Hi, All,

Just wanted to let you know that I just finished my part in recording a new CD, In Sight. As usual, Ed Edwards is recording engineer, lead guitarist, and backup vocalist. The album has fifteen songs, twelve originals and three covers. It should be out in September. I'll write another post when it's up on CD Baby, Amazon, and iTunes.

Sorry I've been quiet for awhile. I've been busy working on the songs for the new album and doing gigs and "conference bard" for several conferences on "positive aging." I'm also learning to play "cigarbox slide guitar," a three-string instrument that has a funky, old-time blues sound. My next-door neighbor Rick is a professional dobro player, so he quickly oriented me to basic slide techniques, and I'm liking the way it sounds. I'm also working with my trumpet teacher to add some muted trumpet lead breaks to my blues songs. Needless to say, I'm still having a blast learning and performing and creating music. 

I just uploaded a new picture in the images section of the website. It was taken just a few weeks ago as I was rocking the audience at a birthday party.

 

Hi, All,

J.J. Cale died of a heart attack on July 26th. He was a master of laid-back rock and roll. When I was learning to play bass in the 1980s, his recordings were my practice staples. Later, when I was learning to play lead electric guitar, I turned to JJ's recordings. I have all 11 of his vinyl LPs.

His main claim to fame was as a song-writer. Several of his songs were mega-hits for Eric Clapton and Lynyrd Skynyrd (After Midnight, Call Me the Breeze, Cocaine) and others were covered by Neil Young, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, Mark Knopfler, and the Allman Brothers. I included Call Me the Breeze on my recent All Aboard album. 

My favorite JJ song is Cajun Moon. I like it so much that I patterned the melody for my song Long-Time Love after it.

JJ was an unpretentious star who liked to perform in small clubs. To get a sense of him as a magnificent song-writer with a light touch and impeccable timing on the guitar, you can see him on Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival CDs and on To Tulsa and Back: On Tour with J.J. Cale, a 2 1/2-hour documentary/concert video.

There is a big hole in my heart today, but it is filled with thoughts of JJ's music. No greater tribute could be made to a songwriter.

Peace,

Bob

 

 

Hi, All,

Just wanted to let you know that an enhanced version of my 2012 house concert video is now available on YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=V0OeUiEuOzA

 

Cheers,

Bob

 

Hi, All,

I read an article in the New York Times today about the tortuous process a man used to create fresh words for songs. Having taught song writing for a few years, I was reminded that each of us has his or her own maze to negotiate if we want to be open to our inner songwriter.

There are as many methods of song-writing as there are people. When I am at my best as a song writer, I surrender to my inner song writer and wait patiently for the words to show up, which they almost always do. But this happens only when I am able to embrace the silence of pure being, for me the source of fresh words. I learned how to do this through many years of meditation. That's my process and it works for me, but I have learned from years of teaching song writing that there are hundreds of methods for writing good songs. The key is to begin writing songs and listen to feedback, first from your supportive self, then from a group of supportive friends, and then from audiences. Audiences are the sandpaper that smoothes out words, music, and delivery.

My most recent song, in progress, is called That Summer and deals with summer love. It started from a simple D-C-G chord progression played on my granddaughter's baritone ukulele. I played this a few times and then words came. "I got up early every morning, and headed down to the square." I knew this was going to be a love song--I don't know how. "To Mitchell's Flower Shop I was going, to the gray-eyed girl working there." Then I messed around with some chords for a chorus and settled on F-G-F-G. Then more words came: "Sun shinining in her golden hair. She led, I followed her anywhere. The smile she offered was just for me. I smiled right back for all to see."

Then what would happen in the story? "And every evening I was waiting, to walk with her to her home. We talked and talked with no hesitating, sharing kisses when we were alone." CHORUS. Then what would happen to a summer romance? "I wished it would last for a lifetime, but we'd been happy that much was clear. Next year we were taking different pathways, but we'd remember what we had there." CHORUS So, how would this play out later? "Last month the school had a big reunion, it's forty years since we'd been there. There was a sweetness to that moment, remembered love in the air." 

Then I wrote a finale chorus: "Sun shining in her graying hair, she was real happy to see me there. We held hands for the briefest time, remembering long-ago summer wine." I bet that most of us have memories of such a summer romance. My inner tuning fork was humming away while I was writing these words.

I will be practicing this new song this week and will perform it for our Vocal Freedom workshop on June 1. I'm sure that it has more evolving to do, but I think this is a good start.

So, how about you? Did this trigger any love song ideas in you? I hope so.

 

 

Hi, All,

Check out the video of Ms. Dynamite at www.youtube.com/watch?v=sf57PbF84bc.

 

John Denver recorded Country Roads in January of 1971 and within six months the song had swept the country, reaching number two on Billboard’s Hot 100 list.  I first heard it on my car radio. I didn’t recognize the voice and hadn’t heard the name.  It took me a while to track down the album, Poems, Prayers and Promises. I wrote down the lyrics to Country Roads and began to experiment with playing the music on my guitar. Much to my delight, a capo and the key of C was all I needed. Amazing.


 

Hi, All,

What a great benefit concert Susan Rose and I presented on February 22. Each of us did ten songs and we finished with a duet of Mary Chapin Carpenter's Why Walk When You Can Fly. We each then did a couple of encore numbers. The crowd was very enthusiastic and ready for what we were offering. The Boulder Friends Meetinghouse is a great venue--terrific acoustics and a nice semi-circular seating pattern.

I have spent the past couple of months practicing and tinkering with some of my old favorites that I think might use improvement. Over the time I have been doing this blog, I have I harped many times on the value of practice and how long it takes to groove in a song to the point that I can perform it with a sense of freedom and spontenaity. My experience has been that after performing a song 10 or 12 times I have the basics of the song down. Just practicing for this many performances means that I have played the song 50 to 70 times. The song becomes like a comfortable shoe that I can dance in without worrying about pinching my toes.

 

Hi, All,

I just uploaded a new rendition of Lost Luggage Blues to YouTube. I'm accompanied by Ed Edwards on the video. It was recorded at a house concert in October, 2012. I hope you like it. Go to YouTube.com and type Bob Atchley Lost Luggage Blues into the search field.

We recorded video of several songs at that concert. James Robinson-Long did a great job of recording and editing the videos. I'll upload more as they become available.

Let me know what you think of the video.

 

Cheers,

Bob

 

Hi, All,

Sorry it's been so long since my last post. I've been crazy-busy practicing and doing performances. I've done three house concerts in the past few weeks, and the amount of time it takes to get ready has dropped a little as I begin, at last, to get pretty grooved in on some of my more popular songs such as Lost Luggage Blues, Ms. Dynamite, and Better Get Packin'.

I also took time out to go to Seattle to spend Thanksgiving with our family. Whenever I'm with our three granddaughters (ages 9, 8, and 6) I enjoy doing various music activities with them. The nine-year-old is a pretty good piano player and I've had a lot of fun demonstrating how to improvise around the chords to Heart and Soul. One of my main Grandpa duties is to make sure that they get lots of opportunitis to make music, not just listen to recordings. All three of them are interested in learning and performing popular songs, so I sometimes help them with that, which is a blast. All three of them are amazingly internet savvy.

More later... 

 

Hi, All,

I just received an amateur video of a house concert I was part of in September. Thanks to Kimberly Shug for doing the video recording. The video provides a glimpse into the atmosphere and crowd factor in house concert, my favorite type of gig.

Here is a YouTube link to the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0OeUiEuOzA. I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think.

 

Hi, All,

Sorry I've been away so long. First, I've been busy playing gigs and promoting the new album, All Aboard. Sales have gone so well that I have had to reorder CDs. That's a good sign. The album is now available through iTunes and Amazon. iTunes has the best and longest samplings of the songs.

In October, I played a short gig at the biennial conference of Sage-ing International at a retreat center just east of Asheville, North Carolina. The audience was large and enthusiastic. The sage-ing idea is all about being open to the wisdom that can come with a lot of life experience. It's an unbelievably positive experience to entertain a group of people who are genuinely open to whatever you bring them. 

Second, I've been doing a lot of work for Organize for America--the Obama campaign. I mostly did data entry--a tedious job but vital to the canvassing and voter turnout effort. I also did some canvassing, most by phone. It was a long and tense election campaign, and I've also signed on to help with next steps. It was inspiring to see how Barack treated us volunteers. We felt genuinely acknowledged and appreciated EVERY step of the way. Of course, there were many priceless and funny stories told at the campaign office, not to mention some wonderful food brought in by supporters. The core staff of the office were an amazingly positive goup of can-do young adults who gave me great hope for the future of American politics. It was all about doing good for the American people. These experiences really drove home for me the President's point in his victory speech when he said that those who participate in the self-government process are fulfilling their civic responsibilities in a tangible way, regardless of their political persuasion.

Next time, I'll get back to the experience of life as a singer-songwriter.

Bye for now.

 

Yippeee, All Aboard is hot off the duplicator. It's my latest CD and consists of five original songs and five covers. I've been blogging about the process for months, so I won't go over that territory. It's there to read if you want it.

 

The new CD is available for download or physical CD purchase right now at www.cdbaby.com/artist/bobatchley

Take a listen. I hope you enjoy it. It's my best yet.

 

House concerts are my favorite venue because the people who attend are there for the music, the setting is intimate, and the rewards are immediate. I was part of a house concert in East Boulder last Friday. We had about 30 people in the audience and five performers did their best work in front of this small but very appreciative crowd. I did a set of up-beat blues songs that had the audience dancing in their seats, laughing in the right places and nodding their heads at the pearls of wisdom.

Everyone can relate to Lost Luggage Blues, which is a funny song about an all-too-common outcome of air travel. They can also relate to the guy in his work cubicle planning his escape in Better Get Packin' and the loneliness of work travel in Not a Soul to Hear Me Cry.  

 

Alright, I confess. I've been watching the London Olympics for the past couple of weeks, along with practicing with Sheila for our next gig.

I watched an interview with Michael Phelps after his final Olympic event. This is what I heard him say. "I came here ready to accept the results of my preparation prior to the Olympics, and the results in my first couple of races were consistent with the preparation I had put in. I feel that accepting this experience as just enabled me to relax and do what I did in the later events."

Here's what I took away as a lesson for me. When we perform, we are always doing our best on that day, given what we have put into preparation. Even if we prepare to the max we can still have a bad day. Being able to accept what happened and learn from it is a key to letting go of it and approaching the next event (song) with hope.

By and large, Olympic athletes don't quit. If they screw up they pick themselves up and come back with a better performance the next time. But remember, every one of them has put in hundreds if not thousands of reps in practice. 

I remember listening to Stevie Ray Vaughn, the great bluesman, talk about practicing until his fingers bled. I have taken practice that far and I don't recommend it--takes too long to heal--but it does speak to the results we can get when we are dedicated to practice.

Another important point: If we want to improve, we have to learn from experience.

Sheila is my role model. I tend to play through my song list and note the mistakes for future reference. Sheila wants to go over the song until we can do it smoothly without mistakes. This is a better method because we finish our practice with a mental movie of ourselves performing well. Repetition is our friend.

 

When I was a boy, "gigging" meant going to a pond and spearing frogs with a long pronged implement called a gig. But musicians long ago adopted this word to refer to performances. "I have a gig on Friday," "I've been gigging a lot lately."

I've been gigging a fair amount lately, and how those opportunities arose is the subject here.

I was attending a "Positive Aging Luncheon" in Boulder, and I mentioned that I offer song-writing workshops. About a week later I got an email asking if I could do a workshop. Ten days later I did a workshop and brief performance after.

I strongly believe that everyone can express themselves in poetry, poetry has rhythm (usually), and with words and rhythm you have two of the three necessary elements of a song. I ask the participants to write five song titles, then we share. This always makes the point that songs can be about anything, literally. Then I ask them to choose the title that speaks to them the most and write a few lines that elaborate on that title. Then we share and learn a lot about our fellow participants. These are always experiences of happiness, sadness, humor, poignancy and hope. Then I get a volunteer to let us try to put music to the lyrics. We talk about mood (major/minor key), rhythm, and emotional tone. I illustrate various points with examples from my own songs.

The feedback I get from the participants: "Fun workshop,"" I didn't know I had it in me,"" Thank you for such a wonderful gift,"'I wish we had had more time." Of course, people don't come to a workshop on songwriting by accident. They come to the workshop open to possibility. My job is to mid-wife those possibilities.

Another example: I received an email inviting me to an engagement party for a friend's daughter and her intended husband. I ran into my friend a couple of days later and asked,"do you want some music for the party?" The result was a tailor-made after-dinner concert of songs meant to inspire the betrothed couple (do people still talk this way?) and also poke a little fun at the groom-to-be. The audience of about thirty was hanging on every word and moving to the beat. For a performer and songwriter, it doesn't get better than that. It also is something many people will remember about the party. Note that it all started with an established connection between friends. Nearly all of my gigs happen because I already have a relationship with the sponsor. I've learned to not be shy about what I offer and to assume that people might want what I have to give. So far this approach has led to just about the right number of gigs.

 

Hi, All,

I've been busy for the past few weeks putting the finishing touches on my next CD. Im calling the album All Aboard to acknowledge the railroad theme of the cover art (see the railroad photos in the Photo Gallery section) and the first song-- I Know You Rider. In the train-hopping hobo days of the Great Depression, a rider was a railcar one rode in or on.

For my first two albums, Life Lessons and Bob's Blues, I included only songs I wrote. For this new album, I'm including five original songs and five "covers"--songs written by others and recorded by me.

As usual, I am working with Ed Edwards of Summit Road Studio in Parker, Colorado--just south of Denver. He is the recording engineer and mixer, background and lead guitar player, background vocalist, and djembe (African drum) player. He is a great fit for me. Not only is he an amazing musician, he gets the emotional tone and message of my songs and creates musical settings for my vocals that go far beyond my abilities as an instrumentalist.

My wife Sheila recorded background vocals for You Can Tell Me Your Secrets, the last song on the new album. She was new to the recording studio experience, but she caught on quickly and we sound great together. We've been singing together for 35 years, but this is the first time it's been recorded. The words of the chorus tell it all:

You can tell me your secrets, and I can tell you mine

The trust this creates keeps us going just fine

We're walking this road together; it's a mighty good time

All Aboard should be available sometime in September. Don't worry, I'll be sure to let you know. :-)

 

Hi, All,

I can't believe it's been so long since my last post. Sorry.

Right after my last entry, the Art of Vocal Freedom workshopers put on a marvelous Singer-Songwriter Showcase at the Friends Meetinghouse in Boulder, Colorado. There were 9 of us, each of us did two songs, and each delivered his or her best performance yet.

One of the great things about showcases like this is that the audience comes specifically to hear you, not to socialize during the music. Because most of the people know at least one of the performers, they are very open to enjoying what they hear. In short, this is a warm and fuzzy group. I posted some photos of this show in my photo gallery today. You can tell by looking that we were having a good time.

Maintaining a balance of songwriting, practicing, performing, recording, and outreach has been difficult. There is no piece of this that can be put on the back burner for long. Parkinson's Law of the singer-songwriter life (according to Bob Atchley) says that any of these elements can expand to occupy 125% of your available time. So a good bit of self-discipline is required to allocate precious time to each of the core elements to maintain the synergy among them. You've got to love it. Fortunately, I do.

 

On Wednesday I went down to Summit Road Studio to record two more songs for my upcoming album. I've decided to call the album All Aboard! and use a picture that's in my photo gallery for the cover. Can you guess which one?

 

Hi, All,

Today I posted a new song, Skiing Copper Mountin, in the Audio section of the website. Check it out.

 

Hi, All,

Happy Mother's Day to all of you mothers. I was raised by my mother's mother, so you might say that I had the benefit of two mothers, which I consider a great blessing. My father left when I was an infant, so my 70-year-old grandmother traveled by train across the country to take care of me while my mother worked. (The story of this is the basis for my song Robbie.)

Whatever good qualities I have today can be traced back to these two amazing women. Even though we were a nomadic little family that moved every few months and lived in several states by the time my grandmother died when I was nine, I was given a strong sense of the family I descended from. My grandmother's favorite way to get me to sleep was to rub my back while she told me stories about our family. The details of those stories were not as important as the sense that we were strong people who could cope with whatever life brought. We could also be joyful. My grandmother gave birth to 13 children, and when she came to live with us only three of them were still living. But she could dance a mean jig, despite her arthritis, and occasionally play her small fretless banjo.

Probably the greatest gift I received from my mother was that despite my many shortcomings--I was a kid after all--she praised my good points and solidly believed that I would "amont to something." I survived in part by remembering her belief until I could get the experience needed to have belief in myself. Thank you Mom.

So if you love your kids and they know it; if you believe in your kids and they know it; and if you hug your kids no matter how old they are--you are one of the most important people in the world.

 

Hi, All,

I had a great time in England. The conference I went there to attend was terrific, attended by a mix of scholars from the UK and the US. I shared a little fo my music and several people asked for copies of lyrics, always a good sign.

The primary purpose of the conference was to develop a book about spirituality and aging that could jump-start the study of the subject around the world--a worthy goal, indeed. My job was to provide an overview of spirituality as a field of study as well as a field of personal exploration and how these topics intersect with aging, especially in the inner psychological world of the individual. In the process, I used lyrics from several of my songs --Pay Close Attention, Long-time Love, The Journey, We're Awake, and When We Come Home. So, even though I consider my academic writing a separate thing from my music, they bleed together in constructive ways, and I'm happy with that. Life is a whole thing, after all.

 

Here I am in Windsor, England. For the past couple of weeks, I have been preparing a speech/singing program I've been invited to do for an international conference on Spirituality and Aging, which is being held in a very old conference center in the Great Park, which is adjacent to Windsor Castle. I'll write more later about how the gig goes.

On the plane over (long, bumpy 9-hr flight, no sleep) I talked with my seat-mate Rick Moody, a friend who is very involved in something called "Positive Aging." Rick has been following my emerging new career as a singer-songwriter and has seen me perform a few times. Sharing with Rick the purposes of my new career and what I offer not only updated a good friend about what has been going on with me, but it is good marketing strategy. Rick has lots of connections, and if he runs across someone who wants someone to open a house concert, put live music into a professional conference, or introduce people to song-writing, he will probably recommend me. 

I have lots of friends in the gerontology world, where I worked for 40 years, and many of them are fans of my music. I've had more success marketing my music through this network than any other strategy I've tried. I'm glad I didn't make the mistake of assuming that my gerontology friends wouldn't be interested in my music. The thing is, they KNOW me, so that predisposes them to give the music a listen.

How about that!

 

Yesterday at 7:30 am, I met photographer David Page and his assistant Elle for a photo shoot at the small and informal but visually rich railroad museum just off Valmont Rd in Boulder. It was cold, but I had a blast playing and singing on the platform of an old passenger car, while David took a copious number of pictures. I have never played for a camera before. The raw shots he showed me looked great, and I'm hoping to to have some decent photos to use in the website and for promotional material. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say.

After that, I went down to the Wildflower School of Voice in Boulder for my monthly teaching session with Rebecca Folsom. When I opened for Rebecca at a house concert in December of last year, I had a breakthrough. I came to the realization that for me the vocal is what leads. The guitar, backup singers, and other instruments serve the vocal. That means that once I establish the rhythm for the song, I can lay in guitar as highlights and let the vocal carry the song. This works well for me, but it's another reason I have to be really good friends with the song. So in my session yesterday, I played one of my fast blues songs, Better Get Packin', and this approach worked extremely well. It was like dancing with myself. It also makes the performance much more dynamic.

I am very aware of how far I have come over just the past year. Not that I don't still have a lot of room for improvement, but I'm approaching a "really good" level of performance, and that is EXTREMELY satisfying. I don't feel like I'm pushing myself. I just keep playing, singing, listening to feedback and writing songs and improvement happens. Always.

 

My wife Sheila has been my love-song muse since the mid-1970s. Lucky Man was the first love-song that I recorded, way back in 1976. At the time I wrote it, Sheila and I were teaching at different universities located about 200 miles apart. We saw each other only every couple of weeks. I missed her, and I used song writing as a way to be in touch with her. Lucky Man is about a man reflecting about his love and how lucky he is to have found her.

 

Late at night, when midnight's come and gone

Amid the rain and smokey blues, I daydream

Warm, at peace, and in love I feel

And she's done that for me

 

Knows where she wants to go, outgrown where she's been

It was hard to leave the past, but leaving it made me a lucky man

 

I recorded the latest version of this song in 2010 and it is on my Life Lessons album.

Whenever Sheila and I listen to this song, we are taken back to that time in our life together and to the feelings that created our relationship. All of it still rings true to both of us more than 35 years later. So songs can be a kind of memory aid. Songs are registered in a different part of the brain than other kinds of memories.

Around the time of our 34th anniversary, I was working on the Life Lessons album. I was ruminating about what a great thing it is to be intensely aware of the breadth and depth of loving someone for a long time. Here's the song I wrote, called Long-time Love:

Long-time love, it is the sweetest kind

Permeates your body, infiltrates your mind

Long-time love, it's through and through

Long-time love, it's me and you


Long-time love, it is amazing grace

It lights up the eyes, softens up the face

Long-time love, it's through and through

Long-time love, it's me and you


Lont-time love, it's always there to be

It shapes what you feel, it shapes what you see

Long-time love, it's through and through

Long-time love, it's me and you


This song tells essential truths for me--a bounty from the love-song state of mind--getting in touch with what's real about love. It is not a romantic place so much as a place where I focus on what is important. I get enormous joy from putting myself in the love-song state of mind and waiting to see what comes up. It's always good stuff, even if it doesn't turn into a song.

 

Hi, All,

Sorry for the hiatus this week. I have a writing/speaking gig in England the first of May, and I had to spend most of this week writing.

I have a music gig today, so as usual I have been finding time to practice this week. Did I tell you that I practice a lot? Ok, enough of that. I'm playing at the retirement community where my mother-in-law lives. A couple of years ago I helped her write a song, Thank You Girls, for her two daughters as a Christmas present, so this week I've been practicing with her so she can sing it for her friends in the retirement community as part of my gig. She's a sweet person, and I love her dearly. Writing the song gave her a chance to say thanks to her daughters in a way that she wouldn't have been able to otherwise.

The Activities Coordinator said I should just play whatever I want and not feel that I need to play oldies, so I'm going to do a couple of sing-alongs and then launch into some up-beat blues. I'll let you know how it turns out.

We got some bad news here in Boulder County this week. The Rock N Soul Cafe in Boulder closed. It was an important venue for new bands and fledgling singer-songwriters. It struggled over most of its seven year life to make a financial go of it, and the owners finally had to give up. It was a reminder that offering live music is a tough way to make a living.

I hope you are having a wonderful Spring. The sun is shining beautifully here today. Gotta Go.

 

Hi, All,

Ok, so you may have read my rant about how much I need to practice to perform with confidence. At this point I have a list of songs that I have performed that numbers about 50. How could I possibly practice all those songs ten times every week? I couldn't. 

I always seem to be preparing for a gig, a recording session, or a performance workshop, so I practice the songs that I will need to be "up" on in the near future (to extent that I can predict the future).

I've been working on a new CD, which involves ten songs--five originals and five covers. I have been practicing these ten songs every day for about a month and am reasonably ready to perform them at any time.

I also have a Performance Workshop coming up soon and need to prepare a couple of songs for that, so those go on the daily list.

Yesterday I got a call asking me to do a one-hour gig on a week from Saturday. This will partly be a sing-along, so I have to add about six songs to my daily practice list for the next week. The good news is that these are all great songs that are fun to play. For example, I'm going to do Buddy Holly's Every Day, which is about as easy to learn as you can get. I'll also be doing a bunch of cowboy songs that I've been singing since I was a teenager (somewhere near the dawn of recorded time). 

For some reason, I'm not worried about all this. It still seems well within my capacity. Maybe my capacity is increasing. Wouldn't that be nice.

You all take care and remember that I want to hear from you.

Cheers,

Bob

 

Zen Guitar, by Philip Toshio Sudo, is one of my favorite music books. Here is a short excerpt: Guitar playing is a physical activity that demands training...The body must acquire an intelligence of its own. The muscles must learn to move in new and disciplined ways. Physical challenges force the mind to confront obstacles: pain, fatigue, self-doubt...The mind must forge discipline and endurance...and teach the hands to fight through discomfort. When the body wants to quit, the mind has to step in and say no (p.43).

When the ego is drowning in frustration, your pure being knows that all is as it must be. Try to be connected to pure being as much as you can.

Sudo says that the aim in guitar playing is naturalness, being in the natural flow of the music. We overcome self-consciousness and develop naturalness by practicing. Practicing allows our muscles to develop their own intelligence so they can act alongside thought naturally. The progression toward this naturalness is no different than when we first learn other skills like driving or typing. As beginning drivers or typists, we feel terribly self-conscious, tentative, and awkward. With practice, though, our muscles no longer rely on the mind and eventually these activities become as ordinary as walking. We can do them naturally. So it is with various aspects of guitar playing.

Zen Guitar is not a book about guitar technique. It is a book about an attitude you can bring to guitar playing. This perspective applies to song-writing and singing, too, in my experience.

 

Confidence is an essential element of good performance. Confidence allows me to go with the flow, to let my body do what it knows how to do--sing and play the guitar. For me, confidence is not just an attitude. It is not based on being sure I can give a perfect performance. It is faith that I can cope with what comes. Confidence comes from having successfully coped with mistakes, forgotten lyrics, failed sound systems, poor monitors, and a host of other distractions.

Confidence's greatest enemy is fear--fear of not remembering lyrics, of not playing the guitar parts well, of not achieving the vocal quality I want, of not being in sync with my fellow performers, etc. The mind can come up with a seemingly endless series of things to be afraid of. 

When I came back to on-stage performing in 2007, I signed up for an open mic at Canon Mine Coffee Shop in Lafayette Colorado. I practiced a few times for this gig but was very apprehensive about being able to deal with all the unknowns--remembering lyrics, coping with poor feedback from on-stage monitors, or dealing with distracting crowd noise. The open mic slots are 20 minutes, which for me is enough time to do about five songs. There was no sound check, and when my turn came, I could not hear myself in the monitor. The crowd was noisy and inattentive. I launched into my first song, a John Prine favorite called Paradise, and after the first verse there was a total blank where the words for the second verse should be. I panicked. I played chords until I remembered the third verse and sang that. On the second song--one of my own compositions called Not a Soul to Hear Me Cry, I did pretty well with the lyrics, but my fingers felt like telephone poles and I couldn't do all the nice riffs that are part of this blues song. By the time I got to the last verse, the panic had risen to the point that I literally couldn't continue, so I just ended abruptly. With each terrible performance, I got worse. After four songs, I said thank you and left the stage, mortified.

Remember the old joke. "Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?" " Sure. Practice, practice, practice." This open mic experience had confirmed the truth of this punch line.

Not only did I need to practice my material to the point that I could do it on "automatic pilot," I needed to experience bad sound systems and crowd distractions multiple times. I made it a rule to practice my set at least 10 times before each gig. I practice "fancy" and "plain" guitar accompaniment, so if my motor skills are not up to fancy today, I can effortlessly switch to plain. I played at a variety of venues and came to expect that there would always be some hassle to contend with and that I could handle it.

The panic has not disappeared, it is just laying low. Warming up loosens me up physically and steadies my breathing. During performances, I move with the music to lessen the chances that I will freeze up. I have practiced to the point that I can keep going no matter what. This gives me a certain level of detachment, and I know from experience that I don't need to give in to the fear that may pop up. I now have faith in my ability to roll with what happens and not panic at the first sign of fear. I've learned to dance well with fear as my sometime partner. With this faith, I can perform confidently.

 

 On Wednesday I went down to Parker to Summit Road Studio to record some new tracks and talk about my next album. I've decided to go for ten songs--five original songs and five covers. Early on I had a big backlog of original songs that I wanted to get out there. Now I want to go back to some of my favorite cover songs (songs someone else wrote, but that I perform in my own style). 

I'm working with Ed Edwards again. Ed is a master of many aspects of music creation, arranging, and recording and a wonderful collaborator (he plays lead guitar, does backup vocal harmonies, and plays the Djembe drum on my songs). He really "gets" what I'm trying to do in my songs, and his contributions create musical "frames" for my songs, which in themselves are usually quite simple. The day I met Ed was the single most important turning point in my recording career. We are ideally suited to partner up on my projects.

This session was devoted to my performing several of the songs I am considering for the album and getting Ed's feedback, recording a "scratch tape" of Stand By Me so Ed can work on the musical arrangement, and next time I will do the final vocal. I also laid down my basic rhythm guitar part and vocal for Ghost Riders in the Sky and for an old J.J. Cale song called They Call Me the Breeze. I'm always amazed at how much I'm energized by this process. But when it's over I sometimes wonder how I'm going the scare up the energy to make the hour-long drive home. Usually with the help of a strong cup of coffee.

I keep coming back to music over and over because it raises my spirits and energy. I bet it does that for you, too. What's your experience with music and spirits and energy? I'd like to hear from you about that.

 

Last summer I was asked to do a song-writing activity with campers and staff of a small day camp for teenagers with a variety of physical and developmental challenges. After watching the campers and staff for an hour or so, I got a sense of the open and loving approach the staff took in encouraging the kids. That fit right in with my inclusive approach to songwriting. I only had 90 minutes. There were 12 campers and 5 staff, so I decided to see if we could write a "camp song" together.

We started with the title. I asked them how they would describe their experience at the camp. A young girl said, "It's like a Thanksgiving every day." A boy said, "It's like your birthday." Lots of heads nodding in agreement with both ideas. I said, "How about 'It's a holiday birthday summer'?" A beautiful young girl in a wheelchair pumped her fist in the air and gave a loud "Yeah!" "OK," I said, "It's a Holiday Birthday Summer, Yeah!" Everyone laughed and some of the kids jumped up and down in their seats. We had our title.

Then I asked them to tell me about some of the things they had done at camp that they liked. From their answers, I wrote down the following verse:

We like going swimming and doing the canonball

We like the carousel and going to the gardens

We like ice-cream and going on on field trips

We like being here with many new friends

Along the way they mentioned "pranks" they had pulled on the staff (with active encouragement of the other staff). It also seemed that the camp director was someone they didn't mess with. Out of all that came this verse:

We bandaged up Sean and sponge-bombed Heidi

We teased "old" Connie, pinned the tail on Cory

But we don't mess around with Quinn

No, we don't mess around with Quinn

 

I used a simple C-G7 progression for the chorus, with four repetitions of the mantra:

It's a holiday birthday summer, yeah!

For the verses I used an F-G (moving F up a step to get G). The song structure was:

Chorus

Verse one

Chorus

Verse two

Chorus

Now, here comes the coolest part. We then practiced the song with everyone singing. After only one or two repetitions, everyone was in the groove. We kept on going for five or six times through. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that a small crowd of Rec Center users was gathering just outside the door to the room and that bunch of smiling people was the audience for our little concert.

I typed the words and chords on my laptop, printed them out, and showed one of the staff people how to play the chords on her iPad's Garage Band App using "smart guitar."

I heard they sang their camp song every day from then on.

 

It’s a Holiday Birthday Summer                                    Leisure Links Camp, 2011

 

C                                       G7

It’s a holiday birthday summer, yeah!

It’s a holiday birthday summer, yeah!

It’s a holiday birthday summer, yeah!

It’s a holiday birthday summer, yeah!

 

F                                   G

We like to go swimming and doing the cannonball

We like the carousel and going to the gardens

We like ice-cream and going on field trips

We like being here with many new friends

 

It’s a holiday birthday summer, yeah!

It’s a holiday birthday summer, yeah!

It’s a holiday birthday summer, yeah!

It’s a holiday birthday summer, yeah!

 

F                                 G

We bandaged up Sean and sponge-bombed Heidi,

We teased “old” Connie, pinned the tail on Cory

 C                     G7                  C

But we don’t mess around with Quinn

No, we don’t mess around with Quinn

 

It’s a holiday birthday summer, yeah!

It’s a holiday birthday summer, yeah!

It’s a holiday birthday summer, yeah!

It’s a holiday birthday summer, yeah!

 


 

In my earlier life as a performer and song writer (1965-2005), I labored under the misimpression that I could do it myself--that it was just a matter of practicing enough and listening to recordings of myself. The first clue I got that this was a very limiting perspective came when I began to attend monthly sing-alongs in Boulder in 2001. Once a month a group of 15 to 25 singers and players got together to have fun. We sat in a circle and took turns calling the song we would sing. Most of the time we picked songs from Rise Up Singing, an excellent compilation of folk music. 

I learned several valuable lessons from three years of attending these sing-alongs. First, I had a lot to learn about playing guitar, and from watching the others I learned how to change keys and how to play in different keys. I learned that the finger-style guitar that I played when I sang at parties did not create enough volume to carry when I was trying to lead a big group with a bunch of other guitars. Welcome to flat picking, Bob. I also learned that I didn't know most of my preferred songs well enough to lead them and at the same time play and sing them. I began to let the other pickers play and I just sang lead. I had spent several years on the staff of a Scout Camp in my late teens and was the camp song leader, so the song leader role was familiar. I also learned how to play with other guitarists, to blend in. All of these experiences and new skills were very important when I went to Song School. I came prepared to perform in ensembles.

After Song School in 2008, at the suggestion of Rebecca Folsom I teamed up with Ed Edwards, an experienced music engineer and virtuoso guitarist, to produce a 17-song CD. My initial intention was just to do a simple "demo" that I could give to my family so that if I kicked off, my grandkids would have a way to remember Grandpa's performing. But as I began to get Ed's finished mixes, I realized that we had something much better than I had anticipated and I took the steps to turn this work into a real CD--Life Lessons. I put it on CDBaby, which meant that it also went to iTunes and Amazon.

I went to one of Rebecca Folsom's gigs at a Boulder venue and gave her the CD. She mentioned that she was leading a performance workshop for singer-songwriters and I might like to join. I signed up then and there.

The workshop puts together 8 to 10 performers and singer-songwriters who want to work on their songwriting and performance skills. The workshops go for about four months, meeting monthly for an all-day workshop, working like hell in between, and at the end of the "term" performing a show, usually called and "Singer-Songwriter Showcase." I have been part of this workshop for two years, and the impact on all aspects of my music career has been stunning. One of my performer friends joined the workshop, saying "I heard Bob before, and I heard him after, and I wanted some of that."

So why has this workshop experience been so effective in accelerating my evolution as a singer-songwriter-performer?

 

Here's the scene:

I am scheduled to give a speech on spirituality and aging to a conference of librarians in Portland, Oregon. As often happens, I have a whole morning before I have to present. I have my baritone ukulele with me--it's easier to deal with on planes. I have a pad of paper and pencil. I have a song title I have been mulling over for a few days--Ms Dynamite. The title came to me from watching my wife, Sheila. She's a can-do person who sees things that need doing in the world and does them. That's one of the things I love about her.

So, I'm in my nicely appointed hotel room on the fourth floor overlooking a beautiful park with lots of very tall old trees. The sun is shining intermittently, as it often does in Portland. Looking at my title, I think "This song needs a lot of energy, so I'll try a blues shuffle." I try a shuffle in E. Yeah, that's it, and the words start coming...

E She's a whirlwind of energy, a mass of concentration

A7 When she puts her mind to a task, she'll brook no intervention

E She keeps her sense of humor BUT no mistaking her intention

A7 I call her Ms Dynamite, the mistress of invention

E Ms Dynamite B7 Ms TNT A7 renewable energy E Ms Dynamite

 

I run through this segment a couple of times and it seems to work. Then more words come and I hurriedly write them down.

 

If you need something organized, if you need to find what's right

If you need a bigger heart, or someone to share your fight 

If you need someone to welcome folks, or someone with INsight

The mistress of invention's here, I call her dynamite

Ms Dynamite, Ms TNT, renewable energy, Ms Dynamite

 

If you need to raise some money for a wholly worthy cause

If you need to raise a crowd to get some much-needed applause

If you need someone to make a pitch without a single pause

Ms Dynamite can bring it off without breaking any laws

Ms Dynamite, Ms TNT, renewable energy, Ms Dynamite

Ms Dynamite, Ms TNT, renewable energy, Ms Dynamite

 

About thirty minutes have gone by and I have a new song.

This happened about 18 months ago, and since then I have performed this song many times and just recently recorded it. It's always a crowd favorite, because everyone knows a Ms Dynamite and can relate.

The lessons in this for me are that songs don't have to be long to be true and songs can come out fully formed. I love it when that happens. 



 

When my grandson Benjamin was born two years and four months ago, I was able to be there. I had been in Atlanta at a convention, and had scheduled to come home to Denver through Cincinnati on the off chance that Benji would come on his due date. He was delivered at home after a grueling 30-hour labor, but the baby and his mother Melissa were well. As I held the four-hour-old baby, I could hear him singing as he breathed. It was a sweet little two-note song. I got my guitar and found the notes. Over the next day, I built an instrumental song (so far) around his singing. He was a deep red and had lots of dark hair, which suggested a Native American motif for the song. So between a riff built around his song, there is a "chorus" that suggests Indian drumbeats.

Every time I play this song or hear my recording of it, I am powerfully transported back to that experience. This is how song writing can actually document your life's experience and be a powerful anchor for memory.


 

Today, I'm going to talk about practice. I have a performance session with my teacher, Rebecca Folsom, tomorrow, so for the past several days I have been practicing a list of seven songs that I want to consider adding to my set list. In our performance sessions, I set up my little stage in the basement--two-channel amp, lights, etc.--so we can simulate an actual performance as much as possible. This ritual has helped me immeasurably in getting used to working under lights and being comfortable with sound systems. I have learned how to dance around a microphone and still stay on it so the sound is even.

 

As Robert C. Atchley, I enjoyed a very successful career as a university professor, research center director, author and speaker. I won awards for my teaching, writing, and mentoring. I published 28 books, including the all-time best selling textbook in my field. My most recent book, Spirituality and Aging, was published in 2009.

In 2007 I retired from my academic career and took a year off. During that time, I didn't take on any new projects and let myself relax into finding my natural rhythm. What time did I naturally get up in the morning? What kind of pace seemed natural for me during the day? Among the many things I like to do, which ones raised my energy most?

In college, back in the late 1950s, I sang folk songs at local bars and at parties as part of a Kingston Trio "copy band." From then on, I never went long without playing through my set list and adding new songs. I played at talent shows and often took my guitar to professional meetings and played at parties. In the 60s I got most of my material from the Old Town School of Folk Music song book, and in the 70s I added several John Denver songs.

In the mid-70s I wrote my first songs and began to perform them. Not a Soul to Hear Me Cry (originally titled On the Road Again, but Willy Nelson upstaged me on that title) was one of the first songs I recorded in 1976, along with Lucky Man. The blues song Not a Soul to Hear Me Cry was based on my experiences of life on the road as a lecturer, spending time in impersonal hotels in towns full of strangers. Lucky Man is a love song I wrote about my wife, who has been my love-song muse for more than 35 years. Just before we married, we were teaching at different universities and saw each other only every couple of weeks. I wrote Lucky Man in part as a way to put into music what I loved about her. I got into a habit of writing songs about our relationship and playing them for her as another wavelength to communicate on. It was heart to heart communication, and those songs still put us in a great place.

When I retired I started to play guitar more and began working on my set list, mixing old stand-byes with my original songs. I performed at sing-alongs and at open mics. I found that whenever my energy got a little low, I could pick up my guitar and start playing and within five minutes my energy and vitality would be exactly where I wanted them to be. At some point, I realized that I had been dabbling in music my whole life, but now I felt drawn to take it to a new level of commitment. I did not expect this to be easy. My guitar skills are limited by my motor coordination. No matter how much I practice, I can only play so fast and do it with grace. My voice is pleasant, but not remarkable. My greatest strength is based in my writing ability. I have a way with words. Or better yet, words have a way with me. I seem to be able to channel emotions through words. I have learned a lot from life and have things to say about that. I love the blues form deep in my bones.

In 2008 a friend of mine, Steve Clark, urged me to try the Song School. I live in Boulder County, Colorado, so the Song School at Planet Bluegrass in nearby Lyons was easy to say yes to. The Song School brings about 175 aspiring singer-songwriters together with about 30 professionals--song writers, touring singer-songwriters, producers, voice teachers, guitar teachers--for four long days of intense learning. The students were from all age groups and a good mix of women and men. They came from all over the country, as did the instructors. Workshops dealt with various aspects of song writing, performing, and the business end of being a working performer and song writer. 

It was great being with a large group of people who were all pursuing similar dreams. I was impressed that we ALL had something to offer. This experience was the beginning of my inclusive philosophy of teaching song writing. I also learned that I had something to offer. In my first mentoring session with a big-name touring singer-songwriter, she cried (in a good way) when I performed my song Time Goes Too Fast. In the workshops, I got good response to my song I Miss Your Gentle Voice. People liked what I had to say and how I put it to music. I was often paralyzed by stage fright, but this was a very patient and forgiving crowd, and I began my journey of pushing thorough fear--which has steadily gotten easier. Just when I think it's past me, it comes back and bites me on the ass, but I know now that I can get through it.

At the end of my first Song School experience, I knew what my next career would be, and I had clear ideas about how I might make it happen. My view of a career is very different now from what I thought about careers in my twenties. I have none of the pressures to make a living doing music. I see it as a way of serving myself and others. I bring happiness, insight, and body motion to my audiences. In return I have a sense of purpose and meaning that resonates deeply in me. I am very lucky to love what I do in my current career as a singer-songwriter, performer, and song-writing teacher. Life is good.



 

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