Saturday, October 16, 2004

A note about music.

In November of 2003, I turned 30. This happens to most people, if all goes well. Also like most people, I went through a bit of angsting over not having achieved great things by the time I turned 30. One of the things that was nagging at me was that I wasn't in any real way involved with music.

To give a little background: when I was growing up, I took lessons on piano and cello (and also violin and clarinet, but those went by the wayside fairly quickly). My parents are major classical music aficionados, and both play instruments, so it was only natural that I would play something too. They tried to get me started pretty young first, I suppose on the off chance I was a protege or something (always worth checking, eh? ;) I wasn't, and it was a few more years before I really took any instrument seriously. I can't remember exactly when I finally succeeded in begging out of taking piano lessons - maybe around age 13-14? I played cello in the Newfoundland Symphony Youth Orchestra for a good few years, and finally quit when I started university. I quite enjoyed cello, and was pretty decent, but nothing spectacular.

I didn't really listen to any rock music until I was about 13 or 14, when a friend got me into Sting, Peter Gabriel, and R.E.M. While I was living at home, though, it wouldn't really have seriously occurred to me to take up a rock instrument. Even if it did, I probably would have thought it would hurt my parents' feelings to switch to rock, and wouldn't have made the move. In the meantime, though, I went to a lot of local shows and concerts. In retrospect, I see I should've gotten more involved with musicians or sound crews - but I've always seen myself as somewhat bumbly and awkward, and rock musicians and sound crews always seemed so cool and unapproachable. (I didn't wear nearly enough black to talk to them.)

Eventually I decided I needed to try something. In late 2000, while I was living on Long Island, I bought a Roland XP-30 synthesizer and started mucking about with it (the link is to an ancient blog/journal I kept of the process). But I was working in a void - I didn't know anybody else who I could ask about keyboards and electronic music. I wrote a few songs, liked some things about them, disliked other things, didn't really play keyboards very well in the first place, knew nothing about the technology, felt very dissatisfied with the whole thing, and when we moved in 2002 I never got around to unpacking the keyboard (partly because we didn't have space for it, but...)

I felt that my biggest problem was that I didn't have any contact with other musicians, couldn't bounce ideas off anyone or learn from them. I also don't think I'm a particularily good songwriter. I can write decent lyrics, but my melodies always seem kind of insipid and uninspired to me. I suppose with time and practice they'd improve, but, again, I needed feedback.

I also wanted to sing - I have a decent voice and really enjoy singing. But people out there who have decent voices and really enjoy singing are a dime a dozen. I don't think I have an overwhelming artistic "vision" or "drive" with which to lead a band yet, either - plus with my complete inexperience in the rock world, who'd need me?

I got tired of standing on the sidelines waiting for something to happen, and made the decision to learn bass a little over a year ago. It seemed like the natural choice, having been a cellist; it's the "low end", it's not the most attention-seeking instrument, and it's a little easier to sing & play at the same time (though that's still a challenge for me a lot of the time!). Guitar wasn't right for me since I don't expect to ever be truly fantastic at my instrument, as I'm not a professional and I haven't been immersed in it since being a teenager; an average bass player is still more useful and tolerable than a mediocre guitarist. And turning 30, I realized that if I want something to happen, I've got to do something to set it in motion.

I took some lessons, got competent and confident enough after a few months to advertise online to see if there was a band who could use a rank amateur bassist. And then I broke my right wrist and was out of commission for about two months. Just before I got my cast off, I got an email from a guy at UBC - a guitarist in a band made up of UBC graduate students and ex-graduates - whose bassist was moving to Norway. Once my arm healed up, I met up with them and we've been getting together to play about once a week every since.

This has really been exactly what I need - low-pressure supportive environment with the occasional opportunity to play out somewhere, where everybody has a day job that they expect to keep. We play a nice range of covers, and everybody's around the same level. We have a lead singer, but myself and the two guitarists occasionally do some singing too. This is also perfect for me right now - I can only sing & play at the same time if the bassline is pretty simple, and I'm happy to not always be in the spotlight at the moment. *grin* On top of everything, everyone's great - easy to get along with, really super people.

Anyway, the reason I'm going on about all this today is that last night we had our first gig at a UBC party of about 100 people or so. 3 of the other 4 have played before with two other musicians, but it was our first show ever all together, and my first rock gig ever. It went, I'd say, really well - a few rough patches that we sort of knew were coming (I mangled a Smiths bassline that I just learned last week), some great moments where everything just came together beautifully ("Other Side" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers). I sang Radiohead's "Creep" and "There There" and it all worked nicely. Our second set was better than the first; also enhanced by the fact that it was more upbeat anyway and people were drunk enough to start dancing and singing along. I hadn't really given a whole lot of thought to what the audience would be like; it was nice that we were good enough to dance to, I think. :)

One of the guitarists had a friend at the party who I guess at some point was a professional guitarist, and he joined us for a third impromptu set. This was a bit of a weird experience for me - partly because the guy was pretty damn good and had a real energy that the rest of us are still somewhat lacking; I know for my part I'm not perfectly confident in my playing and so I guess I don't really throw myself into it like a professional. He also had some of that "lead guitar ego" which I'd never directly experienced - I was a bit bemused, not quite sure how to react when he took my bass from me and started playing it because I didn't know the bassline for "Jumping Jack Flash". (He did, in exchange, hand me a guitar and say "You can play, right?" - which I can't...) It was educational, in any case, both a little good and a little bad. And hell, I'm in this to learn.

So I've finally played my first gig in a rock band, about a year after setting out to do so. It's something I've wanted to do for quite a while. It's a good feeling. I like accomplishing major goals now and then. So where do I want to go with this now?

  • More gigs, obviously - it's fun and it's essential. (Though maybe starting out at age 30 wasn't the best lifestyle choice - late nights can really mess with my sleep cycle...) Someday, maybe, we can play on an actual stage.

  • Becoming a better player - practice practice practice, and a few more lessons here and there from a variety of teachers. I doubt I'll ever be truly "great", but I can always be better.

  • I want to be involved with original music - I'd be happy just writing my bassline (as long as I like the music and lyrics, of course ;)

  • I still want to learn more about electronic music and sound production. I'm taking a course through Continuing Studies on ProTools in a few months. I suspect it's overkill for what I need, but since I'm UBC staff I get a tuition waiver, and I do have access to a ProTools system so I might just be able to make use of it. I would also like to learn some things like Reason and Live. I'd like somebody who understands it to step me through some of it. I'd like to collaborate with someone.

  • I do dream of being lead singer of something someday. Not our band right now - I don't want to take Jen's job, she's doing great! I don't really have any huge expectations... but I do dream.


At 11:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Grats on the first gig! I wanna see you play next time I'm there.

If you want software for the home, you could try Logic Express. I haven't worked with music software since I was in school (and I much prefer messing around with old Moog synths when I get a chance anyway), but I remember it being plenty powerful for someone who doesn't need all of the funcionality of ProTools or Logic.

GarageBand is cool too (and cheap), but it's not very useful for drummers, so I can't recommend it. ;)

I recently dropped out of my band for various reasons. But I founded a straight-ahead jazz quintet (I sincerely hope the other guys don't name the group after me). None of us are very good, or we've lost our jazz chops since graduating, but that's kind of what I was hoping for - a low-pressure situation with a bunch of people I get along with, taking things slowly, with the primary goal of becoming better jazz players. Right now, we're just getting together once a week and reading charts out of the Real Book.

It's funny, because it's very similar to the situation I was in when I first entered music school, which caused me to abandon jazz and study classical music.



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