Sunday, March 14, 2010

Winter Touring Tips

I recently returned from a three-week tour through northern Ontario and Manitoba. I do a lot of traveling, but most of my tours are short weekend hops. I don't often hit the road for two weeks straight, hardly ever in February, and I've certainly never spent much time driving in rural Canada in February. Winter driving in the Canadian north presents some special challenges that I knew I had to be prepared for. So before I left southern Ontario, I made sure to consult with some experts, and I took their advice. It occurred to me that other musicians might find my experience helpful. Here are some things I did to keep safe and warm:

  • Cellphone
    I usually travel alone, so I've always considered my cellphone an absolute necessity for safety on tour. It allows me to call for help if I get stuck on the road, something that's extra important when traveling the Trans-Canada Highway in the dead of winter.

    I knew cellphone coverage could be very spotty once I got out of urban populated areas. On this trip, I found I was out of range for several days through northern Ontario. One day the highway ahead was closed because of a snowstorm and I needed to make phone calls. What to do?

    Skype to the rescue! Skype is a free program that allows you to make phone calls over the internet. I happened to have Skype loaded on my iPhone, and although there was no cellphone signal, the place I pulled off did have wireless internet signal. I was able to add money to my Skype account on the spot and proceeded to make several important phone calls-- notably, "I am stuck on the highway and I won't be able to make the gig tonight." (For what it's worth, Skype is worth having in any case because you can make free long distance calls to other people who have Skype.)

  • Emergency Kit
    I had an emergency kit already, but I checked it before I left and replaced items that were old or didn't work anymore. I also added a few items of my own. My emergency kit included a flashlight, one of those cool foil blankets, candles, matches, a small cooking pot and some instant soups, a snow blindness suit (!), a "HELP" sign, nuts, candies, and energy cookies. I even had a little book with winter survival tips.

  • Snow Tires
    Snow tires make a huge difference to your car's ability to stay safe in winter conditions, and I wouldn't want to be without them for long winter drives in Canada. You pay a small premium, but when you account for the fact that winter tires help prolong the life of your other tires, and that they may save your life someday, they don't seem all that expensive.

  • Block Heater
    Everyone I talked to in Manitoba prior to my trip recommended a block heater, which you plug in at night in very cold conditions to keep your car engine warm. The temperatures in rural Manitoba and northern Ontario can be brutally cold (down to -30 degrees C), and if the engine gets too cold, you can have trouble starting your car. As it turned out, most of the time the weather wasn't quite cold enough to warrant it, and my little Honda Fit did just fine. But I was glad to have the peace of mind in case the temperature turned extra frosty. I carried an outdoor extension cord to plug the block heater in.

  • Winter Clothing
    I made sure to stock up on long underwear and wool socks before I left, and it was worth it. southern Ontario does not get nearly as cold as Manitoba in the winter, and I am sure I would have suffered mightily without my long underwear and wool socks. It was nice not to have to crank the heat up in the car too much when I was driving.

    I also made sure to bring a good parka (I looked like the Michelin Man but I didn't care -- I was warm!), boots, and several pairs of gloves/mittens, some scarves, and hats. I probably overdid in the winter wear department, but I had room in my car and if I was stuck in a situation where I was getting wet, I figured it would be nice to have extras.

  • Don't Drive Too Far; Drive Early in the Day
    I tried to keep my driving distances relatively short. This is a good idea any time you are touring, but especially in the winter. Combine short distances with driving earlier in the day, and you take a lot of pressure off. In most cases I was able to get where I was going in very good time. In one or two cases where I was driving in a little bit of weather, I knew I had time to drive slowly and that I could stop and rest anytime I wanted. It kept me safe and got me to the gigs with plenty of time to spare.

  • Call Your Destination When You Are Leaving
    I usually just jump in the car and aim to get there at the previously agreed upon time. But this trip, since I was driving through pretty isolated areas in winter conditions, I tried to get in the habit of calling my next stop as I was leaving, so they would have some idea when to expect me. That way if I didn't show up they could send out the search party!

  • Drive With a Full Tank of Gas
    I'm not used to driving in rural areas and I'm always surprised at how far you can drive in some parts of Canada without encountering a town, any services, or even another car on the road. I made sure not to let my tank get below half full; had I been driving longer distances I might have even filled up at three quarters of a tank. A full gas tank adds weight to your car, which helps you in bad driving conditions, and if your tank gets too low the gas lines can freeze, which would be a very bad thing.
A final note: although I had to be careful and make extra preparations, my winter touring experience was incredible. It's hard to beat seeing a sundog on the highway between Rossport and Thunder Bay, snowshoeing in Riding Mountain National Park, or gazing out over a frozen Lake Superior on a cold February morning. Not to mention the wonderful generous people I met on my tour. Just a few more reasons I still feel lucky to be a touring musician.

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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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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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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Go Steve!

It may seem a long stretch from "Let's Get Small!" but I say, go Steve! Comedian/Actor Steve Martin is releasing a new CD, called "The Crow." It's a CD of banjo music. (I guess I should have said "Comedian/Actor/Banjo Player Steve Martin.")

This New York Times Article gives more background on his banjo history and pedigree. And this article from The Banjo Newsletter (reprinted on Steve Martin's own website) gives some indication of the fact that he's respected in the banjo world (sidenote: it's interesting that in the interview, which seems to be at least five years old, he says he would never release a CD of banjo music!).

Now, some of you might be thinking, "He's gotta be kidding!" Or maybe, "Why doesn't he stick to comedy and acting?" But, as it turns out, Steve Martin is a good banjo player. (If you don't believe me, check out some of the sound samples on the page for the album.) The songs and tunes on "The Crow" are all original, and he's joined by a number of fine musical guests, including Tim O'Brien, Tony Trischka, Pete Wernick, Earl Scruggs, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, and others.

Personally, I admire an artist who is not afraid to do something different. He's not a hack and it's not just a publicity stunt - playing the banjo has been a significant part of his life since he was a teenager, and he obviously has great respect for the music and the instrument. I look forward to seeing how the album is received and where this part of his artistic journey takes him.

Go Steve!

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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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Friday, January 30, 2009

Music and the Brain Documentary

CTV is showing a new documentary tomorrow night called "The Musical Brain" that sounds fascinating.

Scientists are only just beginning to understand the complex processes that go into making and listening to music, and there's been a lot of recent attention to the topic, thanks to Daniel Levitin's books "This is Your Brain on Music" and "The World in Six Songs," as well as Oliver Sack's "Musicophilia."

I've read all three of those books, so I am disappointed that I'll be missing the broadcast. I'll be on stage in Kitchener with my fellow Girls with Glasses, all neurons firing. Maybe someone will tape it for me.

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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, 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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Monday, August 4, 2008

Keeping Up The Momentum

With most things that I apply myself to, I find that I go through bursts of interest and creativity, and then periods where I move on to other things and I can't keep up the momentum.

Take this blog. I had a good run there last week, with posts every day for a while. And then, I got stuck. And other things took priority. Despite my best intentions to wax eloquent at least three to four times a week, I fell off the wagon.

It's the same with music. A few weeks ago I was working every day on a couple of new fingerstyle pieces from some books and DVDs I just bought. Last week I wrote a new song, and started learning a Tim O'Brien song I really like. But the past few days I just haven't gotten around to it.

And booking gigs - the same thing. I'll have a couple of weeks where I really go at it, and then the next week I'm spending my time on something else.

It makes me wonder about attention span, discipline, and procrastination. Am I alone in this? How do the rest of you deal with momentum and keeping at it?


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Treatise on Songs

My friend Jane Eamon is writing a book called "The Songwriter's Journey." The book will include reflections from a variety songwriters on a variety of questions. So a few months back, she sent me a list of questions to respond to. This is an excerpt of my response to her. I will be posting more excerpts over time.

What is a song? On the surface, it’s words sung to a melody. Simple enough. But songs are complex creatures that work or don’t work on many levels. On a musical level, songs have melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic structures. They can follow or break musical conventions, they can be at different tempos, and in different time signatures. They can mix tempos and time signatures. A song can change key, or visit other keys and come back to the first key. A song can musically draw on or refer to other songs or styles. The music can be discordant, harmonious, energizing, melancholy, driving, simple, complex, funny, touching, sexy, inspiring, or relaxing.

The words can be from the point of view of an object, a person, a deity, or an animal. They can speak from first person, second person, or third person. They can be about nothing. They can be about everything. The lyrics can be playful, happy, sad, personal, technical, angry, old-fashioned, modern, spiritual, or thoroughly common.

The song can have rhymes. Or not. Techniques like onomatapoetry, alliteration, internal rhyme may or may not be used. The words might be concrete. Or they might be abstract. The meaning might be ambiguous, or it might be totally transparent. Metaphor and simile will certainly be there, but they can be more or less obvious, used in different ways, mixed, or not.

The words can “match” the melody in tone or feel. Or they can be juxtaposed. The song form can be simple or complex. There can be an introduction, verses, refrains, choruses, bridges, tags, and codas. There can be a lot of repetition, or very little.

Songs can serve a higher purpose, or they can be just for fun. Or both. A song can evoke strong memories, be a powerful tool for change, make you cry, inspire you to shake your booty, or get you into bed with someone. Songs can reflect and express the hopes, desires, fears, and triumphs of a person, or of a whole community or culture. They can be created in situations of incredible adversity and oppression. They can be of the moment, or they can strike a chord that lasts centuries.

So how do we go about creating these miniature masterpieces that we call songs? I think the answer will be different for every songwriter, and in a way, one of the tasks of the songwriter is to figure out what works for them and go with it. What’s right for me might not work at all for you, and vice versa. Discovering the tools and methods that help you create your best songs will be a lifelong journey if you choose to follow that path.

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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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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Once: The Movie

Last night I rented the movie "Once". It's a low-budget Irish movie about two musicians who meet on the street and develop a musical partnership.

It's rare to see a movie about music that gets it right, but this one does. The main characters are played by musicians. Glen Hansard, the leading man, is a member of the Irish band "The Frames" (he also played the guitarist in one of the other great music movies of all times, "The Commitments"). The leading woman is Marketa Irglova, a compelling piano player and singer.

There's a lot in the movie about the process of musical collaboration, songwriting, trying to survive as an independent musician, and (of course!) love and its many twists and turns. And the music is stunning.

It's quirky, funny, sad, and very moving. Rent it!

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Swinging on a Pendulum

A few weeks ago, I was running flat out-- I went from the Mariposa Festival, directly to the Haliburton School of the Arts (where I taught guitar for 7 hours a day, five days in a row), directly to the Canterbury Folk Festival, and finally home. It was a pretty hectic couple of weeks.

And then, just like that, it all came to a screeching halt. Three weeks with no gigs. I almost don't know what to do with myself.

But it will all change again in about a week, when I’ll get on a plane and head to Nova Scotia for the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival. A few days after that, I’m in Owen Sound for the Summerfolk Festival, and then a few days after that I leave for five days for The Woods Music and Dance Camp, where I’m one of the main organizers and I teach a guitar class.

It’s an embarrassment of riches, really, because festivals are fantastic gigs for musicians. It’s a chance for us to perform in beautiful environments, for people who truly appreciate the music. And probably best of all, we get to hang out with each other-- a rare treat in a business where we are often criss-crossing the country on our own, rarely seeing or talking to each other.

But I can’t help thinking about the "feast-or-famine," pendulum-swinging existence I seem to live most of the time. Finding the balance between the different aspects of my work and personal life is not easy. When I’m in an intense period of performing, I’m not able to do much of anything else. And when I'm not intensely performing, there is usually a host of other things I should be doing. There's booking gigs, writing songs, recording, applying for grants, keeping my web presence up-to-date, following up on connections made at festivals or other gigs, practicing, running the office, being my own manager, planning, and so on. But to be honest, after an intense few weeks like I just had, when I find myself with unstructured time, it's pretty hard to put my nose to the grindstone and get down to all the things that need to be done.

In short, I don’t think I’ve yet managed to find a good balance between performing, teaching, writing, practicing, recording, running an office, booking and managing myself, not to mention relaxing every once in a while. I wonder if I ever will.

It doesn't help that the lines between my personal life and my work life are now blurred beyond recognition. Once upon a time I worked normal, nine-to-five jobs, where I showed up at a workplace and I had stuff to do every day that fit into a larger structure. Then I went home and had a personal life. It's not that I wasn't working hard, but I had a sense of work time separated from personal time. Now I have to create my own structure. Sometimes I’m better than at other times, but generally I’m a pretty un-disciplined person. I'll jump from one thing to another, never quite completing anything, and since I don’t have to work at particular times, I find myself working at very odd hours sometimes.

And sometimes, when I should be working, I goof off. I admit it. I don't have anyone looking over my shoulder, and it's hard to be motivated when I don't have a deadline.

And my latest epiphany: modern technology does NOT help with this problem of work/personal balance (I know, I know, where have I been the last ten years?). Ever since I got a laptop and we put a wireless router in our house, I can work or play from anywhere, leading to the “I’ll just lie on the couch and answer all my email” syndrome. I find myself responding to work emails or updating my website while I’m watching TV, or just before I go to bed (which leads to the equally egregious “I went to sleep at 3 am because I thought I’d just check my email before bed” syndrome). Am I relaxing? Working? I can't always tell.

I know I'm not alone with this dilemma. A quick search revealed a few different bloggers writing about this very issue, here and here. Seems we're all trying to figure out where work ends and play begins.

I love what I do, and I know I’m lucky to be able to do it. I try to remember that when I find myself clinging for dear life to that swinging pendulum, struggling to keep all the balls in the air.

OK, enough kvetching. Time to go book myself a gig. Or update my website. Or finish that song. Heck, maybe I'll goof off...

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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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