This is an archive post ~ originally published Jun. 18, 2013 and updated in 2018
I recently had a mastermind session with music therapist, coach & harpist Trista Hill about my online program Blues Harp-Style, a 6-Week program on the Blues specifically for harp players. The photos you see are from some sillier moments from the course, explaining the Blues structure through a song-and-dance called the “Mood Swing Blues.”
I told Trista I love seeing people sign up for the course – and I’m always looking for ways to make the Blues experience deeper and more experiential for them.
Then I divulged my fear: I love Blues as a creative structure – I love playing it and I love teaching it. But I’m no Blues ‘expert’ – not when it comes to knowing different styles of Blues or how to create an authentic this-or-that kind of riff, or who played what when and with whom.
I’m fascinated with Blues is a structure for creativity, not as a tradition to master.
And for some reason, that embarrasses me. Like I should be able to speak ‘knowledgably’ about Chicago Blues and how it differs from Whatever Blues. I should know the most famous Blues players and their most famous Blues tune.
But I can’t. I don’t.
The minute I ‘saw’ the simplicity of the 12-Bar Blues form, I was hooked. The minute I realized that that one form could be played an infinite number of ways – from rudimentary to virtuosic – and that it gives the same generous offer of human expression at any level of technical ability – I knew the Blues was something I wanted in my own life.
I know almost nothing about Blues history – and I don’t teach it, in part because it’s all there on the internet – students don’t need me to teach that part. What I know is how Blues works as a structure for creative expression, I know how to distill the form to its structural essence, outside of specific tradition, history or convention – and that’s what allows me to combine it with any other style of music I play – from Debussy to Boogie Woogie.
I admire people who master Blues in traditional ways – I’m sure I’d be impressed by someone who knows the different kinds and histories of jungle-gyms, who was the greatest jungle-gym creator of all time, and what are the styles of jungle gyms.
But I’m not a traditionalist. Being able to play it right doesn’t float my boat. Being able to play with it, to experience everything the form opens for me – that’s what I love, and that’s what I teach in my program “Blues Harp-Style”.
So I approach Blues pretty much the way I approach everything:
How is this structured?
What are its principles?
How can I envision it in the simplest way possible, that lets me engage with it – and that lets me bring everthing I DO know to it.
What are all the things I can DO with it?
Let me get my hands on it and play with it.
This hasn’t changed for me since I was probably 3. It may be from growing up with both a mother and grandmother who were K-1-2-3 teachers, very busy women and who both often wanted me to go off and play by myself. Thus did I hear:
“Look, here’s how this works … see? OK, so now you know. Now, lets see how many different things you can do with it.”
As an adult, I gravitated towards teachers like that. My mentor, Tony Montanaro, would take a single object, like a clothespin and put it on the floor, with two dozen of us surrounding it. We’d spend an hour taking turns creating things with it in tiny mimes or stories, exploring everything that clothespin could be or represent.
I was taught to PLAY WITH everything.
I learned to look for these spectacularly simple structures that are cosmic gushers of creative expression.
The Blues is one of them. And that’s why I love to teach people to play it. I especially love teaching harp-players, people like me, who’ve often been told their instrument is limited and inappropriate for Blues or Jazz. By people who confuse tradition with truth.
I love that the Blues is simple enough that people can start expressing themselves as soon as they’ve got the basic concepts – pretty much after the second week of my online course.
It’s often in that raw, unformed place, when we’ve just had an ‘aha’ about how something works, that we experience a glorious moment in time when we’re simply exploring and expressing – something we often lose connection with when we start focusing on how to master something technically.
Mastery itself can be blinding. But that moment of understanding how a new thing works, the beauty and power of simple structures and what they offer you — those are some of my favorite moments in learning. And when I teach I am reconnected with them over and over.
If you play the harp, come join me for BLUES: Harp-Style 2018.
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