Hi ya –
My original guitar teacher had a real positive attitude about being able to do anything with the guitar, that he passed on to me.
Yes, that’s right, weird title eh?
In less than an hour, my youngest son graduates 8th grade. The speeches will be filled with hope and visions of successful futures. It truly is a special moment in a person’s life. Hard work, perseverance and attitude all pay off in this one wonderful day of celebration.
Yet during our daily lives, a lot of negativity (thoughts, words, or just “energy”) can cloud our daily lives. Some obvious, some not so much.
When I’m with my students, I’m careful about pushing them too hard, or admonishing them too harshly for not practicing. This is optional, it’s supposed to be fun and rewarding, not a time to be dreaded.
Yet I remember a time when I was only about 19 and trying to be a music major at a local junior college. Notice I said “trying” – I didn’t know if I could cut it. I was fine with theory, ear training, history, and all that, but, like most guitarists, my sight reading wasn’t all that good. I worked on it of course, but here I am sitting next to some kid with a sax who’s been sight reading n his instrument since the 3rd grade. It was intimidating, to say the least.
But the hardest thing of all was our instructor for the jazz combo class. His name was Glen Richardson – a hotshot sax player who was in a very active band called Solar Plexus. They gigged all over and were on TV. This was 1978 and jazz was changing at that time. They had zero stage presence – they preferred the “purist” attitude – the music was more important than showmanship.
I bring him up because he was extremely demanding of the class. Luckily he didn’t pick on the rhythm section too often (that’s drums, bass, keyboard, and guitar) but he was murderous on the brass section. He’d get mad at them, then all of us had a target on us.
I remember distinctly him blurting out one day : “If you tried to enter Julliard they’d laugh!! They’d say come back in 5 years!!”
Other remarks were more subtle but just as cutting. When a player had trouble with a particular passage, Richardson had him do the part a few times until he got it right. At that point he said “That’s it, good” followed by muttering “…it only took you 3 times…”.
I may not have been the direct target of his scathing remarks but I sure felt them anyway. I lost confidence in myself and my abilities. Finally, that school year was over and a few months way from mean ol’ Mr. Richardson was what I needed, plus I started gigging on my own. Confidence back and restored.
Richardson was an obvious example, but people can be very subtle with it.
As we work on honing our craft, whatever that may be, we need to be honest in our assessment of our abilities, and decide what is the next step we need to tackle to improve, but keep the negativity away as much as possible. It does no good other than to perhaps thicken your skin, but personally, I can do without that 🙂
Happy graduation day to all those grads out there!
My band, formerly known as the Black Pearls, split up. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
We took a break over Superbowl Sunday and Valentine’s day, but something didn’t feel right.
I made the decision to leave the band.
This might seem ridiculous on the surface. After the money, time and effort and the fact that I still had a singer and keyboardist, why quit now?
The short answer is it was just becoming too hard to hold it together. There needs to be a chemistry between people, things should come together somewhat naturally and I just wasn’t feeling it any more. I didn’t feel like going back and re-inventing the band, and that’s what was needed.
As I look back on it, I was too easy going with the personal selection. Regardless of talent, I should have kept looking for a drummer who was a better fit for our band, not one that was always going to be on the fence.
The huge mistake was letting the bassist back in the band. What was I thinking? I allowed myself to be influenced by a personal endorsement. The singer’s attitude of her past band mate colored all other opinions about other bassists and singers. I could see that, but I didn’t address it. And for my trust and generosity, I was rewarded by the bassist talking smack about me behind my back. I thought we were all adults here, but he criticized my leadership, my playing, my tone, my singing – just about everything. This guy is older than I am and acting like a spoiled kid. He didn’t address any of this to me directly, I found out after he quit.
I would caution all my students that the music community is a small one and close knit. I have no problems about telling anybody else about this guy and what he did. His behavior was unprofessional and immature and I’d never work with this person ever again.
The real damage done to the band was the change in musical direction. Too many people were unhappy with the song choices. Of the 27 songs we have, we would probably have to throw out about half of them and start over. Our keyboardist, who is a pretty sharp guy, noted that in terms of time to find, audition, and hire a new rhythm section and re-vamp the song list, this adds up to about a 9 month delay before we’d be ready to play out. That means 2011. That’s a long time.
So my lessons learned up by this experience would be this:
1) Like any other business, try to establish early on the direction you want the band to be in. Is it Rock? Metal? Country? Top 40? Classic Rock? In doing this, you need to assess your talent needs. The Black Pearls always lacked a strong male singer and for me, that was disappointing since I couldn’t do a lot of the songs I’d wanted to do.
Discuss the material and where you’d want to play. Clubs? Parties? Weddings? Are you willing to travel? If so, how far? It’s better to establish this as early on as possible and set expectations for others. This also lets potential band members determine if you’re a good fit for them.
Determine the strengths and weaknesses of the band. If you’re happy with the people themselves, pick material that showcases their strengths and minimize the weaknesses. I enjoy playing “Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin but if the singer can’t do it, then that song should be scrapped. Conversely, if you’re looking to play some Led Zeppelin in your band, make sure the singer (probably female, given Robert Plant’s voice) can handle it.
2) Once you have the compass set on your direction, make it clear to any auditioning players. Remember too much democracy paralyzes a band. I had final say on any decision in the band, but I still tried to allow for players to have their say. This is fine if you picked the right people from the beginning. Look for people who like the music you’re doing and suggest things they can sing that fit with your set list.
3) Be willing to make the hard call. The bassist stayed late after 2 practices to trash me to the singer. I should have been told that at once after the first time. That’s poison to a band. It’s one thing to joke about the guy who’s always late, quite another to question their reason for that person being in the band.
4) Along with #3, consider new members to be on a probationary period. A lot of people talk the talk to get a job. Once in, how do they behave? Are they coming prepared? Are they starting to argue about the song list and want to throw songs out? Are they being as flexible as possible with practice times? Are they coming up with more problems than solutions? Be on the lookout for chronic complaining. Some people see a need and just fill it. Our Keyboardist just went out one day on his own and bought some recording equipment so we could record our practices. He didn’t complain about it, he just addressed the need. Our PA was underpowered so I spent $300 on a new power amplifier. What did our drummer do? He complained about the song list and the PA and how far he had to travel, and how this was the only day he could practice.
Bottom line: anybody can be replaced. Yes, that’s a harsh statement. I used to work for a CEO that ended every meeting with that statement. And it’s true. Hopefully it doesn’t come down to that.
I’ll be in another musical project at some point, but for now, I’m taking the time to try to define exactly what direction I want to go in.
I’ll let you know 🙂
The next day we got to see a move called “3 Backyards” – a film by Eric Mendelsohn. At first I thought it was a “slice of life” kind of film, but although the story takes place in a single day, there are 3 parallel and non-intersecting story lines that all have a significant event that takes place.
Hey, it has to happen, right? All those wonderful nights where people compliment your playing, tell you the band is great, and you get along well with your “employers” (eg club, bride & groom, company, etc) should be balanced out with jobs that make you appreciate those finer moments.
Although I’ve never had a player NOT show up, I’ve had some come very close to being late. Our drummer got lost on the way to a wedding gig once. This was before the age of cell phones. The technique used by our singer was to remotely change her answering machine message on her home phone to directions to the gig. Then she found out she didn’t have enough time to record it all so she re-recorded it at a break neck speed before the beep went off, thinking that the band member would call her number (by pulling off the road and using a pay phone). Her efforts paid off, that’s exactly what the guy did, got back on the road and showed up 15 mnutes before we were to play.
In this day of cell phones and navigation devices, this is less likely to happen but people do forget their cell phones or they’re out of a charge.
With respect to equipment, I’ve never had a failure but I’ve heard many a story of their amp suddenly smoking. I’ve been lucky in that aspect – but as a guitarist you can have some backup. If you use an external foot board (with various effects) you can plug directly into the PA (provided there is a free channel) and get the amp fixed later. If the footboard dies, you can go off the amp straight and use the onboard effects (useful to get a modeling amp here…like Line6)
One thing that threw me with my Line6 amp until I figured it out – my power cord is a plug-in type on the amp end. I forget that and when I move the amp around it sometimes comes loose and then -ack! – I have no power! Nothing comes on! Lesson here: when you set up, double check all connections so there’s no surprises on stage.
Here’s where the stories get a bit more….colorful.
Story #1: A long time ago we were playing on a slightly raised stage (about 2 steps) and I had my heavy Les Paul Custom on my shoulder when this guy comes over to me and motions me to come closer so he can talk to me. I bent over – and this guy grabs me by the neck and pulls me closer to him so I can hear his request. I’m nearly falling off the stage at this point (a thigh-high railing kept me on) but this apparently inebriated person didn’t notice. When I finally got away from him, I told our bassist (who called the tunes) and he ignored the request until the guy came over to me a second time. “Frank, call that tune and get this guy off my back!”, I growled and we finally played his tune.
it gets better…
Story #2: We were playing a private home on a large lot of land down in Morgan Hill, CA. I was filling in with this band and they had equpment and lights.
Well, these good ol’ boys were drinkng when we got there and while setting up, there were some hostile looks cast our way (not sure why other than their happy, elated state). It got dark and it got cold. The people throwing the party wouldn’t let us use their restroom to change clothes either.
So we got our stuff plugged in, used our lights after dark and played I guess 2 sets. That was our arrangement and then another band was coming on. They wanted to use our lights, we wanted to leave. Even though they were asking a favor, they gave us attitude: “Hey, man, can you dig playing without lights?” We got all the sound equipment loaded onto the trucks and waited until the last minute to pull the plug on the lights. By then, all the band members were on alert that we were taking off fast.
Sure enough, when the plug was pulled on the lights, there was some confusion at the party. People wanted to know what was going on. We jumped into our vehicles, and took off down the road. I don’t even know if we got paid for this gig.
I was in another band that was quite Top 40’ish and less rock (although when we did do rock tunes, that was my forte). We got a gig at Fort Ord near Monterey, CA (which was closed under the Clinton years).
I’ve played military bases before, but I don’t know what they were thinking when they booked us. This was not a coed crowd – it was all enlisted men, no one to dance with, so it was purely entertainment. And they didn’t want to dance (obviously) – they wanted to ROCK. And they weren’t shy about expressing themselves. In essence, we were boo’d off the stage and trying to make a go of eeking out a single set of our more rocker tunes. They wanted Van Halen and we were doing Men At Work. Lesson here: know who your audience is and what they want!
I believe our contract was honored and we got paid, but we couldn’t wait to get out of there!
Note that these are only a few “bad” stories while most nights are much less exciting – thankfully!!
This week I’m going to Utah with my girlfriend to attend the Sundance Film Festival. I hope to have a story or two when I get back!
Hey folks –
Ok, while that title sounds dramatic, it IS a lot of work to put a band together from scratch, carve out a distinct look and sound and persona and start working.
The name was picked: The Black Pearls. There’s another “band” (more like a duet) in the UK with that name. While you can get sued using the same name, it’s not likely. But I do know of a band locally here that got sued from a band in New Zealand and had to change their name. Interestingly, their new name was better anyway. So I’m not worried.
The next order of business was finding a bassist. We had one for a short bit, but he dropped out due to personal reasons. We auditioned a guy who was from the Berklee (yes, that’s spelled correctly) school of music in Boston. Steve Vai went there. I wanted to go there but couldn’t afford it. It’s a “wow” thing to have on your musical resume for sure.
So this guy played great and sang well. But the original guy who dropped out freed up and wanted to give it another whirl. With better vocals and a stronger sense of commitment, we went with Rikk.
Okay so now we’re complete, the gigs just start rolling in, right? Noooooo. Rikk sings so there are adjustments to be made. Songs he can pull off need to be added. Background vocals might need to be rearranged. There is an adjustment period that will go on for a few weeks while we still try to nail down a repertoire of songs that 1) People like, 2) we can do well. Each song on our list needs to fill both criteria so we need to constantly be assessing ourselves.
Bill, our keyboardist, doled out some of his own money to buy some digital recorders so we can have that feedback from our practices. We can hear if our background vocals are awful (and on one song they were!) or if the ending isn’t tight, or whatever. It’s a snapshot in time that shows you what an audience will hear and every artist flinches at hearing themselves. Robert DiNero doesn’t watch his own movies. I can understand this. While most people are thinking he nailed it, he’s seeing everything he’s doing wrong.
Next blog will be about gigs. The job market out there is tough – how’s a band to make a living?
Hey folks –
Yes, it’s been too long since I’ve blogged. With back to school, back to soccer, a new team at work, and a few speed bumps here and there, I haven’t had the chance to blog much….but I’ll bring you up to date.
I’ve started a band with a freind of mine who used to take lessons from me. She’s a singer and a song writer, and she’s much better at networking than I am. In no time, we got a keyboard player. In fact, we only auditioned one and Bill got the job.
The drummer also was a pretty good choice. Andrew teaches full time and decided it was time to play out again. Since the bass and drums drive and steer the band, Andrew wasn’t sure he would stay with us if we couldn’t get a bassist to compliment his playing.
So we auditioned. And auditioned. And auditioned. Those darn bass players! I guess that’s why my youngest son plays that instrument – they’re a different breed of cat. The first guy canceled on us because his baseball team went into over time, plus he thought the songs were too hard.
(For the record, we auditioned with Cold Shot by Stevie Ray Vaughn, Breakdown by Tom Petty and Black Friday by Steely Dan…so yeah, if you’re just a metal player, this probably is going to be curve ball for you…)
The second guy wanted to ditch bass and become a front man / lead singer. Hey, just stick to the advertisement description please!
Third guy was closer, but didn’t sing.
The fourth guy played well, sang well, but didn’t want to be part of a start up (he was already gigging with another band).
The fifth guy was actually a good fit all the way around. Our drummer liked him, he sang well, and came prepared.
So we just put together like 50 songs and go find a job, right? Hmmm….there’s a bit more to it than that.
When you’re building a band, you’re building a business. I used to hate the thought of music being a “business” but one MBA degree later, I understand that to be completely true.
So we have our line up, what’s next while we’re figuring out our set list?
We needed a name. The name allows us to grab a free MySpace Band page. It helps focus us on what the band picture should look like. And……it will help generate buzz.
I decided that we had ONE WEEK to pick a band name and move forward. Sometimes when everybody is easy going (and our band is) we can churn a bit too long on a decision. I did what I do with any engineer – give them a deadline. Next Sunday we pick a name – you don’t like it, speak up. So it’s part democracy, but with a referree – me in this case.
So, using google docs where we can all collaborate on the same spreadsheet at once, we all put forth our best ideas. I had some “great” names – like “the Agoraphobics”, “4 out of 5 Doctors”, and “Puppy Crack” (my girlfriend has a puppy and chewing shoes are like “crack” to them).
Well, needless to say, no one really liked my names. It had to do with image – it’s about branding. If we were a punk band, Puppy Crack might be appropriate. The Agoraphobics might be hard to spell or remember and many people don’t know what it means (fear of open spaces). “4 out of 5 Doctors” was still considered too much of a joke.
I’ll tell you what we settled on next blog….Stay Tuned!!
Hey folks –