Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Paid Gig

There is certainly a lot of controversy surrounding musicians and bands getting paid for their performances.  Bluegrass music isn't known for its life-supporting income.  And many who would like to have paid, or better paying gigs, aren't really looking for something to solely support their life.

On the pro side of receiving more compensation for play, musicians spend a lot of money on instruments, equipment, travel (including gas money, food, wear and tear on vehicles, campers, etc.), lessons, strings, picks, and the list goes on and on.  They spend hours practicing, honing their skills individually and as a group.

But how many of these musicians and bands spend the same amount of time learning how to properly promote themselves?  They expect great music to give them great pay.  There are hundreds (and probably thousands) of really great musicians in Nashville that never make it.  They play for free or for tips.  For some, that may be all they want.  But for most, they would like more.

Great music does not necessarily equal really great pay.  Really great entertainment is where better pay starts to come into play.  You need something that makes people want to come see your "live" show.  If your audience wanted perfect music, they would pop in a CD or play an mp3.  They want something that puts them on the edge of their seats and makes them laugh, sing along, listen more closely, or simply takes them away from the daily grind.  Take a look at all the shows in places like Branson.  Why do people attend these?  It's not because it's the best music they have ever heard.  It's because they are being entertained!  Sure, the music is good.  Some of it is even outstanding!  But it's way more than that.

I have taught many students and many young bands.  I even help form young bands from my students so that they can learn to play with others.  In my opinion, that is even better than a jam because students meet with the same people regularly.  This allows them to play with others that are close to them in skill and age.  They develop friendship and a sense of responsibility.   I can teach them non-verbal skills and music etiquette, in addition to harmony, lead, backup, kickoffs, tags, and so on.  Who will I agree to teach as a band?  First of all, it has to be students that practice and are reliable.  (Notice I didn't say my "best" playing or most talented students; however, practice and reliability many times does make them the best or better than average.)

What is the next most important thing to me?  It is everyone's consent to play locally for charitable causes.  That means playing at churches, nursing homes, and local events.  Why do I require that?  Because it teaches young musicians how important it is to support those in their own communities.  It gives them valuable gigs where they can learn to connect with their audience.  It shows them that playing music is not just about being "good."  They begin to realize that mistakes happen no matter how well prepared they are.  They understand that there will always be someone better, but that they have to be the best they can be each time they go out.  It's not important to be the best.  It is more important to be prepared and give your personal best.  It shows commitment.  It teaches serving others with the talent that God gave you.

As I teach these young bands, most of them, regardless of how "good" they become, don't really want to take it to the next level.  Most probably wouldn't be looking to make this a lifetime career.  That's okay.  Over the years, I have taught several groups that were exceptional.  This is what I've learned...

To get good paying gigs, you have to be good at promoting.  That means getting the word out about your gigs.  People can't come to gigs that they don't know about.  If you are hired by a festival or event, don't just expect the festival or event to promote you.  They don't know your specific audience.  They may be promoting you through the musical genre, such as "bluegrass," but they don't know who your local followers are.  Do you even have local followers?  If not, you have missed out on the first important point of playing locally!  If you can't connect to your local audience, you won't have a cost effective way of playing all those free gigs that all musicians must play.

A subpoint on all of this is that your free gigs need to be your local gigs if you don't want to go broke "getting good experience."  They don't require you to spend lots of money on travel.  No excessive mileage on the car.  No expensive hotel rooms.  I'm not saying never play for free unless it's local.  I'm just saying that's where the majority of your free gigs should be.  If you are not drawing an audience, you are not doing something right.

Another thing I've learned in all of this is that the bands that get the following have parents and members that get the word out.  They all work together to help the band get gigs.  They work together to post on the Facebook page.  That means pictures as well.  They network.  Each family has the potential to bring all their family and friends together to help support the group.  They get business cards and t-shirts.  They make flyers for their gigs.  They make out set lists and practice them before gigs.  This list literally goes on and on, but the most important part of this is that they make their audience feel good!  It boils down to connecting with those they are playing for.  Period.

And while I am on that topic, I will also say this about fundraising electronically for band recordings or CDs.  I don't support Go Fund Me for recordings.  Why?  Because if you can't pay for your recording, you aren't connecting with your audience.  You don't have the amount of support needed to sell a recording.  I don't agree with the idea that you need the recording first to promote yourself.  Maybe you need that for professional promotion or larger gigs, but I still believe local support comes first and foremost.  Am I saying a group shouldn't record if they don't have a certain amount of followers?  No!  I am just saying asking for free money for that endeavor is like saying you don't think you are good enough to recoup your money.  Or that you don't want to work hard enough to figure out what you need for dedicated followers.  Record all you want, but let that be part of your learning experience.  Book local gigs that pay a little and save that money for that purpose.  Learn to connect with your audience.  Learn to promote yourself.  Don't expect handouts.  You may get them from time to time, but don't count on them.

What else does a band need?  They need to have smooth presentations.  The show needs to flow.  Musicians need to be able to tune quickly in between songs.  They need to play songs appropriate for their venue and audience.  Jokes need to be appropriate for the venue and audience.  Talk to your audience.  Look at them when you play.  Look like you are having fun!  You don't have to plaster a smile on your face for an hour while you play, but you do need to look pleasant and "into" what you are doing.  You do need to include your audience in your concert.  (And smiling does help!)

I know I have only skimmed the surface of this controversial subject.  I don't purport to know it all or have all the solutions.  I just want to share with you some of what I've learned over the years in working with young groups.  I understand all of this doesn't apply to every musician or every group, as specific genres, areas where people live, and individual sets of circumstances may make some or all of what I've said void.

So in summing this all up, I DO believe musicians should be paid for what they do, but I also believe that they need to do the work required to get them to that point.  If you can't draw a crowd, the venue can't afford to hire you.  It's that simple.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Memorization - Inspiration and How-To's

For many, just hearing the words "memorize" makes the brain grow fuzzy,  and all the past failures come into mind.  You immediately remind yourself that you can't.  You are too old.  Your memory is too bad.  You tried it before and you failed.  Before you go into the mode where everything "goes in one ear and out the other," let me tell you about a former student of mine.  I will preface his story with this...

I don't believe that everyone with certain types of dementia or Alzheimer's can overcome memory issues, but this particular student of mine was an Alzheimer's patient that started to play banjo because of his diagnosis.  He told me in the very beginning.  He also told me how he had failed at clarinet and piano as a child.  His music teacher told him he would never play any musical instrument.  At the time, he was my oldest student at 76 years old.  He told me he did not believe he could memorize anything because of his diagnosis.  I asked him to try anyway.  He memorized 18 songs over the course of two years.  He could play all of his songs with accompaniment.  What that did for him no doctor could ever do for him.  It didn't cure him, but it gave him such confidence that he could do something despite the overwhelming odds against him.  And on one of the hardest instruments he could ever have chosen.

So how was he able to do this?  How does anyone that has trouble with memorization overcome this problem?  To start with, you really need to quiet those inner voices telling you that you can't.  Just keep telling yourself you will try.  Every day.  Every time you practice.

As a teacher, when I get a student that comes in week after week with their tab or music on the stand, I start by helping them memorize the song during their lesson with me.  I don't allow them to use the tab or music.  They hate this and resist!  But I have them do it anyway.  I start by having them play as much as they can without the music.  If they can't even get started, I help them get started.  If they still can't play any of the song, I will teach them note for note whatever they have been working on.  We might do four notes, eight notes, or even the first line.  It really depends on the student and what they are able to remember.  What I am doing is showing them HOW to do this at home.

Start with just a few notes, one measure, or one line.  Remembering the first note is a start!  Can you remember the first four notes?  Great!  Can you remember the first four notes 10 minutes from now?  If not, look at them again.  Can you remember the first four notes tomorrow?  If not, look at them again.

Break old habits.  What I mean by this is if you have been using tabs or music for a while to play all your songs, it will be difficult for you to give this up because you might be able to play 10 or 20 songs as long as you have music.  And memorizing 10-20 songs is overwhelming if you think you can't memorize even one!  Plus, you CAN play with the music.  So what habit is there to break?  The habit of using the tab or music for a crutch.  You have two option at this point.  The first is to immediately stop learning new songs until you can memorize all the ones you are currently working on.  The second option is to only learn new songs with a new method.  This new method is...

Learn only as much of the song as you can memorize.  If you can only memorize the first four notes, stop there!  Don't throw the piece of tab or music up on your stand and read all the way through it over and over.  That has already proven unsuccessful for you!  Why would you keep doing that?

Keep coming back to whatever it is that you are memorizing.  If you are working on part of a song, whether it is the beginning or some spot in the middle or end that you can't seem to get in your head, keep going back to it during your practice session.  Let's say you have four songs you are working on.  Start on the one you are working towards memorizing.  After you get part of it memorized, even if it's just four notes, go on to something else.  Work on that for 5-10 minutes or whatever time you deem necessary, then to back to the first song and see if you can remember those four notes without looking.  If you can't, look at them again.  Memorize them again.  Now go on to your second song.  Work on it for a while and return to those four notes you previously memorized.  Can you remember them?  If not, look at them again and memorize them again.  Do this over and over.  Every practice session.

Keep your practice sessions short, but frequent.  Many people don't have an hour or two at a stretch to devote to practice.  You have laundry to do, car repairs, children to attend to, phone calls to make, emails to answer, dinner, a spouse or friend that needs attention, etc.  That's okay.  In fact, that's best when you are memorizing!  Maybe you only have five minutes at a time to devote, but you can do that three times during the day.  Each time, try for those four notes without looking!  Eventually, you will get them down.

Practice more days.  This goes with the one above about keeping your practice sessions short.  You will get much more accomplished by practicing five days a week for 15 minutes than you will by practicing two hours in one day once a week.  Once again, it's not about a huge block of time devoted to practice.  It's about how often you practice.

Keep your instrument handy.  This is a BIG one.  If you have to go get your instrument, take it out of the gigbag or case, get your picks, your tuner, your strap, your bow, or whatever else you need, that takes time.  If you don't have much time, you won't do it.  If you don't have much motivation, you won't do it!  Keep your instrument out on a stand.  It can be in the living room, the kitchen, your bedroom, or where ever it is most handy.  If you can't keep it on a floor stand, get a wall hanger.  This allows you to play for a few minutes at a time on a moment's notice.  On hold on the telephone?  Put it on speaker mode and pick up your instrument!  Waiting for the biscuits to brown or water to boil?  Pick up your instrument and play a few notes!

What moments can you "cash in" on?  Besides being on hold or taking advantage of wait times while cooking, you can also use these moments:
* Mute the television during commercials and pick while you are waiting.
* Listen to the tunes you are working on while in the car or doing things that DON'T allow you to stop and pick a few minutes.
* Waiting for someone to finish getting ready?  Use those few minutes (or more) to pick a little.
* Have you been working on homework for a long time?  A report?  Just finished making lots of phone calls? Stop for five minutes and pick a tune.

Don't stop.  Once you get those first four notes or that first line memorized, don't stop there.  Add to it.  Add the next four notes, or the next line to what you already have memorized.

Got a good ear? Here's an interesting one.  Maybe your problem isn't that you can't memorize, but that you can't memorize once you have the music.  Record yourself playing the piece from music.  Those of you that have a good ear may now use that recording to learn the piece without looking at the music.

Practice with a recording.  This is a very important part of practice regardless of whether you have issues with memorization!  Playing with a good recording, especially one that includes accompaniment, will make and keep your rhythm accurate.  It will also remind you that you have forgotten something if you skip notes or make other mistakes in the music.  Part of memorizing is the inevitable changing something as you go along.  You think you have it memorized, but you change something without even knowing you did!  If you are playing with a recording, it will be obvious.  This will allow you to go back and fix whatever it is before too much time passes.  It also forces you to stay at one speed.  You won't be able to stop when your memory fails.  You will learn how to recover and keep going.

Listen.  Often.  I mentioned this above very briefly in the "cash in" moments, but this is so important, it deserves a paragraph of its own!  If you don't know what the song sounds like, how can you possibly memorize it?  How would you even know you had it memorized?  This is particularly true if you are playing your song very slowly.  It doesn't sound like the song.  Listen to a recording of the song played very slowly so you know what you are supposed to sound like when you play it very slowly.  Put the song on your phone or on a CD and listen to it in the car, while you are waiting in the doctor's office (with your earbuds, of course), while you are changing the oil in your car, while you are getting ready in the morning...or evening, etc.

Recognize repeating sections of repeating licks.  This is also a very important one.  You may look at a song and it seems overwhelming because it is LONG.  Look more closely at the song.  You will probably start to see parts of the song that are the same.  Or parts of the song that you already know from memorizing another song!  Maybe you recognize a certain lick or pattern of notes.  Great!  These are the parts that you won't have to memorize again!

Celebrate your victories and don't compare yourself to others.  Some people memorize quickly.  Some don't.  No matter how you start, it will get easier and you will get faster and better at it. You will also notice that you start to remember other things better, too.  It will improve every aspect of your life.  You won't lose your car keys as much.  You will remember what you had for dinner last night.  Maybe you will even remember your anniversary!  But seriously, don't compare your ability or lack of ability to memorize with someone else's.  You are an individual with your own set of struggles, life issues, health issues, job issues, and so forth.  To compare yourself to someone else is setting yourself up for failure or false hope.  It doesn't matter how long it takes you.  It matters that you are trying.

I know this has been long, but I think it is important.  I hope that you will be inspired to memorize.  I hope you won't give up.  I hope you will speak words of encouragement to yourself that you CAN do it.  I hope you remember that I believe in you!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Why Memorize?

I have played a variety of different instruments and a variety of different styles of music, but none seem to rely on memorization as much as bluegrass or folk music.  These two styles (and there are certainly more) lend themselves to playing in groups with others by ear.  This means that you must be able to memorize songs.  I will write another blog about HOW to memorize for those of you that find it difficult, but for now, I want to tell you WHY it's important.

It helps to develop your ear.  I realize some people are visual learners and some are auditory learners.  If you are a visual learner, you may find memorization harder in the beginning, but you CAN do it.  I teach it.  I see my students learn to do it.  Even those that think they can't.  When you memorize, you start using your ears.  You listen more intently and you start to memorize by sound rather than by rote finger positions.

As your ear develops, you begin to hear chord changes.  I love when my students tell me they have started to hear where chord changes are.  This usually starts after my students start playing in small groups or jams.  At first, they can't tell at all where any chord changes are.  They can't anticipate anything.  Then, they start to hear where the changes are in certain songs.  They stop counting and start listening to the song.  After a while, they are even able to anticipate chord changes in songs they don't know.  They may not know what chord to change to, but they hear where it happens.  After a while, some students are even able to anticipate what the chord changes are.  (There are "formulas" for which chords will most often appear in any given key, but I am referring to actually hearing the correct chord as the music progresses.)

As your ear develops, you begin to recognize certain patterns of notes.  I believe this is most true for Scruggs style banjo players.  That is because Scruggs style banjo playing is not note driven.  It is lick driven.  Individual notes aren't the main thing that happens.  Individual notes become part of rolls and various licks.  Even a beginning banjo player will learn to recognize something like the "G Lick" pretty quickly when listening to banjo picking.  Can you recognize a simple scale?  Most people can.  You might not know WHAT scale, but you can tell it's a scale.  And you can tell if a wrong note is played in a scale.  That is because your ear has learned to recognize the pattern of a major scale.

Your speed will improve because you are not impeded by how quick your eyesight is.  Your muscle memory will take over and help you play through passages that you think you have forgotten.  How do you know you are using muscle memory?  Try to slow down a song you have memorized.  I mean REALLY slow it down.  Are you still able to play it?  Can you remember it?  Or do you have to pick up the speed again to get through the song?  If you can't play the song slowly but you are still able to play it faster, that means you are using muscle memory.  You are no longer thinking about every individual note.  The best teachers are able to play using both muscle memory and by thinking about every note.  (And this is something I believe all serious players should learn to do...but that's a topic for another day.)

You will be able to learn new songs faster.  This happens not just because your memory gets better as you use it more, but also because you start to know where each sound (or note) is on your instrument.  You also start to recognize certain licks or patterns of notes that you have used in other songs.  And those you already have memorized!  Yay!

You will be able to play songs in jams "on the fly."  One of the questions I get most often is how do I play a song that I have never heard before.  People are amazed that I can hear the melody once and then duplicate it (or come close) right away.  This actually has a simple answer.  By memorizing lots of songs, you start to recognize that many songs have similar melodies or chord patterns.  When I hear a new song in a jam, I don't memorize the entire song immediately.  I compare the new song to something that I already know, and then I just take note of the differences.  So perhaps one song is exactly like another except for one different chord change.  For instance, Bluegrass Breakdown and Foggy Mountain Breakdown are alike except BB uses an F chord in the same place that FMB uses an Em chord.  For some songs, the melodies sound almost exactly alike and I can simply think of the song I already know in my head when I'm taking my break.  For example, Worried Man Blues and Somebody Touched Me.  Without a memorized repertoire, you will never have this ability.

If memorization is something that you just don't think you can do, I would say the odds are that you CAN.  I will write my next blog on some different techniques that will help those of you who find this part of learning difficult.  In the mean time, start thinking about all the improvements in your playing and musicianship that can be developed by memorizing.  Start thinking about where you will be a month from now, six months from now, a year from now...  Talent doesn't fall out of the sky on certain people.  It is developed by those of us who desire it and work to attain it.  YOU can do this!