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Monday, November 25, 2013

Do you want to ride The Beast or the Ladybird?

Hi there,

When I was starting out in this business, I sang in a Top 40 Dance Band with another female singer. She also did regular gigs in cocktail bars and even sang at weddings and parties. She had gone to a Performing Arts High School - like the kids in 'Fame'. To me, she had it made and I looked up to her. She had what I wanted - she lived off her music and even owned her own microphone. I felt I was on my way to living the dream she had already achieved. 

But she always seemed restless and after a few weeks she sat me down and told me she was leaving the band. Why would anyone want to do that? We had a gig that was highly sought after by every other covers band in town - a well paid residency to big crowds in a classy venue. But she looked at me knowingly and said, 'look while you're 21 this is all great but I'm about to turn 25 (!) and it's time I got on with life.' She wanted a real job with a real income and some stability. 'You'll be the same when you're 25, you wait.'

Well I'm not going to tell you how distant a memory my 25th birthday is, but let's say that things are still looking green and lush from my side of the fence. I experienced a solid wage and security thanks to the corporate jobs I took after uni, so the lure of that life was never that strong for me. 

recently overheard a muso saying something particularly wise to another after listening to him bitch bitterly about our industry (we've all been there). The wise one said and I paraphrase, 'As professional musos we sign up for the rollercoaster. Our lows can be really low but our highs are right up there. If we wanted safe we would have got on the Ladybird ride but that just wouldn't be much fun'. 

I'll take one ticket to white knuckled exhilaration and stomach lurching intensity with the earth teetering beneath my feet, thank you. By the way, I now own three microphones.

See you next time,

Monday, November 18, 2013

Give 'em What They Want

Hi there,

I have a theory that is yet to be disproved in all my years of fronting party bands...Now, your raison d'etre is getting your audience to dance... if you can work out roughly when the majority of your audience was 20 years old ie their halcyon days, you're off to a flying start. Pluck out a big dancey hit from aroundabout that year and you're almost guaranteed to have a packed dance floor. The flow of alcohol also helps and females are generally easier to shift but the good thing is that the men generally follow the women onto the floor so get to the girls first. 

If you have a group that's hard to pick or they are of really mixed ages like at a wedding, then go for Retro hits. Even Gen Zs know the big songs from the '70s and '80s thanks to their constant re-emergence in movies and sitcoms. It doesn't seem to matter how many current hits I learn for these occasions, 'I Will Survive' and 'Girls Just Want To Have Fun' are still top of the dance floor hit parade. 

Of course you might have a bunch of hipsters that won't go for Top 40 from any era - then you have to be a bit smarter (and have a wide repertoire). Pick a hip song that regular bodies probably don't know, that still has a good beat, and pump that out while gazing at your shoes. The hep cat gets to be the dude dancing and mouthing along to a song no one else is familiar with while everyone else will join in so as not to appear uncool.

Of course it's simply understanding what your audience wants. Are they there to dance, to just listen, to impress? Are they straight-laced corporate types or wild and woolly hippies? Don't be like an agent I heard of recently (see 'Agents, who needs em?) who was sending disco dancing drag queens to entertain at events for the very elderly and very conservative! 

And if in doubt, just sing 'Brown Eyed Girl' - that'll cover more than half of your population,

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

How to Sing Harmonies

Hi there,

I've worked with lots of great lead singers who say they can't sing harmonies. I reckon if you can sing at all then you can absolutely learn to sing harmony. A music teacher would probably train you in intervals, but I'm going to leave that to the pedagogs and give you tips from the shop floor instead.

1. Treat a harmony like a shy melody.
A good backing singer will be able to pick the obvious harmonies to a melody out of the air and won't need to be told what notes to sing exactly. But if that doesn't come naturally to you (yet), just treat your harmony line like a melody – learn it by itself as a tune and then slip it in with the melody once it's in your head. Go to a site like where you can customize karaoke files and download your song with the lead vocal muted. Listen to that over and over. Once you've got that down, download the track again, this time adding the lead vocal too. If the lead vocal is not pulling you away from your part, you've got it! To truly test yourself, download the entire track with everything bar your backing vocal line and slip it in yourself as you sing along.

2. Tune in on the Wavelength
You probably sing along to the melody of songs on the radio - that's what they're designed for after all. Try to tune into a backing vocal line instead – chances are it will repeat, so by the end of the song the harmony will start to grab your ears. The more you tune your ear to the 'other' vocal lines in songs, the more obvious they become, the more patterns you'll start to notice and the easier it will be to sing harmonies yourself.

3. Make the Bass your Buddy
Some people practise the harmonies at home and feel secure but then imperfect stage sound, nerves and booming Marshall stacks throw them off the scent when it most matters. Ask the sound engineer to put some bass guitar in your foldback wedge. While the guitars and pianos are off playing all sorts of fancy shmancy lines that might throw you, the bass player is playing one note at a time and that note will sometimes be yours.

K-PopStars Girls' Generation, know all about Taking Off.
4. Getting a Smooth Take Off
Lift offs and landings are nerve wracking, right? But when a plane reaches its cruising altitude, it and we all breathe easier. As a harmony singer, you need to get the first line right, then once you're in the zone it's pretty easy to stay there. So your first note is crucial. Listen to the intro of the song when you're practising – maybe the lead singer passes by your starting note on the way to the chorus. Keep it in your head until you need it so it you're not just grasping for it out of the blue. Repetition of course always helps - and it will create muscle memory. You need to listen and sing along with your part until it sticks. Then, even if you start freaking out and reaching for your oxygen mask on the big day, you can just breathe and trust that your voice actually knows where to go.

See you next time,

Monday, November 4, 2013

Secret to Success: Turning Up

Hi there,

(Now guitarists, when I say turn up, I don't mean turn up to '11' a la Spinal Tap). 

I'm just going to go ahead and put it in writing - I love Dr Oz.  If he told me to jump I probably would. And he says one of the secrets of life is 'turning up'. He means you've got to participate in life, be part of it. I mean that too but I'm being even more literal. 

I was speaking to a muso friend of mine this morning who did a high profile gig on the weekend. Ten minutes before the band were due to perform for the masses, two of its members decided it was time to get a cup of coffee at the bar nearby. So at the moment the event organiser came by and asked the band to start, the singer was left hanging out to dry with just a drummer and trumpeter. Needless to say, the usually calm, polite chanteuse who had booked the band, let loose on the two strays when they returned, which was well after the preordained starting time. She also turned to my friend and said that next time she would simply book mediocre players who turned up, rather than go through that again. 

Having run a function band for years myself, I feel her pain. I'm still recovering from a moment many years ago when the guitarist that I hired for a wedding band came stumbling down the aisle right after the bride, holding his shoes, trailing his leads and dragging his equipment. The rest of the band had been set up an hour before the first guests had gathered. Great guitarist, lousy organisational skills. The stress is simply not worth it. 

I truly believe that punctuality, preparation, respect and enthusiasm are at least as important as actual music skills in a professional entertainer's arsenal.

Of course if you are a great musician that turns up on time as well, you've got it made!

See you next time,