How music changed my life, Part 1: Falling down

When you are down, negative, depressed, burned out, or even just tired from everyday routine, having some form of creative outlet is a wonderful thing. It doesn't matter *what* you do – it can be writing or painting or really anything you like – but it does matter that you do something. For me, that is largely music.

This is a story of how, over the first 38 years of my life, I grew out of touch with myself and my values, got into a depression, and almost ruined my family. Reconnecting to music was a key element to understand where I was at, in life.

This post is about 'how I got down there'. The next installment in this series will talk of how I finally awoke to the fact that I had an issue, and how I healed from it.

Personas

I have always loved music since I was a little kid.
I also had music training (piano lessons) since age 7 or 8, after I had begged my parents for a while.
Those music lessons were useful and I am grateful I had them, although they were mostly focused on mastering the 'classics' – i.e. play Mozart of Beethoven perfectly – and not at all on improvisation and composition, and spontaneous flow of emotions.
When I was 16, I dropped out of the piano lessons altogether, after having felt pressured to take it a step higher and do conservatory: I wanted to play rock, metal, anything else by then, and not just copy the famous bands, but compose my own songs, express my own emotions, not play Chopin!
An old second-hand classical guitar that my dad had found somewhere appeared in my life around that time, and I started teaching myself how to play it (this was pre-internet yet, I wish I had YouTube back then!) with some book from the local music store.
I was really crappy with the guitar, but oh the joys of doing my own noise! Expressing myself! No rules to follow!
I even got into a band for some years and I was finding myself.

But at some point I got 'serious': in the beginning of 1997, at age 20 (almost 21), after realizing university was too boring and would be too slow for my liking, I set off in a totally different direction (Information Technology), which would give me economic independence more quickly. Eventually that was still a 'socially accepted' and 'serious' work, everybody in my family was happy and proud of me, and family pressure relaxed.
After a couple of sentimental relationships that weren't the real deal but more like 'proof of concept', me and my soulmate Jyothi – that I knew since I was 19 but we had lost contact with for a few years – found each other back and I got a family with her. I gradually started working more and playing less, and neglected myself my love for music. Nobody told me to stop: it was the fear to be 'silly', not serious, egoistic, or be wasting time for myself.
Maybe because I was told as a kid that artists could never make a living, I was repeating that mantra without questioning it, and music got unconsciously ranked as 'non essential'. So, as I was 'settled', things got busy, and music became something to listen to, but I played and composed very little or close to nothing for several years. By letting go of music, I had locked my soul in a cage I built myself.

[long period of musical darkness]

Fast forward a few years, when we were living in Italy, Jyothi had a miscarriage, but I was already too busy, overworked, tired and blocked emotionally to deal with the associated emotions in a conscious and rational way. Nevertheless, I needed to express them: in a shopping frenzy I decided to buy a new professional sound card for my computer so I could record my compositions – I did it instinctively, or was it divinely guided – and at that moment I started making music again and wrote a couple of songs. But things got busy again very soon – I was travelling for work all the times and I was feeling so lonely, and so did my wife – so I swallowed that pain and didn't really deal with rationalizing the emotions associated with that episode until 2015… I also didn't play nor write much music for another while, as I was never really home, and when I was home I was trying to be a husband and a dad, first. I was spreading myself very thin, and letting my emotions out was really at the bottom of my priorities. It turns out it was a mistake to just try and toughen up / swallow those emotions and keep them locked.
Some music had come out during an episode of pain, but already at that point, with many years of very little or no music and extended exposure to solely 'rational' thinking done in IT companies, I had already shut down parts of myself and some of my other artistic expressions had deteriorated or stopped: I wasn't drawing or painting anymore – I was only drawing networks and other diagrams for work, but nothing artistic – and those couple of songs that came out were still very mechanical and 'stiff'. Also, they didn't have lyrics…

In that period I anyhow intensified my use of the camera and I became a lot better at photography – I used to explain that I still liked music, but photography was more 'portable' of a hobby, which was true: photography meant another artistic outlet that at least let me capture the beauty I was seeing outside and in other people – even while on my business trips – , although I was no longer capable of expressing my own emotions as much, I was at least using the camera to capture stories I saw outside. "The camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera" Dorothea Lange – the famous photographer – said, and she was right.

Fast forward a few more years, I had gotten a career opportunity, so we had moved to America.
While I was still very 'distracted' and mostly just working (in fact, more and more as I was getting 'up' the ladder), I had this big board in front of my face that didn't let me see. I was under the illusion that, since I was providing money by working hard, every other subsystem of me could be just shut down and I would be fine.
Well, not really. But luckily I have my kids that guide me. Kids are the greatest teachers. They are still so 'connected' to source, and if you flow with them and don't try to control them or shape them into what society tells you to, they'll show you the wise way every single time. So in our first year in America, Luca had a chance to get a couple of free piano lessons at school. He loved it so much and started playing a simplified version of Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' over and over and over on a crappy little keyboard we had. Then I thought "hey but I have a better one" – with all my music equipment which I had relocated but not yet unpacked, over 9 months after the move.
So I reconnected all my stuff to get him a keyboard, but eventually I also started using it again myself a little. And then a little more, and a little more…
Then we got Luca a better electric piano, and his playing improved a lot and he kept enjoying it. We made sure his teacher used a different method than the one I learned with, so that he would not be too constrained into just the classics but get a broader taste and focus on enjoyment of playing, not perfection.

Luca playing the Piano

My son needed music, but he was a mirror for me, because I needed it too! I was just keeping it quiet and enduring and waiting for 'when I will have time'… while letting the time pass and never actually finding the time for what my soul craved.
At this point the equipment was plugged again, and the house in America was a lot bigger than the apartment we had in Italy, so I could also use a much bigger space, which encouraged my playing. I was also travelling a lot less, just going back and forth to the same office, so I actually was able to find a few moments in the evenings to use my equipment. So I started composing something again – if you look at my 'songs' page you'll see I wrote and recorded several songs over the 2012-2014 period.

All sort of emotions went into those song, as several things happened in that period. Work was more intense than ever, and under a new set of conditions for me: while in Italy I was travelling all the time, even if I was lonely and it sucked, I had long unwinding times for myself where I could take pictures of a new place and spend time outside to reground myself after having been at customers. I am a bit psychic and a bit autistic, I pick up other people's emotions and they stay 'stuck' on me. In the last few years I have learned to recognize and accept that and 'deal' with it to some extent; but before I realized it, in America I was absorbing everybody's emotions and intensities in large projects with hundreds of people, large meetings, conflicting agendas, frequent re-organizations and changes of plans, I had to keep quiet on several things I didn't agree with, and my European directness tended to not match the political correctness that my American colleagues expected. But according to my managers, at the end of the day I was doing great, so they kept giving me awesome reviews and raises (which carried more responsibilities, as I was already burning out) – which incidentally also made other folks jealous, since they were not moving up the ladder quick enough… as a result of all this, I was swallowing emotions, not dealing with them, and bringing a ton of stress home, which eventually made both me and my wife sick. It must have been hard being around me both at work and at home), as I was often behaving like an asshole, snapping for no reason, not trusting anyone anymore.

At least my wife was giving me the space to write songs which could speak from my soul and not from my hurt rational mind! Please listen to 'Where are the days?' and its desperate cry, from that period when I started going out of my mind.
Not just the rhythm at which I worked that contributed to my stress, anyhow: more stressful situations and episodes were also coming from society, for example what I described in the following posts, which I felt 'safe' to post only a couple of years later, after we got out of America…

When I stopped sleeping well at night

Imaginary Friend Sara (about public school in the United States)

There were more bad things happening to us and scaring us in that period, some of which I prefer not to write about, but it felt like the whole universe was screaming at us 'get the heck out of here'. But at the time I didn't clearly understand what was going on in my own head. I was dozed and 'living the dream' or being a successful manager of a famous company, and I refused to see that things weren't quite good for our well being there. I was scared and delusional.

It's easier to rewind the tape like I am doing now and watch the movie (or hear those songs), in retrospective… but while the movie of life is being filmed, it is all improvised and not always conscious – especially when you are always running, you don’t give yourself time to regroup from one task to the next, you don't know exactly what you are dealing with, and you don't control your emotions and what you are letting out. Other people see it. That's why it's important that you let it out also in some creative form, so that you can also have a chance to see it. Because you can better see how you are by observing yourself from the outside. You can only see your problem if you move your point of view out of it. I can only take a photo of the house as a whole if I get out of it, not if I stay inside its living room. Art lets your inner self spew out fragments of a puzzle that is a projection of your conscience, or your soul. The more of these fragments you create, the more the puzzle starts to take shape, till you eventually see what you already knew but were afraid to admit to yourself – and often it is just fear of being all that we can be.

To become self-aware you have to realize how self-aware you're not – Scott Berkun

One thing was clear: I needed music more than I had ever needed before.

In the next installment of this series of posts (which I hope to publish at some point next week), I'll describe at what point I finally became aware of my condition, how I started climbing back up from the hole I had dug for myself, and the role that music played in the recovery process.

The second part of the article is here

How music changed my life, Part 2: Recognizing and acknowledging the issue

Can you see? (Song)

This is a blues-y song I wrote recently, performed with the recently built 'Santa Muerte' cigar box guitar (just in time before it gets picked up by its new owner, I thought I'd test drive it properly…) as well as my Plank "#01" Telecaster.

Pump up the volume, and I hope you like it.

Besides composing, I have been to Italy for the Christmas holidays – for the last couple of weeks; production of 'Plank' guitars is about to resume next week, as kids start school again.

In the meantime I moved the website to a 'better' domain name www.plankguitars.com (but all previous links will redirect) and have prepared 'labels' for serial numbers of my builds:

Plank guitars labels

Cigar box (cookie tin) guitar 'Cellocan' and upcoming builds

I started building electric guitar bodies out of recycled wood while I was in the United States. Anyhow, it wasn't until recently, here in the Netherlands, that I really started looking at the 'lower end' of the instruments world (something I should have probably done earlier, but it's never too late): I discovered a thriving community around 'Cigar box' guitars – enthusiasts have written a manifesto , you can find forums for builders someone has filmed and documentaries about the phenomenon (external sites).

Wikipedia introduces them as follows:

The cigar box guitar is a primitive chordophone that uses an empty cigar box for a resonator. “Guitar” refers to the traditional instrument and to a string bass. The earliest predecessors had one or two strings; the modern model typically uses three or more. Generally speaking, strings are connected between the end of a broomstick or 1″ x 3″ wood slat and to the resonator, the cigar box.

This makes Cigar box guitars perfectly suited for being 100% built off recycled materials (maybe excluding the electronics). Even on this side of the world (Europe) where we have less actual ‘Cigar’ boxes, there are plenty of biscuit tins and wooden boxes out there for reuse as resonators!

There is of course political aspect to this – we live in a society that more and more and more just produces and ‘throws away’ stuff; it’s good if we can make our items live longer, or give things (that would normally be thrown away) new life. This is why – even for ‘regular’ guitars and custom builds/designs – I try to use recycled materials as much as possible.

So, after experimenting with a couple simple diddley bows (single string chordophones), I built also a 3 strings cigar box guitar, and featured that in my guitar site. This is a very crude build, here's how it looks:

Cookie tin guitar 'Cellocan'

This one's theme was to precisely try reuse as much recycled materials as possible and do *minimal* modifications to it: this led to have a broad but thin neck, for example, just because that was the size of the plank of wood I got out of some weird furniture found in a thrift store.
I have to admit that, after the move, I don't have a garage so I have been temporary constrained to my living room, and that's not the most comfy lab to work in 🙂 Anyhow, we have built a shed in my father in law's backyard that I will share to use for guitar building and he will do his other woodwork in:

Nico's creative space

Nico's creative space

He also has some long and straight hard wood poles that he got from his dad back in the days and never put to use: some of those will become guitar necks, I am working on the designs… Stay tuned!

Below you can see part of the process of building the cigar box (really a 'cookie tin') guitar and some other details about this particular guitar.

 
Partially shaped neck being glued to the fretboard
Clamped!

 
Broad and thin neck compromise – that's how the plank was – you can see there would be space for more strings, but the risk is that the wood is too thin. Anyhow, this makes it actually very easy to play with a slide. I left it fretless, but the action is low enough that it can also be played with fingers.

Cookie tin Guitar 'Cellocan'

 
Interestingly enough, albeit the bridge is flat (not an arch like in a violin), the string spacing is enough to allow to play some notes even with a bow – which inspired the name of 'Cellocan'

Cookie tin Guitar 'Cellocan'

Here you can see the string spacing and an aluminum (recycled from another box) string holder I hacked for this headstock (which doesn't have an angle like my future builds will)
Cookie tin Guitar 'Cellocan'

Cookie tin Guitar 'Cellocan'

 
And here you can see/hear me play it

The recording is horrible, but hope it gives an idea.
On SoundCloud I have some more 'sound tests' too.

 

Soon I'll start working on a batch of new cigar box / cookie tin guitars. Probably some 3, some 4 strings, some fretted, some not…

Below you can see some of the boxes/tins I have been collecting and have lined up to be turned into instruments – let me know if you are interested in any particular one!
I'll keep adding boxes to this Flickr photo set – to track individual progress of each 'body'.

Cigar box Dutch cookie tin Dutch cookie tin Cookie tin
Cookie tin Cookie tin Cookie tin Tea box
Cake tin Cookie tin Wooden ANWB box Wooden box

Then after having done some more of these 'simpler' builds, maybe I'll also do one or two full size, 6 strings, neck thru guitars. We'll see. Stay tuned in the next few months.

I walked all this road (Song)

I have been composing this since February or so… The music has actually been almost ready for a while – in April – , but then things got busy at work (we launched System Center Advisor – Limited Public Preview, I have been responding to feedback, and Contributed some hopefully helpful troubleshooting article), I have not had an occasion to record myself singing and finish the song up.

This is also the first complete song that features both my custom-built guitars: the Plank Telecaster is the one you can hear play the rhythm/chords, while I played the Plank #2 for the melody.

I walked all this road – 2014

Winter (Song)

Well, the name of this is just because I started writing it on December 18th… just before the official beginning of winter, and finished it today, just a few days after spring has begun (again, officially – the weather in seattle doesn't say the same). Anyway, it's instrumental (so you don't hear me ranting there) and a bit trippy.

Winter – 2014

And here's a trippy doodle to go with it – sketched today in my notebook.

Doodling is meditation