learning, music biz, self-acceptance

Career Advice 101

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Since I grew up craving to hear stories about how other musicians had succeeded in “the biz”, I always assumed that younger musicians and students might someday take an interest in my career trajectory. Alas, I haven’t had many opportunities to share my experience with very many over the years and as time passes and technology changes everything, my music biz life seems to be less and less relevant to anyone. Which is a shame, since it still fascinates me!  🙂

That said, my adventures were what they were, and I think I’ve learned a few things that aren’t totally outdated and actually apply to “the real world” as well as the music biz.

  • Having the desire and skills are necessary, but developing relationships with other people is absolutely essential. Nothing else will take its place. It really is “who you know” and who knows you and what you can do.
  • It helps to be a member of the clan – whether that’s ethnic, gender, age, education, sexual orientation, religion or whatever else sets you apart from the crowd.   Be aware of where you’re already included and exploit the hell out of it!

Believe me – Scientologists look out for other Scientologists and Berklee alumni look out for fellow Berklee alumni. “Birds of a feather” hire one another.

  • The music biz, like life, is not a meritocracy. (just look who’s occupying the White House these days!) Don’t waste time and energy bemoaning the unfairness of stupid music being championed as “great” – even those stars whose careers have withstood the test of time have to keep paying their publicists to stay in the public eye.
  • Once you’ve identified a gig/persona/objective you really want, stop asking for validation from your friends, family and mentors and just do it!

Upon graduation, I wanted to become a female Aaron Copland. When I recognized that I was more interested in songwriting, I did everything I could to write pop songs. A couple years later I was introduced to the jingle business and began pursuing that. Over time I began to build a sample reel, and when I was offered a full-time gig arranging music for advertising in Chicago, I didn’t consult with my teacher Hale Smith on the decision, as I thought he would probably not approve. By that time I was hell-bent on jingles and did not want any dissenting opinions on my next move!

  • You can only be who you are. It doesn’t pay to try to be anyone else. Your essential nature is what it is, and while you can strive to become “more outgoing”, for example, or “to have a tougher hide”, you’ll always be fighting your innate nature, and that’s exhausting in the long haul.
  • Listen to the “experts” but ultimately follow your own self-knowledge about your identity. Other people can point out your strengths and encourage you to consider new ideas but no one knows better than you do who you really are.

In the 70s I forced myself to make cold calls to get performing gigs, and I did manage to connect with a few booking agents, but they had their own agendas and were constantly trying to fit me into their idea of who I should be and what I should be doing – i.e. the booker who mistook my being heavy as an opportunity to get me to be a piano-playing Totie Fields– as if 25 extra pounds magically made me a comedian and not a musician!  She told me repeatedly how she could have booked me a lot more gigs if only I was funny, but at 22 years old, I took myself MUCH too seriously to fit into that mold – even if making people laugh is ultimately more rewarding than singing and playing the piano!

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FUNNY Totie Fields

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SERIOUS Marilyn Harris

 

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music biz, self-acceptance

Being “In The Room”

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Last week I had occasion to observe an audition for a college band director. My initial impression of the candidate confused me; while he was well-groomed, well-dressed and carried himself in a professional manner, I sensed something slightly “off” about him beyond what might have been attributed to nervousness. His beat patterns were clear and he appeared to have mastered the outward authority of conducting, but his “vibe” somehow didn’t register as authentic – it felt a bit like he was “phoning it in”. After a few moments, I saw what it was: he was so busy trying to look good that he wasn’t actually there in the room!

Bearing in mind that I never studied music education in college and didn’t have the language to clearly articulate what I found troubling, I still knew that something didn’t feel right;  I repeatedly noticed that when he asked the band to go back and replay a certain section, he didn’t say anything about what he thought was wrong nor provide suggestions what the musicians might change to make it better. Consequently, nothing improved. He didn’t bother to stop the band and start again when their entrances were raggedy, and there were other details about the players’ attention and posture to which he seemed oblivious, not to mention musical nuances. While he physically occupied the space on the podium, instead of actually being there in the room with everyone else, he seemed to be projecting an image of what he thought a band director should look like, showing off for the video camera that was recording the rehearsal. I got the sense he was playing the part of Conductor.

I began to feel concern for the students in the band, should this director be chosen for the position; would he be able to get past himself, would there be “room” enough for them to exist, for their problems to be addressed, or would the maintenance of his self-image displace their education?

I know what it’s like to audition for a gig and how nerve-wracking it can be to interview for a new position, so I can empathize with however much anxiety he may have felt that day. But I also know how necessary it is to show up for life, no matter how scared I am.  I have to risk being seen, risk becoming known, and I’ve learned it isn’t any good to sell other people on an idea of who I might be, only to have them become disenchanted when I can’t measure up to that idea. I have to show up and actually be “in the room” to connect with other people.

Ram Dass  wasn’t kidding when he wrote his book “Be Here Now“.  There’s really no other place to be. There’s really no other time than now.

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growing up, learning, music biz

Believe Them The First Time

I can forgive myself for wanting people to be better than they are – to make good on their promises, show up on time and behave honestly – despite many experiences to the contrary. I’ve certainly let myself down, so why shouldn’t other people? But there have been a few instances that stand out.

I’ve learned major lessons from each CD we’ve released; the first one (in 1993) taught me that expenses will run over – there will be tracks that need to be “fixed” and some that will need major reworking, so count on needing more time and money than you’d originally planned. The second one (in 2004) taught me that radio promotion is not enough – you’ll need publicity to make any kind of a splash, no matter how awesome you know your recording to be. The third CD (in 2006) taught me “Caveat Emptor” – in bold relief. And that Maya Angelou was a very wise woman.

We’d been shopping for a publicist for a while, asking our jazz friends about their experiences. No one we knew would recommend anyone (which may tell you something about the nature of the publicity industry!?)  So when a collaborator began to sing the praises of one couple he was working with to promote his jazz career, we were excited to meet them!

When she said, “I don’t know what we can do for you”, that should have been the first clue to heed, since:Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 10.58.50 AMBut we were impressed with their big fancy house in a fashionable part of town and their list of successful clients in all media and we were tired and time was growing short for our release date and we desperately wanted to work with someone (anyone???) who was connected in the biz, to get the word out about the new CD!!  And yet:Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 10.58.50 AM

And then there were their adorable dogs, and the photos on the walls of their past triumphs and we could see how wonderful it was going to be when they promoted our wonderful CD and got us reviews in all the trades and even a mention in People magazine andwe joined those triumphant success stories on the wall, and… and… and…
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Even though she had told us that she didn’t know what she could do for us (and she was right – she did not know and wound up doing virtually nothing!!), she was more than happy to take our sizable check. And great was our ultimate disappointment.

If only we’d believed her the first time.

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music biz

Old Dog, New Tricks

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Out of nowhere right before New Year’s, I was invited to play with the Tucson Symphony for a couple of Byron Stripling concerts.  He’s a very talented trumpeter who also sings and was doing a Louis Armstrong/New Orleans type of thing with the TSO in conjunction with the Tucson Jazz Festival. I was a bit hesitant because I’d never played with an orchestra, had no idea who had recommended me for the gig and I thought it might be too much work for not enough money (a trend these days!?) But then I thought, “heck, this is Tucson. How many other piano players could do it better than I could, if I put my mind to it?” and I couldn’t think of too many, so I said yes.

I picked up the music at the orchestra office and felt a bit daunted – LOTS of notes! – I’d have to actually read, and not just chord symbols! LOTS of complicated rhythmic figures and changing tempos and time signatures, due to the medley-nature of the charts. LOTS of empty bars of rests to count! (Being a pianist who usually plays club dates and private parties, I haven’t had to count bars of rests very much in my professional life – I usually just play wall-to-wall! I’m here to tell you, it’s mighty nerve-wracking to count measures of rest if you’re not used to it.)

I researched as much as I could online on Mr. Stripling – looking for YouTube videos so I could hear his patter, how some of the pieces should sound, his bio, etc. And I practiced a couple hours every day for 2 weeks with a metronome!!  Sometimes right before bed, but always at least once through the show, because some of the tunes were burners, and I was afraid I’d mess up if I didn’t have them under my fingers – (these days I don’t usually play anything that fast!!)

I felt pretty well prepared by the time of the rehearsal. That night’s concert went well, and the following day’s matinee went well, too. A couple weeks later the paycheck came in the mail. I feel pretty good that I took on something that was a bit out of my comfort zone, devoted the necessary time to learning it, and then performed pretty well! I even found out who had referred me for the gig – a percussionist I’d hired for a church gig many years ago!? (you never know, do you!?)

Guess you can teach an old dog new tricks, if you’re patient and keep calm, eh?  🙂

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music biz

What You See Is What You Get

A blog platform I subscribe to recently changed its logo and got me thinking about the impact of images and slogans. Medium tried on a number of different hats before settling on their present one,

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while I actually prefer one they rejected:

M&M

which communicates the inclusive attributes towards which the site strives, a bit like a Celtic knot:

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Now, not every slogan or logo belongs in the

Advertising Slogan Hall of Fame

though some do – they’ve stood the test of time. But it can take a bit of time and effort to arrive at the logo or catchphrase that truly reflects your intentions. Like many new businesses, we copied our predecessors when starting out; Mark and I had met while working at Com/track in Chicago –

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so even though our first company logo was a bit “lawyerish”-looking, it was what we were comfortable with at the time:

orig.H:W

“just the facts, ma’am….”

The next year Mark had an idea: we had searched for a fresher identity and settled on the slogan, “The New American Jingle Classic” coupled with Grant Woods’ American Gothic –

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HWPoster

to convey that while our company was new to the advertising community, we did have (midwestern) history and were experienced, (with good ol’ fashioned production values they could trust!  Just like these fellas here!!)

When we moved, we incorporated the American Gothic image into our new letterhead and business cards for a while:

A.G.HouseLogo

the typeface still says “lawyer” but there’s this HOUSE above it, see….

but it wasn’t very exciting to us, so when we moved back to Chicago in 1987, we looked for a new image

1987H:Wlogo

this one was okay, UNTIL….

H:W in jail

we saw what it looked like without color…. Gee! The treble clef is in JAIL!!!  Wonder what it was guilty of???

finally settling on our current one:

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UPBEAT!! On the RISE!!  (and no treble clefs were imprisoned or harmed in the creation of this logo!)

 

Contrary to Marshall McLuhan’s assertion, while the medium may be PART of the message, it doesn’t tell the whole story, IMHO. It can help create an identity, however. My cap is off to graphic artists everywhere!

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music biz

Tip$!!!

This gig sounded ideal – I’d get to play electric bass in a rock band!  And earn lots of tips from being a chambermaid all summer at a Lake George resort! Sure – the pay was lousy – 7 days/week at $35/week plus $5 for each performance (plus room and board), but think of those tip$!!  I couldn’t wait to get there!

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Unfortunately, UConn was on a slightly different calendar schedule than a lot of other colleges, so by the time my dad dropped off me and my 2 suitcases, electric bass and home-made amp for the summer at Lake George, nearly all the staff had paired up with one another. No matter – I wasn’t there for romance. My plan was to have fun making music and to earn enough money to pay for my first year on campus without resorting to student loans.

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Blue Water Manor was every bit as beautiful as depicted in the brochure; rustic and serene.  All the usual vacation-by-the-water activities were available to guests, and every night there was live entertainment in the main lodge:

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my rock band 2 nights/week, the other band I played in 2 other nights/week, a variety show night with magicians, country music and standup comedy, a talent show night featuring the guests, and every Saturday was an abbreviated production of WEST SIDE STORY. Every busboy, waiter, lifeguard, sous chef, etc. performed as entertainers, in addition to their “regular” jobs.

Our guitarist-leader was good! The lead singer was charismatic and along with the drummer, they had all decided on the repertoire before I’d arrived: lots of Beatles, Rolling Stones and a few rock groups that were new to me at the time: (Led Zeppelin?) I’d heard Creedence Clearwater Revival and Three Dog Night on the radio but I’d never tried playing anything but their hit singles, and of course, no one had sheet music or even chord charts so I just had to take the band’s word for it on how those songs went; there was a lot of “Born To Be Wild”, “In A Gadda Da Vida”, “White Rabbit” and “Dazed & Confused” on rock-band nights.  The other band provided dance music for the teenagers’ parents; songs like “Volare”, “Strangers In The Night” and “Besame Mucho”. I’d had limited experience playing electric bass with anyone but the records I owned, so it was challenging but also a lot of fun.

A word on wardrobe: I’d brought jeans and tee shirts and had sewn up half a dozen cute cotton dresses for my chambermaid duties –

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kinda like the short sleeve dress on the left here…

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or I think it might even have been THIS EXACT pattern!?

– never considering what DIRTY work cleaning guest rooms might be. My first week was spent readying the cabins down the road from the actual resort – and they were filthy!  Locked up since the previous summer, they hadn’t been touched in many months, they smelled atrocious and there were dead bugs everywhere!  I wanted to be a trouper but I got so grossed out by cabin after cabin of spiderwebs and dead mosquitoes. Still, I hung in for the promise of those huge tip$!  Then I began cleaning up after current guests, some of whom REALLY knew how to “party”!! (You haven’t lived until you’ve scrubbed up after folks who’ve managed to get sick ALL over the place!)  At that point, I was ready to give my notice – even though I was enjoying rehearsing and performing with the bands. Fortunately the guy they’d hired to run the dishwasher had just quit, so they shifted me to the kitchen – no cobwebs there!

The dishwasher position melted my calluses every day and then I’d build them back up playing or rehearsing with the band every night. I felt a little left-out when all the romantic couples were canoodling but I was mostly okay with it, since I’d taught myself to enjoy beer, which was half-price for employees (half of 35¢ per glass of Rheingold meant I could get a little buzz on every afternoon AND every night after work!)  In mid-July a bartender took me for a moonlight canoe trip out on Lake George, but there were so many mosquitoes biting, it put a definite damper on anything romantic. Towards the end of July one of the waiters took an interest in me – I remember necking with him while Neil Armstrong was taking “a giant leap for mankind” on the TV.

But shortly afterward, I had to face the fact that I wasn’t earning nearly enough to pay for college by being a dishwasher/bass player, so I gave my notice and headed back home on the bus. I remember being in tears, feeling like a hopeless failure at age 17, standing at the top of Dauntless Lane with my 2 suitcases, bass and amp, having called my sisters to help me schlep my stuff back to our garden apartment, since I could barely walk 5 steps carrying it all by myself. After 6 weeks at Blue Water Manor, I’d managed to save $150 – there I was, in mid-summer, without a job! What to do?

The next morning I saw a classified ad; the White Tower was looking for a waitress, so I hopped on the bus downtown, applied, got the job, (they supplied the uniform!)

– and… presto!  Tip$!!  For the next 6 weeks I flirted with the cute bus drivers, waited tables full time, sold my electric bass and homemade amp and then went off to college.

 

 

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music biz, romantic

Barry Wants to Sing

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Confession: I love Barry Manilow. I love singing along with him on long road trips in the car. I loved when he and his entourage came in to the Carnegie Deli while a friend and I were enjoying a pastrami sandwich. I’ve always wanted to cowrite songs with him or have him cover one of my originals, which he’d be perfect for! (hear that, Barry?)

My mother always was a fan of pop songs – more Jerome Kern and Gershwin than anything that was currently on the radio – but after divorcing my dad, in the 70s she fell in love with a married man and wound up playing the role of The Other Woman – to the hilt. Mr. Wrong had additional “other women” besides her; his then-current wife had been an “other woman” before snagging him from his first wife – so there wasn’t any dewy ignorance going on.

When I read Romy’s blog post today, I recalled how my mother would rise from sitting cross-legged on the floor (she didn’t like furniture) nearly every day for months on end, with the pronouncement, “Barry wants to sing!”  Then we’d all get to hear Weekend In New England at least once – and frequently many more times than that. Barry never sang any other song for my mother – no “Could It Be Magic”, “Mandy” or “Even Now” – only the uber-passionate song where “with you there’s a heaven, so earth ain’t so bad”.

The affair went on for at least 10 years – I remember Christmas breakfasts where her bitter tears salted the blueberry pancakes and New Year’s Eves where she wept into her Asti Spumante, wondering if she and Mr. Wrong would ever be married. (He’d promised!)

At one point there was a grisly face-to-face confrontation in a parking lot with the wronged wife, who took off her shoe and hit my mother, splitting her head open. She was too ashamed to go to the E.R. or see a doctor, even with blood streaming down her face and onto her clothes – instead, she drove herself home and patched herself up the best she could manage.

And Barry continued to sing.

I’m not sure the “strong yearning” ever DID end.

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