Monthly Archives: June 2012

Re-spec: Not Just an Aretha Franklin song

On May 15th this year, I bought my first video game in about 10 years, called Diablo III (tubadan#1436 for those of you who care).  Perhaps you’ve heard of it.  I’ve been playing the series since Diablo came out in my freshman year of college and this incarnation of the game is quite good.  If you haven’t played it before, it’s your standard fantasy action RPG all about killing demons and sealing pits of hell.  Which you’re either into or you’re not.

Regardless, one of the features of the game is that after you finish it and kill Diablo, you’re brought right back to the beginning of the game, but this time it’s much harder (in fact, it’s called Nightmare difficulty).  If you beat Nightmare, you’re taken to Hell difficulty.  Finally, if you beat Hell difficulty, you’re taken to Inferno difficulty.  They don’t mess around in Inferno.  You end up dying.  A lot.  Of course, you’re brought right back, but it can get really frustrating to keep dying over and over.

Aretha - Respec

R-E-S-P-E-C! Find out what it means to

Fortunately you’re given a series of skills that help you kill the bad guys.  Each of the 5 classes has 20-30 skills, each that reward a different play style.  A few there just take up space too, since they don’t do enough to help you.  You can only have 9 skills active at any given time, so you have to choose the ones that give you the best balance of offensive and defensive abilities.  Inevitably, when you get to Inferno, the skills that have served you so well over the past 3 difficulties stop being as effective.  That’s when you have to decided to abandon your old strategy and experiment to find a new one that will help you move forward.  This is called a “re-spec.”  I’ve already done it about 4 times, and each time, it takes some trial and error.  With time, though, you do much better than you did the first time around.

So today I was walking down the street stressing about various pieces in my life that I’m trying to integrate.  I have to keep my chops in good shape for the various tuba/sousaphone gigs I have coming up.  I have to prepare for my mixing and mastering session next week for my upcoming album (CD release 8/25 – Save the date!).  I have to find time to exercise and keep my diet healthy so I can keep my body in good shape.  I have to continue to nurture and develop the amazing relationship I’m in with my girlfriend.  Oh, and I have to go to work every day.

I’m able to do all these things now, but sometimes I feel like I’m falling behind or feeling too overwhelmed.  So as I’m thinking about these things, I start to think about Diablo III, and I’m sure you can see where I’m going from here: what if I could re-spec the various arenas of my life in the same way I change things in Diablo III.  I’m not so naive that I think they’re direct parallels, but I’m not so stuck in my ways that I see it as an impossibility.  Essentially, what I’d be doing is listing out all the things I want/need to do, and see if I can structure them in such a way that my time is more efficiently spent.  Maybe I could even eliminate some of the dead weight (no worries Katie, you made the cut!).

First I’d need to have an audit of my life and priorities so I can get a clear picture of where things are currently.  Once I list out my current schedules, interests, and priorities, I can see if they stack differently than they currently are.  As with Diablo III, it’s ok if things don’t line up perfectly at first.  I mean, as long as I’m able to do the absolute musts, missing out on certain activities for a little bit is ok.  I’m experimenting at this point.  Having that room to experiment makes it possible for me to not fall right back into the old way of doing things.  Since that’s what we’re used to, it’s so easy to do.

I’ve done this sort of work with practicing an instrument before too, and it can be really helpful. If you feel like you’re concentrating on too many factors, take everything out and start with the fundamentals.  In the case of tuba, that can mean going back to simple articulations, slurs, and centering of notes, instead of trying to keep track of the overwhelming number of factors it takes to play even a simple piece of music.  You’ll find that after you add them back piece by piece, and in a conscious order, your understanding of playing takes a fresh new approach that often works better than the old way you’ve always been doing things.

So never underestimate the power of stepping back, evaluating where you are, and changing your priorities, techniques, and approaches.  Whether you’re gearing up to kill the Lord of Terror, change your diet, or just rearrange the contents of you life, it’s an exciting and beneficial tool to use.  The more you can afford to re-examine, the more potential benefit you can find.

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The Triple Threat to Performing Music as a Career

Dan with a Sousaphone

This may or may not have been my outfit for the evening.

On a Sunday evening last fall, I had just finished playing a traditional jazz gig at a great bar.  I was getting ready to go home, when I remembered there was an open mic in the area.  Even though it was late on a “school night,” I was still feeling pretty pumped from my show, so I lugged my sousaphone down the street to play it in the open mic.  I hadn’t really prepared anything for it, but I was feeling up for improvising.  I ended up playing Summertime, a blues to which I sang between playing on the sousaphone, and Bad Romance, all of which went over well.

When I left, on my way back to the car, I saw a trumpet player playing on the corner.  As I was carrying a large silver sousaphone, I could hardly slink by, and he started asking me about the horn.  We started talking about being brass players and musicians, and he asked me about my gigging.  When I told him I was just starting with the sousaphone, I remember his telling me to just start putting things on the calendar, and pretty soon I’d be playing a lot of gigs.  When I got back to the car, I had a flash of insight: wouldn’t it be great if this were every night for me.  Or in other words, I’d love be a musician full-time.

For various reasons, it’s something I had put aside in my life.  Some of those reasons came from insecurity.  Besides the obvious mood-killer question “am I good enough,” I was concerned about my financial security.  I have a mortgage, a car, a cell phone, internet access, and a lifestyle I like.  Would making this life decision destroy all those things I worked so hard for?  Would I have to stop eating out?  Never go on vacation?  Move in with my parents?  Yikes!

Some of my reasoning was more about the person who I am.  I like teaching.  I like working with computers.  I like having diversity in my life.  Would I still be able to have all those fantastic things if I devoted much more time to music?

I didn’t have the answers to those questions.  So in search of them, I gathered my resources and spoke to several friends for whom music is their primary source of income.  I’m fortunate to have many friends who have successful music careers.  It was incredibly enlightening to see how musicians make this work.  However, this is where I encountered what I call the triple threat to performing music as a career.  Almost every person I spoke to fell into one or more of these three categories:

1. The Nest Egg

Several people I spoke to had a significant savings amassed before they decided to make music their career.  One person, who lives in a beautiful house in the country, began our interview with “just so you know, everything that you see here is leftover from when I was making a quarter million dollars per year.”  One person admitted that they relied on support from their wealthy family.  A few saved this money on their own from years of working a 9 to 5.

2. Bert and Earnie

Many of the people I spoke to had a partner and had merged finances.  Not only were they earning more collectively, but they were splitting their expenses.  Additionally, there were several couples in which one person got family health benefits for the other person.

3. Benefits?  What are they?

Finally, one person I spoke to had recently purchased a nice house and is sustaining a respectable music career.  I asked him how he managed, and he told me that he lived with his girlfriend, so they share the expenses. Additionally, his parents had helped him out with buying the house, though most of the money came from him.  When I asked him about how he afforded health insurance, his response was, “oh, I don’t have health insurance.”

These were all important to hear, though frustrating.  I did not have a quarter million dollar per year job at any point, and relying on the support of my family is not something I am interested in.  My partner and I are financially independent and don’t want to entwine finances or cohabitate (let alone get married).  Finally, doing without health insurance is not something I’m willing to gamble with.

If you’re an artist, how do you fit into this spectrum?  Have you found another way?  What works for you?

If you’re not an artist, do you have a similar conundrum in your work?  I have a feeling this is more universal than we might think at first.

I keep reminding myself I’m glimpsing several methods that are successful for different people.  I can take pieces of these and fit them into my own life, but I don’t have to use the entire template.  In fact, every person’s approach to music as a career is different, so following a template would probably not be successful for me.  That’s part of what’s so frustrating; there aren’t any other tuba/accordion/songwriter/toy piano artists out there to guide my path.  I have no illusions that working in the music industry is easy by any means.  It’s an interesting process to explore, though, and I’m enjoying getting to know it better, even if the outcome is murky.

You Were Set Up To Fail

Several years ago, I was contracted to teach an Excel class to a government agency.  It was to be for 20 students at a lab at their location.  20 students is a lot for a hands-on computer class, as I have to be aware of many people’s needs.  Their skill levels are rarely consistent, so I have to be advanced enough to not bore the higher skilled students, but patient enough to hand-hold the people with less experience.

Just as I was getting ready to start, a student came in who had several disabilities.  Her visual disability made it difficult to read her computer screen except for at a high resolution, and nearly impossible to see the screen I was projecting to.  Her motor disability made it difficult for her to type and use the mouse.  Her speech disability made it difficult for me to understand what she was saying.  What began as a challenging class for me to teach had become wholly overwhelming.   I did the best I could to get through the class, but I left feeling frazzled and exhausted.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

For a while after the class, I blamed myself for not being able to accommodate her needs.  If I had paid more attention in my “Teaching Special Learners” class, if I had more knowledge of how those disabilities could be worked with, if I had addressed it differently in the class; maybe then it would have gone smoothly.  I’m ashamed to say that there was also part of me that resented that she had been put in my class.  Fortunately, a conversation with a friend put a lot of those feelings of negativity to rest.  In fact, her answer was a simple one: You were set up to fail.

Essentially, she pointed out that I was brought into a classroom that did not have the capabilities to accommodate all of the students in the class.  The woman with the disabilities was employed at an organization that requires her to use Microsoft Excel.  Presumably at her desk, she had a set up that allowed her to use her computer (trackball mouse, large monitor, specialized keyboard).  Those same tools should have been available for her in the training lab.

The worst part is that I was not the only person set up to fail in this situation.  The woman with the disabilities was majorly set up to fail by not being given any of those resources.  The rest of the students in the class were set up to fail by placing them in a situation where they could not learn as efficiently as possible.

Just the other day, I accepted a gig playing New Orleans style brass band music.  The band leader sent me a list of tunes and asked which I knew, and I responded I knew about 15 of the 30 listed.  When I got there, the set list was filled with the ones I didn’t know, and I had to fake my way through it.  It was exhausting, frustrating, and more than a little demoralizing.

In fact, we all get set up to fail all the time.  When a public school teacher is given a class of 30 students with no aide; when a loved one grills you on whether you love them enough; when you aren’t given the resources to research and finish an important project; these are moments where you are put in an unfair position and expected to be successful.

So what can we do when we’re set up to fail?

1. Recognize the warning signs

As you become more experienced with a process, you gain an understanding of its flow.  When something out of the ordinary happens, it’s a red flag that I need to pay special attention to.  If someone were to ask me to set up a custom class for next week for 200 students, my ears perk up, and I know I need to find a way to break the class into small chunks.  I have learned to ask for charts and music samples when I’m playing with a new ensemble for the first time, and not to rely on their assurances that I can wing it.  When someone close to me starts using phrases that begin with “you always,” or “you never,” I know that a nonversation is about to happen.  So much of this happens in retrospect, but as you start to analyze previous situations, the warning signs become clearer.

2. Be prepared

Experience also brings knowledge of what it takes to prepare to avoid this kind of set up in the future.  In the computer lab I teach in, I have accessibility software installed on every machine and a trackball mouse ready, should someone with a disability be in one of my classes.  If you are overwhelmed with a lack of resources for a project, learn the parts of the process that you can safely skimp on without significantly degrading the overall quality.  In the relationship example above, I have a series of trigger words that my girlfriend and I have agreed to be aware of (“always,” “never,” “enough,” among others).  Having the right set of tools/skills on hand helps to avoid being set up to fail in the future.

3. Forgive yourself

Let’s say it has just happened.  Despite your best efforts at early detection and preparation, you’ve been set up to fail and the project is over.  It’s so easy to spiral into blame and guilt for letting this happen to you.  This is exactly what I did when I got finished the class with the disabled student.  I was shaken by the experience, but I have since then learned to accept that these types of things happen sometimes.  It’s ok that I didn’t know what I could have done to mitigate the situation; I’m a growing, learning, and evolving person.  It doesn’t mean I’m a bad or an irresponsible person.  As long as I can learn from the experience, my efforts were not in vain.  Make sure to be kind to yourself when you find yourself in an untenable situation.  Keep moving forward; the next time, you will be more ready.

We can’t completely eliminate being set up to fail from our lives.  However,  we can analyze it, prepare for it, and allow ourselves the luxury of making mistakes.  Most importantly, we can recognize the things we do in our own lives that set others up to fail, and try to find another way: a way in which we’re given tasks that fit the skills we possess and taught the skills needed to fulfill the tasks we’re assigned.

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