Updates, concerts, and next projects

Although fall doesn’t officially start until the end of September, to me September 1st feels like the start of the new season, so I decided that it was time for one of my semi-annual newsletter blog posts this week. Also, a lot of things have come up over the last couple of weeks, so I have a few things to share!

Upcoming concerts

As you know, over the next year I will be finishing up the recording of my first CD, so, in theory, I should have a good list of repertoire to draw on for concerts. I have set up a few in Ottawa – Dominion Chalmers in November, Glebe St. James in March, St Luke’s with Craig in April, and Trinity Anglican in July, and of course, I have my first concert in the States at the end of this month in Charlottesville. All of the details for these concerts can be found on my website here. It has been a few months since the last time that I performed, so I am looking forward to getting back on the stage. Of course this means that I need to get back into a better practising routine, so that will be my focus for the remainder of this month!

Once my CD is released (late spring/early summer 2019), I will put together some sort of a tour outside of Ottawa to visit some of my favourite recital spaces across Ontario and wherever I can find a willing audience! If you are interested in having me come visit your neck-of-the-woods, please let me know in the comments below, and I will do my best! I can’t promise anything outside of Canada at the moment due to Visa requirements, but I will do whatever I can to make it work 🙂

Next builds

As my current build is coming to an end (the final blog post should come out next week), I was starting to wonder what I would be building next, and all of a sudden I ended up with 2 more commissions! I am very excited to get started on these guitars – one a Padauk and Engelmann spruce guitar, the other made of Ziricote and European spruce, however, I will likely not get anything going until after my workshop is at least partially remodelled in October.

I have already ordered most of the wood for these guitars, and it is quite the colourful selection!

In the meantime, I have a couple of (hopefully easy) repairs waiting in the shop – classical guitars with buzzes, cracks, and holes, and a very interesting mandolin to spruce up and get back into a playable condition.

As I mentioned above, the main project for this fall will be the re-doing of my workshop with the help of my family. I am excited to learn how to frame a wall, hang drywall, and do all of that DIY home reno stuff. With this project, I’ll first be separating my work space from the furnace, utilities, and laundry machines so that I can control the dust in the house a little bit more. To that end I’ll also be purchasing and installing a proper dust collection system. If I have the time, I am also hoping to install a ceiling so that I don’t have quite as much of a problem with dust settling on the pipes and wires in the ceiling. Once that is sorted, I’ll be focussing on building a proper bench (or 2) with a solid, smooth work-surface that caters to my needs. I’ll also be installing shelves and every possible storage solution that I can think of to keep my workshop more tidy and functional.

New directions

Another new development in the past few weeks is that I have taken on a part-time elementary music teacher position at a private school here in Ottawa. I will be teaching ukulele and guitar to grades 4 through 8 two afternoons a week. This is something fairly new for me – I do have some group guitar instruction experience from work that I did in the summer between university years, but I have not really been traditionally employed since high school. I am looking forward to the new challenges that this will bring!

Of course, this means that I am having to work even more on my time management skills as I somehow have to fit in 8 hours of school work, 30 private students, practising, building, administration, lesson preparation, and whatever else that crops up into a reasonable work-week that allows for a little bit of “me time” as well… but that is seems to be the constant challenge of being self-employed. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do all of these things – it keeps life interesting!


On the blog here, I am planning to continue to write something for most Thursdays. I’ll be continuing the luthier interview series with another builder as soon as things calm down, and I hope to include a few more posts on books and music alongside my usual shop update posts.

As always, thanks for being a part of this tiny community. I’ll repeat myself from earlier in this post – I really do feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do everything that I have been able to do these past few years. I never intended this blog to be much more than personal blog to marry my love of guitars and woodworking with my love of spilling out words. It is hard to believe that this is blog post #161 and that I started this 5 years ago in August of 2013 when my sister said that I should write about the Baroque guitar that I was building at the time. Since then I have been in 4 different workshops, 6 different homes, and have turned my hobbies and university degrees into a career. I have built about 15 instruments since the start of this blog and have learned so much. I can’t wait to see what the next 5 years will bring. (Hopefully less moving, more instruments, many blog posts, and a few big goal achievements and life changes)

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Workshop upgrades and new tools

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will know that I am constantly trying to improve my process to build better and better guitars. I am still very much a beginner in many ways, although I am confident in saying that I am not making nearly as many mistakes as I was a year or two ago!

Part of this journey is to gradually acquire or make tools and jigs to increase my efficiency and the quality of the finished product. Today I thought that I would share with you a few of my recent shop upgrades.

Templates

Until now, just about every guitar that I have built has had a different shape. I decided recently that this is not a sustainable or efficient method of working. For one, all of my templates and forms have ended up being temporary thrown together things that are of lower than ideal quality, and for two, I have ended up with a lot of excess clutter! I also realized that all of the classical guitar shapes that I have been building are incredibly similar, so why I thought it was important to “re-invent the wheel” every time, I cannot say.

I have decided that from now on, unless there is a specific historical guitar copy to be made, all of my full sized classical guitars will be of the same body shape. This consistency will also allow me to better judge the other changes that I make from one guitar to the next. I plan on making a similar commitment to body shape the next time that I build a steel-string.

I also finally decided to make a proper brace-arch template that is as close as I could make it to a 15′ radius. This is the radius that I will be using on my back braces – when I get to bracing the top of this guitar, I will make a 25′ radius template.

I made both the guitar half-template and the brace-arch template out of a sheet of clear acrylic that I have had hanging around my shop for at least 2 years. These templates should last me a good long time – or at least until I change my mind about the guitar’s shape or arch! The guitar shape that I settled on is somewhere in between my father’s guitar shape and the shape of Segovia’s Hauser guitar with a body length of about 19 1/8 inches.

I have more of this acrylic, so I will likely be making permanent templates for my headpiece and heel shapes when I get to those stages of the building.

Vise

Last week, I decided that it was time to invest in a proper guitar building vise. My dad had first sent me the link to this Lee Valley Universal Vise back in February, and I thought, “man, that would be so useful, but can I justify it?” Then, when Ross mentioned buying the vise in the interview that I did with him a few weeks ago, I got to thinking that I should probably just buy it. I have been struggling with the vises that I had for a few years; it was time to get something that would hold all of the odd shapes that guitar building requires.

So far I have used it to hold tiny pieces of wood for the rosette that I am inlaying in my current guitar build (post on that coming soon), and it has been marvellous. The vise rotates 360 degrees and both of the hardwood jaws rotate as well to make clamping angled bits of wood simple. No longer will my guitar necks slip while I’m sanding!

I bought the Lee Valley version, but if you’re not too keen on the green, there is the original (I think) red version from Stewart MacDonald. I have no idea how they compare, but I imagine that the Stew-Mac version is at least as good as what I have bought from Lee Valley.

Miscellaneous drill bits

These tools are very project specific, and I definitely did not purchase the highest quality bits for this project, however, what I did buy seems to be working reasonably well and the price was right. Although they are not of incredible quality, I am including them in this post because they are allowing me to do the job much more cleanly than if I were to try to do this by hand (which was my original terrible plan).

I won’t give too much away on the project, as I will be writing a blog on that soon, but I can say that these were for the rosette of the current guitar build.

I needed a selection of forstner bits and plug cutters, and I was not having much luck in finding bits that were the right size, in stock, and for a reasonable price. Lee Valley has some lovely forstner bits, and I do have one of them for drilling slots in the headpiece, but I could not justify buying all of the sizes that I needed for this project, and more importantly, most of the sizes that I needed were out of stock until June. So I did some searching around online and found this set of 16 bits on Amazon. For the price, they are pretty decent. They are not beautiful, and I cannot speak to their longevity, but they cut a fairly clean hole in softwood, which is what I needed, and there are a good variety of sizes included in the set.

I had a harder time finding bits that would cut out wooden discs. I found various plug cutters and saw-tooth bits, but finding a set that included the mid-sized cutters that I needed was nigh impossible! I ended up ordering this set of Diamond hole saw bits from Amazon, and again, while they are not incredibly well made, they do cut circles out of wood.

Here is some of my test work of plugs and holes (ignore the messy circle at the top right – that is when I was trying to excavate a perfect circle myself… needless to say, it was less than a success. As you can see, the 19mm maple disc was inlayed into the cedar quite neatly.

I’ll leave this post here, although you can be sure that there will be more of this kind coming in the next few months. I have grand plans to renovate my workshop this summer – hopefully I have time to build a new workbench and install some much needed storage space!

Barry Green’s Inner Game of Music

Last week, I read a tiny book by Alan Bennett called The Uncommon Reader. This is a quick, humorous read (I read it in 3 short sessions) about the Queen of England discovering her love of literature. Although it is an unassuming, easy to read novella, it really struck a chord in me. For the last several months, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the amount the amount of time that I waste consuming low quality entertainment. Not that there is anything wrong with a few YouTube videos, a simple pop song, or a formulaic romantic comedy. But there is something wrong with the overconsumption of such undemanding entertainment and there is something wrong with the constant drone of mind numbing background trash. I know that I feel physically ill after falling into the YouTube spiral for too long, and I definitely feel ashamed of the amount of time I have wasted over the past few years on the internet.

So, as I read The Uncommon Reader, I was thinking about how I currently spend my free time, and how I used to spend my free time when I was growing up largely without a computer. I used to love to read, and although I can’t say that I have forgotten that I loved reading, I have become lazy. It is so much “easier” to waste an hour (or more) in the YouTube/social media/Google vortex than it is to pick up a book, listen intentionally to music, or simply be alone with one’s thoughts. I am sure that nothing in these ramblings has come as a surprise to you; I have, of course, been aware of the time I have been wasting all along. The trouble is, while it is easy to recognize this as a problem in my life, I have a really hard time getting out of the bad habit and into the good one!

Alan Bennett’s novella has made me determined to read more and really do more than just think about how I am spending my free time.

And so, I come to the real purpose of today’s blog post. Since finishing The Uncommon Reader, I have started another novel (Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje), and I finally got around to reading the second half of Barry Green’s The Inner Game of Music.

The Inner Game of Music – Barry Green

I started reading this book last year (I mentioned it in a blog post almost a year ago), and over the course of a few months, I half-heartedly picked away at the first half of the book. Not that it is a poorly written or boring read – far from it! Barry Green’s writing is easy to digest, relatable, and well thought out. His confidence in Tim Gallwey’s Inner Game theory comes across, but Green does not assume to have all of the answers; Green invites the reader to explore the possibilities of the Inner Game theory while acknowledging that each performer and each performing situation will demand a different solution, some which are not necessarily outlined in the book.

After such a slow start on the book, it seemed as though I would never get through the whole thing. But, after reading the Alan Bennett book and deciding to get back to the business of reading, I decided to pick it up and get it finished. So I read the second half of the book in two days, proving that it really is not such an arduous read.

This will not be a proper book review. I do plan on eventually working towards some proper book review blogs in the future, but for now, this will just be a few thoughts that I had while reading the book, and an encouragement for you to pick it up and read it yourself if it seems of interest.

The book would be incredibly beneficial to any musician, but I found that it would be of particular use to adult amateur musicians, music teachers, parents of young students, and professional musicians or those aspiring to become professional musicians.

The “Inner Game” can be boiled down to learning to silence the “self 1” (interferes with your potential), in order to make room for your “self 2” (the part of you that is able to express your full creative potential). It should be noted that this is not the same as left and right brain (analytical and global) thinking – these are addressed in a separate chapter, and Green shows how to use the Inner Game theory to balance these ways of thinking. The first half of the book describes the basic skills that are required to accomplish this (awareness, will, and trust) and how a student can use these skills to let go and surrender to the musical experience. The second half of the book shows how to use the Inner Game in different situations (dealing with interference during performances, teaching, listening to music, being a parent, practising, playing in ensembles, and improvising). Green includes exercises throughout the book to practise the skills. I have to say, I did not have time to try all of the exercises out as I was reading through the book, so I will go back and use this book as a practise aid over the next year.

This is not a book about becoming a virtuoso from scratch. Although practise is addressed, this is not a book about practising exactly. This is a book about an approach to performing, that, when taken in combination with technical development and good practise habits, will lead to a more enjoyable and fulfilling musical experience.

Much of this book was reassuring – without knowing about this book, I had already put many of the concepts into practise while working to overcome my own nervousness in performance. I am no longer a nervous performer (I don’t believe that I have been particularly nervous for the past couple of years), but there are many other things that I need to work on, and this book hit many of them on the head. My biggest struggle is with focus, and most of the Inner Game skills will help me with that.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters on teaching with the Inner Game principles, and I will definitely be revisiting these parts of the book to more fully understand the concepts. Teaching is something that I thoroughly enjoy, and I know that it is, and will continue to be, an integral part of my career. I think that music teachers can play a really important role in a child’s development, so our approach in teaching young children must be carefully considered. I have a lot to learn in this area, and the thoughts presented in this book made a lot of sense to me. Adult students face a whole other set of challenges, and this book does a good job of addressing these struggles. I would highly recommend that adult music students read this book.

Parts of the book are slightly dated – the tape decks and other technologies that are recommended have been replaced a few times since the book came out in 1986, and there has been a lot more research in the fields of music education, performance anxiety, and effective practice strategies in the last several years, but the core concepts of the book have not been affected as far as I can tell.

I will leave this blog with a short quote from the book that seems to tie today’s thoughts together:

“So much depends on the degree to which you value the moments, the minutes, and hours, of your life. If your life is precious to you, you will want your practice time to be both enjoyable and musically rewarding.” (page 129)

(for a non-musical, but equally inspiring remark, remove the works “practice” and “musically”)

A few changes

I decided that it was high time for my semi-annual workshop tidy up this week. Of course, ideally, I would never have to do this. Ideally, I would tidy up after myself and my shop would never get out of hand. This is not really who I am though, so it is hard for me to build that good habit. I really am working on it, despite what my workshop looked like at the beginning of this week…

My excuse is simply that it is hard to keep a small shop tidy with various lute and guitar repair jobs underway alongside 2 or more guitar builds as well as a partly finished dining table. The response to this is, of course, that in a small shop it is very important to keep things tidy when there are so many projects underway. Another goal/resolution that I’m continuously working towards. I’m not proud of it, but this is what I came down to on Tuesday morning:

oof, eek, and grimacing faces.

In the process of tidying up, I also finally got around to a couple of quick projects that I wanted to get done for my shop.

bench-top vise

The first was to attach my grandfather’s old bench vise to my worktop in a way that was easily removable for when I need an uninterrupted bench-top.

I did this by drilling four holes through my bench and then attaching the vise with long carriage bolts and wing nuts. I do need to go out and buy some slightly shorter bolts (these ones are borrowed from my spool clamps and stick out just a bit too far below my bench), but the vise is securely anchored and works quite well!

I also used double sided tape to semi-permanently attach some masonite to the jaws of the vise so that I don’t constantly have to manipulate pads as well as the piece of wood that I need to hold in the vise.

chisel storage

The second mini project was to finally get around to making a holder for my chisels. Chisels are probably my most used tool (especially my 3/4 inch chisel), and tucking them away in a case was just not working for me. Basically this resulted in me just never putting them away, and this is a problem for a few obvious reasons – sharp tools should never be just left lying around. One, I kept losing them under everything else that was on my bench-top; two, sharp tools only stay sharp if you treat them well, and; three… pretty sure it is just not safe. So I needed to come up with something that would allow me to store my chisels in an easy to reach way without leaving them lying around getting damaged or damaging me. I’ve seen this kind of thing done by a lot of people, but here is my take on it:

The chisel storage unit is attached to an organizer that my dad saved from his work. I use it to store sandpaper, small clamps, and random jigs at the moment, but I really need to do some work on it to make it more functional for me. At some point I’ll get around to that and then will show you the end result, but I did not have time for that this week.

To make the chisel holder, I simply took a scrap piece of unidentified wood (I think it might be basswood 2in x 10 in), drilled 5/8th inch holes along the centre line, and then cut notches into the holes from one side. The notches are not as wide as the holes themselves and are just wide enough to allow the smallest part of the chisel’s neck to pass through. This means that they won’t fall out if the bench gets jolted. The holder is screwed to the sandpaper storage unit with a couple of 2 inch wood screws. It looks a bit rough, but it is doing the job it was meant to do fantastically, and (so far), I am putting my tools back where they belong.

I also found homes for a few of my other tools, but mostly that was just a matter of tidying up and putting some new hooks in the wall. Now my shop feels so much less crowded. Hopefully I can keep it this way for at least a few days…

Yes, some of that might still look like a jumbled mess, but really it is just a weird assortment of storage containers. This is not exactly a “pinterest worthy makeover,” but it is, perhaps, much more true to real life.

work-life balance

The other thing that I have been working on (and will probably keep working on for the rest of my career, just like my tidy workshop), is my work-life balance. I think that this might be the hardest thing to sort out as a self employed person, so I am sure that I do not have the answer quite yet. However, I am trying out something new, so I thought I’d share that here along with these other changes.

I have decided to implement an 8 hour work day. I’ll be working 6 days a week, and, for the most part, I’ll be trying to stick to workdays of about 8 hours each. Because of my teaching schedule and everything else that goes on, no two days will look alike, but I will still have that limit set for myself. I also know that some days will require 10 hours or more of work, and some will be limited to 4 hours or less.

Before, my plan was basically “work until you drop,” and I was starting to realize that this is not exactly the healthiest of mindsets. For one, it meant that I was trying to work as much as I could each day, and this set me up for a lot of negative self talk when I didn’t quite make it through my list of tasks or to the 12 hours of work that I expected myself to do. If I didn’t get started early in the day or if I stopped working before bedtime, I would generally feel like I was not working hard enough and that I was wasting time, when in reality, I was just taking time off like a normal person. Because every hour is a potential work hour when one is self employed, it is hard to get out of the mindset that every hour should be a work hour.

I have been taking (most) Friday’s off for the better part of a year now, and it is truly the best thing that I have done since starting this career. This allows me to get errands done, take up hobbies, and do things that I enjoy without feeling guilty about using potential work hours. By setting 8 hour work days, I am relieving more of this pressure, and also (hopefully) making myself more productive. I believe that there have been several studies done on productivity and work-day length, and I think that generally more does not equal better in almost all situations.

Every evening I write out a task list for the next day (the second best thing that I have implemented right after those Fridays off), and then the next morning, I review and add to the list. That’s when I look at my schedule for the day and pick the hours that I will be working and the hours that I will not be. For example, today I am working 8am-9am, 10:30am-12:30pm, 1pm-5:30pm, and 8-8:30pm. Seems a bit crazy, but this is what is going to work for me today. Other days, my day might just be 9am-5:30pm with a half hour lunch.

Several of my friends have complained about the unstructured nature of their days because of university timetables or because self employment. Most of us crave some sort of reliable schedule to organize the chaos, and while a standard 8-4 or 9-5 won’t work for me, this list making, hour sorting method is feeling pretty good when combined with a few other solid routines.

On that note, it is 9am, so it is time for my morning break. I’m thinking breakfast, reading, and a walk. Also I have to hang up the laundry.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! I hope that you all had a wonderful holiday season full of family, friends, food, and relaxation. Last year I wrote a “year in review,” and, as this is a blog that is intended to document my journey through my career as a guitarist, I thought that I would do something similar this year as a way to summarize my experiences.

2017 was quite simply an amazing year for me. A few highlights are completing 5 guitars, performing concerts in Ontario and Nova Scotia, starting a new voice-guitar duo with Terri-Lynn Mitchell, and travelling to England with my family and Craig.


Building

The first build of 2017 went to one of my guitar students. This was a rosewood and German spruce classical guitar inspired by the Spanish luthiers Simplicio and Garcia. Generally this was a very successful guitar. I did my first handmade mosaic rosette on this guitar. I was not entirely happy with the finish on this guitar as it lacked depth and warmth, but generally the construction turned out well and the guitar sounded quite nice.

Indian Rosewood guitar

After completing this guitar, I embarked on an impossible plan to build 4 guitars at the same time in a limited time period and a small workshop. I learned a lot from trying to do this – mostly that I should not do this again, but I did enjoy parts of this process. Completing a few soundboards or backs or necks at the same time, for instance, is definitely more time efficient than working on them individually. In the end, I dropped one of the guitars from the plan, but I did manage to complete three. Two were copies of a small-bodied Torres guitar, and the third was a really interesting acoustic steel-string guitar.

I used a new (to me) finish on these three guitars, and while I am still getting the hang of it, I do generally prefer the results from this water-based varnish than from any of the previous finishes that I have used.

After taking a few months to work on a couple of repairs and focus on other parts of my life, I returned to building in October with another full sized classical guitar. I took quite a different design approach with this guitar, aiming for simple inlay choices and clean lines. I think that this choice paid off, and this is definitely one of my better guitars both in look and in sound. I still have a couple of things to work on, but I got much closer to being satisfied with my workmanship with this guitar.

In 2018, I am going to make an effort to continue to improve with each guitar that I build. I am hoping to build 4-6 guitars this year, although a few of these may be guitars that I have already started. I am going to allow myself more time after the guitar construction to finish the guitar and to finesse the action and details of playability. This is something that I have rushed too many times and the regret that I feel every time is just not worth it. This is biggest mistake that I really need to finally learn from!

I have a classical guitar to build in the first couple months of 2018, so I will be starting that project imminently. After that, I will be completing the spalted maple classical guitar (No. 017) and the barely started ovangkol classical guitar (No. 019). I also hope to return to the zebra wood steel string guitar that I was building a few years ago (No. 005) and the experimental Spanish circa 1790 6 course guitar (No. 006). I feel like these incomplete projects in my catalogue really need to be finished to give me some peace of mind!


Performing

2017 had Craig and I playing a few concerts in Ottawa at various churches and events as well as travelling to Nova Scotia for a run of concerts in the spring and to Southern Ontario in the early fall. Terri-Lynn and I also performed our first concert this year as a start to our voice-guitar duo. From a full-time concert artist’s perspective, this is hardly a busy touring schedule, but for me, this was the fullest year of concerts that I have experienced.

To be completely honest, I was mostly disappointed with my performances. I did not practise enough, and therefore I was often barely holding on in performances and was always hoping that I would make it through concerts with my dignity intact. This is no way to proceed as a professional musician. Hopefully this brutal honesty with myself will help me in my quest to practise better and more regularly in 2018.

This is not to say that I felt like a failure after every performance, and this is certainly not an underhanded way of seeking praise. I definitely did feel that I grew as a performer this year. I am much more comfortable on stage (just imagine how much more comfortable I would be if I were properly prepared!), and I think that this has allowed me to express the music more clearly, despite some technical rough patches.

I also did my first two professional recordings this year! (If you have not heard them, I have uploaded both to my website on this page.) I learned a lot from this experience, and I will definitely be doing a few more in 2018.


So many other wonderful things happened in 2017. I slowly got back into reading, I planted too many plants in my garden, I worked with many incredible students in my teaching studio, I built a few cutting boards and shelves, I repaired a mandolin and a couple of guitars…

I did, however, take on too many things. In 2018, I am going to work towards being more calculated in my decision making so that I do not end up feeling quite so stressed and overwhelmed with projects of my own creation. I need to learn to relax my expectations of quantity while focusing on increasing my expectations of quality. Finding balance between the three aspects of my career (building, playing, and teaching), and the many aspects of my personal life is a constant battle.

Towards the end of 2017, I started to implement some basic routines into my life, and I found that this brought me a great amount of happiness and a much needed sense of grounding. These routines included a simple set of daily tasks to keep my home clean and tidy, as well as designating certain days or times to recurring tasks. For instance, Friday is my day off from work (I am a firm believer in having a regular day off as a self-employed person), and every Friday I run errands. This means that I don’t have to worry about errands any other day of the week. Another recurring task is dealing with email, social media, and miscellaneous business things. I have tried a few times to designate a particular hour (or less) each day to deal with all of these office management tasks, and although I am not very good at sticking with this routine for very long, I know that when I do maintain this routine, I feel less worried about keeping up with everything that is going on.

2018 will be a year of establishing these routines and knowing my limits for projects that I want to take on.

Thank you so much for sticking with my blog! I wish you all of the best in this new year and hope that you are staying warm in this incredibly cold weather (unless you are somewhere warm, in which case I am extremely jealous!).