Self-Help and Mentoring

About four years ago I was traveling through Italy, biking, farming, and just generally exploring life. I didn’t have a lot of direction other than south, but life felt good. As I started seeing more hamlets and monasteries on the tops of cliffs and mountains, I realized something: I needed a mentor. I felt that my life could go all sorts of wild places, and that it would be valuable to have a wise soul to guide me through the process.

This is actually Greece, but you get the idea. Same trip, at least. The Meteora.

I made a note of this in my journal and promptly forgot about it for several years. I never sought out any person or community that I thought would be able to guide me through my explorations, and nothing materialized on its own. I didn’t think about a mentor in a serious way until a few weeks ago. Instead of renewing my resolve to find a guide, however, I realized that I have already been seeking the advice and lessons from numerous mentors.

“Self-help” has a terrible ring to it. It is full of negative connotation, an admission that one isn’t able or competent enough to deal with the difficulties of life. It doesn’t even make sense – it isn’t self-help if someone else is telling you how to do it. And a lot of it is probably garbage, especially considering the number of shelves dedicated to it at the bookstore. Luckily for me, none of the sources I was using called themselves “self-help”, so I snuck in without realizing where I had gone.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been drawing from a number of sources, gradually improving my life and state of mind. I feel that I’m now reaching a new stage of contentment and freedom in my self, and I am excited to see where things lead from here. The other day I was describing to a friend that the daily vocal training I’m doing was creating all sorts of new openness and range in my voice. I realized that this was in fact true of my whole life.

So what have I been doing? I’m tackling some of the skills I’ve wanted to have for a long time, but never really practiced, and I’m being open to good advice where I find it. Some of the people I’ve drawn the most from are:

Jason Crandell for yoga. I do yoga almost everyday on my own, listening to his podcast. Little things like folding your palms in front of your chest and lifting the skin over your sternum make a huge difference in the practice. When I got these they were free, but it looks like you might have to pay for them now.

Ken Perlman for guitar. I came upon his Fingerstyle Guitar book by chance, and have followed it with his advanced book. I’m playing guitar in ways I couldn’t have imagined a few years ago. Also, what a mustache.

Betty Edwards for drawing and perception. I’ve written about Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain before (here and here), and it has allowed huge leaps in my perception and ability to recreate that on a page.

Steve Pavlina for consciousness and inspiration. This guy might be a wacko, or he might be full of wisdom (or probably somewhere in between), but either way his ideas have inspired me. His blog posts often sound hokey, but they have definitely got me thinking and actively pursuing life.

Timothy Ferriss for fitness, confidence, and life/time management. This is the 4-Hour Workweek and 4-Hour Body guy. Not everything in those books makes sense for every person, but some of his suggestions are spot on, and his workouts are surprisingly effective.

Brett Manning for singing. I just started his speech-level singing course about 5 weeks ago. He’s super cheesy in an L.A./Hollywood way, but like I said, all sorts of new openness and range. Very expensive, unless you can borrow it from a friend.

This week I also started working through Julia Cameron‘s The Artist’s Way. It’s a spiritual approach to nurturing creativity. I’m excited about it – even reading the introduction made me want to sit down and paint all day.

The fear with seeking advice and guidance from strangers is that their thinking will take over your life and you’ll end up joining a cult or something. This is more true of the life-coach type sources than the skill-specific ones. I think the key here is to take it all with a grain of salt and to draw from multiple sources simultaneously. Doing so makes it a lot easier to distinguish the good ideas from the fluff without necessarily buying into an entire lifestyle. The fact that they are mostly free (or available at a library) helps. I definitely don’t have plans to pay for this kind of advice any time soon. Again, specific skills are a bit different.

While I would still be open to having some kind of personal mentor, I feel that I’ve found a workable alternative through these various sources, and I’m sure there are plenty more I haven’t found yet (and I welcome suggestions – especially on writing, painting, and song-writing). I’m continuing to cobble together a kind of personal philosophy, and I expect to be doing so my whole life. It’s exciting and fulfilling. Still, I’d rather not call it “self-help.”

I play the cello, too!

What It’s Like to Play in a Band

Eight months ago I joined a band in Seattle, Pocket Panda. I’ve played music most of my life and in all sorts of groups, but this was my first experience in a “rock band”. It has been a blast and has exposed me to a new and exciting scene in Seattle.


In terms of musical background, I’m very much classically trained. I’ve played cello since I was about eight, took a couple years of piano lessons, and picked up trombone in middle and high school for concert and jazz bands. In high school, I also started fooling around with guitar, mostly struggling to play Pink Floyd and Dave Matthews covers. I got a lot more serious about guitar a few years ago when I got into country blues. I never practiced my voice, but I’ve been getting more involved with that lately. When I went traveling abroad, I brought a ukulele and fell for that as well. I’ve played in orchestras, string ensembles, musicals, and as my focus shifted to guitar, by myself or with a friend. But never in a band, never in a self-directed group with the purpose of creating original music to perform regularly.

One night after practicing some Bach Cello Suites, I put on a Shostakovich trio I hadn’t listen to for a while. At the time, I was playing in a casual string quartet, mostly Mozart-era repertoire. The Shostakovich reminded me of some of the fantastic small-ensemble pieces I had played in high school (when I was the most serious about cello), and I decided to scan Craigslist for a couple folks who might be interested in a serious endeavor like that. The result: no string ensembles. A couple people offering cello lessons. An amateur orchestra with open auditions. And one “indie-rock band with folk tendencies” looking to augment their string section.

I listened to the only song they had posted on their website, and I liked the sound a lot. I was feeling reckless with the boundaries of my comfort zone, so I decided to send an email. I met up with the lead singer, went to a couple trial practices, and learned a couple of their songs. Within about a month I was part of the band.

And it has been a blast. The newness of the experience has been terrific; my comfort zone has undoubtedly expanded. I’m constantly learning about how the music scene in Seattle works and what it takes to put this kind of group together. I’ve gotten comfortable with playing shows – at least as the cellist. The idea of singing still freaks me out, but I’m getting more comfortable with it. And the cliche about a band being like a relationship – well, it’s completely true.


Here’s how it works. We rent a practice space in a grungy part of town for a couple hundred bucks a month. It usually suits our needs perfectly – enough room for the seven of us – but it can get noisy when other bands choose the same practice times as us. We practice twice a week for a few hours each time, and we occasionally have smaller meet-ups to work on specific parts and harmonies. The lead singer writes the lyrics and structure for most of our songs and we use our practice time to hash out the direction and details of the rest of the parts. At the moment we’ve got about a full record’s worth of original music, all of which we’ve performed, but most of which we haven’t had the time or funds to record.


Playing shows has been the biggest step out of my comfort zone, and also the most rewarding. I remember feeling some nervousness performing when I was younger, especially when my part was exposed or when I didn’t feel totally solid with the music. I haven’t felt even a hint of nerves thus far playing with the band. Partly this is due to the circumstance – I am sitting, which decreases my exposure, and my parts are not all that technically difficult. I am also confident with the cello. It is second nature to be playing it in front of people. Vocals are a different story. Even just thinking about singing into a microphone makes my palms clammy. I also can’t play cello and sing at the same time yet. Both things I’m actively working on.

And so shows are a joy to play. Every one has been fun, even when the audience is small or distracted. There is a feeling of energy on stage happening in the space between us, a spark that doesn’t happen during practice. We know our songs well, and this is our opportunity to send our energy and emotion out into the crowd. When we play at bars we usually get a couple free drink tickets a piece, which is sometimes the biggest part of our payment. At slightly larger venues, we usually split the cover with the other bands playing and the bar, and can take home a couple hundreds bucks or more on a decent night. Not enough to make any money, but enough to help with practice space rent and recording. A few of our shows have had great backstage setups – couches, coolers of beer, free food. It’s fun to feel like a VIP for the night.

Another piece that has made these shows so enjoyable is the immense support I’ve gotten from my friends in town. I’m lucky to be part of such a good group of people. They come out to shows and do fun things like cheer my name between songs (“Why is everyone cheering for to cellist??”). It makes the events feel intimate and comfortable. A real joy.


Because we spend so much time together as a group, and because we’re exploring something that each of us feels passionately about, being in the band can feel like being in a relationship. A few months ago our drummer got upset with the rest of us and quit the band (he has been replaced, and our new drummer is stellar). This experience was the most similar to breaking up with a romantic partner that I’ve had. Harsh words were shared. We had to coordinate his moving his stuff out of our space. A lot of eye contact was avoided. Emotionally wrought emails were exchanged throughout the process. Luckily there were still six of us to keep the relationship going. We were able to move on, and we found someone great to take his place. And for now, we all get along well. We still have differences of opinion, but for the most part we’re able to communicate about them and find some middle ground. Good communication – a universal necessity for successful relationships.

I’m excited now to see how we grow as a band. We recently got together with a manager. We’ll be putting together a KickStarter or IndieGoGo campaign soon so we can (if it succeeds!) afford to record a full-length album. We’re pushing for bigger shows and more radio play. Things are moving in fun directions, and people seem to like what we’re making. I’ll keep you posted!

Have questions about what it’s like to be in a band? Post a comment and I’ll try to address it next time I write about it. To listen to Pocket Panda, check out our Bandcamp page. If you like what we’re doing, you can stay updated on Facebook and Twitter. Enjoy!

Taking the Plunge

Last week I gave notice at my job. It was a good job in an industry I had been excited about. It paid well and had all sorts of perks like subsidized bus pass, health insurance, and unlimited free coffee and Advil. Something wasn’t working for me, though, and after a good deal of confusion and mental processing, I decided to leave. I have a plan.

I have come to similar moments in my life before. I usually feel a need to explore and expand after I finish a big thing – college, grad school, internships. These moments are wonderful. I find new passions, meet new people, stretch my comfort zone, and learn a little bit (or a lot) about life and myself. I tend to wander a bit and eventually find a mold of a life that I want to lead next.

This time is a little bit different, though. For the first time, I am initiating the transition from within. I am not finishing a conveniently timed graduate program, but rather taking a plunge and creating a life shaped around my own values and passions. I want to build the mold myself, and make it out of something that is pliable over time. I’m taking a big step into the unknown, and I’m excited about every part of it.

Here is what I want to do. I want to live a life where I have control and freedom. I want to create things that are valuable to me, and I want to learn how to deliver those things to other people who value them as well. Maybe at some point there will be money exchanged; that will be part of the learning process. I want to explore and share my experiences. I want to live fully and courageously. And I think that I am creative enough and smart enough and disciplined enough to make it work. Or maybe just stupid enough to try.

I am going to start with art and music and writing. I have dabbled in these creative pursuits my whole life, but I have never dedicated myself to them completely. I’m pretty sure that dedication is the only way to actually make them work. I’ve got some money saved up from working at desks and on construction sites, and I have about as much spatial and temporal flexibility as I’m ever likely to have again. So now is the time. I’ve always been curious about delving into these creative endeavors, and I feel like I won’t be satisfied until I’ve tried and know that it works or doesn’t work or isn’t for me. Or that it is a hard way to make a life, but is nonetheless exactly what I want to be doing.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Suggestions welcome.

Guitar in the sun

The Plan: Record an Album

I’ve been thinking about goals and productivity a lot lately, and I decided I need a firm commitment. So I am writing and recording an album for release by the end of the year.

I’m setting this firm, measurable goal for myself, and I’m making it public to improve my chances of success. I figure, the more people to hold me to it the better. I will also be writing about the process, which should be fun and possibly informative.

The album will mostly be guitar and vocals, but it will probably also have bits of cello, ukulele, and piano. I’ve maybe written one and a half songs for it at this point, but I’m not sure how much of that will end up on the final version. It will take a good amount of discipline to get these all written and to a level of quality that I’m happy with.

I joined a band about six months ago, and that has given me a glimpse into the music world and confidence that this is something I can accomplish on my own. We’ve been recording a bit and playing shows around town. We’ve even gotten some radio play, which is awesome. I love the momentum that’s building and want to do more of it. Hence the Plan.

Expect to hear more about this, and feel free to give me a hard time if I don’t seem to be making it happen. In fact, please do.