Monday, October 5, 2015

The Art of Being Yourself

In any sort of art form, it's important to find your own voice. If you look at your heroes, chances are you admire them for the unique qualities they have, not for their ability to copy others. 

When I was first starting out on this journey, I often tried to be whatever was needed, molding myself to each project, changing like a musical chameleon. This was fine when I was younger, but it ultimately left me feeling like something was missing. I had no real identity.

Over the subsequent years, I worked hard to find and establish my own voice. It didn't just happen by itself, but was the result of various conscious choices I made. And even at this point of my career, I haven't stopped. I'm not standing still. I keep refining what I do, working to expand my own vision of what I imagine my music as.

As a result of this, people know who I am. They know what I do. And when they hire me, they know what they will get. 

I am hired to bring my own unique voice to the proceedings

In the studio, being myself. (photo by Meg Mullaney Vartanian) 

So if you are an enthusiastic young musician, keep working at it, keep refining what you do. Keep looking for your own unique voice that you can contribute. 

And if you are an older, established musician, the same advice holds: keep working at it, keep refining what you do. Keep looking for your own unique voice that you can contribute. 

Remember that your career is a continuum that hopefully will have a long arc. And this works at all levels. You don't have to be a globe trotting superstar to have your own voice. Even within your own, small music community, you can bring your uniqueness to share with them.

~ MB

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Continuum of Your Musical Career

Some of the best advice I've heard for young musicians is, 

Always play with people who are better than you. ” 
This makes a lot of sense, because as young musicians/artists, we need mentoring, we need guidance, and we need to work with people who's experience and talent will help pull us up, help challenge us.

When I was younger, around 17-20, I regularly played with older, more experienced musicians. I often subbed for a big band that was comprised of mostly high school band directors from the area. It was a challenge, because they knew the charts inside and out. They played all the old big band arrangements authentically, so there was no room for me to slack. I had to be on my game. I had to go back and listen to the original recordings so I could play the correct style/feel. But it was a great experience because the band was so on all the time. 

Another group I regularly played with was a Dixieland Quartet, led by a pianist who was in his late 60s. It was piano, clarinet/sax. double bass, and drums. Again, these guys had it down and I had to do my homework in order to play the right things.

And there where other situations throughout the years, where I had the chance to work with older, more experienced musicians. Each time was like going to school. I looked upon them as opportunities to learn, to grow, to become a better musician.

Now, at this point in my career, I'm at the other end of things. I regularly play with younger musicians who are the same ages as my sons. I play with a lot of musicians in their 20s and early 30s. I like it. I like the energy they bring. I like the openness they bring. And I like the fearlessness they often bring. It keeps me on my toes. It gives me new insights. It makes me a better musician even today.

I hope that I bring the same sort of mentorship to them that I received so many years ago when I was the young kid in the band. I talk to them. I encourage them. And most importantly, I play the best I can and hope that by doing so, they may be inspired and become better musicians. I also try to lead by example, by always being on time and easy to work with. 

I thinks it's important for older musicians not to be divas or jerks to the younger musicians around them. If you've made it that far, it's important to be generous by working with younger musicians and passing on what you know. I'm sure most of us, when we were younger, got some good advice, or a thumbs up, from an older musician that meant something to us and helped us move forward. 

Share it. Pass it on. Be encouraging.

~ MB

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Myth of "I could do that"

Most artists have heard it at least once in their lifetime, either about their own work, or someone else's, the non-artist declaring, “I could do that!” I've heard that from so many people about various artistic disciplines. If only it were that simple!

First, let's start off with a video:

I personally feel this video gives a good rebuttal to the afore mentioned statement of, “I could do that.” In fact, this does a good job of covering all art forms. But things actually go much deeper than the video talks about.

I'm a big lover of modern art, say from the last 100 or so years. And whenever I travel, I try to go to the local art museums. I was in New York City last month and went to MoMA (Museum of Modern Art). It was exciting for me, because I was able to see some of my favorite works in person. Let's look at a couple of them:

This is One: Number 31, by Jackson Pollock, painted in 1950. At first glance, it's easy to dismiss it as, “just drips of paint on the canvas. Anyone could do that.” Yes, anyone can drip paint on a canvas, but they won't end up with something like this. One problem with seeing art in a book, or on the internet, is that you get no idea of the scale of it. Let's look at a second photo:

Now we have a person in the photo and you can get a sense of the scale of this work. It's eight feet ten inches high by seventeen feet six inches wide! The work is immense. When you see it in person, it takes your breath away. If you stand/sit in front of it for awhile, you can't help but feel amazed by it. Then you start to notice a rhythm to it. The paint isn't just thrown on there randomly. And up close you can see the 3D effect of the layers of paint. You also notice how carefully the paint was applied. You can notice the details. Try as I might, I could never create a work like this. Oh, I could come up with some sort of approximation, but it wouldn't have the sheer power of Pollock's original.

And people will say things like, “My kid could do that.” But they really couldn't. Or people will say, “I could do that, but it wouldn't get into a museum because I'm not famous. Pollock got into the museum because he's a famous artist.” And that would so miss the point!

When you want to critique a work of art/painting/play/song/dance/etc, you really need to do your homework. You need to investigate what lead the artist to create that work of art. Nothing of lasting worth just shows up out of nowhere. Pollock was a trained artist. He could do the technical stuff. He could do portraits. But he struggled for years to find something new, something different, something that spoke with his own voice. One: Number 31 wasn't something he did at the beginning of his career. He was 38 and had worked hard to get to that point where he could create that specific work.

Let's look at another one:

The famous Andy Warhol Campbell's Soup Cans from 1962. Again, it's easy to say, “I could do that.” But you didn't. You didn't come up with the idea and produce it before Warhol did. That's the key: Warhol is an originator. Everything else like it, is just a copy. But again, you need to research things and find the context that lead to the art. The late 1950s and early 1960s found America, and especially the middle class, in a post war boom. The availability of soup in a wide variety of flavors was something that everyone had in their cupbords. And that was just the point Warhol was making, the iconography of the everyday. And to add to this, Warhol's mother had made him Campbell's Soup for lunch most everyday. So he had a personal relationship here. This was a very personal memory of his.

And that's the thing. Warhol was also well trained as an artist—he did illustrations for print ads—but he eventually found his own voice in celebrating the everyday objects around us: Campbell's Soup, Brillo scrubbing pads, Marilyn Monroe, etc. It's easy to look at his work and think that you could do it. But you weren't there doing it on the early 1960s. Warhol was.

Let's move on to music. One of my favorite composers is John Cage. He is probably the most misunderstood composer of the last 100 years. Here's a great video of Cage:

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This is from 1960 when Cage appeared on the popular television game show, I've Got A Secret. The actual music part starts as around 5:40 where Cage performs his piece, Water Walk. Now he's serious about his composition, but not too serious to not be a bit humorous about it also. And much like Warhol, Cage endeavors to show us that art, in this case music, is all around us in the everyday.

Look at everything. Don’t close your eyes to the world around you. Look and become curious and interested in what there is to see.
― John Cage

The beauty of the piece is that it really is composed. Cage wrote a score, and I've seen it performed live. To Cage, all sounds were valid. What was usually termed noise, could also be heard as music. It's all in the context and how you experience it.

Perhaps the most misunderstood composition by Cage is, 4'33"

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This is also known as his silent piece. It is written in three timed movements, where the performer comes out, sits at the piano, and doesn't play a note. Most people seen to think it's a complete joke and that Cage is some sort of charlatan. But on the contrary, Cage is quite serious and making a great point about how sound/music is all around us. So during the performance, while the performer sits there without playing a note, we can hear other sounds from our environment: someone coughing, a truck driving by, people moving in their seats, the air conditioning, etc. Much like Water Walk, Cage is showing us that sound is everywhere and we should embrace it.

4'33" score

And again, the context is so important. Cage was not just a jokester. He was a trained composer, and all of his works have a great deal of thought behind them. He also had a great interest in Zen. Cage had thought about a silent piece for years before he actually put the idea together. As could be expected, the premier performance confounded the audience and was met with almost universal disdain. But this piece was not arrived at by accident. Rather, a lot of thought went into it, and it was designed to produce a specific result from the audience.

Yes, anyone could do this (and many have since), but John Cage was the first. So it's one thing to be able to do something that someone else did. It's another thing entirely to have an original concept and bring that to the public. So when people play the game of, “I could do that,” they completely miss the point, because they didn't do it and never will.

And that's how I feel about all these YouTube videos of 8 year old kids playing RUSH or Van Halen songs. While I can applaud them for their performance, given enough time to practice, anyone can copy another musician. I've played my share of RUSH songs in my life, but I'm only a copy of the original. I can learn all of Neil Peart's licks, but I'll never be Neil Peart. So even if I can play his music, I have to admit that I didn't conceive of it. And that's again what's most important: being the originator.

And so I watch these 8 year old kids shred away on a cover tune thinking, “OK, let's see what you are doing in 10 or 20 years. Are you creating memorable original music, or are you still just copying someone else?”

And all artists have done that in their formative years, copying from the masters before them, in order to learn, and to gain technical facility. But unless you want to play in a tribute band the rest of your life, there comes a time you need to move on into your own thing. There comes a time to find your own path.

~ MB

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Live Experience

A recent trip to NYC reinforced just how important it is to experience art in person. I love to go to art museums when I travel, so on this trip we made our way to MoMA (Museum of Modern Art). 

It's one thing to see a work of art in a book or on a monitor, but it's a completely different thing when you can see something in person. A photo of a work of art is flat and gives you no perspective as to the size of it. I have found that many painting I thought were large turned out to be small in person (or the other way around). A photo of a painting is at best an approximation of the actual work. It can't show you the true richness of the colors, the subtle differences in shades, the layers of paint, the brush/palette knife strokes, or a hundred other things. 

You have to experience them in person.

A photo is nice, but…

And experience is the right word. It's more than just seeing the painting. It's being in the actual presence of the work, being in the same room/building, and being with other people having the same experience.

The same can be said for music. You can have the best home sound system, but listening to music from a CD/LP/Digital File is nothing like experiencing it live. It's being in the actual presence of the musicians, being in the same room/building, and being with other people having the same experience that makes the difference.

So listen to your CDs, look at your books, watch your DVDs; but don't forget to go out and experience something live and in person. Go to a concert, an exhibition, a play/musical, a dance, a reading—anything live.

You will be a better person for it, and so will the artist/s.

~ MB

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Making Choices

Our artistic careers are a series of choices that we make: go to this school, learn this style, take that gig, turn this other gig down, go for the money, go for the art, etc. Lots of choices that form a path we take.

And it's easy to look at someone else's choices and say they “sold out,” or they made a wrong choice. But we don't live their life, we don't know their circumstances. If you have a family of young kids, you may take any and all gig offers so that you can put food on the table. If you are single, or just have a spouse, you may have the luxury of choosing what gigs to take. Or maybe you just love playing and take all the gigs because it's an adventure. Or you might decide to only take gigs within a certain style. The thing is, the choices are always yours and no one else's.    

I know that I can look at other artists and think, “I wouldn't have made that choice.” But that doesn't need to be a criticism on their choice, because I'm not them and wasn't put in the place to make that choice. I hear a lot of artists criticize other artists for their choices. But that is a waste of time. 

Make your choices and stand by them, but don't criticize the choices of others. Life is too short. Take care of your own business and be supportive of others. After all, you want them to be supportive of you.

~ MB

Friday, July 3, 2015

Working Through Creative Blocks

It's happened to all of us, things are going along fine, you are successfully doing your music/art, and then suddenly things stop. You have no ideas, you have no inspiration, you have no energy to go on.

The Artist's nightmare: hitting a brick wall…

You feel like you've hit a brick wall. All your hard work and momentum stops. Try as you might, you can't get going again. Things are at a standstill. 

What do you do?

  1. Don't panic.
  2. Realize this is normal and happens to everyone at sometime.
  3. Refrain from getting angry or frustrated. This only deepens the block.
  4. Introduce a disruption/distraction to what you are doing: go to the beach/park/forest, or go to the cinema/concert/museum. This can help reset your brain and creativity.
  5. Take a nap. Another way to reset.
  6. Take a walk and leave your phone at home. Get out of your workspace and get some fresh air and exercise. This can help clear your head and reset your brain.
  7. Realize that most blocks are imaginary! They are often brought on by fatigue, overwork, or some other external factor—when was the last time you ate a decent meal?
  8. Work on something else unrelated to what you were doing.
  9. Bounce your ideas off a trusted friend—they may be able to help you get a new or different perspective on things.

This sort of thing happens to me all the time, whether working on my music, art, or writing, such as this blog. Sometimes the ideas just aren't there. 

It's a desert. 
Everything has dried up.
The well has run dry. 
My brain is empty.

Realize that most blocks are imaginary!

We just need to take the time to reset ourselves before we begin again.

But sometimes the blocks are real and very big. This may be a signal to actually stop. Stop what we are doing because it's a dead end and we are wasting our time trying to push ahead.

Sometimes dead ends are real and we have to admit it. Admit that the project/idea is dead and it's time to move on to something new. That's not easy to do, especially if we devoted a lot of time and energy to it: “If I just keep going on, it's bound to pick up again.” Well, not always.

Sometimes dead ends and blocks are just temporary. We need to put something on a shelf until some later time when we are in a different/better situation, and can pick it up again. Dead ends can come back to life after weeks, months, or even years. That's why I always keep files of all the work I've done, even the dead ends/failures, because I can always go to my files to look for ideas when I don't have any. Often old ideas will either trigger something new, or can be reworked into something new.

I've written almost 400(!) blog posts over 3 different blogs in the past 4 years, and it's not always easy to think of something to write about. That's why I keep an idea file of both old and new ideas. When I get blocked on what to write about, I can look through my saved ideas and either find something there, or be inspired to write about something else. My phone is full of idea files that I write down whenever I think of something.

And dead ends are sometimes just that. Dead. Ends. We can take what we learned from them and leave the rest behind, moving on to something new.

So don't let creative blocks get you down. You can get past everything.

~ MB

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Importance of Phrasing

Today's post is directed primarily at the drum set player. Many of today's players develop amazing technical proficiency through hours and hours of practice. But just what do they practice? Most drummers seem to concentrate on 2 main things:

  1. Pure technique, like triplets or paradiddles around the drums, double bass chops, speed and precision.
  2. Beat/rhythms/grooves.
This is all well and good, as we need to master many of these skills, but I've seen too many young drummers concentrate strictly on these. When it comes to playing in a band, they have the technique, but not the means to successfully apply it to the music in a musical way. They often end up sounding like they are playing exercises out of a drum book, which is what they are doing.

You can learn to be a better drummer by listening to great singers…

I'm all for technique, but not at the sacrifice of the music. An important thing for drummers to do is to listen to both singers and horn players. There you can get a real sense of phrasing and how the music is put together to form a song. I listen to a lot of singers, from classic ones like Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, to more modern ones like Joni Mitchell, Ann Wilson, Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel, and a lot of ethnic/world music singers, like Mari Boine, Wimme, Tanya Tagaq. I listen to the words and notes they sing, but also how they breathe, how they emphasize and accent the words, and most importantly, how they bring the words to life. Listen to Sinatra, he wasn't considered a great singer just because of his voice—a lot of singers have great voices—but he knew how to phrase everything, how to present the lyrics in a way that communicated with the listener. This is so important!

You could get 10 different singers to sing the same song and you will have 10 different versions of that song. This is easy to do. Pick out a classic vocal song, like Fly Me To The Moon, or, Georgia, and just go on YouTube. You'll find a lot of different version of the songs. Each singer brings something of themself to the song. The same can be said for instrumentals. Listen to horn players. Both sax and trumpet are very lyrical instruments that share a lot in common with the voice. Listen to a great sax player and how they connect the notes, creating melodic phrases. Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Paul Desmond—each has their own sound, their own emphasis on the notes.

So when you are playing drum set with a band, don't just think rhythm and beats/grooves, think melody and phrasing. Imagine yourself as a singer or sax player, and try to bring that same sense of phrasing and melody to your rhythms. Think of how you can blend what you are ding with the other musicians, with the music overall. 

Be a musician, not just a drummer.

~ MB