Festival Time: MAGEF 2015!

This weekend I did something I haven’t done in quite some time, I went to and participated in a music festival, mores specifically the MidAmerica Guitar Ensemble Festival at Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne. It was held over this past weekend, March 27th-28th, and featured a Saturday evening performance by the Canadian Guitar Quartet, who also gave a masterclass at Sweetwater Sound on Saturday afternoon. There were two additional concerts, one Friday night consisting of some of the participating ensembles and then another Sunday afternoon with the other ensembles and the world premier of Patrick Roux’s piece “Thunders and Strums” which was scored for guitar orchestra and commissioned by the festival. The orchestra was made up of 150 guitarists, the participants of this year’s festival.

I got into Fort Wayne at about 9pm Friday, so I missed the opening concert. I joined in the festivities at about 8am on Saturday when I checked in at the campus. From there I joined Dr. Julie Goldberg and my fellow Chicago Community Classical Guitar Ensemble members to take part in the morning’s rehearsal of Roux’s “Thunders and Strums” with some members splitting off for guitar parts I while others of us were on the other side of the stage with part VIII.   Roux was fun to work with. He was focused, communicated well and really worked with us to get the piece up and running. His piece involves some shifting time signatures which, while not quite as varied as York’s in “Quiccan,” did provide a bit of rhythmic challenge for the large group. He worked on the articulation quite a bit, and while he was demanding, he wasn’t overly so. He was very aware that he was working with a broad spectrum of players ranging quite a bit in skill levels.

Saturday afternoon was spent at Sweetwater Sound, the primary sponsor of this year’s festival. Sweetwater is a large music store and is a serious competitor with Musiciansfriend in the MidWest. They have a “campus” on the outskirts of Ft. Wayne on RTE30, which houses their warehouse, onsite store, conference center, performance auditorium where they host masterclasses and performances, as well as several cafes, another stage area, a school for neophyte players, equipment lending library for employees and various other amenities. The Canadian Guitar Quartet (Julien Bisaillon, Renaud Cote-Giguere, Bruno Rousse, and Louis Trepanier) gave a two hour masterclass in the auditorium with four of the participating ensembles, drawn by lottery, receiving a half hour each of performance critique time. Patrick Roux also joined the quartet (he was a founding member before moving on a couple years ago) in the critiques. There was also an hour long workshop following the masterclass that was essentially a discussion with live examples focusing on composing for guitar, as well as transcribing and arranging for the quartet. The three hours spent were quite interesting and rewarding, giving me much to think about and to apply to my own work.

Saturday night was given over to the Canadian Guitar Quartet’s performance in Auer Performance Hall back on the campus of IPFW. Their program including contemporary works by Hans Bruderl, Renaud Cote-Giguere, Randames Gnattali and Patrick Roux, as well as a piece by Antoine de Lhoyer and Gioacchino Rossini’s William Tell Overture. All of the pieces were demanding of the players and they executed them beautifully to the audience’s delight. Their performance was met with repeated standing ovations and the CGQ performed two encore pieces.

Sunday started with an 8am rehearsal call for the Chicago Community Classical Guitar Ensemble where we worked through our performance piece, “Koudougou” by Luc Levesque, before moving over to the Rhinehart Performance Hall for another two hour guitar orchestra rehearsal with Patrick Roux where we picked up where we’d left off on Saturday morning until our break for lunch before the final concert of the festival. Sunday afternoon the remaining groups gave their performances, including the CCCGE with yours truly. There was an intermission followed by the premier of Roux’s “Thunders and Strums” with 150 of us, along with the members of the Canadian Guitar Quartet sprinkled among the rest of us, providing the guitar orchestra. It’s truly amazing how much power 150 unamplified classical guitars produce, and what a broad palette of color and breadth of dynamics available.

All in all I found the whole experience to be quite rewarding and enriching. I learned quite a bit from the performances as well as the masterclass and discussion. If you’re thinking about attending something of this sort I highly recommend doing so because not only is the learning opportunity so great, but also the experience of being around so many like minded individuals who share your interests in the instrument, the music it produces, the music written for it and the actual performance thereof. Really, what could be better?

The Importance of Criticism in Learning

Criticism is something that is a part of life and sometimes it can be a very painful part at that. We often feel put upon and sometimes even insulted when someone breaks out the hammer and starts bludgeoning away at us, and we should in those instances where the individual either doesn’t know what he or she is talking about, is simply lashing out at us for some self ascribed reason, or who has an axe to grind with us for personal reasons. However, healthy doses of criticisms from folks who are there to help us, who know what they’re talking about, and who want us to succeed we should at the very least take into serious consideration. They are giving us the benefit of honest feedback, which is something we should always be thankful for.

All musicians have egos, and many of us have fragile ones that are sensitive to negative feedback, or anything that we perceive as negative feedback. We are creative people, who expose ourselves when we perform whether on stage, in rehearsal or even in lesson situations, and anytime we do so we’re inviting feedback from whomsoever our audience of the moment was. We all like to be told that we’ve done well, particularly when we feel that way ourselves, but what separates musicians who are truly interested in mastery from dilettantes is the ability to take and work with criticism, and turn it to their best advantage. Of course this means that we must evaluate our evaluations and our evaluators as well. We must choose whose criticism we value and know precisely why we value that individual’s opinion.

So how do we determine whose critique we should pay attention to, and who to simply disregard? That can be both simple and complex. The simple answer is that when we get advice from players whose abilities we respect we should value it, digest it and ultimately decide whether or not to heed it. Does this mean that we discard feedback from our audiences of non-players? Not necessarily. Sometimes they produce some pretty inane feedback. However, they can bring up valuable points too, whether it has to do with anything from quirks or behaviors we have on stage that we’re unaware of to even the selection of material we’ve chosen for the event. If you pay attention, you might learn something from them. However, don’t forget to put what the audience says through a heavy filter, even when they’re telling you you’re wonderful.

We learn the most when we don’t let our egos and insecurities get in the way of our learning experiences. For instance, people go to festivals and get slots to take master classes so they have the opportunity to learn from people they normally don’t have access to. If you do so with the sole purpose of having your ego stroked then you’re really wasting the maestro’s time, and everybody else’s as well. There are many people in the audience for these master classes who are there to learn as much as they can by observing them and they’re not there to hear a concise “well done” either. You do want to do your best for the moment’s performance and yes, it’s great to impress the maestro and everyone else, but if all you’re taking away from the experience is “well done” then the learning opportunity has been squandered. You just have the stamp of approval on the piece and nothing new has been passed on to you.

Criticism that is delivered with the honest intent of helping the performer is always something that should be appreciated and never resented. Most of the time the person who is giving it has invested the time and energy into really listening to what we’re doing and then caring enough to try to help us make it better. When this is the case, we can be assured that we have had their focused attention and have made some form of a connection that has brought about sincere communication. It is always up to us whether we choose to act upon the criticism that has been tendered, but we must always remember to appreciate the feedback and not take offense. Let’s face it, usually when we do get upset it’s because we have had something that we were already concerned about pointed to and confirmed as an issue.

Gigging and Gear: Beating the load in Blues

I’m basically a less is more kind of guy when it comes to gigging and gear.  It used to take me either multiple trips to my car to haul in my equipment, or I needed to use a Rock-n-Roller cart to get it all from point A to B.  Granted, when I’m responsible for providing a PA I still have to deal with hauling a lot, but otherwise I’ve turned into a bare bones type of guy.  At this point, when I have a gig playing bass I really want to limit what I bring to what I can carry in one trip from the car.  This means that I bring one bass, one cabinet, bass head, cables, tuner, guitar stand and often a band book and music stand.  I also try to ensure that everything is on the light end of the weight spectrum.  When I need the extra oomph from the amp I bring a second cabinet and put the two cabs on a collapsible two-wheeled cart.  Guitar gigs I go as simply as I can as well.

            Years ago as a guitarist I used to have to load and unload with multiple trips.  Sometimes I’d bring upwards of three instruments, a pedal board and a host of other things, although as a guitarist I’ve always been more of a combo amp type of guy than half or full stack.  My stage footprint would often be large enough for two folks, which isn’t unusual for guitarists I’ve found, but I was concerned with the diversity of the tonal palette that I brought to the gig and then there was the old what if I break a string issue.  At that time I worked in a music store and could afford to restring guitars every week or so, so I was playing on fresh strings for most gigs.  It was actually a rare occasion when I broke a string, and in reality since none of my guitars were set up with a Floyd Rose style tremolo, breaking a string would have been a quick fix.  When I started gigging as a bass player the equipment I brought tended to run toward a more is better pattern as well.

            Finally I realized that carting all of that equipment wasn’t really necessary and, particularly after knee surgery resulting from an accident carrying my equipment up and down to our apartment, I decided that it was time to pare down what I was dragging around to gigs.  Currently, as a bassist I can set up and be ready to perform in about five minutes from walking into the venue if I’m rushed.  Usually set up takes about ten because I’ll talk a bit to the drummer.  Load out takes the same five to get out the door and then I’m back in waiting for the band-leader to finish talking business with the venue owner.  If we’re being paid by check that night then I’m usually heading home within ten minutes of the last set being finished because I don’t generally like to hang around shooting the breeze.  By this time the drummer might have his cymbals in their case and the guitarist is putting his guitars in cases.

            When we’re playing larger venues or outdoors I usually bring the second bass cabinet, which means that by choice I’m running two 15inch cabs with horns and pushing around 500 watts at 4 ohms.  This provides more than enough volume for most situations, particularly when there is decent sound reinforcement being provided.  I still can get on stage, set up and ready to go in 10 minutes (off in about the same) without breaking a sweat.  This is great because many outdoor playing situations are at events that have multiple band lineups, which requires a fast turnover if a backline isn’t being provided.  It’s also awesome if you have multiple bookings on any given day or evening.  It also means that when you get home you don’t have yet another lengthy load in to deal with – one trip in and you’re done.

            Don’t get me wrong, I’d be lying if I said I don’t love musical gear because I do.  One of the reasons I don’t currently work in music stores is because I love gear so much that I will find reasons for needing things to the point where every pay check would go for another instrument or piece of gear.  But I really do appreciate the quick set up times, load outs and the added benefit of less wear and tear on my back.  The next time you load up to head out for a gig, try thinking about what you’re bringing in relationship to what you really need to bring.  You might be surprised at what you find you don’t miss.

Working on Andrew York’s “Quiccan”

For the past several weeks I’ve been working on the fourth guitar part of Andrew York’s quartet “Quiccan.”  I am working on it for the purpose of performing it with three other guitarists, two recent graduates of a music school and the third is currently pursuing his degree.  All three are good players and I am very happy to be working with them. “Quiccan” is one of those pieces that doesn’t really have an easy part to play, unlike some quartets or ensemble pieces where there are distinct differences between the parts’ degrees of difficulty.  In this case all four parts are decidedly challenging because many of the motifs circulate through all four parts at one point or another.  That being said, there are a few in there that don’t come through my part that I must say I’m relieved that I don’t have to pull off at this point!

            Thirty years ago I was finishing my degree in music and my classical guitar technique was excellent, far far better than it is currently.  Then I would have found the piece challenging and I have been finding it to be quite a challenge now.  However, working on it has been tremendously rewarding and while I don’t expect to be able to perform it at the same concert speed as the LAGQ or the Aquarelle Quartet, I do believe we’ll do it justice, because all four of us are enjoying the process and are capable players.

            The things that I find most challenging aren’t necessarily the physical playing requirements, but rather the various time signature changes and tempo changes, largely because it has been quite awhile since I’ve had to deal with them.  Once I’ve heard what I’m supposed to do, and have internalized it sufficiently that I can feel it, it’s starts to become fluent.  I’ve found that actively listening to other folks perform it has been a great help, as has our quartet leader’s, Shaun Zimmerman, patience in re-running the passages to give me the opportunity to feel the inner dance within the parts.  It really ends up being more of a connection to the pulse of the section.  When I end up feeling it in my core, I nail it.  I’ve also come to grips with the fact that while my sight-reading is still quite good, I can’t rely on it to carry me through these areas and some of the more demanding sections.  I need to devote time to working through, and even memorizing sections so that I reliably hit what I need to, when I need to, and with the musicality that they deserve.

            Working on demanding pieces like “Quiccan” does require investing time and effort into both laying the ground work and polishing the parts to create the whole, but it is very rewarding work when it all comes together.  At our most recent rehearsal, we ran the whole piece for the first time and while it still needs much loving attention, just making it through with it all being definitely recognizable (hee, hee), was an excellent experience in itself.

Our first public performance of the piece is scheduled for mid-April, so we still have just short of a month to further knock it into shape.  It’s going to take more time and concentrated effort, but we’ll get it there.  I am heartily looking forward to it!

Summer Gigging: What Should I Book?

Summer is closing in. I know that it’s not technically spring yet, but the summer local festival dates are coming in for my band, a booking process that started last fall. The area around Chicago has many summer outdoor gigging opportunities sponsored by the various suburban park systems and civic organizations. Some are summer concert series and others are special events, like festivals. Festivals are fun to play and typically the bigger they are, the more fun it is. One member of a band I’m currently working with prefers to play only these types of venues during the summer, which is understandable. Often these types of situations involve a built in audience, most of whom come specifically to listen to the music. For the festivals there is usually an actual sound company contracted to provide the PA system and run the boards, guaranteeing a better experience for the musicians (most of the time). Stage space is often more than ample and the crowds are appreciative. There are many benefit to doing these gigs during the summers; however, there are certain drawbacks to the outdoor venues, particularly when they are the only type of gig that is booked for the summer.

Outdoor gigs, such as those noted above, do offer quite a bit in terms of return for the band’s efforts. For one thing many of them pay pretty well, particularly the festivals. At the festivals, as well as some of the park gigs, the sound system is provided by folks who run and set up p.a. systems professionaly. This has multiple benefits for the band, not the least of which is the band doesn’t bear the responsibility of contracting and paying someone to come in and do so. Many bands can and do provide their own p.a. systems but usually don’t hire someone to run the board, because it’s an expense they don’t want to incur and they figure they can get things set they way they want them most of the time. This generally works well enough that it’s not an issue for small venues, but does overtask the band when working elsewhere. That being said, professionally provided sound systems usually provide a luxury experience for the performers. Sound is balanced on-stage through the provided monitors. What you need more or less of is delivered by simply asking the soundman and out front the mains are entirely in the hands of the same.

This type of situation also provides quite a bit of exposure for the performers, often to different types of crowds than are often run into in the club circuit. Most of these events are geared toward families, both young and old, while others cater to specific groups of folks. Any way you look at it, further exposure means a potentially larger fan-base, which could result in larger draws at clubs during the fall and winter, as well as potentially being re-booked for the following summer events. Plus, unlike many other venues, these events tend to be less predatory upon the acts they book. By that I mean they don’t just offer exposure as compensation for performing but also pay the performers.

There is a downside to outdoor performances, which is in itself no surprise. This type of gig is mostly weather dependent. While some do involve large tents that do more than provide shade, most of the time the stage areas are exposed to the elements and if it rains, you’re done. Cancellations can really suck the income out of a band if the summer turns out to be a particularly wet one, and while some places will attempt to reschedule, they are in the minority. Generally there will also be a clause in the contract covering payment in the event of a weather related cancellation, which usually indicates that the band does not get paid in this situation. There are also situations where inclement weather is threatening but it hasn’t started to rain as of yet. Since it is not raining you will be expected to set up and prepare to play until it does, or in the situation where there is a covered stage you will need to set up and wait for a break in the weather to start. If you don’t bring a tarp for your equipment and it rains, chances are your equipment, particularly anything electronic, is going to suffer damage, which you will solely be responsible for repairing or replacing.

Logically enough, if it’s a wet summer and your band has relied solely on outdoor venues for gigs, you are going to have a major income deficit, which will be a big deal if you’re relying on the income to make ends meet. If that is the case, then it would be wise to pursue as many indoor venues as possible in addition to the outdoor ones. While some might think that in areas with substantial opportunities to see live performances outdoors it will result in lower draws at indoor venues, this is not necessarily the case. Clubs will still draw crowds, particularly if your band is popular. Some of this has to do with target audiences. Most of the local outdoor events are indeed geared toward being family friendly and the crowds are generally filled with families and folks who really aren’t interested in hanging out in bars and nightclubs. There are some outdoor venues that cater to the twenty to thirty something folks, singles and couples, who are out having a good time, but these people are still more likely to be hitting the nightclubs and bars. The festivals that are populated by this demographic tend to be more focused on multiple band events, primarily with quite popular local and national touring acts brought together for large events. So, what are you looking forward to this summer?

Carpe Vita

Sorry about the length of time that has passed since my last post. I’ve been caught up in grading mid-term exams and tallying grades for my part time English professor gig here in Chicago. This has created a bit of a time crunch in my world, forcing a temporary focal change for the week. During periods such as this I inevitably find myself growing increasingly irritable and short-tempered, largely because I find days passing where I don’t have a musical instrument in my hands and I’m not writing. Instead it becomes a seemingly endless stream of passing judgment on other folks’ written work and analyzing what they can do to improve. Not a bad gig, but quite time consuming even when it’s part time. Now that midterms and additional papers are in the bag I can thankfully turn my frontal lobes back to what matters most to me workwise, making music and writing. These periods do, however, make me consider the whole concept of having or budgeting time, and all too often it does tend to seem like time is something we never have enough of.

Frequently we get caught up in the routines and expectations of day jobs, family life and then, when we’re tired at the end of the day, sack out in front of the idiot box (a.k.a. TV) to amuse ourselves until we fall asleep. We then think wistfully about all of the things we could accomplish, often relating to our dream jobs or dying dreams, if only we had enough time. Oh well, someday we’ll have the opportunity is often the next thing that comes to mind. In reality none of us really know how much time we have. We hope that we will have long healthy lives and some of us do, but many end up having lives that are all too brief in their passing.

Some years back Robin Williams was in a film titled “The Dead Poets Society” in which he plays an English teacher at a private high school for boys to whom he introduces the beauty and life in poetry and the ideas behind the phrase “Carpe Diem.” The concept of Carpe Diem, or live for the day, does come into play here but on the surface it might seem a bit on the shallow side until we really think about what it means and what it doesn’t mean. Carpe Diem doesn’t mean that we don’t make goals for our future, or plans that play out over extended periods of time. It has more to do with the concept of mindful living and being aware of how we spend our present moments, in essence what we do with our time every day of our lives.

In order to truly live for the day, it is vital that we pay attention to what is important to us and act accordingly. My wife mentioned an article she recently read where the writer stated that we make time for the things that are important to us and if they aren’t truly important, we won’t make time for them. I think he was partially correct in this. Yes, sometimes this is the case, but all too often we let moments, hours, days, sometimes weeks and even years pass without seizing or making time to become more than we are. Sometimes fear stops us, but sometimes it’s a pattern of behavior that we’ve grown so accustomed to that breaking out of it seems to be a superhuman task. Inertia can also be a powerful barrier to overcome, particularly when we’ve empowered it with negative self-talk and/or listening to too many naysayers in the crowd. Nevertheless, making time for the things that are important to us is what we need to do.

Having the ability to recognize when we’re veering off course from our daily goals is key to ensuring that we are indeed living according to our personal Carpe Diem credo. This in itself takes both practice and self-discipline. All too frequently we find that we have essentially robbed ourselves of time that could have been spent in a manner that left us feeling more fulfilled. Many of us get sidetracked either through chores around the house which suddenly become incredibly important to do right at this instant, or a mindless activity like a videogame where our intent was to take maybe a five minute break which somehow we emerge from an hour or more later. While this doesn’t mean that we don’t do our chores, and that we never play a videogame or sack out in a vegetative state in front of the television, it does mean that we must make conscious choices about how we’re using, and all too often, wasting our time.

So, how do we change? How do we make time for what we love, our avocation, the things that we were/are meant to be and to express the talents we have? I think that is something that each one of us has to answer for ourselves, but the first step for all of us is to reprioritize our schedules and accept that the bottom line is that we must make time. Then, at the end of each day, it’s not a bad idea to reflect on how that day went and what you accomplished that moved you a step closer to where you want to be, whether it is as a musician, artist, writer, or whatever your avocation is. This is not a time for whipping yourself, but rather to think in terms of today, yesterday, tomorrow and where or what you desire to be before your clock stops ticking. Ultimately you’ll know whether you’ve moved yourself forward, held or lost ground, but then that was today, this day, and only this day. Tomorrow is a reset, with its own moments to seize and your next opportunity to make time for what truly matters most to you.

When to Step Away: How Do I Know When It’s Time?

As musicians we frequently learn the most from playing in situations that push our boundaries, especially when we are playing with others who play at a more accomplished level than we do, or in a less familiar genre than we usually work in which requires us to learn, frequently quite a bit, quickly and adapt readily. While if we do this all the time it might be damaging to our egos, it often can be quite rewarding and teaches us that we are more capable than we thought we were. This is a healthy, albeit sometimes uncomfortable, challenging environment that does promote growth. These are situations which should be welcomed and sought after for the betterment of our abilities, but what do we do in situations where we aren’t getting what we need musically; when do we know we should step away and move onto something else?

Self-knowledge can go a long way in allowing us to realize that we’re stepping into situations that we aren’t compatible with to begin with, or to recognize when a situation is starting to veer away from where we want to be or go. If we know that a given type of situation is likely to lead to our being dissatisfied, unhappy, or even downright hostile, then it is up to us to take a pass on the job, regardless of how much it pays. Sometimes we still take the job despite this knowledge figuring we can deal with it for the short term or whatever justification we come up with, and sometimes it works. Most of the time it turns out as we expected and we end up kicking ourselves for making the move to begin with.

If you are a person who does well in situations where you are essentially a side-man(woman), or hired gun there are some situations that work beautifully for that type of individual. There are some bands where musicians are hired to fulfill specific functions by a bandleader who determines exactly what direction things are going to flow in and what the band’s goals are. This is fine when this is understood from the start. In fact, this type of situation is the norm in many types of music and in many types of gig situations, and are often some of the better paying gigs to hook up with. When going into one of these support positions it is very important to know if you are capable of happily fulfilling the requirements, and if you have an affinity for the type of music the band specializes in. If so, then these types of situations can become excellent bread and butter jobs.

The more complicated situation is where the band functions mostly as a democracy and this requires that the individuals can deal with a majority rules situation. Here, all voices should be heard and issues need to be discussed with full transparency. The sooner an issue arises, the sooner it must be dealt with in order for the band to keep functioning smoothly. It is extremely important that all of the band members share the same goals and aspirations for the band, otherwise conflict will ensue, either quickly or gradually. If you find yourself in a band that functions this way, but find that your voice seldom has an impact on things that matter to you, then you should seriously consider moving to a different band where you have more say in your fate. We work as performers largely out of a love for music; if we don’t like the music we have to perform, it shows and takes its toll. Talk things through with your bandmates. If things don’t change then it’s definitely time for you to make a change, and this can be accomplished with a minimum of fuss or hard feelings.

Situations inevitably become most fragile when the band members have goals that conflict with the overall goals of the band. If, for instance, your goal as a musician is to make a living performing, then joining a band that has a stated performance goal of twice a month is a sure fire way to end up needing to move on. The band has it’s own agenda while you have yours, which is fine, but I guarantee that the end result is going to lead to stress. They are going to have rehearsal expectations that often will take time away from you’re possibly taking outside gigs. You’ll definitely need to work with additional groups in order to book enough dates in a month to make your money, which is going to result in scheduling conflicts between the various groups and someone is going to end up upset. So if your goals are significantly different from the band you’re plugging in with as an active member, make sure that it’s clear at the outset. Even then in all likelihood you’ll need to eventually part ways for something that matches your goals and expectations more closely.

Sometimes the dynamics change in the band that we’ve been with. Whether it is a shift in direction, too much time playing the same material, issues with existing members or new members, or personal issues within our families on the home front, change is inevitable. In these situations transparency is the best option. If you’re no longer satisfied with what you’re doing then do everyone a favor, especially yourself, and find something else that better suits your needs. In this, as in all of the cases noted above, always approach the situation calmly and professionally. If you decide to move on be honest about it and give your notice so you’re not leaving your soon to be co-workers in a lurch. You always want to make sure that to the best of your ability you leave on a positive note and don’t burn bridges. Burning bridges usually has a way of coming back and haunting those that torch them.