A laboratory of s***s and giggles. Or, how you do anything is how you do everything.

“You may have noticed the postcard I keep on my bathroom mirror that reads, ‘When you have no idea what’s happening, play the notes you can get and try to get more on the next pass.’ It’s something I said a thousand times to musicians working on learning to play tunes by ear, before I noticed its obvious relevance to the rest of life. So in that spirit, here are the chunks of the ‘tune’ I’ve figured out so far….”

That was the opening to a personal email I wrote a couple of weeks back, addressing a confused romantic situation. (Who knew I would ever be sharing such a thing in this space?! But I did promise I was going to get more transparent with you all.)

After I sent it, I couldn’t help but think about its application to so many other conversations I have had recently with friends, family members and astrology clients* about their own lives. Parenting. Career moves. Healthcare situations. When you strip away the specifics, it always seems like the path forward is roughly the same:

1) Don’t just stand there; do the part you understand now.
2) Pay attention to what goes by and try to get more right the next time.

Life doesn’t come with pause or rewind buttons, so this is the best we can do. It means we might not “play the tune” right the first five or fifty or five thousand times we try, but if we stay engaged and don’t give up, we’ll get it learned. Then we’ll be able to participate fully, and with pride rather than stress.

(*Yes, as some of you already know, I moonlight as an astrologer. I don’t tend to make a big deal out of it with you guys because I know it’s not what you came here for. I’m also mindful of wanting this space to feel safe and welcoming to folks who may have religious or other perspectives that would make them uncomfortable engaging with astrologer-Kat. But if you’re interested in learning more about that part of what I do, including a super-secret limited-time offer (oh my!), you can click this link.)

There’s a reason I focus my teaching business around improvisation and jamming skills, unlike 99.9% of other teachers who specialize in helping folks develop technical proficiency on their instruments. I do have plenty (plenty!!) of things to say about the technical fiddle stuff, too, as any of you who have taken private lessons from me know quite well. I have a college degree in the classical side of things, and decades of experimentation and research into the ergonomic aspects of playing this crazy instrument.

But honestly? I don’t get that juiced about sharing it, except as a means to a more interesting end.

Here’s what I do find juicy: those moments when a person (you, me, anyone) realizes that in order to jump up a level in their musicianship, they’re going to have to jump up a level in their whole approach to life. And that doing the musical work is a concrete, manageable way to do that life-work.

Music’s not just for shits and giggles; it’s a laboratory for conducting experiments and developing strategies that increase our wholeness and effectiveness as human beings.

For my money, improvisation and playing with others are the two musical skills that most often elicit these epiphanies. (“Freakouts,” you may prefer to call them, but epiphanies they are!)

I’m not saying that technical skill-building brings zero of these benefits. Certainly there’s a reason many parents put their kids in music lessons. (It rarely means they want their kids to be professional musicians someday! Ha. Sorry about that, Dad.) Learning an instrument strengthens our neural connectivity, and teaches us the value of routine, patience, and the pursuit of excellence.

But I don’t teach kids (usually). I teach adults, and adults usually have those skills dialed in about as well as they’re going to in this life. What more of us are working on are skills related to perfectionism, self-consciousness, mindfulness, and so many of the other big hairy blocks that stymie so many of us as grown-ups.

Collaboration and improvisation are so, so useful in dragging up our issues in these areas and giving us a chance to work on them.

There’s overlap between these musical and life skillsets, of course. Working on technique certainly requires us to confront issues around perfectionism, for example. I just wanted to get you thinking about the relationship between your musical life and the rest of your life.

 

-*-
 

Questions to ask yourself:

 

  • What area of music do you know you could benefit from putting more work into, but find yourself strangely averse to exploring? (We all have them!) Is it playing with others? Getting more solid with your rhythm? Improving your tone? Improvising? Studying a genre you’re attracted to, but think might be too difficult for you? Look inside yourself–what’s holding you back? What’s the psychologically scary part of diving into that thing?
  • What life lessons has music been teaching you lately? Where are you stuck musically that mirror other stucknesses in your life?

 

 

 

-*-
 

Let’s chat in the comments!

(…and if you missed it, here’s that astrology music-friends-discount link again.)

 

-*-
 

Edit: I received an email from a reader expressing disappointment at my use of the word “shits” in this article, because it made the reader uncomfortable sharing the post, even though it didn’t personally upset them. If you’re in the same boat–well, first off, thank you for wanting to share the post! You’re awesome, and I hope this is useful to your friends, too. I’ve made a second copy of the post which omits the offending scatological reference. Please distribute as you see fit!

Here is what I said to the person who emailed their concern: “Thanks so much for your kind words, and for your feedback about the swearing thing. It was definitely something I gave serious thought to before sending. Ultimately I decided that the reason I felt moved to use the phrase was because the people who would resonate most with what I offer would be able to relate to a surprising moment of earthiness. So I went for it.

“My experience in 10 years of marketing my teaching business is that the more widely I cast my net, the fewer people pay attention to me, and the less I appeal to the ones with whom I could really connect well and whose goals are most aligned with my skills. So my strategy is to show up as myself, with my cards on the table: who I am, what I care about, and how I experience the world in general and music specifically. Then people can choose for themselves if they relate to me. Just as they would any other friend. The closer I am to a robot or a blank projection screen, the more impossible that choice becomes for people.

“All that said, I don’t disagree that this particular article is easily edited to a G rating. Here’s a link to a thusly censored version, if you or your wife still want to share it. I’d be honored!”

-*-

You might also like:

Ira Glass on the suckiness of being a beginner.

Why being an adult learner is awesome.

How to practice when you don’t have time.

Read More

You and I are both musicians in progress. (Also, camps are the best.)

treble-clef-rubber-band-photo-by-kat-bula

We’re all works in progress.

Hello from Nashville, Tennessee! OK, whoa, it’s been an eventful few months.

One of my biggest goals for the next few months is to start sharing more of my musical journey with you—both its ups and its downs. In the past I’ve worried that I would bore you if I wrote about myself too much. But I realize now that I LOVE it when people I’m learning from are open and honest about their own processes. It’s so helpful when folks share the map of the territory as they explore it, and are willing to be vulnerable.

I think in the seven years(!) that I’ve had this website, writing and teaching about fiddle stuff, I’ve overinvested in pretending to be 100% confident all the time. I wanted to help you feel safe, and know that you weren’t going to be learning a bunch of crap that you were just going to have to unlearn later. Or worse, getting so confused and overwhelmed you that you wouldn’t learn anything at all. I hope that in my teaching I’ve made good on those promises. But the approach I was taking has exhausted me. It may have turned some of you off as well.

The thing is, this industry is so full of:

  1. famous people teaching (some effectively, some not), and
  2. amateurs pretending they are experts.

I’m neither, and I believe that’s a strength. It means that if you’re paying attention to me, it’s because I’m doing my job well. But it can be confusing to know how to present myself when I’m not as famous as a lot of the folks you’re probably following. (Not yet, hehe!) I’m also young enough that people don’t automatically pick up on the fact that I’ve been playing for almost 25 years, and teaching for over 20. I think at times I’ve responded to those facts by writing from an opaque, insecure place.

The thing is, what I’ve wanted all along is to connect genuinely and deeply with as many musicians as possible. Which is totally incompatible with hiding behind false bravado.*

*(A few days ago I watched Becky Buller become the first woman ever to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Fiddle Player of the Year award. How is that even possible, when there seem to be so many more women playing fiddle than any of the other bluegrass instruments, including legends like Alison Krauss and Laurie Lewis? I realize that there may be a gender piece to how we expect to have to present ourselves in this industry, too.)

Because of that internal misalignment, I constantly drug my feet about creating new stuff for you. I’m sitting on approximately one gajillion half-written articles and product ideas. You could be benefiting from them right now, if only I’d gotten my head straight sooner.

Does any of this sound like your life? I hope not, but I also suspect that more than a few of you can relate in some way.

So I’ve decided I’m done trying to sound like I have all the answers about music or anything else. Instead, I’m going to get to work and share the answers I do have from those 25 years of experience. As well as the new answers I find, as I find them. I’ll share, too, the questions I don’t have answers for yet, as I keep exploring. I hope this will be more useful to you.

Because we’re doing the same thing here, you and I, even if I may have been at it longer or harder. So cheers to being works in progress.

With all that in mind, here’s what I’ve been up to for the past few months.

 

First things first: I live in Seattle now.

Audrey says "welcome to Seattle."
Audrey says “welcome to Seattle.”

After fifteen years in Bellingham, Washington, my role in the music community there had come to consist primarily of teaching lessons and booking at a local venue. I was commuting to Seattle for most of my gigs (b****es gotta get paid), and I hadn’t had a regular teacher myself for over 10 years. The time had come for me to make some changes so I could continue growing as a musician. As of April 1st, I am a Seattlite.

I miss Bellingham’s beautiful community and landscape every day, and plan to visit as often as I can. I will definitely be back in December, teaching at the Bellingham Folk Festival.

And yes, for those who don’t already know and will wonder: I’m also going through a divorce. Yes, it’s hard. But music, and music community, help.

 

On the road again

Live on KVMR, Nevada City, CATour was really pretty. This is Half Moon Bay, CA.Coty Hogue Trio accidentally wearing matching Bellingham Folk Fest shirts on tour.

 

May 2016: The Coty Hogue trio toured for most of May to promote our new record, which we recorded in January at Rec Room Studio in Nashville. We are so proud of it, and had a great trip through Montana, California, and points between.

 

ccmc-fiddle-classfiddler-parking-only-photo-by-kat-bula

 

I spent much of June, July and August at music camps. This was my fourth year of teaching at Puget Sound Guitar Workshop (which at this point feels more like home than my actual apartment). For the first time, I also had the honor to teach at this year’s California Coast Music Camp.

As a student, I went to three more camps. I worked on vocal technique at Centrum’s VoiceWorks (Port Townsend, WA), mandolin at the Washington Old Time Fiddler’s Association’s camp (Moses Lake, WA), then songwriting and more vocal technique at Puget Sound Guitar Workshop (because I just can’t get enough of that place).

Here’s a video I made at the California camp about why I take so much time out of my summer to be a camp student, even though I’m at a point where I get to teach too. I hope it inspires you to try out a camp next year (or a different camp, if you’ve already been to one in the past). Please pretend that I remembered to hold my phone in landscape mode when I was filming. :)

 

 

Currently:

jessica-lynne-and-kat-bula-alley-taps-photo-by-barbara-potter-photographyupton-wyoming-photo-by-kat-bulajessica-lynne-and-kat-bula-snoqualmie-pass

 

I’ve been on tour with Jessica Lynne since September 9th. Right now we’re in Nashville, Tennessee, at a coffee shop that I think would very much prefer to be in Seattle. (So much Modest Mouse on the stereo! So little smiling from the plaid-clad baristas!) We start heading northwestward tomorrow, and get back October 16th for a homecoming show at the Roadrunner in Puyallup, WA.

 

jessica-lynne-kat-bula-tour-2016
 

Coming up next:

    • I’m about to embark on version 2.0 of the Rippin’ Bluegrass Soloing course. (The name may change; got any suggestions? Put ‘em in the comments!) Those of you who took version 1.0 seemed to like the content a lot, but wanted shorter, fancier looking videos. I also want to add some more content. That means (achtung!) that when I release the new version, it’s going to have a shiny new price tag. But everyone who has the 1.0 version will automatically get access to the new shiny one. So if you want to get in on it at the current price, you have until October 16th to purchase it. After that, version 1.0 goes away forever. Click here to check it out.

 

    • I’m already hard at work writing a music theory workbook, which I plan to release by the end of the year. After teaching a zillion theory workshops at various camps, I decided to make a resource you can write on, erase, and write on it again. I want you to have a chance to really solidify the theory concepts in your memory and on your instrument. That will mean you can actually use them!

 

    • Once I get home from tour, I’ll get to start connecting more with various Seattle music mentors. I’ve hardly been home since I moved to the city, so I’ve only had a few lessons so far. Right now I’m focusing on beefing up my swing repertoire and my mandolin chops; Pete Martin is a great help.

 

  • ‘Tis the season in my astrology business when I’m a bit busier than usual. Every equinox, I offer sliding scale follow-up readings to all my past clients. I love getting to check in with them and see how things are going! (For more information about that part of my life, check out Kat Bula’s Down To Earth Astrology.)

 

Okay, I think that’s all I wanted to announce. Thanks for reading all the way to the end! Please let me know in the comments if there’s anything you’d love to read about, as I enter this new era of blogging more regularly and openly. Or just tell us all what this season is about in your musical life! Take care, friends.

-*-

You might also like:

A laboratory of s***s and giggles. (Or, how you do anything is how you do everything.)

How to practice when you don’t have time.

Why being an adult learner is awesome.

Read More

Ira Glass on the suckiness of being a beginner.

 

I love Ira Glass’ straight talk here about how cruddy it can feel when we’re learning an art or craft, and aren’t yet making work that meets our own standards.

As he points out, our high standards are a big part of what gets us interested in doing the work. (He’s talking about storytelling, but everything he says applies just as well to music–or any other art or craft.)

So we can trust that our high standards mean that we’re going to do really good work. We aren’t inherently sucky at this. If we were, we wouldn’t be sensitive enough to music to have any interest in learning to play.

The gap between our standards and our actual playing, then, is just a matter of experience. And the simple, non-sexy solution to that is to keep doing the work. Do what you need to do to develop the skills to make what’s in your head come out of your instrument.

Yes, it will take time. How much time it will take depends on what you do with your time. If you have the opportunity to devote a significant amount of your time each week to focused practicing, then you’ll quickly close the gap between your playing and your ideal playing. If you’ve got a lot on your plate in terms of work, family and other commitments, it will take longer because you won’t have the chance to put in quite so many hours.

Either way, it’s okay. As long as you stay focused with the time you do have, you will be closing the gap.

Don’t beat yourself up for not already being a master. That just wastes energy and makes you want chocolate. (Or a beer. Or to spend three hours glazy-eyeing Pinterest. Or whatever’s your favorite escape/numbing strategy.)

It definitely doesn’t do a dang thing to close the gap.  Practicing is what does that.

(Of course, if you want guidance with that, I’d love to help you.)

 

-*-

You might also like:

A laboratory of s***s and giggles. (Or, how you do anything is how you do everything.)

How to practice (without freaking out or getting bored.)

Why being an adult learner is awesome.

Read More

Why being an adult learner is awesome.

I hear it all the time from my adult students (who constitute the vast majority of my studio):

  • “I wish my parents had made me stick with it when I was six!”
  • “I know I’ll never be as good as my neighbor’s twelve-year-old!”
  • [insert any number of variations on the same thought]

 

Someone somewhere told them they’re too old to learn.  Usually it involved a cursory appeal to science: it’s just, you know, neurology.  Their brains have been decaying for decades and there’s just no hope, no point in aspiring to ever really get anywhere on an instrument they waited until adulthood to begin.

 

Well, forgive me, but I think it’s crap.  I’m not a neurologist, but I’ve worked with over a hundred adults, teens, and tweens over the past five years, and more than a few kids, and I see some patterns:

 

  • Adults have better hand-eye coordination than kids, so adults tend to progress substantially more quickly in terms of bow or pick control, intonation, reading music, and learning by ear.
  • Adults have heard a lot more music in their lives than kids have had the opportunity to hear, so adults’ intuitive senses about what the music “should” sound like are more developed, even when they have no idea that that is the case.
  • Adults are more likely to have analytical and troubleshooting skills that help them practice effectively.
  • Adults are in it for the love, not because someone is forcing them to study an instrument “for their own good”.  So motivation to practice, and practice well, tends to be higher.  (Unless they’re beating themselves up for “being too old to ever sound good”!)

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How to find your way back to practicing after a crazy summer

Here comes September.

Are you getting ready to settle down after a busy summer? I know I am. I’ve had some great opportunities to travel, some of it for music, some of it for teaching, and some of it just for me. All in all it’s meant frequent upheavals in my routine, so much that I hardly remember what it is I normally do during the rest of the year on, say, a Tuesday. Sound familiar?

The days are getting shorter, though. Some of you (or your kids) are getting ready to return to school. The volunteer pumpkin growing out of my compost pile (I have no idea how it got there!) is growing large and starting to think about orange. Are we a little run ragged from our summer adventures? Is it time to buckle down into a routine?

Let’s be honest here about what I’m really getting at: has your practicing–or even your music-making in general–fallen by the wayside this summer?

Yes, well, it happens to the best of us.

Try any or all of these ideas that appeal to you or seem manageable:

  • Take a class – Well, you knew that was coming, but you have to admit it’s a great idea. Community, accountability, and new information dosed out in manageable bits. Check the menu at the top of this page to see what classes I’ve got coming up for you.
  •  

  • Get a CD or three from the library – What’s on your “to look up someday” list? Names you’ve heard, genres that intrigue you? Jazz, Cajun, Norwegian, Quebecois, 20th-century classical, Gypsy/Roma, indie rock?
  •  

  • If you don’t know where to start, pick a name from this list that you don’t know, or whose music you haven’t spent much time with, and stick your toes in the water: Kenny Baker, Stephane Grappelli, Andrew Bird, Vassar Clements, Mark O’Connor, Nickel Creek, Kevin Burke, Natalie Macmaster, Laurie Lewis, Byron Berline, Joe Venutti, Doug Kershaw, Lisa Germano, Alison Krauss’ earlier stuff.
  •  

  • Go see some live music! Any genre or instrumentation has the potential to inspire you to get going again, but of course if there’s a fiddler/violinist in the band that’s especially great.
  •  

  • Make a list of things that would be fun to learn sometime, even if they are the “wrong” genre or seem totally out of reach to you now. (My list right now includes the Sibelius violin concerto and the guitar instrumental “Flatland”.)
  •  

  • Pull that book off the shelf and put it on the music stand. If you’re like a lot of us, you have some books that seemed really exciting when you bought them, but you haven’t really gotten around to doing much with them. Pick one and get to know it. What’s in it? Sightread some tunes.
  •  

  • Get out those voice memo recordings from any camps or workshops you went to this year, last year, five years ago. Yes, I do that too. Find what’s useful, delete the rest.
  •  

  • Revisit songs you learned a long time ago and don’t really remember how they go anymore. You’ll find relearning is a different experience than learning them in the first place.
  •  

  • Make a date to play music with a friend. It’s okay if you’re both nervous!

Read More

How to practice when you don’t have time

Some weeks this is just how it is.

One of my teenage students walked in the door today, obviously frazzled. I asked how she was doing. “Tired!” she said, with uncharacteristic force.

“Are you tired from good things or bad things?” I asked.

“Good things. But they’re wearing me out.” She went onto explain: she’s just joined a gymnastics team. Their first meet is only a few days away. The team has only a few practices to learn a lot of moves and put together an entire routine. Most of them have never done gymnastics before, including her.

As we settled into the lesson, it became obvious that this situation had taken a toll on the amount of time she’d been able to spend practicing this week. That’s natural enough. It’s not that she’s losing interest in fiddle; she’s just engaged in an intensive project right now in another part of her life.

I see this all the time with my teenage students; they have so many opportunities available to them, so many adults in their lives encouraging them to express themselves creatively and athletically and to do it all right now. Hey, I’m one of them! We adults like to enable kids to overcommit themselves with fun stuff since we know they won’t have as much time to pursue these opportunities later. Of course, we need to be careful to avoid burnout, and we need to teach kids how to set boundaries that will support their emotional and physical health. But that’s a different article.

This busy-busy theme is obviously not limited to the teenagers I work with. My adult students are even more likely to come to their lessons buzzing with stress: “I’m sorry I’m late; my business meeting ran over time and then I hit all the red lights! They’re restructuring my department and now I’m doing the jobs of two people, for three-quarters of my old pay!” And then “I didn’t have time to practice,” often followed by “I’m sorry” or “I know I should be practicing” or some other self-deprecating comment.

Look. We are all going a mile a minute. Want to know a secret? There are weeks I don’t practice at all. And I’m a full-time musician! The important thing is to know what our priorities are, and to live according to them. Some weeks, music and the personal growth it facilitates are top priorities. Some weeks, they aren’t. And that is okay.

But we also know that we do need to practice regularly if we are to keep making progress. A day we don’t take a step forward is a day we take a step backward. What we need is a way to be kind to ourselves by continuing to press forward in our music projects at the same time that we allow ourselves the freedom to respond to the rest of life as it happens dynamically around and within us.

We need to practice efficiently.

We need to know what the bare minimum is that we have to do in order to keep moving forward, even in baby steps. Or at the very least, we need to know what we have to do to stop going backward–even if we’re just treading water.

So, okay: how to do that.

(more…)

Read More

How to practice (without freaking out or getting bored)

Anxiety

For many of us, but especially those of us who are adults, it is difficult to do things we don’t already know how to do.  Learning an instrument, especially if it is our first instrument, is humbling.  We may feel like small children, knowing what needs to happen but without the wiring in place to make our hands act in accordance with our intentions.

 

When we finally quiet our inner critic, our spouse or children or cats may wrinkle their noses at our best attempts.  We turn on the television and see reality shows where people sing their hearts out, then turn to face a panel of judges who are paid to be merciless in their criticism.

 

Even if your deepest musical wish is to be a professional, idolized by others, leave that wish outside the practice room. Practice time is for you, not for the imagined or real people you hope will give you better love if you master this instrument.*

 

*(Here’s a tip: it won’t make any difference.)

 

 

The plateau

 

Maybe you are on a plateau.  If you aren’t on a plateau right now, you will be someday.

 

When you are on a plateau, it feels like you’ve been stuck at exactly the same level for a long time.  You’ve been walking and walking and not getting anywhere.  You remember the climb up to where you are now, that exhausting but intoxicating feeling of progress, but it’s a distant memory now. Practicing doesn’t seem to make a difference and it’s increasingly difficult to remember why you ever thought this was fun or worthwhile.  

 

You may consider quitting your instrument.  A lot of people do at this point.

 

Allow me to suggest that everyone who has ever mastered an instrument (whatever that means, exactly) has crossed many, many of these plateaus.

 

Allow me to suggest further that you are actually getting somewhere, even if you feel like you’re walking in circles or backwards.

 

Entertain the possibility that an epiphany is around the corner.  It could take any of a variety of forms:  a sudden intuitive sense of something your brain hasn’t been able to understand rationally; an encounter with a genre of music you didn’t know existed and which ignites you completely; a new friend with whom you share an instant and inspiring musical rapport.

 

In the meantime you need motivation to keep practicing.  For that to happen, practicing has to feel a bit less like drudgery.

 

 

Kindness to yourself

 

    1. Stretch. Breathe.
      Bring your best self to your work.Take 2-3 minutes to make sure your muscles are loose and your mind is clear.
    2.  

    3. First, play something you feel.Start with your favorite tune.If every tune feels wrong today, make up something that expresses how you’re feeling. 
    4.  

    5. Decide what to work on today.
      You do not have to practice every tune or exercise assigned every time you play. Pick one or two things to focus on today.
    6.  

    7. Get down to work.
      Spend as much time as you can (five minutes, or five hours) on your focus area(s).

       

      This is work, but it should be joyful work. If you get frustrated, take a step back. Stretch tense muscles. Break the hard thing up into smaller chunks, and focus on just one chunk for now.

       

      If you’re having trouble focusing, take another minute to stretch and breathe. Play a slooooooow scale. Stand in front of the mirror and play open strings, watching for straight bowing, or places you’re holding tension in your body, etc.

Read More