Category Archives: musings

How the “Amazing Slow-Downer” showed me the key to virtuosity

Mary Kastle musician bowen island bc amazing slow downer key to virtuosity creativity insightEvery once in a while, I come across something that is a game-changer for my perspective in music and life. A while back I was struggling to transcribe yet another complex jazz solo and thought to myself “if only I could slow this down!”. I sat there feeling bewildered until suddenly I realized “hey! there’s probably an app for this!” Lo and behold, I did a quick search and found my now all-time favourite music-learning tool: the “Amazing Slow-Downer”. What a great name, right? I giggle a bit every time I say it. 🙂

Even if you are not a musician, and/or don’t care about virtuosic playing, this app is still fun to check out. As its name suggests, it can take any music in your phone’s library and slow it down or speed it up to any tempo you want without shifting the pitch. Very cool technology!

You can experiment listening to music at 75%, 50%, or even 25% of the speed. It’s like your favourite songs being poured through a giant vat of molasses. You hear all the incredible nuances come glistening through the speakers in perfect detail so you can absorb them all one at a time without your brain being overloaded.

When I first got the app, I listened to nothing but Art Tatum at 75%. And then classical music, and more jazz, and some pop. And as I listened, especially to the live jazz improvs, something powerful dawned on me.

There seemed to be no errors. EVER.

Even though they might have been playing at lightening speed. Or an immensely difficult passage. The performers were linking together pattern after scintillating pattern more effortlessly than playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

It’s like their fingers were speaking through their instruments without ever getting jumbled up. They never forgot a word, they never mispronounced anything, or paused to reconsider a thought. It was all just there, at their fingertips, waiting to flow out one after the other in perfect sequence.

And I realized that a major key to virtuosity must be CLARITY.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized this concept can be applied to almost any creative pursuit. In our age of artistic abundance and accessibility, it’s so easy to get caught up in the rat race of feeling like you need to emulate so many styles and techniques before you really “qualify”. But these players weren’t just playing everything under the sun. They were playing very specific things that they had chosen, and then executing them with perfect precision.

This made me understand that no matter how much I sometimes want to improve just for the sake of sounding more sophisticated, working on technique can never be an end in itself. I need to be discerning in the technique I acquire and then be diligent in continually integrating it into my mental map so it can flow seamlessly with other ideas. Without this discernment and integration, acquiring new technical skills is no more useful than learning a thousand new words in a foreign language I’ll never learn to speak.

Now when I practice I am going to SLOW DOWN and make a more conscious effort to ask myself important questions like “why am I practicing this technique?” and “how does it fit in with my other skills?” In addition to spending conscious time mastering the technique itself, I will be stepping back regularly to integrate my techniques together and get clear on how I want them to all fit and flow together.

[bctt tweet=”Asking “why am I practicing this technique?” is as important as the practice itself.”]

More and more I feel that when I listen to another player I’m really just witnessing the state of their unconscious mind in that moment. And in the case of a virtuosic player, their musical consciousness is clear as a bell. Perfectly curated, organized, and integrated.

So there you have it – the Amazing Slow-Downer. A revolutionary little app that has changed my whole approach to practicing music.  And who knows, maybe it could do the same for you. But don’t just take my word for it – go check it out for yourself! 🙂

Feeling empty? Maybe you’re suffering from “monetization exhaustion”.

Mary Kastle singer songwriter musician vancouver bowen island bc canada piano voice jazz folk soul popA few years ago, I hit a big wall in my music career. Looking back, I think it was “monetization exhaustion”. Don’t get me wrong, I aim to make a great living from my music as much as the next gal. But I found that brazenly pursuing the creative path, in an industry that itself was falling apart, drained every last drop of passion out of my “passion”.

The trouble is we’re so inundated with messages that we need to capitalize on our every creative impulse, that it can be hard to separate our calling from the noise. I know I’m not the only artist who feels this way. “If I hear the word ‘monetize’ one more time…” was a comment I read recently on a blog post promoting Blink 182’s new online platform designed to help musicians cash in on the multitude of profit streams from their careers. It struck me because once again artists are being told by the media that the path to greatness is through making big bucks. Mind you, Blink 182 is cashing in on selling the “dream” to other artists, but what if having a successful music career means more than simply playing arenas and selling t-shirts? How do we incorporate these spiritual aspirations into our balance sheets?

The answer is (in my opinion) – you choose to. At this point it’s an individual process that we will all go through at some point. If you’re lucky enough to have a great teacher to guide you through it, then great! And maybe in a future utopia music education will include developing a personal rubric of values around creativity so every time you’re faced with adversity in your career you can refer back to this foundation for clarity. These are things I’ve had to learn the hard way…

[bctt tweet=”If I hear the word ‘monetize’ one more time… How would you finish that sentence?”]

I think as artists we need to bring this topic to the fore and help each other work it out. Otherwise we get pushed by society to adopt a value system that is out of alignment with our core purpose as musicians. Our integrity is challenged if we follow the money, yet we’re criticized for being bad at business if we renounce it. Looking back, I’ve been the artist so knee-deep in self-promotion I was practically spelling out my Paypal link on stage. It was ugly and it came from a place of complete desperation.

I remember being on tour in Montreal many years ago, passing the hat after the show, and an audience member looked me squarely in the eye and saying “why SHOULD I give you this dollar?”. He was literally holding one effing dollar! This was after I had poured out my soul in song for two hours. Talk about feeling vulnerable and demeaned to the core. Not to mention how truly perplexed I was, knowing I needed to drum up enough for gas to get to the next show. I had neither the business nor spiritual acumen to advocate for my needs in the moment. After all, sacrificing everything for the road is the path to success, right? Not. There are many roads to Eden. Thankfully I realized that finding a better life balance has actually extended my creative life. It’s not exactly rock ’n roll, but it feels kinda sexy in its own subtle way..

On the flip side, I laughed my head off when I saw Rufus Wainwright in concert recently (whom I LOVE – watch my tribute to him here) and in between songs he brought up the topic of his “new app”. At first I was confused. I thought he was telling us about an app he had just downloaded, but then I realized he was talking about HIS app – ie. the Rufus Wainwright app! It is awkward and fascinating to watch artists work the sales pitch on stage. We all have to figure out our own path with it and Rufus was a first class role model – classy, a bit crass, and completely loveable!

The irony is if we constantly raise up “monetizing” to the highest priority, we devalue our artistry by making it all about money. Music’s power is so far beyond anything a dollar could ever represent. By constantly reducing it to these terms we pull down our inner artist from where it wants to live. That doesn’t mean there’s no place for a financial exchange and standing firm on our worth when negotiating gigs. All it means is that we have a more comprehensive value system to know where exactly those bottom lines are.

[bctt tweet=”If we constantly raise up “monetizing”, we devalue our artistry by making it all about money.”]

I’m lucky to be back in a state where I feel jazzed about what the music business has to offer, whatever that looks like. And, “if I hear the word monetize one more time…”, I know now that there is a place for it that is separate from the spiritual value of my music. It’s an exchange for the music I create, but I won’t beat myself up for creating other income streams or diminish my skills and track record as a professional musician. I will hold my music in alignment with my spiritual values as well as my business ones. And that to me is priceless. 🙂

Now it’s your turn. If I hear the word monetize one more time… (tell me in the comments below!)

Who cares if you’re a one-hit wonder?

who cares if you're a one-hit wonder? mary kastle musician bowen island bc canadaA musician I know and respect recently posted about the Grammys on Facebook saying that he “doesn’t follow pop music”, but wondered “if most [Grammy] ‘winners’ create anything of lasting artistic value.” Wow. I found that to be a very bold statement given that he claimed not to know any of the music these artists produced. Shortly after, I saw another post by an established folk musician ranting about the quality of the music featured on the Grammys. And by the size of comment thread after both of these posts, it seems like a common sentiment among musicians in many alternative genres.

I think that we do ourselves a disservice as musicians to start debasing the “value” of certain music over others. Back in college I took linguistics and the very first lesson my teacher taught us was that when analyzing language one could never attribute a value to one language over another. Or even to the “level” of language, for example how slang is considered lower class than Shakespearian English. Why? Because fundamentally language develops among people to communicate. And if it is doing that, then it’s serving its primary purpose. We can certainly observe the different qualities of each vernacular, but to ascribe a value to any language is a slippery slope because it quickly becomes a subjective judgement of something that is merely a representation of an idea.

I agree that the Grammys are a bit of racket celebrating sex, showmanship, and money in entertainment. But there are lots of people who love the music produced by those artists. Who are we to judge what they may or may not take from it? If any of those artists creates even one song powerful enough to break through the gatekeepers and capture the world’s attention for a day, then all the power to them. It’s a noisy world now, and I can understand that maybe you need to have really simple chord progressions with one syllable words pumping to a super loud beat to get the world’s attention. And if you have the gumption to hump onstage or wear a meat dress to help your cause then maybe you deserve it.

For those of us that can hear and appreciate more complex chord changes, lyrics, and subtleties of tone, there are myriads of musical shades to explore. But I will deliberately refrain from using the word “sophisticated” to describe that sort of music, because that is subjective. It may be different and more complex, but it’s not necessarily more “advanced”.

I hope that we musicians will be able to rise up and hold a neutral space for all kinds of music-making rather than judge it. Because like it or not, those Grammy musicians we denigrate are our colleagues and they are closer to us than we think. The longer we choose to divide and conquer amongst ourselves the more we give away our collective power and dilute the ultimate goal of communicating through music. The music world is in dire need of mentors and that means being confident that all versions of music have their place.

So, who cares if you’re a one-hit wonder? I don’t. In fact, I respect you for it. And if I like your song, I will even sing along. Because if I feel your groove then you’ve touched something in me, and if you’ve managed to capture the world’s attention through music, even for a moment, then your work has resonated. I’d rather talk about the attributes of what you’re doing that are getting people excited and have a conversation around that. In fact, maybe our biggest challenge as musicians is to practice having analytical conversations that themselves have more “lasting artistic value”.

Why I will never quit the music business

Mary Kastle Why I will NEVER QUIT the music businessThis past year I’ve seen a growing number of my musician friends post “I quit” letters on various social media. The letters all have a common tone – “I can’t do this anymore. The music biz is bottomless pit. I’m going to settle down, get a real job, and hopefully be happier. It’s been fun, but now it’s a drag. Thanks for your support. Sayonara!” These posts undoubtedly prompt a whole stream of comments from friends and supporters. Usually a mix of “please don’t quit”, to “yep, blame Napster”, to “don’t worry, I’ll still come hear you play at the pub”, that sort of thing.

I find it disappointing, but I can definitely relate. After my last record, I was so burned out, I had to take a long break from touring, hustling, the whole scene. It took YEARS for me to replenish, reconnect, and get inspired to get back out there. I’m still not “back out there” fully, and maybe I never will be now that I have a child. But I will do what I can.

Because while I contemplated the word “quit”, I made a conscious decision to not choose it for my own trajectory. I might choose other words, like “evolve” or “grow” or “change”, but it became crystal clear that I never wanted to make the status of my music career the result of roadblocks, whether internal (frustrations, burnout, etc.) or external (dead business model, lack of funds, family commitments, etc). Thankfully, I never lost interest in going to gigs just to listen. I never lost interest in playing just for the sake of it. And most importantly, I never lost the feeling that I had something to say through music, even though it was buried far beneath my day-to-day artist survival tactics.

I had a lot of reconciling to do. It’s hard to swallow that you’re not “there” yet – wherever that is, arenas, world tours, throngs of fans, whatever. But I realized that I didn’t want to throw away all the ground I had covered. And yes, I might need to rebuild some broken bridges along the way, but those relationships I’d forged in the business were more than just a ladder to climb for me. They are my community.

So here’s my letter to you, my dears. I’m NEVER quitting the music business. EVER. I might need to take breaks. I might need to apologize for stupid things I’ve said. I might need to promote a lot sometimes, and less others. But I will NEVER QUIT. I will never stop trying to make records, or play shows, or tour, and honestly and gracefully share the music I make with you.

Why?

Because why would I deny myself the path, the long evolving journey of trying to figure out how to move forward and get better every single day?

And why would I deny YOU the opportunity to see what music I might come up with down the road? What if it’s something we both fall in completely and madly in LOVE with?

And why would I deny us both the chance to meet, literally or figuratively, and share our love of music, and then share it collectively with all the other people who might interact with it. The potential is endless and creative in of itself.

So even if I continue to toil in complete obscurity until my dying day, I will never stop writing or playing music, or calling myself a professional working musician. Because I have paid my dues. And I continue to pay my dues. And I’m still on a journey that is teaching me how to be vulnerable and humble in the wake of a force far greater than myself.

That force, of course is MUSIC!

I’m not here to criticize. In fact, I congratulate anyone who “settles down” and gets a “day job”. God knows I did. It can be an incredibly grounding force.

But, please, think carefully before you use the word “QUIT”. Why do that to yourself? Why do that to the world? We need you to take yourself seriously. (Ok, well maybe not too seriously!)

So here’s to growing and evolving and changing through music, through the music business.

LET’S ROCK!

I’m making new music this year

I'm making new music this year

I’m making new music this year and stoked to be back in the game with this website!

In fact, it’s funny that I haven’t given this website much love, because the truth is it’s ALWAYS on my mind. Music is without a doubt the closest thing to my heart. And despite my ebb and flow of energy towards it, it’s the one thing I always aspire to embrace more and improve at.

These days, I’ve been keeping a pretty low profile, only playing a few gigs around Bowen. Surprisingly, I’ve been ok with that, as I realized that my last record left me incredibly burned out of the music business. It’s been a long and slow recovery.

That said, it’s been five years since my last record and I’m ready to get moving again. I’m grateful that the Gods of Music Grants have shined upon me in a very small way, and I’m about to go into the studio to record ONE of my new songs. I’m stoked to have the chance. This time with music, I don’t want it to be a struggle to “make it”. I just want to actually make it – music, that is – and not worry so much about whether big-time success is waiting around the corner.

I’ve also come to realize that I have a lot to say about music, the “biz”, creativity, spirituality, and all that jazz. And it’s about time for me to put those thoughts out in a coherent form so maybe we can all learn from it. Maybe you’ll read something that inspires you back to your own creative muse, like writing has for me.

So, until next time, thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more posts about all of the above! 🙂