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.

 

 

Late March 2017 Updates

It’s spring and the world seems to be waking up all around me.  We’ve had a couple of false starts, complete with a couple of days where the ground turned white, but it appears to be now definitely started.  Fortunately it doesn’t seem like the false starts impeded the return of the spring flowers as the neighborhood’s crocuses are in full bloom, the daffodils have started, snow drops have presented themselves and the forsythia are now doing their things as well.  It shouldn’t be too long until the redbuds bloom.  I’m hoping that the one my wife and daughter bought for me several father’s days ago will finally bloom for its first time.  We shall see as it’s a little early for it to hit its stride yet.  Musically the stride is being struck, however as things are finally moving forward with the bookings.

I have three gigs lined up in the next month or so with the blues rock band I play bass for, have two folkish guitar gigs on the books with Cedes Buck, a local singer/songwriter, an opening gig with the classic rock band, have a web site near launch ready for the trio, and have been added to an original band, The Hurtin’ Kind, as their lead guitarist.  It looks like my first gig with them will be in June.  I’ve also invested in some fingerstyle guitar music to add to my solo bag of tricks so it’s easy to say things have really started moving along.  Next week I’ve got seven rehearsals slated then a gig.  Still looking for that balance between gigs and rehearsals, which I will be attaining one way or another.

My writing has been on hiatus mostly because of the political nightmare I’ve found my country mired in.  It was occupying entirely too much of my working memory to the point where every time I sat down to write essentially the same tirade would start emerging from my keyboard and wriggling itself across the page.  So, I decided to step back from the writing and focus on music and teaching for the time being.  Sometimes when I find myself faced with this type of rutted thought process I find the best thing to do is simply stop, take several steps back, and attempt to get my perspectives under control.  I’m still really upset with what is going on, but stepping back has allowed me to start refocusing myself on the things that I need to do for my music and the other aspects of my life that need attention.

That being said, I do find that I’ve committed myself to quite a few projects, all of which require varying levels of attention.  I’m going to have to make some decisions regarding them eventually in terms of ultimately where I want to be, which definitely leans toward the original line of things.  I do like being busy as it keeps me moving and doesn’t give me time for inertia to set in, but the shotgun approach can only go on so long.  We’ll see what shakes out of the next few months and where it takes me.  I’ve been in contact with a friend in San Francisco whom I’d lost contact with some 20 odd years ago.  He’s experienced some success with the direction he’s taken, kind of a gypsy jazz/Americana mix that keeps him working steadily in San Francisco, and gigging in various other locations as well, such as New York.  Ultimately, I’d like the situation he’s built, but not necessarily in the same genre.  It’s starting to become clearer though, which is good.

So this is my version of an update on things in the world of Christopher Hopper.  The balls are all in the air, and it would appear that more are being added as the days pass.  I’m hoping that I can keep them all up there, and if any are dropped the results aren’t too damaging.  Here’s to spring!

 

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.

Making it Work: Performing When Physically Compromised, or Again with the Cracks. . .

My fingers are patched up and I made it through a couple hours of rehearsing this morning.  The thumb splits reopened but the crack in the left middle finger held.  I’ve resealed the splits and reinforced the middle finger crack with a liquid bandage that I started applying yesterday.  I have another rehearsal tonight of about three hours, one tomorrow night, Friday night and then a gig opening for The Tubes Saturday night.  With the liquid bandage I think I’ll be all right and not get too bloody.  The good news is that I just had my physical, along with my bloodwork coming back in.  No blood borne pathogens here, which is what I thought but it’s always good to have that type of opinion backed by science to prove it to be fact.  Oh, and I have a TV gig tomorrow afternoon as well, a taping session of three tunes that’s part of a Valentine’s Day program featuring Chicago area blues acts.  It’s at the Comcast Studios in Waukegan, Illinois, so here’s to that.

It wasn’t as cold in the basement this morning as it was last Thursday when the splits popped open on my thumb.  Playing in cooler environments provides me with some physical challenges.  For one thing, when the temperature is creeping under sixty degrees my hands stay quite dry, as well as the skin staying cold.  This creates a situation where the skin isn’t as flexible as it is in warmer temperatures, which leads to a greater potential for damaging it as occurred last week.  Additionally, the cooler it gets the colder the hands get no matter how hard the fingers are working.  What normally presents no speed issues suddenly breeds them as my hands simply never adequately warm up.  This also can increase the potential for acquiring a repetitive stress injury, because the muscles aren’t working in an optimal environment for relaxed movement.  Cold tends to exacerbate stiff tendons and muscles creating more tension than normally present, as well.

Right around sixty degrees used to be fine for me, but I’m getting older and my circulation isn’t what it used to be.  I have gigged outdoors when the temperatures have dropped into the low fifties, upper forties, which is downright unpleasant for a string player or any other player who can’t perform with gloves.  When I was in the southwest gigging, there were many outdoor gigs that started out at a comfortable temperature but had dropped pretty low after the sun went down and time spun along.  This was in the late fall and early winter, then early spring.  We did a lot of outdoor gigs during that time frame.  It’s pleasant to begin with, and many of the places have tall propane space heaters spread out across the patios, which keeps the folks outside eating and drinking for the evening, so you do your best to stay warm and play your heart out even if your fingers are starting to go numb.

I no longer live in the southwest.  Up here in the Chicago area, the outdoor gigs are over by the time October rolls in.  The restaurants that have music and patio dining start moving things inside as the weather starts getting dicey, so inside is the place to be.  The rehearsal areas are another thing, though, particularly if you’re not long on paying rent for a rehearsal space.  Band members’ basements are the preferred locations in this case, but they’re often not the warmest areas, particularly in the older homes like mine.  It’s still warmer than the garage with a kerosene heater though, and I’ve done plenty of time in those as well.  There, it can get painful after awhile though and the concrete flooring never really does warm up enough for my feet to not feel like ice blocks.  The basement is much better if the rest of the family can deal with the additional “noise.”

I get cracks every winter regardless of where I rehearse though, so it’s just something I have to deal with.  We all have something that we’ve simply got to play through, and we do what we can to insure that the job gets done.  For instance, Johnny A, an incredible guitarist who does awesome instrumental rock/lounge music has scoliosis, curvature of the spine.  Standing with his guitar strapped to his body for performance purposes causes him a great deal of pain, so he sits either on a stool or a chair for his performances.  It’s what works for him, so it’s what works best for the audience as well because he gives a great concert when he’s not in pain.  He and I share this issue, although mine isn’t as bad as his.  In my case I use the chair for rehearsals and gigs where I don’t have any room to move around.  If I’m stuck in one spot wedged in between the drummer and someone else all night, I’m in agony the next day.  Other people have other issues that they deal with as well.

The key to all of this is finding a way that makes the situation doable, like Johnny A with his chair, or sealing my cracked fingertips in as many coats of dab on bandage that will stay put.  There’s always going to be something that has the potential to create an impediment to a solid performance, and part of a performer’s responsibility is finding a way through the problem that delivers the goods expected.  Whether it’s summer heat, too much sweat gunking up the hands, mosquitos or whatever else the situation throws at you, it’s up to you to solve it one way or another, meet the commitment, and play your heart out regardless.  Now, it’s about time for another coat of liquid bandage. . .

 

The Last Gasp of 2016

It’s almost six o’clock on the last day of 2016 and I’m just now starting my last blog post of the year.  I’ve been pretty tired today due to getting in at three in the morning from last night’s gig and then not being able to fall asleep until four-ish.  I had to be up at eight to get ready to teach one of my guitar students.  A power nap did occur, but it was short, maybe twenty minutes of actual sleep, so coffee will have to carry me through until time for bed.  Last night we hit at about 8:45 and finished our last tune at around 1:30.  All in all we played well and kept a crowd there through the night.  It was a decent way to finish out the year’s performances and we all made it home safely.  Over the past few days I’ve been thinking about the positives of the year in review and haven’t taken a stab at the things that could use improvement.  I think that it’s time that I do just that.

This past year kicked off with my being involved in one group, The Chicago Classical Guitarists Ensemble, essentially a sextet.  We did some good work and performed at the Mid-American Guitar Ensemble Festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan in early April.  We had a couple other performances, but I decided to leave the group in May because while it had been a very worthwhile experience it was not moving me closer to increasing my income as a musician.  While this might seem to some to be a somewhat mercenary reason for moving on, one of my major goals for this year was to come closer to a livable income in my chosen profession, and this was not moving me forward in that direction.  This left me entirely on my own through the summer, which yielded three pickup gigs with some local semi-pros between June, July and August.

After moving through eight months of the year, I hit the end of August and the realization that it had been a full year since I’d been involved in a regularly working group, which didn’t sit well with me.  I obviously was not getting closer to one of my prime goals, so something had to change.  I decided to load on the groups to try to boost the income potential.  Theoretically, I thought, this would be likely to resolve the issue, so I dove in, committing to four bands and a heavy woodshedding workload.  Since around October the gigs have started to come in through a couple, the workload is still pretty heavy, and the income is improving, but not anywhere near what it needs to be, and quite frankly I’m still not getting the level of personal satisfaction out of the game that I’m looking for either.

My writing practice has made solid improvements this year over the previous years.  I have, as of this writing, successfully completed two writing challenges for a total of three months of daily writings of at least 750 words per day.  I’ve generated a good number of essays that I’m pleased with and some fiction that I’m not sure what I’m going to do with.  There were periods of lost time over the rest of the year and low productivity, but for the most part I’m starting to actually be the writer I want to grow into.  I’m running two blogs and have been gaining followers on both as well as being read all over the world, twenty-seven countries and counting.  This pleases me greatly, but I also need to look at formal publication submissions, particularly ones that pay.  However, I do think that I’ve made much more progress this year in my writing work than I have in my musical work, and I’m going to stick to that perspective because I’ve actually accomplished some of the goals I set for myself in this arena quite well.  The bar will need to be higher for 2017, but I am going into the next year in this area with some confidence.

One of the things that I have learned over the years is that as a creative person I have to be a creative person in order to have any chance of achieving either personal satisfaction in my life or a modicum of happiness.  I must create; it’s something that I HAVE to do.  When I’m not pursuing a creative bent, I lose my desire to be.  My depressive periods become progressively more dangerous, last longer, and are much more devastating.  I become increasingly difficult to live with and wall myself away.  So, I have continued my pursuits and will do so, continuing to try different approaches until I find something that works and yields the results I desire.  I’m finding my way, and will eventually get to where I want to be.  Tomorrow I start 2017, and start brainstorming for a fresh approach to the conundrum which is making a living as a musician.

 

 

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.

 

 

Meeting the Next Year by Charging Out of the Gate

Today the sun is shining for the first time in about a week. We’ve had a long stretch of gray culminating in a bit of a light snowstorm that dumped about six inches of snow in 24 hours. Now the sun is hitting the garage roof and has started building icicles on the eaves. It’s definitely a plus to see blue skies for a change. I’m starting a new year after celebrating my birthday yesterday with Indian food and cheesecake, and the planning is starting yet again. I made progress this past year, but I want to hit the ground running for this coming year. My big challenge is going to be breaking into the world of booking shows ,which will require me to really step out of my comfort zone. I’m not very comfortable selling myself, which is essentially what booking entails. It requires that I talk about myself, maintain a positive outward persona, and not take anything personally, all of which I find to be challenging due to various reasons. I lean towards being an introvert, don’t go to bars unless I’m playing there, go through periods of depression, and as far as not taking anything personally see a and b.

Over the years I have developed the ability to appear extroverted in certain situations. If I have to go to a party I will find someone to talk to, and often engage quite a few folks there, but I find the whole process exhausting. I can also only handle about two hours of interaction before I’m ready to find a quiet dark corner and regroup for about four hours before venturing out again. It really takes a lot out of me. When I teach college English courses I’m very careful about how my schedule gets set up. I avoid teaching back to back courses like the plague because I have to be “on” for the entire class, keeping the students engaged, using humor to rope them in and deliver the intended lesson for the day. After an hour and twenty minutes I’m wrung out and really need a break. So I try to ensure that I have at least another class length’s time before I have to go in and do it again. This is pretty typical for introverted folks. I imagine that doing the booking is going to be tiring in a similar manner, as well as requiring me to go to places I normally wouldn’t in my free time.

Being the type of person that I am I like coffee shops quite a bit, as well as some types of restaurants. I don’t drink alcohol with any frequency and when I do choose to have a drink it’s at home where I don’t have to concern myself with driving anywhere. The only reason I go to a bar is if the band I’m playing in has a gig there, or occasionally someone else’s band has a gig that I’m interested in. This doesn’t happen all that often however, because if I’m not out playing I’m probably home sleeping. I dislike loud crowded places, which is what you get at a bar most of the time on the nights music is offered. This is also part of my lot as an introvert. I don’t have a problem with going to a classical concert, where everything is orderly. In this situation people aren’t running into each other, trying to have conversations over the music, or crowding together like they do at bars, so I can maintain my inner sense of personal space.

A major part of booking involves dealing with rejection. I know this and for the most part I can deal with it well. It’s a business and as such I can’t take rejection as a personal thing. I’m not living in the venue owner’s space so I can’t possible know why he or she will say yes or no. My concern here, though is handling it when I’m depressed because I’m going to have to deal with that. I might be fine now, but I know that down the road I’m going to be facing that scenario. When I’m depressed it’s very difficult to handle rejection; it seems like an affirmation of all that my inner demon is telling me about myself. Sounds like fun, huh?

The answers to all of these concerns lies within myself in many ways. For instance, the concerns about the bars can be met with focusing on other venues for my solo work, like the coffee shops and restaurants. I don’t have to play in bars. Granted, there is more work for bands in bars, it’s kind of a traditional venue for them, but I can point my solo performances in a different direction and still meet my goals. The introvert related issues really boil down to setting limits for each day in terms of how much time I devote to dealing with interpersonal communications. If I do my research ahead of time like finding out who is the person who handles booking and when they are on site before making a trip there, can cut down on the amount of time I have to be “on” to make my pitch. The rejection aspect is simple reality. Everyone faces it, deals with it, and moves on from it. The easiest way to deal with it is to realize it’s a non-issue because it’s going to happen probably more often than not. I can get over it. I did with submitting poems for publication. I’ll just stuff a sock in that nasty old demon’s mouth and get on with it. What do you say? Shall we book some gigs?

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.