Mendocino Talking: Will Siegel
by Dave Smith, May 27, 2015
Will has been making and teaching music around Mendocino and Lake counties for many years. He and his various band ensembles can play blues and rock one night out in Upper Lake; then bluegrass and folk music the next night in Potter Valley; and then jazz and swing the next weekend in Ukiah. You’ll see them in various combinations at bars, wineries, weddings, and memorials featuring Will on guitar…
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I was born in Southern California, my family based in East Los Angeles. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley where the living was more serene. My dad had a wholesale egg business. My parents allowed me to take private guitar lessons, but there was a constant start and stop as I was distracted a lot by baseball and beach time… but they always supported me starting again. Guitar was always a lot of fun, but it was always hard to stay with it in the traditional ways it was taught… I would get bored reading the notes of songs I didn’t want to play.
It wasn’t until I started sharing music with my peers that it seemed to get exciting. When surf guitar became popular I had a lot of buddies trying to play Pipeline and Wipeout, typical surf songs in that era. We had a little band in high school and we would cover Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds. I still find myself playing some of those songs at gigs. People gravitate to the music of their youth. It wasn’t until I graduated from high school that the guitar seemed to welcome me back. Within a year after high school, I sold my electric guitar, traded my amp in for a nylon string guitar and traveled cross-country. It was the summer after Woodstock and young people were playing music everywhere. Campfire sing-a-longs especially were a lot of fun.
It wasn’t until I came up to Sonoma State College, taking classes in the open program Expressive Arts, and meeting other people doing music, that I wanted to learn more about finger-picking blues and ragtime guitar. I got myself a dobro and that became my gateway into the folk music realm.
A year after graduating from Sonoma State, I met Kate Wolf. I asked to sit in with her at a local restaurant and after a few sessions she asked me to join her ensemble, the Wildwood Flower. We played all kinds of gigs and concerts mostly around Sonoma County. I was a featured member of the band on her first album, Back Roads. Shortly after the recording was released I left the band and partnered up with a couple of friends and my companion and wonder woman, Ellie Colville. We bought a piece of property and moved to Lake County to begin a new life. I was living and playing, but I wasn’t making a living playing. We got by because it was pretty cheap to live in those days.
When we moved up to Mendocino/Lake County in 1976, we were fixing up and living in our cabin near Lake Pillsbury. By 1979, we rented a room in Ukiah a couple of days a week to practice and look for gigs. I realized that to make a living I had to do something else, so I walked into the old Band Box music store on Main Street with my little card offering guitar lessons and I was just about to put the pin through the card on the bulletin board when I overheard the two owners talking about their need for a guitar instructor. The store was run by Russ Johnson and Dolores Carrick. At the time they had private lessons going at the store as well as teaching band at a couple of schools in the area. When I heard them needing a guitar instructor, I took a breath, turned around and said “I teach guitar.” Russ was very opinionated, a very tall man… kind of intimidating. He said to me, “What makes you think YOU can teach guitar.” I said I had been playing a long time, and had just finished taking lessons with Tony Napoli, a guitar instructor in Santa Rosa. Tony had a good reputation and by dropping Tony’s name, I got the job. Russ and Dolores told me that they had gone “undercover” the year before to take lessons from him to learn how he taught guitar. So they figured that I had learned something and had something to teach. So they took me on but said that they were going to teach me about teaching before I started.
Russ coached me on how to prepare material, what to look for, and how to organize beginning lessons. He taught me about arranging music: voicing, how the harmony should support the melody… that the melody on guitar had to be played an octave above where it is written. I was in my late 20s and had already had lessons from at least a half dozen people… but no one had taught me about these aspects of making music. He created a whole path for me. That was nearly 40 years ago and teaching has been my livelihood. Playing guitar is what I do for fun. We like it when we get paid, but it is really hard to get enough gigs around here to make much money. Living in a small town, you have to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way.
When we first moved here, Ellie and I got to hang out with Buffalo Bob and the Country Butter Band in Redwood Valley playing bluegrass and folk music. Bob and his wife Carmen were an institution. That’s where I first met my long time friend and music companion Les Boek. At the time Gus Garelick was their fiddler and they had a disagreement. Ellie was taking violin lessons with Gus and asked him to join our band, Late Night Radio. We played bluegrass, folk, and western swing music at all the little bars and benefits in and around Mendocino and Lake counties. We also traveled and competed in fiddle contests throughout the region. The band broke up around 1980 and I became more curious about playing jazz. I joined the Mendocino College Big Band and learned more about playing jazz chord progressions. I sat in that chair at least 4 years, maybe 5. I also played popular rock n’ roll with piano player Paul Kemp in the Lake County band Full Moon in the early 80’s. This was a period of transition from acoustic back to electric guitar styles.
In 1982 I met Barbara Curtis, a jazz pianist who had a jazz quartet at the time. I approached her to take a lesson in jazz and gradually became a part of her group that became a quintet. I learned a fantastic amount being in a working jazz group. I played with that group for 20 years. We recorded a record album entitled Long Overdue and I developed a strong musical bond and friendship with bass player and vocalist Steve Baird.
Then came rock n’ roll and some rhythm and blues with Willy and the Nighthawks. We played constantly through the 1990’s and recorded an album of original tunes. The Hopland Brewery was a favorite spot for us to play. Now we usually go by Will Siegel and Friends. We play an extremely wide range of styles, kind of a Tango-Motown fusion band. Our new CD “Panamerica” has ensemble arrangements of milongas, choros, boleros and waltz’s with some nice vocals from Steve. Tom Aiken plays piano and keyboards with us now and loves the variety of styles. Woodwind wizard Paul McCandless adds an incomparable depth to our project as does special guest pianist Elena Casanova.
I’ve always gravitated to being in a band and I haven’t always been the leader. Being the leader is sometimes by default because, for some reason, you want the gig more than anybody else in the group. The mutual enjoyment of the experience of playing with other musicians is the main motivation. Music is more than the sum of its parts. It’s not always easy to find musical partners. Generally speaking, musicians want to play with someone better than they are because they want to get better… they want to be inspired by what that person puts out. They want to be around it and absorb it. I’ve had many, many fortunate instances where people wanted to join a group I was playing with or asked me to be part of their ensemble… and sometimes they are very long-lasting relationships. We have had some wonderful musicians come and go in our community.
To teach for a living you have to have a steady stream of students coming from somewhere. An association with a music school or music store is to your advantage because people are calling there. The students that I have had for the longest period of time generally start very young and stay with you all the way through high school. I haven’t had many of those in the last decade or so because I’m out of that loop. It’s the youth that grow musically fast and furious. Sometimes you’ll have them on track and they’ll get distracted by soccer or little league. If they have a good foundation they will not lose what they’ve learned. They can always come back to their instrument.
I enjoy teaching my guitar class at Mendocino College. It is a real challenge to get 20 students at different skill levels to stay engaged. It’s a lot of work for the beginner so I try to make it fun. When I teach, students learn chords and note reading. The mechanics of playing involves developing a knowledge of musical patterns. Everybody learns differently. I’ve taught a lot of people and each one has a different reaction time. For some, it’s just a few seconds to get information off the page through their visual senses and have that filter all the way down their arms to their left hand and then have their right hand fire. Some people are gifted and go right at it. There’s a lag time for most people, especially adults. Kids are more tactile and grow faster. We adults have all these filters in place… and we want to be good right away. We don’t want to make mistakes.
With music becoming less important in our school system, and the resulting lack of feeder music programs to the college, there seems to be less interest in music at Mendocino College. Hopefully there will be a renewed interest at the lower levels where they are beginning to hire music teachers again. The private sector has to pick up the slack when this happens. It’s a bit of a struggle.
Then there is the fewer gigs to musician ratio…. less gigs and more musicians wanting that gig. As you get older, the people hiring are getting younger, and they want to hire in their age group, younger people who play newer music. We used to do a lot of weddings… now we do more memorials.
Sharing music with a large group of people gives me the most joy in life. We try to practice as a band once a week, but getting a group of people to show up at the same time and place is always a challenge. It’s the set up of equipment and the shlepping that kills you.
I am so grateful for the opportunities we’ve had to make music around here. We are lucky to be here.