Sunday, March 4, 2012

Time, Courage, and Conviction

Steve Bell recently wrote a compelling blog post on what a vocational singer-songwriter has to do to earn a living in today's music climate. Steve offers a lot of experience and insight to reflect upon, but I'll just focus my reflections on one aspect of his thoughts for this post.

My musical journey began at around age 14, on my older brother's mandolin. Another brother bought a guitar soon after, and I began learning that too. During an unanticipated gap year between high school and college, I played along with dozens of recordings by my favourite singer songwriters. (It's true - you can play till your fingers bleed.) I'd routinely spend 6-8 hours a day at the fretboards and in front of the stereo.

This was a rich time of learning. To this day, it feels like part of my brain resides in the fingers that memorized chords and licks that year. Later on, I played for nearly 20 years with a five piece acoustic band, stretching my original interests in bluegrass rhythm and flat-picking guitar to a tantalizing blend of celtic, blues, country, and folk. The pre-internet Backroads Band we eventually recorded two albums. (I remember my band shared the bill with Steve a few of times, but the details of the gigs are fuzzy.)

At that point in my life I had the time to devote to my craft, the courage to overcome stage fright and a lack of self-confidence, and the conviction of knowing I was doing something I loved.

What I didn't have was a belief that I could do what it would take to earn a living at it.That's what I admire about singer-songwriters who earn a living from their vocation. They have invested in themselves in ways that my choices did not allow. And they've made a lot of sacrifices for it.

My choice was a career path and the security of a steady income. There's many a day when I mourn that choice, just as vocational musicians, I'm sure, sometimes long for that dependable pay cheque and a predictable routine, especially when that mortgage or car payment is due.

As a singer-songwriter with a full time (and sometimes more than full time) alternate career, there just are not enough hours in the day to do what is needed to develop those song song writing chops to the degree I long for. Steve points out the investments he makes in his craft so that he can continue to do live performances and produce records:

  • practice regularly and spend time experimenting with techniques and musical ideas
  • keep your mind engaged and wrestling with new ideas (Steve says he typically reads 2-3 hours a day)
  • attend to poetry in order to be a good lyricist
  • stay on top of world events
  • sit and process what you've taken in
  • take charge of publicity and marketing - more necessary than ever in today's marketplace
  • fundraising

As a bi-vocational singer-songwriter, I have precious little space where time, creative energy, and inspiration collide. The infrequency of these blog posts is a testament to that. But I am pleased with my work when I feel it is finished - even if I can't invest in the craft in a way that churns out songs at a quicker rate.

Steve's song writing investment tips above resonate with what I need to produce lyrics and melodies. For now though, I and other bi-vocational song writers may need to accept a slower pace of production than we long for. 

In the meantime, hats off to the vocational songwriters who have made the sacrifices to work at their art. They've given the time and had the courage and conviction to make it work, and have made the world a better place for it.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Can You Over-rehearse?

Lots has been written about insufficient rehearsing. There are plenty of mus the topiicians who have performed a lot more than I have - but strangely I can find little information onc of over-rehearsal. So, here are a few things I've learned about myself and the problem of over-rehearsing, as a solo act:
  • Over-rehearsing can become an excuse for not rehearsing enough, as in "I don't want the emotion to be sucked out my performance." That's fertile ground for insufficient practice.
  • That last gig where everyone loved you and your self confidence went through the roof? Don't be lulled into a false sense of security and think you can rehearse less for the next gig.
  • Don't confuse over-rehearsing with proper preparation. Proper preparation means knowing your material cold so you can perform it with all its nuances - eyes closed. This is a huge challenge for musicians who must hold down a regular non-musical job while trying to find opportunities when time and energy for rehearsal, align.
  • Know what you're going to say to bridge from one tune to the next - but keep it short. This takes more preparation - and rehearsal - than you might think. Just as in songwriting, it's much easier to speak long than to focus on your message and speak short. Your audience came to hear your music, not a long winded explanation of how a particular song came to be, populated with plenty of "uhs" and "ums." If a song has a compelling story behind it, keep it compelling - and short. Otherwise, let the song do your story-telling work for you.
  • When you're rehearsing in your home, you likely have everything you need spread out around you: instruments, capos, picks, etc. But stages in live music venues are often small and crowded with mic stands, cables, and gear. Don't forget o rehearse instrument changes, inviting guest musicians to join you, etc. If it's a new-to-you venue, work out some "what-if" scenarios for you and your gear.
  • The only time I have felt over-rehearsed is when I have done a particular song so often that it's lost its appeal and passion in rehearsal and in performance. Give that song a rest for a while and come back to it when it feels fresh again. If it's a great song, it will feel fresh again.
  • Warming up off-stage just before your performance can be important but is not always necessary if you have your material down cold. I may or may not warm up before hand, depending on how comfortable I am with a particular venue/audience. Not practicing at all on the day of the gig can help keep me on my toes, keep my material fresh, and creates a sense of eagerness and anticipation that gets through to your audience.
So what do you think? Is there a point at which you can feel over-rehearsed?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Rhyming with Sammy Cahn

I've just read four-time Academy Award winner Sammy Cahn's book, The Songwriter's Rhyming Dictionary.

That may sound odd, until you know that the first quarter of this book is an introduction - actually a tutorial - on song writing from one of the greats. Sammy Cahn (1913 - 1993) wrote some of the most famous songs ever performed in Broadway musicals, in films, and by greats like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Doris Day. Can you say "royalties?" The short rhyming dictionary that follows the intro is true to his style of simplicity in language.

I've never considered myself a huge fan of musicals or any of the crooners from that era - but they did have a following that meant something to their audiences - big audiences. When it came to songwriting, Cahn knew what he was doing.

This slim 1983 tome, which is now in its ninth printing, has pure songwriting gold in its fifty or so introductory pages. Using concrete examples, explanations, and most importantly, his personal experience, Cahn lifts the lid off of a number of tried and true techniques that will never become outdated. He also demonstrates how and when exceptions to songwriting rules can really make a song memorable, articulates when, how, and why to break a rhyming pattern, and when and how to use made-up words.

Most interesting to me was the section entitled "The words must marry the music." The heart of a great song is in the emotional experience - how a song makes the listener feel. A lyric that makes intellectual sense and is clear about its message or story, but doesn't make the heart sing, just doesn't cut it for Cahn.

Cahn was a convicted, committed, hard working song writer. Example after example demonstrates how hard he and his co-writing partners would work to find just the right word or phrase. It's all packed into the first fifty introductory pages, but Cahn is so clear in his illustrations, that the book is worth the price even without the rhyming dictionary.