Recently, I attended guitar virtuoso Julian Lage’s workshop as part of the Thailand International Jazz Conference. I first saw Julian play during his appearance on TV for the 42nd Annual Grammy Awards back in 2000. At that time, he was only 12 years old and was already an amazing musician. Five years later, I was very fortunate to attend Berklee College of Music and attend the college at the same time Julian was studying there. I have fond memories of catching Julian’s performance at Ricardo Vogt’s Senior Guitar Recital and also a very rare Hal Crook-Julian Lage-Jorge Roeder performance. Later on, I also studied with Julian in a workshop at the Jazz School in California as well as via Skype. I’ve also been a fan of his music over the years from his debut album, to his duo records with Nels Cline and Chris Eldridge to his most recent trio record, Arclight.
When I found out the Julian Lage Trio was going to be a part of the Thailand International Jazz Conference, I knew I had to go there to catch him! I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to travel there, watch his trio performance, take a private lesson with Julian (and play with him!) as well as attend his workshop. This post collects my thoughts on what I learned from his wonderful 1-hour workshop.
Granted, nothing beats actually being at the workshop. But, I wanted to share some of the most insightful things I learned from the session. Please bear in mind that I’m paraphrasing these tips from my own notes and memory of the workshop. I apologise if there’s any mistakes! I hope this captures the essence of what I learned. If you ever get a chance to attend a Julian Lage workshop, clinic or meet and greet – go for it. It’s worth it.
Here are 10 of the important things I learned from the workshop:
1. Love the way you play
Julian mentioned that you should be allowed to love the way you play. According to Julian, if you love the way you play, you can actually improve more as you end up practicing more. My take on this is that we often times are too hard on ourselves for not sounding like our musical heroes. This kind of feeling can make the experience of playing guitar a negative one.
2. The best way to get better is to do it
Julian said the best way to get better at playing guitar or composing was to actually spend time doing it. He came to this realisation when he noticed he took more composition lessons instead of actually spending time composing.
3. Stop fighting the monster
We can get stuck avoiding the things that sound bad in our playing. The problem with this is that we don’t get used to hearing it and facing it. Julian showed some examples where he purposely sounded bad. In doing this, he had a chance to embrace the bad parts of his playing and gradually figure out how to solve those problems. He said when he was younger he would practice for 8 or 10 hours long and now he might only have 5 to 10 minutes sometimes. However, by facing this sounds (that he didn’t like), he could improve faster (even in a limited amount of time) and figure out what he wanted to sound like instead.
4. Hold the pick the way that it’s comfortable for you
Julian had no particular suggestions on how to hold a pick as he noticed that people have differences in the way their fingers are shaped or worked. His thumb doesn’t bend so he doesn’t move the thumb so much as some of his friends who have to control the thumb more.
5. Understand the mechanics of picking
For Julian, there are three parts to the mechanics of picking:
a) the preparation – getting ready to pick the string
b) the stroke – when you pluck the string
c) the follow through – where your fingers/hands move after hitting the string
The main problem he noticed with guitar players including himself is that with the follow through, most players remain still, away from the string after picking the note. This is not efficient since there is a start/stop situation when we pick a note. The reality is we pick a lot of notes at a time.
To solve this, he suggested exaggerating the picking movement to an almost Pete Townshend (The Who) type windmill movement. The idea is to experience a big movement when picking that is circular and continuous. Then, we gradually make this movement smaller and smaller but still imagining this big motion even when we move smaller. My take on this is that is will create a more relaxed approach to picking.
For another take on his thoughts on picking, here’s an article he wrote in Premier Guitar magazine back in 2012: Digging Deeper: The Diving-Board Effect
6. Practice songs you love
In short, Julian summarised it all by saying:
a) play lots of guitar
b) sound bad
c) sound good
In the workshop he began by playing a solo guitar version of Darn That Dream. He said it’s important to practice songs your love, not songs you like. So, the solo performance was much like what he would do if he was practicing on his own. According to Julian, he would go as far as I could until he was bored until he craved something more interesting.
An audience member recorded the performance (found this on Chane Siwat’s YouTube channel), here it is:
7. Reconfigure your mindset on picks and guitars
Julian mentioned that we often think we’re smaller compared to the guitar. We think the pick is this very challenging thing to use. But, he said if we realise that the size of our movements is very small relative to other things we do, it can change our mindset to approaching technical challenges such as string skipping and cross picking. The reality is that we don’t really have to move that far to pick between the sixth string and the first string. The guitar is small but we pretend that we’re tiny when we play guitar.
8. Use Etudes to learn to breathe
Julian wrote 4 etudes back in 2010. A student asked about them and Julian said he used the etudes as a way to learn to breathe. A lot of guitarists, including himself (and me) forget to breathe at times when playing. Since the notes of this music was set (composed), Julian used them to make sure he breathed as he played these challenging pieces. According to Julian, he didn’t have to have to write an exercise to practice breathing but it happened to be helpful for him.
9. Compose a lot, edit a lot
When asked about his approach to composing, Julian said that he loved to write with pencil and paper. He thinks of composition like a blueprint. He doesn’t have perfect pitch so sometimes when he writes, it doesn’t sound the way he imagined it. He noted that he spends a lot more time editing his compositions that writing them. He also challenges himself to compose 20 songs in a day so that if he gets one good song from that session, it would be worth it. According to Julian, he throws out a lot more songs than he ever uses.
1o. Design your setlist
Answering a question from my manager Yin, Julian explained that he carefully plans his setlist for a concert. Every song creates the need for the next song. Growing up, he used to have teachers who said you can’t get away with that two similar songs (in the same key or tempo or feel) in a row. Julian believes you actually can do this more often that you think, especially when your music is complex. He says that sometimes it’s not that the audience doesn’t like your music but just doesn’t understand it yet. By playing two similar songs back to back, it gives a chance for the audience to understand what your approach is. Then, we can take advantage of that by playing something different.
Julian believes that setlists are very important. When asked whether he switches songs in the middle of the set, he says he doesn’t care what the audience feels about it in the middle of the performance. He says if he worries about the audience as well as his own playing, that’s too much to think about as you’re performing. The important thing is to realise that the audience has made the decision to watch your performance, so it’s your responsibility as the performance to take them on that journey from beginning to end in your set.
Hope you found this blog post helpful. Please share this post if you think others might enjoy it!
Thanks to Thailand International Jazz Conference for hosting this awesome workshop.
Now, I’d love to hear from you.
Have you attended a Julian Lage workshop before?
Did you learn something from Julian’s songs, clinics or videos?
Leave your answer in the comments below. Remember to share as much detail as possible so that we can all learn from one another. Your insight may help another musician from across the world.
Thank you for reading and for hanging out here. Be back again soon!
Wanna read more? Check out what I learned from Jack Thammarat and Guthrie Govan in their Kuala Lumpur workshops here:
[WORKSHOPS: LEARNING FROM THE MASTERS]
10 Things I Learned From The Jack Thammarat Kuala Lumpur Workshop
10 Things I Learned From The Guthrie Govan Kuala Lumpur Workshop
Interested to check out what I learned from the Thailand International Jazz Camp 2017 (12 hours of workshops & 2 hours of jam sessions), check out the 3,100+ word blog post here: Thailand International Jazz Camp 2017 with Shai Maestro/Desmond White Group