Performance Tips For Classical Guitarists

Steve Rapson’s Guitar Performance Workshop

Presented to The Boston Classical Guitar Society

How to Play Your Best Under Pressure

based on Steve’s book The Art of the Soloperfomer: A Field Guide To Stage & Podium

www.soloperformer.com   www.steverapson.com


I. Prepare your material and prepare yourself

  •  The cure for performance anxiety is practice.
  • It takes more than we think to bring a guitar solo to concert readiness.
  • Segovia practiced two and half hours in the morning and two and a half hours in the afternoon.
  • Parkening said, “Perfection should be your goal, and dedicated work is required to achieve perfection.” “Work is better than talent.”
  • Even the simplest guitar pieces, when played perfectly, are concert worthy material. As Segovia demonstrated in one of his last concerts in Boston.

How to practice. After scales, right and left and drills, there is repertoire:

  • Choose a piece that you love and is well within your technical ability. Great players make it look easy. That is because it is easy for them. When it is easy for you, you look and sound like a great player. Be like Napoleon, who attributed his military victories to always having reserves ready to pick up the slack when the going got tough. If you want to play sixteenth notes at one hundred and twenty BPM in concert, then you must have the skill to play them at one hundred and fifty BPM in the practice room.
  • Practice the trouble spots rather than the whole piece. Use the add one technique: Play a note, add another, keep adding until you hit a rough patch. That’s where to stop and go over it until you have it. Then add the next note.
  • Get off the page. Memorize the pieces you will perform.
  • Use a metronome. Go slowly and gradually increase tempo over several days. Keep a written record of your tempo progress. Mozart said, “ Slow practice makes for fast playing.”  Practice slower than you can actually play.
  • If it feels fast to you, then you are playing too fast. Every virtuoso speed demon says the same thing about speed, “It doesn’t feel fast to me when I am playing.” They also say, “The faster I want to play, the more relaxed I have to be.” If you feel tension in your forearm, hands and fingers, slow down till it goes away.
  • Write the date next to each measure as you memorize and master it.
  • Live Fire Drills – Practice as you will perform. Your performance chair and footstool need to be the same as your practice chair & stool.

II. Just before your performance – Prepare your mind & body

  • Find a quiet place to breathe in and out slowly, three times. Meditate on your purpose and see yourself playing the piece. This one exercise will solve most performance anxiety problems, especially if your preparation in the weeks & months before was disciplined.

During your performance – Act as if…

  • Arrive at the stage in tune and ready to play. Watching a performer struggle with music stands, music, and tuning is never entertaining.
  • Avoid caveats about your concerns on whether you will play well. No audience likes this, even your friends and peers will be uncomfortable with this behavior.
  • Avoid mistake face, apologies, starting over. These are all performance killers. Nobody in the audience is thinking or listening that critically. They want you to succeed, and if you act as if you are succeeding, then you will. Everybody wins when you behave professionally on stage.

III. Stage Mechanics

  • How to Enter – Walk In, Sit, Arrange yourself, Look up, Smile, Name your piece, Play. Ideally this should take less than a minute.
  • Beginning – This is how to immediately connect without speaking: Look at the people… right at them. Smile. If you seem relaxed and confident, the audience will be relaxed too. It’s how you want them to be… and it’s how they want to be.
  • Middle – Be immersed in the material. If your practice was sufficient, then the mechanics of where to place your hands will not be in the forefront of your thoughts. You can feel, rather than think. By letting the music lead you through the piece, you will experience the emotionality that drew you to it in the first place, and the audience will be drawn in with you. It is inevitable that minor mistakes will creep in. No one will notice this but you. If you make mistake face, apologize, stop and start over, you diminish the experience for yourself and your audience. Never do this. Even if you totally lose it, stay in performance mode and continue. All performing is about and for the audience. Your mission is to bring the music to them and be transparent to the music. It is not about you, and the more you disappear, the more the music appears to the audience.
  • End – Acknowledge the audience and exit. As the last note dies away, the audience will applaud. Stand up, acknowledge the applause via a slight bow (or a stage bow, what ever you are comfortable with) say thank you, and exit. Do not talk, other than thank-you, although your bow is your visual thanks. They cannot hear you if you talk while they are applauding. If you wait till the applause stops to speak, then you have stayed too long. If you have something that must be said before you leave, then the time to say it is before your last piece.
  • Post concert etiquette – People will tell you how well you played. Your response to these compliments is, “Thank you.” Avoid launching into a self-deprecating summary of why you were not happy with your performance. It is tedious. You don’t like it when others do it. No one likes it if you do it.

Further Reading

Reading is for inspiration to practice with dedication and discipline, it does nothing to improve your playing or your stage craft.

In addition to The Art of the SoloPerformer, I recommend:

Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music by Glenn Kurtz

Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo

A Soprano On Her Head by Eloise Ristad

Effortless Mastery by Kenny Barron

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You: The Perfect Vehicle

The Next Level: You, A Perfect Vehicle for the song, the poem, the story.

 Self-consciousness, self-doubt, hesitation, and fear of rejection are common feelings for beginning performers. Many experienced professionals are members-in-good-standing of this highly inclusive club. Often, pros are not anxious but bored doing what they have done a thousand times before. Both situations look the same to an audience: a performer who is emotionally absent and going through the motions. This is called “phoning it in.”

If we wish to connect with the audience at a deeper level, we cannot let our anxiety or our boredom show. It’s best to get rid of them, but if you can’t, then learn to pretend. Fake it till you make it as they say in some circles.

First, you need great material. This is a non-negotiable requirement and the genesis of connection. When you write you are mining for gold. No performer succeeds without the bullion of great material, either theirs or someone else’s.

Then you commit everything you have to that great material. Your commitment gives it life: the song needs the singer, the words need the speaker.

Your goal is to be transparent to the material and connect with the people via that material in spite of your concerns that you might not, or that you are sick of being on the road. You can do this by playing a trick on that part of your mind that harbors all doubts. The trick is to come to believe that:

I am not the song (the words), and the song is not me. The song is bigger than I, but it must come through me to live. I will be still to not distract attention from the song as it emerges.

 The “I” that is being still is the part of your mind that wants to critique how you are doing as you do it. Or critique how the audience is receiving. It is the voice that says you just sang a bad note, or you are sweating too much, or you should not have worn these tight red pants, or you should have picked something else to perform. Your inner “I” wants you to pay attention to the group talking in the back of the room, to the noisy A/C that just came on, to how you can get your parking stub validated, to any random thought.

You, the vehicle, must focus and commit to the material.

If you come to believe that it is not you but the material that is being put out there, and you have faith in the material, then you will be at your best. It is the same power given to all who engage in selfless acts: heroic men in war or mothers protecting their children. To men and woman who feel they are serving something greater than themselves is given the power to overcome obstacles they thought they could not deal with in common hours.

You will have the power to ignore the internal voice that distracts you from your purpose: To be a perfect vehicle for the material.

Ideally, as you perform, you are surrounded by the material. The emotion and meaning of the words you speak or sing fill every part of your mind and body and come out of you like you mean it. All great performers do this. It is why we go to see them. It is what you can do, and must do if you want people to come see you.

How do you achieve this mind set? Practice thinking it and doing it. You could meditate on the “I am not the song…” mantra for a few minutes each day. You could try serving others in uncommon ways, thus avoiding constant thinking about yourself. Maxwell Maltz’s famous book Psychocybernetics puts forth the idea that whatever you think about regularly will manifest itself in your life. There is some modern empirical evidence to support this. And there are centuries of philosophy and religious tenets that have no doubt this is the case.

Just as your instrument and your voice need physical practice, your mind needs to practice what it will and will not do. You are not evicting your internal critic, just getting him to take a nap so you can do your show in peace. He may return after your encore, but too late to sabotage another show.

How to practice? Try focus: Pick your best song, speech or poem and polish your performance until you have never done it better. Make it your show opener. Then focus on your next best piece and make it your show closer. With a great beginning and a great ending the middle will take care of itself.

I practice the same material until it is automatic. I use performance checkpoints and prepare for them as they approach, visualizing where my fingers will be and how my throat and body will feel at those key points. My mind is occupied with the material and little else. My body takes pleasure in executing that which it has done many times before. Since my mind is minimally involved with the mechanics of execution, I am able to let my emotions be led along by the words and sounds. I practice having those feelings so that when it is time to deliver and be a perfect vehicle, I am at my best.

Whether it is great or not is for the audience to decide. But at least I have had a happier time performing than if I was listening to my internal critic yammering on.

That’s how I do it. And written out like that it does seem like a ponderous way to do a simple thing. It’s like describing how we breathe: so many words for a natural process. As we work on our act we sometimes forget how to breathe and in the forgetting need to re-learn at length until, at last, we say, “Oh, is that all?”

This is advanced work. I am not talking about beginner’s stage fright, or simple anxiety from lack of practice. If you have been on a plateau for a while even with good material, good audiences, and a polished presentation, then the next level for you is focus and emotional commitment.

In your quest to be a perfect vehicle for the material, remember that perfection is the enemy of the good. ____________________________________________________

Steve Rapson is the author of The Art of the Soloperformer:  A Field Guide to Stage and Podium

A Week With The Grandchildren

As all working parents know, Day Care professionals need a vacation, too. A paid vacation.  So every year, for one week—often two—plus some obscure holidays, working parents must scuffle for alternative child care.

Lucky ones have fully functioning parents within a reasonable drive. Rosemary and Steve: Grandparents to the rescue.

We’ve done it all before. And we did it when we were young, poor, and mostly ignorant about how to do it. How hard could this be?

So each morning at 8:00 AM, Savannah, four years old, and Jackson, twenty-two months old, are deposited at our door step. Rosemary, an early riser, greets them as all loving Nanas do:  smiles and cheery hellos.  Steve, aka Papa, usually still lounging in bed, is roused by happy screeches and the occasional non-specific whine. A whine like no other.  It is very like an ice pick in the ear. A most effective alarm.

Nana offers breakfast and sincere queries to the whiner as to specifics of the problem.

Savannah & Jackson with Jenna & Jordan

Savannah & Jackson with Jenna & Jordan

“Do you want juice?….  Eggs…?  Toast…? Milk…?”

Each answered with a scurrilous, shrieked, “No!”

I have since been reminded that the first two words a toddler learns are, No! and Mine! They serve as a catch-all answer for any question. They even say no when they mean yes.

For the last twenty or so years I have been sheltered from conversations that have no logic and are unfettered by even the most rudimentary social skills. Our brains are pattern recognition machines. There is no pattern to this noise.

I get up, put on my robe and escape to the bathroom. I muster a happy face and greet the urchins as I pass by. They are happy to see me for five seconds, after which I become an obstacle to their free-range behavior. Every toy is out of the box and under foot in less than a minute. Every toy’s ownership is loudly re-negotiated. I threaten to throw away any small plastic part that my bare feet find.

I lock the bathroom door because whatever I am doing in there is infinitely more interesting than anything going on elsewhere. Jackson is the strongest two year old I remember meeting. He could pop the hook and eye off the bi-fold doors easily if I didn’t put a hand on them as I brush my teeth. I actually think he should join me in there now and then, in the hope that the learn by watching thing that humans are so good at will get him out of diapers sooner.

Dirty diapers. That’s where the women are separated from the men. A grandmother will joyfully ask the little guy if he, “…has poopies in his diaper?”

Whatever the situation, Jackson says, “No!”

Whereupon, Nana grabs him for closer inspection which may involve eye and/or nose verification. Really!  Pick up the kid, turn him around and stick one’s nose in the general area.  Only mothers and grandmothers are capable.

In my own defense I must tell you that Mrs. Rapson cannot pick up vomit of any kind, or animal accidents, without adding to the mess herself. That’s been my job, manfully accepted, for the duration.  But poopies in the diaper, no problem.

The strategy for the next nine hours is to keep them busy. Rosemary has several techniques.  Put them in the car and take them shopping.  The main benefit being they are restrained in their respective seats.

We also take them on little hikes. Bike paths, woodsy trails, keep them doggies moving. They can walk for about a mile. Any more than that and Jackson sits down. Savannah is more of a trooper, wearing the grandparents out if we let her.  If a playground is nearby, a half hour there is good.

Then home for lunch. Jackson is worn out by then, but still objects lustily at the prospect of a nap. He runs to a protected space behind the furniture, falls to the floor in true operatic high drama fashion. Where do they learn that? He wails as if his leg were being sawed off. We have discovered that if Papa picks him up and puts him in the crib, he objects less and I am a hero for a few minutes.

While Jackson naps, Nana and Savannah have some quality time in the pond. Papa listens to the silence, now appreciated so much more since its absence.

Lather, rinse, repeat. For five days.

The German philosopher, Schopenhauer, famously said, “I have long held the opinion that the amount of noise that anyone can bear undisturbed stands in inverse proportion to his mental capacity and may therefore be regarded as a pretty fair measure of it.”

I take this as evidence that one becomes wiser with age. I remember the noise my own two children generated. I survived it for nearly twenty years.

But now, Gentle Reader, after five days I am barely able to think. Each cacophonous outburst jangles my inner peace. There is no escape. Like the cat that knows you are disturbed by her attentions, the children seek me out wherever I might hide. I love them dearly. But is not the most perfect love experienced from afar?

So today as they set off for home at the end of their week with Nana and Papa it was with true happiness that I hugged them goodbye.  Post ice cream kissing being generally a messy affair.

Hello, darkness, my old friend.

_____________________________

Steve Rapson is a concert guitarist, songwriter, and author of The Art of the SoloPerformer: A Field Guide To Stage & PodiumHe has released several CD’s of his guitar playing and songwriting.

Stage Craft for the Writer In You

In the world of live performance our opinions as artists do not matter. What our critics, supporters, and mentors think of us also is not important. Only the audience in front of us matters. Are we connecting with them or are we not? Do they want more of what we offer or not? Do they want to buy what we have to sell?

Manet

Manet

Rejection and Recognition

Writers and poets, sculptors and painters have dealt this for centuries. The impressionist painter Manet responded to a critic who said, “Surely he is painting for his own amusement,” by saying, “Of course my painting amuses me, why else would I do it?”

Moby dickWriter Herman Melville died unhailed, a pauper. He published Moby Dick himself, unable to interest any publishing house.  Melville’s fame was largely posthumous. We can only hope that our recognition is not similarly so.

Mary square

Mary Gauthier

Perhaps you know of singer songwriter Mary Gauthier. I saw Mary’s first open mike performance at Club Passim, it is how I met her. Her success is directly attributable to desire, courage, discipline, and talent. In that order. Although few people thought much of her in the beginning, I saw her artist’s soul. Because she allowed it to be seen. It is what makes her a compelling performer. Mary views herself as a writer. She is a performer because she is the vehicle for her material. Initially, it was hard for her to be so exposed and out of control. Later she learned to welcome that feeling as an indicator that she was on the right track.

Writing vs Performing

When we write, what we think is all that matters. When we sing, or speak, we give the song/poem/story away. A song needs a singer and it needs a listener. By singing your song for others you make them collaborators in the communication: It then becomes important what the audience thinks. We may not want this to be the case, but it is nonetheless.

My response to knowing that it is important what the audience thinks of me, is to be afraid that they will think ill. My sensitive soul avoids judgment and rejection, so I erect barriers that protect it. Fear, doubt, and insecurity are the norm for a performing artist.

Successful performers learn to remove barriers while performing. Often, barriers assume their normal place upon exiting the stage. Have you ever met a performer whose off stage persona is different than on stage? I am not recommending this. I recommend you be who you are, perhaps with the volume turned up a bit. But better that you learn to succeed on stage and get paid. Then you can afford professional help to deal with the other 23 hours.

As I say in the opening of my book, “If it was easy anyone could do it.”Soloperformer book square

I recommend you buy a copy of my book www.soloperformer.com and read it. Try to apply the ideas and suggested actions to your own act. When I speak to performers I tell them that when I do everything in my book I succeed. My friend Sam Bayer www.sambayer.com told me, “Rapson, I agree with everything you say to do, I just don’t want to do all that work.”

I Practice What I Preach

Guitar Group 2

Steve Sans Guitar

I opened for Kevin So a few years ago at Club Passim. I wanted to do a good job so I worked harder than I usually do on my 30 minutes. I had another gig in New Hampshire later in the week. I thought I should not squander all my preparation for Kevin’s opener, so I resolved to do everything in my book that I advise others to do. This involved even more intensive preparation, pre-show work when I arrived at the gig, and all the mental and physical work I recommend. If you do read my book, at each juncture you may ask yourself, I wonder if Steve did that?  The answer is yes, I did 100% of what I suggest others do. Sam is right; it is a ton of work.

So how did it go? I killed. It was the end of January in New Hampshire. Outside it was below zero. Inside there were about a hundred people in the room (free concerts sponsored by the town library).  Taking my own advice worked.

I advise artists “find whatever you are most afraid of, and go there.” That it is where the good material is. Do it in your writing and in your performing.

So what am I most afraid of? I am afraid of being on stage without my guitar. I am a solo guitarist. My act is built on my guitar playing.

At the last minute I thought that since I am so afraid of standing in front of a crowd with no guitar to hide behind, that I should do that. So I started my act with a poem I had written, standing naked, sans guitar.

And, Lo! It worked. I had faith in my material and went where I was afraid to go. I set myself on fire as Don White suggests.  www.donwhite.net

After the show I spent a half hour signing CD’s and chatting with the people. I sold to 30% of the room. The girl selling my CD’s in the back lectured me that I would have sold many more if I had not run out of the popular titles. This does not happen all the time. But it never happens unless I do the work required. And even then sometimes not. But it happens enough for me to do it whenever I perform. I swing for average and take the home runs as occasional blessings.

Prepare To Be Your Best

A performer once wrote me:

   I have a sensibility that forbids me from exploiting affectation to manipulate less sensitive listeners. I hope, paradoxically, that this is one of my strengths as an artist.

Many performers say similar things to me during coaching sessions.

However, being honest and open, being vulnerable and emotionally accessible is not an affectation. Further, our audience is sensitive, and smart. They know when they are getting the good stuff and when they are not. Affected is the last thing you want to be.

Here is the big secret: How do you feel when you are relaxed and comfortable with people you care about and who you know care about you? How do you behave in that environment? Summon that feeling for the stage and let your feelings guide your actions.

It is work to be yourself on stage. When you are comfortable being yourself, the next level is to be yourself at your best: you with the volume turned up. Good material, thoroughly prepared is a given. Once you have the material, you must hone your presentation of it. This includes your feelings and the behaviors, however subtle, they engender.

It is the misperception of the amateur that anything that is not spontaneous and unplanned is phony and exploitive.

This is not easy, and most of the people I have coached have been unable to do it. My coaching strategy is usually reductive, not additive, i.e. stop doing that, move less, say less, or in extreme cases, say nothing.

If I can do it, most can do it. The ability to do it is different from the discipline and the courage to do it.

The singer is the vehicle for the song. If you believe in your song, your story, your poem, then your mission is to be the kind of performer that brings it to a wider audience. When your actions are about the mission and not about you, then you can be free of any restraints you put on yourself.

What Success Looks Like

My friend Bill Fitzpatrick of www.success.org, says to be successful, copy those who are successful. So here are some recommended performers to watch: HBO’s Def Poets; The Vagina Monologues; Rickie Lee Jones Live at the Wiltern Theatre; Stop Making Sense (a movie of the Talking Heads Live show); Say Amen, Somebody;sayamensomebody Richard Pryor Live In Concert (also Richard Pryor Live on Sunset Strip); Jerry Seinfeld’s movie: Comedian; Margaret Cho Live – Notorious Cho (not for delicate sensibilities); and anything with the Dali Lama speaking to an audience.  And I am sure you have several examples of your own that have inspired you.

Most of these are available at Amazon on DVD. Each performance exemplifies what I am talking about in bringing one’s whole self to the stage: great material, top notch performance, and an emotional accessibility that cannot be faked or affected.

All those things are there because the performers have learned that this is what it takes to succeed, even if they feel uncomfortable being so accessible (as in the case of RLJ, where her discomfort shows in the beginning). Eventually it feels good. I think you will be exhilarated, inspired, and humbled by these examples of performance art at the highest level.

I am a fan of humility, for it is the soil where we grow best.

_______________________________________________

Steve Rapson is a song writer, concert guitarist, and author of  The Art of The Soloperformer: A Field Guide to Stage and Podium.

www.soloperformer.com

At The R.M.V

   Perhaps you are old enough to remember the horror that was Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles in days gone by: The confusion, the fear of standing in the wrong line, did you bring the right piece of paper? which kind of payment would be acceptable for what document? None of which would be revealed until, after forty minutes, you reached the front of a line and came face to face with The Dragon Lady.

    I am happy to report all that is history.  Yes, there are still lines; but they are fun lines.

    The day before our anniversary I had presented my license as ID at the bank. The nice bank officer lady said, “Your license expired three months ago, do you have another form of ID?”

    I never look at my license, it has the awful picture that ruins my carefully manufactured self-image. It’s a good thing I drive like an old guy. I haven’t been asked for my license and registration in twenty years.

    So, next day, June 20th, our anniversary celebration began with a trip to the RMV in Leominster.

    It’s 11:00AM and ninety degrees. Arriving at the entrance we see…

    The Line. It’s out the door which is being held open letting the A/C cool the parking lot. This is the line you first stand in. The RMV person asks why you are here and makes sure you have the forms, the right payment, gives you a number, and sends you to the bleachers.

    People who come in another door walk along the line looking for the end, “Are you in line?” they ask, hoping we are not. A little old lady stands behind us, it being our turn to let the A/C out. She says, “They keep trying to get rid of me, but I keep coming back,” referring to the RMV tests for senior drivers.

Pay Attention

Pay Attention

    There’s a big yellow sign stating how you may pay for what RMV product. I get nervous and ask Rosemary if she has enough cash tucked away.

    “Oh, yes, always,” says Rosemary. I actually know this. She has uncounted treasure folded tightly and hidden throughout her wallet. Rosemary and her sisters call these “tuckies.”  Once twenties or fifties are folded many times and turned into a tuckie, they become play money facilitating spontaneous trips to Foxwoods Casino for guilt free pissing away of our, formerly, real money.

    The man in front of us agrees with Rosemary.

    “My dad always said to have some cash tucked away. When he died my sister and I found $21,000 in a box in the cellar.”

    “Wow!” exclaims the mildly envious Rosemary.

    “Yes, it took us a while to find it; we split it right there,” said the man.

    I turn to Rosemary and ask, “Do you have any serious money stashed somewhere?”

    At first she says no, but then remembers, “Oh, I do have an envelope with money from my Dad.  Now where did I put that…?”

    “Really?” I said.

    The man piped up, “Yeah, I have a sock in the garage stuffed with cash.”

    “Oh…?” I said, “Where do you live?”  Where upon he begins to tell me in detail, then gets the gag.  As I said, it’s fun in line at the RMV.

    The line moves right along and we reach the intake lady. I hand her my completed  renewal form, she hands me number B146.  There are eight clerks working, and they are “Now Serving B105.”  Yikes!  And that does not count the A’s, the F’s, and the C’s.

    Time for people watching: Another fun thing to do at the RMV.

    The rest rooms are around the corner. Both are occupied. Through a glass door I see more rest rooms in a private business section of the building. There is a big sign above this door: NO ENTRANCE! EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY! ALARM WILL SOUND!  Since I am having a private emergency, I open the door. No alarm sounds. And this new restroom is lovely. Later I see a line forming at the RMV rest rooms. So I helpfully inform people that if they just push this door open…

    “Oh no!” says a lady, “I’m afraid to do that.” I demonstrate and leave. My work here is done.

     An hour has passed and our number is approaching. But, it is lunchtime and eight clerks are reduced to four clerks. There is a collective moan around me as all realize the slowdown. You might want to avoid the registry at lunchtime. Oh, you work and lunchtime is when you can get there?

    Is see a passport sitting on a table in the back. Opening it, I see it belongs to a young man from Dominica. Leaving the passport, I wander around the building looking for likely candidates. I see one and approach in as non-threatening way as I can, “Hello, did you leave a passport on the table over there.”  At first he looks panicked, than scampers over to retrieve the important document. An older brother (I presume) smiles at me and says, “Thanks… Oy! What to do with that guy!”  I feel like Superman, wandering the earth doing good deeds.

    With the slow down in people being called, I observe how we all deal with the wait. It seems that I am the only one not staring at, a) “now serving” numbers displayed on screens or, b) a smart phone. A section of benches looks like group prayer as all heads are bent to their phones.Registry 2

    All types come together at the RMV. It’s as good as the airport for people watching. I observe those who, once called, are served quickly at the counter. We like them.  Also we have…

    He of the thorny problem and the long explanation. Taking up time, our time, at one of the four clerks still open. What in the world could he be talking about?

    Hacking cough guy. He has extra space around him.

    Close-to-shirtless body builder guy, Pecs, nipples, and biceps on display.

    Lady with screaming child. No random gathering of humans is complete without one. I smile as the carriage is pushed off to distant parts of the building, imaging a retreating Doppler effect.

    Mother with bevy of young children.  Rosemary, being the sweet girl she is, bonds with all of them, admiring in turn their dolls, drawings, and new hair cut.

    Exasperated-with-wait-time guy. He sighs dramatically as each number, not his, is called.

    Dressed-to-kill girl. Oh, so cute. I imagine she must have someone important to impress after the RMV. Surely she didn’t do that for all of us.

    Now, mother of three young children is losing control of them. She counts to three after each cease and desist command, which is ignored by the now manic urchins. Tears and tantrums are about to launch when the day is saved by…

    Toy wielding lady. The toy is a little top which the lady spins to the floor. All are promptly mesmerized.  Me included. The kids sit cross legged in a circle as the top spins. The kindness of strangers, I think. I have to get me one of those.

    Finally, our number is called and zip, zip, eye test, take a picture (no better than the last) $60 on the credit card, and we are on our way after a pleasant conversation with the nice RMV clerk.

    “I suppose I am not the first to let my license expire.”

    “Certainly not,” she says, “and you won’t be the last.”

    Out in the scorching parking lot, exasperated-wait-time guy walks by us, “Well, that was hell,” he says. Not so, I think. Yes, it was ninety minutes. But we had fun. Never would I have imagined future fun at the RMV when facing The Dragon Lady so many years ago.Man of Steel Ticket

    Our anniversary has gone well so far. We drive back to Gardner for lunch at an Asian bistro in the Tympany Mall and then several doors down to the movies.  Man of Steel is our choice. It’s pretty good.

Gardner news 2

We Made The Front Page

    Exiting the movie theater I see a pond has appeared in the parking lot. To my left is a fountain of water billowing up from below the lot. And our 2009 Prius is not where we parked it.

    A broken water main has flooded the lot. We have parked our car in the lowest point of the lot.  It is flooded over the doors, filling the cabin up to the pedals. Our electric battery driven car, filled with water.  I know instantly that the car is dead. Confirmed by the dealer the next day.

    Happy Anniversary!

    The police are sympathetic, the tow driver is sympathetic, the newspaper reporter is sorry, too. If sympathy were legal tender, we’d be rolling in it.

    The car is towed. We call a cab. Go home. Discover we are not insured for this peril. My agent says, “How could I let you buy a car and not buy comprehensive?”  I take responsibility. Not his fault. Anyway, we’ll sue. That is until my lawyer tells me these things are Acts of God and no one is at fault, thus no one to sue.

0620131742a

The police help out

    How to deal with this?  As my friend, Tom Smith, says in his song, “…Recalculating, decide what’s important, turn left, and move on.”

    So we bought a 2013 Prius Plug-In with all the trimmings, and all the required insurance. And are grateful we were able to do so.

    And that, Dear Reader, is how we spent our 43rd wedding anniversary. Memories are made of these.

Steve & Rosemary Build a Deck

 In 1985 Rosemary and I bought a condo in Boston’s historic South End. It was small, 506 square feet. We bought it as an investment, as we couldn’t afford to live there at the time. But if we ever did live there, I was determined that the first thing I would do to improve the place is build a deck off the bedroom. A little outside space in the city. A quiet, private refuge in the air.  Ahhh…

Entrance to 75 Appleton Street

Entrance to 75 Appleton Street

Twenty years later, in 2005, we were able to move into our little pied á terre. Rosemary walked to work at the Prudential. I cleaned and cooked and shopped. May I say that being a kept man was a long time dream come true. I highly recommend it.

But still, we were bumping into each other in the little hall. So began the travails of building a little outdoor retreat in an historic district of an historic city.

My first efforts of asking around the neighborhood were squelched by all who opined: You’ll never get a permit…;  you need an engineer, if you can find one who will take a little job, and they cost a fortune…; the neighbors will object…;  you can’t put poles in my yard… (spoken by the owner of the garden unit in our building);  these old brick walls won’t support it… (if one can’t have poles in the yard, then a cantilever design is required).

Thus unencouraged and forewarned of the obstacles, I back burnered the idea. But a couple of years later I found a flyer on a neighbor’s door step advertising a company, one man, actually: John Carter, who built fire escapes and iron decks in the South End. What could hurt?  I called, he showed up, took a look and named a price: $5,000 for a nice little deck off my bedroom.

“You’ll have to get a carpenter to turn that window into a door,” Mr. Carter said, “Probably cost you another two grand.”  Really? I thought, I can have a deck for less than ten thousand dollars?

 “How long do you think this will take?” I asked.

“Once you get the permit, a few weeks at most,” he said.  “I can build the iron at my shop anytime.”

Now, mightily encouraged by Mr. Carter’s show of competence and confidence, I gave him a check for $2,500 and told him to begin at once.

And so begins the saga of building my deck.  It went like this…

 1. Find a contractor.  As I said, John Carter came by way of a soggy flyer on a doorstep.

Much later we found we needed two:  the iron guy, John Carter, and the everything else guy, a Mr. Warren Gilman of City State Construction. Mr. Carter brought Mr. Gilman in when he found the job was bigger than anticipated.  No surprise there.  I got estimates.  But even I know that estimates are, well, only estimates.

Depending on who you get contractor-wise (some do more than others), the home owner may have to do much leg work. And I did; occasionally having my hand held by local contractor and friend Bill Thibodeau.

The City of Boston’s Inspectional Services Department is kinder and gentler to the homeowner than to the contractor, thus my personal involvement in the machinations of the permitting and appeals process.

 2. Get engineering drawings.  Wait.

John Carter recommended the architect/engineer who did the design engineering and drawings. And, as mentioned, he also brought in Mr. Gilman. These two men were worth all the delays and foot dragging and excuses Mr. Carter put me through for nearly two years. He’s a nice man, but I feared his talk was far better than his walk.

Nearly a year went by after I gave Mr. Carter that $2,500 deposit. Whenever John hit a problem, such as when he went to Boston’s Inspectional Services at 1010 Mass Ave to get a permit and they told him my address was wrong and my condo was a house, not a condo, he stopped working for me. He didn’t tell me about this. He just stopped doing anything.

In the process he changed his phone number. I found this out by calling for an update and getting the number you have reached is no longer in service message. Oh, No! I have been snookered!  But, no, he had just gotten busy with other, easier, things.

It took me a while to find John’s new number via the engineer with whom he had an ongoing business relationship. I called him prepared for a fight. But he was nonplussed, and said he couldn’t proceed because of the not-a-condo issue. It’s a typical contractor mindset that obstacles to progress are your problem, not theirs, even if they have your money. Communication is not their strong suit.

I went to 1010 Mass. Ave to find out why my condo was not a condo. A nice permit intake person clacked away on her keyboard for a while and found out what the SNAFU had been. She said that someone in her office had not done their job properly when John Carter had first shown up. I blessed her for the help. Progress!

3. Obtain Landmark Commission approval.  Wait.

My condo is in an historic district of Boston, the South End: formerly a collection of brick row rooming houses for the working class. It has evolved into one of Boston’s most desirable neighborhoods to live and work. Before applying for a permit, a special approval is required for all work on these buildings from the Boston Landmarks Commission. However if your plans show that your modifications are not visible from the street, then approval is quick and easy. And that was the last thing that was easy.

4. With Landmark approval in hand, I submit construction drawings, along with pictures of the back of house, application, and permit fee.  Wait.

5. My request for a permit is denied.

After a few weeks I got a notice in the mail with the “Denied” box checked off in a form letter. South End zoning does not allow a deck above the first floor. Who knew?  You would think that someone somewhere along the way would have told me that.

6. Go back to 1010 Mass Ave and file an appeal. Pay another fee.  Wait.

Eventually, the appeals board sent a form letter asking me to provide a rationale as to why they should grant a variance. They even gave suggestions as to what constitutes valid reasons for said variance:  Quality of life issues: Outside space required even for those unfortunate enough to live above the first floor, many other people have decks, etc.

7. Prepare for the appeal. 

I asked my fellow condo owners and neighbors up and down the street to submit a letter saying they have no objection to my building a deck. I did all the work by delivering to each of them a big package containing:

Back of house with deck sketched in

a. The engineering drawings.

b. The picture of the back of the house.

c. Pictures of other decks on buildings adjacent.

d. A form letter that says they support (or at least do not object) to me building a deck.

e. I wrote a personal letter, after finding all my neighbor’s names, appealing for their support.

I spoke personally with everyone I could, asking if they would attend to this letter and send me a copy.  I included two stamped and addressed envelopes in the package:  one for City Hall, and one to send a copy to me so I could bring a big pile of support papers to City Hall.  Mr. Carter, bless his helpful heart, said the bigger pile of paper you can supply in support of your appeal, the better.  City Hall likes piles of paper.

I distributed twenty-five of these packages in my neighborhood.  I got three or four back.  Even the people who told me face to face that they would support the building of a deck did not bother to reply. I guess we’re all busy… but, geez!  However, I got enough to work with.  Most importantly, nobody voiced an objection.

8. Mail the appeal form, rationale, copies of support letters, pictures, and drawings to the appeals board at City Hall.  Wait.

9. After a few weeks, I got a notice in the mail telling the time and date to show up at City Hall for the appeal hearing.  Wait.

It is quite a scene. I, and dozens of others, wait our turn as a group of engineers, building inspectors, and political appointees sit on a raised dais before the assembled supplicants. There’s yelling, tears, and gavel pounding as those who object to whatever is being appealed shout out their concerns, as well as moans from those who have been denied. Some of the people have lawyers, engineers and contractors with them. I went by myself.

I am called up in my turn and sit, humbly, before this group that holds the fate of my little deck in their collective mitts. As I take my seat, two people I have never seen before stand up from somewhere in the crowd and declare that they have no objection to my appeal and wish the board to support it. I found out later that these folks are from the mayor’s office and the city council office from my district. Part of the appeal includes a requirement that elected officials approve the appeal. So they send these people to expedite that process. All very political. And one of the few times expedition was in evidence. I think it helps if you are a regular voter.

The engineers looked over my drawings and asked a couple of easy questions. One engineer complimented me on the drawings saying this is how these decks should be done. Well, OK!  They approved me, and said good luck with my deck. It took three minutes.

10. Finally!  A permit. Construction can begin.  Ahh, no… sorry, not just yet.  Wait.

11. Go back to 1010 Mass Ave with my approval from the appeals board and apply, again, for a permit… and pay a fee.   Wait.

12. The appeals board (or Inspectional Services, I can’t quite recall) now sends a letter to all my neighbors.  Wait.

The letter says I have applied for a permit to build a deck and does anyone have an objection.  If so, send your objection to… etc.  What?  Did they not look at all that stuff I sent many weeks earlier? You would think this would have happened during the appeals process. But, no. As before, no one objected.

Meanwhile…

13. Inspectional Services sends me another letter. 

This letter states that before I can get a permit, an engineer at City Hall must review my plans and approve them.  Really?  I thought that’s what Inspectional Services did. But I guess not.  My construction manager, Mr. Gilman, tells me that it might go smoother if I go myself to City Hall. So, I called City Hall to find the right department and schedule a review.

14. Go to City Hall and find the Engineering Department.

At the appointed hour I wind through the concrete labyrinth that is Boston’s City Hall. Here I meet with a most attractive young woman who is one of the City’s engineers. As she reviews my plans I kvetch about the cumbersome process the City puts us through. She agreed, and even sympathized, saying they are trying to streamline the process.

Then she tells me that my plans contain a fuzzy design issue. Inspectional Services might have a problem with it, and delay permitting even further. I slump in my chair and struggle to avoid whimpering right in front of her. She takes pity on me, pitiable as I am right now, and writes notes on the plans explaining exactly how the construction was to be done and said that if there was a problem that she would intervene and move things along. I blessed her, too!

15. Bring all documents to the contractor. Wait

I walked them directly from City Hall to Warren Gilman’s office around the corner, anything to avoid more delay. He takes everything to 1010 Mass Ave. to apply for the final Permit, now seeming like the Holy Grail of Decks.

I could have done that myself as well.  But by this time I was letting Warren do some of this as he was much more pro-active than Mr. Carter.

16. The Permit

Warren called me a week or two later and said, “I have the permit in my hand.”

In his hand! It’s a yellow card that I must place in a visible spot in my window. My yellow card further has the extra gray stripe on it that says Landmarks has also approved of the work. A highly coveted piece of cardboard, this.

I hopefully ask, “Hammers and saws and those that wield them will soon be descending upon us?”

“Well, yes… but not just yet,” says Warren.

By now I am inured to “not yet.”  I resignedly ask Warren when, if ever, will my deck come to be.

He explains the tricky coordination of various trades:  electrical, plumbing, carpenters of various skills, painters, window and door people. This one can’t do their job till that one does his. And of course you can’t finish up until the inspector comes in at a semi-complete stage to approve the work. There was the usual finger pointing as to who is responsible for delays.

From the first hammer applied to plaster and brick, to the last swipe of a paint brush, it took five months. Which was swift in comparison to the lengthy approval process. Plaster dust and ordinary dust inundated our condo (and the condo below) for three or four of those months, even though a barrier was built between our bedroom and the living room, complete with zippered plastic door. Rosemary and I slept on the pull-out couch for months while construction was in process.

I gave John Carter $2,500 in April of 2008. Warren Gilman fixed the last punch list item (a little hole in a brand new window screen) in December of 2010. Nearly three years. And like all big projects, if I had known in advance what it would take, I probably would have passed. But blissful ignorance has its benefits. I have my little Eden in the Air.

The final irony: we didn’t get to sit on our new deck. We moved out the night it was finished as we had to rent the place for several months to pay for everything.

Attachments:

1. Request for Support Letter

2. Construction Drawing

3. The Estimate

4. Pictures of work in process

5. Before

6. After

_______________________________________________

Request for neighbor support

May 11, 2009

Dear Neighbor:

This note is to ask for your support with the Boston Board of Zoning Appeals as Rosemary and I try to get approval for a zoning variance to build a balcony at the back of our unit.

You may have received a notice from the Board about our upcoming appeal hearing on May 26, 2009 at 9:30AM.  Attached is a copy of that notice. As you may know, in the South End, balconies of any kind above the first floor are permitted only by a zoning variance from the Board of Appeals.

Attached for your info, is a copy of the engineering plans for our balcony and a couple of pictures of the back of our building, as well as a similar balcony down the alley. Ours will be the only balcony at the back of 75 Appleton. Although other unit owners at 75 Appleton may wish to build similar balconies in the future.

Our contractor is John Carter of Carter Iron.  He has done work throughout the South End and comes highly recommended. The proposed balcony is small, 5×12 feet, and supported by robust tie-in to the internal building structure, rather than posts in the yard below. It will be of black iron and, structurally and design-wise, in harmony with other balconies throughout the South End.

John Carter tells us that support from our neighbors is an important element in gaining approval. If you could send us a note on your letterhead affirming you have no objection to our balcony, that would be most helpful and much appreciated.

Enclosed is a stamped envelope addressed to us at 75 Appleton.  Or, if you prefer, just jot a note on the form in the Appeals notice (enclosed) and send it to: Board of Appeal, 1010 Massachusetts Ave, 4th Fl., Boston, MA02118.  An envelope for that option is also enclosed.

Thanks in advance for your consideration.  And please call if you have questions or concerns. Rosemary and I are staying at our house in the woods for the summer, but we’ll be back in the fall, hopefully to sit on our new balcony.

With Best Regards,

___________________________________________

One of several construction drawings

Appleton Balcony Drawing

________________________________________________

The Estimate

Client Name: Steve Rapson
Address: 75 Appleton St
Job Description: Install rear balcony, windows and door.

CityState Construction Proposes the following Scope of Services:

Permits Obtain necessary building permit and inspections needed for the project.
Preparation/Protection Seal off bedroom. Protect hallway and common stairs. Clean during project and upon completion.
Demo Remove four sections of wall, ceilings, floor and sub-floor. Remove carpet. Cut brick wall and sill under middle window to allow for door installation. Patch masonry. Remove three windows and trim. Dispose of all debris.
Framing Install new solid blocking required by plans. Fur out walls as needed to allow for new sheetrock. Install new sub-floor. Insulate where needed.
Sheetrock and Plaster Patch walls and ceilings and skim coat. Texture ceiling to match existing.
Windows and Doors Install new oversized vinyl insulated glass windows. Install new 2’4”x 6’ 8” solid core birch door exterior door with a 16”x16” light  and half screens. Install a 12” x 28” transom window above the door . Install exterior trim around the windows. Paint all exterior trim and door. Install new storm door with removable screen panel
Plumbing- Cut existing baseboard heat and drop the loop below the new doorway. Install new end covers. This will require draining the system and re-filling it and possibly bleeding the system.
Painting Paint bedroom and ceilings
Exterior Balcony Build exterior balcony according to plans provided.
Prep/Demo /Framing/Masonry

 $2,000.00

Sheetrock/Plaster

 $   400.00

Windows

2

 $   700.00

Install

 $   400.00

Door and Hardware

 $   650.00

Door installation

 $   300.00

Storm Door

 $   350.00

**
Installation

 $   100.00

**
Transom Window

 $   330.00

**
Installation

 $   150.00

**
Plumbing/heat

 $   700.00

*
Interior Painting

 $   400.00

Disposal

 $   225.00

Materials

 $   325.00

Cleaning

 $   150.00

 $7,180.00

Exterior Balcony

$7,500

Incl. interior steel
* Allowance
** option

Total

$14,680

______________________________________________

Steve’s Notes:  I added a few things to this work:

1. A bamboo hardwood floor:                                    $2,000

2. Two new interior doors in the condo:                      $800

3. Plastering & Painting of the entire bedroom:      $1,500

As the work was being done, problems were discovered with the interior brick wall requiring a mason to fix:

Mason:                                                       $750

Also, moving the existing hot water heating lines was more of a problem than first anticipated:

Heating Contractor:                             $1,000

The architect/engineering drawings:               $1,200.

And general “estimate creep” brought the total project of “deck build/bedroom renovate” to:   $25,000

_________________________________________

Construction – Outside

Outside work

Outside

Scaffold going up

Scaffold going up

Iron on the wall

Iron on the wall

______________________________________________

Construction – Inside

Window becomes at door

Window becomes a door

steel posts in the walls

steel posts in walls & tied into joists

new windows

new windows

________________________________________________

Before

Before

___________________________________________

After

Bedroom Reverse

Deck From Bedroom

View From Deck

View From Deck

At The ER… Again

Hello, friends.  Here, for your amusement, is my latest adventure at the ER, which seems to be my favorite place these days. I had a bandage on my neck the past few days. It was covering a painful swelling. It was not a boil, but an infected sebaceous cyst. I was soaking it and using antibiotic cream, hoping it would get better on its own. Not to be.

So a few days ago we were off to the emergency room at HeywoodHospital in Gardner, Massachusetts. Though not an actual emergency, they don’t have walk-in clinics that can handle day surgery out here. Rosemary and I were there from 1:30 PM till 8:00 PM.  The first hour was an efficient intake process. I saw four people at four locations, answered forty questions, and presented three forms of ID: Picture ID, Medicare Card, Secondary Payer Card. Since I just turned sixty-five, my retiree medical plan via Proctor & Gamble now takes a back seat to Medicare.

Finally alone in the exam room, the intake nurse asks where my problem is (neck).  “OK,” she said, “Just checking whether you have to get naked.” And that is the last laugh for a good while.

After an hour or so, Rosemary joins me. We wait together. Misery does indeed enjoy company.

Then the fun begins. They inserted an IV, drew lots of blood, took multiple pulse and pressure, and queried about my level of pain (one through ten).  “Five or six,” I said.  Whereupon I was offered Vicodin.  I hate taking opiates. So I passed on the pill. Fool that I was.

After an initial exam, I was sent to the CAT scan room where I was given an iodine injection (via my permanent I.V.). I told them I was allergic to shrimp. They told me one of the side effects of iodine, for those allergic to shrimp, is:  DEATH!  However rare. But we went ahead, with emergency teams standing by. Such drama. All was well and it was back to the exam room to await administration of pain.

Finally, the efficient, but humorless, nurse practitioner entered with a tray full of bandages, swabs, needles, and various other torture implements. I make jokes under pressure. But not good enough for this serious lady.  Rosemary, however, laughed at the good ones:

Preparing a needle of anesthetic (useless, by the way), the nurse asks,

“Do you have any other allergies, Mr. Rapson?”

“I am highly allergic to pain,” I said.

Unamused, she proceeds with the usual deceptions during torture.  My favorite:

“You’ll feel a pinch,” she says.

I have been pinched a few times, Gentle Reader. And I have done some pinching myself. I am well acquainted with the giving and receiving of pinches. I can confidently tell you that what I felt next was well outside the set of sensations categorized as “a pinch.”  More accurately, she might have said, “You’ll feel a white hot poker knifing into your flesh.”

After repeated stabs, comes another deception, “One more, ” she says. And delivers three or four. She did occasionally apologize for the torture. Something even real torturers might do.

After several minutes of me pretending to be brave, and cracking jokes to avoid whining like a girly man, it was over. At least the administration of the pain was over. Pain lingers, however. And linger it did. So when drug pusher nurse walked in—Chelsea was her name and she was lovely—I begged for those drugs earlier refused.

“And your pain is now what…?” she asked. Keeping up the tough guy front, “Oh, eight or nine, I guess.”  It felt like eleven or twelve.  A small white pill was produced. Fifteen minutes later I was heavy lidded, smiling a silly smile, and nearly painless.  So this is what all the fuss is about!

After being instructed what to do if things don’t get better (they have), we filled prescriptions, bought pizza, watched The Voice.  And so to bed.

And that is my latest ER adventure. Coming so soon after three months of bliss in Florida, I have a new appreciation for the difference between pleasure and pain. They may be different sides of the same coin, but it must be a darn fat coin.