2000 Midwest Stick Seminar
July 29-30, 2000
Oz's Music, Ann Arbor, MI

Click any image to see the slide show

The 2000 Midwest Stick Seminar is now officially closed and what a weekend it was. I've been milling around my house trying to figure out just how to condense it all into a few words that might carry some meaning for someone who wasn't there. I don't really want to go into detail about the specifics of the lessons for various reasons (not the least of which is the fact that I'm still digesting the specifics myself). So what I'll try to do is simply start at the beginning and list the various events in the order that they occurred along with some of the amusing sidelines.

The seminar was held at Oz's Music in Ann Arbor, Michigan the weekend of July 29-30. Our instructor for the weekend was Greg Howard who drove in from Charlottesville, Virginia. The weekend culminated with a performance at The Ark in downtown Ann Arbor with appearances by Greg, the Michigan Stick Trio, Coup Detroit (temporarily going under the name CD3), and the Fusionauts.

Greg arrived in town on Friday evening after driving through the battery of thunderstorms that had been moving through the area since very early on Friday morning. We met up at Oz's, unloaded Greg's gear, grabbed some dinner, and headed back to my house. Once we got back, we started to go through a few of the details of the next day and realized we had told everybody that the seminar started at 9:00AM on Saturday which, including setup time, would have us their ungodly early. Greg and I spent a bit of time on Friday evening trying to solidly lay the blame on each other for this gross miscarriage of justice. Unfortunately, regardless of how this happened, it didn't change the fact that we both had to get up way too early for a Saturday morning (even though I still think it was Greg's fault ;-))

On Saturday morning, we were up at 7:00AM and at Oz's setting up for the seminar at about 8:00AM. Very promptly at 9:00AM, our attendees started to file in. Aside from Greg, the students for the weekend's seminar were myself (Glenn Poorman), Steve Osburn (Oz), Wes Teregan, Pete Gilbert, Chris Browne (Clbe), Marc Betts, Mike Depumpo, Aaron Wolf, and Barry Sawyer. Both Chris and Barry came in from Illinois for the event, Marc came up from Ohio, and Mike came from Connecticut. The rest were local. Chris was easily the hands down victor for the vegetable of the day award as he had gigged in Chicago the night before, drove through the night to Ann Arbor, and hadn't been to bed yet. It was going to be long day. A good chunk of the students (including myself) were players of less than one year. Wes and Pete had considerably more years in and Steve was the most experienced of the group. Barry had seen Bob Culbertson play only eight weeks ago and decided he had to learn the Stick. Having never played an instrument before, Barry hooked up with a used instrument and signed up for the seminar.

Once everybody arrived, we went to work. The first itinerary item on the list was Stick setup. Greg started this session by having everybody tap on his own Stick just to get the feel of how a properly setup Stick should play. From there he went from instrument to instrument (those instruments that were new enough to have all of the adjustable components) checking the truss rod adjustments, explaining what to look for, and explaining how to put the neck back into alignment. We talked a bit about string height and intonation also but didn't really do any "hands on" in those areas. The last part of the setup discussion you might call player setup. In other words, we spent a bit of time going over positioning of the instrument on the player's body, position of the arms and hands, and position of the fingers on the frets. The finger positioning on the frets was interesting simply because it turned out to be one of those things that most attendees thought they had sussed but frequently slipped out of. It's easy to start off a tune looking down at the fretboard and striking notes in the right place. With Greg watching and giving you a nudge when that position starts to slip, you find out just how often you actually do slip out of position. We spent much of the rest of the weekend hearing Greg saying "play the frets".

From there, we covered a few nice hand and arm stretches you can do to loosen up before playing and then went into independence training which would take up the rest of the day. Basically, these lessons involved learning excercises you can play in order to become comfortable with the idea of having your hands play independent of one another. These exercises can be split into different categories with one category being finger independence, another being harmonic independence and the third being rhythmic independence. The first of those categories dealt with freeing your fingers from playing the same pulses at the same time. It's very natural for your fingers to want to do the same thing and learning to free your fingers from that urge is going to be the first step in playing any instrument requiring two hands. The second category deals with having the two hands not only free from using the same fingerings but also free from playing the same notes. The first step in this category might be to repeat notes with one hand while the other explores but, in the end, both hands should be free to explore. The third category deals with freeing the two hands from the urge to play the same rhythms. This category is usually the hardest to convince your brain to do. The exercises were, indeed, very helpful and covered a nice range of difficulty. And Greg, being the picture of patience, made sure we at least had the notion of what we were going after before moving on.

In the middle of the day on Saturday, we all broke for lunch and walked over Chia Shiang just a few yards down Packard from Oz's and enjoyed some excellent Chinese food for lunch. When they brought the fortune cookies, we decided we'd all read our fortunes aloud and use the best one as the title for the piece we'd write and play together Sunday evening. The funny thing is that, by Sunday, nobody remembered what the fortune cookie said. All we remembered was that it said something that made us think that the tune must be in a minor key. Aaron simply referred to it as the fortune that said "negative stuff".

After stuffing ourselves with Chinese food, we all went back to continue our independence training until about 5:30. At that point, Greg asked Steve if he had anything to add and Steve made a suggestion that we go around the room playing our favorite licks. This was kind of a cool exercise. I went first and tossed out the ending sequence of the Beatles "She's So Heavy" which I'd figured out just this week. We spent a few minutes after that debating over exactly what chord that sequence ends on which served as a reminder as to just how rusty we all were in our theory. I think we finally decided it was an A7 chord with a flatted 13th. Who knows though. The rest of the crew threw some interesting licks out from tunes they'd been working on or simply some cool basslines they'd played before. Greg was the last to go and used the opportunity to talk about polypatterns. He played a quick little riff that sounded really cool and very difficult. At that point, he demystified the riff and it turned out to be a lot easier than it sounded. Basically, these polypatterns are just a matter of taking a left hand pattern and a right hand pattern (not of the same duration) and playing them together alternating the fingers in the same area of the same two strings. After we all spent a few minutes fumblind around trying to imitate what Greg was doing, we called it a day. Our weekend schedule started with many grand plans of socializing on Saturday evening but those plans pretty much fell apart. All of the local guys (except me) split right after the day ended to go home and take care of house things. Chris, having still not been to bed yet, left immediately and we all hoped he'd make it to his hotel without falling asleep at the wheel. Mike and Barry took off also so only Greg, myself, Marc, and Aaron were left (although Mike planned on coming back as soon as we decided on dinner plans). I called Rasa and told her to meet us for dinner and so we waited at Oz's for her to show up. While we waited, I poisoned Greg with some brews from the Bell's Brewery here in Michigan (actually ... they are incredibly tasty) and we all sat outside talking. Once Rasa showed up, we called Mike back over, grabbed a quick dinner up the street and then headed home.

On Sunday, our start time was 10:00AM and we had no setup time so we all slept until 9:00AM (much more reasonable). Again, the rains were really coming and by the time we got to Oz's, it was about 10:20AM. Lucky for us, almost all of the other participants were rolling in late as well. We got underway quickly and spent the morning working on playing two handed bass. This was a topic I was particulary interested in since, as the low end guy of my band, I had started exploring this technique already and I'm always ready to pick up more pointers. Greg went through many techniques of two handed bass and threw out several demonstrations. We all picked up plenty to work on. It's interesting to note how quickly some good discussion can demystify some of the things I've seen Greg do on many occasions. Of course, I still can't do these things but I have an idea of how they're done now.

Before our lunch break, Greg handed the floor over to Wes Teregan who brought all his gear in so he could give a demonstration of MIDI Stick. Wes had a pedalboard the size of a small automobile accompanied by a rack the size of a phone booth. He played a Grand Stick with GK pickups on both sides. He powered a Roland GR-30 with the melody side and the bass side powered an Axon unit (not to mention the huge variety of other effects in both his bass and melody chain). Wes went through several of his favorite patches demonstrating both rhythmic playing and the playing of textures. After Wes played for a while, he let everybody else take a crack at playing with his setup.

Lunch time had arrived and Greg suggested making it a fast one and grabbing some food at Denny's before continuing. Hmmmmmm. It seemed like a good idea at the time except we must have been in Denny's for about two hours. They appeared to be extremely short staffed and the poor guy waiting on us was doing about four people's jobs at once. Getting food from the joint seemed to take forever and proved that even our illustrious leader was capable of the occasional bad idea. We did finally make it out of there though and moved back over to Oz's to finish our day.

The rest of the day covered a couple of very useful topics. First, Greg went into a demonstration of a technique he uses quite often that he calls "cross-tapping". With this technique, you play melodies with the right hand while the left hand alternately fills in bass notes in the spaces where the right hand is not sounding a melody note. It's quite a bit like the polypatterns he'd talked about on Saturday except that, unlike polypatterns where you start with two set patterns that play against each other, cross-tapping involves the right hand calling the shots with a melody and the left hand filling in the spaces left behind. It's a little difficult to describe and it was also tricky to start getting the hang of. We started with some exercises that were proving a bit daunting so we kept scaling it down until we ended up using the technique on "Mary Had a Little Lamb". As embarrasing as it was to have a group of grown men held up in a music store on a rainy Sunday afternoon playing Mary Had a Little Lamb, that choice of tune finally got the point across.

The discussion of interplay between the hands led very nicely into a discussion of playing your Stick in a band context. In other words, not only playing with a drummer but also with (for example) a guitarist and even a vocalist. As a Stick player, it is very easy to try and be everything for everybody and end up hindering more then helping the final product. This discussion provided some useful information on how to provide the necessary parts while, at the same time, staying out of everybody elses way. Since this discussion focused on exactly the role I currently play in my own band, I got several pieces of information that I'll be able to start concentrating on as we work on our own material.

As the day wrapped up, we had a short discussion of techniques you can use to spice up the play in your right hand. These techniques include stylistic things like slides, pull-offs, vibrato, etc. From there, we started to work on putting a piece together we could play as a group at the end of our performance night. We started with a simple two chord progression and everybody threw out ideas on where to go with it. With the progression in place, we split up into sub-groups with each sub-group taking responsbility for a certain harmonic range of the piece. I was only about twenty minutes into this excercise when I had to pack up and head for the Ark (we would all be going eventually but I left early to meet with the sound tech).

The original plan for the performance at the Ark was not only to have a night of Stick music for the public to hear but also to provide as much of a variety of styles as possible. In my discussions with people, it had always occurred to me that many of the people who've actually heard of the instrument have a misguided notion that this is strictly a "new age" instrument or a "progressive" instrument. I call that notion misguided simply because the Stick is so versatile and has such a dynamic range that it will work well for any kind of music the Stick player wants to play. So with the acts we had lined up for the Ark, we would succeed in showing off the instrument in the context of jazz, fusion, latin, new age, rock, funk, and probably some others that I've missed.

Once we all arrived at the Ark, we sound checked and then opened the doors to a little over one hundred paying customers. Shortly after 7:30, the Fusionauts took the stage. The Fusionauts are made up of Wes Teregan on Stick, Ray Kozora on guitar, and Ken Kozora on Zendrum. Wes had his full setup we'd seen earlier in the day and simultaneously provided bass, rhythm and MIDI textures over Ray's very colorful guitar playing and Ken's rhythms. I had had the pleasure of seeing Ken play the Zendrum earlier in the year out at the NAMM show and he seriously knows how to play this thing. The Fusionauts delivered a cool set wrapping it all up in about a half hour.

The next set was Greg's solo set. I'm not even sure where to begin here. Just before the show started, there was a bit of a hiccup as one of Greg's rack pieces fried on him and, the fact that this was the piece that also does all of his switching, made it extra painful. This was going to mean a lot of switching of effects by hand on the fly. He went with it though and his set was excellent. Everybody in the room was so focused on Greg's play that the room was beyond silent. Greg played for about a half hour running through a handful of his solo pieces and launching off into some great improvisational work on both the melody and bass. One of my own personal highlights was Greg's rendition of Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" which is my all time favorite Mingus tune and a tune I had no idea Greg performed on Stick. He ended his set with "Blues for Ayman" which has been becoming a standard of his over the years. This one killed and had everybody in the audience standing when he finished.

With Greg's set finished, the show moved right into the Michigan Stick Trio. The trio was made up of Steve Osburn, Wes Teregan, and Pete Gilbert all playing Stick (with Wes playing one tune on Zendrum). The trio played and interesting set. Their material is a mellow textural kind of music. Both Wes and Pete have tons of technology that they use to provide more textures while Steve, the purist, plays most of the parts that sound like straight Stick. With the MIDI setup, Wes even managed to throw in some drum parts using his Stick. The trio played about a half hour set as three Stickists with Wes playing the very last tune on Zendrum. After their set finished, Steve brought out his theremin for a short demonstration. He discussed how the instrument works and a bit of it's history and then proceeded to play the "Star Spangled Banner". It was interesting to hear and generated several questions from our audience. The theremin has been a curiousity piece for over fourty years now and it's mystique continues.

After the trio finished, CD3 took the stage to play the more rock oriented part of the evening. CD3 were myself on Stick, Dan Holmes on guitar, Scott Burks on Drums, and Marikay Blitz on vocals. We were a bit apprehensive at first simply because we were the only loud rock act of the evening and didn't want to hurt anybody. We had mellowed our set a bit though and things went well in the end. I must admit to having several wrecks over the course of the evening and, as a band, we had one extremely major wreck. The response we received afterward, however, was very positive so we considered it a success.

Once our set was finished, Greg and the rest of the seminar attendees all joined me on stage with their Sticks for the moment of truth. Greg grabbed the microphone, described to the audience exactly what we were doing up there, and said "now we'll see just how kind of an audience you really are". We launched into the piece with Marc Betts and I starting it off playing the low bass. In order from low end to high end, everybody joined in. It was actually pretty good. The play up through the first change was somewhat chaotic but we managed to bring it together. Greg shouted out the changes for the rest of the piece and we hit all of them correctly. He threw in a nice solo section in the middle and, when we ended it, we got a very generous round of applause from our audience. And with that, the show was over. From there, and after socializing for while in and outside of the Ark, we all went our separate ways and re-joined the real world.

I would have to call the weekend a monstrously huge success. It was my first Stick seminar and I had no dissappointments whatsoever. The instruction was very helpful and the environment was fun. We had a good and very friendly crew and we all genuinely had a good time over the weekend. And to top it all off, the scene at the Ark was simply beyond description. The venue was absolutely perfect and the crowd of over one hundred really came to hear some good music. It was also really nice to have Greg stay over the weekend and get to know him a bit better. Now we can spend a bit of time back in the real world before starting plans for next year. Can we top this one? I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

So ... until next year.

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