How to Start Your Own Show and Get it On Stage in 7 Steps (Cruise Ship perspective)
The air is cool backstage on the left wing but my hands are warmed up. The monitor hanging from the production booth shows a full auditorium of eagerly awaiting guests. The show is moments from starting and the Cruise Director walks up to me mic in hand and says “Today has just been draining with the ship moving to and fro. I’ve just wanted to take a nap all day!” I say “I hear you. I’ve been laying down every hour once the sea sickness starts to kick in.”
“Anything you want me to say about you?” she says
“Uhhmm. Yes. Please mention I’m the most handsome performer you’ve met and the best dancer too. I’m kidding, I trust you. Oh actually, I’m from Puerto Rico and New Orleans and some of that influence will be heard in the music.”
Giving me a sly look she says “Ok, I’ve got you.”
The Cruise Director then proceeds on to the stage and tells the audience where I’m from, the musical influences and that I want them to know I consider myself to be the best dancer and that I’m single and ready to mingle.
I slap my forehead and proceed on stage when she calls my name. As I pass her on her way back stage she says “Gotcha” under her breath.
Well guys it’s time to let you in on my plan. I keep things very close to the chest because if I start talking about plans and they don’t transpire well it’s no good for anyone. But seeing as half of the goals I set out for have transpired and the other half have yet to materialize I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet to at least let you all know what I’ve been up to this past year. And whether I succeed or fail, this has been the one singular thing I’ve worked for and continue to work for every day and it has been a great journey, learning experience and life event for me that I’d like to take a moment to share.
I’m going to do this in the format of a step by step guide to getting your own show. Partly because it’s fun and partly because some of you reading this may actually want to do this. I know many of you who just like to read the content I put out so I hope you feel entertained and also get something out of my experience this past year.
STEP 1: RESEARCH
The plan was to get a show. It would require research, planning, testing and lots of time. I would start it from scratch and I would develop it and test it in front of a live audience. I started simply with the research period. My voice coach and mentor Ella Glasgow directed me to a book called “The Live Music Method” by Thomas Jackson. In this book is a blueprint for building an incredible show that focus’ on moments that will give people lasting impressions of a life changing nature. It goes beyond entertainment and it delves into communicating and engaging your audience with the essence of who you are and that they in turn might learn something about themselves through watching your show. It focus’ on being an inspiration not just an entertainer. This book has changed my life in it’s application to my show and if it’s something you’re interested in you should give it a look. It’s a little pricey at $75 on his website LiveMusicMethod.com but it’s well worth the investment if it’s something you’re looking to delve into.
STEP 2: OBSERVE & TAKE NOTES
Beyond reading Tom’s book, I would go into the theater in my cruise ship contracts and watch the Guest Entertainers perform. I took notes about what worked and didn’t worked. Set list orders and energy levels of each song and the peaks and valleys of the show. What the performer had to say or if they had nothing to say at all just perform a series of songs virtuosically and “let the music speak for itself”. I judged hard. I asked myself how I felt after. Did I feel inspired? Most of the time I didn’t but for one performer who blew everyone else out of the water. I also went on Youtube and watched broadcast performances from artists like John Legend, Alicia Keys and subjected them to the same scrutiny. I observed how many times they got off the piano and onto the stage. I observed what they said to the audience and how they said it. What they said about their songs and etc.
After I felt like I saw a sufficient amount of shows, I went the drawing board and looked through my repertoire. The entire show would need to be memorized. It would also need to have a theme, it would have to contain a series of moments and unexpected surprises to keep the crowd engaged. My excitement level was that of a little boy chasing an ice cream truck. Knowing that I wanted to eat that ice cream it was just a matter of choosing the flavor.
3. PIECE TOGETHER YOUR SHOW
In Tom Jackson’s Book he has a series of moments that each song leads into. First is the Introduction moment which comes after the first song. This is a short brief statement to your audience about what to expect for the rest of the evening. I often let them know they’re free to sing, clap or dance along to anything we play so that there’s no question whether it’s appropriate to let loose or not. Then you play another song that is nearly identical to the first in terms of energy and who it is speaking to: the audience. Each song leads into another moment. Each one is important and achieves a crucial goal to engaging the audience. The Great song moments are the songs that 90% you do them the audience goes wild. The BIG FUN MOMENT is the time where you fully interact with the crowd and ask them to participate in making the moment happen. I chose to have everyone stand up and dance with me like we were in a New Orleans Second Line processional. But I could also have chosen to have a couple of volunteers join me on stage, or something else of that ilk. The point is that this is the highest point of your show and that audience reception is crucial to get them to be receptive enough to receive the next moment: The TOUCHING MOMENT. This is where you speak to your audience’s hearts and minds. Where you reveal your vulnerabilities to them and let them in to who you are. To make a real connection with them. Once that’s done it’s time to close out the show with the CLOSING MOMENT. This is a song that starts slow and then picks up. A perfect example of this is “Proud Mary” the Tina Turner version. But I’m no Tina Turner. I chose Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” because it features a moment that I created which contains surprise, intensity and shows off my classical ability. Tom Jackson says if you come to choosing the right song or a right Moment ALWAYS choose the moment. So I chose this moment and people always come to me and said “What you did with the Phil Collins was amazing!” It’s one of the most memorable moments of the show. But the number one moment that overshadows all others and that guests constantly come to talk to me afterwards about is the New Orleans moment.
In my first iteration of the show I had the following:
I had to replace the first song because the assistant cruise director on the ship was doing the same song in his show so I traded it for “My Baby Just Cares for Me” - Nina Simone. I realized that it wasn’t an effective opener after two shows so I wrote a new arrangement for “Stand By Me” - Ben E. King and it works splendidly. It is 3.5 to 4 on a scale of 5 being the most high energy and it opens in a kind of sprint with the drums ticking away on the high hat. Then it breaks into a salsa on the chorus.
4. WRITE YOUR SHOW OR GET SOMEONE TO WRITE IT FOR YOU
Before I knew any of that though I had to write the show from scratch for each instrument. I’ve been using Finale notation software for years, mostly for fun, transcribing music scores from movies like “Spiderman” 2002 (the original movie with the Danny Elfeman Score) and “Cries of Whispers” from “Oldboy” 2013 a Park Chan Wook film from South Korea. But in more recent years I’ve been using it as a means for transcribing and arranging scores for stage performances. I used my knowledge obtained from years of music theory and the arranging skills of my dad Harry Rios Sr. to fill in what I did not know about arranging for horns. I also consulted with the musicians on board the ship whom unknowingly would be taking part in my show in the near future. I would invite them for lunch and show them the score I was working on for them and say “I’m thinking of writing a show. would you hate reading this or would you love it?” If the answer was not “I would love reading that” I would ask them if you had to sight read this on stage for a live show, what would make you love reading this? And then the floodgates opened and they’d tell me exactly what they hated about the score and would change. In some cases they showed me examples of scores they considered perfect for them. I would listen, take notes and even take pictures of the examples. I went back to Finale and got to work. Then I would rinse, repeat an recycle this process until the verdict was unanimously “I would love to read that!”
This was a painstaking process and took the longest of the preliminary steps because I chose to do it on my own. The easy way out is to pay someone to do it for you but then you give total creative license to them and the show will be their vision, not yours. Ideally if you go this route, it would be great to find someone whom you can write the show with together and give them your vision and they only add to that vision with their expertise. Make friends on the ship with the musical directors. They often are the people to go to when it comes to matters like this.
5. PITCH YOUR SHOW
The Cruise Director has final say on whether you get the show or not so you have to make it easy for them to say yes. Don’t just say “Excuse me Mr./Mrs. Cruise Director. I’m thinking of writing a show, Would you possibly be interested in letting me perform it maybe one day?” That’s not gonna work. Imagine that an Entertainer that was supposed to be on board had their flight delayed and couldn’t make it to the ship in time of it departing a port. There will be a vacancy in the schedule and something has to fill that spot. That spot could be you. You’d need to have the show already prepared, arranged and ready to present. You want to be able to say to the Cruise Director “I have a show. All the parts are written, this is the theme. I can cover for you in an emergency if there is a vacancy.” They will LOVE you because you just saved them a huge headache in the future.
6. DO A BETTER JOB THAN THE BEST PERFORMERS
Easier said than done but crucial that you make the best first impression possible. You want the guests to be clamoring to the Cruise Director to have you back on stage. On stage you need to be confident, and to be confident you must be prepared. I would often go on the stage after midnight when no one else was around and I would run through the show. I’d rehearse the jokes and stories in between songs. I would time it so it was about 45 minutes. If it wasn’t I’d make a note “Stories need to be shorter. No rambling uh’s or um’s.” In the New Orleans Medley there’s a 2 minute monologue I have about the Jazz Funeral. I think it started at 4 minutes and thirty seconds and I just cut it down from there.
A lot of entertainers will fill their show time with talking and only have a few songs to present. Although I feel quite comfortable talking and bantering with the audience, I didn’t want my show to be talk with music. I wanted it to be music with stories that would uplift that music. I’m still learning how to inject myself into the stories because I’m finding people really like to hear about you, what you’re like in real life, how you came to be this performer on cruise ships. So instead of a regular monologue of the Jazz Funeral, I talk about how my sister and I when we were very young used to accompany my dad at his gigs in New Orleans. Some of them happened to be funerals and they would always end with singing, dancing and waving handkerchiefs in the air. This seemed normal to us as they were the first funerals we were ever introduced to. But this phrase called Second Line kept coming up. I never knew what it meant until one day I looked up at my dad and asked “Papi, what’s a Second Line?” Then he proceeded to tell me about how the body goes into the ground in the first line and mournful songs can be heard. This is the part of the show where I cue the trumpet player to play “Just A Closer Walk with Thee” in rubato. Then I explain how my dad told me the mourners of the deceased will cry into their handkerchiefs. Then when the body has been put to the ground the second line starts. The handkerchiefs that were being used to cry into become flags of triumph for the dearly departed who’s gone to the great party in the sky. I say to the crowd “So when the music changes, we’re going to get up and dance like we’re in new Orleans. We’re going to wave our handkerchiefs in the air. Some of you may not have handkerchiefs but that’s alright. Waving your hands is just fine.” Then I pull out my handkerchief and say “are you ready?” Cue the drums to play the 20th Century Fox intro then the band plays “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Another story I tell is about “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I mention how I had a cassette player in my room inside a cabinet. My mother used to collect Greatest Hits albums and blast them throughout the house on the weekends. She had Elvis, Billy Joel, Simon and Garfunkel and many others. I took a liking to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel because of the piano intro. Our upright mahogany Yamaha was downstairs in the living room. I had no concept of what written music was nor music theory. I just had my ears, interest and loads of time. So I got to work and played the song on the cassette tape. I heard the first few notes ring through the air. Immediately stopped the tape. I hummed the first most recognizable note I could retain and ran downstairs as if I would lose the note if I even blinked for a second. Along the way there are obstacles. The cat is on her way up the stairs, I trip over her, the hamster is walking in his hamster ball at the foot of the steps, I trip over it and fall on my butt, I get to the piano and respectfully pull the bench out from under the piano and sit down. Played until I found the matching note. Run back upstairs to the cassette player and find another note. On my way back to the piano I encounter the cat going down the stairs and the hamster headed back the living room at the foot of the stairs. But when I eventually reach my destination, I had accomplished mini goals until I had a whole piece of something to show my parents. Of course I had no idea what I was playing or how to incorporate nuance or dynamics to make it sound musical but I made an almost perfect copy of what I heard and translated it physically to the piano. I was so proud I in turn show it to my parents who look at each other and say “We need to put him in piano lessons.” And that was the Genesis of my interest in piano to which I go into “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins who coincidentally used to be in the band “Genesis.”
7. NEVER STOP TWEAKING YOUR SHOW
I step out onto the stage and see the lights and the silhouettes of the crowd before me. “Stand By Me” has already started and the horns are playing their solei to bring me in. I go through the beats of the show with a serenity and comfort. My nerves never best me and there are no awkward silences. I feel good, confident and there’s a sense of belonging and comradery with the crowd. When I ask, they respond, when I talk, they listen. When I finish they stand and they clap. I take the bow and I move off the stage. 30 minutes later I’m dressed in casual clothes helping the rest of the band sanitize the theater I just performed to. It’s not the place I want to be of course but it’s the place I’m willing to be now because I know what the future is going to be.
Although I’m in the beginning stages of this experience I look back and see where I’ve come from a year ago, saw what I wanted to accomplish and have made it there, it’s very humbling. I have a great support system in family and friends and of course you. I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity. I still am constantly working on my show. For instance I don’t believe “Valerie” is a good enough Encore. I’m working on another arrangement to replace it from Stevie Wonder. I also may change out a few other songs. I’m also working on a new show completely different from this one. It will feature different instruments, medleys as well and serve as a story from the beginning of my life until now. The next step is the stage full time on sea and on land. And the next step after that is -- well let’s just keep it one step at a time. Will keep you posted how all of that goes.
Until then feel free to leave a comment below and let me know how you’re doing!
I Performed on a Major Cruise Line and Travelled Around the World -- Here's What I Learned
Rhapsody of the Seas, Venice, Italy, October 27, 2018
"What seems to be the problem?" I asked the nurse on duty in the ship's clinic as she shook her head filing through my paperwork.
"The facility you did your medical testing at is not one that is approved on our list."
"But it was on the list the company sent to me."
"Do you have a copy of this list?"
"No but it's in my email." I go to pull up the email on my phone but of course internet is not working and my data doesn't work in Europe. I'm placed in to a waiting room and told it could take hours to get in contact with the mainland in Miami. It's currently 3:00am at headquarters in Miami.
"I'm sorry but without verification of an approved facility, we can't approve you to board and the company will have to buy your flight back home." says the nurse. Great. I've spent two days traveling only to find out that there's a great possibility I could be sent home jobless, apartmentless and defeated I think to myself.
I'm sitting in a Starbucks in Seattle, Washington. I've been racking my brain on how to present this post to you and it's by no means perfect but I'm sending it to you now because If I don't it will be another 6 months before I do. I'm currently on my first week with my new contract on the Azamara Quest. It's proved to be a great contract thus far and I can't wait to tell you more about it. But first I'd like to reflect on my very first contract on Rhapsody of the Seas with you.
During my travels I kept a journal so I could document what I was doing, what my daily challenges were, and how I developed new skills and tools to acclimate to my new surroundings to become a top performer in my field. I'm going to share some of the journal entries with you without going into too much detail. Keep in mind that this is all centered around the daily goings on of life on a cruise ship and entertaining audiences from around the world. There are a lot of non-sequiturs and it jumps from day to day and is not exactly in a chronological narrative order. Yet, If cruise ship life is something you're curious about, there is loads of helpful info. to glean from here. If not, then at the very least it's an interesting story from an entertainers' perspective.
Journal entry #1 10.25.18 GETTING THERE [2 days before my start date]
First stop Frankfurt, Germany then Venice, Italy to start my new job as a Piano Bar Entertainer for Royal Caribbean Cruises. This is kinda crazy. In a span of 3 weeks, I’ve quit my job of 7 years, moved out of my very comfortable apartment in a quaint town that I’ve loved since college and put on hold a very promising career in teaching.
Don’t even know if I’ll like it. But I’ve spoken to so many people and read so many things about this business that I’ve come to this conclusion time and time again “I'll never know unless I try”.
Journal entry #2 10.26.18
I’m on the other side. Finally in my hotel room. Let’s recount the day shall we?
First flight was amazing. I love Lufthansa. And I LOVED this flight. I had the middle row of 4 seats absolutely to myself. Not bad for a 9 hour flight. I slept like a baby sprawled out over those seats. My body fit them perfectly too. Even with my legs fully outstretched I couldn’t reach the armbar of the last seat so I was at no risk of having my fit stick out of the aisle.
The rest of the day goes as follows in quick succession because I don’t feel like thinking about it too much. I thought I was late but not really. I asked an off duty flight attendant. She was very nice and said bus 5 and 15 take you to the hotel but also it’s a 15 minute walk. I need to learn military time because I thought 15.00 meant 5pm. This is significant because on my reservation it says cancel at 6pm if I don’t arrive. So I thought my reservation was at stake when it was really 3 in the afternoon lol.
Anyways bus kept delaying. 15.25, 15.40, 15.55. I said “screw it” and walked.
What ensued was the sweatiest 15 minute walk of my life and it was quite hard because all of my the luggage but I eventually made it.
Arrival to the hotel was smooth. The concierge was very nice and accommodating. I found out I can have a private shuttle take me to my boat in Venice in the morning. I said “sign me up.” He said “50 eur.” I said “fine.”
So now I’m here in my hotel room. I’ve since taken a much needed shower, nap and am debating whether to get dinner sent to my room or not. Decisions decisions. The guy next door is watching Transformers and I can hear everything.
NEXT DAY -- PROBLEM WITH MEDICAL
I’m being held in a waiting room because my medical certificate clinic was not approved. EVEN THOUGH the one I completed was done at a clinic approved by Royal Caribbean according to the list they gave me back in August. Not only this but I sent that certificate to several people on staff at Royal Caribbean and no one said a THING about this. I’m pretty ticked that after all the waiting and correspondence and making sure everything was in order, there is a very serious reality that I may be sent home that's starting to set in.
After a few hours of walking on the different decks trying to get signal using the free wifi on the ship, I am able to see the last email that was exchanged between my agent and I and find the list there. I pull it up and go to the clinic. Everyone seems to be on lunch break. I go back to the waiting room which is called "The Living Room" and watch the Filipino cooks playing pool. I eventually ask to play winner and get my but kicked by a long shot. I may as well pass the time getting to know some of the crew. Met some cool people that day that for some reason I never saw again in my 4 months there.
While I'm waiting, I intermittently check to see if the medical staff is back from their break. Eventually someone comes to get me and I show the medical facility document to the on duty nurse in the clinic from my phone. She approves my medical facility and I'm shown to my cabin. Crisis averted. Phew!
Journal entry #3 10.27.28 CHALLENGES OF THE NEW WORK ENVIRONMENT
I'm hoping to develop skills to get people involved in my shows more. As things stand now, sometimes it works splendidly and sometimes not at all. It seems to happen most when I’m not planning for it and it happens organically. I’m trying to get it there every time. When I plan sometimes the audience doesn’t respond the way I want them to and it throws me off my game. I’m determined to give the passengers a good time. I want the respect of my peers as well. But if people don’t like what I do I have no control over that. I must simply grow and adapt until I find that sweet spot between what I can offer, what they want to have happen and what my superiors consider excellent work.
Journal entry #4 11.21.18 HOW'S THE SHIP LIFE?
Ship life is like you’ve entered a time vortex and everything moves much faster. Everyone’s lives off the ship go in normal time and things stay routine and mundane. But on the ship you're in a new location of the world every day. You're meeting people from all over the world and entertaining them everyday. And everyone has their interests.
I met a group of Aussie’s last week that wanted to hear Khe Shan, Alice and Horses. I’d never heard of these tunes but learned them nevertheless. British people love Tom Jones apparently. Met a group from New Castle on my first week and they were such a great group of people. As a piano bar entertainer, every week there seems to be a group and that’s the group that you hang out with most in the week. This group also infects the others in the room with the need to participate and be involved. The first week it was the Brits. The second week it was two American couples from Wisconsin. The third week it was another group of Americans from all over. This week it’s 3 sisters from Kentucky. But I also get subgroups. There’s a couple from the UK that’s come to each of my shows this week and they sing every song. Also there’s a group from Ireland and another from Scotland. There’s a beautiful couple from Mexico celebrating 44 years together. I have all of these nationalities to play to and am learning so many songs that I otherwise wouldn’t have learned had I not decided to take this job.
For a musician it’s a dream job. Your schedule is light, your days are off. Completely. Unless it’s the first two weeks where you have security trainings and whatnot you can spend your days checking out the beautiful destinations, practicing, going to the gym or planning your sets. Out of all the musician jobs aboard the piano bar entertainer is the best. You get to eat what the guests eat as well as the crew. You don’t have to learn other people’s songs or shows just your own. You plan your own sets and play by yourself. If you want to join in on other musicians’ performances you can at the discretion of the musical director. You get to interact with the guests all day every day. I think you're the only person on board who gets cash tips. You get a private cabin. Gym is free, healthcare is free. Laundry services are free and someone comes by everyday to pick up your dirty clothes and dry cleaning. You get your cabin cleaned every day, your bed made, your towels restocked and carpet vacuumed and when you go to eat, you don't have to do the dishes. Life is sweet aboard the Rhapsody of the Seas. You also can bring family aboard.
I don’t know how much the other musicians know of my privileges but I don’t share them. Of course if they're reading this, they'll know. Most entertainment staff all share cabins with another person. They can’t eat in the guest areas and if they do it's only for dinner and they pay for it. I’m sure they don’t get laundry services as I've seen them going up and down the passageways with baskets of laundry.
Journal entry #5 11.23.18 ON BOARD SICKNESS
If you're ever on a cruise ship please wash your hands. If the ships goes into an emergency level, you will receive a notification that people are sick and to wash your hands to prevent the further spread of sickness. This should never happen but I've seen people of all varying ages go into a bathroom stall on the ship, be there for a while and then walk out without washing their hands. It's disgusting. If you're one of those people that go to the bathroom and don't wash your hands, I don't want to ever meet you.
There are some viruses that if you even touch a surface that someone else has touched and then touch your mouth or eyes, you'll get sick. The most contagious and common on the cruise ship is the norovirus. It sucks and it is entirely preventable if people simply wash their hands before they eat and after they use the restroom. If you're a nail biter like me, wash your hands every time you touch something, period. Luckily I never got sick but it's just because I'm OCD about washing my hands and I never like being sick.
Journal entry #6 12/24/18 KEEPING IN TOUCH WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD
Internet is expensive on the ship for crew. Just how expensive? There was this confusing holiday deal. 300 minutes BOGO for $29.99 and you get another 300 minutes free. That means you’re paying .09 cents per minute. Whereas they have an option to buy per hour at $1.99 which means you’re paying .03 cents per minute. It’s clearly the better choice to pay the $1.99 but they make it seem as if you’re getting a deal for the 300 BOGO bull**** deal. Oh and Merry Christmas Eve 😊
1/7/19 ACCLIMATING TO MY ENVIRONMENT
Ok so I’ve grown further acclimated to this ship's atmosphere. I’m hanging out with the crew. It usually involves my Musical Director, the Production Manager for the theater shows, the drummer in the orchestra, the Trumpet player in the orchestra and his girlfriend who’s with Crew Staff. We’ve eaten food truck tacos in Cozumel, Mexico, had ceviche by the beach, been to Belize, Honduras, Costa Maya Mexico and Key West.
In Belize I paid a guy $30 to take me to the beach for internet. Not only did the beach not have good internet, food took forever and on the way back to the ship the guy got a flat tire. I really thought I was going to be left behind in Belize. I was alone and no one knew where I was. But he called his friend and got us a ride back to the cruise port. I won’t be going out alone again in these countries.
DON'T BE LATE
On time I was late back to the ship. They took my seapass card that night but gave it back in the morning. No hole punches or anything. A hole punch means a warning. You get 3 of these and you're terminated. Also as a general rule it's good to show up 15 minutes before anything whether it be training, a divisional meeting or a performance.
MAKING A SHOW THAT KEEPS THEM COMING BACK
Other than that I think I’ve come up with a system for requests that I’m implementing today. I’m going to download the requests from the previous night every morning and then work on them that day. I’ll also categorize them by tips. Also I’ll save EVERY napkin and once a cruise or once every two cruises I’ll go through them and find the repeats. Whatever gets requested multiple times becomes a part of my routine. Whatever artist gets requested multiple times becomes a part of my routine.
I’ll also monitor the tips I get every night and separate the early set from the late set because it’s a different crowd. I’ll match the tips to the set that night and see if there are any correlations. At the end of my contract I can analyze all the numbers and find out which were the most successful sets. I can also start making notes about how the crowd was that night to see if that had any outcome on the amount of tips I made. My goal is to each week increase the amount of tips I make on a given night and to reach $200.00/week in tips for starters. That’s $34/night. My long term goal is $1,000.00/week consistently for future contracts. That would be $170 a night.
Let the challenge begin…NOW!!!
Journal entry #7 1/10/19
Okay, so far I’ve gotten on Tuesday $46 and $33 on Wednesday. I’m well on my way to making my first goal already. I’ve started developing my show further. Calling people up to play “Where is My Mind” by the Pixies with me. I’ve been successful but I need more variety because I can’t keep doing the same thing every night. It needs to be a different show each night. Focus should be on themes of the night to break it up a little. Also emphasis on BIG FUN moments that involve the audience. Not just sing-alongs but actual games and audience involvement directly with what I’m doing. I bought toy instruments in Cozumel but I’m still not sure what I’m going to do with them. I’m thinking about having people come up and do a solo break with me. I’m racking my brain on which song I could use for it though.
Journal entry #8 1.27.19
I’m settling in much better now. The show has been on a standstill for two weeks. I stopped doing Annoying Pop Song Night until I can learn more variety for the older demographics. Besides these last two weeks have been a mostly older crowd that would not know most for the songs I’m performing. I haven’t been developing the audience participation thing like I should be. I’m not focusing enough on the show. I need to talk to the film crew about filming with their equipment for my show. Then use that footage for a new promo video. I also need to work on the Victor Borge Routine. It’s a great idea as long as I practice and implement. This could work great with an older crowd and maybe with a wireless mic like Victor Borge uses. Furthermore I need to download some Victor Borge videos and study his act. If you don't know who Victor Borge is click here to see a video.
Journal entry #9 2.5.19 USA AUDIENCES VS. EUROPEAN AUDIENCES
Things have really slowed down in the Caribbean and that’s a good thing. On the flip side I’ve been feeling the wear and tear on my voice and I’ve taken extra precautionary measures to ensure I don’t hurt myself. So very minimal alcohol. Don’t think I had a drop of it last week and this week it looks the same. Other than that I’ve kept up with my water intake and I’ve made sure to warm up but most of all I’ve been planning my sets to take it easy on my voice. It’s strange because my upper and lower registers are fine. It’s the middle register (the one I use the most) that I feel the strain. As if I’m at the beginning stages of losing my voice. It’s gotten better the last few days. A large portion of my day I’m alone so I don’t talk much and when I do it’s with my conversational voice. If I’m not projecting with my diaphragm even whilst talking I REALLY feel and hear the strain. There’s no pain thankfully.
Other than that the crowd is still older this cruise but it’s a bit better in terms of energy. I’ve gotten great tips to start off. Day 2 (which is the first day I play) I got $64 in tips. Day 3 I got $54. I use my tips to pay for internet, shopping and restaurants in port. The money I make for playing goes to the bank and pays off my credit card charges or goes into savings.
VOCAL STRAIN AND THE RISK OF INJURY AT THE PIANO
So in the meantime I have to make decisions about my vocal health and my wrists as well. I’ve modified my playing because I’ve been banging a little hard on the piano out of excitement or showmanship. It’s starting to take a tole with sore fingertips and pain in the wrists. I’m SO glad I have Ms. Engel’s training (Ms. Engel is my teacher from Florida) and that I took that injury prevention course with Barbara Lister-Sink (Link to Injury Preventative Technique blog for more details) before taking this gig because I would not have known how to handle this otherwise. I think I’ll be fine as long as I don’t compound the problems and be intelligent in my playing. Also I save every set list I do. And usually I try not to repeat songs the following day. Some are unavoidable like Piano Man and Sweet Caroline but most can be repeated another day. I recycle the sets from the previous week because they’ll have this process already built in. It’s brilliant and has saved so much time for me in planning my sets.
Journal entry #10 2.10.19 THE MOST REQUESTED SONGS
Okay so I’ve been keeping track of all the requests being made for about 2 months. So far people have requested 275 songs of me. Some I know and some I don’t know yet. Out of all the songs so far “Piano Man” has been the most requested at 10 written requests. Most times people just shout it out and that’s virtually every night so it’s more like 50 times but I’m only going off of written requests. The 2nd most requested songs at 5 written requests are “Walking in Memphis” and “All of Me”. The 3rd most are “Sweet Caroline”, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and “Country Roads”.
It seems that people mostly request ballads which is weird because when it comes to listening to a show people lose interest if more than two ballads are played particularly if you have not warmed them up to you yet.
12.21.19 OPPORTUNITIES BEYOND THE CRUISE SHIP
I've met someone on board who is flying me to Cambodia to stay in a hotel. They own a school there where she and the teachers there teach English and computer skills and I’ll be doing music classes and piano lessons as a thank you for the free trip.
I’ve been introduced to a culture I’d only heard of and knew nothing about. I’ve learned some of their language and customs, met a lot of people and have been teaching the students at the owner's school how to sing musically in a choir setting as well as giving lessons to one of the instructors. It’s been so rewarding to see their improvement in such a short time. I’ve been working with them for 2 weeks and tonight is the culmination of all that work. The Cambodian New Year. The year of the Pig. We will have a night of festivities, games and water gun fights...But that's another story for another blog post.
And that's where it all ends for now. I'll be working on similar journal entries for this current contract and will update you accordingly of course. Also I was talking to my sister today about starting a VLOG. A blog but as video. Since it's difficult for me to blog frequently on the ship but it's much easier for me to make a video and update you guys more frequently between contracts. I already have all the equipment I need on board. What do you think? Leave a comment below. Would love to hear your thoughts.
“I can’t play piano because of an injury and it makes me feel empty” -- Injury Preventative Piano Technique and What You Can Do Today.
There are fifteen of us sitting in a circle at the Salem College music school in Winston Salem, North Carolina. It’s day 1 of her Injury Preventative Piano Technique workshop.
We are pianists from all walks of life and different parts of the world; high school and undergrad students to graduate and doctoral.
No matter where we come from or what we’ve learned, today we’re all on the same level and we are all learning the fundamentals all over again.
Dr. Barbara Lister-Sink sits at the apex point of the circle with a Hamburg Steinway and Sons piano resting silently behind her. She’s teaching us a technique called the “basic stroke” where we each lift our forearms slightly using our biceps brachialis muscles until our fingers are hanging loosely from the wrist (like a mop at the end of the stick) and then allow for a free fall releasing the biceps brachialis muscles.
She scans the room for any unnecessary lurking tension in our upper arms. She comes to me and places her hand on my shoulder indicating that I release my deltoid anterior muscles so I can isolate my biceps brachialis. “Biceps brachialis?!” I think to myself. “Deltoid anterior?!” It’s taking so much mental energy to do this one basic motion that no one consciously thinks about (or so I think). I’ve never had to work so hard to do so little at the piano.
I quickly find out that I’m not alone. Others are also putting in a lot of mental energy to pull off a perfect basic stroke. Of course, the first time you learn a complex concept, it will take many hours of practice to achieve and to internalize it will take even MORE hours of practice
So why is she making us do this? Why as a pianist is it so important to be able to isolate different muscle groups and turn them on and off at will? Well because of athletic sports of course.
“Write your injuries in dust, your benefits in marble” - Benjamin Franklin
The reason I wanted to learn more about Injury Preventative Piano Technique is because I had a student who was showing early signs of pain in his arm. Furthermore I experience pain in my right forearm occasionally and I want to know what to do to prevent it from arising.
I knew that if he had continued the problem would not only persist but progress so action needed to be taken before we could take on more advanced repertoire.
I always teach my students to play in a way that prevents injury but I had reached the pinnacle of my knowledge and needed to seek help from the person who knows about this field the best. And that’s Dr. Barbara Lister-Sink.
Barbara Lister-Sink teaches Injury Preventative Piano technique with her Lister-Sink Method. Her video Freeing the Caged Bird goes through all the stages of this method in detail.
Piano related injuries can include: carpal tunnel, tendinitis in the wrist and arthritis. Have you ever tried to play a Rachmaninoff piece and gone “There’s no way my hand can stretch that far”? Well you’re not alone.
There can be a risk to taking on some pieces especially if you play them all the time. For instance, hyperextending your hand for an extended period of time over years can wear out the cartilage between your fingers particularly between the forefinger and thumb.
Dr. Lister Sink comes from a family of athletes and one of her most intriguing analogies for me was that of sports.
I’ve never been a sports person but I’ve gained a new respect for the world of athletics and the things athletes have to learn about their bodies and injuries.
One thing I find particularly interesting is in contact sports how athletes are taught to stabilize their joints at the right moment. Pianists pay attention because this will all circle back to you.
Think about Ice skaters who have to worry about Stress fractures, shin splints, tendonitis and ankle fractures. Have you ever wonder how they can jump ten feet in the air and land gracefully without breaking their ankle every time?
It’s because they stabilize their joints at the moment of impact and then release their muscle tension so the shockwave of the impact travels and disperses harmlessly through their bodies.
Tennis players stabilize their arm joints when they crack the ball at the moment of impact and then instantly release their muscle tension so the shockwave of the impact travels harmlessly up their arm.
When Martial artists break bricks, they have to stabilize their hand joints at the moment of impact and then release their muscle tension so the bricks break instead of their hand. Starting to see a pattern?
When you play piano, you are striking the keys with your fingers. On the moment of impact we must stabilize our joints and then release them so the shockwave of the impact travels harmlessly up our arms.
This information is not new
Although women are twice as likely to have playing related injuries at the piano, there are quite a bit of men who are affected by it as well. Here are some examples of famous pianists who’ve suffered injuries at the piano.
Robert Schumann famously and permanently injured a finger on his right hand using a contraption to try to gain strength in his weakest fingers. Lang Lang, a current and popular Chinese pianist, has recently developed tendonitis in his left forearm.
In this TedX Talk, Barbara Lister-Sink talks about the problem of injury facing pianists today and what is being done today to change that.
PASK (Pianos for Alternatively Sized Pianos). Industry standard piano size is an international movement devoted to introducing a smaller sized keyboard for people with smaller hands by big piano manufacturers like Steinway. Click the image below to check out their website.
Things you can do NOW
Be aware of any lurking tension in your own body while you are practicing. Examine the feeling of tension in your Head, Neck, Shoulders, Arms, Fingers, Torso, Legs, Feet and work on releasing the tension on command. It won’t be an overnight process but an ongoing one.
Find release points in your pieces. Find points with rests or long notes that help you to remind yourself to release the tension in your body. Stabilize joints to play the note. Let's break it down further.
The sound on the piano depreciates and only gets quieter once the note is played right? So once you play the note, your work is done and you can release the joints in your fingers and hands. This gives you a more efficient way of playing. Of course when your playing fast passages there HAS to be tension for you to play them so you find release points before and after the passage.
”True virtuosity is ease” ~Guido Agosti
Dr. Lister-Sink said her teacher Guido Agosti would tell his students “True virtuosity is ease.” Here are some examples of virtuosos that practice ease at the piano.
Valentina Lisista plays difficult fast passages with the Chopin Etude Op 10 No. 8 in F Major but makes it look easy.
Check out Art Tatum and his student Oscar Peterson for examples on how it looks to be a ease at the piano whilst playing virtuosic passages.
What can you do to improve the relationship with your piano by eliminating pain?
Learn more about the Lister-Sink Method and her intensive training workshops at https://www.lister-sinkinstitute.org/.
P.A.S.K. or Pianists for Alternatively Sized Keyboards. P.A.S.K. is an international movement committed to achieving change in relation to piano keyboard size. They are dedicated to bringing alternatively sized keyboards to the market by going straight to the big piano manufacturing companies. They are currently garnering support to show that there is a market for people who want alternatively sized keyboards. I'm interested in having a smaller key size as an option for me and my students so I’ve decided to sign their petition. You can even do it anonymously. For questions you can email email@example.com to send you more info. and you can like their Facebook page.
David Steinbuhler works closely with P.A.S.K. and has developed a product that can replace the action on a standard piano with a smaller action keyboard. I had the pleasure of playing on one of his DS6.0 keyboards at Salem College. His site has a hand size chart where you can measure how large your hand is and how it measures up to the standard keyboard and the keyboards he makes. You can find more info. at Steinbuhler.com.
Me looking at the soundboard of the Steinway & Sons at the concert hall at Salem College
(This is not a Stenbuhler modified piano)
By the end of the week we had all painstakingly (no pun intended) learned the “Basic Stroke” and a few other accompanying techniques that helped us to isolate the small muscle groups in our bodies. “We are all small body athletes” Dr. lister-Sink said as we sat upright and attentive in our ergonomic chairs, hanging on to her every word.
As I sat there listening, I reflected on the week I’d just had. This was the most intensive training I’d ever gone through at the piano but also one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences of my life.
My relationship with the piano has improved tremendously over the years. I have such a reverence and respect for the instrument and I think it views me as it’s friend.
It doesn’t judge, it doesn’t hate. It just is and it allows me to express myself musically through playing on it with ease. It gives me such a profound sense of fulfillment and it enriches my soul.
I’ll end this post with two questions Dr. Lister-Sink had for us during our stay in Winston-Salem.
How do you feel about the piano? What do you think the piano feels about you?
Let me know in the comments below.
I’d like to tell you about Mr. Clark. I was in 9th grade sitting in history class probably drawing my teacher getting eaten by a T-rex and showing it to my neighbor when suddenly the final bell of the day rang. Like clockwork the entire class stood up and rushed out of the classroom as our teacher shouted “And don’t forget to read textbook page 156!!” in a decrescendo as we distanced ourselves further from the classroom into the hallway.
As I was making my way down the brick laden corridor I was stopped by a man in his early twenties who asked “Are you Harry Rios?”. I said “Yes”. He said “Hi, I’m Mr. Clark. I run the 9th grade Men’s Choir.” As I’m thinking ‘what kind of school runs just a 9th grade men’s choir? What happened to all the other grade--” my thoughts get cut off with “I heard you were in the middle school choir from some of your former classmates and that you were pretty good and I’m in need of some good singers for our choir”. I had defaulted to joining choir in middle school because P.E. was full and it was the only elective still open as a requirement. Comes to turn out I was good at it and actually enjoyed it but I grew up with some stigmas about being in choir like it was only for girls (which turned out to be stupid because it’s actually a great way to meet girls.) A lot of us transferred over to the same high school so the guys in the new choir must have told Mr. Clark who I was.
He asked me “How would you like to join us?” I said “Um I don’t know. I was sort of done with choir ya know? I didn’t think about coming back after middle school”. He said “Well let me tell you we’ve only got a few guys and could use some help. But most of the guys in there you already know from middle school and the kind of stuff we’re working on is pretty cool. You should at least give it some thought” I recognized right off the bat however that even though he’d already gone through great lengths to come meet me personally, I didn’t feel like he was being pushy. Despite this feeling I was still apprehensive and said “ok. I’ll think about it” as it was the easiest way to just finish the conversation. He said “Ok. Then I’ll see you here again tomorrow and if you want, we’ll go straight to the choir room after class and I’ll introduce you to everyone.” Then I thought to myself ‘Oh crap he’s serious!’ “Uh--ok!” I said agreeably.
The next day, with outstanding punctuality, Mr. Clark was standing right outside the door of my 6th period history class. As all the students rushed passed, I met him in the hallway. Smiling, he said “So, did you think about it?” I said “Yeah.” Even though honestly I forgot. But I thought to myself ‘What’ve you got to lose? Choir was fun last time. Plus, you were pretty good at it.’ I said “Let’s do it!” And the rest is history. Needless to say I was still in choir up to my Junior year in college while still majoring in piano performance at Stetson. It ended up being one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve ever experienced and had a tremendous influence in my path to becoming a professional in the field of music.
I wanted to tell you this story to give some context to the points I’m going to make. I excelled in music because I loved music. And one of the reasons I loved it is because it was fun for me and I was pretty good at it. A lot of the things others would struggle with came really easily to me and that part of it instilled in me that I could bring value to the music world. Some of you may feel the same but you never had a Mr. Clark come up to you and hand you the gateway drug into your passion on a silver platter. Or maybe you did but rejected it out of some stupid stigma you grew up believing. Or maybe the person is not you but your child who you see the potential in but you don’t want to push them for fear of losing their trust. Maybe you want them to have the discipline and the order that learning a musical instrument brings but at the same time you want them to have a childhood. Maybe you just want them to have an outlet to make friends. Hopefully you’ll take away from reading this that these things can be achieved by communication, observation and taking a laid back approach to getting your kids into music. Let’s dive right into how we can quash out fears of being “too pushy” on our kids so they can enjoy some of the social benefits of taking music lessons of any sort.
I want my child to be involved in music but I don't want to push them for fear of losing their trust
It is paramount that you be able to effectively communicate with your child about where their real desires lie so you don't lose their trust. I recently departed with a student who I’d been teaching for several years. We’ll call her Meghan. Meghan has great technique at the piano and initially got into it because she loved seeing her friends and neighbors play effortlessly. She also is an athlete who loves volleyball. As it turns out not only does Meghan love volleyball but she’s really good at it and excels greatly in it. Naturally I would gear our lessons to use terminology that she understood from practices like “follow through” and also explain how practice makes perfect by asking how long it would take her to perfect a “punt” of the ball. if a student has other interests i.e. dance, volleyball, surfing I make sure to talk about those things as often as possible by finding the similarities between those disciplines and music. It A) keeps them engaged to understand the concepts you’re trying to show them and B) You’re coming from a place of understanding them.
In the end however she made the decision with her parents that if she wasn’t going anywhere for the time being with piano and that volleyball was her passion and focus should be put on this. As a piano teacher I could look at this two ways. I could get butthurt because I’m losing a student or I could look at it from my student’s perspective and understand if I care at all for my students and respect them I would be happy for them. I happen to fall in the latter category. The fact that they have found something they love to do and are good at, at such an early stage in their life is a triumph. But the key to all of that was her parents coming to terms with and letting their child pursue their passion. With communication and observation they know that investing in what their child loves means investing in their child. And to push them elsewhere would risk losing their child’s trust.
Do I wish Meghan stays with piano? Of course I do but the only way she could ever do that is if she has the freedom to step away for a while. There are so many other things out there she can explore and music will always be waiting for her if she ever wants to come back. But the most important thing is that it would be her choice, not someone else's.
Talk to your child but also observe where they spend most of their time thriving. If it is in music then Invest and nourish in that part of their lives. If not, then Invest and nourish in that part of their lives. If they’re enjoying what they are doing they will be more open to others their age that they meet who are enjoying the same things.
I want to instill order and discipline in my child's life but I want them to still have a childhood.
Piano lessons can be a fun engaging way of establishing discipline and order. There are musical journals to help track progress, daily routines, with scales, ear training, technique and memorization that in order to master it takes hours upon hours of focused practice and repetition. If your child is currently in lessons, here are some things can be implemented TODAY in a fun and engaging way that will keep your child engaged. 1) Music Flash cards. You can get some online or cut up some paper and make some yourself. I’ve done both and this keeps the student in a mode where you can give them a pop quiz at random intervals and it’ll keep them on their toes to get the answers correct. 2) The 3 items game (Check out the 5 minute Piano Method for this). It’s where you place 3 small items on the piano while practicing. These could be regular household items like a pencil, stapler and a battery that you can place on the desk of your piano. When you run into a problem area in your practice the goal is to play it 3 times without error. If you play it correctly once, then you remove an item. If you play it correctly twice, then you remove another item but if you play it wrong the third time, you must place all items back on the piano. W 3) Musical hangman. Pretty self explanatory but in case you haven’t played it in a long time it’s basically hangman but use music words like “legato” or “crescendo”. this one can get a lot of mileage but don’t overdo it. Mix it up and use the other two ways in conjunction with this.
I want an outlet for my child to have friends
Some piano teachers often have studios of students where at least twice a year they have recitals. This is a great place for your child to meet others like themselves who are in the same artistic boat as them and potentially form lifelong friendships. This goes the same for guitar teachers, flute, drums or any other instrument you’re likely to get your child involved in mastering.
Have them join a school choir, local choir or if you go to a church fortunate enough to have one, a Children or Youth Choir. In high school I remember taking trips to Washington D.C., The Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and Walt Disney World Resort here in Orlando for choir programs. We’d often take buses and have to get to know one another really well in order to get along. Most of my social anxiety was eliminated because I was around people I knew and in a skillset I was comfortable and familiar with. My personality emerged in choir. Most of the parents who join the Children’s Choir at the church I Music Direct in join because they want their children to hang out with other kids in a healthy, positive environment all while learning how to sing. we play games like musical chairs, hot potato and do picnics with scavenger hunts. What parent wouldn’t love their kids to be a part of that?
With communication, observation and taking a laid-back approach to you can ascertain whether your child will be interested and thrive in music or really any other area of interest. If they currently have no interests, try enrolling them in something musical to see if they like it. Even if they don’t stay in it, you never know if they’ll eventually meet a “Mr. Clark” who will draw them back in. By the way, did you have a Mr. Clark that drew you back into music? If so, let me know how your experience was.
What NOT to Do During a Gig
We always hear what things we should do as musicians. “Do this” or “Do that” or “Here are the top 10 things you should be doing to get gigs”. This is great, but it’s also equally important, if not MORE important to know the things to avoid. I have a story to tell you. This is a true story and actually happened involving a musician I hired for a gig once upon a time.
I normally would give separate stories and examples but this guy did so many things wrong I had enough material to write a whole post. Hope you enjoy and also learn something you may not have known. Here’s my part 1 of a series of what NOT to do as a musician.
Don’t Show Up Late To a Gig
If you show up on time, you’re late. Consider that as musicians we have equipment to set up, sound to check etc. If you show up to a gig “on time” and you aren’t playing by the designated time that you agreed to start playing at, you have failed. Always be ready to play fifteen minutes before the start time so you can account for any unexpected disruptions i.e. sound problems, equipment malfunctions, etc.
I hired a guy to play guitar for me for a university event. It was a business casual event and the president of the university was going to be the main speaker. It was a unique gig because they wanted musicians in separate parts of the building and as a result I had my violinist out in the hallway playing a solo act while I played with the Latin Jazz quartet in the main room. The guitarist was set up in the room adjacent to us to play a solo act.
First off, he was late which is a no-no for me because I’m a stickler on punctuality which is strange because I’m Puerto Rican. And if any of you are Puerto Rican or have friends who are you know that we function on our own time (commonly referred to as “PRT” or “Puerto Rican Time”). If you say a party starts at 7 p.m, we show up at 9:30 p.m.. So next time you invite a Puerto Rican to a party, just give them the time but 2 and a half hours earlier and they should show up right on time!
Okay back to the story.
This is the first time I hired the guy because my main choice had another engagement that day. He was my fall back and I hadn’t worked with him before but I’ve seen him play and he was decent. This was an early morning gig and I am NOT a morning person and have yet to meet a musician who is. But when the venue needs you at 8 a.m. in the morning, you show up an hour and a half earlier, or at 6:30 a.m..
Why, you ask? I have three reasons.
1. Because you never know what tragic accident happened on the highway before you stepped out the door.
2. We musicians tend to be absent minded and sometimes leave an important piece of equipment at home so we may have to go back to get it or purchase something at a nearby store. (I actually have had to do this more times than I care to admit).
3. It puts your clients’ mind at ease that you are a punctual person and have plenty of time to set up. (Hint: if you are the leader of the band, you should be the first to arrive)
I showed up first and the other musicians start trickling in soon after. That is, everyone except the guitarist. I gave him a call:“Hey, we’re all here just wondering where you are” to which he responds “I’m on so and so street about 15 minutes away” I respond “okay great. Give me a call if you get lost.” We start in 45 minutes so if he shows up in fifteen then he has time to set up and begin playing his start time.
Guess what? Fifteen minutes later, he’s still not here. We’ve already set up at this point and are getting ready to sound check. I’m nervous about this guy because I’ve never worked with him before. I don’t know if he got into an accident or if he’s just an inept person. So I’m hoping that he just shows up because my reputation is on the line here. Guess when he showed up? Right at the start time!! as we were getting ready to play our first song he shows up and starts setting up in the room across the hall.
So he starts late and we had already started playing in the main room. After we finish, the solo acts were to continue playing music so the crowd would disperse into different areas of the building and explore. I went to see the guitarist and what I saw shocked me. Which brings me to my next point...
Don’t Show Up To A Gig Looking Like a Bum
I pride myself on looking sharp for gigs. I also tell my musicians in correspondence weeks before a performance how they should look but also other important crucial details like date, time, repertoire, parking and pay. If you’d like to see an example of this download my “Booking a Gig Email Script” as a part of my Gigging Starter Kit for free.
When a musicians says “color is black”, it is assumed that you are wearing a nice black dress shirt with nice slacks and nice shoes. General rule of thumb is the musician should look better than the best dressed person in the room. What I learned from this gig is NEVER assume and ALWAYS be specific. Just pretend you are speaking to a 3 year old and you should cover everything you need to about dress.
This guy was wearing a black T-shirt (inside out mind you) and jeans. His hair was greasy and matted looking, he looked like he just woke up and his playing sounded like he looked -- terrible.
Don’t Play Like Crap -- Play what the person paying you wants to hear
We agreed that he should play spanish sounding repertoire but what I heard was just jumbled nonsense. Just chords being vamped on. It sounded like he was making it up rather than playing actual tunes. The other musicians started asking me “what’s up with this guy? He looks like crap and he’s playing like crap too” It was embarrassing. This was the nail in the coffin for me. I wasn’t going to hire this guy again but now I’m REALLY not gonna hire this guy again and I’ve already told other people not to waste their time hiring him.
I want to piggyback off of this thought while I’m on the subject and say that we should always play what the client wants “period”. I submit surveys to all of my clientele so I can get feedback to improve my future performances. I use surveymonkey.com which is a free service up to 10 questions.
My violinist did a great job for this event. In fact, the people LOVED him. But the client thought he was just “ok”. The reason is because the client specifically stressed that the violinist play world music and as much culturally diverse music as possible because there were going to be people from different parts of the world at this event. The violinist opted to play top 40 music.
My dad always told me “In a gig you need to make 3 people happy. Yourself, the crowd and the client”. This guy made himself happy, he made the people happy and probably thought “well if the people are happy then the client will see that and be happy in return”. The survey results showed that to not be true.
When I asked about the violinist and his choice of repertoire the client responded with “not really what I was looking for”. Ultimately as the band leader, I take the heat for this. I learned another lesson that day, too. Always give the client what they want not what you think they want and to make sure all of your musicians fall in line with that thought. at the end of the day they are the one who makes the decision whether to hire you again or not, not the people attending the event.
I will probably not hire that violinist for this type of thing again because of that and maybe the client may think twice before hiring us as well. But it’s all a learning experience and the point is to learn from the mistakes and never repeat them.
Hope you learned something of value in this post. And if you missed the link to Gigging Starter Kit, here it is. It’s completely free. Enjoy!
Lightning, Rhythm and Dancing
The other day I got the chance to sit down with ballroom dance instructor Tony Sterling who, with Renae Lowe, runs New Smyrna Beach Ballroom in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.
I met Tony at the Latin Grooves and the Artisan Foods event I did with Soul Survivors this past September. There we talked about all things music and oh yeah, how he can PREDICT LIGHTNING STRIKES IN A STORM!!!
I was naturally fascinated by this so I had to sit down with him and find out how he does it. Tony and Renae invited me to their New Smyrna Beach dance studio on Canal street and the following conversation ensued.
But first I want to give you an idea of what you’ll learn in this post.
OK. So, let's jump right into it. You told me, last time we spoke that you had a really unique way to be able to predict the timing of lightning.
And I found that super interesting, so can you tell me how did you come to find out that you could do that?
Well, a long time ago, for some reason, I became fascinated with timing.
Like, being able to count the seconds on a clock and keeping it accurate for long periods of time. So, before I was a dancer or anything, I've always had a fascination with timing and seeing if I could keep rhythm and keeping it right on with the clock as per second-wise. And then whenever I became a dancer, I quickly learned that most things are written in eight-count beats: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. And I was just watching a lightning storm one time with a friend of mine and he's an amateur photographer, really good. And we're just talking and I just was wondering if there was a natural rhythm to lightning.
And I stood, we stood out there for a long time. It was quite a big storm front and we were on a balcony and the storm was well away from us and the lightning was heavy, so ... Which was a good thing. There was a lot of lightning. I started counting and it's a very sporadic rhythm. It doesn't always go through full sets of eight. But if you count enough sets of eight, things start to come back around and loop at a certain period of time and within a second or so, I can predict when and where the lightning will strike. Now that is probably one time out of twenty guesses.
Gotcha. So it's not like an exact science?
It's not an exact science yet. I haven't studied that much lightning. But there is definitely some type of rhythmic cycle to lightning, provided it's a big enough storm front and you can see it on a wide enough angle, far enough away from you.
So, I don't know if the rhythm changes with the northern winds or the eastern winds, but I do know that I counted a front, several fronts here as well. And one time out of twenty or so I was able to guess when and where the lightning was going to strike and point at it when it struck.
Right. But when you're counting, is it more like a one Mississippi, two Mississippi-type count? Or is like …
It's a count that involves a portion of my inhale and/or exhale that I have kind of perfected that's difficult to explain. One ... Then you breathe, then you count with your breaths and you limit your breathing to that particular rhythm.
And I do everything in eights. So what occurs over several eight counts begins to build a particular pattern.
So, what is that ... I know you said it's hard to articulate in words, but is it like, you're inhaling for a few beats and then you're exhaling for a few beats too?
No, an inhale is one beat and an exhale is another beat. So it's ...
And how long does an inhale last?
Approximately one one thousand.
One one thousand ... beats per minute?
No, no just when you say, one one thousand, you know, one one thousand, two one thousand.
Oh, I see, I see. Yeah.
So, a one one thousand is the approximation that it lasts.
So, OK, so one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, that kind of thing, until it gets to about eight, and then a lightning strike happens?
No, no, no. There are several sets of eight.
And then a lightning strike or several lightning strikes happen inside of several sets of eight.
And you keep that track in your mind of how many sets of eight you've gone through between how many lightning strikes and what beat on that particular set of eight in that set occurred.
So, in a particular storm, if you can find within like sixteen beats that lightning has struck ...
No, I usually count large beat structures and keep track of large beat structures in my head. Like, thirty-two counts of eight.
So like, thirty-two counts of eight. So that's thirty-two times ...
...That you're counting eight.
OK. And so, wow.
Because that's typically the length of a square rhythm-formatted song, is thirty-two sets of eight, or ... you know, for two minutes.
So that's what, like, five minutes?
Two minutes or so.
Two minutes or so. OK. And then, how many times lightning strikes within that depends on the storm?
Yes. Typically, but I have also noticed that most storm lightning patterns can be ... not the same, but you can count most of how long it's going to take ... Because lightning strikes click, click, click, click, click, click, you know. The clicks are representing the lightning strike. But, it can go click and wait for a while, and then click, you know. So you have to keep rhythm of so many of those particular instances to be able to find a rhythm to go, "It's going to strike right there."
Right. So you need to already see a few strikes ...
Oh, many strikes. You need to see many strikes.
... Before you can go, OK, now it's going to happen here.
Yes. Correct. I can't just look at it and go, "Oh, lightning's going to strike there. Lightning's ..." No, I have to study the front for some time before ... Yeah, yeah. No, no, no. I wish I had.
No, this is really cool though.
I could bet in Vegas on that, you know? I wouldn't bet on the count because it's so few and far ... But sometimes I do, "It's going to go right there." And it's a little quicker than the average person because I've had another person go, "OK, let me try to do it too," and then, you know. So I guessed a lot more than the other person that didn't study the rhythmic aspect of the lightning storm, so to speak.
Right, OK, OK. So, that's funny because it seems like different storms have different tempos.
Yes. Different BPMs. LSMs, lightning strikes per minute.
Yeah, that's really, really, really cool. Because I ...
Yeah, we can call that LSMs. Lightning strikes of minute. (laughs)
I've never thought of it in that way at all.
And now the spacing of the rhythm doesn't necessarily equal seconds, or minutes, or hours. It's rhythm ... that is counted, you know? And so it's not a correct representation of one second. It's a particular rhythm that I have perfected. Like, the average rhythm of a song, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. OK? So, you know. Or a slower song, so to speak. Not a fast one, one two three four five ... But it's a slower, one ... two ... three ... four ... five ... And you know, however I count it depends on the tempo of that lightning storm. So lightning storms will vary slightly, but they're not all exactly the same on how many lightning strikes per minute happen. So far as I've noticed. OK? So, I don't study every lightning storm that comes through, so ...
No, of course. But now it's going to have me thinking next time a lightning storm comes through, I'm going to be like ...
Count your own rhythm to it ...
Start counting, yeah ...
... And see if you can start to figure out, OK, it's going to go there, or it's going to go there.
I would imagine that a lot of trial and error goes ...
A lot of trial and error.
... In the beginning to get the rhythm in the first place.
Absolutely. You have to take a lot of guesses before. But you also have to count it and the way that I do it is I count it and just collect data, so to speak, for a while, before I start trying to guess and then, once you start looking at it, you can go, "There is a particular rhythm to this front." You know? And a lot of it depends on dissipation of the rain and things like that. Or how heavy it is in a particular moment. It has to be a fairly heavy storm that you can see off in the distance rolling across a body of water or away from you, you know?
Now how long have you been doing this again?
Lightning, counting lightning?
Fifteen years. And have you noticed, are any two storms alike?
I don't know ...
As far as the rhythm is concerned?
They're all similar, but they're not all the same.
They're not all the same. Very cool.
Crazy, wow. You pretty much touched on how precise this is and that it's not an exact science or anything.
Now, let's move into the realm of dancing. Why is it so important to have rhythm, as a dancer?
I feel the importance of rhythm as a dancer is extremely important. However, the focus of the topic is knowing that rhythm ... I mean, a heartbeat has a rhythm. A car has a rhythm. Somebody's walk has a rhythm. And that all stems from instinct. Everybody has a instinctual rhythm, so to speak. So, I think it's important that people learn to recognize rhythm, more important than it is to have rhythm, because everybody has rhythm. I have not met one person in my entire career that I cannot teach rhythm to fairly quickly.
Now what do you mean the instinctual rhythm? Like, each individual person has their own rhythm? What do you mean by that?
Well, let's go back to where dance and rhythm was started, originated.
Now this is all an opinion that I've formulated over the years.
Of course. That's why we're here.
Some of it has come from people speaking in jest and me thinking about it and some of it has come from people talking about historical things that happens. And I like to think back to one of the earliest civilizations, is the African civilization.
And I believe that whenever you have different hertz ... You understand hertz?
And bass and treble when you go from a high hertz to a lower hertz.
Everybody has a natural reaction to any sound or noise that's below twenty hertz. Boom, boom, boom. That's on a lower scale. And why is that, do you think?
I don't know.
I believe that when you had African civilizations or aboriginal civilizations, whatever old civilizations there are. I'm not a historian by any means. However, you have a particular reaction to a particular tone because we were not always the top of the food chain.
So whenever you're smaller than an animal ... And still, if we didn't know how to use weapons and things like that, we would still be not the top on the food chain because a bear one-on-one could eat us or a lion or a tiger, unless you're a massive human being, or you know, whatever.
But, I believe women have a better reaction to rhythm because rhythm is written in particular tones and there are particular tones that are used ... For instance, whenever you hear something going boom, boom, boom, boom, you're kind of going to turn around and look to see what's walking toward you, at a very minimum. And that's a natural reaction. So, whenever you hear a particular rhythm, boom, boom, boom, boom, we have to react twice as fast to that rhythm to stay ahead of what's coming after us. And that's a natural instinctive reaction to tone. And when we write modern music, wordsmithing typically runs in a square rhythm and the tone, the one, is typically accompanied by a lower hertz beat or a higher hertz beat because you can hear it. It's more recognizable. So, when you bob your head to the music, that's rhythm, OK? And whenever you have a natural reaction ...
So whenever you had the African camps or the older civilization camps at night, they would stretch the animal skin over a barrel and beat on it because it made a big sound and made them sound bigger than what was outside of the camp. And they lit fires and danced. And the reason why they danced is they made the big masks and jumped up and down with the fire so the animal could see that there's bigger animals and could hear that there's bigger animals in the camp. And it would help actually physically protect them from the tigers coming in and taking them while they sleep. So this is typically why, in my opinion, why they would have these at night, to scare off predators and things out of the camp to make sure that the animals knew that they are the alpha civilization wherever you're living in that part of the world.
And so women have a tendency to go faster than the rhythm, so they have a very ... much quicker reaction to rhythm because typically ladies outsmart prey. They run. Or they hide or they get away. Men don't typically do that. The natural reaction for men is to stand and fight. Or to defend. And the other people listen to the rhythm of what's coming and stay ahead of it. And the men kind of like ... Rhythm is a little bit slower because they inspect the situation first, see what's going on. Ladies and children typically kind of move out quicker. Because ... Now there are some ladies that will stand and fight too, don't get me wrong. (Laughs) I don't want to get in trouble here. But instinctively I think that there is a natural reaction to particular tones because of something chasing us and eating us.
That's also really interesting when you consider battles in history, they have war horns or they have drums. So just to announce their coming. “Hey, we're coming”, you know? And they're beating drums and marching. So the enemy will hear that and the men will defend. The children and the women will go to safety. But yeah, that's really, really interesting.
Yeah. Not only that but cadence. Rhythm and cadence as practiced in militaries with marching and running and you run in a particular cadence so the entire group can move as one. When the entire group moves as one, it makes a louder vibration on the earth and helps just like the war horn or the war drum. When you walk in rhythm, it typically gives a bigger noise to the enemy, yeah. So there's protection in rhythm, so to speak. Or protection in music, I guess (laughs).
So, in that, when you say that the men's responses are a little bit slower than the women's, are you saying that typically it's harder to get men up to speed with rhythm?
Between three and seven times faster, the ladies learn rhythm. Or, when I say learn, I say recognize rhythm. Because I've not met anybody that I can't make them learn to recognize rhythm very quickly. When you're talking about ...
How quickly are you talking?
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Typically.
Somebody that has absolutely no rhythm?
That has absolutely no rhythm and knows nothing about rhythm, I can put on a song and have them following rhythm and counting the rhythm within a few minutes. Because it's about recognizing it. Because rhythm is instinctual. It's not something that's learned. It's something that you have to learn to recognize.
Now how about to get them to actually dance in rhythm?
To actually dance in rhythm. That takes a bridge that you have to cross. However, whenever you dance in rhythm, you teach people how to walk in a straight cadence first. Five, six, seven, eight. Walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk. And then you teach the person to recognize that rhythm, at which point you can either take one step on two beats, which creates a slow. Or you can take two steps on one beat, which creates a syncopation. I'm sure as a musician you understand those terms.
One, two, slow ... quick, quick, slow ... quick, quick. So that's all eight counts. One, two, three, four ... Or if you say one and, they step twice. Step step. So there are certain drills that you can do to make people recognize rhythm in their feet. Yeah. So, but you have to recognize rhythm in your head and have to be able to count the music and find the one first, before you can learn how to step to it.
OK. So let's say, from zero to dancing, what is the curve? What's the learning curve there? How long will it take somebody with zero rhythm and that can't recognize it, to you getting them to recognize it, to them dancing it regularly?
It depends on what you define as regularly and I'll give you a scale here. When you're talking, let's say merengue. Merengue is a straight one, two, three ... and you go march, march, march, march, march, march. That I can have them doing within minutes.
OK? When you're talking about a syncopation like, for instance, cha-cha ... One, two, three, four and one, two, three ... When you say "four and," that means you step twice on the four. That means the four is syncopated. One, two, three, four and, one, two, three. So, with that, I can have them doing that in place within, you know, ten minutes, fifteen minutes. And then actually having them ... I can have them dancing it front of me within one lesson.
However, them going away and the retention of the ... the ability to retain the actual movement to that particular rhythm, if there's a syncopation or several syncopations inside of one four-beat sequence, it can typically take a few days if the person is adamant about practicing it here and there. When you're talking about practicing rhythm and movements, it doesn't necessarily mean practicing for hours. Just going over it here and there when you think about it and keeping it fresh between lesson to lesson. That's one of the things that I practice is that, when you have somebody recognizes syncopation, that's actually a big breakthrough with a student-to-teacher relationship. Whenever somebody learns the cha-cha or the East Coast Swing, and they go away and they learn to recognize it on their own and then come back and dance it in front of their teacher, that's a pretty big deal. It doesn't take much, but it does take paying attention to.
Gotcha. So, when they are ... So I guess regularly would be more defined as, it's ingrained in them now, it's second nature now?
OK. That takes approximately twenty hours of exposure.
Twenty hours of exposure.
That's either in front of me ... Now, the exposure has to be, when I say the twenty hours of exposure, you know, ten hours of that exposure being in front of an instructor. The other ten being at parties or practicing at your own rec room classes.
They have to do just as much on their own, that they do with you.
And rhythm and recognizing different rhythm sequences and all of the dances is practice for all of the dances. So all of the dances go together because when you learn how to recognize rhythm in one, it becomes much easier to recognize rhythm in the other. For instance, I teach merengue rhythm or salsa rhythm first. And then I can go into a swing rhythm or a cha-cha rhythm. And then, let's say, a salsa rhythm for instance. You have one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
Now, there are several different ways of dancing salsa and some people have their favorites. But the most typically, widely recognized used salsa is that you start on the one and you hold for the four. You start on the five and you hold for the eight. So, one, two, three, hold, five, six, seven, hold. That's not a syncopation. That's where you get involved into almost a slow, but you're going to hold your foot for one rhythm. Typically, that's the most difficult rhythm at first to show someone and for them to recognize over and over and over, again and again.
So when you're talking about dancing, you're talking about the two forms of Latin dancing that can be used to teach rhythm the most. The number one is merengue, because it teaches a straight cadence first. And then the last one is the salsa because it's a little more difficult because you're still holding for that one beat. After people typically learn how to move walk walk walk walk walk walk walk walk walk for the merengue to go on to walk, walk, walk, hold ... walk, walk, walk, hold. Or walk walk hold. OK?
So, to becoming second nature it takes about twenty hours of exposure on any particular given style. Talking about cha-cha versus East Coast Swing versus salsa versus merengue. Merengue is easier to recognize, you know, just a few hours on that. But the salsa, the cha-cha, it takes a little bit of exposure in order for them to be able to count it and it becomes second nature.
Awesome. Yeah, that's a good gauge, I think. People can look at that and go, "OK."
So, do you have anything coming up? How can people connect with you? How can people know what you're doing?
There's a lot of different ways where people can connect with myself and/or Renae. We teach here out of Canal Street with New Smyrna Ballroom here at 421 Canal Street, which is in New Smyrna Beach, Florida of course. They can contact me by phone, 407-409-9251. E-mail, which is firstname.lastname@example.org. We have group classes on Tuesdays at 7:00pm EST, Thursdays at 6:30pm EST. We have a practice party for one hour every week on Mondays at 7:00pm EST for our members, as well as everything is open to the public. Drop-ins are available.
Great, great, great. And then you have a Facebook page too, right?
Yes. NSB Ballroom. Two Bs. NSB Ballroom. Some people accidentally put NS Ballroom, but it's really NSB Ballroom.
OK, I'll make sure to put a link in there.
Yeah, cool. Thank you.
Yeah, absolutely. Thank you.
Interested in getting gigs? Download my Gigging Starter Kit. It’s completely free. Enjoy!
Tell me if you’ve experienced this before. You’re getting ready to book a gig. The date is good, you are available and then pricing comes up. You freeze up, your heart begins to race, your face is flushed and you’re uncertain of what to say. “If I shoot too high they’ll say no” or “If I shoot too low then I’ll be selling myself short.”
Furthermore (and I’ve had people say this to me) they will tell you that if there is a good crowd you will be paid the agreed upon amount but if there is not a good crowd you pay will be docked. For something that has NOTHING to do with your responsibilities you will be punished financially.
Could you imagine a scenario where this would work for say a lawyer? “Hey, I’m gonna have you represent me but if I don’t like how the trial is going, I’m gonna have to give you a smaller percentage than what we agreed upon”.
How do you think the lawyer would react? He’d probably just walk away in disbelief that you had the audacity to even entertain the thought. No professional would settle for such bullshit, and neither should you.
So I pose this question. Why do most musicians make bad businessmen?
Here’s my theory.
Because We Think With Our Heart, Not Our Mind
Artists are sensitive and opinions of others tend to matter too much. Instead of looking at what we need for our business we tend to be empathetic towards other business owners needs and cater to them. They realize this after one conversation and they can take advantage of the situation.
We hear one person’s opinion opposite to ours or glance at one negative review and our world comes crashing down. We often believe in the good in people and hope they won’t (or can’t conceive) they would take advantage so we don’t take measures to safeguard ourselves via contracts BEFOREHAND.
What can we do about it?
Realize that we are in business and businesses need to make money to survive. If someone has a problem with you trying to make money for your business, then you need to cut that person out of your life.
Furthermore when someone doesn’t like what you do, chances are they never will and never would have in the first place. In other words they’ve already made up their mind about you long before you had a say in the matter. Don’t try to cater to the haters or give them any mind.
The more successful you become, the more prevalent these people will be and they will grow in number. Luckily your fans will outnumber them 10 to 1. Put zero energy into these people. When they confront you, brush them off like dirt on your shoulder.
DO put a disproportionate amount of energy into the people that like what you do. Invite them out to MORE performances. Tell them to tell their friends about you and whenever you can, give them something of value in return.
Always prepare contracts. You should have a template of a contract ready but in case you don’t already have one, you can download mine here for free.
I believe that people are good and I want to believe that they’ll never take advantage of my generosity but sadly some of the most unexpected of people at times do just that. I also believe that we naturally will take advantage of a good thing if we are allowed to. The trick is to give no allowances for this behavior.
EVERY SINGLE TIME I’ve gone into a gig without a contract I’ve regretted it. It’s not even like a “this will turn out fine I’ve known this person for years” type situation. Unforeseen circumstances WILL arise and if there are no safeguards, nothing can be done about it.
Because Our Heads Are In The Clouds
We tend to be disorganized. Being a musician by trade means you are an agent, manager, accountant and publicist all at the same time (Unless of course if you pay for these services). This work requires, paperwork, invoicing, accounting, phone calls, emails, writing and researching. Since all we want to do is make music, the more administrative stuff tends to fall by the wayside
We think that if we make great music, people will naturally flock to us and ask us to play the BIG VENUES (If you build it they will come mentality)
Most places are looking for good music but they rely on close friends or connections to seek out new talent
What can we do about it?
Pick the one thing you hate doing the most, bite the bullet and pay someone else to do it. Virtual Assistants are a gift from God that few people know about or even use but for those who do there can be many advantages.
Virtual Assistants are VERY Affordable and they can get tasks you don’t want to spend your precious time on done quickly and professionally while you’re SLEEPING! I use Ask Sunday for this.
**Create an Electronic Press Kit (or EPK). Here’s a downloadable example you can use as a template. People will always be asking you for a bio, pictures, recordings yadayadayada. May as well have it gift wrapped all in one pdf document with links to the appropriate places.
Become a part of the social circle of the people you are seeking to do work with. This means finding out who they are, who they know and where they go.
Let me be clear. Don’t STALK these people. If they own a business ask yourself “is this a service I could use and could it benefit me?” Example: You want to play at a restaurant, become a patron of said restaurant. See Case The Place, Get The Gig for more info. on this.
Most people aren’t willing to put this level of detail into their work so they simply plateau. But for those of you who are interested in getting to that next level, this next part is for you.
Put yourself in the position of making it easy to run into the people you wish to work with on a daily basis. If that means going to Chamber of Commerce events, festivals, concerts or conventions then that’s what you can do. Learn people's names and get comfortable getting to know them.
I’m naturally introverted, as most artists tend to be, but go out of my way to get to know people. Get to know the names of people’s children, pets and what they do for fun and next time you see them inquire about these things. They will remember that and remember you fondly.
I should also mention that you MUST be sincere. People know when you’re being insincere and can smell it a mile away. You must actually be genuine in getting to know that person not wanting anything in return and also be willing to not receive anything from them ever.
That being said, It’s much easier to be involved in a working relationship with people when you’ve already established a relationship with them.
Because we are afraid of the dreaded negotiation
Like the illustration before describes, we’re afraid we’ll choke or freeze up when confronted about rates because we don’t want to overshoot or undershoot. We cave in too easily, we agree despite not being completely happy with what we’re getting for the work involved and we don’t have a good understanding of our worth and how to convey that to others.
What can we do about it?
The best agreements are when both parties are happy with what they’re getting. If you agree to something less than what you set out for, that will affect your relationship with the other party from then on and vice verse.
The BEST negotiating position is always to have the ability to walk away if you are not happy with the results. Try it sometime.
If you feel the interaction is going nowhere just say “you know what? I don’t think this is gonna work out, let’s just forget about it” and see what happens.
Most times the interaction will shift dramatically in your favor and the other party will be much more receptive to what you have to say.
Sometimes the other party will simply agree and you have to commit and actually walk away.
This puts you in a no pressure position because you are ALWAYS taking the work you want to take and NEVER taking the work you don’t want. And you're giving the other party what they want.
It’s a win-win situation for all involved.
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Most of us spend tens of thousands of dollars to go to college and when we spend that kind of money, we want to make sure that what we studied will help us go into the workforce.
At least that’s what we’re made to believe growing up. There are some degrees, particularly in the arts, that serve a different purpose. The truth is a lot of funding is being cut in schools for music programs and our education system has shifted from pumping out talented artists to trying to keep the artful music alive.
Let’s face it. A lot of what we hear on the radio today doesn’t come close to the sophistication that early composers like Beethoven, Mozart and Bach achieved with their concertos, sonatas and fugues.
When’s the last time you went to a live concert where classic music was being played by an orchestra? There was a time where watching orchestras was our form of entertainment but in the advancement of technology, television and the internet those days are long gone. Yet a small pocket of us remain who still seek out live concerts and show our support to the art of making music.
I have a story for you. It’s the year 2009 and the rhythm section of The Stetson University Jazz Ensemble are all standing in the green room huddled in the corner at the historic Athens Theatre in downtown DeLand. Other members of the ensemble are in different pockets of the backstage area warming up or grabbing a quick drink of water before a 2 hour set. We are getting ready for our end-of-the-year performance and right before we go up, Dr. George West, or “Doc” as we affectionately call him, gives us a small pep talk.
He wasn’t one for pep talks particularly but his points were often poignant, concise and always with deeper meaning than the words themselves. So when Doc talked, we listened. He asks us “You know why they teach music in schools right?”
We all look at him with glazed eyes fearing what sharp retort we’d have to endure if we gave him a wrong answer. Doc let the question sit in the air before answering. He then added “It’s so that you can appreciate it”.
He then leaves us and makes his way upstairs to the wings. After sharing our opinions on the meaning of Doc’s words we go to the wings of the theater to await our announcement to share music we’ve practiced all year to a crowd eagerly waiting to hear arrangements composed by Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Bill Evans and other jazz greats.
Although I’m reserved, inside my initial reaction to Doc’s words are incredulity and anger. “I’m paying $45,000 a year to APPRECIATE music? Hell no. I’m going to make back every dollar I spent!”
It wasn’t until years later, while sharing wings and talking about music one night with a friend however when I realized what Doc meant. As we drank our beers and tore into our chipotle bbq wings my friend was describing a presentation he had gone to years before.
He had received a memo to meet in the concert hall at Stetson University where the late Bobby Adams, who was the concert band director at the time, had asked for certain members of the faculty and staff to sit on the stage for a presentation. He had several of the music faculty perform and would give statements about each piece of music.
Every piece had a lesson, anecdote or deep philosophical meaning behind it and Dr. Adams would eloquently lecture to his audience until he arrived to the point of this unorthodox meetup.
“Music is taught today so that the young people learning it will be the audience of tomorrow” he said. “Otherwise we will have no one going to the orchestra concerts, attending Ballets or Operas and this genre will simply die away”.
Dr. Adams wanted people to know how hard it is to achieve the creation of really good music. He wanted people to understand the time and dedication and years of perseverance that it requires to achieve mastery and excellence and that most of the young people studying will never become professional musicians but that the experience they had in their education will engrain in them that classic art music is important.
It was then that I realized Doc wasn’t being facetious or trying to goad us into a mad frenzy pre-performance. He was telling us “you’re the reason why our craft will survive and it’s up to you to keep it going whether you are performing it or whether you are paying to see it”.
So there’s the light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully while reading this you’re thinking to yourself Am I doing my part? Where do I fit in? Let me ask you something. When’s the last time you went to a live music performance or any live performance for that matter?
Whether you’re in school looking to get credits for the semester or whether it’s enrolling your child into music lessons or if you’re kids have left the nest and it’s time for you to take up the mantle. Maybe you’re looking for new fresh date ideas with the husband or wife. There are so many ways to get involved in the arts these days because the internet has made it so easy.
Support live music by SIMPLY ATTENDING:
Most universities have free concerts throughout the year so if you’re on a budget it’s risk free. The big ones are usually at the end of the semester/year because they are basically the final exam for the students. The university website will also tell you when the concerts are so you can just set a date and commit to it.
Not sure what you should listen to? Throw a dart at the screen of the concert section of the website! See where it lands.
Just kidding about that last part by the way. But seriously it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you pick a live performance to go to and then actually GO TO IT.
A lot of these events aren’t heavily marketed and attended only by other students and faculty. But you can take advantage of this by getting a front row seat to listen to some great music played by very dedicated and talented young artists.
Then if you enjoy it enough you can graduate to paid performances like your local symphony orchestra.
Not a fan of the symphony orchestra? That’s ok, not everyone is. You can also Google Live music [insert your city here] and see what pops up.
You’d be surprised how many results you’ll get for how many different genres of music.
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Imagine this scenario: You’re a musically inclined person. You tell people that you’re not that great at your instrument but let’s be honest, you’re better than most people and if you put your mind to it, you could play just as good if not better than the professionals.
You may even be a professional yourself but you don’t play out very often and you’d like to play out more and this thought happens to come across your mind while having dinner with some friends at a nice restaurant. You even think to yourself “this would be a nice place for some live music”.
And then you resume talking with your friends, go home to sleep and dream that same recurring dream you have of playing at a rock concert, jumping into the crowd and then wake up falling on your bed…Oh wait, maybe that’s just me.
The point is the thought never even occurred to you that you could be providing a great service to that restaurant by playing for it. And the greatest thing is you can be compensated for doing something that you enjoy.
This article is primarily geared towards getting restaurant gigs for players who are just starting out and players who’ve been playing for a while and just want a steady gig on the side for some extra pocket change. Not to say that the information in this article can’t be used for other types of venues as well.
All of the ideas are solid never-changing concepts that stand the test of time but the context is different depending on the venue. This system is designed for you to be able to walk into a place that has no music but has potential, captivating the owner and creating a gig for yourself.
Credit goes to my good friend and pianist Sims Kline for helping me write this and providing some of the valuable information contained within. You can see some of his work at https://soundcloud.com/sims-kline.
Let’s dive right in. Restaurants want background music. They want a nice ambience, not a concert or someone who’s being loud. As a musician we have to understand that the people who go to restaurants are having dinner often with friends and family.
They’re paying good money to be able to sit at a nice restaurant and talk to each other and they don’t want the musician to intrude but they like to hear the music a little bit. So that’s the deal: Background music as opposed to a live show.
Step 1: Case the Place
Go into a restaurant that you enjoy frequenting or that is near you. Ask yourself “Is this the kind of a restaurant/menu/clientele that maybe background piano would appeal to the owner?” Because if it doesn’t appeal to the owner, you’re dead on arrival and nothing will ever happen. The owner (or the operator of the restaurant) controls everything.
Don’t go in with a portfolio and CD ready to sell to the owner. This is the worst thing you can do and it will get you turned down quickly. Besides most owners have so many CD’s from musicians that come by wanting to play for them that it’s a problem on how to dispose of them.
Instead go in and sit down, and relax. Wait for the server to bring you a menu, order dinner and a drink. Talk to the server, learn his/her name and remember it. Get a feel for the place – who else is in the restaurant? What demographic frequents the venue? What are the menu prices? If it’s a bargain-basement chop shop, the restaurant is not going to pay to have music, so you just enjoy your meal and leave. If everything lines up, it’s on to step 2!
Step 2: Scope the Space
Look around and ask yourself “Is there anywhere in this whole place where there’s just enough room to plug in a digital piano or guitar and amp?” Sometimes you’ll encounter a place that there isn’t any room unless you take away 2 or 3 tables.
The owner does not like to do that because if he’s already paying you to perform there, he would now have to turn away potential clientele because there’s no room for them. They’re more inclined to only have to move 1 table to make space.
For smaller spaces there’s no need to bring anything more than a digital piano or guitar and music stand. If you’re a pianist and the keyboard doesn’t already have built in speakers, a small amp isn’t going to take up much more space, either.
Don’t be afraid to walk around. After all, you’re just a curious customer soaking in all the restaurant’s little nuances. If someone asks if they can help you, you can simply say “I’m wondering if there’s ever any live music here.”
If walking around is not an option for you, you can simply stay where you are and converse with the wait staff by asking if there’s ever any live music. They may say something like “Only for special occasions” or “Sometimes we have a DJ on the patio”.
Always tip the wait staff generously. They will remember you with special fondness and will even speak well of you to the owner.
Step 3: Give Them an Offer They Can’t Refuse
Ask if the owner is around. If not, make an appointment over the phone. It’s important to note: never close a deal over the phone unless it’s under really unusual circumstances. Phones are to make the appointment only.
Before I move on to meeting the owner I feel I need to say that the ideal for professional musicians is to never have to do things for free and/or exposure. However, this scenario is for musicians looking for a steady gig and supplemental income, establishing long term relationships with restaurant owners, and using restaurants as a conduit into the field of the music business.
The following advice is a one-off type situation and should not be repeated twice at the same venue. I would normally never advise doing gigs for free or even below the $100/hr per player standard base pay for professional musicians as a steady gig because it does hurt the musicians’ economy and it does devalue professional musicians’ line of work.
That being said, this is the restaurant business and I wouldn’t advise any professional musician to depend on restaurants as a primary source of income because restaurants really can’t afford to have live music unless they’re in a very affluent, busy area.
Right now, we’re talking about musicians who are just making their way out into the playing world. Restaurants are a good starting point and for professional musicians. It’s a steady side gig. It’s also a place we can build repertoire and practice and hone our craft for bigger, better gigs. Professional musicians can afford to take a lower pay because it’s a steady paycheck and not a hotel convention that rolls around once a year.
This statement is not to devalue the restaurant business either, but it’s a very tough industry and restaurant owners have to keep an eye on every dollar that goes in and out of that establishment.
Now that that’s out of the way, offer value to the owner without asking for anything in return. In the words of the Godfather, “give him an offer he can’t refuse.” Something that will cost him nothing and he has everything to gain is a win-win situation for him. Offer a trial run on one night so the owner can see you perform.
Don’t nickel and dime asking for food and drink, just give them and their guests a nice ambience they can enjoy during their dinner hour. Order dinner yourself and always tip the staff well.
Remember: you are building a long standing relationship! If things don’t work out, you can continue to be a patron who knows the owner and is friendly with the staff.
Step 4: Get the Gig
Make sure that on the night of your trial run, the owner is present. Even if you have to wait a week or two, make sure he’s there to see you play. After you finish, have a mini meeting with the owner to discuss how it went.
If he likes it, he will ask you to come back. This is when you come back to him with a price that is the standard for the area that you live in. If he agrees, great!
If not then find a number you both can be happy with. If he goes below the number you like it’s okay to turn it down and walk away. Just say “I wish I could but I simply can’t play for that amount” and end on a good note. If he accepts, then you can proceed.
Next determine the time you play and the specific break times. Standard is 45 minutes playing followed by a 15 minute break. I like to give the owner a full 60 minute set in the beginning and then 15 minutes off followed by 45 minute sets.
Extra Tidbit: Amenities
Once the gig is secure and you’ve established a price you can move on with the conversation. If you’re playing 2 hours or more, you can reasonably ask to be fed as well with a comped meal.
Don’t push on this one. It may be settled with an employee discount. Most owners within reason will agree to this, but be prepared for the owner to say no, and you must take that with grace.
So remember these 4 steps:
1: Case the Place
2: Scope the Space
3: Give Them an Offer They Can’t Refuse
4: Get the Gig
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The #1 secret to learn songs quicker than anyone around you-- that you already possess
One of the biggest struggles we go through as pianists is coming to terms with how long it takes to learn a song at the piano, especially at the beginning stages. Practicing certain things over and over especially if it's taking a while to get it down can be hard work.
The good news is with working smarter you can get better and faster. The best news is you can save a buttload of time today by learning the #1 secret I use every day to learn songs quicker than anyone around me.
Have you ever wondered how some musicians can encounter a song for the first time and within a few seconds be able to play the same song as if they’d been playing it for years?
Imagine yourself sitting at the piano to play a song you’ve never played before and within a matter of seconds playing it the way it sounds on the recording. No tricks, no tactics, no years of lessons and no sheet music.
Skip down to the video below to reveal the first step. Read on to hear the secret.
Now I want to make sure you’re ready to hear it before I tell you and you understand how powerful this is.
Constantly still to this day I am asked how I know what to play immediately, in real time, after hearing a song without having to practice it AT ALL.
I’m asked this by my students and by people who see me perform songs live on the spot having never played them before.
The first time I shared this info. with my students they were able to play full songs within a couple of weeks. Now they can play a full song in the time it takes to have a lesson.
Can they play it perfectly the first day? Of course not. They need to polish it just like anything else and in time they’ll be able to play on the spot. But they’re playing it! But with practice they have been able to get to the point of playing what they want and making it sound like they’ve known it for years.
Understand however that we’re not talking about some simple reduction that a child can play, we’re talking learning the song and making it sound authentic and like the original.
Okay…are you ready? Here it is.
My ears. That’s it. I use them every day when I ACTIVELY listen to music (and there’s a difference between ACTIVE and PASSIVE listening but that’s for another post.)
Now ears are the “what” and that’s not as important as the “how.” How to use your ears is the key to mastering learning a song quicker than you ever thought possible.
I’m talking about listening to it ONCE and getting it DONE.
This is an actual piece of advice I found on the internet from someone trying to instruct someone else how to learn piano by ear.
"Think of a song that you have never played before. Now try to play it without sheet music. Find a new song and repeat this again and again. As time goes you get more accurate with both melody and chords. When you become comfortable with playing basic songs by ear I recommend to start improvising."
Now there’s nothing wrong with the idea of what this person’s trying to convey but do you really think this is going to help the other person actually learn this way? No! They’re going to look at the comment and say “oh, okay I’ll do that” and then forget about it forever.
Or worse yet they actually DO take action but then they run into a problem and get stuck. How do they know how to overcome that problem? How do they know if they did something wrong or even where to start?
Eventually they get frustrated and stop trying. That’s the worst and I will NOT let that happen to you.
Now let me get this cleared up because right about now you’re saying but Harry, it’s different because you were born with the “gift of music”. FALSE.
I wasn’t born with this skill. I worked really hard at it. I stumbled upon learning by ear almost as a mistake at a really young age so there is an element of accidental luck but I still had to work my ass off.
You see I didn’t know how to read music at 7 years old but I really wanted to learn my favorite songs so I did the only thing I could do.
I listened to and I meticulously played EVERY single note I heard coming from the cassette player (I’m dating myself here) onto the piano. This was hours and hours and hours of work for me.
But in time I developed a strategic system that worked for me and that’s been proven to work time and time again with my students and others I’ve helped over the years.
This helped me master my ear training with absolutely zero experience. However had I known what to listen for it wouldn’t have taken me that long.
And it won’t for you either.
I want to show you the first step in learning how to use your ears to learn music faster with this video.
Harry L. Rios
Founder of HarryLRios.com
Harry L. Rios.com
Photos used under Creative Commons from Art&Music*Woo-Hoo, starmanseries, quinn.anya, woodleywonderworks, quinn.anya, devinStein