Nikki’s Notes: No Fear

Photo by Deb Morrison-Littell
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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 19 – Spring 2022

An adult guitar student of mine emailed me recently and asked: “I’m thinking of starting a band with some friends. What do I need to do?” As a guitar teacher, nothing makes me happier than when a student starts writing songs or joins a band because having the arts in your life is such a beautiful thing. I told her, “You don’t need to do or know anything beforehand. Just ask your friends or put up a flyer in a café or music store. Just go for it.”

A fellow guitar teacher in a different part of the country, a remote mountain town, is struggling to find new students in this pandemic era. Depression is crippling her, and she has trouble figuring out ways to promote her lessons online and through social media. As I suggested she’d put up a page on a place like Yelp, she replied that if she ever got a disgruntled student, one negative review would do her in. 

An immensely talented singer-songwriter and frontman for an indie rock band has been sitting on his completed masterpiece of an album — along with professionally shot press photos and videos — for many, many months. Before the pandemic, the mixing of the album took a year or two, and for the longest time, my friend seems to have devoted all his energies to studying the ever-changing beast of social media marketing and taking expensive courses on the subject… all while his bandmates must be quite frustrated with their visionary-in-chief. He recently asked me what my thoughts on traditional publicists are. I shared my experiences working with them as an artist. These weren’t perfect, but mostly positive, and I’m glad I did it because you have to actually do it to understand what it’s like. I told him I was happy to reach out to two contacts on his behalf. “Nobody says you have to hire them if they express interest,” I said. “Do an informational interview with each one to find out what they could do for you… that in itself will inform you and be a valuable experience.” 

Fear and the need to be in control is a very real thing that we grapple with as humans. I’ve conquered some major perfectionist hurdles in my life, and it took me an unexpected heart failure while traveling (and ending up in the ER twice) to change my approach to life and commit to my music. Since then, I’ve had the fortune of experiencing many positive opportunities and relationships thanks to my commitment, but I still have some fears. Even though some blues and roots music reviewers have complimented my guitar playing on my albums, I still feel that walking into a jam session night at a blues club is the scariest thing. I’ve often wished that I could shed my memories and experiences to become my younger, clueless, and more daring self, but thought it must be impossible to pull off that kind of mental stunt. The other day, I watched an interview with Eddie Vedder by Zane Lowe, where Lowe starts talking about tabula rasa, the idea that harks back to ancient Greek philosophers that we are all born like a clean slate and have to practice clearing away our learned experiences as much as possible so that we can create new experiences, because — in Lowe’s words — “we only have a finite amount of space, and more often than not we fill it with a bunch of s**t.” So clearly, many have at least pondered the question through the ages. Vedder’s response to Lowe, which was referring to the creative process of making his latest album, hinted at a possible or at least partial answer: “Sometimes we don’t know why we do things… By working quickly, you find yourself in unexpected places more often as opposed to taking a really long time with it, re-editing and adding another filter.” 

In closing, I want to share something that the great bass player Tal Wilkenfeld told me a few years ago when I interviewed her for a Swedish musician magazine. She started guitar at 14, dropped out of high school in Australia two years later to pursue guitar studies in the United States, but switched to electric bass after one year at the music college. Then she moved to New York City. She had only been playing bass for a year when she started attending jam sessions at New York’s jazz clubs. Many people would find the moves to new cities, let alone foreign countries and continents, terrifying. But during our interview, I brought up the jam sessions and how a lot of people, especially less experienced players, find them intimidating. But did she think that her lack of fear helped develop her talent? I’ll leave her response with you to ponder on, and hopefully get inspired by:

“I definitely was very fearless. Still am. I just have no fear (laughs.) I don’t know what I would or should be afraid of. I would be more afraid of not expressing myself creatively, because I would regret that later. So — no fear!” 

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