All is quiet in Kunchang Lee’s garage studio. A child sits, holding his guitar in quiet concentration. He’s been learning “Sweet Home Alabama” and he’s hoping this next take will be the one. Moments later, after three clean chord transitions, that same child has put his guitar down and is now dancing around the garage.
That’s Jimmy. He’s one of Lee’s younger students, and he has just made a breakthrough.
“When he gets something—anything—when he just plays an A minor to an F to a G, he jumps up and starts dancing. Every time,” Lee says. “The first time he did that, I had an epiphany. I realized I had lost that [excitement] at some point, and I need to get that back.”
Lee has been playing guitar for over half his life and is now a full-time musician and music teacher. In addition to guitar, he also teaches bass, ukulele, banjo, mandolin and dobro. Basically, if it has strings, he can teach you how to play it. Most of his teaching time is spent at the Paso Robles Youth Arts Foundation in California, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing arts education to students from low-income families. He also has a full roster of private students ranging from ages seven to over 60.
At the age of 32, Lee has seen the music industry change dramatically since he entered it over 10 years ago. He loves teaching and playing gigs on the side (and living in wine country, there are plenty of opportunities for solo acoustic gigs), but he also recognizes that in order to keep his teaching roster full and to continue moving forward in the industry, he needs to embrace promotional tools like YouTube and other social media platforms.
So far, it’s working. That’s how Behind the Setlist found Lee in the first place. He posted a guitar cover of John Mayer’s “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” to YouTube in March 2017, and it got our attention shortly thereafter.
Yet, he feels conflicted about all of it. “For me, it’s a struggle actually,” Lee says. “It’s really off-putting to me in our culture how narcissistic we are. And we don’t even bat an eyelash to it now with our selfie culture. It’s so self-absorbed, and this is coming from me, a recovering narcissist.”
“But then I’m torn, because if I want to get more gigs or be able to work at the rate at which I’m charging, I need to have some kind of presence. So that’s why I made the video,” he explains. While it was great to get such a positive response, he also says it was tough to make peace with it. “I used to be in bands, and I think it’s a struggle for any musician to not be egotistical or to find their identity in their musicianship or their reputation. I think it takes real maturity to transcend all that and be you, apart from your skills.”
He originally only made the video for his teaching website so prospective students and parents could make a more personal connection. “I wanted it to be simple. I didn’t want a bunch of pedals or effects. That’s just a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe tube amp, which has a nice spring reverb, and the Suhr guitar that I’m playing I actually just got. It’s like butter. You don’t even feel like you’re playing when you play it,” he says.
He ended up sharing the video on Facebook and was surprised to see the views adding up. “I realized that over time I might get enough views to eventually get paid. I have realistic expectations. I don’t want to be false about it or try to sell myself.” But Lee is realizing what many independent musicians come to realize—YouTube can be an additional revenue stream and promotional platform if you take the time to learn how it works.
YouTube has also proven useful in other ways for Lee. “Have you ever heard of Mateus Asato?” he asks. I have, I say. “Dang. Just dang. I watch him [on YouTube] and don’t even know what he’s doing. I don’t have a clue. There’s also a gal, Lari Basilio, and a guy named Sungha Jung. People like that I really consider my teachers now, because I’m watching them and trying to learn their pieces and their techniques. I’m trying to distill what it is about them I find so compelling and incorporate that into my own playing style.”
Lee has pulled influences from all over into his playing. “My main influence foundation was bossa nova. I love bossa nova. Learning those kinds of chords and those rhythms translates really well to anything finger-style,” he says. “I’ve also been incorporating more percussive elements. People like James Bartholomew, Peter Gergely and Seiji Igusa. There are a bunch of guys I’ve watched on YouTube who are inspiring me to be more percussive with my playing.”
After so many years of playing and teaching, it’s hard to believe there’d be anything major left for Lee to learn. But like most guitar players (and teachers), Lee believes the more progress you make, the more you realize you have yet to learn, and the more you have to practice in order to maintain what you have.
“As a gigging musician, it’s not even like I want to practice. I have to practice. If I don’t, I’m just going to mess up, and that’s not a good feeling when you’re in front of strangers. So I practice about two hours a day,” Lee says. “Usually I’ll play even more than that, but that’s just for pleasure.” One of the biggest challenges now is figuring out how to learn harder and harder material in a shorter amount of time. “I’ll try to make it a game. I’m learning the song ‘Take Five’ and I record how long it takes me to learn each measure,” he says. “Say it takes me 45 minutes. The next measure, I’ll try to go down to 30 minutes, or even 25 minutes.”
Lee is also keenly aware of how much busier he gets with each passing year, so he takes advantage of any free time he has. “I’ll turn on a TV show and just drill that measure for those 30 minutes,” he says. He shares this secret with some of his students, too. “Students who don’t practice usually tell me they don’t have time. I ask if they have favorite TV shows and they always say yes, not knowing I’m trapping them.” He tells them to practice throughout the entire show and by the end they’ll have put in 30 minutes to an hour of practice without realizing it.
“I tell my students if you want to maintain your current skill level, then 30 minutes [of practice] three times a week is fine. But if you want to get good, if you want to be amazing, then do 30 minutes to an hour a day and you’re going to be blazing. Anything more than that—say, two hours a day? You’re going to be a freak because you’ll be getting stuff so quick.”
The other piece of advice he always passes on to students is to enjoy the process and not be too hard on themselves. He’s noticed, especially with new students, that they come in with oversized expectations, which only leads to frustration. If a student seems nervous or disappointed in his or her progress, he has a trick to allay their fears. “I have a little spiel where I play something that I know will impress them. Then I’ll say, ‘This has taken me forever and where you’re at is where I started. I promise you, you will be able to play even better than that if you just trust the process.’”
It all starts with the basics. Learning chord shapes and figuring out how to smoothly transition between them is always challenging and frustrating for students at first. Every student at some point asks Lee, “How do you change chords instantaneously like it’s nothing?” He responds by making chord shapes with his hands in the air—a D chord, for example—and saying, “When do you ever do that?” They always laugh when they realize how unnatural the hand positions are. “Of course you can’t do that right away. That would be weird!”
He believes strongly in incorporating humor and affirmation into his teaching because he’s seen so many students sabotage themselves by being overly self-critical. “Whether you’re young or old, if your attitude is, ‘If I keep at this, I’m going to get it and I’ll have fun with it,’ then you will excel.”
Lee has learned so much from his students, especially about attitude, and has noticed that he, too, has a tendency to be too hard on himself when he’s learning a new piece. “I have to practice what I preach,” he says, “and I have to say, ‘You know what, I’m just going to have fun. This is going to be hard, but I’m going to zone out and enjoy it.’”
The joy in Lee’s voice is obvious as he starts to talk about Jimmy. It’s been such a powerful experience to teach young students, because at their ages they are learning to play guitar purely for the love of it. “For Jimmy, it’s new every time. Everything is a ‘eureka’ moment for him. I don’t know what’s going on in his heart in those moments, but he has to dance once he gets it,” he says. “I even told his dad that he has taught me a really huge lesson I don’t want to forget—to not take for granted the ability to play music and to just enjoy it.”
Lee pauses on that thought for a second. “Could you imagine if we did that? If we played a piece successfully and then just started dancing?”
I laugh and tell him I’m going to try it in my next guitar lesson and see what happens.
“I’m going to tell Jimmy that. He’ll be so stoked.”