Friday, March 7, 2014

Rhythm Guitar Lesson

I've been teaching guitar lessons professionally for around 15 years, and certain things keep coming up. I've been wanting for a long time to record the core set of lessons that I teach various students on day one. I can't teach every student everything, but there are a dozen or so ways to get started playing guitar. Each approach has a different focus.

Here's the first of the series:

Of course, there are a lot of details not covered in the video. So here I'm sharing further notes that touch on things I typically cover in the next several lessons (with varying amount of detail, depending on each student).

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Homage to Pete Seeger 1919-2014

Today, I reflect on the passing of one of my few great heroes. Pete Seeger was first and foremost known as a musician, but he was much more than that. For Pete,
music was a vehicle. At his core, he was an activist for cross-cultural understanding, civil rights, a healthy environment, love, justice, and inclusion.

In my own essay about my teaching approach, I  quoted from Pete's guitar book which somehow cut right to the core in a way none of the other 400+ guitar books I've read have done. His sense of perspective was just wonderful, and he cared about people more than about music.

I don't need to provide any biographical overview here as Pete has been, thankfully, recognized and honored by millions of people. The Wikipedia page linked from the picture above goes through the details. The simple fact is: the core energy that Pete had was unfortunately unusual. He was a man of deep integrity who lived all his life working for a better world.

I grew up listening to his music and conscious of his notable roles in the civil rights, environment, anti-war, and labor movements. Still, it wasn't until I began my own deep explorations of folk musics from around the world and struggling with my own feelings about my music career that I really came to appreciate Pete more deeply.

As a musician, Pete was the essence of what I call being expressive instead of impressive. Im- means in. To impress someone means that the energy goes inward from them to you. By contrast, to be expressive means to send your energy out as a gift to others. That is the core of Pete Seeger as a musician: a performer who didn't care about his performance. Every element of his music was about tearing down any walls between himself and his audience. Unlike other sing-along concerts and pop music idolatry, nothing about a Pete Seeger experience was contrived. He cared only about making everyone else feel appreciated, welcome, and connected. He wanted nothing more and nothing less than for everyone in the world to join together in harmony, recognize our common human heritage, and work together for peace and justice worldwide.

I could go on and on about how the core values that Pete expressed inspire me and provide such a great model for a life well-lived. For what it's worth, I know Pete would celebrate the cultural freedom and open participation that I am promoting now through my website:

Pete Seeger lived a humble and sincere life of great service. I encourage everyone to learn about his legacy and continue the important work needed to achieve a peaceful, healthy world where we can all sing together in harmony while celebrating our connections with each other and the rest of living things as well as our marvelous diversity.

Addendum: Probably the best example of Pete other the prototypical examples of his most famous songs, All Mixed Up written in 1960:

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Move to Oregon, announcing

Up to now, I've been negligent in updating this site in 2013. Here's the brief explanations and highlights:

After 15 years of teaching in the Ann Arbor, MI area, nearly moving on to various other directions over the years (a time in a touring rock/jazz/jam band that was also a barbershop quartet, an almost move to California for a PhD), I've moved on to a new stage. My wife got a fellowship position through Portland State University and, on unfortunately short notice, we moved 2,300 miles across the country to our new home in Oregon City. We don't know how long-term this is, whether we'll stay in Oregon after this or what.

I plan to keep teaching here and may try video-chat lessons over the internet, although I know that won't be the same and won't work as well for certain sorts of lessons.

Most importantly, this move has allowed me to focus on the major project that has become my main passion over the last year:

I've avoided making big announcements as the site is still in early development, but we're starting to reach out to more people now. We're especially interested in finding volunteers who support our vision.

In summary, the purpose of is to be a platform which will bring together communities of supporters to help creative projects of all sorts that will all be of the highest ethical standards. The projects we support will all be free to everyone to access, modify, and share. They won't have obnoxious ads nor spy on you. The way we envision achieving this is by a new type of matching pledge system to bring everyone together to fund development. Visit the site to read about the details.

Aside from the hassles of moving, most of my time has recently been spent on Learning some programming and other new skills has been challenging and fascinating. I've met many amazing and interesting people and communities.

Still, if you happen to be near Oregon City and interested in guitar lessons, or want to try online lessons, let me know! Teaching has always been and continues to be my passion. I just hope to be able to share my insights and resources more widely with the whole world with the support of once we have it actually operational.

Thanks especially to all my students in Michigan who I had the privilege of teaching over so many years! I wish you all the very best, be in touch!

I'm not sure what the future of this site will be, but if you want to keep up with my progress in the near future, get involved with us at

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Screencast: scary sounds with Audacity

Today I made my first screencast using my KXStudio GNU/Linux system.

In Audacity, use any random sounds (import any recordings or make new ones). Go to Effects - Change Speed and choose a very slow speed. Add echos and reverbs and other effects to taste, the more reverb the better. That's it!

Video editing done in Kdenlive.
Read more about these and other Free/Libre Open Source audio and other software at my Software Recommendations and more page.

Happy Halloween!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Framework for Studying Human Experience


I've always felt in-touch with both holistic and analytical ways of seeing the world. Breaking things down into distinct parts can be a valuable way to make sense of reality. But human cognition does not have the capacity to deal with great numbers of broken parts all at once — let alone the capacity to recognize how the parts could fit back together again. Sometimes, we need to step back and try to take in the whole picture. When we then return to analyze separate parts, we may not be able to comprehend all the connections, but we can at least try to keep context in mind while looking at any particular item.

I have always been interested in music, but as a student, I was uncomfortable with the degree to which music study seemed divorced from broader context. In the years since finishing my Bachelor of Music, I've grappled with cross-disciplinary questions that led me to study physics, biology, psychology, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, and other fields. I can't claim expertise in these areas, but I've learned a lot. And through my studies, I have gained insights into music which seem more profound and valuable than the things I learned in my music courses.

Recently, I've been considering a return to academia, but I've struggled with choosing the right direction. I now recognize that there are many angles to get at the same questions, and I want to be sure that any program I pursue has a good perspective on how different fields of inquiry fit together.

One of my main concerns is the apparently persistent divide between science and humanities. I appreciate much of what I've seen at conferences and such, but I often feel that the bias for certain angles of study is greater than what would be expected just because people have their particular specialties. Humanities folks (a group which includes the majority of music-related researchers) seem to make everything about culture. Of course, there have been countless debates about universals versus cultural differences, debates about different approaches to scholarly inquiry, debates about nature versus nurture, and so on. There is enough material for scholars to make entire careers out of just studying the history of these debates as a meta-topic. Trying to make sense of all of this, I've developed my own framework to address the different angles of inquiry, and that's what I going to describe here.

My interdisciplinary framework

The deep questions most of us have are basically about understanding the nature of our own experience. We will never be able to know or explain everything, of course. But while our abstract models are imperfect, they may still be useful.

The figure to the right is a diagram of an intellectual framework which I find useful for contextualizing understanding, research, and experience. I don't think any element here is overall more or less important than the others. To reasonably explain any of our experiences, all these levels need to all be acknowledged.
The figure represents a hierarchy of unidirectional restrictions. We live in the inner circle and only experience the outer levels indirectly. We necessarily experience and understand physics through our subjective and culturally-influenced perspectives. Yet while culture influences physicists, culture cannot alter the basic physical laws of the universe. Physical reality imposes absolute restrictions on the possibilities within all the lower levels, not vice versa.

Some clarifications about the terminology in this figure:
  • "Psychology" is meant to refer to common human psychological properties, not necessarily every subject within the academic field of psychology.
  • "Innate personality" is outside of culture because this framework is for describing an individual's subjective experiences. Cultures as a whole have arguably larger scope than personalities, but the innate aspects of one's personality are not defined by culture. There are biologically-determined congenital traits which have notable influence. Again, this influence is unidirectional. Considering only hereditary personality traits, we can acknowledge that these affect the way we relate to our surrounding culture, but culture cannot change our genes. (Well, in principle, it is possible for cultures to influence genetics by influencing who pairs up to become parents, and maybe cultural factors influence hormones and gene activation/deactivation, especially in today's world with medical hormone treatments and with chemicals polluting drinking water and so on…).
  • "Habitus" is a term from sociology which refers to something like an individual's dispositions which come from surrounding cultural influences. I intend here a slightly broader interpretation which acknowledges that one's dispositions are influenced by all of one's particular life experiences.
  • Finally, "mood" generally refers to temporary subjective mental state, but I am considering this level as including all aspects of short-term situational context that impact our subjective experiences.
The problem I see with the humanities in academia is that it lives primarily at the cultural level and so develops cultural theories for experiences that may be more defined by the other factors. I usually find entirely-cultural explanations unsatisfying. Cultural theorists may assume that outside factors are a given and need not be mentioned, but unless these factors are actively considered, we risk attributing things to culture that don't make sense; or we might ignore profound influences that may be more relevant to explaining a given experience; or we may color our own perspectives by over-emphasizing the cultural elements.

On the other hand, I understand some of why culture gets so much focus (aside from being truly interesting). In our diverse globalized world, it is relatively easy to notice when someone is being ethnocentric. And the the answer to ethnocentrism is to give respectful attention to cultural differences. The fact that we can recognize ethnocentrism is actually evidence of substantial universal human biological and psychological similarities. It is because of common human factors that we have capacity to empathize with those in other cultures, and it is through such empathy that we come to recognize our cultural biases. It is harder to recognize our species-centrism because we don't communicate as well with other creatures, and we have less in common, so it is more difficult to relate our experiences.

Overall, I don't want to diminish cultural concerns. On the contrary, I think culture studies are strengthened by clarifying the boundaries of what is and isn't cultural.

Similar issues occur when physicists and mathematicians reduce human experience to measurable physical phenomena. There is a long history of prescriptive theories that try to make the world fit nice, clean mathematical formulas. Yet even when nuance and deviation are acknowledged, descriptions of physical states are still not the same as descriptions of subjective experience.

Consider the classical philosophical question: if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Well, this question simply highlights a linguistic/semantic problem with the word "sound." If "sound" refers to the outer physical level of my framework, i.e. certain types of waves in air, then yes, hypothetical falling trees make physical waves in the hypothetical surrounding air. If "sound" refers to the biological level, i.e. our perceptual experience, then no, a perceptual experience does not occur if nobody is there to have it. So the question turns out to be mundane instead of profound (we can make this even more mundane by pointing out in any hypothetical situation, the person positing the situation could simply decide anything they want about what is true in their imagined fantasy world). We could instead ask an actually profound question: if someone is there to hear the tree fall, how will they react? What will they experience overall? To answer those questions, we have to work our way through the rest of the levels of my framework.

If we word our questions better, with full respect to all these levels of inquiry, we can go about finding useful and insightful answers. Otherwise, we risk fooling ourselves into thinking that things are simpler or are more complex or more ineffable than they really are. I propose that all our claims, theories, and hypotheses be clarified as to where they fit within my framework. Effort should be made consider all the levels because we may make mistakes or miss important insights if our focus is too narrow.

The framework applied to the study of music