Saturday, July 28, 2012

Olympics 2012: What London teaches musicians about success

The Olympics are here again! Watching the games is an exciting and enjoyable time, and it always seem to bring people and nations together.

But what does this mean for musicians? Here are five of the many lessons that pro and aspiring musicians shouldn't miss while watching the games.

1. Music matters. If you didn't watch the Opening Ceremonies, go find it. Not only was there a feature performance from Evelyn Glennie, but a Stomp-esque element was prevalent and central throughout. Not to mention the amazing performances by Paul McCartney and others, the theme song written by Muse, and the unique and moving music throughout. And it goes without saying, but the most emotional moment for most medal winners is when they stand on the podium and and are honored with the playing of their country's national anthem.

2. Focus, focus, focus. The attitude of the competitors is, "now or never." They all know that there's nothing else that matters right now. Not that other things (family, school, career) don't matter, but that there's a time and a place for everything, and right now it's all about one thing - competing at the Olympics. 110% effort, 110% of the time - at the exclusion of all else - for a defined period of time.

3. The difference between success and failure is sometimes a razor thin line. Some races are timed by the thousandth of a second, matches are often won by a single point, and scores can come down to a single factor. Winners and not-so-winners are performing at an exceedingly high level, and almost anything can be the difference maker.

4. "When opportunity knocks, it must find you working." This is one of my favorite cliches, and I believe that it's true. None of the athletes competing at the games were chosen due to their potential. They were chosen because they were ready. They were ready because they've been working, training and honing for years - some for their entire lives.

5. There's something bigger than the individual. Not only are there many team sports, but each individual athlete is part of a team representing their homeland, taking their place among the global community. Probably the best thing about the games is that it celebrates the best attributes of the human family, including dedication, sacrifice, humility, joy, honesty and love.

The Olympic games are a microcosm of life, and these are only a small handful of the lessons that can be learned and inspiration gained by watching and participating in the games.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Get More Gigs: Your EPK - Electronic Press Kit

Do you want to play more? As we talked about in an earlier post, everybody wants more gigs. Well, here's another idea that might help you to land more jobs.

The idea of a "press kit" has been around a long time, but has been updated with the widespread availability of technology in the modern world.
Just last week I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion on the music industry that included one of the top booking agents in my area. She talked about the need for musicians/bands to have a good EPK, or electronic press kit. At one point, she said, "Don't call me, don't email me, don't visit my office until you have a great EPK put together."

So, what should your EPK include? Here's the list from the panel discussion.
  1. Photos. To paraphrase our panelists, this means you need to spend some money. If your "promo" shot was taken in your back yard by your little sister, it probably won't cut it. Click here for some great promo shot examples.
  2. Audio tracks. Again, this should be the absolute best quality you can afford, and should represent your best playing. 
  3. Video. We've all seen a million videos on YouTube that were shot with a smart phone. In the professional world, this is the mark of someone who may not be serious about their craft. As with audio, your video needs to be the best quality you can afford, well edited, and represent the best aspects of your skill set.
  4. Resume. You could also call this your, "greatest hits," list. Include all your significant performances, venues, partner acts, accomplishments and awards relative to you music career.
  5. Website. And, no, I'm not talking about a Facebook page. Back in the day you would have delivered all of this material by hand, in its physical form. Today, you email the link to your site, which will provide everything included in this list. 
  6. Easy contact info. E-mail and phone numbers are a given, but you might also include your Twitter handle, Facebook page address or any other ways that somebody can contact you. 
Obviously, this list is geared toward the performing act - bands, solo acts, shows, etc. But I think it is very applicable to the freelance musician trying to land work. Whether it be a potential gig, studio session, or appearance, you want to put your best foot forward when people are looking to hire you.

One more thing for drummers. It may not be a bad idea to include the gear that you have, even pictures if it can be done in a non-obtrusive way. Potential clients need to know that you don't only have the ultra-mega-double-kick-metal-mayhem kit, or that you can only bring a four-piece. Your gear, especially as a drummer, can be the key to your fitting into any musical environment.

And, last (for now), make sure that your imaging is consistent. Even if you're pursuing opportunities across many different genres, settings, etc., all of your photo/video, recordings and online imaging need to accurately and professionally present who you really are to anybody who views them.

For some more EPK tips, click here

The bottom line is that you control how people see you. So start taking it seriously, and get more/better gigs.

Happy drumming!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Beyond the Kit: Survival on the road

I've been lucky during my career to have not spent too much time on the road. But even those short tours and relatively few nights on the road have taught me a thing or two about how to stay healthy and sane while away from home. Here are a few things I think will help. Please feel free to join the discussion by making a comment below.

While actually traveling, be mindful of the need to stop. There's always somebody who needs to take a restroom break, and everybody can use a few minutes to stretch, get fresh air, etc., so plan in a quick stop - even 10 minutes can do the trick - at least every 2-3 hours.

In addition, it's smart to have some agreements as to what's okay in the car/van/bus. This especially applies to food and drink, smoking, listening to music and watching movies. Also, even though it'll use more fuel, it's always more comfortable to travel in a larger vehicle.

For lodging, get the best place you can afford, and if possible, get a room for each person. Everybody will rest better in their own space. If you have to share a room, make some agreements before you get there. A smelly, noisy, annoying roommate will not only kill your sleep, but may lead to other problems in terms of band chemistry. Not kidding, a high priority should be placed on maintaining good relations, and you need to think about that before you room with somebody.

That being said, make sure you're a good roommate. If you have a an iPod/Pad, laptop, or other noisemaker, use headphones! Turn the TV off at a reasonable hour, don't hog the bathroom, don't make late night or long calls in the room, and just generally follow the golden rule*. It may seem overboard, but be overly courteous. Think about things like room temperature, your sleeping clothing (ahem...), who takes a shower first, when you get a wake-up call, and on and on.

Get some sleep. As much as possible, go to bed and get up at the same time you would at home. You'll be more tired on the road than you are at home, so make sure to get adequate sleep - 8 hours should do it - so that you don't compromise your preparation or performance due to fatigue.

Get a little exercise. If you normally work out at home, do the same thing on the road. You can get out and jog or walk, and most hotels have some sort of fitness room or a pool you can use to get your workout in. Even if you're not a regular exerciser, get out on a walk if you have the time. That can also help you to...

Take in the locale. Almost everywhere I've traveled to play a gig (outside my home state) has been a place that is new to me. Take some photos, visit a point of interest, catch a show (aside from the one you're playing!), and try the local cuisine. Speaking about food...

Eat smart. Just as you'll be more tired on the road, you'll also be prone to overeat. Enjoy your food by going slow and savoring each bite. Few things make performing more difficult than feeling sick, bloated or uncomfortable due to, uh, gastric distress. So be careful and prudent in your food choices. View it more as fuel than fun, and you'll be on your way.

Get some solo time in. No, not on stage! That's between you and your bandmates. But you should make sure you have at least some time on your own to think, relax, regroup and blow off steam. This, almost more than anything else, can keep you from losing your sanity and focus on the road.

Lastly, try to make your pre-show routine the same each night. Whatever it is you do before you play, do the same thing before each show. This includes load in, set up and soundcheck, and any warm ups you may do. No matter where you play, the stage should always feel like home. Take time to make sure it all feels good before you play.

This advice is, of course, the best case scenario. But if you can get most or all of this right, your tours and trips will be much more enjoyable and musically rewarding.

Happy traveling!

*For those who need a reminder, "Treat others as you would have them treat you."

Monday, July 16, 2012

Gear Up: Digital handheld recorders

A few years ago I was asked to adjudicate (judge) a jazz festival. Having done this a few times before, I was surprised when there was no tape recorder at my table, just this little bloated-cellphone-looking digital device. Turns out it was a digital handheld recorder, and since that day it's been the only thing I've seen at a judging gig.

So, what exactly is a digital handheld recorder (DHR), and what does it do?
Well, if you're ready to spend the next couple of hours surfing the web, start here. In the simplest of terms, DHRs record sound, either from onboard microphones or through inputs, in a variety of file formats. They are small, lightweight and portable - hence handheld - and usually much less expensive than traditional recording options (unless you're still using this). Most DHRs also offer limited editing and exporting ability, and many use portable storage, such as SD cards.

Great. Why do I want one?
There are obviously more, but here are two major reasons I can't live without a DHR. First, you can easily record a rehearsal or writing session to keep and reference your ideas. Second, you can record live shows from the audience, or plug into the sound board for a direct feed. I've also set up my DHR behind or near the drum kit so I can hear the band in the background, but I get my own sounds loud and clear. All of these uses are aimed at analyzing and improving my playing and performance.

Which model should I get?
There are a lot of great models, but I'm partial to the Zoom H4N. In terms of features and cost, it's a good balance for my particular needs. For a more complete list with reviews, check out this page.

I'm not saying you should go out right now and get a DHR (okay, maybe I am), but it should definitely be on your list of gear to incorporate into your life. I'm all about things that help me to make my time and effort more effective.

Happy recording!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Do you have "friends?"

No, really. Do you have friends? 

I was asked this question my senior year in college by my 18-year-old piano teacher, a Spanish kid named Alvaro. I had decided sort of last minute to complete a few extra credits to get my Percussion Performance degree (in addition to Music Education), and that required another semester of piano lessons.

Alvaro, a young prodigy from Spain, was my assigned teacher. He was an amazing player and effective teacher, and part of that was his ability to be very direct and frank (honest) with his students. Such was the case with me.

About six weeks into the semester, I was working a difficult piece of music. There were several sections that I really liked, and I played them fairly well. But there was one small section - only about two measures - that I absolutely hated. Couldn't get it right, even after weeks of lessons and practice. As a result, each time I had to perform that section at my lesson, I sort of rushed/fumbled/plowed through it to get to the section after - one that I loved and could play well.

Well, I wasn't the only one getting frustrated with that short section of music. The conversation went something like this. (Remember to read Alvaro's lines with a Spanish accent, and with plenty of 'tude.)

Alvaro: Keith, do you have friends? 

Keith: What?!

A: No, really. Do you have friends?

K: (Indignant) Of course I have friends. 

A: Well, how do you become friends with those friends?

K: I dunno. Hang out, I guess? 

A: That's right, Keith. You have to "hang out" with this section long enough that it becomes your friend. 

I was dumbfounded. Shocked, even. The implications for practicing were immediate and clear.

We tend to, "hang out," with the music, skills, concepts and styles that we like. And we usually like what we're good at. It's called a, "comfort zone," and we all have one. So, how to solve the problem? Simple. Not necessarily easy, but simple: Spend time with them. Good, high quality, focused time. Work at making them comfortable and fun.

As musicians, we will expand our comfort zone by identifying the areas, skills, etc. that we're comfortable with and those that we aren't. I know that I definitely have some things that I hate playing, and I know it's because they're not comfortable for me.

Well, I took Alvaro's advice. I decided I was going to turn that weakness into a strength, and I did. By the next lesson, I was playing the difficult section with confidence. It's still amazing to me how much my attitude toward those two short measures changed just by spending enough time to get to know them very well and know that I was going to play them accurately.

By the way, this concept works for more than just music. Sports, food, people, cities, etc. Try to be friends first, and you'll find that you have fewer, "enemies."

Happy drumming!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Gig Log: Sam Payne and Savoy

It was a pleasure to play with Sam Payne a few weeks ago, and I was lucky enough to get the call this week to pinch hit for his band Savoy, playing alongside guitar great Joshua Payne (also Sam's brother) and bassist Ryan Tilby. The performance was in downtown Salt Lake City, as part of the summer Temple Square Performances.

The set was mostly jazz - some standards as well as Sam's originals - with a couple of his folk tunes thrown in. It's always amazing to me that I can play the same tune hundreds of times, but it always sounds different, especially with different musicians. Not only did Sam's vocals make each tune sound as if it was written specifically for him, the solos and ensemble playing of Ryan and Joshua gave our little quartet a very unique sound.

The venue was a beautiful park in the very heart of the city. It was a sweltering evening, but by the time things kicked off, we at least had some shade on the stage, surrounded by trees on three sides. The heat notwithstanding (not to mention there was another large concert going on a few blocks away), we had an audience of several hundred, and they were very friendly and supportive.

All in all, it was a lot of fun.

Things I learned: I need to practice A LOT MORE. My endurance, especially in the ride hand and hi-hat foot, was not up to where it needs to be for a high-energy jazz combo. My solos were barely adequate, and I struggled to stay on the form of the tunes in terms of phrasing and melody in my solos. And, finally (for this gig, anyway), I just need to know more jazz, mo' bettuh. In terms of head tunes and forms, my knowledge is definitely lacking.

So, here's to more practice, and a better gig next time.

Happy drumming!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

DJ "Maiden Voyage"

Over the weekend I took out my new (to me, at least) small PA system and provided music for a series of events for a wedding. It was a blast! I thoroughly enjoyed being able to set the speakers how I wanted, shape the sound how I wanted, and keep the volume at just-right levels.

There were a couple of hiccups, however. I learned a great lesson - one that's probably obvious to DJs everywhere: you have to play music that you don't like, and lots of music that you do like won't be popular with the given audience.

That being said, the primary goal was to make the evening feel great for everyone, and to provide entertainment for a wide variety of attendees - first and foremost being the bride and groom and their families! I felt like I achieved that goal for the most part. I tried to play at least one song for every type of listener in attendance, and I took lots and lots of requests.

Another lesson I learned is to be prepared. There's so much music in the world that it would be impossible to have it all at your fingertips (especially without a wi-fi connection), but you can save yourself a lot of hassle by finding out what type of music the couple wants to have played, including as many specific songs as possible, and then make sure your playlist includes everything you can find that they mentioned or that is similar. You can't have too much music.

For example, the groom said his family likes, "dance music." Perfect! I loaded up on Brian Setzer, Glenn Miller, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, etc. Only....that's not what he meant. Luckily for me, many of the family had the right kind of music on their phones and iPods. He was talking about Skrillex, Taio Cruz and other artists of that genre.

Luckily for me, there were some specific songs that were requested, and I was able to download all of them from iTunes. You don't want to leave things like the bride and groom's first dance, the father-daughter dance and other important moments to chance. You want to get them just right.

And finally, a note about volume. You will absolutely never be able to keep everybody happy. So I focused on the bride and groom themselves, their parents and my wife. I would periodically glance around the room and try to make eye contact with any of my "volume checkers," and get a cue from them. I would also periodically walk the eating and socializing areas and make sure that no one had to work hard to have a conversation.

It was a great learning experience and a lot of fun. I'm not saying I'm going to hang up the drummin' shoes and become a wedding DJ, but I'll be up for it the next time I have an opportunity.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Transitioning to V-Drums: It can...and it can't

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I acquired a set of Roland V-Drums earlier this year, and I've been documenting my transition and trying to clarify the strengths and weaknesses of the electronic kit.

Let's start with a couple of "can'ts."

It can't give you realistic feel and response. Probably the most obvious weakness is the hi-hat pedal. When playing jazz, the hi-hat "chick" sound is all but worthless. Not only is the sound mushy as all get out, you have to absolutely crank the level (and drop everything else) to get an adequate relative level for swing and latin grooves.

If you can imagine the differences between a grand piano and an electronic keyboard, you're close - at least in concept. This is the way I've begun to think about it: with acoustic, real drums, you are limited by physics - by the literal wood, metal, plastic, metal and wood (I know I repeated metal and wood, but that was for effect) - and by your own skills and creativity. With the V-Drums, you're limited by the programming of the computer module and the capabilities of the triggers.

That being said, you really do have to think about acoustic drums and electronic drums as two very different instruments, and thus approach playing and making music differently. You might play them with similar technique, but they are as different as the aforementioned piano and keyboard.

And if you're thinking about them this way, you realize quickly that the number one strength of the electronic drums is that they have literally hundreds of sounds onboard. You can adjust - within limitations - the samples to reflect shell material, diameter and depth, as well as a limited bank of cymbal sounds. You can literally change kits every song - or every chorus if you want!

Another huge benefit is that you can play virtually silently. With headphones (I mentioned this before), I can rock out at 2 AM without waking the kiddos. And with an audio input jack, I plug in the ol' iPad and practice with a track and be almost totally silent. The feel is close enough that this is really a great benefit. It's not like you're going to have to make a huge adjustment when you go back to acoustics.

This, in fact, is one of the reasons I was encouraged to get a virtual kit - to keep the stage as quiet as possible during performances. Combined with in-ear monitoring, the only live sounds on stage are acoustic guitar and voices. It's eerie and cool at the same time. The bass, electric guitar and keyboard players all plug directly into the system, amp-less.

I do miss the "thump" of the live sounds. Even when using the in-ears, you can feel the vibration of the drums and amps, and I do miss that. But it is nice to be able to pull out one ear, and then have a relatively low-level conversation while playing a tune. It's gotten almost a little silly at some of the less intense (read: background music with zero audience) gigs because we're catching up and chatting it up on stage.

One last thing for now. This may seem backward, but I miss having to play with good dynamics. In a small venue, I used to have to choose my sticks and play so carefully so as not to overblow the band, and in a large venue I had to work pretty hard. Now, it's all in the hands of the engineer - I've even cut my stick bag down to one pair (minus the bag) when I take out the V-drums.

And that's just weird.

Anyway, enough of my rambling for now. As always, I welcome comments, opinions, input and feed back below.

Happy drumming!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Gig Log: Sam Payne at Westfest

Sam Payne has been on my radar for a long time, probably ten years or more. He is a talented singer, songwriter, guitarist and performer, and I have a great respect for the depth of his music, as well as for him as a person. I met him a couple of years ago at my first Soundcheck Series event, and we had the opportunity to get to know each other by working with Soundcheck* after that for a year or so. 

So when I got a text message from Sam asking if I was available for a gig, I wasn't shocked, but I was surprised. Luckily, the date was available, and I agreed to play. It would be the first time I actually shared the stage with him as a performer. The other musicians on the gig were Steve Lemmon (of Sprial Studios fame), Aaron Ashton and bassist Matt Larson. It was a very good crew.

I was especially thrilled when I got the setlist, charts and recordings for the gig. Not only were there some old favorites among them, there were some new (to me) gems and a cover of Peter Gabriel's "Book of Love" that was immediately captivating. All of the music was appealing, not only from an aesthetic perspective, but also from the drummer's seat.

The rehearsal kit. Yes, that IS foam...

On the day of the gig we met in downtown SLC in a basement studio, ran through the forms and grooves, then headed out to West Valley City for Westfest for our headlining performance. Usually the festival format requires a band to set up and soundcheck in literally a matter of minutes, but luckily (for us, at least), the band performing before us had canceled at the last moment, so the stage was ours for the hour before our set started. We were able to get comfortably set up and had a relatively thorough sound check.  

It always amazes me how quickly a group of musicians can sound like a band, having never played together before. Much of that is the learned or innate ability to "speak the language," but some of it is just chemistry. And again, luckily for us, the chemistry was evident from the first sounds in rehearsal. Honestly, the actual performance set was a tiny bit shaky on my part, and the music went some places live that I don't think were planned in rehearsal.

HMS Drum Workshop.
During the performance, Sam's presence was the show. It was definitely his world, as it were, and the rest of us were just happy to be living in it. It was such great fun to not only perform the music and really play, but to not have any worry at all about any of the other musicians. I just got to sit back and play from the position of, "What can I add? How can my playing best achieve the message of the song and the intent of the music?" I can't say for certain how close I came to achieving that goal, but I know I enjoyed and learned from the experience very much. 

Set book and "tools."
Not only was the audience friendly and the staff at Westfest more than attentive and responsive (thanks so much!), but I gained some new friends and deepened my respect for a great musician. I also widened my own playing experience and now have some new avenues to pursue and areas of technique and knowledge to strengthen. On the whole, I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to play, and I look forward to playing with Sam and crew again soon.

Another gig in the books!

*I'm not gonna lie. Sam introduced me to at least a few new styles of food, not the least of which was Thai. Music and food? Yes. Yes, indeed. Thanks again, Sam.

Why musicians should watch the big game (Seriously!)

Photo by  Ameer Basheer  on  Unsplash Here we are, about to watch another televised wrestling match over who puts a football on one en...