Sunday
Sep112011

« Drumming, Strumming, and Humming »

ed on drums with two members of the new MHUCC praise band, playing in the parkToday I was in a whole new situation in more ways than one, or maybe more ways than two or three. You see, while drumming isn't anything new to me, and I've done some public performance on drums, I have never performed publicly on bass except as a kind of joke (with Rockola and their stage gimmicks), and have never ever been part of a music making ensemble for church. And furthermore, I've never really played guitar in public to account for much, and even more so never tried to sing for any public outside of my 2006 voice class at Mesa. And still furthermore, until just a few weeks ago, it was almost impossible to have done much of anything in the aim of singing AND playing at once; my skills just did not go there.

And yet today all of that was put to some use.

ed on bass with members of the new praise band in the parkLoyal readers of this fine journal know the struggle I've had with music for the last decade. And it has been one decade and a bit more since the old Hog Heaven glory days. Over time it has been apparent that if I was going to keep doing anything in music the game would have to shift to another focus. Mainly, the focus would have to move from my solo-oriented musicking. (Which was originally considered a way to learn stuff that would eventually let me be more versatile in other musical situations beyond playing drums in grunge and classic rock bands that were in abundance here in SD in 1995.) I didn't know it would take so many years to even get where I am now. All the life that has been chronicled here had to happen. As my understanding shifted, it was clear I'd have to make music for different reasons. All the years of basically being a listener more than a player were times that I've had a chance to connect with music in a way that I perhaps haven't done prior to, say, 2003, but now with more experience and learning to bring to my role as a listener, hearing more of the life in the songs that I like, and connecting with it more readily. I've found myself shifting my listening focus from some of the instrumentally focused ears I had for drum parts (when I was just a a drummer), or instrumental parts (when I began to incorporate guitar, bass, and keys), or for a few years now I have been able to better hear and appreciate vocal music, or the vocals in the midst of a full mix. Having had just a bit of training at a basic level, that opened me up to imagining how it was done and allowing myself some leeway to explore my own voice some. But mainly to let the expressiveness hit me. Connecting with more singer-songwriter artists of various genres has helped me shift focus too.

Years ago when I went to church at CCCPB, I got into drumming at just about exactly the same time in 1989. My intentional church life and drumming go together as partners in the narrative in my life, but aside from one jokey cymbal crash for a church play in 1990, and aside from last year's picnic show playing blues and country and oldies with the Broken Strings, performing in the midst of several local UCC churches, I have never until today—that's about 22 years now—played in a worship setting, on any instrument. But today I was in a trio that played a number of musical pieces for an outdoor service, and for my part, I was on drums primarily, bass for one song, and came equipped to play guitar and to sing, but the set list got changed some on account of the synchronicity of the worship service falling on the 9/11 anniversary. But once we finished and were in picnic mode, I did actually take guitar to a circle of people and, in a kind of giddy way that once was on display when I did my first "performance" for my old man and grandfolks in August 1989, I was excited to try out some newfound musical ability.

The extra odd factor is that most of the drum and bass stuff I played was out of a songbook that the UCC has formed recently, based on praise music. And to be rather blunt, I never liked the stuff and have often been rather unsparing in mocking the stuff. Many reasons for this, but I could address that as muso-artist ("the stuff is just brainlessly simple choruses that ape pop song conventions"); or I could take it on as a sound engineer (bands of amateur and semipro players with a mixed bag of gear and an even more mixed bag of stage skills makes for a messy mix); or I could talk about the rather inane theological ideas that comprise the lyrics. I would make these arguments because I have always hungered for musical sophistication and complexity (whether that is of any use or not), or because I worked for The Rock Church for a year or more as audio tech who had to wire stages with unusual and shifting musician lineups, or because I came from a liberal theological tradition that can be a bit snobbish sounding at times but that does pursue unusual avenues of theological thought and inquiry. To me, praise music has never done it for me. It just smacks of the church appropriating the common culture to get the hook in the mouth of the vulnerable. To me, it's pretty smarmy stuff musically and theologically. It wasn't enough to just have a rock or pop band instrumentation; it had to have screens, Internet video feeds, and the whole song and dance. I used to mock it all by saying, "how in the world did Jesus ever get any attention without all this shit?" My coarse but effective guide is that the more a church is invested in a modern day pop gospel band and screens and other showy things, the less I expect to be interested. To me, the goal appears to out-produce the secular world. On stages, as an audio man accustomed to working on professional stages with professional bands who "play for the stage," it could be rather dreadful as less experienced players come in with bad mic technique and sub-par gear, and ask for things they have no idea about. In fact, after about a year or so of working for the Rock Church, that was one gig I told Mitch (my boss for those Rock shows) that I never wanted to do again. And for a few years, that worked out.

During my years of distance from music, repeatedly talking about wanting to play music in a collaborative effort and not with solo ambition, I have kept the musical flame alive only by basic life support means. Obviously I kept a share of gear that allows me to get back into my guitar, bass, drums, and recording ability. The keyboards are all gone though. (I find myself a vulture, circling over a piano shop that is going out of business soon, waiting for the fire sale on an upright, just so I could get back to where I was in early 1996!) Since no place I have lived since 2006 has given me a Hog Heaven style studio environment, I have never had all my gear at my disposal, with most being stacked and put away. The acoustic guitar generally was around, and sometimes I'd bring the bass out and with either I'd strum or thump along to music or download some chord sheets and try to throw myself into unfamiliar territory. Some I'd try to sing. I have a lyric folder that has some ideas that have a few chord changes, but as alluring as working toward being a singer-songwriter has been, not feeling the "voice" in me has left me rather disappointed. I have had musings that maybe I need to do a cover album of songs I've connected with—Nik Kershaw, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, David Sylvian, Mark Knopfler (all from England in the 80s, mainly!) Aside from the few shows with the Broken Strings in the years since early 2008, that was about all the music being made. Period.

the drums were Ringo-style with a 4 piece kit and two cymbals. Pretty lean stuff.Then about a month ago I heard of a woman at church, a new member whom I had not met, was interested in praise music. When I heard about this I was not yet thinking I'd be involved with it, and the news was from a friend who washed her hands of that kind of sound when exiting the Southern Baptist world (with an ex-husband who played such music too). But somehow a week or so later, the topic came up again and it was drawing me in at least as a chance to play music and learn some new stuff, clearly in a setting I had no expectation of ever joining in on. Today's date was given as the first performance date, so somehow I offered that I was interested and could be called on to play drums or maybe bass or vocal parts. With just a few weeks to go, that is just what happened. All of it. We started off two times at the church and then another three times here at the house. It was just three of us—she on guitar and voice, and another on piano and voice and a generally handy sense of musical director for it all. I started on bass the first night, then brought a "toy" kit of kick, snare, hat, and ride only, but when we got to my place, I had the range of things set up and ready. Even guitar. One night we had no keys so with just two of us, we strummed a bit and listened to music that might fill the bill or get us rolling anyway. Built some rapport. While I am far from a sight reader, it is getting easier to read lead sheets (chords/lyrics only) and to give it a go. I have found that if I start off attempting both an instrumental part and the vocal part at about the same time, I have better luck integrating the two and for the few songs that I've tried that way, I've done better at doing two parts.

None of the songs are blindingly difficult but I find that at last I have to work from some basic building blocks of songmaking in order to progress. Slowly I am reversing the longstanding relationship to musicking that defined my older days: I was a recording artist, not a musician. Recording was the finished canvas, instruments were the paintbrushes and other tools to achieve that end. That means that my attempt to always come up with new recorded sounds was more attractive than getting the fundamentals right, which is generally regarded as a no-no. Occasionally a song did turn up and maybe it was memorable (Tired, I Wanna Be Your Puppy, The Power of Disco Compels You) but really, songwriting was accidental more than anything. And none of my stuff has been played live because I fancied myself in the vein of Steely Dan, The Beatles, and others who really just wanted to make recordings and not face the pressure to perform their work.

One thing that probably won't change is that the audio engineer part of me will wrestle with how to deliver a stage performance using electric instruments and amplification while also being seated at a dynamic acoustic instrument that takes more effort to play quietly than loudly. So for me at the drums to not have monitors to hear the others even over my own sound is rather challenging. And I'm not playing with much intensity at this or the Broken Strings type gigs. I use rod sticks, whip sticks, and those types of implements. But then people out in the audience, or hypersensitive people who are worried about "too loud" will emerge for certain, asking for the sound to be turned down. To me, that essentially neuters the performance on drums, while everyone else more or less has a knob to reach for and can still play with the same feel and abandon without making as much sound. (And I doubt that anyone will offer an electronic drum kit anytime soon.) Without monitors and a tiny sound system as we had today, at best I was able to get one speaker to be stacked upon my bass rig which itself was next to the drums where it was sort of audible but still not loud. Later video clearly shows the system was too low. The vocals were impossible to hear, the keys barely audible against the drums. 

What I foresee is that beyond "just" being a musician in this setting, sooner or later I will need to speak up in favor of some sane audio practices first using the minimal gear available in effective ways, and possibly incorporating more. But then there is still the cultural momentum of the congregation. Some will not like praise music because it is unfamiliar. Some because it smacks of a rather conflicted mix of conservative theology and "liberal" liturgy. Some will hear it and think it is just too loud. Or whatever. But really, since praise music is essentially pop music, gospel, rock and other styles that are essentially of the contemporary era of music, electrified and amplified, to do it like it's meant to be done means there is stretching to be done. Or to do it with a bit of a more acoustic instrumentation might mean there would have to be people with those types of instrumentation. I'd love to hammer on a djembe drum for some things, but not for everything. I play kit. Kit is rather loud when played with conviction. Loud is often misunderstood and cautioned against. 

About five years ago the cracks were showing in the wall at my old church where I had spent an August week installing a system meant to improve the church life. But it was majorly misunderstood and no one knows it even today. No one knows what to do with it. It is severely overengineered for an attitude like the one that exists there. But what I have found needs to happen is before these kinds of major decisions are made that will affect so many, the church needs to have some kind of visioning committee to evaluate potential impact, and to have some idea of feasibility. Something like a sound system needs to be operated weekly. Who will do that? And who are the various subs? What will the system be called on to do on the off days? Who will coordinate what needs to happen technically with any changes in the liturgy, with different ensembles playing, or more mics for guest speakers or whatever? I basically left my last church under a lot of pressure that I was the only guy who knew how to operate the new system and the culture there was mostly ignorant of what I was talking about, and if not ignorant, all sorts of factors conspired to make my ideas impractical. But by then, I realized that I was not in worship anyway, I was an audio tech again, and this time one that did not get paid, but was also utterly alone and was not part of a larger team to make stuff work right.

I know none of that has to happen. My present church is rather larger and far more conscious about major decisions. I would love to just show up and play music. But it is hard to suffer for long with bad sound after being responsible for making pros sound good. I can flex with regard to theology in the songs, or to play unfamiliar instruments in the name of taking some musical risk and enjoying camraderie. But bad sound just irks. People recognize bad sound but can't always articulate what is wrong. People maybe even are forgiving to either the amateurs or the intermediates who show up and give it a good try for the sake of worship. But really, to do praise music right, it takes some commitment to a certain level of technical quality. And again, I get the feeling I might be the only one who can bring this up, and fear that it will be somewhat mixed in its reception. 

But for today, I was happy to play all the instruments I have (but for electric guitar), and to try my hand at some new musical material, and to cut loose some with people who knew me but perhaps were rather surpised to see me up there at all, perhaps having no knowledge that I played anything. I really fancy the idea of finally integrating the two big threads of my life somehow.

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