What I Forgot about Open Mics

Last night I went to an open mic for the first time in many years. A friend of mine started one not far from where I live a few weeks ago and I had planned on supporting her effort. Unfortunately I just joined a new band that rehearses Monday nights, at the same time the open mic runs. Last night we took the night off and two of us made our way over to Hamburger Mary’s in Oak Park, IL where Kat Fitzgerald was running the event. There weren’t many folks there, but those of us who were put on a nice In the Round type of event, eschewing the stage in favor of a more intimate close in feel.

I was feeling somewhat stressed due to just having confirmed that we were due for some probably costly home repairs, and had a pretty good crank going, which seemed to be the prevailing emotional state of the entire household as well. I was at the point where I really just wanted to veg in front of Netflix for a few hours, put life on hold and maybe sip some scotch in the process, something I don’t frequently do due to possible interactions with my prescribed meds. Also, I must admit that there was a period where I was a regular at many open mics searching for work with bands. I found myself weary of the open mic scene and the mixed success I was finding there, especially after discovering that most of the people at them were there for a temporary escape rather than recruiting. I was basically burned out on the whole open mic thing. Instead of giving in to the voices in my head, after I finished my dinner I grabbed one of my Godin nylon string guitars, made sure the gig bag had everything I needed and headed out the door.

I hadn’t seen Kat to speak to in several years. We’d been in touch over facebook, but I hadn’t actually talked to her since she moved back to the Chicago area from San Francisco. It was great to see her, meet some new people and make some music with them all. Another person was there whom I hadn’t seen in years, Debbie Mac, and it was nice to actually talk to her as well after not running into her since I’d left a band some four or five years before.

When it was my turn to play I ran through some fingerstyle pieces, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number by Steely Dan, Linus and Lucy, and a couple of Stevie Wonder tunes before closing out my part of the set with a spontaneous jazzy blues jam with my friend Bill Kavanagh on bass, and Kat playing Cajon. All in all it felt good, was low stress and I forgot about my issues for a while. I also accompanied a couple other folks as we went the rounds before we closed up shop just a little bit before ten o’clock.

All in all it felt more like a casual gathering of friends who all just wanted to spend a bit of time making music together. Sometimes at open mics I’ve been to there has been a bit of a competitive edge present, not quite the head cutting of some of the old jazz sessions, but there was an element of that present. Not at all last night, which was nice. No one was there to prove anything, just that they were capable of having a nice night out making music strictly for the fun of it, talking shop and getting to know some new folks. I’d forgotten about that aspect in my many years away from it. Here’s to a pleasant sense of community!

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. . .

 

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.

 

Being Mindful of the Physical Aspects of Music Making

One of the things I really love about playing a musical instrument is how it feels, the actual tactile experience. I particularly enjoy the feeling of fat strings under my fingers, which is one of the major reasons why I’m drawn to nylon strings. I love the breadth of the two-inch fingerboard combined with the feel of high-tension nylon strings. They’re nice and round, comfortable to push down, and visually pleasing as well. I don’t like the feel of carbon fiber trebles; they’re thinner than standard classical strings and bite into the fingers differently. Bass strings are also lovely combined with the wider fingerboard of the five string the texture and string response feels oh so good.

Playing brings a welcome tactile experience. There’s something about running up and down the fingerboard, the mechanics of the fingers meeting the strings and the clean order of solid technique being put to use. I don’t enjoy playing sloppily because it feels wrong. I’ve been trained, and trained well. I spent time developing clean playing habits, and while they’ve changed over the years due to working in different genres and the requirements thereof, my hands know the difference. Good technique inevitably feels better than bad technique, and good sound comes from good technique.

The longer I go without playing, the worse my hands feel. I’ve reached the point and the age where my hands start to stiffen and feel uncomfortable when I haven’t been playing regularly. The joints start to ache, and my palms and forearms start to feel crampy. Stretching helps somewhat, but what really makes the difference is spending a couple hours or more running the fret board, moving strings, and sending sound into the air. Doing, in this case, is far better than resting. Inevitably after working through some time on the instrument, my hands feel better, and so does the rest of me, especially when I focus on how it feels to play.

Focusing on the tactile experience also brings about healthier playing practices. There should be a sense of flow and order to the process of making the strings sing. The only physical tension that should be present is the amount needed to push down the string, initiate and maintain a clean sound. I have a tendency to carry a lot of tension in my body, particularly in my back, shoulders and neck. I also have scoliosis, which gives a pain response to tension in these areas. When I focus on the tactile process, I attempt to not only focus on the feeling of the strings under my fingers, but also on my body’s sense of relaxation. I try to keep my back, neck and shoulders as relaxed as I can, playing with as light a touch as I can while still maintaining a sense of dynamic response within the music. Musical tension might be present, but physical tension should be dismissed.

Relaxation promotes musicality, flow, and good health. Tension creates dissonance, pain and fatigue. At some point we all experience this, and we will still reach a point where we’re tired even when we’ve been maintaining a relaxed state. I have found that when tension starts to come into play my abilities decline dramatically. What was easy before now becomes difficult. My hands start to throttle the guitar or bass neck, while my shoulders start climbing toward my ears. Before long my abilities to deal with faster passages declines and emotional communication becomes static. Mistakes start multiplying and frustration escalates. By the end of the session, whether it is a gig, rehearsal or practice, I’m achy and ready for some ibuprofen. If it was a gig usually the next day is pretty physically brutal between the back pain and fatigue, often combined with a tension-induced headache. Tension also radically increases the likelihood of a repetitive stress injury that can sideline a musician for weeks. Been there, done that, don’t need to go there again!

Being mindful when playing makes a huge difference in being able to maintain a state of physical relaxation. The tactile experience should be pleasing, and when tensions starts to ratchet up being aware of the tactile experience’s divergence from pleasure to stress should be a signal. Granted, sometimes we do experience discomfort that requires working through as anyone who has ever played a steel strung acoustic guitar knows. It is necessary to build calluses in order to be able to play the instrument, and it is also necessary to train the muscles. In this case your hands and forearms are athletes and as such need to work out, stretch, recover and do it all over again to build strength and endurance. Athletes themselves seek flow, tension and release, as well as awareness of the physical process and tactile experience. They draw from this to enhance their performance, as should musicians. I can feel it, how about you?

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.

 

Building an Organized Thought Process: Getting the Most out of Time

Yesterday I wrote a nine hundred word essay. I was in a bit of a hurry, trying to fit things into an incredibly busy day, and I was stressed about how I was going to get my writing done in the midst of everything else I was attempting to accomplish. So I sat down and cranked it out, essentially going all out to produce something and hoping for the best in the process. I could post what I wrote, and it would be ok, but it really wasn’t up to my standards. For one thing I only had an implied thesis to guide me, which didn’t solidify into anything overtly tangible in the process. For another, I felt that what I had belted out was only loosely viable as a rough draft. The focus vacillated throughout the piece, and it would require some time and effort before it coalesced into something I’d be satisfied enough with to post to my blog site. While some of my writing is therapeutic, my main goal with each piece is pour some of my knowledge and experience into an essay that will either entertain or help fellow musicians, as well as other folks with creative bents. In order to do so the essay must have a point that is clearly made, be reasonably well supported through logic and examples, and also present itself in an organized manner. This requires a certain element of ensuring that I have the time available to do so, and that I have an organized approach to what I’m attempting to do. I have found that this holds true to most of the creative endeavors that I have been, and continue to be, involved in, whether it is writing creative non-fiction, fiction or poetry, practicing my instruments, or performing with them as well.

Personally I find that writing, and attempting to write well, helps in maintaining an orderly thought process in what could be a very disorderly mind. As I’ve mentioned in other essays I have ADD, which means that I have both the capacity to hyper-focus as well as be easily distractible. This increases when I become excited about something, particularly when ideas are flying around. My brain will latch onto a passing idea, follow that for a while, and then get distracted by another passing idea. This is one of the reasons why I started off my post college writing career writing poetry, because I was dealing with a smaller product. Today I find that most of my writing is primarily essay based and I follow a process to do it that permits me to focus and keep my thought process organized. I have a premise which becomes my thesis, and then I lay out my development through a logical framework until I reach my conclusion. For my shorter essays I do a mental outline after I’ve kicked out the idea, organize my thoughts in a logical sequence and then take a run at it. I can do this because I’ve been writing for years, and at this point the organization principles are ingrained to the point where they influence how I think.

The same principles can and should be applied to practicing my instruments. At this point in my career the value of my practice sessions isn’t based on how much time I’m sitting and playing, it’s based on what I get done in the amount of time I have. Focused practicing both in the short and long haul, produces far better results than long stints of unfocused practice. The latter actually tends to end up being more time spent playing than actually learning and improving. Each practice block should have a specific purpose and a plan to meet the goals of the practice session. If I need to address technique issues, then that is the focus, and while exercises are a great way to ingrain excellent technique I find that working a section of a piece I’m going to perform that requires the use of the targeted technique to be a much more practical and efficient use of the time. The technique will end up transferring to other situations where it needs to be employed, and I’m ending up a step closer to actually using it on a gig. This is an example of focused practicing that will move you closer to your goals, particularly when you are dealing with limited blocks of time.

Organization and time management are also highly valued by active performing artists. They’re keystones of professionalism both on the stage and off. When you have a contract to perform it sets the expectations and responsibilities that must be met. Typically this includes where and when you’re to perform, for how long, and what kind of performance is expected. This requires heavy duty organization and time management skills. This runs from knowing how long it will take to get to the venue, set up equipment and getting ready to perform, to how many pieces are required to fill the time requirement, and what pieces are appropriate for the intended audience. It even requires planning an organized departure. Often performances involve quite a bit of expensive gear; you do want to ensure that you leave with everything you brought, with it in the same shape that you brought it in. It is also important to plan things to minimize the amount of pre-performance stress that you encounter, which means including time for things going wrong. More often than not, things will go wrong when you haven’t allowed enough time for a gremlin to appear and be dealt with.

Over the years I have found that having an organized plan of attack for most of what I do in my life yields rewards, and through my writing practice I have helped myself establish a platform to reap those rewards in many areas of my life. It has helped me think in an organized and logical manner, streamline and improve my musical practice sessions, run rehearsals that minimalize wasted time, and ensure that I maintain certain aspects of professionalism in my performance duties. I have also found that my thought process is much clearer and more engaged on days where I’ve spent time actively writing than when I haven’t, because I apply similar principles to my other tasks. Yes, the ADD does still kick in, and sometimes my attention span has spasms, but for the most part I have found my method of dealing with it.

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.