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festival weekend ! … celtic society of southern maryland

Hello friends!

Well, things have been a bit on the quiet side, as far as gigs go. I’ve been spending most of my time working in my studio, and preparing for getting back out there once more. Which is why I’m VERY excited about this weekend:

Saturday, 30 April 2016: The Celtic Society of Southern Maryland’s annual Festival – Jefferson-Patterson Park.
(For more information about the festival, click here.)

I’ll be doing two (2) solo shows at the festival:

Pub Stage: 1:00 – 2:00
Glen Stage: 3:00 – 4:00

I’ve planned two, different sets / shows for each hour, so I’ll be covering a lot of material … some celtic, some sort-of-celtic, and some not-so-celtic. Both sets will include original material, and I’ll be performing a brand new song, and I’ll be releasing a new single.

And, beyond my own sets, there’s loads of great music, great merchandise, great competitions, and great fun at this festival.

So, I’m looking forward to the weekend; hope to see you there!

skip music school — get out there and do s**t

World-famous violinist and regular bloke, Nigel Kennedy:

“People should play something that relates to who they are, and try to give something that’s unique. I wouldn’t prescribe anything to anyone. That’s why I think all kids should leave music college – they should just get out there and earn a living! Too many professors have an “automatic recipe”, where they give the same repertoire to all the kids, when one might be better at Dvořák; another might be better at Ligeti. Being a professor is a load of s**te. It’s a way of getting a pension. Of all the jazz musicians I’ve played with who are worth their salt, none has been a professor. If you play well enough people can learn from you just by listening to you. Either you’re a player or you’re a talker, and it’s better to be a player, in my opinion. If you’re old enough to vote or drive a car, if you’ve got a brain you should be able to get out there and do s**t.” [From an interview with The Strad magazine, May 2015].

Strong words, to say the very least.

And yet, within his ideas, I find much common ground, although not absolute total agreement.

His first few points — we should play music to which we relate; strive for your own certain something that’s unique; and to not follow any ‘prescribed’ musical development — are all good ideas.

But should all music students leave music colleges?

Maybe.

Whether or not to stay in or go to (in the first place) college depends on your own understanding of what college may or may not do for you. In some disciplines, college is a required stepping stone to later professional qualifications (it’s hard to become a medical doctor, for example, without first getting some type of related undergraduate degree). In the case of the arts, however, no professional qualification from any institution is going to guarantee work or fame or income.

In this sense, Kennedy is dead right: No one needs a degree to play or compose music. No one.

And, to that point, many, if not most, of our most revered popular composers (rock musicians, folk artists, jazz artists) do not have any professional qualifications or certifications of any kind. They had brains, so they got out there and did s**t.

That is not the same as saying, however, that students won’t gain anything at college.

Imagine getting together with your favourite rock musicians or folk musicians or jazz musicians, and begin able to sit with them for an hour or so and ask any questions you might have about the music. Now imagine spending fifteen weeks with that person.

This kind of access is not available to most of us, but what is much more possible is to spend time in private lessons or to attend an art college, or to do both.

In my own experience, I have experienced a lot of artistic growth by asking questions and then analyzing the answers, and THEN — and this is the important step — experimenting with these ideas within my own music. The “talking” parts, at which Kennedy seems to bristle, is important and useful only if we put the ideas to practical use. Otherwise, the study becomes a cold, abstract and lifeless academic exercise.

Kennedy is correct when he suggests that we can learn simply by listening; but we can also accelerate that learning process by asking exploratory questions of those who may have asked those same questions previously.

Kennedy is also spot on when he suggests that being a professor is simply a way of getting a pension. I’ve encountered this kind of professor certainly — one who isn’t really much of a musician; in fact, these types are professional teachers (which is fine); but they aren’t necessarily professional, working musicians.

So, putting Kennedy’s ideas into a bit of context, it then quite fair to say, “If you’re old enough to vote or drive a car, if you’ve got a brain, you should be able to get out there and do s**t.”

catching the next wave

My musical life has come to me in waves or cycles; that is, sometimes I’m very busy — writing, gigging, recording, or doing all three — and other times, well, not so much. I would guess this is true for most musicians (of course, I’m not going to conduct a scientific study).

These waves would seem to be natural, as many aspects of life mimic what happens in the natural world (seasons, weather patterns, growth cycles). And I also think I like it this way.

Maybe I would prefer a steady stream of constant activity…always gigging, always writing, always off to the studio to record, always, always, always looking forward to the next recording release, the next gig, the next new idea. That, however, wouldn’t allow for too much reflection on what has happened thus far.

At the moment, I’m definitely in a reflective, preparatory period. I’m thinking about what the next wave will be; I’m thinking about what I’d like to accomplish; I’m thinking about what to include (and what not to include) in my next setlist; I’m considering ideas; I’m learning about the latest music tools (software and hardware); I’m researching places to play; and I’m practicing – every single day.

So, while I’m not “out there” too much, right now, I hope and plan to be doing more in the not-so-distant future. Also, since I’m not entirely certain what path my creativity will lead me down next, I’m kind of excited to see how it all turns out and where I go.

And, if I think about this little metaphor just a bit more…the first thing anyone must do to catch a wave is get out where the waves are flowing. it takes a bit of preparation and careful positioning, to be ready to catch the next good wave.

so much music; so little time

Ever since I first began playing guitar, I have also been writing songs and instrumental pieces. I enjoy creating my own music, certainly; however, I also truly enjoy playing music that others have created. And, traditional folk music – such as celtic music – holds much joy.

And then, if I expand my musical scope only a little further, I see all that wonderful music from other centuries. I’ve spent a lot of time playing classical violin duets, for example, and I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed that as much as I have enjoyed being the lead singer in several rock bands.

So, the question all this variety stirs within me is, “isn’t there an audience that shares my love and joy of musical variety?” Certainly, the answer must be, “yes,” and I have spent, and continue to spend, my musical life pursuing and building that audience.

The tricky part is finding venues willing to be, for lack of a better word, experimental. Whenever I’m pitching a show to a new place, the question is always, “so, what kind of music do you play?”

Now I try to give a succinct, distinct answer: “Acoustic Celtic Folk-Rock.” That’s been my wee tagline for many, many years.

Lately, however, I’ve been experimenting with all sorts of musical bits at my live shows…celtic tunes…celtic songs…classic american folk songs (from the 60s and 70s)…classic rock songs…and of course, my own songs and instrumental pieces.

Someone could well ask, “what’s the unifying thread that runs through such a collection of musical pieces?” and also…”shouldn’t you limit the scope a bit more; you ask a lot of your audience?”

To the second two questions, I say “no” and “yes, that’s true.”

To the first question, I say, “me.”

For all musicians, one of the most important elements that they bring to any music is themselves. In my own performances, that manifests itself as “all in.” That is to say, I can’t only halfway get into the music. When it feels like that, I kind of have to stop. For me, music is nearly everything, and when I play – even when I rehearse – I’m all in; I’m playing every note with everything I can bring to it at that moment.

In a live show, with all the far-reaching threads I might follow, the unifying thread is “me” – my approach, my take, my performance, my “everything or go home” feeling about music. Each time is another chance to feel the music and it’s power flow through me – up from the soles of my shoes and flowing out of my voice and fingertips. In those moments, it’s what I’m living for – no doubt about it.

Which brings me back to the idea that WHAT music I’m playing or WHOSE music I’m playing it slightly less important to me than the fact that I’m PLAYING…yet again, one more time, doing my favourite thing.

And, as a collected world culture, we have so much music, and I have so little time.

the january muse

So, here we are approaching mid-May, and, in the mid-Atlantic region, the weather is already showing signs of racing into blistering-hot Summer, skipping over Spring entirely. Naturally, with such weather conditions looming for the next several months, I can think of nothing else other than how truly great is my love for Winter.

It’s true: I love Winter. I always have. The 2014-2015 Winter, in my part of the world, was a good one. It began quite early for the mid-Atlantic region; we had snow in November, which is very unusual. We embraced the early arrival, in my household, with sledding, ice cream parties in the snow, and wood fires in the fireplace.

We have several November holidays as well…my son’s birthday, American Thanksgiving, and St. Andrew’s Day. These lead us nicely into the December holiday season, complete with the arrival of Sinterklaas and wooden shoes, decorated pine trees (inside and outside of the house), and, of course, the many year-end holidays and gatherings. I love this time of year.

But it’s January that has long been one of my favourite months of the year. Aside from all the obvious “new year” associations, I like it for several reasons:

(1) Winter is my favourite time of year, and, in January, we go deeper into Winter;
(2) The Holiday Season – Christmas, family gatherings, and all the activities associated with that time – have come to an end, and so I’m much freer to concentrate on the simple joys of the season of Winter;
(3) the undisrupted long nights provide a great time for practicing music, learning new tunes, simply thinking – and coming up with new ideas.

Of course, it’s mainly about “how great it is to be in the middle of Winter,” and I could easily get into specific details…clean, cold air; SNOW; winter ales and hot whiskies; SNOW; outdoor Winter sports; and, of course, SNOW.

The weather is good for us, but we have to get out into it to enjoy the benefits (here’s a couple of quick links to articles about this point: Winter Health Benefits and Health Benefits of Cold Weather). If you try to hide from Winter, by staying indoors and over-heating your house, you miss out on some strong health benefits and some really good fun!

And, in my case anyway, as luck will have it, I occasionally get a couple of work-free snow-days each winter… another huge plus.

In general then, I love Winter…I even wrote a song about it once, called “Under the Grey” (which is one of the tracks on my 2003 CD, “A Little Turned On“).

And yet, despite the joys I have found in Winter over the years, I still have more Winter experiences to go. Number one on my list is learning how to do cross-country skiing…this should happen in the 2015-2016 Winter, for certain. And, I’d also like to see a spectacular display of the Northern Lights. To do that, I’ll probably have to go on a bit of a journey (Norway, perhaps?). And, I wonder what it’s like to become sick of snow? I’ve never had a Winter when that happened to me, so I’m curious if it would.

January…it’s inspirational. All that fresh clean air, falling snow, and fun, coupled with a new calendar year, makes January a good time for renewal. Nevermind all that setting of resolutions. January is a simpler time for reflection, wondering what could be, and thinking about how to do it. The January Muse shows up every year, and I always look forward to its arrival.

in 2015, has live local music lost its value?

So, a lot has changed since I first started gigging, many years ago, including the money musicians earn.

That amount has dropped. a lot.

Many things are happening in the world today, that’s for certain. And, now more than ever before, each of us is bombarded with information screaming for our attention, right at our fingertips. We have newspapers, radio and tv, of course, but we also have internet radio, tv, blogs and vlogs, online newspapers, and social media, such as twitter and facebook.

And, in case we forget, we have simple little websites, like this one.

So, it’s a lot. I think, also, we can’t fairly be expected to pay for all of this, particularly if we didn’t ask for it.

Enter live, local music.

Much of the local scene, in many places, has disappeared. Yes, I know this is open to discussion and interpretation, but trust me when I say I’ve lived it, and we simply don’t have as many places offering live music as we did a few short decades ago.

Instead, we have places trying to be all things to all people…desperately competing for consumer attention and consumer money. At the few remaining places that do offer live music, the music is most likely to be only one of several attention-demanding media happening at any given moment.

In your basic pub, for example, you can’t look in any direction without seeing a television, usually broadcasting several different sporting events – simultaneously. You may be looking over your table-mate’s head at a Scottish league football, while he or she looking over your head is seeing American baseball. Meanwhile, the sound is off on these tvs, and the pub is playing – usually – some radio station. On the table before you is each of your smartphones, and, occasionally, your laptop or smartpad as well.

Then, in a cramped corner – usually either by the front door (so that people on the street, walking by, can “see it” happening) or squeezed in right next to the entrance to the toilets (complete with a tv above this spot), is the live music staging area.

I say “staging area” because an actual stage is rare.

Now, that’s only the physical presentation.

We also have the monetary value of today’s live local music. When I first started, I made between $50-$75 per gig, as a solo singer-songwriter. That’s in 1982 dollars.

In 2015 dollars, that would be about $140 – $165 per gig.

I’m regularly offered all the gigs I could possibly ask for, with a promised pay of ZERO all the way up to $50.

That’s right. Businesses actually seek to employ my services and they offer me NOTHING as payment. NOTHING. ZERO. And, they think that they’re are being fair too.

At the high end, I’m sometimes offered $50 … which is about $10 in 1982 dollars. That $50, depending on how far away the gig may be, might not even cover the gas to make the trip.

Recently, I inquired about gigging at a local coffee shop, which seemed to have some kind of live music series going on. I was told that I’d need to first make an audition video, then post it online, and then my video would get reviewed by the coffee shop. If I were selected to play, the coffee shop would pay exactly ZERO.

Seems like a lot of trouble to go through to get nothing.

What many businesses don’t seem to get is that musicians are in business too. It’s completely unrealistic to expect one business to give away its services to support another business. Any time any business operates services, even if the business is willing to forego making any profit, those services still incur expenses … time, travel, equipment wear, just to name a few.

The expectations put on musicians is pretty high as well. At a typical local gig, musicians are expected to supply well-rehearsed, listenable music, and also a bit of a “show,” plus the gear to put on the show, plus the transportation to get the gear to the show. Local businesses often also demand that the musicians promote the show in some way…supplying posters and promoting their business on the musician’s website.

And then, for all of this work, the coffee shop or pub may only offer $50 …or less….sometimes they offer ZERO.

So, all of this leaves me wondering, if, in 2015, live, local music still has any value left in our hearts and minds.

the celtic society of southern maryland festival

So, as I mentioned last week, this past Saturday, 25 April, was the festival day for the Celtic Society of Southern Maryland. I’ve been a part of this event since 2007 (this one was my 9th!), and I’ve seen every type of weather over the years. One year, it was so hot, that everyone was looking for any bit of shade to escape the heat. This year, we were all freezing.

The festival coordinators keep moving us fiddlers around a bit, looking for the perfect location at the festival. This year, they put us in a tent…just across from a very active and loud power generator. One of the fiddlers mentioned that the generator was droning on, in an out-of-tune cycle of “B” major–of course, most of the tunes wouldn’t harmonize with that at all.

I think the cold kept the competitors at bay as well, for we had only a small group of five. None-the-less, those five treated us to some fine scottish-style fiddling, and, for my part as steward, I was glad to help out for the morning.

After that, I sampled the music from the many, many stages around the festival, and I also sampled the beer from the many, many vendors around the festival. In both instances, there were far too many choices to take them all in, but I gave it a good try.

If you were there, I hope you had a grand time; if not, I hope to see you there next year.

what’s coming up, 25 april

So, what’s coming up this weekend, 25 April ?

It’s the annual Celtic Festival sponsored by the Celtic Society of Southern Maryland.

I’ve been to a lot of these events, over the years, and this is one of the best ones in the east coast, mid-Atlantic region. It’s a one day event – Saturday only, but it lasts all day, morning ’til night; rain or shine.

What I like about this particular event is that it makes great effort to have examples from all aspects of Irish and Scottish culture. For example, the festival has many vendors selling celtic-culture-inspired crafts; it has a wide selection of food and beer for sale; and it has several stages with non-stop music from about 11:00 am until 6:00 pm. Beyond those offerings, plenty of music and dance competitions happen early in the day.

If music and shopping aren’t your thing, the festival also hosts a rugby tournament AND — of course — the Highland games, featuring traditional Scottish sporting events.

For my part, I’ll be assisting with the Scottish-Style Fiddling competition, which begins at 10:00 am (registration for competitors begins at 9:00, if they haven’t registered ahead of time). The competition ends by about 12:30 or 1:00, after which I’ll be heading out to the general festival to listen to some pipe bands, drink a few pints, and maybe play a a few fiddle tunes at an impromptu session.

Maybe I’ll see you there!