Repetitive Stress Injuries: Temporarily Side-lined

Some aspects of pain are a natural byproduct of learning an instrument and are to be expected.  For stringed instrument players building calluses on the finger tips is an excellent example of this.  You practice until you’re uncomfortable, then stop and try again later.  Eventually your fingers grow accustomed to the sensation of working the strings and you build sufficient callus on the each finger to no longer have an issue with it.  Working unfamiliar muscles can result in lactic acid buildup which brings a different sort of discomfort, but one that most folks who have exercised are familiar with.   Stretching is vital to avoid many injuries, but it is also an area that is not addressed very often in the learning process.  Most of the time it comes up when an injury is either forming or has already manifested itself.

I have been having some issues with might right elbow that indicate that I probably have a repetitive stress injury that is impacting the ulnar nerve.  It seems to be a bass-centric injury in that the worst symptoms arise when I’ve been working with the bass as opposed to the guitar.  I’ve concluded that the ergonomics of my guitar playing are different than my bass playing.  One of my doctors agrees, and after noting the worsening of the symptoms, she stated that I should take an extended break from bass playing before the symptoms became even worse and started impacting my guitar playing as well.  She also advocated finding a good physical therapist to get me started on the road to recovery.  While this area is not her primary area of expertise, she is no stranger to RSIs as she has been dealing with her own for several years now.

So this has left me with a definite dilemma, as I am active in three bands as the bassist.  All three expect rehearsals and one is a semi regular three set a night band.  It was during the most recent gig with that one that I came to the realization that the problem needed to be dealt with in one way or another.  We were performing in a local watering hole and about half way through the second set the pain started in my elbow, followed by numbness and prickling running down my forearm.  If it had been my left arm I would have worried about my heart, but it was my right and not radiating from the shoulder.  By the end of the second set I was in significant pain and my right hand was starting to go numb in the ring finger and little finger.  The situation simply worsened through the third set, but I grunted my way through it; not necessarily the best decision health wise, but I made it through the gig.

If this had been a one-time occurrence I would have left it at that, but this has actually been building for some time now.  I have been having pain in the elbow there for some time and bouts of prickling and numbness running down my arm in that area that has come and gone.  I’d mentioned the prickling in passing to my PCP when I had my annual physical, but she was more concerned with some other things at that point and it was an “oh yeah, almost forgot about it,” comment on my part.  Given that my current symptoms are basically classic for some variation of tennis elbow, I’m fairly confident that I know what’s going on and my other doctor was in agreement with my assessment.  The treatment options that I have found thus far are pretty simple: rest, icing, and anti-inflammatories.  Severe cases might require surgery, which I would like to avoid.

I’ve also been exploring different positioning, moving from a five string to a four in order to change alignment, shifting strap lengths and instrument angles, and paying close attention to how my right arm responds to the changes.  I’ve been trying to move my elbow position as soon as I get any pain twinges or start feeling the prickling numbness occurring.  I traded my Carvin SB5000 five string for a Carvin Bunny Brunel BB70 four string, hoping that the difference in body shape, weight and less elbow travel to hit the low string would help.  I’m also trying to consciously play as lightly as I can with my right hand; trying to avoid digging in and working the muscles any harder than necessary.  Thus far the difference hasn’t provided any significant relief and I’m looking at another three set bass gig looming on the not so distant horizon.  The pain is under control, but the numbness and prickling are very much affected by how long I’m on the instrument at any given time.

So, I’ve started making my band members aware of my situation and have let them know that it is in all likelihood going to result in my having to take an extended break from performing on the bass.  I really don’t want this to get worse, particularly since I still can play guitar symptom free for the most part.  Thus I’m left with some pretty limited options.  We’ll see how it goes.

 

 

Yes, That was Cool

Getting up this morning was rough.  I got in late from a Tuesday night gig, around 1:30, then finally fell asleep around 2:30.  I really only dozed until my alarms started going off at 6:15.  My a-fib started acting up during the last set and kept creeping in and out while I was sleeping, which wakes me up, so what sleep I had was fitful.  Regardless of playing last night I still had to get up and pack lunches for my daughter and wife, as well as making sure they got to school and the train on time.  I also confirmed a rehearsal for next Tuesday evening and started ticking off my schedule for the next few days in my head, an attempt to stay on track and look at what is coming up next.  My wife suggested I hit the gym today, but I’m seriously dragging and have a rehearsal tonight, some class preparation to do for teaching tomorrow, as well as another rehearsal tomorrow night.  I’m also processing last night’s gig, running over it in my mind and focusing on locking it away into the memory banks.

I have a mental bucket list; it’s in my head and not actually written down.  Last night’s gig was a bucket list event for me at a venue where I’ve wanted to perform for years, and while I performed on my secondary instrument, bass, as opposed to guitar, it fulfilled the requirements I’d set for checking off the list.  Last night I played a gig at Buddy Guy’s Legends here in Chicago, and got paid to do it, the two criteria that I’d set for the bucket list.  There was the added bonus that Buddy Guy was actually at the bar while we were on.  I’d set the getting paid aspect because the venue has an open mic most Mondays where people can come in and jam.  Getting paid makes the gig a professional appearance, as opposed to a recreational one.  From my personal perspective it gives more weight to the performance.

We played two sets, a ninety minute one followed by a half hour break, then closed things out with a 45 minute set ending at 12:15.  The venue is back-lined with good gear which makes playing there a real treat, plus I got to run through an 8X10 cabinet, which can really move some air.  We weren’t overly loud, but I could feel the speaker working and it sounded really good.  One of Greg Guy, one of Buddy’s sons, ran sound, and he had us running with no fuss and a fantastic mix.  He, like everyone else there, was genuinely nice.  He had a clock set up at the front of the sound booth facing the stage, so the performers on stage could keep track of the time without messing around looking at watches, which can sometimes send a mixed message to the audience.

The venue itself is fairly large, particularly when considering that it is right in the Loop where real estate is pricy.  It has a second floor as well, though since we were set up on the stage in the big room I didn’t venture upstairs to look.  The first floor has an open floor plan set up with a large bar at the front and a smaller one toward the back adjacent to the kitchen area.  There are plenty of tables with ample seating as well as a dance floor for anyone who wants to get up and groove to the tunes.  The walls are covered with photographs and guitar after guitar, most with autographs.  Behind the back bar the wall has a series of signature guitars, all signed, including a Jeff Beck model Stratocaster, a Derek Trucks model from Washburn, a Stevie Ray Vaughn Strat paired with a Jimmie Vaughn, a Gibson B.B. King Lucille model, an Eric Clapton Strat and a few others as well.  There are many other signed guitars over the front bar and the entire effect is essentially a whose who shrine to the blues.

All in all, last night was a win on the personal level, and if I get the opportunity to play there again I will quite happily do so.  It’s the kind of venue that is a joy to perform in and they do their best to keep it that way.  I do regret that I didn’t sit down and have a meal there because after looking at the menu I found all sorts of New Orleans based goodness to be had.  Everything on it looked good; even the food items I’m deathly allergic to (shellfish) looked good!  So now that I’ve checked off a big item on the old bucket list, I guess it’s time to revisit it and start looking toward determining the next big item to aim at. Let those good times roll!

 

Sharing A Stage: Opening for The Tubes

Last night Speed of Sound, a classic rock cover band I play bass in, opened for The Tubes at Tailgater’s in Bolingbrook, Illinois. I spoke to three of the band members, guitarist Roger Steen, bassist Rick Anderson and keyboardist David Medd. All three were approachable and had no problems conversing with a local semi-pro who just happened to be in the opening act. Anderson quietly offered me the use of the bass rig that was rented for the band with two stipulations: that I didn’t play too loud or blow it up before he got to play. I had to smile at that. It was a huge Ampeg head on top of an Ampeg 8X10, which Anderson stated was basically, overkill for the venue; a 4X10 would have been fine. I thanked him, but opted to run with my much smaller rig set up on the other side of the stage where I could hear the band better.

The gear that The Tubes contracted filled a good portion of the large stage, and as openers we set up our gear in front of their backline after they were done with their sound check. It was quite evident that they had no interest in a loud presence through the monitors and desired a very comfortable stage volume. They’ve been doing this for about forty years or so, thus they are quite familiar with what they want and need versus the “if it’s too loud, you’re too old” perspective that many aging rockers tend to adhere to. That being said, the front of house sound was huge, clean and clear.

It was clear that Tailgater’s had set up for the event as a concert style production with high dollar tables filling the area that normally would be a dance floor in front of the stage. One of the band members noted that ticket sales were down, but he still maintained a cheerful and professional demeanor despite this. The sound check took a while, and it took the sound team a bit of time to get the keyboards into the stage mix at a level that the band was happy with. At the start the keys were washing everyone out except the drummer, and it took about ten minutes to nail that issue down, including switching out a monitor. Once they cleared we set up and ran our sound check. I have such a small footprint that I can set up in about two minutes, so I sat in place and looked out at the venue wondering how many tables were going to be filled.

People were starting to file in while we did our sound check. The doors opened at seven. We finished our prep by about 7:40 and then settled in to wait for our 8:30 hit time. People started filling the place up close to eight while I was trying to find a quiet place to sit down and breathe without anyone talking to me. My A-fib had kicked in shortly after arriving at the venue, putting me in a bit of a cold sweat, sucking my oxygen levels down, and sapping energy away, so I requested a stool just in case I needed it on stage. During sound check I was having difficulty getting enough air to push into my higher register for the vocal backups, while seated so all I could do was hope that the A-fib would pass by the time we hit. I talked to our front man after the check and gave him a heads up to which he replied, “oh no, I was hoping you’d cover some for me since I’m still kind of sick.” All I could give him was I’d do what I could. So there I was twenty minutes before the show, sitting on the stage steps doing deep breathing exercises to try to bring everything into sync.

We hit right at 8:30 to a fairly full house. The more expensive seats in front of the stage weren’t full, but the rest of the place was packed in. We were only supposed to go from 8:30 to 9:30 and that’s what we did, running through our set and roping in the crowd. It’s really nice to play to a good crowd. When you’re playing well, and they like what you’re doing it creates a mutual energy feed. Despite there not being a dance floor, we had people up and grooving to the tunes, dancing in the areas the wait-staff had roped off and solid applause after every song. A guy could really get used to this!

The breathing exercises helped get my ticker back in line, so I managed to hit the high notes when and where I was supposed to and I provided fill in support for our front man when he needed it. It felt good, while I was up there, or better stated, I felt good. I was surprised at the volume we were producing, though. We’re essentially a power trio plus a front man. So our instrumentation is guitar, bass and drums at this point. We’re looking into adding a keyboard player in the future, but our core is pretty basic. Despite this we have no difficulty providing a wall of sound, especially when we’re fully mic’ed up and pumping through an excellent club system. We definitely warmed up the crowd for The Tubes’ performance! All in all it turned into a pretty solid good night. I’m looking forward to many more in the future.

Busy-ness is Part of the Business

This has been a busy week and promises to continue to be so at least through tomorrow. Monday was taken up to a great extent by my annual physical, which between the commute there, the appointment, waiting for the blood draw at another office and then the commute home consumed about four hours. Tuesday was my light day. Wednesday consisted of a morning rehearsal and one in the evening. Thursday involved a trip to the dentist to reaffix the crown that came off Wednesday night, then a trip to Waukegan, IL for a television date with one of the Blu Wavs, then rehearsal in the evening with another band. Today has been devoted to class preparation for next week, and another rehearsal tonight. Tomorrow isn’t too bad with a guitar student in the morning and a gig opening for The Tubes in Bolingbroke, IL. Sunday I’ll finish up my plan for the semester and send off the syllabi for printing. All the while I’ve been keeping up with my writing commitment and doing the other things I do around the house to help keep things running. It’s good to be busy, but it really amazes me how much time is spent on the background stuff (preparation), versus the foreground (performance). I also find it ironic that the background area is where most of the actual nitty gritty work gets done, but the only money really comes in with the foreground work, which usually takes the least amount of time out of the bargain. As a writer and a musician both, I find myself with the conundrum of trying to turn it all into making a living, and both fields have similar issues.

Most writers that make money in the book market earn it in the form of royalties and the initial payment takes the form of an advance on expected royalties earned from projected book sales. The writer doesn’t see any more income from that particular publication until the advance has been recouped through actual sales. The IRS views the royalties as unearned income and withhold at a higher rate, which is a bit on the cruel side, despite the fact that most authors aren’t actually being paid while they write. The same holds true for musicians who make recordings through traditional record labels, except in that case usually the advance is also expected to cover the actual recording expenses. In both cases, writers and recording artists, the percentage per sales unit that they earn in the royalties themselves is quite low so making real money on the deal relies heavily upon the volume of sales. This is one of the reasons why self-publication and musicians creating their own independent labels has been growing in the digital age. This route creates a stronger possibility that the individuals who are creating the material can actually make a reasonable living without having to sell absolutely massive amounts of product in order to do so.

Of course the individual in these cases has to finance the whole production. This isn’t quite as problematic with writers as it is for musicians, but in both cases it involves a pretty steep learning curve, finding solid marketing and distribution resources, solid planning with a reasonable business plan, and some capital to finance the project. Both writers and musicians at this point can rely upon a strictly digital product, which can cut down some of the expenses on the front end. The advent of the e-readers has radically changed the expense of publishing a book, for instance, so if the independent writer wants to go the digital self-publication route there are several distributors that are more than willing to assist them in the process, most notably amazon.com and iBooks. They take a larger cut, but they are handling distribution and some limited advertising. Musicians can go the same route with iTunes, amazon.com and other download providers, as well as selling downloads through their own websites. However, most musicians need to invest in actual small run productions of cds as well, particularly for selling at shows along with other merchandise that promotes either their bands or themselves. Once again, the funding comes out of the individuals’ pockets.

At this point musicians are having to look into some pretty interesting ways to end up making ends meet and to bring projects together. Touring is expensive, downloading has led to piracy, and people are quite frankly becoming unwilling to part with money to pay for their daily soundtracks. The ease of access that the digital domain has created has also created a negative impact on sales of digital files. Sites like YouTube have an incredible amount of popular music material just a free click away, subsidized by commercials that aren’t lining the performers’ pockets. If there is any money made by the artists themselves, it’s even smaller than anything they would recoup from digital download sales, and while exposure is great, it won’t house or feed you. This type of situation has led to many musicians turning to crowd funding in order to make things happen and some have had incredible success simply asking their fans for the cash to front things.

So yes, I’m busy and I’ve got quite a bit on my plate at any one given time. I’m also still trying to wrap my head around all of this in a world that has changed so incredibly over the past 54 years of my lifetime. Changes in medium have brought so many incredible shifts in both the businesses of writing and music making, let alone the shifts in the technology that are still occurring at an ever increasing rate, yet still I’m loading up the equipment and heading out to gigs, paid and on spec, in the hopes that they’ll lead to something else. Still I’m hammering away on keys of some sort, affixing words to virtual pages where it used to be actual paper rolling into a typewriter or flowing from a pen. I’m still rehearsing, I’m still playing, and I’m still chasing that carrot no matter how many times it eludes me. Next week classes start up for spring semester, and a more traditional type or paycheck for at least part of my income. I’ll be ready.

Cracking Fingertips, a Guitarists’ Winter Plague

There’s nothing like winter to dry out hands, especially up here in the Chicago area.  Right now it’s about fourteen degrees, which isn’t too bad so far as cold goes in this area. The frigid weather brings different challenges for musicians, not the least of which is the cracking skin that often accompanies the drying hands.  It’s a real pain when it involves fingertips, which all to frequently it does.  Right now I have a deep crack running from the corner of middle left middle fingernail almost to the center of the tip of the finger.  This provides a definite challenge playing my guitar, and I’m pretty certain that I left a good DNA stamp on my Martin last night while rehearsing.  I also have some deep cracks on the tip of my right thumb that developed during rehearsal Thursday down in my basement where it might be sixty degrees Fahrenheit.  They’re not quite as much of a hassle from a playing perspective, but they are a literal pain.

I’ve tried copious use of various hand lotions, but really dislike ones that leave a slick residue on my fingers.  I hate sludgy feel on my guitar necks and strings that some of these products leave.  Regardless of what I’ve tried, every winter it’s the same story, performance after performance and rehearsal after rehearsal, trying to find a sweet spot on some injured fingertip that won’t light up my world when it hits the string.  If I manage to make it for a while in the clear, as soon as I trim my nails on my left hand I’m in for another round of cracking.  They often start so small that I don’t even realize that they’re there, until I start finding blood smears on my sheet music, or sometimes on the instrument itself.

The aspirin I take everyday slows the clotting process down as well, which in turn does nothing to aid in recovery.  Most of the cracks run in line with the finger, so each time the fingertip comes down on the string, if I haven’t lodged the string in the crack it has reopened from the pressure on the fingertip.  It’s at its worst when I’m playing steel string guitars with the narrower strings at higher tension.  The nylon still provokes the cracks, but with the bass I can play flatter which helps with muting anyway.  I can at least hit more of the finger pad itself rather then always striking on the tip.  Plus the strings are wide enough that they won’t possibly snag on the edges of the crack and pull it wider.  Yeah, another plus for going low!

Regardless of how religious I am with the hand lotions, it still happens every winter, and I have yet to find a way to really prevent it aside from moving to Florida or somewhere else warm for the winter.  When I do go to Florida or Arizona for a week or so, and escape the chafing cold, my hands feel entirely different.  The skin is more supple, and the cracks that were present finally start to heal, but as soon as they’ve gained some ground it’s back to the cold northern snowfields.  Before long it’s back to fresh splits and cracks, leaking blood and connective fluid as the body fights to rebuild and the cycle continues.

I’ve encountered this difficulty for most of my adult life here in the mid-west and on the east coast.  Ironically enough, the eight years I spent in the arid southwest were spent predominately crack free despite not even running a humidifier in our apartments.  My strings stayed fresh much longer there as well, despite the heat and regardless of how many outdoor gigs I played.  Here the strings gunk up faster, and the skin is challenged by the cold.  I’m sure that someone out there can provide scientifically deduced reasons for all of this, and I could, no doubt, do the research on the why’s myself, but my actual concern in this is how to circumvent the problem entirely.

Even caring for the injuries themselves becomes an exercise in frustration.  Most of the time when dealing with a cut the first thought is to put a Band-Aid on it, but playing with bandaged fingers isn’t a workable solution as the bandages inhibit movement and negatively affect tone production.  Superglue is something that I’ve tried in the past, and while it can provide some assistance I’m not so certain about the sanitariness of the fix.  I’ve purchased and used antiseptic adhesive that is designed for this.  It works somewhat, needs to be applied frequently, smells horrid, and peels off fairly quickly.  It can help get you through a gig and sometimes helps keep the gap closed to speed healing.  What I’d really like, however, is to find a reliable way to avoid the entire injury to begin with that doesn’t involve moving to another part of the country.

 

Facing the Buffet and Making Choices: A Musical Smorgasbord

About a year ago I went through one of my “turn the focus to classical guitar” periods.  I had been playing with a community classical guitar group for fun, and had joined a classical guitar sextet to do more challenging material as well as possibly gigging with them.  I periodically go through these phases where I want to return to “serious” music, whatever that really means I’m not certain.  I posted a list of pieces I wanted to revisit, relearn and add to my solo repertoire.  That list is still on one of the windows in my studio, poking up behind my computer monitor.  Today it’s reminding me of where I’ve been before and where I’ll visit again some time from now, or tomorrow.  In many ways music has become a buffet table laden with delights from the many different places to explore, some exotic, some complex, some simple to the point of primitive, others heavy, weepy, joyful and downright creepy.  It’s all there right in front of me and I want it all at once.  I’ve also found that when I’m faced with the buffet I have difficulties determining my identity in all of it.  The easy answer is I’m a musician, but I’m not one that necessarily falls into a convenient slot for further identification, and that’s largely due to my own broad interests.

I have performed classical music as a guitarist, a pianist, and a choir member with large and small ensembles as well as performing as a solo classical guitarist.  I’ve also performed in alternative rock bands, dance bands, funk bands, blues bands, jazz bands, folk bands, country bands, jam bands, Americana groups, R&B bands, zydeco bands, cowboy rock and roll bands, hard rock bands, light rock bands, classic rock bands, country rock bands, and I’m sure I’m missing some other genres that I’ve done as well.  I’ve enjoyed all of them, some more than others, and when it comes down to brass tacks if the other players are good I’ll consider most genres as fair game and interesting in their own way.  I often like to be in a variety of groups at one time, playing different types of music in each, because variety keeps me ticking.  Too much of the same, along with too much repetition, kills the mix for me, and most of the time it doesn’t matter to me if I’m playing bass or guitar as long as I’m playing and performing.

One of the dangers of facing the buffet is overfilling the plate, particularly if it’s a really good buffet.  One of the local restaurants that I love is called The Khyber Pass, an Indian restaurant with an absolutely killer all you can eat buffet.  I have to be careful there because I’m always tempted to stuff myself to the bursting point, and all too frequently have because it’s so good.  The musical buffet presents the same danger, particularly when it comes to projects.  Sometimes it’s difficult not to over-commit, especially when opportunities start coming in.  When you have highly eclectic interests, like I do, often in order to get the variety I crave I have to play in multiple groups.  Most groups focus on a particular genre or target, and variety bands, particularly working variety bands, tend to be pretty tightly knit as well as few and far between.  This means that variety frequently requires multiple commitments, which in turn can lead to overcrowded plates.  When the opportunities are rolling in I have difficulty not overfilling the plate and then wanting to fill it with even more.

Now I’m looking at the list of songs on the window, wondering what I could pull off working on, how much time I have available, and then thinking about the new standards type of jazz project I’ve been considering doing, the four groups I’m currently with (two startups, one fully out of the gate and one getting out), and then my solo interests.  I have a lot going on, yes, but still want more, as well as more club dates to pay the bills.  I’m truly bellied up to the buffet, but I’m starting to wonder how much of it is dessert, versus how much is what really sustains me.  If I’m running with the food analogy, I have to also take into consideration what I need to eat to keep me as healthy as possible and what will keep me running best.  I have often found that when I want more, it’s usually because I’m not getting enough of something specific; there’s some important aspect that is missing in the equation so quantity becomes a way to appease the desire that hasn’t been either attended to or even defined.

Much of my musical journey has been a search for that missing aspect that needs to be fulfilled.  I’m still searching for the ultimate “right fit” and while I find myself periodically down for the count, I still inevitably pick myself up and return to the search.  I have to do this; it’s not optional for me.  It’s really integral to my personal make up, so I return to the search and keep bringing plates back from the buffet to my booth where I dig in once again.  The classical guitar comes out with the technical exercises and complicated pieces, the bass tunes down to E flat for the classic rock band and then up again to standard for the blues rock bands, and the acoustic steel string and nylon strings come out for the other work, all the while seeking that elusive compromise that makes it all work together, and brings home the cash.  I’m still searching, and I will be probably long after I find what I’m searching for.

 

 

Am I a Guitarist or a Musician who Plays Guitar? There is a Difference.

In the early part of my musical career I was primarily a classical musician.  The bulk of my training during the first fourteen years was in classical guitar, and the last four years or so of that period was spent practicing about eight hours a day focusing entirely on classical music and guitar technique.  There was a precision to the process as well as the end product that was very appealing then, and still is to some extent for me today thirty-one years later.  Some of this is entirely based upon the tactile sense of performing those works and performing them well.  It felt good physically as well as emotionally and there was a lovely sense of logic in how the fingerings lined up and fell under the hand.  At that point in my life I loved the music, but I loved the vehicle even more.  My focus was to be the best guitarist I could be, which is actually different from being the best musician one can be.

That is not to say that I lacked emotional expression in my playing.  I had enough of a connection to the pieces to work some magic, and my level of commitment for at least the first three years of school was sealed in granite.  However, when my junior recital came up my ADD was in full force.  I wanted to play everything, particularly the difficult pieces.  My memorization was all based on muscle memory, some of which was still very much locked in the short-term memory rather than long term.  When I hit the stage I was underprepared, had quite a few memory slips which had never happened before, then walked off the stage at the end of the performance and into a major depressive episode that ended up with me in the Army at Fort Knox six months after graduation, much to the confusion of my college professors and the college friends I had who were still in touch.

Part of the problem was that I was entirely invested in being the best guitarist I could be.  I was much more concerned with the act of playing the music than knowing and understanding it.  My process was based on repetition, rather than analysis and while I’d listen to folks like Janos Starker for how they performed Bach’s First Cello Suite, I didn’t bother to analyze the harmonic structure of the chord progression.  When working on a fugue I would look at the outline of the theme and it’s variations, but didn’t dig into the nuts and bolts of the harmony in the process.  This is all very ironic when considering the fact that I took multiple years of music theory covering periods from the middle ages all the way to the contemporary along with double majoring in music composition.  But it’s not too surprising in retrospect because my compositions were based on some good ideas, but the development was where I really struggled.

Today the story is different, as it should be.  Now I do apply my knowledge to figure out what is going on in the pieces that I’m playing and while the bulk of them are far less complicated than Bach’s masterpieces I’m not simply being analytically passive when I play.  I no longer consider myself a classical guitarist, nor should I.  My chops in that area are quite rusty after three decades of performing in other genres.  But I do go through periods when I pull out the classical and work on pieces, which did recently result in a two-year stretch of performing with two classical guitar ensembles, one large and the other a sextet.  When I start reading the pieces, it’s usually because I want to play something that requires more sensitivity and complex thought process than running through some blues or classic rock.  Forgive me, but I often think “I want to play something beautiful,” and then pull out some Villa-Lobos, Scarlatti, or Bach, get myself set up and start running pieces.  I’m not doing so to actually perform them; I’m doing it to enjoy the process and I find myself thinking about the chord shapes and how they lead into each other.  I find myself loving the music for what it is and how it communicates within the lines and their relationships.  I find myself doing what I should have been years ago, and I’m doing it out of love for the music.

If this had been my approach years ago, my end results might have been different with my recital.  The aftermath certainly would have been, but instead because I was so focused on being a guitarist first my self-image was ripped out from beneath my feet.  We all second-guess our pasts which is why that old cliché “hindsight is 20/20” is so apropos in so many situations.  But change is something that is something we all have the power to create, and if we can learn from our past experiences to change our perspectives and processes for the better then we should put our efforts into it.  Today when I pick up my bass I still love the tactile experience of working those big fat strings; it feels oh so good, but I also love what I can do with the music when I’m playing it.  I’m not really concerned with being a great bass player, I’m more concerned with playing the best bass line I can to support the piece that we’re performing and what I need to do musically to accomplish that.  I’m deep in the structure of the tunes, paying attention to phrasing and articulation because it is an integral part of the piece.  I love the role that I have in the band and how what I do works with what the others are contributing, and the only way that works and works well is if I have a solid understanding of the musical pieces we’re performing.  Today I pursue being the best musician that I can be which places the focus on the music, how it best works, and why it works that way.  That’s why I’ll be able to make this a life long career and have made it through about 45 years of doing it thus far.  Always remember, your craft matters, yes, but not more than the music itself.

 

The Importance of Cross Training In Music

As a musician on the local level it is a very good practice to become a well-rounded player, particularly if you want to work with any regularity.  This becomes even more important if your goal is to significantly add to your earning potential.  It doesn’t mean that you need to be an expert in all genres, but at the very least you should be conversant with your instrument in several different genres.  This opens up the possibility of playing in variety bands, which is the primary type of group hired for corporate gigs and/or weddings, in other words the better paying gigs.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t aspire to being the go to player for blues in the area or, rock, country or whatever.  Everyone has a specific area where they’re in their prime environment, their specialty as it were.  But if you’re in it for the long haul, and at the very least to supplement your income, it is in your best interests as a player to branch out.

There are many benefits to reaching beyond your initial comfort zone.  For one, whatever you learn, and learn well, becomes integrated into your musical language.  For instance, if you understand what makes a decent solo and the vocabulary thereof, you might find yourself intermixing some aspects of this into your approach in another genre, like blues or rock.  This can provide a different perspective in how you approach your solos that can start to make you stand out from the usual assembly of licks that might comprise someone else’s blues solo.  Robben Ford is an excellent example of a player who is highly conversant in blues, jazz and rock forms.  He has in fact mastered all three, and while he is perfectly capable of delivering a high octane scorching blues solo he often digs into his multifaceted background to bring jazz and rock influences into his solos and choice of material.  In doing so he has created his own vocabulary which is quite rich in chord voicings, phrasing and delivery.  When you hear a Robben Ford solo, you know who you’re dealing with.

Listening is also an incredibly valuable practice to improve as a musician, and once again it is important to have an eclectic approach to what you listen to.  It is very important to be an active listener as well as a passive one.  Most of us listen to a ton of music throughout our days, but most of this is actually passive listening.  We’re listening to background music; it’s a soundtrack for our other work, exercise, or whatever we’re doing at the moment.  It slips in and out of our immediate attention, but mostly stays in the background.  This is passive listening; listening for fun.  Active listening is when the music is the absolute focal point.  You’re listening with a purpose, to understand what is going on in the tune, how it is structured, how the lyrics work or don’t and why, what the instrumentalist is doing while the vocalist is working, where the solos are and their shapes and colors.  All of these things, and more, lead to a better understanding of the art form, leading us to learn from the experience of hearing a piece of music.

So, how does listening play a part in becoming a more well-rounded player?  If we both actively and passively listen to a wide variety of musical genres it helps to create an inner pool of knowledge.  This is where we start to learn the characteristics that make up the vocabulary of the many different styles of music that we might encounter as a performer.  It enriches our background, and gives us so much more to draw on.  It exposes us to other areas that might become additional focal points of interest, and in doing so helps to ensure that as musicians our art form is a lifelong learning process.  Even a blues bass player can learn and employ what he or she has learned from listening to the orchestral works of J. S. Bach.  The man wrote beautifully constructed bass lines that serve the same purpose as a beautifully constructed blues bass line.  From looking at Bach’s bass lines, the blues bassist will learn about the values of contrary movement which will make his or her bass lines more interesting to hear, as well as to play, just as an example.

If you have a broad background to draw upon, the chances of working more, as well as maintaining interest in the art, increase dramatically.  People do get bored from too much repetition or too few challenges.  When you seek out knowledge of differing musical styles, the learning process is engaged, your repertoire increases, and your musical potential does as well.  If you want to even be a semi-pro player, it’s going to take work on your part as well as a dedication to both your art and your craft.  If you take a gig with a variety band you’re going to be crossing genres, which can both provide for an interesting gig as well as a challenging one.  You might face jazz, country, rock, blues, funk and R&B all in the same gig.  You don’t have to be Wes Montgomery, Vince Gill, Geddy Lee, Buddy Guy, and Otis Redding to do it all, but you will need to be able to represent the genres with a certain level of dexterity to successfully pull the gig off.

 

Work and Music: Perceptions and Realities

Our street out front has been out of commission for the past four months. The village has been on an infrastructure improvement mission and two blocks of our street were slated for both sewer and water main replacements as well as rebuilding the entire street in the process. It has been a long four months and the past couple in particular have been a challenge. The house has been shaking and the windows rattling from all of the heavy equipment creating seismic activity that has made me rethink possibly moving to California: minor tremors? No big deal. I’m used to having a fairly quiet space, aside from my dog alarm notifying me of the postal carrier’s arrival, and that’s despite living in a highly urban environment. Today they’ve started paving which tells me we are in the end stretch of the project. There’s obviously still work to be done and more layers of asphalt to be laid, but I can see the end of the noisome project, which is a definite improvement.

In some ways being a musician is very much similar to the process that we’ve undergone with the rebuilding of our roadway out front, but in other ways it’s very different. In a few weeks there will only be a smooth road for people to drive on. People who don’t live on my street who chance upon it and drive down it will use the finished product and appreciate it as a nice road surface, if they even think about it. However, so much work went into the preparation for that final presentation, and unless you were there while they tore up the old surface, hauled it away, dug and replaced one main after another, refilled the holes than dug them up again to attach the mains to the feeders to the houses, then filled them in again, crushed the old curbs, dug those out, set the molds and redid the curbs and curb sidewalks, then laid the roadbed before grading and then finally starting to lay the asphalt, you wouldn’t think about everything that went into that nice smooth ride that you’re currently experiencing.

When people go out to hear a band at their local watering hole, at a festival, or formal concert, what they are experiencing is the final road surface, that clean fresh ride and the sound of tires on new pavement. They don’t see the years spent learning to play the instruments, the countless hours of rehearsal, equipment purchases, perhaps costume designing and all of the various other factors that go into producing that show they just saw. They see the culmination of the project to that point. When they judge what they’ve seen, they’re actually judging all the work that went into producing what might add up to three hours of performance, and that’s what the people that made it happen take home with them, along with whatever their monetary take was for the night.

Where it is most different, however, is that the folks who have done the water and sewer main work, then finished the project, were being paid while they created the road. For those four months the workers were receiving wages that paid to send their kids to school, kept a roof over their heads, provided benefits and sick time wages, as well as paid for their vehicles and whatever else they needed. They were making a livable wage while they worked. This is not the case for those musicians. On the local level musicians are actually getting paid less per gig than they were thirty years ago, particularly when you look at what the dollar can buy now versus thirty years ago. In suburban Chicagoland the usual take for a performance varies between sixty to one hundred dollars per musician per performance. Usually these performances run from 9pm-1am and entail about another three hours of set up, tear down and travel time. This ends up resulting in an hourly wage of about $8.60 to $14. There is no pay for the hours spent rehearsing, equipment purchase compensation, or other business compensation, nor is there such a thing as paid vacation or sick time. If the local musician gigged 28 nights a month for an average of $100 per night for a year, the gross would come to $33,600. Since he or she would be considered self employed the withholdings are greater than those for someone who grossed the same amount but was employed by a company, so the net take would be less for the musician.

In this area, the end result would be difficult for one person to live on, let alone a family. It would also entail working 336 days out of 365, if one played one gig on each of those 28 days per month for $100 per gig. Of course this also ignores all of the work that would go into booking those gigs, which, once again, is unpaid labor. If the musician is lucky and has a good booking agency, then a minimum of 10% of the gross payment for each gig goes to the booking agent, so if the venue pays $100 per musician for the night, each musician receives $80 before expenses and tax deductions. It’s very difficult to even get to the point where one is being booked that many times a month on the local level anyway, particularly when many venues either don’t pay anything or only promise the door, which can be a disaster for various reasons.

When people aren’t conscious of the amount of work that went into creating that road and everything underneath it, they have a tendency to take it for granted. They question the funding for infrastructure projects, but complain when the roads fall apart, sewers can’t handle the overflow from spring rains, and the water mains break after 100 years of service. However, this is the only way those improvements are going to happen. No builder is going to offer to work pro bono for “exposure,” but when it comes to musical entertainment it’s an entirely different story. A band I’m in recently had auditions for a new drummer, and one of the drummers asked about money, in a very apologetic manner. He’s trying to make a living as a musician, and due to the current climate surrounding the arts money is an incredibly touchy subject. Amateurs are all too willing to play for free, which creates an environment where venues start to expect this from all levels of musicians. Often bar owners complain about paying bands, and when the amateur bands respond by playing for free, this creates a sucking chest wound in the vitality of the professional musician pool.

When I look out at the road in front of my house, I’m going to remember for years just how much work and effort went into building that road and everything that was built underneath it. I’m going to remember the long weeks of heavy machinery and construction workers laboring through the rain, heat, snow and cold to produce an end result that is far better than what was there before. Just as I remember the years and decades of work that went into my musical practice and performance. While there are definite differences between the two, the similarities still exist, hard work, dedication and perseverance. I just hope everyone else sees this as well.

Working through the Darkness: Depression and Performance

Sometimes performing is really difficult. We all have those nights where things don’t go quite the way we planned, equipment might glitch, or players might glitch and we turn in a performance that wasn’t up to our standards. Sometimes we’re sick or tired and feel physically challenged to get up there and do the deed, but we do it regardless, battle through it, as athletes would say, and do the best we can in the moment. However, for me the most difficult performances are the ones where I’m depressed, and by that I’m not discussing garden variety blues, what I’m referring to is chronic depression, the illness. Performing while I’m in the midst of another onset of the disease, mine is cyclical even when medicated, is extraordinarily difficult on many levels.

Depression sucks energy from my soul, creating both physical fatigue as well as spiritual fatigue and malaise. As a bass player one of my jobs is driving the music forward, and I’m good at it. I have to be on top of the rhythm, locked in with the drummer and providing the foundation for the music and stirring movement from the audience. This takes positive energy as much as it does skill, and when I’m in the midst of another round of depression energy is incredibly difficult to come by. In many ways when I’m depressed I feel like I’m moving through molasses. Everything slows down, and I spend most of the gig fighting that inner drag that threatens to undermine the entire purpose that a bass player has.

Depression also produces a sense of disconnectedness from your surroundings and the people you work with, let alone love. There’s a feeling of being out of step with everyone and everything. Response time slows down, attention span shortens to almost non-existent and communication becomes a chore. If you’re trying to sing back up this disconnectedness can sometimes result in struggling to physically remember the harmonies you’re supposed to hit, and sometimes you have to step back from the microphone because they’re just not there. Everything feels off and there’s a pervasive numbness that sets in. If you do manage to pull off a smoking hot set, chances are you won’t even notice between the inner numbness and disconnection.

It also creates a huge disparity between what I perceive and reality itself. When I’m depressed rule number one is that my inner critic cannot and should not be trusted. A decent performance will be perceived as a disaster, and an excellent one as just ok. I find myself basing my entire performance on one fraction of a tune that didn’t go as planned, and that one or two measures becomes the entire sum of the three hours of music. When I’m doing all right, then my take on the performance would be quite positive, but under the influence of my illness I simply can’t turn the perception around. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been depressed and despite that turned in an excellent performance. Afterwards I received compliments from audience members, including fellow musicians who wouldn’t give compliments unless they were earned, and the comments just roll off like rain from an umbrella. They register as someone saying something nice to me, and I smile and thank them, but the remarks don’t sink in and stay with me. My perception is that I was mediocre at best regardless of who tells me otherwise. There’s nothing like apologizing to your bandmates for what they thought was a good night for the group.

It’s also extraordinarily difficult to project a positive, fun-filled stage persona while suffering from a depressive episode. You have to constantly remind yourself to smile and overtly interact with the crowd despite feeling like you’re at a very close relative’s funeral. People are there to be entertained, and chances are they shelled out some money at the door just to get in. So the mask has to go on, and remain intact throughout the night, no matter what. Some folks will tell you that if you act happy, eventually you’ll be happy. Obviously they’ve never suffered from depression. Someone who suffers from depression might be smiling on the outside, and have donned the professional face of denial of the internal to get through what they’re supposed to do, but on the inside they’re dying.

Regardless of all of this, I’m thankful that I get to do what I love to do even when I feel like hiding from the world. I’m also thankful that despite when that few steps up onto the stage feels like an insurmountable mountain to climb, that I can still make those steps, and that honestly even on a bad night during my deeper periods of darkness I feel better while I’m playing than I do when I’m not. It’s always darker when I don’t have the opportunity to step out on stage and try to bring my internal world into a better balance. So I do it as often as I can, whenever I can, and where ever I can with as many people as I can. It is how I keep breathing.