Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What is classic music?

You know those pants/haircut/shoes/glasses you rocked in junior high? You thought you were the bomb-dot-com, and now you try to burn every single picture from that part of your life. Well, music can be the same. Not everything that you think is amazing now will still be cool in five plus years.

Here's one example.

Growing up, I went through all of the normal emotional storms, including breaking up with girlfriends and getting grounded by my parents. Music - more often than not - got me through. As a result, it has always amazed me how fast I can go back to certain events or time periods in my life just by hearing a few notes or words from a certain song.

One such song was a blues tune that shall not be named (for reasons which I will explain). It was my Senior year of high school, and I had been dumped by the girl of my dreams (yeah....about that). This is really pathetic, but I laid down on the floor next to the speakers, put the aforementioned track on repeat, and wallowed in self pity for the next couple of hours.

Fast forward to college, and I was exploring some music with a new girl of my dreams, and came across a dusty old CD that I hadn't listened to since high school.

"Sweet!" I said. "This song is so awesome! You've gotta check it out." Without reconsidering, I put the disc in the player, skipped to the appropriate track and waited for the magic.

The song was awful.

It became immediately apparent that my memory of the song was much better than the song itself. It was actually kind of embarrassing, and I had to quickly kill the music, as it were, and make some stupid excuse about how maybe it wasn't that great or I had been thinking of another song. I looked really dumb, to say the least.

This got me thinking, "So, what makes a song great? Not just great now, but great over time. Why is music from certain artists - like Mozart or the Beatles - still relevant, while other, more recent artists are already outdated and old?"

Understand, I'm not talking about immediate popularity, or even album sales. (Does it make anybody else sick that Katy Perry is outselling the Beatles, for crying out loud?) I'm talking about music that doesn't outlive its popularity, its ability to connect with an audience - its soul, for lack of a better term.

As a high school music teacher, one of the assignments I gave was for students to bring in one of their favorite tunes, explain it to the class, and justify its existence. One question they had to answer was, "Will this song still be relevant in five to ten years? Why or why not?" It was fun to hear certain kids flat out admit that their tune was cool for now, but probably wouldn't be in the near future. 

I'd encourage you to try this out. No, this is not school, but give it a go:

Take your favorite song (for me, this changes weekly, if not daily). Print out the lyrics. Read them to yourself slowly, taking care to decode the overt meaning and look for any subtle meanings and symbolism. Even better, read them out loud to some one who isn't familiar with the song, and ask them to summarize the meaning of the song in one sentence, two at most.

For the sake of music and art, I challenge myself - and you! - to be a more discriminating listener and consumer of music.


Happy interpreting/listening/discerning!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Can you 'flip the switch?'

About two years ago, I decided I wanted to become a better basketball player. Specifically, I wanted to be a much more accurate shooter. Since I'm a stat geek and can't stand to do anything halfway, I created a little diagram of the court, complete with all of the places I'd practice shooting from, and how many of each shot I needed to make.

I try to complete this routine at least twice per week, and more if I have the time. (Just like practicing music, I don't worry so much about how much time I take, but about accomplishing each goal or shot on my list.) I'm sort of OCD about two things: One, I have to complete the entire routine, and, two, I have to make my last shot each day. It's superstitious, I know, but I can't leave on a missed shot.

So, one day in the gym I was down to the last shot. It was an NBA-distance three-point shot (four feet longer than a high school three), and I was struggling. I had attempted the shot probably twenty-five or thirty times, and I seemed to be getting worse with each try. Also, it was getting late, and I needed to get going to make it to work on time.

I had the inevitable conversation in my head. "Maybe today's the day you just don't get it done. It's time to go, and you're too tired to make this shot. At this point, you're just wasting your time."

That day, I almost walked off the court in frustration. But then that other voice (you know the one) started talking back. "Nope. You're not leaving until you get this done. You've made tough shots before, and you can make this one. You made this commitment to yourself, and you're not letting you out of it. Get out there and keep shooting."

I've had similar moments in my life, but at that instant I felt myself flip the switch. No longer tired and frustrated, I was focused, determined and confident. I wasn't looking for an excuse or setting myself up to fail and quit. Failing and quitting were no longer options.

On my very next attempt, I nailed the shot. Straight through the net like I was Deron Williams or Kyle Korver. It felt great, and I immediately grabbed my things and ran for work. Mission accomplished, as it were.

You hear athletes talk about it all the time, but I think musicians do it, too. And we should be doing it. It may be in performance, on the stage at an important moment. But in my view, it's much more critical to do it in practice. To flip the switch over and over and over when we're practicing hard things. When you get frustrated and want to quit, you simply tell yourself, "No. It's not an option. I'm getting this done."


Obviously, there are some limitations. I'm not asking you to play something way beyond your level just because you tell yourself you can. But if you break up your objectives into logical, sequential steps, then you should be able to accomplish today's step even if it pushes you beyond your comfort zone a little bit. And then tomorrow, do it again. Before long, you have developed the ability to look a challenge in the face and say, "I won't quit. I can do this."

Just like anything else, "flipping the switch" requires practice. Try something today that challenges you, just something small, and accomplish it. And tomorrow, do it again. Or, like Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Do something every day that scares you."

Happy switch flipping!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday Feature: John Mayer's "Born and Raised"

Man, I love John Mayer. Call it a man-crush or whatever, I simply cannot get over this guy. Yes, I know he comes across as a jerk in every interview, but when he picks up his guitar it simply overcomes all of that for me.

I have loved each of John Mayer's albums up to this point, so I was expecting another home run with "Born and Raised." I wasn't disappointed.

Yes, I'm going to highlight the two obvious choices off the record, so I apologize if you were hoping for some hidden treasures. Again, I'm just hoping to give the reader enough interest to check out the record and give it a thorough listen.

With that in mind, here are my two 'must hear' choices from this album.

"Shadow Days"


"Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967"



Both of these tunes hit me squarely in the ears, heart and mind through a combination of brilliant lyrics, subtle melodies and harmonies, and fantastic orchestrations. No virtuosic intensity here, just great storytelling.

Happy listening!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Do I really need to read music?

I get asked this question all the time. "Why do I need to read music?"

Well, imagine if you couldn't read English. First, you wouldn't be reading this post. Imagine if someone had to read everything to you everyday, from street signs to magazines, to text messages and Facebook status updates. How would that be for you? In a word, debilitating.

Certainly there are lots of good people in the world - brilliant, even - that can't read or write. But those people, almost without exception, would encourage you not to follow their path. Reading and writing are the gateway to learning and communication on a much higher and more efficient level.

The same is true for music. Of course, there is much to be learned from listening and imitating. And there are many great musicians who never learned to read or write music. But the written version of what you're hearing can allow you to be more expressive and accurate than you could ever be without seeing it. Written music also fills in more of the "why" of the music, sort of like how books can tell you a character's thoughts, but the movie rarely can.

For my money, reading music is as critical to the musician as reading and writing your spoken language is to the average human being. Not doing it won't end your career, but gaining the skill can only make you better.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Turkeys and flying

You've heard this story before, but it bears repeating. And I'm sure there are much better versions out there, but you'll get the point.

There was a group of turkeys that wanted desperately to learn how to fly. As they watched the sky, they saw other birds soaring on the winds, and were envious.

"We're birds, too," they said, "there's no reason we shouldn't fly." So, they asked the mightiest bird in the sky, the eagle, if he would teach them how to fly. He agreed, and invited them over to his home the following afternoon.

The eagle was a great teacher, and the turkeys were quick, enthusiastic learners. Before long they were lifting off and landing, and by the end of the day every one was able to fly and soar on the wind. They thanked the eagle, clapping him on the back and expressing their gratitude. Some even hugged him.

Then they all walked home, just the way they had come.

I remember the first time I ever heard this story. I was thinking, "Seriously?! They WALKED?!" And that's the point of the story. The turkeys learned something that could have had an impact on almost every part of their lives, and they treated it like a toy.

They didn't allow the new skill, knowledge and perspective to make them better - to change their behavior and their lives.

Too many students (including some of mine) learn how to make themselves better, whether it be from a class, a rehearsal, a lesson or even YouTube, but then they go right back to doing things just the way they have been. It's almost like they refuse to adapt and change even when they know what they need to do to improve.

They learn how to fly, then walk home.

Here's to my students - and students everywhere - who take to heart the knowledge that they gain in classes, from their teachers and from their own observations, and allow it to change them for the better.

Happy flying!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

It takes a village, Part 2 of 2

This is part two of a two part series about getting the most out of private lessons by guest blogger Emily Sorensen*. For part one, click here

Parental involvement is absolutely critical for student success, regardless of the instrument and age when beginning lessons. I was once told that if your child is taking lessons then you as the parent are too; this is especially true of younger students. So if you have a basic understand of things you can expect to do as part of the team it becomes easier to support your student and make the decision to invest in lessons. So here are some things you can expect of yourself.

  • Communicate
Again, the importance of communication cannot be overstated. As a parent you need to be aware of the teaching schedule and how it aligns with your family’s schedule; very few family commitments truly sneak up on us. Family vacations, school concerts/performances, holiday parties and most other family activities find their way onto our calendars well in advance and it isn’t unfair for teachers to expect and require at least 24 hours notice to reschedule a lesson with no repercussions. You can expect that if you fail to notify your teacher 24 hours in advance that you won’t receive a make-up lesson AND you still have to pay for the lesson time you canceled. Make life less complicated and save money by marking your calendar a week in advance of a planned missed lesson to notify your teacher. If you know you are going to be missing several lessons during an extended period of time (ie-summer break or an exceptionally busy family time) consider taking a leave of absence and getting on your teacher’s waiting list until you can more consistently focus on lessons. 

You should feel comfortable talking to your student’s instructor about questions or concerns about any part of music lessons. Learning to play a musical instrument is similar to learning a foreign language. It takes time, consistent effort and a lot of practice time. Your teacher is familiar with the process of learning lessons and can help you coach and encourage your student at home, so feel free to bring questions to lessons or call or email the instructor as agreed upon. 

  • Pay on time
One of the best things you can do for your student’s experience is pay on time. Unless your student is paying for their own lessons it can get awkward for your student to have to deal with the financial aspect of lessons and can be hard for them to focus in their lessons or to bring home the message to you about paying. It is much easier for all parties if you take on the responsibility of making sure payments are made on time.

  • View lessons as an investment
Music lessons are a gateway to future opportunities. It is also important to remember that learning an instrument is a progressive experience; each skill needs to be mastered before moving to the next in order to have success. In a previous post about knowing if you’re getting a good deal (link here) I talked at great length the points that help you know if your investment is worth it. At some point your student could use their skills to help pay for a college education. And really, if the goal is to learn something new and to participate in the creative process, well that’s a lifetime investment.

  • Expect reality and train for goal behaviors
Your student will experience plateaus, discouraging times and growing pains while learning an instrument. It’s like weight training, losing weight or any other skill that requires mastery. There are plateaus. Expect it and prepare for it. But in the same vein, there will also be many, many moments of intense excitement too! Every time they nail that riff they’ve been struggling to learn, the times when they finish a method book, when they master their recital piece. Well it’s those exciting times that help pull them through the growing pains and plateaus. As a parent when those plateaus come, encourage and remind them of the great times and sometimes you may have to be a little persistent about helping them make through practice sessions. 

When a student starts lessons the goal is the consistently practice and to focus during the lesson time and being willing to stick it out during the frustrations too. All the promises that they will do it are soon forgotten when it’s hard and they feel frustrated. This may leave you wondering why you bought the instrument that isn’t being played and why you’re paying big bucks each month for lessons. As tempting as it is to get frustrated and discouraged right along with your student; don’t do it! This leads me to the next point.

  • Take an active role
For the ultimate success of your student you can expect to take an active role in lessons. I was told as I was preparing to sign one of my children up for lessons at a young age, “oh, you’re taking lessons too?!?!” This was said in a joking manner and with a little sarcasm; however, I find it extremely true. If you are really ready for your student to be successful, go to lessons with your child, at least until you have coached your student into healthy practice habits; and especially go if you have a young student. You’re being at the lesson allows you to assist your students memory during practice times and coach them through specific items. If you are willing to be this proactive during the beginning of your students lessons, your student will have a higher rate of success, more enjoyment of their instrument and develop better habits through you role.

  • Hold your student accountable
This is the absolute most important expectation for your student’s success. When your student signs up for lessons make sure they understand they are agreeing to be consistent about practicing their instrument, showing up to lessons and working to learn. THEN hold them accountable to their end of the agreement. 

Your student will not magically learn an instrument or improve on what they know simply by walking into a private music instructor’s studio. Many students think that by simply showing up at lessons with no other work or practice they will become this amazing rock star or concert musician. And then become confused, frustrated and quit when it doesn’t work out as they imagined it would. NEWS FLASH! It doesn’t work that way. Any way you look at it, learning to play an instrument takes work. Hold your student responsible for their potential and encourage them to do what it takes and then follow through with them. 

Many factors lead influence your student’s success in private music lessons. Be assured that it is a team effort. The teacher, the student or the parent cannot make it happen alone. There will be times when the student is extremely discouraged and often as parents we’re ready to allow them to quit because we’re already over booked. Take it all into consideration, but be aware as you have and follow expectations for yourself and your student’s teacher the team effort will make it easier to continue and get over the “growing pains” of learning something new.

Best to you and your student as you embark on an amazing journey in music education and creation!

*Yep, Emily is my wife and best friend. She's also an experienced musician and was the administrator at our music teaching studio where she worked with about 20 teachers and over 100 students. She dealt with all of the day-to-day operations, including interfacing with parents and students. In short, she knows her stuff.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Getting "rewired"

When I was in college, I decided to supplement my percussion education by taking drum set lessons from the great Jay Lawrence for a couple of summers. He had (and still has) a huge reputation, and I was beyond excited to get started.

At the same time I was playing in a very fun, Dave Matthews-esque band, and I had been telling my mates how much better I was going to be, and how glad I was that I was taking lessons. Due to the summer schedule, it was about six weeks - and hence, six lessons - before we got back into a rehearsal and I was able to display my newfound skills.

There was only one problem: I had not improved. In fact, I was much worse. Awful. Terrible. Discombobulated.


My band was furious. We had a bright future, and as far as they could see I was throwing a huge wrench in the works by trying to change my approach through lessons. A couple of the band members actually went so far as to tell me that I needed to quit - immediately!

I knew that lessons were the right thing to do. Jay was awesome, I was learning a ton, and it seemed that I was gaining skills. So, at the next lesson, I asked Jay about it. Why would I play so terribly if I was actually making progress?

Jay's answer has stayed with me, and I've passed it along to my own students over the years. It's a paraphrase, to say the least, but here's how he explained it to me:

Have you ever seen the inside of a computer? Imagine what it looks like. There are a lot of set parts - boards and ports and power related components - but, by and large, it's a ton of wires. Wires everywhere that connect everything to everything else. 

Well, basically what we've done over the last six weeks is yank all of the wires out of their places and start to put them in new places, wire by wire. We're "rewiring" you, so to speak, and when we're done, you'll be a much, much better "drumming computer." But for now, there are still a lot of loose wires and parts that aren't functioning totally correctly yet. 

As we keep working on you, more and more "wires" will be put in place, and you'll function and play better and better and better. Just keep practicing, and keep challenging yourself.

That explanation, in addition to making sense, has been proven true over the years. Because of Jay's influence and approach, I've been able to kick some bad habits and develop a lot of techniques, skills and styles that were never a part of my old "wiring."

Thanks, Jay.

As always, happy drumming!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

It takes a village, Part 1 of 2

Guest blogger Emily Sorensen*, former Play Music Educational Studios administrator, takes a look at the parent's role and perspective in getting the most out of private lessons for your student. 


As a parent it can be difficult to know how to interface with your student’s private music teacher. This is part one of a two part series with some tips and suggestions to help you team up with your student and his/her music teacher to increase your student’s success.

As a parent you can expect a short list of characteristics from your student’s teacher regardless of his/her background. Some of these characteristics include:
  • Professionalism
Many of us associate professionalism with the corporate industries and, more often than not, associate beatnik and hippie stereotypes with the music industry and aren’t sure what to expect with music instructors. So many of the things in this category seem like common sense, but because of the aforementioned stereotypes, it bears repeating. 
  • Personal grooming and good hygiene: A professional music teacher should appear to care about personal grooming and hygiene. Something as simple as showing up in clean clothing in good repair can make a big difference in your student’s ability to focus during lesson time. 
  • Punctuality: The teacher should be punctual. Being on time and organized prior to your student’s lesson allows your student maximum time to get through material and both teacher and student are able to concentrate. 
  • Legitimate skill set, instrument knowledge and current industry experience: In a previous post I wrote about knowing how you are getting a good deal for the money you spend and a big part of professionalism is having a legitimate skill set and knowledge of the instrument they are teaching as well as current experience playing their instrument.  
  • Interest in your student’s progress: One of the biggest professional qualities your teacher should have is caring about your student’s progress and skill development. In a hard economy many people who played in junior high and high school or took lessons for a while and need to make a little extra money might start teaching lessons. Often times those can be, “my personal music history,” lessons and not much by way of progress for your student. Yes, a teacher needs to have experience and be able to relate to your student’s current experience, but the overall goal needs to be about your student.
  • Communication
The importance of good communication cannot be over emphasized. Everyone’s experience in music lessons is enhanced when good communication is expected and practiced. Sometimes that means being willing to say something that seems common sense or seems like it could go unsaid. Again, communication should be professional and tactful at all times. As a parent, never feel bad about asking a question or expressing a concern. You should feel comfortable expressing yourself and expecting your teacher to be clear with you and your student.
  • Clear Expectations and agreements
This goes hand in hand with communication, but is worth pointing out specifically. You should be able to expect a clear list of expectations for your student and you. This often will include expectations about payments, practicing, attendance, rescheduling and make-up lessons, personal emergencies, studio group activities and suggested memberships and such. However, don’t expect the list of student/parent expectations to be all inclusive. There is not a way, nor should it be required, to account for every possible scenario. More often than not you will find that professional teachers who are willing to communicate their expectations for you and your student are willing to listen and work with you as long as you don’t try to take advantage of them.

In addition to a list of expectations for you and your student, a list of clear expectations and agreements about your teacher’s behavior should be part of your lesson experience. Teachers should communicate with you how and what to expect as far as their policies, personal emergencies, rescheduling and make-up lessons, holidays or no lesson weeks and how they handle the non-lesson elements of their business (payments, credits, statements, receipts, referrals, etc.) Again, the list can’t possibly include every situation and scenario, but should provide for open and clear communication.
  • Pricing Structure & Payment Policy
This is another element that goes hand in hand with communication, but is important enough to discuss as an individual point. Good music teachers are in business. As consumers, we often overlook the arts as businesses, but it’s extremely important to remember your private music instructor is providing a valuable service, and this is an important part of how they make their living. Imagine if you went to work and didn’t get paid on time or consistently and often you were carrying your employer with a balance they owed you at least one month behind. Keep this in mind as you are paying for lessons, and expect a clear pricing structure and payment policy from a professional private music instructor. 

A clear pricing structure will include a price per lesson, often based on the length of the lesson. 20 (for younger or beginner students) 30, 45 and 60 minutes are common time increments for lessons. The longer your lesson time the more you can expect to pay. Also, the more educated/experienced the teacher, the more you can expect to pay for lessons. It is expected that you pay for lessons a month at a time and at the beginning of the month. It is common for teachers to charge an additional fee for paying later in the month. Some pricing structures offer a discount for paying in full on time, however, this is less common so it shouldn’t be expected as part of a good pricing structure. Before you begin lessons, be prepared to carefully read and discuss the pricing structure and payment policies. Nothing can ruin a lesson experience like miscommunications about money - so be clear about your expectations and what is expected of you. 
  • Knowledge of available resources
This seems like a silly expectation to have for a professional private music instructor. However, it would surprise you how often you will need to talk to your teacher about where to purchase items, software, supplemental materials, instrument upgrades, music camps and many more items that are indirectly related to lessons. You should feel confident in your instructor’s knowledge and comfortable asking for information. Many times you won’t need to ask because the instructor will volunteer the information about resources, but you should expect to be able to get an answer if you ask your instructor.


In part two of this series we'll explore a team approach to student success. We’re looking at what parents can expect to contribute to their student’s success.

*Yep, Emily is my wife and best friend. She's also an experienced musician and was the administrator at our music teaching studio where she worked with about 20 teachers and over 100 students. She dealt with all of the day-to-day operations, including interfacing with parents and students. In short, she knows her stuff.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Do it right!

I have used many basketball metaphors and analogies in writing for this blog, and it's time I share some of the reasons why.

For starters, sports and music have a lot of elements in common. They're both about a long term commitment to mastery of a certain set of skills. And that involves always learning, practicing and being willing to adjust.

Another reason - probably the main one - is my high school basketball coach, the late Steve Hodson. Coach Hodson was a stickler for proper technique. He would absolutely blow a gasket if you shot the ball incorrectly, make or miss. But if your form was good - even if you shot an air ball at a critical time - he'd give you a nod and a clap and encourage you to shoot again.

So, why was the coach such a technique stickler? He believed that sacrificing good technique for any reason, even for a critical basket now, would rob you of future scores.* That always using the proper technique would, over time, garner a player more points and, therefore, more wins.

This is one of my fundamental educational philosophies: If you do it right, every time, you'll get consistent results in terms of sound, execution and musicality.

Of course, there is much more to be said about technique, but that's for more future blog posts. For now, just remember to do it right every time if you want to get consistent, long term results.

Happy drumming, and make the most of it!

*Not to mention the fact that poor technique can increase your risk of injury.


Friday, August 24, 2012

Friday Feature: Neil Peart of Rush

You know how tall people always get asked if they play basketball? I have twin cousins who are 6’6”, and they do not play basketball, nor do they want to. They humor people all the time who ask the question, and privately want to slap them silly. 

Well, it’s like that for drummers, too. The minute somebody finds out you play, they’re all, “So, hey, what about Neil Peart, huh? You must love Rush, right?” I’m the kid who deliberately avoided all things Rush and Peart for years. No, decades. Religiously, you might say.* 

Up until a couple of years ago, I loved fantasizing about witty remarks I could reply with, but always said something like, “Oh, yeah, well you have to love him/them, right? Great stuff. Yeah, big fan.”

So, here’s the thing: I finally read an interview with Neil. After his first wife had died in 1998, he had spent an entire year riding a motorcycle around North America, and written a book about it - his fourth. The interview, and subsequent other articles I read, revealed Peart as a highly intelligent, well-rounded person, as well as being one of the most respected and emulated musicians of the modern era. I remember being impressed with him as a person, not as a musician

Somehow, for me, that opened my ears - and my mind - to the music of Rush. Had I my life to do over, I would have taken that album the first time it was offered, not the 28 billionth. I can’t say that I’m a huge fan, not yet, anyway, but I have finally become an appreciateur, if you will, of Neil Peart and Rush. They take the creation of their music, and musical expression, very seriously. I respect them a great deal, and am coming to know more of their repertoire.

For those of you who have yet to get to know Neil Peart, allow me to suggest a starting point, although I’m probably the only one of his fans who would recommend it. Start with his instructional video, “A Work in Progress.” It’s pretty recent, so it’s thirty or so years into his career, and he talks about reinventing himself. Awesome. That I love.



Happy discovering!

*The way I also avoided the Beatles until about a year ago, I might add. I’m a fool’s fool, so to speak, because I’m now a dedicated student of the Beatles. Wish I had come to them sooner.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Getting Paid


I’ve said more times than I can count while working out the financial details of a gig, “I hate the money part of this.” And I really do. The worst part of being a freelancer is the discussion about money, because your service, like any product, (and don’t kid yourself - it’s a product) is to be had for the lowest possible price. To quote a colleague of mine, “That’s why they call it show business, not show friends.”

Because I find the money aspect so uncomfortable, I’ve often said things like, “I wish I could play for free,” or this little chestnut, “Y’know, I play for free. You pay me to set up and tear down.”

But sometime over the last year, my mind and heart have changed. I do love to play. I would rather play than not play. And I do wish I could play for free. But what I mean by that is that I wish I was financially well off enough to do whatever I want every day - and what I want is to create amazing music with amazing people as often as possible. 

At the end of the day, I am getting paid to play. I’ll also set up and tear down as a part of the package. But if all a client wants is set up and tear down, they can get somebody else to do it a lot cheaper than I will. 

There are myriad reasons to expect - and get - a fair price for your services.

It has always been the case, but especially when the economy is down, people have a hard time paying for something they essentially see as a God-given talent. Especially with musicians, not only do people sometimes balk at paying a fair price, but they also ask for extra service without extra pay. 

One classic example is this: The evening is a complete success (and, of course, the band had nothing to do with it) and the party/reception/event is running longer than the original booking. Your client nonchalantly strolls over and says, “You don’t mind playing a little longer, right? Say, another half hour?” But at the end of the night, you get the amount you agreed upon, without the extra half hour. 

Seriously?! Do you say to the plumber, “I know I called you to fix the sink, but could you do the toilet while you’re here, too, and not charge me any extra?” Or to the doctor, “Hey, I know you’re working on my appendix, but since you’re already in there, how about the ol' gallbladder, too?”

Somehow a certain segment of humanity doesn’t view art and entertainment as a legitimate product. At least not like they see a car, or furniture or accounting services. Not only do they not want to pay a fair price, sometimes they don’t want to pay at all. For example...

I’ve only been truly “stiffed” one time. It was a DJ gig I took as a favor for a friend of mine who came down sick at the last minute. I was supposed to provide a sound system and some music at an elementary school holiday party/assembly. Somehow the communication wasn’t clear, because I thought all I was doing was playing music, and the principal was expecting games, dances (like the Hoky Poky, Chicken Dance, etc.) and more. 

At the end of the gig, I went to the principal to get a check, and she refused to pay. She said that I hadn’t done anything that she had expected, and that if I had a problem I could take it up with the district office. I was young and inexperienced, so I walked out with no cash, but having learned some huge lessons. 

Truth be told, there was fault on both sides. It is completely unprofessional to hire someone, allow them to set up, work the event and tear down and then not pay them a dime. But also, I had no business accepting a gig that I didn’t know anything about and wasn’t prepared to fulfill.

So, if you want to get paid, I recommend following a few simple rules when booking a gig. 
  • Set up a base rate. For example, X number of dollars will get the client four musicians and a sound system for two hours.
  • Give yourself a, “minimum wage.” In my case, there is a minimum limit that a gig must pay to make it worth the packing/loading, wear and tear, fuel and missed opportunities. You may think this will cut you out of gigs, and it may at first. But if you’re not willing to set a minimum, then you will get taken advantage of. And if you’re a great player and a reliable, workable human being, people will pay your reasonable rate to get you on the gig. 
  • Set up an overage rate. Say, for every hour over, the client will pay X number of dollars per musician, billed in 1/4 hour increments. If the time goes one minute over, you get paid for 1/4 hour. If it goes 31 minutes over, you get paid for 3/4 hour. This may seem very mercenary, but it will keep your client from abusing you. If you have this agreement in advance, the client knows exactly what they will be paying you for staying later, and you know that getting home late will be worth your time.
  • Get the particulars in writing, and get a signature. This doesn’t necessarily have to be legally binding (although that’s not a bad idea), but if there’s any sort of disagreement, you have something to “remind” your client with.
  • Get at least part of your pay in advance, and make part of it refundable. One reason is this: In the summer months, it’s not uncommon to get rained out of an outdoor gig. Make sure the client can’t pull the, “no play, no pay” card. They need to understand that you’re working, whether or not Mother Nature cooperates. 
Of course there are other things to think about, but getting in the habit of following these or similar rules will make the financial part of being a musician a lot easier to deal with.

The bottom line is that when you start viewing yourself as, and acting like, a professional, others will treat you that way.

Happy drumming!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Something's got to give

Disclaimer: Please read this first.
This blog post is a gut reaction, and it's just my opinion. I thought long and hard about whether I should even post it. It's rough, it's somewhat undeveloped, and it may be less than tactful. I may even overstate or overgeneralize a few things. But I believe in right and wrong. And I believe that you and I have the power to do something to make the world a better place. With that in mind, please forgive the rougher edges of this blog post. And thank you for reading. As always, I appreciate your thoughtful comments and insightful feedback. 

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Something's got to give.

In the aftermath of the awful movie theater shooting in Aurora, CO, during the premier of the latest Batman movie, a stark realization has become apparent.

We have gone too far. All of us have.

This is not a new opinion, but it's truly shocking what we'll tolerate in our music, TV, movies, theatre, video games, literature, poetry, painting and more. And we call it,"entertainment."But when anything similar happens in real life, it's suddenly a tragedy and an outrage. Honestly, what do you expect?

No, you're not the one pulling the trigger, but you might be supporting some very disturbing trends in our society either by financial support - such as the purchase of tickets, albums or the like - or by tacitly approving by doing nothing.

I'm by no means an expert on parenting or social evolution, but it seems obvious that if you tolerate something without speaking out about it, it is assumed that you approve of it. For example, your child does something that you don't want them doing, and they know you see them, but you decide to let it slide. Your child will think, "Hmm. Mom knows I did it, but she didn't say anything. That means it's okay." And more than likely, what you're actually seeing as the parent is nothing compared to what they're doing when they know you're not looking.

A very vocal, visible class of artists, musicians and movie-makers (no, not all of them) are no different. They're even more predictable, actually, than your children are. If sex and violence sell, then more sex and more violence will sell even more. Some producers will even admit that they're actually trying to, "push the envelope," to get as much smut into their art/music/movie/game as they can.

Have you listened to mainstream radio lately? It's downright offensive. Nobody I know, or grew up with, or went to school with was anywhere close to that promiscuous. Nobody partied like that or was that reckless, undisciplined and weak. But many popular recording artists would have you believe that the lifestyle they portray is normal - that everybody is doing it.

I'll cut to the chase: it's my belief that the arts, and specifically music, are supposed to make us better. Not only should they make us better individuals, but better families, communities and nations. And if they don't make us better, they're making us worse. It's like gravity, and - increasingly - there's no middle ground.

Yes, I get freedom of speech and expression. I get that arts are a reflection of society. But isn't it time that we reflect more of what's good about humans? More about what good humans are capable? More of what will make us happy, rather than what will feed our appetites?

It seems to me that 10% of the people are producing 90% of the art, and those 10% are setting the tolerances for the other 90% of us. And we're paying for it, literally and figuratively.

We have gone too far.

Or maybe we haven't. Maybe the 90% of us haven't gone far enough.

Maybe this is a pessimistic view, but I prefer to think of it as realistic. If you agree, and you think things are bad and getting worse, I ask you to do something about it. Not anything drastic, just consistent.

If there's a song on that doesn't fit your values, turn it off. Same with movies, TV, video games and the like. If you go to a movie, have the guts to walk out if it crosses your line - regardless of the ticket price. And if people ask you about it, tell them! You don't have to be preachy or annoying about it, just decide where your lines are, and stick to them. Trust me - somebody out there will see your example and follow it.

And if enough of us stop being quiet, and stop shelling out dollars, maybe we can make small changes in our world. And maybe small changes will turn into big changes.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for thinking. And thank you in advance for supporting art that makes the world a better place.

That's the place I want to live. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The "hot air balloon" principle

I've said it before, but I'd rather have my students practice for five solid, focused minutes per day than to get in ten hours on only one day per week.

Why? Because your skills are sort of like a hot-air balloon. You're either getting higher, or you're getting lower.

Let's take a closer look, shall we?*

You see, there's this force called gravity. It's constantly pulling on everything, including the hot air balloon. When heated by a burner, the air inside the balloon lifts the balloon, the basket and anything in it up into the air. When the burner is firing, the balloon is lifting.

But just as soon as the burner is turned off, the air inside begins to cool, and the balloon slowly begins to fall. From a distance, it looks like the balloon is keeping steady at a certain altitude, but that's because the balloonist knows just when to turn the burner on and off to keep the craft from getting too high or low.

How does this compare to technique and skill development in music? Well, it's not a perfect comparison, but you're either getting better or you're getting worse. If you practice in a focused, systematic matter - even if it's only one thing and for a short period of time - for the next five days, you will be better than you are today. Conversely, if you don't practice for the next five days, you will not be as good as you are today.

This may not be the message you want to hear, but there is simply no "static" or standstill position for music skills. In fact, some of your daily practice is what is called, "maintenance practice." It's the time you need to invest just to get you back to where you were yesterday.

One other way to think about this is your physical health and fitness level. If you're not exercising, and you start working out every day, you will improve your overall health in a relatively short period of time. But if you aren't exercising, then you're health and fitness are actually deteriorating a little bit every single day. In fact, it takes as little as twelve days for your muscles to start losing strength and mass if they aren't being exercised.

(Well. Aren't I a little ray of sunshine?)

Here's the good news. Just like the hot air balloon, it doesn't take a huge amount of effort to consistently increase your altitude. What it takes is consistency. Practice on most days of the week in a focused, systematic way - with specific goals in mind - and you will make progress.

Happy drumming!

*For all you balloonists out there - look - I know I'm butchering this. It's a metaphor, okay? You can correct me and clarify in the comments below. Thanks much!

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Technique Dilemma

Technique. What is it, anyway? Simply put, technique for percussionists boils down to a couple of things. How do you hold the stick or mallet, and how does it move? How do you approach the instrument or the pedals, etc?

For other instruments, there are other issues, but the bottom line is that there are ways to play that work and keep you safe (free from injury, etc.) and those that will keep you from achieving your potential or are flat out going to cause you injury*. Now, the technique itself is a topic for many, many other blog posts, so we'll just take a look at whether or not your technique actually matters all that much.

So, here's the scenario. Imagine that you are a baseball coach. You have filled all of your positions but one, and you are down to two possible players. Everything is equal between the two players except for one thing - their running technique. They both make the sprint from home to first in the exact same amount of time, but their technique couldn't be more different.

Player A has flawless running technique. The gait is smooth, footfalls are perfect, etc. The running is a thing of beauty. Player B, however, runs like a pregnant yak - nothing looks right and the motions are awkward.

It's up to you, Coach. Who do you choose?

If you're lazy or impatient, you choose Player A. But if you're a teacher and can help Player B improve their running technique, the speed will increase. Theoretically, if Player A may already be running as fast as possible, but Player B can only get faster - maybe much faster.

So, what does that mean for drummers? It's simple - good technique unlocks your potential. Conversely, like the baseball player in our example, bad technique may be slowing you down.

Honestly, I get tired of young musicians who say, "It's just how I play." Or, they'll tell their band teacher (who's a sax player or something), "Well, my friend's older brother is a real drummer, and this is how he said to do it."

You know what both of those statements translate into? "I'm lazy. It's too hard for me to do it right, so I'm just going to make excuses and not try."

Now, I'm not saying there aren't successful players with, shall we say, interesting technique. There are some variations between every single player because we're not all carbon copies of each other. But, if you carefully study the top drummers in the world, you'll notice that almost all of them - while they may not look exactly the same - are applying the same technical concepts. In other words, the main ideas are the same.

To continue the baseball example, no two throwing motions are the same, but you're not seeing anybody pitch underhand. If you wanna play baseball at the highest levels, underhand simply won't work. You also won't see people use techniques that are too far out of the norm. Athletes know that there are motions and practices that will hurt them, and those that won't.

*It's crazy how little most drummers know about their own bodies, in terms of muscles, joints, bones, ligaments and tendons. Think about how many strokes you play in an average practice session - thousands! And yet athletes, who may only shoot a few baskets in a game or throw several dozen pitches over a few innings, take great care to warm up, stretch, use proper technique, cool down, ice and strengthen all of the parts of their bodies that they use. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Surviving A Band

And I do mean, "survive." Bands are awesome, and you should play in some*. Just know what you're getting into, and have a strategy for keeping your career and long-term goals intact while serving the needs of the band at the same time.

One the most critical keys is determining what the band ultimately wants, and what path it will follow to get there. As an individual musician, you need to have your own goals and path, as well, and you need to determine as early as possible whether your plans and the band's plans can work together.

If they can't, then it will probably blow things apart sooner rather than later.

A friend of mine tells a story about how his band broke up after a big contest over what they would have done with the money if they had won. They didn't win. There was no money over which to fight. They still broke up.

Personally, I've been a member of three different bands that negotiated record deals. Not one was signed, primarily because we couldn't and didn't agree on what we wanted and where we were headed. In this type of situation, the end result is that the band either breaks up or makes drastic changes to survive, most often the former.

It goes without saying, but a critical key is how the money will be handled. In the beginning stages, it may be how much each band member will be expected to kick in for equipment, recording, touring, merch and the like. Once the money starts rolling in, though, the real fun begins. Decide up front whether you will share the money equally, or whether you will divvy it up by role and workload. Whatever you decide, everybody has to feel comfortable. The only acceptable vote is a unanimous one.

Once band members either feel like they're working harder or contributing more than others, or that they're not being compensated fairly, the end is probably near. Money changes all, and if not handled carefully, it can cause real problems both on and off stage.

In the "real" music world, one of my favorite bad - but common - examples is a story told by a friend of mine, a former programming director for a group of pop/alternative radio stations in the Salt Lake City area. She had been to an after-concert party of an extremely famous band and ended up on a flight with them the next morning. The lead singer was flying first class, but the rest of the band was in coach. Why? The singer was also the songwriter, and was thus getting paid royalties from radio play and publishing as well as money from album sales, touring, merch, etc.

A couple of good - also very uncommon - examples of how to keep a band alive and healthy are Coldplay and U2, far and away two of the most successful bands in the history of modern music. Both of those bands share all of the income and credit equally. It's no stretch to think that one of the band members contributes more to the actual songwriting than the others, but they have (wisely and accurately) predicted that if one of them starts making a lot more money than the others, the band likely will not survive for long.

Both of these bands have had long careers and show no signs of slowing up. Both bands also realize that if they aren't successful, it doesn't matter who makes the money because there will be little or no money to be made. Likewise, they have realized that if they are very successful, there will be plenty of money to go around, and there is no place for greed in a great band.

It's not all about the money, though. While the financial side of things is absolutely critical, the most important thing is to make sure that you're taking care of you. Not that you're slighting the band or distracted from what the band needs, but that you're continuing to develop yourself as a player and musician, and that your eyes are on the bigger, longer term picture. In short, you should work like the band will be successful forever, but have a backup plan in case it goes bad.

Above all, don't let anything stand in the way of you becoming the best, most successful version of yourself that you can be, and that involves keeping your options open and continuing to broaden your abilities and exposure.

It's okay to be in a country band and play jazz on the side. It's okay to play in a metal band and really love pop rock. In my world, there's nothing wrong with loving Justin Bieber (platonically, of course) and Diana Krall at the same time.

*If you're a drummer, what else ya gonna do? Unless you're Evelyn Glennie or Terry Bozzio, you're playing with other people - all the time!

Drummer's Weight Room: Tap Timing Exercise

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