Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Gear Page

One of my posts was quoted recently on the forum of the Gear Page. I was pleasantly surprised to find that a comment that I had made regarding technique and musical knowledge, provided a topic for such a spirited and fruitful discussion between contributors to that excellent forum.

My original comment was, "I firmly believe that only an intimate knowledge of the rules gives one the right to break them." The comments on the forum ranged from agreement (which I interpret as an understanding of the concept which I was putting forward) to the thought that the comment was made by an arrogant, know-nothing armchair quarterback.

Well...fair enough. The comment on its own DOES sound arrogant and a bit pedantic. But it was misunderstood as being a blanket statement concerning the arts in general. I Do firmly believe in what I the context of working as a musician in the commercial arena. In other words, playing music for pay. In the discussion, some famous names were used as illustrations to prove that rule breaking is important to the creation of new and cutting edge art forms. I'd like to discuss two of those names and perhaps make clear how my position is supported by these examples.

Charlie Parker, in developing his unique approach to soloing over chord changes, did indeed expand on what was, at the time, the accepted language of the jazz solo. Did he "break" the rules? or did he use the existing framework to create new rules? There is no question that Charlie Parker knew how to play the saxophone with a high level of technique. How could this come about. Did he practice? Is there a correct way to hold one's fingers on the keys of an alto saxophone? Can one blow into any one of the many holes of a sax, or is there one particular hole that is used according to the "rules?" Charlie Parker KNEW what he was doing. He knew the existing rules, he chose which ones to break, and he created a new genre.

Jimi Hendrix changed the voice of the guitar forever. There is guitar before Jimi and Guitar after Jimi. Now, Jimi did do weird shit to a guitar. But I'm going to stay away from lighter fluid and bashing, and stick to playing. I think that one of Jimi's biggest contributions to rock guitar was the absolute disregard he had for what was acceptable. Anybody could have turned a marshall all the way up and gotten feedback...try NOT to. But Jimi made it MUSIC. And he did it by playing with no inhibitions. He turned noise into music and forced the issue. He made the unacceptable okay. Did he break the rules? Fuckin'-A plus! He broke All of them. But Jimi, like Bird, knew what he was doing. He had plenty of gigs under his belt. Gigs that required him to play by the rules. And when he got fried on both sides with other peoples rules, he blossomed and made up his own.

Years ago, I was watching on of my kids play basketball in a six-year-old YMCA league. As the clock wound down, we were about to lose when he launched a hook shoot from the corner. Swish! We won and everyone went nuts. After the game, I had a talk with him and explained that although the shot went in, if he did that in the normal course of the game, his coach would probably pull him out for taking high risk shots. "What's high-risk mean?" he asked me. I explained that it was a shot that would need a lot of luck in order to be successful. "But dad" he answered, " I can make that shot all day." And he promptly went to the same spot and made three out of four tries.

He's in Europe now earning a living...playing basketball. What the fuck do I know...

Monday, March 19, 2007

Vocal Architecture

Some of my recent lessons have inspired me to write about a subject that is extremely important to good vocal production. I call it Vocal Architecture. Good posture is a must if one is to breathe properly for singing. But Vocal Architecture has more to do with the efficient use of body structures and how they interact.

The main area of concern is usually the neck and head. The weight of the skull sits precariously at the top of the spine and is continuously balanced by various muscles. A reasonable parallel would be the Segway Human Transporter which has an onboard computer that calculates and adjusts changes in balance at the microsecond level. An improper tilt can cause a great deal of unnecessary tension which will cause vocal fatigue and can also completely change the sound of the voice. Many questions can best be answered by looking back into primitive human history. The question here is, what is the proper position of the head and why?

I find that many singers hold their head a bit too high which causes multiple problems. The weight of the back of the skull compresses the neck muscles, the throat muscles are stretched unnaturally, causing tension in an extremely vulnerable area, and the entire balance of the body is put into a precarious attitude. Head tilt seems like a small detail, but once a singer achieves the proper balance, everything changes for the better... immediately.

I teach singers to "Lead with their forehead and look intently to the horizon." I also teach the importance of dropping the jaw to open the mouth wider as opposed to raising the head. Here are a few reasons why this is so important:
1. This position allows the skull to be balanced equally by all the muscles around the neck.
2. Focusing on "leading with the forehead" is a mental image that tends to help the singer picture the sound as emanating from the resonant chambers of the mask.
3. Dropping the jaw eliminates tension in the area surrounding the larynx which must be absolutely free of undue tension in order for the voice to be produced correctly.

Dropping the jaw also has a massive affect on what happens inside the mouth and throat. The very tip of the soft palate or, the roof of the mouth, is called the uvula. When the jaw is lowered, this little guy points downward creating a wider passage for sound waves to pass up into the sinus area. This could be compared to turning up the high frequency tweeters in a stereo system. The difference in the sound of an AH vowel when the jaw is dropped just a small amount is amazing.

As to posture, I prefer that a singer do vocal exercises standing with feet shoulder width apart and one slightly in front of the other. There are certain exercises that include slight crescendos or extensions of energy and I like to see a singer shift weight forward on the crescendo and back on the diminuendo. Merely shifting weight from one foot to the other will expend energy in the legs and usually results in better support from the torso.

I think of singing as a very physical process and these slight variations in balance will have good results without clogging the mental process. The physical aspects of singing, when drilled and practiced extensively, should become second nature. Good habits will allow more "CPU" usage to be alloted to the interpretation of a song.

So...getting back to the dawn of human history, I imagine primitive man as a hunter-gatherer who had to have finely tuned scanning skills in order to provide himself with food and to anticipate both the danger of predatory animals and the presence of food animals in the distance. Primitive man walked erect, thereby making use of his built-in periscope. To anticipate what was in store for him, he looked to the horizon...out and down. His horizon was much different than ours. When we look for what we need, we look at shop windows and billboards...we look up. Our scanning and awareness has deteriorated to the point that any distraction can cause us to trip or step off of a curb.

My take on Vocal Architecture may seem a bit quirky, but it works. Become primitive man and look down and out to the horizon. Sing with a purpose, as if survival were hanging in the balance.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

How to Play the Bass

I was recently asked to write an article under the title, "How to Play the Bass." Personally, I think that a better title would be, "Why to Play the Bass." The twisted motives behind the "why's" make juicier reading than the "how's" anyday of the week. Well, I wrote the article and aimed it at the rank beginner but decided to spare the prey for another day (due to a gray area concerning rights of ownership). I will not, however, hesitate to bore readers of this blog with the aforementioned article. Maybe soon I'll get into the "why's" as well. A few people still have to die or move to Tibet before I can mention names though.

How to Play the Bass

The electric bass is a fairly new instrument developed and introduced in 1951 by Leo Fender. The electric bass or bass guitar was instantly popular among musicians who were playing bigger venues at louder volumes. It was much smaller and more durable than the string bass and became the bass of choice for many traveling bands.

Learning to play a musical instrument is much like eating good food. The process is best enjoyed one sensible mouthful at a time. Many young musicians bite off a huge mouthful, become frustrated, and put the instrument in the closet. I intend to keep things very simple and hopefully this article will inspire you play and enjoy the bass.

The first thing to do is to understand the function of the bass. The bass is part of the rhythm section of the band and cooperation with the drummer is of utmost importance. Listen to almost any song and you will hear and feel the interaction between the bass and drums. You will also find that the bass plays very simple parts but with a great degree of rhythmic accuracy. This interaction between the drums and bass is called "the groove" and it is the single most important factor in popular music.

Let's get physical. Sit on a comfortable stool or armless chair and hold the bass in playing position. Make sure that your feet are free to move, you're going to need them. Now count out loud, "one-and, two-and, three-and, four-and." Don't be self-conscious, every good musician started by counting out loud. Tap your right foot as you say "one" and "three." Tap your left foot as you say "two" and "four." Lean into each step as you count. The average pop song is under three minutes long so just count and tap for three minutes as the groove starts to take shape.

Let's break some musical barriers and concentrate on one string at a time. Play the lowest, fattest string on the bass. For right now, stroke or pluck the string with your finger, your thumb or a guitar pick. Whatever you use, try to make the string sound big and full. Let it ring and feel the low vibrations coming through the body of your bass. If you develop an appreciation for the way the bass feels, you can always practice with or without an amplifier.

Now, let's add playing the bass to our counting and tapping. Play the lowest string every time you say "one" while tapping your right foot. Take your time and be sure to feel the bass vibrate against your body. Now add a bass note every time you say "three" while tapping your right foot. As simple as this seems, playing long notes for three minutes at a time is very valuable practice and will help you to be a better musician.

By now, your counting and tapping should be feeling natural so let's add another bass note. Play a note as you say the "and" that comes between two and three. Your right foot will be up. If we use CAPITAL letters to indicate bass notes, your count looks like this: ONE-and two-AND THREE-and four-and ONE-and two-AND THREE-and four-and etc. Once again, take your time, count out loud and do this for at least three minutes. Remember that feel is everything.

After you can play/count/tap this pattern naturally, you can add your left hand to the equation. The bass neck is similar to the guitar but it is a larger scale. Many bass parts can be played using only the index and little finger of the left hand. Put your left index finger on the lowest string between the fourth and fifth frets. With your thumb on the back of the neck, put pressure on the string and play it. Try to make the note last by maintaining the pressure. This might hurt a bit at first but with repetition and practice, your note will sound big and full. Now, without moving your hand, put your little finger on the lowest string between the sixth and seventh fret. With your index finger still in position you should have a good grip on the bass. Apply pressure and play the note. Now go back and forth between these two notes and make each one sound good.

Let's put all of this together. Start your counting and foot-tapping. Remember to count out loud. Play the same pattern you played before. ONE-and two-AND THREE-and four-and. Now, each time you say "ONE" you will play a new note. Play the open string, then the note with your index finger and then the note with your little finger. Repeat this for the length of a pop song.

If you did everything in this article, you should have a good idea of what goes into playing the bass. If it appeals to you, dig in. There are thousands of sources for technical information but the most important source is you. Listen and Feel.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Lazy Is As Lazy Does

I have a thing about Laziness. It's the same attitude I have toward other human conditions like say, stupidity or addiction. To put it into Twelve step terms, I can love the afflicted person, but I hate the condition. I'm about to go off on a tangent here so if you don't want to read my version of self-evident truth, you are excused to turn on the TV and fill the void with bullshit.

Alright then, here is my rant on laziness. My theory rests squarely on the foundational fact that water seeks a level at which it will be at rest. Humans are seventy percent water. Physically we are, by definition, sedentary organisms. By using our minds, we can counteract our physical condition and act or react to our circumstances as required in order to improve the situation and once again find a spot where we can lay at rest. In other words, we do our best work in emergency situations.

Say that you are watching a show on TV. You're comfortable, there is a cold beer within reach, a bag of Chee-tos on your lap and a package of Ho-Hos next to you for dessert. You have no intention of moving when suddenly your ass bursts into flames! The emergency causes you to react and suddenly you become inventive. You discover by intuition that with a minimum of effort the flames can be extinguished with your beer. And as a thinking being, you will file this episode away under "emergency uses for beer."

If you think that the world of science is laboring away to discover new ways to make your life easy, stop kidding yourself. The vast majority of our daily conveniences were first developed as emergency measures. From table salt to video games, advancement in technology has been driven by two goals. 1. How to keep from getting killed so as to have the time to sit in front of the TV with beer, Chee-tos and cookies, and 2. How to kill everyone who is trying to disturb us from sitting in front of the TV with beer, Chee-tos and cookies. That's it in a nutshell.

The Space program was not developed to provide amusing video clips of astronauts eating blobs of floating food paste. It was developed for the same reason that the armed fortress was developed, to gain and hold the high ground against the enemy. As time passes and enemies become harder to invent, the more harmless technology of these developments filters down to the general population in the form of entertainment trinkets similar to the bucket full of shiny crap that ransomed the island of Manhattan from the original inhabitants.

As a musician, I have spent a lifetime using things that record and store the events that in ancient times would have existed only in the memory of those present at the time of performance. Magnetic tape, compact discs, floppy discs, memory chips, hard drives and all of the associated amplification and processing equipment were originally invented and developed for military use. Our table salt was originally used not to make popcorn taste better, but to preserve food so it could be transported over long distances to feed the armies while on their mission to kill everyone who was perceived as a threat to the right of the people to sit in front of the TV.

Pete, What the fuck are you talking about, you may well ask. Here is the thing. Being good at something, being good at anything requires hard work and practice. I accept that hard work and practice go against the grain of our natural disposition. Again, we only act decisively when faced with an emergency situation. So, in order to work hard and practice, we must invent a state of emergency. We must develop a sense of fear...fear of failure, fear of losing everything. Yes, almost any basketball player can make a freethrow...sometimes. Almost any teenaged guitar rod can play a blues lick convincingly...once or twice. Almost any American Idol hopeful can sing a high note...occasionally. But the player with a freethrow percentage in the eighties, B.B. King and the diva of the Met all have this in common. They worked hard and practiced as if their very lives were held in the balance. They developed their talent in a state of emergency. Their pain of failure was as real as if they were sitting in front of the TV and suddenly their ass burst into flames.

Occasionally, I may have a student ask me, "How much should I practice?" The mere asking of the question indicates a lack of fear and an inability to invent the state of emergency required for whatever success might lie ahead. To that student I say, "Practice as much as you think is necessary." But under my breath I say to myself, "Go get yourself a beer, some Chee-tos and cookies and park yourself in front of the TV. And when your lazy ass bursts into flames, you may be able to answer that dumb-ass question for yourself."

Declare a state of emergency...practice and work hard you lazy bastards!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Bass That Got Away

This is the story of the bass that got away. That's bass as in "ace" not "ass." This is not a fishing story, although the story does start on a river somewhere in the wilds of Indiana.

During the late eighties, I was working somewhere between 150 to 200 dates a year, most of them fly dates. We would go in and come out before anyone got hurt. At the time, I was playing my 1964 Fender Jazz bass and every trip my thoughts went to the unmentionable consequences of possibly losing or damaging the venerable old girl. Well, the unmentionable almost happened one day.

We landed at the Purdue, Indiana regional airport . My bass, along with some luggage belonging to the other passengers had not fit into the small plane, but I was assured that the missing pieces would arrive from Chicago and be brought to the venue in time. The car that was to take us to the gig was late so, to entertain myself, I hid the keyboard player's bag and had him paged to recover it at gate five. Then I had a pleasant hour watching him walk back and forth in the tiny terminal, searching for gate five. There were no gate numbers as there was only the one gate and designating it by number seemed pretentious. This has nothing to do with my bass, but the story serves to illustrate the sophisticated nature of our surroundings.

When we arrived at the gig for soundcheck, I had a foreboding feeling. The "venue" turned out to be a barge fitted out as an old-fashioned showboat. The soundcheck and show would both take place with the barge...and us, being towed up and down the river behind some sort of stinky popeye looking scow. Even If the bass was delivered to the hotel, it would not make it onto the barge/showboat in time.

I panicked. We decided to forego soundcheck and repaired to the bar when the bass player in the opening band stepped in and saved the day. He asked me what kind of bass I play and when I told him, he told me that he also played a Fender Jazz and that I was welcome to use his. He apologized for the fact that it wasn't a "vintage" instrument but I was relieved that the show could go on and thanked him for his kindness. Then it was drinks all around til showtime and a good time was had by all...until I watched the opening band and discovered that the bass player was LEFT-HANDED!

That was probably the longest show of my life! I played his bass allright, right-handed with the strings upside down. Talk about keeping it simple. I immediately decided that I needed a bass to take on the road that I didn't worry would get lost or stolen.

When I got back home, I went about the business of building a bass that would fill the bill. I wanted a Fender style body but decided on neck-through construction as this would probably be more stable with the bump and grind of traveling. I found a blank "second" at Performance Guitars for very little dough. I already had a great set of pick-ups that Seymour Duncan had been kind enough to let me try and had enough hardware around the house from other projects to finish the job. Instead of shooting the guitar with lacquer, I spent evenings rubbing boiled linseed oil into the wood with steel wool while watching Twilight Zone re-runs.

Well, when I got the bass together, I instantly fell in love. It felt, played and sounded very much like an old well-worn bass but with one exception. I had decided to build a five-string but with a right hand string spacing much like that of my old Fender. Turned out to be a sweetheart.

I put some real miles on that bass and was happy that the old Jazz was now safe at home while I was out gallivanting. One night at the Miami airport we were told that our flight would be delayed due to bad weather in Dallas where we were to connect to our LA flight. I was able to get the band on a direct flight home but our luggage had already been loaded. The agent assured me that our luggage would be in LA by morning and would be brought directly to our homes.

Upon landing in LA, I registered a "lost luggage" claim as instructed by the agent as this would facilitate the pieces being delivered. The next day, as promised, the airline called to say that four pieces were on their way to my house. When the delivery came, the driver put two clothes bags on my doorstep and asked me to sign an invoice for four pieces. When asked, he claimed that this is what was put on the truck and that was all he was to deliver. The worst had happened, and I knew that I would never see that bass again.

After complaining, screaming, begging and charming a path through every poor bastard with a phone that worked for Northwest Airlines, I ended up settling for a sum of money that would allow me to build a replacement which turned out to be the "Man's Bass" described in an earlier blog entry. But what started as a cheap bass for the road turned out to be a friend I lost forever.

I wish I could say that I hope whoever is playing her now is treating her well and making beautiful music...but I can't...I'm not built that way. I hope that the fuckhead who stole her tripped on the curb as he ran across the street and the anvil case caught him full in the nuts causing him to fall out of the line of sight of the septic tank clean-out truck that barely shuddered as it rolled over his skull, forcing his brains through his nostrils.

And that is the bass in the picture above...the one that got away.