Thank You, Sensei

Updated: Feb 25, 2020

When I started playing guitar I was eleven years old. Six years of piano before that gave me a bit of a head start in terms of theory knowledge and finger dexterity. My love for guitar and guitar music pushed me to practice my instrument all the time. I even think I took my ax to the bathroom with me. It was a bright red, plywood (if you opened the back panel you could see the layers of glued wood) electric guitar and a little brown, ten watt amp called a 'Loco'. Definitely not high end gear. But I made it work. I figured out that if I turned all the dials on the amp to ten it would distort. Amazing. Soon I was learning the classic guitar-rock tunes of the day: Rock You Like A Hurricane was tops on my list. Eventually I needed lessons - there was only so much I could figure out on my own and from buying Guitar World magazine every month. Enter Steve Kostyk.

Steve was my first guitar teacher, and he must have seen some potential in me in that first lesson because he showed me how to play a blues, and the blues scale, and said I was going to improvise a solo next week! I didn't really know what that meant, but for the next seven days I practiced playing my scale over the twelve bar blues progression I recorded on my little Radio Shack tape recorder over and over again. Once I got the hang of it and realized the potential in improvising, my path was set. I enjoyed learning tunes note for note, but improvising was where I had the most fun. It was filled with excitement and danger and I loved the feeling of attempting to create something uniquely my own. It didn't always sound great, but that was part of the adventure. Playing myself into musical corners and then trying to play my way out of them was my favourite pastime. But Steve didn't just teach me about playing solos; I learned how to read music (or at least transfer what I knew from piano to guitar) and he opened up my ears to many different styles of music. When the time came to audition for music college, Steve prepared me and I was accepted into both of the programs I applied to. I owe alot to Steve's teaching and his influence on me as both a player and a teacher. He was patient, knowledgeable, and willing to go wherever my musical impulses took me. But after six years it was time to say goodbye and enter the next stage: Mohawk College. Enter Joey Goldstein.

My first private lesson at Mohawk was a real kick in the ass. Up until that point, no one had ever really told me anything bad about my playing. I had a pretty healthy confidence in what I could and could not do. Joey made it clear in that first hour that there were alot of things that I could not do. It wasn't for lack of trying, but my experience, especially in jazz, was very limited. He would stop me mid-solo and ask me why I played what I did. I didn't know. I thought it sounded good. It didn't, Joey informed me. I walked out of there with my tail between my legs, wondering if I had made the right decision to pursue music as a career path. Maybe I should be an accountant like my brother? Maybe I'm not cut out for this? But over the course of the week I resolved to give this a shot. I knew I could improve, but I wasn't prepared for the amount of work involved. Playing jazz is hard! But I put my big boy pants on and got down to business. Joey's teaching style was precisely what I needed at that time - real meat-and-potatoes jazz theory and a clear method of practical application. Within a year and a half I had completed Joey's two year guitar course and we spent the last half of my second year basically just playing tunes. 'You can know all the chords and scales in the world but no one is going to want to play with you unless you know songs', Joey told me. This was another turning point - repertoire is so important. I set about trying to memorize as many tunes as I could fit into my tiny brain. After my second year of college I took a year off to tour Canada and pretend I was a rock star. When I returned, Joey had left the college so I ended up with a new instructor. Enter Bob Shields.

Poor Bob. He ended up getting the version of myself that was so busy doing other things that I didn't practice nearly as much as I should have. Bob's teaching seemed a bit more ethereal than Joey's - and while he is one of the nicest people I have ever met, he had a way of politely cutting me down a notch that was so effective that I again questioned my reason for being there. My year studying with Bob basically involved delving deeper into the ideas that I had pursued with Joey. Bob had so many ideas and methods at his disposal that it was sometimes overwhelming. I asked him about a certain passage in a Wayne Shorter tune that consisted of two chords - he wrote out so many possible approaches that it filled both sides of the page. I ended up doing enough work to graduate that year, and Bob was a huge help in furthering my musical knowledge. I don't think I actually ended up playing much better (through no fault of Bob's), but I had more stuff at my disposal that I knew would come out in my playing when it was ready.

Then, for many years I gigged and taught and didn't pursue lessons. I had a lifetime's worth of accumulated instruction that I began processing. Some of it ended up in my playing, and some of it is still baking, waiting until it's done to make it's debut. Last year I made the decision to go back to school. I applied to Berklee and was accepted - enter Rick Peckham. While it's still too soon to know how much stuff I've digested from him, Rick's approach is more akin to Joey's: clear, methodical ideas and practical application. Plus, he is an amazing fingerstyle/thumbpick player who rekindled my love for Jerry Reed, Chet Atkins and Lenny Breau. I even started going to the salon to get my right hand nails done! In the short amount of time that I studied with him, Rick gave me another ten years worth of material to work on. Add that to the lifetime's worth I've received already. Music is a never-ending process. And the beauty of it is that the deeper you go, the more things you'll find that you don't know. Even if I practice every day for six hours, I'll never run out of material to work on. Now it's about working on the right things. The stuff that needs to get done sooner rather than later. Prioritizing. Editing. I'm forever grateful for all of the amazing teachers I've been lucky enough to study with. Through their contrasting approaches, I've learned so many things: the importance of discipline and hard work, a healthy musical curiosity, how to practice, when to play and when not to play, I could go on and on. So, thank you Steve, Joey, Bob and Rick. And all the other important mentors I've had over the years (not necessarily guitar players): Mike Malone, Dave McMurdo, Warren Stirtzinger, Geoff Young, Kevin Dempsey, Pat Collins, Will Jarvis, the list goes on. You've all helped me so much; probably more than you know. I can only hope that through my own teaching I can assist and inspire my students as you have assisted and inspired me.

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