Mid-Life Paradigm Shifts: Seeking the Truth, and Finding It.

For most of my career I’ve been a dedicated sideman, and that applies to both as a bassist and as a guitarist. I’ve worked in tons of bands in many different locations, doing my part for the group and serving the interests of the music we’ve been playing. Occasionally I’ve had the opportunity to stretch, and regardless of the genre I’ve made opportunities to have my moments in the spotlight, but for the most part I’ve played the role of the supporting musician and I’ve played it well. I have occasionally spent time pursuing solo gigs, where I am the sole focus, but haven’t piloted my own band project and the solo projects have always ended up being side projects rather than my main focus.

I did this initially because I was trying to break into scenes in different locations, and then for years sold myself short on my abilities for various reasons. I also have an innate desire to not be in charge, something I picked up an aversion to in the military many years ago. I do well following direction; give me a job and I’ll do it, so that aspect has always been pretty straight-forward and easy. I learned quite a bit through working this way over the years and I’ve become quite a good utility musician. This pattern has also allowed me to spend periods immersed in different types of music, which I also respond well to. It has kept things fresh and provided variety, which I need.

However, there are aspects to this approach which have had negative consequences in some ways. For one, I haven’t found that career arc that most people want to see. My track has been one band after another, some better than others, and some worse, but with no consistent climb. For another, when each band runs its course and inevitably closes shop, I’m left with a hole to fill. There’s no carryover thread that links things together, nor long term goals that are being met, aside from filling a calendar and then when the band is gone, so is the calendar. This is problematic. I’ve also become the chameleon when it comes to music. I function as each specific band needs me to which leads to a certain element of an identity crisis. There’s that question that some actors end up hitting hard, particularly those who ascribe to method acting, becoming the role. After doing this constantly, what happens to your own identity? Do you even have one left after adopting so many others?

After years of working in this business and constantly molding myself into what I have perceived as what others needed and wanted me to be, I am left with that ultimate question of what do I want. What do I want to do that is going to be the element of change that shifts my career into that arc that I define and pursue; what is that something that is going to provide the thread from this point on that is driven by me? We all hear people discussing the concept of reinvention, and we’ve all seen so-called reinventions appear that are essentially simply rebranding and slightly tweaking an existing entity that really ends up being the same thing it was before, to paraphrase Pete Townsend and The Who, “here’s the new boss, same as the old boss.” I don’t want to keep going down that road; there’s nothing fresh there.

The time has definitely come for my paradigm to shift and for that to happen requires that I cease operating under the business as usual stencil. When we get to the point where we’re starting to perceive the light at the end of the tunnel, we have to take stock of where we’ve been and what we’ve accomplished, and then assess that based on what our dreams were. If we are content with that state, then the light at the end is something we’d rather avoid, but at least we can feel like we’ve accomplished most of what we wanted to during our stay on this plane. This past summer the end of the tunnel appeared to be quite close by, and I must say that I found my tally to be, shall I say, quite dissatisfying. Thankfully, I’ve learned that the tunnel is still quite potentially long, but the period of assessment has given me pause. I have much that I still want to accomplish as a musician, a writer, and as a family man. In order to do so means that I have to take the driver’s seat now, not some time in the abstract future. Yes Mr. Dylan, “these times, they are a changing.”

My Daily Musical Meditation Practice

Sometimes nothing feels better than picking up an instrument and moving my fingers over the strings. The tactile sensation of pushing the strings down onto the fret and pushing the notes into the air, can in and of itself brings a sense of peace into my soul, and for a little while nothing else matters. Ironically enough, I don’t even have to play an existing piece of music for this to happen. Sometimes these moments come in quiet doodling, essentially a stream of consciousness playing out across the fret-board as I listen to the sounds and feel each string under my fingers. I guess what this amounts to is being in the moment, and then each one that follows until my brain and spirit are loose enough to start concentrating on moving onto the work that needs to be done. Sometimes what comes out is simply random notes or phrases, but sometimes ideas come from this accessing of my subconscious that can be transformed into solid ideas for pieces in the future.

Of course there is the danger of spending too much time doing this and not getting anything else done that might be construed as progress, and this is a legitimate concern. Just like any other activity that could be seen as self-indulgent, the key here is to move forward, not simply exist in an ethereal world. But, being in the moment where I am simply experiencing these moments of inner joy and peace do carry over into when I am ready to go to work. I’m much more focused on what needs to get done, and I’m happier doing it, not perceiving it as something I have to do and instead feeling an appreciation for what each moment’s work brings. Not bad for ten to fifteen minutes of meandering.

Another interesting thing about this is that while I’m wandering around the fingerboard, I start to put things together in ways that make sense. The spontaneous improvisations start to come together in a manner that is music with purpose, as opposed to disconnected notes and phrases. This can be quite satisfying creatively. The process of creating something out of nothing, on the spot, and having it sound like a piece of music; of sitting down with an instrument, a blank mind, and beginning to play one note that leads to several, then to development and conclusion; this is something that does take skills that have already been established, and also takes something else, practice, a practice in creativity. This spontaneous creation is something that fulfills a basic creative need in me, and when I do it well, I get immense internal returns from it.

From my experiences doing these essentially musical meditation sessions before moving on to my more conventional working on the pieces practice regimen, and as I find the end results improving musically, I do sometimes wonder if there would be value in bringing this concept into the performance hall. This is something that could either be good, or absolutely awful, so if I were to do so I would want to ensure that what I was perceiving as good while I was playing, indeed sounded good when listening. Simply recording these sessions and listening to them with a stern critical ear would be a good test of this, as well as having others listen to the recordings with the understanding that they would be brutally honest in their assessment and reception of the moments as an audience. If the response is positive, then I might go ahead and try it but I would probably want to avoid scheduling an entire concert based upon free form improvisation.

At this point, I don’t intend to go the full free form route. Maybe at a later date I’ll introduce some into the program, but this is something that I do for me, in the moment, that helps me with my inner relationship with music and my instruments. It serves the purpose of keeping me centered and positively focused on doing the work that we all do as musicians, and for me that’s a pretty important plus, so I will continue with my daily bouts of spontaneity. I love the feeling of my fingers moving over the fingerboard, pushing big fat bass strings to the fret, or thinner nylon and steel guitar strings, pulling them with my right hand and hearing the sound as they vibrate into life. That moment when the note sprouts and then blossoms into a music phrase, then followed by the next, brings a quiet joy into my daily routine that I never want to be without.

Shit, the Band Fell Apart: Now What

Finding a new group to work with is something we all have to deal with from time to time, no matter what level of player we are. It can be a difficult and somewhat frustrating endeavor, but it is important that when we go through the process we have a solid idea of what we want out of the group, how much time and effort we’re willing or can afford to spend on the new project, and whether the music involved is what we’re interested in playing. Sometimes we rush, or get impatient and end up committing to something we don’t have much interest in simply because it seems like we’re not finding what we really want and think that at least that way we’re playing. You’re actually better off hitting open mics to get your fix until you find a situation that floats your boat rather than committing to something that you know won’t last, because generally those situations don’t end well for anyone.

Whether you are searching for an additional project, or you are looking for a new main gig, knowing what you want from the situation is vital to your search. If you’re looking for something to strengthen your abilities in a genre that’s new to you, then you should have a target genre or two that you are interested in pursuing. Be honest with yourself in assessing your current skill levels so you know how far you are willing to stretch beyond your normal comfort zone, and how much time you can commit to learning new material. If you figure you can only handle one or two gigs a month, either from an availability perspective or simply because that’s all you want to do, make sure that you are looking at ads that share the same goal with you for the performance schedule. Likewise, if what you need is a band that plans on gigging regularly then don’t spend inordinate amounts of time contacting and arranging auditions with bands that have no intention of doing so. If you’re intent is to fill your performance schedule through playing with multiple groups, which many folks do, make sure that the bands you are seeking out are ok with that. Many of the weekend warrior groups don’t like working with folks who are in multiple groups because it makes booking more complex. This is also one of the things that separates the semi-pros from the actual local pros.

Your attitude toward money is also a consideration to take into account. If you are expecting to actually earn money from playing then that is something you need to be up front about with the band you’re auditioning for. There are many folks out there who’s attitude is that if you expect to be paid you should do something else, and while we all do this out of one level of love of music or another, there are just as many of us who are firm believers that we should be paid for what we do. If you are in the pay me camp, as am I, then taking a position in a band that plays for the fun of it, doesn’t make sense unless you are willing to do so because the music is something you’ve always wanted to play. Even then, do some soul searching before taking the gig. Almost every band out there will occasionally play a benefit of some sort where you are donating your services to the cause being supported. You do get exposure from that but the primary thing is supporting the charity. That is an entirely different thing than paying to play, or performing for exposure while the venue is raking in cash from your skills.

Sometimes it seems like we are stuck in a desert as we pour over Craigslist ads, corkboards in music stores, or other online musician communities. We can search for weeks without finding something we’re truly interested in pursuing, lose our patience and start answering ads that don’t really fit the bill just so we can get back in the saddle again. Once in awhile this works, but most often if we aren’t at least internally enthusiastic about the project we’ll end up either in conflict with someone or wasting everyone’s time involved. Goals are incredibly important in making things work, and if your goals don’t match the group’s there will inevitably be conflict of some sort. Think back to that girlfriend or boyfriend you fell for who started trying to change you into someone they really wanted to be with, who wasn’t who you really were. Was it a pleasant experience? How did it end? How do you feel even thinking about it? Yeah, bands are just like that. Don’t think that you’ll sneak in and then change things to meet your needs. Instead, find or create a new situation that will do so, not at the expense of someone else’s.

If you’re unsure about what you want, take the time to figure it out. You might find doing so to chafe a bit, but it’s time well spent. Hit the local open mics to keep your live chops honed and keep your performance jones somewhat fed. Doing so keeps you fresh, while also providing the opportunity to make contacts in the community that could lead to pickup work and possibly a new band or two to work with. It can also lead to establishing a pool of players to recruit from if you decide “to hell with this, I’m starting my own band.” Word of mouth can do wonders in helping you find a situation that meets, and often exceeds your needs. Be patient, yes, but get out there and do it while you can!