Archive for the 'Music' Category

Art and Commerce – fish or fisherman?

Monday, October 26th, 2009

The earliest conversation I remember about art and commerce was with my neighbor, Mr. Jerry. For as long as I have been alive he has been both a fisherman and a retailer. He is the father of three daughters who were my playmates growing up, so he and I saw each other often.

Fishing lures are designed to catch fisherman, not just fish.”

my grandpa's lures

my grandpa's gear

That’s what Mr. Jerry told me one day. I do not remember how old I was at the time of this specific conversation, but I was old enough to fish and young enough to be a little puzzled by his comment. I cannot remember the context of our talk that day, but our houses backed up to a bayou in northwest Louisiana and just about every day was an opportunity for at least a little talk about fishing. I remember reflecting on that thought for several days, the feeling of that thought sinking in and how its truth eventually resonated in my mind. I remember how it eventually made sense back then and it has stayed with me. At the time I didn’t begin to understand the full impact of his comment, but it still rings true for me today.

On one hand, if a lure doesn’t catch the shopping fisherman and find its way off of the shelf, into a shopping cart and out the door of a retail establishment, it doesn’t stand a chance of catching a fish. On the other hand if the lure is picked up and purchased, does it really have to catch a fish to be effective, or has it already done its job? The lure manufacturer certainly would lose repeat business if it did not eventually catch fish. So if you want to create popular lures, sooner or later one of them has to catch fish. If you really want to be successful in the lure industry, offer something that maintains some balance by appealing to both fisherman and fish.

Whenever I play the role of consumer I try to remember that comment. If I find myself on the artificial bait aisle of a store (and that does happen on occasion), I try to remain fish-focused as I shop. In a bigger context, I try to remain fish-focused when I am making any kind of purchase. Caveat emptor reminds me that it is really my responsibility to shop with a fish-focus mentality. I have to separate what looks like it is fishing for me from what might actually serve the purpose it claims to serve.

The artists, craftswomen and craftsmen among us would say that a good lure has to be designed primarily, maybe even exclusively, to catch fish. The focus of the merchant would be almost exclusively on catching the fisherman.

These days, my wife (singing is her artform) and I spend our days at the point of intersection of art (fish) and commerce (fisherman). For the last eleven years we’ve made our income creating and being paid to produce art/media — music and books (both performance art and recorded media). There has to be focus on the craft or the art and some days we get to focus on the art and forget about commerce for a while — (I’ll call that fish focus.) On some romantic level it would be wonderful to be focused solely on the art, but the artist without some sort of commerce is at best a talented hobbyist and art can be expensive to create.  If you live where we live, sooner or later you have to make friends or at least make peace with commerce. If you want to call yourself a working artist you have to reconcile this tension, because art and commerce have very little in common. Ultimately, you have to provide for both.

Further, it is my observation that in an environment of scarcity (whether that’s an economy, industry or organizational) the temptation is to pursue the quick fix with an effort to please the fisherman, even at the expense of the fish. I have worked in a couple of organizations where there was an environment of scarcity due to transition in the organization. Short term survival dictates a fisherman focus, but you cannot ignore the fish and thrive in the long run. You might look great for a while, but sooner or later you will be surpassed by someone who caters to the fish. The adage that the cream rises to the top would suggest that the person or organization who is good at feeding the fish will ultimately prevail.

I want to encourage you and me to continue creating the thing you create and to pay attention to the fisherman. But in these days when we have so many ways to spend time getting the word out, focus on the fish!

Here’s a few questions for reflection: What is your work or vocation?  Where is scarcity in your mix? Who is your audience? Who is the fisherman for you? Who is the fish for you? Are you doing an adequate job trying to catch the fisherman? How can you leverage your life or your organization to be more fish-focused? How could you better maintain the balance in your life and work between fish and fisherman?

P.S. My second son has inherited the fishing gene. He often asks me if we can go fishing today. I think he’d prefer doing that to most anything he could choose to do on any given day. He looks slowly through his great-grandfather’s tackle box and finds a quintessential lure and proclaims, “this one will catch a big one!” I’m looking forward to watching he and his brother grow into their vocations.

Collaboration

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

I like to think that I’m pretty good at keeping up with what’s going on. I spend time reading about trends and technology. I pay attention to the new vocabulary including the names of new efforts and enterprises aimed at changing the way we communicate and work. The marketing folks would call me an early adopter and in some ways I am, but I’d add that I’m just paying attention

It seems to me that the rate of change is accelerating. Technology including media formats don’t hold their place as long as they used to. (I’ve got some boxes of audio cassettes you can buy if you don’t believe me.) So if you want to leverage the tools at your disposal, you have to be pretty quick at learning about todays tools and being able to figure out how to apply them, because many of them will be change tomorrow.

I watch my sons use You Tube walk-through videos to learn to conquer the challenges in their video games. A few days ago I wrote about my seven year old son using You Tube to find a recipe. I wouldn’t have thought of that, though I’ve used You Tube to fix appliances at my house. You might be surprised to find out who in your surroundings can teach you. If we want to leverage our abilities, both individual and our cooperative, we’re going to have to be on our toes.

I stumbled on this music video on the web. This creation is worth a watch. It is a video promoting the EP of a band and somebody knows how to get these folks to work together (or at least how to get these folks to appear to work together).

I’d like to cooperate this well when I grow up.

This amazing video for the Japanese band Sour’s single “Hibi no Neiro” was cut entirely from Webcam footage shot by (and of) their fans.

If it doesn’t open click here.

Mobile Surfing

Friday, September 18th, 2009

After I posted in cyberspace  that I figured out the laptop to cellular connection via bluetooth, I had several inquiries about how I made that happen. So as I sit in the elementary school pickup line, I am writing and posting this on my blog using that connection.

An important word of caution came from a friend who suggested that I double check with my cellular company to verify that my cellular plan covered these these data transfers. I was told this can get expensive quickly if you’re not covered. So, I’ll pass that word of caution along. Check in before surfing.

You have to have a laptop that does bluetooth and a cell phone that does bluetooth. Set them up to discover each other (references later). If you don’t have bluetooth, you can likely get a usb cable that will allow the connection. The webpage I used to get my laptop to talk with my phone was this one. I had to use the instructions here to make a few tweaks to the network settings.

My basic connection steps now are, 1) untether the phone by dialing a code 2) Sync the laptop with the phone via bluetooth, 3) choose the bluetooth network connection 4) surf 5) re-set the network to wireless lan 6) re-tether the phone.

Now I can work in airports, starbucks, mcdonalds and fancy shmancy hotels that  sell wi-fi without purchasing wi-fi. Happy surfing.

Sound Advice: on (church) audio support

Monday, August 24th, 2009

I am continuing a series I am calling “opportunites for improvement (OFIs).” These are mistakes I see often in (church) sound system operation. My experience is that successful audio support is not entirely an art or a science. In my experience it is more of a practice.

I’m a listener. Throughout my years, I have experienced some incredible gatherings of people when I have lost myself in an experience. One of the reasons I have gotten lost is because I didn’t even think about how well I could hear. The audio operator did such a superb job of attending to the medium — the thing in the middle — between the message and me, that I lost myself in the message.

On the other hand, one of the most distracting elements in a worship service or other gathering can be poor audio support. Included in an audio-supporting sound system is the operation by a human resource. The operator’s job description is one of support. If the only time the operator is noticed is when s/he is thanked for a job well done, they have succeeded. If listeners have to think about what or why they cannot hear, what the ringing sound is, or what is about to ring, then there is some room for improvement.

For some reason, a man standing behind a sound console full of knobs is a very territorial creature (ladies don’t seem to share this condition). This can be true from a volunteer working a very small gathering to a professional standing behind rows and rows of knobs. I have seen sound operators in church events treated unkindly and impatiently when being asked to do something simple by an individual making a small request in an unreasonable and even angry tone. Likewise, I have not been spoken to as disrespectfully at any other time, as by a sound operator when I made a simple (and warranted) request. I don’t know all of the sources of our intensity–there is certainly some defensiveness in the mix, but the world/church could use some servanthood in this supportive role. I think a primary source of stress is poor training. Often we put someone with limited or no training in a fairly visible role and then we ask the improbable of them. There are varying levels of success with this kind of recruit-and-ignore strategy, but I think the odds are against success.

What follows is a draft of my list of opportunities for improvement, 12 so far. These are not for you or for the guy at your church, but maybe you can pass this along under the heading of “tell this guy named Ron what he missed.” If I have been in your church, you can rest assured these are not written with any one person in mind. The challenges seem to be somewhat universal and this list is the result of observations of repeated behaviors, so I am REALLY not talking about you. I would like to hear your comments and opinions, so jump in the conversation.

Here is the first draft of my list:

  1. Creating noises in the soundbooth — talking, dropping things. Under the role of support, you could include being seen and not heard. If there are flags being waved in a soundbooth, you might be causing a visual distraction as well.
  2. Allowing feedback, that all too familiar ringing sound in your ears — big distraction, big no no.
  3. Allowing “almost-feedback” — a signal functioning right at the level of feedback, if there’s a pre-hint of feedback coming, that shifts focus away from the matter at hand.
  4. Not paying attention to or not knowing what is coming next. If someone steps up to a microphone, (whether printed in an order of service or not) have it on in anticipation of the sound. This can also happen if you are tardy or miss a soundcheck. The first note of a song or word of a speech are as worthy of being heard as the middle.
  5. Poor training — Not having a working knowledge of signal flow in your particular setup is a problem. This would include every knob on the soundboard (I have a story here for another post–“have you seen how many knobs are on this thing?”), knowledge of what each piece of gear does and how sound flows from input to speaker. For instance, feedback is caused by sound at any give frequency or pitch (or several) flows in a loop. There are work arounds, but in general never point a microphone at a speaker. Troubleshooting is impossible without knowledge and knowledge is improbable without training. Know the quirks of your system: rarely does everything work – there’s usually a weak link–a bad cable, or a bad channel on the board or a bad wire input mounted on a wall somewhere, or a bad speaker, etc. You don’t have to spend top dollar, but cheap gear will probably give you cheap sound… you get what you pay for. Continuously evaluate the weakest link in your system/equipment chain. For example, if you have a bad microphone, your output is only going to sound so good.
  6. Not listening — Mixing for the auditorium (literally – a room for hearing) or “front of house”–(FOH) with headphones on, is a mistake. Your ears are your best friends when you are supporting live sound – this is where the art comes in. If you’re not listening to what the audience is listening to, you might miss something really obvious. You can achieve the same result with over-reliance on pre-marked settings – like stickers or pencil markings left by an expert about where levels should be. This can work against success as much as it works for it. Appropriate use of headphones might include monitoring a broadcast signal, a recording mix, a monitor feed, or input from a specific channel. If your situation includes recording, ignoring either the room mix or the recorded mix leaves someone out in the cold.
  7. Remaining at the soundboard – assuming the room sounds the same everywhere. This goes for “front of house” and for monitor mixes. An occasionally walk past the stage monitors can be a really informative trip. I have a friend who mixes church sound with a full size monitor speaker right by his board. He often checks each monitor mix as it is being produced on stage.
  8. Using the attenuation/gain as a volume control. Turning this knob, (the result of not setting this level prior to operation) changes all signal levels flowing into and out of the channel, including the monitoring system that musicians are relying on. This level can usually be set with a meter (using the pfl/solo button), rather than waiting for the level to peak and then backing it down. This is the most often made mistake I witness from poorly trained church volunteers. When setting the attenuation/input gain, use the meter and adjust the volume so you have a strong signal, but allow enough headroom for the signal to get louder.
  9. Running stage monitors post fader – If monitor sends on individual channels are not pre-fader, then changing the level of an individual channel in the auditorium mix or house (FOH) for the listeners also changes the levels for the musicians and people speaking. This creates a big obstacle/distraction for leaders who are working on focusing on the task at hand and can shift their focus from the message they’re trying to communicate to compensating for the changes they are hearing.
  10. Overuse of effects on vocals – this strategy is often used to enhance or even mask the quality of a vocal sound, but you can only help so much.
  11. Poor equalization (bass/treble). Certainly there is a large degree of taste or preference that goes into choosing how an input sounds, but an instrument should only sound so thin. Good EQ can go a long way toward eliminating feedback. If you cannot understand what the person speaking is saying, all the volume in the world will not make up for poor EQ.
  12. Wireless problems – Wireless systems can be a great thing. Using a different system every week, we tend to shy away from wireless systems because often the wireless signal has to be attenuated on the microphone. This is a variable we choose to eliminate from our lives. If you have the same source of problems every week, this may be an issue for you. This is at the last of the list because it is not necessarily a problem.

Okay, I am done… Share this with a friend, or not. Jump in and tell me what I missed or where I got close.

I’m listening, Ron

Opportunites for Improvement (16 – OFIs) for praise bands

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

My wife Celia and I have spent the last couple of decades traveling around the country providing musical leadership for events and for churches. We have heard and seen some trends that I’ll gently list under the category of “opportunities for improvement” — (OFIs) by praise bands. I could broaden the list to all genres of music– no one is immune to “OFI.” I’ve got a couple of examples I’ll blog about another day.

Of course this is not about you or your leadership, just my observations of the landscape. Feel free to point folks here, even if it falls under the category of “you might know someone else who needs to read this, that you’d like to share it with.” I’ll post this as a draft, signifying my intent to continue tweaking. It is kind of like the trend that some companies list “beta” on everything they generate or maybe I just have commitment issues. If you find yourself nudged or even convicted in one or more of these items, maybe that’s a good starting place. I invite you to pick one or two and commit to giving them some focus and time for improvement in your setting. Maybe it’s a beginning of dialogue for your team. I’m all about improvement, I hope the dialogue generated here is about you and me and our personal improvement and not pointing out the splinter in someone else’s eye.  Here’s my list:

  1. Listen! — Your best friends when you make music are your ears. Don’t ignore what they’re trying to tell you.
  2. Tuning — Tune your instruments. If they have strings, consider checking them often. Though I’ve mentioned your ears in item #1, consider augmenting–pun intended–them with a reliable tuner.  You can play through it, mute your sound and check tuning between songs. If you’re playing guitar and it wasn’t “set up” by a professional, this will probably improve your tuning as well. Changing strings periodically is also a good idea.
  3. Hearing – Can you and others can hear yourself/themselves? This item is listed separately, because your audio monitoring system may be a systemic issue affecting your ability to hear. Do you have the right mixes, placement of monitors and balances of signals in the mix? If you can’t hear yourself, you might not recognize OFIs in your own playing. Does anyone–your drummer, guitarist or anyone else–play too loudly? Almost enough said but if one person is impairing others’ ability to hear, there’s your trouble.
  4. Evaluate – If your services are recorded, listen to the recordings. There may be things you are missing while you are playing that you will hear when you focus on listening. Listen as a group before you rehearse. Evaluate what worked and what could have worked better.
  5. Arrangements – Are you playing off of the same page? Are musical charts clear and correct? Are the songs arranged so that they flow well? Can everyone see them? Does everyone know where you’re headed. Do you have signals to “call an audible”? for example one more chorus, one less verse, etc.
  6. Variety – Don’t assume others learn things the way you do. Some people learn visually, some auditorily, some kinetically. One of my observations of the differences between contemporary and traditional musicians is that traditional musicians learn by reading a chart, contemporary musicians tend to learn more by hearing. I have heard people who are exceptional at one or the other. Does your group makes allowances for learning music in a variety of ways?
  7. Tempo – How well do you lock to a tempo?  Music  is about the movement of sound frequencies through time (and space). If you’re drifting, there are ways to tighten it up. There’s a musical tool called a metronome that generates a “click”. Beats per minute is an absolute reference that is genre-less. Whether you practice or perform with one (in a drummer’s ear), they can be very helpful tools.
  8. Equipment – Do you have an adequate sound system? Bigger is not always better (there’s no mention of a  sound-check in the sermon on the mount), but good audio support makes a difference. It’s also a voice-saver.
  9. Support – Recruit or train capable sound system operators. A critical piece of the system is the operator. A strong operator can improve a weak system and a weak operator can make the best system sound bad. This item probably deserves its own list, (maybe I’ll do that one next). Running a sound board is both art and science–you have to listen with your ears, to watch the room and you have to understand basic signal flow. Have you seen how many knobs are on a soundboard? There’s a story there for another post.
  10. Practice – Remember how to get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. If you are a weak link in the chain (from a musicianship standpoint), consider wood-shedding and you will improve the whole group. You will play what you practice. Practice for success. If you have your heart set on a solo that you get right about half of the time, consider aiming for something simpler that you will succeed at.
  11. Gifts – Do you have someone speaking whose gift is singing or singing whose gift is speaking or teaching class or greeting folks? Sometimes it might be a  mistake to make the setup of a song last longer than the song.
  12. Context – Do you contribute to the overall “movement” of the gathering? Music is powerful, don’t miss an opportunity. I have heard great speakers’ messages, weakened by a mediocre musical offering (and visa versa). It is good to be in touch with the flow of that gathering. Staying in the room and paying attention to what’s going on sometimes gives you a contextual clue that the Spirit is moving and you need to follow.
  13. Selection – If music selection is your job, don’t ignore the lyrics. Context is important and you can help take the listeners to a new place. Plan for a variety of musical styles. That is why we have several stations on our radio dials.
  14. Accessibility – Part of your job as a leader is to make songs accessible. If folks aren’t singing, something should be improved–one possibility is the sing-ability of a song–some melodies are better sung as solos or ensembles and don’t work well as a congregational song. Other possibilities might be your invitation to join in, the sense of grace in the room, the accessibility of lyrics or the ability to hear clearly what’s going on.
  15. Servant-hood – Your role as a leader is to be a servant leader and, like John the Baptist, to point toward Someone other than yourself. Make sure everything about you and your leadership are pointing somewhere else.
  16. Listen (I can’t overstate this one.)

What did I miss or overstate? If you disagree with anything, jump in and talk with me about it. Post your comments and let me know how I can help.