work odd jobs to support my guitar habit. I unload trucks on night shift, work fast food, teach guitar, and file books in the library. I realize I know nothing.
I get hired to work in a classical guitar shop. The owner, Jeff, wakes me up to what it means to be a working musician for the long term.
I graduate. Jeff puts me to work in the shop, teaching, and gives me free practice space. I figure out what it means to work alone. I have no clue what I’m doing. I’m confused, because I know how to book a punk venue, but I can’t get a classical venue to hire me. Not for a concert. Not to be the janitor. Not to save my life.
I work in a bookstore and get migraines during every shift. I need to get out of non-music jobs. I squirrel away money to audition for grad schools. I get in everywhere I applied, with scholarships.
I throw my life into a U-haul and move to Baltimore, by myself, at 23. I unload the truck and learn how to live in a city with no car for four years. I’m at the Peabody Institute. I get my ass kicked by everyone. I start trying my hands at competitions and realize I have a unique commitment to this. I’m also working without a net.
I settle on a crazy ultimatum: Win an international competition by 25, or quit.
Two months after my 25th birthday, I’m working at a law library making photocopies for lawyers and judges. I take a week off and gamble on a train ticket & food money. I win the National Guitar Workshop International Guitar Competition. I come back to work the next week totally confused. I realize I can do this performing thing, but I have no idea how to do it professionally.
I tailspin for 2 years trying to get better as a performer while working toward a graduate performance diploma. I’m living hand to mouth but I keep going. The book I found in the breakroom at my bookstore job, Hand to Mouth by Paul Auster, proves incredibly insightful. I don’t feel like I’m totally alone when I read it. Yes, I still have it; sitting prominently on my bookshelf.
I finish with grad school and then sit out a year. I teach at a music shop in a strip mall. I go on short performance tours in the 1989 Toyota Camry my Mom gave me. I quickly figure out that teaching private lessons at a music shop is a dead end for me. For my field, the long game is in higher education.
I realize I need to get a doctorate. Shit, more school. I end up back at Peabody, teaching in their pre-college. It’s a legit gig that comes with a W-2. I start my doctorate. It goes on forever. 6 ½ years. I start to realize that I have to build a performance career – just like I did when I was a kid in a band. This is so meta.
I am still living hand to mouth. A friend from a summer teaching gig, Christian Biegai, convinces me that I can actually make a record. He connects me to a recording engineer friend of his. I fly to Berlin and sleep in Christian’s food pantry while making the recording.
February 2008, the recording, Initial, comes out. I’ve put out a self-made record which few classical artists are doing. It feels totally natural to me. Ah, punk rock. I figure out how to get it digitally distributed and physically duplicated – no easy task in 2007 / 2008.
I have perhaps the ugliest, most non-functional website ever created. If you know technology, it was built in Flash. Enough said. Yet I still manage, somehow, to start touring. I perform all over the East Coast, a bit in the Midwest, and in Asia. I work the Merch table like my living depends on it. And it does. I manage to earn enough selling CD’s at live shows that I can pay off the flights to Berlin along with the rest of the recording costs. There’s even a bit of scratch left over.
My personal life, however, is a disaster. I’m renting a room in a house for $300 bucks a month. I need to figure out how to finish this degree. I’m spread thin, teaching at Peabody, University of Maryland-Baltimore County, and Frostburg State University. I’m playing weddings, parties, and occasionally full concerts. The work is wide, weird, challenging, and I have no one I can relate to. I’m making my New York City debut one weekend, then playing a wedding on a golf course the following Saturday. A golfer actually played right through the ceremony with shouts of “Fore!” and “Watch out!” I wish I were making this up.
I set my sights on a Fulbright grant. I spend my savings to fly to Spain. I play for Ignacio Rodes, whom I met in 1996 during my undergrad. He agrees to write my letter of support. In passing, I find out Ignacio has the manuscripts to an Asencio piece I’m curious about. I feel it might be the key to my dissertation and my next recording.
I use the recording I made while staying in the food pantry as part of the Fulbright application. I learn how to write a strong proposal. I study Spanish on the side and pass the foreign language exam. I interview for the preliminary round of the grant and know in my gut that I’m going to Spain.
October 2008, I submit the final application. Eight days later, I meet the woman I will later marry, Susan.
April 2009, I get the notification that I won. That recording I slept on the floor to make just earned me a $50,000 stipend to live in Spain. Risk / Reward. I pack all my belongings into 8 boxes and put them in storage. I say goodbye to the woman I adore and head to Alicante, Spain with two suitcases and a guitar.
It’s the first time in my adult life that I’m not starving. I practice like a maniac. I’m totally isolated, living in a house full of Japanese people and a couple Germans. I start booking performances in bars. I play full concerts. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had on stage. I am becoming passably fluent in Spanish. I realize how American I am. And how different I am from other Americans living abroad.
I find every book, score, and article ever written about Vicente Asencio. I learn all of his music. I start writing my dissertation. Summer of 2010, it’s time to move back to Baltimore. I pack my two suitcases full of books, pick up my guitar, and leave all of my clothes in Spain.
I have the longest, crankiest 10 months of my life finishing my doctorate, again living hand to mouth. I play a gig for $300 bucks at Whole Foods. I’m in a suit, background music to their sampler Thanksgiving spread. A huge machine turns rotisserie chickens on a spit. People eat free samples. Five months before I’m playing in a castle in Europe. Tonight, I’m playing next to a chicken.
Susan teaches me how little I actually know about the music industry. She says: “I love you. Your website sucks. Please, let me help you get your career out of the toilet.” I finally listen.
Things begin to grow. I get featured in guitar magazines. I get a column in Fingerstyle 360. I get sponsored by D’Addario Strings. I get signed to a record label. I finish my degree and move back into that house where I was renting a room. I’m practicing to make the Asencio recording, but I can’t do it. I’m too burned out.
Spring of 2012, I land a full-time teaching gig at University of North Carolina School for the Arts. Things pick back up. I’m flying between Baltimore, Winston-Salem, and city after city as I perform for a year. I marry Susan.
2013, I land a full-time position at Peabody as the Chair of Guitar in the Preparatory. I record My Name is Red to keep myself motivated. On my 39th birthday, Susan says “We’re having a baby. Record your album.” Five months later, I’m in East Berlin recording at the Funkhaus. We record half the Asencio album in three days.
We have an earthling. Our worlds turn upside down.
Disinclined to go back out on the road, and unable to book formal concerts, I create the “Laptop Tour”. My colleagues think I’m crazy. My inner DIY musician has never been happier.
Leaving the trappings of formal venues behind, any space I find funky and inspiring I make into my concert hall. A makerspace in Harrisburg, PA. A room full of Gamelans. No seats. No infrastructure. Me, a guitar, a laptop, and a livestream. The space does not define the art, I do. Suddenly I’m being invited to play the very concert halls that wouldn’t book me.
August 2016, I fly back to Berlin and record the second half of the Asencio album and join the Conservatory Guitar Faculty at Peabody teaching Guitar Skills and Guitar Pedagogy.
2017, I record my heart comes undone to keep momentum up. Also, electric guitars are cool.
My Dad gets sick. Things slow down.
Breaking from the Laptop Tour livestream format, I try putting on a “real” concert. I book a tiny club in Seattle for Spring 2018. I work with Susan to develop a digital marketing strategy. It sells out. I am back in weird venues at age 42 and nothing will stop me. I keep that audience engaged through two 45 minute sets. Beer and food are tools for creating an experience.
Peabody asks me to start rethinking my work. Dad gets really sick. I call Berlin. “Let’s finish the Asencio record.” I call my web guy, “Let’s redo the website again – how has it been 9 years already?”
Peabody has been seeking a new Director of LAUNCHPad, their Career Development program, for two years. They need an artist who is active in the industry and knows how to build from student to career. My circuitous, pothole-ridden, rock-strewn path evidently qualifies me.
I am appointed Guitar Faculty and the Director of LAUNCHPad. I’m booking tour dates.
It’s full tilt now.