In this last post on GregHowlett.com, I want to leave you with some things that matter to me. I want to talk about highs and lows and big moments and regrets. And I want to give you some final thoughts.
Before I do, please let me address some of the comments that I have received by email. Some people are very concerned and think there must be something wrong with me or in my life. Some have brought up the death of Becky last summer.
This decision was made over a year ago, long before Becky and her children died. I will not deny that their deaths hit us hard. It was devastating. But it did not cause me to spiral out of control and out of music as some have suggested.
I really am fine guys. I am telling you the truth about all of this. I know it is unusual to take this step but there is nothing significant behind the scenes you don’t know about.
I have a lot of emails to answer and I will answer them all. It will just take some time but I will get back to you. Thank you for your encouragement and good thoughts.
OK, on to the post.
Highs and lows
When I think about all the big moments during the past dozen years, here are the three that stand out the most:
- My first orchestra studio session recording Reflections on a Journey. I will never forget the moment they started playing. You have to understand that I was just a lowly piano minor in college and never thought I would have the opportunity to play with an orchestra, much less possibly the best studio orchestra in the world. That was a huge deal to me.
- A concert series in Scotland probably eight years ago. I remember the thousands of passionate music lovers who were lovely people in a lovely part of the world.
- The Looking Up TV concert I did at Gwinnett Performing Arts around 2012. It was my biggest budget show by far and incredibly complex to pull off.
The lows outnumbered the highs of course. Not everything in professional music is big and flashy. There were lots of late flights and travel disruptions and technical problems. There were mistakes, sometimes glaring ones. There were poorly attended concerts and money issues. Sometimes it was flat out hard to almost not fall asleep during a concert. As an aside, I remember a time in New Hampshire where I thought I took a Tylenol before a concert but actually took a Tylenol PM by mistake.
If you go into music, prepare to work and understand that most of the work will be mundane. Getting a album out requires hundreds of hours of work that no one ever sees. There is a ton of work that happens before you get on a concert stage.
In the end, if you do your best, it is worth it. But it is hard. Very hard.
My favorite pieces I have recorded in order (all available on YouTube)
- Soul Rest
- His Eye is on the Sparrow
- It Is Well
- No More Night
My favorite albums
- Reflections on a Journey
- Looking Up
- Portraits of Hope
- Quiet Place
My favorite industry/studio people
- Pam Sixfin (the lovely first chair violinist of the Nashville String Machine that worked on all my orchestra projects)
- Andy Leftwich (multiple Grammy winner and fiddler on a few of my projects)
- Bob Clark (my big orchestra engineer)
- Steve Mauldin (my orchestrator and conductor)
- Jason Prisk (who produced and worked on all my early albums)
There is a strange thing about the studio. You can do huge pieces with an orchestra and they give you goosebumps. But one thing you find out is that even better goosebumps come from the unplanned, simple improvisations like this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOo7o6qTZpY
I smile when I watch this video. It was during a long, long day and I looked like death warmed over. But these are the moments I will always remember.
Recordings I did that I hate
- Timeless Reflections (ALL of it)
- Most of Seasonal Spice
- “Heaven Came Down” and “Tis So Sweet” on Portraits of Hope
Most successful things
Most successful albums (this might not be fair since the oldest albums have had more time to sell)
- Reflections on a Journey
- Quiet Place
- Portraits of Hope
- Timeless Reflections
Most successful songs (downloads/streaming)
- It Is Well (millions of plays across Pandora and YouTube)
- Jesus Paid It All (my top played song on Pandora with mucho million spins even though I almost cut it from the album it was supposed to be on)
- His Eye is on the Sparrow (my closing concert song for years)
- No More Night
Other successful endeavors
- The Looking Up show in 2012 which was high budget but paid for itself quickly.
- My instructional courses which sold (and still sell) better than I would have ever imagined.
- My hymn arrangement of the month club.
Things that bombed
- Live in Charleston which got lots of TV play but I will never move all the DVDs I have in the warehouse in a million years. Does anyone even have a DVD player any more?
- My attempts at an online music school which worked me to death and never gained any traction.
- A million other ideas that I have gratefully forgotten for the most part.
Thoughts on my work
My music consisted of several prongs: recording, performing, education, writing and this blog. When I step back and look at the big picture, here is how I would rate the five in significance:
The blog is most significant to me because it has delved into issues outside music. In some respects, I think music was a tool to give me a voice to say other things that I feel even more strongly about.
I consider education more important than the other areas because I always wanted to equip church musicians in particular to be able to improvise and arrange for themselves. In fact, I never published any arrangements at all until the last few years because I thought it might distract pianists away from the education.
Performing tends to be the flashiest of the five but I have it rated last because in the end of the day, it has the least impact. I think the biggest impact performing has is in inspiring other musicians but that kind of impact can be short-lived.
What I regret
I never expected the blog to have the significance it did. I am still in awe at how many people have read it in spite of the fact that I think my blog is where I have messed up the most. Too often, the blog became a source of regrets. Let me give you a list:
- I regret that I ever delved into the church music war issue. What a waste of time that is. It reminds me of the musicians playing “Nearer My God To Thee” on the Titanic as it was sinking. The church is sinking over big issues and yet people are actually still bickering over music styles. I can’t imagine why I ever thought it would be helpful to jump into that.
- I regret that I ever took personal issues public on my blog. No I did not do it much but there were some times where I acted incredibly foolishly. One time many years ago, I took public offense with a celebrity chef whose restaurant treated my family poorly. Because it was public, he fixed it publicly in a very gracious way. I felt like a bully. I was a bully.
- I regret that I let fear keep me from publishing things that I wanted to publish. I started a lot of draft articles that never got published. They tended to be about life things and I would have lost subscribers over them. I should have published many of them anyway.
Besides my blog, what do I regret about music?
- I regret not studying music in my twenties.
- I regret times where I was unkind or too demanding.
What I don’t regret
The truth is that in regards to my music itself, I have few if any regrets. I did the projects I wanted to do in the way I wanted to do them. However, as I write this, I feel sorrow because I have lost friends (or at least acquaintances) over the years because of my music. Remember that I come from a very conservative background and not everyone has liked what I have done. I heard a few years ago about some former friends who left one of my concerts and went home and unfriended me on Facebook because my music was too wild (it was indeed wild that particular night). In some respects, I regret that, but on the other hand, I would not change any of my musical choices.
One thing that makes me happy
There are a lot of things about my music career that make my happy. However, one thing that makes me very happy as I leave music is that the last three big songs I released (MasterBuilder, Soul Rest, and HolyPlace) are my favorite things I ever recorded. I can honestly say I did my best, and when I left the industry, I was on the top of my game. For me, I think those pieces represent the best I can do (at least at my current skill/knowledge level).
Now let me give you some closing thoughts.
For musicians (and all artists): beware of the money thing
I have said this over and over here and let me say it one more time. If you do music professionally, try to make money as small of a part of the equation as possible. If you can earn a living another way and do music as a parallel career, that is a great thing. If you need the money you earn from music, it will affect your decision making in a negative way. It will enslave you in some ways to key people you want to impress. It will hold you back in your music.
He who has the money has the control. Resist anyone trying to control you (many will try). Listen to a lot of people’s advice but don’t let any of them control your music.
None of them…
Here is another reason to keep money out of the equation. If you don’t need the money, you can afford to be ultra generous and generosity has a way of paying you back. When a musician comes to me and asks me for advice about professional music, I always say the same thing: be generous. It worked when I started and still works today.
And one final thought for everyone: it is harder to be good than it is to be great
Everyone wants to be great. I get that. In fact, every time you hear me use the word “significance” in these farewell posts, you are hearing someone tip his hand that he wants to be great.
Here is something I have learned over time though. The world does not need us to be great; it just needs us to be good.
It needs us to be honest…
It needs us to be good parents…
It needs us to be solid employees…
It needs us to be kind and respectful…
It needs us to be openminded and balanced…
It needs us to be true, involved friends…
It needs us to be generous…
It needs us to fight tenaciously for the disadvantaged and abused…
Guys, with a few breaks, anyone can get labelled “great” but it is much harder to be good. It is not empty hat “great” politicians in Washington DC that are the bedrock of society; it is rather the people you have not heard of that are good. To be good is neither the byproduct nor the cause of a successful life. It IS a successful life, even if few ever hear of you.
Go evangelize the world but make sure you are good before you do. Go make your mark in business but only if you are good. Go out and be great but not at the expense of being good.
I mentioned in the first post that it is hard to trade a level of notoriety for obscurity but for a while at least, I am going to concentrate on the very hard job of just being good in my small obscure way.
I hope you will join me.