May 2019 Feature: Chris Curtis, Following the Light of Inspiration & Improvisation

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May 17, 2019 by kidmoe11

Chris may very well hold the record for having met the most students currently at Music Time. As a Livermore local, he has saved the day many times lately when regular teachers call out sick or with car trouble or other emergencies. As a musician skilled in many instruments, he’s been able to step up and substitute teach lessons to nearly any teacher on staff. Ever since I met Chris at Espresso Rosetta one morning, I have been grateful for the random encounter! It was a blast to finally get some of his background. I think you’ll enjoy is story, especially as we get a little bit into his teaching philosophy at the end. Enjoy!

What stands out in your memory of how you first started to become interested in music?

I think my first instrument would be my voice. I remember when I got sent to my room (because I was in trouble), I would pass the time by trying to hum my favorite songs from video games, like the battle songs from Final Fantasy VII. I would try to distract myself by the challenge of learning the song. That’s my first real personal musical memory.

 

Middle school was when it really started. I made some friends that played music. They had a drum set and guitar amp in their garage. I hung out with them, and they taught me a few things. I asked my mom to get me a drum set for Christmas, and she was hesitant (as they all are). I had to prove myself by drumming on paint cans! She got me a super cheap kit. After a few hits the hi-hat would fold in! I started guitar around the same time and was into all the middle school favorites: Green Day, Blink 182, My Chemical Romance, Slipknot, Nirvana.

 

In high school I joined band. I wanted to do drumline, but I didn’t know how to read at all, so they placed me on bells. At first I was like, “Aww, man,” but it turns out another guy was placed on bells for the same reason, and we became really good friends (and we remain really good friends to this day). We both discovered “harmony” together. Like, “if you play this thing here, and I play the same thing, but a few steps up, we make this thing that sounds like an orchestra. That’s incredible! I don’t understand” We had spent all year jamming together every morning in the back room, where they sent us to learn by ourselves. We still didn’t know any theory, but we learned how to jam together! When Winter Percussion came around, we ended up playing synth. We were this “synth-duo” – and we took it very seriously! We thought we were so cool. It was pretty cool actually.

 

After that, I was fairly confident in my musical abilities. I was asked to play bass guitar in this band. I had played guitar for a while, so I assumed I could just play bass. Little did I know that it is like, this whole different philosophy! That band was called Dance My Heart. It was a hardcore, electronic, emo crossover. It was funny, we got a comedic level of local fame. Everyone in the band all played in church, which had a huge influence because we got to perform every week. I got to play every instrument, drums, bass, piano, vocals. I really started to get into songwriting at that point & putting little bands together.

 

Do you remember how you got started in songwriting? Was there any particular inspiration that motivated you to move from just playing to also writing music?

 

It was a couple things. In Dance My Heart, I was always complaining because I thought the songs were so basic. I thought that I could do it better. The other part though was that I got sick with a stomach “ailment” for a couple months. I couldn’t eat very much, so I lost a lot of weight. I was very out of it for a month or two. Kind of in a meditative state, to be honest. I don’t know what it was about that, but during those months was the first time that I actually ever wrote anything.

 

Ever since then, I’ve just been playing in jazz bands, jam nights. I do a monthly poetry slam at a local coffee shop. That’s an interesting thing.

 

What exactly is your role in a poetry night?

 

I set up a bunch of equipment. Sound gear and a bunch of instruments based on whatever vibe we’re going for that night. I play background music for an open mic poetry event. Last time I just brought my stereo speakers and plugged a synthesizer and my iPad and just messed around with some apps to make some dreamy, background sounds in between poems.

 

Cool. When is the next one?

It’s usually the first Saturday of the month at Panama Red at 7pm. It’s a really fun little event. The community that surrounds it seems sort of miraculous.

 

Now that we scratched the surface of what you’re doing currently, what else are you up to? Do you have any other regularly occurring gigs?

 

Yes! I have been doing a lot of these yoga gigs with my friend Phil. We just added a third person into the mix, which I’m really happy about. It feels more complete. That is a very “world instrument” feel, very improvisational. It’s inspired by Eastern, Indian, and Native American music. I would call it “New Age Mediation Music”.

 

Between the 3 of you, what instruments do you all play?

I have this instrument called an Ehru, it’s like a 2-stringed Chinese violin, and it sounds like a human voice. We use a lot of African drums, singing bowls, various chimes and percussion instruments. We use guitars and synthesizers occasionally, and a lot of flutes too! We just bring this plethora of instruments and pick up whatever we’re feeling at the moment.

 

It’s entirely improvised then?

Yes. We’re devising this method to improvising, trying to utilize the idea of a circle of elements. We try to cycle between the elements and achieve different energies with them.

 

Now I gotta know – what are the elements?

You might be surprised! We have fire, of course. There’s Earth. After Earth is Metal. Metal is equivalent to air. I’m still a little confused by that one. Another guy told us that. He went to some sound academy or school down in LA. I was a little disturbed by that statement. Metal is Air? I don’t know. We’ll have to get deeper into that to figure out why it’s true. Next is Water, then Wood, then back to Fire. Everyone’s used to the Earth, Wind, Fire, Water. This one has a little extra. It was just introduced to us, so we’re still getting used to it. I’m really excited about it.

 

Where and when can we see this in action?

Phil’s website, http://www.rhythmicinnovation.com/musicforyoga, has info. We have gigs coming up at Dragonfly Yoga studio and some wineries. We’ll also be at International Yoga Day at the Bankhead, downtown. We’ll be playing music for that.

 

Let’s talk about teaching! How did you first get started?

I think I was 21 or 22 and I had just quit my job. I had some kind of faith that something would come my way. Low and behold, a month or 2 later a guy named Dave contacted me to work for Right Start Music, which does house calls. I honed my “charm” and routine with meeting people and helping to get them inspired. I did that for a few years before I moved to Art and Soul. I teach lessons with my own company called Jam Planet now, which I have been doing for a few years. And now I’m here with you guys!

 

You mentioned honing your skills. What are some of the things that you feel you have changed or developed over the years of your teaching?

It’s such an intuitive, in the moment thing. I’m always trying to follow some kind of lead or light that is keeping both me and this person engaged. It’s got to be real, a real conversation between us. It’s not just following a method. That, plus a little bit of improvisation is always a good idea, I think.

 

Also, I slowed down the pace. I used to rush to get this person “good”. It was a horrible idea to rush. Now, one of the biggest things is that I teach much less in one sitting than I used to. I also talk less in a lesson than I used to. I find that fewer words usually work better. Also, just giving enough information to begin, and hint or guide them to fill in the gaps on their own. It makes them so much more self-reliant when it comes to learning or doing music. It’s their own thing that they developed, not just something that I told them to do that they did. I suppose I’ve gotten a lot better at “cultivating” a student’s ability or confidence to figure things out on their own.

 

I like it, that’s solid. Especially the talking during lessons part. I have a theory that the more time I spend talking in a lesson, the worse it is. I want to record lessons and measure that someday.

Yes, yes almost always. Sometimes I like my little rants, but only when they’re philosophical. I went on one today with a student, “Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys once said, ‘Repeat a mistake 4 times and it’s no longer a mistake.’” I love that statement. It’s one of the wisest things ever said. That is music right there, it’s repetition.

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