Quit Your Day Job

Quit Your Day Job: Laura Veirs

We posted last week about Portland singer-songwriter Laura Veirs offering music lessons out of her Oregon home. Anyone sign up yet? (Me, I’m sorta hoping the “I like turtles” zombie kid throws his pick into the ring … he’s from the area and all.) We learned a few things from the notice Laura circulated: She assigns weekly homework, suggests the songwriting students read The Artist’s Way, charges the very competitive $50 an hour, and hosts “Stars Parties,” “where all my students gather together to present the music they’ve been working on.” Great start, but we wanted to know more, so I dropped her a line with some questions. I hadn’t really thought much about guitar lessons since a teenage-me asked my instructor how to play an Unrest song and he kindly told me it was just one chord. (I brought selections from Reign In Blood the following week to save face.)

Anyway, to see why this particular Decemberist-collaborating, Sufjan-touring multi-instrumentalist’s qualified to show you around a fretboard, you should take a trip to her stop-motion “Phantom Mountain” video and “To The Country,” and then check out the lovely “Ocean Night Song,” another track from her sixth album Saltbreakers. I asked her to pass along an MP3 of her teaching scales, but there were corruption issues with the file. Maybe we’ll eventually master technology and give you a glimpse of Veirs at work. In the meantime, Laura, any idea how I can master the first solo in “Altar of Sacrifice”?

UPDATE: Faster than I could tune my axe, Laura sent along an MP3 of her teaching “Cluck Old Hen” on banjo. Take a listen after the discussion … please play along at home.

STEREOGUM: When did you decide to start giving lessons?

LAURA VEIRS: Eleven years ago when I was in college in Minnesota, I started a program for teaching guitar to high school girls. I didn’t know much at that point, but I knew I wanted to share what I knew with younger women. Growing up in Colorado Springs, I didn’t know of ANY high school girls who were in bands, and I remember thinking: Well, I guess girls don’t really play in bands, at least not in this town. So I obsessed about photography in my basement darkroom instead.

Then, when I moved to Seattle, I did a bunch of random odd jobs (xmas-tree seller, “science demonstrator” at the Pacific Science Center, ESL teacher, high school math and science tutor, office manager at a non-profit) but also always taught a few students on the side. When I started to see some success with my music and started to tour more, it was natural to keep my adult students because they could handle my weird schedule, and they supplemented my income during my non-touring time.

I started teaching guitar but later started teaching clawhammer banjo and also songwriting. Sometimes I was really flying by the seat of my pants in my lessons, but as I became a better musician, I became a better teacher. Also, as I became a more serious student of guitar and banjo, I became a better teacher. I took lessons on and off from two great Seattle-based teachers: John Miller for guitar and Candy Goldman for banjo.

STEREOGUM: So you’d taken a break from teaching before posting this current notice?

LV: Yeah, I took two years off when I was moving to Portland and settling down here, and I was also touring my butt off and it didn’t make sense to have a bunch of students at that time. Playing my own music has been my full-time job for a couple of years now

STEREOGUM: Why’d you decide to start teaching again?

LV: I started teaching again for a few reasons: I don’t have a ton of touring coming up so I have more time and will need some extra dough; I have only lived in Portland for a year, and I want to become more connected to the community here and teaching always helps with that; and I love being around students because they have an infectious and fresh excitement about music that reminds me of why I started writing and performing in the first place. (Sometimes just touring and recording can feel vacuum-like and isolating. I like to stay connected to the “beginner’s mind” that finds music fun and mysterious rather than a “responsibility” or a “career.”) Also, I’m taking guitar and banjo lessons right now, and that helps me reconnect with my wide-eyed kid-like fascination with music.

STEREOGUM: What’s been your favorite moment as a teacher so far?

LV: I had a bespectacled student from Germany who was living in Seattle. He came to the first lesson feeling very defeated: he was sure he would never write a song. I gave him a pep talk and a few clues about how to get started and assigned him the task of writing a song before the next lesson. The next week he came in with a finished song and said he felt his “glasses had been cleared of mud,” that he could “finally see.” That was a great feeling. The next week he came in feeling tortured again, but at least he’d written a song and knew it was possible.

STEREOGUM: It’s not just guitar and banjo, but also songwriting. What would a songwriting lesson be like? And singing and playing at the same time … what sort of exercise would you suggest for that? Not that I’m trying to get a free lesson.

LV: The songwriting lessons are mostly about instilling confidence in the student. I am more of a cheerleader or therapist than anything. I do analyze their songs and provide them with concrete suggestions about how to improve, but mostly I find that my role is to give them structure and restrictions and to help them believe in themselves. So many adults seem to think that they need to be “experts” at everything they do — but songwriting is a craft like any other craft, and you need to do it for a long time to get “good” at it. I give them permission to treat themselves like kids and to take baby steps with their writing rather than trying to be geniuses. I’ve found that the most common hang ups are that they won’t finish their songs, because they’re being perfectionistic and trying to be “great,” or they make the songs too complicated by trying to be clever. I try to help them go from the gut and forget their heads. It’s a really challenging and fun thing to teach.

STEREOGUM: You’re teaching out of your house? Have you always done it this way?

LV: Yeah, I used to teach in my living room, and my roommates would come and go; then later I lived in a house with a big bedroom, so I partitioned it out with a long curtain and taught in there; then I lived in a house with a renovated garage in Seattle and taught out there; now I own a house in Portland and teach out of a renovated garage there. It has a pellet stove, which I love and can’t say enough good things about.

STEREOGUM: How did you decide to assign The Artist’s Way for the songwriting students?

LV: I’ve gone through that book several times over the years when I felt writer’s block coming on and found it to be very helpful personally. I’ve also seen it work for friends and students. In some cases, people have really blossomed after reading the book and doing the exercises. It’s not the answer to the universe, but it does have a lot of deep ideas that can help blocked artists figure out how to do the things they love to do.

STEREOGUM: Your “Stars Parties” sound great. How many students play these? Any interesting anecdotes?

LV: It depends how many students I have at the time. The smallest one probably had four students; the largest probably 18. The larger ones are fun because people are always more nervous, but the crowd of other students is louder and more uproarious. Most students are so nervous they can hardly play their song, but even if they barely squeak something out, as soon as they’re done the crowd erupts into hoots and applause, and the student comes away feeling proud, alive, and pumped up with adrenaline and endorphins. The enthusiasm and support the students show for each other at the star parties is heart-warming. Some of my fondest musical memories are from those parties.

STEREOGUM: Have any of your past students gone onto to form bands we might know?

LV: Yes. You may have heard of Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Arlo Guthrie, Neil Young, Sleater-Kinney, and John Coltrane to name just a few. No. But I was impressed with one student who was a recovering alcoholic who’d recently gone through an ugly divorce when he started taking lessons. He was dark and depressed at first, but after he started writing his own songs, he kicked his alcohol habit through an obsession with writing, playing, and recording his own stuff. He had a new lease on life.

STEREOGUM: Are any of your students fans of Guitar Hero? Thoughts…?

LV: I actually really only started teaching new students last week, so I’m not sure about my new Portland-based students. I’ve played the game and had a lot of fun with it, and I think it can help with learning about rhythm, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it for beginning guitar students. It takes years to become proficient at the guitar, but once you can play it is so much more rewarding than pretending to be a rock star on a video game.


Laura Veirs – “Ocean Night Song” (MP3)
Laura Veirs – “Cluck Old Hen” (MP3)

Saltbreakers is out on Nonesuch.

Tags: Laura Veirs