Those Hot Summer Nights: A Reminiscence Upon an Instrumental Love Affair

We all have our dream instruments, which often change over the years. Sometimes they link themselves to treasured memories and times that we associate with those memories. When I was in high school my dream guitar was the Gibson Les Paul. Other guitars were cool but the Gibson Les Paul was a thing of beauty that was the pinnacle of the electric guitar and my lust for one was intense, but wholly unattainable due to finances. I was coming of age in a small town in Ohio; it was the late seventies and boutique instruments were far to the future. It was a time filled with rock, Led Zeppelin, Boston, Chicago, Yes, Foghat, Aerosmith and a slew of others. There were essentially two camps of guitarists, those who played Gibsons and those who played Fenders, and for me it was definitely the Gibson camp. I spent hours hanging out at the music store with my teacher, whose bass player, a big friendly guy with a big heart, let me while away the hours playing his stock of Gibsons and in return I kept them all polished and clean. He eventually lost the store due to bad money management and a tendency to snort what did come in.

Since I couldn’t afford a Gibson I played copies that were in my price range. The first was a Crestwood Les Paul that had a bolt on neck and appointments to make it look like an LP Deluxe. It was black with silver hardware and I loved it, spending hours tinkering with it to lower the action and ultralight strings in an attempt to make it play like the real ones so far out of touch. It was a workhorse for me and it was what I used in the first band I ever played out with, The Sons of the Maverick Kings. I hooked up with them the summer following my junior year in high school, which would have been 1980. I was the only one still in high school. The other guys were graduates ranging from 19 to 22 or so. We were three guitarists, a bass player and a drummer and we rehearsed in a tiny town south of my home town of Alliance. I met them through the music store where I polished the Les Pauls.

We started rehearsing and hanging out, and the guys landed a couple of gigs, one of which was the drummer’s family reunion and the other was a gig at a small town celebratory festival in Minerva where we played on a stage built from a semi trailer. About this time they decided that I needed better equipment so they worked a deal for me through a friend who had an Ibanez Les Paul copy that was quite a few steps up from the Crestwood in overall quality. I had a Kustom sparkle tucked and rolled upholstered blue sparkle 100 watt bass amp that had a pair of 15 inch speakers in it that my parents had purchased with a Farfisa keyboard. I, with their blessing, traded the amp for the Ibanez, now know as a lawsuit era guitar, and I was one step closer to the dream. Today, those are sought after by many folks because they really were excellent guitars, and I really dug that guitar. I used both the Crestwood and the Ibanez for the remainder of the time I was with the band.

The following year my priorities shifted and I started getting ready to audition at music schools, focusing on my classical playing and immersing myself in just that. My electrics went into the closet and so did my old rock and roll dreams, where they remained for years. The guitars ended up being sold at a garage sale for about $150 each, and I ended up playing a hand built Masuro Khono K30 classical starting my sophomore year in college. Time has passed by since then and things and guitars have come and gone as have dreams and phases.

At this point in my life, my love affair with the Gibson Les Paul is a fond memory. I’ve had a few and they’ve been sold in favor of other instruments along the way. I’ve even had a dedicated love affair with the venerable Fender Telecaster, which I performed with for a decade or so. Honestly, they’re not as beautiful as the Les Paul, but they have their definite plusses. I’ve even spent quite awhile with a Gretsch, which recently went to a new home. Now I’m finding myself drenched in nylon strung guitars, which will be my next phase for the foreseeable future, with ithat host of dream instruments and those I actually work with. I am very happy with my instruments and the dreams and memories they hold, but I will always associate my dream Les Paul with the days of my youth spent running the back roads of rural Ohio in a late 60s Dodge; heading to rehearsals on those hot summer evenings when the crickets are wailing among the cornstalks.

Quality versus Quantity: Developing a Focused Practice Regimen

Practicing is an important part of being a musician. It builds skills, increases repertoire and also contributes to stamina. It also helps us assert our identities as musicians. Musicians make music, ergo to rephrase a philosopher’s statement I play therefore I am. Years ago, when I was in music school, I regularly spent eight hours a day in the practice room. Three to four hours of this I spent specifically on exercises with the remainder dedicated to working on pieces, as well as some time spent sight reading others. This was in addition to the time I spent in class and doing my homework. I was young and driven by the desire to become the best player I could and a large part of that relied heavily on building the fundamental technical skills to do so. I definitely reaped the benefits of the time I dedicated to my avocation, and I still benefit from that groundwork I laid down over 25 years ago. Today, my life is different and I have a more complicated day-to-day existence in some ways. Now my approach to practice isn’t what it was then. For one thing, I don’t practice for eight hours a day, so I need to be more selective in how I approach things and work in a more specific goal oriented manner.

I’m not in any way stating that I no longer need to practice; quite the contrary, in fact. I still need to practice and I need to increase the amount of time I dedicate to it. At this point it’s a good day when I work in two hours dedicated to direct musical growth. At 52 I still have ample room for improvement; technically I’m not as proficient as I was 30 years ago, which, if I let myself dwell upon it, can be a source for bouts of depression. However, today what concerns me more than the technical issues is increasing repertoire. The bottom line is having sufficient repertoire to perform in multiple venues, in a variety of situations calling for different types and styles of music. So while technique is still a concern, it isn’t my go-to time commitment. Exercises are great but when it comes down to it, much of what we see as traditional exercise regimens can be covered in sections of music, which yields similar benefits to the drills while increasing performable pieces at the same time. We practice exercises to be able to execute pieces, so this approach double-teams the issue.

I haven’t ditched working on the technical exercises entirely, because I am comfortable with the process and I know the benefits it yields in terms of enabling me to be able to perform at a higher level. These drills do serve their purposes well and also provide material to warm up with. The thing is I have to budget my time in a way that maximizes applicable returns, so I’m getting the most out the time spent. Thus it becomes a question more of quality over quantity. This leads to a more goal specific approach to my practice time. I practice what I need to in order to achieve the goals set. If a piece calls for extended use of a right hand tremolo technique for me to be able to perform it, then that’s one of the focuses of my practice time, and working the sections of the piece that call upon that skill bring about the desired results, but if I’m not dealing with pieces that call for that skill, then spending the time developing it doesn’t fit the scheme of things, and doesn’t contribute to achieving the overall goal. Let’s face it, how many gigs can you do with a repertoire consisting of exercise drills?

So, currently I set my goals for my practice sessions based upon what needs to be accomplished from a performance perspective and prioritize based upon what I can learn on the job versus what I really need to sit down and spend concentrated effort working on. Much of what I do as a bass player with my current band simply requires sketching things out and then letting the parts settle in through rehearsal and performance. It doesn’t require a lot of concentrated practice time on my part to successfully work through the band repertoire, so unless we’re working on something that requires in depth technical attention, I don’t worry about it too much. My practice time ends up being focused on the finger-style and classical guitar work at hand, which does reap benefits for my bass playing as well through constant application of right hand work. I readily see a difference in my speed and dexterity due to this. When I practice, I spend some time warming up with exercises to get the hands moving in a healthy way without straining them, and then dive into the work I need to accomplish for the day, based on need and desire.

Practicing is a necessity, and any musician who states otherwise is definitely not performing to his or her potential, nor will he or she ever do so until actually sitting down and doing the work behind the art. Just like any other serious pursuit, success, no matter how you define it, requires spending time learning and reinforcing our fundamentals, particularly when we seek continued forward growth. Practice time provides that, but the quality of that time spent is entirely dependent upon the goals we set each time we sit down with our instruments. We need to bring focus to our efforts and a conscious in the moment approach to our practice time. Knowing the specifics of what we want to accomplish during our time spent radically increases the possibility that the time spent will be spent well.

 

The Mid Week Gig Challenge: Working with a Low Keyed Crowd

Sometimes we take gigs that turn out to be uphill battles for the night. More often than not they happen on off nights during the week where a bar owner is trying to stimulate business on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday by having a theme night, with an early start time for the band but anybody coming to the event has to go to work the next morning. Generally it provides more business, but the crowds tend to be more sedate and focused on social interactions than the entertainment hired.   If you’ve worked one of these you know the situation: the crowd is unresponsive no matter how well you’ve played, and you can’t help but start to feel discouraged because you’re not getting any energy from them to bolster that which you’ve just expended. It can make an evening at work feel like it’s a week and when you end up packing it in for the night the discouragement from the performers is a palpable cloud pressing down on the stage area. You’ve just given your all for a crowd that acts like you’re not even up there on stage, and seemingly could care less. That might indeed be the case, but then again, it might not be.

Music fills many roles; sometimes it’s a catalyst for movement and overt expression, but at other times it is relegated to the background. It all depends on the situation and the nature of the crowd. As musicians, most of us crave approval and feel like we’ve failed when we don’t overtly get it. We want the applause; let’s face it, we love it and live for it. When we don’t get it, we tend to be upset and feel unappreciated. But there are crowds that gather places where there’s music who aren’t actually there for the music. They’re there to meet up with friends they haven’t seen for some time and want to be able to catch up with them, discuss what’s been going on, new additions to the family, new jobs, whatever. The music is nice for them, in the background, but it really isn’t their focus.

This is disappointing for the performers, but it shouldn’t really be any kind of surprise. How many times have we ourselves, gone out for dinner with friends or family, wanted to talk, but there was too much background noise to comfortably do so? It’s happened to all of us at some time or other. Granted, there are some places where talking while people are performing is wholly inappropriate, but does that apply to a local watering hole’s beer garden? Not really. But it still leaves us with a job to do and a responsibility to give it our best shot until quitting time per the contract. So how do we deal with it and somehow keep the energy up?

Some of us deal with it by looking at it as paid rehearsal time. We’re set up and have a contract to play, so we do, looking at it as a run through rehearsal for times when the audience is more overtly involved. This is fine, as long as you don’t forget that you’re actually logging in performance time. Another way to deal with it is to look at it as playing for yourself. What better time to step outside of the band’s regular box and stretch a bit. Shake things up. Throw extra solos around to folks who don’t normally get them. Let everybody stretch and take some risks. If things go well you might actually pull some of the audience away from their conversations because you’ve done something interesting with a tune that they’ve heard done the same way all of their lives and here is a new way to hear it. Go to the music itself for the return as opposed to expecting it from the crowd. If you do so, it won’t let you down and will salvage your evening, hopefully turning it into something other than punching the time clock.

As performers we all have egos, and having a night where our spotlight has been relegated elsewhere hurts. On these nights we really simply need to assess the crowd dynamic before taking it to heart, particularly on the middle of the week gigs. We should have enough security in our abilities to be able to determine whether we’re performing poorly and attribute it to that, or to realize that we’re doing our part but the audience has other plans for the evening. The important thing is to not take it personally when the audience is seeking a soundtrack for their evening rather than a concert. It’s also a good thing to set your inner expectations accordingly. Plan on it being time for the band to play together for the fun of it and to reinforce the material covered. If the crowd becomes interactive and digs it, it’s a bonus.

The Working Band: The Importance of a Large and Varied Repertoire

One of the difficult things about being in a working band is coming up with a variety of repertoire that can serve you well regardless of the situation, particularly when your band is very genre specific. Artistic integrity is great, but quite frankly it doesn’t necessarily build a band following, and the inability to stretch outward to engage your current audience can be detrimental to future booking possibilities. This doesn’t mean that all bands have to be essentially live juke boxes; it just means that there needs to be give and take between the performers and the audience. Usually this means that the band needs to have a catalogue of tunes they can draw from that exceeds the three 45 minute sets standard, sometimes significantly. The deeper you can go with your repertoire, the better off you’re going to be when it comes to keeping your audience engaged and better your chances of being rehired at a potentially better rate in the future.

Bands that have an extensive catalogue of music to draw from have a definite leg up when it comes to building a following. For one thing it encourages varying the material present in the set lists. If your band has enough tunes for four sets, and plays those tunes at every gig, chances are you will end up losing people from their following because your band has become predictable, particularly when it gets to the point where the fans could even tell you what tune was charted next. When you have a deep pocket of tunes to draw from, this becomes a non-issue because you can program changes in material from gig to gig, and if it seems like the right thing to do, step outside of the current set list for something that the night’s current crowd might respond better to.

Having more repertoire that you “need” also has the benefit of enabling the band to be able to handle taking requests, something that is a major plus in building a following. This is a major form of interaction between the audience and the performers and if your band can’t, or won’t, take requests from the audience you’re basically shooting yourself in the foot. If you’re dedicated to your particular genre, that’s not a big deal, just make sure that you can draw a large number of standard tunes out of your hat as needed. You don’t have to dedicate yourself to the top 40 of your area, but you need to be able to trot them out on an as needed/requested basis. It might offend your sense of artistic purity, but let’s face it if you’re going to get paid then you need to deal with being an entertainer and entertain your audience. So you have to trot out a few tunes that you’ve played more than you ever wanted to, it’s a small price to pay for being able to do the ones you really care about and it’s going to make the audience much more receptive to your personal indulgences.

Another benefit of a large catalogue to draw from is that it keeps things interesting for the performers as well. Playing the same thing, night after night and often in the same order, is a real interest killer not just for the audience but also for the band members. The broader the catalogue, the less you’re going to suffer from a lack of personal stimulus. If you find yourself so familiar with the same thing that you’re watching the bar TVs while you’re performing, it’s a bad sign. For one thing, you’re on auto-pilot which means that you might be playing everything right, but you have disconnected from what you have been hired to do, perform. For another, you have reached the point of boredom with what you are doing. It’s no longer fresh and you are simply not interested in it anymore. If you aren’t interested, then your audience isn’t going to be either, and if they aren’t then you’re going to have a hard time rebooking the band. And why are you doing this anyway?   One of the reasons we have chosen the path we’re on is a love of music. Performing in these situations sucks the life out of what we do, and can kill our relationship with our work faster than a team of athletes can wipe out a buffet after practice.

Variety is something that should be embraced. It keeps people interested in what we do, both as performers and as audience members. As musicians it is very important to realize that what we do involves a symbiotic relationship with our audiences, and it’s a relationship that needs to be nurtured just like any other; particularly if we want to encourage growth and a mutually beneficial outcome.   We need our audiences, and while we might not want to admit it, we need them more than they need us. Part of convincing them that they do indeed need us is giving them what they want: a good show, interaction, and the chance to forget about all of the crap they’ve had to deal with over the past few days, at least for awhile. One of the ways we can ensure that we’re doing so is by having a catalogue to draw from that keeps things interesting for everyone involved and also allows the audience to have a feeling of belonging. Being able to take a request from an audience member gives them that while showing that you care about them, and that you have an active interest in their happiness. Build your repertoire and broaden it on a regular basis. It’s a win win situation for everyone!

The Truth is in the Video: Using Recordings to Improve Your Performance

Last summer I took a writing challenge for the month of July to produce one essay per day for the entire month.  Originally my intent was to not post them, but preserve them as a collection for publication; however, I haven’t gotten around to putting them into book form as of yet, so I’ve decided to start releasing them on my blog site rather than hoarding them.  All of them relate to my experience as a musician and are thus pertinent to this blog site.  Some are bass related, while others are guitar related, band related or profession related.  Here is the first of the series, written July 1st of 2015:

Last weekend I played a gig on bass with my usual blues-rock band that I’ve been providing the low end for almost three years now. I had a very limited stage footprint because quarters were tight for the five of us. When this happens I usually abscond with a chair or stool from one of the nearby tables and use it for at least part of the night. My knees aren’t what they used to be some twenty years ago and if I stand in one spot for hours without moving around they give me notice that they’re unhappy with me. We also play two 90 minute sets per evening, instead of the more usual four sets of 45-50 minutes, which means that you’ve got your instrument dragging on your shoulder for quite awhile before a break. It can wear. Whether I sit or stand has very little impact on the quality of the sound, and frankly it can lead to more precision on my part. It does have a subtle impact on my performance, which the simple tool of videoing a recent performance clearly demonstrated.

When things are going well and I’m on my feet, moving around, I end up having more of an emotional and visceral connection to the music. My bass lines tend to be livelier and to have more punch in terms of getting other folks to get off their feet and move to the music. I know this to be the case and when I have the room to move around I prefer to stand, but if I just have enough room to stand and be stationary it ends up being a pretty uncomfortable night which sends me in search of something to plant my behind on for the evening.

It is important to be comfortable when you are performing, because when you are comfortable you will inevitably focus more on what you’re doing than the distractions provided by discomfort. However, there are conventions that are present with different types of performance venues and different genres of music. When we step outside of these conventions it does have an impact on the experience as a whole, whether we realize it or not. This particularly holds true for live performances because the expectations are that the experience is going to provide visual stimulus as well as aural. It’s a complete package deal for the audience who is there to have a good time, hopefully a great time. For the types of music I most often perform, energy pays a massive dividend in influencing the crowds reception of the performance and musicians who are actively moving around on stage with the music tend to communicate enthusiasm and positive energy, which the crowd feeds upon. So do the musicians for that matter, because when the crowd reflects that positive energy back to the musicians it becomes a highly symbiotic relationship.

I’m somewhat of an introvert by nature and lean toward being taciturn, not given to overt displays and such, which isn’t so bad in a bass player because after all, we tend to be relegated to the background anyway, ceding the spotlight to front people and guitarists. However, there comes a point where one can become a visual energy black hole, and sometimes we need to be reminded of this. The band leader videoed the performance from last weekend and posted us performing “Crossroads Blues,” the old Robert Johnson tune popularized by Eric Clapton and Cream, on Facebook. The musical aspect of what we did was quite good; to use the vernacular it cooked along. Watching it was something else, at least for me.   There I was in the back, seated, perfectly still and expressionless; laying it down on my bass, and moving it along but to all appearances inert. The chair didn’t help things visually because it emphasized the inertia my body was communicating. I was seated lower than the keyboard player and the drummer. My fingers on both hands were moving, but that was it. Mentally I was into what I was doing, but you couldn’t tell from a visual perspective. Ironically enough, if I had been seated on a stool it would have somewhat ameliorated the situation because then I would have been tall enough to have more of a presence on the stage, but because I was so rooted in place it really had an effect on the visual impact.

I’ve been a performer for quite a long time and I’ve learned a lot over the years. The biggest thing I have learned is that no matter how long I do this there is always something that I can improve on, no matter what level I’m performing at. Sometimes, it’s simply reinforcing something I already learned by reminding me that it needs my attention again, and other times it’s much more heavy duty musically, and involves significant woodshedding. It’s surprising how something that seems like such a little thing, like the visual and physical difference between a stool and a chair, can yield such a profound difference in the quality of the performance. The details do matter; live recordings don’t lie, and none of us are too old or experienced to learn and improve. Videoing performances may be painful for some folks, but it’s a great way to get a reality check when it comes down to making improvements in your show, when used properly. Make sure that you give yourself props on what you’ve done well when reviewing them, but also ensure that you use them to help make the next performance a better experience for everyone.