Monday, January 24, 2005

Musical Milestones; or...

...What the Hell Was I Thinking; Part 2/B The "Fame" Years: Out With a Fizzle.

You can either be a good musician or a good student, that's the essential paradox of music school. It's all about time. Unless you're a prodigy or a genius you can spend as much time as you have becoming a musician. Everyone at the college who was a good musician was already one when they started. Sure they got better, but it was incremental.

I wasn't a musician when I arrived. I spent most of my time learning my instrument. The rest of my school work suffered. Of course it didn't help that I got mono from my girlfriend in the first semester. It wasn't the flat-on-your-back-for-months type of mono, but it left me without much energy. Add to that the depression I was battling and, well, I really wasn't an exceptional student.

I failed bunch of courses in that first semester. The second went better, indeed, I kicked ass in the few courses I had. My load was much lightened because I couldn't take the continuations of the ones I'd failed. Third semester I tried to take the regular load plus the stuff I'd failed. Bad idea. It was really down hill from there.

I hung on for a year and a half before surrendering to the inevitable. In that time I got great marks in guitar. I think those marks were influenced by the need to make the fledgling program successful. Be that as it may, I worked really hard and possibly deserved them for that reason. Despite my guitar marks the performance aspect of it was no better than it had been in highschool band.

In fact, recitals were much, much worse than highschool concerts. I was no longer one of a crowd. If I simply didn't play my flute no one, other than the conductor and possibly the people sitting next me, would know. This by the way was the technique I used in choir at college.

The first choir class I hung out with Bobby. He was another classical guitar student and unfortunately a tenor. I'm a bass.* A true bass as it turns out. We did a few exercises and scales at the start of the class. Karl (yup, him again) came over and listened to us. He put me over in the basses.

After that we developed a pattern, a system really, that made choir go smoothly. I would open my mouth to sing and he'd cut us off. "Just the basses." he'd say, looking at me. I'd look back, shrug or smile and stop singing. The class would continue. It was efficient, and eventually I made it more efficient by not singing at all. Of course you can't take choir for years without learning a little something, eventually I would be able to sing little bits here and there.

Back to recitals. You had to do one recital a semester. They were attended by your classmates and maybe a couple of bored students from other faculties. If I was nervous in a band of 30 odd, imagine how bad it was sitting on stage, in a spotlight, all by myself. Hell. I was seeing psychiatrist by this time. At the suggestion of my guitar instructor I asked him for some beta-blockers. They're a drug that inhibits the production of adrenaline. They work. You still get nervous and can make mistakes because of it but your hands don't shake, your heart doesn't race and you don't get the flop sweats.

The only time I remember taking them was for a master class I attended. Master classes are where you do a lesson in front of an audience. Yah, it's fun. Nothing like playing in front of an audience made up of other guitar students then being criticized for it by a professional who you've paid a lot of money. Bah. I think I didn't use them again because on leaving I found I could barely walk up the stairs. No adrenaline to help with the extra effort. Unpleasantly like having a heart attack.

To be fair it wasn't the total misery-fest this account portrays, there were great times too. It's just that they don't stick in my memory the way the bad stuff did. The musical one that stands out came in my last semester. I had just done my last recital ever. I knew it, my money was running out and my girlfriend (not the mono-giver) was moving to E dmonton and I was planning to go with her. I decided to pull out all the stops, really ham it up. The piece I played was a Romantic* one by a Spanish composer. It was very melodramatic and I decided to milk it. I played it very broad and what I though of as over the top. The adjudicator tracked me down at my private guitar lesson to tell my instructor how well I'd done. She said that it was the first time she saw that I might have what it takes to be a musician. So her phrasing could have been better, but by that time I was used to the faint praise that everyone on the faculty there damned me with.

So what the hell was I thinking? I can't remember. As I sit here I can't think why I continued on. I never gave up. I never dropped a course before the deadline, I always thought I could pull it off. There must be something perverse in my nature to go through with it all and not bail. I really did feel pretty hopeless much of time. But I never gave up. It's a conundrum.

Part of the answer was my friends. None of them were in the music program with me, but most were at the college. I think their acceptance sustained me. I certainly didn't know it at the time, but looking back I find I owe them a lot.

Next up, Part 4: The Electric Years

*Bass is the lowest male singing range. Typically the bass section is the weakest in the choir because voice students tend to be tenors. We won't talk about sopranos, the whole soprano section were voice majors. Mind you, it was the sopranos who gave Karl his stroke. Seriously. We were rehearsing and Karl cut us off. When he stood to go to the piano he fell over. 35 or so people stood there and gaped. He rolled over, sat up. Hung his head for a moment or two and then went to the piano. Hung over it for a while, then banged a key "Sopranos, there's your note, from the top." He finished the class, went to the hospital where they found he'd had a mild stroke. The guy really was wound too tight for his own good.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Musical Milestone; or...

...What the Hell Was I Thinking? Part 2/A. The Fame Years: An Inauspicious Beginning.

The summer I graduated from highschool my mother took me and my brother to visit relatives in Africa. It was an incredible trip, full of new experiences and sights. Unfortunately it was also full of people asking me what I was going to do with my life now that I'd graduated.

My mother was keen that I go to University, my brother didn't look to be headed that way and as Mom had two degrees she thought it was important. I did too, sort of. Truth is, I was burned out. I barely made it through my last year of highschool. I wasn't a very happy student. Indeed, I wasn't a very happy person all round.

To say I was depressed, in a clinical sense, would be true. The doctors thought so anyway. I felt I needed a break, some time to catch my breath before moving on. That didn't appear to be an option. I was under pressure to decide what I was going to do. Add to this a parade of people asking me this in front of my mother, I had to say something.

I remember saying "The only thing I enjoyed in highschool was music. I think I'll look into that when we get back." Why I said this boggles my mind. As addressed in the previous post, music wasn't exactly a pleasant experience for me. For what ever reason, that became my rote response. I didn't really mean it, I expected that by the time I got back to Canada it would be too late to register.

The day we arrived home coincided with the delivery of the weekly free newspaper. I hadn't even unpacked when my mom handed me the paper. There, buried in a middle section was an ad from the local community college. They were looking for students for the Bachelor of Music transfer program in guitar performance. Yikes! It was a two year program with a transfer to a major university for the second two years. I didn't panic, I still thought it would be too late.

I called and they were still accepting students. Damn! But what's that? You need me to do an audition and theory exam? Hooyah, year off here I come! My audition was awful. Classic guitar is played with the instrument propped on the left knee. I played in typical rock fashion with it on the right. The one classical tune I knew was very basic and I didn't play it well. Karl (the mad Pole) said "Well, I can see you don't play Classical." This implied something I didn't realize until years later. He thought that although I didn't play Classical guitar, I could in fact play guitar. He was wrong.

The theory exam didn't go any better. I'd been taught minimal theory in highschool music class. The school's emphasis had been on winning competitions and the players don't need theory for that. The exam was three pages, I completed one of them. The rest of the questions stumped me, what on earth is a "third"?* To be fair, the questions I did answer I got right.

Karl checked my exam and grunted "Well, you know the real basics." and then left the room. Just like that, no explanation, just walked out. I thought, year off here I come! When he came back he had a text book. He opened it, circled three chapters and as he handed it to me said "Learn those chapters over the weekend and I'll see you in harmony class on Tuesday." Fuck.

I was literally stunned. I was so sure I'd fail that I had no response to this. I walked out to the front office. The secretary gave me my schedule. I managed a weak protest, "Choir? But I don't sing." "That's ok" she said, "It's marked on attendance. You don't play an orchestra instrument and you have to have an ensemble credit. Choir it is." Oh. Of course I was too confused to notice that choir was on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 8:20 am. A good mark turned out to be trickery than anticipated.

At the time I just accepted my fate and did my best. I never really questioned what had happened. In retrospect it was obvious. That year was the first time the offered a Classical guitar program. They were desperate for students. It didn't hurt that Karl was mad. Really.

The harmony class he taught that first semester was Baroque counterpoint.** In the first week he didn't teach so much as reminisce about his time in Russia. Our first assignment was to write four melodies in the Baroque style. When he handed them back he was looking a little odd. His nose was red and he said, "I couldn't pass any of them. I feel I'm a failure as a teacher..." and started to cry. How does one respond to that? I remember wondering if all upper education was going to be like this. Fortunately it wasn't.

Thus began the Fame years. So called because on good days it felt something like an episode of the 80's tv show about a highschool for gifted artistic kids. There were people practicing in the halls and jamming the class rooms. There were regular recitals and of course just about everyone had a band on the side that we all had to go see gig.

To make it even more interesting at the same time I had met some people who changed my life. A group of friends, all a little older than me, who accepted who I was and made me welcome. Quite a change from highschool. I can't call any of us punk exactly but we went to one punk club a great deal and because of that and them my musical horizons broadened. By day I was studying opera and all the great classical composers, by night I was going to gigs. Gigs where three chords might just be one too many and dancing involved physical contact but had nothing to do with sex. I loved it all. (Indeed right now I'm listening to Richard Hell and the Voidoids and next week the LUC and I are going to a Puccini opera)

So, what the hell was I thinking? Initially I was thinking that I didn't want a conflict with my mother. After that I mostly just went along with what was happening. Don't get me wrong I don't regret any of it, despite how it all turned out...

*a third is the basic construction block of western harmony. It's the distance between one note and another of 3 or 4 semitones, 3 being called a minor third and 4 a major third. Or, on sheet music, any note and the one above or below it one line and one space away. This notation is why it's called a third. Counting the first note as one, the next line or space would be two and the next after three. It took me a while to wrap my head around this, maybe as much as a year. Shows what state of mind I was in at the time.

**The Baroque is a time period in history. The time of J. S. Bach and Handel, from around 1600 to 1750. Counterpoint is a style of composition where two or more melodies are being played at once.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Rantin' and Recordin'

Coming soon: What the Hell Was I Thinking Part Two: The "Fame" Years

But in the meantime some current events....

We haven't been practicing much lately. Christmas obligations took their toll and E has decided to get a real education. Last semester she was taking accounting, but this January she switched to Arts (surprise!) and her new schedule conflicts with our practice nights.

We had a stand-in drummer for one night. S is a great drummer, one of the best in the city. He was surprisingly tentative and differential. He said that he was holding back because it felt like we could jump back to the top of the tune at any time . We do that a lot, abruptly switching up the feel. Changes of sections and style are suppose to be a bit of a surprise and I guess they work. Anyway, it was fun to play with him, but not as much fun as I thought it would be.

Last night E managed to come to practice. God, it felt good. All was right with the world.

Today I got an email from P. He's been in touch with a sound engineer friend of ours. M is a great guy and really good at what he does. I have no problem with bringing him in to help us record. I realize that I'm a novice and even though I enjoy the process of recording and mixing our stuff M kicks my ass at it. Years of experience will do that.

Begin rant
No, what has me pissed off is that P said in his email to M that "the guitars sound too dry, too direct." WTF. He never told me this. I've asked again and again for my band mates to tell me what they think of the recording. What do they say? Nothing. Now I find out that P has problem with the guitar sound. Off the top of my head I can think of three ways to make the guitars sound less direct. I have no idea if they'd work, but I love experimenting and figuring things out. I taught myself how to solder and etch circuit boards for fuck's sake...grrrrrr!
End rant

I'd rather figure things out on my own, but I'm going to learn a lot from M. That is, if I can restrain myself from killing my passive/aggressive band mates.

Oh, and the reason we need to get a better recording is that we have a chance to get something on CBC radio. (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, nationwide) S has some kind of script in with CBC. I'm kind of hazy on the details but I think it involves interviewing us and some other local bands and playing a song or two from each. I'm not sure what the angle is, I suspect it's finding out why aging idiots like us, with no hope of fame or fortune, continue to play music.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Musical Milestone; or...

...What the Hell Was I Thinking? Part 1: The War Years

Music wasn't part of my childhood. The only thing I remember is my father playing the occasional cowboy tune or barbershop quartet. We watched a lot of tv. I had a transistor radio that I'd listen to but it was always tuned to a country station. I think it was out of fear of my dad that I did so, I didn't enjoy the music and didn't listen much.

There was another problem with music in our house. My father was an alcoholic and my survival strategy was to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Playing loud music was definitely contraindicated. Mom did buy my a Jimi Hendrix double greatest hits album for Christmas one year but I suspect that was after my dad died.

So why did I join my elementary school band? I don't know. I have a vague memory of going into the band room in the basement and everyone was already there. I can't for the life of me figure out how I ended up there. That tardiness, a sign of a true musician if there ever was one, is probably responsible for my choice of instrument: the flute. I'm pretty sure that was the only thing left by the time I got there.

I never practiced. I only remember doing so once. Sweaty, heart racing waiting for it..."Shut the fuck up!"...The expected response for dear old dad, obeyed instantly.

Another great mystery is why I kept it up? I played flute in my school band until the end of grade 10. I still never practiced, I was awful. I had stage fright like nobody's business and at every exam choked to the point of sputtering silence. I'd be interested to see what marks I got, they can't have been very good and yet I was allowed to continue.

As you might imagine I was teased pretty mercilessly about the flute. I was a skinny white kid with glasses and braces, bully bait in other words. The "fag" taunts were endless and eventually wore me down. I used to ponder how this could be. There were two other male flute players in my highschool. One was my best friend, Andrew, who played in the same band as me and the other was a nouveau-hippy child. He used to wear a floppy leather hat and sit in the middle of the sports field playing his flute for a small crowd of tight-jeaned, tie-dyed, long-haired hippy girls. Man I was jealous.

I never saw anyone hassle hippy guy, but teenagers being what they are (barbarians) I suppose they must have. On the other hand A was never bothered at all. He was Chinese and cultivated a reputation for martial arts. I have no idea if it was true. I always suspected that it wasn't, he wasn't very good in gym and never had to bail on anything to go to a lesson. On the other hand I once saw him throw a pencil 6 meters and have it stick point first, dead center of some poor kid's sweater. He also knew for sure where the big nerve in your upper arm was, a favorite trick was to pinch it and make you scream. So I don't know.

Years after we'd lost touch I ran into him late one night. He was depressed and over a plate of cold fries in a all-night diner he confessed that he was gay and didn't know how to tell his parents. I really should have seen that one coming, god is after all an iron.*

After I gave up on the flute I did take a basic guitar course in grade 11, I think. I wasn't very good at it, but I'd decided that if I was going to play anything it was going to be something more modern. Of course this was 1983 and guitar was anything but modern, but that's how I thought of it. I retrospect I wish I'd picked bass or drums there's more call for those instruments. Seems like 1 in 3 people play guitar and 1 in 4 people play guitar in a band, but that might just be the kind of community I'm part of.

That decision to take up the guitar was the first conscious one I'd made about my musical life. What was I thinking? The only thing I remember was that I didn't want to be mocked for my instrument. (insert penis joke here) I had no aspirations to play in a band. My self esteem was so low that getting girls out of it was laughable, or at least would have been if I'd even thought of it. My experience with learning and performing music was uniformly one of teeth gritting, flop sweating anxiety. What the hell was I thinking indeed?

I can only speculate that while I was cringing consciously some part of me was hearing what I was a part of and glorying in it. There's nothing quite like playing in a big band. To be immersed in the music, literally. To be a part of the creation of something bigger than oneself that, even in a highschool band, has moments of true beauty. Somehow it got into me without my being aware of it, an infection of the soul that has no cure. It snuck in while I was dodging spit emptied from trumpets and choking on my fear of being noticed and has never left.

*If a person who commits felonies is a felon, then surely god is an iron.