Sunday, January 1, 2012

Tips On Sitting In With Bands & Travel Or Vacations With A Djembe

As a musician, performer, or drum circle facilitator, I am being judged and critiqued all the time. Something many musicians are very sensitive about. People don’t like to be criticized especially when it comes to the way they are playing music. Your soul is wide open and out there for everyone to see. And you are at your most vulnerable.

As a musician, or a facilitator, I think you need to be as well rounded as you possibly can. If you want to work a lot, or even get work, you should be able to play any genre of music at all, any style of music, at any tempo, and, ideally, be able to figure out and play anything within a few measures of music. That’s the goal I think you should try and grow towards. This makes you a better all around musician, and facilitator.

One way to get better at this is to sit in, or play by ear, with different bands every chance you can get. If it’s a casual setting, and you ask politely, they will likely allow you to sit in for a number or three. Or go to a few “open mic’s” and sit in with whomever you can. Even if it’s just one guy on an acoustic guitar. Are you going to get it every time right away? No. But that’s how you grow faster. A true musician can play anything at all in the drop of a hat. Many times, when I sit in with a band, I have absolutely no idea what they are about to play. Because most of time, they don’t tell you. So if you start out softly with a simple all around basic pattern, that you can adjust it to within 10 or 15 seconds, then you can adjust it, build it from there. With most local bands, the songs, or jams, they are usually playing cover songs, so I have a general idea what’s going on musically even if they have their own version of it. I either start out with a 4/4 downbeat bass pulse, or I use a sort of Latin default beat that sounds sort of like, badum ba Slap, (pause) badum ba Slap, (and repeat).

That works in just about any song they throw at me, unless it is a swing, or blues tune, that’s in 6/8. Come up with a default start of your own for 6/8 and 4/4, and you can launch into it, and adjust to anything right away. Generally speaking, percussion follows, and the drummer leads, so it is a bit easier sitting in with a group. Almost every song or jam is in 4/4 time, or 6/8.

The important thing is not to throw them off by trying off beat things, solos, fancy things, or showboating. It will throw off the drummer, and then it’s a thank you please leave the stage nod after one song. I find that if I just stay on the rhythm and hold it steady, that’s when the band will love having you sit in. Possibly even the rest of the gig. If you keep it solid on the downbeat, and steady - then they will just start another song, and you find yourself playing an entire set of music with them Because my role in that setting is to enhance or reinforce their rhythm, thereby helping to make the band sound better. The band has been playing together for a long time, and they can feel the reinforcement, if you give it to them.

I don’t have hands of fire, nor am I an amazing percussionist. But I can hold a beat solid, and hear, feel, and see the musical cues that a change is coming, or that the song is about to end in 8 to 12 measures. It takes some practice to catch the cues, and feel the end of the song coming, but just doing that has gotten me a few guest gigs, and I was even asked to join up with a few bands, which I did. So you don’t have to be an amazing musician to get work. You just have to be steady, solid, and aware, to notice the band cues. Other than keeping solid time, the most important thing is to not play a beat past the end of the song. That obviously makes them look bad. (and me too!) So, 3 to 4 minutes into a song, I am completely focused, looking for an upcoming cue that the song is about to end. Then I am ready for it when it happens. Most of the time, jams are a lot of improvisation, so the band leader will just turn around and give a glance to the rest of the band. That is the cue that it is near the end, so I am waiting, and ready for it. Boom! Right at the end.

A few times I thought it was the end a bit prematurely, (premature undulation). So I never make my ending notes too enhanced, or loud. If it happens where I thought it was the ending and it is not, I can sneak a bass pulse back in right away and continue on like nothing went wrong. Often times, it is only me that noticed I messed up. So I quickly get back on tempo and be ready again.

Often during a set of music, they will play a song that I just can’t get solidly. It happens, too many time changes, or simply I can’t get the groove on that one. So I fake it as best as I can until the next song comes mercifully along. If I can get 7 out of 8 songs, the band is going to be happy with me sitting in. The point is, not to let it throw you off your stride. An example for me is the Allman brothers. I love their music, but some of it has so many changes in it, that it gives me trouble. Most bands tend to play their songs a bit differently, and for some reason some of them give me fits.

Most bands will not take advantage of you, but if you have sat in with them a few times, and they start asking you to show up at gigs with them, then maybe it’s time to ask for a little bit of pay.

When I see a band performing that I want to approach to sit in with, the first thing I do is watch and study them for a set, maybe half hour or so, then I can better familiarize myself with their sound and their style. Sometimes, it’s even for the next time I see them in a more casual relaxed setting, where sitting in isn’t such a big deal for the band. It depends on how high profile the venue is. I try to visualize in my mind what I would be playing on their songs. That seems to help me a lot.

When I do ask to sit in, I always make it a point to try and put them at ease. I say, “I’m a percussionist and have my djembe with me. Would it be okay if I sit in for a song? I promise nothing fancy. I’ll keep it steady, and just follow the beat.” When they hear something honest like that, it increases your chances. Most bands have had someone sit in at some point, and it was a disaster. It happens. So I try to give them confidence in me right away, that I’m not going to get up there and try to be a show off. I just want to fit in.

Sitting in with various bands over the years, really did help me a lot. Probably even more than my musical training did. It taught me to be able to play just about anything by ear. I learned to play things by feel, and how different musicians and bands communicate with non verbal musical cues. The more I sat in with, the better I got at playing anything they threw at me. During the middle of a song or jam, I can settle in a bit and not have to be too concerned about the ending coming up and catching me by surprise. It takes a little extra concentration and focus when a band does original music, because I have no idea whatsoever of the changes, or where the ending might come up. The whole thing is rather exciting.

When I first started doing it, honestly, I was terrified. I was worried I would mess up the band, not know what to play and when – all sorts of things would go through my head. I never liked to make eye contact with the crowd watching. If I did, I would be distracted thinking stupid things like are they are watching me to see when I screw up? Just learning to fit in and constantly watching all the band members out of the side of my eye, took some practice. I can’t just stand there and stare at my drum because I don’t want to see who is watching me. I have to focus on the band, so I can fit in with the band. That’s what I’m there for in the first place. If I am confident, having a good time, the band is having a good time, then the crowd is also. And they can tell how you are feeling.

I learned early on as an actor doing theatre, to look out just above the crowd, and not make eye contact. However, it looks to them like I am. And that seems to work for me. I also learned that being nervous or even scared, is just a hairs length away from being excited. All I had to do was say to myself, “I am excited to be doing this!” After all, everyone else is out there sitting and watching wishing they were up here playing and doing what I’m doing right now. So if you feel the nerves coming on, just tilt that fear a tad to excitement. The two emotions are so close to each other it’s surprising. Just remember, I am excited to be doing this. If you feel uncomfortable and the nerves are getting to you, the audience can sense that also, so this is really important.

I worked on The Tonight Show as a guest a number of times. I had been performing and acting for years, but standing there for the first time behind that wall about to go out on stage shook me to the core. After all this is live TV in front of a live audience. If I screw up out there, over 20 million people are going to see it, let alone never work on the show again. There are no second takes on live TV. I recalled the fear being so close to excitement. So I shook it off, and said to myself, “Hey I’m about to go out on live TV! How many people get to do this? Screw this, I’m excited!” I went out and did my best, and everything was fine. The skit was hilarious, and I was asked to come back and work for them over and over again. Confidence, focus, and excitement wins the day.

So if you have thought about sitting in with a band, I encourage you to give it a try. Just keep it basic, steady, and simple. They will love you for it, and the rush of having a band enjoy your work feels mighty good.

Drumming In Your Travels, And On Vacations

We make it a point to do a 7 day get away once a year. Usually it’s during the Thanksgiving Holiday. That seems to be when work is the slowest, and the prices are the lowest. As a performer, actor, and musician, my work life is pretty much day to day. I never know when the phone is going to ring with a gig or an audition, so I need to be available year round all the time. Or, they will start calling somebody else.

Even if it’s an extreme low budget camping trip, I have to give myself and my brain a complete rest from everything. It’s not a laptop, I can’t defrag my mind, or clean its registry errors. The phone calls, emails, social media, the news, everything. If we could, I would do it 4 times a year, but we make do with once. I turn off all the electronics that bind, and leave them off for one week. Years ago, I would say, “Well I have to check my answering machine or email! What if I’m missing a job?” Well, I’m away anyway, so what’s the point? So I would disrupt my relaxed state, and check it on the 3rd or 4th day. Doing that really didn’t help things very much, but it did take me completely out of the relax and enjoy mode, and then back into work mode. That’s the reason I needed a get away! So all my electronics are off, and they stay that way for one week. That’s not such a sacrifice really is it? The world can wait a week.

I need a mental break from everything. If somebody does contact me while we’re gone, I can always write them a note explaining why I couldn’t instantly get back to them, like we are expected to do these days. I contact my agents and so forth before we leave, and let them know I will be unavailable for a week. Most of them vacay at the same time anyway.

So, if I play music for a living, why would I want to do that when I’m away on holiday? Simple, I put my heart into music. It’s what I love to do, even in my spare time. The advantage of sitting in with bands is that even though I need to focus and concentrate, I can loosen up and have more fun because this is not an actual gig for me. I have no idea what is going to happen, and how things are going to go. I trust in myself, and let things unfold. I like to challenge myself musically and try new things out. Take a chance, even a risk or two. That’s why I still love sitting in, and improvising.

Over the years, I’ve seen lots of guitar players and other musicians bring along their instruments when traveling. Many of them have said to me, “I never travel anywhere without my axe!” For us, hauling along a drum can be a bit cumbersome, but the times I’ve done it, I was very happy I went to the trouble and did so.

Hey, you never know when you might stumble into some sort of a drumming emergency! Maybe it’s a band you can sit in with, a group of street musicians jamming, a drum circle, or event. When it happens and I don’t have a drum, I smack my forehead and have one of those “doh” moments. If only I had brought my dog-gone drum, I could have a little impromptu fun. It’s also a great way to meet people, mix with the locals, and even share in some culture. So now, I always travel with a doumbek, or my travel djembe. I don’t like to bring my best djembe drum in case of it getting damaged, or something else that might happen to it. My aluminum doumbek is light enough to carry over my shoulder in a gym bag, or if I can, I like to bring a lightweight fiberglass shell Toca djembe. It’s not too expensive of a drum, and it’s my “harsh conditions” beater drum. It’s pretty good sized, it has a 14 inch goatskin head on it, so it packs a good punch, and has reasonably authentic sound. It’s lug tuned, so even in high humidity, I can quickly tune it as needed.

The head that came on it new was rather thin, and it popped after a few months of playing. I had it re-headed with a very good quality skin. And now, it sounds about as good as a fiberglass / goatskin head drum can, and it’s pretty easy to transport in my djembe bag. I either just sling it over my shoulder, or I use a small rolling luggage rack, so I can easily roll it along with my other luggage. To protect it, I cut out a piece of thin paneling, (about ¼ thick), just big enough to cover the edges of the drum head, and place it under the drum, with the head facing down. On the drum, I have a djembe cover, (which I recommend for anyone).

And under that, I have a round piece of thick cardboard I place under the drum cover just in case I bump it against something. It gives it a little extra protection. An easy way to do it, is to find a good piece of thick cardboard, lay the drum down on it, and draw a circle around it with a magic marker. Remove the drum, and cut out the circle. I like to do two of them, and tape them together with that blue painters tape. Then it’s nice and thick. So the cardboard protector goes under the djembe hat, then the drum inside the case, then lay it upside down on the ¼ wood board on the luggage rack. A few bungee cords to keep it from falling off, and It makes it easy to move around, and I’m good to roll.

Admittedly, I don’t get to travel very much these days, let alone take a vacation, with the economy the way it has been the last few years. We wanted to take a 7 day Caribbean cruise really badly for our birthdays, and wedding anniversary combined this year. So, like a lot of people, we really tightened our belts all year long to save up for it. We stopped and thought a little harder before buying anything, stopped going out to dinner once a month, (like we used to do), and everything else we could cut back on, so we could save up. Generally speaking, it seems the most inexpensive time for cruises is right around the Thanksgiving holiday. We managed to find a last minute schmeal deal for $500 each. If you figure what a regular get-away would cost, the travel cost, dinners out, and entertainment, it actually is a very nice yet economical vacation with no driving, or responsibility. Another form of vacation can cost $100 a day easily, so cruises are a very good value for the money. The only thing you need to watch with these cruise ship prices, is sometimes they don’t mention the port charges, and taxes. That can hike the cost significantly, sometimes as much as $150 each or more. Be sure you have the total cost.

We always book the least expensive cabin, sometimes you get a room upgrade free, and how much time do you really spend in the cabin? We sleep there, and that’s about it. So the window or balcony thing is out for us, it jacks the price way too high. At first, I thought I would feel claustrophobic, but it’s not that big a deal. We sleep there, and are out having fun and doing things the rest of the time. These days the cruise lines just seem to want to fill the rooms, and then they figure they can make up the profits with the passengers gambling in the casino, buying drinks, and port tours. We don’t drink other than a glass of wine now and then. And we don’t gamble, so they probably don’t like us very much but, on the average, most passengers do. We do however like to take a tour or two in the ports, wander the towns, buy a few goodies and gifts, and so on.

Even on the lower end cruise lines, the dining is above average, and the entertainment in the show lounges is pretty good. You can spend the whole day eating if you want, and most of it is included. We just like being out on the ocean, and wandering in the ports. Seeing a show after a nice dinner together for 7 nights, is something fun to look forward to.

Anyway, I always bring my drum, and this past year was no exception. I was so happy I did, because as soon as we boarded, I noticed that the deck band was a smoking hot reggae hip hop group. I studied them a bit, and the next day at sea, they let me sit in once after I asked. It went so well, they let me finish the set, and afterwards said I could sit in with them when I felt like it. That was cool. (I attached a few photos.) Usually if you find the band leader, and ask nicely they will let you play a tune or two. Like I mentioned earlier, if I just keep it simple, and ride the downbeat of the rhythm, they like having a little percussion added to their sound. If I do well enough, and show that I’m an ensemble player, and not there to showboat or something like that, I might get an open invitation to sit in. This particular band had a very good front man, and he gave good musical cues for time changes, coming to the end of a song, and so on. So, it was pretty easy to stay on the rhythm, and not to mess up and play on after a song ended. After all, I don’t want to make them look bad, or myself either. I think I sat in with them during five days for a number of sets, and had a blast doing it.

There is also a main show band orchestra usually. Forget sitting in on their shows, but on most cruise lines, for two nights during the week, they have a jazz jam in one of the smaller lounges. It’s a more casual setting, and they are usually more open to it. That is some serious fun if you can get it. The first song is the critical one. If you do well, they might let you stay up there for a few sets. It’s almost a form of an audition. I treat every sit in situation like it’s an audition. Hey, you never know, it just might actually be one.

So I was having a ball playing with the bands on board pretty much every day, except when we were in the ports of call. The 1st one was Roatan in the Honduras. We had a tour scheduled, but I had an hour before it departed. At the dock was a group of 3 local drummers, and a few dancers. They were jamming and dancing away for the tourists. They had a tip bucket out in front of them, and obviously they were trying to earn a few bucks every time a ship came into port.

I love sitting in with the local drummers whenever I can. I get to know them a little bit, even though we don’t even speak the same language. We communicate through music. What a fun, honest way to get to know people this is. I always try to respect what they are doing, respect their culture, and their musical rhythms. After all, I am the visitor there. I watched them for 15 minutes, and noticed pretty much every rhythm they played was in 6/8 time, ie: like the Mother Rhythm. This was one tight group of drummers. One of them was an amazing soloist, he was just blazing good. The other two just held down the support rhythm, and the dancers did their thing, working the crowd.

At a break, I mentioned I was a drummer, (using hand drumming gestures, and pointed towards a drum). I then gestured could I play a little bit with them. They agreed and one of them handed me his drum. It is a rather unusual hand made drum. The drum rim is made from a piece of curved bamboo. Playing it took some getting used to, but it was a goatskin drum, and I was going to jam on it. (See photos)

Okay, cool. In this situation, I wanted to demonstrate that I respect their native drum rhythms, so I waited for them to start playing, and then join in. Again just like with sitting in with bands, I play the 6/8 support rhythm they are playing and hold it down. After a 10 minute or so jam, they all turned to me and smiled. That’s about the nicest feeling in the world. They gestured for me to start up a rhythm, so I did. I chose Fanga, figuring they may not have heard it before. It’s in 4/4 time, so it was a little different for them. They jumped on it, and we had one sweet sounding jam going. The soloist started doing his thing, and I have to tell you it was about as much fun drumming as one could ask for. Ten minutes on, and the tips were flying in for them. I was feeling good I could help them along a little bit, and share their culture with them. I got up to leave, and they all gestured for me to stay and play one more. Alright then, I gestured for them to please start one this time, and I would join in. We went on to our tour of a rescued animal island, did some swimming, and ate some lunch. What a good time that was.

The other port I found a group of drummers jamming was Belize. They were playing the same design of drum I saw in Roatan. It had the same 1” bamboo rim, wood shell, and double sided goatskin heads. It looks kind of like a home made djun dun. There were 3 of them jamming out some 6/8 grooving beats. There were no dancers, but these guys were even better drummers than the last port. Unfortunately for them, they were a short distance from the dock, in a craft market, and not next to the passengers leaving the ship. So they weren’t getting much traffic, or tips for that matter. In fact there was no tourists around them. Most were out on tours, or didn’t want to venture outside the pier area with the locals. But that’s what my wife and I want, is to see, and support the local artisans, and buy crafts from them. We bought a few gifts, and I made a B line to the drummers drumming. This group spoke a little broken English, so I was able to communicate a little easier. I asked if I could sit in, and they agreed. They were a very friendly group, and they were playing just for the sake of making music. Playing for their own enjoyment, because nobody else was around. But again, we did most of our talking through the music. Other than saying hello, and asking to play, the rest was though the rhythms. We took turns starting out rhythms and shared culture with each other. I felt so blessed. I had the best time, and I got to meet, and get to know a few of the locals like nobody else did. We bought a few craft items from them, and said goodbye. It was back on board for a day at sea. Not so bad, I love the days at sea the best, and the deck band awaits.

On one of the days at sea, they have an ice carving demonstration up on deck. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this done, but they are true artisans. How anyone can chop these beautiful figures from a huge block of ice is beyond me. I’ve seen it done before a few times, as my wife and I like to take a cruise on the years we can afford it. The ice carver takes around 15 minutes to complete his sculpture, and I recalled that they chop with these various sized chisels at a very fast speed. But like most things in life, they are done to a rhythm. I asked the Staff member hosting the event if I could play djembe drum rhythms to the ice carving instead of the canned music they usually play for it. I explained that I would play to his rhythms, and keep the volume low if she needed to speak, I would play at his pace, and it would be an interesting blend of culture for the passengers to watch. Somehow I convinced them, and away he went, chopping like mad. But it had a nice steady rhythm to it. Within 5 seconds I was matching it with drum rhythms. He smiled once I was into it, and gave me an approving smile. I nodded thank you, and we did an ice chopping djembe rhythms duet. It was just him, and I. All the drumming was in 4/4 time, and I changed the rhythm slightly every 12 measures, so it wasn’t to repetitive. The tiny bits of ice chips were flying around in the air, and they were in unison with the drumming. This was one cool event. I always wanted to drum to the ice carving rhythm. (See the photo, you can see the tiny ice chips flying bottom left.) So sit it whenever, and wherever you can. It’s fun.

Keep on drumming!

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