KSMU’s series SoundCheck takes a sneak-peak at the bands of Studio Live. This month, the young songwriter Avery Mann lets us in on how he learned to play the guitar. Catch him on Studio Live on Friday, September 13, 2019 at noon, followed by Studio Live Social Hour at the Backlot at Alamo Drafthouse from 6-8 pm that same day.
Avery Mann is only 18 years old, but he’s already been playing guitar for nearly two thirds of his life. He grew up going to the Boys and Girls Club of Springfield and that’s where it all began. One of his best friends, Clifford Barrett, encouraged him to take guitar lessons with him when they were just five years old.
“Boys and Girls Club had free lessons once a week, every week, from John Strickler,” said Mann.
At first, Mann wasn’t very keen on taking Barrett up on guitar lessons. But Mann started to notice the other kids gathering around the little windows next to the door of the music room when a guitar lesson was in progress.
“The music room that we were in was only open like once a week, because there wasn’t a permanent staff there. So, anytime the lights were on, all the kids were like, ‘What is going on in there?!’ And, y’know, just as it happens, Clifford was there playing guitar. And they were sitting there and I was watching. I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s right, that’s my best friend playing guitar there.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh my god, he’s so dreamy!’ And I was like, ‘Whoa-oh!” said Mann.
He had his first guitar lesson the next week. It was Mr. Strickler, Mann, Barrett and a couple of other kids. Mann was a little antsy to get his hands on a guitar. When Mr. Strickler and Barrett picked up guitars from the ones available in the music room, Mann tried to do the same. But Mr. Strickler had a stern warning for him.
“And I went to go pick a guitar and he was like, ‘Don’t do that. Don’t soil that guitar. You don’t know what it is yet.’ And I was kinda like, ‘What do you mean?’ And of course, you have to learn about where the frets are the nut, the base, the neck, everything – you have to learn the anatomy of a guitar,” said Mann.
Young Avery Mann was initially disappointed with this method of teaching.
“I didn’t come here for a science lesson. I came here because I wanted love,” he said.
He describes himself as a hopeless romantic. But he tried to be patient and after a couple of weeks, he got to pick out a guitar to play.
“Over at Boys and Girls Club, they had had a lot of different guitars donated to them, and there were some really beautiful guitars there. And of course, little five-year-old me, I’m not paying attention to the way they sound. I’m just like, ‘That one’s shiny!’ So I went and picked up the coolest guitar I could find and I plugged it in and was like, ‘Whoa! This is awesome!” said Mann
This particular guitar was a full-size instrument, leaving Mann barely able to get his fingers around the
fretboard. He points out that learning guitar, especially when you’re so young, is a lot different and more difficult than learning piano where you can just press a key to make music.
“You have to really learn how to pressure, like, all the strings and the frets,” he said.
As he progressed, Mann took note of the jazz Mr. Strickler would play over the class’s droning chords.
“The jazz chords are so much more complex than your basic G, E minor, C, D. So, I wanted to play those chords. And we started to learn a little about jazz shapes and we started to learn about different jazz scale and how to arpeggio on a guitar. And that was kinda like my last, in the actual lesson area, of guitar,” said Mann.
Jazz continues to be an influence on Mann’s music today. He especially likes the way pop and hip hop are incorporating more jazz, making it more mainstream than it has been in recent years.
Back at the Boys and Girls Club, Johnny Strickler got Mann and Clifford Barrett a few little gigs around the club. I ask if they played together as a small duo or as a band.
“Uh, that’s actually funny that you ask that. And so we thought, we were so cool, we gave ourselves the name Born to be Mild and we though that just like, the coolest name on the planet,” he said.
From here, Avery Mann moved on to the Reed Academy program in middle school and then the IB program at Central High School where he did musical theater. Boys and Girls Club remained a part of his life and he was invited to perform at their regional conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He gained confidence in his performances and began writing songs.
Next, he was invited to the national meeting of the Boys and Girls Club in San Diego. There, he performed with fellow songwriter Taylor Gayle from Nashville and went to open mic nights at Java Joe’s.
A lesson he learned from the San Diego trip was that it’s important for the audience to be with you in your songs. Building a connection with them makes for a more intimate performance.
“Especially as a live performer, that’s where I love to shine because that’s what I like to do. I like to get people into it, drag them in and say, ‘This is my life – look at it!’ It’s funny and crazy,” said Mann.