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  • Writer's picturebkeeler

On Guitar- Yoga for the Fingers- Inspiration for the Soul

Updated: Jan 2

A journey toward hoizons of growth with the guitar- Brian Keeler

I have a terrific guitar teacher, well two actually, as there is a collobaration that is more than comprehensive between two guitarists in the gypsy jazz tradition. The teaching is so good that I would say any superlatives could not do it justice. Where is such adulation coming from? Before I get to the specifics, I would say the approach of guitarist Yaakov Hoter encompasses much more than just theory and technique, but it does that of course better than any other teaching that I've encountered. The "much more" aspesct is in the fact that his method could be applied to much more than just the narrow confines of music and guitar. Lessons in life, the zen of living, virtue instruction for relationships and spirituality in art are a few that come to mind.

Above- "Luthier in Light" Oil on linen 26" x 30" This painting of Harry Aceto in his guitar repair workshop. Harry is a terrific bass player and gypsy swing guitarist. The interior scene with the play of light is a theme which harkens back to Vermeer and other artists of the Dutch Golden age. Those artists often painted musicians practicing.

Yaakov likes to encourage his students to enjoy the process. That is the mantra for so much of our learning endeavors. Slowing down and allowing the process to work is key. Speed is the enemy has been the observation. From several of the other students in our coaching group, regardless of ability, they all seem to agree that rushing and seeking the end product too vehemently is counter productive. These epiphanies in practice in regards to rushing have special pertianence to me, as it is an ongoing challenge. And, I've learned that this same advice is pertinant for others too. Although the opposite- dragging the tempo was an issue at some guitar camps I've attended.

Above- Our workshop participants with Yaakov Hoter and Michael Isabell at Sarteano in Tuscany in May of 2023. To study and play guitar for a week in central Italy with two accomplished teachers and enthusiastic students was indeed a golden opportunity.

I like the corollaries between music and the visual arts and dance too- and both Yaakov and his right hand man, Michael Isabell are often utilizing these analogies to drive home various points and make them more understandable. Principles like timing, intervals and patterns come up in both painting and guitar as do ideas like rhythms, dissonance, timbre etc. Related to this, it was mentioned in a philisophical study group that artists should have more than one discipline. The benefit being that one discipline augments and enriches the other.

During lessons which we now do via zoom, I am continually in awe of the patience and attentiveness to details that these guys embody. They both mention the corollary of meditation to playing guitar as we need to focus and be present. This has appeal to me as I have been a student of meditation and contemplative practice for years. But this training in guitar playing is humbling, inspiring and revelatory at the the same time. Humbling because I realize how uncentered I am at times. Humbling for other reasons too, such as how endless the challenge is. But this endlessness is also very exhilarating as well. Sometimes there is just so much to practice and learn that the I find myself frustrated, as I want to do everything. It is revelatory in many ways - such as how the practice shows impatience and even fear at times. For example, just playing a simple progression of chords, I sometimes forget the basic la pompe rhythm as I am anticipating the next voicing. It took Yaakov to observe this and recommend just doing two chords and listening for the while listening for my own inconsistency. But a related benefit is that all this adds to self-knowledge and then hopefully acceptance.

Above- Yaakov and Michael in Tuscany. To see a video or this lesson - on how two guitarist work together to compliment each others rhythm playing - check out this link:

Multi-tasking is the key here- as there are so many moving parts- the rhythm, the melody, the technique of both hands, listening to yourself and others, etc. I say multi-tasking, but I realize that it shouldn't feel that way. Ideally all the components should blend and be natural. This method of gypsy jazz guitar as developed by Yaakov is very rigorous, exact and demanding. I like the exactitude as there is no ambiguity or wishy- washiness. In art, that is in academic realism in painting, there is some similarity but in much of art these days so much is sanctioned or accepted without a similar rigor. In a way, this guitar method is like learning a new instrument, as the rest stroke picking demands lots of effort. And the la pompe and other rhythms are equally as specific. At some point, the idea of sprezzatura, (The Italian word for effortless delivery) will come in. In fact at one point during our recent zoom, my right hand became perfect so Yaakov said as I was not thinking about it- as my left hand was taking the attention. And to think that after all these years of practice, no one had ever much mentioned the right hand technique. Yaakov said his training also had no specific instruction in the right hand method.

Speaking of sprezzatura, there is a book that many of the students have read, called "Effortless Mastery" by Kenny Werner. It seems to express some of the ideas of the concept. I've just begun this book and it seems to offer a lot of encouragement and support from a musician with many challenges in his youth.

One of the encouragements from Yaakov was to take one lick or one song and make it perfect- make it masterful he says. Yaakov believes firmly that learning one song well can help all of the others songs in one's set list. This could be off-putting, as who can really master something. Yet this adage is inspiring and imparts a desire to not fudge a melody etc. My song was and still is, Nuages, a slow and beauriful ballad by Django with hints of Debussy in this melody. Yaakov lead me slowly through this in one zoom lesson. Incidentally, zoom lessons have advantages over in person sessions, especially for the group lessons. The participants can put themselves on mute and practice the material without interrupting the teacher or other students.

I was fortunate enough to have taken a week-long workshop with Michael and Yaakov at a beautiful setting in Tuscany earlier this year. We were at an agriturismo not far from Montepulciano, a favortie town of mine with incredibly beautiful landscapes. Our group of eight other guitarists from Europe and the States met for several hours each day and often worked in pairs or trios. We'd go over new material and then perform for a review. It was similar to critique sessions for an art class. The experience was invaluable as it offered to-the-point appraisals. There is no sugar coating here but an honest reflection. There is a similarity here to artists using a mirror to get a fresh look at their paintings. The reversed image shows the work to us afresh- often revealing surpising insights- things awry, out of balance etc.

Above- Our combo, Zingology at a wedding gig at Stewart Park in Ithaca.

To learn more about our band visit our website. You'll find audio tracks, Videos from our recording session, interviews with each band member, along with news of upcoming gigs.

There is so much to learn- and Yaakov's online courses offer an amazing abundance of material. The music is largely that of Django Reinhardt and jazz tunes from the thirties and forties which I love. As a former band mate used to say, we play music from the depression era to make you feel good. These are tunes that my parents played and listened to. The unfolding of music theory is part of the mix here too, which I've had very little of, even classical exercises are all part of the process.

If I could encapsulate the diffence between Yaakov's approach to other Gypsy Jazz guitar teachers, it would be to say his teaching is far more fundamental and far-reaching. Learning songs, intros, licks and arpeggios is all good- but learning the how and why behind it is more important. In other words, I think this teaching allows one to understand the music on a much deeper level and then it also offers the possibility of using the concepts creatively. For example, the idea of motifs had never been encountered before. This idea and Yaakov's articulation with many demonsrtrations open up entire new creative landscapes of music. He also shows us how to practice. Speaking of practice, I once told Michael in a private that I was practicing a lot. He advised that practice is good, but we need to be practicing correctly. That is why and how their review through a Facebook page offers help in steering us in the right direction. People bandy about the 10,000 hours idea - but now we understand that our hours need to be directed properly. Good coaches are invaluable. Such a gift.

Above- Zingology at a recent gig in Brooktondale, NY.

I've had my own gypsy swing band, Zingology, for about 10 years- and so I can apply these lessons or try to. One of the key things is ear training and working within the ensemble. Yaakov has a ratio to maximize learning, which is something like; 1/4 instruction, 1/4 practice, 1/4 learning and 1/4 performing with others. With art, it is usually a solitary experience except when doing a portrait, or figure painting, which then requires collaboration. So acually playing the music brings the training to fruition. Usually, in jams and classes we all have the goal of making the stuff work. The communication, listening, appreciating and creativity are all very challenging and rewarding. In our last performance, the band was really cooking. Our drummer, Greg in particular really shined with some amazing solos- that made his persussive instrument really sing and dance with exhilarating creativity. I am equally wowed by our other band members. Sitting next to them while they sing, improvise, trade fours, and so forth is truly exhilarting. I am fortunate and blessed to have bandmates that are all amazing musicians (and great people too) and much more accomplished than myself. A guitar teacher at the Django in June camp said that if you find yourself to be the best musician in a group- leave. I've never had that problem.

Playing a gig at the Farmers Market in Ithaca a few years back.

To learn more about Yaakov Hotter and his teaching, go to this link-

Above- Guitarist as an inspiration- This large pastel of an Italian classical guitarist was done back in 1990. It depicts the interior of a Indian restaurant, "Boostan" that used to be on McDougal Street in Greenwich Village- NYC. This pastel is in a private colleciton in Scranton, PA.

Above- In the theme of musicians in interiors, this work, in oil from several years ago shows a group of Old Timey musicians, The Better Weather String Band, playing in a cafe in Trumansburg, NY. Visual harmony of color and shapes along with intervals of space are both relevant in music and painting. The original oil paintingl is in the private collection of Laura Taylor and Scott Nissenson of Ithaca, NY.

To view a video of ZIngology playing, The Man I Love- sung by Joanna Green. Visit-

Zingology - amongst the paintings- playing for the Winter Solstice at the North Star Fine Art Gallery in Ithaca, NY.

Listen to Wayne Gottlieb (one of Zingology's guitarist shown here on the left) sing the beautiful tune- I'll See You In My Dreams from our recent recording here.

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