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. 


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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