I transferred to California State University Fullerton as a music major in 2002. It was one of the most important experiences of my life. It taught me the value of balancing feeling and logic to decide what is best for my future. This is something that I realized, just recently. Let me explain.
I transferred to Cal State Fullerton as a Classical Guitar Major. While it was definitely something that I had fun doing, I had an unsettled feeling that my interest in classical guitar was only true up to a certain point. I was interested in the techniques that it was teaching me: voice leading, harmony, fingerpicking, etc.—but I was unsure that a life devotion to it would satiate my desires in the future.
I spent a lot of time studying classical guitar, because one of my heroes at the time, Michael Hedges, was a classical guitar major and used many of his studies to shape his own unique style of music. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, he was a brilliant composer who used alternate tunings on his guitar almost exclusively. He was a steel string acoustic guitar player and also played harp guitar and a number of other very unique instruments to compose music. He developed his own methodology behind playing guitar with fingerpicking that included using fingers to mute unused strings to limit sympathetic vibrations due to the overtone series; this would allow for his music to resonate with pristine and exact nature and purpose. He also would swap out string gauge sizes on his guitar (often using high bass strings) in order to allow him a larger and lower palate of tunings for his compositions. For musicians interested in exploring his technique, look up a book called "Rhythm Sonority Silence." He crushed my skull as a musician and to this day, I search for my own unique voice and my own unique contributions to art because of people like him.
My desire in 2001 was to transfer to Berklee School of Music in Boston because they offered a commercial music program. I had put a deposit down on a dorm room with what money I could scrape up from working my day job. While it wasn't a tremendous deposit that I put down, it was non-refundable and it was a lot of money to me. My mind was set on getting the best musical education that a person could receive. I was anxious. As the deadline approached for me to enroll at Berklee, my parents asked if they could take me out to dinner at Ryan's Place, which was a restaurant that the two of them frequented a lot. I was expecting for them to glow with their approval for my choice of visiting Berklee and to be proud of my decision to try and receive the education I desired: this couldn't have been farther from the truth.
My mom and dad sat down with me and explained life to me in the form of debt. They took a piece of paper and added up all the expenses I would accrue from a two year education at that school (which was low balling it). I probably would have spent more than two years there. What they showed me is that I would be over $100,000 in debt from attending there for two years. They asked me: is it wise for a musician to embark into the world with that much overhead? I was absolutely crushed by what they were trying to show me. I was around 22 at the time and wanted so badly to fight the logic that they were trying to display to me when it came to my desires. My mother and father offered me an alternative: use my father's veteran grant to pay for an education at a UC or CSU within the state of California.
As much as I didn't want to listen, I knew deep down, they had a point. I began searching around for UC's and CSU's with great music programs. The three best that I could find were UCLA, California State University Northridge, and California State University Fullerton. The crux of education offered at these universities revolved around the pedantic methods used to teach music. You are pigeon holed into an education that is derived from either classical music or jazz. While I deeply loved both of these styles of music, neither one of them was where my heart truly lived. However, I followed their advice and continued to narrow down a choice based on what I had available to me by following their advice. I visited various colleges and universities including Berkley and San Francisco State University, but neither felt like home. It wasn't until I visited California State University Fullerton that something resonated within me. It felt like home. That's the best way I can describe it.
At any rate, my choices there were as follows: classical guitar or jazz. I decided on classical guitar and went to audition in front of a panel of instructors in order to be accepted into the music department as a transfer student, with my general education completed. While I did a stellar job of passing my exams to forgo further music theory instruction, I found that the audition was the most critical part in fully understanding the new direction I was heading in, and it was one of the most unnerving experiences of my life. I remember complaining about how cold the room was. In actuality, I was so nervous that my hands were paralyzed, sweaty, and unable to perform their muscle memory dictation. I butchered every single etude that I attempted to play for the committee. It was a humbling outcome to an experience I had spent so much time preparing for. They accepted me into the department of classical guitar and music, but it was as a freshman level player. I was a junior level student.
This bruised my ego a great deal. However, one of the people on the panel approached me afterwards. He was the head of the jazz department at the school. He asked if I would be interested in auditioning for the Commercial Music Department at the school. It was brand new curriculum that he was trying to build and thought that I might be a good fit. I jumped at this opportunity to redeem myself. I showed up at his office for the appointment that he assigned to me, I auditioned, and was accepted into the department as a junior transfer student. However, this was only the beginning to truly finding where my heart and head was taking me.
I spent that first semester working harder than I ever thought I was capable. While I was a decent music reader, I found that I had to work ten times harder than the average student because my sight reading abilities were akin to using the Rosetta Stone to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs (especially when it came to funk charts).
I would spend hours every night trying to interpret music charts for the big band. I would transcribe jazz solos for my jazz composition class. I would spend hours working in the choir room to brush up on performances we were preparing for in the choir ensemble. I would study the ancient origins of secular and sacred music from my text book (something I now appreciate). Each of these performance classes were worth one unit and I was trying to carry somewhere between 18 to 21 units that semester. As the end of the school term drew near, I was feeling miserable and I disliked all my studies in music aside from one glimmer of light: I was starting to write my own songs.
I began a slow transition towards finding comfort and solace in creating my own music. It began to consume my time and I found myself disinterested in pursuing the life of a guitarist in a commercial music program at a university. The first song that I ever wrote, that I finished, was was addressed to my older brother called, "Between Me and You." It was a great song and definitely carried flavors of Jason Mraz, who I was listening to a lot of at the time. I was proud of it and it felt good to get out a lot of the frustration I was feeling towards my lack of good communication skills with my brother at the time.
By the time my first semester drew to a close at Cal State Fullerton, I realized what I truly wanted from life: to be a songwriter. I stopped working so hard in a lot of my music classes and began to explore all of the qualities that make good songwriters. I checked out books from the library and began to read incessantly, as I used to do, before becoming a music major. I studied my shortcomings and found that where I was weakest, was in my lyric writing. Suddenly, I had this moment of clarity: English Major. It was the best decision I ever made in my life. All of my teachers were outstanding to me, but there was one particular instructor I had that changed my life forever.
While I wasn't a poet, I did write songs incessantly and asked this particular instructor if she would be so kind as to let me submit my songs for her classes rather than poetry. She was excited by this proposition and gladly accepted the challenge. She was relentlessly hard on me and picked apart every single thing that I ever wrote. She kept saying things to me like, "don't tell me, show me." I didn't get it. I had to have submitted around 8 to 10 songs before we finally arrived at one song that she deemed worthy of me understanding what she was trying to teach me. It carried these qualities: it was a memory from my own life, a character I created. It was told from the perspective of a woman that used to visit me at a grocery store I worked at—and I was very detail oriented with my memories. It was a song called "The Grocery Store Clerk."
I played the song for the class—and they went bananas. That was all the encouragement I ever needed.
To this day I use her methods to construct lyrics:
• Be as specific as possible with details regarding your own life and with anything that you write about. You would think that people relate more to general details, but it is in fact, the very opposite.. The more specific you are about every little detail, the more people will find honesty and truth in it, which is very important. This makes good art. I use this method in nearly every song that I write. Even if it is a work of fiction (song, prose, or poetry), I try to inject a bit of my own life into it.
• Don't tell people what is happening. Show people what is happening. This was a harder concept for me to grasp, initially. What she meant by this: there are two different ways you can show people an idea. You can tell them what you are feeling, which doesn't do anything for the audience. It doesn't resonate. Or, you can use senses to show someone what you are wanting them to experience. By engaging people's sensory perception, you help to bring what you are trying to convey, to life.
I am very thankful to her for teaching me such wonderful techniques. I use it in everything that I write. Sometimes, I find that people read into things too much, however, that is out my hands entirely. I know what I intend when I commit to words, and I feel like I need to work harder when people misinterpret what I set out to be the point of a song. It's disappointing to me and I feel that I missed the mark and need to do better next time.
Everything that I write carries positivity to it as that is the main motivation behind good art: to create something beautiful out of the worst that life throws at me—and in equal measure, all the good vibes that come my way as well. In this regard, every song I create is like a child that I bring into the world, in the hopes that they grow their own legs of truth, and live longer than my body ever will.