Community Jazz and Beyond - Non-Classical Music Strings: Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass Talking about Music

Meet Ken Smith, guitarist, guitar-builder, and singer-songwriter

This is a guest post by Nancy Friedman, an AMN volunteer, who writes:

“I’ve known Ken Smith as a friend and a photographer for many years, and I’ve enjoyed his Instagram posts and music videos. When I learned that he’d posted a listing on the AMN website, I saw an opportunity to learn more about his musical life and to share our converstion with the AMN community.”

Your listing says you’re a singer-songwriter and rhythm guitar and fingerstyle player. What led to these interests? Did you grow up in a musical family?

My father was in the US Air Force, so we traveled around a lot. My family wasn’t musical, but there was music in the house—mostly Big Band records and country-western radio.

When I was in fourth grade, in Hutchinson, Kansas, students had the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. I thought it would be cool to play drums, but my mother said no. I ended up with a clarinet, but I hated the taste of those reeds! I switched to French horn, but carrying it back and forth to school was too much for me, so I gave up.

By the time I was in high school we were living on the air force base in Newfoundland, Canada. Some guys I knew had formed a band, which sounded like fun. I bought a $13 guitar from the Sears catalog and taught myself to play some chords. But the guys needed a bass player, so I went back to the Sears catalog, bought a bass guitar, and told the guys they’d have to teach me how to play it. We got good enough to play Saturday nights at the teen club on the base. The four of us made $55 a gig. So I guess I was a professional musician for a while!

Are you mostly self-taught? Have you taken any formal lessons?

In high school, we taught each other. It was like the famous story about the Beatles traveling across Liverpool to learn the B7 chord. Wow, a new chord!

In the late 1990s I started taking individual and group classes in jazz guitar and lead guitar at the Blue Bear School of Music in Fort Mason. My teachers there included Jim Peterson; Joe Cunningham, a great guitarist and quiltmaker;

and the late Johnny Nitro of the San Francisco band Johnny Nitro & the Doorslammers. More recently, I’ve twice traveled to Portland, Oregon, to take workshops from the fingerstyle blues guitarist Mary Flower—a wonderful musician and generous teacher. Mary introduced me to the music of Duke Robillard, Albanie Falletta, Guy Davis, and other terrific blues guitarists.

When did you start writing your own songs? What inspires you?

I started writing lyrics in 1974 or 1975, when my first marriage was breaking up. But it took me more than 40 years to put them to music. I learned by listening to songs I liked and studying their structure. I have a limited vocal range—maybe an octave at most—so I pick keys I can sing in.

In 2017, we were displaced for 10 days by the fires here in Santa Rosa. During that time I started writing about the experience, and what came out was “Firefighter in the Smoke.” For the lyrics, I wrote down every word I associated with fires and firefighting, and then started putting them into couplets.

I earned a living for many years as a corporate photographer and videographer, so it was only natural that I’d start making music videos—my own songs, like “Raven Blues,” and traditional songs, like the Irish folk tune “Drill You Drillers,” which was inspired by the soil-sampling crew in my Santa Rosa community!

Tell us about the guitars you’ve built and restored.

I’ve made five guitars from scratch and repaired about 35. I’m self-taught in that area, too—I watched a bunch of online videos. My first guitar was made from Adirondack spruce, mahogany, and, for the neck, pau ferro. I made another guitar from Tennessee sweet gum, Engelmann spruce, walnut, and rosewood. I don’t do inlays—it’s too persnickety.

And then there are all the guitars I’ve repaired and kept. In the room I’m sitting in right now there are 31 guitars.

I haven’t yet made the perfect guitar, and I don’t think I ever will. But that doesn’t keep me from being obsessed.

Raven Blues by Ken Smith from Ken Smith on Vimeo.

Community Strings: Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass Talking about Music

Meet Garrett Fischbach, violin and viola teacher

This is a guest post by Nancy Friedman, an AMN volunteer.

We were thrilled when Garrett Fischbach posted his teaching services to our online Listings. Not only does Garrett have 25 years’ experience with three of the most prestigious orchestras in the United States, but he also has a true passion for teaching adult amateurs. Furloughed along with the entire Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus since March 31, he spoke to us from his home in New York about his teaching and performing philosophy.

What can students expect from your lessons?

I teach enthusiastic intermediate and advanced violin and viola students of all ages who want to improve their skills, either to perform with friends or community orchestras or simply to get more pleasure out of playing.

As the song goes, “If you become a teacher/By your pupils you’ll be taught.” What is something you’ve learned from a student?

I recently went through old files and came across a folder of essays written by my undergraduate Violin Performance students at Mannes School of Music [in New York] in 2010. I had asked the students to write a paragraph or two about their short- and long-term career goals, and one student wrote these very inspiring words: “The other possibility that I have been contemplating is to just live simply, and have the violin and music in general, as a gift to be cherished, rather than an obligation to be mastered.” A decade on, I couldn’t help wonder what this person was up to. I looked him up, and it turns out he has been doing exactly what he said in that sentence he wrote. He is in fact still playing the violin, but very much on his own terms in his own original way, while making a living doing a variety of other fascinating things. His example gives me much inspiration during these uncertain times.

We love the idea of music as “a gift to be cherished.” Can you tell us more?

In the MET Orchestra, we are of course always listening to great singers—both on and off the stage. The English mezzo Dame Janet Baker once gave an interview in which she said something about this idea of “gift.” She acknowledges that she is “gifted,” and says a friend told her that this gift “is hers to enjoy.” We are not all quite as gifted as Janet Baker, but even amateurs have a gift, and that is the love for the music they play. (Listen to the interview with Janet Baker.)

What is a common challenge amateur musicians face?

A lot of the time amateurs don’t realize just how much they can do. All they need is a little bit of prompting from someone who has the keys and opens the door to a lot of technical challenges that they thought were beyond their reach and also a lot of ways of thinking about the music. That’s what professionals can share with amateurs.

Learn more about Garrett Fischbach’s teaching services on our Listings page.

AMN mentors Orchestra and Symphonic Music Strings: Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass Workshops

Side By Side

Amateur Music Network’s Lolly Lewis spoke with SF Chamber Orchestra Music Director Benjamin Simon about AMN’S Third Annual Side by Side partnership with the SFCO: what drew him to this music and why he keeps coming back to working with amateurs.

Ben Simon has successfully made the transition to conductor following twenty-five years as a violist performing in several of the United States’ most elite ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Naumburg award-winning New World String Quartet, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. In 2002 he was appointed Music Director of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra and has transformed that organization into one of the premiere professional ensembles in northern California.

Mentor Benjamin Simon, Music Director of the SF Chamber Orchestra, leads a Side By Side workshop in 2017.
Ben leads the Side By Side in 2017

Lewis says, “Ben was one of the first people I thought of when I started Amateur Music Network. We had worked together many times over the years, and I loved how the SF Chamber Orchestra, with its free concerts, was all about making the highest-quality music and giving back to the community. I knew he would really understand what AMN was trying to do. And right away he suggested the Side by Side – bringing audience member string players right onto the stage after a concert for a reading with professional musicians as stand partners. We’re in our third year of the partnership now and each one is better. I’m really grateful for his visionary leadership. Plus, we always have such a great time!”

Amateur Music Network: Elgar’s music really seems like it comes from another world, and so does Piazzolla’s. What do you hear in these pieces?
Ben Simon: I agree, Elgar comes from a gentler time. There’s so much emotion and deep feeling, but there’s a civility and ease about the music that just warms my heart. And I think Piazzolla is the greatest South American composer of the 20th century. His music captures the spirit of time and place in the way all great music does. This just happens to be the bordellos and brothels of some dark waterfront street in Argentina. The danger, excitement, and sensuality of the Tango infuses his music with a life we can hear and experience today.
AMN: What do you hope people will experience playing in the Side By Side?
Simon: It’s so much fun for our professional musicians to relax a bit with a new friend and stand-partner. We hope that fun communicates throughout the group and that we all have a great time. Making music with other people is what it’s all about!

Learn more at our workshop!

Join Maestro Ben Simon and the SF Chamber Orchestra in a reading of Elgar’s Serenade and Piazzolla’s Libertango on Sunday, April 28, at 5pm at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley.
The Side By Side takes place right after the SFCO’s FREE Main Stage Concert: come listen to some splendid music and then come make music together!

Community Strings: Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass

Midlife crisis: how bass playing changed my life

A Guest Blog by Steve Schaefer

I started playing the bass at the age of 50, and it has become a very important part of my life. Sometimes it just takes a while to be ready.

I got my first guitar in 1967. I fell in love with it and played for fun alone and with friends for several years.

My bass story, though, begins in 1972. I’d been playing the guitar for five years and picked up an acoustic one to go with my first, but I decided I wanted to play the bass. I was 18 and out of school now. I don’t remember why, but something about that deep sound really attracted me. And I loved Paul’s bass parts in Beatles songs.

Having few liquid assets, I decided to take my beloved coin collection to a pawn shop in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district to see if they’d take it for a bass guitar. I brought home what I believe was a green Fender Precision bass. I have no photographs of it. I plunked on it a little while, but before long someone broke into my ground-floor apartment and stole it. Looking back, I’m not sure if it had anything to do with coming from a pawnshop.

Disheartened, I decided to start college and move on. I met a woman, graduated college, got married, and had a kid. I worked a series of jobs. I got divorced and remarried and had another child. We started taking our son to music lessons and I was around musical instruments again. My memories of the bass came back, and I decided I wanted one again. I mentioned it to my wife and she said, “why don’t you go get one?” Now that was music to my ears. And this time, I had the means to walk into a nice music store and select one I liked.

I picked out a Fender Precision Bass special (with the Jazz Bass neck), with a sunburst finish. It was a lot like my first one. I took it home with a small amplifier and started taking lessons at the same store where my son was learning the guitar.

I found a book about basses and bass players. In the back, an appendix featured 30 albums with great bass parts that you MUST listen to. That was the source of my first intentional bass-focused listening, and led me to explore more Jazz, Folk, and Bluegrass.

I never intended to play the upright bass. But those jazz albums started to affect me – Scott LaFaro with Bill Evans’ trio at the Village Vanguard I played over and over. I found numerous albums with Paul Chambers covering the low end. But it was one special song that really motivated me to try the big acoustic bass. My wife had an album by Irish folksinger Mary Black, and on it was a track called Columbus. I credit that bass part, and short solo, with helping me decide to investigate the upright bass. So, a little over a year after I began electric bass guitar, I started taking bass lessons on upright bass, instead.

I found my teacher through a sheet posted on a music store bulletin board with the little tear-off tabs. After a satisfactory first lesson, my new teacher and I went to A&G Music in Oakland to rent a bass. I took my lessons and improved, and after eight months of renting, A&G let me apply the entire amount I’d already spent towards my own Chinese made, hand-carved upright bass. (Photo: with my bass before a concert with the Castro Valley Orchestra, 2014)

Meanwhile, I still played my electric Fender, with a band, Red Paint, from late 2006 until early 2013. We rehearsed weekly and played a few local gigs. Then, I helped form a five-member blues band, which evolved into a four-person group, Fault Line Blues Band. I play mostly electric with them, but I have started adding in the upright part of the time. I’ve also started playing a five-string bass guitar—it was my 64th birthday present.

As my upright abilities improved, I wondered what to do. My local adult school sent a flyer that listed an orchestra class. I had some classical background from my childhood clarinet playing and my mom’s participation in community orchestras on the cello. So, in the first week of January 2007, I went to my first class meeting.

It was scary at first, but I took to the music quickly. In the 10 years I spent with the orchestra, we rehearsed weekly and performed about 100 pieces, including three Beethoven symphonies, Mozart, Dvorak, Shostakovich, and many more, including a couple of original debuts by local, living composers.

During that time, I also discovered chamber music workshops, including weekends with the Chamber Musicians of Northern California (CMNC) and the wonderful week-long sessions at Humboldt State University. The local workshops were great for improving my skills and meeting lots of like-minded players. The week-long sessions at Humboldt are a joy – summer camp for grownups! I attended in 2010 and 2012, and I’m going back this year for a third time.

Today, I play two or three paid gigs a month with my band and take occasional chamber music workshops. I also participate in music events with my local Odd Fellows lodge, which puts on a summer concert series that benefits school music programs. And I’ve started bringing the upright into the Blues band—a new and exciting synergy.

I made a fateful decision 15 years ago to take on the bass, and it opened a world of enjoyment and friendship. It shows that when you love something, it’s never too late to start.

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