Archive for the ‘Guitars’ Category

Look no further than Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album released in 1959. I’m not even close to being a fan of jazz, but I could listen to that particular album over and over again. The reason for this is that the entire album was a study in modes.

In Kind of Blue, Miles Davis had his musicians play completely out of their comfort zone to push them to explore territories outside the conventional scale patterns, ultimately producing unexpected melodies that up to that point, no one had really heard.

The album is known for what is called modal jazz, which loosely means that the melodies fall out of the standard major and minor scales. I’m sure someone has taken the time to listen to the music and pick out the exact modes like, “Hey! There’s a mixolydian! There’s a dorian!” For me though, listening to that album as much as I have has helped me in trying out different things than the conventional.

Mind you, this isn’t meant to be an academic analysis and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a jazz player by any stretch of the imagination. But despite that, modal theory fascinates me. But for me as a learner, especially with music, I absorb information better if I have a context. Take the Dorian mode for example. If you asked me, “What’s D Dorian?” I’d intellectually know it as the second mode of the C major scale and its tonal center is D and it has a flat-3rd and a flat-7th.

Well, so what? It’s fine from an academic perspective and sure, I can drone a C, then play the D Dorian to hear it, but it’s not very musical. But on Davis’ Kind of Blue, you can hear it applied to the track entitled, So What. What those cats do with that mode is nothing short of incredible. Check it out…

Just listening to that puts the mode in perspective and clearly demonstrates what is tonally possible. I could never get that with just droning a note and playing a mode over it.

And that’s the point of this post. For me at least, no matter how many modes tutorials I’ve seen, it wasn’t until I actually heard them applied to a song that it clicked. What I wish some of these tutorials did was to have a section where they would apply a mode to an actual piece of music – maybe 32 bars or something like that. But instead they focus almost entirely on the note spelling.

That said, the academics are important. But I will submit that what we’re all trying to do is play music. And that goes way beyond academics.

P.S. Joe Satriani makes heavy use of Lydian mode in his music, so there’s another source to listen to how a particular mode is applied.

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Summary: When I first saw ads about this, I thought: It’s just another thumb pick. But the spring-loaded “holster” changes the game, allowing you to move the pick to a comfortable position on your thumb – something traditional thumb picks can’t do. Plus, the pick is a regular guitar pick, so for flat pickers, it feels like you’re playing with a regular pick.

Pros: Nice, thick 1.5mm pick. For those that prefer thicker picks, you’ll feel right at home playing with this. As mentioned above, the spring-loaded “holster” allows you to move the pick to the most comfortable position on your thumb.

Cons: I can understand the design constraints in creating the hinge, but it would be nice to have the hinge be at a slight angle instead of perpendicular to the long side of the pick (see below).

That said, this is just a tiny issue and doesn’t take away from the pick’s usefulness. Perhaps in future versions, we’ll see righty and lefty thumb picks.

Price: 3 for $19.95, 7 for $49.95, and 12 for $74.95

Tone Bones:

Even with my little issue, this is a solid product. If you’ve avoided using a thumb pick in the past, this might be something worth checking out. I don’t give this rating lightly. I will be using this pick – a lot!

It shouldn’t work, but it does. I shouldn’t like it, but I do…

When I first saw a video of this pick on my Facebook news feed, I kind of rolled my eyes, thinking it was just some sort of gimmick. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me because like many players, I’ve avoided using thumb picks.

One thing that really intrigued me was that I often switch back and forth between flat picking and fingerstyle within a song. And though I’ve become fairly adept at tucking my pick and holding it with my index finger when I want to switch to playing fingerstyle (kind of like Brian Setzer), when I was first learning to do it, I hated the fact that I’d lose the use of my index finger because it was holding the pick! With the Black Mountain Pick, I can strum along or play a solo, then immediately transition to playing fingerstyle without losing the use of my index finger.

But I think the thing that really did it for me was that the Black Mountain pick is shaped like a standard plectrum. I’ve never liked the shape of a regular thumb pick. That the Black Mountain pick is a standard, familiar shape makes it feel much more natural to me.

I’ve been playing around with it for last few days, and I’ve taken to it rather quickly. But I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I’ve been playing fingerstyle and clawhammer for so long. So it wasn’t much of a stretch for me to start using the pick effectively. But if someone is new to fingerstyle playing, like learning any new technique, it’ll take time to learn and practice to become proficient, and let’s be clear: That lack of proficiency will not be due to the pick.

Fit and Finish

The pick is very well-made. As you can see from the picture, the hinge is fairly hefty. I was a bit concerned about this when I first inspected it, but it doesn’t get in the way at all. And it helps that the spring is fairly tight – this won’t fall off while you’re playing!

The plastic doesn’t feel cheap at all. I’ve gotten some evaluation picks in the past that felt like they were made from the same plastic that’s used for toy soldiers. Needless to say, I didn’t write a review about them. But this pick’s materials are solid.

One thing I did do with one of the picks that was sent to me was to use some fine-grain sand paper to smooth out the sharp edge of the pick. Some players like a sharper edge, but I personally prefer a rounder edge to my picks.

How It Sounds

Just like with any heavier gauge pick, it’s going to bring out the mid-range a bit more. Sanding down the edge for me dampened the highs a bit and put even more emphasis on the mid-range which, again, I prefer.

Plastic picks are notorious for making squeaking sounds sometimes, but since I’ve been playing with this pick, I haven’t experienced that at all. But I also attack the strings at an angle, so the chance of making a squeak is minimal.

Why Would You Want to Use a Thumb Pick?

For me, the only answer to that question is one word: Tone. If I want to brighten up my bass notes when playing fingerstyle, there’s really no better option. It could be argued that I could get a brighter sound with my thumbnail. Absolutely. But a nail is much softer than a pick – well, at least this particular pick – and while I could get a brighter sound with my nail, it’s not nearly as bright as with a thumb pick.

Here’s a quick demo I put together that demonstrates the tonal differences between using my thumbnail vs using the Black Mountain pick:

The tonal difference is pretty stark. And at least for that particular song, Toulouse Street by the Doobie Brothers, the Black Mountain pick is totally appropriate. But that said, while I mentioned that I’ll be using it a lot, it will depend on what kind of tone I want out of a song, so I won’t be using it full-time when playing fingerstyle. But I like the fact that I have another tool in my tonal arsenal that I can use for fingerstyle playing!

Overall Impression

Other than my little nit with the angle, what’s not to like? I kind of solved that by cutting and sanding a notch in the holster so I could rotate the pick a few degrees. I have to admit that I kind of felt like Ian Roussel from Full Custom Garage, but on a much smaller scale when I did that. But the result was that I could rotate the point of the pick forward which also meant that I could lift my palm a little higher off the strings, which brings my fingernails more into play. My right hand position tends more to the classical position rather than a country style which has a flatter positioning. So being able to lift my palm is important.

But as far as the actual pick is concerned, I love it! And like I said above, I’m happy to have yet another tool in my tonal arsenal!

In closing, I’ll just say this: This is not a gimmick. This is a good, solid product that can do the work of a flat pick as well as a thumb pick. For songs such as Something in the Way She Moves by James Taylor where there’s both strumming and picking, this is a great tool to have!

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The Lockdown

My Gibson J-45 Avant Garde

With the lockdown, it has been such a great time to play guitar. But even before the lockdown, I’d normally play at least a half-hour a day. However, over the last several days, I’ve been putting in some serious time on my guitars, especially my Gibson J-45 Avant Garde acoustic.

One of the things I’ve been doing is recording videos to share on Facebook. Yesterday, I recorded a video with my daughters where we sang a song I wrote for church. This past Sunday, I recorded an old church song since I wasn’t able to play at Mass.

At the beginning of the lockdown, I purchased Carol Kaye’s Jazz Guitar book and CD. This ain’t no step-by-step manual. She just dives right in, assuming you already know what she’s talking about. Thank goodness I already knew my chords and note numbers!

The point to all this is that ever the optimist, playing my guitar and finding things to play has had an enormous positive impact on me during this lockdown.

Think about it: You go on social media and it’s nothing but talk from the shelter-in-place crusaders. It’s ads from news sources talking about the death toll (though they avoid discussions of comorbidities and percentages). It has been fear and panic. Then there are the anti- and pro-Trump factions at each other’s throats.

I certainly have my own views of this situation – and sorry, this isn’t the platform to share them – but in light of all of this, I’d rather play my guitars. Yeah, I share a lot of the stuff I produce, and frankly, it’s not meant to be a counterpoint to the Covid-19 hustle and bustle. My thought is just to do what I do, and let it loose. I couldn’t care less whether people watch it or comment on it.

For me at least, even though I’m working from home, it’s a perfect time to let my creative juices flow.

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I love my BOSS Katana Artist. It has such a great sound. And on top of that, it’s incredibly versatile. I can use the Line Out and go directly into a board and keep my stage volume low. It has totally changed the way I approach live performance.

But there’s the rub. For live use, the Line Out is great, but I’ve discovered that for anything kind of dirty, it’s not so good. Or I should correct myself. It’s good enough for playing something dirty underneath the mix, but front and center, well… It’s a little lifeless.

I’ve had the amp for a while now and I only discovered this discrepancy this afternoon when I used the amp to record a track that required some overdrive. I was thinking that I could record silently and just tweak the sound like I always do. But for the life of me, I couldn’t get a good sound out of it, no matter what guitar I used.

I was a little nonplussed about this because I’ve used the amp on stage and my sound has been stellar through the PA. But into my audio interface? Eek!

I ended up just miking the cabinet, which is probably what should’ve done in the first place. Even at quiet volumes, the amp has a big sound. At one point, I looked down at the amp and it seemed to say to me, “Moron… You know I like to push SPLs.” Ha!

When I’ve performed, sure, the amp volume is not as loud as I’d normally have it when I don’t have good sound reinforcement. But I have to cut through the drums, so it has to push some air. And when it does push air, it’s magic.

For cleans, the Line Out works great, and I’ll continue to record clean guitar sounds with it. But there’s nothing that beats letting the amp breathe.

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Today, Jack Johnson put on a live streaming event called the Kokua Festival 2020. This is an annual event to help raise money for various schools and to fund various programs in and around Hawaii. Usually, it’s a concert festival with lots of different acts, but because of the lock-down, he live-streamed the event and had other artists such as Willie Nelson and Eddie Vedder live-stream from their homes.

Now imagine my surprise to see Jack playing a J-45! That body profile is unmistakable and, of course, there’s no mistaking the Gibson head stock. And when he played, that round bottom-end and tight mid-range that’re characteristic of the J-45 sealed the deal.

That said, I could be wrong. But there’s no way that it’s a Hummingbird because that guitar has square shoulders, while the J-45 has rounded shoulders and much narrower at the shoulder as well. And no way that it’s an L-00 – it’s way too big for that.

It actually surprised me to see him playing a Gibson because I knew he played Cole Clark guitars from Australia. But hey! It’s always cool to see a big-name artist playing the same gear as you!

Now, what I don’t know at all is if it’s a J-45 Standard or J-45 Standard Walnut. I’m kind of thinking it might be the Standard Walnut because Jack is really big into sustainability and he cares a lot for the environment. Proceeds from the Kokua festival go to a variety of environmental concerns. Even his Cole Clark guitars are all made from sustainable Australian woods. Again, I could be wrong and I’m definitely interpolating here, but it makes sense.

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Ten years ago, I was literally gigging over 200 days a year. I played in a band, did A LOT of solo acoustic gigs, and played weekly at church. Back then, I had a big electric board (I know, “big” is relative) that had anywhere from 10 to 20 pedals, depending on the gig. I’d have a wah, three or four overdrives, at least one distortion, a clean boost, various modulation pedals from a chorus, vibe, delay, and reverb, and some pedals that I’d categorize as “weird” such as an envelope filter – which I literally used once. 🙂

Fast forward to today and I’m in between bands right now, only do a few solo acoustic gigs a year, though I do play weekly at church (I’m doing videos from home right now during the COVID-19 quarantine). And here’s the thing: Most of my pedals are now collecting dust!

If I look at it logically, I’ve got a couple of good reasons for downsizing:

I’ve found my sound, so I don’t really feel the need for a lot of pedals.

I really don’t want lug as much gear around (that’s actually true)

But I was thinking this morning. Maybe I’m just getting old and don’t want to deal with twiddling and tweaking anymore. I’m not a crusty old guy who’s a grouch all the time. But I do have to admit that I’m kind of set in my ways. Exploring sounds was something that I just always did when I was a younger man. Now? I don’t have much interest in doing that unless I just happen to hear something that appeals to me.

So I let this post sit for a day so I could think about it some more…

I almost posted this article yesterday that included another paragraph that poked fun of my grey-hairedness. But this morning, as I drink my coffee, I have to admit that it’s not just getting older that has made me downsize, but especially during this quarantine period, I’ve discovered that I’m satisfied with what I’ve got.

You see, with my younger kids home from school, we’ve been recording videos and tracks that we share with friends. I, of course, edit the soundtracks to make them clearer and cleaner, and I especially listen to my guitar sounds. The only thing I’ve done with the guitar parts is EQ just a tiny bit. But I don’t feel as if I’m missing a component.

Compare that to 10 years ago, where oftentimes when I’d be mixing and mastering, I might’ve said, Hmmm… this needs X. Oops! I don’t have that, so I guess I should pick one up… Though I’ve either sold or given away a lot of gear since then, I still have lots of stuff – especially pedals – that I just don’t use.

I’ve got more years behind me than I have left, and yeah, I might say I’m getting old, but I like where I’m at right now. I don’t feel as if I’m missing a key sound. And here’s another thing I realized: If I don’t have a key sound, I still just use what I’ve got.

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A couple of months ago, I wrote that I had burned out the pedals on my mini-board. I used the wrong power supply on the board, and when I plugged it in, I immediately smelled electrical smoke, so I played my gig without my effects. When I got home, I plugged in the power supply to the board, and nothing worked. I was heart-broken because that board had been a mainstay of my sound: A hand-wired Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay analog delay.

Fast-forward a couple of months and I was doing some recording. I needed a more “spatious” delay and was getting a little frustrated with my BOSS DM-2w. It’s a fantastic analog delay, but after playing with it for the last couple of months, it’s really best used as a subtle slap-back delay, at which it excels immensely, so it will stay on my board.

But while I was recording, I found that getting the DM-2w to a setting where it wasn’t too subtle or just too much was actually incredibly difficult, requiring super-precise, minute adjustments on the intensity knob. I knew I could get there easily with my old Deep Blue Delay.

So here’s where the title of my post comes into play…

I’ve always been deathly afraid of electricity. Not sure why. I’ve jumped out of airplanes, free climbed rock walls, skied super-steep, icy pitches and even bungee jumped off a bridge. I don’t do that stuff now, but they still don’t scare me. Professionally, I design complex big-data software systems. But despite all that, I’m terrified of getting electrocuted, so I’ve generally stayed away from working with circuits and such.

If something burns out, I either have someone else fix it, or replace the unit. So I admit it. I’ve chosen to be ignorant about working with electrical stuff. And I also admit that that ignorance also makes me have knee-jerk reactions when I think something’s gone wrong with some electrical gear.

Back to when I first burned out my board, what I didn’t think to do was test the pedals individually. I just thought all the pedals on the board died. But when I was getting frustrated with getting the right setting for my DM-2w, I remembered that I didn’t check the pedals individually. So I went to the storage box that I put my Deep Blue Delay into, brought it back to my workstation and plugged it in. The freakin’ thing lit up and worked!

I have to admit, I was a little embarrassed. But on the bright side of things, I did score a new BOSS DM-2w, and I have no remorse over that purchase at all, despite my frustrations.

Long story short, I was able to lay down my tracks and I was a happy man. The real positive thing that comes out of it is that I now have two great analog delays that actually complement each other quite well. The DM-2w is about the best slap-back delay I’ve played. When using a slap-back delay, I don’t like a heavy pulse. It just kind of has to be there, and the DM-2w satisfies that requirement implicitly.

On the other hand, when I’m playing finger-style or solos, I like to have a slow delay that has a longer pre-delay on it so I get the articulation of the notes, then this cool, smooth delay effect that tails a phrase. For that, there is none better than the Deep Blue Delay which, by the way, the DBD doesn’t do slap-back as well because of its longer pre-delay. So now I have two great delays that I can use for specific purposes!

Yeah… I’m still ignorant about electronics, but this time, at least something good came out of it.

As for the rest of the pedals, I’ll be damned – they ALL worked again! I explained what happened to my electrician son, and he said that I may have heated the circuits to the point where the devices didn’t function at the time, but not enough to completely damage them (I did tell him that I unplugged within just a few seconds). Once they cooled down, they worked again.

When he explained that to me, I just shook my head and chuckled. Then he chided me that here I was, this seasoned veteran of software engineering and I was an absolute pussy with electronics. I shrugged and laughed in response then said, “Well… I’d rather admit to my fear and ignorance than be dead.”

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Ageism… Ugh!

There’s a popular T-shirt with an old Samurai warrior on it that bears the saying to the right. I eventually want to make my own T-shirt with that saying but put a guitar player on it; not necessarily Clapton, but maybe some line art or something.

While that’s all amusing, as I get closer to 60, I’ve noticed how people – and not just young people – assume that because I’m a certain age that all I must play are the old classics; especially when I talk about playing at church, many people think I’m a freakin’ organist!

The looks they get on their faces when I tell them I have a rock band, well, I can’t help but laugh!

So here the thing: You’re only as old as YOU believe you are. And at least for me, I’m gonna rock until the day I die!

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The choice between the two is not as easy as you might think.

Tweaker – Someone who dives deep into the minutiae of the gear they have and learn every feature and nuance. The more features, the better.

Player – Someone who learns just enough about their gear to play it effectively. Learning nuances is through osmosis over time. Typically, they don’t like too many features in a product.

Let me say this: Neither is better than the other. In fact, over time, both types of people will arrive at roughly the same knowledge of their gear, though admittedly, for straight-up players, that may take years.

And there are no absolutes, no one is absolutely a Player or absolutely a Tweaker. And yes, most people have traits of both simultaneously, but I’ve found in my interactions with thousands of folks over the years that most folks are predominantly one over the other.

In any case, what inspired me to write this post is that I’m in a bit of a quandary right now: Do I get a Strymon Iridium or a Line 6 HX Stomp?

Though I’m probably much more of a Player rather than a Tweaker, one would think that with the limited features of the Iridium, I’d lean heavily towards that unit. But if you’ve read this blog with any regularity, versatility is a key component to many of my buying decisions.

The HX Stomp has so much versatility that there are very few amps and cab combinations – not to mention effect chains – that I couldn’t assemble, however virtually. This is definitely something worth considering because depending on the style of music I’m playing or recording, I could get the exact amp/cab combo that I need with the HX Stomp. It’s a tweaker’s wet dream!

On the other hand, the Iridium has just three amp models and three cab IRs per amp. Far less tweaking (though you can load your own IRs), BUT the amps represent the archetypes on which almost all amps are based. It doesn’t have effects, so if you want effects, you put existing effects in front of it, so no having to learn to tweak virtual effects as in the HX Stomp. For a straight-up Player, it’s very much like just setting up an amp; very plug and play and away we go!

As far as the physical footprint is concerned, with the HX Stomp, once I’ve got it set up, it’s all I’d really need to bring with me or plug into my audio interface as opposed to the Iridium where I’d have to hook up my pedalboard (the Iridium would sit on the board), which takes up real estate – and in a gigging situation, is a MUCH heavier option.

So you see how this could be conflicting?

For a Tweaker, you’d think that they’d immediately jump on the HX Stomp; most probably would, but I’ve also spoken with some guys whom I know who just love twiddling knobs and such who’d rather have the Iridium. And it’s vice-versa with some Players I’ve met and spoken with who look at the HX stomp as a BIG collection of amps and cabs.

So what does it boil down to? To be completely honest, I just don’t know at this point. At least for me, I’m going to have to audition these units. While I really dig all the features in the HX Stomp – including the looper – how much I gravitate towards it will be highly dependent on how easy it is to configure without a computer.

As for the Iridium, since it has a very limited set of features, that means that its sound quality and dynamics have to be absolutely stellar. And from what I’ve been able to surmise, it’s sound quality is pretty spot on. For me, I’m not so much interested in the AC30 sound, but I really like the Deluxe Reverb sounds I’ve heard.

Why Even Consider a Modeler?

I have a bunch of amps, mostly tube amps. I still gig with them, but in my home “studio,” I’ve got limited space. Not only that, even if I record in my man-cave (read: garage) where I don’t have an isolation booth or box, I pick up ambient noises, be they mechanical sounds or just the general activity of my family; not to mention that with the exception of my Katana Artist, I can’t record any other of my amps silently. So a modeler is a great solution to be able to not only eliminate ambient noises, it allows me to record in complete silence. A clean signal is a good signal.

Modeling technology has gotten so good over the years that frankly, it’s just hard to ignore. I’ve never been a purist, preferring instead to look at various types of gear merely as tools. If they get the job done – and especially if they do it well – then that’s pretty much all that matters to me. And with modelers like the Line 6 or Kemper or AxeFX gear and now the Iridium, I love what they bring to the table!

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Going Back to the Source

As a performer, I’ve always viewed myself as a singer who played guitar or piano to provide accompaniment for my voice. My voice has gotten me lots of gigs from my longtime, local solo act to singing in an international choir and even some narration. And I’ve been performing with my voice since I was a young boy – almost 50 years now.

About 20 years ago, I kind of came to an impasse with singing. I was starting to sing a lot more musical theater and even some select opera pieces. And though I could kind of fake it, I knew that I was straining my vocal chords. I’d get done singing an aria or big theatrical piece and my voice would be hoarse!

I have to admit that it scared me a bit. So I asked a close friend of mine if she knew of anyone local to me that was a voice coach/teacher that specialized in operatic and musical theater styles and she directed me to a close friend of hers named Kay.

One of the first things I established with Kay was that I actually wasn’t interested in being an opera or Broadway singer. What I wanted to learn was to sing correctly so I could sing the occasional opera piece with the proper mechanical technique. Kay was a little perplexed by my request because all of her students had aspirations to be opera or Broadway singers.

I explained to her that to me at least, learning how to sing opera would bring me back to the source of all singing technique; especially with respect to breathing and projecting. I figured if I could effectively sing an opera tune, I could sing anything. Long story short, I took about half a dozen classes from Kay – we treated our sessions like a master class – and I learned valuable lessons in vocal mechanics. As a result, I could literally do 6-hour gigs (with breaks, of course) and still have more in the tank to sing.

So you might be wondering: What does this have to do with guitar?

I spent all that time above talking about how I’m a singer first. That remains true to this day, but as you know from this blog, I have a passion for playing guitar. And in the last 20 years, I’ve taken on more and more lead guitar duties. I never sought to do this. I kind of fell into it.

But lately, I’ve been feeling as if I’m just playing a variation of the same thing for all my solos, and it’s frustrating. So I’ve decided to go back to the source and take some lessons; specifically, take jazz guitar lessons, and not just any kind of jazz, but a study of old jazz standards.

I realize that a lot of that is going to be a review of chord theory, which is actually pretty exciting to me. But more important than that, I want to learn chord comping and instead of just playing note scales, actually play chord scales. It requires a bit different way of thinking, but that appeals to me because long ago when I was taking piano lessons, rather than teach me standard scale theory, my teacher focused on chord theory.

The teacher whom I am hoping still gives lessons is Carol Kaye. She’s a legendary bassist, but she’s also an accomplished guitarist. Ms. Kaye has a resume of touring and session work that most people can only dream of. Most notably, she was the sole female member of the famed “Wrecking Crew,” responsible for creating HUGE hits of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. (And by the way, that whole “Wrecking Crew” name, according to Carol Kaye, was made up by Hal Blaine) The bass line for the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations, well, that was all her. Freakin’ amazing!

What inspired me to seek her out was this video of an interview she gave in 2013 (it’s over an hour long, but SO worth it):

The way she talked about her approach to music completely jibed with what I’ve been aspiring to achieve for years. I’m hoping she will accept me as a student!

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