It’s a Wonderful Life

November is my favorite month.

It’s my birthday month (Scorpios unite!). I share this distinction with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Tina Turner, Jeff Buckley, Berry Gordy, Steve Van Zandt, Ryan Adams, and Gram Parsons for starts.

It’s also the month of Thanksgiving – my favorite holiday. But not for the romantic myth of happy pilgrims and indigenous peoples breaking bread together. Nor for football games or Macy’s parades or Black Friday sales. Not even for cranberry sauce, yams, and pumpkin pie.

It means I intentionally make time to reflect and give thanks for everyone and everything that helped me develop a musical life – including one on the guitar. Here goes…

My parents got married in November, both music teachers. In fact, my father’s birthday is also in November. My mother won a piano in a raffle on the day they were married. Thanks for filling out that ticket, Mom!

They got me started on piano and trombone in elementary school and involved me in music ensembles in church, college, and the greater community. Thomas Turino writes about music as Social Life. Music was the heart and soul of my community as a kid. There was no escaping the rituals. 

I’d eventually take over the family piano (and the living room hi-fi) when everyone was out of the house and learn how to play along with my favorite records (Chicago II, Something/Anything?, Days of Future Passed, Three Dog Night Live at the Forum, Emmit Rhodes…).

My Ritsema grandparents (Grandma Ritsema – also another November birthday) gave me an electric guitar and amp for Christmas in my 7th grade year. I’ve no idea why. It’s like it dropped down out of heaven. Everyone was watching TV and someone said “there’s another gift for you in the back bedroom.” It was like nothing else existed for me at that moment. Thanks, Grandpa and Grandma!

Thanks also for the explosion of music TV shows that delivered pop music to my living room in my teenage years via comedy (Monkees), animation (Beatles cartoon shows), and variety/concerts (American Bandstand, Happening ‘68, and later Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, In Concert, and Midnight Special). They brought the West and East coasts to Northwest Iowa.

But it wasn’t just TV that fed my habit. Flipping through the record bins at my little public library, I had access to the music of Ray Charles, Jefferson Airplane, Blue Cheer, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Moondog.  

Thanks to the unassuming librarian with vision enough to add these to their vinyl stock.

At some point, my high school choir director suggested I start teaching private guitar lessons. Again, I’m not sure I knew why he thought I had a future in it. But here I am. Thanks, Mr. Kline! And thanks for concerts that included some of the best vocal sounds of our generation – 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” and The Association’s “Requiem for the Masses.”

In the middle of all this, a group of highschool buddies and I formed a garage/basement band, where I cut my teeth on the likes of CCR, Beatles, Grass Roots, Bee Gees… Part of the fun was coming up with band names (Pax Vobiscum, On Toasted Buns, Jerusalem Sewer and Water…). Later, I’d dig into phase two by learning to play Grand Funk Railroad’s “Inside Looking Out” and James Gang’s “Funk #49. All by ear. Many thanks to the revolving door of band mates in this period of self-discovery. 

And thanks to another local garage band of elder students, Pterodactyl, for showing my little home town in Northwest Iowa that it could, indeed, happen here. 

Later, I was enlisted to play guitar for a community youth group that performed a mix of spiritual and positive pop songs – everything from Robert Charmichael and Kurt Kaiser to The Rascals, Bacharach, and Ashford & Simpson.  

Thanks to my small town where potential is quickly noticed, and a time when we couldn’t fall back on Facebook to connect us.

As a result of my progress with this group, I was also hand-picked to join a singing group to play the Netherlands coffee-house circuit the summer before my senior year of high school. It was the beginning of a love-affair with the country of my ancestors. Thank you, Cheryl.

Since I’d developed both my chops and my ear, I was snagged as a college freshman to transcribe music and arrange performances for talent shows – Chicago’s “Wake Up Sunshine,” Carpenter’s “Goodbye to Love,” Todd Rundgren’s “Breathless” and Art Garfunkel’s “Second Avenue.” 

By this time, I was in overdrive. Where guitar players my age were working out the solo part of “Black Magic Woman,” I was developing an ear and an appetite for harmony – sniffing out and discovering chord extensions like a wild boar in truffle season. 

Years later, I was noticed again in a small Iowa City church. Evening services started with a session of hymn favorites. Usually accompanied by piano, I did my turn on guitar. Someone would randomly request “hymn #154,” for example. I’d quickly turn to it, do a quick mental scan of the chord progressions, transpose in my head to a guitar-friendly key, and churn out an introduction I hoped would inspire the singing. Nerve-rattling to be sure – but an invaluable experience. Thanks Rev. Len!

It would be years later, after a series of professional detours in the media and advertising industry, that I turned once again to the thoughts of becoming a music teacher. Thanks to my wife, Linda, for encouraging me to pursue a new profession and calling at the age of 46.

And thanks to the performing arts director, Colleen, at a Minnesota International School for taking a chance on a middle-aged rookie. It came to a sudden end four years later with budget cuts, but also a fortuitous safe landing in a North St. Paul school that was looking for a guitar class teacher. Finally, an opportunity to develop a classroom guitar curriculum. It allowed me to develop a vision for guitar pedagogy and think in terms of scope and sequence.

Thank you, Mr. Didier, for taking a chance on me when I desperately needed the gig. And thanks to my university professor and advisor for tipping me off about the opportunity

Thanks to the recruiters who arranged a visa for me to teach in Doha, Qatar, and also Berne, Switzerland. Every new classroom, and every new teaching model (Minnesota Standards, SABIS system, British National Curriculum, IB, AP…) forced me to stay on my toes and rethink what teaching can look like.

Thanks to the folks who hired me for my current role as Guitar Program Director for a Minneapolis urban high school (why do all of these job offers come in July and August???)

Thanks to Rolling Stone magazine for that review of Pat Metheny’s “Watercolors” that introduced me to a life-long favorite.

Thanks to Volkswagen for choosing “Pink Moon,” by an almost forgotten cult favorite, Nick Drake, in a television ad. And for Barnes & Noble for featuring the artist in the VW commercial.

Thanks to an international friend and former colleague, Jason, who unloaded his collection of Uncut and MOJO magazines on me before moving on – thereby introducing me to countless new worlds and filling in details of familiar favorites. 

Thanks to my international album club friends, who, in the cozy elementary school staff room every Tuesday after school for nearly three years, shared favorite music with me – challenging my biases, and being the kind of musical colleagues I’d never experience in a formal music department. 

Thanks to school budget directors and parent arts councils who (almost) never turned down, or questioned, my requests for ukuleles, ¾ guitars, electric guitars, bass guitars, autoharps, steel pans, accordions, and notation software. Thanks as well to the music store workers who helped me with recommendations on fine-tuning the order.

Thanks to a theatre friend and colleague who saw a charango at a garage sale and thought it would make a nice gift.

Thanks to former students who have tracked me down (years later) on Facebook, Instagram, and even my work address, to stay in touch.

Thanks to all of the above for turning moments of madness and misfortune into opportunity and open doors. It’s enough to make one believe in angels. And enough for one music teacher to feel (like George Bailey) like the richest man in town. 

I’ll take that pumpkin pie now.

November is also National Native American Heritage Month. A good reason for spotlighting in the Artist Feature.

I’ve changed the Method Book menu tab to Library. It opens up the possibilities for recommendations like the one you’ll find here.

I love a practical bit of gear – something that ticks all the boxes. The Product tab offers a sound recommendation.

The nights are getting longer, and the approaching holidays invite mixed moods. Check out our Repertoire for an atmospheric arrangement.

We recently said goodbye to Eddie Van Halen. But we lost another legend last April. Look in the Trade Publications tab for insight into his style and approach.

Many of our students are learning at home right now – and perhaps feeling restricted. Music education should be liberating. Improvisation opens that door. NAfME has some advice in our Academics tab.