music biz

Leaving Los Angeles

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We just finished binge-re-watching EPISODES on Netflix and I enjoyed it even more than the first time. While we were never heavy hitters in the “big time” of television, movies or the music biz, enough of the glitter rubbed off from our years striving to get projects, and we met enough other people / wannabes, that every scenario was somehow familiar. Many of our friends had encountered these types of disappointments and we’d experienced enough sucker-punches ourselves to know that, by and large, THIS STUFF IS TRUE!  It actually happens!

One true story for us involved submitting music thru an industry list for a terrific-sounding film project called PRE-K. The script was smart and tight, with well-drawn characters; parents all vying to get their kid into a prestigious exclusive preschool. We were so excited at the prospect of becoming involved in this project that we not only composed and produced demos of the theme song, we wrote a school anthem in 4-part choral harmony! I felt in my bones that we had NAILED the essence of the film and would be a shoo-in as composers for the film!

Alas, a week after we’d sent in our submission, we drove by the offices of the production company and found it completely empty, with no hint that PRE-K had ever existed! We wondered whether this had been a “long con”  ala THE GRIFTERS (1990) , or a “sting” set up by the FBI to catch conmen who were defrauding film investors!? We never did find out!

There are heartwarming as well as heartbreaking stories about the mad grab for the brass ring of fame and fortune in show biz – and I DO miss some of the people I met and worked with in LaLa Land – the fact that many of them have also abandoned Hollywood has not escaped my notice. There were good reasons we went there, besides the generally agreeable weather…. AND there were good reasons why we left!

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music biz

Right! Here! No Regrets.

 

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Last year I read a piece in The New Yorker about Orange City, IA, and how the town has prospered, unlike so many small towns in America, because much of the population has stayed put, instead of moving on to a larger life in a big city.  It made me think of the various moves I’ve made over the years, and how inconceivable it was for me to have done otherwise.

My family moved around a bit while I was growing up – from Syracuse to Cicero to Albany, NY – and then to East Hartford and Hartford, CT when my dad got a new job. Cicero and East Hartford were the only real suburbs, and my parents hated them both – my dad referred to East Hartford as “the armpit of the world”, even tho I don’t recall it being so bad. Sure, there was baseball in middle school, which I totally sucked at – but I bought my first piano when we lived there – how bad could that be? Still, my folks breathed a huge sigh of relief when we moved back to “civilization” where we could walk or take the bus to pretty much wherever we wanted to go.

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New York City was mecca for my parents, so of course that was where I envisioned myself settling after school; I could have no sooner stayed in Hartford after graduation than I could have sprouted wings. It was terrifying but also essential for me to go – New York had been calling me my entire life! And when other opportunities beckoned, I moved to Chicago and Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. Since Arizona isn’t exactly a music biz hotbed, I’ve puzzled at times how and why I wound up here.

But looking back, I can see how each location we called “home” turned out to be the right place, ultimately – even if it may not have appeared that way at the time. For example, I’d been cowed by the incredible musical skills of Los Angeles musicians, to the degree that I didn’t feel adequate to pursue recording sessions as a piano player because, literally around the corner from us lived Ralph Grierson, a pianist who was expert at ALL styles of music. Plus, with so many musicians ready and willing to work for “exposure” (AKA extremely low pay), the competition felt overwhelming! Most of my experiences playing live gigs at clubs and parties left a lot to be desired. But since moving to the Tucson area, I’ve been recommended for a lot of gigs that I wouldn’t have been called for in L.A.  and I got to experience some “steady” work, playing church gigs and musical theater, as well as ongoing work in jazz trios, which increased my confidence substantially.

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My life has hardly embodied the adage to “bloom where you’re planted”, but my current perspective is that I went where I went, when I went, to the right place at the right time. If it should have been different, it would have been different.

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♫ ♩Home again, ♫ ♩home again, ♫ ♩ ♩jiggety jig!!

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music biz

Waiting for Harold Vick

I fell in love with recording studios the first time I stepped into one, so in the 70s I was always happy to get to hang out observing sessions after I’d finished copying parts for the musicians. One winter afternoon my client had booked Harold Vick, (who I had never met before), to add a solo to the song “Dream of a Child” on David Forman debut album  but at session time Mr. Vick wasn’t anywhere to be seen. So we waited. And waited. Tweaked David Forman’s vocal track, listened to some preliminary mixes. And waited. And waited.

90 minutes late, Harold rushed in to the studio. I can’t recall his excuse for being so tardy, or if he even offered an excuse. And I thought to myself, “buddy, you’d better play your ass off, after making everyone wait around so long for you!”

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Harold brushed the snow off his coat, got out his tenor, put on headphones and absolutely nailed it, first take. He was perfect. Turns out his contribution had been well worth waiting for.

Unfortunately, my client’s work on the album was thrown out and replaced by Joel Dorn. And although Harold is still listed in the credits for this album, there’s no trace of the gorgeous solo he’d played on the final release.

In spite of the album being virtually all ballads, Rolling Stone thought quite highly of it – even 40 years later. I can only imagine what they would’ve thought of the record with Harold’s solo!?

My old boss at E.B. Marks Music, Don Sickler agrees with my high opinion of Harold – he was head and shoulders (literally!) above the rest. Harold was taken from us way too young, but is remembered in Did You See Harold Vick? – Sonny Rollins – a 2-chord riff of a song that doesn’t evoke Harold in any way, other than mentioning his name. It’s the least Sonny could do, considering that Harold played rings around him, IMHO.  Here – listen and judge for yourself:

Harold Vick – Don’t Look Back

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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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growing up, Home

Mamala’s Last Week

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In the early 90s I had a steady gig on the 15th floor atrium lobby of the Merchandise Mart Holiday Inn in Chicago and one evening while I was on a break, (hiding in the Ladies Room reading a book,) the concierge burst in, in tears. She began telling me about her mother’s cancer treatments, and how all of her siblings and their spouses were taking care of her, staying with her every night, cleaning up after her and keeping her as comfortable as possible. And something told me to pay attention! You will need this information later.

The concierge was a lovely woman in her 30s, whose face stayed calm and beautiful as the tears slid down her cheeks. She told me how her brothers and sisters all lived nearby their mom, in a downstairs apartment or 2 doors away down the street. How it wasn’t a sacrifice for any of them to be there, tending to their beloved mother who needed them now so much. How they’d worked out a schedule so that no one was overwhelmed by the burden of being a caregiver. How easy it actually was to clean her up after she’d soiled herself, and how grateful they all were to have one another, and the time to talk to and comfort each other and pull together at this time of crisis.

It wasn’t easy to return to the piano after that break. I didn’t really know the concierge and I felt humbled that she shared so much of herself with me. I treasured the idea of a family who lived that close, who trusted one another so deeply, and who could come together so solidly for their mom and one another.

My only experience with death in the family had happened suddenly a couple years prior to this, and the memory still haunted me; how words had been said and feelings had been hurt, how family members had become estranged. It wasn’t just that we hadn’t had the chance to say “goodbye”, altho that did factor into it. I think it was more that we weren’t prepared and were unable to muster our “best selves” consistently. It didn’t help that the clergy hadn’t brought their A-game, either.

When my mom was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, she seemed almost giddy as she called to tell us; “It’s Sayonara, baby!” She’d made arrangements decades earlier to donate her body for scientific research and she opted for the barest minimum of treatment, in an effort to remain mobile and not become a burden. On one visit to NYC I accompanied her to the hospital for a treatment and since we couldn’t catch a cab back to her apartment in the drizzle, we slowly walked home down 5th Avenue and across 57th Street, stopping to warm up in the Steinway Building, where I commandeered a grand piano and showed her my latest song. In hindsight, it might have been better to wait for a cab, but she’d always seen herself as a very sturdy person, and she didn’t complain. And I had really wanted her to hear that song!

After a few months, it was obvious that her body was failing rapidly, and my sister and I were summoned from California to help our other sisters care for her in her final week.

We stayed in a hotel down the street from mom’s apartment and traded off every 12 hours, so that our mom was never left alone. For the first few days, she was fairly lively, receiving visitors and phone calls, showing interest in conversations, food and music. But as her body began to run out of steam and the pain worsened, she napped more and more of the time. The last few days when she’d wake from a nap, she’d be so pissed off that she was still alive! But then she’d heave a resigned sigh and settle in.

She gave me a profound gift, letting me care for and be there for her and my sisters that final week of her life.

I think of you and miss you every day, lovely Mamala.

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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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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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