Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ukuleles for Peace

This week Ralph Shaw's weekly ukulele newsletter has a story about a really great organization that promotes peace between Israeli and Arab kids through the ukulele. Here's what Ralph has to say:
The lyric goes Happy Christmas (War is Over). Well how about it? I think it's safe to say that most of us want peace in the world but how many of us really do something to make it happen?

Paul Moore does. Let me tell you about him. He's a British ex-pat in his late 50s or thereabouts. A professional entertainer, he made Israel his home many years ago.

One day, frustrated at the ongoing strife that seems to have always been a part of that region, Paul came to a decision. He finally figured that Peace, if there is such a thing, will not soon come about by political means. It has to begin with people. So 6 years ago he approached a Jewish school and an Arab school in his area and proposed the idea of a ukulele orchestra.

The musicians in the orchestra would be Arab and Jewish kids. The schools agreed and Paul's "Friendly Monster" was born. Paul had no idea what an all-consuming task he was taking on.

Practices and rehearsals were set up. Paul had to find playable ukuleles. He gave up his free time to travel and organize. Evenings and weekends were all given up towards getting these keen, bright-eyed young children their first musical education. The kids loved it. Not wanting money issues to hinder participation Paul began raising funds to pay for things such as instruments, strings, travel to shows etc.

Pot-luck picnics in public parks were organized. Trips and holiday celebrations were set up. Of course the parents had to come along too, so did siblings. Age old prejudices and fears were laid aside. So began the rituals of Arab and Jewish families sharing food while their children played games and made joyful music together.

If you have any doubt about the power of music take a look at this video of 2 of Paul's students and then tell me you don't believe in Paul's vision! (note: Ralph didn't link to it, but here's the second half of the Ukuleles for Peace video.)

As much fun and benefit as this is on a local scale Paul Moore has kept his eye on a greater goal. He wants the world to see what can be done. Paul has long said that he wants the Ukuleles For Peace Orchestra to play before the United Nations.

As a step towards this goal I am helping him with something that could potentially place his Orchestra before a world-wide audience.

The Winter Olympics will be here in Vancouver in February (only 2 months away). Hundreds of Thousands of people including athletes, spectators, politicians, royalty, the media and performers will descend on this city for a vibrant and colourful celebration of winter sports and culture.

Just over 1 year ago I helped arrange a meeting between Paul and an Olympic organizer. The upshot is both good news and bad news. The good news is that the 2010 Winter Olympics have agreed to allow Ukuleles for Peace to come and perform during that time. The bad news is that the Olympics are unable to allocate any budget for either their performance or travel.

Coming to the Winter Olympics could be remarkable in many ways. Not only would it go a long way toward Paul's dream of showing the world how unity, friendship and peace are there for the taking. It would also be a life-changing experience for these children of whom some have never been outside their native land.

Help so far has come from several sources. Accomodation will be with the families of the Langley Ukulele Ensemble. Think of that! Arab and Jewish kids from Israel being able to hang out with Canadian kids who are also in a ukulele orchestra.

A Vancouver Rabbi, known for his work in bringing Arabs and Jews together has offered time and fund-raising to help bring Ukes for Peace to Vancouver. Other organizations here (like the Jewish Federation) are also raising money. Oh, and don't forget the families who are over in Israel running around trying to gather money for this project so dear to their hearts.

The financial mountain is a large one however. The costs of flying 15 to 20 kids plus a few parents could be as much as $50,000.

I promised Paul that I would support him in this. Which is why I am reaching out to you now. The Ukuleles for Peace Project has always been run on a shoestring. Every year Paul wonders if he can continue. Then he looks into the faces of young children eager to join their older brothers and sisters in the Ukulele band and he cannot say no. Paul calls U.f P. his "Friendly Monster". It has taken over not only his life but also that of his wife Daphna who runs the necessary administration. Often it gets in the way of him making a living for himself. Basically he needs some help!

Financial Donations: You can donate to Ukuleles for Peace at their website. There is a donation button at the top left of the page.

Air Travel: Some help is coming from El Al Airline for flights between Israel & Toronto but the portion from Toronto to Vancouver needs to be dealt with. If you know of some way of obtaining cheap or free flights between Toronto and Vancouver that could be most useful.
I'll just leave you with one final thought. Peace doesn't just come from governments making new laws or signing international treaties. It's not something that descends from on high. It comes from the actions of ordinary people like you and me. Ukuleles for Peace is an example of a simple, small project that is building bridges between kids, families and communities in a very difficult environment. And that's something I want to support. How about you?

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Beautiful City, Here We Come!

I just heard about an exciting bill that's coming up for a vote at Toronto City Council very soon.

aims to tax public billboards and put the money raised into municipal arts funding. If it's passed, it would lead to much more public art in the city, and more funding for artists, festivals, and for marginalized communities in Toronto. It's a brilliant idea, and I think all Torontonians should go to the website, sign the petition, and call their city councillor to urge them to support this bill.

Here's a little bit of information from their website:

BeautifulCity.ca is a city building initiative that aims to beautify, democratize and diversify access to public space, and in turn -- hold companies investing in billboard advertising accountable for their impact on shared spaces through an annual license fee. At earler staff estimated, mid-range revenues of 18 million per year (now knocked down to 11 million) the following would be possible:

• A historical 53% increase to the annual municipal funding available to all artists, festivals and arts institutions,
• Close to $100 000.00 dollars for public realm improvement for each Toronto ward, every year -- for projects such as greening,
• Almost a 1/3 of a million dollars for each of the 13 priority neighbourhoods to fund accessible youth arts programming, and
• Hiring 17 dedicated officers to enforce the new billboard bylaw.

Through an tax paid for by third-party billboard advertisers. Revenue would go through Cultural Grants for arts, Clean and Beautiful funding to individual wards and the Community Resource Unit for marginalized communitties. Then directed to art in the public sphere (public art) through various arms-length agencies and peer assessed processes. A priority would be put on marginalized communities and youth art.

There is lots more at: http://www.beautifulcity.ca

Actions you can take:
> write and call your city councillor
> sign the petition in support of the bill at http://www.beautifulcity.ca
> show up for the debate and vote which will be November 30-December 1st.

And, for those of you outside Toronto, wish us luck -- it could have a ripple effect far beyond Toronto.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sad News: Taylor Mitchell

I woke up this morning to some very sad and shocking news. Taylor Mitchell, a young singer-songwriter who had just released her first CD, and was partway through her first tour of eastern Canada, died after being attacked by coyotes while out hiking in Cape Breton.

I met Taylor a few years ago when she came to the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals conference. She was part of the Youth Mentorship program of the conference, which pairs up young folk/roots musicians with more experienced musicians for skills building and career advice. I remember being blown away by her, both musically and personally. She must have been 17, and she was already writing incredible songs, performing, and seriously pursuing a career as a musician. It was obvious she knew what she wanted to do, and was already going about doing it. I can't imagine being so sure of myself at that age.

I've watched from afar as she made connections with some fantastic musicians, worked really hard to record and release her first album, and then recently started on her first big tour. It was so vicariously satisfying to see her incredible talent coming into bloom.

So this morning's news was a huge shock. It's a major loss for the folk community here in Canada. There is no doubt in my mind that she was on the path to success - it's just heartbreaking to think how young she was and how much she had too look forward too.

My condolences to her family and close friends. RIP Taylor, your star is still shining.

Here's a link to her website and her MySpace page, as well as a link to the Globe and Mail story.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ukulele Fever Hits Toronto

Yes, I've been gone a long time, but I'm back! I've been meaning to post something about the Corktown Ukulele Jam for quite a while, and I've decided now is the time.

I got a ukulele for my birthday a few years ago, and since then I've been working away at it in my own undisciplined fashion. For a guitar player like me, it's not too hard to transfer some of what you know to the ukulele, because the strings on the ukulele are tuned a lot like a guitar that's missing it's lowest two strings. The only thing is, when you make a "D" shape on the ukulele, it's actually a G chord (if you are in C tuning -- if you are in D tuning, it's an A), so you have to transpose everything in your head.

The more I explore, though, the more I realize that playing the ukulele is not just like playing the guitar. It's a captivating instrument that has its own treasure house of unique possibilities. There's the high G string, which is one of the biggest challenges for a guitar player learning the instrument. There's the fact that all kinds of interesting chord shapes that you might not use on a guitar become central to moving around the ukulele fretboard. It's portable, adaptable to many styles, easy to learn (but hard to master), incredibly cute, and basically downright seductive.

And then a few months ago, I started going to the Corktown Ukulele Jam* at the Dominion Pub here in Toronto. Started by David Newland, and Steve McNie, CUKE (as it's affectionately known), has grown into a fantastic little community of ukulele enthusiasts. Most Wednesday nights there are 35 - 50 people who come to learn, jam, and perform. And that's when I realized that the ukulele is unique in another way: there's a whole ukulele world out there that is like a parallel universe -- there are people who travel all over the world to attend ukulele events, dozens of ukulele websites and bulletin boards and email lists, ukulele clubs in every corner of the world-- it goes on and on. Ukulele players are an underground community, bonded through their love of this instrument that's not really taken seriously in the wider world.

Not only that, but I think I might be succumbing to what is known as "UAS." Ukulele Aquisition Syndrome. One ukulele is never enough. The ukulele comes in four different sizes (soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone), and you can also get banjo ukes, resonator ukes, electric ukes, and more. I'm trying to resist the urge, but I don't know how long I can hold out.

In the meantime, here's a video clip of me performing at the "Best of the Corktown Ukulele Jam" a few weeks ago. I adapted my song "Cold Wind Blowing" by re-tuning my ukulele to give it a haunting modal sound. (While you're at it, you can check out all the other ukulele videos filmed that night.) Enjoy!

*Note: incredible Corktown Ukulele Jam logo by jam member David Olson

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Singing Is Good For You

I've written before about why I think singing is important. Mostly I've focused on social and political reasons that I think singing is vital in modern society. But there's also a mounting body of research that shows that singing is good for your physical and mental health. And now, thanks to my friends Sam Turton and Jane Lewis, we have links to health research on singing collected in one place.

I thought you should all have a chance to read some of these articles. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Music is a Necessity

My fellow songwriter Lynn Harrison beat me to it! This inspiring speech by Karl Paulnak at the Boston Conservatory has been making the rounds of the internet. It's a moving and incisive treatise on why music is not just an added frill, but an essential way of responding to the world around us. And why we need music now more than ever.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Why I Love Teaching

  1. I feel lucky to be able to make a living through music. Not everyone gets to follow their passion in life, but here I am!
  2. I love my students. They are interesting people with a variety of backgrounds and musical interests.
  3. My guitar students inspire me. How many adults purposely put themselves in the position of trying to do something they can't do? Yet that's what my guitar students do every week.
  4. I learn as much or more from teaching as my students do. Explaining how to do something to another person helps me understand how to do it better.
  5. I like figuring out how another person's mind works. When I can get inside a student's thinking process, I'm able to explain things more clearly, and they understand more.
  6. I love seeing the light go on in someone else's head when they begin to "get it."
  7. My students help me become a better musician. Some of them are darned good! And fast! And I have to prepare new material to keep them busy.
  8. It's fulfilling to help other people reach their creative goals. Nothing can make me "kvell" like seeing one of my students singing and playing a song that we've worked on together in lessons.
  9. My students expose me to music I would never hear otherwise.
  10. Teaching has made me aware of how much I know, and at the same time, how much I don't know. I've learned that I don't have to have all the answers, but if I can create a climate that encourages creativity, exploration, and musicality, I feel like I've succeeded.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Picture In Your Head

Over on Maplepost, the Canadian folk music email listserv, there's a conversation going on about the fact that iTunes recently deleted "folk music" from it's list of music genres, choosing instead to use the label "singer-songwriter."

For some people the term "folk music" is, well, corny. They argue that "singer-songwriter" is a term more likely to resonate with younger music fans, and presents a new opportunity for those of us toiling away in the margins of the music industry.

Leaving aside the question where people are supposed to find traditional fiddle music or The Watersons on iTunes now, the move somehow symbolizes the basic identity problem that folk music suffers from in the twenty-first century.

Personally, I can't help but feel disappointed that iTunes did away with the "Folk" category. Call me corny if you want, but I feel like "Folk Music" is the label that best defines what I do.

Yes, I write songs, and I sing, so I guess that makes me a singer-songwriter. But I also feel like I'm a musician connected to a wellspring of music that is part of our common heritage, songs created and shaped by masses of ordinary people passing tunes and words back and forth in an oral tradition. I'm also connected to contemporary musicians who created new music inspired and influenced by that wellspring. I don't know what else to call that wellspring except, "folk music," so I call myself a "folk musician."

But at the same time, there's a dilemma in calling myself a folk musician, which has to do with the picture people get in their head when they hear the term "folk music." And unfortunately, the picture people get in their head doesn't correspond at all with what I know and love about contemporary folk music and the folk tradition. Here's a paraphrase of a conversation I have actually had a few times:

Me: Do you like folk music?
Them: No, I don't like folk music at all. But you know what I really like? Traditional Quebec music, and gospel music, and east coast music, like the fiddle and the step dancing. And I like Bob Dylan a lot.

You get the picture.

So what do I do about this dilemma? Sometimes I call myself a singer-songwriter, and I intersperse terms like "roots music" or "acoustic music" when I'm writing or talking about my music. But frankly, I don't find any of it satisfactory. Mostly, I just wish people got a different picture in their head when they heard the words "folk music."

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

No More Crows and Canaries

I can't count the number of times someone has said to me "I can't carry a tune in a bucket." Inevitably, when I probe a little more, I find out that someone has told them they can't sing.

It might be a teacher who asked them to mouth the words at the school concert, or separated the whole class into "Canaries" and "Crows." It might be a spouse, a parent, or a sibling who told them to shut up every time they opened their mouth.

For some reason we think it's okay to tell someone they can't sing, and as far as I'm concerned, that's just wrong. Think about the logic here: would we ever tell someone that they'll never be a great orator, so they might as well not even try to speak? I don't think so. Singing and speaking are equally natural human activities, and yet we somehow think of singing as a special talent that only some are blessed with.

Singing is a skill, made up of subskills, and like any skill, it can be learned. Some people, for whatever reason, are quicker at picking up the skills. But even people who have considerable challenges matching pitch and rhythm can improve over time. I've seen singers go from having a very hard time staying in one key, to being able to carry a tune with conviction and confidence. Over the years I've led workshops and worked one-on-one with many singers, and I've yet to meet a person who can't improve. And the more you do it, the better you get at it.

So, I've said it before, but let me repeat: we need more places where people can sing together for the fun and joy of it. No more crows and canaries, people, let's get singing!

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

In Praise of Ken

A while ago I said I would tell you more about my friend Ken Whiteley, who was recently inducted into the Mariposa Folk Festival Hall of Fame.

For those who don't know Ken, he is one of the most talented musicians and performers you will ever come across. He's also an award-winning producer, children's music pioneer, and some-time side-man to many other wonderful musicians. He plays dozens of instruments, and he's a walking encyclopedia of blues, gospel, r&b, folk, swing, and other roots music. He basically oozes music from every pore. He's been performing professionally since he was a teenager, in many different configurations, and along the way he has been an integral part of the roots music scene in Canada and beyond.

I met Ken shortly after moving to Toronto, at the tender age of fourteen. Ken came to my high school to teach a music class. And what a class! In no time, he had about twenty of us organized into a very large and unwieldy band that played songs by musicians like the Coasters and Sam Cooke. It was a pretty unorthodox music class, but we ate it up. My friends and I became Ken Whiteley groupies, showing up everywhere and anywhere that Ken and/or his equally talented brother Chris were performing around Toronto. It was a musical education that has had a huge influence on me.

Over the years, I stayed in touch with Ken. When I was in Grade 13, I asked him if he might be able to help me with a project I was doing on African American music history. He invited me over, suggested some books to read, and lent me a treasure trove of record albums. A few years later, I called Ken because I was doing a similar project on Women's Blues for a university class, and again, he invited me over, generously suggested people to talk to and, true to form, lent me some albums that changed my musical life forever.

As I got into performing, Ken was a natural person for me to work with. He has produced a few of my albums, we've written songs together, and we have shared the stage many times since he first backed me up at the Eaglewood Folk Festival in the 1990's. Whenever we work together, I'm grateful to bask in the reflected glow of his musical talent. Even more though, I appreciate the spirit of generosity, community, and support that he brings to the table each and every time. And I know I'm not alone in that. Ken has been a friend and mentor to many of us in the roots music scene. He may be a musical monster, but I think it is this spirit of generosity that is really the hallmark of Ken's contribution to the music community over the years.

So, thank you, Ken, and congratulations on being inducted into Mariposa's Hall of Fame.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

My Recent Reading List

I've recently been reading a lot, indulging my interest in music history, creativity, the brain, and community. Here's a list of what I've motored through in the last few months:

The Gift, by Lewis Hyde: I loved it. For anyone who works in a creative field, it's a must read. It's hard to encapsulate in a sentence, but basically it's about the value of creative endeavor in a modern society defined by money and commodification. The book has been out for 25 years-- not exactly new on the scene-- but it's central theme doesn't seem dated at all. It was hard slogging in some places because the writing is densely packed and the ideas are pretty heady. But I found myself constantly underlining passages and reading parts aloud to my partner. And I'm still thinking about it, almost a month later.

Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song by Steve Turner tells the history of this seminal song, from a detailed biography of the song's author John Newton, to a history of the song's rise to iconic status. Over the years, the myth of the song has grown, but Turner does a good job of clearing away the mythology and establishing the facts of Newton's life, as far as we know them, and putting the song in a historical context.

Continuing on my music history kick, I also read White Christmas: The Story of an American Song. Author Jody Rosen tells the compelling story of the most recorded song in musical history. There's a lot more meat to this story than you might think - the song's creation was anything but straightforward, and it did not become an instant classic. Although it's a short book, Rosen packs in a lot of insight into the life of Irving Berlin, the workings of Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood, social mores of 1940's America, the birth of Christmas music, and more. Highly recommended.

And, moving to my interest in music and the brain, Daniel Levitin's latest book, The World in Six Songs is a fascinating look into how humans evolved into musical beings. I loved Levitin's first book, This is Your Brain on Music, and the new book did not disappoint.

And finally, right now, I'm reading Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich. Academic, but very juicy. I'll try to report back on that one when I'm done.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Song Circles

The other day I talked about song circles as a way to share music with other people. Some of you might be wondering, what's a song circle? My friend Gene just wrote a great post on his blog about song circles. And that reminded me that I once wrote an article for the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals' newsletter, Folkprints on the topic. Here it is:

Last night, I did something I do almost every week. I walked into the house of someone I didn’t know, I sat down in their living room for five hours, and I sang with them. Am I a member of a strange cult? Well, not exactly, but I am addicted. My addiction has brought me to houses across Toronto for the pleasure of singing in a group. What am I addicted to? Song circles!

Song circles come in many shapes and sizes, but the basic idea is a group of people getting together to sing and share music. There are song circles all across Ontario, each with their own unique character, attended by people who want to sing and make music with others. The great thing about a song circle is, anyone can start one, they don’t have to cost money, and it’s a great way of connecting with other musicians and music lovers.

The weekly song circle I attend in Toronto was started by a group of people who had attended Mariposa in the Woods (now called “The Woods Music and Dance Camp”), and it’s been going for almost twenty years [note: now it's more than 25 years]. The format is simple. We start sometime around 8:30 pm every Friday night. We sit in a circle (or as close to a circle as we can manage), and over the course of the evening, each person in the circle has an opportunity to lead a song, request a song, pass, or “defer” (meaning they can’t think of anything at that moment, but they might want their turn later). After everyone has their turn, we take a break, during which we eat all the snacks we brought. After the break, we continue, but we dispense with taking turns, and things become a little more spontaneous.

Before the break, we announce the next few locations (members volunteer their homes), and we line up more if necessary. Attendance is completely open-- anyone can come, although there is no formal advertising besides word of mouth. You can come as often or as rarely as you like. I have been to song circles with as few as three people or as many as fifty, but the average is somewhere between twenty and thirty people.

The emphasis in this song circle is on songs with good choruses or refrains that allow everyone to sing along. Over the years we’ve sung songs from many different traditions –sea shanties, lullabies, work songs, rousing gospel numbers, old-time country songs, Caribbean songs, pop songs, songs in different languages, contemporary folk songs, and lots more.

Here are some basic elements that I think can help any song circle work:
  • Agree on the format. When you first meet, have a conversation as a group about how you’d like your song circle to operate. There are lots of options! After you’ve been meeting for a while, have another conversation to see how it’s going and find out if you need to make any adjustments.
  • Adopt a format that gives each person a turn. If I had to name one aspect that’s essential to a good song circle, this would be it. It means that each person knows they will have their time and space without having to push themselves over someone else who might be louder or more confident.
  • Foster respect and appreciation for each person’s contribution. Some singers have difficulty with pitch, rhythm, or general confidence. But you will often hear “Nice song” or “Good job” or some other encouraging response when they are done. It’s amazing to see the progression over time as their confidence begins to grow. Fostering this kind of culture within the group requires a few people to “model” the behaviour in the beginning, but over time it can become a natural part of the group.
  • Listen to each other. The most important element of making music isn’t actually creating sound. It’s listening. At the Toronto song circle, things are more oriented toward voices than instruments. Although there are often plenty of instruments, we’ve learned over time to take our cue from the person leading the song – if they begin singing a capella, we don’t automatically jump in with instruments. On the other hand, sometimes a person will say, “this is in the key of G. I’d love to hear lots of guitars.”

Meet in a comfortable space. The right space will create the right environment. Private homes are wonderful that way, but if you are choosing a public space, try to find something that’s not too large for you—you don’t want to be completely lost—and look for a space that has warmth—comfortable chairs, good lighting, and so on. Wood surfaces are good for sound and atmosphere. Cement walls and tile floors usually make for a cold space that won’t feel cozy.

Those are just some of the things that I think make for a good song circle, but I started this column by mentioning that there are many different types of song circles. I’d like to hear from you about the song circles you attend.

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Taking the Stage

The other day I wrote about how we need to take back music as a natural human activity, and how we need non-competitive, inclusive spaces like song circles and jam sessions where people can share the joy of making music in a group, no matter what their skill level. I wrote that piece in the context of a conversation (on the Canadian folk music listserv Maplepost) about open stages, and whether it's okay to criticize performers who, shall we say, need a little work on their performing skills. Here is how my post on Maplepost continued:
There is a huge difference between swapping songs at a song circle or a jam session and getting on stage to perform for an audience. Once you decide to step on a stage, you are asking for an audience's undivided attention. Their attention is a privilege, and your space on that stage is not owed to you, it is earned. And once you step onto that stage you cross over a line into an arena where criticism is fair game. If you believe you are ready to step on that stage, than you should also be ready for the feedback you may receive. If you are not ready for feedback, then you may not be ready for the stage.

(On reflection, that was probably worded a little too strongly. I want to qualify it a little bit to say that it's okay to be nervous, it's okay to be inexperienced, and it's okay to make mistakes. That's how you improve. Open stages can be a great place to try out what it feels like to get on a stage and sing in front of people. And surprise! You will probably learn that performing on a stage takes a whole new set of skills that you need to learn, just like you needed to learn to play or sing or write songs.)

Here's how I continued:
Obviously, there are different kinds of stages and different levels of responsibility and feedback that are appropriate depending on context. In my mind, open stages occupy some kind of grey area between a song circle/jam situation and a full-fledged stage. Open stages are a training ground, a place to learn what it means to be on a stage.

But however experienced or inexperienced a musician we are talking about, I think the most effective feedback, if it's called for, is kind, direct, and constructive criticism. If you are in a mentoring or teaching role with a budding musician-- if you have been ASKED for feedback-- I think it is your responsibility find a way to be honest AND supportive. I have come to realize, through my teaching experiences, that when you are asked for feedback, you don't do anyone a favour by avoiding criticism. The trick is to find a way to offer criticism that is non-judgemental and direct without being cruel.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Music is a Natural Human Activity

Since my idea for a slogan for Toronto went over like a lead balloon, maybe I'll return to writing about something I know. Recently, over on the Maplepost (the Canadian Folk Music listserv) there was a discussion about open stages, "good" and "bad" music, and whether it's okay to judge or evaluate someone else's music. I posted a response, which I'm dividing into two blog entries, because I want to elaborate on the second part a bit more. But here's the first part of what I posted:

Once upon a time, in almost every society in which you can trace cultural history, music was a collective activity that was part of the life of a community -- pretty much everyone sang and danced, and there were special songs and dances for life events like birth, reaching adulthood, celebrating the harvest, the turn of the seasons, marriage, and death. Music and dance was an important part of the fabric of communities because it brought people together, passed on information, helped create a feeling of cohesion and social unity, and so on. Sociologists and anthropologists who have studied these things have noted that one of the things that marked this kind of activity in a community is the lack of separation between the singer/dancer and an "audience." In other words, there was no audience, it was a participatory activity that everyone did. The idea of whether you are "good" or "bad" at it didn't even make sense. There are some parts of the world where this is still true.

Today, we in North America live in a very different society. Music is generally not something that is woven into the fabric of most people's lives anymore-- it's something that we purchase, listen to, watch, but it's not something that everyone is expected to participate in on a regular basis. There is a clear separation between performer and audience. And we grow up with the idea that if we aren't brilliant singers (or dancers or players or writers or...), then we should keep our mouths shut. And many of us do. We get the message that singing is a talent, some people have it, and some don't, and if you don't have it, you are out of luck. I think this is a tragedy. It means many people are alienated from their own musicality and creativity, they never get the chance to try out their voices, or have the transcendent experience of being part of a large group making music together. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for people to participate meaningfully in music and other creative pursuits without being judged in some way.

In that context, I think it's critical that we create places and spaces where people can make music together without the expectation of perfection, places where people can sing or play purely for the joy of it, rather than for applause or adulation. Places where it doesn't matter what your skill level is. Where, even if the singer needs some work on their musical skills, their contribution to the spirit of the event will be recognized and appreciated. This might be a song circle, a jam session, an open stage, or some other kind of friendly musical exchange. We need these kinds of spaces because we need to bring back music-making as a natural human activity.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Remembering Estelle

Last night I was part of a wonderful evening at Hugh's Room celebrating two of my musical heroes and friends-- Ken Whiteley and Estelle Klein-- as they were inducted into the Mariposa Folk Festival Hall of Fame.

Estelle was the visionary programmer of the Mariposa Festival for many years, during it's "golden era." She is widely credited with developing the idea of the folk festival workshop to it's apex, and she's had a huge influence on folk festivals across North America. Ken Whiteley has been a driving force in the Canadian folk and roots music scene since the late 1960's, as a multi-talented musician, producer, children's performer, mentor, and organizer. I will write more about Ken in a future post, but today I want to focus on Estelle.

I moved to Toronto after the heyday of Mariposa, but I was fortunate to get to know Estelle a little bit in the few years before she passed away. My friend Dave Barnard and I were the honoured people who got to interview her on stage at the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals when the Estelle Klein Award was established and she became the first recipient. We spent many hours in conversation leading up to that interview. We talked about her early life and introduction to folk music, how she thought about programming the festival, and her work after leaving Mariposa. In truth, we barely scratched the surface, but those conversations opened my mind to the many possibilities in programming an event like Mariposa.

What came through to me was about more than workshop titles or who she put on a stage together. It was about a whole way of looking at culture, not just as entertainment, but as a vital, living expression of people's lives and experiences. She was genuinely curious about the connections between music, art, crafts, language, food, dance, history, and politics. When she brought performers, crafters, and dancers to the festival, she wasn't just interested in the final product they were presenting (the song, the dance, the craftwork). She was interested in the context of their artistic expression-- where their sensibility came from, the community that they lived in or were raised in, how they learned to sing/play/write/paint/dance etc., what historical or personal events influenced their art, and how all of that might be connected to someone else's life experience or artistic expression-- and to the life experience of her audience. Her choices about workshop programming grew out of that curiousity and that impulse to connect different threads of people's music, art, and dance.

She thought about themes that could carry through the programming and connect different elements. She was as interested in craft, dance, and storytelling as she was in music, and she worked hard to integrate each of those elements into the festival in a way that was respectful and joyful. She helped develop an extensive First Nations area at the festival that was far ahead of its time. Similarly, she brought "world music" to the folk festival long before the term had even been invented. And as Ken Whiteley noted last night, her commitment to equity carried through every aspect of the festival-- from the standard amount that all performers were paid (regardless of stature) to the respectful treatment given to everyone involved with the festival, whether they were performers, crafters, or volunteers.

The result of her vision and her creativity was an absolutely incredible event that had a profound influence on all of the people who participated - artists, volunteers, and audience members. When I speak to people who attended Mariposa during those years, there's an almost universal sense that it changed their lives in some way or another. Some talk about seeing musical influences like Mississippi John Hurt or John Prine. Others talk about making lifelong friendships and becoming part of the folk community. Still others listened and learned from the ideas at Mariposa and went on to produce festivals and events of their own.

It's hard to overestimate the influence of someone like Estelle. There is much more that could and should be said. I'm just grateful I got to know her a little bit, and happy to have been part of last night's moving tribute to her lasting legacy. Thank you, Estelle Klein.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

What Will Happen to the Old Chestnuts?

Recently there was an animated discussion on Maplepost about the fact that many performers today only sing their own songs, which raises questions about what will happen to all the songs that we used to sing, the old songs, the songs by other writers. And what about the current crop of songs? If no one other than the songwriter sings them, will they survive?

I'm a performer who has gone from mostly singing other people's songs and traditional material to mostly singing my own songs. When I first began performing, I didn't write songs at all. I had grown up in a folkie household, exposed to lots of traditional music, and lots of singing in groups at song circles and jams. At the time, I thought I just didn't have anything to say that hadn't already been said by someone far better than I ever could.

The songs I chose to sing were songs that meant something to me. I spent a lot of time learning songs, getting inside them, and making them my own. I also spent a lot of time making music with other people, and through that I learned about listening, making space for other voices and instruments, and creating something spontaneously that is larger than the sum of its parts.

I firmly believe that if I'm any good at writing songs, it's because I spent so much time inhabiting other people's songs, and making music in groups. Without realizing it, I was absorbing the essential elements that make a song work.

When I write songs, I am absolutely writing from my personal experience - like it or not, I am the centre of my own universe, so it's impossible for me to do anything else. But my aim is to use my personal experience as a springboard to say something about that personal experience, hopefully something that will resonate with other people. There are certain things that all human beings go through: We are all born, we all grow and change, we experience joy, love, pain, loss, triumph and so on, we work and struggle, we try to improve our lives and the world around us, we mark important moments, we fall in love, we fall out of love, and then eventually, we die. In my experience most songs with any staying power somehow touch on those universal human experiences.

Recently I've been thinking about the fact that I mostly sing my own songs now. In a way, I wish it weren't so. There is a vast body of brilliant, beautiful, and compelling music out there that deserves to be sung and played. But there are many factors that discourage working musicians from playing or recording anything other than their own songs -- a few people already mentioned royalty income, but there is also the structure of many granting programs in Canada, which subtly, and not-so-subtly encourages musicians to write and record their own songs in order to get the maximum funds possible.

I love writing songs, but I also fear that by singing more and more of my own songs, I'm losing touch with my musical bedrock. And on a larger scale, I wonder if that's happening to us as a musical community. It's exciting that so many great new songs are being written, but I hope we aren't losing the old chestnuts and bits of gold from days gone by.

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Belated Report from Brigadoon

In August, I told you about my upcoming visit to "Folk Brigadoon," The Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival. Well, you are long overdue for a report of my time in Nova Scotia.

First of all, I love Nova Scotia. There's something about it that makes me feel good. The people, the beautiful land and seascape, the arts and culture, the pace of life. As soon as I get there, I find myself relaxing, and inevitably I start to notice things around me that in Toronto I whip by without thinking -- a beautiful building, or the angle of the light, or the smell in the air. (Disclaimer: I have never visited Nova Scotia in the winter, so my idea of the place is totally skewed by romantic summer weather.)

So, my belated Folk Brigadoon report: I had a fantastic time. This is the third time I have performed at Lunenburg, but it didn't make it any less special. The big white tent was magical, as always, and the array of performers was stellar. I taught a workshop on "The Joy of Singing" as well as a guitar workshop, and I participated in a lively discussion about the state of folk music with songwriter Murray McLaughlin and bass player Dennis Pendrith.

Dennis performed with me at my mainstage concert on Saturday night. Here we are, in the big white tent:

And here are my good friends Mike Stevens and Raymond McLain, who joined me to play on my song "Something About a Sunday:"

I also made some new friends: Qiu Xia He and Andre Thibault from the group Silk Road Music, who were being billeted with the same family as I was. Qiu Xia plays the pipa, a chinese lute. She and Andre peform traditional Chinese folk music, but they also blend Chinese music with music from around the world - Silk Road has taken the pipa into uncharted waters and created an amazing musical hybrid. I asked Qiu Xia to join me on stage to play my tune "Watermelon Sorbet" on the pipa. It was one of the highlights of the festival for me, and certainly no one has ever heard "Watermelon Sorbet" played quite like that! Here she is on stage with me:

And speaking of being billeted, one of the charms about Lunenburg is being billeted at the home of a family, and this year, I had the pleasure of meeting the Bentons, a lovely couple who divide their time between Nova Scotia and Arizona. They pampered us royally and made us feel completely welcome in their home. I hope our paths cross again.

I was very happy to cross paths and hang out with fellow musicians Cara Luft, Jeff Davis, House of Doc, The Hupman Brothers, and many more.

Since I was going to be in Nova Scotia, I managed to squeeze in a quick visit to my friends Don and Anna in the Annapolis Valley and of course a meal at the Union Street Cafe in Berwick.

In all, it was far too short, but so sweet while it lasted. Brigadoon indeed.

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Rise Up Singing in Guelph

This weekend I had the pleasure of visiting with my friends Jane Lewis and Sam Turton in Guelph. Sam and Jane are musicians who, besides performing and writing songs, also spend a lot of time fostering community music in Guelph. Their organization "Rise Up Singing" offers music workshops that help people learn music in a supportive, inclusive environment. I was there to teach a guitar workshop, but over the weekend we had some lively conversations about community music. One of their missions is encouraging people to sing more, and seeing them in action affirmed once again the power of singing in a group.

I met up with Jane and Sam on Friday night at a local Guelph cafe where they facilitate a weekly public sing-along.For two hours they led an enthusiastic group of cafe patrons in singing together from a large book that they've compiled of familiar, singable songs (complete with an index!). The book includes everything from "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by U2 to the traditional gospel favourite "I'll Fly Away." Every table had a few books strewn on it, and song requests were passed up to the front for Jane and Sam to choose from. We sang songs by The Beatles, CSNY, Sting, Johnnie Nash, Carole King, Leonard Cohen, and more, plus a bunch of traditional favourites.

It was a very fun evening, and as I sat there belting out "Our House" with a group of people I didn't know, I noticed that most of the singers didn't fit the general profile of died-in-the-wool music-loving folkies. They seemed more like "normal" people who had somehow stumbled onto this weekly event. And they were having an awfully good time. It reminded me that, unlike me, most people don't have opportunities to sing in a group.

It didn't used to be like that, of course. Singing used to be woven into the fabric of our lives, accompanying work, play, worship, love, celebration, birth, and death-- in short, everything we did could or would have been cause for singing. In North America we've largely become separated from singing as part of our community life, and we've swallowed the idea that singing is something that's best left to "experts." Early on we learn that we either have "talent," or we don't, and if we don't, we had better keep our mouth shut.

The notion that singing is something you either can or can't do is actually a pretty strange idea that runs contrary to everything we know about music and creativity. Music is a skill that can be learned. Like any other skill, some people are naturally more talented, and some people have the advantage of being exposed to more music making at an early age, but I have yet to meet anyone that absolutely can't learn to sing.

And singing in a group is a fantastic way to improve your singing. Not only does it help you learn to listen (which is one of the most important musical skills you can have), it also helps you build confidence in your own voice and allows you a space to try new things without feeling exposed.

Music gatherings like Sam and Jane's sing-along in Guelph provide a low-pressure, inclusive opportunity for people to experience the joy of singing in a group. So here's to Sam and Jane, and Rise up Singing. I'm glad to know they are out there, creating community through music.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Small Places - Amnesty's Global Arts Jam

Amnesty International is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by launching a new campaign this fall called Small Places. It's a "Global Arts Jam," a call to artists and creative types of all stripes to speak out about human rights issues. There will be events happening all over Canada, and all over the world, spearheaded by ordinary folks who want to make a difference. Anyone who wants can create a small places event.

Check it out at http://www.smallplaces.ca/
Read the current newsletter here.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Be Prepared!

A few months ago, my partner and I decided to buy tickets to see Kate and Anna McGarrigle in concert at Hugh's Room. The tickets were very expensive, but we decided to make a date out of it and not worry about the cost. We even made reservations for dinner to underscore the "date" idea.

The night of the concert, we arrive and take our seats. The club is filling up-- the McGarrigles are playing two nights in a row, but even so, we hear both shows were sold out. As we eat, I looked around at the audience. I'm surprised that I hardly recognize anyone. "Who are all these people," I wonder? "Why do I never see them at other folk music events?" Most of them seem like boomers who live in the suburbs, perhaps, and I wonder whether they come to Hugh's Room because of the dinner theatre atmosphere (a little classier than your average folk music concert series church basement) and the nostalgia factor (reliving their rebellious folk-singing young adulthood of the 1960's).

We finish our dinners, complete with dessert. I'm feeling incredibly full, a little bit sleepy, and looking forward to just relaxing and enjoying a concert by two of my musical heroes. I head towards the back of the club for a visit to the washroom, and I see the owner of the club, along with the person who books concerts, and the floor manager. So I walk over to say "hi," since I know them all.

"Hi Eve," they all chime, and then one of them says, "Do you want to open for Kate and Anna McGarrigle?"

I assume they're joking, but after a few seconds of kibbutzing, I realize they are absolutely serious. It turns out that Kate and Anna are planning to do one long set, and the Hugh's Room staff wants to have a break partway through the evening. So they need someone to perform an opening set.

At first I think of all the reasons I can't do it -- I don't have my guitar, picks, or capo. I wasn't prepared to perform -- no fancy outfit or anything. I walk back to my seat and tell E. what just happened.

"Are you crazy?" she practically shouts, "You HAVE to do this. You go back there and tell them you will open for Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Right now!"

Ever the obedient partner, I go back and let them know that if they are still looking for someone, I could do it, but I would need to borrow a guitar. We quickly arrange for me to borrow Kate's guitar and Anna's capo. I even borrow a pick from Chaim Tannenbaum, one of their longtime accompanists.

And I play a half-hour opening set. I have no CDs to sell, no mailing list, and I am wearing a t-shirt with a logo for "Mama Clucker's," a famous chicken eatery in New Orleans. "Best Legs in Town!" says the slogan across my chest. It is definitely a moment to remember.

And I'm so glad that I did it. The place was packed full of people who had never heard me before, and I got a very enthusiastic response (although of course I wasn't able to sell any CDs or get anyone on my mailing list). Thankfully, I did know about five people in the audience, and one was my friend Collette, who took this picture with her cellphone. It's not great quality, but it is proof.

The moral of the story: Be Prepared! You never know when you will be asked to sing.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Full Circle

A few weeks ago I sang at Amnesty International Canada's Annual General Meeting. I performed my song "The Streets of Burma," which is being used by Amnesty as part of a campaign to help free one of the monks imprisoned in Myanmar.

In a way, my performance at the AGM was completing a circle. "The Streets of Burma" was born last fall, when I was invited to perform at a benefit for an Amnesty International chapter in Thornbury, Ontario. I had been thinking about writing a song about the "Saffron Revolution" in Burma/Myanmar, and I had jotted down some initial ideas, when I realized that the upcoming Amnesty event would be the perfect place to sing such a song. Deadlines are always helpful for me, so I worked away at the song, and sang the first draft for Amnesty International Canada Group 82 on November 7, 2007.

It was gratifying to sing the song in that context, but I worried that writing a song just wasn't enough. I wanted it to do more than just help people remember what had happened in Myanmar, I wanted it to help spur listeners to action.

Shortly after that, on a whim, I contacted Amnesty Canada's national office to see whether they might be interested in using the song somehow. To my surprise they responded right away, and the result has been a postcard campaign urging the Myanmar government to release U Gambira. Over the last six months I have sung all over Ontario, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland, and everywhere I've gone, audience members have enthusiastically signed postcards to help free U Gambira. I've personally mailed in hundreds and hundreds of postcards, and I know that Amnesty members have also been circulating and mailing the postcards from all across Canada. I never dreamed that my song could have such an immediate, concrete impact, and I'm thrilled to be associated with a respected group like Amnesty International.

So, on June 14th, I got up in front of a room of Amnesty International members, activists from all across Canada, and I sang "The Streets of Burma." It was the very beginning of their weekend meeting, and I knew that the hundreds of delegates there had a lot of hard work in front of them. My song, in the large scheme of things, wasn't the most important thing for Amnesty International Canada that weekend. But in that moment, I felt the synergy of a simple song bringing exactly the right spirit and energy to a particular group of people, and for me, the circle was completed.

Over the course of that afternoon, I heard about Amnesty Canada's activities over the last year. I saw a special tribute to Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty Canada, who recently received the Order of Canada. And I watched democracy in action as the meeting began and members rose to make points or suggestions. I met dozens of Amnesty members from big and small communities. One had been distributing the postcards in the Kitchener-Waterloo school system. Another asked if her chapter could use my song at their event this August. Many took more postcards to distribute in their communities. It was an honour to perform for and meet these hardworking people who are doing so much for human rights.

Thank you, Amnesty International Canada for inspiring me to write "The Streets of Burma,"and for keeping the flame of human rights burning bright around the world. It is a privilege to be a small part of your work.

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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Play On, Oliver

On Thursday, we lost one of the bright lights in the Canadian music firmament, Oliver Schroer. Oliver was one of the most creative and innovative musicians I've ever known. He was also the tallest fiddle player ever on the planet.

With just his fiddle and bow, he could evoke whole worlds in a few minutes, as he coaxed beautiful and unearthly sounds seemingly out of nowhere. His tunes were by turns whimsical, nostalgic, funny, fantastical, unbelievably joyful, but sometimes also very dark and brooding. He was not afraid of the uncomfortable, the disturbing, or the dissonant.

When I was around Oliver I always had a sense of a person so infused with life that he couldn't wait for the next adventure-- even the next moment-- to be taken in and experienced (And then sometimes magically turned into a tune!). If you could say someone lived life to the fullest, that was Oliver.

And so it was when he learned that he had cancer. Oliver somehow was able to take in the whole experience full on, and, rather than let it slow him down, he used it as a catalyst to continue composing and recording, right up until the night before he died. And in a remarkable act of love, he brought his whole music community along with him on his journey, participating in several "Olifiddle" tribute concerts, and finally, performing his "last show ever on this earth" before a sold out crowd in Toronto.

Oliver kept a blog of his experiences of the last few months, and in it he reflects on his life and his impending death. There are many, many very wise words in that blog, but I'll just leave you with one of the last things he wrote:

Sometimes I think of dying as taking a trip, a trip far away to a place from which I cannot come back. We all know people who do that...move to Tasmania. (great place, by the way…) The point is, we wish these people well on their journey, but we don’t get all choked up and overwrought about it. We remember them fondly, and they live on in our memories through stories and the legacy they have left. We toast them in absentia, and hope they are doing well in their new digs. Well, my whole journey feels a bit like that. I am going to this place we will all go, and my travel plans are just a bit more immediate than yours. (Though life is strange, and I still might not be the first to go. Just be careful crossing those streets and driving those cars, folks.) I think a lot in terms of metaphors to help me understand things. I have been informed by the stationmaster that my train is coming in immanently, and that I should be ready to get on board when it does. But until that train comes, I am still doing what I am doing fully and completely.
Wherever Oli is now, I'm completely convinced that he is drinking it all in, and composing some fine tunes. Play on Oli, we'll miss you.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Let the Blogging Begin

Since I decided to start blogging, I've had lots of ideas about what to write about. Now that I'm truly beginning, I'm not sure where to start! All my ideas have left my head.

So I will start with something I posted to Maplepost, an email listserv I belong to for people involved in folk music in Canada.

In the past few days, we've been discussing how hard it is for folk musicians to find a booking agent, and the difficulties involved with being your own booking agent. So of course I had to get my two cents in there. Here's what I wrote:

Being Your Own Booking Agent

Being a musician and performer involves a very different set of skills from being a booking agent, publicist, manager, or independent business owner. A lucky few seem to have an amazing combination of all those skills, and must never sleep, because they somehow manage to do all those things for themselves excellently. But the rest of us mere humans generally bumble along, doing better at some parts than others, and sometimes cursing the gods for the lack of (fill in the blank here: an agent, a manager, a bookkeeper, a secretary, etc.).

One thing that has helped me cope with this is that I do other music work that complements performing-- I teach lessons out of my house. Not only does it bring in other income, so that I'm not completely dependent on the money that comes in from gigs and CD sales, but it gives me a lot of flexibility. I work from home and I can set my own hours. If I need to be away for a week, I can easily move my schedule around. And it's made me a better musician.

Having that other income that is still music related has really changed my life-- since I'm not 100% dependent on the gigs, I'm not approaching booking with the sole goal of keeping the wolves from the door. I'm able to think about where I want to go with my performing career and how to get there, and I'm able to view things in the long term. If I have a stretch with fewer gigs, I know I will still have some money coming in.

The other thing that has really helped me is to try, as much as possible, not to take it personally.

When I started booking myself, I found it really difficult to talk to presenters. I realize now that I was thinking about it all wrong. I was thinking of myself as the lowly artist, begging for crumbs from an all-powerful presenter, who had the ability to make or break my career. It's extremely difficult not to feel personally rejected or crushed when you don't get the gig -- you've put your heart and soul into your music, and the presenter isn't interested. It must mean they don't like you or your music, right?

First of all, as we all know, there's all kinds of reasons for not getting booked -- too few spots, timing doesn't work, they can't add another concert in May, they don't present songwriters, etc. etc.

But more importantly, I've tried to develop a new approach to the process of booking. For me now, booking is all about building community, making relationships, and getting to know the people that are out there helping make the music happen. They might be running a teeny house concert or booking a huge concert hall, but I want to know more about what they do and how they do it. The more I know about the whole spectrum of venues, and how they work, the better I'm going to be able to work with them. And as soon as I started looking at it that way, things began to shift.

Thinking about booking this way helped me "de-personalize" things a lot, and it's made me a better booking agent for myself. Now when I contact a presenter, I think about it as relationship building. I present myself honestly and directly, and I look for the same from them. I try to remember that they've usually only got a few slots to fill, and that there's a lot of fantastic music out there. I think about the fact that I'm in this for the long haul, and if they don't hire me now, they might want to next year, or the year after that. I'm on the slow burn, and I can wait.

So even if I don't get the gig, if I succeeded in having a good conversation where we exchanged some information and got to know each other a little bit, I consider myself successful. Because that's going to be a person that I can go back to at some later point and talk to again. Maybe I'll run into them at a festival or a conference. Maybe I'll be able to help them with something -- locating a good sound person, or helping them find the perfect Irish group for St. Patrick's Day, or whatever. Maybe, even if they don't hire me, they can tell me about some of the other venues in their area, or maybe they know something about artist management. Maybe they'll never hire me -- so be it.

It doesn't mean they think I suck, it doesn't mean they suck. It just means they're not going to hire me. Sometimes that's really hard to take. But the more I'm able to let that go, the better for me, and the better for my career. And, as I said before, not having to depend 100% on gigs can really help keep things in perspective.

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