Monthly Archives: March 2013

If I Wasn’t Shy

When I tell people I perform under the name Neon and Shy, I often get a perplexed expression in response.  I’m often asked if there’s a second band member (one named “Neon” and one named “Shy”), and I have to explain that they are adjectives rather than names.  Inevitably, I get the response “I understand the neon part.  But you’re up there on the stage singing, bantering with the audience, and laughing; you’re not shy.”  It is seemingly difficult to reconcile public self-expression with introvertedness.  And yet, here we are.

He Man with a Mic

Check one two… I HAVE THE POWER

While I’m on stage, I’m buoyed by a combination of exhilaration, fearlessness, and the immense power of holding a microphone (seriously, watch children play with microphones; their demeanor transforms before your eyes).  Offstage, I’m much more timid.  Often the first thing I want to do after leaving the stage is hide in the green room by myself for a bit.  I appreciate the adulation when I get it although sometimes it’s uncomfortable to hear.  I’m often ready to become a “civilian” again.

Yesterday I went to see Carol Jantsch, Principle Tubist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, premiere a tuba concerto by Michael Daugherty with the Temple University Symphony Orchestra.  Her playing was absolutely gorgeous, and it was a real treat to hear her play.  Afterwards I met up with two tubist colleagues who suggested we go backstage and say hi.  Now, I had never met Carol before, despite our having friends in common and at least one major interest in common.  Upon arriving backstage, the too twobists I knew greeted her and offered congratulations.  I really wanted to give my compliments and introduce myself, but I couldn’t bring myself to.  Perhaps it was that she already had a crowd around her congratulating her and I wanted to give space.  Perhaps it was that her parents were there and I didn’t want to get in the way of the personal moment.  But the truth is I just felt too shy to introduce myself.  And sadly the moment passed.

Sometimes my shyness comes in the form of timidity.  Recently I was in the process of booking a new band of mine called Polkadelphia.  I was asked for a bio, and quickly whipped this together:

A tuba, trombone, trumpet, and accordion walked into a bar lamenting the lack of fresh approaches in the genre of polka.  Two rounds and one passionate conversation later, Polkadelphia was born.  Not your ordinary oompah band, Polkadelphia plays classic German brass band tunes with a modern flair, while also incorporating artists you never expected to hear, such as Radiohead, the Beatles, and the Muppet Show.  Whether rocking out at the local biergarden or strolling through the bustling tents at Oktoberfest they always bring the haus down!

I sent it out to the booker, but couldn’t avoid adding in a little postscript: “Let me know if this is too cheesy.”  About 10 minutes later I started regretting writing it.  Because if it was too cheesy, it wasn’t for this booker to determine.  It was for me as the author and bandleader to decide (and the people who read it and decided to come or not to come).  I felt like I had undermined my professionality by questioning my word choice and tone in front of the person who was hiring me.  I had gotten this far in the booking by exuding confidence in what I was doing.  I found myself wishing I had taken ownership of the situation.

It’s interesting, because the act of owning the moment is what allows me to be charismatic and, ahem, neon on the stage.  I’d love to be able to apply it to other area of my life less self-consciously.  When I spent time on the road touring, we used to do it all the time.  The band I toured with was excellent at bluffing their way to better gigs, better hotel rooms, and better food.

I’ll never forget the day we came upon a Panera that was about to open.  The night we got there, it was a special event just for family members of employees.  The idea was that the new employees could practice their cashiering and food preparation before they opened to the public.  So when we arrived, someone asked us at the door if we were a family member of an employee.  One quick yes later, and we were given $20 in credit to buy whatever we wanted.

That example might be pushing it a bit.  After all, I did feel bad about the deception of it.  I don’t want things that I don’t deserve.  However, am I someone who deserves the right to meet other pro tuba players?  Why not?  And do I have the right to describe my band the way I want to?  Of course!  It goes beyond “rights” too; it is a part of what makes me the unique person that I am.  I need to keep remembering that as I continue to delve into a career that requires me to put myself out there more and more.  It’s good for me to put a little more neon into the shy.


Why is the World in Love Again?

On Saturday night – after a delightful show with my double harp, tuba, and voice band the Wittchen Initiative – I had a long drive home from the concert venue.  I have not mastered the art of iPodding, so occasionally I’ll go through a stack of CDs and take a few into my car to listen to.  As I began my hour plus trek back to Philadelphia, I opened one of the CD cases only to find two CDs inside.  One was the album that was supposed to be there (the eponymous Lincoln), and the other was one from my more formative years: Flood by They Might Be Giants.

floodAs you probably know, I play the accordion and write songs of a quirky and intellectual nature.  So as you could probably figure out, I was deeply influenced by They Might Be Giants growing up.  Around the time I turned 13, I heard the album Lincoln (different Lincoln) for the first time, and was immediately hooked.  I thoroughly enjoyed the album and was delighted to finally have a band that I could identify with and call my own.   Soon afterwards, I heard Flood, which was their most popular album to date, featuring such hits as Istanbul (Not Constantinople), Particle Man, and Birdhouse in Your Soul.  Of course, being the sulky teenager I was, I immediately pulled a hipster move and showed my disdain for anyone who liked the album.  If you were REALLY into They Might Be Giants (as all 4 of my friends were), then you had to like their less commercial songs, not the ones that were played on Tiny Toons.  For that reason, it had been years since I had listened to Flood.

It’s always interesting when you knew an album or a song so intimately as a child and then you listen to it again with your adult ears.  While you remember the music on a subconscious level and even slip into hearing it just like you used to, you’re often able to pick out instruments in the arrangements or meanings in the lyrics that you didn’t consciously notice before.  So it was a treat to listen to Flood on my ride home.

This album was recorded back in TMBG’s pre-live band days, so with the exception of the accordion and guitar, a great deal of the instrumentation was electronic.  The bass is almost always a thunky and thwappy MIDI bass and the drums are mostly programmed drum tracks.  Additionally, they often toss in random sound effects for punctuation, such as a starting pistol in Lucky Ball and Chain, a car starting in Hearing Aid, and my personal favorite, a rhythmic cough in the drum hits in Hot Cha.  The cough may or may not be sampled (you can judge for yourself at the 53 second mark):

I was surprised to hear some fantastic performances on violin and trumpet by Mark Feldman and Frank London (respectively).  I mean, I had always heard them, but I hadn’t appreciated the level of skill required to make them sound good.  Mark Feldman has a blistering violin solo in Istanbul (Not Constantinople) with all kinds of bends and double stops.  Frank London’s trumpet is spot on and virtuosic.  They still use sampled trumpet in the song Hearing Aid, but Frank London absolutely kills it in the solo in Your Racist Friend.

Speaking of which, Your Racist Friend was amazing to hear after all these years because of how much the theme has resonated with me.  The song is about that moment when you can’t stand by anymore and just let the conversation take an offensive turn.  The chorus expresses that exasperation beautifully:

This is where the party ends
I can’t stand here listening
To you and your racist friend.

I know politics bore you
But I feel like a hypocrite talking
To you and your racist friend.

While I’ve known what the song is about for years, in the time since I first heard it at 13 to the present I’ve been put in that situation countless times.  The inner turmoil of wondering if you should just let it slide or if it’s time to speak up and say something is excruciating.  I love that this song was released in 1990, at a time when subtle (and not so subtle) racism was less challenged.  Even if it’s just a song about the fantasy of speaking up, it’s a brave statement to make at a time when not many people were making it.

Best part though: in a song about racism, there’s a blatant co-opting of south-of-the-border flavor in the form of a mariachi trumpet solo from out of nowhere.  Whether the irony is intentional or not, I think it’s brilliant.

Throughout, I was fascinated by the understated quality of John Linnell’s accordion playing.  There are plenty of times where he comes to the front, but in many songs the accordion is just playing chords low in the mix (such as in Whistling in the Dark, in which the accordion takes a back seat to the voice and bass drum).  It adds a small amount of texture without being overbearing.  In thinking of my own recording, listening to his playing made me less concerned with making sure there was something vibrant happening at every moment.

I also appreciated their use of triadic harmonies.  Most of their chord structures use triads and are played without extensions or suspensions.  The few exceptions to this rule are non-triads, but they’re still clear enough to pick out.  For example Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love cycles back and forth between an arpeggiated E major chord and a B-flat half diminished seven chord.  This kind of simplicity is very much ingrained in the way I write music as well.

So coming back to this album after years in hipsteresque exile was a real treat.  By the time I got home and the bizarre Road Movie to Berlin was finishing up (right after the extra bizarre self-titled) They Might Be Giants, I felt refreshed and somewhat vindicated.  I got a lot of flack from my friends in junior high school for preferring They Might Be Giants to such timeless artists as Aerosmith, Bel Biv Devoe, and Paula Abdul.  It was great to hear how relevant Flood still was with songs about racism (Your Racist Friend), mortal regret (Dead), overpopulation (Women and Men), sexism (Lucky Ball and Chain), and economics (Minimum Wage… HIAHHH!).  Musically and lyrically, it holds up after all these years.  If I ever find its original case, it will be back in rotation as a prominent part of my collection.

Arbitrary Rating: I give it 9 arbitrary symbols up!

9 symbols up

Spring Breaking Down

sousaphone at spring break

From left to right, Chubbs, El Poonhound, Beef, and Tuba Lard.

So you may have noticed that I’ve taken a few weeks off writing.  Well, I’ve been on Spring Break, catching the rays of Daytona Beach, spending my nights in a drunken haze of wet t-shirt contests and beer pong.  And today I’m going to tell you the lessons I’ve learned from my new bros Chubbs, Beef, and El Poonhound.

Ok, the truth is that I’ve been struggling to come up with things to write about.  The anxiety about not writing something “of quality” builds up for me, until I’m paralyzed by my own writing process.  Especially now that I’ve had some posts that I’m proud of, it can be disappointing to put something out that isn’t as strong.  Interestingly, this reminds me of the process of practicing, and a lesson I learned early on.

In 1994, I had my first private lesson on the tuba with Jay Krush of the Pennsylvania Ballet.  I had been playing for about 4 years, and had been quite successful at the local band and orchestra festivals, placing towards the top of the section each time.  I was ready to take my playing to the next level (whatever that meant), and Jay had been highly recommended.

As with just about any 15 year old, I had a lot of different activities on my plate.  I had taken some difficult classes in high school, I was playing in the marching band, and I was active in the theater group as well.  After the first few tuba lessons, Jay began to notice that I wasn’t practicing consistently, and he let me know that he noticed (in the kindest way possible).  I made some efforts to make time each day, with varying degrees of success.  At some point, probably because of how Jay was encouraging me to practice, something clicked for me.  I realized that the musicians I admired: Sam Pilafian, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman; all had devoted massive amounts of time towards practicing.  Nothing extraordinary there.  What really sunk in was that they didn’t go through years of practice and then one day just stop, after having achieved a certain level.  Their practice was a lifelong endeavor to improve and remain at the top of their game.

While this was inspiring in that I now had a more clear template for success, it was also disheartening to realize that even the best performers in the world have to dedicate their lives to practice and improvement.  In fact, they especially have to!  Now, I don’t have a problem with working hard to achieve goals, but the concept of an process without end can be daunting.  When this concept sunk in for me, I pulled myself together and started putting in the work.  Since then at certain times in my life, I have been able to devote more time to practice and improvement, and at others I have either not had the time, or not successfully utilized it.

Sometimes the knowledge of what it takes to be my best is my undoing.  I will recognize that I don’t have the time to work at being my best, and then I feel too demoralized to put forth the smallest effort.  After all, if I can’t be my best, why bother trying at all?  Not the healthiest attitude for sure, but it’s something that gnaws away at me from time to time.  And sometimes I don’t know how to get out of it.  Like right now with my blog, as well as with my music practice.

So how about I start the process right here and now.  Off the top of my head, here’s what I would tell a friend if they were experiencing the same problems:

1. Remember those other shades besides just black and white?

The choices I have as a performer/writer/person are not broken down into success versus lack of success.  That’s the way that joyless (and terrible) executives approach their problems.  There are a myriad of other flavors in this ice cream sundae.

How did you do?  	Completely successful	 	Not at all successful	   How did you do?  	Successful 	Not successful 	Pretty successful 	Successful is some ways, not in others 	Well, I had fun 	Define success, man 	I sure learned a lot 	With a few tweaks, it will work 	Need to check it out more 	I might be headed in the wrong direction 	I successfully learned what success is!

It is more realistic to approach my work as in the second column.

2. Break it down into small chunks

I don’t have to go from zero to one million when it comes to efficiency and quality.  In fact, it’s not even possible, barring extraordinary good luck.  Instead, I can focus on small pieces at a time.  For my blog, I can just start stockpiling ideas more efficiently.  Or I can tweak the narrative style.  When it comes to practicing, I can incrementally add time to my routine.  I can also shift what I’m adding in order to vary my practice experience.

3. Make work into play

When I choose a method for doing or learning, it’s not just to put myself on the well-beaten path to success.  There’s something to be said for writing and playing for the sake of writing and playing.  After all, isn’t that what drew us all towards the things we do in the first place?  Sometimes there’s an enjoyment of the process, but sometimes that enjoyment needs to be cultivated.  I need to make the time to discover the many facets of my creative process, and to rekindle the abstract joy I encountered in the first place.

So hopefully I’ll be back here same time next week putting into practice what I’ve explored today.  After all, discovering how and what I want to write about and exploring the process of learning and constant improvement has to be at least as exciting as a wet t-shirt contest at Señor Sousa’s, right?  Right?

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