Rhythmic Conflict

I had the opportunity to share one of my songs in class and have it critiqued.  The song was pretty much done; I just needed to re-track the vocals, add some layers, and finish mixing.

As soon as he pressed play, my teacher noticed some issues that I hadn’t.  The acoustic guitar and drums were not vibing.  Everything was performed on time, but they had opposing feels.  Basically, I had written a guitar part without drums in mind, and when drums were added they didn’t fit.  Rather than change the rhythm of the guitar to be more drum friendly, I just dumped drums in.  (I could also have changed the drums to accommodate my guitar, but at the time I didn’t notice the issue).

This is common for singer-songwriters.  We outline a song with guitar and vocals, and just add everything else on top.  Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t.  What do you do if you like the drum part, but it isn’t working with your guitar?  You change the guitar part!  As obvious as this sounds, it’s never something I try.  I tend to be attached to the first iteration of a song, and changing strum patterns or rhythms isn’t even considered.

You might think of the acoustic guitar and vocal version of your track as the main dish, whereas other instruments (bass, drums, synth pad) are seasoning, but that’s not the case.  The song is the sum of the parts.  All the parts have to play together nicely, and if they don’t, they have to be changed or removed.   Just because a part is cool by itself doesn’t mean it’s right for the song.  How does it sound in context?

If you’re writing a song and you know you want to add drums later, write with drums in mind.  Just like with mixing, you want to be thinking ahead to the next step.  My teacher said, “Writing is mastering.”  If you wrote a song without drums in mind, but later decided to add drums (like I did), be flexible about changing parts.  The part doesn’t necessarily need to be changed, but if it does be open to it.  It’s all about what’s best for the song.

Here is the second version of my song.  I didn’t have time to re-record the guitar before it was due, so I opted to change the drums.

It’s not there yet, but it’s better.  I’m finding out that the more I write, the more I learn.  I’m always uncovering these issues that I didn’t even know I had.  For my next song, I’m going to write with percussion in mind.

MSU Mankato, Minnesota Storytellers: Martin Zellar.

I hadn’t heard of Martin Zellar before he came to school, but I got a brief history lesson from my teachers.  In the 80’s Minnesota rock was starting to gain mainstream attention.  Zellar was the frontman for the Gear Daddies, a band that rose to fame among the likes of Hüsker Dü, and the Replacements.  At the time, Minneapolis was hot.

After three studio albums, a performance on David Letterman, and three years of touring, the Gear Daddies peacefully broke up.  Zellar started playing with a new group, Martin Zellar and the Hardways.  They released their first album in 1994, and have been together ever since.  Zellar has enjoyed a long lasting career, and a loyal Minnesota fan base.  He sat down with my Songwriting II class, listened to our songs, and shared some words of wisdom.

Zellar was very complimentary; he said the songs were fantastic.  There’s a lot of talent in our class, and it was cool to hear that validated by a successful songwriter.  He said that what a lot of my classmates got right, was having a memorable chorus he could sing back.  Zellar’s own music is defined by story telling, and he talked about the importance of being a good listener.  He said that a lot of his songs come from stories others told him.

For the first Minnesota Storytellers, Martin Zellar and the Hardways took the stage at the Earley Center for Performing Arts.  They had two acoustic guitars, a bass (played by Zellar’s son), and a drummer who mostly used brushes. Zellar sang lead, and the drummer occasionally harmonized.  They played their brand of country and rock, old songs and new.  I am only recently familiar with his repertoire, but I was happy to hear “Stupid Boy,” and “Wear Your Crown.”  They did not play that damn zamboni song, which was fine by me.

Every two songs or so, Professor LeGere would come onstage and ask questions.  They talked about breaking from a small town, and the importance of their Minnesota community.  Zellar said that some Minnesota bands were kicking down doors and his band could kind of sneak in behind them.  When the Minnesota rock sound was hot, labels were sending out A&R guys just to find their own Minnesota band.  The community had defined a sound, and everyone wanted a piece of it.

Zellar is definitely a story teller.  He gave quite a bit of backstory between songs, and told us about his time with the Gear Daddies.  My favorite was when LeGere asked if they had any “debaucherous tour stories,” and they talked about playing at Carleton College and throwing a tray of food against the wall, making a mess.  They felt so bad about it they cleaned it up themselves.  “We’re just nice Minnesota boys,” Zellar said.   It was also funny to hear that when their label was called about them performing on Letterman, the head of promotions had never heard of them.  Overall, this was a pretty cool event, and I look forward to the next one.

First Do It Badly

Lots of people are afraid to start something on the grounds they won’t be any good.  I’m that way.  We’re usually right about it too, but the problem is that if you don’t start you won’t get any better.  There’s a quote attributed to Carl Jung (I couldn’t find the source), “The fool is the precursor to the savior.” If you’re not willing to be bad, you’ll never be great.

You have to be willing to fail until you succeed.  That’s all that practice really is.  I’m taking piano lessons right now, and when I’m learning a new piece, it can be excruciating.  Before I can play the song well, I have to sit there for hours and play it terribly.  I fumble over rhythms, hit the wrong notes, forget to take my foot off the pedal, and lose my place in the music.  That’s after practicing both hands separately.  I trip, stumble, and fail my way through.  And then I do it again, but this time it’s a tiny bit better.  I continue that process 20 or 30 times, and eventually, I can play it.

When talking to students hesitant to begin writing, Jordan Peterson tells them to “Write a really bad first draft.”  That gives them something to edit.  Once it’s out in the world, the problems are no longer theoretical.  They learn exactly what they are, and that makes them easier to fix.  Keeping ideas inside and worrying about them is death.  I’ve wasted a ton of time worrying about how I’m going to write songs, rather than just writing songs.  Once I’m doing the work, my objectives are clear.

I’m trying to have a healthier relationship with failure; by all accounts the arts involve a lot of rejection.  My teachers have been recently pushing the importance of content creation, even if it’s bad.  That’s harder than it sounds.  You think it’d be easy to just write something and not care too much, but it takes practice.  The issue is that once you have an inkling of interest in what you’re doing, it becomes a little bit precious, and that impedes the finishing process.  At any given time, I have two or three ideas that I really like, that I want to flesh out and perfect.  I’ll start a new song from scratch, a project with less at stake, but pretty soon that becomes precious, too.

Allowing ourselves the practice we need will help.  That’s why I’m learning to create on a schedule.  I’ve been been trying to release a video every week.  My first video took me the longest.  I had to decide where best to shoot it, how to get the lighting right, where to place my mic, and how to edit the video and audio together.  It’s been getting easier and faster every time.  It’s helped me realize how I look while performing, which isn’t something I normally think about.

Adventure Time’s Jake the Dog, puts it like this, “Sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something.”  Getting over the initial cringe of sucking is paramount, because it comes up again and again.  Every new piece of music, technique, or exercise, if it’s helpful, will have growing pains.  I remember taking guitar lessons at McNally Smith and my teacher gave me a difficult exercise saying, “This is going to make you feel like you can’t play guitar.” Eventually I want to get into making more elaborate videos; I can tell you right now that my first few aren’t going to be great, but they will give me an education I can’t get anywhere else.  Don’t be afraid to suck!

 

Works Cited

Peterson, Jordan B. “YouTube.” Biblical Series IX: The Call to Abraham, 2017, 58:30, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmuzUZTJ0GA.

“His Hero.”  Adventure Time, season 1.  Written and story boarded by Adam Muto, Kent Osborne & Niki Yang.  Directed by Larry Leichliter and Patrick McHale.  Cartoon Network, 2010.

Book Review: How To Make It in the New Music Business – Ari Herstand.

Ari Herstand is an LA-based singer-songwriter, blogger, and actor.  He graduated with a degree in music business from McNally Smith College of Music in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  After conquering the Twin Cities scene, Herstand moved to California and made his name there.  In this book, Ari shares his first-hand experience. He breaks down booking, touring, planning a release, recording, crowdfunding, and just about anything else you’d want to know.  He also demystifies Performance Rights Organizations, sponsorships, and placements.  If it’s music related, Ari has done it.  I found it incredibly helpful and enlightening, a must read for serious musicians.  Here are three lessons I learned from this book.

You need to hustle.  According to Ari, “Building a music career requires working at it for twelve hours a day.  Every single day” (17).  He writes that you should “split your time equally between the music and the business” (32).   That’s six hours on music and six hours on business.  If you’re not sure how you would even use all that time, this book will give you some ideas.  Ari says, “If you’re ever bored as a musician, you aren’t doing it right” (32).

Music is a marathon, not a sprint.  Not only do you have to work your ass off, you have to be working your ass off for years.  In chapter 1, Ari makes you write out a spreadsheet and title it “My Music Marathon.”  You divide it into four sections: 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, and 26 years.  In each section, you write out where you want to be in your career.  Doing this kind of long-term planning really helps you clarify what you want in life.  It’s hard not to think 26 years in the future without gaining clarity about what’s really important.

You must have a story.  “Whether you like it or not, your story is just as important as your music” (24).  Ben Weaver toured on his bicycle, Bon Iver recorded in a Wisconsin cabin, Porter Robinson did the whole anime thing, and Daft Punk were robots.  You need something other than “Singer-songwriter from _________.  Sounds like _________.”  It doesn’t have to be as extensive as the Gorillaz virtual band, but it has to be something.  What makes you special?

The advice in this book focuses on making it professionally as an artist or  band.  If you’re someone less serious about music, it’s still worthwhile.  Plenty of these tips are helpful for hobbyists and artists alike, and the portions that aren’t relevant are still interesting to read.  For instance, I’m not going to be doing a lot of college gigging, but there’s a detailed account of how to get into it that’s fascinating.  I will definitely be referencing this book during my musical adventures.

Rating: 8/10.