Sometimes the best lessons that we learn are the simplest! “Just Play” was the first and probably most important real-world application that I ever received regarding the instrument. This is the first of an ongoing series of lessons on playing the steelpan, utilizing not exclusively exercises, but many other concepts on ultimately making you a better MUSICIAN!
Well, I’m happy to report that recently, the positives of being a multi-faceted percussionist paid off for me. I received a call in late October of 2011 with an offer to play percussion in a Christmas production in Pigeon Forge, TN (near Gatlinburg/Smoky Mountains). This was an exciting variety show that included a 10 piece band, a cast of 14 singers/dancers, live nativity(including camels, sheep and a donkey!), and a laser show. We played everything from Andy Williams tunes to a gospel version of “Joy to the World.”
The great thing for me was that although we did a whopping 80+ shows in two months, I didn’t get bored. Part of it was the new friends and acquaintances that I met, and being surrounded by some great musicians. However part of it was also that I kept myself busy and found new ways to challenge myself in each show. Because we covered such a wide variety of music, I was able to incorporate a multitude of percussion instruments. Also, one of my favorite parts was backing up the juggler/comedian by adding sound effects to his act. Finally that slide whistle, vibra slap, and flex-a-tone that has been collecting dust had a purpose!!! haha
If you note the accompanying picture to this blog, you’ll see the set-up that I had on stage. Here’s a list of most of what I was playing on stage:
Congas, Chimes, Bells, Xylophone, Shakers, Tambourines, Suspended Cymbals, Splash cymbal(s), China Cymbal, Assorted Sound Effects (everything from vibra-slap to a train whistle), Cow Bells, Wood Blocks, Triangle, Caixixi, Finger Cymbals, and of course; lots and lots of Sleigh Bells!!!
As you can see, in this condensed area was a multitude of instruments, each requiring its own individual and unique playing techniques and syles. Now, when I received word about the show, keep in mind that there were no percussion charts. The arranger had recorded some percussion on the work tracks, but nothing was set in stone. This was great in one sense, meaning that I wasn’t necessarily confined to certain parameters. I, in a sense, had a clean palette on which to place whatever I wanted, musically speaking.
The drawback? Did I mention there were no charts? There WERE a few tunes that had some specific mallet parts. This is where that good ‘ole ear training class came into play…I basically had to sit down at a piano and pick out high bell parts and transcribe. This was, to say the least, very challenging!!! Thank goodness that I had a lovely assistant (miss Deanne Dickerman) helping me out since I had only a few days to learn 20+ tunes before the first rehearsal!
So as I stated, this is a “success” story for the argument that sometimes it is OK to try and “do it all!” My previous blog suggested that sometimes being able to wear many hats is a good thing and it can help you get more work. It also suggests that perhaps not focusing intensely on one thing can do more harm causing you to be ‘jack of all trades, master of none.’ In this case, it was worth it. I was constantly switching back and forth from chimes to cymbals, to bells to mark tree; congas to xylo…you get the point.
It was also beneficial to keeping my sanity during such an intense run. Literally every show was a challenge for me to try and add something new to the music. Now keep in mind that you always, always want to keep the music first. Nothing is worse than the “bored” musician who gets selfish and decides to goof around and sacrifice the integrity of the music just so he/she can keep themselves entertained. Rather, I still tried to keep things in perspective and tried to add some subtle things here and there to try and add some musicality. Sometimes it’s not even about adding more instruments – it can be subtle changes in how you are phrasing. For example, there was a pretty cool bell part in “Ding Dong Merrily on High.” At first the challenge was just memorizing the tough part and not mess it up!!! After that though, I didn’t want to just be playing notes so I started experimenting with phrasing it differently; adding a crescendo or decrescendo here or there or maybe adding some harmony. All of this caused me to hark back to the days of college when I learned all of the rudimentary techniques of mallets and how glad I was to have spent the time learning how to play correctly.
In today’s economy and at a time when the music industry is in so much flux, I really feel that it’s to everyone’s advantage to try and do as much as you can. However, I implore everyone to keep in mind that becoming a great MUSICIAN always trumps being a great player. More about that in a future blog… In the meantime; what are you doing to make yourself a viable, marketable commodity? What is it that you feel you can bring to the table and get your name out there?
Getting yourself to the point of being able to fluently play in almost any style at any tempo requires much more than just a whole lot of wood-shedding. It requires some serious brain activity, or an internalization of what you’re trying to do. Whether you’re singing the part or just listening and absorbing what’s going on, it’s vital for any musician to get the brain and the muscles working as a team, not as foes.