Soloing etiquette

I love a bit of band politics and a recent experience has got me to reminiscing about a certain situation that has arisen in bands I have been in:

“I think you two should take it in turns to solo during more numbers,” Came the input at band rehearsal last night. “I think it makes a great extension to the songs and gives you (points at me) a chance to show off your harmonica skills.”  Five minutes later during the soloing section of the song in hand, our guitarist was happily noodling away. As soon as he started I backed off the mic, took the harp out of my mouth and waited out the allotted ‘one time around the verse and chorus’ that he had his turn to solo in. I did my usual introductory riffs to take the lead from him at the end of the turnaround, but to my surprise he wasn’t budging. He just kept on soloing. I tried the eye contact, but his eyes were closed, lost in his solo. It was actually a truly epic solo so I took the chance to listen to what he was playing and felt awed at how good his chops where. ‘I’ll get it on the next one’, I thought to myself. The turnaround came again and… you guest it, he carried on soloing! This time around the verse when the turnaround came the singer had decided that it was time to bring the last verse in so he wilfully started singing, my chance of a solo in this song passed by. I automatically dropped back in to backing mode and the band played on.

At the end of the song our singer wasted no time and addressed the issue straight away.
“When it’s Paul’s turn to solo you have to stop playing so that we can hear him.”
“I did!” protested our guitarist.
“No you didn’t I was here and I heard it!” Our singer shoots back. The singer and guitarist have been in bands with each other for many years now so how they speak to each other looks like crap when written down but is actually always spoken with complete affection.
“Alright, maybe I did carry on soloing, but I did play a bit quieter during his solo.”
“That’s still soloing even if it is quiet, maybe you should just play chords while Paul solos?”
“Yeah man, no probs!”
An amicable solution had been found and the issue addressed.

The whole situation took me back nearly 30 years to the first band I was ever in. I then realised that this ‘solo stealing’ had been happening all my musical life. Thankfully, these days it was dealt with in an adult and (semi) professional manner. Back when I was in a band with 4 other teenage boys, all playing harmonicas it was a completely different story…

We had a tune called ‘Random’s Boogie‘ and we played that tune everywhere. And when I say everywhere I mean EVERYWHERE. It was a mostly improvised 12 bar blues boogie where we started off with a slow section and then after a couple of times round the 12 we kicked off into a fast paced boogie chug. The structure after that was to take turns in having a solo and show off our skills. There being 3 lead players in the band there was plenty of room to extend or shorten the tune depending on the time slot we needed to fill. This made the tune perfect for radio and TV so we wheeled this tune out time and time again. You can probably see where I’m going with this…

The solo stealing started by accident, we just weren’t listening to each other and couldn’t tell who’s turn it was. Everyone wanted to play at once and it just sounded like a dog’s breakfast. Needless to say that the tact of a 13 year old boy is far removed from that of a 30something, so the suggestion that we take turns was not given or taken as lightly or amicably as it was at my recent band rehearsal. To be blunt, we just swore and shouted at each other over it. Far from resolving the situation (quelle surprise), drawing attention to the issue only made things worse. Knowing that stealing each others solos wound each other up we started to do it on purpose. When the solo stealing started out in rehearsals it was quickly jumped on by our managers and musical directors, especially when we were rehearsing for TV slots. We would start just soloing over each other and it sounded proper awful. After being reprimanded we would all play nice and take turns during the next rehearsal. The very second the red light turned on on the TV cameras it was a free-for-all again. We all played over each other, stole solos and made each other really angry. Being the goody-two-shoes that I was at the time I stopped participating and just back and didn’t take my turn to solo, I just carried on playing the backing. I started to feel like a side man in my own group. I began to resent the situation and came to hate playing the tune at all. I was 14, moody and if I couldn’t play I was gonna take my ball home.

What I have taken away from this is that what we are playing, the tune, the song, is bigger than those of us playing it. We are party to creating a great thing and should feel privileged to be part of the song, no matter how small a part we play. It’s a cliche for a reason but the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. The solo is no good without decent backing to play it over. But it’s tough, because if we’re doing it properly we commit ourselves emotionally to the song and give a piece of ourselves away. The trick is not to be too precious about it and give that piece of yourself willingly and accept deference to your higher power: music.

My advice: keep your ears and eyes open, remember what you rehearsed and most important of all leave your ego at the rehearsal room door!

Has any of this happened to you? How are the politics in your band?

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Soloing etiquette

It’s my talent and I’ll waste it if I want

It’s my talent and I’ll waste it if I want to.

That sentence has been my mantra for the past 20 years whenever I am asked the question: “Why aren’t you a professional musician?” It has always seemed like the ultimate ‘get out’ claus, the complete answer to the question that is far too complicated and emotional to go into at that particular moment. Far too much of everything to go into at any moment, if I’m completely honest. Anyone who has read any of my blog posts in ‘I Used to be in a Band’ on this blog will know that I had an early musical career playing the Harmonica. For those that haven’t and/or cant be bothered/don’t have the time, I’ll give you a brief summary.

In 1988 on a camping trip with the Scouts my 12 year old self picked up a mouth organ that one of the leaders had been playing. Within 6 months there was a band full of us all playing harmonicas in a group to a standard that got national and then international stage and TV interest. Tours, festivals, TV and more tours ensued, all crashing to a halt, when at the age of 17 I won the World Harmonica Championships in the Blues and Jazz categories.

Not long after the hubbub of being World Harmonica Champion died down (a performance at The Jazz Cafe with WAR and an appearance on Blue Peter) it all went downhill. I left home, got a flat and then fell in love with a very beautiful young girl. To support this extreme change in lifestyle I had to get a job. I could have moved down to London to seek my fortune, but I didn’t. I wasn’t in a good place and lacked the confidence to make such a drastic move. ‘Lack confidence?’ I hear you exclaim, ‘a musician lacking confidence?’. Well, yes, I’m sorry to break the illusion but most if not all musicians lack confidence, in fact its sometimes why we become musicians in the first place. Singers, in the main don’t lack confidence, but players of musical instruments are just the sort to be introverts. Think about it: learning a musical instrument takes years and years of practise. One locks oneself away in a room away from the world going over and over the same things in order to try and get better at playing phrases, scales, arpeggios and generally understanding one’s own instrument. At one time I spent at least 4 hours out of every day locked in my bedroom playing the Harmonica. Was this healthy? Probably not, but its an excuse a reclusive and non-confident person can use legitimately to hide away from the world without getting questioned.

Anyway, obscurity beckoned and I ran there like a dog through an open gate. I took a job as a screenprinter in a friend’s shed. He had a hand carousel(!) and printed 1 colour prints onto overalls for the oil and gas industry. It was great to learn this new skill. I learnt how to make screens, mix inks, load garments and all sorts of stuff that was earning me money and paying for my flat, girlfriend and increasing drinking habit. Eventually a job came up at a large local screenprinting firm and I applied. Based on the experience I had gained on my friend’s carousel I got the job and the rest, as they say, is history. Here I am twenty two years later, working as an artworker for a clothing company that screenprints onto tee shirts. I’ve been married twice and have two beautiful and very well behaved children, whom I adore. My house is vast and has 5, count them, 5 bedrooms. Yet despite all this I still feel a complete and total failure most of the time. Yes, get over yourself, I hear you cry. More and more lately I can’t stop the little nagging voice in the back of my mind telling me what a failure I am. The little voice that rears its head anytime I am asked that infernal question: “Why aren’t you a musician for a living?”

It’s my talent and I’ll waste it if I want

Funeral for a Friend

Recently I attended the funeral of a very old friend of mine. Well, when I say ‘friend’ I’m not even sure what I mean by that anymore with this particular person. I’ve been very lucky and only attended a handful of funerals in my lifetime. Some might say that having reached the age of 39 with both parents alive and a full compliment of grandparents is very lucky indeed. I only lost my great grandparents in my late twenties. The prospects look good for my own longevity, if only I could learn to look after myself better. Having said all that, the funeral of the 78 year old man I am attending today had a mother who lived to be 102. The secret of her extraordinary long life; she quit smoking when she turned 80.

So, having a full compliment of parents and having attended only a smattering of funerals, how am I supposed to feel about the death and proceedings of someone who was really close to at one time in my life?

I remember at some point in my youth my father, being somewhat fascinated by Egyptology, told me about the god Anubis. Anubis attended to the recently departed souls, weighing their hearts. If their heart was light then the soul floated up to heaven, if heavy they descended to the underworld. I always thought this unfair. How could a person be entirely good all their life? As a child I was raised as a Christian and as such was taught that Jesus would forgive me my sins. I was also taught that it was probably best not to sin anyway, just in case. That always seemed a big ask for a me, especially given the circumstances I have often found myself in and the lot I was dealt in life. Today I find myself weighing my departed friend’s heart. Unlike Anubis I am not looking for the weight to be light so that it can float up to heaven. I am looking for the good and bad deeds from my friend’s life to even themselves out.

Thinking back in time, I’m becoming more certain that it is this train of thought that led to my subsequent atheism. I think that I wanted to be judged by an unfair system. Through childish eyes I hear myself screaming ‘it’s not fair!’ into the abyss of my distant youth. Eventually I came to judge myself more harshly within the confines of my own life, not waiting to be judged after my death by a mythological deity. I judged myself harshly as a child and gave up on being good, at times almost completely. My recently deceased friend never gave up on trying to be good. He always judged himself by his own system and lived by his own rules.

My friend’s name is (was) Norman and I first knew him as a Scout leader. I joined the Cub-Scouts the minute I was allowed to at age 6 and it subsequently consumed my life. Norman was a part-time leader, only turning up at the odd meet and attending camps as a extra man to help out the other leaders. Aged 11 I moved up to the Scouts and coincidentally, Norman became more involved in the group. Norman owned a large, white transit van that he allowed us to fill with kit to take to our annual summer camps. Being a patrol leader, I was allowed to sit in the cab with Norman on the way to the camp. Casually strewn on the dashboard of the van were two shiny mouth organs. I asked Norman if I could have a go, a question both he and I both joked about on many an occasion since. Long story short, I never put the harmonica down. We formed harmonica groups and traveled the world performing on stage and TV alike, Norman as our band manager and mentor. The first time Norman and I shared the joke we were standing in New York’s JFK airport and silly o’clock in the morning. The tail end of a grueling schedule of TV performances and touring. A tired and tour-worn Norman looked at me smiling and said, “Next time you see something you like on the dashboard of my van, bloody well leave it alone!” It always made my heart rise to believe that my actions that fateful day had in some way being responsible for all the great times and success we were having.

By age 16 I was a seasoned musician and traveler. I had spent nearly every waking hour playing the harmonica and every weekend traveling around to one gig or another. My parents had divorced when I was 12 and the fall out was devastating. My relationship with my mother soured and my father retreated to lick the wounds of their 12 year marriage. My mother needed me at home on weekends to look after my little sister and to keep the house while she worked. She was too tired to do anything after her long shifts. I wanted my own life and not to be a parent to her and my siblings. I needed a parent, I needed a way out. Music was the answer. Norman was the answer. Norman owned a Harmonica mail-order business that he was looking to take on the road to festivals etc. The perfect answer was that I would go and live at Norman’s house and work for him. As an Harmonica player of some note by then, I could sell Harmonicas to practically anyone. I also made myself useful round his house, cooking and cleaning up after his elderly mother. Norman paid me handsomely for this with both room and board.

As I turned 17 things had evolved nicely in our household to a secure routine of making a little bit of money and growing the business nicely. We drank more, ate more and had a great time. Norman loved playing devil’s advocate to any point that I cared to raise and in a humorous way helped me question so many things that I took for granted in my life. It was within the framework of this relaxed atmosphere that Norman made some disturbing confessions. I wouldn’t like to go into them in great detail, but dear reader know only this: Norman NEVER hurt anyone nor forced anyone to do anything against their will. Norman did, however, exploit his position of authority where children were concerned and gave in to a couple of temptations that he really shouldn’t have done. In retrospect I am able to see that these morbid confessions were little more than grooming. A grooming which I never gave in to and he never again pursued.

To this end I find myself weighing Norman’s heart on my own set of scales. On the day of his funeral I found myself smiling at the crass jokes he used to tell, his argumentative nature and his techno-phobia. His lack of personal hygiene raised a smile in me that couldn’t go away. The generosity he showed, not only to me, but to everyone he came in contact with; all these things and many more aspects of Norman’s personality made up the good side of the scales.

The heavy, in my estimation, was evened out. In conclusion I think it is not only possible to love the good and the bad in someone, but it is also possible to love the good enough to forgive the bad.

Funeral for a Friend