Monday, March 29, 2010

Day 263 of Practice: On Musical Success

Sometimes our minds get to odd places, and there are no bread crumbs to take us back home. Today my mind got to ramblin' about success. I don't know how it got to thinking that way. Let us get to retracing our steps.

The scene: Bedtime stories are being read upstairs and rain is splattering off a gutter outside the office window.


Our heroine walks down the practice room (um... the basement Irish bar) not to practice but to find that bottle of red that's been sitting there on a shelf. All she wants is to pour a nice glass of wine and sit at the computer to write away a rainy Monday. And she thinks, as she looks around the practice space, "Hey, maybe I should be practicing right now. Wouldn't a real musician want to be practicing now?"

Yes, they would. The ones who are famous and successful, that is. But what about the ones who are just doing it for a living, getting by, and enjoying the ride? The successful, not famous ones?

Act II.

Get philosophical. Our heroine rubs her goatee, sips her brandy, lights her pipe, leans back on her elbow patches, and ponders: "What is success?"

It is a particularly scary question to ask of the person who got voted "Most Likely to Succeed" in high school. Me and Harold. For the yearbook photo shoot, they shoved handfuls of Monopoly money into our hands and told us to smile. We thought it was utterly ridiculous, and the photo proves it. Averted eyes, smirks, and general annoyed bewilderment. It's one of those photos that the more vain would have burned, the more perceptive would have laughed with, and the more oblivious would ignore. Or mock. Perfect. At 18, making a mockery of success.

To the matter at hand, practice. It's been 263 days of a daily practice campaign, and success at this point would mean what? That I've practiced every day? Have I? Have you? (If so, may I kiss your feet?) I have not, but I certainly do it more than I ever did. And I have become much better friends with my flute and my sax. So much so that I don't even feel guilty asking to borrow money from them anymore.

Does that mean success? Dunno. Life would be so much easier if it were black and white. (For some it is, and we have special television stations set aside for their viewing pleasure.)

Questions remain. How do we define success: progress or achievement? How do we recognize success: material possessions or the unerring maintenance of transcendent values? How do we manifest success: spend money or share smiles?

Don't bother answering. I think I already know, and that, for me, is success.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Day 261: Think You Can. It works.

Well, it's one of those nights when I'm in danger of going on and on about how wonderful everything is. So I'll spare you, and instead share some photos from today's CD release party with Debbie and Friends.

It was a day for yet another hat, today the hat of "backup sax and whistle girl" in Debbie and Friends, a children's band. Not Irish, not "world" music... just music. For kids. Happy. Smile a lot. Do the motions. Be joyous!

Continuing yesterday's reflections on authenticity....At last: Here's the place where "authenticity" doesn't matter, but being genuine does. Here was the place where I could play the Irish whistle and not worry if I sounded "Irish" enough because I was playing bluesy riffs on a C Susato whistle, over a gospel-flavored song about the Little Engine That Could. See, it didn't matter whether it was Irish or not. What mattered was the fact that the whistle was in conversation with powerhouse vocalist Darcel Wilson, whose voice was so beautiful that she made half the band cry during soundcheck.

You see? That's what matters...the message: "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...." Because, well, sometimes you really can. Just try.

Check out Darcel's singing on "I Think I Can" at Debbie's website.

Special thanks to everyone who came out to the show! You are what makes it all worth it.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Day 260: Traditional Music and Authenticity Redux

Last night, in a preconcert talk with Caravan, my improvisational trio, someone asked the question: "What is the hardest part of being a musician?"

My answer: Dealing with self-doubt.

This is not specific to musicians, of course. The writer Sylvia Plath one said, "The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."

Self doubt limits you, keeps you closer to the trunk and less far out on the limb, interferes with your ability to create freely because you're judging everything as it happens, and impedes your focus on the music. That little voice in your head sometimes speaks louder than the music you're playing. (By the way, the opposite is just as damaging. If that little voice is saying "Look at how great I am!" the audience will hear it, too, and they will vote.)

The world music trio presents a variety of opportunities for self-doubt. What we do is play music from numerous cultures and improvise on them. The problem is that each of these musics represents a discipline unto itself. A serious musician in any of the styles we play--Irish traditional, Brazilian baiao, African drumming, Middle Eastern, Indian devotional music, Turkish dance--spends a lifetime mastering his or her craft. It would be insulting to any of those traditional musicians to project that any one of our pieces is "authentic" to that particular tradition. What we do instead is borrow one or two organizing principles for each piece, then make music--improvised music guided by these organizing principles but informed by all of our collective musical influences.

For example, we opened last night with an Indian devotional piece. What was Indian about it was two things: the sound of the Sruti box, a drone machine that imitates the drone of the traditional tambura, and the organizational structure: starting on long, low notes and meditating on sound, gradually rising in pitch and intensity, then coming back down and returning to what you might think of as the "om." From the Indian side, we borrowed three things: the scale mode and tonality of the piece, the instrument (Sruti box), and the structure. But the ornamentation and the melodic ideas? All our own, informed by classical, Irish, jazz, Brazilian, and everything else all three of us have listened to all our lives. Our instrumentation: clarinet, soprano sax, classical guitar, and dumbek. Not Indian instruments. And the spirit of the piece and its inspiration: neither Indian nor anything else. Just human.

I have asked in rehearsal, in playing all of these styles, are we just "faking it?" Salil Sachdev, the drummer, related a story from a bass player he met at an improvisational conference he attended in Australia. Someone asked her about her influences. Her answer was, "You play what you are."

And perhaps that is a wiser view of authenticity: Play what you are. If you are playing in a traditional context, within a traditional style--for example, an Irish session--then one must follow certain rules: ornamentation, repertoire, instrumentation. But if one is in a free context that allows exploration, then the honest musical thing to do is to be honest and musical. Authenticity then is a question of being, not of adherence to musical genus and species.

There are several definitions of authentic. When we apply the idea to a thing, then authentic means that something is made just like the original; it is neither false nor an imitation. But we can also apply this to a human being, we mean that they are real, honest, genuine, not false, and steadfast. In good faith and sincere in intention.

And that's it: If one is sincere in intention, then there is no room for self-doubt.

That's where genre boundaries fade and music is made.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Day 259: More Tree than Boy

In the children's story The Velveteen Rabbit (Or How Toys Become Real), a toy rabbit asks the nursery elder, the disheveled old Skin Horse, how to become real.

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

Beautiful. But I beg to differ. Being loved is easy. Try loving others instead. When you can truly love others... not because they are beautiful and shiny and new, but despite the fact that they are poor, disheveled, old, torn, and leaking stuffing: That's when you prove you are real.

This health care debate has my heart broken. Not because I am Republican, Democrat, or anything in between. It has me bothered because people that I like very much, my friends, are saying things like, "Why should I have to pay extra to take care of someone else?"

Maybe I'm missing something here.

I haven't been to church in years, I don't pray, and I am not much of a Christian to speak of. But I did spend a lot of years in church as a child and I forged a moral or two that I can't seem to erase. Here's one: "Whoever cares for the least among us shall inherit the kingdom of heaven." I believe in neither heaven nor hell, but I understand what this means: caring for others is the right thing to do. Why do I feel so crazy because I am willing to shoulder some financial burden so that everyone can live in some sense of security? Yes, I know the new law is not perfect. But it's an important step, don't you think?

This next story is from the Bible, but it belongs to neither Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, nor Hindu. It is universal:

In his last days with his disciples, Jesus told a parable about a king who wanted to know if he could be considered righteous or not. Jesus responded that what defines the righteous is their actions: whether they have fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, visited the prisoner. (Matthew 25: 31-46, if you care.)

How can it be that a nation that prides itself on its Christian morals brand as near-Communists those who believe that the least among us deserve equal access to basic services? How is it that we have instead adopted what feels to me like a somewhat irresponsible mantra: "God helps those who help themselves"? Ah, if only life were so simple.

Dear Religious People:

It turns out that God helps everyone, and if there is a God, I bet he favors those who are willing to help everyone, too.

Love, Sue

When Jesus gave water to the prostitute at the well, he didn't turn his back on her because he suspected that she was milking the system. He didn't chide her because she'd allowed herself to be thirsty for too long. He didn't ask her whether she'd TRIED to find water. He didn't tell her it was her own damn fault that she didn't have a cup. He just helped her. He was compassion. He saw need, and he obliged.

A better model for love, for me, is The Giving Tree... the book that is so painful to read that I cringe every time my daughter asks me for it. The tree loves a boy his entire life, from when he swung on her branches for play, til he cut them off to build a house, burned her trunk to keep warm, then used her stump to rest.

Stupid tree!

But you know... maybe not so stupid tree. Despite the boy's awful abuses, she loved him the entire time. Why? Well, perhaps she thought it was the right thing to do, and so she did it with dignity. The tree did not pick the easy route. Would you?

If you had a choice, which would you rather be: tree or boy?


In searching for the Bible verse, I found this wonderful article online, by Bill McKibben, from Harper's: "The Christian Paradox: How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong." Check it out.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Day 258 of Practice: Music and Passion

Good morning. Lots of video today, and also yesterday (see yesterday's entry for that!)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about quality vs. quantity in repertoire. To illustrate my point, I posted a video titled "Communist Calisthenics," which showed a group of young Chinese women doing their morning calisthenics in office attire. Of course, what I meant by this is: when you learn and play tunes, make sure you're not just "going through the motions"--getting all the right notes in order, playing at the right time... but neglecting the beautiful music and phrasing that happens underneath. It's one thing to know a lot of tunes; it's another thing entirely to be able to make music with them.

Someone shared this video with me yesterday. Benjamin Zander discussing classical music, and in it, he addresses the critical role of the performer in empassioning one's audience. He's funny, engaging, and also incredibly insightful. It's a 20-minute video; it's worth every second, even if you are not a musician. For the nonmusician audience, he addresses how to listen to music to get the most enjoyment out of it, and he also places the responsibility on the musician: to think of the music for its message, and to deliver it so. (If this link doesn't work or comes out too small for your screen, visit and search for Ben Zander.)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Day 257: Some video from Saturday

Hiya folks. Finally, a little bit of video to share from Saturday night's concert! Check it out. Poor Sean Brennan gets cut out because of the Blogger layout, so you can also try clicking on this link and going directly to YouTube:

Monday, March 22, 2010

Day 256: Singing for Health Insurance

Some of us are talkers. In Lindsays gigs, guess who the talker is. Then, on Saturday, I watched Stanley and Grimm, and again... the talker was evident. I said to Sean Brennan, vocalist and raconteur, that he and I had better not do any duo gigs together, or we'd abandon the music altogether and end up running a radio talk show. His response, "So Sue... what do think about the health care bill?"

I said nothing, of course, because I don't talk politics. But today I think I will say something. From the musician's standpoint: HOORAY. From the point of view of a couple who wants to be self-employed, follow our dreams, make our life happen the way we want to, while knowing that our family will be taken care of if one of us gets sick: HOORAY. If things go well in Senate on Tuesday, then maybe we can.

The Irish 50-pound note used to have a piper on its reverse. IMagine that... a MUSICIAN on currency? And as if that weren't enough, they also had James Joyce and maybe Yeats, too, on other ones. Poets, writers, and musicians! Imagine living in a country that chooses artists as its national symbols... AND that has a health care system in place that will support them, never mind the whole artists-don't-pay-income taxes thing... I'm surprised we haven't moved over there already.

Today, I feel a little jubilant: I'm sure that no one in Congress was thinking about Irish musicians (we MIGHT have had a chance with aul Teddy), but still: this seems like it could be a victory worth celebrating.

If this bill goes through, it will make life in artistic households immensely easier. We can maintain our 55 jobs, work for ourselves, and pursue music the way we want to, with no fear for the health and well-being of our little person. That, my friends, would be amazing. Frankly, it's almost unimaginable... I have a hard time believing that it might actually happen. But if it does, expect a whole bunch of very happy musicians out there in the world on Wednesday morning.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Day 255: Spring Means Infestation

Good morning, good morning! We know it's spring in Plymouth when the black swarm returns. It's sunny, it's warm, and it's time for ants, mosquitoes, bees, and Harleys. The largest of the black flying insect species, Harleys make nests in four key spots, according to subspecies: the partyboy bikers park at T-Bones, the ex-alcoholic bikers park at Dunkin' Donuts, the executives who trade the white collars for black leathers-on-Sunday park at the ice cream shop, and the married couple bikers are at CabbyShack... We've got a swarm here, folks. Someone call Terminix.

On the musical side: It's been a little more perspiration than inspiration lately, I know... not too much insight or wit coming from Soul Mama lately... but allow me to be newsy not meaningful just one more day before you begin to think that this really is all about me:

The Lindsays had a great night at the Navigator Coffeehouse in Falmouth last night. If you like acoustic music, then most definitely get yourself onto their mailing list. It's run by musicians Manny and Linda Diaz, a married couple who also performs together in a duo (Jeesh, some people... ).

Last night, we played the opening set, followed by a set from Nikki Engstrom and Sean Brennan in Stanley and Grimm, then we all came together at the end of the show for three pieces as a a powerpak four-piece... seemed to be everyone's favorite part of the night, including ours!

As Sean says, we've been dancing around the supergroup idea, so watch this space for more four-piece collaborations. Also, watch this space because the Falmouth Enterprise shot some video and they'll be posting it soon.

It's a great life, I tell you! And this WEATHER.... glorious! But where's my OFF?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Day 253: Our camera went to Quincy. In the meantime, a poem.

Sigh. You'll get pics, eventually. Our camera is getting a couple days away on its own, albeit the floor of Brian Haley's car is not a well-known vacation spot. In the meantime, how 'bout a poem from Kevin Harrington?

A Pint for St. Patrick

One vision as i hang about
Enraptured by a fall of stout:
Before the barkeep in this place
Myself with legends, some of the greats.
Handle's down for to let pass
A stormy dream from brass to glass.
Place is packed with gal and gent
Round tables live with merriment.

Parnell and Davitt here now and chewin
It's in their glass a gale is brewin.
There's Michael Collins, Emmet and Tone
While in a corner with Maude Gonne
Yeats is working on his Easter poem.

Watch Christy Moore and Bob O'Dylan
Click two pints and start to chillin.
As just in from the land of free
Is Clinton, Curley and the Kennedys.

Willie Shakespeare has been known to scrawl
His lengthy poems upon the wall
Even some times on the men's room stall.
And Christ himself 'tis said came out
When the favored brew was runnin out
And told the Keep:" pour them more stout!"

Coleman of course has hand to bow
As Paddy Carty has flute to blow.
Bono and Van the Man bang in
With a blind guy named O'Carolan.
Now the piper Keenan's 'bout to start
When a sudden gust gives crowd to part
And standin there with staff in hand
Is the saint who chased snakes from the land.
His beard is long; his bare feet dirty
Convertin druid's made his aul' throat thirsty...

...Now a jarring jar upon the bar
Might remind a person of whom they are
But just 'fore this is takin place
It's up there speaks Jim Joyce to Yeats
" A Drink this Good is Worth the Wait."

K. Harrington March 2010

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Day 252, Part II: The Day After

9 pm on the day after, and the Lindsay ladies are cuddled up on the couch, watching a Disney movie. Not quite sure how I’m still semi-upright, as this is the 36th hour without sleep now… too keyed up last night to sleep, after a blast of a day sans beer, playing music with the love of my life and one of our best friends. My throat is hoarse from singing, fingers sore from playing, and legs are sore from dancing. It’s not such a bad life.

Photos of the day will be posted on our Facebook Fan page, and please do stop by that page if you want a laugh…. quick while the shamrock glow is still on ya. Also we’ll post some video of Steve singing “Raglan Road.” Just as soon as we find our camera, that is.

It was a day among days, driven by the inspiration of Denya’s words, “Remember, we chose this life.” Also mucho inspired by this video, shared by Rob Pemberton, our friend who’s engineering our CD. Watch Billy Preston, and you can’t possibly have a bad day. It worked for me. (By the way, the edge is cut off because of the layout of Blogger... if you want to see the FULL wide video, which you really must, visit this link.

Ah, you shoulda seen me in my pigtails, shamrock knee socks, and motorcycle boots busting these moves on "Dirty Old Town."* St. Patrick woulda been proud. But not our babysitter. She looked me up and down as we were leaving and told me I looked like a bag lady. You gotta have thick skin to get by in this town.

Day 252: Kiss Me, I'm Tired.

Oh, the day after. We had so much fun playing yesterday, and the only reason I'm not being annoyingly effusive is that, well, I'm really tired. Later, I'll post a few photo highlights of the day... you know, people wearing silly green hats with their arms around each other... that kind of stuff.

A great night, and I kept thinking that all the practice has really paid off. The flute and sax played THEMSELVES last night; all I had to do was stand there and look fun.

By God, I think it mighta worked, too.

Thanks so much to friends who came out to see us!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Day 251: Kiss Me, I'm Not Irish!

Happy St. Patrick's Day to you from one G. I. G. (Genuine Irish Guy, still sleeping) and his companion outcross (Irish greyhound language for MUTT)!

This is a day we've been waiting for, and honestly, I practically ran to the computer to wish you a happy day. Since St. Pat's became a heavy duty working day for me about fifteen years ago, I've noticed that there are two kinds of St. Patrick's Days: balmy and sunny (hooray, spring is here!) or snow (damn that groundhog). In the end, I do believe the little fuzzy b#$#rd was right... it's been six weeks since he emerged in Punxatawney, Penn., and guess what: Six weeks later, we've got spring!

What's it like to be a musician today? Well, for me: I woke up and my heart was jumping. Two gigs today, comprising just over 12 hours of the day, the first thing I did after putting on the coffee pot was to make a to-do list on the back of an envelope that last week delivered a St. Patrick's Day card from Ireland.

Oh, the list? Yeah, that. It is not short. I'm thinking about how many hours of music we need to put together, how many tunes I need to dust off, where the heck I put the 55 giant leprechaun hats that we've acquired over the years, and all of the songs we have to pull out that are mostly reserved for St. Pat's... the "Irishy Irishy" stuff. The stuff that gets everyone clapping and having fun. This is it, here, folks. You're talking to Miss Fun Central. The one with the heart attack and high blood pressure. But by God, I'll die happy. :)

My friend Harry sent us a beautiful poem yesterday for St. Pat's. He's Irish and when this day comes, he wastes no time getting down to business, reflecting on the wonders of his inheritance in his inimitable way. (I will share it with you tomorrow, here, if Harry gives me permission. Can we Harry, pretty please?) Good ol' Harry, never disappoints. He's always real. Then there's me: today, donning the giant Irish leprechaun hat. But as The Bull so ominously warned in my favorite Irish movie The Field: "This is deep. Deeper than you t'ink..."

But not really. Today is a day for fun. As Denya the Fabulous says, this is the life we've chosen. And you know... dedicating one's life to making others happy is a wonderful, wonderful way to live. No matter what my doctor says.

Today: Have a fabulous day! Stay tuned to our Facebook page, as I'm planning to post photos all day of events as they happen... if I can get it together, that is. And tomorrow, I'll post even more photos and God knows what I'll be writing about... Watch this space!

Lots of love to you all... enjoy the day! I know that we will.


Today, we'll be at Boston's of Plymouth from 1:00-3:30, then Liam Maguire's in Falmouth starting at 6:00 and off and on til closing time....

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Day 250: Lesson for the Day: Keep Drivin', Bessie.

Ew, "250" sounds important. The day before St. Paddy's Day,the day after a nice radio appearance with Sue and Peter Smith (bodhran) on WATD, and the day after Brian Haley put some killing conga and djembe tracks on several songs for our forthcoming CD. But mostly, a day on which I feel it is appropriate to write to Mr. Toyota:


Dear Mr Toyota:

I know that there's a bunch of people out there who want their money back. But I just want to tell you something: I still love you.

Your adoring fan,

The Musician in the Sh$tbox


Today is a day on which it pays to be a poor musician. One benefit is that you can drive a Toyota that is old enough to be immune to all the recent Toyota manufacturing ailments. And further, that trusty ol' 15-year-old wagon of mine this morning plowed through 50 feet of a 18-inch deep, overflowing swollen river en route to my morning classes at Bridgewater State College. Did she stall? No, she did not. Did she sputter? No, she did not. Did she leak? No, she did not. She just kept right on going, and as I recovered from the adrenaline rush (read: removing fingernails from steering wheel), I found myself humming the "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" theme song.

There's a lesson here. Okay, a metaphor.

Last night, on air, I was driving a virtual Toyota through the virtual quagmire of live performance... that big, flowing river that looks scary as hell. The solution: Close your eyes, grab the wheel, and try not to chant "Don't mess it up, Don't mess it up, Don't mess it up, Don't mess it up, Don't mess it up, Don't mess it up," the whole time you're playing.

When faced with a situation in which you know you'll be nervous... i.e., playing live on radio, or perhaps just being asked to lead a tune at a session.... pick the tunes you know best! This is not the time to get fancy. My humble opinion, but:

What's more impressive than a rare or modern tune is a simple tune played with great heart and solid rhythm.

So that's what I did last night on air. With just me and a bodhran, there's nowhere to hide. Peter Smith is a fabulous drummer; it was me I was scared of. So, to make sure that the performance was good, I decided that the best approach was to play the tunes I've been playing forever. I pulled out the very first tunes I learned way back when I first started playing: Kesh Jig and Sally Gardens, for example.

And you know what? You know Kesh, that first tune we all learn, the one I've played no less than 14 million times? There on air, live to an audience of the uncounted masses, I played the wrong B part first time around.

Oh, God.

But there is always a solution, and for this we thank Mr. Toyota: Keep your foot on the pedal, and keep drivin', girl. I realized immediately that I was playing the B part to a different tune, but I just kept on keeping on, and hoped my brain would come back from Stutter Island on the second repeat.

And it did, but only because I stopped worrying about it. I came back around to the A on the second repeat, all the while wondering if I'd get it right second time around. Mind racing, fingers still playing the tune and not making mistakes, I decided at the last second to just let go, and not worry. In a split second, I was at the B part again, and you know what? I played it right that time.

Good morning class! It's time for your Cliche of the Day:

Keep it simple, silly.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Day 246, Part II: Savoring the Fancy of a Child's Laugh

File this under: "Aw... ain't that cute..."

What a gift we can bring to the world when we're willing to share our music with anyone and everyone. Here's Steve reading to a bunch of bright shiny faces at a preschool today, during a noontime Irish music concert.

Glad we could quiet them down for this reading because right before Steve opened up Jamie O'Rourke and the Giant Pooka, ten little pookies were breakdancing to the Kesh Jig. Little people, the Dropkick Murphys' mosh pit's got nothin' on you!

Imagine if we could all bring such freedom to our enjoyment of music? Imagine if we would just let ourselves dance when we wanted to? Imagine if we didn't care if we knew the "right steps" and just let loose?

Invite me to that world, if it ever materializes. I want IN.

Day 246: Building Your ITM Repertoire Thru Active Listening

A few days of illness and a total lack of hands-on practice, and we're back where we left off: at Part II of ITM Repertoire: Quantity or Quality: Building your tune repertoire through active listening. We're talking about what to do with yourself when you're sitting in a session and don't know the tunes. You feel a little silly, maybe, because you're just sitting there, and also, it can be very frustrating, because you want to play... and also intimidating, because it is flooring to realize just how many tunes there are out there. And even to an involved player, they do start to blur after a while.

On this one, I can only tell you what I've done. That is, if I don't know a tune, I adopt a posture of active listening. That means paying attention as much as possible to all that is being played. Even when you don't know the tune, remain tuned in.

What I haven't done is set a goal, like "a tune a day" or "a tune a week," etc. That sort of goal doesn't work for me, probably because I'm more fluffy and artsy than I am rigid and scheduled. (Oh... you noticed?)

So instead, I try to get as many tunes as possible into my head. Many, many teachers tell their students that before you start learning a tune, you should be able to sing it. Once you can sing the tune, then you know the melody, and it's an easier step to then find those notes on your instrument. Then, your next step ideally would be to learn it by ear. Painful, for many, especially those who are accustomed to learning off a page. I’ll save “The Woes of Paper Training” for another day but for now, I can only share with you what has worked for me, as I’m on the same road that you are.

Ideas about how to build your tunebase:

1) Listen mostly to the ones that appeal to you. If a tune doesn’t speak to you, don’t worry about it. Move on. Go to the potty. Get a beer.

2) Listen especially closely to the tunes you like most. Ask someone for the name of it so you can learn it at home, or with the help of a teacher. Write down a list of tunes you really like. I have often carried a little note-sized bound book with me to sessions, and I still have these books all over my music room; I’ve only learned about half the tunes on these lists. (At tax time when I’m going through receipts, I find tune names scribbled on the backs of twenty different crumpled receipts.) Hint: You’ll forget half the tunes you want to learn before you learn them. So, just an idea, one that I don’t follow: keep your wishlist short… one or two tunes per session is often enough to keep you motivated but not overwhelmed.

3) Play along, very quietly. Try to find the notes, if you’re on a relatively quiet instrument. Some sessions frown on this, while others will take no notice of you. Be sure that you’re doing this unobtrusively, of course. If you play whistle, consider bringing along a Clarke for those tunes that you want to learn, because Clarkes are generally barely audible in most sessions. If you only know the first few notes of the tune, just play them every time they come around, and try to add a few notes with each repeat. There are many people who feel very strongly that if you don’t know the tune, don’t play it. Judge for yourself, and be sensitive to the body language around you. If you’re on a very quiet instrument or are in a learning session that welcomes learners, then you are probably okay to venture out.

4) Lilt along. I try to sing the tune while it’s being played. My voice isn’t loud so I don’t think I’m disturbing anyone. I admit, I do get looks sometimes. But I don’t think they’re funny looks—just the person next to me responding to the sound of a human voice and wondering if someone just spoke to them. Once they realize it’s just the freak next to them singing along, they ignore me for the rest of the night.

5) Outside of sessions, listen, listen, listen. I have an earthy crunchy belief that the more you listen, even if inactively, it’s all going in there. Over time, you’ll find that you’re recognizing and singing along with tunes you didn’t know that you knew. The other day, I was watching The Secret of Roan Inish and found that I could lilt along with every single tune in the soundtrack, and I only play about half of them. This tells me that years of being around the music has resulted in something: it has filled up my inner iPod.

6) Learn the basic tunes first. Don’t try to start with fancy or novel tunes, if you really want to build your vocabulary. The “language” of Irish music is built on a more or less finite set of musical ideas, and learning the most well-known tunes—like the ones that appear in the Comhaltas Foinn Seisiun books—will get the basic shapes into your head. These shapes will later appear in a thousand other tunes, though rearranged.

7) Force yourself to learn by ear, and use the notation only as an aid, to jog your memory or demystify a particulary tricky passage. Irish traditional music is not just about the notes on paper; it’s also about the way you play the notes, the way you phrase, and the rhythm and lift. You can’t learn that from any book. You can only learn it from listening closely to experienced players in the genre, whether you listen to their recordings, attend a performance, or sit next to them at a session.

8) As often as possible, play with musicians who are much better than you. It will be humbling, but you’ll learn a ton by listening to them closely.

9) Be patient. Enjoy the process, because it takes time… more time than you think it will. And as soon as you think you’re starting to get it in your own session, you’ll attend a different session and not know a single tune they play. Get used to it.

10) Study with the best player you can find, on your instrument. A teacher is just the outward manifestation of our inner teacher. And sometimes the outward teacher sees more than the inner teacher is able to recognize at this very moment.

11) Find friends who share your passion, and who are willing to help you along.

Because, of course, misery loves company.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Day 243: A Revolutionary Idea

Soul Mama's got a rasp that sounds like the love child of Darth Vader and Stevie Nicks, and speaking of love children, she's feeling a lot like Alice when she's ten feet tall. In other words, she's getting sicker. So, she's made a revolutionary decision to take an old-fashioned action. Tomorrow, she's going to pretend it's the old days, before humans became machines, and she's going to unplug. Completely. A sick day, no less. Wish her well. But don't call, because the phone will be off.

ITM Repertoire: Quantity or Quality?

A good friend of mine has been struggling. He's been working on tunes for the last year or more, practicing daily, and slowly adding to his repertoire. He regularly attends a "slow session," a learning session that plays a finite number of tunes, all at a comfortable pace. Still, despite all his work, he feels like he still knows practically nothing. He shows up, plays his twenty tunes at different times of the night, and the rest of the session, he just sits there. He's frustrated. He's not learning the tunes at the same pace as the others. Is he just taking up a seat? Should he take up the bodhran to fill in the gaps and at least play along to the tunes he can't do on whistle?

I hear the cry arise from legions of experienced ITM musicians: No! Not the bodhran!!!! The world does need dedicated bodhran players who are willing to work hard at perfecting the rhythm and the music, but it doesn't need part-timers. Frankly, it also doesn't need more whistlers, fluters, or fiddlers. It doesn't need much of anything, actually. (It may need a few more uilleann pipers, but if you're having a patience problem, this is NOT the instrument to take up.)

What it does need is honest, good spirited people that are dedicated to making great music, and that have the patience and the will to put the time and the work in on their instrument to make a beautiful sound. That's all.

Easy, right? No. Wrong. Not easy. We're going to need to explore this answer in several parts.

Part I: The Session.

A wonderful social experience to which we can escape to play music with others, release our doldrums, get out of ourselves by participating in a communal experience. The session is not a performance. Session musicians are not playing for an audience. Session musicians are not playing for themselves. Session musicians are playing with each other.

A fascinating animal is our auld session. It is a social environment determined by those who frequent it. Every session has a unique character, and unique goals. There are sessions leaders who, when you join, will hand you a list of the tunes played in that session, with a CD, and you are expected to learn those tunes if you're going to participate. Sometimes you're even warned not to stray from that selection.
Then there are sessions that allow their repertoire to be guided by the
varied repertoires of those that attend. Different every week. Some days the session will be great. Other days you'll arrive and a domineering musician will arrive and only play tunes that you don't know or don't like. Some weeks everyone will drink too much and will sound horrible and start fighting at the end of the night. Some weeks you won't know any of the tunes at all. Much more unpredictable, but... welcome to real life.

When I was writing See You at the Hall, an older musician told me that back in the old days, most musicians only knew maybe ten or twenty tunes. They learned their tunes from the people around them, and played with people they knew and liked. There weren't thousands of new tunes coming at them every day from scores of tune books, thousands of Irish CDs, websites, Celtic radio stations, satellite stations, and television. They weren't obsessed with learning all the tunes. He seemed to be suggesting that at one time, it was more about quality than quantity.

So, yes, maybe a session somewhere has concocted a list of 250 tunes that it will play in regular rotation, and when they see that you want to come regularly, they will provide you with a CD and sheet music. That, to me, sounds like an invitation to join their party, and that's kind. It's a warm, extended hand. One of the best ways to learn tunes is to get them in your head, and if you go to a session that plays the same tunes every week, then you can really get those tunes in your head and you can learn them on your own.

Just be mindful of whether the group is serving the repertoire or the music. Is it just a group of people going through the motions, or are they really making music? Is it group calistenics or is each person making an artistic contribution to a greater whole? It's not this, right?

I've become more of a performer than a session musician, partly because I find that it's possible to get deeper and more connected to music in a performance. I'd rather learn fewer tunes and play them as well as possible than be able to "play along" with hundreds of tunes at a session... but never truly learn any one of them. Still, half playing can be a blast, too. You can't beat a night of tune after tune. You get caught up in the momentum, your mojo's workin', and it just feels great. It's like being in fabulous shape and sprinting your way into the sunshine. But of course, we can't sprint until we're in shape, and getting in shape takes time.

(Did I mention the word "patience" yet?)

Martin Hayes wrote an article titled "Tradition and Aspiration," in the Journal of Music a few years back. He said,

"It is important that what is offered from a performance is something that truly reaches the heart of people, that it moves people in a deep way.

That is performance. Traditional music ‘sessions’ are another thing. I don’t turn up at sessions very often, usually because I’m afraid I won’t like it, and that people will expect me to play all night! I did organise sessions in Chicago when I lived there. I found out that it wasn’t always about making good music.

I would get people together to play at whatever level suited them, and usually I found that the lowest level was the best level to play at. I got people into a kind of communion, and I became very engaged in the concept of community, in the concept of people feeling united in their music. I was very concerned that we didn’t get too caught up in trying to make it the highest musical experience possible. It could get there. Sometimes it would get there for just five minutes a night."

So, to return to the original question, are you just taking up space if you're only playing a few tunes a night, I respond again with an emphatic "NO." You're doing the second most important thing: being there. Now take it up a notch and do the very most important thing: listen actively while you're at it. And strive for those fabulous five minutes that Martin talked about. If you can get to those five minutes, do you really need anything else?

If the session is truly an open learning session, they'll welcome you every week because they'll recognize your patience and dedication. If you start playing the bodhran, it may suggest that you're not so patient and you're looking for the universal session shortcut. If you're already a great bodhran player, then go for it. But contrary to popular belief, being a great bodhran player requires as much work as being a great whistle player.

So what do you do in the meantime, when you're just sitting there? Listen actively.

Stay tuned for Part II: an exploration of active listening.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Day 241 of Practice: Beethoven Never Needed a Sound Guy

Beethoven first proved it; this morning I've confirmed it. It is, in fact, possible to compose while deaf. I heard about half of this morning's practice session—the left half—but still I just wrote a joyful little jig. How fun! (Watch this space; I'll share it with you when it's ready for prime time.)

Good old Beethoven. He, as it turns out, was rather lucky. Not only did he not have to hear his music, he didn't have to run a sound system. And therein lies the thought for the day.

Sound reinforcement. Ugh.

It's hard enough trying to play an instrument, but man, trying to run a sound system is a whole 'nother enchilada. Yet, just like chili peppers, beans, cilantro, and cheese (lots of cheese, please), sound reinforcement is one of life's necessities. Good sound makes you sound even better than you are. Bad sound can ruin a great performance. Sound is everything.

Imagine playing a one-hour gig and feeling not so bad about it, only to find that no one in the audience could hear your instrument, and that the sheer volume of two of the other instruments made their heads hurt? Ouch.

The worse part is, no one in the audience wants to speak up and tell you, lest they get branded as one of those people who stands up and tells you. One can soundcheck til the cows come home, but as soon as the cows do come home, they fill the room and completely change the acoustics, and at that point, you're on stage playing and can't get to the sound board. Besides, it's impossible to tell what you sound like from on stage anyway.

It's not easy. And that's why the world needs superheroes like Chris Blood. Chris, Cape Cod thanks you. Your mission is critical. (Find out more about his expertise at Sonic Trout Records and his compadre, the blogger extraordinaire, at Trout Towers.)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Day 240 of Practice: Musicianship... Terms of Employment.

Who looked at the Lindsays list of gigs and said, "So busy! How do they survive this?" Today's answer: One of them gets sick. The Type-A one of us, that is. (Thanks, Marian, for reminding me of my type.) Ah, yes. Sick and facing a performance at Scituate Library today that is bound to be packed, because those shows usually are. (2:00 at 85 Branch Street, if you feel like seeing how Suzy does when she's dizzy and spaced out. Well, more dizzy and spaced out than usual.)

Alas, musicianship is a career that doesn't offer sick days.... but, oh, the benefits! In fact, twenty years ago, when I sat down with the Human Resources Director at "So You Wanna Be a Musician, Inc." and she explained the company policy and benefits, I admit that these are the ones that hooked me:

Company Mission

1) All passion, all the time. A mission we can all get behind.

Terms of Employment

2) No boss. Great for me féiners!

3) You can make your own hours. Great for families!

4) You can work as little or as much as you want. Hard work will bring definite award. But, refer to article 5, below.

Performance Evaluations

5) No one sits you down every six months to give you a Performance Evaluation. Which, actually, is sort of unfortunate. Because instead, you must move forward hoping you're doing well, and gauging your professional success on the number of gigs you're booking... an untrustworthy gauge, indeed, for your busy-ness is dependent on a number of external factors, as well, including the economy, a venue's simple desire for change, timing, etc. But you must forget all that, and assume it's all about you. That makes it much easier to be a tortured artist, which of course is required.

Family Support

6) You're allowed to fall in love and then marry your coworker. You are then free at any time to leave the company and make your own damn band. Which we did.

7) If the two of you have children, you can bring them to work sometimes.

8) If they learn the trade, you can hire them, and no one will accuse you of cronyism.


9) Ah, remuneration. Sometimes it's there, sometimes it's not. Every musician thinks they're underpaid and every venue owner thinks they're paying too much. Just like real life.

Sick and Unpaid Leave

10) No sick days and no health insurance. But you won't need it. You know... because you're following your passion, you're living a less stressed life and thus you won't get sick as much. (She didn't give me a chance to tell her that this is not true.)

11) Wanna go on vacation? Then book a gig in your intended destination, because that's the only way you can afford it. Which is a very nice way to meet the locals.


(This is when the HR lady did one of those mad-lady belly laughs.)

12) No retirement. But who cares! You can keep playing til you're 90! And that's nice because your fellows in the nursing home will appreciate your music.

Proper Attire and Behavior

13) Laugh as loud as you want and have as much fun as you want. On the job. Just make sure your fellow performer knows that it's not about her; it's just that a little voice inside your head tells you to laugh, and you can't help it. It's not your fault.

14) There are no behavior rules. You are expected to be yourself.

15) Wear what you want. There are no clothing rules. No stuffy suits, no uncomfortable heels... unless you're David Byrne, David Bowie, or Ace Freely.

Side Benefits

16) Make amazing friends. Play good music with someone for an hour, and a thousand barriers have been broken almost instantly, without a word being spoken.

17) Get free food. And you thought it was only the people with "real" jobs who were getting museum passes and movie tickets. Well, we musicians get exclusive behind-the-scenes visits to museums, super-exclusive golf clubs, and fine hotels... plus free food. And beer.

18) It's okay to befriend your clients. There are no conflicts of interest if you and a client get on particularly well. You're allowed to meet off the job for coffee at Blue Blinds any time you want.

Termination Policy

19) If you want to work in a big company, hire more musicians. Good thing is, they're usually also your friends. If you want to work in a small company, hire fewer musicians. But find nice ways to explain your choice to those friends who get left out. It's almost always because the gig doesn't pay enough. (See article 9.)

20) If your coworkers aren't performing, you can just get other ones. You might lose them as friends, but hey... this is business! (The HR lady said that, not me. I think she lied, just to get me to take the job.)

But don't forget to read the fine print...

21) You can leave anytime you want, but folks, once you're in it, you're really working for the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Day 238: We're being mentioned on Five-Star Friday! How cool.

So... out of the blue, The Lindsays blog is being honored on "Five-Star Fridays" this week. How neat!


Thanks, Five Star Friday!

Day 238: Making Music as a Family

How proud was I, as a mom, to have our little girl with us for part of our gig last night? Wearing pink cowboy boots, of course.

Stage Door Canteen played at Liam Maguire's, in the swing band's usual monthly gig, only this one was "Irish night" and a fundraiser for MD. In the spirit of the band's recent "themed" events, we kicked off the night with an hour of Irish tunes, featuring our very own resident G.I.G. (Genuine Irish Guy... that's Mr. Lindsay!) and some friends from the Irish world, Mausie Calvi and Buck Daly.

As some of you know, I've been working in collaboration with about ten other musicians in a group we call "The Boston Highlands Ceili Band," which plays Irish tunes in the style of those Irish dance hall bands back in the 1940s and 1950s. The band includes accordion and fiddle, but also sax and trumpet, just like on the Johnny Powell Band albums recorded by Copley Records back in the 1950s. The Boston-based folks in the band couldn't make it last night, so we brought in Steve on guitar, Buck on accordion, Mausie on fiddle, and Stage Door Canteen regulars Jim Peterson on bass and Jeff Dodge on drums--not to mention BHCB/SDC regulars Roger Gamache (alto sax) and Glen Carliss (trumpet). Great tunes!

After the Irish hour and a short break, the full swing band came out on stage, and Mom had to switch hats from Irish Wannabee Girl to Soul Mama Wannabee Girl, swapping the pretty little Irish flute for a big nasty beaten up baritone sax. And Pink Cowboy Boot girl got to stay for just a little bit, even pulling up a stool and sitting beside me as I played "C Jam Blues" with the band. How cool. Last time she was on stage with the band, she was actually INSIDE my belly, not next to it. If only I could have had a photo of the swing band jamming away and Mini Me sitting in the middle of the band with her hands over her ears... priceless.

She left shortly afterward with Dad, but it was still a late night, and we're all sleeping in today. See, we love music and we love going out to play, but we also love our little family, and at times it is very hard to leave home for yet another gig in the evenings. It is not easy to balance a musical life with family life, but we're discovering that it can be done. What a gift it is when we can all do it together, and how lucky we are to have friends and family who were there to pitch in and help out so that we could all do it safely.

Thanks Uncle Harry, Papa Gedutis, Mausie, Sarah, and the folks at Liam Maguire's, all of whom were so willing to lend a hand and an eye to make it all possible! We love you.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Day 237: March Music Madness at the Lindsays

The Lindsays have emerged from our midwinter "break" in flames... and so begins a crazy month, before it quiets down again in April.

March 4: Shamrock the House MDA Fundraiser with Stage Door Canteen swing band. Tonight at 8:00. Several members of the Boston Highlands Ceili Band will be there to rock the Irish tunes of the 1950s (yes it can be done), including Mr. Stephen Lindsay, Mausie Calvi, and Buck Daly. Main Street, Falmouth.

March 7, 2:00: The Lindsays performing with Nikki Engstrom at Scituate Town Library, featuring Sue's cousins Christine and Caroline Mitchell, stepdancers. 85 Branch Street, Scituate MA. Free.

March 10: Small Scholars Preschool. No, you can't come to that. But in the spirit of diversity, we're hooking our fans early.

March 17, St. Patrick's Day! Boston's of Plymouth 1-3:30 then Liam Maguire's from 6:00 onward. With Brian Haley.

March 20, Saturday: Two duos come together in a powerpack quartet with Stanley&Grimm at the Navigator Coffee House.

March 25, Thurdsay, 8:00: Sue performs in world music improvisational trio with Salil Sachdev, African percussionist, and Tom Rohde, classical and Brazilian/Latin guitarist at Horace Mann Auditorium, Bridgewater State College. Free.

March 27: Sue performs in a CD release party and children's concert for children's singer/songwriter Debbie and Friends at the Regent Theater in Arlington. and venue and ticket info at Regent Theater.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Day 235: Living the Cliche

Some days, the sunshine feels like it comes right out of our hearts. Today is one of those days. From where I sit, a fire blazes in a stone hearth and classical music is my soundtrack. I see seagulls flapping in the morning sun, a small gaggle of Canada geese, and the seacoast sunrise over a nearby slope. Now, don't be jealous. The seagulls are flapping over a dumpster, the hill rises from filthy black snow at the edge of a parking lot, and the sunrise is illuminating the top floor of the federal high security prison. I'm so lucky to live in a gorgeous seaside town. With our own Panera, no less!

Sometimes we must suffer the bland and the generic in order to find our own. Sometimes a change is as good as a rest.

Then, just like in a movie, the phone rings. A grumpy voice reminds you that you were supposed to be somewhere else at 7 am today, and suddenly, the sun fades and the federal prison emerges in stark relief.

Even the fanciest new contraption (Jesus Mary and Joseph, I do regret getting a Droid) cannot solve this problem. Sigh.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.