Monthly Archives: December 2013

2013 – A Statistics Odyssey

Once again we come to the arbitrary demarcation of the beginning/end of the year.  This may sound like some sort of zealously charged statement about how humans overly segment time, but really I just was looking for a more interesting way to say “happy new year!”  Maybe I should have just said it.

What a year it has been for me!  I started out in January using extra vacation time to experiment with doing music full time.  Now in December, every day is an experiment-in-progress of doing music full time, and I can’t even remember what “vacation time” is.  I’ve had the pleasure (and the requirement) of developing my business skills as a musician, a band leader, a promoter, and a booking agent.  I played with a variety of bands I never played with before, and made a few new bands of my own.  And I fell short in a number of ways that I continue to attempt to remedy.  Such is everything.

So without further ado, here are my accomplishments for the year, broken down by category.

Musical

111 gigs
23 distinct music groups
11 new groups
2 groups I formed or co-formed
19 days of busking in the train station
1 incredibly lucrative October (thanks Polkadelphia!)
5 Sound Decisions podcasts

Unmusical

1 job I left
2 websites designed and built (here and here!)
2 CD layouts designed

Blog

2104 views (minus anyone reading this post)
37 posts
Most popular post: Connecting the Dots (La la la la)
Least popular post: A Curious Mind
Favorite post: Everyone Maeks Mistakes

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to cook some Serbian food for my upcoming New Years Eve show with the West Philadelphia Orchestra.  I hate to cut it short, but there are only so many hours in the day (that I’m devoting to blogging).  Stay tuned for next year when:

A new Neon and Shy cd gets released!

A new band gets formed!

A new kind of cookie gets baked!

I get off the computer and start my day!

Happy New Year everyone.  Onward and upward.  Up and at them!

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Everyone Maeks Mistakes

Slowly I’ve been gathering the accoutrements of a comfortable and inviting practice space.  I started by clearing the seldom-used guest bed out of my spare room to make space for a chair by the window.  I moved a mirror into the space so I can see how adorable I look at all times.  Ok, and so I could watch my posture and embouchure.  Then after I found myself avoiding the space in mid-November, I invested in a space heater to toastify the room on cold days.  Now it might be my favorite room in the house!

I still have at least one more item that maybe, just maybe, Santa Claus could bring me.

Chair

This chair is so great, I don’t even need to Photoshop anything on it.

That there is a Wenger Music Posture Chair with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.  It is the Cadillac of orchestral chairs, with luxurious padding and upholstery on a sturdy steel frame.  It promotes good posture, healthy breathing, and proper support.  It would be so much nicer than the rickety piece of junk wooden chair I’m currently using.

But I digress.  My point here is that I’m making my practice room better, and consequently finding more time to practice tuba.  While I’ve played quite a lot over the past few years, finding time and motivation to sit down and study how I’m playing has been quite difficult.  Even now, the motivation isn’t always at 100%, but I’m trying to be consistent and conscientious about it.

However, in addition to uncomfortable furniture and cold rooms,  practice is laden with more sinister pitfalls:  Philosophical traps in the form of paradoxes and Catch-22’s.

Let’s talk paradoxes first.  We’ll keep it simple with one of Zeno’s paradox, the Dichotomy paradox:

That which is in locomotion must arrive at the half-way stage before it arrives at the goal.

The principle behind this paradox is that before any action can be completed, an infinite number of sub-tasks must first be completed.  Since it is impossible to do an infinite number of tasks, no action can be completed.  For example, if I’m sitting in my uncomfortable wooden chair and I want to pick up my tuba that is sitting beside me, I must first lift it halfway.  Before I can lift it halfway, I must lift it a quarter of the way.  Before I can lift it a quarter of the way, I must lift it an eighth of the way.  Before I can lift it an eighth of the way… you get the idea.

Fortunately for me (and to the dismay of Zeno), I have successfully lifted the tuba into my lap without incident.  So far so good.  Where I run into trouble is the mental paradox.

Often while practicing an etude, I find that there are elements of my playing that are not as good as I want them to be.  In even a simple etude, there are so many factors to consider.  There’s the pitch I’m playing, the articulation I use, the breath support, the intonation of the pitch, the volume of the pitch, the articulation of one note into the next, the shape of the phrase, the point at which I need to breathe, the message I’m trying to convey.

Before the etude can be mastered, I first have to perfect each of these elements.  If there’s an element out of place, I have to strip it to its fundamental core and focus on the cause of that element.  And if that sub-element isn’t quite right, I have to take it down to the next level.  Over and over I dig deeper and deeper, until I’m focusing on a component far removed from the etude I’m working on.  Then I work myself back up the chain and move to the next part that needs to be fixed.  Assuming I dig myself out of that great black hole, I have to then combine what I have learned with the next element to be mastered.

All the while this is happening, I’m honing in on such tiny pieces that I sometimes feel like I’m not even playing music anymore.  Once I realize this, much of the joy of playing drains out of the act of practicing, making it that much more difficult to keep morale up and continue working.  As with Zeno’s paradox, it feels like I’m not actually moving anywhere.

Now let’s talk about the Catch-22.  Because this brings up one of those fundamental parts of practice that keeps me awake at night.  It involves the dreaded “mistake.”

I do consider myself an accomplished performer, and the fact that I stay steadily employed as a musician seems to support that.  Regardless, I make plenty of mistakes.  Whether it’s a wrong note, a wrong rhythm, or a flubbed tone, it pecks away at my self-confidence.

Everyone makes mistakes.

I’ve heard it countless times before, and it’s both vaguely relieving and acutely distressing.  While it speaks to my need for empathy when I err, it doesn’t speak to my desire to improve and not make as many mistakes.  So how do we stop making as many mistakes?

Practice.

Yes, but practice what?  I already know that mindless practice produces useless results.  I also know that practice is very much about habit, in that we learn what we repeat whether that’s good or bad.  So if I find myself making mistakes while practicing, am I just reinforcing these negative habits?

Well then, I’ll not make mistakes while practicing!  That should solve the problem, since I’ll be reinforcing something positive instead.  But here’s the problem.  If I could omit the mistakes in my playing while practicing, wouldn’t I already be doing that?  Isn’t the problem in the first place that I can’t stop making mistakes?  I mean, maybe I’m not trying in the right way, but how do you learn the right way?

Therein resides the Catch-22:  If my playing includes mistakes and I practice to correct it, I will necessarily be making mistakes while practicing, thus reinforcing the mistakes.  On the flip side, if I am able to practice not making mistakes, why am I making mistakes in the first place?

Ok… deep breath.  Let’s look at that chair again.

Chair

You had me at steel-framed!

While I don’t have a solution outright, let’s get to the mitigating factors.  Zeno’s paradox is more an exercise of the mind than a reality.  As stated before, I am able to get my tuba into my lap during every practice, despite the “infinite sub-tasks” required to do so.  Likewise, I don’t think I really need to break every musical element down into its fundamental subatomic particles.  Taking a top-down approach is also a way to escape the labyrinth: sometimes focusing on the musicality of an etude can do so much more than thinking of every technical aspect.

The Catch-22 has a few mitigating factors too.  I’m using rather rigid definitions of “practice” and “mistake.”  There are plenty of approaches that do not reinforce the making of mistakes.  These approaches involve a devotion to the practice and diligent attention paid to everything I’m doing.  In this way, I stay alert as mistakes happen and mentally register them instead of glossing over them.

Also, as I play my instrument more and more, my overall comfort level with the horn increases.  This means that as I consciously improve, I’m also unconsciously improving.  And sometimes even when I’m not consciously improving, I am still unconsciously improving.

I struggle with these issues every day I pick up the tuba.  On a good day, they’re nagging thoughts in the back of my mind.  On a not-so-good day, I just want to throw the thing out the window.  Sometimes I cut my session short to avoid the frustration, and sometimes I can work through it.  I’m still learning when each of these approaches works best.

So perhaps now you can understand why I need so many incentives to lock myself in my practice room.  A few minutes of space heater induced coziness is a nice consolation for tackling some of the heaviest philosophical challenges that one twisted mind can come up with.  And who knows; with just the right piece of furniture, maybe I’ll be able to put these impossible challenges behind me for good.

Extinguishing Audience Burnout

With the work I’ve been doing playing tons of instruments in different ensembles, I’ve noticed there’s an area I’ve put on the back burner.  That would be Neon and Shy, my solo songwriting project.  This year I’ve only played about 6 or 7 solo shows, which is much fewer than last year when I had about 2 shows per month.  The clearest reason for why this has dropped off quite a bit is a financial one.  While playing singer-songwriter shows, it is very difficult to make any money.  Playing an instrument in a band is much more lucrative.

Being inquisitive, I got to wondering whether that’s just the nature of the business or how I have been handling my business.  I think there’s something to be said for both.  Bars, coffee houses, and other venues for smaller original performers are just accustomed to paying very little, if at all for their live music.  And yet, I’ve found ways in which I was complicit in hurting my bottom line as well.  One big issue I discovered was my contribution to audience burnout.

In my attempts to get as much exposure as possible, I booked myself wherever I could.  Some of these venues were not conducive to listening to music (or having good food, drinking good beer, or frankly, having a good time).  Some of these venues had sub-par sound systems.  Some of these venues charged an extraordinary amount for the audience to see the music.  Some were very far away.  Some had unrealistic models for how the performers could be compensated.

And some of these venues had every one of these problems.

As a performer and as a marketer, I would try to get as many people as possible out to these shows.  The typical way for a beginner in the industry to get people out is to use the friends and family approach.  I would broadcast invitations to as many of the people in my life as I could reach and ask them to come out.  And for the first few months, a lot of them did.  Over time, though, the flow slowed to a trickle.

While my material is rather eclectic, I don’t think the quality or style was what turned my fans away.  I think it was the invitations I would send to shows that I myself wouldn’t have gone to if I hadn’t been booked there.  Eventually I realized I was becoming embarrassed to ask people to come out to a show that I knew would not meet my standards for a fun night out.

Around this time my tuba gigging life got a lot fuller, so I put the Neon and Shy shows on the back burner and focused on playing more paying gigs.  During that time, I came to terms with the fact that I was playing unfun shows, and decided to take a different approach.

Realistic charge for entry

I had played too many shows where my fans had to pay $12 to see me play for a half hour.  Unless I was wildly in love with the performer, that would be a hard pill to swallow.  And if I were wildly in love I would do it… once.  So I thought about what I’d be willing to pay to see the same amazing performer multiple times, and that cost for me is between $0 and $5.  Once I start making the Top 40 list, we can start to bump it up, but until then it’s too easy for a fan to feel cheated by paying too much.

A word about earnings

I also realized that sometimes I’d bring about 10 people to a show of mine and earn nothing for the effort.  One of my favorite places to play in Philadelphia is the Dawson Street Pub, and the reason is how fair they are about payment (ok, it’s also got the nicest people, the best beer, the most off the hook fries, and the best vibe).  I’ve played shows there where the band I was playing packed the place, and we would earn several hundred dollars as our cut.  I’ve play shows where I was able to bring in about 5 people on a weeknight, and I’d earn several dollars as my cut.  I don’t ask for something unrealistic when there isn’t a built-in crowd, but I should at least get something for my effort.

I’ve found, though, that the audience is afforded a special privilege when they are solely responsible for the performer’s payment.  Yes, I’m talking about playing for tips.

Amanda Palmer has an interesting TED talk on the subject if you haven’t seen it.  The essential idea is that allowing the audience to determine what and how to pay the artist allows for a more intimate connection, and one that’s hard to develop otherwise.  The professional musician in me bristles a bit at the idea, as we are constantly struggling to convince people that we deserve to be paid for the talents we have honed for so long.  I can’t deny, though, that playing for tips has a surprising quality of sincerity.  I’ve seen in at shows at certain venues, when I’ve made far more than the venue would have paid me.  I’ve seen it in the subway station both from the people who smile when they see me play and from the tweets I’ll see afterwards:

twit

A special connection

There are shows we remember for the genius of the talent that is performing.  These shows are rare and precious, and I’m still striving to get my quality up to that level (I think I’ll always be).  There are also shows we remember for the connections the audience has made with the performer.  I think of Michael Franti coming out into the audience after the show to hug his fans or They Might Be Giants with their audience participation in improvised songs about the Planet of the Apes.  These moments are increasingly rare in popular music, and I think they have an important role.  So I’ve been trying to foster these connections and come up with ways to draw in the audience beyond words and music.

I have a few songs in which I hand instruments out to the audience and conduct them through a song while I sing it.  I’ve had the audience provide sound effects for my music as well.  I think one of my most popular shows ever was the one in which I had a 20 minute set and attempted to perform 20 songs in 20 minutes.

Lately I’ve been thinking about ways to connect with an audience merely through the art of songwriting.  Often as a songwriter, the appeal of the song comes from the way the listener can relate to it.  There can be a tendency to cast a wider net to ensnare more listeners, but it’s really hard to do that while crafting an interesting and unique piece of art.  So I’ve started casting a much smaller, narrower net with the idea in mind that I’ll catch the ears of fewer listeners, but those I do catch will take in the song as a more personal experience.

Playing at Chemical Heritage Foundation

The first three rows will get scienced on!

I’ve started writing songs that appeal to my fringe geek cultural roots and need for analysis.  I wrote a song called Level One to Level Two about the tropes roleplay games such as Dungeons and Dragons and Kobolds Ate My Baby.  I’ve been writing songs about prime numbers and obscure video games, and grammar.  While I know that there will be people who just don’t understand it, I’m hoping for a few “FINALLY” moments from the people who do.  I just premiered some of them at a special show at a museum in town, the Chemical Heritage Foundation, to great success.  By the way, that was a free show with free cookies and cider.  Everyone came away happy.

Ultimately, I learned the importance of empathizing with my audience and merging my artistic leanings with their needs and interests.  As with everything I do, this is an experiment that continues to evolve.

And if you’re free on December 28th, I’m playing at the incredibly cozy Zen Den Coffee in Doylestown.  The seats are comfortable, the staff is delightful, the snacks are lovely, and the sound is fantastic.  Hey, it’s a free show, but if you feel like giving some tips, I’d sure appreciate it.  Just remember who’s looking out for you.

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