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In the name of love, for Martin Luther King.

January 15, 2018

Here in America, we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., who was born on January 15. 1929, and was killed on April 4, 1968.

I don’t think I need to inform you who this man was, and why he was significant.

But just in case you need a reminder:

Unfortunately, even though King died for his dream, it never quite came true in America. Nevertheless, he brought about immense social change. And so we celebrate him.

Below, I have posted a classic song by the Irish band U2, a song which was in large part dedicated to Martin Luther King:

hoop dreams.

January 13, 2018

hoop dreams_1

Want to learn to play guitar? Don’t do what I did.

December 29, 2017

Yes,  this post is somewhat lengthy, but if you are considering learning guitar, I think you will find what I’ve written to be helpful.

First, I’ll write about how I (sort of) learned how to play guitar. Next, I will write about why the way I went about it is bad, explain why you should not do what I did, and what is better to do instead.

I started out on electric guitar. The guy in the music shop where I bought the guitar was also a teacher. I took a few lessons from him. He wanted to start me out with basic chords.

I didn’t want to learn basic chords. I loved hard rock, and that is what I wanted to play.  I left that teacher after a few lessons, and decided to learn from the most popular guitar teacher in the city where I lived.

I told him I wanted to play hard rock. He introduced me to a simplified way of reading music, called tablature. Instead of musical notes on a page, there were numbers on the lines of sheet music. Each line was for a string, and each number was for the fret on which the note was found. What was the name of the note? No idea. How long did I hold the note for? No idea. I listened to recordings to help me learn.

This was around 1989. I started with the rhythm part (the part of the song without the guitar solo or embellishments  – lead lines – played over the rhythm) to a fairly simple hair metal song called “Somebody Save Me,” by Cinderella.

This is a song you are not likely familiar with. Here is a cover played by a guy who actually knows what he is doing. If you can only stand to listen to a few seconds of this song, that is ok. I still like a lot of hair metal tunes, but not this one anymore. I’m just posting the song so you know what I’m writing about:

Why just the rhythm part? Not that challenging for a beginner, if the song is easy. However, guitar solos are a LOT more complicated.

The perfect example of this is many songs by AC/DC. Most of the rhythm parts to songs by this band are easy compared to most hard rock songs. However, Angus Young, the lead guitarist of AC/DC (the maniac in the school boy uniform), is a rather good guitar player, and his solos, like most hard rock solos, though brief, are complicated, and very challenging, especially for beginners.

So I started out on a fairly basic rhythm part of a song. To play this one, I did need to learn a somewhat tricky rock and metal technique called palm muting. I learned to strum strings – one or two at a time, while muting the string or strings with the palm of my hand. Right hand, same hand that held the pick. This took some time to learn.

Palm muting wasn’t easy, but I learned the rhythm part of the song fairly well, and then started on the intro to “Sweet Child of Mine,” by Guns -N- Roses. I didn’t move past the intro, I forget why. Chances are you’ve heard this song, so I won’t post the video for it.

One thing I did learn while working on the intro was up and down picking of individual strings/notes. Which is also not a beginner’s technique.

Then, I was taught a lead guitar style of playing called two-hand tapping. Eddie Van Halen did not completely invent the technique, but he was the first to use it extensively and in an innovative way.

Here is Eddie, playing his revolutionary instrumental, “Eruption.” Watch him use the fingers of both hands on the fretboard. I didn’t get nearly this advanced with the technique, ever, but could do it a little. It was very hard for me to learn.

After I could do two hand tapping at least somewhat, I started on “Panama,” by Van Halen. Even if  you have no idea how to play guitar, if you’ve heard “Panama,” or practically any other song by Van Halen, you’ll no doubt have realized that even the rhythm parts are.. difficult.

I never did learn all the rhythm parts of this song well, but the teacher started me on the guitar solo anyway. I don’t know why. Not like I really had a good grasp of what I was doing.  To make matters worse, “Panama,” even the rhythm part of it, is one of the most challenging and complicated songs by Van Halen.

After failing to learn all of this song well, I worked for a little while on some other techniques, and a song with a more basic rhythm part than “Panama.” The song was called “Long Way to Love,” by a band called Britny Fox (not the name of a person, just the name of the band, as far as I know).

My teacher didn’t have the tabs already written out, so, for a lesson, a half hour of time, he listened to my cassette, and wrote out the tab for the rhythm after he’d listened to the song a few times.

Again.. this is not me playing, but someone who learned the song better than I did:

I got the rhythm part of this one mostly learned, and can still play it. After that, my teacher started to teach me the guitar fretboard – the individual notes and where they were. He gave me a paper with a fretboard diagram on it – showing all the notes, except for the sharps and flats, (C#, Bb, etc.) And said – find all the “A” notes. Ok.. Not the best way to learn the fretboard. One is supposed to learn how the notes relate to each other, not just start by finding where the individual notes are, at random.

By this time, months had past, and the teacher, being an overbearing religious zealot (didn’t help that, for awhile, we went to the same church), got on my nerves with his preaching and guilt trips.

I stopped taking lessons from him. I then for years tried to teach myself, then took lessons from a friend, who was a professional teacher, but who thought I was better than I was. I was into acoustic guitar by this time, and my friend wanted to teach me the rhythm part to a folk song by Jim Croce (pronounced “crow-chee”). Croce – a very good guitar player. Even the most basic part of this song, “Operator,” was beyond me. I practiced the beginning of the rhythm part hundreds of times, but couldn’t get it. Had to learn how to do fingerpicking, also called finger style, in order to even attempt the song:

Yeah.. not an easy song.

Sometime later, I took a beginning classical guitar class at a community. That class was somewhat more useful, except, instead of putting a lot of focus on learning chords and strumming, we were soon taught how to play finger-style, and learn the notes not only on a fretboard, but reading sheet music in the usual way, not tab. And learning basic classical exercises and pieces. Not easy. I practiced a lot and got an A in the class, but damn, even though I’d been trying to play for years, I still had a hard time.

On other thing I did that was really really wrong. Except for when I was working on the music for the classical class, I kept trying to play songs (or bits of songs) at full tempo, before learning to play them well at a slower speed. Speed by itself is absolutely useless. Whether you are a musician or a race car driver, speed is nothing without control.

—–

Ok then.. why was what I did bad?

You might be wondering if the guitar teacher who taught me hard rock techniques was being a bad teacher.

He could have said, “Hey, I can teach you that stuff, but if you really want to play well, learn the basics – chords and strumming.” But then, maybe if he’d said that, I would have gone looking for another teacher – one who just taught me hard rock.

But he didn’t say that. Also, he tried to teach me advanced techniques, and one very difficult song, “Panama,” before I was at all ready for that.

And, he was a jerk about religion.. so yeah.. not the best teacher.

The first teacher was the better one, but I was not mature enough to learn from him. Yep, that’s on me.

Let me go back to when I shopped for and bought a guitar. My first mistake was starting out on an electric guitar.

Starting out on a classical acoustic guitar with nylon strings also would not have been the best idea.

Why?

Pushing the strings down on an electric guitar or classical guitar – this is an easier thing to do than pushing the strings down with one’s fingers on a standard steel string acoustic guitar – steel string being by far the most commonly played type of acoustic guitar, not the classical guitar.

Yes, this is the hardest and most painful guitar to learn on. You have to have some serious willpower to learn on a steel string guitar. Your fingers might even bleed a little at first. Yes, this well and truly sucks! But this is the best way. You build up your calluses, and then your fingers of your fretting hand (for right-handed folks, your fretting hand is your left had, and for lefties it is your right) don’t hurt anymore.

Build up calluses and learn chords. That’s the best way to start.

Not me though. I did build up a bit of calluses even playing the electric guitar, but did not start by learning basic, practical things like chords and strum patterns.

Another reason electric guitar is bad to start on is that there are a lot of really cool sounds one can make using an electric guitar and a typical amp that has many guitar effects built into it. You’ll get really into all the noises you can make with your electric guitar, and spend less time practicing.

Amps were far less interesting when I started out. No computer chips and no multitude of effects built in, just a clean channel – which made the electric guitar sound like an acoustic, and a distortion channel – which made the guitar sound dirty, nasty, crunchy – guitar tones often used in rock, especially hard rock and metal.

You don’t need the distraction. Yes, amps with lots of effects are fun, but better to focus on learning how to play.

Other things not to do are to start with tablature, learn random, somewhat advanced techniques, and learn songs that don’t help you learn standard chords. Most of the chords in the Cinderella and Van Halen songs were not standard chords. These were called “power chords.” I did not even learn the names of the chords.

——

So, why is starting out with a steel string acoustic guitar and learning basic chords best?

As I already mentioned, it’s best to get the hard part over first – the pain of building up calluses on your fingertips. Also, playing on a steel string will help you gain more finger strength than playing on a classical or electric guitar.

Chords are the building blocks of guitar music. Starting out with basic chords, learning to make chord changes quickly, and learning how the chords relate to each other.. this is foundational stuff.

The basic chords are called “open chords.” This is because the strings that are not fretted are played open. What is a closed chord then? A closed chord is called a barre chord. To play one of these, you use your index finger to press against all six strings, and the remaining fingers to fret the chord. Easy? No. Painful? At first, yes. But then..

You can move your hand up and down the neck, without changing chord formation, and play lots of chords. This is good!

After learning chords, you may wish to learn music theory – how to read music, and how to apply reading music to guitar. But you don’t need this part of music theory – how to read sheet music.

However, at least learning lots of chords, the Circle of Fifths (a chart of how chords fit together to sound good – what chords go with what musical keys.. as in key of G major, key of A minor, etc.. this requires at least some knowledge of music theory), learn the fretboard – where the notes are – and learn some scales (notes played individually that go together, and are the building blocks of guitar solos and single note lines of music) to go with the chord progressions – the certain orders of chords.

You will learn chords by playing simple songs. You will also learn strumming patterns using a pick. This is the way to start. At the beginning, it’s not about individual songs, it’s using songs to learn basic chords.

For example, the first teacher taught me three major (major chords sound happy, minor chords sound sad) chords to start out with: D, G, and A.

He then handed me a piece of paper with the lyrics to “Time For Me to Fly” by REO Speedwagon. Above the lyrics were letters for the chords. I didn’t learn the electric guitar rhythm or lead parts to the song, just the chords. This is how chords are taught.

Is tablature good to learn at all? Not to start out with, I would say. Get the basics down first. Chords, keys, some simple scales, notes on the fretboard.

If you want to learn tablature later, that’s ok.

Should you learn to read music, and learn a lot about music theory?

That depends on what you want to play. If you want to play basic rock or blues, after you learn the basics, you can learn with tablature, or by ear, if you are able. Even if you want to play complicated rock music and guitar solos, you can learn with tab.

If you want to play classical guitar or jazz, then definitely learn music theory. You’ll pretty much have to.. these are complicated, advanced forms of music.

To play classical music correctly, you absolutely must play classical pieces as they are written on the page – in standard notation – standard sheet music.

Jazz involves a lot of improvisation. If you don’t know music theory really well, you’ll likely have a harder time learning jazz. Also, even though a full musical score in standard notation is often not used by jazz musicians, lead sheets – simplified notation that still uses standard notation often is. A lead sheet, for jazz musicians is a guideline. Tells you what key you are playing in, what chords to use, and you can make up the rest as you go.. soloing and so forth.. if you understand music.

If you don’t want to learn standard notation, and want to play rock, that’s ok. Jimi Hendrix, in my opinion the best ever rock guitar player, did not learn how to read music. Eddie Van Halen started out with piano lessons for a little while when he was a kid, but mostly forgot how to read music, and taught himself guitar.

Jimi was a genius, and so is Eddie. Also, they usually practiced at least 9 hours a day, often learning songs by ear, and making up their own techniques. If you have lots of natural talent, a very good ear, and 9 hours or more of free time per day, you might want to consider this method.

What about learning with a teacher vs. teaching yourself?

If you can find a practical teacher who starts you off with the basics, then this is best. One on one lessons. Small group lessons are cheaper, and also a good way to go. Even a community education class might be a good place to start.

And an introduction to classical guitar is ok to start with.. you will learn some chords, some finger picking techniques, how to read music, and gradually learn the notes on the fretboard. But, you will not learn how to play with a pick, and most popular guitar music is played using a pick.

Also, usually, a teacher of a classical guitar class will likely insist that you use a classical guitar. You won’t build up calluses as fast, or quite as strong finger strength as you would using a steel string guitar. But, this is not really a bad way to go otherwise.

What about teaching yourself?

There are tons of free lessons on youtube, lessons you can pay for on various other sites, and apps for phone and tablet, etc.

If you can’t afford lessons, or don’t have a teacher nearby, it is possible to learn this way.

I’m not very familiar with the apps. If the apps just teach you songs, I would say skip them. If they start out by teaching you chords and strumming patterns – this is better. You really can learn by yourself and learn well, if you want to.

One thing to keep in mind.. very important.. learn to play the chords/songs well at a slower tempo before playing them at full speed.

Your motto should be: When I practice slow, I learn fast. When I practice fast, I learn slow.

—————

What about buying a steel string acoustic guitar?

1. Don’t buy a guitar online, if you can avoid doing so. It is important to play a variety of guitars first, even if you don’t know how yet.. just strum or pick some notes.. try different guitars. Find the one you can afford that feels and sounds best to you. Although you might save some money buying online, it’s better to find a guitar you really like, and to do that, you’ve got to get your hands on some.  Also, you might find a model of guitar you like, then find the same model online for cheaper. But it won’t be the exact same guitar. It will still feel and sound a little different from the one in the store.

2. If possible, bring a friend or relative who already knows how to play guitar and who can help you pick one.

3. There are many brands out there. For $300 or even less, you can get a good guitar. Some brands to consider are Yamaha, Seagull (my two top choices), Ibanez, Fender, Gretsch, Mitchell, Loar, Recording King, and Epiphone. These guitars, except for Seagull, which is made in Canada, will likely be made in Indonesia. That’s alright. Most guitars and basses I’ve owned have been made in Indonesia, and they’ve been good enough for me.

If you want American-made guitars, you are looking at a starting price of $600, generally. American brands? Taylor, Martin, and Gibson. Some of the more expensive Fender guitars are also made in America. Sadly, just because a guitar is expensive and made in America does not always mean it is tons better than foreign-made, cheaper guitars. You don’t always get what you pay for.

The more expensive Ibanez and Yamaha models might still be made in Japan. These are likely to be good, but not cheap.

If you are just starting out, why spend a lot of money? You don’t need to.

4. Don’t start out on a 12 – string guitar. After I’d been playing for awhile, I bought one. It was a Mitchell, and was a good guitar. However, it was too hard for me to play, especially since I was still having trouble with 6 string guitars. 12 string guitars really sound beautiful, but they are tougher to play. I sold mine to a friend, who is a professional musician.

5. Most steel string acoustics are big and bulky, and are called “dreadnoughts.” There are some slightly smaller ones, sometimes called “parlor guitars” that are good too. But don’t buy a 3/4 or half-size guitar, unless you are buying an instrument for a child. If you don’t know if a slightly smaller guitar is a parlor guitar or 3/4 or half-size, ask.

6. Buying used is not a bad idea, especially if you have someone you can bring along to help you. But, I would say avoid buying from someone on craigslist unless you want to take the chance of entering the home of a stranger. Meet in a public place if you can.  Also, skip pawn shops unless you find a rare one that has at least part of the store converted into a music shop – you’ll be able to tell by looking. Music stores are better for buying used instruments, generally. Some music stores only sell used instruments. These tend to be good places to shop.

Which music store to go to? Ask around.

Some folks might not like what I am about to write next. I’ve shopped at several independent music stores, but generally have gotten the best service at two Guitar Center locations. The sales people at these stores do not work on commission, which means they don’t make extra money by selling as many guitars as possible. Since they don’t work on commission, they are not likely to pressure you. Also, the folks at the two Guitar Center stores I’ve been to have almost all been knowledgeable and rather nice. And, being a huge chain, GC can offer the best deals on new instruments, usually. Lastly, they tend to have great selection.

Not all independent stores are bad though. Some are good, and so are the people working in them. I bought my first guitar at a small independent store. There were many guitars to choose from, and the guy working in the store was great.

But people at the majority of the independent stores and smaller chain stores that I’ve been to? Generally not so nice. And the prices tend to be higher than at GC. Although, here in Boise, there is a pawn shop that is part music store, and the main guy in that department is great.  If you live in Boise and don’t mind buying a used instrument, stop by the Pawn 1 location on Maple Grove and Overland, and ask for Chris. He’s a thin, balding white guy of medium height, probably just over 30 years old, I’m guessing. I’ve bought a lot of instruments and gear from that guy, more than I’ve bought from Guitar Center.  But the GC folks here in Boise are great, and I’ve bought gear and instruments there too.

Just a bit more about GC – you have a month or more in which to return the instrument if you don’t like it, as long as you have not damaged it, or smoked while playing it, and gotten the tobacco or weed stink on the instrument. You probably won’t find that sort of return policy anywhere else. And, you can even buy a warranty for used instruments. Unfortunately, GC sells hardly any used acoustic instruments, at least at the two locations I’ve been to.

If you want to rent a guitar for a little while, you’ll likely have to go to a store or other vendor that specializes in band instruments that are rented to school kids. Generally though, the only type of guitar this place will have to rent to you will be a classical guitar.

If you find you really like playing guitar and are sticking with it, buy a guitar ASAP. Don’t rent to own, unless you want to pay many times more than what the guitar is worth.

Regardless of where you live though, ask around to find the best stores.

If you live in a remote area and must buy online, best to go with Amazon, Sweetwater Sound, Music 123 or Musiciansfriend. These companies all have good return policies.

If you want the best customer service.. someone to talk to on the phone for example, I’d say go with Sweetwater. Some of the folks at Musiciansfriend have been helpful, but that company messed up some of my orders, not only for guitars but for hand drums as well. Also, Musiciansfriend’s email customer support is terrible. Sweetwater’s email support is really good – or at least, that is my experience.

An online company called Elderly Instruments is also good. They sell both used and new instruments.

Ebay? Check the feedback.. make sure it is high. There are some good sellers on that site. It helps if the seller is a music company, not a pawn shop or some random person. Also check to make sure there is a return policy.

Even if an online vendor offers free shipping, if you are returning an instrument that is not defective, but rather one you just don’t like, you might have to pay not only return shipping charges, but reimburse the company for shipping the instrument to you. This can be expensive. Read the fine print of return shipping policies.


As for me.. after many years of fighting with the guitar – taking individual lessons from three different teachers, taking two group classes, and trying to learn and practicing a LOT on my own, I finally stopped trying to learn guitar. I learned very little. Some of us just don’t have the knack. I did find one good teacher, who wasn’t even going to charge me for lessons, but I hurt my right shoulder while volunteering at the library, and could no longer take lessons from him.

My shoulder is healing, but I’m going to do something else.

How will you know guitar really isn’t something you’ll be good at? I’d say work hard for at least a year at the basics. If you are making no, or almost no progress, choose a different instrument. And don’t feel bad. You tried. Don’t be afraid to move on. You’ll likely be great at something else.

There are stringed instruments that are easier to learn than guitar: bass guitar and ukulele. I’d say don’t start on mandolin or banjo. These are not as easy.

I’ve written a very long bass guitar buying guide, which you can find on this blog.

I’m not as familiar with ukes as I am with basses and guitars. But I did find a cheap uke that was better than the other cheap ones. I bought a Mitchell Concert-size ukulele that has abalone inlays (faux abalone?) and a spruce top the same color as most guitars with spruce tops. I tried other ukes for around $100, and thought this Mitchell uke was definitely the best. I found one used at Pawn 1 for only $65. I was extremely lucky.

If you are going to start out on a uke, don’t buy a soprano ukulele – so small..  buy a concert or tenor uke instead, as long as the tenor uke is tuned the same way as concert and soprano ukes. You can tell if the tenors are tuned like the rest by plucking the individual strings. The tenors, if tuned the same, will sound the same, just have a little fuller sound (hopefully), since they are bigger.

Baritone ukuleles are NOT tuned the same way as the others. Don’t start with one of these.

Other easy stringed instruments that are easier than standard guitars to play (you will have to learn how to play these by learning from youtube though, not easy to find a teacher who knows how to play these instruments) are a Seagull Merlin or 3 or 4 string cigar box guitar.

If you want to try cigar box guitar, buy from a guy on ebay who uses the name Weeklyhouse. I’ve bought two from him, a 3 string and a 4 string – both are rather good.

You can find a Seagull Merlin in some music stores, and online. I tried one at GC, but it had already been played a lot, so I bought one online from Elderly Instruments. Their customer service and prices are good.

You might also want to try basic piano or learn a cool wind instrument, such as trumpet or sax. Harmonica is also a great instrument to learn. I’ve written a harmonica buying guide, which you can find on this blog. I’ve tried many brands, and so far, my favorite harp (harmonica) is the Suzuki Harpmaster. The Hohner Special 20 and Lee Oskar Major Diatonic harmonics are also good. Buy one in the key of C. Spend at least $25-30 if you want a good harmonica. I’ve just summed up my buyers guide.. but if you want to read more about harmonicas, and hear some demos from some really good players, check out my buying guide post. You’ll find it in my “top posts” or in the tag cloud, by clicking “music.”

If you are into Celtic music, start with a penny whistle, also called a tin whistle. Feadog, Generation, and Acorn are good brands. Buy one in the key of D, to start with. These cost $20 or less, usually. LOTS of tin whistle tutorials on youtube. I play this instrument. It is fun, and not too hard to learn the basics, but can be very shrill, especially when one is first learning.

Keep in mind that the only truly easy instrument to play is a kazoo. Anything else is going to take a lot of effort, learning, and a whole lot of patience.

I’m trying to tell myself this as I begin to learn the ukulele. 4 strings compared to six but I can still play tons of chords, songs, and apply my finger picking and strumming skills? (I did learn a little bit about how to play guitar). Yes please!

But I’m already running into one problem with myself that I’ve always had – trying to play too fast. Just because playing the ukulele is easier than playing guitar doesn’t mean playing the ukulele is easy.

So.. I’m going to take deep breaths, be patient, learn the chords, learn the fretboard, the circle of fifths, etc. before focusing on complicated songs.

This time, I’m going to learn the right way.

If you decide to learn the guitar (or uke, or whatever), I hope that you go about it in a way that is a lot smarter than what I did.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

God by any name.

November 25, 2017

God by any name..

I spend too much time thinking about God. I spend too much time thinking in general. Does it really do much, if any good to think about God? I don’t know, but it is something I do.

I have come up with a theory about God. Something that makes sense to me, sort of. I think that is the best we can do – those of us who believe in God or the Gods – find a way of thinking that works for each of us.

Some of you probably know I was born and raised a Protestant Christian, and that I’ve not practiced the faith in over two decades. You might also know that I’ve learned at least a bit about Buddhism, Wicca, and other faiths.

I never experienced a feeling of being in the presence of God, or any deity, for that matter, not while I was a Christian.

When I was still in high school, I attended a massive, international missionary conference at the University of Illinois. I was in a huge basketball stadium on campus, where the main meetings were held. There were that many people at this conference.

After a meeting, there was an informal prayer service. There were volunteers who were sort of prayer counselors.. people could talk to them about the experiences they were having during this service.

It was like a Holy Spirit bomb had gone off. Hundreds of people in the room. Many crying, some in other emotional states.

I sat there, and felt depressed. Depression was not new to me, even then.

Occasionally, one of the prayer counselors would come by to check on me, and pray with and for me. They’d say, “Feel anything yet?”

I’d say no.

I left that meeting, and the conference, feeling even worse than I had before I had attended.

It was not until 2014, in a much much smaller room, that I felt I was in the presence of something.. other.

There’s a Wiccan group here in Boise that meets in a back room of a store. That’s where I was at this moment in 2014.

Wiccans have a way of communicating with their deities and bringing forth messages, called “aspecting.” They take on the “particular appearance or quality (one definition of the word “aspect”) “of a deity.

I don’t mean they always dress in costume. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Usually not. No, this is something different than just costiumes.

Two of the women from the leadership led the meeting. They were among those who belong to the closed coven (one of the purposes of the coven is training of Wiccan clergy, who have the same rights to perform the same rites – marriages, funerals, etc. – as other, more well known clergy). The coven is closed, meaning that only certain people can be part of it. How to become members of this coven? I don’t know all the details, and that’s not important for this essay.

One woman presented a positive, “light” side of a particular goddess.. I forget which one. The other presented the “dark” side.

They both wore normal clothes, except that one wore only white, the other black.

They walked around the rest of us, we who were attendees of the open circle meeting, the meeting that was open to all, unlike the coven.

As the women circled us, walked and talked, I felt something subtle. But definitely felt that there was more than these women talking. There was something or someone else there at the same time. My feeling, although not strong, was a bit unnerving.

I had this feeling once more, when I attended a sort of interactive ritual drama on the Wiccan holiday of Samhain, (pronounced something like “sah-win.” Samhain is October 31st, but sometimes celebrated the night before.

It would take awhile to write about the ritual-drama-experience, and so I won’t do that now. The experience was also at the back of the store. But the spaces in back of the store had been incredibly well and carefully decorated to facilitate our metaphorical journey into the realms of the underworld.

Before I even entered the building, one of the members of the coven came out to see if we all had our tickets – which most of us had purchased days or weeks earlier in the store.
The Wiccan church, which includes both the coven and open circle meeting, is a self-supported group. A LOT of work went in to preparing this experience. The price of the tickets helped defray the cost.

The woman who came out to talk with us, who were waiting outside under a tarp, and watching the rain, was dressed somewhat as a cat. Long flowing skirt, black top, with cat ears, makeup, and claw gloves.

When I looked at her and talked briefly with her, I could tell there was a sort of spirit about her, or temporarily part of her. This woman was aspecting. She just called herself Cat.

The other coven members were aspecting as well. One was the Slavic goddess Baba Yaga, a fierce goddess. Her husband was aspecting a much more kind, benevolent Slavic god whose name I cannot remember.

When I was near these people, and others, I felt that I was genuinely in the presence of deity.

You might be thinking the feelings I experienced were just because of the decorations, the dim lighting, the costumes.

But you’d be wrong. I finally felt a spiritual presence. Not a strong feeling, but a real one. The woman aspecting Baba Yaga felt powerful and somewhat scary. Her husband, who has a nurturing presence, felt more powerful than usual, and felt like an even more loving individual when he was aspecting his deity.

Did I become Wiccan? No. I can’t manage to be religious. But these experiences, combined with living with religious relatives – two Catholics and one who was Protestant, converted to Catholicism, and later returned to his Protestant views, and combined with what I’ve learned from my formal and informal religious studies, have often got me thinking about God.

Who is God? What is God?

A theory I have is that there is one Source. The Wiccans call it Spirit. From this source comes all spiritual energy, and all deities.

A second part of my theory is that God will answer by any name.

Some people from all faiths, and those who practice lesser known spiritual ways, such as shamans and so forth, have “religious experiences” – experiences of the divine.

It doesn’t matter if God is called Jesus or Yahweh or Allah or by the names of the Gods of the European pagans, by the names of the deities and spirits of Shinto, or by the names of the 36 million or so Hindu deities.

I’m thinking God will take on the aspect of any deity, and go by any name. That doesn’t mean people control God, but rather, that God meets people where they are, and has chosen to play the roles in which the different peoples of the world understand and worship God.

A third part of the theory is that it doesn’t matter what name a person prays to. A prayer request to one of the Catholic saints might be met by the same God, the all in all and above all, who also chooses to answer to the name Shiva or Kwan Yin or Jehovah.

Jews, Christians and Muslims will likely disagree with my theory. That is understandable.

Many Hindus and Pagans would likely agree with this theory. Hindus have a saying, “That art thou.” Point to anything besides yourself, and you are still pointing to yourself. This is to say that the Hindus (most of them, I’m guessing, if not all) have the view that all is one. All the gods, all the people, all that is, is one, a great, impersonal One.

Some pagans are hard polytheists, and would disagree with me. Hard polytheists believe that the gods each have an individual identity, and do not believe that all goddesses are but aspects and manifestations of one goddess, and the same for all gods being different personas of one male god.

Persona is Latin for “mask” – something a performer would wear.

These hard polytheists would also perhaps disagree with my opinion that perhaps all the deities come from one source.

There are many pagans who do not agree with hard polytheists, and share my views, at least to some extent.

Buddhists – it really depends on the school of Buddhism. Certain gods were mentioned in certain stories of the Buddha’s life, but I’m not aware of any Buddhist teachings that specifically address the idea of God or the gods. In fact, there are many atheists who are happy to be Buddhists. To many Buddhists, God and the very idea of God is irrelevant.

Some Buddhists do believe in deities and spirits. This is especially true of Tibetans, and those who practice a Tibetan form of Buddhism, but who are not Tibetan.

There is a form of Buddhism in Japan, called Pure Land. Adherents of this form of Buddhism believe in a deity who is a non-historical Buddha – not the man Siddhartha Gautama, who was born 500 years before Christ, in what in more modern times has been called Nepal, and who became the Buddha.

No, these Japanese believe in a deity called Amita or Amitabha Buddha – sometimes called the Buddha of Pure Life, or the Buddha of Pure Light. These Buddhists, as far as I understand, believe that Amitabha Buddha is a deity, who, if prayed to, will bring his faithful to the Pure Land, to live with him, after they die.

I doubt the Pure Land Buddhists would agree with my theory. I don’t know if the Tibetans would or not.

I believe we have only theories about God. I don’t believe any religion is the One True Faith, that has the only Absolute Truth.

There is a fourth part to my theory.. one that I don’t like so much. A light side, a dark side. Think of The Force, as an analogy, I suppose.

What if this same source of all spiritual good is also the source of all spiritual evil?

Most Satanists are LaVeyan satanists – followers of Anton LaVey, 20th century author of the Satanic Bible, and founder of the official Church of Satan. These satanists claim to be atheists.

There is another form of satanism, called theistic satanism. These satanists are much more rare.. hopefully. It is they who believe Satan is their god. And they are the satanists who are likely to commit crimes, including terrible crimes.

I don’t know how keen the LaVeyan satanists are on performing black magic. I think the theistic satanists are more into that, or should I say, a lot more serious about it.

There are other forms of dark, evil magic as well.

Does evil spiritual power come from the same source as the good? For my theory to be consistent, yes.

My theory is one among many. I don’t feel entirely at ease with this theory, but it’s the best I can do for myself.

God by any name.

“The Finger and The Moon.”

November 16, 2017

“The Finger and The Moon.”

Some of you who are familiar with Buddhist or Taoist teachings, or who have seen the Bruce Lee film “Enter The Dragon” might have heard of a teaching called “The Finger and The Moon.”

This teaching does not just relate to martial arts practitioners, or adherents of Buddhism or Taoism. It relates to anyone who practices any religion, or who is on any spiritual path.

Although I’ve studied Buddhism and a bit of Taoism, I first came across this teaching when I watched “Enter The Dragon,” a classic martial arts film, featuring Bruce Lee as a martial arts expert who becomes an undercover agent who infiltrates a mixed martial arts tournament so he can take down a crime lord.

In an early part of the film, Lee’s character gives brief instructions to one of his young students. I’ll include the clip in this post, just below. During his instruction, Lee talks about the finger and the moon. If you watch the clip on youtube, instead of just here on my blog, you can find another commentary on the teachings found in the clip.. worth reading.

One of the things Lee says is, “Look at the moon, don’t look at the finger. If you look at the finger you will miss all of the moon’s heavenly glory.”

Here is the clip:

 

I’m guessing Lee or the scriptwriters found this teaching in Buddhism, Taoism or both.

Ages ago, a Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma brought Buddhism from India to China, and it was in China that Buddhism became mixed with an ancient Chinese philosophy called Taoism. That’s why some of the same teachings might be found in both Buddhism and Taosim. There’s even a famous form of Buddhism called Zen, which is a mixture of Buddhism and Taoism.

Also, in China, Buddhism is practiced along with Taoism and Confucianism. Lee, being from China, and being a martial artist, (Chinese martial arts being rooted in Taoism, Buddhism, or both) was no doubt exposed to these philosophies.

So, I’m guessing neither Lee nor the writer or writers of the script invented this teaching.

Even though I saw the film decades ago, I never came up with an interpretation of what Lee’s character meant.

Today, as my incredibly over-active mind was rambling along while I was doing my stretches, I came up with an interpretation of this teaching. An interpretation, not THE interpretation.

I started thinking about how it can be easy to focus not so much on the purpose or goal of spiritual teachings, but instead, focusing only on the teachings or primarily focusing on spiritual teachers.

This is true regardless of what faith one practices.

If you are a Christian, you likely believe that Christ is part of the Holy Trinity, and therefore God and a part of God at the same time, is the moon, and a part of the moon, at the same time.

I think, for Christians, Christ, as God, is the moon, but Christ is also, as a moral teacher (in the Bible, he talked a LOT about morality and right living) a finger, pointing to God.. God his Father, and to a higher way of consciousness and living.. which is also the moon.

(I’m being as clear as I can, but my mind is muddled, and religion can be tricky.. )

Even if you think of the Christian God as the moon, you still might also think of your favorite pastor or priest or Christian teacher on TV or radio as the moon instead of the finger.

So often, congregations become a cult of personality, focused on a particular, popular priest, or a much loved and respected pastor and his or her family (some Christian denominations have female pastors). I have heard of and seen this happen.

Unfortunately, members of the clergy get caught up in this sometimes, and this goes to their heads. This phenomena can be very bad for a congregation.

Also, it is common for pastors or priests to not always stay with one congregation. Often, they get re-assigned, or choose to move on to a different church somewhere else. When this happens, some folks leave their church, because their favorite pastor or priest has moved on.

Christians, it is important to worship your God, not his messengers.

Getting fixated on a spiritual leader is not a problem unique to Christians.

Hindus can easily become focused on their gurus or other spiritual teachers. If you want to see an example of this, watch a unique and excellent documentary called “Kumare,” about a guy who, some years back, decided to pretend to be a guru – a Hindu teacher claiming to possess special wisdom. This film is really worth watching.

Here’s the trailer for “Kurame:”

 

The trailer makes the film seem like a comedy, but much of it is serious and pretty deep. Ironically, although the guy is pretending to be a guru (which begs such questions as, what makes a real guru, and are all gurus pretending.. what is real?) he learns and comes up with some definite wisdom and spiritual truth, I think.

Moving on to Buddhism and other faiths..

Buddhists can get too focused not only on Buddhist teachers, such as the Dalai Lama, Thich Naht Hanh, or Pema Chodron, but even on Buddha. Buddha did not want this to happen. He never claimed to be God. He claimed to be “one who woke up,” which is the meaning of the word Buddha.

Buddha did claim to wake up to ultimate reality, and shared that reality with people in India, almost 500 years before Christ. But Buddha did not want the focus to be on him.

Buddha’s intention, as far as I understand it, was that people not become Buddhists.. followers of Buddha, but instead become Buddhas. His hope was for people to become as enlightened as he had become.

There’s even a Buddhist teaching on meditation that says, “If you encounter the Buddha along the road, kill him.”

What this teaching means is don’t be distracted by or fixated on anything in particular while you are meditating, including thoughts or images of the Buddha. Instead, while meditating, let your thoughts arise and depart.. float overhead like clouds. Don’t get stuck on any thoughts or images (not even clouds), and don’t get stuck on the Buddha.

The Buddha was a finger, pointing to enlightenment, The Dharma, the Way of the Buddha.. not the absolute way, but a way of thinking and living.. is a way to enlightenment. It is enlightenment, a gradual process for most Buddhists, that is ultimately the moon.

Buddha had disciples, but didn’t want them to venerate him as a god. He wanted to educate his disciples so they could go forth and teach the Dharma.. pointing others to the moon, enlightenment. (What is enlightenment? Buddhists disagree on this, so I’m not going to attempt to define enlightenment, I’m just saying, in my understanding, it’s the final, most important goal of Buddhism),

But, go to any Buddhist temple, or country where Buddhism is practiced.. or just go to any Chinese or multi-spiritual gift shop, and you will see statues of the Buddha. (Side note.. the fat Buddha is NOT a statue of the historical Buddha, whose name was Siddartha Gautama, but that’s a subject for another essay).

A statue of the Buddha in one’s home or temple where one attends Buddhist services is not necessarily a bad thing, if the statue is a reminder enlightenment and how to achieve enlightenment – right living and right meditation, etc. – the Buddhist way to enlightenment.

However, if much time is spent on venerating the Buddha, or thinking of Buddha as a god, like what is done in the Japanese Pure Land Buddhist sect, that, in my opinion, is not what the Buddha wanted.

What about Wicca and other forms of paganism? Many many pagans are what are called solitary practitioners. They are not part of a group, but practice their paganism, magick, etc. by themselves and do their own thing.

However, some Wiccans and other pagans are part of organized groups. These groups have at least one leader, or a small hierarchy of leaders.

Even for pagans, those who are part of a group, it can be an easy thing to do to focus on one or more of the leaders and not just on what is being taught or what the goal of the teachings is.

I am guessing that Mormons, Muslims and Jews sometimes can become too focused on their own religious leaders, even if this is not at all what their leaders want.

And, unfortunately, being the moon, not the finger, is exactly what some religious leaders and teachers want to be. Watch out for these leaders, regardless of what religion you practice.

No, spirituality is not ultimately about who is giving the teachings, nor is spirituality just about the teachings.

The moon is what the teachings bring you to, whether the teachings bring you to salvation, enlightenment, a greater appreciation of God, or whatever the goal of the teachings is.

The moon can be a combination of moral living, compassion, and appreciation or worship of deity.

But moral codes and teachings can also become only the moon and not the finger instead of the moon, if people get too hung up on various teachings and morals. This is not good, and can lead to fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, regardless of the faith, is destructive.

If you are on a spiritual path, it is important to stop and consider if what you are focusing on is the moon, or is it only a finger pointing to the moon, regardless of whether the finger is a person or a teaching, or moral code that is pointing to the moon.

Yes, focusing on teachings, morals, practices, and so forth is important, but only within the context of getting you to focus on the moon, whether it be God and what God desires of you, enlightenment not only for one’s self but for all beings, or whatever your ultimate spiritual goal is.

It is the moon that matters, not the finger. Do not look at the finger. Look at the moon.

Happy Birthday to Paul Simon!

October 14, 2017

This past day, October 13th, was Paul Simon’s birthday. He is 76, and one of the greatest music legends of our time! He’s had a very long career! Simon and Garfunkel released their first album, “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.” in 1964.

Simon, for the next several decades after that first album was released, split and reunited with Garfunkel. I think Simon was too musically restless and creative to just do folk songs with Art, even though the songs were fantastic.

I’m glad Simon often went off on his own, because if he didn’t, we wouldn’t have such wonderful songs as..

 

 

 

And my favorite..

 

Paul Simon, thank you so much for your wonderful music! Happy Birthday!

“Whiplash,” Jazz, Drumming, Prog Metal, and a young woman named Devikah.

August 18, 2017

So I finally got around to watching the movie “Whiplash.” It is about a student drummer at a prestigious (fictional) school, having to deal with a horrifyingly sadistic music teacher/band leader (think drill sergeant from “Full Metal Jacket,” but a lot less funny). The kid almost kills himself (literally) trying to be the best drummer he can, and avoid being abused by his teacher.

Was the film worth watching? A little, since I like jazz on occasion, and really appreciate great drumming, no matter the genre. However, the film was quite disturbing and hard to stomach.

I’ve just done some research, and it seems the movie is mostly B.S. A teacher could never legally be as abusive as the teacher in the film (using an incredible amount of homophobic, racist insults, physically assaulting students). The student’s practicing methods are not portrayed accurately, anyone who bleeds that much while playing drums is doing something very very wrong, etc.

The actor Miles Teller (no, I’d never heard of him before either) who played the student, is, it turns out, very musically gifted. He was a self-taught drummer. and had been playing for many years.. rock cover bands.. but learned all the immeasurably difficult drum parts in less than a month.

The film.. if you want to see some great acting (J. K. Simmons won Best Supporting actor for his performance as the sadistic teacher), don’t mind being disturbed, and really like jazz, you might want to watch it.. maybe.. but otherwise.. skip it. Seriously.

For those who are morbidly curious, here is trailer:

The rest of this post is not about the film. I’m now going to write a bit about a drummer I found on youtube. Her name is Devikah, she is only 18, and looks like a really cute anime character. She’s also a damn good drummer.

I found Devikah while looking up tunes from the “Whiplash” soundtrack. One of the videos that showed up was Devikah playing drum covers of the two main musical pieces from the film.

Here is the video:

After the video, I clicked on one of her comments, which led to some info about her, also on youtube, and found a link to her website. On there, as on her youtube channel, are many more videos. Turns out she is quite versatile, and can play various styles of music, including prog metal. Devikah is in college now, but is available to play gigs a few nights a week. She’s a drummer for hire, living in Las Vegas.

Here is Devikah performing a prog metal cover of a song by a band called X Japan:

Here is her website: https://www.bandmix.com/devikah/

Some of you are likely not familiar with the genre of music called “prog metal.” “Prog” stands for “progressive.” The most famous prog metal band in America is Dream Theater. Prog metal is crazily hard to play. It is, or, should I say, it can be, a mixture of metal and other musical styles, including jazz and classical. Like jazz, prog metal is something of an acquired taste. I’ve been into jazz off and on for quite awhile, but have only been listening to prog metal for a few years.

Here is my favorite song by Dream Theater:

Dream Theater is not my favorite prog metal band. I prefer a band from Sweden, called Opeth.. formerly mostly a death metal band that went prog..

Prospekt (spelled with a “k” on purpose) from England (sadly, they have a different singer now than the one on their first album). Unfortunately, this amazing band is practically unknown.. I’m trying to change that. Here’s an audio-only video of their song, “Shroud.”

I also really like some music by the band Pesefone. This band is from a tiny European country I’d never heard of before, called Andorra. I only like this band’s instrumentals. For the most part, I do not like the singer’s voice. But the instrumentals are fantastic. This band is also pretty much unknown. Here’s an intense instrumental (audio only):

And some American instrumental bands.. Scale the Summit.. I listen to this band quite often.. hmm.. hard to choose which track to put here.. Alright.. this is a video of one of the guitarists playing “Black Hills,” which is the first Scale the Summit track I bought (please pay for your downloads if you can find them available for sale):

The Fine Constant:

Animals As Leaders:

And lastly, the band Liquid Tension Experiment, made up of three of the guys from Dream Theater, plus bassist Tony Levin:

Alright then.. thanks for coming along on this musical journey through film, jazz, and prog rock. I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip.