The dos and don'ts of honing your craft during cold, dark days.
What do musicians do when winter comes? There's an old set of metaphors that's apropos involving, for some reason, wood; your instrument is your
"axe" and, as you take those long cold nights off to practice, you build your "chops," intensively "woodshedding" so you can wow the crowds of expectantly surly tourists and jaded locals come next summer. I once knew a rock drummer who took an entire winter in the woodshed, perfecting various stick twirling and flipping routines to incorporate into his epic drum solos. Sadly, though perhaps somewhat predictably, he passed away in a bizarre gardening accident come spring.
I also knew a guitarist who accepted several cozy solo fireside nouveau flamenco hotel lounge gigs during the winter, yet longed for the return of her job waiting tables over the busy summer months. This remarkable musician had surely found the path to artistic happiness: dreading her involvement in her creativity and anticipating with great excitement being relieved of her Muse.
Winter can be an inspiring time of planning new projects, taking up a new instrument, or even forming a new band. I have a file stuffed full of ideas for projects, all of which seemed perfectly feasible last January but none of which have materialized. To wit-a rock opera-slash-circus version of TS Eliot's
; a gamelan-inspired Jungian archetypal cabaret wherein characters such as The Crone and The Emperor offer scathing indictments of contemporary society; an adaptation of St. Augustine's
for madrigal chorus, didjeridoo and solo bassoon.
As for taking up a new instrument, there are many highly accomplished private teachers in Santa Fe who offer lessons at reasonable rates on a wide variety of instruments. Winter is the perfect time to finally start learning fiddle, or banjo or harmonica: Not only will you be in great demand by the Axis of Bluegrass (and or alt.country, roots, western ironic two-step shuffle) but you can re-enact various Pioneer Days scenes in your living room, perhaps reducing those high heating bills by dismantling your furniture with a literal axe and reveling in the ensuing festive warmth. I'm sure there are many such campfire nights all over town where the vocalizing, fiddling and banjoing provide a sweet anodyne against a dark, cruel world.
Choosing a music teacher is a serious matter, however, somewhat akin to finding the right therapist. The encounter between human and musical instrument has been the breeding ground for insecurities, neuroses, and frustration, if not incapacitating rage, for eons. In fact, it is recommended by experts that, at the same time that you are shopping around for a private music teacher, you also should be looking for a therapist. Whether or not you choose this thorough approach, do try to select a teacher who is patient, knowledgeable and usually sober. I once studied classical piano with a woman who had me engaged in Tantric breathing exercises for eight months, and never allowed me near a piano. She was also given to sudden rages. Though I indeed learned much, I would not recommend such an unconventional path for the beginner. You will want a teacher who is friendly, who will work with you on the fundamentals of your instrument, and who will occasionally let you have your fun. If you find you have been practicing the C major scale for five months, for example, yet your teacher insists you must resolutely press on, articulating that same scale with ever greater perfection at every conceivable tempo and in every imaginable rhythmic figure, you have probably found an ideal guide.
However, this raises the very important question of technique versus heart. Do you have little innate musical talent, no sense of rhythm or pitch, and does all music sound essentially the same to you? If so, you will want to work with a teacher who drills you unrelentingly in clever patterns and intricate figures. There are a vast number of admired professional and semi-professional musicians for whom an almost total lack of natural musical ability has posed no apparent obstacle. They are fast, tricky and sometimes loud, and appeal to crowded audiences. If, on the other hand, you have a reservoir of inborn musical passion, and if you are awash in auditory bliss at many interludes of transcendent ecstasy throughout your day, you must find an equally poetic teacher. If your prospective instructor denigrates technique, urges you to "express yourself," and says things like "there are no wrong notes," you have probably found the right fit. Of course, the finely interwoven marriage of technique and heart, of facility on your instrument and originality of musical expression, is the most difficult path of all, and not recommended.
Perhaps you have already gained enough knowledge and skill to play reasonably well in the musical styles of your choice. Or maybe you are simply charming, handsome or hot, and know two or three chords. If so, winter is a great time to begin forming a new band. (A side note-the word "band," according to the
Dictionary of Alternative Etymology
, perhaps originated from the same root as the word "banned," or even more likely, "bound," as in tied closely together with ample lengths of rope and/or imprisoned). There are many reasons why winter is the right time to form a band. First and foremost, many local musicians have retired bitterly from the scene, vowing to get real jobs and permanently pack away their dreams of musical success. This annual cycle provides a twofold boon-on the one hand, some musicians respond very well to newly awakened hopes when they are the most depressed and, on the other hand, there is less competition. For example, on average, during the summer months, there are roughly 732 working drummers in Santa Fe. This number drops to approximately four over the winter.
In general, there are two sorts of bands. Cover bands exist largely to do ill-executed and unimaginative live performances of music that is instantly familiar, was popular many years ago and was usually also poorly executed to begin with. Consequently, these bands get an enormous amount of work, so if you start a cover band get ready for a busy local and touring schedule. Original bands try the
opposite approach, writing all of their own songs. Oddly, audiences and critics alike generally respond to original bands by comparing them to bands they probably should be covering, or at least learning from. Sometimes, however, truly original music comes along created by dedicated and creatively intelligent musicians. Audiences and critics are usually conspicuously absent from such performances. These sorts of creative activities make an excellent hobby, however.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the jam band. So, um, there's jam bands.
At any rate, if you have decided you will spend this winter putting together
new band, you will need to know the proper and most effective ways of communicating with musicians. If, for example, a prospective band member is alert, well-spoken, unusually organized and answers the phone before noon, you will want to pass. This is obviously a person with no musical ability, a poser and interloper. Unless this person happens to play keyboards, in which case such behavior is inevitable. Keyboard players are very detail-oriented, as their work requires them to know
chords and melodies, not to mention key signatures, tempo markings and all manner of other "old school" musical esoterica. Guitarists really ought to be similar to keyboardists in this regard, but seldom are. In fact, in speaking with a guitarist about your new band it is best to provide strong guidance while appearing to be asking the guitarist to lead the band. If you plan on having more than one guitarist, you must steel yourself for endless noodling solos and musically pointless bombast, not to mention offstage rancor. As these are all part of eventual commercial success, it might be worth your initial discomfort.
Perhaps the most difficult musician with whom to communicate is the drummer. Though the old stereotypes of the wild, Dionysian, almost savage persona of the drummer have been partly overthrown through the wonders of modern anti-seizure medications (not to mention the lovable example of the new kinder, gentler Tommy Lee combined with the postmodern feminization of the arts), it is still necessary to make careful preparations for the encounter. Fortunately, many drummers are slightly more lethargic in the winter. Speak and move slowly, be absolutely clear on what kind of drummer you are seeking and work to keep the conversation focused. Your prospective drummer will probably be unable to avoid taking the conversation on all sorts of irrelevant tacks and a certain amount of patience will serve you well. In fact, the more hopping about and shouting things like "I could build a whole house out of just offbeats!" the drummer engages in, the better.
Winter for musicians is a time of reflection, practice and planning. Whether you intend to use your down time to woodshed, learn a new axe, finally get that rock opera finished, or put together the next Foghat, use your time wisely and creatively.
Peter Breslin is, in fact, a drum teacher and plays drums for BING!