Jun 302013

Recently I worked with one of my musician clients to practice for some radio interviews. Here are some of the things we worked on.

get in and get out. Time is precious when you are taking part in any audio or video interview. If it’s live, you won’t have much time to stop and fix your words. Become comfortable with making complete responses in little bites of ten seconds, twenty seconds, thirty seconds, one minute. Finally, practice answering questions in exactly one sentence.

Talk about one thing. How would you answer the question, “So tell me how you got started with music?” You could describe your mom’s singing to the car radio, the music at your neighborhood synagogue, and how you loved a certain Brahms record when you were in high school. Try saying one thing, not everything. “I heard a lot of great music going to synagogue as a kid.” That simple response says tons and will lead the interviewer toward questions about tangible, specific, and memorable things.

Simplify. Call yourself a jazz performer, even though that isn’t exactly who you are. Call your music “roots” even if you don’t quite enjoy that label. Let an interviewer refer to you as an “emerging” artist, though that might feel a little patronizing. Create a three-word phrase to describe your music. “Mellow Americana.” “Nineties country.” “Urban story songs.” It’s like having a business card, just a little something that helps you stick in people’s memories. You’ll also need some pithy, simplified phrases to describe your music when talking to presenters, DJs, producers, and so forth. Trust that the folks you are talking to will understand that the simplified verbiage is just a hint of something far more substantial, and you would give them more if only time would allow.

Perform. Think ahead about what you want to show of yourself, and what you will keep private. Just like performing on stage, you create your performer persona. Be engaging, interesting, provocative, fun–whatever you do to get your music out to your audiences will also carry well in an interview.

Expect bad questions. An interviewer might ask you about your love life, or might make an inappropriate joke about your age, gender, or ethnic background. Assume the worst and most awkward questions will come up sooner or later, so think ahead of how you will respond to them. You might go with, “I don’t have anything to say about that.” Or, “That’s an insulting thing to ask.” Or, “I don’t know what to say about that, but let me go back to what I was saying about my new CD … ”

In my coaching practice I work with musicians, writers, and other artistic people on practical things like preparing for interviews. I also help my clients find fulfillment and accomplishment in their creative endeavors. Drop me an email if you’d like to find out more about my creativity coaching services. I’d love to hear from you!

Jan 062012

There’s a rule for songwriters that I have heard from Jack hardy’s quotes: always take something positve when you listen to another performer.

This rule is not just another case of “because you should” or some similar vague guilt trip. I’m not a big fan of the imaginary mom who stands in your brain ready to evaluate what you are doing, just because.

No, this rule is very practical. If you focus on criticisms and negative parts of another person, then you walk away with nothing to add to yourself. “she talked too much about herself.” “He came across as a salesperson more than a musician.” and what do you gain for yourself?

But when you focus on finding some positive stuff from another performer, you then have a little reminder of what you can add to your own work.

  • “She talked too much, but her arrangements were very interesting. I need to get better at arranging my songs”
  • “His sales pitch was annoying, but his lyrics were clever and provocative. I want to spend more time polishing up the lyrics on my new batch of songs.”

I’m talking about musicians learning from other performers here in these examples, but You can pick up ideas for yourself from areas other than your own.

  • A novelist is listening to a rock band, and she is inspired by the dramatic shifts from loud to soft. She tries to employ some dramatic changes in tone while working on her next chapter.
  • a songwriter is really digging the characters in a spy novel. He tries doing some character and plot in his next batch of songs, making a deliberate move from abstract symbolism toward a narrative style.

Focus on what you like, and take something for yourself from the other guys.

Dec 022011

I had the opportunity to hear musician Suzanne Vega speak twice in November. Vega’s work is one of the strongest influences on my own songwriting and music, so it was a privilege to here her speak in person about her career and work.

First, she gave the keynote address at the northeast Regional Folk alliance in New York. She talked about the recent deaths of Bill morrissey and Jack hardy, who were her friends and supporters during her early years as a performer. These two helped her build her peer network, get out to play in more places, and held her to a high standard for her music.

Second, I attended a songwriters workshop by Vega in Washington DC. The workshop was set up to have three DC-area songwriters each present a song to the group, and then Vega would discuss the work with the writer. I expected her to be tough, critical, and encouraging. She was critical, and she was tough on one songwriter in particular who really didn’t appear to be ready for such a public grilling. But I was impressed with Vega’s warmth and genuine interest. She seemed to like the songs a lot more than I did, and she showed no sign of a “rock star” attitude.

Vega described how a good song is an idea that you can’t get rid of, something that sticks in your head and keeps bugging you until you have to finish it. that’s very different from my process, which is to capture lots of ideas so that I don’t lose them. she seemed to say that a writer could just lose a lot of ideas, because the really great ones would force themselves to stick in your brain. I can see both sides–take down all your ideas and inspirations, and review them later to find the few gems. But don’t tie yourself entirely to those notebooks and computer files, because a really good song will write itself over time.

One person at the DC workshop asked how he could become more comfortable and free as a performer. “Rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse,” was Vega’s answer. Another great reminder that practice is the number one ingredient for good music. How hard and how smart you work at your rehearsing determines how good you perform.

Vega pointed the audience at one of these events to Jack hardy’s songwriting manifesto. Here is a brief version of this set of ideals and instructions, well worth your pondering. Write a song every week. Get into the good stuff that other people are doing. Melody is half the song, so write melodies that stand without your guitar or piano. Spend some time reading and thinking about Hardy’s ideas, and you’ll learn how hard and how rewarding it is to be a songwriter.

Aug 242011

Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart are hard-working songwriters and musicians from Tennessee. They tour extensively, bringing their polished songwriting and personal warmth to their audiences with just their voices and acoustic guitars.

I interviewed Stacey and Mark via email about their work as musicians and life on the road. You can read more about them and purchase their music at their website.

How do you see your distinct personalities complementing each other in your

MS: When we met in 1992 I was spending more time with musicians (although I was also a songwriter). Stacey led me down a path where I was putting more time in to songwriting circles, most of them not being strong players. This helped me to emphasize the writing more in my career. Stacey did a stint as a staff writer, so, we were in that camp for several years. I probably helped steer her in to being a stronger musician.

How do you approach practicing? Do you take a spontaneous approach, or do you use scales, exercises, warm-ups in a more systematic way?

SE: We are onstage most of the year and that is our practice! But, it is a natural thing to pick up a guitar when we are home.

MS: I play when not on tour, but, other music and other instruments. I never really played scales as a practice method, just songs.

What is the most fun part of touring? What is the most fun part about
finally getting back home?

SE: The fun part is everything we see, persons we meet, and moments we experience from point A to B (show to show). When I get home I am playing “house” and gardening.

Where’s the best food in the U. S.? Europe?

SE: My favorite is San Antonio, TX (carne gasada!). In Europe it is Spain.

Have you experienced creative block or other obstacles? Where do you find
creative renewal during down times?

SE: I have for the first time in my life as a result of the loss of my dad. The renewal? I don’t know-I guess it will come with time.

MS: Booking dates, driving to them, and performing so much has taken up a lot of my creative space. I will have to fight my way out of it.

What went into the decision to sell your entire catalog with unreleased
tracks on the flash drive? How’s the reception been for the new medium?

MS: We had a lot of material that had never been heard by our audience. We thought it would be a great idea to couple that batch of songs with all of our CDs. And, this is seemingly the new age we are in.

SE: The reception has been great. It has brought an MP3 option to our merch table (vs. folks going home after a show and purchasing it on Itunes!). Where downloads are a great store, it has hurt merch sales at shows. This is money artists need for tour support.

What advice would you give to someone who admires your music and wants to build a musician’s career?

SE: Be prepared to give it 100%. That means you live on the road, away from your family and friends. And, you quit the security of your day job. It is all a great risk for the love of music.

MS: All of what Stacey said is true. You will not likely be a good plumber if you spend all of your time as a banker. This is a business, not a hobby, and has to be treated that way. The first time I went on tour at age 18 it was so liberating to be in a van all day and at a hotel and venue at night with several other people who were full-time musicians. We talked about it all of the time and did not have other influences pulling our energy away from our dream. There is no room for me to do this part-time because there are thousands of others doing it 24/7. I cannot compete with them unless I am serious about my career.

It’s been great having you come through northern VA the past few years.
Hope to see and hear you again very soon. Thanks!

Aug 112011

Here’s a practical article recently posted at voicecouncil.com. The article points out how a singer needs to change her approach when going from studio to stage. She’s got to make a bigger presence on stage and think on her feet to recover from mistakes and surprises. Right on.

This reminds me of an interview where Keith Richards said that Mick Jagger could work the tiniest spot on the tiniest stage when the Stones were starting out. Richards said that they played these little gigs where there was barely enough room to stand and play, but Mick would dance, spin, and do his magic anyway.

Of course those early rock days were different. Today gigs are tough to come by, and a lot of folks hone their skills in private practice settings. I’ve heard Larry Kirwan mention this recently too, how it’s hard to learn by gigging because the live music scenes ain’t what they have been in the past. Makes you appreciate people all the more when they put on a hot show and really get some fiery music going on a stage.


Jul 262011

In Moving To Higher Ground, Wynton Marsalis gives a concise, broad survey of jazz music and it history. The subtitle of the book is How Jazz Can Change Your Life, because he writes about his struggles to mature as an American through his experiences as a musician. It’s an interesting combination. Everything you need to know about jazz, plus one musician’s take on why jazz music matters.

On the jazz instruction side, Marsalis cuts through a lot of vague slippery stuff to explain the building blocks. Jazz is about freedom, and its musicians must explore and present their individual uniqueness to make the music come alive. Jazz is about swing, which means that the music thrives when performers and audience all feel a common pulse of rhythm. Swing is about community, and the musician who can’t or won’t play in time sticks out like a child having a tantrum. Marsalis also writes about blues as the emotional content and story of jazz. Anyone who takes a sober look at American history understands why blues is the central melody running through all American music.

The personal stuff in this book is just as precious as the conceptual material. Marsalis has so many great stories about how older musicians taught and humbled him. Dizzy asked him to play something for him when they first met, and the teen Marsalis gave it a try. Dizzy leaned close and whispered, “Practice, motherf’er!” Great stories like that all over the place.

Here’s the deal: If you’re a musician or jazz fan, you’ll get something out of this book. It’s instructive, entertaining, and it’s also a great reminder that you better stop trying to be the next Charlie Parker or whoever. Grow, be humble, play your music, play good music. That’s a pretty good approach to things, don’t you think?

Jul 192011

In The Inner Game of Music, Barry Green has a great chapter on integrating the analytical and intuitive sides of the musician’s mind.

Some musicians play from intuition, searching for expressions of beauty, passion, shock, sadness, and joy. The intuitive performer sometimes sounds sappy, gushy, corny, or sloppy because pitch, rhythm, and consistent control are not his foremost concern.

Other musicians are analytical, focusing on playing the notes correctly according to the marks on the page. The extreme form of the analytical musician functions like a musical robot, turning out sounds mechanically while suppressing all creative, human, emotional output.

Most musical kids grow up in the analytical path. They are scolded for inventing noises and improvising on their instruments. Band practice is about playing the correct notes and watching the director. Some kids sit there hardly making a sound so they will not get yelled at.

The intuitive kids are the ones who teach themselves how to play guitar or piano because they are fans of so-and-so. Sometimes there is a pride in being sloppy and untrained. I have met musicians who brag about not being able to read music and not even knowing the names of notes.

The struggle between intuitive and analytical can lead to performance problems. For example, imagine a musician is very intuitive when practicing. She enjoys practicing, enjoys exploring the music, and feels satisfied with her progress in getting more comfortable with her material. But when a performance comes along, she suddenly feels panic. Her analytical mind starts taking over, fueled by a sudden nervous surge of on-stage excitement. “How does that piece start?” “How fast should I play that thing?” “Am I playing that high part in tune?” It’s like having a committee meeting where one important member is brought in at the last second for a vote, but that member complains, “I don’t know what we’re voting on!”

Performance problems can come up for the analytical musician as well. SShe practices precisely, plays with sharp focus, good timing, and the correct articulations. When a performance comes along, she faces her intuitive mind, aroused from its hibernation by on-stage excitement. “What are all those people in the audience going to feel?” “Am I really ready for this?” “What if I sound boring?”

When practicing, notice which area you tend to emphasize. Are there ways to balance the analytical and intuitive sides in your practice?

Think about one of the music teachers you have had. Did that teacher have an emphasis on analytical or intuitive? Or did the teacher show a balance between the two, providing both structure and spontaneity?