Archive for the ‘Zane’s Blog’ Category

my heart comes undone: Digital Release!

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

 


My arrangement of composer Judah Adashi’s my heart comes undone for electric guitar and loop pedal is now available digitally on Spotify, YouTube, Amazon, Bandcamp and everywhere you download music.  What’s even more exciting is that you can download this recording for free by signing up for my email updates on the right sidebar of my website. The recording will be delivered to your inbox for download.

Progress is never a straight line:

A little over a year ago, I contacted my friend and colleague at Peabody, Judah Adashi, about a piece he’d recently written: my heart comes undone. I was familiar with the string ensemble version of this work that was commissioned and premiered by the Peabody  Preparatory Strings Department and had become acquainted with the version he made for solo cello and loop pedal that was premiered and recorded by Lavena Johanson.

At that time, I was preparing to launch the Laptop Tour and asked him if he’d be open to me creating a version of the piece for solo electric guitar and loop pedal for the tour. While I had always played the electric throughout my life, I never worked with the instrument regularly for music I was to perform in concert and I craved the challenge. The Laptop Tour felt like a perfect place for me to share this piece.

As I set to work, several discoveries were made:

  1. The guitar is NOT the cello or any other bowed instrument.
  2. The quest for the perfect tone on an electric guitar is a challenging task that requires as much focus, detail, and study as creating it on a classical guitar.
  3. Working with a loop pedal shows you at your best and your worst…in the beginning you hear yourself primarily at your worst.
  4. Key Signatures are important (more on that in a minute).

There was a learning curve.  I had to figure out a way to make the long lines of each part sustain and connect similarly to that of a bowed instrument while still remaining true to the guitar.  Also, how could I create a sound that was as full as a cello and yet as clear and transparent as I imagined in my head?  You can hear my early attempts at this here.  My setup was simple: Guitar + Tube Screamer TS9 (that’s an effect pedal—yeah, I like the name, too) + Loop Pedal + Amplifier = Sound.

The result was clear and focused but felt a little thin, at times gritty, and uneven across the guitar. I was getting some of what I imagined though I felt I had more work ahead of me. While navigating the sound, I was knee deep in the owner’s manual of my loop pedal. I had spent a good bit of time with this device performing Ingram Marshall’s Soe-pa but Judah’s piece was going to require a new level of study and experimentation. My first efforts revealed how much of an art there is to creating a perfect loop. For those not familiar with what a loop is, click here. If my early loops were a layered cake, mine was lopsided and leaning towards the right. But with a little practice and willingness to pick myself back up when I toppled over, I managed to count my way towards a cohesive collection of loops that held together.

With my newly acquired skills (and bruises from the learning process), I gave my first performance of Judah’s piece on April 18, 2016. I sent him a note telling him of the performance and shared some clips I made of the work. Judah followed up with me and gently mentioned that the F#’s didn’t seem to be happening in the performance.

“What? What F#’s? No, not possible.” I pulled out the score…yes, indeed possible and true. Key Signatures are important and details are, too.

Armed with this new information (and my father’s voice in the back of my head saying: “We learn by doing…”) I scrapped all my work and started over. As I rolled up my sleeves for another round, I thought about how could I best capture the sound and color that I imagined for this music. What could I do this time to make it more than just an arrangement for the guitar? I wanted to make this work feel as though it was written for my instrument. Enter musician/recording guru Ed Tetrault. In speaking with Ed about recording Judah’s piece he brought a level of creativity that was extraordinary. Ed helped me reimagine my approach to the piece and in the process brought out a serious amount of guitar gear. My rig for the recording became: Guitar + volume pedal + compressor/tone + reverb +  delay + amp 1 + amp 2 + amp 3 + leslie speaker.

This process was transformative and Ed worked with me to create a sound that matches the one I imagined all these months ago and has reshaped the way I perform the piece so that it feels like it belongs to the guitar.  You can see the recording process of this piece here and preparations for the most recent live performance at the Mansion at Strathmore here.

This has been my journey, thus far, with Judah’s piece.  As I’ve taken the time to get to know Judah’s work, I wanted everyone to have the chance to meet him, to learn about how this piece came to be, the significance that February 14th holds for this work, what inspired him to create it, and about his process as an artist.  Our Q & A is below:

Zane: Can you talk about your work as a composer and how you came to write, my heart comes undone?  What was the inspiration?

Judah: My recent work explores two intersections that especially interest me: the intersection between classical music and pop music, and the intersection between music and social justice (as in my piece Rise). I try to write music that is clear and direct, so that the emphasis is not on the music itself but on the opportunity to enter into a particular psychological or emotional space. Every listener’s experience will be different, but I consider it my job to create a musical narrative that invites them into and guides them through this figurative space.

my heart comes undone was commissioned by the Peabody Preparatory Strings Department, directed by my colleague Rebecca Henry, for its outstanding Pre-Conservatory Violin Program (PCVP). I asked Rebecca if I could conceive the music so that it could also be a surprise Valentine’s Day gift for my then-girlfriend, now-wife Lavena Johanson to play on cello with a loop pedal. Rebecca graciously supported this idea, and I gave music to PCVP and to Lavena on Valentine’s Day 2014, three years before your release! They premiered the respective versions in early April of that year (you can listen to them here and here).

The piece was inspired by my wish to write something that presented new challenges to the PCVP violinists, by way of its contrast with their characteristically virtuosic repertoire. It was also inspired by my relationship with Lavena, which took a long time to develop (for various reasons, nearly two years elapsed between our first meeting and our first date!), and by her cello playing, in particular the experience of listening to her practice long, slow scales.

Zane: One of the first things I noticed when studying your score was this quote you placed within the piece by Rainer Maria Rilke. “We don’t accomplish our love in a single year as the flowers do.” Could you talk about the significance of this text?

Judah: I had read and admired Rilke’s poetry for many years, but I wasn’t familiar this particular line, from his Duino Elegies. I discovered it in my horoscope (Sagittarius!), specifically Rob Breszny’s Free Will Astrology, published in the Baltimore City Paper. Rilke’s words resonated with the gradual unfolding of the music and of my relationship with Lavena.

Zane: You mention that this work was inspired by the music of Arvo Part and Bjork’s “Unravel,” could you talk a bit about how their works inspired this piece?  What did you draw upon from Bjork’s song, a vocal line, lyric, or texture within the recording?

Judah: my heart comes undone doesn’t draw anything specific from Arvo Pärt’s music, but is inspired by some of its distinctive qualities: its patience, and its use of repetition. I took my title from Björk’s “Unravel” (the full lyric is “while you are away/ my heart comes undone / slowly unravels/ in a ball of yarn”). The repeating motive, almost a harmonic progression, that forms the basis for “Unravel” is the musical starting point for my heart comes undone. What I feel close to in the work of both of these artists is their ability to create beautiful, simple sound worlds that are at once intimate and expansive.

Zane: What motivated you to create a piece that could be played either by an ensemble, soloist, or soloist with an ensemble?

Judah: This was my first attempt at an open instrumentation. It’s not a new concept: whether by design or evolving performance practice, there are works (for example, Bach’s Art of the Fugue) that can be realized by many different instruments/voices or combinations of instruments/voices. Every piece of music has a life of its own once it’s finished, insofar as different performers will bring their own interpretive instincts to it. In this case, there is also latitude in terms of who might want to play the music, whether by themselves (an option afforded by the technology of the loop pedal) or with others.

Zane: What was your process for creating the piece?  How did you navigate constructing a work that can be performed both by an ensemble or soloist?  What did you discover in working to build this kind of flexibility within the score?

Judah: I place a premium on writing music that is technically, albeit not expressively, simple. Contemporary classical music is often conceived in very particular, meticulous ways for certain instruments or voices. My approach tends to be more aligned with songwriting, writing music that I think could have a life in different contexts and versions. In my heart comes undone, I made a point of using basic materials (long, slow scales) in a limited range, so that the music could work on many instruments.

The piece is structured as a series of layered repetitions. The bottom two lines, scales a major sixth apart (Björk’s motive occurs in the first two measures of the bottom two voices), repeat throughout the piece, while the upper lines take turns introducing new ideas. To ensure that the piece would work for a soloist with a loop pedal, only one thing could change at a time, from one 7-measure phrase to the next. I had to keep that limitation in mind while also making sure that the music never felt static. I wanted the texture to unfold in an organic and convincing way.

Zane: Is this your first piece that has the option of utilizing technology? If so, has it been a positive experience?  Was there a learning curve? If not, what other pieces have you or are you writing that use technology?

Judah: I wrote a piece called Inner City in 2013, for piano and pre-recorded audio, primarily field recordings made in Baltimore. I used a Zoom H4N to make the recordings, and a digital audio workstation called Reaper to edit them. It was a totally new experience for me. On one hand, there was something liberating about working with so much found material. On the other hand, I felt as though I was writing two pieces simultaneously — one for piano, one purely electronic — even before I got to the challenges of integrating them effectively.

There was absolutely a learning curve, from concept to premiere, in making Inner City match the sonic landscape I imagined in my head. I benefited from the wisdom of my friend Matthew Sullivan on Inner City, and he advised me on the solo version of my heart comes undone as well. At first, Matthew designed a patch using Max, a visual programming language, to trigger the various loops. Lavena ultimately opted to perform the piece as you do, with a loop pedal, which creates more demands on the player but also affords them greater control.

I’m currently working on a piece called Unseen that mixes samples of spoken text with live and looped vocals.

Zane: Since the premiere of this piece for both string ensemble and solo cello, could you talk about the other artists and ensembles that have approached you about this work?

It’s been such a joy to see the piece taken up by a variety of musicians — people who have approached me, or to whom I’ve reached out — since that openness was integral to the initial concept. To date, it’s been performed by Caroline Shaw, on viola with loop pedal; by Liam Byrne on viola da gamba with loop pedal; and in unusual combinations (especially by loadbang: (bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and baritone voice!). Guitarist Giacomo Fiore has made a very different recording from yours, to be released next month on Paper Garden Records, with his own arrangement of the Beatles “Because” as the B-side.

This spring, the brand-new Peabody String Sinfonia, an ensemble devoted to community engagement in Baltimore, will play my heart comes undone in performances centered around mental illness, autism, and addiction recovery for the homeless. Finally, in June, the vocal group Roomful of Teeth will be recording the piece at The Tank in Colorado. I’m incredibly grateful to you and to all of these other artists for spending time with my music, and for bringing so many of their own ideas and insights to it!

Zane: What are your current projects that you’re developing?

Judah: The piece I mentioned above, Unseen, is a major focus right now; that work tells the tragic story of Kalief Browder. I’m also working on a percussion quartet, and a couple of choral pieces.

Zane: How can people find you on the internet?

Judah: I’m at judahadashi.com, and on social media: @jadashi on Twitter, Instagram, and Soundcloud, and @judahadashi on Facebook and YouTube.

my heart comes undone by Judah Adashi

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

Happy Valentine’s Day! As we celebrate this day of love, hope, and at times longing, I want to share with you a new recording I’ve made that beautifully captures all of these elements by composer Judah Adashi.  You can download my arrangement of his piece, my heart comes undone, for solo electric guitar by signing up for my email updates on the right sidebar of my website. The recording will be delivered to your inbox for download.

Progress is never a straight line:

A little over a year ago, I contacted my friend and colleague at Peabody, Judah Adashi, about a piece he’d recently written: my heart comes undone. I was familiar with the string ensemble version of this work that was commissioned and premiered by the Peabody  Preparatory Strings Department and had become acquainted with the version he made for solo cello and loop pedal that was premiered and recorded by Lavena Johanson.

At that time, I was preparing to launch the Laptop Tour and asked him if he’d be open to me creating a version of the piece for solo electric guitar and loop pedal for the tour. While I had always played the electric throughout my life, I never worked with the instrument regularly for music I was to perform in concert and I craved the challenge. The Laptop Tour felt like a perfect place for me to share this piece.

As I set to work, several discoveries were made:

  1. The guitar is NOT the cello or any other bowed instrument.
  2. The quest for the perfect tone on an electric guitar is a challenging task that requires as much focus, detail, and study as creating it on a classical guitar.
  3. Working with a loop pedal shows you at your best and your worst…in the beginning you hear yourself primarily at your worst.
  4. Key Signatures are important (more on that in a minute).

There was a learning curve.  I had to figure out a way to make the long lines of each part sustain and connect similarly to that of a bowed instrument while still remaining true to the guitar.  Also, how could I create a sound that was as full as a cello and yet as clear and transparent as I imagined in my head?  You can hear my early attempts at this here.  My setup was simple: Guitar + Tube Screamer TS9 (that’s an effect pedal—yeah, I like the name, too) + Loop Pedal + Amplifier = Sound.

The result was clear and focused but felt a little thin, at times gritty, and uneven across the guitar. I was getting some of what I imagined though I felt I had more work ahead of me. While navigating the sound, I was knee deep in the owner’s manual of my loop pedal. I had spent a good bit of time with this device performing Ingram Marshall’s Soe-pa but Judah’s piece was going to require a new level of study and experimentation. My first efforts revealed how much of an art there is to creating a perfect loop. For those not familiar with what a loop is, click here. If my early loops were a layered cake, mine was lopsided and leaning towards the right. But with a little practice and willingness to pick myself back up when I toppled over, I managed to count my way towards a cohesive collection of loops that held together.

With my newly acquired skills (and bruises from the learning process), I gave my first performance of Judah’s piece on April 18, 2016. I sent him a note telling him of the performance and shared some clips I made of the work. Judah followed up with me and gently mentioned that the F#’s didn’t seem to be happening in the performance.

“What? What F#’s? No, not possible.” I pulled out the score…yes, indeed possible and true. Key Signatures are important and details are, too.

Armed with this new information (and my father’s voice in the back of my head saying: “We learn by doing…”) I scrapped all my work and started over. As I rolled up my sleeves for another round, I thought about how could I best capture the sound and color that I imagined for this music. What could I do this time to make it more than just an arrangement for the guitar? I wanted to make this work feel as though it was written for my instrument. Enter musician/recording guru Ed Tetrault. In speaking with Ed about recording Judah’s piece he brought a level of creativity that was extraordinary. Ed helped me reimagine my approach to the piece and in the process brought out a serious amount of guitar gear. My rig for the recording became: Guitar + volume pedal + compressor/tone + reverb +  delay + amp 1 + amp 2 + amp 3 + leslie speaker.

This process was transformative and Ed worked with me to create a sound that matches the one I imagined all these months ago and has reshaped the way I perform the piece so that it feels like it belongs to the guitar.  You can see the recording process of this piece here and preparations for the most recent live performance at the Mansion at Strathmore here.

This has been my journey, thus far, with Judah’s piece.  As I’ve taken the time to get to know Judah’s work, I wanted everyone to have the chance to meet him, to learn about how this piece came to be, the significance that February 14th holds for this work, what inspired him to create it, and about his process as an artist.  Our Q & A is below:

Zane: Can you talk about your work as a composer and how you came to write, my heart comes undone?  What was the inspiration?

Judah: My recent work explores two intersections that especially interest me: the intersection between classical music and pop music, and the intersection between music and social justice (as in my piece Rise). I try to write music that is clear and direct, so that the emphasis is not on the music itself but on the opportunity to enter into a particular psychological or emotional space. Every listener’s experience will be different, but I consider it my job to create a musical narrative that invites them into and guides them through this figurative space.

my heart comes undone was commissioned by the Peabody Preparatory Strings Department, directed by my colleague Rebecca Henry, for its outstanding Pre-Conservatory Violin Program (PCVP). I asked Rebecca if I could conceive the music so that it could also be a surprise Valentine’s Day gift for my then-girlfriend, now-wife Lavena Johanson to play on cello with a loop pedal. Rebecca graciously supported this idea, and I gave music to PCVP and to Lavena on Valentine’s Day 2014, three years before your release! They premiered the respective versions in early April of that year (you can listen to them here and here).

The piece was inspired by my wish to write something that presented new challenges to the PCVP violinists, by way of its contrast with their characteristically virtuosic repertoire. It was also inspired by my relationship with Lavena, which took a long time to develop (for various reasons, nearly two years elapsed between our first meeting and our first date!), and by her cello playing, in particular the experience of listening to her practice long, slow scales.

Zane: One of the first things I noticed when studying your score was this quote you placed within the piece by Rainer Maria Rilke. “We don’t accomplish our love in a single year as the flowers do.” Could you talk about the significance of this text?

Judah: I had read and admired Rilke’s poetry for many years, but I wasn’t familiar this particular line, from his Duino Elegies. I discovered it in my horoscope (Sagittarius!), specifically Rob Breszny’s Free Will Astrology, published in the Baltimore City Paper. Rilke’s words resonated with the gradual unfolding of the music and of my relationship with Lavena.

Zane: You mention that this work was inspired by the music of Arvo Part and Bjork’s “Unravel,” could you talk a bit about how their works inspired this piece?  What did you draw upon from Bjork’s song, a vocal line, lyric, or texture within the recording?

Judah: my heart comes undone doesn’t draw anything specific from Arvo Pärt’s music, but is inspired by some of its distinctive qualities: its patience, and its use of repetition. I took my title from Björk’s “Unravel” (the full lyric is “while you are away/ my heart comes undone / slowly unravels/ in a ball of yarn”). The repeating motive, almost a harmonic progression, that forms the basis for “Unravel” is the musical starting point for my heart comes undone. What I feel close to in the work of both of these artists is their ability to create beautiful, simple sound worlds that are at once intimate and expansive.

Zane: What motivated you to create a piece that could be played either by an ensemble, soloist, or soloist with an ensemble?

Judah: This was my first attempt at an open instrumentation. It’s not a new concept: whether by design or evolving performance practice, there are works (for example, Bach’s Art of the Fugue) that can be realized by many different instruments/voices or combinations of instruments/voices. Every piece of music has a life of its own once it’s finished, insofar as different performers will bring their own interpretive instincts to it. In this case, there is also latitude in terms of who might want to play the music, whether by themselves (an option afforded by the technology of the loop pedal) or with others.

Zane: What was your process for creating the piece?  How did you navigate constructing a work that can be performed both by an ensemble or soloist?  What did you discover in working to build this kind of flexibility within the score?

Judah: I place a premium on writing music that is technically, albeit not expressively, simple. Contemporary classical music is often conceived in very particular, meticulous ways for certain instruments or voices. My approach tends to be more aligned with songwriting, writing music that I think could have a life in different contexts and versions. In my heart comes undone, I made a point of using basic materials (long, slow scales) in a limited range, so that the music could work on many instruments.

The piece is structured as a series of layered repetitions. The bottom two lines, scales a major sixth apart (Björk’s motive occurs in the first two measures of the bottom two voices), repeat throughout the piece, while the upper lines take turns introducing new ideas. To ensure that the piece would work for a soloist with a loop pedal, only one thing could change at a time, from one 7-measure phrase to the next. I had to keep that limitation in mind while also making sure that the music never felt static. I wanted the texture to unfold in an organic and convincing way.

Zane: Is this your first piece that has the option of utilizing technology? If so, has it been a positive experience?  Was there a learning curve? If not, what other pieces have you or are you writing that use technology?

Judah: I wrote a piece called Inner City in 2013, for piano and pre-recorded audio, primarily field recordings made in Baltimore. I used a Zoom H4N to make the recordings, and a digital audio workstation called Reaper to edit them. It was a totally new experience for me. On one hand, there was something liberating about working with so much found material. On the other hand, I felt as though I was writing two pieces simultaneously — one for piano, one purely electronic — even before I got to the challenges of integrating them effectively.

There was absolutely a learning curve, from concept to premiere, in making Inner City match the sonic landscape I imagined in my head. I benefited from the wisdom of my friend Matthew Sullivan on Inner City, and he advised me on the solo version of my heart comes undone as well. At first, Matthew designed a patch using Max, a visual programming language, to trigger the various loops. Lavena ultimately opted to perform the piece as you do, with a loop pedal, which creates more demands on the player but also affords them greater control.

I’m currently working on a piece called Unseen that mixes samples of spoken text with live and looped vocals.

Zane: Since the premiere of this piece for both string ensemble and solo cello, could you talk about the other artists and ensembles that have approached you about this work?

It’s been such a joy to see the piece taken up by a variety of musicians — people who have approached me, or to whom I’ve reached out — since that openness was integral to the initial concept. To date, it’s been performed by Caroline Shaw, on viola with loop pedal; by Liam Byrne on viola da gamba with loop pedal; and in unusual combinations (especially by loadbang: (bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and baritone voice!). Guitarist Giacomo Fiore has made a very different recording from yours, to be released next month on Paper Garden Records, with his own arrangement of the Beatles “Because” as the B-side.

This spring, the brand-new Peabody String Sinfonia, an ensemble devoted to community engagement in Baltimore, will play my heart comes undone in performances centered around mental illness, autism, and addiction recovery for the homeless. Finally, in June, the vocal group Roomful of Teeth will be recording the piece at The Tank in Colorado. I’m incredibly grateful to you and to all of these other artists for spending time with my music, and for bringing so many of their own ideas and insights to it!

Zane: What are your current projects that you’re developing?

Judah: The piece I mentioned above, Unseen, is a major focus right now; that work tells the tragic story of Kalief Browder. I’m also working on a percussion quartet, and a couple of choral pieces.

Zane: How can people find you on the internet?

Judah: I’m at judahadashi.com, and on social media: @jadashi on Twitter, Instagram, and Soundcloud, and @judahadashi on Facebook and YouTube.

 

 

The Quiet Before Christmas Playlist

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

There is a brief and amazing period of time during the year that I love. It lives in the 3 to 4 days between my last day of teaching or concert and Christmas. It’s quiet in my house in the early hours of the morning (yes, this means I’m awake before the tiny baby) and in the early evening (once she’s conked out for the night). It’s during these few hours, in these few days, where that I am afforded the luxury to sit quietly, think, daydream, pour myself a drink (at night people…coffee in the a.m., bourbon after 7 p.m.) and listen to music (or simply crash out on the couch with the mighty S). And, I’ll admit that I’ve done all of these at the same time as recently as last night.

So, while you may have been inundated with Christmas or looking to escape it, I wanted to share some of my favorite tunes that I enjoy during this all too short spell of time. Here are five songs that I’ve looked forward to visiting as I saw this window of respite approaching.

Wishing you all happy holidays and a wonderful 2017!

PS. Can’t get enough Christmas Music? Not to worry, the Laptop Tour returns on Saturday, December 24 at 7:30 pm (EDT). That’s right, Christmas Eve! So, join me for a few Christmas carols and holiday cheer!  Click here to see the show.

What’s in a Name?

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

whats-in-a-name

Every morning I make coffee. It’s the first thing I do after getting tiny baby out of her bed and setting her up with a cup of milk to start her day. In all honesty, coffee is a fairly substantial part of my existence. Don’t worry, I drink plenty of water, too. Though it would be fair to say (just ask any of my students or colleagues) that coffee is definitely how I manage to get things accomplished.

The second half of my day involves a pit-stop to a coffee shop to get an Americano in my travel mug. For anyone that is curious, I use a Zojirushi travel thermos and it’s probably the one gift I’ve received in the past year that has changed my life—seriously—the coffee is hot all day. All. Day.

I mention all of this because I must confess something…I have a “coffee shop name.” What’s a coffee shop name you ask? Simple—pick a name that is not yours and use it everywhere when you’re out in public ordering something. You could be Bob at Panera bread, or Willy at the pizza shop. It’s liberating, allows for spontaneity, gives you a small bit of privacy, and if you’re like me, saves you from having this conversation over and over:

Cashier: Can I get a name for your order?

Me: Yes, it’s Zane

Cashier: I’m sorry…what’s your name?

Me: Zane

Cashier: Shane?

Me: Zane…Z. A. N. E.

Cashier: Oooooh…what’s that mean?

Me: I’m not sure… (Now twitching due to being stuck in this conversation loop and becoming aware of the line forming behind me.)

Cashier: You know, I know another Zane. He lived in Phoenix, Arizona…can you believe that?!?!

Me: …..Cool…well, um, thank you.

Cashier: Yeah, man, that’s cool—I’m gonna have to tell him I met you…

Me: (receives coffee with name spelled: Shane)

After having hundreds of these interactions over the last 25 years (particularly during 2012-13 when I was flying almost every week) I became “Chris” at any and all coffee shops, food establishments, and watering holes.  It was great—there was never any confusion, or spelling involved.  I was just simply good ol’ Chris.  You know, Chris—that name that people can spell and that doesn’t need any back and forth.

Cashier: What’s your name, buddy?

Me: Chris.

Cashier: Great, will have that up for you at the end of the bar. Have a great day, Chris.

Me (Internal conversation): Hell, yeah! Chris IS going to have a great day.

And a great day I did have! I was in and out of places in a flash. Sure, they didn’t know my name, but did it really matter? NO! I was polite, paid my bill, and quietly looked out the window or stayed out of the traffic pattern.

This was all going great until my wife and I moved to our current home. Over the course of the past couple years, I have become a daily customer at the coffee shop near my house (Peet’s Coffee and Tea). From the first day I entered, I became Chris and it was business as usual until about 6 weeks ago.

I had just returned from recording (you can read about that here) and a good friend sent me a “Hooray! You finally finished that album coffee card.” Full disclosure, this may be the greatest reward for making anything ever—coffee. In a quest to simplify my life, I downloaded the Peet’s app, as suggested by one of the employees, and set it up so that I could pay with the app. Here’s where I made my fatal mistake. I entered my real name.

I pull into pick up my coffee, “check-in” and pay with the app, and then all hell broke loose:

Cashier: Thanks, Chri….Zane?!?!?

Me: Uh…

Cashier: Wait, I thought your name is Chris?

Barista: What? Wait, what’s going on?

Me: ….

My cover was blown. My identity had been compromised by my own [email protected]#*ing coffee app. Screw wiki-leaks. I was my own damn wiki-leaks.

With my “real name” now out there, I knew there would be questions. It went from bad to worse in a hurry. The next day, the entire staff knew and I received that quiet middle-school “you’re now on the outside” treatment. It started with:

Cashier: Thanks for your order Zane…or whoever you really are…

And quickly moved to:

Barista: So is that little child you bring in here actually yours? Or, is that a fake baby, too?

I went home that night and explained my hangdog expression to the mighty S (that’s my wife) and she thought the entire thing was funny. I asked her why they were so angry and she, in her infinite wisdom, pointed out that they worked to build a relationship with me. They’d gotten to know me (Chris), and that now the person they knew isn’t who they thought. Boom!—it finally hit me. The awesome people at Peet’s actually liked coffee shop me and now they were faced with Zane instead….Yeah, I might be disappointed, too, if that were the case. Sorry guys. It’s not you, it’s me.

She also said I should talk about it in my blog as this truly captures the real me. Yep…feelin’ prittay, prittay good. Or, I should say I’m having a Larry David moment.

Flash forward to now. Things are getting better. Like any relationship that has had a setback it can take a minute to get over it (though they’re not totally over it). I say this with certainty as S went into Peet’s with my phone to pickup a coffee and they said:

Cashier: So who are you, really?

S: Laughter ( I have no idea what she told them.)

Cashier: I know you’re not Chris, and we know you’re not Zane…

What’s the takeaway from all of this? At the moment I’m not sure. I do know I’m not giving up my coffee name. I like it and now it makes S laugh even more than she normally does. All I can hope for in the interim is that the team at Peet’s somehow see’s the humor in all of this and eventually we get back to our usual rhythm but like fixing an error in a piece, it will take some time. Also, in an effort to point out the humor in all of this, I’ve decided I’ll be changing the name in my Peet’s App every week. On Monday I became Jo-Jo…let’s see what that does.

The Beginning of the End

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

Flying-Machine

It’s been a couple of months since my last post. I needed to shut down the engines for a minute and recharge. Also, I’ve been practicing like a crazy person, but I’ll get into that in a moment.

In August of 2009, I packed up the few boxes of possessions (mainly books and recordings), a table, 2 chairs, and a dresser and placed them in a storage unit for a whopping $150 for the year. A few days later I threw a suitcase with some clothes, a used laptop computer, my guitar, and a couple of notebooks onto a flight to Spain. I would live there for just under a year.

I was on a mission to discover everything I possibly could about one composer in particular: Vicente Asencio. So, I spent a number of months studying his works for the guitar and amassing a collection of Spanish musicology books (all of which made up the contents of my suitcase on the return flight). These books not only created insight into who he was as a composer but also contextualized how his work fitted within the musical times in which he lived. The more I researched him, the more I realized I couldn’t just limit my investigation to solely his pieces. I began to study his contemporaries learning just how this very specific musical landscape had influenced all of them.   As David Byrne explains in his book How Music Works, you have to have “a scene” and if you don’t have one, well, then you’d better build one. Asencio and his colleagues did just that in the 1950s and not much has changed sixty years later. We’re still building our own scenes….but that’s a story for another day.

So after living abroad, and with a memorable Spanish inflected Thanksgiving under my belt, I moved back to Baltimore. Upon my return, the next ten months of my life were divided between teaching the guitar, thinking about Asencio, writing about him and his contemporaries, practicing his music, taking my last couple of qualifying exams, and finishing my degree.   So easy being a student – right?! Ahh, not so much. My wife summed this time up brilliantly when she named it “the grumpy year” and she’s being generous!

After the dust settled, I just couldn’t start the engine back up to push the project forward. Ironically, I felt incredibly guilty about it as I had done all of this work yet could not motivate myself to share it. My research sat in a box in our apartment, and then in a box in our house until finally, in late May of 2014, I became motivated by two deceptively simple sentences: 1. Zane, we’re having a baby. 2. Finish this album. We booked the studio and in October of that same year I went to Berlin, Germany and began recording. The project had finally begun.

This evening, nearly two years later, I’m getting back on a plane to finish the project. Little did I know (or as they say in the film Stranger than Fiction: “Little did he know…”) that it would take me 7 years to reach the finish line.

How do I feel? –Oh, I’m nervous. I find recording to be difficult, and for me it’s a multi-layered challenge, one where I try not to second guess myself, my preparation, my abilities or my musical ideas. I should mention that this is before they’ve even turned on the microphones.

All this is to say—wish me luck. It’s exciting to have the chance to finish this project, and if you’re curious to see how it’s going, I’ll be posting daily to my Instagram account: @zaneforshee.  Stop by and say hello. In the interim, I’ll be thinking about this scene from the movie Almost Famous where Frances McDormand tells the lead guitarist from Stillwater: Be Bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.

Perhaps we could all use a little courage this week.

Sonic Pictures: Movie Double Feature!

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

Sonic-Pictures

I wanted to try something a little different with this month and make it a double feature. I’m thinking about films at the moment, and how much I want to be watching them on my couch with a pile of snacks. This is part 1. The second feature on this bill is brought to you by the amazing Christian Biegai. He’ll be shedding light on how film music is created, played, and its contribution to the overall experience of the audience—Boom! Now, on with the post:

Ah, it’s that time of year…the end of the semester is visible. This means three things:

1. Students are ready to be done.

2. I will be woodshedding like a fiend to conquer some guitar projects.

3. I’m making my “must watch movie list.”

Let’s focus for a moment on #3 from the list: I. Love. Movies. As I’m nearing the end of the academic year, I’ve begun compiling my list of films I’m going to watch over the summer. Seriously, that’s my goal—movies (and junk food—food trucks lookout, I’m headed your way). I don’t have the chance to watch many from September-May. The summer serves as the time for me to catch up.

The summer is also responsible for providing the opportunity for me to meet one of my closest friends—Christian Biegai (he writes music…more on that in a moment–Christian is part 2 of this double feature).

We met in our 20’s (which was a while ago…) at a summer music festival we were both teaching at in Pennsylvania. Christian came down from NYC to teach saxophone and I was coming up from Baltimore to talk all things guitar. Wilkes-Barre, PA served as the meeting point for two freelance musicians to get work in the artistic desert known as summer and allowed us to find that ever-elusive commodity during the warm months—a paycheck.

As I got to know Christian, I quickly observed what an incredible musician he was and indeed still is! Not only is he a brilliant performer, he’s one of the most openminded listeners I’ve encountered. He listens to EVERYTHING and we spent many a night in Wilkes-Barre, NYC, Baltimore, and Berlin (where he currently lives) listening and talking about music. In addition, he is the biggest David Bowie fan I have ever met. While his primary instrument is the saxophone, I soon learned about his passion for film music and composition. He opened my eyes to a new world—film scores. Christian showed me the impact that the score can have on a film and its audience. It’s a kind of symbiotic relationship, between sight and sound, they need each other!

Shapppowwww! That’s all of us flash forwarding to now: Christian is a full-time composer, husband, and dad. He writes both film and concert music, and still shreds on the saxophone (Take a listen to his most recent tribute to David Bowie below).

To hear more of Christian’s music, you can visit his Soundcloud page. I’ve included a couple of my favorites below:

Pretty great, right?!?!? So, while I wanted to talk about some of my favorite film scores I’ve discovered (thanks to Christian), I felt it would be a heck of a lot more interesting to have Christian, an actual film composer, talk about scores that he feels are worth exploring.  Oh, and you should say hi to him via:

Facebook: http://bit.ly/278qZvI

Twitter: http://bit.ly/1Zy10IF

Instagram: http://bit.ly/1TAi6Rn

Is it a bird, is it a plane? Welcome to the blog, Christian!

Sonic-Pictures_CB

Guten Tag from the Berlin Headquarters!  I am honoured to be chosen as the film music correspondent for your blog!

Although, I don’t think you have to be a film composer to evaluate film scores.  Anyone who watches movies or T.V. series or any combination of moving pictures with music would be able to tell if they liked it or not. Of course this is a very subjective evaluation and so many times there is no right or wrong. For example. Let me give you my personal top 10 of great film scores!

CHRISTIAN BIEGAI’S TOP TEN FILM SCORES

1.) “Superman”(1978)

Directed by Richard Donner, Music by John Williams

Let’s start with the most important film score of all! John Williams’ score of Superman was engraved into my brain at the tender age of 6. I had a tape of the score in my room and without even seeing the film, I totally knew what was going on in the film (at least my imagination was very clear about it). I was an avid reader of Superman Comics and the score to the film was the ultimate addition to the pictures. When I finally saw the movie for the first time many years later, I felt like I’d seen it already, due to the excessive amount of time I listened to the tape. 

2.) “Christiane F.” aka “Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo” (1981)

Directed by Uli Edel, Music by Jürgen Knieper and David Bowie

What did teachers at public schools in Germany do in the 80’s to prevent young teenagers on the border of adolescence from becoming drug addicts? They showed them a movie about teenagers in evil West Berlin, back then the capitol of heroin, going through the abyss of addiction, prostitution and God knows what. (I’ll never forget the shot, when it shows a needle first penetrating the skin). The problem with this plan however was, that the main music was by David Bowie. The results of watching this supposedly terrifying movie was that every kid wanted to break out, go to Berlin, be wild and listen to David Bowie (which I eventually put into reality, more about this later.) The movie “Christiane F” a.k.a. “Wir Kinder von Bahnhof Zoo”, was as an educational movie a total failure, but became the soundtrack of so many German teenagers in the 80’s. For me this was the beginning of my life long addiction to David Bowie and his music. You can not say you lived if you haven’t heard his German Version of “Heroes.”

3.) “The Shining” (1980)

Director: Stanley Kubrick Music: Wendy Carlos, Bela Bartok, Gyorgy Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki

I think this might have been my first real contact with contemporary classical music, and what an impression it made on me – I was terrified for years to come! (Still am!) Kubrick uses original music, but mostly already existing music by contemporary composers like Bartok, Ligeti or Penderecki, and he uses it brilliantly just like in his other films. If you want to know more about it, this article is great fun.

Has there ever be a more frightening timpani glissando? 

Also, click here for a new release, which analyses the genius use of music by Kubrick.

4.) “Shadow of the Vampire”(2000)

Director E. Elias Merhige, Music by Dan Jones

I was in New York in 2000 and went to see a film that got my attention: “Shadow of the Vampire.” The premise sounded fun and I was intrigued by Willem Dafoe performing as Max Shrek, the actor who played the vampire in the original “Nosferatu.” I cannot describe the feeling when I saw the opening on a big screen, the music propelled it into another dimension. ‘Goosebumps’ would just describe one dimension of it. Seeing it now, the animation seems a little outdated, but the music still has an immense power. The orchestration is so brilliant, and if you need inspiration on how to prepare a musical climax, this is it. 

Six months later my friend Ben Foskett was in Prague at Smecky Music Studios, preparing the music for the next score by Dan Jones for “Black Plague” (the movie was called “Annazepta back then). He asked me if I wanted to join them. My answer? “Aeeehhh . . . yes Ben. I’ll be there tomorrow!” The next day. I was in the recording room, with an orchestra, Dan Jones, Christopher Austin and Ben Foskett, recording a brilliant score and hanging out with people who had already blown my mind six months before, and even more watching them in the recording studio. 

 5.) “There Will Be Blood” (2008)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson, Music by Jonny Greenwood

I was on a long distance flight and started looking through the films. Oh yeah! This was one looks great. Music by Jonny Greenwood? Hell yeah. I started it and stopped after five minutes. It was clear to me that this would totally suck to watch on a little screen on an airplane with bad headphones and bad food being served. I had to watch this in a cinema with a giant music system and a huge screen (and no food!) I stopped watching, and three weeks later I was in a fairly empty cinema at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin and was mesmerized by the brilliance of the score and the film. Among other things, the music at the beginning symbolizes to me the evil that oil has created in humanity, and the egotistic behavior stemming from it, which made so many people suffer. It is such an abyss of darkness. Is that too much? Well, the movie certainly is heavy, and the music accompanies it so well, and adds a whole different dimension to the story. I was able to listen to a live performance to it last December by the Stargaze ensemble here in Berlin. And seeing the details like the independent bow changes of the violins and hearing the overall complexity of the orchestration live made me love the music even more!

Here are the first 6 min of the film

6.) Magnolia” (1999)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson, Music by John Brion and Aimee Mann

Oops. Another film by P.T. Anderson. Another Marvel! The score is divided between songwriter Aimee Mann and the orchestral score by John Brion. I love the juxtaposition of these two genres in the film and how much the music dominates the drama. One of my favorite scenes is the track “Showtime” where there is a ten minute Bolero-like musical theme that accompanies a film collage of the alternating stories. It is just brilliant! 

Here is the introduction of the characters with the song “One” by Aimee Mann

6.5) “The Life Aquatic” (2004)

Director: Wes Anderson, Music by Mark Mothersbough

Well, here is another Anderson, who is also quite talented in making films. The Life Aquatic has also a great juxtaposition of film music and rock music. This time the film was scored by Mark Mothersbough and a Portuguese guitarist named Seu Jorge. Seu Jorge is part of the Team Zissou and is constantly in the background playing songs by David Bowie but singing them in Portuguese during the entire movie. (Did I mention that I am heavily influenced by David Bowie?)

7.) “Birth” (2004)

Director: Jonathan Glazer, Music by Alexandre Desplat

Berlin Film Festival 2010. Alexandre Desplat was to give a talk about his music and of course I wasn’t about to miss this opportunity! One scene was fascinating to me: the opening scene of the film “Birth”. We just see a man going on a run through Central Park. If you mute the music, the scene doesn’t say very much, does it?   That is exactly what Alexandre Desplat thought and he had no idea how to score it. Jonathan Glazer gave him the idea in this scene to describe the entire film in music and therefore give it something like a musical overture, in which he introduces the characters. What an amazing idea! The result is mesmerizing! 

8.) “Vertigo” (1958)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock, Music: Bernard Hermann

I saw this film as a kid many times, but 1996 on my first visit to New York, I was fortunate to see the restored version at the Ziegler Theatre. It changed my life! I really don’t know where to start or to end talking about it, so I suggest, you just watch it and pay attention to the magnificent score.  If you want to dive more into the subject and be a super nerd (like me), there is an entire book about the music and the connection to the film: David Cooper. Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo: A Film Score Handbook 

9.) “Dancer in the Dark” (2000)

Director: Lars von Trier, Music by Björk

Like the epic (director’s cut) version of “Lawrence of Arabia”, the film starts in total darkness with an overture on a pitch black screen. A wonderful brass section starts in complete darkness, a reference to the blindness of the protagonist. I love how Björk picked sounds from the surroundings and made them into music. Very “Musique Concrete.” Obviously Lars von Trier won’t make a comedy, and I’ll spare you the details of the plot (the entire cinema was sobbing at the end credits,) but the score stands out as a very unique way of integrating this strong music into a stunning film.

10.) “Being John Malkovich” (1999)

Director: Spike Jones, Music by Carter Burwell. 

I can’t have a top ten and not have a score in it by Carter Burwell. He is mostly known for working with the Cohen Brothers, but this particular score is so beautiful and works so well with the story (which is totally crazy! Like really, totally cuckoo,) that I have to put it into my top ten! One of my favorite tracks of the film: Puppet Love.

So there you go! My top ten! I have to admit, I am not able to put any of these film scores in a ranking order. I could easily add 90 film scores to this list and still not be able to put them in any order. I think they all have their own qualities and deserve to be recognized in their own ways. I don’t really differentiate between original scores and pre-composed music or songs. To my mind it doesn’t really matter that much, because in the end it’s the result that counts. I hope you get some inspiration from this list and it keeps your ears sharp the next time you go and see a movie! 

Laptop Tour Begins Tonight! 8pm EDT

Monday, April 18th, 2016
Laptop Tour Begins

http://bit.ly/seelaptoptour

The Laptop Tour begins tonight at 8pm EDT.  To kick off the tour we will be broadcasting from the Makespace in Harrisburg, PA!  Tune in to find out if I survive the awesome power of the Mighty Tube Screamer in Judah Adashi’s piece for electric guitar and loop pedal.

Click here to watch the show at 8pm edt!

Share the link:  http://bit.ly/seelaptoptour

Set List:

Soe-pa by Ingram Marshall

My Name is Red by Ronald Pearl

my heart comes undone by Judah Adashi

See you tonight!

The Laptop Tour

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

Laptop Tour

Something I often think about is how the need for a concert hall holds much less importance today with regard to live performance than it once did. This is, in part, due to how easily one can access music as well as a shift in the approach of many artists when presenting concerts.

In fact, the experience of hearing someone live in an unusual space can actually have a larger impact on an audience.  Think about the first time you heard a work or piece beautifully performed in unexpected place or unexpected time.  It takes you by surprise and can make you think about the music, in this case, in a different way – not to mention that the acoustics change your perceptions immeasurably.

This first happened for me in October of 2007 when I was asked to play a concert in a club as part of a CD release concert for some friends.  I discovered that I enjoyed the challenge of performing in a venue that was, at that time, distinct from those spaces I’d grown accustomed to as a musician.  I felt different on that stage, the music was unique in that venue, and the audience experienced a vibe unlike that offered by a traditional concert hall. That performance is one that I still often think about; it was a moment that caused me to rethink what performing is all about—creating a connection with people through sound regardless of the physical space and its originally intended use.

Nearly a decade later, with this in mind, I want to push myself to see what else is possible.  I decided to set myself a challenge and create a series of concerts which would make use of a range of venues not normally associated with musical performance.   But why stop there?  I’m adding a twist and broadcasting them over the internet?!?!   This creates another dimension regarding the types of venues that are possible to perform in.  I don’t need to bring in an audience—I can deliver the concert to you.    With that, the Laptop Tour begins!  I’m going to broadcast short concerts, no longer than 30 minutes in duration, from anywhere and everywhere from, you guessed it, my laptop—even your house is fair game.

To kickoff this tour my first concert will be on Monday, April 18th at 8pm at: The Makespace in Harrisburg, PA. As this is a venue that inspires its guests and the artists that show their work, I’m programming three pieces inspired by works of art:

Ingram Marshall’s Soe-pa: Inspired by Bach’s Prelude in Bb flat from the WTC

Ronald Pearl’s My Name is Red: inspired by Orhan Pamuk’s novel of the same name

Judah Adashi’s My Heart Comes Undone: inspired by Bjork’s song Unravel

I hope you’ll join me on Monday, April 18th at 8pm(EDT) via this link to stream my first concert of this tour.

Thanks for coming with me on this new adventure!

What does this contribute? Fret Fest 2016

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016
Contribute

Fret Fest

This post is late. I had hoped to get this up last week but was finishing the last pieces of Fret Fest business. I was on solo dad duty as tiny baby’s mom was away—the latter was all consuming! Now, on to the post:

One of the things I think about with each experience I have in music (and sometimes life) is: “What’s the takeaway?”

What is the one thing (or two if I’m lucky) that can be learned from what just happened or is happening? This month I have two takeaways (bonus!), both of which are important.

1. I do not, no matter how much I’d like to say the contrary, have the self-control to buy a package of cookies at the grocery story without eating all of them within 12 hours.  Seriously, the whole box in an evening…along with a frozen pizza.  Paul Newman’s “Ginger Newman O’s” are my downfall each and every time. The takeaway? Ditch the frozen pizza.

2. Directing/Building a guitar festival (something I never planned to do in my career as a musician) has become some of the most rewarding, creative, challenging, and inspiring work I’ve ever done.

While the first takeaway is important and falls more in the “life” category, the second is the one I’d like to focus on.

This was the seventh year for Fret Fest at Peabody and the third year for me as the sole-director of the event. Creating and maintaining Fret Fest requires a tremendous amount of planning and teamwork with the staff at Peabody.  I feel incredibly fortunate to work with an amazing team and have learned, firsthand, how important it is to: 1. Ask for help/advice; 2. Be humble; 3. Listen; 4. Be patient; 5. Stay flexible; 6. Never give up; 7. Know that something(s) will be out of your control; 8. Say thank you to everyone (#8 is really, really, really important).

As I have continued to build this festival to reach new audiences, the biggest takeaway for me is actually a question: What does this contribute?

This was a question I had never brought to the festival until the past two seasons, and it’s had the biggest impact on my approach towards the day.  [And, in some ways, a large impact on my independent musical work and creative projects.] I love this question because it can be interpreted in many different ways and because it offers the opportunity to set yourself in the guest’s shoes.

What can I bring to this day that will be memorable and unique for everyone who attends?  What styles of music can we explore?  What workshops can we create that will inspire, challenge, and stretch the aspiring young guitarist or the individual that just wants to keep growing as a musician?  What would happen if we brought several styles of music together in a single concert?  Will there be cookies?

These are just a few of the questions that came up to the surface when I looked at Fret Fest from the point of contribution.  More importantly, it provided me with a bit of perspective when I found myself up to my knees in challenges.   For example, this year’s Fret Fest was happening on the same day as Baltimore’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.  Ok, you’re thinking…”so there’s gonna be a parade…big deal?”  Well, the starting point of that parade was Mt. Vernon Square (where Peabody is based).  We were the launching pad for all the fun. In addition, the parade, with it’s bagpipes and all, would be starting at 2pm, which was at the same time as our Guitar Ensemble Concert. Did I mention that the concert hall has enormous windows overlooking the park where the paraded participants were stationed???

This is where those 8 points I mentioned earlier came in handy.  I asked for help, listened, tried to stay flexible about options, was definitely humbled by the situation, realized that much of it was out of my control, and didn’t give up (though I had a few trying moments). When the final ensemble performed at the concert it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Afterwards, I said thank you to all the people who attended the performance and to the amazing people who soundproofed the concert hall!

The answers that you find when you stop and think about what you are contributing don’t have to be huge, mega-complicated things.  They can be small gestures, moments where you and others are able to take the time to answer a question, make sure a person feels included, or simply help someone with a chord they have been working on.  It can be that shared experience where you all watch a performance and react to elements of it as a group or as an individual.  And, yes, it can be making sure that there is a plate of cookies available when an event has finished.

But what does this have to do with me playing the guitar?  Precisely nothing and everything.   What is extraordinary about this day, for me, is that for a short time Peabody is filled with people, in all stages of life, who share the same passion for music and the guitar that I do and we’re all together in one place.  Does it mean a little less guitar playing for me in the short term? Yes. But that time away from the instrument is a small sacrifice to create a community built from a single question about what a person can contribute.

Performing: It’s a Roller Coaster

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

Rollercoaster

“Whispered” from the audience during a recent performance:

Audience Member #1: “Do you like this music?”

Audience Member #2: “What?”

AM1: “I said do you like this music…on the guitar…that he’s playing?”

AM2: “Oh. It doesn’t bother me. Do you want to leave? I’ll go if you want to.”

AM1: “No, I don’t feel like moving right now. I’ll just sit here till he’s finished.”

To be seen and yet not seen is an interesting aspect of the professional musicians lot, your performances are either sought or encountered, they are the sole focus of some and in the peripheries of others, the content is loved or hated; your presence as player key yet at times you’re ignored.  The amazing part of this is that it can easily all be going on in the same concert.

Now I’m not actually fuming about the conversation that I shared with you at the start of this piece, it was quite funny in an out of body kind of a way.  It’s all contextual, the situation was not a grand concert hall in NYC, although it could have been, but it does bring home some of the basics of live performance. You work, you prepare, you worry, and practice but sometimes you just can’t make everyone happy.  Performing in every sense of the word is a roller coaster.

I say that with two distinct meanings.  The first is that for a performer to become skilled at performing requires that they must do it over and over and over again.  This means you will perform, if you’re serious about it, in front of anyone, anywhere, and at almost anytime (which I can say is true as I’m grabbing any chance I can get to try things out).  The bumps, bruises, scrapes, and punches that you take with each visit to the stage are part of paying your dues or in corporate speak: on the job training.  These flight hours (if you’re really, really serious about your vocation) will generate critiques, notes that you make after each performance.  These need to be objective, although that’s not always easy.  You are trying to focus on what worked and what didn’t, you are definitely not trying to set yourself up as your own personal punchbag, there’s just no point.  But as a soloist there is generally no one else to blame but yourself when things don’t go as you imagined, using that information to develop yourself as a performer becomes absolutely key.  When you bomb, your notebook fills up quickly—the upshot being, with the right mindset, those times when you just didn’t seem to hit the collective spot give you the most information to improve.  I’ve got a lot of notebooks at this point.

The challenge is figuring out how you are going to handle all of the elements which make the performance (yourself, your instrument, and that piece you’ve been spending all that time cultivating) and deliver it to that roomful of strangers – who as we have learned may or may not actually want to be there.  That takes real work.  Listen to any successful comedian in an interview and you hear them explain how long it takes them to build a strong set on stage.  In fact, I think they often times explain it more clearly than most stage artists do.  You’ll hear them talk about working out material in some small club in the middle of nowhere and they totally fall apart.  They will do this over and over but something miraculous begins to occur—they get better.  That’s what we’re all trying to do in this life, right?  Get better.  The best, or should I say most humbling, part of building this skill set is that it never stops.  You never finish improving and in order to keep getting better you will find yourself playing in the weirdest situations you could ever (or should I say never) imagine.  That’s not to say it’s bad.  I’m just here to tell you, in my experience, that the pendulum has a wide swing.

I was having dinner with friends recently (tiny baby was asleep) and rehashed a story of performing a recital in NYC and finding myself the following weekend playing Bach on a golf course at a wedding ceremony where the bride was nearly taken out by a stray ball. Thankfully bride, groom and guests all had a chance to dive to the ground upon hearing the nearby golfer yell, “Oh, sh*t!”  Surprisingly, the music did not stop as both guitarist and composer would not be deterred by the errant swing of the would-be Arnold Palmer.

It occurred to me as I swabbed down the decks and made myself laugh again as I remembered the faces of the wedding guests as the ball flew through, that there is an extended process behind every players journey and you really only get to see the end result.  No one at the wedding knew or cared that I had been somewhere more musically important days before, my presence fulfilled their sonic needs and, I must admit my monetary ones.  So audiences never get to see the daily ups and downs of building a concert career, but you as a player must use every experience in front of people or indeed the back 9 as an opportunity to grow.  We, myself included, see a snap shot of each performer—that day, that moment, that piece.  Did it sound good or didn’t it?  Did you want to hear more or did you want to move on?  The venue becomes irrelevant, your experience everything.

The second part of this roller coaster would be the unexpected surprises you have no control over: the venue, the audience, the travel that day, etc.  The conversation that opened this post could never have been planned.  The question is how do you handle it?  What do you do?  Plug on? Give up?  Call them out?  Give them the stink eye? For me, it becomes a question of focus.  You have to know that you’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea (just look at the comments people make about artists on YouTube) and while you’re maybe playing in a grocery store next to a rotisserie turkey (yep, done that one, too) someone will be enjoying what you are creating.  At the end of this process that’s what we’re all trying to do—connect with the listener.  Perhaps what’s most interesting about this musical ride is that you can make a connection with an audience anywhere, if you choose to, and that there isn’t a rule book as to what  or where is more or less important if you’ve brought someone asmall bit of sonic joy.  More on this next month as I’m about to put my money where my mouth is for all of you…