As I write this, my bride and I have just returned from a week’s vacation to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. We took a cruise ship to Progreso and Cozumel, and we spent a lot of time relaxing, napping, eating and enjoying refreshing beverages. As enjoyable as the cruise was, though, the most memorable parts were not the excellent dinners, fine service and warm February climate. Yes, those were wonderful to experience; however, for me, the best parts of the cruise were the musicians and the performers.
Like you, I deal with musicians and performers all day, every day. Over the course of a work week, I listen to a myriad of issues that performers, whatever their level of training, are experiencing with their gear. You hear the same issues that I do, I’d imagine. Let’s try a few….
“I think my big E needs to be 1/64 lower. I measured it, and the article I read said….”
“My in-ear monitor company has a new model earbud. Can you get me one to try out?”
“I can’t decide if I’ll sound better with the $139.95 mic or the $149.95 mic. Which one do you think is better?”
Any of those sound familiar? Sure they do. Musicians with lots of available options are always looking for the magic bullet that will make them sound, or play, better. And, like me, you probably have to resist the urge to suggest, on occasion, that the real solution for their situation might be more practice.
While aboard the cruise, I had the chance to watch hardworking musicians in two very different scenarios. I found it refreshing to watch and hear.
First, the onboard performers. There were numerous small acts (solos, duets, trios and quartets) that played in the various bars and lounges around the ship. We sat down to listen to a duo one night, and they played some covers of Johnny Cash and Arlo Guthrie…country and heartland music. Their setup was very simple: a small, basic PA, an acoustic guitar and a tambourine. Listening to them, it dawned on me that these two, although playing simple songs, had mastered something very difficult. The guitarist was playing I-IV-V tunes, but he used his guitar as a guitar, a bass and a percussion instrument. The woman with the tambourine used it effectively, making it sound like much more than what it was. And, the vocals hit all the right notes.
The difficult part was they did all this flawlessly, while obviously having fun and entertaining the crowd. This duo played in various places around the ship, probably six hours a day, every single day. Considering cruise ships have no down time, and the shortest contract is three months, the duo easily played at least 500 hours live every three months.
The stage show performers had less stage time, but what they pulled off was nothing short of amazing. The vocals were strong and stunning; the women jumped, danced and did something just shy of acrobatics in high heels, all while taking turns singing lead and backup. These folks performed at a very high level, and they were consummate professionals.
The other scenario could not have been more different; however, the performers were just as polished. These musicians were the street and bar guitarists in the Mexican ports. All these guys played for tips. First was a nylon-string player, playing a two-story courtyard. His rig was his guitar, one powered speaker and a small pedal board wrapped in Saran Wrap. He was playing complicated arrangements at 9am, entertaining a crowd that mostly ignored him. He nailed a version of Toto’s “Africa”…a version that included him playing all the vocal parts. It was spectacular. On cruise ship days, this guy probably plays seven or eight hours a day, almost nonstop.
The most remarkable player was Felix. He rolled up to us as we were enjoying a few refreshing beverages, and he asked if he could play a love song for my wife. Felix had no legs, and he was playing his father’s 85-year-old Tres Pinos classical, the top seams held together with pink wood putty. None of his strings was from the same set. But, he played and sang with joy and abandon. There was no sense of self-pity—only boldness and a huge smile as he played and sang. His skill, honed by years of playing on the street for tips, made him the best professional that I heard the whole trip.
There were a lot of other musicians…other bar guitarists…other lounge bands. And they were all very, very good. Despite their vastly different circumstances, they all had one thing in common: Their skill was honed by countless hours (perhaps years) of playing before a live audience. Practice and perform; practice and perform. Repeat.
I came home from the trip exhilarated, and more convinced than ever that I must do all I can to put more musicians in front of more live audiences, as frequently as possible. I’m thrilled when I sell a new guitar or a new mic, or when I help a musician get the other gear that he or she wants. But I think the biggest thrill comes from watching it all come to its natural conclusion: a live performance.
As wrapped up as I get in the minutiae of store operations, gear purchases, sales goals, marketing and everything else that goes along with living in the middle of the music store circus, a few days outside the usual arena can go a long way toward keeping my priorities straight. It also helps me remember why I got into this in the first place—for the love of live music.