Monthly Archives: October 2012

Let It Be Known

A few weeks ago, whilst in beautiful San Francisco (ok, it was raining), I wrote a post about the flood of ideas that I get while on vacation and how I want to capitalize upon them.  The logical progression would be to follow up on that post and write about what I’ve done with those ideas so far.  But this is my blog, and tangents in strange and exotic directions are commonplace.  Today, I’d like to talk about the idea of putting those ideas out there in the first place and making them known in their half-baked state.

See, I am usually very secretive about the projects I’m cultivating.  Once they get to a certain point, I’m all about letting as many people know as possible, but until that point, I keep everything under wraps.  I have multiple reasons for keeping my (Magic) cards close to my chest.  I often want to let the idea stew and take on more form before I let anyone know about it.  I want to make sure it’s a good idea that I can follow through with; otherwise I fear coming across as flaky.  We all know that person who has read one too many books on business success and has decided that every idea they come up with is pure genius.  I don’t want to be “that guy.”  Finally, I want to make sure it’s a good idea in the abstract; does it pass my arbitrary quality test?

To some extent, these are all important considerations, but they can really slow the process of coming up with and unveiling new ideas, which brings me to where I am today.  I have a lot of projects that are in the works that I am really scared to let anyone know about, because I’m not sure where they’ll lead, I’m not sure if I can follow through with them, and I’m not sure if they’re “good enough.”  The worst part is, part of the reason I’m uncertain of these things is because I won’t let the ideas see the light of day.  Perhaps if I let it be known what I’m working on, I could quickly assess the interest in what I’m planning, and let it flourish or let it die.

So enough abstract; let me give you an example.  For the last 6 months or so, I’ve been working with Mike Ketner from Departure Consulting to work on my entrepreneurial skills.  Quite a few of the ideas I have showcased since last May (including this here blog) have come from sessions with Mike.  In coming up with ways to utilize my talents, Mike suggested I offer songwriting classes.  After all, education is a big part of what I do.  So is music.  And I have a songwriting style that tries to be different.  So combining them is a potential income stream that occupies a niche market, while being something I am passionate about.

Each time after Mike would mention it, I would be flooded with self-doubt.  On Facebook, I’m friends with a slew of songwriters at various stages of success.  The idea of letting them know that I was offering to teach people how to approach songwriting struck me as arrogant.  What makes me any more qualified than anyone else to tell someone how to write songs?  If I offered these classes/lessons and they went nowhere, I thought that would prove to my contemporaries that I am not good enough to accomplish this project.  In turn, that might mean that I’m actually not that good of a songwriter.  Better that I should keep it quiet until I had some success with it.

Teddy Roosevelt

Well, Ted, your “e” vowel placement seems ok, but think you might have too much tension in your double chins to support your tone.

I’m sure you can see the issue with this approach.  If I kept it quiet, I was guaranteed failure, since it would be significantly harder to let people know what I was offering when I didn’t tell anyone about it.  Under the light of reason, I can see that these self-doubts were filled with false dichotomies (either I’m a good songwriter and can be successful teaching songwriting, or I’m a bad songwriter and cannot run these classes).  As with any good idea, I have to expose it to the world and see where it goes.  If I wait for it to crystallize perfectly, it will never happen.  As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Even when we’re not talking about direct promotion, it’s important to put what you’re doing out there.  My policy for promoting my shows at this point has been to post the shows where I’m playing solo and usually not to bother when I’m just playing as a part of the band.  In addition to being potentially disrespectful the the bands I’m playing with, this also doesn’t always serve me best.  I constantly see musicians I know posting their projects on Facebook.  If someone were to call me and ask if I knew a reggae trumpet player, a harpist who doubles on piano, or a killer pastry chef in Mt. Airy, names instantly spring to mind.  By letting people know about my projects, I will similarly place myself on the end of people’s tongues.  Oh, I, er… you know what I mean.

So for those reasons, I will be endeavoring to make my goals and projects better known.  It’s true, I do run the risk of becoming the aforementioned “that guy,” who posts all these crazy ideas that don’t necessarily go anywhere.  But more significantly, I might become the “that guy” who takes risks and is proud of his achievements.  It’s totally fine for me to be that guy, because for better and worse, “that guy” is really me.

State of the Blog – The Ultimate Metapost

Kudzu and Sousaphone

For the three people who will find this amusing… you’re welcome.

My empire of projects grows ever more abundant, like fine kudzu on the side of the road in Tennessee.  If you’ve never been down south, kudzu kills other plants by covering them and blocking out the light.  The vast fields of the creeping vine are quite a remarkable sight, as dangerous as it is for the surrounding vegetation.

When I began this blog, I really didn’t have much of a purpose for it, other than to express and explore the multitude of ideas that were swirling in my head.  I found the connections among the various facets of my life somewhere between amusing and inspiring, and I wanted a medium to showcase what I had learned.  There are so many pieces of information that took me many hard years to grasp.  I would have liked a helping hand to guide me through the process and reassure me that the uncertainty I felt was ok.  Maybe this blog is a message to my younger self from the mentor I never had.

Wah wah waaaaaaahhh…

I also did know one thing I did not want my blog to become.  To me there’s nothing sadder than a blog with the last post six months ago, swearing that the author will keep up with it from now on.  I set myself a fairly rigorous schedule of two posts per week, and with few exceptions, I’ve kept up with it.

At this point, I’m still enjoying exploring new ways of connecting disparate concepts.  Sometimes I start out completely unsure as to the direction I’m going to go, and suddenly I have 1000 words about something completely unexpected and meaningful.  And other times I stare at the screen and find something to put off my having to write, while the kudzu steadily creeps over me.

I’m very scared of burning myself out in any of the projects I do; I’ve been there, and it’s a terrible place to be.  With that in mind, I’ll be posting once per week from here on out.  I’m choosing Monday, as it’s the day with the most “M’s” at the beginning.

In any case, to those of you who have been following along with this grand experiment, thanks so much for being a part of it.

I’ll leave you with some statistics and random information:

  • At press time, my blog has 1903 views.
  • I get an average of 12 viewers per day.  On the days I post, it’s closer to 30, and on the days right before the next post, it’s closer to 1.
  • My most popular post, with 163 views was Unkind, Unproductive, and Certainly Not Educational, which was about the worst audition of my life and how performance can conflict with education.
  • My least popular post, with 8 views was Dan Nosheny is Neon and Shy, my inaugural entry.
  • My favorite entry is probably Patton Oswalt’s Keynote Address and Why It Matters to Everyone, which is about how we all have the opportunity to build our own success.
  • The most comments on my blog is are from…me!
  • The second most comments are a tie between my mom and my friend Bryce.
  • I tend to get the most responses from my entries about education, usually from my teacher friends.
  • I tend to get the most “likes” from my entries about food, usually from people I have never met.
  • I tend to write the most about music, because well, that’s what’s on my mind.
  • My favorite part of writing the blog is figuring out what picture I’ll use for it.  Usually, it’s a ridiculous Photoshop montage I put together.  Sometimes I spend about as much time making the picture as I spend writing the blog.
  • I still don’t quite know what the number next to the Facebook symbol at the bottom of each post means.  It’s not the number of likes, not the number of shares, and not the number of comments.  Someone will inevitably point it out to me and I will feel stupid.
  • I read every spam comment.  So far only 2 have been erroneously placed there.  The rest are anything from a list of links to a hilarious nigerian-email-scheme grammar frenzy.
  • I try to respond to every comment unless I’d just be getting the last word.
  • I have barely sold any t-shirts since I had a run on them at my first show with them.

Make It Through the Gig Like Your Life Depends On It

For a solid year and a half, I’ve been playing a ton of traditional jazz with a variety of different groups.  Most times I just show up, I’m handed a few loosely scribbled charts, and away we go.  The charts typically have the chords on them and that’s it.  Occasionally I’ll get one with a melody, but it’s not usually necessary, partially because I rarely play the melody, and partially because the song/arrangement is simple enough that I don’t need to see it.  Very rarely, I’ll have a fully written chart, and usually that’s just a guideline of what I should be playing anyway.

Last night I had my first gig with a the Ben Mauger Orchestra at the Constitution Center for the Bootleggers Ball.  Unlike the usual ragtag and loose bands I play with (and please understand, I do not mean that derogatorily at all!), these guys were reading detailed arrangements written out on sheet music.  The last time I played in a large ensemble with written-out charts was probably about a year ago, and that was with an orchestra.  As soon as I realized what the situation was, I knew I’d have to change my game plan a bit.

SPOILER ALERT: The night went swimmingly.

The band was really solid, and I was able to blend in with their sound while adding my own signature to it.  I’m hoping to get asked back to play again, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.  What allowed me to be successful in the gig was the culmination of years of experience performing with and learning from professionals.  I’d like to share the skills that made it possible for me, and where they come from.  If you’re a seasoned professional, you know a lot of these already, but it’s good to identify them and reinforce them from time to time.  And if you’re not a professional, well, here are some steps to make you a professional.  So let’s start at the beginning.

Show Up On Time!

I went into detail about this in one of my first posts, so I won’t do it too much more here.  But err on the side of early, even if it’s way early.  That way when your car breaks down in traffic on your way to the train that was cancelled, you might still get there before the baton drops.  Also, you get to see what you’ll be playing, where you’ll be sitting, who you’ll be sitting with, where the bathroom is, where the free drinks are, who is going to validate your parking, and how to escape if all goes wrong.  I left an hour in advance to give time to catch the train and subway, and I arrived about 30 minutes early.  We then started later than advertised.  It doesn’t matter.  Get there with plenty of time to spare.

Watch the Roadmap

Sightreading Sample

Sightread this!

In one of my more memorable tuba lessons with Don Harry at Eastman, he described the process for sightreading in an orchestral audition.  His description was something like this: “You’re called out on stage.  Make your way to the chair where a stand is waiting.  At this point, one of the audition committee members is going to start going through their paperwork to make sure everything is in order, and they may say a few cursory things to each other.  But you’re ignoring everything the entire time.  You’re just looking at the sightreading they left on the stand, studying it for key signature changes, repeats, tempo, tricky spots.  Those extra 20 seconds can give you an edge over the people who aren’t paying attention.”

Before each song last night, as the rest of the band was changing the music on their stands and the band leader was giving instructions for the solos, I was deep in concentration.  I was figuring out the tempo (often quite a feat… what does “Slow Foxtrot” mean?), checking for key changes, watching for harder spots, and looking for repeats, segni, and codas.  That helped to eliminate most of the embarrassing pitfalls I could have fallen into (crap, we’re in Db major now!).  Learn to scan for those important pieces in advance.

Know How Most Roadmaps Are Structured

This one comes with experience, but if you know the typical structure of the songs in a genre, then you can fill in the gaps when you’re overwhelmed.  Let’s take for example a song I played last night, Burnin’ the Iceberg:

Great fun song… with a very challenging tuba part.  And I’ll be honest, I did not play it note for note last night.  I did, however recognize the form of the song and fill in the difficult lines with something similar, but playable on the spot.  The end result was that the flow on the song was uninterrupted, and only those who were intimate with my part might have known the difference.  By knowing the sousaphone’s role in the band, I knew what I could and couldn’t omit, and what I needed to replace parts with.

This was also a handy tool when I came across some errors in my part.  I was able to quickly hear the error and correct the part in subsequent passes through the song.  For this, I’m always reminded of my freshman music theory teacher, Norman Carey.  In one of our first classes, he told us that theory was important to know not just for abstract concerns, but in practice.  To demonstrate, he started playing a Beethovenesque sonata on the piano leading to a cadence (a resolution back to the home key of the music).  Right before he got to the very last note, the resolution, of the cadence, he stopped, turned the page on the music stand, and then played the last note.  His point is that we should know that a cadence is coming from the context of the music around it, not just because it’s written on the page.

Again, we improve in this area mostly from experience, but it’s a good concept to be familiar with.  It all begins with listening to what’s happening around you.

Keep Going!

Did you just lose a measure back there because of a tough part?  Keep playing!  Keep an eye on when the measure changes!  Play a bunch of notes in rhythm!  Play the root of the chord in whole notes!  Just.  Don’t.  Stop!

Be Humble, Generous, and Gracious

Christian Bale with Trumpet

F**k sake, man, you’re an amateur.

Despite the multitude of sociopaths in the media today, in these types of gigs your job is to blend in with the ensemble.  Don’t stand out with outrageous egotistical performances.  A former bandmate of mine made a point of turning his trumpet solo into a screamfest every chance he could.

Former bandmate.

Compliment your bandmates on their performances.  If someone just nailed it, let them know then or at the break that you liked it.  Musically, stay out of their way when they’re in the spotlight.

Finally, thank the band for having you.  Let them know you appreciate their asking you to join them and that you had a good time (unless, of course, you didn’t.  File that one under bad gigs).

As musicians, our livelihood depends on being a reliable, quality performer.  I often make the mistake of equating “quality” with “perfect.” Regardless of whether perfection is an attainable state, it doesn’t really matter.  I am who I am at this moment, with my skills, talents, and intuition in their present state.  It is with these tools that I am able to succeed, improve, and live to see another day.

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