And The Beat Goes Off

Friends don’t let friends clap on one and three.  This we know.  The majority of musical theatre repertoire has a groove, or rhythmic pocket.  So does a lot of classical music; Bach preludes and fugues have a wonderful groove if you can find it.  It’s the sense of where the beat goes, and how we place the beats.  Even ballads and music with markings like espressivo molto rubato, still have a sense of timing.  Being expressive with the timing does not mean be arbitrary.

Too often we rush.  We rush the beat.  We rush the beat that we don’t always feel.   Feeling the downbeat is easy.  Feeling the off-beat is harder.  I learned a valuable lesson from a conductor once; if you’re playing a song with a beat pattern of four, try setting the metronome to two and four instead of one and three.  In fact, set the metronome to only beat on two and four, making the downbeat silent.

I was working on a song with this beat pattern.  Setting the metronome to click on the beats other than the downbeat enlightened me to how unsteady my timing was.  I wasn’t keeping a strict beat with my playing.  I’m not alone in this.  Even some of the best musicians I work with rush the beat.  We get bored, or lazy; we’re all human.  Feeling the back-beat is what helps keep us in time.

It’s easier if we are playing throughout a piece of music.  When there are rests between the notes we tend to rush them too.  Say if you’re only playing on beats one and three, that space between can be pushed.  When we feel the beats we don’t play as well as the ones we do play, the structure and steadiness of the music is secure.  And even audiences who don’t know the inner workings of music can feel this.

People love to clap along to music.  They sway with their favorite songs at rock concerts, and there is a pulse to their movement and their clapping. As I stated: we don’t let friends clap on one and three.  When we only focus on the strong beats we inevitably rush past the weaker beats and they become rushed.

After this lesson in a musical theatre setting, I took it to a Bach prelude.  I was playing the C-sharp major, Book I, which is in a three pattern.  I then set the metronome to the third beat, not the first.  Then I worked on the piece of music setting it on the second beat of the three.  It was like ironing a nice dress shirt; all the inaccuracies and hiccups in my tempo were brought out.  If I couldn’t keep the tempo steady with the click on the off beats, my tempos were not clean.

If you’re a musician struggling with time (and we all do at some point), focus on the off-beats.  It will steady everything.  And if you are doing something were it should rush or slow down, practice it steady anyway.  That way you’ll know where the give and take is in the music, and you’re not defaulting to just ‘feeling’ the music, rather you’re in control of when you choose to push and pull the tempo.

My Way

I talked to a friend recently who is recording his music.  We discussed the difficulties in writing and performing new works.  It’s tempting to try to second guess what will be popular and what will sell.  We anticipate what audiences will love.  When writing your own music, finding your voice is difficult.  Many writers walk a fine line of being themselves, but also being accessible to an audience.

If I could predict the future, I’d know exactly what people would want to hear.  My friend and I talked about the spectrum of writing styles, and what is popular and what is not.  We can drive ourselves crazy trying to write for the masses.  If you only write to please others, the writing can be overly simple or vanilla.  If you write to only please yourself, others may not be interested, or understand what it is you’re trying to say.  And this works for some writers.  But writers need to eat too.

As commercial artists we want to sell what we create.  We need to.  I also find writers and creative artists want to be like others, if they see a style or voice that is working for those other people.  George Gershwin went to Maurice Ravel asking for advice.  Ravel’s response to him was: “Why be a second-rate Ravel, when you’re a first-rate Gershwin?”

We must keep one ear to our own voice and one ear to the world outside.  It’s like walking a tightrope; for many artists, the challenge is in the balance of these two viewpoints.  After talking with my friend, this seemed to be where we arrived in the conversation.  Other artists I’ve talked with disagree, saying you only need to be true to yourself.  I agree.  Other artists only care about turning a profit.  I agree with that as well.

Maybe those two motivating forces don’t have to be in conflict.  There will always be a balance between the two.  I think about artists like Shakespeare, Mozart, Puccini, and Gershwin.  Artists who managed to find their audience and their own voice.  As creative artists we face this in our work; finding our own way in creating.  And it forces the question: what do you want to say?  How do you connect with the world?

My Strongest Suit

Always show your best.  Show what your best at and play to your strengths.  If you’re a student entering the professional world, the first impressions you make are so important to the people around you.  You don’t want to go in to a gig unprepared or uncomfortable.  You also don’t want to take a gig that isn’t your forte

When I was studying in school I had to play all kinds of music.  We should; it’s good to stretch and learn as much as you can.  As we get older and work in different areas in performance, we find where we are best suited.  I had to learn a lot of  repertoire that I might not perform in public.  But I learned it so the repertoire I do perform is stronger for it.

Teachers may have you study a variety of styles.  And while we work in the practice rooms on our weaknesses and technical inefficiencies, we go out in public with our best skill sets at hand.  I remember studying Mozart and Schumann, both composers I love and appreciate.  I may not be performing their concertos anytime soon, but the time I spent studying the repertoire was not wasted.  And as I go along my career, I can pick up a Mozart Sonata or a Schumann Song Cycle and work on aspects of my playing that might get neglected when I’m orchestrating or conducting.  Truth be told I do play more Schumann Lieder than I realize.

A fellow student was offered a concert.  It was repertoire he didn’t like, and he didn’t feel comfortable playing it.  Our teacher’s advice was don’t take the gig.  If you can afford to not take a gig you’re going to hate or be uncomfortable with, I agree.  We all have to eat, and take work to make money to live.

But her point is well made.  Say you take a gig and it falls apart.  It doesn’t go well because you don’t like the material and subsequently you perform it less than superbly.  It reflects poorly on you and your work.  That’s no good for anyone.

If you take the gig, really take the gig.  Invest in it, and respect it.  Respect those around you who might be more invested in it than you might be; there will be producers, directors and writers swarming around as you are preparing to perform.  If it’s not a gig you love, keep that to yourself.

Practice your weaknesses in private, play to your strengths in public.  Always play to your strongest suit.

All That’s Fit To Print

Words have power.  Written words can have legal consequences.  We all communicate with emails, texts, tweets, etc.  Once you click the ‘send’ button, whatever you wrote is gone forever, out into the world.  As communication becomes easier, I find it becomes easier for people to not truly mean what they say.

Mean what you say.  We have to stand behind the words we send into the world.  Often, the only thing other people have to base an opinion on you are your words.  How many jobs begin with an introductory email?  How many gigs are agreed upon in email?

I had an experience once where my words had a very impact on my work.  I was hiring a musician for a recording.  It did not go well and we parted ways.  This happens often; there are artistic disagreements, or styles that don’t go well together.  I had agreed to pay this musician in an email, prior to our disagreements.  I should have been more thorough in auditioning this player, or hearing more of his playing prior to hiring him.  Even though I used none of his recordings, I paid him for the work.  It was agreed upon in email.  As lawyers I talked to about it explained to me, emails can be legally binding.

As lessons go, it was a good one to learn.  I’ve since learned about the impact of words written in emails; if I take a gig without a contract, an email will suffice.  Rarely do I encounter a problem on gigs, but what is said in emails has weight.  Never write down anything you are not prepared to back up.

On a somewhat separate note, I’ve noticed a lack of email etiquette in general.   We can get upset and emotional, and spill all that energy in an email.  Don’t.  It’s like that angry letter you want to write to a loved one or family member.  Write it, but don’t send it.  In the heat of the moment we think we are getting back at those who’ve wronged us somehow, or proving ourselves.  It only weakens your position.

Always be factual in emails.  Give the information necessary in a dispassionate way.  People read into what’s written.  It’s so easy to give the wrong impression.  Think of what you write and ask yourself: is this something you would say to the person face to face?

Then I Thought About The Game

I try not to drop names or get too specific with individuals on the blogway.  I try to focus on the issues and highlight what is of interest.  That said, I will start off with a name.

I was playing cocktail music at the home of the late, great artist, Al Hirschfeld.  It was at his home on the East Side of Manhattan.  It was a beautiful residence, and the piano had been played on by pianists such as Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland to name a few.  Shoot, I named more names.  Sorry.

Anyway, I was young and in college.  There were all kinds of people talking about their second yacht, and their kids in boarding schools.  It was the perfect event to schmooze, and look at some fun caricatures.  And the art was lovely too.

It was a progressive dinner.  This was just the appetizer course.  I played through some show tunes, and some people talked to me.  But I also knew I was the background, which was perfectly fine with me.

As the hour of shrimp and finger food died down, a lovely lady asked me to dinner.  I was surprised and declined.  She asked again, and I didn’t feel I’d fit in or truly be a part of that crowd.  I left feeling I had graciously turned down an offer that was more obligatory than genuine.

My piano teacher was upset with me when I told her.  She made something very clear to me.

It’s a game.  We have to play the game, she explained.  As artists we are drawn to people who can support us, fund our endeavors and visions.  As patrons of the arts, those with means are drawn to artists who live the seemingly bohemian lifestyle.

My teacher went on to explain that we are exotic.  I’m a midwestern boy from Michigan, but exotic to people who do not live the artist’s life.  And that is most everyone.

If I had gone to the dinner party, I would have found myself in a room of people who would find what I do curious and interesting.  And perhaps not.  But that one lovely lady did ask me to dinner and I have no idea what would have happened.

Rookie mistake, I suppose.  I’ve since learned more about how to play the game.  I should say, however, calling it a ‘game’ may sound callous or trite; my teacher’s meaning and mine as well, is that we have to engage with others in social situations.  We have to network, and introduce ourselves.

It’s hard if you’re not he most out-going person.  I often would prefer to stay in and watch Netflix in my pajamas, but I can’t do that all the time.  We have to meet people who can introduce us to more people.

And above all, I think this has to all be accomplished with a certain amount of sensitivity and genuineness.  The last thing you want to do when you are networking, or playing the game, is to be fake or dishonest.  People like that stick out like a sore thumb, and most people with half a brain can sense that.  Be real, and go to the party.

Lose The Gig

We’ve all lost a gig for one reason or another; the timing didn’t work out, we couldn’t make it to the rehearsal in time, or it wasn’t a good fit.  If you haven’t yet, you will.  It will happen and as much as you don’t want to lose the gig or the income it would have brought, it’ll happen.  It’s what you do after the fact that matters.

I had to let go of a musician not too long ago.  It’s like a really bad high school break-up; you tell the other person that it’s just not working out.  As much as they may plead to stay together, there’s no way around it.

I was working on a show where this player was clearly not working out.  No matter what I did, the situation did not improve.  Like so many professional situations, the choice was clear, but the execution of it was not.  I explained to this player that there was more that was needed from him, and not enough time for him to be ready in time for the performance.  It’s a tough situation.

I’ve been on both sides of this.  Being an able musician is only part of what it takes to make a gig successful.  You have to groove with the other players, if it’s a band situation.  You have to have intuition as well as technique.  Much of this comes from experience and over time.  Unfortunately I’ve wanted to stay at gigs where I was clearly not right for at that point in time.

Looking back I understand why certain gigs didn’t work out.  Sometimes it was my fault, other times it was with the conductor and/or other musicians around me.  Either way it didn’t work out.  Period.  I’ve wasted so much time over-analyzing.  Don’t do it.  Accept it and move on.

I had a teacher growing up who had great advice about this: you will rise to the level of your ability.  You’re not going to exceed what you are capable of at the time.  You will improve and get better; but only so far as you are driven and hard-working.

This player I let go understood.  I was surprised.  He was young and inexperienced.  But he had a positive attitude.  Unfortunately he disappeared and did not stay in touch.  No surprise there.  But it’s a small world, and sometimes even when we make mistakes we can still find redemption in behaving maturely.  I’ve had performers quit or not work out, then not respond when I’ve needed to contact them.

It’s a game.  Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.  But you gotta keep playing.  Don’t let one gig ruin your whole outlook.  And don’t hide from those around you; we will all play together again.

If I Can Make It There

I took a gig out of town a while ago.  On the gig someone asked me why I was there.  I was from New York coming to music direct a show.  I didn’t have a clear answer right away, other than the production fit in my schedule and I was interested in doing that particular show.

If you can make in New York, you can make it anywhere.  Right?  That’s what everyone says.  And many people truly believe it.  While that may be true in some instances, I also find if you make it anywhere else it helps you when you get back to town.

I like a challenge.  I like going places where there is something that interests me, and finding ways to make it work.  It’s hard when you’re on the road or at a summer theatre and there’s no money or a smaller orchestra than what the show calls for.  It’s infuriating and exciting at the same time.

A change of scenery is nice.  I love New York and all that it offers.  I hate New York and all that it is.  It can be the best and worst, this we know.  Getting out of town for a while can clear your head and make you appreciate it more when you get back.  The musicians are some of the best in the world in New York.  It’s great going other places and finding other great players to work with and learn from.

As a music director my abilities are challenged when I have players who might need more help than others.  It tests my ability as a leader and a musician and I love that.  It can be frustrating when you can’t find the A-list drummer you might have run in to on the streets of NYC, but it’s also real life.  You wish for that pristine piano and all your first choice musicians to play with in the band.  That probably won’t happen.  New York can spoil you in that regard.  You still have to sound great with whatever you’ve got to work with.

You imagine the show as it should be, not as it really is.  You hear the cast recording, or know the original Broadway production so well, that you can’t imagine it any other way.  As I work with casts and orchestras in various locations, I find a wide variety of situations.  Some things work out better than you could have hoped for.

Other things you have to let go, knowing there’s nothing you can do about it.  The sound equipment isn’t as good as it should be, or the light rigging isn’t the finest.  The piano doesn’t quite play as well as a Steinway would.  But you make it work.

There are days when it feels like you’re building bricks without straw.  But if you can make theatre magic with next to nothing, then all the resources of New York should make your work a piece of cake in comparison.  When I make music with a pick up band that’s never played together, it makes playing with regulars easier.  And being able to sit in on an orchestra and instantly blend in, is thanks to many less than ideal situations in regional bands with people I hardly know.

Get out of town when there’s a good gig to work on.  It hardly ever goes exactly as planned, but the work can be incredibly rewarding.  If you can make it there you can make it anywhere.

No News 

Good work can go unnoticed.  You’ve done the right job, you’ve played the right notes and sung the right lyric.  Why should that be applauded or noted?  When we are working on a show we are under a time constraint and taking time to mention good work is time out of moving forward.  To that end, time is taken to fix mistakes, or focus on what isn’t working.

It’s hard when you’re doing the right job.  Often we can feel unappreciated, or wonder why we are not getting noticed for our work.  And then there is the cast member or band member who is constantly getting attention for their mistakes.

No news is good news.  I forget this from time to time.  I’ve been in productions where I think the director or producers are dissatisfied.  Turns out they have nothing to say or nothing to correct in that moment.  And in a professional setting, it is understood that if you’re doing your job, nothing needs to be said.

I played a new opera for a conductor a while ago; it was a score with new pages of music delivered daily.  I never heard one word of encouragement and thought it was because there was no need to comment on what I was doing.  Through the process this conductor would stop rehearsal entirely to point out my mistakes.  I was sight-reading scores everyday, and the room for error was high, but not to the point at which the rehearsal needed to stop to highlight the mistake in front of everybody.

There’s a way to give the news.  Nobody should want to waste time, but getting the information to a performer to do their job better should be the motivation to stop and give the news.  When I felt this conductor ignoring me when I was playing well, I thought it was to save time.  When rehearsal was stalled to point out my mistakes, I realized time was being wasted, not used to correct those mistakes.

I believe it’s important to let others know when something is right.  How do you build a consistent base for learning if the correct approach to a musical phrase is not identified?  I do not believe in ingratiating or coddling, but to let the singers and orchestra know when it’s going well as much as when it’s not.

There has to be a balance.  But we shouldn’t take offense if our work isn’t immediately rewarded.  Do a good job; that’s what you’re supposed to do.

I leave you with this horrible little pun I heard growing up:

A jester is put in prison for his bad jokes.  He awaits word from the king.  A messenger comes to his prison cell to tell him the king has not decided on whether to hang him or not.  The jester responded: “Oh well, no noose is good noose.” he was promptly hung.

Count Your Blessings

We need people we can count on both at home and at work.  We need people to follow through on work, and on whom we can rely.  It’s a fine, yet clear line between the people who are reliable and those who aren’t.  This may seem obvious, but to some people I’ve encountered, it isn’t.

I write this as a note of encouragement.  Many young artists I work with and see working are at the crossroads between being a reliable team member, and not.  I write this because it concerns me, and I don’t know how else to address this.

Sometimes I wish there was a court and legal system for the arts.  There are unions and bi-laws, but a place where we could vent our grievances to a judge, who could then supply a just verdict.  What it really boils down to is a lot of hearsay, and hot air; there’s no way to correct someone’s behavior in the professional world.  And the more you try to correct them, or look for vindication, the worse it gets

Parents have the opportunity to raise their children and teach them accountability.  That’s not the case in the workplace.  You either take accountability for your job or you don’t.  Sometimes you get fired, sometimes nothing happens.

I freelance with other musicians.  Time and money are always in balance: there’s usually little money, and so the schedule is tight, because we are all working too many gigs.  When one person doesn’t show up for a rehearsal, or forgets to complete a task, it throws the whole production off.  Like dominos, every piece of the project can get delayed.  Working in collaborative arts like musical theatre is complex and involves many people in many different capacities.  It’s not about you or me; it’s about the show.

Like my post from yesterday, this all deals with the idea of what it takes to be a professional artist.  I had an encounter recently with someone who claimed to be professional, but by his actions he was not.   I was stunned by the lack of pride in his work, and work ethic.

How are we measured if not by our actions?  How can people make an assessment of our character and integrity if we don’t show the very best of ourselves?  I count my blessings in those individuals, who time and again have shown me what it means to be reliable and forthcoming of their work.

Show, Don’t Tell

In the performing arts the line between amateur and professional can be blurry.  For freelance artists, many of them have part-time day-jobs for supplemental income, while making their way as an artist.  And while getting paid for a gig can define one as a professional, I’ve known plenty of non-paid artists who behave more professionally than ones who are paid.  So when are you a professional?

Talk is cheap.  I’ve heard people explain to me how they are professionals and should be taken seriously.  In the past I’ve hired musicians for work, and whenever I talk to them it’s always the ones who have to tell me they are professionals that make me nervous.  If you are a professional musician, why do you need to tell me?

When you’re trying to get a job you need references.  You need other people to vouch for you; they need to assure your future employer you can perform the job, and that you’re not a total psycho.  Other people can say you’re a pro, or a great player;  speaking for yourself holds less credibility.

So how do you prove you’re a professional?  By showing it.  You have to be responsible for your part in whatever ensemble or production you are hired for.  You need to be respectful of the people running the show, whether it’s a music director, contractor or producer.

I’ve noticed in the past players who do not communicate well.  While this is easily another topic all on its own, I find communication to be the first step to professionalism.  Do you answer your emails promptly, and return phone messages?  It’s such a simple task, yet speaks volumes.  And you don’t have to tell me you’re wonderful at communication, you’re showing me that you can handle communication.

In the subjective field of the arts, measuring the professionalism of an individual has as much to do with their actions as their abilities.  And while the references are great, and reputation is so important, it’s how you behave that speaks to your place in the professional world; it’s what other professionals have to base their opinions of you.  Show, don’t tell.